Three days earlier
The unmistakable aroma of antiseptic and cleaning solution bit Luce's nostrils, waking her. Someone from housekeeping swished the mop around the floor. Without thinking, she pulled out her handkerchief and covered her nose, trying not to be too offensive to the woman who was just doing her job.
Luce hated hospitals. They only brought death, as far as she was concerned. The smells, the lights, and the nurses clad in scrubs all reminded her of her time spent with her dying grandfather. She'd kept a bedside vigil as he struggled to battle the aggressive cancer that finally claimed his life. He handled his pain as he handled all loss, especially that of his wife—taken in the prime of her life. Then the loss of his only daughter, Luce's mother. He had faced his impending death with dignity and honor, never complaining about the disease that had a stranglehold on his last breaths. She'd never forget the last sound as the nurse had pushed her out of his room. The flat-line beep had torn through her like a sharp tanto blade, forever scoring her soul.
Luce shaded her eyes as the flickering fluorescent lights played on her last nerve, just as they did every time they were flicked on. Nurses, unannounced, rushed in to take Brooke's vitals, and housekeeping dashed around the room to clean, avoiding Luce's penetrating gaze. The mop swerved under the bed, just missing Luce's loafers. She raised her feet as the swirling machine darted to where she'd just been taking up real estate, and then it was gone again, leaving behind the skid marks of acrid cleaning solution. They'd done this dance every day for the past week, and it always ended the same way. Backing out, the woman pulled the bucket backward, slung the curtain closed, and Luce ordered, “Lights.”
The buzzing ended immediately, and Luce could go back to her vigil, this time watching Brooke breathe and knowing she would get out of the death chamber. Luce planted her chin back on the bed and watched Brooke sleep. Every once in a while she mumbled or moaned in pain, and like a working dog, Luce alerted, stood, and ran her fingers over Brooke's brow, trying to offer some comfort. Most times Brooke turned her head away from Luce's touch, but the few times she'd awoken, she offered Luce a meager smile, her eyes barely registering Luce's presence. Then she mumbled an apology as she faded back into her drug-induced fog.
It pained Luce to see Brooke so damaged, so broken. The stab wound to her side had almost been fatal. In the mix of panic and urgency that day, Luce had shattered every speed record and blown through most red lights as she raced to get her lover to the hospital. She'd watched Brooke, motionless in the backseat, with one eye and kept the other riveted on traffic. The only other thing she focused on was the revenge she would exact on Frank for nearly taking Brooke's life. She'd promised her grandfather only weeks earlier as he lay dying in this very hospital that Frank would pay. Now she was doubly sure it would be a slow, painful death, Yakuza style.
Luce rolled her head to the side so she could rest and still watch Brooke. She'd been there for hours already. A bedside watch was a small price to pay compared to what could have happened. Luce laced her fingers between Brooke's and brought the fragile digits to her lips, kissing each one. She'd survived the vicious attack at the hands of Frank, her grandfather's own Benedict Arnold. The second-in-command had defected to the Russians and was hell-bent on destroying Luce, her business, and everything she loved.
She couldn't even imagine her world without her lover, yet she'd almost had to. Her heart had hardened when she lost her grandfather. The loss of Tamiko had pushed her to the edge. But the attack on Brooke almost broke her. When she wasn't focused on Brooke, her thoughts of revenge comforted her most. She was relieved when Colby Water had informed her that the charges against her boss, Deputy Chapel, would stick. Luce hated the way the story had played out, but dirty DOJ officials were worse than crime bosses. You expected bosses to do whatever they could to get ahead, but a government official? Oh, that was criminal.
Luce rubbed her cheek against Brooke's knuckles, then turned her hand over and kissed Brooke's palm.
The soft crackle of Brooke's voice broke Luce's concentration. “How long have you been here, baby?”
“Hey. How are you feeling?” Luce smiled, stood, and kissed Brooke's forehead. “Are you thirsty?”
Brooke persisted. “How long?”
“Liar. You don't have to play nursemaid, honey.” Brooke tapped her lips, and Luce complied. Delicately, she placed a soft kiss on Brooke's lips. Resting her forehead against Brooke's, she answered truthfully. “I'm going to be here every day until you get out.”
“Honey,” Brooke whispered. “You need to go back to work. They're taking good care of me. Don't worry.”
But Luce did worry. Brooke hadn't healed as easily as the doctors hoped. She'd contracted a staph infection, and that added to the trauma her body was already fighting. They had to find another course of antibiotics, because the last one hadn't done the trick, so they'd hit her hard with stronger stuff. Even with all of Luce's money, she couldn't buy Brooke's health.
