Quiet on the drive, they were both lost in their own thoughts, but it didn’t miss his observations she silently wept on the way. He reached for her, wanting to say something, but not in front of Luther. For the first time ever, he wished he had a privacy screen to block his friend out of the conversation he longed to have with Amelia.
She accepted his touch, though, and wove her fingers in his, squeezing almost painfully. So she didn’t regret things, he didn’t think. She needed his touch.
He scooted over and wrapped her in his other arm, and she buried her face in his chest. He felt the hot wash of her beautiful tears as she wept silently into his shirt, continuing to clutch her hand to her chest. It rested between her breasts, and didn’t even twitch.
Right now, things had transcended sex with him and he didn’t know what to do with that reality.
When they got home, he thanked Luther for driving them, and told him he’d call in the morning when he needed him. Then he got out and helped Amelia inside his building.
They rode the elevator up, again in silence. She still clutched his hand.
Unlocking his door, he led her inside and over to the couch immediately. He sat her on the plush sofa and asked words he never thought he’d speak to a woman.
“What do you need?”
Surprise flickered over her face as she looked at him. She hadn’t expected the question either.
He wanted to talk about this. What had happened, and miraculously, he wanted to talk about where they would go now. He needed them together, and he didn’t want to let her go. She was his, and he needed her to understand that.
“I don’t know.” She worried her lips with her teeth and he watched, fascinated. Her eyes watered again, and he mentally urged the tears to fall, so he could witness it. “I want you. I want sleep. I want food.”
He stood, his hand still grasping hers as tightly as she held his.
He felt like he was in junior high, trying to impress his first girlfriend. But he didn’t give a shit. He took her into his bathroom, and sat her on the toilet while he drew a bath. He found some oils and put them in the water, making it as hot as he dared. Then he carefully stripped her bare and led her into the water. From outside the tub, he washed her body, starting at her feet and massaging and rubbing gel into her skin, relishing the feel as her muscles relaxed under his touch.
Things with Amelia were so different. Before her, he’d never rubbed anything into a woman’s skin. Now, he wanted to rub everything into her skin. He loved massaging her while he listened to the satisfied sounds come from her mouth.
He washed her hair, twice, enjoying the silky strands as they fell through his fingers. He rinsed it the final time, using the detachable shower nozzle.
She had stared at him the entire time. In the mirror that lined the walls around the tub, he watched her eyes follow him as he moved. It was almost like she needed to see him, to know he was real.
He held out his hand to help her out of the tub, drying her with a fluffy towel and leading her into his bedroom and over to the bed. He wanted to see the reality of her against his sheets.
She looked tiny in his massive bed, but it seemed to suit her. He kissed her forehead as he settled her in.
“I’ll go get some food. Be right back.”
Those were the last words Amelia heard before she closed her eyes. The day was overwhelming and after the bath, her fatigue had taken over hunger. The bed was soft, the sheets cool, and the pillows heavenly.
The next time she opened her eyes, the room was dark and a heavy weight held her down. She threw the down comforter off, and realized the weight wasn’t the blankets. Charlie was draped over her, his arms snuggling her to his chest, and his legs tangled in hers. She was naked, but he wore a pair of sleep pants. His soft snores in her ears was a soothing noise that almost lulled her back into dreamland.
But then her stomach growled at her, and she carefully peeled his arm off her and disentangled her legs before getting out of bed and grabbing one of his t-shirts from a nearby hamper. She needed to find some food.
His apartment was massive. As she silently moved around it, the moonlight filtered in through windows to light her way. She saw a living room larger than her house, and beyond it, the kitchen, little by a light over the stove. She used it to maneuver her way around, finding a huge sandwich on a plate in the refrigerator wrapped in cling wrap. He must have made that for her when she’d fallen asleep.
A happy squeal escaped as she grabbed the plate and took it to the counter. She stood over the sink and ate. She didn’t stop when she heard the thudding of feet as Charlie stormed through the apartment.
Anticipation at seeing him again ratcheted her nerves, but she didn’t have long to enjoy the tingle, as his legs were long enough to eat up the floors between them in a matter of seconds.
“I thought you’d left me.” She turned at the sound of his voice, her mouth full. He looked angry, but it seeped out of his expression as he took her in.
She looked down, realizing how she must look, mussed from sleep and wearing nothing but one of his t-shirts. It still smelled like him, and she decided he must work out in it, since it smelled vaguely of a clean sweat. She hadn’t noticed before, since she’d been intent on navigating her surroundings and finding food.
“I tried not to wake you.”
He walked closer and leaned on the cabinet next to her, watching her with a careful look on his face.
“My alarm went off.”
“What time is it?”
He shook his head. “Motion sensor.”
For a moment she’d forgotten who she was dealing with. Yesterday had been a sort of dream for her, one she’d walked through in a fog. But it was real. She’d done things with Charlie, her boss, she’d never dreamed of doing. Like an out-of-body experience, she remembered everything.
Even now, it made her blush with arousal.
