Authors: Cari Quinn
Tags: #Tapped Out, #Book 3
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This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
ON THE ROPES
© 2015 Cari Quinn
Cover Design: The Killion Group
All Rights Are Reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First e-book edition: July 2015
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o my mom
, who keeps me well fueled with coffee and courage.
To Taryn Elliott
, who always holds my hand, even when the birds start to chirp.
To Mr. and Mrs. Audiophile
, who helped me with Italian phrases and made me laugh and gave me the precious gift of their friendship. Thank you.
To Kim P
, thank you for being such a staunch supporter of mine and Taryn's work and for being a good friend.
To Diane E
, thank you for being one of our favorite cheerleaders and always keeping our spirits high. We appreciate it more than you know.
He’s willing to die for vengeance, until she gives him a reason to live…
Giovanni Costas is the newest hotshot fighter in New York City’s underground MMA scene. From the outside, he’s on top of the world. Winning all his matches, getting all the women he could ever want. The truth isn’t nearly so bright. Isolated and alone, far from his family in Vegas, he’s struggling with inner demons that threaten to swallow him whole.
The more Giovanni fights, the closer he gets to the people who ripped away the most precious thing in his life. Eradicating them is his only focus…until he meets his reason for turning his back on the seedy world that has consumed him for two years.
The biggest battle he’s ever faced…
Carly Anderson is living a double life. A culinary student by day and a dancer by dark, Carly spends her nights in a cage of her own choosing. Flirting with danger is the only thing that dulls the pain from her past. When she catches the eye of the wrong men, it’ll take the right one to save her. If Giovanni doesn’t break her—and himself—in the process…
Warning: please be advised this book contains content some may find triggering (sexual trauma) and also contains graphic sex, language and violence that may not be suitable for underage readers.
used to feel invisible
. I was an ordinary girl with a sister with a not-so-ordinary background, and because of that, I’ve always lived in her shadow. I didn’t want her to worry about me, and I didn’t want to cause any trouble. But even the good girl eventually goes bad.
At least this one did.
The first time I got drunk I tasted the freedom I hadn’t realized I’d been missing. After a while, you become so numb that it becomes easier to pretend it doesn’t hurt to deny who you are, down deep under the lies. You get used to breaking off pieces of yourself and tucking them away where they won’t cause any pain to someone else, someone you love more than life. Someone who would sacrifice anything to keep you safe. Claiming those real, true slices of yourself—even in secret—feels like a betrayal.
I didn’t want to hurt Mia, my older sister. My hero. She’s the strongest, bravest, sweetest person I know. And she’s been suffocating me for years, trying to ensure that I never have to endure what she did.
Now she’d become part of a set. Her boyfriend, Fox, is almost as bad as she is when it comes to being protective of me. I love him like he’s my own brother, and I’m so happy he’s in Mia’s life, but my father is dead and buried. I threw the roses on his casket years ago and I never signed up for another one. My sister smothers me enough. She doesn’t need any help.
We’re so different, Mia and me. Night and day. I used to think she was the night and I was the day. Not anymore. She’s fought her dark with every ounce of who she is. I chase mine.
I also have a big fat chip on my shoulder about making my mark. Wherever and however I can.
Hey world, Carly Fucking Anderson is on this planet too, and she’s not here just to be the walk-on in someone else’s show.
I want my own. My own existence. Even my own tragedy, if it comes to that.
If Mia knew part of me wanted to be in the spotlight, no matter the cost, she’d never understand. She lived through a trauma. Survived it. But that’s the thing. As horrible as that experience was, she
. She didn’t cling to the walls of her world like a paper doll, as thin and insubstantial as the wind.
People passed by me and through me and few of them ever realized I’d suffered too. I was the one who had to pick up the pieces after my sister’s kidnapping. I took care of my dad as best as I could and I went through the motions. Even at eleven, I learned how to put on the mask. I was normal. I was okay. Nothing or no one would ever harm me because I was too strong.
Not anymore. Now I wasn’t hiding from trouble. I was seeking it, eyes wide open. Hoping like hell it could find me where no one else ever had.
That unnaturally warm October night at The Pyramid Club, it did.
The club was slamming on a Friday night in the city, as it always was. At eighteen, I lived the usual college girl’s life. I went to school all day at the International Culinary Institute, and I worked part-time three days a week at a salad shop. And two nights of the week, I danced nearly nude in a cage at a club.
Okay, so maybe not quite so usual.
I’ll give you a clue which of my two jobs paid more—and it wasn’t the one where I chopped vegetables for my two-hundred-year-old boss.
