Authors: Tia Louise
the fist was back. It clenched hard in my chest, making it difficult to breathe. I needed to hit something.
Yesterday, I hadn’t even gotten out of bed. After crying myself into a fitful sleep, I woke up screaming, feeling calloused hands gripping my arms to my sides. I threw my blankets back and went straight to the shower. Standing under the scalding-hot water, I scrubbed until my skin was red and tender. It helped remove the sensations, but it was hours before I could relax again. When I’d opened my eyes, it was after five. Mariska had texted me a few times and left a voicemail once.
Are you coming in?
Was her first message, sent around ten. It was followed by
I’m guessing you’re not,
I rolled onto my side and listened to her voice on my phone. “Hey, I’m worried about you. I wish you’d call or at least text. Rook thinks you caught a stomach bug, and Tammy covered your clients. Just call or text me, okay? Love ya.”
Disconnecting, I shot her a quick reply.
Will be in tomorrow. Thanks for covering for me. Don’t feel like talking.
The only vehicle in the lot when I arrived was an old junker Ford someone had abandoned. Pushing through the glass doors, I made a point of taking the lanyard out of my cubby so everyone would know I was here before heading to the small boxing room, ready for my early-morning drill. My hair was up in a ponytail, and I had on black spandex capris and black tank. I didn’t use gloves, only the gel hand wraps that came with the equipment.
The closer I got, however, I heard the dull thud of what sounded like gloves hitting a bag. Rounding the corner, I froze in my tracks. His back was to me, shoulders up and chin down, and his feet moved lightly as his fists slammed into the canvass body bag in front of him.
He was shirtless, and he was ripped. Every muscle in his shoulders and back flexed with his strikes. The lines in his stomach deepened along with those on his arms. The gloves inked on his biceps read,
Never stop fighting.
Only, from what I could see, the fight was either keeping him alive or killing him.
Perfect form, fists at eye level, his punches flew straight to the center. Quick, precise, sharp. He moved like a professional. He
a professional. My duffel slid from my shoulder, amazement mixing with something else, low in my stomach, as I watched. He was beautiful.
He didn’t see me, so he didn’t stop. Ice blue eyes focused through his furrowed brow on something invisible. His fists were like cannons. He moved out, then he moved back in, shooting three to four swift hits before moving out again.
Right jab, left jab, left hook, out.
Left jab, right jab, left hook, right jab, out.
My breathing picked up as I understood what he was doing. Tension rippled off him in waves as he fought with something unseen. It was a fight I knew well because it was the same one I’d waged every morning for almost a year.
His intensity increased with each strike, and the wings inked down his back flexed like they were trying to escape whatever held him. I wanted to step forward and lay my palms flat against his skin. I wanted to feel the strength of those swift, strong blows. I wanted to close my eyes and merge our arms and see if I could feel the power of his fists, see if they would unlock my own pain and release it.
His punches increased in speed and ferocity, fists shooting forward so fast, they became almost a blur as he pummeled the bag. His furrowed brow creased, and I heard a low growl rising in his throat.
Jab after jab, punch after punch, I lost count there were so many moving so fast until he let out a loud noise and jerked away toward the cinder block wall, banging the sides of his fists against it just under the rectangular window at the ceiling.
His head rested on his gloved fists a moment, his breath coming in gulps. Sweat traced the lines down his torso stopping at the black shorts he wore, and I couldn’t help breathing fast with him.
I wasn’t sure if I should speak or leave. I felt like I’d walked in on something incredibly personal, almost like when I caught Rook and Tammy in the shower. My heart was flying in my chest—only in this case, I didn’t want to run away. I wanted to stay.
Finally, I found my voice. “I-I um… I’m sorry to interrupt.”
He looked back over his shoulder, those blue eyes meeting mine, stopping my heart. In a quick move, he scooped up a maroon tank and dropped it over his head before turning to face me. I could see the tops of letters inked in a half circle right at his collarbones, but I couldn’t make out what it said.
Why hadn’t I read that?
I’d been too overwhelmed by the intensity of his fight.
“Sorry.” His voice was hoarse. “I didn’t know anybody came in this early.”
Unable to hold his gaze, I tried to smile as my eyes moved from his square jaw, past the line down the center of his chin, to his muscular arms.
“I’m the only one who does.” My voice was higher in contrast to his. “I missed a few days, but I try to get my workout in before the members arrive.”
