Worth fighting for, p.8
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       Worth Fighting For, p.8

         Part #2 of Fighting to Be Free series by Kirsty Moseley
 

  dotting the carpet in multicolored sprinkles, not caring about the paper cuts that tore into my fingertips as I wrenched the map down in several tattered pieces. A guttural cry left my lips as I bent and picked up the largest section of the map, tearing it in half and screwing the pieces into a ball before tossing it to the floor with the rest of the litter I’d created.

  Tears fell, wetting my pink T-shirt, as I gasped for breath, kicking out at the photos, sending them fluttering away from me. When my legs gave out, I sank to the floor, put my face in my hands, and cried.

  I wasn’t sure how long I sat there, probably a long time. Eventually, the tears dried up and my breathing evened out. I hadn’t gotten up; I’d just scooted over so I could rest my back against the wall and pulled my knees to my chest. And that was how Stacey found me. Eyes glazed, head aching, room littered with traveling souvenirs, brain fuzzy, and anger still fizzing in my stomach.

  “Ellie, what happened in here?” she asked, letting herself into my room, eyeing the chaos.

  I looked up and shrugged one shoulder. I had no words.

  Her lips pressed together. I looked away from the sympathy in her eyes. She didn’t speak, just walked over to me and slid down the wall to sit next to me, her arm coming up to lie across my shoulders. I tilted my head, resting it on her shoulder and pressing against her tighter, grateful for the hug that I so desperately needed today.

  She blew out a slow breath, her hand rubbing my arm soothingly. “Your nana called earlier and asked me to come over after work. She said you were going to have a rough day and would need some cheering up.”

  “Oh.” I’d wondered why she’d just showed up out of the blue like this.

  She turned slightly and pressed her lips to the top of my head softly. “Are you okay?” she whispered into my hair.

  I shrugged again, not even sure if I was all right or not. “Not really,” I admitted, pulling away and swiping at my sore eyes. “I guess it all just got on top of me. I saw the map and my mom, she’d...” I frowned at a photo of Natalie and me picking grapes in France that peeked out from under a torn section of map. “I don’t know. I just got angry, I guess.”

  “At what?” Stacey pressed.

  “At myself for leaving. I should have been here. I never should have gone in the first place, or I should have come home two years ago when Natalie left. I should never have stayed in London.”

  Stacey was quiet for a few seconds; then she reached out and snagged a photo of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower, smiling at it before showing it to me. “When your mom got this picture, she drove all the way into town and came to the café I was working at just to show it to me. She gushed about how proud she was of you for living your dream and seeing all these beautiful sights. She stood at the counter while I served and bragged to everyone in line about how her smart, gorgeous daughter was taking time off and traveling. She was so proud of you, Ellie. She never said it when you were living here, goodness knows that, but she just gushed about you while you were gone.”

  I scowled down at my hands, seeing the paper cuts for the first time as Stacey’s words sank in.

  “Ellie, you needed to go, it was the best thing for you. You needed time away to heal yourself, to find yourself again after”—she ground her teeth angrily—“him.”

  Him. Jamie. The beautiful, wounded boy who tricked me into falling in love with him only to shatter me completely. I swallowed around the lump that formed in my throat at the mere thought of him. Three years on and thinking about him still hurt, opened up old wounds, left my heart bleeding.

  I knew she was right. The trip had been a necessity. I’d had to leave; I was broken and lost, damaged so badly that at times I wasn’t sure I would ever put myself back together again. But time away had helped, Natalie had helped, traveling to different places that didn’t remind me of him helped, Toby had helped.

  “I should have made time to see them or talk to them more. Came back to visit. Brought Toby to meet them. I should have done things differently,” I croaked.

  “Hindsight is a spiteful bitch,” Stacey replied softly.

  “Ain’t that the truth,” I mumbled.

  Stacey cocked her head to the side and smiled at me sadly, reaching out and taking one of my hands in hers. “You’ll drive yourself crazy, thinking like this.” She rubbed a small circle on the back of my hand. “You need a break. You’re under so much stress, got so much going on that you just need a break. I have an idea.” Her eyes brightened as she straightened her shoulders. “We’re going out tonight. Dinner, just the two of us, and maybe a drink or two after. You need to loosen up or you’re going to have some sort of mental breakdown.” She looked around at my messy room and her eyebrows rose. “Well, more like another breakdown,” she corrected.

