Authors: Taylor Lee
Tags: #Idesire Publications
A knock at the door opened to reveal an angry looking Kai. Chao stood and motioned his son to the chair next to Gabe’s.
“I’ve asked my son to join us, Gabe. Kai is learning my business and it’s time he sees it through the eyes of the smartest man I know. I’ve told Kai that he can learn more about sharks and rat bellies in an hour with you than he could in a lifetime with me.”
Gabe shook his head and quirked a brow at Chao’s assumed modesty. He knew that underneath Chao’s gracious exterior burned a desire for money as rapacious as his own, and a willingness to do what it took to take down anyone who stood in his way. Like Chao, it wasn’t the money that drove Gabe, it was the game. The game in which only the winners stood at the end; a game that neither one of them had ever lost. Some lucky angel or more likely a devil had brought the two men together in an unholy alliance that served both their purposes. In the process, they created a friendship built on trust and admiration. While Gabe never said it out loud, Chao was the father he wished he had. Chao was as constrained as Rory McKenna was rowdy. Both were cunning, worthy adversaries, but Rory’s excesses with women, money, and power made him vulnerable to his enemies in a way that Chao and Gabe never were.
Glancing at the stormy young man bristling with anger, Gabe was struck by the stark differences between the father and son. Both were strikingly handsome. But Kai was a big man: large, muscular, taller by a foot than his father. He carried himself with the certain power of a warrior. Gabe saw that years of Kung Fu had strengthened this young man’s body, though it clearly hadn’t calmed his spirit. Chao caught Gabe’s eye and they shared a knowing gaze. Gabe was also a warrior, an accomplished killer. But his first love, poker, in combination with the meditative side of Kung Fu, instilled in him a honed detachment that made him ten times the adversary of the common killers he encountered. Without asking, Gabe understood that Chao hoped Gabe would teach Kai that physical power grew exponentially, when married to the power of constraint.
Gabe puffed on his cigar, then leaned forward to refill his glass and Chao’s. In a proprietary gesture, he stood and walked over to the liquor cabinet and retrieved another glass. He filled it and handed it to Kai. The assumptive move was intended to taunt Kai, underscore the relationship Gabe and Chao shared and anger the young man further — all to bring Kai’s useless anger to a boiling point, making him more receptive to the hard lesson Gabe planned to teach him.
Chao’s expression hardened, the lines on his face deepened, revealing stress that he rarely showed. Without prologue, he spoke to the reason he had called for Gabe.
“As far as I can tell, Gabe, Dominic is our adversary.”
Gabe smiled. “He always is, isn’t he? That asshole will never learn. You’d think the money that is flowing through that brothel of his would not only keep him happy, but also busy.”
“You would think so,” Chao agreed. “But I have it on good authority that the ‘supplies’ we’ve been missing are turning up in Dominic’s hands.”
Gabe quirked a brow at Chao’s innocent description of the “supplies” that he knew included prostitutes, alcohol, and a hell of a lot of opium. Gabe never questioned the sources of his clients’ money, just ensured that they would have enough left over to pay his astronomical fees. Chao not only paid him what he asked, but often added a bonus.
“You can get inside that operation like no one can, Gabe. I’m still not sure how you manage to stay on the good side of some very disreputable men.” Chao smiled broadly, “Like myself, for example.”
“I do what it takes, Chao. You’d be amazed the doors that poker opens. Seems that the richer the guy is the more convinced he is that he should win at everything, including poker. When I take ‘em down, they just come back for more. I guess they think the last ten times or so that I beat them were aberrations. And hell, you’d be amazed how men spill their guts when they are losing their shirt.”
“Don’t minimize your skill, Gabe. You are the finest poker player I have ever seen. I should know; you’ve cleaned out every one of my gambling establishments whenever you grace us with your presence. I truly believe you have what is known as an eidetic memory, photographic memory. But it is more than that. It is as though you know what everyone has in their hand before a card is played.”
“Now you’re making me sound like a magician, Chao. But, yeah, I do have a special relationship with cards, especially if a big pot of money is involved.” Gabe winked at his friend. “Don’t forget, I don’t work alone. Couldn’t do what I do without my team. And hell, they are as money-grubbing as I am.”
