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Authors: Jennifer Fusco

The Hardest Hit

BOOK: The Hardest Hit
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Titles by Jennifer Fusco

Fighting For It

Going the Distance

The Hardest Hit

The Hardest Hit

Jennifer Fusco

INTERMIX

NEW YORK

INTERMIX

Published by Berkley

An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Fusco

Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

INTERMIX and the “IM” design are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

ISBN: 9780698409064

First Edition: September 2016

Cover art by [INFORMATION TO COME IN 1ST PASS]

Cover design by [INFORMATION TO COME IN 1ST PASS]

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Version_1

Chapter One

Boobs. Tittys. Breasts. Knockers. If Trevor Redding had seen one pair of double D's, he'd seen them all. He swallowed hard, trying to push down the wad of tuna fish sandwich he was chewing as Chantel streaked past on her way off the stage.

“Jesus Christ, Chantel, put some clothes on,” he said with his mouth full. He'd seen her naked more times than he could count, but he didn't react like most men who spied her in her birthday suit. He wanted her to cover her shit up. He wanted all the girls who worked at the Gentlemen's Club to wear a robe or something when they weren't onstage. Keeping the girls clothed made his job easier. Why didn't they understand that?

Chantel appeared in the tiny break room and posed, giving him a glimpse of everything her mama gave her. For the thousandth time. “What? It ain't nothing you haven't seen before.”

“You could say that again.” Inflection was absent from his voice. He gave a chuckle at his own joke.

Chantel spun around, twirling like a hippie on an acid trip, and left him alone in the break room.

“You working that move into your next performance?” he teased. He liked giving Chantel grief. If he'd had a sister, he imagined she'd be a lot like Chantel.

The next time she appeared in front of him she wore the short red silk robe he'd given her last Christmas. He dropped a lot of coin on all of them last year; Chantel, Brooke, Rocki, Charley, and Tammy. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to. They worked hard and they had to put up with more shit than they should. All the dancers deserved something nice.

“Nah, I'm just busting your balls. For a guy who loves us as much as you do, you sure get uptight when we're not dressed backstage.”

The next bite of the sandwich found its way down his esophagus. “That's not the point. This place may be named The Gentlemen's Club, but there's not a damn gentleman in the place. If one of them gets an offstage peek, chances are they'll be coming back here and I'm going to have to knock somebody out.” He put up his hands and threw a right hook, his sandwich still tight in his grasp.

“Yeah, fight him with food. That'll do it.” Chantel gave him her distinctive eye roll.

He overstuffed his mouth and chewed with cheeks as big as a chipmunk. Chantel dropped her fake attitude and laughed.

“You are so goofy. Besides, that hasn't happened in six months, not since Brooke broke up with Eddie and he walked back here to ask her to come home.”

Trevor shook his head while swallowing. She hadn't been there, not like he had. “That's not how the situation went down. Brooke was working the private room. She gave some creeper the lap dance he paid for and when it was over and done, she headed back here in nothing but her thong. Creeper decided there was more life in the Viagra he popped, so he walked back here and tried to grab Brooke in the dressing room.”

“Oh.” Air left Chantel's lungs.

“Eddie came back here after I called him to take Brooke home. They'd broken up, but I trusted him to do the right thing and he did. He saw that she got home safely, while the creeper had a nice conversation in the parking lot with my fist.”

Chantel pulled the sash on her robe tighter. “Why do you do it? I mean, why do you work here? Doesn't that big time manager of yours pay you to train?”

He gave a decisive nod. “Yeah, but if I left you guys, who'd look after my sisters as well as I do?”

She pursed her lips. “Yeah. We would miss your dumbass.”

“So, I'm going to do both jobs for as long as I can.”

Chantel sat down on a stool beside him. “You know we love you, right? I mean, we've all worked her together so long it doesn't feel like work; being here feels like family.”

“Of course it does.” He took another bite of his sandwich.

“And, for most of us, we ain't got a shot like you do. Think about everything you have going for you. Since we met, all you've ever wanted was to become a professional boxer. And now you are. You signed on with a big-time gym, and you work with Jack Brady, the heavyweight champion. You can spar with Mike Perez anytime you want. Those guys are serious professionals, and you're right there with them.”

