A MAN LOOKING READY FOR WAR WITH an assault rifle in his arms, guns visible at his side, and knives attached to his vests walked down the ramp of the boat to us.
He kept the rifle angled down as he approached, but I felt Gage shift, moving his arm to his jacket, close to his own guns. I didn’t pull my eyes away from the man approaching us though to see if I was right.
“Stoyt.” He put his free hand up, making his command for us to stop clear, but the stream of words that came next weren’t.
Neither was Gage’s response, but his tone was harsh, and he wasn’t backing down from whatever the man had said.
Rusnak’s smooth voice silenced the other man. He appeared at the entrance of the boat, saying one line in Russian, and the guy turned and walked away without another word. Then Rusnak gestured for us to board.
“Put up your hood,” Gage spoke low beside me.
I glanced at him while sliding my hood over my head. His hood was already up, shadowing his face. He had it up even before that guy came down.
“I don’t know who these people are, and they don’t need to know who we are.”
I nodded in agreement, stomach squeezing adrenaline to every limb as we walked up the steps to the boats side entrance. “What was he saying?” We walked slowly, both not in any hurry to get on the boat.
“He wanted us to give up any weapons.”
But Rusnak had stopped him and let us come on with them. That seemed encouraging, like he possibly still trusted us. At least a little.
“Excuse Erik, he overreacts.” Rusnak smiled to us, to me, when we walked through the door and followed him down the hall of the boat. “But one can never be too careful in these situations.”
“Except we just drove right in…” Now that the hall opened up to the outside, I could tell what everyone was doing. Unloading a large cargo container into smaller crates, right out in the open, in the middle of the deck.
“Only because you were in my car. No one else could do that. The entrance is guarded. Don’t worry Sweetheart—”
“Regan,” Gage interrupted him. “You’ll call her Regan.”
Rusnak’s smile stretched even further, and he chuckled as he nodded his head at the containers and men, continuing un-phased, “This is all secure.”
Gage frowned. “But this was supposed to be at E dock tomorrow.”
“Some plans have to change. Those docks can’t be used.” He nodded to the door at our side. “Lets talk inside.”
We followed him down steps and a hall, deep inside the yacht, for that’s what it was, I could tell now. The inside was decorated nicely with warm wood tones, even if the outside looked more industrial.
A door in front of us opened, and Cherry slipped through, pausing when she spotted us, but her slick smile was quick to appear as we all met in the middle of the hall.
“I thought you were with Alessandra?” Rusnak questioned.
“We finished. The arrangement was settled, terms agreed to, and everyone left happy.” She ran her fingers through her hair and looked up at him. “I was looking for you to let you know.” Her eyes shifted to Gage and I, and her smile widened but held uncertainty as she nodded a greeting.
“Good. Check with Yuri if he needs help, and then you can go.”
“Already did. I’m going up now. Unless,” she pointed between us all, “If this is anything to do with the delivery this week, I’ll stick around.”
“No, this is something different.” Rusnak laid his hand on her jacket covered shoulder. “You’ll be notified if anything changes this week.” She pouted and his grip tightened as he dipped his face down to eye level with her. “Golubushka,” he spoke soft, but with a razor edge. “Lay off the merchandise while you work.”
Gage tensed beside me, and I was wound tight thinking he was going to spring to rescue her at any moment. But Rusnak released her and walked past to the door she originally came out of.
“Tcht.” He raised his hand, silencing her. “No excuses, just stop.” He stood at the door and gestured for Gage and I to enter.
Gage slid his hand to my back, but his gaze followed Cherry as we passed. She stood against the wall, eyes locked with Rusnak’s for a moment before she turned and walked away, brushing past Gage but never looking towards either of us.
I wasn’t sure exactly what it was that seared my veins, but my fists curled, aching to hit her for even that slightest touch of Gage.
“She’s Alessandra’s pet,” Rusnak sneered as he walked to a large desk in the room, pouring liquor from a bottle into a glass. “She has potential to go far, she’s always on top of things.” He raised his eyebrow at us, his chest vibrating with a slight laugh. “But maybe a bit too eager, she needs to learn her limits.” He raised the bottle. “Do you want a drink?”
Gage nodded and walked to where Rusnak stood. “Do you have anything else?”
“The bar’s over there, but there’s no beer.”
“Then I’ll have a glass of that.” He nodded to the bottle in Rusnak’s hand.
It was driving me insane, this conversation, like we were all just hanging out. Drinking. Having a good ol’ time.
“Regan?” Rusnak questioned me.
“I’ll take a glass.” I hadn’t drank since Louisiana, but I could use something to dull the edges of this meeting. I was no longer the lightweight I use to be.
Gage glanced at me with sharp eyes but didn’t say anything otherwise.
