I SAT ON THE EDGE OF OUR bed, my thoughts weighing me down, unsure if I was feeling everything too much or nothing at all. Every inch of skin tingled with nerves running through me like a current, but my heart wasn’t present, knocked out and empty.
Gage pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it to our bedroom floor.
“We need to shower before we do anything. Come on.” His light eyes looked dark as he stretched his arm out to me. He was so close, I only had to lift my hand to place mine in his, but I didn’t move.
His chest rose and fell a few times as he waited on me, and he looked like the same dangerously sexy man I fell in love with. It made me breathless to think about the truth of that danger, and that I had wanted it. I had wanted him. We may be able to wash off the blood, but it would still be there.
“Regan,” his voice was low as he stepped towards me.
I pulled back, not from him but from any contact. Even the idea of water from a shower touching me was too much. I was struggling to hold it together, and the slightest touch would shatter that.
He jerked back, soft voice turned sharp. “You’re still mad at me? About him?”
I dropped my eyes to the floor. Him, Anthony. I wasn’t sure how I felt about him now. I wanted to be angry. It was easier than being sad. But I wasn’t sure who to be angry with. Probably Anthony himself.
“No,” I spoke without emotion and closed my eyes. “I’m just trying to think. Go get your shower.”
His sigh was heavy, but I didn’t dare look up and meet his gaze. I knew the weight of the look that went with that sound.
“I’m sorry.” His hands slipped to my waist, large but soft.
I opened my eyes, and the sight of him on his knees in front of me pulled my sadness forward. I wanted to run my hands through his hair, hold him to me, breathe him in, take comfort in just being with him, but that felt like a weakness, like avoiding. I needed to be strong and face whatever was coming next. I tried to stand and step away, but he tightened his grip. My heart slammed back to life and the force of the beating destroyed me, breaking me. All my strength drained as tears escaped me, flowing down my cheek.
“Stop.” He wrapped his arms around me, holding me in place. “Stop. I’m sorry about him. I’m sorry things are all fucked up, but now’s not the time to be angry with me or to pull away. Babe, we’re in this together.”
I wiped the tears on my cheek, trying to get a hold of myself, but he pulled my hands away and rose to sit next to me. His arms kept me pressed to him. “It’ll work out if we stick together. We’ll get through this.”
I sucked in a shaky breath, fighting down the tears he didn’t let me wipe away. “Do you think they know? Is that why they want to meet with you tonight?”
He had told me it was Viktor who wanted to meet with him. That Viktor always set up meetings last minute and in code. But usually he had an idea of why.
His grip relaxed since I had stopped struggling against him, but he kept me wrapped in his arms and dropped his head to rest on mine. “I don’t know.”
I couldn’t see his face, but the strain in his voice strangled me, and I pressed into his warm, bare chest.
“But damn, I don’t want you there tonight—”
“No.” I pulled back. I would have stood, but his hands still gripped me. “You can’t do that. You just said we would do this together. I can handle this.” I swiped at my cheeks, wiping away the tears that showed my weakness. “I don’t mean to cry right now, I’m getting it together. I can handle this. I—”
“Stop. Let me finish.” He pulled my hands down onto his lap, drawing me close at the same time. “Babe, there’s nothing wrong with your tears right now. It’s just us. This is when you can let it all out. It’s honest. That’s what I’m trying to be. Honest.” He dipped his head to capture my eyes, forcing me to look at him. Hear him.
But I didn’t want to hear that I couldn’t go tonight. I didn’t want him going there alone, facing the danger I put him in. This was all my plan, all my fault.
He lifted my chin so I’d look at him, and his thumb dragged over my slick cheek. “I don’t want you there tonight because I don’t know what to expect, and I want to keep you safe. But I don’t want to leave you behind either. Fuck, I always want to have a plan, and right now, I don’t have a fucking clue what to expect or what to plan for.” His other hand slid to the side of my face, fingers light on my skin, on my neck, my lips, in my hair. “Go ahead and cry, babe. I’ll be here for you. But I need you to be here for me. You’ve got me more scared than anything else.” His fingers slid into my hair, gripping me tighter as his words deepened. “I’m even fucking scared to step into that bathroom without you, scared that you’ll be gone when I get out.”
I stilled, his words shredded me, stunning me. “I’m not going anywhere.” I slid my hands over his arms, getting close while still keeping eye contact. “But I am coming with you tonight. There’s no way I’m letting you go by yourself.”
