The Weight of Secrets

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Chapter Seven

Being back in the office it felt so good to get lost in the numbers and reports. Profits were through the roof for the last few months and it put my mind at ease.

Everything was as I had left it with the exception of the add on for Gwen’s little office at the opposite end of my private hall that led to my office. I popped my head in to check-in.

“Gwen, do I have any meetings scheduled for this week?” She pulled up her calendar on her laptop and scrolled through.

“Just one with Hudson Corp, tonight at seven. You noted here that you’d meet at The Aiello, downtown for dinner.” I nodded as she reminded me, I had scheduled that just before we left.

Hudson was a well-off English entrepreneur wanting to discuss how we ran our accounts so smoothly, he had heard another client of ours bragging about how well we had done for them in the past. I trusted our client who was friends with Hudson well and knew if they gave me the go-ahead then they were likely a good fit for us but I had some doubts when we had chatted over the phone. Something just felt off. I couldn’t place my finger on it.

“Thank you, if you like you can take the week off. You’ve done so much for me over the last month. You need some time now.” She lit up like a Christmas tree with joy and nearly jumped from her desk where she sat.

“Oh, that’d be so lovely!! I have been wanting to go home and visit mom and dad. He has surgery last week and everything went well, but I just miss them.” She tugged my heartstrings speaking of her father so fondly.

“I know the exact feeling. Just finish up for the day and I’ll see you in seven days. Not a moment before.” She nodded and ran off to the copy room down the hall.

I shut my office door behind me and took a deep breath. Anxiety had been creeping up my neck since we got back and for some reason, the view always melted it away. The sun was nearly set and I knew Neil would be coming down soon to see if I was ready to leave for the day. I was, but I wasn’t.

I glanced at the time and realized I needed to leave now if I were to meet Hudson for dinner in time.

Neil knocked on my door as I gathered my briefcase and coat.

“Ready to leave already?” His chuckle rang through the air like an old familiar song.

“No, actually I have a dinner meeting with Hudson to discuss some things in person. It shouldn’t be too long. I don’t think it’ll pan out to be anything special.” He tucked his hands in his pockets and took a deep breath as he thought over my lack of confidence in the man.

“Whatever you decide, I trust you.” I couldn’t shake the warm feeling he gave me, acknowledging his trust in me. He made sure to remind me often as I struggled with that part of my confidence in the business world.

“Thank you. I’ll see you at home soon. I’ll be home by nine, I promise.” I stood on tiptoe and pecked his lips softly. He growled and pulled me back for a longer kiss. His tongue explored my mouth expertly. With two years of experience, he better know his way around.

“Okay, you’ve made your point. I’ll be home no later than eight-thirty.” His sexy grin spread over his strong jaw and tugged at his red beard. I hated to leave him now, with damp panties aching to come off but I’m sure that’s exactly what he intended.

Aiello wasn’t too busy at this late in the evening but nonetheless, there was a line nearly to the front door. When the three couples in front of me were shown to their tables I was greeted by an older male host. His green eyes were bright and full of joy as if this job was truly his pleasure in life. Fine dining in one of the oldest steakhouses in the city. His wrinkles kissed those orbs and his smile met them all perfectly.

“Good evening Miss. Will you be dining alone this evening?” He didn’t mean it in a mocking sort of way but if I had said yes I was sure I would have been given special treatment so I didn’t feel lonely.

“Oh no, sir. I’m Loreina Rossi, I’m here to meet a Mr. Hudson. Jack Hudson.” The man gave a nod and a flash of annoyance crossed his expression for a mear second at the sound of his name. If his reaction was any clue to how my night would go then I could guess Hudson didn’t treat him with the respect this man offered everyone else.

“Of course, he’s waiting for you. Follow me this way please.” he strolled to the far back of the restaurant where a man sat in dim lighting. Not a very professional setting. How was I supposed to offer him documents and read them in this dark corner? This was more of a romantic evening with your lover.

“Thank you-” I paused to get the host’s name. He offered me a killer smile and with a slight bow, he finished my sentence.

“Kirk. If you should need anything at all tonight, don’t hesitate to ask.” Kirk pulled out my chair as I offered him a thanks and I sat.

“Good evening Mr. Hudson. I’m so glad we could meet in person.” He didn’t look up from his glass of whiskey for a moment. Fear pricked my nerves, did I have the wrong person? No, Kirk said he was waiting for me.

“Where is the Irishman?” I was again, taken back. Something crawled up my spine, a feeling that this was not what I had intended tonight to be. I smashed the feeling down and crossed my legs. Time to introduce him to a Rossi.

“Mr. Hudson, you and I both know I don’t need a man to handle my business. You contacted me so here I am. If business is what you want to do then get to it. Do not waste my time.” I took the water pitcher and poured some water into my glass as the waiter passed us by, giving us another moment for him to respond.

