LEANING OVER THE BALCONY, I WATCHED THE sea of people below. They’re packed so close it’s impossible to tell where the dance floor ends, except that the center of the room was pulsing, bouncing with the strobe light flashes. Multiple laser lights cut through the smoke winding around the crowd and streak past the untouchable go-go dancers twisting around poles on elevated platforms.
A VIP area was marked off for our group. Dark lounge sofas and chairs surrounded a curvy table filled with alcohol. Gage had arranged it, but it was filled with people we didn’t know. Aliya and Leona had their friends with them, fellow dancers and actors from the shows they performed in. Dexter had invited friends from school and the gym, too. Jace was the only other recognizable face.
Gage leaned on the railing next to me, head dipped close so I could hear him over the thumping of the music. “Still nursing that same drink?”
I held up my glass and nodded. There was about a third of my long island ice tea left.
He gestured to the table and I followed, sitting beside him on the long sofa. He handed me his drink and took mine from my hands. “Try that instead.”
I sipped at the beer. “Not bad,” I admitted, putting the glass back on the table. It wasn’t, especially compared to my drink that had nothing but liquor left.
“You can have it.” He brought my glass to his lips.
My stomach ached watching him finish the alcohol in one gulp. I took one last sip of his beer and handed it back to him. “That’s okay. I think I’m going to get a regular ice tea this time.”
He paused, both of our hands still on the glass, and then reluctantly pulled it away.
“I’ll get you a different drink then. It’s still early, you’re twenty one now, why not drink?”
It was hard to tell if he was angry or if the noise of the club was making him raise his voice.
“I’ve got a fight—”
“Not for another three weeks.” He leaned forward, forearms on his knees, head twisted to look at me. “And you dominated your last three fights, taking each girl out in the first round. You’re not fighting at your level, it doesn’t matter. You can drink.”
“It does matter,” I was quick to defend. “I’m fighting what my club sets up. Each fight is building our rank.” The fact that I had to defend anything was pissing me off. I leaned forward, making sure he was looking directly at me. “Besides, that’s not the point. I’m not a big drinker. You know this, so why are you pushing?”
“Forget I said anything.” He fell back on the seat and tossed his hand up, dismissing the conversation. “I just wanted you to have fun for once.”
My mouth dropped, his words hitting me. He didn’t think I was fun? I could imagine him at his club, drinking with those girls. They were probably plenty of fun.
“Find someone else to drink with. I’m done.” The words were out before I could stop myself, my promise to keep my anger in, gone.
“I didn’t mean it like that.” He grabbed my hands before I could push him away. “Stop.” His grip tightened around my wrists, and I gave up the struggle to pull away, stilling myself to face him. “I meant I didn’t mean to start a fight. I wanted you to have fun tonight, but you don’t have to drink for that. I don’t want to fight with you.” He let go of my wrists and one arm slid across my shoulders, pulling me close to him. “I’m sorry. I’ll get you tea. Just sit with me.”
My anger drained some but still tensed my muscles enough to keep me from relaxing in his arms. I looked at the strangers chatting in small clusters around us and reminded myself that this was supposed to be our weekend, our chance to reconnect. Letting out the rest of my anger in an exhale, I nudged him with my shoulder. “All right, I’ll sit with you, but only because I don’t know who any of these people are.” I smiled at him, letting him see that I was joking, kind of. My anxiety was rising, heart beat increasing as I even thought about walking away from him into a sea of strangers.
He dipped his head towards my ear, warm breath fanning over me as he laughed. “I don’t know anyone either. Dexter said he was inviting a few friends, I should have expected this. But where is he? I haven’t seen him in a while.”
Gage raised his hand to stop the server as she passed by. She leaned over, giving us a view of her cleavage as she took our order.
When she walked away, I answered, “He went with Leona and Aliya to the dance floor.”
He pulled the beer from his mouth, nodding at no one in particular in the room. “He should take his friends with him.”
“It’s not like they’re bothering us.” I tugged at the collar of his shirt, unable to take my eyes off his stern face. His blue eyes almost glowed under his thick brows and his soft lips were surrounded by rough stubble along his strong jaw.
“They aren’t, are they?” The corner of his lip tugged up. He pulled on my legs, lifting them to drape over his thighs. The tips of his fingers dragged across the length of my bare skin, tickling me. “Maybe I don’t mind then.”
The server returned with our drinks and Gage removed his hands from me to take them, but I didn’t move my legs back down. The intimate gesture wasn’t nearly as intimate as the way some were dancing in our lounge area.
Gage gulped his drink then grabbed mine and set them both down on the table in front of us. He focused on me and slipped his hand into my hair, smoothing it out on the couch cushion. He moved slowly towards me, tension building as I waited for his lips to reach mine. But his path was interrupted when three men slid onto the seats beside us. Gage sat back some, looking towards them with a raised brow, a silent ‘what the fuck’ expression they should be able to read easily enough.
“Gage ‘Lightning’ Lawson,” the older man closest to us spoke up, pushing back his already gelled stiff hair. “I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I had a great opportunity to talk to you about.”
