GAGE SLID A PAPER OUT OF THE bottom drawer, laying it flat on the desktop for all to see.
“You know about these two.” He tapped the paper with two pictures on it.
His eyes met mine. “We know about one more now.” He shifted towards the computer, hand on the mouse. “I’ll find a picture, and then we’ll go to the loading dock.”
The second I saw the photos my heart tripped. It was the agents Gage had described earlier, big nose, mole, dark skin. I didn’t want to argue in front of the others. I didn’t want to show anything but a uniformed front to them, especially Cherry. But I was close to kicking over that computer, dreading him showing Anthony’s photo. Too late, I remembered he never promised anything.
The printer kicked on, and Gage picked up the paper from it.
“Come on.” We all followed him, silent.
He slowed his path, nodding for me to step beside him. He leaned down and spoke low in my ear, “They have to know who to look out for. That’s all.”
My chest still burned even as his words snuffed out some of the embers of betrayal. But I nodded, accepting his explanation. He was probably right anyways. I wouldn’t want Ian set up.
His fingers pressed light and low on my back, keeping me near him. But the touch was tainted with the all too recent memory of him gripping Cherry’s arm. We would be talking about that later. I didn’t understand why he let her get to him. His reaction was too intense, but in the end, he still let her get away with demanding things. I especially wanted to know why she was hell bent on pissing me off.
The loading dock was basically a garage, concrete and cold. The drop door was closed, blocking the wind, but the frigid air seeped in.
Gage scanned the room, frown deepening as the lights turned on and illuminated boxes stacked from recent shipments.“You didn’t get these unloaded yet? Fuck Ian, you’re supposed to have had this done hours ago. Are you prepared to open tonight?”
Ian rolled his shoulders, annoyed. “I’ve got it handled. It’ll get done.”
“Yeah,” Cherry walked past us to the far wall. “You need to let go of the control here. We’ve got a new system.” She flashed a grin as she picked up one of the folded chairs leaning against the wall. “Speaking of which, let’s get this meeting over, we still got a lot to do.”
“So do I. This’ll be quick,” Gage agreed.
We each took a chair, but Gage took the one from my hand the moment I lifted it, unfolding it and setting it down in the small circle created.
And I wanted to complain about that gesture. It made me look weak. I could see that reflected in Cherry’s face, the way her lips twisted and she silently scoffed. God, I needed to get it together and stop worrying what that girl thought.
“This is Anthony Fields.” Gage passed the paper to Ian sitting across from him. “He’s part of the agents investigating me and the club. His role isn’t clear, but I’m thinking he’s not very high ranking. I’ll find out and let you know for sure.” He nodded to the paper now being passed to Cherry. “Get a good look. If you see him, call me.”
“There’s probably several others too.” Cherry scanned the paper and then passed it back to Ian who passed it to me. “But is it you or the club they’re after?”
The picture of Anthony shook in my hand. He was smiling bright, dimples showing. It was his Facebook profile picture.
“Thanks for that. You’ve set us up with a hot club.” Cherry leaned back and crossed her arms.
“Nobody’s forced you to be part of it,” Gage spoke in a low growl. “I gave you the warning.”
She waved him away. “I’m just talking out loud, you know how I do. Go ahead. Know anything more about dimples.” She nodded to the paper in my hand.
Gage took it from me, folding it several times and putting it in his pocket. “Just stick with the original plan. Start the new girls we talked about and lay low for a bit, it’ll blow over.”
“Alessandra wasn’t too happy with that plan.” Ian spoke up, hands rubbing the top of his knees as he met Gage’s eyes.
“It’s more important than ever not to hire her girls. That’s what he was suspicious of. He gave away that they’re trying to connect them to an underground sex trader.” He paused but spoke with clear authority. “Hire those new girls, let me deal with Alessandra.”
The smell of burning rubber and cardboard invaded my senses and my stomach rolled. I moved my hand to my nose, trying to block the smell discreetly. No one else seemed to even notice it, but it was taking over all my thoughts at the worst time.
“Damn. Do you think Alessandra is part of all that?” Ian scratched the side of his neck, face only showing curiosity.
“I don’t know.”
