HIS HANDS KEPT MOVING, GIVING AWAY HIS nervousness. He slid them down my arm to grip my thighs, but his eyes stayed trained on me, watching me for a reaction.
But I already accepted what he said and faced it as the only option. I lifted my eyes from his strong grip and met his gaze. “How will we do it?”
He let out a breath, tension releasing from his shoulders, but I couldn’t stop the questions as my mind raced through a plan.
“How many are we talking about anyways? We need to start with a list, and then maybe we can get some of them together and—”
“Whoa, what are you talking about?” He sat up and squeezed my leg to stop my talking.
“The way out?” I questioned, slow and unsure, surprised by his confusion.
“What did you think I meant?”
“What did you mean?” The turn in conversation was both a relief and a fear. What else could he mean?
“I meant,” he looked around the cabin of the plane, no one was in sight, but he dropped his voice, “we have to die—as far as everyone else is concerned.”
“Oh.” I sat back against the seat, unsure if this was better or worse than what I had imagined.
“Jesus, you thought I meant to kill everyone else?” He sounded so shocked, and it rubbed me the wrong way.
I shrugged, not looking towards him. “I thought it’s what you do.”
“And you would have been willing to go along with that?”
I peeked back at him; he was near laughing.
He dropped his smile and nodded. “So maybe there are two ways we could do this.” He pushed a strand of my hair behind my ear, shifting my face to meet his. “But lets save your plan as a backup. It’s a little more dangerous.”
“All right, but your plan means never seeing Dexter and his family again.”
He nodded, a heaviness in his expression. “We’re only just talking right now. We don’t have to do any of this, not if you don’t want to. But if you want to move forward with this, we need to get a tight plan, and that’s going to take time. While we’re talking, it’s all only ideas, now’s the time to speak up.”
I met his gaze with a direct stare, letting him see my determination. “I’m not backing out.”
“Of course you’re not.” His hands slid around my hips as he pulled me to him and lifted me onto his lap. One hand slid into my hair, tugging it back so I was facing him. “I should never underestimate you. You are…” He closed his eyes, forehead dropping to mine. “I don’t even know. I don’t know what to expect. One minute you’re running from me, then you’re willing to kill for me, and I—I” his voice dropped to a breathy whisper, tickling the skin at my ear as he tightened his hold. “I’m afraid to blink. I’m afraid you’ll disappear again.”
I let my fingers wander up his chest, to his face, fingertips grazing the coarse stubble at his cheeks. It all felt so close, everything I’ve wanted was on the tips of my fingers, I just had to grab it and hold on to it. But I was afraid, too, afraid of the reality of it. Of him. Maybe I’d always imagined him as more than he was, more than he could give.
I sucked in air, inhaling him and his clean scent, his sweet taste, this moment. With our heads still pressed together, I absorbed his warmth and spoke just as soft as he had, “I don’t understand it either. I don’t understand myself. Everything just got too much to handle.” I gripped the back of his neck, keeping him from pulling away. I needed to say this in the safety of his hold, without his eyes on me. “Everything around us hurt. And I ran, but it didn’t make anything better. It was all worse without you. I was worse. I kept thinking I needed more time, but that only made it hurt worse. What I needed was you. I’ve been so empty because you’re my heart and soul. I can feel that, right now.”
His lips brushed over mine, feathery soft as he crossed his arms around my back and pulled me to him as tight as possible.
I dropped my head to his chest, breaking our kiss. I had more to say. “But I can’t go back to what we had either. This taught me, as bad as it hurts, I can live without you. And I will if we don’t do this different this time.”