I pushed my hood back from my head, now that it was only just us three in a closed room, and took the glass Rusnak offered me and took a sip. I spoke, wanting to end the formalities, “So, what happened tonight? What’s changed?”
At first I thought Rusnak might be angry, the way his head snapped up at my question, but then he smiled. “For someone who begged to get out, you are eager to get in deep.”
Gage pushed his hood off and set his glass down with force. “She’s already in, we both saw what happened tonight. But why did it happen, and what has to change?”
Rusnak scratched his chin, eyeing us. His shoulders rose and fell in a slow shrug. “He became a risk, he had to go.” He picked up his drink and walked behind his desk to sit, gesturing for us to sit as well. “And as for what has to change, anything Viktor was a part of, whatever you told him about this shipment should change. The fire trucks and police are already at the docks. That’s why we changed this drop off to tonight, to here. To take advantage of them being preoccupied.”
“At the docks for Viktor? Already?”
Rusnak smiled over the rim of his clear glass, sipping slow before he explained, “A fire tends to draw attention.”
Every word he said just added to the jumbled puzzle pieces in my mind. “Why?” I couldn’t hold in the question.
“How long has this been planned?” Gage asked at the same time.
He shrugged, that easy, carefree shrug. “Not long, but I’ve had my suspicion of him for a while.” He leaned back in his chair, pointing to Gage. “You only reaffirmed them when you came to me about the conversation you had with him. Cherry did too, she told us his plans to move you two to Florida to open a club. But what tipped it over for him was that his job began connecting him to our organization.”
“He was a lawyer?” Gage questioned, and I knew he was thinking the same thing I was, about his connection to the FBI.
“A lawyer for the U.S attorney’s office.” Rusnak leaned forward on his desk. “I’m only telling you this so you can better organize this delivery. So you’ll understand the importance of changing some of the routes. He worked with the FBI as legal counsel. It was to our advantage, but recently we got word that they were on to him and his…affiliations. He knew it too, and in order to deflect, he supplied them with information, we think.”
I gulped down my drink, trying to swallow my nerves. If they found out all that, then it was only a matter of time till they found out about Gage and me going to Anthony. But hopefully not until next week when we would be gone.
“So you see, he had to go. And we can’t be sure what he’s told. Anything he might have known about this shipment needs to change.”
“He didn’t know anything about the deliveries—”
“But the warehouses are all connected to him,” Rusnak interrupted. “So we won’t be using them. You have to pack the trucks here.”
“Fuck,” Gage swiped his hand over his head. “This place is too open.”
“There’s not enough time to find a new place, and the goods are here. Make it work, but stick to the timeline.”
Gage’s head nodded as he thought through something. “Then we have to load tomorrow night, and it has to be quick. Who will you have here?”
They discussed the details of tomorrow, who would be there, who Rusnak would bring, who Gage would bring. They planned the details down to the minute. The packing should be done in less than an hour, and they would deliver from there.
“Tell me about the routes, especially the California one, what’s that timeline?” Rusnak poured himself another glass, and lifted the bottle to us, but Gage waved him away, and my drink still half full.
“They’ll make the drop off on time. They’ll drive straight through so it’ll be there by Thursday. The earlier packing will give everyone extra time,” Gage explained.
“Do they have checkpoints?”
“They do,” Gage drew out his response, and his hesitance put me on guard.
Rusnak was losing his patience. “What are they?”
“Everyone will know their role when they need to, that’s all that matters. You took care of your part, your way, and I’ll take care of my part.”
The look that flashed in Rusnak’s eyes was dark and his voice dropped as he leaned forward on the desk. “I need to know your plans in case something happens. I don’t want a repeat of the last time I left a big shipment to you. I won’t go back to prison.”
“That went bad because you didn’t follow what I said.” Gage’s voice was just as challenging as Rusnak’s.
I tensed in the chair, ready to spring into action if this standoff went to another level.
“No, you didn’t follow your plans.” Rusnak broke his stare down with Gage and glanced to me. “I know why, but I don’t want to take chances this time. You need a back up in case something happens. In case you’re not around.”
“And why wouldn’t I be around?”
My stomach churned.
Rusnak shrugged, throwing off the tension and smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Never can be too prepared. Never know what may happen.”
“That’s a risk I’ll take.” Gage stood and Rusnak and I both raised to our feet, too. “I prefer to keep it to myself till it’s time. It’s been the strategy that worked for my father and it works for me.”
“Your father was loyal and did what he was told.”
Gage paused, “He was.”
Rusnak took in a breath. “Tomorrow then. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”
“Why burn the boat?” I blurted the question before Gage could start moving towards the door.
Both men turned their full focus on me. Gage stepped close, probably to usher me away, but I planted my feet. Rusnak’s eyes held a smile somewhere in that hazel hell.
“Why burn the boat tonight, and draw attention to it, to him? What if they investigate his death?”