He nodded. “I’m trying to be honest with you, but it goes against everything in me to take you there tonight. If things go wrong…”
“It’s better that we’re together if things go wrong.”
He nodded and then leaned forward, placing a kiss on my lips. Too quick for me to respond to, but the warmth lingered there.
“You’ll come tonight. Now let’s get ready and shower.” He pulled me with him as he stood up.
On my feet, I tugged him back to face me. “I wouldn’t leave while you’re in the shower. I won’t run again.”
He dropped his eyes, making me unsure if he believed me. Then he stepped forward and kissed me again, arms circling my waist and pulling me to his chest. His lips were light as they moved to open mine, and his fingers lifted the bottom of my shirt. He broke away to slide my shirt over my head and tossed it to the floor.
“I know,” his voice was deep, sultry. “But I still want you in the there with me. You hold me together. I need you. I need this.” He stepped towards me again, taking what he wanted. His lips covered mine. His hands pulled me to him and traveled over my hips and waist.
I gave in and let him lift me off the ground, wrapping my arms and legs around him. Because I needed him too, especially on the edge of danger. We both needed the reassurance of each other. Of us.
We undressed each other, hands claiming every inch of skin, making the most of the time we had left. The only thing we were guaranteed, the only thing that was certain— this moment. In his arms, with his moans, his touch brought madness and sanity.
He turned on the shower but took me on the counter before we made it in. We were afire in the dark, and he burned away every doubt when he buried himself in me, sparking life into every cell. I struggled to meet each of his hard thrusts, but he kept me lifted to him, taking away my leverage to move myself. He owned me, my pleasure, my cries, they were all his. But he didn’t take, he gave. Each slam brought me higher and pulled me under until I was lost to myself. His lips clamped around my nipples, sucking till I couldn’t see, delirious with feeling.
He lifted me from the counter, his arms wrapping around me, pulling me to his skin slick with sweat and steam. The quick shift and new angle pushed me over, and I held myself to him, clenching, wrapping my arms around his back, lips attached to his shoulder, biting as I screamed my pleasure. My body exploded, a million little pieces that were all his. And he kept going as I crashed over and over. He leaned me back on the counter, the cold stone a shock to my skin but only adding to the sensations that had me tingling from head to toe and beyond. His lips joined mine as he bent over me, shaking with his own release. His hands pulled my shoulders to keep me tight on him as the waves of our pleasure calmed and receded, leaving us in a haze of heartbeats and gasps that swirled in the steam around us.
And this is what we were fighting for. Us. Because even in hell, we could find paradise with each other.
The umbrella over our heads couldn’t keep us dry. The air was chilled and wet, the rain an icy mist. But I still preferred to stand in the cold than get into the limo that pulled up to the curb.
Gage ushered me in before closing the umbrella behind us.
I paused as I slid in. Cherry was the first thing I saw. She was sitting on the seat opposite me, against the divider separating us from the driver, and she smiled like a snake. I welcomed the burn of anger that rose in my chest, it gave me strength.
I assumed the suit clad man next to her was Viktor. He was older, dark hair streaked with silver at the temple, but something about the way he held himself showed strength or maybe that was power.
Gage confirmed my thoughts by greeting him with a nod as he slid next to me.
“Viktor.” Gage smoothed his own suit jacket, looking every bit the force that Viktor did, wet or not. His hand went to my leg. “This is Regan.” His eyes flicked to Cherry and then back to Viktor. “What’s going on, I thought it was just going to be us?”
My stomach tightened as the street passed us by. I was unsure where we were going and feared what may be waiting for us.
“I didn’t say that. I told you to come alone, but if you want her involved then I’ll trust your judgment.” He didn’t even glance towards me, his dark eyes stayed focused on Gage. “For now the girls can stay. I have a business need that you and Katya could help with.”
”The club.” Gage stated matter-of-fact and his hand stayed on my knee, unmoving.
“Exactly. The Dollhouse isn’t operational for us anymore. We need something new, somewhere new. This is a good opportunity to expand. I want you to open a new club in Miami.”
“What about Ian?” I could feel the tension running through Gage, in his fingers grip on my knee as he spoke.
“It’s unfortunate, but someone had to take the fall.”
“Better him than you?” It was almost a growl.
Viktor’s laugh was short and fake. “You mean you. Remember that could have been you, you turned over the club just in time. Who do you have to thank for that?”
“So you knew the bust was coming?”