He grabbed a towel off another bench, and I noticed a small bottle of cheap, generic water and a bundle of what had to be his clothes. “I’ll get the locker room cleaned before you need it. If you’re okay?”
In that one phrase, recognition almost knocked me down. I was back on the beach. It was dark and I couldn’t stop shaking. Still, in that place of darkness as I struggled not to cry, all I wanted was the man who’d come out of nowhere and saved me to put his arms around me and hold me until my fear subsided.
My eyes flew to his, but he didn’t seem to realize.
Did he not know it was me?
“I-I’m okay,” I said, and that’s when I saw it flash in his eyes. Now he knew.
My heart beat unbearably fast, but he didn’t speak, he only clutched his things and headed towards the locker rooms.
Turning in the direction he’d left, my will to exercise was gone, and now something entirely different tightened my chest. Picking up my bag, I walked slowly toward the front, looking around for him. He was in the supply closet taking out the mop and bucket along with the plastic signs for the floor and door.
“Are you Slayde?” I asked when he came back out.
He paused, but I could tell he wasn’t fully committed to speaking to me. “Yes.”
“I’m Kenny. One of the trainers here.”
He looked up at me then, and my chest squeezed. Emotion sizzled just under my skin, and I had to blink away. Somehow I’d have to learn to meet those amazing blue eyes without forgetting where I was.
“Nice to meet you.” His voice was low. “Sorry I interrupted your workout.”
“No,” I shook my dark-purple ponytail. I didn’t want him to apologize. I didn’t want him to hold me at a distance. We were legions past that point, even if we were only just now exchanging names. “You didn’t interrupt me. I mean, I could still work out. I just… I wanted to speak to you.”
He waited, and I couldn’t tell if he was impatient or uncomfortable, so I stepped back. “I’ll let you do your job.”
His lips twitched as if he were about to say something, but instead he started down the hall, through the doors in the direction of the locker rooms. I collapsed against the counter, watching him go, trying to calm the tornado swirling in my chest.
he was here
. In the same club where I worked. Boxing for Christ’s sake.
I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the angel on the beach for two nights. I didn’t want to think about her, but
, I couldn’t stop myself.
Chances were great I’d never see her again. Then again, in a town the size of Bayville, she was bound to turn up somewhere. I just never expected it to be here.
All day Wednesday, I’d focused my thoughts on
looking for her in every face I passed, trying
to remember her fair skin, long dark hair, and large, pale eyes. I didn’t even know her name. It was nuts.
Last night, I’d spent an extra few minutes in the shower, head pressed against my forearm, remembering the curve of her neck as I relieved the pressure. Then I felt like an asshole. She’d been hurt, almost raped, and here I was jerking off to her memory like it didn’t matter. It did matter. I wanted to kill that guy. Nothing had felt as good as slamming my fist into his skull. Twice. But I’d stopped. I hadn’t lost control. That in itself was a miracle.
I cranked the hot water all the way up and scrubbed my face and neck hard under the spray. I got out and shaved, focusing on what I was doing and
wondering what she smelled like. When I crawled into bed, I went to sleep,
fantasizing about touching her soft skin, fighting with all I had to ignore the emptiness inside.
This morning, I didn’t care if I didn’t have permission. I’d been working at this gym almost a week, and nobody came in before eight. At seven, I parked the Ford in the back of the lot and let myself in. I quickly changed out of my jeans into the only other pair of shorts I owned and shoved my hands into the gloves I’d borrowed from behind the front desk.
Standing a little more than arm’s distance from the bag, I stepped forward and clipped it with a solid left hook.
God, that felt good
. Stepping back I went at it again.
Right jab, left jab, right, right, left hook.
Right jab, left jab, right, right, left hook.
Everything went away when I was boxing. Elbows tight, my gloves were right at my cheekbones, a little brush before each hand shot out like a cannon, hitting with an explosive force I felt through my entire shoulder, down through my torso.
I didn’t know how long I’d gone at it before I finally let loose with my signature move, a rapid-fire volley of jabs and hooks. High-volume punching not a single fighter could beat.
It was so good. I was a junkie freebasing the best coke on the planet. All the shit was gone, and it was just the fight and me. I could feel the rumble rising at the base of my throat until I backed away, slamming my fists against the wall, resting my head on my gloves as I came back down. It’s why I would’ve been the champ. I was young, and I was fit, and I could keep that shit up for days.
But in one moment, it all crashed down. Those dreams were gone. I’d never have it again, just like my life would never be the same, just like I’d never find her.