The doctors all said the same thing. “It's a marathon, not a race. So be prepared.” She'd heard the comment so often that finally she told the doctors if they said it one more time, she couldn't be responsible for her actions.
“Go home.” Brooke was trying to sound firm, her pale-bluish lips pressed into a thin, tight line.
“Stop,” Luce said, patting Brooke's hand. Pulling the chair closer, she kissed her hands and smiled. “I'm not going anywhere. End of discussion.”
Before she could say anything else, her phone buzzed. She ignored it and focused on Brooke.
“Are you going to get that? It could be important.”
“No. I told Sammy and the guys not to call me under any circumstances, so it isn't business.” The phone went dead. “See. It's not important.”
Brooke put her cool hand on Luce's face, her thumbs running over Luce's top lip. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” Luce said, then gently bit Brooke's thumb in a playful way.
“I want to start a family.”
“What?” Luce asked around the thumb still in her mouth.
Brooke looked at her and hooked her thumb, pulling Luce's face closer to hers. “I want to have kids. I want something that grounds us.”
Luce just sat there, stunned. Kids? They hadn't even talked marriage, yet. Not that Luce was opposed to marriage. Almost losing Brooke had solidified that longing. But family?
“Shouldn't we get married first?” Luce said as she pulled the thumb from her lips.
“Are you asking?”
“Of course, but not like this…I mean…well, this isn't how I wanted to propose. Besides, we need to get you well, back on your feet.”
Luce stood and smoothed her button-down, tucking the tails of her shirt back into her slacks.
“I'm not saying right away, Luce. But someday”
“Oh, right. Okay, sure. Someday.”
Luce's phone buzzed again. Without thinking, she pulled it and recognized the number. Poking the face, she sent it to voicemail, then cursed herself for even looking. Brooke's request for kids had caught her off guard, discombobulated her world.
Was she ready for that kind of responsibility? Her phone went off again, and once more, she looked at it without thinking. Sammy was persistent. He was also going to pay for his determination.
“You should probably get that. It must be important if they keep calling,” Brooke insisted.
“It's just Sammy. He knows better. I gave him strict—”
“Then it is important. He wouldn't risk your wrath unless something needed your attention.”
Brooke was right. Sammy knew better than to disregard her. Looking at Brooke, she nodded and pointed to the door. “I'll take it in the hallway.”
“You don't have to go outside. I'm awake.”
“Right,” Luce said, sitting down. Adjusting herself in the chair she had been intimate with over the past few weeks, Luce turned her head away from Brooke and whispered, “This better be life-or-death, Sammy.”
“Boss, I'm sorry to bother you, but you got a delivery.”
“That's not life-or-death, Sammy.”
“Stick it in my office, and when I get there I'll open it.”
“Well, I don't think I can put it in your office.”
Now Luce was getting agitated. “Okay, take the fucking package to my house, and when I get home tonight, I'll deal with it.”
“Uhm, Boss. I think you better come to the office. Now.”
Luce stood and stepped out into the hallway so Brooke couldn't hear her yelling. “What the fuck is wrong with you, Sammy? Put the fucking package in—”
“Boss, it's a woman.”
“What's a woman?”
“The package. It's a woman, and she says she needs to deliver a message to you. Says she's supposed to give it only to you.”
“You've got to be kidding me.”
“No, I wish I was, but I think you need to get over here, now. I can't explain it to you. You'll have to see it with your own eyes.”
The hair on Luce's neck stood on end. Sammy sounded strange. He never got frustrated or scared, and he sure didn't call her about a situation when he could handle it himself. In fact, he rarely called her to handle a situation. That's why he was her second-in-command. She didn't have to micro-manage him, and he never let her down.
“Are you on speaker?”
“Okay, is someone forcing you to call me? You okay?”
“Boss, I just think you need to get over here. You know, I wouldn't call if it wasn't…”
Luce pressed him. “If it wasn't what?”
“I can't explain it, Boss.”
“Don't move. I'm on my way.”
“Please tell Ms. Erickson I'm sorry.”
Luce didn't reply. She cut him off and stuffed the phone into her pocket as she whispered, “This better be fucking important.”
“Everything all right?” Brooke whispered as she smoothed the veins on the back of Luce's hand. Luce had been hovering ever since the attack. While she loved her girlfriend with all her heart, Luce was wearing a path in the cement of her kennel, acting like a pent-up pit bull with too much energy. It was starting to wear on her, too. “Honey, why don't you find out what's going on?”
Brooke tried to turn on her side to face Luce, but the knife wound she'd suffered seemed to pull no matter how she moved. Frank had almost taken her life, and all she could see on Luce's face was revenge when the subject came up. Her ex, Colby Water, had come by to visit and give Luce some information on the status of the case against Luce. Whatever they'd talked about had gone right over Brooke's head. The painkillers had made the last week an absolute blur, and justifiably so, the doctor had said when she complained. She needed to rest to recuperate. Now, if her body would just hurry things up.