His mouth quirked as he noticed, but thankfully, he didn’t make a move to do anything about it.
“Let’s talk about yesterday, shall we?” His arm muscles bulged as he used them to jump on the countertop and sit.
She stuffed the last piece of sandwich in her mouth and leaned on the counter next to him while she chewed.
“I don’t know what came over me to do all that.” She wasn’t going to apologize, even if he expected it. She wasn’t sorry. The only thing that would make her apologetic was if he turned her away because of it. But she didn’t think he would.
He put a finger over her lips as she spoke though, indicating he wanted to go first. Okay, she’d let him.
She pressed her lips together and waited. He took a deep breath and let it out, slowly.
“I know it has crossed your mind since you came under my employ that I was paying you for sex. And that is most definitely not the case. Like I told you before, that’s not what I was paying you for.” He took another deep breath and she knew whatever he was about to say was hard for him. “Yesterday … yesterday was … I don’t have words for what yesterday was. Exquisite, thrilling, fucking bliss. All of it, more.” He bit his lip and shook his head. “I have no idea what you want from me. I’m not a good guy, and I have never, ever had a relationship with a woman. But I want one with you.” He looked at her, really looking into her eyes, and the intensity of the emotion in the dark depths was like nothing she’d ever seen before. “I want everything with you. Your happiness, your pain, your pleasure, your tears, your laughter, your memories. But I need you to accept me for who I am. I can’t change. I’m a devil, and I lied before when I said I wouldn’t hurt you. I can’t help it. I’ll hurt you without meaning to, because that’s who I am. Sometimes the shadows take over and I do shit. That’s why I’m in the business I’m in. So I can hurt people and get paid for it.”
She had an idea what sort of business he was in. She’d gleaned enough from working with him.
“But you wouldn’t hurt me the way you hurt the people you get paid to hurt. That’s the difference. You’re talking about a different kind of hurt from the physical hurt. That’s what I thought you meant in Cayman.” She remember the conversation, and how opposite it was to this one right now. A thrill of excitement ran through her and she couldn’t stop the smile that spread across her face. She moved over to stand between his knees. “What you’re talking about wanting with me is what people in committed relationships get with each other. The commitment to share everything. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”
“But I find beauty in ugliness. That’s what I mean. I may hurt you so I can see that beauty.” He leaned his head on the cabinet behind him.”
That was how he found his pleasure, and she was okay with that. Especially if yesterday was an indicator.
“I didn’t know things could feel like that, Charlie,” she said quietly. “Yesterday. I was going to do it, because I wanted to please you. I knew it would hurt, but I underestimated how much. But I also saw everything you’ve been trying to tell me about pain and pleasure. It was good because it hurt so much. The pain made the pleasure so much more.”
“So, if you don’t want a committed relationship with me, I’ll pay you to continue the way we are. I need it Amelia. I didn’t realize how much.” He gripped the t-shirt she wore, tugging her closer. A smile tugged at her lips at his misunderstanding. “I need this with you. I will have it.”
His touch became needier, as if having her closer to him broke some sort of dam. His forehead touched hers as he leaned over her, gripping her ass in his hands. “This was a gift I’ll never have a hope of getting that way again.”
“I don’t know how you got the idea I don’t want a committed relationship with you. I love you, Charlie Delmonico.” She pressed a kiss against his mouth as he opened it to say something. “I don’t need you to say it back, because I know how needy and childish it sounds. But I do love you. And I’ll do what you want. You want my tears? Lick them off my face. You say you’re a devil, but I see the goodness in you, every time you touch me. I see you.”
He growled as he took her mouth, leaping off the countertop and wrapping his hands around her waist. With one motion, he had her over his shoulder and he carried her to his bedroom.
A few hours later, sunlight tried to squeeze through the cracks of his curtains, creating all sorts of interesting shadows on Amelia’s face while she slept. Charlie was torn between waking her for the office, and watching the shadows change on Amelia’s face as the sun crept higher in the sky.
After he’d carried her back to his room, he’d taken his time with her. He couldn’t say he was exploring her body, since he’d been learning about her for a week, but he certainly found new ways to pleasure her. A gentler way, something he’d never actually done before.
He’d been slow. Giving instead of taking. He could still here her moans of pleasure as they reverberated through his room.
Charlie had been sweet, and he’d actually liked it almost as much as his usual way. He laughed to himself as he reached for a tendril of dark hair and pushed it off her face.
Yet, he still didn’t know anything about her. Not about her fears, her passions, aside from his new coffeemaker. He didn’t know anything about what scared her.
And for some reason, now he wanted to know so she would never feel fear again. (?)
“What scares you, Amelia?” He asked in a whisper, more to himself than to the sleeping figure beside him, but she answered him anyway. She must have heard him in some dream state.
“Cameron,” a shaky voice coming out as a fearful moan answered him as she pulled the covers tighter around her neck. A protective gesture, it made his fist clench.
