I SHOULD BE USED TO IT, THE empty bed, but awakening with his side untouched still made my heart sink.
Sliding the phone off the nightstand, I read the bright screen. It was nearly five in the morning and he hadn’t called or made it to bed. I rolled onto my back, fear making me want to stay put, to deny that he may have not come home yet. But something stronger than fear, anger, had me moving.
The walk to the living room was silent, the carpet soft as my feet sunk into it with every step. And with every step, I hoped he had just crashed in the living room. The empty couch ripped away that possibility. He hadn’t come home at all.
My muscles shook and I didn’t know what caused it, the fear that he may have gotten hurt or the anger that this may just be another late night. Another night where he wouldn’t explain what kept him out. Another night, another secret, another brick added to the wall that had begun separating us ever since he started working for Viktor. One that I didn’t know how to stop building or how to cross.
I checked my text messages, there was still no response from my last one at midnight asking when he’d be home. My fingers paused over the screen, about to type out another one, but I stopped myself. More than likely, he was fine, and this would be like the other times. Except, I was done waiting for him. I’d go insane trying to fill in the blanks his absence created.
Anger surged through me. I needed a release. The gym would open soon, so I went to get ready. I was zipping up my book bag for school, preparing to be out all day, when the front door shut. I froze.
After a few moments passed and he didn’t appear in the bedroom, I ventured to the living room. My skin tingled, unsure what I’d find. The chance of him being hurt or it being someone else coming into our place stiffened my spine.
Gage was on the couch, head back, arm draped over his eyes. The emotions of the morning collided, and a swirl of relief and resentment churned in my gut.
He sat up the moment I stepped in the room, surprise clear on his features as he blinked at me. His suit jacket was off, draped on the coffee table with two guns laid on top.
“Regan? What are you—” He stood up smoothly, his eyebrows furrowed as he looked me over, gaze landing on my bag. “Where are you going?”
I sucked in air, chest burning as I held in the anger I wanted to show, the questions I wanted answered, the hateful remarks I wanted to make. But I knew how all of that would end, the same way it always did, him refusing answers or something even worse. Lying to me. I couldn’t take that.
“To the gym.” I slung my bag over my shoulder and walked past as if I didn’t notice or care about him standing there in a suit he didn’t leave the house in.
“Gym? It’s the middle of the night.”
“No, it’s morning. I’m getting an early start.” I kept walking but could feel him closing in behind me and braced myself by swallowing down the knot of hurt stuck in my throat.
“Wait.” His hands gripped my shoulders, and he pulled me to him so my back pressed to his chest. He dipped his head to the side of my ponytail, and his breath fanned over my bare neck and tickled my ear. “You don’t need to go right now. Come on, stay with me for a bit.” His arms circled me and I didn’t know how to push him away. I don’t think I had the strength to; his presence sucked it from me. “I’ve missed you.”
I missed him too. But being around him now only made me miss him more because he barely let me see any of him. He hid behind excuses and dismissals I didn’t know how to get beyond. But I didn’t want to push him away when this might be the time things could be different. I had to try.
I leaned back into him with a nod of my head. He walked us to the couch and we both sunk onto the cushions. I dropped my bag at my feet so I could better fit into the crook of his arm. A heavy musk of smoke and liquor clung to him, but I could still detect his fresh scent under it all and tried to ignore the rest, desperate for those feelings I could only find with him. But I couldn’t find them; they played at the edge, never truly materializing. Holding him tighter, I adjusted my head to hear his heartbeat, hoping it would drown out everything else.
His arms tightened around me and lips pressed to the top of my head. “Damn, I needed this.” Warm, soft lips dragged over my neck as he inhaled me. “I’ve needed you.”
I tried to stay relaxed in his embrace, but his words and kisses only stirred up the hurt I felt. He was ignoring last night completely. I wanted to go along with him. I wanted this moment, even if it was pretend, I hadn’t felt important to him in a while. As his lips covered mine, it wasn’t the electric heat that traveled through me, but a quiet sadness, chilling me.
He must have felt the difference too. He pulled away, barely an inch, our noses still touched as his hands moved to my face, eyes searching mine.
“Babe? You all right?” His thumb swiped below my eye, bringing my attention to the tears that were escaping. He kissed my cheek, holding his lips to me for a moment.
I squeezed my eyes shut, trying stamp out the tears or pull them back in. I needed them gone so I could talk to him—explain to him. I needed to do this without it leading to an argument.
“Did something happen? Is everything all right?” His voice rose, filled with concern.
“You happened.” I gave up on gaining control and pushed away from him, letting him see exactly how not all right everything was. “You’re just getting in, again. And you never called.”
