THE WORDS BARELY MADE AN IMPACT. I waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. The silence stretched for a moment before I broke it.
“That’s it?” I asked tentatively.
His eyes shot to me. “Did you hear me?”
I finally released the breath I was holding. Weighted tension escaped with it, bubbling out in light laughter, leaving me floating. I covered my mouth with the palm of my hand, but it was too late, Gage heard.
He sunk back into the oversized cushion behind him, watching me come undone with wrinkled brows and narrowed eyes.
“I heard you.” I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, hand pressed to my chest to steady myself. My heart was fluttering, growing wings about to fly away. The sudden change in emotions made me dizzy and on the verge of tears. It was a strange relief flooding me. I opened my eyes, meeting his gaze. “I thought you were going to say you cheated on me, that there was someone else.” I leaned forward to reach him, touch him. The look that flashed on his face, like a warning, stopped me. “There’s not is there?”
“No. There’s not,” he barked out, running his hand over his head, gripping the back of his neck with frustration. “This is worse. I don’t think you’re listening to what I said. I’ve killed people, Regan. And I’ll have to do it again.”
I nodded, pressing my lips together as I absorbed his words. I knew it wasn’t a normal reaction, but I was relieved and sure. “We’ve both had to do things we wish we could take back. And I’m not saying this isn’t a big deal, but it’s not going to push me away. Just tell me what’s going on.”
“I…” He leaned forward in his seat, forearms on his knees, and shook his head. “I don’t think you understand. This isn’t like before, it’s not self-defense. They’ve made me an enforcer. You need to think about this. Before you say you want in, you need to really think about it.” He stopped himself from reaching for me, pain filling his gaze as he pleaded, “I don’t want you waking up tomorrow hating me for trapping you in this.”
The worry crushing him, weighing on his shoulders, anchored me back into my body. The tears filling his eyes tore at my heart. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t absorb his words, but I moved out of my seat to his large sofa chair, wanting only to ease his pain and reassure him.
I crawled next to him, and he shifted back, giving me room or trying to escape, I don’t know, but I kept moving. There was enough room on the cushion for me to sit beside him with my knees curled under me. I wrapped my arms around him and pressed my head to his chest, his typical slow and strong heartbeat was racing.
“I could never hate you. No matter what. It’s my choice and I choose this. I choose you.”
His arms crept around me as I spoke, slowly surrounding me. When I finished, he tightened his hold and his head dropped to the top of my hair, chest rising and falling with a heavy sigh.
“I love you. I don’t come close to deserving you. Fuck if this doesn’t prove it. But…”
His warm breath fanned over me, heating me from scalp to toes, and I gripped him tighter, silently willing him to give in and choose me, to let me in. He ran his hands down my spine, sending a current through me, to my limbs. When they glided back up, he cupped my head and pulled me off his chest to look at him.
“This is the last time I’m going to ask. Are you sure you want to know, when knowing puts you in danger and you won’t like what you hear?”
“Shh. Wait,” His eyes were cloudy with emotion, a storm of hurt and guilt that threatened to destroy me. “You didn’t sign up for this when we got married. You could leave now. I’d give you everything we had, every last dime. You’d have enough to live wherever you wanted, and you’d be safe to live your life.”
“Shut up” I pulled away to stare down at him with determination. “Stop talking. Stop acting like I can’t make this decision, that I don’t know exactly what I’m getting myself into. I do. I’ve been through enough to know, and you know that.”
He reached for my hand, but I pulled my arm back. It shook as I held it up, vibrating with the force of my emotion.
“So stop now. Stop telling me to leave. Trust that I know what I’m doing. I want you. I love you. I chose us when you were with Rusnak, and I’m choosing us now, too. But I shouldn’t have to beg to stay with you. So either tell me you want this too or I will leave. Because I do want this, but only if you’re going to talk and include me. I can handle whatever you’ve done, but I can’t handle not knowing, not being included in your life. So you decide now because I made it clear where I stand.”
