HE WAS SAT BACK, RELAXED, WITH ONE hand resting on the table in front of him, looking every bit the predator I remember him being. He wore a blue prison jumper, but he moved like it was Armani.
I found my voice as he stood up.
“What the hell is going on?” I had my hand on the door handle behind me, but it wouldn’t budge.
“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a while now.” His hand glided along the table as he floated around it. He moved like smoke, and his eyes burned into me. “Gage must not have told you.”
“He told me.” He had, when Rusnak first went to prison, but not recently. The door at my back kept me standing up straight as I pressed to it, wanting to melt through it.
He stopped his torturously slow path to me and cocked his head, deep lines creasing between his brow. “And yet, you still didn’t come.”
I wouldn’t pull my eyes from his challenging stare, but I didn’t respond. I didn’t need to. I didn’t owe him any explanation. Panic was taking firm hold of my thoughts. This place was corrupt, and I suddenly feared for Gage.
“Why?” His voice was sharp now, more of a command, and he stepped forward, invading my space.
“I had nothing to say to you.” I made my voice just as loud, responding in a second. I banged my fist on the door behind me, but didn’t dare to turn my back on him. It only shook under my fist, though. No one opened it. “I still don’t. You said everything the last time I saw you.”
The corner of his mouth slid up with a puff of laughter, and he took another step closer, so close I could feel his movements stir the air. “You can stop that now. They’ll open that door when I tell them to, not you. So sit down, we don’t have much time.”
I crossed my arms for strength and protection. One more step and he’d reach me, but at least I knew now our time was ticking. There was a sliver of comfort in that. “What do you want?”
“A lot has happened since I last saw you, and I’ll be getting released soon. It’s best we come to an understanding now.”
The temperature in the room dropped, the air burning my lungs. He gestured to the chair in front of the table, the same set up as the other room I was in with Nikolai and Gage. He moved to guide me, but I stepped forward before he could touch me and took a seat.
“So, you’re getting out?” That news felt like ropes binding me.
“Some people want me out, some people want to keep me in.” He shrugged, sinking into the seat opposite mine. “My sides winning.” He nodded to me. “Which side are you on?”
His question was a minefield with no safe answer, so I tried to evade. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t have any control in that decision.”
His lips pressed together in a tight smile. “You don’t have control in a lot of things. Which is why choosing the right side, the right people, is important for you.”
“What is it that you want?” I wanted out of this room. I wanted to get to the point. I wanted him to stop speaking in riddles that sounded like threats.
He ran his fingers over his lips, leaning back to look down on me. “I want to help you choose the right side.”
“I’m with Gage. That’s the only side I’m on.” I spoke through my fear, taking the risk of claiming a side. I didn’t want him thinking me the same girl he knew before. I wouldn’t turn to him for anything.
“Haven’t you figured it out by now?” He leaned on the table between us, eyes nailing me where I sat. “He can’t take care of you.”
I sat up taller, faking every movement, pretending to be unfazed, indifferent. I lifted one shoulder, but kept my eyes locked on him. I hadn’t looked away since the moment I faced him. “That’s not your concern.”
“It is.” Something wavered; his cool features broke for the briefest of moments, revealing something cold and dark underneath. “He failed to keep you safe. And when he tried to fix it, he fucked up, and I ended up here.” His features softened, slipping back into the salesman act. “If you would have stayed in my care, you would have stayed safe. You can’t deny that I kept you safe.”
“You kept me in a prison.” I couldn’t keep control of my anger. “And then you got rid of me, and Nick would have killed me or worse.”
He sat back, watching me, excitement flicking behind his aloof gaze.
“I never got rid of you. And I never mistreated you. There were other players, but they never touched you, not when you were with me.” He put his hand up, dismissing anything else I would say. “But we don’t have time to analyze the past. For the future, I want to make sure you know you can still be under my protection. As long as you are loyal. You and Gage.”
“Me and Gage?” At his slight nod, I continued, “Then Gage should be here for this conversation.”