I’d worked as a dancer for a little more than four months. A few times I’d had to go onstage to fill in, but the cage above the dance floor was mostly mine. Initially I’d had to fight for it. The cage was kinda primo dance space, and a girl with no dancing or stripping experience wasn’t who Trina wanted to put inside it right away. But I’d danced for her in her office, with my palms sweating and my mind screaming a million protests, and she’d agreed right away to a probationary period in the cage.
Now it was my permanent spot.
Every week I changed my look. There were a couple reasons for that. One, I enjoyed playing dress-up. I’d collected an assortment of wigs that I stored at my friend Jenna’s apartment. I’d started out with a long, layered white-blonde one. The next week, I’d gone for sable brown page boy. The same Carly didn’t show up two weeks in a row, and I loved it.
There was another reason I went for the wigs. I was hiding in plain sight.
See, I hadn’t even known about this particular club until I’d followed my crush there last April. Crush was such a pathetic word. In the intervening months, I’d moved way on from it, but back then, I’d been firmly in crush mode. Giovanni Costas had been my fascination from the first time I’d laid eyes on him after I moved to the city to live with my sister in January.
That night in April, when I’d followed him, he’d smashed my crush to smithereens.
All for my own good, of course. That’s why he’d warned me away from the club, and added the exclamation point of getting a blowjob from one of the waitresses in a back room while I waited outside like an idiot.
I wonder what he’d do if he went for another blowjob, and discovered the waitress was me?
Not that I did that. Yet. I wasn’t naïve enough to think I’d be able to avoid the sex acts that took place in the back rooms—and sometimes right at the tables—forever. I’d been lucky so far. My sister might’ve been the fighter in the family, but I knew how to dodge and weave with the best of ‘em. Every time I’d almost gotten called into service, I’d handily disappeared.
Eventually, everyone’s luck ran out. Mine ran out that night.
The first hint that something was afoot was the change in routine. I normally worked Friday and Saturday nights. Friday nights, early, because that’s when Giovanni usually fought. I didn’t think he’d recognize me in my get-up—the Strawberry Shortcake Carly he knew couldn’t have been farther away—but there was no reason to tempt fate. Saturday nights I worked late, from ten to closing, because he tended to come in after the dinner crowd and leave early.
I might not have admitted to crushing on him anymore, but I still watched him. Relentlessly.
My sister’s fight last month and her subsequent injury might’ve kindled a few of those lingering crush sparks back to life, but I’d stomp them out with my pointy-toed shoes eventually. The problem was he was always so sweet to me, when he wasn’t being a complete dick. He had old world manners. Opening doors, allowing ladies to go first. He was unfailingly polite, but what burned in his blue-black eyes spoke of long nights of dirty, inventive sex.
Turned out I was a sucker for that particular combination. Who knew?
There was a fight that night. I knew that because a female that Fox trained was on the undercard. Lately women’s MMA was getting more cred in the underground scene, but it was still very much a man’s world. And Giovanni ruled it. He had a nearly unbeaten record, and tonight he was fighting Cuda, a new guy rising up the ranks. It was supposed to be a huge bout. Big bets, lots of big talk, plenty of pretty girls swarming to assist the fighters in any way possible. Some of the other chicks who worked at The Pyramid Club had been called in to work as ring card girls, and they also worked their mouths on the regular. And not to talk.
Me, I danced. And I collected my tips, socking them away for school. I was accumulating a hefty bank account, one dirty grind at a time.
I didn’t expect the fight to let out until eleven at least. But it wasn’t much past nine when the first wave of revelers arrived. They were noisy, jubilant. From where I was at the opposite end of the bar, adjusting my short dark wig in the reflective glass behind the bottles, I could see the swells of people pushing into the club, and some of them were dressed in fight gear. Some of the fighters, like Giovanni, wore certain colors all the time. His were red and black. As were the jackets on several of the first shouting men through the doors.
The Grey Goose, Hennessey and Moet started flowing. Quickly, I made my way to my cage. I didn’t want to get caught on the floor if Giovanni showed up early. I had to think the fight had gone well, and that he’d shut down his opponent fast. Not that surprising. He wasn’t known for stringing his competitor along.
It wouldn’t be the first time I’d brought drinks to his table, but I didn’t feel like pressing my luck tonight. Though I wasn’t technically a waitress, we were all called to perform the task now and then, especially if someone developed a special preference for one of us. A couple of the members of Giovanni’s usual crowd were friendly with me, even as he always seemed to be occupied with his blonde du jour every time I showed up at the table.
Always blondes. Because that didn’t sting, not even a little.
I wasn’t exactly a blonde. I wasn’t completely
one either. My hair was more red, but there was some gold in there too.
Not tonight though. Tonight I had swingy, short dark hair to go with my smoky eye makeup and dark red lips. Nothing at all like my usual self.