Every muscle inside him tensed. A man scared her? Suddenly, so much made sense. Her flinching when he was angry, made quick movements. Her morphing from aroused to terrified, when he’d first brought up his penchant for pain with his bed play.
So many little things. This Cameron guy had actually physically hurt her. Scared her.
“Cameron who?” He growled, no longer having the option to let her sleep. He needed an answer.
Amelia came awake with a start, her eyes darting around the room wildly until they settled on Charlie and relaxed into a half-awake state.
“Cameron who? I need a last name.”
“I was dreaming. I’m sorry. He’s nobody.” She rolled over and snuggled up to him, her warm softness plastered against his side.
But for once, he wouldn’t be distracted.
“What did he do to you?”
Her head turned against his shoulder and she realized he wasn’t going to let it go. She sighed, closed her eyes, and said, “Fine. Ex fiancé. I got pregnant and he wanted me to abort it. When I wouldn’t, he beat me until I miscarried.” A tear leaked from her eye, and instead of licking it away, a red rage burned at him at the sight of her tears caused by another man.
Tears he caused were different than tears this douchebag did. Still, they were both Amelia’s pain. And he was going to do something about it.
Her lip quivered as she sat up, holding the sheet to her chest. A knowledge sat heavy in her eyes as she looked at him with recrimination. She knew exactly why he wanted the man’s name, and there was nothing she could do about it.
“If you don’t give it to me, I’ll find out another way.” He tried to gentle his tone, but couldn’t help the anger that burned through. He was more than pissed. The red haze he’d initially felt was seeping into his vision, clouding the edges.
“Braxton.” No more than a whisper, but he took it and held on to the feeling of retribution that settled into his gut. He had a name, and he knew exactly what to do with it.
“Get dressed. I’ll have Luther drop you at home.” Without another word, he slid out of bed and stalked to the shower, a new purpose in his step.
Luther drove her home in blessed silence. What was Charlie going to do? Last night had been so beautiful, and she had no idea why she had messed everything up by saying Cameron’s name out loud. She’d been dreaming something pleasant, probably about the beach and sunshine, and then Cameron had suddenly appeared, unbidden.
He was a horrible person, but for a brief moment in time, he’d been kind enough to her that she’d wanted to spend her life with him, start a family with him. The monster hadn’t shown up until he felt trapped. That was human nature, wasn’t it?
She was afraid Charlie would kill him, and then his blood would be on her hands.
She had to stop him.
When Luther pulled up in front of her house, she leaned forward.
“Wait for me, please? It won’t take me long to shower and change. I need to go back and stop Ch—Mr. Delmonico.”
Luther chuckled. “You can try, but he’s in a mood. Not sure you’ll be able to.”
Luther probably knew Charlie better than she did. He’d certainly known him longer.
“I have to try.”
“Fair enough. I’ll wait.”
Amelia was not prepared for what happened next. Nothing could have prepared her. Even with everything she knew about Charlie as a “fixer” or whatever, she never could have reconciled the Charlie who had been so tender, so demanding, so sensual, with the cold man who waited for them at the front of his office building.
He didn’t speak as he got into the car with her, simply nodded at Luther.
“So you decided to join us?” He said it as he looked at her, then he faced forward again. “Should be educating for you.” His jaw ticked as he clenched it.
She could ask all sorts of questions, probably should, so she would know what to expect, but a part of her already did. The sinking part that despaired and screamed at her to stop him. But she didn’t know how, and as she thought about Cameron and what he’d done to her, she wasn’t sure she wanted to.
Cameron had betrayed her. He’d been a golden boy, showering her with love. He’d convinced her to quit school, three years into college and marry him. They made plans, she moved in with him. The plans were so consuming she suddenly found she had no time for her friends. She barely saw her own family. But his were with her constantly. His mother helped her plan, choosing flowers, cakes, the church, everything. She was paying for most of it, after all, as she was constantly reminding her.
When Amelia ended up pregnant, it clearly messed with Cameron’s plans for himself. He couldn’t be a whatever with a baby at home. Apparently, he never wanted kids, but hadn’t deemed it necessary to tell her.
He’d been so angry. She’d been hospitalized for days, recovering from the beating. Thankfully, one of the nurses had called her Grandma, and she’d picked Amelia up before Cameron could get there.
She hadn’t seen him since.
Something had happened to Amelia in that hospital room. She’d changed from the naïve woman who dreamed of being Cameron’s wife and doing whatever he wanted to a woman who’d lost her way, but was anxious to get back on track.
Unfortunately, when she’d quit school, she’d lost her financial aid. But that was the least of her worries. At least now she was free from Cameron. Right?
So she’d started over. Forgotten him and all the mistakes she’d made. And she was happy now.
And Charlie was bringing it all back to her.
Luther pulled up in front of the house that was supposed to have been hers and Cameron’s. It was a house she’d honestly never thought she’d see again. Charlie practically bounced out of the car, forgetting her in his excitement. She’d never seen him like this before.
His mouth was set in a grim determination, but there was a light in his eyes. It was a bit scary, the spark of danger that peered back at her when she called his name. The glint of danger actually made him look younger, full of life.