Gabe threw Chao a questioning glance. “I gotta think this is about more than finding out which asshole is stealing your ‘supplies’ and making sure they think twice before they do it again. Hell, Chao, you could have sent me the usual telegram, not brought me out here to tell me that Dominic is getting greedy again.”
“You’re correct, of course, Gabe. There is something more. The problem is…” Chao hesitated and looked over at the glowering young man poised on the edge of his chair, glaring at this father. Chao continued, “It’s as though they’re out to get me
. And that isn’t the way Dominic works. At least until now.”
“You’re right about that, Chao. If you were starving that son of a bitch would steal your last piece of bread and chomp it down in front of you. But Dominic is all about money, not revenge.”
“That’s precisely right, Gabe. Someone is controlling Dominic, but for a reason I can’t discern. It’s as though whoever it is wants to hurt me as much as he can.”
Gabe was quiet, thoughtful. He puffed on his cigar and took occasional sips of cognac.
After several minutes, he looked up at Chao as a shock of understanding hit him.
Chao nodded. “I agree, Gabe, that is what is frightening me.”
Kai scowled. “What the hell, Father? I thought we agreed this was between us?” He glared at Gabe, then turned back to his father. “He didn’t say a word, but he knows what’s happening? What you are thinking?”
Gabe remained calm, controlled. “No, Kai. I don’t know what is going on. But your father and I have worked together on one thing or another for five years now, and this is the first time he has invited me to his home. It’s the first time I have met you and, yeah, the first time I met your sister.” He looked over at Chao, who gave him an imperceptible nod, confirming that Gabe was on the right track. “It doesn’t take a mind reader or hell even a decent poker player to know that Chao is damned worried about something and someone close to home. And hell, Kai, anyone who is out to hurt your father, to take him down, knows his biggest vulnerability. Ten minutes at that dinner tonight would let him know the way to get to Chao Li is through his daughter.”
Chaos nodded in agreement. His face was pale. The tight line lines around his mouth confirmed that Gabe identified his greatest fear.
Kai leapt to his feet. Slamming his big hands on the desk; he leaned over, his face a foot away from his father’s.
“Jesus Christ, Father, can’t you see what this fucker is doing? He is trying to scare you! Make you think because Ana is in danger he is the one to protect her — when all he wants is her.”
He whirled on Gabe, angry red spots flaming his cheeks.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” looking over his shoulder at his father who regarded him with a patient frown. “Both of you better hear this. No one but me is going to protect my sister. I’m in charge of her.”
Turning back to Gabe, the young man’s voice rose to a shrill whine.
“Who the hell do you think taught her Kung Fu? Who taught her to shoot? To throw a knife? Some guy who wants to get in her pants?”
He roared, stabbing a finger in his chest, his big frame shaking with anger. “No! It was me, her brother. And you aren’t going to come in here, unwanted, and convince my father that because Ana is in danger you are the only one who can save her. You hear me?”
Gabe leaned back in his chair. He kept his expression calm, unconcerned, but those who knew him well would see the tick next to his eye, a sure sign that he was angry. Hell, he was as angry as Kai, but unlike the kid he knew how to control his anger.
Gabe shook his head and spoke softly. “No question that you do a hell of a good job protecting your sister. But whatever this is, it may be bigger than you can handle, Kai. Your father is a powerful man. Like all powerful men, he has enemies. The people who envy him are also powerful, unscrupulous. Men that are way the hell out of your league, kid. If your father or you or your sister are in trouble, it’s gonna take someone who isn’t involved, who can see beyond his possessive rage.”
“And that is you? You arrogant asshole! Do you think I’m blind? That I didn’t see what you were doing to her? What she was letting you do?”
Kai hands fisted at his sides. His eyes were roiling with fury. He took a menacing step toward Gabe, but Gabe merely settled back in his chair and took another sip of cognac.
“Kai. Stop. Now.” Chao’s voice was firm, commanding. “Please, my son. Sit down. Now.”
Kai visibly struggled, then sunk down in his chair with an audible groan.
Looking up from hooded eyes, he appealed to his father. “You don’t understand, Father. You are blind to this man. You didn’t see what I saw. Ana was… she—”
Chao cut him off with a wave of his hand. “No, Kai, I did not. But I am not blind. I have known Gabe for nearly ten years. I am quite aware of who he is. But I have decided. Gabe will be in charge of protecting Ana, and, not incidentally, protecting you.”
