The Fighter Duet: Two Full-Length, Red-Hot New Adult Fighter Romances (5 page)

BOOK: The Fighter Duet: Two Full-Length, Red-Hot New Adult Fighter Romances
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Resting my chin on the back of my hand, I reached down and slid a lock of soft blond hair off his little forehead. He sat up at once, causing me to jump, but his eyes were still closed. With an exhaled laugh, I gathered him into my arms, going to the small bed on the other side of the room and crawling beneath the sheets with him beside me. Three breaths of snuggly, baby scent, and my body relaxed completely into sleep.

5
“Change is the only constant.”
Slayde

B
reakers crashed
on the sandy shore, and every day the air grew a little cooler. The one-room studio apartment I was able to afford had the sole perk of being close to the beach. Make that two perks—the double bed was comfortable.

Inside, a track with hooks ran along the ceiling, so I hung a curtain to separate the sleeping half from the living half of the square I now called home. At two-fifty a month, I couldn’t complain, and I was used to smaller quarters these days.

Walking along the shore before work, I thought of Doc’s advice to take it one day at a time. It was a good system, even if I wasn’t an alcoholic. No pressure, positive. My hands were shoved in the pockets of the same jeans I’d worn since I arrived in Bayville. Next payday, I’d have to buy another pair. Then I’d have the start of a wardrobe.

For now, I stood watching the waves hit the shore with all their force. The strike sent my mind reeling into the past, to the few bright years of luxury, the days when I was on top. As a rising star, I had the best rooms at every hotel, a different girl in every city, and designers sent me clothes for free. All they wanted was for me to walk around wearing them.

A low burning in the pit of my stomach brought me back to reality. Those days were long gone. I was living in the real world now, and I had to get used to it. I repeated my personal mantra:
This is my life now.

Heavy black boots waited for me at the edge of the boardwalk, and I reached inside to pull out one of three pairs of socks I owned. I’d have to buy more of those as well—and underwear. For now I usually went commando.

Walking back, I climbed into the beat-up, rusty truck I’d managed to purchase. It took the last of my money, but I needed transportation. Cheap white bread and even cheaper generic peanut butter would have to get me to payday. If anything else came up, I’d get creative.

Doc had a saying for starting over:
Change is the only constant
. For me, change was not only constant, it was good. If it weren’t for change, where would I be?

Rook was alone at the gym when I pulled into the parking lot. It was Saturday, my first full day on the job. I went inside and made my way straight to the supply closet when the scent of eggs, cheese, and sausage assaulted my nose.

My mouth instantly watered, and I gripped the door handle, waiting for the dull ache of hunger to release my midsection. I’d felt this way before, and I knew from experience to wait a few days. It would pass, my body would adjust to eating less.

The stinging scent of disinfectant erased the good smell of my boss’s breakfast as I prepared the mop bucket, and I wheeled it out and started down the hall toward the women’s locker room when he stopped me.

“You’re awfully early for a Saturday.” I paused and looked back, but all my eyes could focus on was the last of what looked like a sausage biscuit in his hand.

“Yeah,” I blinked and rubbed my midsection, looking down. “Figured I’d hit the women’s locker room early like you said. Then I can take care of the men and be done mid-afternoon.”

He nodded watching me. “We’re only open a few hours on Sundays. It can be your day off.”

“I can work a few hours.” My eyebrows clutched, and I tried to meet his eye. But my stubborn gaze wouldn’t go past his breakfast. Licking my dry lips, I forced my sight back to the bucket. “I need the money.”

Rook didn’t speak for a few moments. I couldn’t tell why or what he was thinking, until he suddenly spoke. “I’ll up your weekly pay to cover it. Everybody needs one day off.”

I did meet his dark eyes then. “Thank you.”

“Well, you’d better get busy. Sometimes the trainers come in early to exercise before it gets crowded. Mostly it’s just Kenny, but still. She’ll need the locker room when she’s done.”

He turned back to his office, and I took the bucket, guiding it through the large, open workout space and through the metal door. The locker room was large and empty. Showers were in the back behind a cinder-block wall, and small, beige lockers lined what was the dressing area. Benches filled the center, and sinks and large mirrors were around the perimeter. I tried not to look at myself as I pushed the mop.

I’d gotten skinny. The lines were still on my arms, but until I ate regularly, I wouldn’t have muscle mass. My eyes were different, too—ice blue and slightly wild. I needed to work on my expression or I’d scare people.