Viktor cleared his throat and sat up, his cool control shifting to an icy anger. “Not exactly. I wouldn’t sacrifice any of my men directly, but you and I both knew there was an investigation closing in. So don’t blame me for your mans shortsightedness.” He picked up a drink at his side and finished the clear liquid in it before looking towards Cherry. “At least Katya had enough sense to protect our connections, and she protected evidence.”
“So you want Cherry to run the club?” Gage’s eyes slid to her and her red lips spread into a teeth-baring smile.
“I want her to assist you at running the club.”
“I can manage the girls.” She leaned forward and crossed her legs in a slow way that looked more like a show for us. For Gage. “He’s talking about a big club, more volume than the dollhouse, more girls, more everything. You’ll need help. And Mr. Kabinov,” she smiled at Viktor, and as we passed under a streetlight, I saw the bruise on her cheek that I gave her that she’d tried to cover with makeup, “He knows I’m good at managing them. It’s not an option. I’m part of the deal.”
“I know you two are effective when you work together. I need people I can trust to start this.” He focused on Gage.
My heart sped up at what could have been a compliment or a challenge. We were still in the city. The limo took turns, but the buildings around us were brightly lit and people walked the rainy sidewalks. We were safe enough, for now.
“So this isn’t just an idea, you’ve been planning? Do you have a place in mind already?” Gage asked, his fingers tightening on my leg slightly.
The small touch was reassuring. I knew our plan; go along with everything until we could put our own plan in place. After Dexter was paid off. After this last shipment. Next weekend, we would be out.
“I have a few choices. You can have the final say. I did promise you your own club, didn’t I? This is your chance, just not in this city.”
“What’s the timeline?” Gage leaned back in his seat, relaxed in the conversation.
“As soon as we can manage. The sooner the better. We need to recoup our losses from the bust and the girls.” His eyes went from dark to black pools as he leaned towards Gage. “I know you have an arrangement with the Rusnaks right now, so it’ll have to be after that.” He tilted his head, hissing in a breath and snapping his fingers like an idea just struck him. “I need to discuss that with you further.” He pressed a call button on the panel at his side. “Sid, pull off at the deli on the corner.”
The car immediately began to slow and pulled off to a curb.
Viktor turned back to Gage, continuing, “The girls can go in and get food, I need to talk to you. It’ll only be a minute.”
“Katya, order me the vareniki.” He held her hand, helping her to climb to the limo door that was now held open by the driver.
She said something to him I didn’t understand, and then took her time stepping out of the car.
I gripped Gage’s hand, not wanting to go anywhere, not wanting to leave him alone in the car with Viktor.
“We’ll only be a minute.” Gage lifted my hand and kissed the back of it. “Go on in.”
I didn’t want to go against Gage in front of Viktor, but I resisted rising, even as he lifted my hand to help me out. I looked directly at Viktor. “Your driver is coming in with us.”
He narrowed his eyes like my words confused him but then waved his hand. “Fine. He likes this place.” He raised his voice so he could be heard out of the car. “Get some food for yourself, Sid.”
I figured as long as they stayed parked here, nothing too bad could happen.
We hurried into the deli, escaping the stinging rain. The inside was bigger than expected and warmer too. The glass windows in the front gave me a good view of the dark limo, silent and still at the curb. I sat at a table against the glass, not bothering to even pretend to be interested in the food.
Cherry placed her order and sat on the opposite side of the table from me with that red devil smirk I hated. “So you needed a chaperone to come into the deli with me?”
“It has nothing to do with you.” I flicked my eyes to her but kept my voice flat. “You’re nothing. I don’t think about you.” I looked out the window, dismissing her.
She leaned back in her chair with a laugh. “You’re the only one that thinks that. Look at who was invited tonight and who wasn’t.”
“But we’re both here now, not in that car.” I don’t know why I even continued the conversation.
“For now. But are you trying to earn a place?” She leaned forward on the table. “Should I expect you to take up an actual role, besides just being Gage’s shadow?” She lifted her hand, stopping me from responding. “I’m only curious if we’re going to have to learn to get along. We work on the same team, same goals. And I’m not one to let personal shit interfere with business.”
“Keep it all business, and there’ll be no personal shit to interfere,” I replied and she nodded.
Sid approached, dragging a plastic chair across the linoleum floor and sat at the end of our table. He grunted a greeting and unwrapped a pickle from tinfoil.
I turned back to the window. Still nothing from the limo.
The woman behind the counter called out Katya and Sid’s food order, and they went to retrieve it. Sid turned to me with his bag in his hand and nodded to the door, we could go back out.
