HIS EMBRACE PRESSED INTO MY HEART TILL it cracked, the tears leaking out. I had missed him. I would miss him. I didn’t want to let him go, nor the memory I had in my head of his family. Little Felix with his chubby cheeks, and head full of curls, and a smile to match his fathers—who I would never get to see again. And that hurt the worst. Never. It was so final. So crushing.
Gage cleared his throat from beside us. “Let’s go.” He started walking ahead of us, and then turned around, stepping in front of Dexter. Some sort of emotion pulled on his lips and made the muscles of his jaw flex. But it wasn’t his typical anger, it was broken, and his voice came out thick. “She’s not the one that needs to apologize.”
Dexter met his brothers gaze head on, without any humor. “I’ve told you in a hundred different ways I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let her—”
“Not about her, about this. Getting wrapped up in all of this. God damn it Dexter, I can’t be here for you all the time.”
Dexter’s jaw flexed, mirroring the same hard lines that were in Gage’s. “I didn’t come to you this time. I would’ve taken care of this myself.”
Gage sucked in air, silencing the reply that was on his lips, lightning in his eyes. He breathed out like it was fire. But without speaking, he turned and walked down the busy hall of the airport leading to the garage we had parked in.
Gage walked out of the bathroom, wearing his sweatpants over his gym shorts and black Under Armour shirt. He glanced to me as he adjusted his hat on his head. “Why aren’t you dressed?”
“I thought I’d stay back, let you two go alone to talk.” I sat on the edge of our bed, looking up at him.
He took the two steps that separated us and placed his arms on either side of me. He leaned down, close to my face, so close the smell of our mint toothpaste washed over me. “No, you’re coming with us. I want you with us.” He pecked the corner of my mouth like that would ease the demand in his voice. “Now get dressed.” He pulled away and went to the closet for his bag.
“It’s only the gym. You can go without me,” I called after him.
“I’m not leaving you here.”
“Gage, I really think you two need to talk.” I stood and followed him.
He turned towards me, slinging his gym bag over his shoulder with a sigh. “And we will babe. Now get dressed.” When I just stood there, he stepped forward and reached his hand out to my arm. Then added in a soft voice, “Please.”
I shook my head and took a little step closer so I could feel his warmth. “I know what you’re doing. You can leave me here. I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”
His breath hitched as he breathed in. “Maybe I just want you with me.” His other hand rose to cup my cheek, pushing my hair back at the same time. “Maybe I don’t want to be away from you.” His head dipped down to my forehead. “I want you close to me, always.”
I closed my eyes and breathed him in, turning my head so our noses touched, so my lips brushed his skin. And I brought my hand up to cup his, to hold him in place, enjoying the warmth of him. But I knew it was important to let him go. “I will be. Baby, we are going to have forever together, but you and your brother, you only have this day. Go be with him. Talk to him. I’ll be fine here.”
“Forever?” Gage’s lips brushed over my cheek, pressing to the skin just under my ear as his arms wrapped around me. “God Regan, I want forever with you. I’d do anything to have that.”
His words, body, touches, lips, all wrapped me in a warm comfort. It felt like home. But a creeping sadness persisted in the corners, tugging at my heartstrings. He was willing to do anything, he’d shown that, was continuing to show that, but I feared the sacrifices he was willing to make and their effect on him.
“You already have that.” I pulled back slightly in his arms, cupping his face so he’d have to look me in the eye. “No matter what happens, we are forever. All right?” I continued when he nodded, “But right now, you need to set things right with your brother. This might be your only chance.”
He dropped away with a groan. “Fine. You’re right. But don’t go anywhere. And don’t let anyone up. Don’t do anything. We’re only one block over so call if anything strange happens.”
His drop dead serious tone gave me a chill, but I tried to cover it, dismiss it.
He met my eyes. “You know I have the doorman watch out for you. He’ll call me if anything happens.”
I wasn’t sure if he was accusing me of trying something or just being protective. “Do you think anything will happen?”
