NEITHER MAN RESPONDED TO GAGE’S QUESTION. THEY stared at us, lips closed. The silence stretched, filling with tension till it burst with a gunshot.
Gage had moved fast. He shot the man in the foot with one hand and caught his crumpling body with the other, pressing him to the car at his back. All within one explosive heartbeat—my explosive heartbeat.
The shot man’s moan echoed in my head like grinding metal, but I strengthened my grip on the gun in my hand and feigned confidence while my heart hid in my stomach.
“Someone probably heard that. So talk now or the next bullet will be in your head.” Gage pressed his gun to the tall man’s dark hair. “You’ve got till three. One…Two—”
“Alessandra,” the spikey haired man practically yelled, eyes twisting in an attempt to see the gun pressed to his temple.
Gage released his grip on him, and he sunk to the ground.
“Alessandra?” Gage questioned the bald man at the end of my pistol, but he didn’t respond except to glare at his companion who was knelt on the ground, gripping his foot.
The purr of a motor starting from across the garage stilled us, and then headlights brightened the area.
Gage yanked the man on the ground up by the collar of his shirt and pushed him into our SUV.
“Get back here,” he ordered me with a nod of his head.
When I took up his spot behind the door, he stepped in front and pressed his gun to the bald man’s back, out of view of the passing car.
Except it didn’t pass. Headlights spotlighted our group, and then a sleek black limo eased to a stop directly in front of us. One of the tinted windows slid down.
“Get in Lawson,” an unseen female called from inside the darkened interior, just as another car pulled up behind it.
The drivers of both cars stepped out. Two gorilla looking men. One opened the back door to the limo; the other approached us. He spoke in a rough language, Russian probably, and the bald man with Gage responded in the same quick tongue.
The man bleeding all over the floor of our car tried to call out to them, but I stepped closer and pressed my gun into his neck to silence him. I kept looking to Gage, but his back was to me.
The driver stopped in front of Gage and jerked his head to the open limo door. “You can go with Mrs. Rusnak. I’ll take care of these two.”
My blood froze, cracking my veins. Alessandra Rusnak. Anatoli’s wife.
“Regan, you should go inside now,” Gage’s voice was deceptively calm, but he wasn’t fooling me.
I didn’t want to argue with him in front of everyone—especially not these people—but I was not leaving him.
“Eet tee,” the big man snapped at the bald one, nodding to the car behind the limo.
The bald man stepped towards the car, fearing the big man more than a bullet from Gage.
The man at the end of my gun began to rise as well.
“Gage?” I questioned, adding pressure to the trigger.
“Let him go,” he responded, stepping towards the limo. “What do you want Alessandra?”
“Oh, get in,” she was quick. “And your new wife can join us. I just want to talk”
He braced one arm on the limo, leaning down to the open door. “Something about your approach doesn’t make me trust that you just want to talk.”
His voice held a hint of teasing, almost a laugh, and I failed to find the humor in his words. I closed the door to our SUV and stepped closer to him, heart hammering in my chest.
“What was I to do? You weren’t responding to my messages and last time we saw each other you put a gun in my face.” Her voice was smooth, sending chills over my skin. “Now get in.”
Gage turned towards me, but didn’t step away from the car. There was a warning in his glance, but something else too, and I wished I’d asked him more questions about his time with Rusnak. Before he could speak, she beckoned to me.
“Get in, sweetheart.” Damn her for sounding like her husband.
I didn’t break eye contact with Gage until he reached out his hand for me. He guided me into the car with a regretful acceptance, and followed behind me.
The big man shut the door behind us as we slid in. Gage took the seat across from Alessandra, against the partition separating the front of the limo, and I sat beside him.
Alessandra’s dark hair was pulled back in a sleek ponytail and a knee length black dress hugged her body. Her sharp eyes looked me over, her expression critical.
Gage slid closer to me, so close I could feel the heat from his body, and he draped an arm over the seat behind me. It eased some of the fear and doubt that had been winding around me but didn’t break it completely.
As the car started moving, driving out of the parking garage, I resisted the urge to lean into him. Instead, I sat up tall, trying to mimic the power that radiated from the woman sitting opposite us.