“It won’t point back to me.” Rusnak’s shoulder lifted. “It’ll confirm their suspicions though. That boat is filled with drugs the FBI had previously confiscated, and there are enough clues to point to his death being related to that. We want them to find him because we planted answers to what they’ve been asking about.”
“Shadow?” My heart was pounding, pulsing adrenaline through me, feeding my nervous energy. I didn’t dare look to Gage, but I could feel the heat of his glare.
Rusnak’s features sharpened as he stepped around his desk and leaned on it with his arms crossed. “So many questions about things you don’t need to know about. Things you shouldn’t want to be involved in. What happened to that girl that wanted nothing more than to escape?”
I shrugged, trying to play at being calm, confident. “I’m in now, and I want as much information as I can get.”
“Information can be power, the most absolute form of power when used right. But it can also be a ticking bomb in the wrong hands.” He tilted his head, looking me over. “But yes, Shadow. They’ll think that was Viktor, and it gets them off our back.”
“So you did this for Shadow? Who is he?” I kept pressing for whatever information he would give.
A knock at the door interrupted us.
“I won’t arm you with that.” Rusnak pushed off his desk to go to the door.
Cherry was on the other side.
Gage didn’t wait to hear what she had to say. He pulled me out the door with one last question to Rusnak, “Your car will take us home?”
“Yes,” he stepped back, gesturing for Cherry to step in as we passed. “He’s expecting you.”
“What the hell was that?” Gage rounded on me the second we walked in the apartment. His anger drained just as quick, and he leaned against the wall, pulling me to stand in front of him. “Babe, you have to let it go. I know you wanted revenge, wanted to do something about all of them, but with everything that happened with Anthony and Viktor, you have to realize that’s not possible.”
It was a vine twisting and pulling me down. “Why? It’s not fair that they get away with everything.”
His hands went to my face. “It’s us getting out together or revenge on them. I don’t think we can have both.”
It took all of a second to decide. “I want us.” I wrapped my arms around his waist, and immediately felt better and worse. “I want you. I don’t want you getting hurt.” Tears of frustration burned my chest and eyes. “I just hate that that’s the only option. That—”
“They’ll destroy each other eventually. It may not come from us, but they’ll get there’s. Look what happened with Viktor.”
His hands were so soft against my cheek, neck, shoulders, trailing to my waist as he laid even softer kisses on my lips.
I turned my head, breaking away. “Rusnak doesn’t really trust you. Do you think he meant anything by you not being here?” I wish I could cut off my thoughts, every one of them hurt. There was no safe place in my mind. But Gage’s touch helped soothe the pain of them.
He dropped his forehead to mine with a sigh, “I never know what he means half the time. It could be something, or it could be his way of trying to scare us—to scare you. He said knowledge is power, but he uses fear.”
I brushed the stubble on his chin and brought my lips back to his, wanting to surround myself in him and forget myself completely, forget my fears. Because there was nothing else we could do, not here, not now.
He pulled back, gripping my hand. “We’ve had a long night, and we’re going to have an even longer one tomorrow.”
I nodded, fingers itching to go back to touching him.
His head dipped closer to mine, his hand grazing the skin on my stomach. “And we’ve got to pick up Dexter from the airport in the morning.”
I nodded again and pushed myself against him, breaking my hand free of his so I could touch him with both, use them to read his body, to feel his heart.
He looked down at me with hooded eyes. “This might be our last night here alone.”
I had already thought it, but hearing it out loud bruised me and made me need him even more.
“I don’t want to spend it sleeping then, not yet.” I brought my lips to his neck, and he pulled me back down the hall to the bedroom.
I stopped thinking about tomorrow.
Dexter carried a large duffel over one arm and passed the baggage claim turn styles. It didn’t seem like he spotted us yet, so Gage called his name.
His head popped up and he smiled, but it was only half a Dexter smile. He looked different, no longer the lean quick body I recalled. He was bulkier, but his tight sleeves gripped around muscles, and he walked more like Gage, like he owned his body and knew how to use it.
His smile dropped completely when he looked down at me, and I froze, not knowing what to expect from the man who always had a smile, but not today, not for me.
He stopped in front of me and spoke before I could.
“I’m still pissed at you.”
“Dexter,” Gage started, but I raised my hand to stop him.
“I know. And I’m sorry.” I owed him that at least, but I dropped my eyes from his angry gaze so I didn’t see him move, but then I was surrounded in his warmth.
He squeezed me in a Dexter hug that I had wanted more than I cared to admit. I wrapped my arms around him too, squeezing him back just as tight. Squeezing my eyes shut to keep the tears from coming. I knew now that these hugs were numbered. Only a few days left to take them.
“I should have taken you to the psychiatrist that day instead of the gym.” His voice was thick and wavering. His cheek was slick with tears as he gripped me tighter.