He sighed, his cheek rubbing against the top of my hair. “It’s going to be different. I’m not letting you go this time.” His hands were firm as they moved up and down my waist and back, the need in them seeping into me. “I’ve missed everything about you, but holding you like this…this is what’s driven me mad, imagining never touching you again, seeing you again, talking to you again.” His lips brushed my hair, his hands sweeping around to pull my legs up over his lap so he was cradling me against his chest. “Imagining you hurt, or worse.” His hands were everywhere, touching every part of me in soft caresses that pulled me out, inch by inch. I returned the touches, hands on his chest, arm, hair, back, trying to ease the hurt I heard in his voice. “Imagining someone else holding you like this. It’s been torture. Every thought of you was torture. But I couldn’t stop.”
“It was the same for me.” I looked into his eyes. “Except I’d see you sometimes, and those glimpses of your life tormented me. I saw you were arrested, was it because of me?”
His hand froze at my waist, eyes narrowing. “When I was arrested at the club in New Orleans? You were there?”
“No. I saw you on TV after. What happened?”
“Anatoli and Alessandra sent Ian and Cherry to make a business deal—”
“You and Rusnak are working together again?” Last I saw they wanted to kill each other.
“We put our differences aside for business, Viktor made that happen. But when I found out where their meeting was, I went. I kept thinking maybe it had something to do with you. But…” He shook his head, leveling me with a look that left no room for doubt in his words, words that were no longer gentle but forceful with truth. “I told you I was going crazy. And I snapped. I can’t go back to that. I won’t give this up again. I’ll do anything for you, just promise, you mean forever too. Because after this, all we’ll have is each other.”
I tightened my grip on him, nodding into his neck, scared at how little I actually cared about anything else. All I wanted was him, all of him. I didn’t know if it was really possible, but I would die trying. “I promise. I’ll do anything for us to be together away from all of this.”
“Good. We both will. We’ll both do whatever it takes.”
I could get lost in his kiss as his gentle but dominating and firm lips covered mine, sinking into me. I gladly submitted, leaning back as he laid me out on the couch, body moving over mine.
“Babe.” His lips dragged to my neck as he spoke, his voice vibrating on my skin. “I love you. I love you. I love you.” He kept repeating it between kisses on my skin as he slid my shirt off my shoulders.
And I said it back, returning the kisses, and touches, and peeling his clothes off him. I reached for him, finally grabbing the man at the tip of my fingers. Then we found other ways to say I love you, without words, in a hundred different little ways. I just hoped one of them was enough, enough to defeat my own demons and give me the strength to hold on to this man, this time. Or that he could hang on to me.
The next several days were spent planning. In our own little bubble, it was easy to imagine it working. It was also easy to forget why it needed to work when he hadn’t let any of the outside in yet, somehow keeping us both away from the outside world.
He’d brought home bags, the type you would get from a blood bank and needles and syringes. If we were to make it believable, there needed to be blood, our blood. And lots of it. So we had to start collecting it.
“This might pinch.” He slid the needle out of my arm and held a cotton ball on top of the small puncture.
He replaced the cotton ball with a Band-Aid and then placed a kiss over it.
“When will we do this?” I absently rubbed my hand over the spot.
“Soon. This won’t last that long, even with the preservatives in it.” He took the bag of my blood to the refrigerator. “Unless, you’re changing your mind?”
“Stop saying that. I’m not changing my mind.” I eyed him as he walked back over to me. “Are you?”
He shook his head and sat on the couch next to me, his hand gripping my thigh. “No.”
“Then when should I call Anthony?” That would start all of this, put the ball in motion.
“Not yet.” He answered too quickly but gripped my leg to reassure me. “A couple more days. There are a few more details to work out. I need to give them information they can do something with, a location, a name. Right?”
I nodded and leaned into him. I just needed to get through this next few days.
“Unless,” his hand was light on my shoulder, “Unless we didn’t tell him anything. It would be easier, less to question, if we just did this without giving up information.”
I squeezed my eyes, trying to think. What was it I wanted? If it was only him, then I should agree. But I had wanted to do more, do something good.
His phone vibrated in his pocket like it had been all night. He’d only go as far as texting back, but now he pulled it out between us, a frown pulling on his lips as he looked at the screen.