He was frozen, staring at me, and then he slowly nodded his head. “All right.” Speaking broke the trance he was in, and suddenly his arms hooked around my waist, pulling me back to him. “I want you. I want us. I’m sorry for pushing you away, for hurting you.” He brought one hand up to my face and slid the hair back off my cheek with a light touch. “It’s all or nothing, and I want all of you, but I can’t have that without giving you all of me. I’m only scared that it’s too much, that I’ve done too much.”
Hesitation was creeping back in, his voice slowing, eyes searching mine. So I closed the space between us, bringing my lips to his. The kiss was slow and gentle, soft lips moving together like a caress, meant to comfort and relieve.
He didn’t push the kiss, but like a tide rising, it escalated, moment by steady moment. His arms wrapped around me, lifting me onto his lap, and his tongue slid across my lips. When I slid mine into his mouth, he pushed me back into the couch with his body as his hands moved up my waist to my ribs.
I ran my hands under his shirt, feeling the smooth muscles, tracing the lines of him with the tips of my fingers, familiar yet exciting. Breaking the kiss, I moved my lips to his jaw, tasting down his neck with a small moan as his hands cupped my breasts.
He pulled his hands from me as he inched away. None of him touched me, but he hovered close enough that I was still surrounded in his heat. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to take it this far, but I have missed you. I missed this.” He dropped his head, pulling at the ends of my shirt to cover my exposed stomach. “But we should talk.”
I slid my hands around his neck, keeping him from pulling away. “Promise me we’ll talk, after. But right now, I think we need this. We need to be connected, to remember what’s good about us.” I couldn’t handle seeing him so broken. The constant tears in his eyes tonight were too much. I needed to feel his strength, to let him take mine if need be. I wanted him sure in us before he spoke because his doubt in our ability to make it was what scared me the most in all this. He was always the one that fought for us. I needed that back. I wanted him back.
He sucked in air between his teeth, eyes drinking me in as I pulled my shirt over my head, tossing it to the floor.
“I promise, I’ll tell you everything.” He dropped his body to mine, lips colliding and weight pressing me to the chair. Then he lifted me up, guiding my legs around his waist as he rose to standing, kissing me like I wanted him to, like I was his oxygen. He didn’t break the kiss as he walked us back to the bedroom, all hesitation gone from his movements.
In this moment, he knew exactly what he wanted—me. And I could finally let go of the fear strangling my heart because whatever he told me couldn’t break this, the bond we had, the chemistry that was more than sex. It was a soul deep connection that flared and ignited when we were together.
He trailed kisses down my stomach as he laid me on the bed. His fingers hooked over the elastic of the yoga pants I wore, sliding them down my leg. Hot kisses followed the path, over my thighs and calves.
“Babe. You’ll always have my heart. I love you,” he sighed, kneeling between my legs, looking over me with care and adoration. And desire.
I pushed myself up to sitting and grabbed the bottom of his shirt, pulling it over his head. “I love you too.” I kissed along his shoulders, running my hands down his back. “I always will.” Raising my head to meet his eyes, I repeated. “Always.”
Then he brought his lips to mine, both of us collapsing back on the bed with the force of it, sealing in our words. They had to be true. Always. I couldn’t take any less.
It took barely a second for him to kick off his pants, and he didn’t break the kiss. In another second he was sliding into me, a searing heat melting me like butter. We both paused at first, meeting each other’s gaze, searching for something. His eyes were no longer clouded with doubt, but clear and bright, determined.
“Always,” he gasped as he pumped into me, driving in the promise or delicious threat.
He continued his promises with every joining, in between kisses and groans. My head was spinning too much for me to speak or think. I could only feel him, nerves firing, lit up like sparklers by his touch.
But I absorbed his words, like I absorbed his touch, this moment. I could feel his need and love, and I could feel his strength and assurance increasing the deeper he went, till finally the dam holding us broke and we both released into each other. Emotions flooded out with our orgasm. He pressed his cheek to mine, whispering in my ear as he rolled me into the crook of his arm, still inside me, holding me close.