It made her stop short. She watched him over the top of the car, as he went to the trunk and opened it. When it slammed shut, she sat a wooden baseball bat in his hand. It was old, but looked worn, oiled with care.
She swallowed, imagining what he was going to do with it.
“Insist on seeing this?” He finally looked at her. She nodded, eyes not leaving the bat.
The bat twirled in Charlie’s massive grip, light as a feather.
He rang the doorbell, and stood there, bat placed between his feet, hands resting on top of it, as if it were a cane or something. Amelia couldn’t take her eyes off it.
Cameron answered, groggy from sleep. If he’d followed his plan, he was taking classes still, so didn’t have a regular 9-5 schedule.
As a college student, he’d probably stayed up all night partying.
“What?” He rubbed his eyes.
“Classy,” Charlie looked over at Amelia, and she smiled warily. Cameron wore his boxers and an enormous tank top that showed off skinny arms.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Cameron was looking at her, as if the suited man with the baseball bat wasn’t standing there. Charlie pushed him inside his house with a growl. “The fuck, man?”
“I don’t have man rules, but beating women is one of them. So I’m here to give you a choice.”
“I don’t know what she said about me. Bitch is a liar.”
Charlie held the baseball bat carelessly in one hand, while he pulled a gun out from under his jacket. Amelia’s eyes were riveted to the gleaming black piece of metal he waved in front of Cameron’s face.
“You can have a quick death. Easy, painless. Or you can take a beating you might survive, but it will hurt a hell of a lot more.” Charlie had Cameron crowded against the wall of the foyer. Amelia stood next to the table she’d chosen from the Pottery Barn catalogue, imaging a new vase of fresh flowers on it every week. Now, it didn’t have flowers on it. It was empty.
“Charlie, don’t.” Her voice held less fear than she felt. It was weird. She was wooden. She wanted to reach out and grab the gun, but she’d never held a gun before and the idea of having the cold metal in her hands made her not want to do that. The baseball bat, she could grab, he held it loosely enough. But she didn’t. And she didn’t know why.
“Fuck you, man. You can have her. I don’t want her anymore. It’s been years since I did.”
That hurt a little, the incident had only happened a year ago. But he had a gun waving around his face, he was probably lying to save himself.
“Not what I asked. I gave you a choice. Pay attention.”
As if he suddenly realized the seriousness of the situation, Cameron finally focused on the gun in his face. Charlie tucked it under his chin.
“Pain? Or death?”
“Look, my parents have money, I can get you what you want.”
“I have what I want. And she hurts because of you. Now fucking choose, or I’ll do it for you.” Charlie’s voice was calm, low, but deadly. A shiver coursed through Amelia.
When Cameron didn’t say anything, Amelia saw what was happening. She watched it all in a weird daze. Very calmly, Charlie put the gun back in the holster under his jacket. He shrugged it off and handed it backwards to Amelia, who took it automatically. One at a time, with the bat under one arm, he undid his cufflinks, handing them back to Amelia as well. Then he started rolling up his cuffs.
Amelia took a step sideways, getting herself out of the way, yet granting herself an excellent view of Charlie’s face.
Grim with determination. Danger still glinted from his eyes, but the anticipation was gone, and so was the light. Amelia was cold. She hugged his jacket to her body while hugging herself, unable to stop what was happening, nor look away from it.
She loved Charlie, but how far would that take her? As he raised the bat over his shoulder and swung with a grunt, she heard Cameron’s yell, the smack of wood on skin, the crunch of bones, and her own teeth chattering. It was an amalgamation of noises in the silent house.
As Charlie methodically beat Cameron with the baseball bat, his harsh breaths overriding the other man’s diminishing voice, she felt nothing but the cold.
It seeped through her clothes, chilling her to the bone. The base savagery of Charlie was because of her, she’d made this monster, and she had no idea how. Was it the dream Cameron had only been in for a split second before she’d awoken? Whatever it was, she had caused this monster to emerge from Charlie.
His motions were smooth, as he brought the bat back, then forward, only jerking to a halt when it met with Cameron’s body. He was curled up on his side, bleeding and whimpering, a shell of the man she’d once thought would be her happiness.
She realized she was flinching with each sickening thud of the bat against flesh. Charlie’s shirt had come untucked, and his shirt bunched around the holster around his arms. She focused on that to keep from thinking about what she watched. The fine fabric, wrinkling around the leather and elastic of the holster. It all fit him well, if she hadn’t been watching him beat Cameron to death, she might find it sexy.
But right now, she was fighting the nausea rising in her throat.
She had no idea if Cameron lived or died. Everything else was flashes of memory, Charlie finishing up his destruction, leading her to the car, the suppleness of the leather seats.
The city zooming by as she leaned her head against the window.
Luther’s pitying eyes in the mirror at he glanced at her.
Charlie’s cold demeanor.
She retched, bile thick in her throat, as her stomach turned upside down.