She bounced a cigarette on the console between her fingers, packing it down. Her movements were slow and deliberate as the silence settled around us, pressure building. Lighting the cigarette between her lips, she cracked the window at her side and blew out the smoke, eyes never leaving us.
“What do you want?” Gage cut through the tension.
The limo pulled onto the street, barely moving in the traffic. The lights of the city lit up the interior of the car; horns and people chattering filled the space around us, seeping through the barely open window.
She took a long drag, eyes narrowing as her red lips pressed together. But she didn’t look at Gage; she ignored him completely.
“I met you before.” She blew out a stream of smoke. “But I didn’t pay much attention then. Didn’t think much of you.” She cocked her head, eyes meeting mine. “I should have because others paid attention, including my husband.” She tossed her words at me, but then turned to look at Gage with a tight smile pulling at her lips. “And Gage.”
“Cut the shit,” Gage demanded before the last words even left her lips. He leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. “You didn’t do all this to talk about her. What is it that you want?”
She brought the cigarette back to her mouth, unfazed by his sharp tone. “You’re right. I’m here because of the promises you made Anatoli.”
“Anatoli’s not in the position to collect on anything. Even if he was, I paid him back with my silence. So find someone else.”
All I could see was his back since he was still leaned forward, but he sounded sure and forceful.
Her cleavage shook as she laughed, but it wasn’t one of amusement. “You proved loyal in prison and didn’t rat on anyone. That’s the only reason we haven’t killed you.” She flicked her cigarette out the window and rolled it back up. “That and your name. You’ve got some fame behind you.”
My muscles twitched with every threat she made, and my hand hovered over my gun tucked in my jeans, but I forced myself to sit back and wait.
“Who’s we? You and Anatoli? Or you and the men that took over?”
“Gage, you really haven’t been keeping up, have you? I’m disappointed.” She shook her head but leaned towards Gage, eyes brightening. “The Rusnak’s have joined with the Kabinov’s. So the we I’m talking about is larger than you can imagine.”
“Then you don’t need me, not if you have Kabinov’s backing.”
“You’re wrong. Anatoli will be out this year and I’m making sure his rightful spot isn’t lost in the merger. You owe it to him. It’s your fault he is where he is now. If you wouldn’t have run off that night, then—”
“We all fucking know that’s not true. He’s where he is because his ego was too big, and he didn’t stick to my plan. I don’t owe shit. We’re done here.” Gage looked up at the sky rises out the window. “We’ll get out here.”
The partition behind us slid down as he reached for the door. “Stay seated. We’ll drop you off back at your car when she’s done talking.”
I spun around towards the speaker, a man in the passenger seat behind me.
“Just hear me out. This arrangement could help us both,” Alessandra offered.
The door wouldn’t open for Gage, and he sat back down beside me. “What the fuck are you expecting, Alessandra?”
“I want to give you a club, here in New York. All of Rusnak’s assets were seized, and any incoming money is questioned. I need you to be the cover. You will be the legal owner, the face of the club. Nobody will question an athlete using his money to open a business, it happens all the time. The best part, you’ll get a salary from it without having to do a thing. We’ll run it.”
“That’s it?” his question stabbed me. That’s it? He should stick with, hell no.
She put out her hands, palms up, with a smile that was anything but innocent. “That’s it. I’m not interested in the gambling Anatoli was part of. Neither are the Kabinov’s. They’re all business, straight trafficking and we need a filter for our share of the money. That’s where you come in with the club.”
“I want to talk with Viktor first. That’s who’s running it still, right? Viktor Kabinov?”
She smiled like he agreed, and I had to admit he probably just did.
“I’ll set up a meeting.” She pulled out her phone and her fingers were swift, tapping on the screen.
I grabbed Gage’s elbow, and he sat back next to me but wouldn’t meet my eyes. He pulled my hand from his arm, squeezing it in his. “Later. I’ll explain later,” he spoke so low; I could barely hear him.
“Viktor can meet with you tomorrow.” She looked past us to the front seat. “Ivan, we can drop them off now.”
I had planned on demanding answers the moment we were alone, but I couldn’t.