Kai snorted. “Like I need him to protect me. Father, wait. Listen to me!”
Chao held up his hand. “That’s enough, Kai. You’re excused. I wish to speak with Gabriel privately.”
Kai reared up then sank back down, at the rigid expression on his father’s face.
“Father, Ana isn’t safe with him. You don’t understand.”
Chao rose to his feet. His commanding presence filled the room. “Go, Kai. Now.”
Kai shoved himself out of his chair. His cheeks were flushed, his harsh breaths audible. He looked at his father, then turned and pinned Gabe with a furious glare. Striding past him, his lips curled in an ugly sneer.
“This isn’t the end of this, you cocky bastard.”
Gabe tipped his head back and grinned, a smile totally devoid of mirth. “You’re sure as hell right about that, boy.”
A hard slam of the door caused shock waves that reverberated down the hallway.
Chao walked away from his desk, toward the window. He stood without speaking for several minutes, staring out into the darkness beyond. His hands were clasped behind his back, the muscles on his neck visibly straining.
After what seemed like an interminable time to Gabe, Chao spoke. Without turning around, he said, “He’s wrong, Gabe. I do know we have a problem. No one is more attuned to my daughter than I am. And whether you know it or not, I have come to know you well over these past years.”
He turned to face Gabe, resting against the window, his hands braced on the sill.
“I am not blind, Gabe. “
Gabe swallowed hard, but met his stare in silence.
Chao sighed. A weary frown creased his forehead.
“You are my most trusted undercover man, Gabe. I trust you with my life. But Ana is young.”
Chao shook his head when Gabe straightened up in his chair with a frown.
The older man wandered over to the fireplace and rested his hand on the mantle. He looked up at the painting on the wall. Gabe had noticed it when he came in, but hadn’t mentioned it, too raw from his experience on the balcony with Ana. In the artwork, a beautiful woman with dark hair and laughing blue eyes gazed at the little girl by her knee. Even at that young age, Ana’s exotic features were apparent, telegraphing the beautiful woman she would become. She was looking up at her mother as though she were an angel. A stern-looking Kai stood beside them both, one hand resting protectively on his mother’s shoulder, the other on Ana’s.
Chao continued with a sigh.
“She’s young, and not only in years. She is almost a recluse. She spends most of her days riding in the canyons or burying her nose in a book.”
He glanced up at the painting, then continued, anguish tightening his voice.
“When Sarah died, Penelope insisted I send Ana away to a finishing school, a boarding school in Boston. She said she needed a woman’s influence to become a proper young lady. It was the biggest mistake I could have made. I wasn’t thinking straight. I… I was blind with grief. Her mother was dead and Ana thought I abandoned her. The school sent her back less than six months later. They said she was unmanageable, unteachable.” He gave a soft laugh and his eyes had a distant, haunted look as if he was remembering something long ago, something painful.
“Never mind that she had read most every book in my library. Now she reads them all, even the ones written in Latin or Greek. But the experience tore her apart. When she came back, she was damaged, would barely speak. It took me several years to gain her trust again.”
Gabe coughed, “Chao, I know where you are going with this. You can stop.”
Chao shook his head. “No, Gabe, I can’t stop. And you don’t know where this is heading. I need you, Gabe. More than I ever have.” He hesitated, the lines on his face, around his mouth tight, strained. Gabe felt his tension from across the room.
“Someone is after her, Gabe.”
Gabe reared to his feet. His embarrassment that Chao saw the spark between him and Ana was forgotten.
“What the hell do you mean by that, Chao. Who’s after her?”
Chao sighed again and pressed his fingers against the deep ridge between his brows. When he spoke, his voice was low, troubled.
“For the last several months, Ana has been more distant than ever. She often stays in the canyon for hours at a time. A couple of times she stayed away all night.”
At Gabe’s gasp, he shook his head. “No, it wasn’t like that. She was alone, like she always is.”
Gabe couldn’t hide his anger. “Then what the hell. And you let her go? Goddamn, Chao. What the hell are you talking about? How do you
someone is after her?”