Bending my arm, my bicep still peaked. The boxing gloves inked there extended past the bottom of my shirtsleeve—
Never Stop Fighting
. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that phrase now. The bold
21
stood out on the side of my hand, and I made a fist, thinking of its meaning, the year my life changed.

A metal-door scrape grabbed my attention. Tammy pushed through it, and when she saw me, she stopped in her tracks. She was dressed in calf-length black pants and a skin-tight, hot-pink tank top. Her body was impressive, but I wasn’t checking out the boss’s wife. I wasn’t checking out any women.

“Hey, Slayde is it?” Her tone was sharp, and it irritated me. But my days of being a badass were over. I was a fucking janitor now.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“For starters, don’t you dare call me
ma’am
again.” The smile in her voice made me glance up. “Second, you’ve got to put the signs up when you’re in here. The yellow ones and the flag? We don’t want the members complaining about a man in the ladies’ room.”

Rook hadn’t mentioned anything about signs, but it made sense. I pushed the mop into the bucket. “Right. Sorry. If you’ll tell me where they are—”

She let out a little growl and rolled her eyes. “I know, Rook forgot to tell you. He isn’t the best when it comes to details. Follow me.”

Back at the juice bar, a white bag in my cubby caught my eye. I didn’t have time to investigate. Tammy came out of the supply closet and pushed a plastic sign and a flag on a suction cup at me.

“Take this and this. Prop that on the floor and attach the suction cup to the door.”

“Yes, ma…” I didn’t finish, and she laughed. I started to head back to the locker room when she stopped me.

“There’s something in your cubby you’d better get.”

Stopping, I went back and pulled the white bag out. The scent of sausage, egg, and cheese again hit my nose as hard as a left jab. A note was taped to the outside:
Bought too much. Have my extra biscuit. –R.

My brow creased, and I glanced up at Tammy, but she was loading ingredients into a blender. A guy the size of Rook probably ate five of these for breakfast. I didn’t understand.

“You’d better hurry up before the ladies start showing up for Zumba,” Tammy called without turning around.

I decided not to question it and carried the food back with me to the locker room. Flag on the door and sign in place, I pulled back the wrapper, and the minute that savory cheese, spicy sausage, and buttery egg hit my tongue, I leaned against the wall and let out a low groan. In three bites, it was gone.

* * *

E
verything was cleaned
and squared away by early afternoon, and I headed back to the front to return my key and check out. I’d done my best to avoid members, and I’d only passed a brief greeting to Pete, who seemed to be the only trainer working this weekend besides Tammy. He was nice enough, but I didn’t take it any further.

A slender girl with light-brown hair pulled up in a long, messy ponytail was behind the bar now, and without even looking, I could feel her watching me closely.

“Hey.” She spoke fast, like a short order cook. “It’s Slayde, right? What brings you to The Jungle Gym?”

I was tired and hungry and not in the mood to answer questions, so I didn’t.

Without looking up, I went to my slot, where I found another bag waiting for me. Pulling it out, I shoved my key in its place, catching another whiff of what smelled like food in the mystery package. I wanted to go to the truck and open it right away, but when I turned around, the girl was doing something with her hands.

My brow lined as I watched her. She waved them in a sweeping motion then circled one around her finger. The entire time her eyes bored into mine as if they were attempting to communicate silently.

“What are you doing?” My voice was husky from not talking all day.

She straightened, blinking fast, and her cheeks flushed slightly. “I was asking if you spoke sign language.”

“Why would you ask me something like that?” I surveyed her appearance—long, tie-dyed smock over a white tank and jeans that were shredded at the knees. Around her neck were several necklaces in addition to the lanyard holding her key, and her fingers were covered in rings.

“You didn’t answer when I spoke to you, so I thought maybe…” Her light-brown eyes traveled down to my throat. “I just finished this novel about a guy who couldn’t speak. It was really hot.”

“I can speak just fine. I’m also tired and hungry. I’ve been here since seven, and I don’t feel like answering twenty questions.” Even that much explanation was pissing me off.

Her eyebrows rose, and she leaned forward on the bar, giving me a little smile. “I can make you a matcha-tea smoothie if you want. It’s my newest specialty. Very relaxing and full of protein.”

“I don’t like smoothies.” It was a lie. I didn’t have money to pay for it.

“Oh, I’m a wizard at them. You’ll love it.” She leaned back and eyed me up and down. “I’m Mariska, by the way.”

“I’ll take a pass, Mariska. I’m heading out.”

