The Fighter Duet: Two Full-Length, Red-Hot New Adult Fighter Romances (2 page)

BOOK: The Fighter Duet: Two Full-Length, Red-Hot New Adult Fighter Romances
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“Boyfriend out of town?”

“No.” I shook my head, exhaling a laugh. “No boyfriend. Not for me.”

Switching the weight to her other hand, we rearranged her position. She didn’t say anything, but I could tell the wheels were turning in her head.

I gave her a little wink and a smile. “So tell me why your
fine
doesn’t sound so convincing.”

She shook her head. “It’s just an anniversary. George and I would’ve been together fifty years today.”

Taking a step back, my eyebrows rose. “Fifty?”

A smile softened her face at my look of shock. “People got married younger back then.”

“I’ll say. You must’ve only been, what? Eighteen?”

She nodded setting the weight on the rack. “That’s right. And we had forty loving years together.”

The idea of that teased an old ache in my chest, a fantasy I thought I had moved past clinging to—what my life might have been like if only… My inner masochist forced me to ask, “Do you still miss him?”

“Every day.” Her scratchy voice was just above a whisper.

Sitting on the bench where we’d been kneeling, I only half-realized I was leaving my one client of the day hanging. It didn’t matter. She turned and sat beside me, looking at her own shoes the way I studied mine.

“Now your turn.” She sounded like the grandmother I didn’t have. “Why would your
fine
not be very convincing?”

“I am so sorry.” I stood then, starting to move past her to the next machine, but she caught my arm.

“It’s okay to talk.” Her smile was warm, soothing. I turned my palm up and ran my finger over the black teardrop I’d inked there years ago.

“It’s not my anniversary or anything. But sometimes I feel like my life will always be this way.”

She held my hand. “What way?”

I blinked up at her and did a little smile. “Alone. Missing… I was only twenty-one when Blake died, but it never seems to get easier.”

Compassion was all over her face, and for the first time in a while, it didn’t make me want to clam up or run away. “Was Blake your boyfriend?”

I thought about the question as I looked at the small window above us. “He was my first real boyfriend. When he said he was leaving for Princeton, I couldn’t let him go, so I married him and went with him.”

“Oh, dear!” She stood up and pulled me into a hug. “I’m so sorry.”

Shaking off the bad memories, I forced a real smile. “Now who’s spoiling Friday? I’m sorry. Let’s work on your balance.”

She followed me over to the large ball in the center of the room. Facing each other, I held her hands as she slowly lowered to a sitting position on top of it. Her gray eyes were full of concern as she watched me.

“You lost him… five years ago?” Her voice was quiet, and I nodded.

We were talking softly, although the only other person in the club was a man on the treadmill running hard, earbuds firmly in place.

“Was he the father of your sweet little boy?”

At that question, my cheeks warmed. “Umm… no,” I stammered. “That was somebody else. Sort of a random thing that turned into something more permanent, I guess. But we’re not together or anything. Patrick’s just my friend.”

It was hard to explain my relationship with Patrick Knight to anyone who didn’t know him. We’d had a stupid, drunken hook-up that turned us into parents. It didn’t change the fact that we were completely wrong for each other. Now he was blissfully engaged to someone else—to Elaine—and I was… alone.

Still, that encounter had given us Lane, my beautiful little golden-haired boy with the big blue eyes. He lived with Patrick and Elaine, but I visited every chance I got, and when I hugged him and buried my face in his soft skin, I could almost believe it was enough.

Mrs. Clarkson was strangely reassured by my news. “That is a
very
good sign.”

I almost laughed. “The fact that I’m an irresponsible person who shouldn’t be allowed to shoot Tequila is a good sign?”

“The fact that you were willing to open your heart again. Maybe you handled it poorly, but you’re too young to give up on love. I’m glad your heart knows it even if your head has to be checked out for it to happen.”

“Head checked out. That’s a great way to put it. I should’ve had my head checked out.” I did laugh then.