When she was awake, she'd had lots of time to think. Her mind wandered to the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens, and all she knew was that she was thinking about long-term things, like marriage and kids. Brooke wasn't certain Luce was on the same track as she was, but she wanted to find out. Sending out the first trial balloon had told her what she'd expected—Luce wasn't quite ready, yet.
“Sweetheart?” Luce bent down and lay on the bed face-to-face with Brooke. “You okay?”
Brooke offered a slight smile. “Yeah. I'm good.” She reached up and ran her fingers along Luce's cheek and then her lips. She caressed the slight bow of her top lip and then let her finger slip inside her mouth. “I love you.”
Luce bit the tip of Brooke's finger, spearing her to her core.
Talking around her arousal, Luce smiled and said, “You're going to make me forget you're in a hospital.”
“Is that the only thing you ever think of?”
“That's my dragon.” Brooke pinched her chin and pulled Luce's lips closer. Without further words, Brooke allowed Luce to roll her to her back and let her passion flair. Maybe that would help fire off some loose nervous energy. Before things could move any further, Luce's phone went off again, the moment lost. At least for Brooke.
“You better get that.” She pulled back and smiled at her ardent lover.
“Grrr.” Luce pulled out the phone, looked at the screen, and then tucked it back into her jacket. “I better go. Sammy's not going to give up.”
“I don't know what's going on, but promise me you'll be careful.”
Luce picked up Brooke's hand and kissed the back of it, then turned it over and kissed her palm. “I'll tell you everything when I get back. I promise. No more keeping you in the dark.”
Brooke didn't plan to make Luce keep that promise. Her business was sealed in secrecy, and it was probably better if she wasn't a part of that side of Luce's life. It had almost cost her her own life. However, it was her own fault. If she'd listened to Luce, she probably wouldn't have been stabbed or watched Lynn die right in front of her.
She'd never forget seeing her bodyguard Lynn dead, lying in a pool of her own blood. Her vacant eyes still haunted Brooke's dreams. In fact, she relived the whole day repeatedly, wishing the outcome had been different. But she couldn't will a different set of circumstances for them all. She would carry this scar for the rest of her life, like the one she wore. It would never leave her.
“You don't have to tell me anything, honey. Your business is your business.”
“No. That's what got us into this situation in the beginning. I pushed you away, thinking it was for your own good. But it only created an opening for someone to capitalize on, and look at the damage it caused, the lives that were lost. I'll never forgive myself for what happened to you and Lynn.” Luce ducked her head and rubbed Brooke's knuckles against the side of her face. “Ever,” she whispered.
“Give it time, sweetheart. Give it time. Now go. Sammy's waiting.”
The gentleness with which Luce kissed her sent a shiver through Brooke. At least some things were starting to get back to normal.
“We should find out when you're getting sprung from this place.”
“Not soon enough for me.” Brooke smiled and then motioned with her hands. “Shoo.”
“I'll see you in a few hours.”
“Go.” Brooke made an attempt to shove Luce off her and toward the door, but her body was immovable.
“Are you that ready to get rid of me?” Luce was joking.
“No, my love, but the sooner you go and see what's wrong with Sammy, the sooner you can fix the problem and come back.”
“Hmm.” Luce's forehead creased with doubt.
“I'll see you later.”
Without another word, Luce turned to leave.
“Can you turn off the lights, please?”
Luce looked back at Brooke and winked. “What did you have in mind?”
“Sleep,” she said flatly.
“Oh.” Hitting the lights, Luce said softly, “I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
Brooke wondered how her life had come to this. A simple reporter who was now the lover of a Yakuza crime boss. Now, the question was, would she finally be able to control that little dragon Luce carried around?
Luce pushed her SUV through the city. The quicker she handled the issue at the office, the quicker she could get back to Brooke. As for the Russian, well, his daughter still worked for Luce, and eventually he'd want to see her. When he did, Luce would be ready. She wasn't a prisoner. Just the opposite. She could leave any time she wanted. Luce hoped she would, and when she did, Luce anticipated that she would lead them right to Petrov.
Luce pulled into her spot in front of Potter Enterprises and could see Sammy pacing, waiting for her. He stabbed the cigarette into the hot concrete and then picked up the butt.
“Boss, I'm so sorry, but she says she isn't leaving. She has a message for you, and she says only she can give it to you. Said her life depended on it and—”
Luce put her hand up. “Sammy.”
“Did you get Lynn's family taken care of?”