“Please pull over, Luther.” He obliged and she opened her door and threw up on the street, chunks of whatever remained in her stomach after that late night sandwich she’d eaten an eon ago. The bile of what she’d seen.
Her eyes focused on her surroundings, figuring out where she was. She reached back into the car and grabbed her bag.
“I’ll call a cab home,” she risked a glance at Charlie as she spoke. He watched her, his eyes looking tortured.
“I’ll walk to the office, Luther can take you home.” His voice was hoarse, and she couldn’t be sure if it was from yelling at Cameron while he beat him to a pulp, or if it was remorse.
She doubted it was remorse.
Amelia shook her head, her hand in a white-knuckled grip with her shoulder bag. “I need to walk for a while. I have money for a cab.”
Amelia slammed the door shut.
She stepped over her vomit and walked down the street. There was a park here somewhere. She was in a foggy daze as she found it and sat on a bench. She didn’t notice Luther pulling the sleek town car up to the curb to wait for her.
“Are you alright?” A jogger pulled her out of her thoughts.
“Of course,” she replied, not fully comprehending where she was.
“You have some blood …” he pointed at her chest, and she looked down. The white blouse she’d worn today to the office had blood spatters on it.
A short beeping honk drew her attention to the car idling at the curb. Luther was waiting for her.
She supposed that was just as well. A cab ride home would cost close to a hundred dollars.
Ensconced in the backseat, she let out a heavy sigh.
“I’m just going to say one thing, and then I’ll be quiet the rest of the drive.” Luther began, his voice soothing, as if she were a wild animal. She supposed he was used to talking to Charlie this way. “I’ve known him a long time, and he’s never taken to a woman like he has you. What he did today wasn’t for himself. It was for you.”
“He did that for me?”
“I can tell it was misguided, but his dark heart was where he thought it should be.”
Luther, true to his word, was quiet, until they were almost home. As he pulled into her neighborhood, he spoke again. “We both like you, Miss Amelia. Of course, he loves you. And I love you by proxy. I haven’t seen him smile the way he has this last couple of weeks. You will be good for him, if you try.”
She was surprised she wasn’t crying, but she was sniffling, trying to keep back tears. She wasn’t sure she wanted to try at this point.
“I don’t think I can, Luther.” When he put the car in park, she paused before opening the door. “Thank you for everything.”
“I’ll see you,” he gave her a soft smile, and she didn’t have the heart to tell him she didn’t think he would. That he was the only man who ever had.
Charlie walked to his apartment and changed before heading to the office. While Luther drove him nearly everywhere, he actually lived only a few blocks from where he worked, so it wasn’t a long hike.
Yet it gave him time to think.
He didn’t regret beating the man who’d hurt Amelia, but he regretted the consequences of the action. However, it was who he was. She needed to see it now, before she got in too deep. She thought she loved him, she’d told him so, but now there was no way she could.
He, on the other hand…
If she’d been pregnant with Charlie’s child, there was no way he would be so stupid as to ever do anything to make her leave him. He would turn into a ridiculous sap who doted on her every need, want, and desire. He would be putty in her hands.
That guy didn’t deserve a second glance from her, much less to be her husband.
Charlie tried to lose himself in work, confirming plans, making new ones. Now that the mayoral opposition was taking care of, Savage’s ratings were high, and he was sure to win his candidacy. The payment had come through in his account, and now he only had to start in on the High School football player’s reputation before colleges started dropping him. The kid’s parents were rich, but he’d been busted breaking into someone’s house.
Charlie was tempted to let the kid ride it out, claim the job impossible, let him live with his consequences. He couldn’t imagine a good scenario where he learned from his mistakes and turned out to be a good human after Charlie repaired things with the public perception.
But it was a paycheck, and this was what Charlie did. So he made a few phone calls, spoke with the kid and told him where to be when, and got the ball rolling.
One of the women on his payroll, Violet, would be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the kid would be there to save her. A web-extra reporter would also be there with his camera, coincidentally doing a piece on neighborhood crime and would capture the entire thing on camera.
The kid would be touted as a local hero, a romance would blossom between he and Violet, and he would start doing charity work for younger kids who got into trouble with the law. He would amend his ways and turn over a new leaf. Yadda yadda.
Reputation restored. Hopefully the colleges would continue fighting over who got to have him start as their quarterback in the fall.
His work would be done. But then again, who really gave a shit if one more petty criminal got away with stealing the family’s silver?
He didn’t. But the kid’s parents were willing to pay a small mint for it, so who was he to question it?
Even through his work, his thoughts kept straying to the events of this morning. He couldn’t have changed his actions if he tried, but he knew without a doubt that they had lost him the person who was quickly becoming more important to him than Luther, his best friend since childhood.
No, he couldn’t have changed the events from today any more than he could turn his skin green. It wasn’t just the beating, although that probably would have caused it easily enough. But the reasoning behind it, a pregnancy, tipped him over the edge of reason. What would he give for the chance to see Amelia’s belly swell with his own child inside of her?