Her pink lips pressed together in a thin line. She was pretty. Hell, she was really pretty, but I wasn’t interested in female drama, much less from a hippie-chick who spoke sign language.

“You’re going to have to try one at some point. I’m here every day but Friday.” She gave me a wink, but I kept going. “See you tomorrow!”

My truck waited for me like an old, rusty dinosaur in the parking lot. I didn’t even bother to lock the door. If somebody wanted to steal this piece of shit, they got what was coming.

Sliding across the cracked vinyl seat, I lowered the visor and caught the silver keys as they fell. Opening the white sack, I found a bacon club. Fuck, it was like sex in a paper wrapper. I sat in that back parking lot and inhaled all of it in less than five minutes.

I knew what this meant—Rook had my number, but I didn’t give a shit. I was hungry. I’d deal with the fallout later.

I didn’t care to have Sundays off. I didn’t have any money to do anything, so I basically milled around the box I called home looking for things to repair. After a while, I went down to the water in the only pair of shorts I owned and sat on the beach reading a crap paperback I’d found on the bus.

The book was called
Remembrance of Things Past
, and it was about two thousand pages long. It was boring as hell, but I stayed with it. I couldn’t afford a television or even a radio, so I had to make do with what I had—some French kid worried about his mom kissing him goodnight. I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been kissed.
Shit
, like I even cared. I needed to find a better book.

When the sun was gone, I put it aside and listened to the waves hitting the shore as hard as I used to hit the bag. I looked down at my fists. People didn’t understand boxing. They thought it was just idiot brutes punching each other’s lights out, but it was more than that. It was choreography of the feet and hands. It was knowing when to hit your opponent and when to wait, when to wear them down and when to drive it all the way as hard as you could until they hit the mat. It was art.

Rubbing my face with both hands, I pushed those thoughts aside. I had to quit torturing myself with these fucking memories. I looked across the distance to a brightly lit bar. The music was soft, but it still reached me where I sat. Somewhere over there, people were having fun. They had lives to live. They would have love and adventure.

I, on the other hand, would put one foot in front of the other and stay out of trouble. What brought me to this town was the definite possibility of a very dull life.

From all the way across the shore the sound of a woman’s laugh made it to my ears. I sat, looking back at it, thinking of what I’d lost. Until I finally called it a night and went home.

6
“What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
Kenny

F
or the first
time in a while, I didn’t wake up before my alarm on Monday. I still wanted to exercise, of course, but I didn’t feel the driving urge to hit the bag like before. Calm had settled over me following the giddy happiness I’d found Saturday night. It was still with me, and it meant I was surviving the grief. I was making it through.

Yesterday, I’d stayed as long as I could with Lane, hugging his baby body, relaxing into his scent until I had to get in the car and drive back to Bayville. Elaine had been extra nice to me, and I figured she was feeling bad about her drunken reveal. Honestly, I was glad she’d said it. I was a lot more conscious of how I interacted with Patrick now, and I included her every chance I got.

Patrick had followed me out to the car he’d helped me buy. “Everything else okay back home? Rook treating you right?”

I squinted up at him holding my door as I tossed my stuff on the passenger’s seat. “Yeah. I just wish he wasn’t so horny all the time.”

At that, Patrick completely changed—his fists clenched, brow lowered. “Is he sexually harassing you?”

“Oh my god, no! Not at all!” I grabbed the side of my hair. “It’s more… he and his wife are sloppy with public decency laws, you know?”

“No.” Patrick frowned as he watched me, still all riled up like my own personal guard dog.

Leaning forward, I dropped my voice. “I caught them having sex a few times.”

“Oh.” His shoulders relaxed. “Well, I can’t hassle him for that.”

“Patrick!” I punched his shoulder.

Elaine joined us smiling. “What did I miss?”

“Your fiancé was giving my boss a pass for having sex all over the gym.”

“Oh, well…” Elaine looked down, and I rolled my eyes.

“You guys are too much. Still, I like this whole… crazy big-brother-bodyguard thing you’re doing.”

He pulled me into a quick hug. “You let me know if anybody doesn’t treat you right.”

“Thanks, Dad,” I laughed, then turned to Elaine, holding out my hand. “And thank you again. For everything.”

She stepped forward and gave me a squeeze. “You’re welcome.” Stepping back, she touched my chin, smiling. “You don’t need a guard. You’re doing great.”