Lynn's death had hit Luce hard. Knowing Frank had killed her made it even tougher. She hadn't spilled all the details of Lynn's death when she visited Lynn's parents. When they asked why, Luce had only one answer: she died in the service of another. The stoic face of Lynn's mother was the epitome of Japanese culture. She simply looked at Luce, closed her eyes, and bowed. She took her leave as Luce discussed the funeral arrangements and the money they would receive to compensate for the loss of their daughter. They knew the life of the Yakuza could be short, but to Luce, Lynn's death was unacceptable.
Turf wars weren't exactly uncommon for Luce and her business, so being at war with the Russian was the cost of doing business. Except he trafficked in drugs and flesh, and she didn't allow that type of trade in her territory. Clearly Petrov didn't like rules, but he liked battle, and it was clear one was raging between her and Petrov. Frank would be enemy number one in that war, and he was going down first. Whatever advantage Petrov thought he had by having Frank around would soon be a liability.
“Yes, Oyabun.” Sammy bowed, then quickly opened the huge dragon door.
“I want you to personally visit her parents once a month and present them with the check.”
“Now, tell me what the hell is going on in my office.” Luce pressed the elevator button, pulled off her long black coat, and slung it over her arm. Pulling her arm in tight, she could feel the Beretta Nano just under her armpit. It gave her a sense of reassurance, tucked away in the nylon tank-top concealer. She'd started carrying her gun again, having become a bit lax just before the attack on Brooke, but that would never happen again.
“Who's in my office, Sammy?”
“Oyabun, if I told you, you wouldn't believe me. So you'll just have to see it for yourself.”
“Who's in there with her?”
“Momo and Ms. Wentworth.” Momo had replaced Lynn and moved up in the family ranks when Frank had killed her second, who was protecting Brooke. He'd regarded his position with the same intensity as Lynn had when she was in Luce's inner circle.
“Who's with Kat?”
Petrov's daughter, Kat, was Luce's bargaining chip, and she wasn't about to lose the one thing Petrov valued almost as much as money. He'd tried to plant Katerina in the club, trying to make Luce think she had simply applied for a job in Luce's new VIP club. The dancers she was hiring were actually designed to pump the VIPs for information on their business dealings, especially dealings Luce had a particular interest in. That had been Petrov's first mistake. He had underestimated Luce's connections and overestimated her libido. Luce had allowed Kat to stay on, in trade, and Luce kept her protected. More importantly, she was up a pawn in the chess game between her and Petrov.
“Sasha's with Kat.”
“Seriously?” Luce gave him a cold stare.
“She volunteered,” he said, nervously poking the button repeatedly. Sasha said she was bisexual; however, she knew Lynn and Sasha had been lovers. It had practically killed Sasha when Luce broke the news of Lynn's murder. Sasha went into a rage that took days to work itself out of her system. Then, well, Luce still didn't know what to expect from her number three. So she gave Sasha space. Now it sounded like she was after some catnip. At the moment, she was the least of Luce's problems.
“Did you check our guest for any weapons?”
“Of course,” Sammy said, holding the elevator door for Luce. “How is Ms. Erickson, Oyabun?”
Luce knew Sammy felt responsible for the attack on Brooke. She and Sammy had formed a connection after Sammy saved her from the two Russians who tried to carjack her. He had taken the call when Luce had refused to answer. She thought she was distancing Brooke from herself, protecting her. Instead, she'd practically put Brooke right in their hands.
“She's getting better,” Luce said, clasping Sammy on the shoulder and squeezing.
That was as demonstrative as Luce would ever get with her family. She kept her emotions on a tight leash, especially after what had happened to Brooke and Lynn.
The elevator stopped and puked them out on Luce's office floor. The hum of the office stopped the moment someone caught sight of Luce. She hadn't been there in weeks, so she suspected everyone would be craning their necks and stop whatever they were doing the minute she arrived.
“Ms. Potter, it's good to see you back,” Allie Wentworth, her assistant, said, making quick strides to keep up with her.
“Ms. Wentworth,” Luce said curtly.
“Shall I bring tea?”
“Have you offered any to our guest?”
Allie looked at Sammy and then back at Luce before answering. “No, ma'am. I was told not to go in.”
Luce walked past her assistant. “I see.” Then she turned toward Sammy and shot him a sideways glance. She placed her jacket on Allie's desk and looked over at Sammy. “Then yes, please bring in tea and those cookies I like.”
Stopping in front of her door, she tossed a request over her shoulder. “And have a dozen red roses sent to Brooke.”
“Yes, ma'am, and you want the card to read…”
“No card needed.”
Luce slammed the door behind her, leaving Sammy and Allie staring at each other. The door opened briefly again and spit out Momo.
“Oh, shit,” he said, straightening his tie and coat.
To be continued...
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