Offspring weren’t something he’d ever imagined for himself. But with her? Absofuckinglutely.
She was the only woman he possibly could imagine it with.
And for that asshole to take it for granted like that was unthinkable. He was a murderer, in every sense of the word.
He couldn’t imagine Amelia’s pain when it had happened. It was the stuff of nightmares, and he wished he could have been there for her, to witness it, to absorb it and take it away.
No wonder she fucking flinched.
It was a subconscious protection thing, her curling of her body inward, an attempt to protect herself from unseen dangers.
A heavy weight sat on top of his chest, making it difficult to breathe. He wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but he had an idea. Different from his usual adrenaline crash after a well-deserved beating, it filled his limbs with lead. It was the crushing weight of anticipated despair. She would leave him. She had left him, hadn’t she?
Because she was a good woman, and couldn’t be with someone like him. She needed a good man, a doctor, or humanitarian, or someone of that ilk. He was certainly not that man.
He needed to let her go to find that man.
It hurt, and he hated it. His own pain was something he’d said goodbye to a long time ago. It had been a conscious decision to not feel it ever again, to not feel small from the ridiculous emotion of emotional pain.
But he welcomed it now.
He surveyed his desk, his office with its glass walls. His domain. He’d built this.
Charlie suddenly didn’t want to be here.
He wanted to go to his apartment, smell his sheets, see her imprint on the pillow from this morning, before everything fell apart.
Then he would wash the sheets to get rid of that memory, and he would put her out of his mind. There was no need to dwell on her. He had things to do, and accomplish, and he knew now, he couldn’t do it with her.
Amelia didn’t have the heart to even call and quit. The idea of hearing Charlie’s voice again, the disappointment she couldn’t handle him, it was too much.
So she took the chicken-shit way out. She didn’t call him to say she wasn’t coming back. She didn’t give him a piece of her mind for doing what he’d done to Cameron. She did call 9-1-1 to tell them there was a man in distress at his address, but nothing more.
She ran and hid in her home to lick the wounds of being yet again, too little, too much, just not right for someone.
Of course, the nurse was there, sitting with her crocheting in the easy chair.
“You can go. I’m not sure about tomorrow, but I’ll call you.” Her voice pleaded with the friendly lady to not argue with her. She didn’t want to explain that the man who’d hired them both was a vile man.
Even if those words didn’t quite describe him. She wasn’t going there, not even in her head.
She opened her mouth to respond, but snapped it shut, smiling vaguely instead.
“I understand.” She rose and gathered her things to leave. “But please, keep me updated. I don’t mind coming in for a reduced price, if you need me to.”
Amelia was grateful for the gesture, but didn’t think it would help. She was currently unemployed and didn’t think she’d find a job with no degree that would afford the kind woman’s efficient care.
She had no job. Gram needed tending. And she was suddenly overwhelmed and frustrated.
When the woman left, Amelia went into Gram’s room to remind herself of her goals.
She’d completely lost sight of them with Charlie.
Gram was resting for the afternoon. She napped in the afternoon most days, after her grand pickle-making endeavors. Today was no different, except she sat up with a book in her hand.
“You’re home early.” Gram looked at her with one raised eyebrow and Amelia was surprised the woman was aware she wasn’t supposed to be here, much less what time of day it was.
“Well, I broke my engagements to spend a little time with you over the next few days.”
“Quit your job, you mean? Downtown businesses don’t usually let employees take time off to visit home.”
Amelia stifled the gasp that wanted to escape. Gram didn’t observe her need to work a real job when she was stuck in her regency romance world.
“Yes. I quit.”
“What happened with Mr. Delmonico? You seemed rather taken with him, as I recall. Although my memory isn’t what it used to be. I could be remembering wrong.”
Amelia’s mind raced. Number one, Charlie had only been here once, and that was before they’d done anything together. Number two, Gram didn’t remember anything right, so the idea she was getting this at all was almost laughable.
“We didn’t … mesh.” She settled for the understatement, seeing the lie for what it was. Physically, they’d meshed so freaking good. Her skin heated at the thought.
“I see, well, you’ll need another job, then. Yes? And don’t worry about the meshing aspect of things.” She said the word as if it tasted bad.
“Okay, mesh isn’t the right word. But it didn’t work, okay? Tell me about your day.”
Gram waved at her as if she’d asked about her personal hygiene. “Same as always. But I do want more flowers. I’d like to have a garden with flowers I can pick for inside the house. It’s a bit drab, don’t you think?”
“Yeah. Sure.” She was still in a state of surprise at the unreality of this conversation. She wasn’t having to make up stuff about a ball or something and they were talking about real things like flowers.
“But about this man, you were happy. I hadn’t seen you that happy since you were a child. It was nice. I’d like to see you that way more often.”
“Me too, Gram. But Charlie isn’t the right man for me.”
No, most definitely not.
“So what sort of job are you going to look for next?”
That was the million dollar question, wasn’t it?
She needed to take advantage of this rare moment of lucidity from Gram, before like a fleeting memory, it disappeared.