I sat up as he put it to his ear.
“Hello—Wait, calm down.— Now say it again, what happened?”
He looked towards me, head cocked, and put his finger up, signaling for me to give him a second as he rose to his feet.
“When?” He walked down the hallway, and I rose to my feet to follow. In the bedroom he pulled out a clean shirt and pants, kicking off his sweatpants, phone still pressed to his ear. “Where are you now? Stay there. We’ll be there soon.” He hung up the phone and turned to me.
The silence stretched between us before he broke it by stepping towards the night stand and picking up his gun. “I meant it when I said I wanted you by my side for everything. But are you really willing to do that?” He stepped towards me, shirtless. “You can stay here if you don’t want to go.” He extended his hand to cup my face.
“What’s going on?”
“Ian’s been arrested. There was a raid at the club. That was Cherry. They’ve got nothing on her and have already released her from the police station.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I need to find out the real details. The things she won’t say on the phone. And I need to talk to Viktor.” He stepped back, picking up his shirt and sliding it on, starting the button’s from the bottom up. “It’s expected that I would get involved. I can’t tip them off before we make our move.” His light eyes lifted to mine. “So are you coming with me?”
“Yeah. I’m coming with you.” I went to the drawer to grab my own pair of jeans to change into, and then I went to my side of the bed and grabbed my gun.
We pulled up to an apartment building outside of the city with a view of the Hudson River.
Cherry stood from the front steps and walked over to the car, a cigarette in one hand and smoke trailing from her lips. Her sweater was huge on her, hanging off one shoulder and covering her to mid thigh, bright patterned leggings underneath. She maybe paused for a half a second when she saw me step out, long enough to narrow her eyes and purse her lips, but she continued her path to Gage all the same. She stepped to his side of the car as he closed the door.
“I’ve tried getting to his place, but they’re already all over it. They’re still all over the club too. This shit is fucked up. They’re pinning it all on him.”
“What about everyone else that was working?” Gage pointed back to the building, and Cherry started walking in that direction. He followed her but paused at the front of the truck, waiting for me to join. And that little gesture was all I needed, it was enough to wipe away the unease I had felt.
“They took everyone in for questioning. Some of the girls, they’re fucking labeling them as victims and saying they ‘rescued’ them from sex work.” She reached for the door handle and tossed out her cigarette as she twisted around to add, “It’s all complete bullshit, all the evidence is bullshit.”
“What could they have found at the club?” Gage reached for the door Cherry opened, holding it for us to cross through.
We entered into a small foyer with narrow stairs Cherry was already walking up. At the top, she slipped a key into the first door on the right. There were only two doors, one on either side of the hallway.
She pushed open the door and stepped into the tiny living room. It had a lived in look, a blanket draped across a worn in couch, a cigarette pack, pen, notepad, a few half drank cups, and other random things on the coffee table. She tossed her lighter down as she sat and then picked up a pill bottle. Sliding a pill into the palm of her hand, she popped it into her mouth and washed it down with a sip of a nearby drink.
“My nerves are fucking shot.” She massaged the palm of each hand with her thumbs, speaking to no one in particular, until she gestured the bottle to Gage. “You want one?”
“No.” He sat on the loveseat to the side of the couch, leaning forward so his forearms rested on his knees. “So what did they find in the club?”
She ran her long fingers through her hair, gripping the back of her neck. “Drugs. That’s for fucking sure.” She swiped her hand over her face with a groan and kicked the table in front of her with the bottom of her heel, only scooting it a couple of inches over the carpet. “Fuck. Me. I don’t know what they found about the human trafficking they’re trying to claim he’s the center of, but I know they found a shit load of coke in the back.” She pounded her fist on her forehead. “A shit load, and now I don’t know what the fuck to do about that delivery.” She swiped her eyes to Gage, dropping her hands out in front of her. “Who the fuck eats that cost? Us? I don’t have that type of dough and fuck if Ian does either, especially now that he’s going to be up to his eyeballs in legal fees.”