Anger, deep, dark, violent and bitter anger stirred in my chest. It was the heat rising, and I opened my mouth to let out the rage…
That’s when I heard her voice, and I turned around.
Teetering on the edge of giving up, of quitting and losing all the ground I’d gained, she spoke to me through the fog of heartbreak. I looked up, and the noise died away.
Since this morning, I hadn’t spoken to her or even allowed myself in her proximity, but I hung back and stole glances. I studied her reflection in mirrors I cleaned.
Her hair wasn’t black; it was dark purple. She was tiny, maybe only five foot, and she couldn’t weigh a hundred pounds. Still, her torso was lined, and I could see small muscles in her arms. She was strong, I was sure of it, and she had a nice little ass.
She had the brightest blue eyes. When she listened to her clients, her expression softened in this way that said she wasn’t pretending. She was really hearing them. And then she smiled, and the cutest little dimple pierced her left cheek…
I wanted to wrap my arms around her and hold her, lift her, kiss her full mouth. With a growl I shook the image away. I was a fucking creep spying on her. A goddamn fool, too—a fucking janitor working at a gym in a shit town in the middle of nowhere wishing for an angel.
“Can you help me with these weights?” A smoky female voice cut through my self-flagellation.
I stopped wiping the now-exceptionally clean mirror and turned to face a woman smiling at me with an expression I knew too well. She wore tight, black yoga pants and a neon pink sports bra, and nothing more. Her blonde hair was loose down her back, and she waited, smiling an open invitation.
“Sure.” I didn’t respond. I moved past her over to the bench-press bar, which held what looked like about two hundred and fifty pounds.
“Some people are so inconsiderate.” Her laugh turned into what sounded like a purr as I pulled off the heavy plates and stacked them on the rack. “Are you one of the new trainers?”
My eyes met hers, and I noticed her bottom lip was clutched under her top teeth.
Was she seriously biting her lip at me?
“No, but I can get Pete for you. Or Kenny?”
She released it in a smile. “Oh, that’s alright. I know them. What do you do here?”
“Maintenance. I’m actually headed to the men’s locker room right now.”
“Can I tag along?”
She was a hot chick, but my brain was consumed in a purple haze. “Only if you like cleaning urinals. Otherwise, better not.”
Her nose curled and she poked out the tip of her tongue. “Let me know if that situation changes.”
“Will do.” I tipped my chin and headed into the locker room.
I needed to get my head out of the clouds. Kenny was beautiful and kind and smart… and she sure as hell didn’t deserve to get mixed up with a loser like me.
* * *
y work was done
in an hour, and all dreams of romance were flushed with the shit I scrubbed off the toilets. Forcing myself not to look for her, I put all the supplies back in the closet and pulled my keys to leave.
Rook’s sharp voice stopped me at the door. “Slayde! You said you’d bring me receipts. Where are they?”
Already pissed, his tone fanned the heat in my chest even more, and I almost forgot he was my boss and blasted a string of profanity in his face. Instead, I grabbed the reins.
“Sorry,” I said, clearing my throat. “They’re back at my apartment. I’ll add everything up and give you the difference tomorrow.”
“You’ll give me the difference tonight, punk.” That snapped my head up. Boss or not, nobody talked to me that way. My fists balled involuntarily.
He took one look at my expression and laughed. “There it is. I knew you had a dick in there somewhere. I was wondering what it took for you to whip it out. You want to fight me, boy?”
The gleam in his eye was both amused and taunting, and I wasn’t sure that he wouldn’t enjoy kicking my ass. He had a good six inches and sixty pounds on me. I might’ve been a champ once, but he was out of my weight class by a mile.
“No, sir.” I looked down, and he pushed a hard breath through his lips.
“Quit that shit, I’m not your master. I’m your fucking boss, and I don’t expect any of my employees to kiss my ass.”
Out of nowhere, I felt a smile pulling at my lips. Lifting my eyes to his, I called his bluff. “What the fuck do you expect of your employees?”
“That’s it,” he laughed, clapping me hard on the shoulder. “So the little girls have been gossiping all day about you hitting the bags this morning. I thought you quit the fight?”
My mind paused to consider what he was saying.
Which little girls?
I swallowed the emotions warring in my chest and recited the monologue. “I don’t fight anymore. That’s in the past.”
“What the fuck is this tattoo about then? You a cock sucker?”
Fists clenched, I had to take a step back before I took a pop at this mountain of black steel in front of me. He only laughed louder.
“I like you Slayde Bennett. You want to kick my ass, don’t you?”