We were finished with her routine, and I walked with her back to the juice bar. Before we parted, she took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “You have a kind, loyal heart. It’s not a betrayal to Blake’s memory to live your life.”

It was the same thing everybody always said, but for some reason, hearing it from another survivor hit me hard. I had to clear the thickness in my throat before I was able to answer.

“Thank you.” I whispered, nodding, and she was gone.

A quick glance at the clock told me it was almost eleven. The women were filing out of Tammy’s class, laughing and making noise. Zumba was one of the few fitness classes where participants came out more excited than when they went in. My irritation started to return, and I collected my things.

Eleven was close enough to noon, and I really needed a break. Stopping at the cubbies where we stowed our personal items, I saw a small, white box in Mariska’s. Pulling it down, I recognized Pete’s handwriting and shook my head. As many times as she said No, he still gave her little gifts. It was sweet and heartbreaking at the same time.

It also reassured me that he was in the club somewhere. I grabbed my keys and my hipster bag and headed out the door.

2
“Inhale the future; exhale the past.”
Slayde

R
ook Callahan was not
what I expected to meet at my job interview at the Jungle Gym Friday afternoon. He was a head taller than me and built like a mountain. Black tattoos showed faintly on his ripped arms, which rested in front of him on the desk as he studied my resume. A heavy, stainless watch was on his wrist.

I’d spent two days poring over the Help Wanted section, looking for anything that didn’t require a lot of background information—restaurants, garages, cranberry bogs. Most places wanted references, and I was lucky to have Doc, even if he wasn’t always available to take phone calls.

“You say you’ve never worked at a health club before?” His black eyes cut to me.

“No.” I held his stare a moment before I looked down at my hands, running my thumb over the bold
21
inked on the back of my right one. A blue, red, and green network of vines and a skull covered my forearm above it, and I was glad he had ink as well. That was one additional bit of prejudice I didn’t need. “I’ve used gyms quite a bit, but I’ve never worked at one.”

“You’ve got one reference listed. This somebody related to you?”

“No.” Looking up again, I met his gaze head-on. “References are difficult. If I can speak for myself, I’m a hard worker, and I’m only looking for honest work. Nothing more.”

He chewed the inside of his bottom lip as he looked back to the sheet in front of him. Then he leaned back in his chair and ran a large hand over his close-cropped hair.

“You used to be a fighter?”

My insides clenched, and I wanted to push us quickly through this part of the conversation. “Years ago. I had to… I was forced to quit.”

For whatever reason, that admission changed him. The hard intimidation softened, and he leaned forward to stand, circling the desk so that he was in front of it, facing me.

“When I played ball, I knew a lot of guys forced to quit for whatever reason.” He paused and looked at the door as if reliving it. “They’d get mixed up in some shit or the other. Couldn’t let it go.”

His words were probably meant to build a bridge, but I could feel the heat rising in my chest, that old anger sparking to life. I tightened my jaw, searching my brain for one of Doc’s mantras, hoping to head off whatever he might say next.

“I just need a job.” My voice was flat.

Bridge unbuilt, intimidation back. I was far more comfortable with that arrangement. “Any of your shit going to come to my gym?”

“No, sir,” I answered fast. “It’s in the past. Over.”

He nodded once. “I’ll give you a shot, a probationary period. You show me we need you up here, that you won’t cause any problems, and I’ll see about making it permanent.”

“Fair enough.” I stood and held out my hand.

He stared at it before pushing off the desk and going to his office door. “I’ll give you the tour.”

I put my unshook hand in my pocket and followed him down the short hall. He paused at a set of double-glass doors to the right. “Through here are racquetball courts and on the other side is the group fitness center. The women’s lockers are behind that. You’ll take care of them after hours—mornings, evenings, you decide.
Not
when the women are present.”

I nodded. “Understood.”

He continued a few steps, and we were near the center entrance, where a large juice bar was situated.

“Mariska works the bar. She’s off Fridays, but we can usually handle the traffic. Keep the floors mopped and the trash emptied back here. She can handle wiping down the counters.”