He shook his head, slow and steady. “Not really, not with everything going down tonight. It’s so close.”
I let out the breath I didn’t even know I was holding. “It is, so close,” and I meant more than the drug shipment. “You should go. We really don’t have much time left.”
His lips crashed into mine before I even finished speaking. The kiss was dangerous, washing me in his fears, passion, need. It felt too big, too deep, like I could drown. Until I kissed back, until I reached up and pulled him closer, then it became something else altogether. Then I was swimming in his love, his hands keeping me afloat and safe. And I didn’t want it to end.
But he pulled away with shallow breaths and shaking palms as his fingers slid into my hair. “You’ll be here when I get back.” And despite the strain on his voice, it sounded like he finally believed it.
They returned from the gym with a weight off of them it seemed.
“Come on, admit it, I’ve gotten better. I almost had you,” Dexter’s voice held that smile I was used to but hadn’t heard this morning. He pushed on Gage’s shoulder as they came through the door.
Gage looked down on him, still the larger of the two. “All right, you’ve gotten better. But you never had me, not even a little.”
“Uh-uh,” Dexter pulled off his tennis shoes, his light eyes meeting mine. “He just doesn’t want to admit it in front of you. You’ll have to come next time and see for yourself. Although you may not want to witness him getting taken down.”
I stood against the entranceway to the kitchen and crossed my arms. “Sounds like you two had a good workout. I made some lunch if you’re hungry.”
Dexter was quick to pass by me into the kitchen, already loading the sweet potatoes and chicken onto his plate. “Thanks Rea, this looks great.”
Gage flashed a sly smile at me, and that let me know everything I needed to know. They were at a good place, and that eased my heartache. It had been important.
“Thank you,” he mumbled low and squeezed my hip, placing a kiss on my neck as he passed by into the kitchen.
“Fuck, you should have woken me up sooner.” Dexter rubbed the heel of his hand over his eye after slipping on his seatbelt.
I didn’t bother responding and focused on breathing down my own nerves as we pulled out of our parking garage. Dexter had slept most of the afternoon, but we let him, knowing he had jet lag and would have to stay up tonight.
“So we’re going to load the trucks now, will mine be the last truck?”
Gage gripped his leather gloves on the steering wheel. “No. We’ll get you loaded first, so you can get on the road sooner. You, Sam, and Cherry will have the longest drive.”
I had known the plan, Dexter knew it too, but they went over every detail all over again on our way to the dock. I kept reminding myself, we just had to get through tonight and make sure Dexter got back safe, and then it would all be over.
By time we arrived, the drugs were nearly all hidden away inside mattresses and couches that were to be loaded onto the moving trucks. Everyone knew their role, doing their job with little conversation in the dark cloudy night.
Rusnak was nowhere to be seen, but I didn’t go look for him. I worked with Dexter, lifting items into the back of the largest U-Haul truck, the one he would be driving.
“What’s going on with him, Rea?” Dexter’s voice was low as he nodded to where Gage was standing, directing another person.
I walked to the back of the truck and laid my end of the heavy mattress on the floor, leaning it against the side. Dexter pushed it the rest of the way in, but stood, blocking my way out.
“He hugged me today. He actually hugged me and told me he loved me.” He shook his head, lifting his hands up in question.
I wiped my hands on my leg, trying to play off the way his words hit me. “You know he loves you, and it’s been a while since he saw you.”
He grabbed my arm as I tried to pass. “No, this was different. I know he loves me, but he’s never said that to me. He doesn’t show it that way. This was different. All of this is different.” He gestured around the truck, eyes glowing wild in the dark. “Is he in some sort of trouble? Should I be worried?”
“Yeah, you should be,” it was Gage that answered. He walked up the ramp, into the back of the crowded truck with us. “But not about me. You should be worried about yourself and your family, so you don’t have to take these risks again.”