But she couldn’t think of a damn thing to talk about, put on the spot like this.
“My biggest regret of my life is that I didn’t find myself in my youth. I didn’t have the time with marriage and babies to discover what I wanted with my life. By the time I made the time, I was too old to do anything about it.”
“What did you want with your life, Gram?”
Her eyes took on a faraway sparkle. It wasn’t the faraway look of Gram not being present though. The woman was all here, right now.
“I wanted experiences. Romance. Adventure. Harold was so focused on getting us things, a new car, a house with a yard, another barbecue pit. But I wanted to try escargot, I wanted to dance in the rain, I wanted to see the ocean. Grow an award-winning rose. Experiences. Not things. But I was too old for any of it by the time I realized it. That's what you should use this time for.”
Charlie carried the manila envelope through the lobby and out the door, as if it didn’t cause the fiery pit of alarm to crawl around inside his belly. People didn’t mail him things. Not unless it was a bill. But his name scrawled across the front of this, no address, no return address, told him this wasn’t regular mail.
Luther opened the car door for him, as usual, with his customary smile, but it faded when he saw the look on Charlie’s face.
“Something up, boss?”
“Not sure, but I think so. Take the long way to Nonna’s.” Tonight was the first poker game with the guys. It wasn’t the ideal situation, but he needed them for his own ends, and was playing along. Usually, a phone call for help was sufficient, but he sensed these men had a plan, and he was only an auxiliary piece of it.
He was curious, if nothing else.
But this envelope was heavy in his hands, and he needed the interior of his car, a sanctuary of sorts of look at the contents.
For the first time in weeks, he didn’t think of Amelia as soon as he slid into the creamy leather seats. He didn’t imagine lost moments with her in the silence of his car, her gasps and moans. He was too curious about the envelope.
He opened it, sliding the contents out. Glossy photos, still stuck together from wherever they’d been developed. Glossy photos that were only used rarely, for photo frames in family homes, and in this case, for blackmail.
Proof of something. But what? He would have to look to see.
They were dark, but the contents were clear enough. There was a picture, clearly showing Charlie’s face and index finger as he beckoned someone out of his car window. Then inside his car, as he spoke to someone. Then handing them a baggie of white powder.
It was the punk, Dessert Eagle, the night he’d given him the doctored drugs. Pictures showing them clearly. The kid’s silver pinky ring of the skull clearly shown in the photos.
Someone was trying to blackmail him. Had a camera on the punk. He wondered if the kid had known?
Then the next picture was of something that surprised him.
A street view of the two of them getting in his car. Pictures of them at his desk in more intimate poses. His hand on her bare ass. His dick inside her, his hands pressing into the flesh of her hips. The look of pure ecstasy on both of their faces.
From the fucking coffee maker.
The last picture was of her in a yard, what he presumed was at her home. She was digging in the dirt, a faraway look in her eyes. He studied this picture the most, since it was the only one he hadn’t been present for, yet the most threatening.
She was so sweet, flowered gardening gloves on her delicate hands. She wore jeans and a t-shirt, and sweat made her hair stick to her face around the edges. He could almost smell her sweet innocence as the picture showed her lowering a plant into the turned up dirt.
The one word was written on a piece of paper that fluttered to the floor as he stared at the photo. He picked it up, toying with it lightly before crumbling it in his hand.
He almost laughed at the thought of blackmail. The last man who’d tried found himself at the bottom of the river. But with the pictures of the kid taken from the kid’s pov told him this was the guy who was trying to undercut his contacts on the street.
The same man who he was meeting about tonight.
The pictures were meant to be scary, but Charlie smiled to himself, plotting his moves. The pictures were a first step, he’d wait a few days for the second step: contact.
Then he’d tell Doyle to go fuck himself.
Luther silently watched him through the rear-view mirror as he drove to the restaurant. His friend didn’t say a word, understanding the mood. That was good, Charlie needed his poker face right now.
“Are you here for the private party with Luca?” The hostess flashed him a sweet smile as she looked up from her book at the front of the restaurant. It was full tonight, a charming din flowed around the room. He simply nodded and she led him to a room right next to where kitchen noises came from.
As he entered the room, he noticed first the hushed quiet as a contrast to the Friday evening noise in the main part of the restaurant. Then he noticed a side table, filled with food and drinks. He strode over to pour himself a drink out of the bottle of scotch, then turned to the men around the table.
Mack, Luca, Dean, and Joe, all there, waiting for his arrival.
“Am I late?”
“No, we got here early so they could talk me into letting you join our endeavor.” Joe wasn’t smiling, and Charlie knew already he was the most powerful of the group. The alpha of the alphas. Charlie had done some research. Joe had started an art import/export business about a year ago. He already had the international contacts the rest wanted. He’d lost his wife and child four years ago on a vacation in Mexico.
Dean was a veteran, had been crawling around rabbit holes since he’d lost his sister to drugs and prostitution on the street.