“Not tonight,” Gage groaned and captured my legs before I could move them back to the ground. He turned back to me, ignoring the still present man and his entourage, two thick men who could be hired as bouncers in an instant.
“Dave Leola wants to invite you to fight in the UFC.” The man extended a card towards us.
I did pull my legs away as Gage tore the card up in front of them.
The man closest to us was turning red. It started at his neck and moved up to his face like a thermometer measuring his anger.
The pieces fluttered to the floor as Gage ripped it to bits. Then he lifted his empty hands, dismissing them.
The man put his own hand up, signaling his thugs to stay seated.
I don’t know what they thought they were going to do, but they had been about to move. That threatening gesture was enough to tense all my muscles, and I was ready to react to whatever happened next.
“How much money did you make on your title fight?” The now red man sat forward, straining to cover his frustration. “I can promise you’ll make more fighting in the cage, especially since it’ll be against Brody Kane.”
Gage leaned over me, blocking my view of them. “I’ve already heard this offer over the phone. I said no then, and now you interrupt my night with this? This is a private party. You shouldn’t have been let in. Leave.”
“Dexter invited us up. Seems your brother has more sense than you,” the man threw out as he rose to his feet.
Gage stood, rolling his shoulders back as the men passed by. The last man in the line was taller than Gage and he looked him up and down with a sneer as he passed. I held my breath until they were out of our area.
“What the fuck is Dexter doing now?” Gage turned back to me, plopping down on the seat. “Where the hell is he?” He pulled out his phone, fingers bouncing over the screen.
“You texting him?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He watched the screen. “He’s coming up now.” Sliding the phone in his pocket, he leaned forward to guzzle down his drink and signaled to our server for another one.
Leaning back on the seat with a sigh, he slid his arm around me. “Just one fucking night. I thought I’d get one fucking night without some bullshit.”
I leaned into him, fiddling with the buttons on his shirt, wanting to calm him. “They’re gone now. It’s over. Don’t let them ruin the night.”
He snorted. “Oh they won’t ruin my night. I’ll make sure of it.”
He sat up as the server came back to drop off his next drink. “Did you see the men that were just with us?” At her nod he continued, “Tell your security that they are not allowed back in here. The main one is Phil Magnally.”
She nodded with a promise to do so and walked away.
“Is Phil that tall one?” I questioned.
“No, Phil was the one running his mouth. The guys with him are some of his fighters, but not anybody worth mentioning.” He paused to sip his drink. “Phil’s one of the top managers in the UFC, but he doesn’t have a title holder on his team—Dexter,” Gage waved his brother over.
Dexter had walked in with Leona and immediately got pulled into conversation with a group of friends. His smile dropped as he saw his brother’s disapproval. He walked over, his typical swagger subdued.
“What’s up?” He asked, taking the seat next to me.
“Magnally was just up here, said you invited him.”
Dexter shrugged. “I might have said something in passing. I saw him at the gym this morning. He scouts around there.”
“Was he there for you? You going to switch to fighting in the cage?”
“It’ll pay a hell of a lot better than the ring and my job at the radio station. Hell, I might even be able to take more than two classes at a time if I make enough money.”
“I told you I’d help. You don’t have—”
“It’s fine.” Dexter waved away his words. “I’m just thinking about it, going to train with them to start and see how it goes.” He grabbed Leona and pulled her down beside him as she approached.
“Does Leona know?” Gage’s voice was hard with disapproval.
The tension between Dexter and Gage was almost suffocating as they stared at each other.
“What?” Leona questioned, smile dropping as she watched the brothers.
“Yeah, she does,” Dexter said, turning to her. “That I’m going to train with that UFC team.”
“He told me. Why do you care so much?”
I was wondering the same thing, but I was familiar with how much control Gage use to have over Dexter’s life. I assumed this was him having a hard time letting go.
“Just don’t want him to get hurt.”
“Me neither.” Leona raised her brows, daring Gage to say otherwise. “But if he wants to do this, then I’ll support him. Just like I supported him boxing.”
Dexter kissed her red lips deeply, neither of them caring about messing up the lipstick now.
Gage picked up his drink, nearly emptying it, drowning out the responses I knew he wanted to make.
I slid my hand to his shoulder and squeezed. “He’ll be okay. It’s their life.” I couldn’t stop the little voice in my head that questioned if we would be okay. I sipped on my tea and for once wished it were something stronger.
Calling the server over, I requested a margarita, ignoring Gage’s stare. Dexter and Leona put in their own order before she left.
“That girl bends over too much.” Leona’s words slurred into one another as the server walked away.
“I think they’re trained to do that. It’s in the job description.” Dexter dropped his eyes over Leona with a grin. “You could get a job here and look a heluva lot better bending over than her.”
His words soothed Leona, and she sat up smiling. “I could, too.”
When the server returned with our drinks, a silver haired man in a suite accompanied her.
“Mr. Lawson, I hope you’re enjoying your night.” The man greeted Gage. “I’m the owner, Preston Marx. Welcome and thank you for choosing my club.”