  I shook my head. “Nah, I just don’t feel like it.”

  One of her perfectly plucked eyebrows rose. “You’re going. No arguments. You haven’t had a proper American cheeseburger for three years. I’m taking you out, that’s the end of it.”

  I laughed humorlessly, knowing there was no arguing with this girl—she always got her way and she knew it. Besides, I actually could do with thinking about something else, even if it was only for an hour or two. I sighed, resigned. “Okay, fine. You had me at cheeseburger.”

  “Atta girl.” She grinned. “Oh, but how about you have a shower first? No offense, Ellie, but...you stink.” She playfully waved a manicured hand under her nose.

  “Cheeky git!” I laughed.

  “ ‘Cheeky git’? Aww, you’ve picked up cute little British cuss words!” she gushed.

  I grinned and rolled my eyes as I pushed myself to my feet. I dipped my head and sniffed in the direction of my armpit. I hadn’t showered since London, simply hadn’t made the time or felt like it. Four days and one long-ass plane ride. She was right, I smelled pretty ripe. “Eww, I’ll go shower,” I muttered, wrinkling my nose in distaste.

  CHAPTER 9

  JAMIE

  THE FLOOR AND walls in my second-most-used office quivered in time with the thumping bass of the music being played downstairs. Red’s, the newest acquisition in my club line, had benefited from a full sound system upgrade as well as an aesthetic makeover in the last couple of months. I thought a refurb would bring in classier frat boys who spent more on their booze, and it meant I could up the door price. But with the music making my whiskey vibrate with impact tremors similar to those in the movie Jurassic Park, I was thinking I’d made a huge fucking mistake. I couldn’t concentrate, which meant I’d have to redo all this shit tomorrow. This place wasn’t just used as a means of income—as far as my income went, it was way down the list of high earners—but the eight clubs and bars I owned across the city did serve a purpose: laundering some of the money from my less-than-legal ventures. I just had to get a little creative with the paperwork and let my extremely overpaid accountant take care of the rest.

  As one song seamlessly morphed into another, I groaned and closed my eyes, reaching up and massaging my temples in small circles. Tomorrow I’d put in orders to have the office soundproofed.

  A knock at the door interrupted my internal grumblings. “What?” I barked, leaning forward and picking up my drink.

  Dodger stuck his head around the door. “Alberto Salazar is here. His car just pulled up outside.”

  “Okay. Have Ed show him up here, will ya?” I replied.

  A frown lined his forehead. “Looks like he brought Mateo with him.” He practically spat the name, his loathing glaringly apparent.

  “Oh, great.” I snorted, raising the glass to my lips and throwing the amber liquid into my mouth, swallowing the whole thing in one gulp and reveling in the burn, warming all the way down to my stomach. I’d requested a meeting with the elder Salazar brother, not his sociopath sibling. Mateo was a loose cannon with a reputation for being both reckless and ruthless. He had a crazed look in his eye most of the time, like he was envisioning twenty different ways to kill you. I’d h
eard rumors about him, a lot of fucked-up rumors, not the least of which was about his penchant for little girls who had a couple of years to go before becoming legal. Mateo Salazar was the one person in this world I would love to shoot right between the eyes. I would happily do time for it too, because assholes like him shouldn’t be allowed to walk the streets, but taking him out would start a turf war that I simply couldn’t get my crew involved in.

  I met Dodger’s eyes and could see the concern there. He was worried about this, and probably rightly so. The last time I’d been in close quarters with Mateo, the little prick had tried to kill me—pointed a gun at me and everything. Being in a crowded place would definitely be safer on this occasion. “Tell you what, seeing as that junkie bastard came too, let’s have the meeting downstairs,” I suggested thoughtfully.

  Dodger visibly relaxed at my suggestion, his shoulders losing some of the tension. “Good thinking.”