I nodded, and a very blonde, very stacked female stepped into the center of the bar area. She had the kind of body that made any guy’s dick twitch, and by the way she moved, I could tell she knew it.

“This is my wife Tammy.”

She was also officially off-limits, not that I was interested in romance of any kind. I did a quick nod before looking down.

“Nice to meet you.” Her voice was smooth and friendly. “You our new maintenance guy?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rook lingered, and when he spoke again, his voice was low. “Where’s Kenny?”

“Left early. Said she wasn’t feeling well.” The way she answered, it seemed they were communicating something else. I glanced up at them and noticed my new boss’s frown.

“She’ll be in on Monday?”

“Yeah, I talked to her. She’ll be okay.”

I couldn’t tell what was going on, but Rook started moving, resuming my tour.

“What’s your name, maintenance guy?” Tammy called out.

“Slayde,” I answered.

“Good to have you, Slayde.” She gave me a friendly smile, but I stuck with a nod in response. I wasn’t looking for friends either.

The Jungle Gym was bigger than it looked on the outside. Rook led me through an enormous, open room filled with free weights and machines on one end and treadmills and stair climbers on the other. The men’s locker room was off the back of it.

“You can get in here and clean whenever it’s slow. Our busiest time is after work hours during the week.” He stopped and looked around the empty room. “I don’t care when you clean it, so long as you hit it once a day.”

“Yes, sir.” I followed him back out and around a corner to a room that stopped me in my tracks. It was a small boxing area. A strike bag hung from the ceiling in one corner, and in the center was a speed bag. A smaller strike bag was on a pole weighted to the floor.

“What’s this for?” I instinctively reached out to touch it, but the onslaught of memories was almost too much—the sound of the whistle, the barked orders of my coach, the hours upon hours I’d spent working, chasing, dreaming. I’d gotten so close, and I’d lost it all.

“Cardio strike bag.” Rook answered, oblivious to my discomfort. “Kenny’s working up a routine for group fitness. I like to keep things fresh.”

It was the second time this Kenny person had come up, but I was less interested in her than in getting out of here. Clearing my throat, I nodded down.

“You still keep your chin tucked.” A grin was in his voice.

I didn’t even realize I was doing it. “I guess. It’s good protection.”

“Old habits. I know.” He chuckled. “Come on.”

As I followed him back toward the front, we met a guy who looked about my age. He had light brown hair and was dressed in nylon pants and a thick brown tee with a Nike swoosh on the shoulder.

“Slayde, this is Pete. He’s one of the trainers here.”

I nodded as per usual, but he stopped me. “Hey, nice ink. What’s that?”

The short-sleeved shirt I wore didn’t quite cover the pair of boxing gloves on my right biceps. I didn’t want to talk about it, but I didn’t see a way out.

“Just something I did a while back.” Briefly pulling up the fabric, I allowed him to read it before I dropped the curtain again.


Never stop fighting
. Cool. You a fighter?”

Rook interrupted. “That your three o’clock walking in?”

He glanced over his shoulder before turning back. “Yeah, okay. Take it easy, man.”

We were back at the front, and Rook faced me. “I’ve got a few forms you have to fill out, then you want to start today?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

He handed me the paperwork, and I folded it lengthwise, putting it in my back pocket.

“The supply closet is here.” I followed him to a small door, which he opened to show shelves of cleaning supplies. A heavy, plastic bucket on wheels was inside holding a mop. “The cubbies on the wall have a master key for everyone. When you’re in the club keep it around your neck. When you leave, put it in your slot. That’s how we know who’s here.”

“Got it.”

I reached forward and rolled the bucket out. This was my life now. Cleaning up other people’s shit. Keeping my chin tucked, guarding my vulnerable spots. It wasn’t about my dreams or what I’d lost. It was about taking the first step. Then taking the next step. Before long, I would have walked away from the past and found my new normal.

