FORTY-NINE

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Virginia walked into the gym after work to find Dominique sparring in the ring, his dark skin slick with sweat. When he spotted her, he waved a "wait" and walked to one corner. Throwing a towel around his neck, he stepped between the ropes and jumped down.

"You're looking good in there, Dominique," she called over to him. When there was no snappy comeback, she knew something was up. Or maybe it was the grim look on his face that had her worried.

"Did you hear about Darnel?" he asked, stopping in front of her. Darnel was an original, one of Dominique's most promising boxing students.

"No. What about him?"

"He was ambushed by two guys last night."

"What! Where?"

"It was near his house, but he thinks they followed him from here."

"Jesus . . . Is he okay?"

"Yeah, he's a little beat up, but mostly it's his ego that's hurting. He'd never seen them before—big white guys, older, wearing business suits. Cowards, that's what they are. If those spineless bastards had any balls, they would have waited for me to walk down the street. I sure as hell would have given them a hardcore beatdown."

"Did they say anything?"

"They told him to give you a message: They plan to shut this place down."

"What!"

"You think it has something to do with him?"

Him needed no further elaboration. Dominique was one of only two people she had let in on her little secret, Paul being the other. No one else needed to know.

Dominique's cell phone went off, somewhere over by the ring, and he lifted his index finger. "Hang on. I told Darnel to hit me up when he had a chance."

He left in a rush, but his question lingered.

Her relationship with Mark was not typical—creativity was the name of the game. When they went out, it was only to places where they knew he wouldn't be photographed or recognized. If in the mood for a movie, they went to smaller venues, not the large crowded theaters. Dining out was done only occasionally, usually at some out-of-the-way, kid-friendly restaurant, which never stood up to his standards. Not that he ever complained. He seemed quite content to go where Janine wanted, order chicken fingers, and spend an hour critiquing the different sauces.

Romantic evenings with just the two of them were rare. Mark's house was bustling with activity as shifts ended and the men came in to report on the day's activities, always in his office and out of earshot. They had come to an agreement to never talk about their jobs, and it seemed to be working.

Her place would have been a quieter alternative, but Paul had moved in temporarily, having had little success in finding a short-term rental. With its limited square footage, it was difficult enough having two men of that size rambling around inside of it, never mind the fact that Paul wasn't thrilled about his sister dating a thug—his term, not hers.

In fact, he hated it.

His ingrained, watch-out-for-your-sister instinct was on high-alert, which made her house feel like a shoe box when the three of them were together. Not that Paul would admit to anything. Mark had tried many times to include him in conversations, which generally ended with Paul saying something blunt before walking out of the room. When confronted by her later, he would throw up his arms and say, "What? I was being nice to the thug."

Hoping to keep the peace, not wanting her brother to feel unwelcome, Virginia tried to avoid forcing the two of them together, hoping that Paul would come around on his own. Unfortunately, it made her home another thing she had to schedule, right alongside Janine's basketball games, doctor and dentist appointments, parent meetings . . .

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