Authors: Cara Nelson
By Cara Nelson
The Bareknuckle Boxing Brotherhood
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Table of Contents
Of course the fucker left me a pub. He couldn’t leave me a sack of cash or a fortune in Google stocks. It had to be a beer joint in the middle of Nowhere, Ireland.
Camila paused at the grimiest looking building on the block. It was like quaint and friendly had stumbled a few yards back, and when it got up, it was rumpled, scraped, and had lost its chipper demeanor.
The luridly painted wooden sign depicting a grinning archer swung drunkenly on crooked chains. The timbered walls were pitted, and the glass door was dirty.
No one in Brigadoon knows how to use Windex?
she thought, pushing through the door with disgust.
A man about three feet wide with black muttonchops and a retreating hairline wiped the bar listlessly with a grimy rag. Two older men talked loudly over pints at a table and the strains of what had to be bagpipe music. She dropped her bag and held her hand out determinedly to the wiper.
“I’m Camila Saunders. If you’re Rabbie, we spoke on the phone,” she said by way of introduction.
“Aye,” he said without vigor, crushing her hand in his.
“The estate agent said there was some problem and no one would buy it in its current condition,” she said, surveying the room. “I mean, it’s a dump but it isn’t that bad. It has—character. What gives?”
“No idea,” he said, with a grin.
“So where’s the owner’s room?” She sighed, realizing she was getting nowhere with Rabbie.
He jerked his head toward a narrow staircase in the corner behind him. She nodded, realizing the big guy might not be too thrilled that she was trying to sell his workplace and presumably leave him without a job. So she tried to smile sincerely and thanked him.
“Thanks, Rabbie, I’m sure this is hard on you. Losing my—losing Sammy, and now me wanting to sell off the bar.”
“Nah. Sammy was a right bastard,” he observed, and she laughed, a short bark of mirth.
Unexpectedly, Rabbie gave a laugh himself and nodded to her with some grudging approval. She hauled the bag up the stairs behind her, feeling her way along the rough wall. The overhead fixture was too full of dead bugs to give much light. She opened the unlocked door at the top of the stairs.
The place was low rent in the seventies style, all browns with hints of rust, with a rickety plastic table meant to look like wood and two orange chairs, both with cracks in their vinyl cushions. An old fridge and range sat there, the probable source of the rancid grease smell that permeated the floral-papered walls.
In the middle of the table stood an ugly resin urn painted to look like bronze. She peeked in the top at the ashes.
“Hi there, Dad. Great to meet you. Nice urn you got there, considering you left fuck-all in the way of life insurance. Guess they took offense at my suggestion that they put you in a Ziploc bag.” She stuck the lid back on and put it on a shelf in the empty kitchen cupboard so she wouldn’t have to look at it.
Camila took the thirty-second tour and decided that the place was uniformly crappy. Downstairs she could hear the increasingly chatter as the pub began to fill. She took a shower and then teeth chattering, pulled on knee socks, jeans, and a sweater and headed back downstairs.
“Where is everyone?” she demanded as Rabbie wiped the bar again, just as haphazardly and with a rag just as dirty.
“Downstairs.” He jerked his head toward a door opposite them that she had thought led to a bathroom.
Camila descended the stairs, heading for the noise and stink of a gathering fueled by beer and, she could only imagine, testosterone from all the shouting. Perhaps someone had a big screen TV down there tuned to ESPN? Ugh, not one of those disgusting prizefights, she hoped.
On the bright side, it wasn’t the televised prize fight she’d been dreading. It was, in fact, the live show.
Down in the loud, overheated basement was a makeshift fight ring. Two shirtless, ungloved men were actively beating the living crap out of each other. She stopped, stunned, when she saw blood splatter across the closest spectators as a fighter’s knuckles split from punching his opponent in the jaw. Camila held back a gag and felt sweat come out all over her body. She wanted to run back up the stairs, away from the brutal display. But this was her bar, goddammit, and she wasn’t about to walk away from this spectacle.
She felt bile rising in her throat, but she stood her ground, fists clenched. She was seven years gone from that day, and it was time to put it behind her.
But it was too much. It was brutal and all too real: the grunts, the smell of sweat and blood, the obvious danger of the struggle. She dashed back upstairs and stood behind the bar, trying to blot out the insistent roar of the rowdy crowd. She wiped tables down almost vengefully. She must have looked like thunder itself, because the almost ridiculously friendly, back-slapping clientele were giving her a wide berth.
The rest of the night she mostly took empty glasses and washed them, wiping the bar with the same nasty cloth Rabbie had been using. She broke two pint glasses before the last customers filed out.