Luca ran this restaurant, and very publicly, with his grandmother. Their story had been in the local paper about a year and a half ago, when he’d first opened it up. Her recipes from back home were the main staple, but her American Dream story here in the states was what was newsworthy. She’d been blah blah blah, I don’t love this turn for Luca.
He had his suspicions about Mack’s connection to the guy. Doyle fucked whatever hole he could find, and usually did it out of convenience more than anything else. Charlie couldn’t fault the man for that, but he apparently took no precautions, nor helped support any consequences. Mack’s mother had been a housekeep in Doyle’s house right before he was born. Charlie figured Mack was an illegitimate sone. (fix all this. I think Dean is the son somewhere in some notes?)
“So what’s on tonight’s agenda?” Charlie couldn’t help but derail his thoughts. These guys were not his friends. They were clients. “What exactly are you going to do to Doyle, and how am I supposed to help?”
“We are going to make a plan to take down his illegal operations as much as we can. When we’ve got him running scared, we’re going to buy 51%, take him over, and ruin him.” Dean spoke the words on a growl. It was menacing enough to make goosebumps prickled over Charlie’s skin, and he was glad he was on the right side of the beast.
Luca finished shuffling the cards and settled them in front of Charlie to cut them.
“Do you have the money?”
Luca started dealing, laying three cards out in the middle of the table.
“That’s where you come in.” Mack seemed affable enough, but the glint to his eyes spoke of an underlying ruthlessness. “I can get it, but it would be suspicious, and we don’t have the knowledge to do what we need to do.”
Luca brought out a deck of cards and started shuffling.
“Do you have a number you’re aiming for?”
“Yes. And we can all come up with a fourth of it.”
“I should know how you’re going to do it. I can help cover some tracks, in addition to making the money legitimate.”
“Well, I’m stealing it from him, and some of his associates. I’ve developed a program that will take it out of their accounts in small amounts. It can run constantly, taking a dollar here, a dollar there, until I have it.”
“Okay, that would work, as long as you don’t get caught. But I have a contact that could help if you do get caught. He owes me a favor.”
“I’m robbing banks. You got contacts for that?” Dean was daring him to do something, tell him it was a stupid idea, or something. It was pretty out there, but Charlie didn’t doubt the man’s skills. He was a team leader in the Marines, Delta. Surely the dude knew how to make a plan.
“Do you need people? Or cover ups?”
“Probably both. I don’t have a lot of friends left who want to switch over to the dark side.”
“Then, yes.” He looked at his cards to see he had a bunch of shit. The other guys looked at theirs too. Nobody moved.
“I’m taking down his fencing operations with Joe’s shipping assets and whatever contacts you have that can help.” Luca fanned his cards, straightened them back up, then fanned them out again. Then he looked at Joe. “You gonna tell him what you’re doing?” Joe who had laid out the blind and then picked up his cards. They all tossed in the anti.
Joe looked up at Charlie over his cards. “I’m ransoming his grandson.”
He got the feeling tonight was a test of sorts. They were throwing out some shocking shit to try to get him to lose his composure. Surely.
He wouldn’t give it to them.
Drolly, he turned to Luca. “And you’re going to make all of your share by selling women?” Charlie didn’t have a lot of things he didn’t do, but he really found trafficking distasteful.
The guy shrugged before laying down the next three cards in quick succession. “I’m going to set the women free. Flush most of the drugs. Fence the stolen merchandise. Mack said he would set me up with an online operation dealing in bitcoin and shit.” He looked at Charlie, who was feeling relieved at the no-trafficking women thing. “It’ won’t be enough though. I can make some money selling liquor and electronic pieces, but not enough to take him down.”
Charlie looked at the room around him. “You could do an underground gambling thing here. Extend credit to the losers who have addictions, take their houses when they can’t pay. That sort of thing. Quick money. I can get my guy on vice to make people look the other way.”
“I may have some ideas for that. My street contacts have turned to Doyle, and they’re giving me the squeeze. Give me a few days to think on that, and I may have something for some money for you.” Charlie offered a small smile he didn’t feel. “Besides, it doesn’t really take skill to set up a poker tournament in the back room, does it?”
“That’s a lot of poker tournies…” Luca mused.
“That brings up the other question. If you’re doing this with us, how the hell are we going to pay you for services? We’re going to need all of our money for the buy out.”
“Well, that’s easy. You make your shares of the money one fifth instead of one fourth, and bring me in as a partner. In return, I have a few favors as well.” He leaned back and tossed his cards face down on the table. The new cards didn’t do shit for his hand. “I have a girl that needs a legitimate job, I need some security on my electronics, and there are times when I could use some muscle.” He looked at each man in turn, seeing the flash of interest in their eyes. “Now, let’s talk details.
Joe leaned back in his chair, fishing something out of his jacket pocket. “I sold Mrs. Doyle an atrocious art piece last month, and she’s invited me to her annual anniversary party. I managed to make copies of the invite, if anyone wants one.”
He dropped five expensive linen envelopes on the table, and Charlie grinned.
This might be fun.