“Oh please, we all know it’s probably true, but who cares as long as we don’t go down for it?”
Gage stiffened beside me. “What do you know about this?”
The smell in the room intensified. My mouth was watering, and I was fighting back nausea that had nothing to do with the conversation. My morning sickness had gotten better, but it would still pop up randomly. I didn’t want to leave this conversation though.
“The same stuff you know.” She let out a harsh, brief laugh. “Those girls don’t care, most are eager to turn tricks for money. It’s not like she’s forcing them to do anything. All those girls come from the poorest corners of Russia. Any slum in America is an upgrade, and Alessandra lets them live far above poverty.”
“And that’s all fine, but once they’re sold, the choice stops there. So you need to tell me what you know.” Gage leaned forward, forearms perched on his knees.
“I just said I didn’t know anything. I’ll tell you when I do.” Her eyes narrowed on me as Gage gripped my leg.
He stood up, eyes intent on my face. “We’re done here then. Come on.”
“Jesus, barely any details and she looks like she’s going to spew. Why was she even part of this? She can’t handle it. She didn’t even say shit.”
“That’s because I don’t run my mouth just to hear myself talk. But I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.” I stood up, folding the chair, pushing down the bile that bubbled in my stomach. The last thing I’d do would be throw up in front of her.
Gage shot her a hard look and took my chair with his, walking both over to the wall.
“Oh I’m not worried about you, I never am. I know you don’t do shit.” She sat back in her chair with a satisfied smile that hit me worse than her words.
“I’ll show you what I do.” I crossed the space separating us, fists clenched and ready.
She jumped up from the chair, knocking it over as she came at me in turn.
My blood sung as I took a swing, but it struck Gage’s back as he came between us and shoved her away.
“Stay down.” He stepped closer as he pointed to where she landed on the ground.
“Dude.” Ian popped up, placing his hand on Gage’s shoulder. “Stop. She’s got it.”
Gage spun around, both hands on my shoulders. “You calm now? You okay?”
I nodded, breathing deeply to still my erratic heart.
He waited for my eyes to focus on his, and then he nodded, releasing me and turned back to her.
Ian was on the ground, lifting her to standing, but she brushed him away as she looked towards Gage.
“Don’t you ever fucking raise your hand to her again. And stop running that damn mouth while you’re at it.”
She lifted her hands with a barely there smile, still sitting on the floor in her tiny skirt. “Yes, Sir.”
The room froze for a second, and then Gage turned back to me. “Let’s go.” He slid his hand around my back, walking us out of the loading dock to his SUV.
We both sat in silence as he pulled away from the club. When the car came to a stand still in bumper to bumper traffic, he cussed, and I wasn’t at all sure it was towards the cars.
“What do you two have going on?” I voiced the question that wouldn’t stop repeating in my head.
He turned towards me, wide eyed and angry. “Out of everything that just fucking went down, that’s the question you ask?” He sliced the air between us with his palm. “What the hell do you two have going on because I wasn’t the one that completely lost it in there?”
I pressed my arms to me, gripping my fingers against the cold of the car. “She’s been pushing me since I met her. She just went too far this time. But you lost it with her too.”
He focused back on the road, trying to make a right turn. The buildings around us grew taller with every block we traveled into the city.
“I was protecting you,” his voice lost the loud anger he had earlier, but it was still there, running under his quiet words.
“Yeah, at the end. But earlier, in your office, when you grabbed her, that wasn’t about me. What was that about?”
His head whipped towards me and then pulled back to the road. “She was being disrespectful, and I was already stressed from our conversation. I usually don’t let her get to me, but that time she did. I guess she got to both of us today.”
“Except, I don’t want to put up with it. I wouldn’t keep her around, why do you?”
“Because she can be counted on. Ignore her words, she’s rough around the edges, but when it comes down to it, she delivers and she’s on it. She’s right when she said Ian can’t run that club without her.”
His eyes skipped back over me, a nervous flicker in them, gauging my reaction. “On Monday, I’ll sign over the club and Ian will be the one to put up with her.”
That spiked my anger all over again as I recalled his words to her. “That’s what you keep saying to me, but to her, you said you’d still be in charge. You made sure she knew that.”