* * *

M
ariska was waiting
at the juice bar when I arrived at ten. It was later than I’d ever gone into work, but I didn’t have a client until ten thirty. My best friend was dressed in a black bodysuit with a long, red handkerchief-print skirt wrapped around her waist. I was in my usual all-black trainer gear.

“Dammit, Ken!” She cried as I rounded the corner to get my key. “You just missed him! I’ve been holding my breath all morning… Oh! Love the purple hair!”

Nose curling, I put the lanyard around my neck and went to fix my not-disgusting green smoothie. “Thanks! I got the urge to change everything Friday. I actually think I might’ve done it, too. I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed this morning!”

“Is that a good thing?” She bounced over to lean beside me on the bar as I threw in the simple ingredients followed by two cups of crushed ice. “Okay, that looks disgusting.”

“It’s really kind of sweet.” The loud
WHIRR!
of the blender forced me to yell. “But yeah, I’ve been having trouble sleeping.”

“You need a matcha shake,” she shouted back. “It’s a whole-leaf green tea I’ve been using in my newer smoothies. Full of antioxidants, protein…”

Nodding, I shouted. “After the kale regimen. Why are you holding your breath?” Her expression was confused, and I released the button, continuing in a normal tone. “You said you were holding your breath.”

“Oh! Oh oh oh!!!” She bounced on her toes. “I’m so ticked at you, though.”

I took a sip of the sweet concoction and smiled again. “Then I guess I’ll never know.”

“You’re really happy today. It’s weird. Did you get laid?”

I almost choked on green smoothie. “
Shh!
Jeez, there are members right over there.” I nodded my head toward the open workout room.

She only passed a glance in their direction. “Well? Did you?”

“Sadly, no.”

“Don’t worry. The clock will be ticking on that problem once you see him… Only,
dammit!
Rook sent him on some overnight errand to Scranton.”

Tugging a lock of her hair, I leaned forward. “What are you talking about?”

“The new guy Slayde! The one you never told me about.”

“I never met him.”

Her eyes sparkled. “He’s not a trainer, he’s like a maintenance-handyman-janitor-badboy-sexgod. Rook’s got him doing all sorts of things, I guess ‘cause he has a truck, and his aura is totally smokin-red-hot.”

“Good for him.” I took another big gulp, as she studied me. I could tell she was thinking, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what.

“I think you’re patronizing me. Anyway, he hardly ever speaks, and when he does it’s usually something grumpy.” She reached for my cup, and I handed it over. Taking a sip, her eyebrows rose. “That’s really good. I need the recipe.”

“It’s on the notepad there. If you make it for anybody, you have to mention Veggi-Smooth. They donated the ingredients, and I’m not patronizing you. I can’t wait to meet this maintenance-badboy-janitor-nontalking-sexgod.”

She grinned. “Okay. But you
are
going out with me tomorrow night. You promised.”

“Who goes out on a Tuesday night?”

“Everybody! There’s this hot new bar that just opened on Water’s Edge.” She swept her long brown curls into a high ponytail. “We need to go there before it closes. You know Bayville can’t support a place like that. By the way,
your
aura is as purple as your hair… although it’s drifting toward red. You’re going to get lucky.”

My client, a new mother I was helping lose the baby weight, waved to me from the other side of the bar. She was fun, and I liked swapping baby stories with her.

I waved back, passing Mariska my smoothie. “Here, drink the rest. You know I love you, and I don’t believe a bit of that aura shit.”

“Tomorrow night. You wait. It’s going to change everything.”

* * *

T
he Cay was
a brand new club that shined like a penny. Most of the dance clubs were in Toms River or Seaside Park, so it was a double bonus to have a place so close to home, even if Mariska predicted it would be closed in a month. I decided to live in hope. Inside, everything caught the light, from the new brass hardware behind the bar to the red vinyl on the barstools.

An enormous dance floor filled the center of the space, with disco lights and strobes bouncing off everything. Thick brass railings framed dancer cages suspended at the four corners of the floor, and a DJ booth was in the back center.

A second level housed rows of red-vinyl booths with small tables leading to balconies where patrons could look down on the floor below. It was impressively posh, and when we arrived at ten, it was steadily filling with Ocean County singles. It was also a far cry from the dusky, antique-beaded-curtain style of the Dancing Gypsy, which reminded me.

“Elaine took me to this amazing bar in Wilmington.” I shouted over the thumping dance mix as I took a sip of my Tequila Sunrise. “It was called the Dancing Gypsy. You would’ve loved it.”

