Tough Break by Elizabeth SaFleur

2

Present Day

I quit.

The ink feathered and the cocktail napkin ripped at Phoenix's hurried writing, but the words were visible, which was all that mattered. No one was judging her penmanship, and no one could blame her for quitting Shakedown—immediately. Not even her sisters, who she'd convince to go with her, would argue. Any place was better than a burlesque club owned by someone with ties to a local crime family.

She glanced around Declan's office until her eyes landed on the perfect spot to place her resignation letter. She propped the wilting napkin against a picture of the three of them—herself and her sisters, Starr and Luna.

She tromped to the door just as Declan opened it.

A mask of pure boredom dropped onto his face. “Have a seat.”

“I'm leaving.” She stepped back to let him in—and her out.

He entered but stopped in front of her and blocked her way. “Not going to let me explain?”

“There's nothing to explain.” She crossed her arms. “You are a member of the MacKenna mob family—the family that almost killed my sister…” Jesus. Her voice had cracked. She pried her gaze from Declan's perfect silver-gray eyes framed by his perfect eyelashes—eyelashes that should never be gifted to a man.

Declan's cane thumped once on the ground as if making a point. “I'd have killed them all before I let that happen. Take a seat and let me explain.” He moved closer to his desk, stared at her note.

He lifted the napkin toward her. “Take. A. Seat. Phoenix.” His voice was pure iron, which was rich, given what she'd just learned about the man.

After the year they'd had? Learning he was related to a mob family? Even she hadn't thought things could grow worse after one of the MacKennas almost killed Starr.

Her sister had to fall in love with Nathan, an ex-con that started this complete mess. The MacKenna mob family wanted him dead. Starr got in their crosshairs and… stop, just stop. She rubbed her forehead as if that would erase the image of her sister curled up in a hospital bed that arose every time she even thought the name MacKenna. Her stomach roiled a little from the remembered antiseptic smell, a scent she'd grown familiar with at too young an age thanks to their deadbeat, alcoholic father who'd nearly killed her. Too many men throwing their weight around, using them as punching bags…

“Six years, Declan. I've danced for you for six years.” She held up her fingers. “And you didn't think to tell us yourself that you… you…” Jesus, she might stop breathing. Her chest was going to explode. Her hand moved to over her heart. It ached, an honest-to-God pang even though she knew where heartache lived. Only the romantics believed pain lived in that blood-pumping organ. Anguish took up residence in your bones.

He sighed and dropped to his chair that gave off a loud complaint. “It's not what it seems.” He rested his cane against the edge of the desk.

“Oh, really? Did I not hear Nathan say the words on your loading dock ‘your MacKenna relatives’?” She and Starr had been rooting around the back looking for costumes and came upon Nathan and Declan chatting under the dock door. Nathan uttered those words and Declan did not deny them.

“Well?” she gritted out.

He studied her. “Are you going to wear a hole in my Oriental carpet next?”

She halted in her tracks, placed both hands on his desk, and leaned forward. “You know why I can't stay. You know my past. I could dance here because it was safe. But now? You're related to the family that almost took my sister away from me.” She couldn't talk anymore. Her throat squeezed shut, maybe forever. Now if she could only keep the torrent of rage at bay.

How could he have been someone she didn't really know? All this time? For so many years, she'd wondered what it'd be like to be with a man like Declan, someone who appeared perfect. She should have known better. Perfect lied.

She stared at the little flowers and swirls woven into the carpet under her feet. Finally, more air entered her chest now that Declan's face wasn't in her sights.

What would it take for she and her sisters to live a life that didn't involve being worried about anyone getting cut, punched, kidnapped, threatened, blackmailed, and any other crap that had gone on in their lives?

It would take going far, far away.

“Phoenix, please, look at me.”

Her lids lifted, lured by the gentleness in his voice. He had that uncanny ability to do that—hook her by kindness and bring her back to him again and again. But it was time for them to break the pattern.

Declan's eyes softened. “I'm related to them. I'm not like them, you of all people know that.”

He spoke the truth. He wasn't like them—at all. “But they are dangerous.” Her words were barely a whisper.

“They are.”

“So, you'll have nothing to do with them?”

His silence answered. He couldn't not deal with them—not when they were coming at this club and the people inside it with both barrels raised.

Still, she had to hear the words straight from him. “So, they could be around…”

“I'm working on making sure they're not.”

“But they still want something from you. So, you're wondering why I'm leaving? I won't let them traumatize my sister anymore. I'm going to protect her from that.”

“Like you always do.” His soft smile loaded with so much kindness her heart nearly cracked in two. She had to toughen up, curl that hard shell around her.

She wheeled away from him once more, unable to look into his eyes anymore.

A long sigh emitted behind her. “Do your sisters know you are quitting? Leaving them to hold the bag on the show tonight?”

Her sisters shouldn't pay for his fuck-up, but she had to hold her ground. “I'll dance tonight, but then…” Her throat closed anew at the thought of really leaving.

Shakedown had been her world, a safe place for her and her sisters to dance, the only thing they knew how to do. Declan had shown them a different kind of life than the one they'd been thrust into far too young—stripping and demeaning themselves to have something to eat. Now? This place was as dangerous as Maxim's, only instead of fists, she'd have to stand in front of bullets to keep Starr and Luna protected.

Declan cleared his throat. “And then what? Where will you go?”

She swallowed. That was the problem—she didn't have anywhere to go other than Shakedown.

“Phoenix.”

She couldn't face him or she'd lose control. His gentle ways would ensnare her, take over.

She strode to the door. His hand fell to her arm, and she jerked herself against the door. God, he'd moved quickly. He'd been out from behind his desk, across the floor, and to the door in seconds, his cane barely making a sound across the thick Oriental carpet.

She'd reacted as she always did and how she always would when it came to being touched by surprise. She'd flinched. She'd always cringe, even from a man like Declan, because that's what survivors did when they'd had so many men abuse them. They stopped drinking from the well that poisoned them.

He held up his hands in surrender. “I didn't mean to take you by surprise, but please, tell me you're going to be okay.”

“I'm going to be okay.” Her words were truth because, honestly, what was okay, anyway?

“Tell me you won't go back.” He wisely let his words die off. They both knew where “back” was—Maxim's strip club.

“I'll never go back to anything like that again.” Thanks to him, she wouldn't. She'd also wise up.

Perhaps now her illusions about their boss, the too-good-to-be-true gentleman, could finally take a rest. Declan Phillips was her constant the last six years—her perfect, out of reach fantasy she kept at bay. Declan wanted her in all the ways a man wants a woman, but such a relationship was impossible for her.

Perhaps this recent development was God's way of calling the last shot. Because God knew Declan wouldn't have liked what he found once he'd wormed himself inside her.

She yanked open his office door and jogged to the dressing room before that lump lodged in her throat broke loose.

For now, she had her next move to play. Starr and Luna had to go with her so she had to find the right words to convince them of leaving. She'd wait until the show was over tonight. They'd fight it, but no way was she leaving without them and losing the only people who truly understood her. Declan would be fine without them, but Phoenix wouldn't be without her sisters. They were all she had, and if Starr and Luna wouldn't protect themselves, she would do it. She'd lay down her life for them. In fact, she already had more than once.