“I wanted to talk to you first.”
“So you tricked me into meeting with you? You can’t possibly think Gage would be all right with this. I’m not all right with this.”
“You left me little choice.” He was matter of fact. “And as for Gage, you won’t tell him, not if you have any sense.”
I don’t know why the words sent chills over me, but my skin prickled. “I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
“Think about this.” His eyes narrowed, and he leaned forward. “It can only end one of two ways if you tell him.” He dropped his gaze, sliding them up me as he lifted one finger. “If he’s smart and loyal, you tell him and he knows there’s nothing he can do about it. So then it’s only you that gets hurt, and I know you can’t be trusted.” He cocked his head to the side, dark smile sliding in place. “Or.” He lifted a second finger and leaned over the table, closer to me. “You tell him, and he stupidly thinks there is something he can do. Then I know you both aren’t loyal, and this time, he won’t get a pass on that.” He sat back in his chair, hands up and amused. “Actually that could be interesting. But it’s up to you now.”
I turned away from his smirk that was slicing at my heart and looked at the wall, trying to keep down the tears that stung my eyes. My emotions were as screwed as my thoughts.
“So you brought me in here to mess with me? To play this stupid game of who can trust who? How does this even show if I’m loyal to you? Anything I do will be for him.” I couldn’t stand the thought of him thinking otherwise.
“That’s what I’m counting on. There’s so much you never figured out yet, I’m quite surprised.” He licked his lips, long arms snaking across the table and grabbing mine. “Sweetheart, it’s never been about you. Not when it comes to business anyways.”
“So what is this about?” I yanked my arm out of his burning grip. It didn’t make sense—any of it. Why go on about keeping me safe, if it wasn’t about me? But I wanted out of here more than I wanted his twisted answers.
“Alessandra warned me that Gage goes beyond her repeatedly. And that he’s getting favored by those running New York. But when I get out, I am claiming my rightful place and he works for me, not them.”
“Don’t you all work together?” I was beginning to think beyond my situation. What would it mean if Viktor and Rusnak didn’t get along?
“We’re supposed to. But I want to make sure things are in order, just in case. Gage says he knows, but you hold influence with him I know. These changes he’s making, it needs to stop, until I get out.”
Anatoli looked to the door behind me and nodded. I twisted in my seat as it creaked and rose to my feet when the guard held it open.
“Show me you can be a smart girl. Remember who’s shown they can keep you safe if things go wrong. Don’t make the same mistake twice.”
I turned my back on him and walked out the door, glaring at the guard with the heat of my anger. But it was pointless, Rusnak was right, I didn’t control any of this, and the guard ignored my look. He ignored me completely except to hold the doors open for me as he walked me out of the prison.
Gage scooted close to me in the back of the town car driving us from the airport. His arm slid over my shoulder as he pulled me close. “This weekend should be good, give us a break from the city, maybe get your mind off everything.”
I could feel him staring at me. My constant headache began to throb, knowing his eyes were on me waiting for something, for some response. Something more than the barely there answers and excuses I’d given all week.
My arms slid around his waist, and I squeezed him, soaking up his warmth and clean scent. “I’m sorry. I—I know I’ve been off. I just—I’m going to let it go.” Every word felt like a lie, like a betrayal. But how could I tell him
His palm moved up and down my arm, his cheek resting on my head. “You don’t need to apologize. I know the news was hard. You never wanted to think about your past and then when you do, it turns out bad. It’s okay. I shouldn’t have taken you there.”
“Let’s go back to not talking about it, please.”
He kissed my head. “Okay. Whatever you want.”
His gentle words only made me feel that much worse. That much lower. But each moment that passed after we left the prison made it harder to say. Now if I spoke, I’d have to explain why I didn’t tell him to start.
I had to let it go.
“More gravy?” Gage raised an eyebrow at his brother. “You’re the one fighting tomorrow, right?”
Dexter let his head fall back, gravy boat in one hand. “Don’t even start with me. I know what I’m doing.”