“I need you. I need you to understand. Keep fighting for me. I’m going to try and be worth it. I’m so sorry. I love you. I love you.” His cheeks were slick against mine, tears falling as he spoke. His thumbs glided under my eyes, wiping away my tears as he rambled on the apology I wanted but didn’t need to hear. I felt it.
He continued to move in me, slow rolls of his hips that picked up speed and intensity only to slow back down as his lips moved over mine, stretching out the moment, a moment that I was more than happy to stay in, not wanting to think beyond. I was floating, surrounded by him.
We moved in this intoxicating ebb and flow until there was nothing left between us. We were left bare and open, vulnerable, but safe with each other. He invited me into the dark, and I joined him willingly. In this moment we belonged to each other, and the power and surety in that charged us both, filling the parts of me he had left empty these past months.
When we both lay exhausted, tangled in each other’s slick and heated embrace, we let the sound of our breathing and heartbeats comfort us. As our bodies stilled, the cool air of the room touched us, absorbing our heat and sweat, leaving goose bumps in its wake. The sheets were kicked off the bed at some point, scattered on the floor. I held tighter to Gage’s waist, trapping warmth between us, doing my best to not let go of this moment.
But I felt the shift in the rise and fall of his chest as his breathing shallowed and sped up. And I knew I had to let him talk. I had to trade in the comfort I felt in his arms, for this temporary moment, so this man could spill his secrets and hopefully find relief in doing so. So we could find this comfort with each other more often.
His fingers dragged circles on my arm. His whispered words echoed in his chest, under my ear. “Are you tired?”
I shook my head and looked to the clock on our nightstand table. It was only 8:45, still early. The beat of his heart was light and quick and his nerves transferred to me, tensing my drained muscles.
His arms tightened around me, and he rolled us so I was on my back with him pressed on top of me, sinking me into the mattress. When he lifted his head to look at me, I saw the flash of panic there before he closed his eyes and kissed me with trembling lips. It was a soft, brief kiss that sent a chill through me.
“You ready to do this tonight?” His eyes darted over me, looking for any hesitation.
“I’m ready. It’ll be all right.” I moved my hands to his face, his stubble rough beneath my palms as they slid to the back of his head. My fingers gripped his still damp hair, and I pulled him back down to me, kissing him this time to wipe away the chill his kiss had left.
He dropped his weight on me, large hands moving to my head, palms cupping my face as his fingers slipped through my hair. He took over the kiss, his tongue dipping into my mouth a couple of times before he stilled.
His lips moved over mine as he spoke, “All right.” He pulled back suddenly and rolled off of me so he was sitting on the edge of the bed, his back to me. “We should get dressed.”
I slid my hand to his back, knots tightening in my stomach as I raised myself up behind him. “Do we have to? We could talk like this, right now.”
He leaned forward, sliding his boxers back on his legs. As he sat up, he looked at me over his shoulder. “Yeah. We need to.” He stood, making my hand drop off of him, and searched the floor. He tossed my shirt to me. “Get dressed,” his words were heavy with regret.
I dressed quickly and waited on the edge of the bed for him to finish. He carefully turned his inside out shirt right side out, an act that extended over the heavy silence, pressing on my patience.
When his shirt was situated and on, stretched over his wide shoulders, our eyes met. I gripped the sheets on the mattress, keeping myself from speaking or moving. This was his thing; I’d let him start it his way.
He stepped to his dark suitcase that was on the ground and nudged it with his foot. “That coke is mine.”
I hated the way he watched me for a reaction, like he had expectations for how I would respond. I tried to keep the pain off my face, but my mind immediately flashed to that time I saw him use at Rusnak’s club, and my stomach tore as if I was there again. The sting of my nails biting into the fleshy part of my palm pulled me from the memory, but I couldn’t keep the questions from tumbling out.
“How much, how often?” there was barely any breath behind my words.
He didn’t break his stare from mine as he shrugged one shoulder, the rest of him statue still.
“Why? Are you completely giving up on boxing?” That was the one part of him that had been constant. My head pounded, making my vision waver.
