The other patrons in the restaurant glanced at them anxiously, as if sensing the violence crackling in the air. The two men stared at each other, their eyes cold.
"It's you?" Jake said. "You're the one who's been selling me booze all this time?"
"Looks that way," William said, an arrogant smile on his face. Still, Jake could tell he was just as rattled as he himself was. "Quite an unfortunate turn of events for you, wouldn't you agree, Larkinowski?"
Jake swallowed hard. He could see his dreams of expanding the business going down the drain faster than bad moonshine.
"I'd say more unfortunate for you," he bluffed. "You just lost the chance to do a big deal." Jake realized people were staring at them, so he slid into the booth for the sake of discretion. William followed his lead.
"You're only the middleman," William hissed. "I don't need you to do this deal."
"You don't know who the buyer is."
"I didn't get in this position by not knowing things, Larkin. I knew Boom Boom needed booze before you did. I knew it the day Lenny Sugarfield got busted. I just didn't know if it was worth my time and effort."
"And what do you think Charlotte will say when she finds out her so-called upstanding husband is a liar and criminal?"
"I'd say when it comes to my wife, money talks, nobody walks."
Just then, Charlotte, Mae, and Fiona burst through the door into the restaurant, stunning both men.
"What the hell is going on?" William said.
He took the words right out of Jake's mouth. Jake moved quickly to Charlotte's side to protect her.
"What is he doing here?" she said, her hand covering her mouth and her eyes wide with fright when she saw William.
"What are you doing here? Go--just get the hell out of here. Go to my place. I'll meet you there," Jake said.
But it was too late. William had Charlotte firmly by the arm.
"Speak of the devil--if it isn't my lovely wife. Let's go."
"Don't leave with him, Charlotte. Trust me on this..."
William turned around and shoved Jake hard enough that he lost his footing. He recovered fast enough to throw a punch that landed squarely on William's jaw. William grabbed him by the neck.
"Okay, you two--that's enough!" The barrel-shaped man who had seated them, accompanied by two burly sidekicks, swiftly and roughly hustled them out the door.
If Mae hadn't dragged her out of the restaurant, Charlotte didn't know if she would have had the wits about her to move. Nothing made any sense. She'd rushed down there in a panic to stop Jake from getting into a risky deal, and instead found him talking heatedly to William. She immediately thought of their acrimonious exchange the day he'd caught her talking to Jake in the parlor. Do you, or do you not, want me to write that check every month?"
Oh god, what would he do to her now?
Outside on the street corner, everyone looked at one another warily.
"Charlotte--listen to me," Jake said urgently, his eyes completely focused on her. "Do not go home with him. Now is the time to make your stand," The look on Jake's face stopped her cold. He was not asking her--he was telling her.
"Please...just leave it alone for now," she said, turning away from him. She needed to make her own decisions now.
William grabbed her roughly by the arm, pulling her to the car as Mae and Fiona looked on helplessly. He shoved her into the passenger seat and slammed the door. She turned to see Jake staring after her. She mouthed, the ladder.
"Well, Charlotte, you've outdone yourself this time," William said, aggressively steering the car through the side streets of the Bowery. She knew it was best to say nothing. Even if she had wanted to speak, she was too busy piecing together a dozen farfetched scenarios to try to come to a logical conclusion as to how William and Jake ended up in the same random restaurant. And nothing she imagined could have prepared her for William's inadvertent clarification.
"Who told you?" he said.
"Told me what?"
"Don't play with me, Charlotte. Who told you I was doing the deal with Jake? Or do you expect me to believe that the three of you just showed up there by coincidence? Was this a trap you set for me?"
A vein bulged out of his forehead.
Cold washed over her as she felt the blood drain from her face. Now she understood why Jake had been so adamant that she not leave with William.
"How long"--she paused--"how long have you been doing this?"
He glanced at her, then turned his eyes back to the road. "A few years."
"A few years?"
"Yes, Charlotte," he said, exasperated.
He shrugged. "Because I could. There were guys at Harvard from Canada. We had the contacts. It was fast money. Easy money."
"You have the family business...you don't need money!"
"A little extra on the side never hurt. And as for the family business--I never had any interest in real estate. I never had any interest in working, period. My father never should have made me take over when he got sick. Even then, I thought it would be temporary."
"When he had his stroke, you mean?"
William nodded. "I thought he'd recover, and go back to making our family a fortune. But it didn't turn out that way."
Charlotte suddenly wanted to escape. Who was this man she was married to?
"I'm taking you back to the house," William said. "Go to your bedroom and do not leave it. I have some business to take care of."
"I'll bet," she mumbled.
"What did you say?" One of his hands flew from the steering wheel to grip her around her neck.
"Nothing." She coughed as he released her.
"And Charlotte? If I ever catch you with Larkin again, I will kill him."
THE GIN LOVERS #5: Dangerous Games. Copyright 2012 by Jamie Brenner.