Riding in the SUV, I struggled to wrap my mind around everything that just went down. The mat at my feet was missing, rolled up and shoved in the trunk since it was covered in blood—the blood from the man Gage had shot. And that wasn’t even the most shocking part of the night. That wasn’t the part that had me silent, doubting the life we had been building.
And that was the reason I couldn’t talk. I didn’t want to confirm that this past year had been all smoke and mirrors, an illusion that I hadn’t been able to see through. But the silence wasn’t helping me hold onto it. It was slipping away, spiraling down.
Gage was just as silent, and I couldn’t read him. He focused on the road, never pulling his eyes away, but it was clear his thoughts were elsewhere.
With every step we took, I retreated further into myself. When the door to our penthouse closed, Gage reached for me and pulled me to him, wrapping his arms around my waist. I pushed on his chest to keep a space between us and stopped his lips from meeting mine with a turn of my head.
“Regan.” His hands gripped my hips, squeezing, keeping me from pulling away further.
The warning in his voice lit my fuse, and the dark sadness I was feeling went up in flames.
“No.” I shoved away from him, taking a few steps back. “You need to talk to me. What the hell happened tonight?”
His eyes met mine, hurt creasing his brows as he took a step towards me. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t.” I stopped him in his tracks. “She said you hadn’t been answering her messages. What did that mean? And when was the last time you saw her? There’s a lot you do know that I should know.” My anger was draining as the reality settled on me. I needed to sit down.
He followed me to the living room couch, an oversized charcoal colored sofa that was angled towards the fireplace and TV in the corner. I welcomed the shadows cast from the lights of the city skyline through our large bay windows, wanting to hide my emotions in them as much as I wanted to rip Gage’s secrets from them.
“I haven’t seen her since before.” He met my eyes, and I knew what he meant.
We avoided talking about that time or mentioning those names, only referencing events around it as before or after. Before the hospital, or after jail, but really we meant the moments that put us in the hospital, that almost put him in prison.
And as always, even the vague mention was like ice water poured on me, freezing me and stealing my breath. I pulled the red throw pillow onto my lap and gripped the suede material in my fingers, focusing on the swirl pattern stitched into it.
“But she’s been contacting you since then.” It wasn’t a question. I knew she had been; she said so, but he’d never told me.
Cutting my eyes to him, my anger returned. I needed it, the strength it gave me, the high I felt. It was better than the low of sadness, of weakness.
His eyes nervously moved over me, but his lips remained stubbornly closed.
“She either has or she hasn’t. There is no maybe.” My teeth were grinding, jaw aching as I attempted to keep control, to keep from exploding. The pillow crumpled in my lap as my grip tightened. “I’m dead serious when I say you need to explain. And you need to explain now.”
He rubbed the back of his head, letting out a long stream of air. “I didn’t answer any of the messages. They never were sent directly to me, but our security told me that Alessandra was trying to contact me.”
I loosened my grip some and tried to release the tension in my shoulders. He was waiting on my reaction, and I hated that he was making me pull the story from him. “How often?”
“Only twice.” He pressed his palms together on his lap, dropping his eyes to them. “I should have told you.”
“When? When did she try to contact you?”
“It’s only been since we got back from Vegas, since my fight.”
Since we got married. My heart burned, we’d only been married a week.
“I thought it was going to be about me throwing my next fight, like they had wanted.” He opened his hands wide and looked back up at me with a slight smile. “But it’s not. I’m gonna talk to Viktor tomorrow and make sure.”
His smile, even as small as it was, twisted the knife in my stomach. “So that’s it? You’re going to just hop back in with them after all this time? You told me you were done” I was scooting away from him, panic tripping my heart.
“We both knew this was going to happen, that I couldn’t be out for good. I’ve done too much, know too much. It was only a matter of time.”
My head was shaking, denying his words. “I didn’t know that. You didn’t say that.” Tears stung my eyes as I rose to my feet. “We came here, to New York, to get away from them.”
Looking around the room at our beautiful space that I had been so happy in only this morning made me sick. I wanted to take a bat to it all. I gripped my hands to keep from reaching for the lamp.
“You said you’d stick around no matter what, even when I was in.” He rose to his feet, a quiet desperation in his voice.