3
“Life goes on.”
Kenny

T
he restless
, angry feelings slugged it out in my chest as I wandered through the drugstore. I’d come here straight from work specifically to get a bottle of wine, and Mrs. Clarkson’s words echoed in my thoughts.
It’s not a betrayal to live your life.

I wanted to live my life. I really did, but whenever a guy approached me, everything inside me shut down. The only time it hadn’t happened was with Patrick, but we were so shit-faced, that didn’t count.

Mrs. Clarkson’s theory was interesting, though—maybe she was right, and my heart was ready. I just had to learn to switch off my brain and let go. Either way, it didn’t matter because there wasn’t anyone waiting to catch me.

It was early, but I grabbed the bottle of wine anyway. Then I wandered to the cards and gifts aisle, stopping in front of
American Ink
magazine. The model on the cover had long, straight-black hair like mine, and her arms were covered in a colorful pattern that twisted and flowered up her biceps. It looked like the artist had used a watercolor technique, and the year I’d been at Living Arts Tattoos with Carl crept across my memory.

Carl had done elaborate tattoos like these, ones that took multiple sessions to complete, and I’d watched him closely, learning how to take blank skin and turn it into a canvass. I wasn’t there long enough to get as skilled as he, but I’d enjoyed the few works of art I’d created. Most of them were on my own body, from the tear in my hand to the star on my hip. The only one I hadn’t done was the butterfly on my ribs. It was my first ink, and Carl had done it for me after I lost Blake.

When I moved back to Bayville, I’d let that part of me go. I was pregnant, and I needed allies. I couldn’t be the rebellious teenager who’d run off and married the delinquent everybody hated.

Something in me twisted at the loss, and I added the magazine to the basket on my arm. From there, I went to the hair care aisle. Walking slowly, I saw a box for deep violet-colored dye. It had been years since I’d done anything interesting with my hair, and the urge to change everything pulled hard at my insides. The bottle went into the basket, and I headed to the front.

The cashier didn’t even blink when I placed a bottle of wine, a tattoo magazine, and a box of purple hair dye in front of her. As far as she cared, she saw shit like this every day. Whatever. I was shaking things up, seeing if a little change would release the tension.

* * *

S
itting
in front of the television with my hair wrapped in plastic, I sipped a glass of wine as I thumbed through the magazine. I traced my favorite tats into my sketchbook and tried to decide which I would do if I still had a gun.

Men’s tattoos were so straightforward, tribal bands or broad Samoan patterns across shoulders and over backs. I stared at a photo of a pale, skinny guy with spikey blond hair and a square jaw. He had gauges in his ears and both arms were covered in green and black sleeves that were a mixture of skulls and chains. His light eyes pierced out from the pages at me.
Trouble
was written all over his expression, and the muscles low in my belly tightened. Of course, this was the type of guy Kenny the Tigress wanted to maul. Or was I Wonder Woman?

One thing was for sure, I was buzzed. I pulled myself off the floor, stumbling to my closet, glass of wine still in my hand.

All the way in the back was a box I never opened anymore. Lifting the lid, I dug through the napkins and matchbooks from clubs we’d visited, dried flowers and a diary. I shoved them all aside trying to find it.
Was it all the way at the bottom?

A hard cube met my fingertips, and I pulled out a cheap, red-vinyl box that opened with a squeak. Inside was the thinnest gold band anybody had ever seen. It was all we’d been able to afford. I think it cost twenty dollars. Pulling it out, I slipped it on the third finger of my left hand, and my breath hiccupped.

Going back to the box, I dug some more until I found the one picture I still had of us together. Blake had his skinny arm thrown over my shoulder, and I was leaning forward laughing, clutching his waist. A cigarette hung out of the corner of his mouth, and his eyes were half-closed while he flipped off the photographer with his other hand.

God, we were so young—not that I was so old now, but when this was taken, I’d only been eighteen. Mrs. Clarkson was eighteen when she’d married her husband. But they’d had forty years together. Blake and I only had three.

Staring at the faces, I waited for the tears to start. I braced myself for the gut-wrenching sobs that used to double me over and have me silently screaming. It always happened when I looked at these mementos. How long had it been since I’d done this? A year?