“I don’t know.” He ran his hand over the back of his neck. With a deep breath, he stepped towards me. “I don’t know what I’m doing right now. I’m stuck in this place where I’m not sure. Fuck, I don’t want to stop boxing. But I don’t see how I can continue this way, divided. You and boxing, I was ready to give it up, but…” He sat on the edge of the bed, but not close enough to touch.
I fought down my thoughts, trying to wait for him to explain, but they kept popping up. The worst ones caused doubt to grow like a vine. He was ready to give me up for drugs?
“You’re willing to stay.” He slid close and grabbed my hand. “And I can’t let you go. And that changes everything. I can’t keep doing the same things. I’ve got to come up with a new plan, for you.”
“Wait.” I lifted my hand from his, cutting off his words. “We’ll come up with a plan together, but first you need to explain. I need to know. Everything. Starting with the drugs, how bad is it, Gage?”
He dropped his head to his hands, elbows resting on his knees. “It’s hard. It’s everywhere. I started when I was young to keep up with the late nights, the trainings, the men around me. But I always kept it under control, never going too far. It was all part of doing business. But now, I use it to stop the noise.” He rose off his hands, looking directly at me. “I know I’m letting you down. Every. Fucking. Day. You are the single most important thing in my life, and I promised to put you first, to keep you safe. Yet, everything I’ve been doing goes against that. And I’m a fucking coward because I use that,” he pointed to the suitcase, contempt filling his voice, “to escape my guilt. It’s the only time I can stop caring.”
I stared at the floor, unable to look at him as the words settled, but I wasn’t really seeing anything. My muscles tightened to the point of breaking. It let him stop caring. That scared me because his suitcase held that escape. I knew the power of drugs and how they could quickly become the most important thing in his life, replacing me.
“And now? What are you going to do now?” I looked at him, pushing through my fear. “Can you stop?”
A few breaths passed as our gazes locked. “Yes. I will. I promise, I’m going to try.” He dipped his head, looking up at me through thick eyelashes. “I need you, I know that. I knew that even when I was pushing you away, but I was trying to do what I thought was best for you. But since you’re staying, my decisions need to be clear, smart. I can do this for us. For you.” His blue eyes met mine fully, challenging me. “Do you still trust me?”
I hesitated a moment, answering carefully. “I want to.”
“You have to.” He cut into my words, surprising me with his intensity. He grabbed my hand and dropped his eyes to my ring as he traced over it lightly. His voice came out softer, “I have to trust you more too, I know. I have to trust that you can handle this, but…”
“I trust that you want to keep me safe, and I know whatever is going on is scaring you.” I lowered my head to make him meet my eyes. “And that’s why you’ve kept so much from me, but these secrets hurt. As long as you’re honest we can get that trust back, and we can get through this. So just tell me.”
He dropped my hand and swiped his palm over his face, releasing his breath with a groan. “All right. You’re right.” His leg bounced under his elbow. “I’ll tell you.”
“A couple of weeks ago, just after I took over the club a guy came in and took one of the girls to a private room and pulled a knife on her.” He spoke fast, forcing the story out without emotion. “But she had her own blade in her boot and stabbed him, getting away long enough to press the button for a bouncer. By time I got there, the bouncer, Paul, had him knocked out, but Cherry was beat and bleeding from where he had sliced her across her chest. Paul said the guy had been saying this was a warning to Viktor.” He paused looking at me, and I saw the chaos of memory in his eyes.
“We took care of it quietly, got her help and took the guy to the back to question, but he died. Bled out before I could find out how the fuck he knew to put the club with Viktor. Nobody was supposed to know that connection except Alessandra and a few others, nobody outside of the organization. Not anybody in the club, not even Ian, knew that.”
“I went to Viktor with this new information and he promised to look into it. A few day’s later he gave me a list of names.” He took a breath, dropping his eyes to his hands clasped in his lap. “I had been muscle for Anatoli before, but this was different. I didn’t need to force information from them. They didn’t owe us money. I was only supposed to kill them, as quickly and quietly as possible.” His fingers pressed together, turning white with the pressure, voice icy as he explained. “I was so angry that someone had come into my club and hurt my girls, I had to send my own message.”