Gage raised a hand. “I told you we should have had our Thanksgiving dinner Saturday instead.”
“Oh we are. We’re having deep fried turkey then, with stuffing, and pie, and sweet potatoes, and I’m going to gorge. But I’ve been damn good with my diet this past month, you’d be proud. None of those cheats I use to do.”
Leona rolled her lips in between her teeth, biting back a smile as she tore up pieces of turkey for Felix in his high chair.
Dexter’s hand went out quick as she snorted, he pointed to her. “Don’t even start.”
Gage sat back grinning. “Leona? Does he have Oreo cookies in the night stand?”
Dexter’s jaw dropped, but his eyes were bright with humor. “I. Do. Not.”
Nadia set her wine glass down, bumping my shoulder with her own. “He has hostess cupcakes in there.”
All eyes were on her now.
“Why the hell do you know what’s in my night stand?” Dexter’s voice nearly squeaked, but he was laughing.
“Felix was looking for his pacifier the other day.”
Gage was shaking his head. “Hopefully you’re ready for tomorrow.”
“I am.” Dexter took a bite of his mashed potatoes. “I’ve got this, that guy won’t even know what hit ‘em.”
Leona stood up and kissed his lips as she gathered empty dishes and caught Felix’s sippy cup at the same time. He had officially stopped eating and moved on to playing, making car sounds as he ground the turkey over his tray. The table had stayed loud throughout the evening, and I felt a pang for it to be ending. I had been content to sit back and watch everyone, especially Felix.
I stood to help Leona clean up, Nadia stayed at the table with her sons, and for once Gage wasn’t jumping to get out of her presence. They didn’t talk really; all conversation centered around Dexter, but still, it felt like a good step.
“This might have been my favorite Thanksgiving ever.” I had my head on Gage’s bare chest, fingers tracing his tattoo, a familiar path that I’m surprised didn’t hold an indent from my fingers.
He lifted his head to look at me. “Better than last year? I thought last year was our year of breaking all those records. Best Christmas, best birthday, best New Year.”
“It was, but this thanksgiving was nice to be with them.” I closed my eyes, trying to savor the warmth, letting tonight cast away my dark thoughts.
His hand slid over my bare stomach and my muscles clenched by reflex.
“Next year will be even better,” he spoke low. “It’s only going to get better for us—for our family.”
My secrets were an anchor, keeping my mood from lifting.
“I promise, Regan. I know the past couple of months have been hard, but things are getting better. The club isn’t attached to me anymore, and I’ve got some good news.”
“You know Commie Magoro? The boxer running up the ranks?”
“Yeah.” I held my breath, expecting what he meant.
“He thinks he can take my title. And they’ll pay me well to defend it.”
“Can you do that? You haven’t been training hard and with the new club?”
“I would have to put that on hold. Viktor already knows and he’s okay, as long as I continue to assist with other things. But I’d have time to get back into training. The fight wouldn’t be for another four months.”
“So you’ve already decided and set it up?”
He looked at me, confused. “I thought you’d be happy about it. You’ve been talking about me going back.”
“I am.” I was stunned that the problem I’d been stressing over cleared itself up. “I just didn’t know.” The combination of thoughts triggered my guilt all over again.
He smiled. “I wanted to make sure it was all a sure thing before I told you. I didn’t want to get your hopes up if it fell through.” He sat up in front of me, his hand sliding to my cheek and eyes unbearably soft and tender. “But it’s not official yet, you still have a say in this. We’re a team, remember? What do you think?”
I closed my eyes, tears sliding onto his hand. I covered his fingers with my own, holding him in place. We were a team, and he needed to know what Rusnak had said. But a part of me argued that I would just be ruining his good news, that I was only telling him to lighten my own load.
“Babe. Look at me. What’s wrong?”
I pulled his hand down and when I opened my eyes, the confusion in his sealed my decision. He was feeling my burden whether I spoke or not, he had been feeling it all week.
I wiped the tears from my eyes and steadied myself.
“I have to tell you something.”