Nothing happened. I sat in silence staring at these artifacts from my past, and that was exactly how they felt. Distant.

My phone rang in the other room, and I pushed myself off the floor. Wobbling back to the living room, I took another long sip of wine, still amazed I wasn’t crying. On my phone face was a girl with a wide smile and light-brown curls flowing over her shoulders. A garland was across her forehead. Mariska.

“Why didn’t you tell me Rook hired a new guy today?” Her voice was loud and taunting.

“Probably because I was too pissed at catching them fucking again.” My voice was a little slurry, but she didn’t seem to notice.

She screamed a laugh. “No. WAY!”

I put my wine glass on the coffee table and fell back on the couch with a loud exhale. I needed to eat something.

“Way,” I muttered, reaching up to touch the plastic cap still on my head. I still had dye in my hair. Great. Dragging myself off the couch, I headed to the bathroom.

“They are
so
inspiring.” Mariska’s voice had gone dreamy. “Imagine being married to someone that long and still wanting to fuck their brains out all the time.”

My eyes rolled. “It’s more shocking than inspirational, actually.”

“I’d love a sneak peek. Rook’s hot. I bet he has an enormous dick.”

“Please. Don’t. He’s our boss.” The fact was, he did—and I didn’t want to think about it.

I leaned toward the mirror and lifted the plastic, checking my color. It looked ready. “But if you really want to see it, you could try working longer than two hours in the middle of the day. That seems to be their down time.”

“Looks like I’ll have to if I’m going to see Mr. New Guy.” She was back to scheming. “Pete said he’s clearly got a backstory. What did you think?”

Turning, I leaned against the sink. “I didn’t see him. I left early.”

“What’s wrong? Are you sick?”

The tiny wedding band was still on my finger, and I stared at it for a few moments. Still nothing.

“Kenny?” Mariska’s voice was a little louder. “You okay over there?”

“I don’t know.” I turned my hand over and studied the small, black tear I’d inked in my palm. “I mean, Yes! Physically, I’m fine. But something’s different.”

“What do you mean? What’s different?”

“I’m not sure, but I tried to come home today and sort it out. My feelings are all mixed up, and I just feel this tension inside, like I’m going to bust open.” Whoa. I never talked this much about my feelings. No more wine tonight.

“Go out with me tomorrow night!” She was almost shouting with excitement. “Just say yes for once and don’t think about it. We can dance all that bad juju away!”

Images of me with her in a dance club flickered through my mind. “I’m going to Wilmington. I miss Lane.”

“You were just there last weekend!” she cried. “You’ve got to go out and be around guys your age.”

“Tell you what.” I pushed off the sink and walked back to my room. “Next week, I’ll go out with you.” I took the small band off my finger and returned it to the vinyl box.

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

We disconnected, and I returned everything to the larger box and pushed it all the way to the back of my closet again. Switching off the light, I headed to the bathroom.

The water ran deep violet as I washed out the dye, massaging my scalp with my fingers. Once it was clear, I shut off the tap and squeezed out the excess. Then I grabbed the blow dryer and turned my back to the mirror. I hadn’t bleached it first, so no telling how it would look. When it was completely dry, I turned around, and gasped. It was perfect—dark, blackish-violet, cascading over my shoulders like a cape. I turned to the side and shook my straight hair down my back. I couldn’t wait for Lane to see it.

Running back to the living room, I scooped up my phone and shot a quick text to Patrick.
Is it okay if I come for a visit tomorrow? You busy?

I waited, wondering if it was too late to order take-out when my phone buzzed in my hand.
Sure! Lane misses Mommy.

A smile broke over my face, and I quickly replied.
Will be on the road before eight. See you soon!

If anything could break me out of a funk, it was chubby little hands and a heaping dose of baby scent. I couldn’t wait to cuddle my little boy.

BOOK: The Fighter Duet: Two Full-Length, Red-Hot New Adult Fighter Romances
3.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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