“Sounds like it.” Mariska took a long sip of her Mojito. Tonight she was dressed in a short-short black sheath with a long, sheer spider-web-patterned overlay and ankle boots. “But wait—you said Elaine? I thought you didn’t think she liked you.”


Ugh!
” I shouted. “I was right about that, but I think we’re all good now.”

I turned my back to the bar and surveyed the crowd. I wore a short, smoky-blue dress with mile-high black stilettoes. A few potentially dateable males were scattered around the room, and I loved the return of my feelings of freedom. It had been so long since I’d gone out dancing with a friend and enjoyed myself without ending up depressed.

“You have
got
to tell me what happened this weekend, but first we need to enjoy this place.” I noticed Pete enter the club with two other guys. They were all dressed in jeans and short-sleeve polos, and they all went in different directions once they got inside.

Leaning into her ear, I spoke just over the music. “Heads up—Pete just walked in the door.”

Her lips pressed together, and we both turned to face the bar, moving our heads close together. “Did he see us?”

“Don’t know, but I’m thinking we’re kind of hard to miss. It isn’t that crowded yet.” I couldn’t resist teasing her. “I bet Pete’s
loving
your crush on the new guy.”

Straightening up to face me, she shook her head, eyes round. “Oh, no. It’s not a crush at all.” I frowned, but she continued. “I mean, Slayde’s definitely doable, and you know I love the wounded ones.”

“But?” I took the last pull from my drink as the bartender placed Number 2 in front of me.

“I like my injured ones sweet.” She took another hit of mojito while I paid for my second Tequila Sunrise. “Slayde seems like more of a biter.”

Snorting, I shook my head as I sipped my drink. “You probably said something about his aura, and it ticked him off.”

“It’s not true! I think I ticked him off when I tried speaking sign language to him.”

“What?!”

A swirl of warmth to my left, and Pete was with us, smiling down at Mariska. “Hey, sexy. I didn’t know you were going to be here tonight.”

The desire in his voice almost killed my buzz, considering what I knew about his chances. It was a shame, too, because Pete was hot—tall, muscular, with light brown hair and nice eyes.

“Hey, Pete, I’m going to dance,” I said, ignoring Mariska’s variety of facial expressions trying to get me to stay.

“Hey, Ken,” he called after me. “Like the hair.”

I did a little wave over my shoulder and plunged right into the sea of gyrating bodies. The DJ was playing loud dance music, and I closed my eyes letting it wash over me and take me out on a rush of techno. It wasn’t long before I felt the warmth of a body behind me. Glancing over my shoulder, I met a perfectly white smile in a tanned face.

His eyes were a little hard to make out because of the brim of his cap, but he wore a black tank that showed off all his muscles and ink. He was straight-up sexy.

Turning to face him, I noticed he was wearing jeans and a loose gold watch on one arm. My eyes went back to his face. Bad-boy grin. I could work with this.

He leaned forward near my cheek. “I’ve been watching you all night. You’re like a pixie with that hair.”

Lifting my chin, my voice was coy. “Would that make you Peter Pan?”

His sexy grin grew a little bigger across his face, and large hands moved to my waist, pulling me closer. We were moving against each other now. It felt good, and I slid my hands up to his shoulders. He smelled good, like that after-shave everybody wears. Lemony. The song changed, and we kept dancing, our bodies rubbing together in a delicious way.

“I’m Grif. Or Griffin, whichever you prefer.”

I leaned forward so that my lips touched the skin of his ear. “You live around here?”

When I moved back for his answer, I saw his eyes sweep my body. “Nah, I’m just passing through. But maybe I’ll be back.”

The idea of traveling, just leaving everything behind and going, felt so seductive right now. “What do you do?”

“I’m in sales.” His hands moved up my ribs, and when they slid back down, his thumbs drifted across my stomach, sending a tingle through my core to my toes.

It was hot, and I was starting to feel sweaty, but I didn’t want to stop dancing. I took a big gulp of my drink instead. The song changed again, and a guy came up beside us.

Grif’s head snapped toward him. “Get lost.”

I didn’t like his tone, and somewhere thorough the haze of my tequila-soaked brain, it nudged a little trigger of caution. I chose to ignore it.
Check out, brain!
I was dancing with a hot guy with nice hands and a nice smile, and I wanted to taste those lips.

Mariska appeared out of nowhere to dance beside us. She leaned into my ear. “You okay here?” Wobbling back up, she looked straight into my eyes.

BOOK: The Fighter Duet: Two Full-Length, Red-Hot New Adult Fighter Romances
13.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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