Gage looked and sounded fine when I got back in the limo. Their conversation returned to Miami and on who Gage should contact to arrange looking at places. Within a couple of turns we were back to where we had parked our SUV, and we got out.
It took all my energy to wait till we were back at our place, but I wanted Gage to give me his full attention before I asked, “What did he say?”
He was peeling off his jacket and tie, rolling his neck like a weight had been lifted. “He’s concerned about Anatoli and his plans. Seems they’re not communicating well. He wanted information about this week’s shipment.”
I sat on the edge of the bed and undid the straps to my heels. Gage had told me to dress up to meet Viktor since we weren’t sure on the location. “Did you tell him?”
Gage removed his guns and holsters, laying them on the bedside table, and then he paused from undressing to face me. “No. I mostly told him what he already knew, with a few extra details he can’t do much with.” He ran his hand over his head and down the back of his neck, lines forming on his forehead. “I don’t trust Anatoli, but I trust Viktor even less, especially after what Anthony said today.”
We had wanted to tell the FBI, but even if Viktor was part of it, he wasn’t one of the good ones. He had his own motives.
I sighed; brain swirling through the fog we were stuck in. Nothing was clear and it was hard to see which way to go. But I let the relief of being home drop over me. We had gotten through today. One day down, only six more to go. I hiked the edge of my skirt to remove the gun strapped to my thigh, adding it to the ones on our nightstand.
“I need to talk with Anatoli about this.”
“About what?” I questioned, surprised.
“What he thinks about Viktor being so curious. Viktor knows how this goes. In these operations, no one is given all the information; it works in cells to protect the whole. But he wanted in, it could be nothing, but,” Gage shrugged, “I’ve got to tell Anatoli. I don’t want to take chances on shit going bad with this, not when we’re so close, and Dexter’s going to be here.”
We were meeting at the docks, not with Rusnak but with Viktor. He wanted to talk about the shipments with Gage, something about arranging a new connection. Rusnak had told Gage to meet with him, and see what he might be able to arrange.
“You stay here, all right?” Gage put the SUV in park off to the side of the Marina, but a dock was in front of us. “That’s Viktor’s boat there. But he won’t talk with you there, not yet. You stay here and call me if you see anything. I’ll text if anything goes bad. Okay?”
“I’ll keep a look out.” I ran a finger over the gun at my hip. Maybe we were paranoid. It had been two days, and we’d heard nothing about Anthony’s body being found. Maybe we really were in the clear for that. “Be safe, all right?”
It hurt my muscles to let him walk away. I reached for him as he opened the door, but he was already turning back to me, kissing me like it was our first, or last.
Movement from the dock made us pull apart, Viktor was walking down the pier from his yacht.
“I’ll be back soon.” He pressed his lips to mine one last time and walked away without turning back.
I sat in the car, nerves vibrating in me, eyes scanning around the dark, ears straining to hear anything beyond the choppy waters splash against the boats. When I saw them, I immediately pulled out my phone to text Gage.
I didn’t waste time trying to type in more. They had appeared from another boat and were making their way down the dock now, towards Viktor’s boat instead of to land. I slid out of the car, silent, easing the door closed so as not to be heard. But I was so far away, they wouldn’t have heard anyways.
Their backs were to me, and in hats and big jackets, under the cover of a night sky, I couldn’t make out who they could be.
I kept my phone in my hand, but it didn’t vibrate, so I continued my path to the dock. I didn’t want to draw attention, but my slow pace was driving me insane, especially when the guys jumped over the half door of the stairs leading onto Viktor’s boat.
I quickened my pace then, not trusting the situation, not wanting Gage to be outnumbered by three. My heart pounded in my ears.
It exploded when I was wrenched back by my arm, and a hand covered my mouth, pulling me into his tall, slender frame.
“Sweetheart, shh.” His lips moved in my ear, his breath blew down my neck as his hold tightened around me. “You need to stay out here. You don’t want to go in there.”
When I stilled, he lifted the hand covering my mouth by an inch, but his head stayed pressed to the side of mine.
“This is why I didn’t want you back yet. This was supposed to be all cleared up before you came back. Before I came for you.”
“What are you talking about? Gage is in there.” I could barely breathe. My body screamed to get to that boat, but Rusnak had already disarmed me.
“I knew where you were, but I knew you needed space. I knew you were safe there. That’s why I didn’t tell him, I wanted you to have time. I gave you time, but he ruined it. Aw, sweetheart, I told you I could protect you and take care of you.” He placed a kiss just under my ear. “Now watch this.”