I flinched at his claim on the girls, his girls. But he didn’t notice, eyes not on me as he spoke.
“That couldn’t happen without consequence, so I did it. Over the next couple of weeks, I killed the men on the list. And each time it became harder to return to you, to hide this side of me that I was getting more and more comfortable with. And then, this last one…” his eyes closed with a deep breath and then he looked up at me. “Wednesday night, when I was out all night. That was the last one.”
I remembered him coming home in changed clothes, his distance and frustration, the way he had tried to cling to me.
He stood and paced in front of me. Agitation spilled out of every movement. His hands clenched into fists and then stretched repeatedly. “He was lured out the back of the bar he was at, just as planned, but then others showed up in the alley, like it had been expected.” He paused, fist hitting his forehead, trying to make sense of the event. “What was supposed to be one kill turned into three, but that’s not the worst part. An employee stepped out at the end, and I shot him.” He looked to me then, his haunted eyes large in his pale face and voice barely a whisper. “I shot him without thinking twice. He opened the door, and I shot him without giving him a chance. And for what? Viktor?” Gage closed his eyes. “I’ve been trying to forget, but I can’t.”
I couldn’t speak as the weight of his story settled around us. But I rose to my feet and pulled his hand to guide him back to sitting on the bed. He didn’t resist. All the while I searched for the words to say.
I stood between his legs, cupping his face to make him look up at me. “You can’t forget, but…it wasn’t for Viktor. You were protecting yourself. He could have been with them, you wouldn’t have known.”
He met my eyes for a moment, and then pulled my hands away with a sigh. “I try and tell myself the same thing, but even if he was, what’s the difference between the men I killed and myself. Don’t I deserve the same thing they do?”
“No.” I was quick to answer, but that was only emotion, not logic. “You weren’t just protecting yourself either. Those men, whoever they were with, were willing to hurt girls to send a message. Who knows what they would have done next.”
He grabbed my hips and shifted me to sit next to him, shaking his head. “On better days, I try and make the same excuse but it’s bullshit. Maybe they would have come back into the club, maybe they wouldn’t have. Truth is, I killed them because Viktor told me to.”
I couldn’t make excuses for him. I closed my eyes as a whirlwind whipped through me. He had to listen to Viktor, and by staying with him, I was under Viktor’s control as well. This was the choice I had made to be with him. I doubted my sanity but gripped his hand in reassurance, my lifeline.
“What happened to the girl from the first night?” I pulled a question from my thoughts, trying to process the story.
“She has a nasty cut across the top of her chest, but she’s okay. I offered her money so she wouldn’t have to work but she wanted to stay. She doesn’t dance anymore, but tends bar. She’s…” He shook his head. “She’s strong. The other girls like her, so she’s sort of become their manager. She handles any issues with them. She’s made herself useful.”
My stomach turned inside out, fear creeping over me, making my muscles shake. Could I really be okay with all of this? What type of person did that make me?
His strong features melted as he waited on me, and I wanted nothing more than to help ease his burden. My mind couldn’t wrap around the idea of him being cruel, as naïve as that may be. But there were still pieces that didn’t make sense.
“And what about Vegas? Why did you leave?”
His eyes cut to me, and I knew I had hit an important part of the story.
“That night at the club with Dexter, what that guy said about the whore house, I contacted Alessandra after.”
A jealousy ate at my heart with that. We had fought and he reached out to her, but I forced it down to listen.
“I told her that any of the girls who doubled on the streets couldn’t dance at the club anymore, they needed to be separate. That man was just talking, but we couldn’t afford rumors like that, and after everything I’d done for Viktor, I was in a position to demand these things. So it was agreed. I’d lose three girls, but I could handle that, we had enough. Ian already had Cherry readjusting the schedule.” He shifted his shoulders, uncomfortable. “The club’s known for having new faces. I told you before the girls are on work visas, so there’s constant rotation. But then that morning, Cherry received a call from one of the girls, she had been yelling for help.” His eyes were dark and haunted. “We still haven’t found her.”