“I know what you do there. Shell companies. You handle all the money and make it all look legit. Flynn runs the companies and hides your product, the illegal gun distribution your brother takes care of. How is he by the way? Since the other one is gone now.” I knew he meant it to hurt me, but it didn’t because I knew better.

“Fine. Thank you for your condolences.” I didn’t acknowledge the accusations about our businesses. Who knew if he was a rat or not.

“You have access to something I want and I have something you want.” I ran my tongue over my teeth as the waiter came to take our orders. I chose my usual. I came here often and only ordered one thing.

“Eggplant parm for the lady, and for the gentleman?” The waiter gave him a polite smile but Hudson harshly spat out his request for another whiskey, no meal. Daddy used to say the proof is in the pudding, if you don’t treat the janitor with respect then who is to say you’ll treat the CEO any differently?

I gently called for the waiter just before he disappeared around the corner and requested a glass of white wine for myself. He gave a knowing nod and went off. I’d need several if I were to make it to the end of this meal.

“I’m not sure you have anything I could want, Mr. Hudson.” he broke his hard facade and pulled out a folder from his suit pocket. He opened the metal clasp and pulled large photos from the brown packet.

“Oh I think I do.” he laid before me on the table six photos. My heart sank. The woman in every photo was the same. She was shopping for groceries in one. Another was of her and a second woman whose face I couldn’t see having coffee, laughing. And even her unlocking what appeared to be her apartment door. I knew her well, once upon a time. Stephanie Linehart. Howie’s girlfriend at the time of his death.

I wasn’t sure what to say so I didn’t speak. I kept my expression neutral, waiting for the terms I’m sure he was to present me with.

“She is well. For now. Living in Chicago, in an apartment alone. Still a nurse. I’ve got my eye on her. Here’s where the negotiating happens. Well, I speak and you listen.” I didn’t break my stare from his as I thanked the waiter who had brought my wine. “I need forty-five thousand dollars wired into six different accounts over the course of the next nine weeks. I will email you the information as time progresses. In exchange, I don’t act on Stephanie. If for any reason I believe you’re running your mouth she dies.” I took my last drink of wine before my meal arrived.

I took a few bites, to settle the alcohol I had consumed so quickly. Once satisfied I sat back and responded to his outlandish request.

“First of all. I don’t know why you need such an extravagant series of deposits, secondly, Stephanie is still under Rossi protection so if you did try anything she would be fine, and thirdly-” I was cut off by the sound of steel meeting steel, he cocked the hammer on a revolver under our dining table. I still wasn’t concerned. I had been carrying my M&P Shield ever since we got back for safety. I feigned fear for the second time tonight.

“I suggest you also look at these.” He tossed me a second file of what I assumed were also photos. As my hands opened the paper the waiter returned with his bill. I paused, knowing the second series of photos in the folder was likely me. I didn’t want the young man to see and put two and two together.

“Ma’am your bill has been taken care of. They asked me to keep it anonymous.” I glanced at Hudson for a second, considering it was him. The same man who held a gun to me under the table. Not likely. My eyes wandered for Kirk, the gentleman who had sat me here an hour ago. I didn’t see him.

“I’ll hang onto these photos, Mr. Hudson. I suggest you do not contact me any other way besides phone or email or the deal is off.” He gave a nod of utter satisfaction and decocked the revolver so I could take my leave.

Gathering my things he leaned in close over the table, so I could smell the alcohol on his breath.

“One more thing. Tell Howie, I said hello.” I couldn’t stop the blood from draining from my face. Who the hell was this bastard? I had some research to do when I got home.

I felt like I couldn’t start my car fast enough as my hands shook with the keys, struggling to get them in the ignition. Once I had the heat blasting, I reached for the second folder I hadn’t opened. As I thumbed through the photos a few things stood out to be beside them being photos of Howie before he died. The prints looked original. Why would he give me originals unless he developed them himself? And two why would he offer me old photos if he knew he was alive? Was he calling my bluff? Did he really know, or did he just suspect it, as I had for months before finding out the truth? My brain was a damn mess and I just needed to get home.

I made my way upstairs, my shoes left where I had kicked them off at the front door. My back ached and my head was starting to hurt. Neil was in the bed as suspected. It was nearly ten now. I had driven around the city to clear my head despite only wanting to come home and tell him everything. I couldn’t, not just yet.

I thought I was quiet enough as I stripped to nothing and grabbed a white shirt from Neil’s drawer but he rolled over and sat up in bed.

“Hey, I was starting to get worried.” I offered him a reassuring smile that he took and reflected back.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call on my way back, I figured you’d be asleep.” He held out an arm and I happily crawled under the blankets and snuggled into his chest. Two long and loud signs left us simultaneously.

“I assume the meeting went well if it lasted so long?” Here it was, the first lie. The first secret.

“It did, I suppose. There are a few things to iron out still.” he kissed the top of my head and pulled me down into the depths of the mattress and neither of us spoke, just synchronized our breathing to let sleep take us.

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