His blue eyes locked on mine for a moment. Then he dropped his gaze and reached for my hand. “Ian called you didn’t he? To tell you.”
I pulled my fingers out of his loose grasp and tried to get him to look at me again, but he wouldn’t.
“He did, to say you wouldn’t be able to make dinner, but that was nine hours ago.”
He tapped his fingers on his thigh, and then looked up at me. “He was supposed to tell you it would be a late night. Several new employees, a few VIP parties, I had to make sure things went smoothly. Plus, I had to set everything up since we’ve got to go to that party this weekend.”
“That party? It’s Felix’s first birthday, you don’t want to go?”
He groaned and dropped his head back, running his hand over his hair. “That’s not what I meant, but it puts more pressure on me to get things done before then.”
“You do realize you’re not really the owner?” I said it out of spite but also because it was true. I hated hearing about “employees” when I knew they were strippers. Or things that needed to be done when I wasn’t convinced it was the club that kept him busy. It seemed that it was a cover for more than drug money, it was a cover for whatever Gage was really doing. But he refused to admit it.
“It’s my name on everything. It reflects on me. It’s me that’ll take the hit if anything goes wrong. So yeah, I am the owner. They only want the doors open. They don’t care about anything else.” His cool eyes pierced mine, challenging me to argue the point.
But I didn’t want to keep doing this. I stood up with my bag.
“Where are you going now?” Anger ran under his words as he rose to his feet.
“To the gym.”
He pulled my hand, stopping me. “Wait. I’ll get you a ride there. Let me call—”
“That’s okay.” I stepped away from him. “I was going to drive so I can go straight to class after.”
“Fine. I’ll see you later then.” He was staring right through me.
“Or not.” I shrugged.
“What does that mean?”
“It means I never see you.”
“Then don’t go to the fucking gym, stay here with me.” He threw his hands up. “You can adjust your damn schedule. You don’t even need to go to school. You could be here with me.”
His outburst silenced me for all of a second before my own anger rose to match his. “For what? You’re here to sleep and then you’re gone. Do you even go to the gym anymore? Do you care about boxing anymore? Do you care about me anymore?”
His eyes blazed with anger until my last question. Then it drained from him, just as it did from me.
“You know I do. I love you.”
I couldn’t catch a full breath but kept sucking in air to calm my racing heart. I had said too much, and now he would respond with the words I wanted, but only because I baited him to say it.
He slid one hand to my cheek. “I’m sorry. Things are tough right now. The club is taking a lot of time, but it will get better soon. And we’ll have all weekend together, away from this.”
His eyes searched mine, begging for understanding. I wanted to believe him, but only time would tell.
I nodded, grabbing his hand with my own and pulling it from my face. Stepping close to him, I gave him a small kiss on his lips, taking him by surprise. “Okay. Then I’ll see you later.” I whispered the words near his face, pulling back to meet his gaze. “I love you.”
He covered my lips with his, and I moved with him, wanting to breathe life into our words and seal our promises with a kiss. We’d be okay. Things would get better. They had to.
But I didn’t want to stick around and argue more this morning. I needed to leave now. I squeezed his hand before walking out.
“Statistics sucks,” Kendall declared the moment we stepped into the crisp autumn air.
“Says the math major. There’s something very wrong with that.” Leo pulled his beanie over his blonde hair, squinting against the bright sun. “Remind me not to cheat off of you anymore.”
“Don’t blame me for your poor judgment. And I’m not a math major.” She pushed her bangs from her eyes and leaned forward to look past Leo at me. “You want to stop by the union for lunch before our next class?”
Her words died off at the end as I froze on the top step of the building. Gage was waiting at the bottom, looking more like his old self, faded jeans and dark grey t-shirt with a black hat pulled low, shading his face.
Leo and Kendall traded glances, and then Leo waggled his eyebrows at me.
“Maybe another time. I’ll see you in class.” Kendall waved and grabbed Leo’s hand, pulling him down the steps.
Gage gave me an easy smile as I approached him and pulled me into a hug. “Friends?”
“Yeah, how’d you know where to find me?” I asked as he loosened his grip on me, but he didn’t let me go.
“I know your schedule. I always know where you are, babe.” The look he gave me was sweet and warmed me, but his words had the opposite effect.
He always knew where I was; I wish I could say the same about him.
“I thought we could get an early start on the weekend.” He started walking towards the parking lot, keeping an arm around me.
“Really?” It was only Thursday. This gave us a day longer to be together away from everything. I couldn’t believe he’d pulled that off. “Oh, but I’ve got class.”
His jaw clenched, but I spoke before he could. “It’s okay though, I haven’t missed this semester. I can skip this once.”
“Good. Let’s go pack. Our flight leaves at three.”