Swallowing the burn in my throat, I heard Doc’s voice telling me to identify the emotion, own it, put it away. “No.” I said, thinking I’d better get out of here now.
Rook caught my shoulder in his enormous hand. “That’s some goddamn kickass control you’ve got there.” He let me go with a little push. “You ever trained anybody?”
Rubbing the back of my neck, I focused on what he was saying to me instead of how I felt. “No.”
He stepped back into his office. “Come in here and close the door.”
I stepped inside, into the same place I’d been just a week before when I’d hoped to be lucky enough to score a job that didn’t require references. I was a fool coming to a gym. I was like an alcoholic applying to be a bartender.
Rook went around his desk and pulled a picture from the top drawer. He handed it to me, and I stared at it a moment, recognizing his face in a football uniform looking several years younger.
“You ever heard of The Rookie? Top draft pick of… well, the year’s not important.” He did a little chuckle, but it didn’t register. I’d never kept up with football. Boxing was my game.
“This you?” I cut my eyes from the photo to him.
“Yep. Just starting out, dreaming of mansions in Miami, yachts, a sexy blonde on each arm. One blown knee later, I had nothing. No money, no college degree, no woman. Nothing. It was all over.”
My stomach tightened sickly. I didn’t need his sob story added to mine. I already felt like shit. “That’s tough,” was all I said.
“Fuckin right it was tough. I went from the penthouse to the outhouse. I worked as a bouncer, a bodyguard, the whole time killing the pain with blow. Then I met Tammy, and she wouldn’t let me kill myself.”
Nodding, I was ready to go. I wasn’t looking for a woman. Or at least I was trying hard not to look for a particular woman… who worked in this gym. “That’s good.”
“Its better than good. Know why I call myself Rook? Some racist, sonofabitch redneck nickname?”
I didn’t know how to answer that question, so I didn’t.
“The Rook is the smartest bird in the whole species,” he continued. “They use tools, they can be taught to speak, they recognize music… they’re survivors. I’m a survivor. When I was a player, they called me The Rookie, someone who’s new, ignorant, inexperienced. I’m not a rookie anymore. I’m a Rook. What are you?”
I glanced down at my hands, thinking about his words, wondering if he knew what was hidden beneath my shirt. It was impossible, but I supposed with a few phone calls he could’ve found out my story.
“I was Slayer,” I said. “Now I’m Slayde.”
“Slayde? A malaprop of
. Are you dead?”
I thought about that.
When I put down those gloves, my life ended. Only now I wasn’t so sure. I had been dead or close to it up until two nights ago. Then something happened, something powerful enough to bring me back.
Rook seemed to understand my internal conflict, and he backed off. “Think about what I said. I like keeping the gym fresh, new blood, new offerings. When you’re ready, let me know. In the meantime, keep my shit clean and my stuff put away.”
Blinking back to the moment, I nodded and went to the door ready to call it a day. I was finished anyway. Opening it without looking, I stepped into the hallway nearly colliding with Kenny.
My stomach tightened, and everything stopped. She was in a different outfit from the one she’d worn all day with her clients. Her hair was still up, but a bit of it hung long over her shoulder like a dark purple ribbon. I wanted to run my finger under it. That cute dimple appeared, and
I wanted her.
“Sorry,” she exhaled a little laugh. “I think I ran right into you.”
“It was my fault. I didn’t look where I was going.” She smelled sweet, like sugar. I probably smelled like toilet cleaner.
“Hey, I-I wanted to thank you.” Her cheeks flushed a pretty shade of pink, and I felt that surge of desire move from my stomach to a lower region. “You saved me the other night. Then you just disappeared. Are you Batman?”
She released another, softer laugh that hit me hard. I wanted to make her laugh again. I wanted to bury my face in her delicious scent, taste her body, see if it was as good as she smelled, wrap her hair around all five of my fingers.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” I managed to say.
She smiled again. Her thick, dark lashes made her blue eyes glow. Or maybe they glowed all the time? “I’m not disappointed. I’m serious. Thank you.”
“I just did what any decent person would do. That guy was hurting you, and I…” I didn’t say
I wanted to kill him
. But I did.
She leaned against the door and cocked her head to the side. “Would you maybe consider…” she hesitated. “Would you be willing to teach me some of your moves? I mean, your technique?”
My brow lined, and she quickly continued. “I was thinking about it yesterday. If you could show me some punches, maybe some self-defense stuff, I could protect myself.”