  I stood and picked up my favorite automatic switchblade, pushing it into the pocket of my dress pants before walking over to Dodger. I wasn’t one for carrying guns—I had guys I paid for that particular task—but there was no way I was going to be near Mateo and not have at least something on me. “Come on then, buddy. Let’s go remind the little pricks who runs this town.” I gripped his shoulder, squeezing a couple of times in a supportive gesture. Dodger really hated this side of the business; he was into the cars, but he’d tried to convince me several times over to leave the other stuff alone and let the other organizations pick up the slack. But it wasn’t in me to do half-assed jobs.

  As we walked down the stairs, the music grew louder. Once in the club I looked around, taking in all the crowds of people. Carl, one of the security guys who stood at the bottom of my office stairwell and stopped people from going upstairs, dipped his head in greeting. “Boss.”

  I stepped closer to him, motioning with my chin toward a table over on the other side of the club, barely visible through the hordes of people around me who were all having a good time and spending their hard-earned cash. The table was at the opposite end of the club from the DJ and the five-foot speakers that were mounted on the stage. It was currently occupied by six women sharing a bottle of the cheap house white.

  “Carl, get that table empty for me, will ya? Give them a couple of bottles of champagne for their trouble,” I instructed. There were other tables free, but that one would be the best option—quieter, off to the side, but still within the thick of the club so Mateo would keep himself in check.

  “Sure thing.”

  “There’ll be some other security up in here in a bit. I have a meeting, so you just hang back and keep your eye on the crowds as usual. All right?” I instructed. Carl was just security, hired because of his massive stature, someone to prevent trouble in the clubs.

  I watched him walk over to the table, flashing his best smile as he declared that the ladies needed to vacate the table because Mr. Cole himself needed it. I didn’t hang around any longer, but wove my way through the throng of people, skirting the edge of the dance floor, saying hello to anyone I recognized, politely refusing a couple of drink offers from regular customers who I should know by name, but didn’t.

  “Want me to sit in on the meeting?” Ed offered, coming to my side when I finally made it to the coatroom.

  I shook my head. “Dodger and I can handle it.”

  I didn’t miss the disappointed twitch to his eye or how his jaw clenched. Ed hated that I didn’t let him get too involved in the organization; I was pretty sure he resented me for taking over Brett’s crew and bumping him way down the ranks. He was old enough to be my father, after all. It probably irked him to no end to have a boss almost half his age telling him what to do and demoting him. Too fucking bad.

  His mouth opened, probably to protest and tell me again how useful he could be and that he’d like to be more involved in things, but that was when the door opened and the Salazar brothers, along with three of their crew, sauntered in.

  Alberto entered first—tall, lean, and confident—striding toward me with his hand outstretched. I raised one eyebrow and looked down at his hand incredulously, then back up to his face, not bothering to reciprocate the polite gesture. He’d been selling on my turf; I hadn’t summoned him for polite gestures. After a couple of seconds, he obviously came to that conclusion too and dropped his hand to his side.

  “Kid Cole, nice to see you again,” he greeted me, his native Mexican accent thick in his words.

  I didn’t answer, just looked past him at his brother. Mateo didn’t stand as tall as Alberto or have his build, but there was something about him, maybe the way he carried himself, that put me at unease. I had always been skilled at reading people, and my gut told me that Mateo would rather kill me than look at me. There was just something off about him. If it weren’t for his brother’s influence he probably would have disrespected our boundary agreement a long time ago.

  Mateo’s brown eyes locked on mine, a hint of amusement dancing there; a black teardrop tattoo at the outer corner of his right eye was prominent against his olive skin, as was the large spider tattooed on the side of his neck. When he reached up and scratched at his jaw, I saw the thin black lines inked like tally marks on the side of his left pointer finger—his trigger finger. Rumor had it each line represented a murder he had committed. I counted two sets of five and one single line there. It seemed he’d been busy since the last time I saw him. There had been nine there a couple of months ago when he’d pointed that gun at me.

  Mateo didn’t speak, his lip curled slightly with disrespect as I looked him over, assessing whether I would have problems with him today. He was slightly twitchy, as usual, a by-product of his heroin addiction no doubt, but he looked like he was in control of himself.