Dexter dropped my arm and turned towards Gage. “I told you, I’m done. No more gambling—”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“But this is different. I’m going to get Leona back, I’m going to do better.”
“Leona left you?” I knew she was in Baltimore with family, but I didn’t realize it was to get away from him.
Dexter dropped his eyes to the floor. “Yeah, but I don’t blame her. And after this, I’m going to prove to her I can do better for her and Felix.”
Gage nodded, shoulders deflating as he let out his breath. “I hope so. But first, get this done. Finish packing.” He looked directly at me, nodding off to the side. “I need to talk to you for a minute”
I wanted to ask Dexter more questions, but I followed Gage out, and we stepped to the side of the truck, letting the tall sides block the cool wind. He stood close, sharing his body heat.
“Anatoli wants to run over some plans with me, he needs to hold some of his people back.” He looked over my head, around the open parking lot towards the other trucks. “Everything will be loaded soon. It should only take a minute.”
“I’ll go with you.” I gripped his arm, nerves firing at the thought of him alone with Rusnak.
“No,” his eyes swept down to me, and his voice softened, “No, stay out here with Dexter. I don’t want you near him, and I’ll only be fifteen minutes tops. He can’t change too much, not this late, not when it’s his reputation on the line.”
“Fifteen minutes. And then I’ll come look for you if you’re not back.” I wasn’t even kidding—I wish I were.
“Stay by Dexter. I’ll be back.” He squeezed my arm in farewell and then turned to board the boat, eyes swiping around the area.
I tried to lock away the fear that settled like a heavy weight in my stomach. But I knew I’d have to carry it till we were gone, it had been there all night.
The lights from the boat lit up Rusnak on the deck. He gestured for Gage to go inside first, and then he paused, facing my direction before slipping inside too. My heart skipped, but he couldn’t have seen me in the shadows of the truck. My mind was on overdrive, overreacting.
I walked back to Dexter and the last of the furniture that needed to be loaded. He was already grabbing a desk with Sam, the other man he was driving with. I picked up a lamp wrapped in bubble wrap. All that was left were the small items that had to find a place in the packed truck.
After a few more trips back and forth our pile was loaded. Dexter pulled down the door on the truck and turned back to us, checking his phone. “We got that done early.”
Sam tossed his cigarette on the ground. “I’m gonna go take a piss before we go. I’ll drive first.”
Dexter shoved his hands in his coat pockets and nodded, stepping close to me. “So about Gage—”
“He’ll be all right. You said it before, he knows what he’s doing. But what about you Dexter? What about you and Leona? What about Felix?”
“After this,” he nodded at the truck, “I’m going back to Baltimore to be with them. I know it’ll take time, but I will get them back one day. I’ll prove to her that I can change. That I can take care of them, the right way.”
He pushed his phone in front of me, showing me a smiling Felix holding Rocky the cat around the waist.
“He never stops talking now. And you should see him, he climbs like a monkey.” He swiped the screen, showing me Felix climbing up the pantry shelves.
I took the phone from him and had to hold my breath to keep my heart from shredding. He was beautiful with curls to his shoulders, but already so big and losing that baby chubbiness. I swiped the screen, looking at the many photos of him with Dexter and Leona. He looked taller and was standing strong on his own, even running up a hill in one. “He’s perfect.” I handed him back the phone as I saw Cherry approaching.
“Is it all loaded?” She tugged on the back door, but it wouldn’t lift. She turned looking towards Dexter.
“Yeah,” He nodded.
She smiled up at him, her body transforming as he approached, softening and a smile sliding over her face. Even her voice sounded different when she spoke, “I’m Katya.” She extended her hand, “but everyone just calls me Cherry.”
She made me sick, and I stepped forward next to Dexter as he shook her hand, introducing himself.
“…have you driven to Arizona before?” He finished casually pulling his hand out of her grip.
She ran her hand through her long hair, pulling it over one shoulder. “No and I won’t be doing it now either. I’m not going anymore. I came out to check on things though and make sure you all were ready to go. Where’s Sam?”