He chewed. “Yeah, so?”

Chantel's lips formed a gentle smile. “So what are you still doing here?”

He squinted and kept chewing.

“What I'm trying to say is”—her voice turned soft—“you're so busy looking out for us. Who's looking out for you?”

He lifted a shoulder in a nonchalant shrug and put his sandwich down. He didn't answer her because there was no answer. No one had ever looked out for Trevor. Not now, not when he had been a kid. Nor did he expect anyone to. The fact that Chantel even mentioned it is what kept him coming back to the club night after night. These girls were his first family, the only one he'd ever known until he'd signed on with Stamina gym. Daniella, his trainer, and all the boxers at the gym acted as his second family. He couldn't leave one for the other. How could Chantel expect him to choose?

“Doesn't matter,” he finally answered her question. “Don't worry about me. You're on in five minutes. Better get ready.”

She nodded and lifted from the stool. Trevor went back to his sandwich. All was good. Quiet. Until Chantel called out his name.

Her voice, urgent, almost panicked, she cried out again, “Trevor!”

He jumped up from the stool and followed her voice. Sounds of a commotion led him to the front of the darkened club, with Chantel. He squinted against the strobe lights to see exactly what was happening, but couldn't make it out completely. A circle had formed near the bar, and Nick, the bartender, had jumped over the front and started pushing people back.

Trevor broke into a sprint. By the time he reached the circle, he broke in and pulled a guy off Tammy. She held her wrist close to her body. Was it was broken? Tears caused mascara to stream down her cheeks in dark lines.

“Call 9-1-1,” Trevor instructed Chantel.

A man, his face red, screamed at Tammy. Drunk bastard. His words had slurred into something incomprehensible, something about money and pussy before he called her a twat.

That was it. Trevor grabbed the guy by the back of the shirt and escorted him out of the club.

“What the fuck's going on?” Trevor let his temper get the best of him. He pushed through the door and out into the warm Nevada air, hoping something, anything—the sounds of traffic, the city's scent—would sober the guy up fast. “You drunk motherfucker, what the hell are you doing causing trouble like this?”

“That whore owes me money,” the man yelled.

“Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't, but confronting her on the job's not the way to get it.”

The guy shrugged out of Trevor's grasp. Under the lights in the parking lot, he got a good look at him. The guy was old, short, fat, and balding. He wore brown slacks, comfortable shoes, and a Members Only racer jacket. The man was a cliché, a loser, and right then and there Trevor knew exactly the kind of man he was up against.

A bookie.

If he was here to collect cash, it also meant his muscle wasn't too far behind. The situation needed to cool down. Quick.

“Look, I'm sure whatever she owes you, she's got, okay? This is all some misunderstanding. I think we can get this cleared up tonight.”

The redness in the man's face didn't dissipate. “That bitch owes me twelve hundred dollars.”

He had no idea what Tammy was into. He heard her husband, Sam, had a gambling problem, and they were considering moving out of Vegas. Too much temptation living here, she'd said. But now he wondered if Sam's problems were really hers, and all those extra shifts she'd pulled recently weren't actually so she could pay off Mr. Redface to keep her own ass out of trouble.

“I warned her,” the man continued, “that if she didn't have my money by today, I was coming to collect.”

“Did you hurt her?” Trevor's heart thumped.

“Not as bad as I'm going to, not as bad as she deserves if she doesn't fucking pay me.”

Trevor's temper spiked. “You won't lay a damn hand on her.”

He drew back his fist, intending to throw a right hook to the guy's jaw when Tammy screamed his name.

He turned, saw her standing in the doorway of the club, dressed in sweats and still holding her wrist. As he turned back, three guys were on him. He landed a blow to one of the three but not on the bookie, like he'd wanted. Tammy shouted his name one more time. As she did, he turned to see something big, something heavy coming down on him. One of the three guys swung hard.

And then the lights went out.

Chapter Two

Dr. Chelsea Fox rode the elevator to the fifth floor. She stepped out into the hospital corridor and immediately observed the day's activities. She used to like her work. The people. The staff. Even the administration. During her residency at Sunrise Medical Hospital she'd heard horror stories of how hospitals put profits over patients, and over the years she'd slowly watched as Sunrise turned into one of them.