She wanted to rip Rabbie a new one for failing to mention the secret fight club, and rip another one in the estate agent who was too discreet to tell her that was the problem when they spoke on the phone. She didn’t know if fight clubs were legal in Ireland or not, but she could see a potential buyer not wanting to take that reputation on along with the pub. Goddamned Sammy Saunders, still causing her trouble with his shit decisions from beyond the grave…or urn.
When they finally cleared out after last call and had Rabbie locked up, Camila found the cleaning supplies.
“Anything wrong, lass? I believe I missed the action,” a deep brogue inquired.
She whipped her head around so fast that she got a mouthful of her own ponytail. He was a tall hulk of a man, with strong shoulders, towering over her. She stood up and set her fists on her hips. She was on the verge of telling him to get the fuck out when she really looked at him. He was—
my God he’s beautiful
. Colin Farrell beautiful, even, with soulful eyes and a mouth that was trouble she didn’t need.
“Well, fuck,” she said with a sigh.
“Nah, the name’s Bronny Dolan.” He put out his hand goodnaturedly, and she set her bucket down to shake it. Her hands were a little rough from work, but compared to his, they were smooth and velvety. Tiny, too; his massive grip swallowed her fingers.
“I meant to be here for the fight,” he went on, “but I had a property settlement to complete over in Kilmuck and it took longer than it should, what with neighbors fighting over a great tree with some old initials on.”
“If you’re clever enough for a law degree, what are you doing hanging out with these knuckle-dragging cavemen who come to watch people get beat up? I mean, I might as well put up a sign that we’ll have Christians fight lions downstairs. It’s so primitive,” she huffed.
“Ah, lass, while I thank you kindly for excluding me from their ranks, you’re mistaken. I’m worse than the cavemen as you call them. I fight here most every week.”
He watched as her estimation of him visibly dropped a few notches. His admission was going to make it a good deal more difficult to get in her pants, but Dolans never pretended to be other than what they were—fighters. He had his worth, his manhood to prove with every bout. If Dolans did a law degree, or God forbid, took holy orders, they didn’t advertise the fact. Their strength and their worth lay in their fists, their sheer brute power and determination. The fight had been part of who he was he was a lad of four, learning to hold his fists properly from his father. That wasn’t changing, no matter how pretty the piece was.
“You don’t look like a boxer,” she said flatly.
“You don’t look like a barmaid.” He returned with his most winning, boyish grin, and she gave a half smile.
“I’d wear a low-cut top for better tips, but it’s too fucking cold here,” she retorted. “Besides, I’m the owner of this godforsaken heap.”
“Ah, and you’re the spitting image of your dad,” he said.
Her dark eyes narrowed, and her nostrils flared. If this had been a cartoon, smoke would’ve come from her ears and her face would’ve gone full red. He chuckled.
“I’m only winding you up. You don’t look a thing like your father.”
“My mother was Jersey by way of Sicily, and every bit the wandering piece of trash he was. From what I hear, he was tending bar and she was—dancing.”
“On the dance floor?” He raised a cocky eyebrow.
“More like on the pole up front for singles.” She snorted. “So that’s my proud Irish and Italian lineage for you.”
“It may explain why you were growling about some fucking fucker when I came in.” He grinned.
“That would be my sainted father, who left me with a double mortgage on a beer joint with a surprise fight club downstairs. If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got blood to mop up and a keg to tote up the stairs.” She grimaced.
“I’ve not even got your name. I’m Bronny Dolan, and you are?”
Bronny could tell that the woman was fighting his charm. He also knew that his charm was a powerful thing, one that had got him into trouble on more than one occasion, so it was a damn fine fact that he liked trouble. He pushed his sandy hair back, aware that the ladies liked his shaggy curls and stubble every bit as much as his father hated it.
“Camila Saunders,” she said tightly with a nod. Camila started off down the stairs, turning her back to him without another word.
Bronny followed her, chivalry and attraction giving him a double-helping of motivation. She was new blood in a small town, dark and angry, where all the local girls were bright, open-faced creatures who would happily open their arms or spread their legs if he looked at them twice. A small voice in his head, probably his father’s, whispered that he didn’t need more challenges in a life already complicated enough. But he’d never listened to his dad above half the time anyhow, and this was no different. So he trailed after her down the narrow stairway, admiring the fit of her old jeans as she walked. She dropped the pail and scrub brush in a heap with a clatter and stomped off for the storage area past the fight ring.
He crossed his arms and waited, catching his reflection in the spotted old mirror on the opposite wall. He looked at himself with some satisfaction, knowing he was a well-grown specimen of an Irishman with the roughened hands of a worker and a lover, the shoulders of a dock man, and a law degree he didn’t talk much about. He listened with amusement as she pulled, cussed and, from the sound of it, hauled off and kicked the keg from the room beyond.