“He’ll be back soon,” Dexter responded. “But I’ve got to wait for Gage. Who’s taking your place?”
She shrugged, and then her eyes met mine. “Maybe Regan can go.”
I didn’t even bother answering her because Gage was walking towards us, anger rolling off him with every movement.
Cherry followed my gaze and turned to face Gage, smile dropping slightly. “Oh, you finished so soon? I was just telling your brother that I wasn’t going with him.”
He barely glanced at her. “Where’s Sam? It’s going to be just you two so make sure you split who drives. No stopping to sleep.”
“Only the two? Didn’t Anatoli say they needed a third?” Cherry questioned.
Gage narrowed his eyes at her. “I’m handling this. You can go.”
She paused for a moment, staring at him, and then she looked around. “I’ll go let Anatoli know they’re ready to go. What about the other two?”
“Go check on them,” he ordered, voice sharp.
She nodded and walked away, looking over her shoulder towards Dexter. “Drive safe Lawson.”
Sam passed Cherry as he approached. “We ready to go?”
Overcome with something, I hugged Dexter, taking him by surprise.
His arms wrapped around me. “I’ll see you soon. You’ll have to come to Maryland and see us.”
I wanted to keep a hold of him, not say goodbye, not when he didn’t know the type of goodbye this was. But I had to let go. “Be careful, all right?”
He nodded, pulling away from me and tugging the edge of my hood around my face. For a second I thought maybe he could see the finality in this. The look in his eyes was a deep sadness I hadn’t seen before. “You too.” He looked away, towards Gage. “And you, too.”
They both seemed to move at the same time and hugged each other for a second before Gage pulled back, keeping his hand on his shoulder. “Keep your phone charged. I’ll call to check on you two along the way. And keep to the route I told you.” He looked between both Sam and him. “Call me if anything seems off.”
They nodded and moved to the truck doors. Dexter walked around to the passenger side, and Gage followed, speaking low to him. I stood back, waiting for them to leave, unable to handle saying another goodbye.
When the truck pulled away, Gage was standing there. We weren’t alone, there were groups of people around the parking lot, packing two other trucks, but we were far enough away not to be heard.
“What happened?” I questioned.
He shook his head, stepping towards me. “He wanted one of his men to go with them instead of Cherry. But I wasn’t going to let that happen. I trust Sam, I wouldn’t send Dexter off with anyone else.”
“And he just let that happen?”
“He doesn’t have a choice. Not if he wants this to run smooth.”
“But now we’re stuck with Cherry.” I looked past him to where she was helping load another truck.
Gage smiled at me, putting me at ease. “Not for long. Let’s finish this up.” He nodded to the other trucks. “But I won’t get much sleep until this is all done.”
“What about the drop off with Dexter? Do you think he’ll be okay?”
“Other’s will be there. They’re flying out in two days. Dexter’s job is just to drive, he doesn’t have to do anything else.”
We were getting closer to the truck, and Cherry’s voice carried through the air.
“You need to repack this, what the fuck, you can’t stick it into the drawers and call it hidden. It goes into the paneling. For fuck’s sake, let me do it.” She looked up at Gage. “I hope you checked that truck before it left, made sure it was packed right.” She pulled white bricks out of the drawers, gathering it into one arm, and then turned to the large man next her. “Well turn the thing over,” she demanded.
“Where’s Yuri? He was supposed to be loading this one,” Gage asked.
“He’s there.” The big man nodded to the boat and grunted as he flipped the desk over and pulled on the plywood covering the bottom, revealing open, empty space. “I get hammer and nail.” He walked away.
“I’ll go see what happened.” Gage nodded to me. “Come with me.”
“The other shit has to be checked. You’re going to make me do this by myself?” Cherry swiped her hand to the full truck.
“I’ll help check the stuff. You go. Fifteen minutes,” I reminded him.
He nodded. “Fifteen minutes.”
But it took less than five for Rusnak to show up.