Gage rose to his feet, shaking the man’s hand as the server passed out drinks. I couldn’t make out what they said to each other, but then they both sat to continue their conversation.
“Yes, The Dollhouse in New York. Congratulations, I heard you took over that establishment.” The man smoothed his tie down.
“I was considering upgrading it to something like this. A high end club, instead. Or perhaps opening a new place altogether.”
My body sunk in the seat, weighing me down. What did he think he was doing? It wasn’t his club to renovate.
Aliya bounced onto the seat by Leona. “Where the hell have you all been? Come on, let’s go back to the dance floor.” She tugged at Lee’s arm, and then her eyes brightened as she spotted me. “And you, you have to come this time. I’m not taking no for an answer.”
I looked back to Gage, stomach twisting at the smile on his face while he listened to the other man speak.
Touching his knee, I captured his attention. “I’m going to dance.”
He glanced around our group. “Dexter, are you going with the girls?”
Dexter nodded, already standing to follow.
“Have fun.” Gage squeezed my leg in farewell, and then slid right back into conversation with the owner.
His quick dismissal had me hot. I picked up my margarita and drank deeply. The sour drink was cool sliding down my throat, liquor warm as it wrapped around me. I only hoped it took the edge off. I kept drinking till it was empty, afraid I’d splash any remainder over Gage’s head. It was crazy to be so angry about him talking, but it was only a stick added to an already burning fire, another time he put that stupid club in front of me.
Aliya cheered me on, arms raised as I took my last gulp. “Hell yeah, now we’re ready.” She hooked her arm through mine. “Let’s go, chingon”
I lost myself in the music, letting the beat drown out my anger. But it couldn’t cover the thoughts that constantly plagued me or the tingle of fear caused by the crowd. The only thing keeping me there were my friends’ faces around me.
I hadn’t noticed that the man dancing behind Aliya was one of the guys with Magnally earlier, the one that was shorter than Gage. I’d only noticed that she was having fun, until he tried to pull her away, and she struggled to break his hold on her wrist.
“Let her go.” I stepped between them and he dropped her arm. I scanned the crowd, but didn’t see Dexter anywhere.
His glassy eyes barely focused on me, and he swayed on his feet as his finger jabbed the air. “Little—miss—Lawson.” He laughed, turning his attention back to Aliya. “Is this your friend? She can come to the after party too, if you want.”
Aliya stepped back further, hands on her hips. “I’m not going anywhere with you, never was.”
He straightened, frowning, like he didn’t understand a word she said. “You’re a tease.”
His friend, the taller one who had glared at Gage earlier, grabbed his shoulder, keeping him from stepping towards Aliya. “They ain’t worth it. Plenty of other girls.” He curled his lip as he looked over the two of us. “These sluts prefer bitches.”
I stopped Aliya from slapping out at the man, even though I wanted nothing more than to hit him too. But I wanted them gone more, and they were about to walk away.
“You better watch your fucking mouth. You don’t know who we’re here with. They would fucking kill you, you worthless—”
I pushed Aliya back, trying to drag her away as she let her words fly in a drunken rampage.
But the crowd was thick, our escape slow, and the men followed.
“Talking about Lawson? I heard that rumor he killed people, part of shady business. But I saw what a bitch he was tonight. Pretty boy probably bought his title.”
“You heard a rumor?” I snapped and spun towards him.
He stopped in his tracks with a smile on his face, gold teeth shinning.
He was much taller than me, but I didn’t care, I got close enough for him to hear my hiss, without touching him. “I’d be fucking careful what you say next, because some rumors are true.”
A hint of understanding flashed across his face, maybe realization, or maybe acknowledgment that I was crazy. I certainly felt it. But then his eyes rose above me, and Gage pulled me back.
“Is there a problem? I thought I told you to leave.” Gage squared up to him. The other man was taller and had more muscle, but Gage still managed to look down on him.
“I was just talking to your wife about rumors. What about the rumor that you’re a pimp now, running a whore house in New York?”
Gage stiffened, and my heart leapt in my throat. Both of the other men were laughing.
The tall man reached past Gage, towards me. “Is she one of them? How mu—” Suddenly, he was on his knees, arm twisted high behind him.
“Don’t fucking touch her.” Gage shoved him flat on the ground, and the space around us cleared as dancers took notice of what was going on. Gage stepped back as the shorter man lunged towards him and used his forward momentum to push him to the ground.
Before the men could get up, Magnally stepped through a break in the crowd. “What the hell are you two doing?”
Then bouncers were there, lifting the men to their feet and dragging them away. No one even questioned Gage.
He wiped his hands on his pants like they were only a minor annoyance. His bright eyes met mine. “You all right? Ready to go?”
But I stood still, the man’s accusations running through my head.
What about the rumor that you’re a pimp?
This wasn’t something I was willing to wait to talk about. I needed to know if this was just a rumor. But fear strangled me.
Some rumors were true, and I couldn’t handle this one if it was.