“Are you wanting help now?” he called.
“Yes. That would be good,” she said through gritted teeth.
Bronny joined her in the musty storage room, kegs stacked against one wall and all manner of paper supplies…napkins? He’d been coming to the Cheek for years now and had never seen a single goddamned napkin on offer.
“Here, allow me,” he said gallantly.
“I just need help lifting it. Then, once I have hold of it, I can carry it up myself.”
“Right. A barrel of beer weighing more than yourself? I’d not be half a man if I let you carry such a thing.”
Bronny hefted the keg easily and carried it toward the stairs at a brisk walk, with Camila following at his heels.
“I didn’t need your help. It was just stacked at an awkward angle, and I couldn’t get a secure hold on the thing.” Then she defamed with great profanity the intelligence and parentage of whatever imbecile had placed the kegs in such a way. She scurried after him, demanding to help. “I can do this on my own!” she said.
“Of course you could. There’s simply no need, with a brute like myself standing about,” he said soothingly, mirth tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Bronny set the heavy barrel down in its proper place, dusted off his hands, and turned to her.
She looked ever so slightly less than grateful, perhaps nearer to fury. “I could have done that.”
“You are more than welcome. No need to fall all over yourself with gratitude now.”
“It was—nice of you to carry it, but I’ll do it myself next time.”
“Just as you say. You didn’t expect the boxing ring, I take it.”
“It’s nothing to get so pissed off about. Nothing but a lot of county boys having a swing at each other, nice and organized, instead of having dust-ups on the corner. Is it really so desperate to have ‘em fight here? The take has to be pretty fine.”
“The take? First of all, it’s a disgusting way to behave, beating people’s heads in for amusement. I don’t know what passes for entertainment around here apart from, I don’t know, throwing potatoes at the sheep or something—” Bronny laughed at that.
“It gets out a good bit more healthy energy than lobbing praities at the sheep. I can’t tell if you’re narky because you hate pubs, or because your old boyfriend was a fighter and a bit of no good?”
“I am NOT narky, whatever the hell that means. And I have never, nor WILL I ever, go out with a fighter. I like a man with all his teeth and his wits about him. I’m a snob like that.”
“What’s the matter with fighters, might I ask? We work out our differences with gentlemen’s rules. It energizes and relaxes a man to watch such a bout. Ah, nothing on earth like a good bare fisted stand-down. It’s not street fighting. It’s a real man’s game.”
“Good to know. When I’m looking for a real man who’d beat the crap out of me, I’ll look up the local bare-knuckle association.”
“There’s not a real association of that sort around.”
“So it’s not LEGAL, is what you’re saying.”
“It’s not illegal, as such. It’s something for the local boys to live up to, prove how tough they are when they’re grown. Beating on one another out of pride, pure and simple. It’s the makings of a man.”
“Not illegal as such? As in, I own the venue where a
illegal fight took place for money?”
“Damn good money, too,” he observed.
“Does the winner get a cut of the bets or something?”
“The venue puts up a prize, and everybody who watches throws in a fiver or so. It adds up, even after the house cut. What’d you take in tonight?”
“Not a goddamned dime that I know of,” she said, eyes narrowed, “Did I accidentally give away money due to the pub? Oh my god, I
crap at this!” she howled.
“I doubt that. I’m sure that Rabbie took the house cut off the top for you. I imagine it was a good take. Thursday nights are big most weeks. I expect that’ll help with your mortgage problem, and the money would sweeten the idea for your squeamish buyers…if they know that you’ll get a few thousand quid a week off fights, they’re like to be less queasy,” he suggested.
“How come, if there’s money, it wasn’t in the estate?”
“It’d be under the table, darlin’. I doubt that old Sammy kept public records of the fights and what he took in. The constabulary’s a relatively forgiving lot hereabouts, but it doesn’t do to flout their authority. Your dad was perfectly fine with the practice of underground bareknuckle. I suppose we’d all hoped you were cut from the same cloth, but I see that—”
“You don’t see anything.” She whirled around on him, “That man was NOTHING to me, and this place is an albatross. I’m stuck with it until I can unload it. I have no civic pride, if that’s what you’re counting on. I won’t be keeping the place open with fistfights for show just to boost local morale!”
“Now, I ought not to have compared you to your dad, I see. But there’s nothing wrong with a good fight, and he had to be sitting on a pile of money from all the bouts he hosted here. I been fighting here myself going on five years, and he featured two or three fights a week…”
“So there’s money someplace in this joint?”
“I’ve no idea. Seems reasonable, though.” He shrugged affably. “Clearly, you’re not wanting more help, so I’m off.”