I SAW RED AND SWUNG AGAIN. SHE smacked at me, but I didn’t feel it. The adrenaline pumping through me made me numb to everything but the feel of my own muscles moving to strike. I hit her in the temple this time, and my knuckles stung as they connected with the hard bone of her head, the vibration of impact shooting up my arm.
She nearly toppled over but reached out to me, gripping my hair and pulling on her way down. I kneed her in the stomach to dislodge her from me, but she had one arm wrapped around my waist, the other still pulling at the ends of my hair, forcing my head back. She didn’t have a good grip though and I kicked her, knocking her away from me and forcing her onto her side.
Her mouth opened and closed as she struggled for air. I moved my leg back to kick her again, just to make sure she got the message, and needing to do something before I reached for my gun. But Gage gripped my shoulders and pulled me away. I hadn’t even noticed he returned to the room.
“What the hell is going on?” He kept his hands on me—firm and unbreakable—not letting me finish what I started.
“That crazy bitch just attacked me, took some cheap fucking shots too.” She spit a stream of bloody saliva on to the floor as she sat up. “She’s lucky I have fucking control and didn’t lay her out.”
“Try it.” I tugged against Gage’s hands, but they wouldn’t budge.
“Shut the fuck up Cherry before I let her go.” But his arms slipped around my shoulders, no longer just gripping them, but pulling me into his chest and holding me. His warmth and body immediately calmed me.
He had my back, not hers, and she fucking saw that. I loved the look that flashed in her eyes as she registered it. Defeat. But it was only for a second, and then she covered it with her self-righteous bullshit.
“You need to get her under control, she’s a loose cannon. How can you do anything with someone like her tagging along.” She pulled the edge of her sweater up to her lip as she rose to her feet.
“You don’t have to worry about it. We’ve got to go anyways.” He pulled us to the door, frustration clear in his voice and movements as he dropped one arm to pick up the bag by the chair. “Feller said Ian can’t post bail till his indictment hearing. He’s pushing for it to be as soon as possible. Call if you hear from them.”
“Wait. Where are you going? Don’t we need to go talk with Anatoli? I should go.” She stepped forward, eyes wide. “Let me just get changed.”
He was already at the door, arm still around me. He raised one hand to silence her but didn’t turn back. “No. You stay here. Call if you hear anything.”
And then we walked out and he closed the door behind us. “Jesus, what happened in there?”
“She just kept running her mouth about you and what you two have.” Adrenaline still flooded my veins, her words beginning to sink in, a heavy weight I couldn’t throw off.
“What we have? Not this again.” He groaned and dropped his arm from me as he followed me down the steps. “There’s nothing going on there.”
“All right.” I spun around at the door. “I don’t want to get into this right now. What’s next?” I wanted to focus on the next obstacle, forget what had just happened.
He hesitated for a second, eyes intent on me, and then he nodded. “Okay. Let’s get to the car and I’ll explain.”
As I buckled in, he started the car and began, “We have to go see Anatoli and Alessandra. They’ve already been texting me about what happened, and we’ve got to work out the details of this shipment Ian was responsible for. They want to meet at some lounge on the west side.”
“They’re holding you responsible for Ian’s shipment?”
“Ian’s one of my men. His mistakes are my mistakes.” But he didn’t sound that concerned, and his hand reached over to grip my leg. “It doesn’t matter anyways. This is just more information we can use.”
I nodded, trying to feed off his calm. Tonight didn’t change anything. And that girl’s words had to be just that, words and nothing more, because I was the one he was giving up everything for. I gripped his hand on my leg, ready to face whatever came next with him by my side.
Silence enveloped us, and the night stretched around us as city lights grew brighter and the buildings taller and closer the further we drove. The sidewalks became crowded and traffic thicker, slowing us down.
“I can tell it’s bothering you, so just tell me what she said.” He hadn’t moved his hand off my leg since we started driving, he shifted it now, squeezing, encouraging.
“It’s fine. I know it’s not true.” I turned away, feeling guilty for letting it affect me at all.
“I didn’t say you believed it, but I still want to know what she said.” He flicked his eyes to mine, meeting them as he gave his demand, “Tell me.”
I took a breath and said what bothered me the most, the thing that was closest to the truth. What I wanted to prove wrong. “She said that you can depend on her, not me. That I’m too weak.”
His lip tugged up in an almost smile as he split his attention between the traffic and me. “She doesn’t know you at all.” A light laugh rumbled his chest. “But I bet she won’t call you weak again.”
I turned away from him and looked out the window, more doubt creeping in as replayed her words. “But she didn’t mean physically. She meant mentally.”
“Hey.” He stopped at a red light and gripped my chin, pulling me back to look at him. “I thought you didn’t believe what she said?”