He groaned as his hand ran through his hair. “I was speaking from anger. It’s true enough, I will be in charge because they both work under me as far as Viktor’s concerned. But I’ll limit my dealing to Ian as much as possible.”
I crossed my arms, watching the people bundled up on the sidewalks. “As much as possible,” I mumbled. “We saw how well leaving her out of discussions goes, and how easily you boys give in.”
His hand gripped the wheel as he turned off the main road to a side one leading to our place. “This isn’t for you to worry about. I’ve told you nothing is going on, you just have to believe me. But you want to find suspicion in everything I do.”
I couldn’t respond to his harsh tone. Just believing him was something I was trying to do and having a hard time with.
“And you need to calm down and remember you’re pregnant.” He was getting loud again.
“I’m the one with a baby in my belly, I do remember.” It pissed me off that he put that in question.
“Then what the hell were you thinking?” He punctuated his point with a slam of his palm on the steering wheel. “I can only do so much to protect that child when it’s in your care. You’re the first line of defense, and I need to know that you won’t put him in danger when I’m not around.”
I was shaking with the accusation, guilt swirling in me. “I didn’t mean to put it in danger. I just—”
“Enough.” He raised his hand. “I know, she got to you and I should have stopped it sooner. I shouldn’t have had you there in the first place.”
I had no response and guilt merged into shame. His words twisted in me, until I recognized something in them. “So you didn’t step in for me. You stepped in for the baby?”
His jaw dropped. “Don’t tell me you’re jealous of our child now? Grow up.”
I crossed my arms and looked out the window, tears burning the back of my throat as I choked them down. I couldn’t say anymore, I didn’t want to let her get further between us. The silence stretched till we pulled into our parking garage. Gage pulled up to the elevator and let the car idle.
“This was it, Regan. I don’t want you coming around any of this. I know I said you could be involved, but that was before you were pregnant.”
I had been thinking the same thing, but it still hurt to hear him say it. “So we’re going back to how it was before?”
“No. I don’t have to be at the club as many hours. I’ll still tell you things, I’ll let you know what I’m doing, but you can’t be there.”
Until he opens the next club. The words were left unspoken.
I paused with my hands on the door. “Where are you going now then?”
“I still have to talk to Sal and I’ve got that meeting later, so don’t wait up.”
I recalled he mentioned a meeting earlier, before I saw Anthony. It felt like days had passed since then as opposed to hours.
I opened the door but stopped short of getting out. I couldn’t leave with him thinking me so selfish, and it finally hit me how to word what I was feeling. “I wasn’t jealous of the baby. I was hurt that you wouldn’t have stepped up for me otherwise. That you are all right with the way she treats me. That you hold her so high up.”
He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. “I’m sorry.” His blue eyes opened, meeting mine. “That’s not true at all, but I’m sorry you felt that way.”
“Then you would have stepped in, if I wasn’t pregnant?”
He shook his head. “No. I mean yes, after you knocked her out. Because, lets face it, she needs someone to lay her out, to put her in her spot. I wouldn’t have to stop her from touching you; I know you can do that on your own. That’s the only reason I wasn’t jumping in before, you usually wouldn’t want me to fight your battles.”
I nodded and slid out of the car. “All right. I won’t wait up. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Wait.” He hopped out of the car and came around the front to me.
I thought he might say something, but he didn’t. His hand slid along my face and then behind my head, lips dropping down on mine, taking complete control. My only option was to go along with it as he pushed me back against the car, his body pressed to mine. His other hand came up, cradling the side of my head. His touch, his lips, his tongue created a heat that spread to my fingers and down to my toes. He pulled back with a smile that made me want those lips on me again.
“Wait up for me, okay? I’ll try not to be too late?”
I sighed, trying to remember if I should still be angry. His kiss wiped away all thoughts, except the need I had for him. “Maybe.”
He kissed my cheek before releasing me to stand on my own. “Maybe.” His smile stretched as if maybe was a certain yes. “I love you. I’ll see you tonight.” He hit the elevator button as he walked around the car to his driver side.
The doors slid open, and I stepped inside before he drove away.