She spied a dark-haired woman at the end of the hall, pacing in front of one of the patient rooms. Her heart lifted. Not that she wanted to see her old friend Daniella Chambers in her hospital, but they'd been close once, separated by time and careers, and any chance to reunite with a classmate was good.

She walked straight toward Daniella, arms outstretched and embraced her. “I came as soon as you called. What happened?”

Pulling back, tears welled in Daniella's eyes.

“Shhhh.” She hugged her again. “Everything's going to be okay.” Chelsea gave Daniella an extra squeeze.

“He looks just awful.” Daniella passed a hand across her face, wiping away tears. “One of my guys, Trevor, was jumped outside the Gentlemen's Club. Three on one. One of them had a lead pipe. They beat him.”

Chelsea kept her hand on Daniella's arm, calming her as she continued. “I know Dr. Evans is doing everything he can, but I want you to take a look at him, too. For me. Please.”

Her heart melted. “Of course.” This wasn't the time to follow formal procedures; this was her friend. She didn't want to take the case away from the good doctor. All she wanted was to give the patient's chart a thorough once-over and calm her friend's nerves. Anyone would understand that. Even Dr. Evans.

She pulled Daniella to her for another reassuring squeeze. “Trust me, he's in good hands here. I'll look over his chart, but Dr. Evans is a good doctor. He knows his stuff. Your guy will be fine. How about we go get some coffee?”

“No, thank you. I really want you to see . . .” Daniella started pulling her into the room.

Before she could object, she crossed the threshold and the sound of the beeping monitor caught her attention. Heart rate looked okay. The patient's breathing didn't look labored; pain meds must still be in effect. And then, she allowed her eyes to run across the man lying in bed.

His face was several shades of purple and blue. Underneath the bandages his swollen skin hinted at how severe his contusions were. If this were her patient she'd want to check for a subdural hematoma. A collection of blood outside the blood vessels were common among head injuries, but with a subdural hematoma oftentimes the hematoma sat between the brain tissue and the inside lining of the brain, making them harder to detect. She'd have to request to see his CT scans.

Knowing Dr. Evans, he'd already checked for this, but seeing the man's current state, she wanted to be sure.

The sound of Daniella crying drifted from behind her.

No doubt the man had lived through one heck of a beating. She read the monitors again. All looked okay for the time being. He needed to rest, to heal. Dr. Evans had probably ordered a sedative. That's what she would've done, kept the patient sleeping until signs of swelling dissipated. And if his condition worsened and surgery was necessary, he'd already be sedated and anesthesiology could take over from there.

She gestured to the doorway. “Daniella, can we step outside?”

Her friend followed her. God, she couldn't remember the last time she saw Daniella Chambers. Maybe it had been high school graduation, or the senior class camping trip to South Carlsbad State Beach in California. It didn't matter. Time had passed but they were still Wildcats at heart. In fact, Chelsea doubted she could have made it four years at Las Vegas High School without Daniella in her corner. Back then, being a nerd hadn't been fashionable. And, nerdy girls needed friends, too, especially ones on the cheerleading squad—like Daniella, a popular girl who'd stand up for her when the mean kids started teasing.

Now she was in a position to help Daniella. At last Chelsea could do something for her friend who'd had her back for all those years. Facing her, the corners of her mouth hiked up in a brave smile. A pang ached in her heart.

“I know things don't look good. But they look worse than they actually are. You have to trust me on this. I've known Ben Evans a long time. He'll take great care of your guy.”

Daniella's eyes widened. “You're bailing on me.”

She shook her head. “No. Quite the contrary. I'm going to ask Dr. Evans if he would mind me being a second pair of eyes on the case. We'll do everything we can to have your guy back in the ring in no time.”

Crying, Daniella embraced her. For a moment Chelsea thought Daniella would crush her. “But, you need to be strong for your guy, Daniella, and for your own health.” She didn't want to say anything until Daniella did, but it was hard to miss the second-trimester baby bump she had going on.

“I'll call Jack. He'll take me home,” Daniella confided. Then, she looked like she'd said something wrong. “Oh, Chelsea. I'm so sorry you weren't invited to the wedding. It was a small gathering and my father had just passed . . .”