  I turned my attention back to Alberto. “Did you have to bring that with you?” I asked, jerking my chin at Mateo, ignoring the snarl and the string of Spanish expletives that were thrown at me from his direction.

  Alberto shrugged, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. “Can’t trust him to be left alone,” he joked. I snorted a laugh. At least we were both being honest. I didn’t like Alberto and the way he practiced his business or peddled his cheap product, but at least he was honorable and, usually, true to his word.

  “No weapons allowed in the club. If you’re carrying, then you can leave them here and collect them on the way out,” I stated, waving one of my security guards forward.

  Mateo frowned, his hand going to the weapon under his brown leather jacket, but Alberto nodded and instantly reached inside his own jacket, pulling out a black semiautomatic and placing it in the tray the security guard carried over. His crew followed suit, putting their weapons in the tray. Mateo still hadn’t made a move.

  I raised one eyebrow, pulling back my shoulders, daring him to make the move his eyes were telling me he wanted to make.

  Dodger stepped forward. “If you prefer, you can go play with your gun in the car while the big boys have their meeting,” he suggested, his tone condescending. I grinned over at him.

  A couple of seconds passed before Alberto turned to his brother, uttering something in his native tongue that I didn’t understand. Mateo’s jaw twitched in anger, but he removed his ivory-handled pistol and matching knife, placing them on top of the other weapons, his eyes filled with longing as he watched the guard walk off with them into the security office.

  “Perfect. Follow me, then.” I turned without waiting and walked back through the double doors and into the main area of the packed club, heading to the table I’d requested Carl clear.

  The waitress, a slim girl with golden-tanned skin and raven-black hair, came over almost immediately, weaving through the crowd and silently setting a bottle of whiskey and four filled glasses on our table before sauntering off.

  I eyed Mateo, who was eyeing the retreating waitress. “Thought you’d been picked up yesterday,” I said, selecting a drink and taking a sip.

  Mateo rolled his shoulders a
s his gaze met mine. “They didn’t have enough to hold me.”

  I’d heard from my source inside the police that Mateo had been arrested for aggravated assault the previous day. From what I’d been told, it was an open-and-shut case with several witnesses to attest it was him who shoved a pool cue all the way through his opponent’s thigh because he’d lost the frame to him.

  “Oh, really? Shame.” Was a fucking shame, too.

  A cocky grin spread across his face. “Turns out the witnesses changed their minds about making statements.”

  Alberto sat forward, cupping his glass between his palms. “Look, can we get down to why you asked me to come here tonight? All this pussyfooting around is just wasting time, and I’m sure both of us have better things we could be doing.”

  Straight to business; I liked that. “Fine,” I agreed, turning my full attention back to him. “I want you to stay the fuck out of my clubs. The next time you send pushers into my place of business and disrespect me like that I’m going to bring down a shitstorm on you so bad you won’t even know what happened. You know your boundaries. We allow you to sell your shit on the city streets, within reason.” I leaned forward, looking directly into his eyes so he knew I meant every word of what I was saying. “If you cross the line again, I will take everything you’ve built and make it fall down around you. Don’t think I don’t know where you cook your shit up. One phone call and I can have people there in a matter of minutes to firebomb your labs to the ground. I’d like to see how you conduct your business then.”

  His eye twitched while I said my piece. “Now, Kid, let’s be reasonable.”

  I sat back in my chair, picking up my drink, watching him over the rim of it. “Reasonable,” I repeated. “So you think I’m being unreasonable somehow?”

  He flinched slightly, his shoulders stiffening at the threat in my voice. He knew I could crush him in the blink of an eye. “Not unreasonable, no,” he backtracked. “I just think you’re not even considering how good a partnership between us could be.”

  I had to laugh at that. “What exactly do I have to gain from joining forces with a liability like you two?” I poured another drink, shaking my head in amusement.

  The hordes of people near our table were getting slightly rowdier now, a couple of the guys whooping and chinking their bottles in a toast. I glanced over, and almost instantly, a flash
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