“I’m trying not to.”
His blue eyes felt like they could read my soul as they pierced into mine, and I felt weak. I felt like someone he couldn’t depend on, not when I had run when things were at there worst.
“Don’t believe it. Any of it.” He dropped my chin as the light turned green. “You are the strongest person I know. And you are the only person I trust one hundred percent.”
“But I left—” I don’t know why I was trying to convince him, or maybe I wanted him to convince me.
“And that took strength. You changed things. You made things change.” He shook his head, pulling up to another red light and then focused on me. “Don’t get me wrong, I fucking wish it could have been different, and I was pissed, but I’m beginning to understand. We needed that, and we can both do better now, together. Really together this time.”
He was probably giving me more credit than I deserved, but it helped. And I focused on what mattered, now. Maybe I ran when things got hard, but whether it made a difference or not wasn’t as important as what we did now. Now, I would be that person he could depend on because he was the man I wanted to depend on.
“She said that she’s killed for you.”
He shifted his eyes away, keeping them on the road this time as he pulled away from the light. It was me that couldn’t remove my eyes from him, and I watched his every reaction.
He nodded, slow and barely there. “She has, under my orders. I told you that though, her and Ian both were part of those jobs.”
“You’re right, you did tell me that.” I sighed, I remembered now it was part of the jobs Viktor gave him. I had hated it then that she got to be part of that, and I hated it now that she was able to throw it in my face.
“That bothers you?” I couldn’t really tell if it was a question or a statement.
“I don’t like her. And I don’t trust her. So I don’t like her involved in anything concerning you.”
“Well soon she won’t be part of anything to do with us. None of these people will.”
His quiet words sent a thrill threw me, and my heart skipped a beat with the idea. I gripped his hand in silent recognition, wanting to jump into that reality sooner than later. But we still had this meeting to get through.
He pulled to the front of the club and a valet opened the door of the truck for me as another jogged around to Gage’s side.
Gage grabbed my hand before I could walk for the front door.
“When we get in there, don’t leave my side. No matter what happens, what they say, we’re not splitting up in there. Do you understand?” He spoke low and urgent, tightening his grip on my hand.
I nodded and stepped closer to his side. This is where I’d stay.
He dipped down, lips covering mine, and his hand gripped my head. The intensity of the kiss froze me in place but caused my knees to melt as heat radiated from our kiss, from his grip in my hair, from his hand still gripping mine. His tongue swept into my mouth, the swirl of it felt between my thighs. My hand slid up his chest, to the collar of his shirt, trying to steady myself. But for all the chaos of feeling the kiss caused, it stripped me of my fears and filled me with the security of him.
He pulled back ever so slightly, his smile brushing over my lips and hand hovering over my skin. His eyes looked straight into me as he spoke, “Okay. I’m ready now.”
I tugged on his collar, keeping him near. “Did that help?”
He nodded and his nose slid against mine. “Mmm hmm.” He was as reluctant to let go as I was. “Did it make you want to listen to me?”
“Mmm hmm.” I smiled, nodding my head as I raised up on my toes to meet his kiss one last time, stretching out the taste of him on my lips.
“Hmm.” The vibration of his purr only enhanced the moment, but he broke away, tugging me to the door that was being held open for us. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
“Mr. Lawson, your party is waiting for you.” A pretty girl in a black dress stepped from behind a host stand and walked us through a restaurant that glowed with gold lighting and accents.
The food smelled rich, and the people dinning looked wealthy in their suites and furs. We were in our jeans as we followed the host up a wide staircase in the back. At the top, she held open a door to a private room on the second floor.
“Enjoy your evening,” she spoke soft as we passed into a long private room with a bar along the back wall, tables to the side and a couch and lounge chairs at the front. That’s where Anatoli and Alessandra sat. He was on the sofa, and she was on a chair to the side. A few others sat with them.
Rusnak looked up from his conversation and smiled our way as we walked into the room. “Ah,” he leaned back in his seat and crooked his fingers towards us, calling us over. “Come join us, just the man we needed to talk with.” His smile stretched as he looked towards me. “And look who you brought with you.” He rose to his feet. “Sweetheart, it’s a pleasure to see you again. How was…” He paused thinking, but it seemed contrived, like he was putting on a show for someone.
My heartbeat pulsed in my chest, and I stepped closer to Gage as we approached the table.
“Louisiana, you’ve been in some small town in Louisiana, right?”
Gage gripped my hand and stepped in front of me when Anatoli reached out as if to hug me in greeting. “What do we do about Ian and his inventory?”
“Always count on you to get straight to business.” He clasped Gage on the shoulder and gestured to an open chair. “Have a seat. Do you want a drink first? You need to relax some.” He nodded towards his wife. “Alessandra, take Regan on a tour while we talk.”