Amen for that.
The music was pumping, and so was the money. With this kind of exultant atmosphere, I wouldn’t have to worry about going home with thin pockets at the end of the night. Even the share of my tips I had to give the bouncers on duty and the waitresses serving my section of the club shouldn’t put much of a dent in my take.
The unobtrusive metal steps to the cage lowered from supports on the ceiling clanged under my platform heels. I wore my standard outfit: super short skirt, tied off top that would be easily stripped away to reveal my bra and then my breasts, and a tiny G-string. I didn’t dance naked but damn close. That G-string didn’t hide much. I was lucky that my natural hair color was fairly light, but Brazilians were part of my life on a regular basis.
I hadn’t intended to dance topless when I started. Back then I’d hoped I could just wear next-to-nothing. Yeah, not so much. I was lucky I hadn’t been required to do more than the occasional—very occasional—lap dance.
On the third step, my heel broke. I swore and gripped the railing, nearly going to my knees. I swiveled around, my butt landing hard on the step. The dirty, nasty step walked on by how many pairs of feet.
I fumbled for my shoe, trying to gauge the damage. The heel had completely snapped off. No temporary fixes for that one. I had another pair in my locker, thank God.
Sighing, I gripped it by the strap and looked at my watch. And I was officially about to be late to start my shift. I had to hustle.
“You need some help, sweetheart?”
At the rich, melodic voice that was often attached to so many of my tips, I smiled and dangled my shoe strap from my pinky. “You know how to fix broken shoes?”
“Now that is a tough one.” Marco Salzano, one of Giovanni’s usual crowd, leaned on the railing beside the stairs and scratched his chin. He was smooth-shaven like a baby’s bottom at all times, whereas Giovanni usually had scruff.
Last weekend, when I’d scoped him out from behind the bar like a spy, he’d been rocking a short beard to go with his longish wavy dark hair. He’d had on a muscle shirt that showed off his full sleeves of tattoos, and he’d kept the alcohol flowing to the entire table. I’d nearly gotten caught watching him, and in last weekend’s getup of go-go boots and a long auburn sleek wig, I’d been a little too close to real Carly to risk exposure.
The man was nothing short of beautiful, and I hated him for it.
“But you’re in luck, lovely lady.”
Marco’s voice made my head snap up. I’d been lost in reveries of Giovanni. As usual. I couldn’t stand his effect on me, but that didn’t mean I’d figured out how to stop it. Especially now that he was spending so much time at my apartment. Apparently he and Fox had become friends. I didn’t really know how, since Gio had kicked Fox’s ass in the ring and ended his fighting career last winter, but that was boys for you. They didn’t make a lot of sense.
“Oh, I am, am I?” I tilted my head flirtatiously and pasted on my best smile. Marco padded my wallet often, and I knew how to play the game. Maybe I didn’t take it as far as some of the other girls—okay, almost
of the other girls—but that didn’t mean I was averse to flashing some ass for cash. I just did it from behind the bars of my cage.
Glancing up at the empty structure, I sighed again. I needed some shoes stat, or my tips were in serious danger.
“You are. I’m happy to help you with your predicament.” He held out an arm and smiled. He was dressed impeccably as always, in a fancy Italian suit that probably cost what I made in a month. And I wasn’t exactly underpaid at the club. “Come,
I started to rise and take his arm before I cocked my head. “
? What does that mean?”
I loved Italian. It was part of the reason I’d fallen so hard and fast for Giovanni. From the first time we’d met, he’d called me
—treasure in Italian. I’d looked it up right away and always felt a secret joy when the word tumbled from his lips. That he didn’t want to call me it anymore only added another layer of thrill.
Some part of him was drawn to me too. He might not want that connection any more than I did—even if I didn’t fully understand why—but the link existed nonetheless. So far neither of us had been able to kill it.
means little cat.”
I started to smile back until a possible dual meaning of that phrase sneaked into my head and I blushed. He was a handsome, older man, in his mid-twenties to my not-quite-nineteen, and all of the women at the club wanted to be close to him. His special interest in me from almost the beginning had garnered me more than a bit of jealousy. I’d never really encouraged his attention, but I hadn’t exactly discouraged it either.
I wasn’t interested in him. That didn’t mean I couldn’t have some fun, right?
He wasn’t Giovanni. No one was.
.” His smile grew as he inclined his chin at his extended arm. “You’re running late.”
Biting my lip, I took another glance at my cage. The chaser lights surrounding it glowed green and purple, my special colors. The structure would start revolving soon, though it was empty.
“Maybe I should just skip the shoes.” I started backing up the steps. “Not like I really need them to—”