Chelsea lifted her hand, stopping her. “It's okay. I heard about your father's death, but I'm happy to see that everything has worked out for you. We'll catch up later. Let's focus on your guy right now.”

“Trevor,” Daniella corrected, taking her hand. “His name is Trevor Redding.”

“Right. Don't worry. We'll have Trevor in fighting shape in no time.” Chelsea pumped Daniella's hand in a reassuring squeeze then let go as they walked together to the elevator. “Get some rest.”

The door to the elevator dinged, and the doors opened wide. In two quick strides, Daniella walked into the cabin and disappeared. The doors closed behind her. Chelsea let out a small sigh. She didn't want Daniella to worry. That's why she didn't tell her everything she'd observed from a quick glance at Trevor Redding. The road ahead of him was going to be long and arduous. He'd need therapy and an evaluation of his cognitive skills. If she had to guess, the guy may not be back in the ring for a very, very long time. Only one person stood in the way of finding out for certain, and his name was Ben Evans.

***

The doctors' lounge. The room sounded way cooler than it was. Judging by the silver plaque on the door, she might have expected to find expensive leather furniture, gourmet coffees, and a plethora of reading material like the
New England Journal of Medicine
. Instead, she was instantly greeted by the hum of the vending machine ready to drop a six-pack of powdered doughnuts to go along with her Keurig self-serve coffee, and a glance at last month's
People
magazine, probably left behind by someone in housekeeping.

She dropped into a plastic chair and pulled her phone from her pocket. She texted Ben her location and asked him to meet her there. Until he arrived, she'd have to fight the urge to buy the doughnuts. She hadn't eaten since yesterday afternoon. Twelve-hour shifts sucked. What would suck even more was the effect the doughnuts would have on her blood sugar, paving the way to early onset diabetes.

Greek yogurt and fruit sat in her fridge at home. She could wait. Flipping through
People
, she read countless stories about celebrities; some she'd heard of, most she hadn't. Chelsea never really understood America's obsession with Hollywood stars. In her eyes, people who deserved praise were those who did something for the greater good. That belief was why she became a doctor.

Ten minutes passed until the door to the lounge opened again, and Ben arrived. Tension lined his face. She didn't know how many days had passed since they'd last spoken, and she didn't envision this conversation going any better than their last.

He didn't sit down. At six foot three, the handsome doctor stared down at her like she was something stuck on the bottom of his stethoscope. “I didn't expect to hear from you.”

Chelsea stood up. “This is work-related, not personal.”

He frowned. “You and I mixed the two a long time ago, Chelsea. If there's a line, I don't know where that boundary is anymore.”

Her face pulled down in a scowl. “It's the same as I told you the day I moved out. All of our interactions are professional. That's it. That's all we are. Colleagues.”

He averted his eyes away from her and his face hardened. “Then what can I do for you, colleague?”

She hated the condescension in his voice just as much as she hated that she couldn't change the way she felt. He loved her, and on paper he was perfect for her. The trouble was, she didn't feel the same. They had tried to make it work, but she couldn't force feelings that didn't exist.

“You have a patient. Trevor Redding, room 523. I'd like to consult.”

“Why?” His jaw tightened, visibly displeased. “Did you do him?”

She let the insult roll off her. There was no way she'd sink to his level. “Oh, for God sakes, Ben. He's my friend's boxer. She owns the gym. He's her guy. I'd like in on the case as a favor to Daniella.” He probably didn't care. Hell, she didn't know if Ben had any friends at all besides his caddy and his golf pro. “All I want to do is see that this guy comes out okay.”

He scowled. “So you're questioning my methods. This is about me?”

She huffed. “Newsflash: Not everything is about you. I'm consulting. Like it or not.”

He pursed his lips, then said, “I'll make a deal with you. You can consult if you move back home.”

Heat surged into her cheeks. She suddenly regretted the day she ever accepted the dinner invitation from him. Her agreement was what had landed her in this mess to begin with. No deals. No offers. Not anymore. “Let me rephrase. I'm consulting on this case. And, if you don't like it, that's too bad.”

She stepped around him and proceeded toward the door. There had to be a good man left in Las Vegas, but as far as Chelsea was concerned she had yet to meet one.

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