I closed my eyes against the look in his. The accusation in his tone was enough to crush me. That wasn’t what this was about, and he wasn’t going to twist this on me. Meeting his gaze, I put steel in my words. “I never said I was going anywhere.”
Worry fell off of him, and he stood up taller with the release of his breath.
I put my hand up to keep him from stepping closer to me. “But I don’t want to be lied to.”
“Fuck. I…” He ran his hand over his hair, pulling at the tips, making it stand up in spikes. “I didn’t want to lose you. We just got married. I didn’t want to tell you she was contacting me and scare you off or keep you from fighting tonight.” He looked at me through his thick eyelashes, head ducked low. “You did great tonight, babe. You looked so fucking happy in that ring. I wanted to see you like that again, it had been so long.” His voice was low and rough, and I knew what he was doing but didn’t resist as he stepped closer to me and slid his arm around my waist. “I didn’t know she’d be so insistent, so soon. I was going to tell you, I promise.”
I wanted to stay mad. I was still mad, but I was also scared and needed his comfort. A storm of thoughts and emotions flooded me, and I didn’t know how to stop it. But he eased the chill of fear, so I leaned into him, resting my forehead on his chest.
“But do you have to do this? What’s going to happen tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow, I’ll meet with Viktor and see what the deal really is, what this all means. Alessandra said Anatoli will be getting out soon; it’ll be better if I get my position in before then. I’ll find out more and tell you when I know. I don’t know how much power they’d give her, if any, but I’m not taking orders from her.”
“So, who is Viktor? Will we be going back to Baltimore to meet him?” I wasn’t sure what questions I should be asking. It felt like I was missing a big one.
He stiffened slightly, and I braced myself for his words. “Viktor’s in New York. I’ve only met him a couple of times with my Dad. We don’t have to go anywhere, but you’re not coming to that meeting tomorrow.”
“What?” I stepped away. “You need someone there for you. What if they try something?”
“She talked about killing you tonight.”
“Calm down.” He patted the air in front of me, taking a cautious step back into my space.
I hated how he was patronizing me, like I was overreacting.
“It’s not like that. They won’t, you heard her. I’m a known name, it would be a big risk to kill me. Plus, I’ve always been loyal.” He tugged my hand, pulling me to sit on the couch next to him. “But if you’re scared that’s even more reason to stay here. I’ll text you, you’ll know where I am. And if something goes wrong, you can go to Dexter or the cops.” He ran his hand over my shoulder and down my arm. “Babe, nothing’s going to happen though. This isn’t like what you went through, I can hold my own with these people.”
I wanted to believe him, but doubted his confidence. “Then why can’t you say no? Why go?”
“Dammit Regan, I don’t know how to make you understand. I can handle them, as long as I’m on their side. I told you from the start that I wasn’t getting out.”
I stood up, fed up with the circular conversation and his attitude. “That’s not true. After everything happened you said you were out. So quit it with the attitude. I’m trying to understand but you’re not saying much.”
“Look, I’m sorry.” He jumped to his feet. “I’m fucking sorry. I don’t know what to tell you. I’ll know more tomorrow. Tonight surprised me too.”
“Surprised you too? You at least suspected something. You knew there were messages. You knew you weren’t really out. You never told me any of that.” My voice rose, pain cracking it as I spoke. I stepped towards him with every accusation, wanting to shake him into understanding. But in the end, I wrapped my arms around myself to hold it together.
He stared at me, unmoving, and I held my breath, waiting for him to say something. Anything. To wipe away the hurt. But he just kept staring while my heart beat pounded away the seconds.
After the space stretched to almost unbearable, he shrugged. His shoulders lifted, and his head shook slightly. “I didn’t want you to leave.” There was no apology anywhere in the gesture or his words.
And something in that casual admission sucked the energy out of me.
“Fuck you for not trusting me.” It came out in a whisper, and I turned to walk away.
He grabbed my arm, turning me back towards him. “I trust you. I do. I just—”
“If you trusted me, you would have told me.” I put my hands up, blocking his next words. “I’m going to bed. I need time.”
He nodded with a step back. And I walked away to our bedroom, by myself.