“I got questions about that shit, but first, what about the money? The books? They get that?”
She smiled then, and even laughed a little, a sound that reminded me that she was still young. Probably only nineteen.
“No. I remembered what you always said, so that was the first thing I did. I hid that shit out back in the woods. They got me on the street, pulled me over and took me in for questioning,” She stood and went to the back room as she talked, returning with a duffle bag. “I went back and picked it up as soon as they let me out. Don’t worry, I made sure they weren’t following me first. Nobody saw.” She laid the bag at Gage’s feet and stood there like a dog waiting on a treat, a good word, some sort of approval.
“Good.” He brought his feet in front of the bag, scooting it behind his legs with his heel. “Now about the drugs. What the hell was going on? I hadn’t heard about a drop off at the club, we’re supposed to use the warehouse now.”
“Well, plans fucking changed, and we couldn’t get a hold of you so we had to make our own decisions.” She dropped herself back onto the couch, crossing her arms. “It was only going to be temporary, only supposed to stay at the club for the day. But the timing of everything just fucking sucked, and that’s when shit went down.” She kept slipping from calm to anxious, and now she was back to hitting herself in the forehead. “Fuck. fuck. fuck fuck fuck.”
“What about Ian, does he have a lawyer yet?” Gage slid his phone out of his pocket. “I can call—”
“Already done. He called Feller in right away.”
“Good. I’m calling him now, going to see what he knows so far.” Gage had the phone to his ear. “Yeah, it’s me.” He stood in a smooth movement, one hand covering his other ear. “I heard you’re with him now. So what are they saying? How bad does it look?” He walked to the kitchen off of the main room as he listened to whatever was being said.
Cherry slid a cigarette out of her pack and lit it. Taking a drag, she narrowed her eyes at me as she blew out smoke. “Surprised to see you again.” She tossed the pack back on the table, lifting one leg to perch on the edge. “Where have you been hiding?”
“I’ve been around, but that’s none of your concern.” I dismissed her question and looked to the door Gage had walked through. I wanted to follow him, but didn’t. Instead, I faced the girl still watching me with a smirk I didn’t trust.
“Actually it is my concern, considering you’re sitting in my living room and whatever the hell you’ve been doing has affected business. He’s been off his game, distracted, and I think that has everything to do with you.”
“I’m here now, and that’s all you need to know.”
She smiled with a light laugh as she sucked in another puff, dropping her leg down to lean towards me. “For how long this time? How long before you break and run again?” She blew the smoke out with force. “I just don’t understand what such a strong man like him is doing with such a weak thing like you.”
“Oh Please.” I sat back in the seat with a laugh, getting a hold of myself a breath before I snapped and broke her neck. “That just shows how little you know. Because the only weak one here is you, I can feel the jealousy dripping from you. But face it little girl, you’ll never have him. And it doesn’t matter what you think of me, he’s mine all the same. So back the fuck off because you don’t know me at all. And I’ll fucking kill for that man.”
“And that’s where you’re wrong,” She hissed as she leaned even closer into my space. “I may not have him like you, but I’m fine with that. You have him at home, in bed. I’ve got him everywhere else. I have killed for him, with him, and I’m the one he turns to when he needs someone. I’m the one he can depend on. I’m the one—”
My fist connected with her cheek before she could finish. Before she even registered that I had stood up, I had her slumped back on the couch as I punched her again on the same cheek, and then another time, satisfied with the stream of blood coming from her lips.
She tried to reach up for me, her nails clawing towards my face, but I slapped her hand away and delivered one more blow before stepping back out of her reach.
“You crazy Bitch.” She brought her hand over her lip and pulled her fingers away, seeing the blood. Her knees were wobbly as she stood and she put her hands up, more for defense than attack.
“You stay away from him.”
Her laugh made my anger burst in my chest, and she raised her eyebrow. “But will he stay away from me?”