Alessandra sat up but I stepped forward, next to Gage. “That’s all right, I’m staying.”
“No. No drink and Regan stays,” Gage spoke at the same time I did.
The smile slipped from Rusnak’s lips, replaced with a curious gaze in my direction. “Well all right then, have a seat, sweetheart. Have you met Yuri and Marat?” He gestured to the two men sitting back with cigars.
They nodded to me but turned their attention to Gage as he sat. Their greeting was spoken in Russian and sounded rough, but Gage responded in the same way, and then their faces cracked into smiles as they nodded with sounds of agreement.
I took a seat, pretending that I didn’t feel like crawling out of my skin. Every inch tingled with nerves, only made worse by Rusnak’s eyes that never seemed to leave me, but maybe that was paranoia.
I wasn’t imagining Alessandra’s smirk as she sat back with her cigarette, watching me.
“Well, if we’re all set then…Marat will take over for Ian’s role, but they’ve also picked up Kane and Lev, who are you going to replace them with?”
Gage scratched his chin, about to respond when Alessandra spoke up.
“Are we sure we should have this conversation with her present?” She pointed her cigarette at me. “She never wanted to be part of this before, and this may not be the best time to start including her.”
“The lady has a point.” Rusnak looked around the circle but then cracked a smile. “Although, Regan’s proven herself in the past. If Gage is willing to take the risk, this is his operation.”
One of the men grumbled something too low to hear and the other blew thick smoke into the air as he eyed Gage.
“You don’t even need to fucking mention it. I brought her. That’s enough.” He looked around the circle, challenging anyone to say otherwise, but they didn’t.
“Fine. But what about Cherry? She usually keeps the schedule tight.” Alessandra leaned forward, snapping her fingers. “She’s still going to be involved, right?”
“Before we plan this out, we need to square away the bigger problem. A chunk of the goods were taken when they dropped on the club,” Gage said.
“Don’t worry about that. We’ve got that covered, were getting it back. It’ll be there when it’s needed.” Gage and the two men looked towards Alessandra with shock, but she continued smoking like it was no big deal. “That’s on my end, and it’ll be taken care of. That’s all you need to know.”
“At the docks on Monday?” Gage questioned and she nodded. “We should push this back, with the feds around, we need to be cautious.”
“Always cautious boy.” The shorter man next to Gage laughed, rubbing his tattooed fingers over his chin.
“This is the perfect time. They have their bellies full with their latest takedown. Now’s the time for action.” Rusnak shifted his gaze from Gage to me. “He’s always so careful. But it’s what makes him good at this. It’s why he doesn’t fail. Isn’t that right?” But the edge in his voice didn’t sound like a compliment.
“That and his eye for detail.” The other mans voice was heavy with an accent as he tapped on the corner of his eye.
“We’ve got three key players missing, the plans have to change.” Gage shook his head, but I could see the wheels turning behind his eyes.
“Then change the plans. But the date stays the same. Do what has to be done.” Rusnak sat back with his drink, not leaving room for discussion on the topic.
Gage tapped on the table, “Yuri, you and Des will handle the drop in the north.”
“Only two?” Yuri, the one with the finger tattoo’s questioned.
“Why not your typical teams of three. If you’re short men, get your brother.”
Gage snapped his head to Alessandra. “No.”
“That’s not a bad idea. You could put him on the Costa shipment.”
Gage narrowed his eyes at Rusnak. “I said no. We’ll be fine without a third.”
“But think about it. He’s already running for Magnally, and part of that shipment goes to him anyways. Why let him be a mule for someone else when he could work for you?”
Gage’s fingers scraped ever so slightly against his pants leg at my side, his only tell that he was shook, otherwise his face was blank. But my heart was in overdrive.
“You’d think you’d want to help him out. He’s never going to pay off Salvo with as little as Magnally pays.”
The lines in Gage’s jaw were throbbing under his skin and I sat forward, intervening before he exploded.
“He said no. You said he’s good with details, so let him work it out.”
Rusnak sat back with his hands up and smile that was nowhere near innocent. “All right, Sweetheart. Just offering an idea.” Rusnak cocked his head to Gage. “Why don’t you think about it, and let me know the plan when you’ve got it figured out.”
Gage stood up. “I’ll do that. I’ll be in touch.” He extended his hand to me and nodded at the two men to our side, never looking back towards Alessandra or Anatoli.
We left the restaurant and waited for the Valet in a chilly silence. It wasn’t till we were in the car pulling away that Gage broke.
“I’m going to fucking kill Dexter, and then I’m going to take out each of those assholes. They’re all going to fucking pay for screwing with my family.”