Book: Outside The Ropes

Previous: 16: Habits
Next: 18: Not Breathing

ANTHONY OPENED THE FRONT DOOR WIDE, HIS face transformed in anger. “Get the hell out of here with that crap. And you wonder why I haven’t been coming around?”

“You shouldn’t give up so easily. This is a marriage were talking about.” Janet turned towards me. “I’m sorry. You might be nice, but you shouldn’t be here.”

I was stunned by the new revelations and stared wide eyed as Anthony grabbed her shoulder, turning her away from me.

“You have some nerve accusing me. She’s the reason the marriage is over.” He let go of her arm and stood by the open door, his face flamed red. “Take her home, Jason.”

Jason put his arm around his wife, trying to usher her out. “That’s enough, Janet.”

She stopped in the doorway and turned to her brother. “She’s not with him anymore. She knows it was a mistake. Forgive her and-"

"He ended it, not her." Anthony shook with anger. "She made her choice eight months ago. She may be your friend, but you're my sister. Act like it."

She shrunk, melting into him. She wrapped her arms around his stiff waist. “Of course I’m your sister first. I love you. But you’re making a mistake. She made one too, but you made promises to each other.”

He pulled her arms off of him. “Leave now.”

Jason pulled his wife out the door, and Anthony shut it behind them. He rested his head against the door for a moment, back heaving with his breaths. Then he turned to me, emotion wrinkling his face.

He crossed the room to the couch, grabbing my hands as he sat on the coffee table in front of me.

“I am sorry. I was married, but she cheated on me and left me, and we’ve been separated-“

I pulled my hands away from his, lifting them up as I sat back, shaking my head. “You don’t need to tell me this.”

He flinched back, affronted. “That’s right. Cause you don’t talk, and I’m not supposed to talk about anything real. I could never talk about this with you. Screw you.”

I popped up, hands balled in anger, and spoke through clenched teeth, “I’m leaving.”

Anthony glared at me, silent, as I left to the bedroom to get my things.

Sliding out my phone, I sat on the bed and tried to think of where I could go. Dexter was my first thought; maybe I could still go out with them tonight.

The bedroom door squeaked on its hinges, and Anthony walked through, his head lowered. “I’m sorry. Don’t go, you don’t have to. You can stay in the guest room if you prefer, but you don’t have to go. I should have told you. I’m sorry, can you forgive me?”

He sat on the bed by me, eyes full of remorse and sadness.

“I’m not mad about what your sister said. I’m mad about what you said to me, you were being an asshole.” I gathered enough from their argument to know he wasn’t in a relationship with his wife, and I'd been here enough to know she wasn’t a presence in his life. We weren’t hurting anyone else by being together. But what he said after bothered me. I knew he wouldn’t be content with what we had, and now he’d just admitted it.

He cocked his head, disbelief evident. “That’s all- I thought-” He looked to the ceiling a smile growing. He smoothed his features before looking directly at me. “I’m sorry for taking my anger out on you. I was mad at my sister, not you. I care about you, and I thought she just destroyed whatever we have going.”

A chilly fear began creeping in my muscles. Did he just say he cared about me? Looking at his sincere face made me feel awful about myself. He was a good person and had done so much for me. All I ever did was take.

“I’m sorry.” I meant it. I was deeply sorry for all of it. “I never meant to make you feel like you couldn’t talk. I may not say much, but you can say whatever you want. I’ll listen.” It’s the least I could offer him.

His eyes scanned over me, excitement building in them. “Maybe I don’t want to talk just yet either.” He licked his lips and moved over me, causing us to fall back on the bed. He covered my giggles with his lips as his hands began unbuttoning his pants.

 

He lay on his side, facing me, telling me about his soon to be ex-wife. And I lay on my back, listening.

“We started dating in high school and my family was thrilled. They loved her and her family. I think they loved her name the most. Her dad is a prominent surgeon at Johns Hopkins; her mother heads a lot of charity events. I was lucky to land her; everyone kept reminding me of that.” His eyebrow raised and voice was bitter at the last line. He sighed. “So six years later, I had ticked off everything on my families to do list. Got a good job and married Sophie. And maybe we were happy, or maybe we just made everyone around us happy by doing what was expected.” He shook his head, eyes squinting as he thought about it. “But eight months ago I came home to her sucking off our accountant on our couch.” He rolled onto his back and pushed his hair out of his eyes. “And she told me she was in love with him, had been for several months.” He shrugged. “It was all pretend. I had fooled myself into thinking this was the life I was supposed to have. I’m done with that now. You came at the perfect time.”

He rolled back to his side and picked up a lock of my hair, a confident smile brightened his face. “I don’t have to plan with you. We just do. And it’s fun. To hell with what everyone else wants.”

I could agree with that last line, but the tingle of joy I felt scared me more than anything else.

***

“One, two, three, four,” I mumbled to myself as I hit the speed bag with rhythmic punches. Music blared from my headphones.

A tap on my shoulder pulled me out of the zone. And I turned, frustrated at the interruption, only to be suffocated by the atmosphere surrounding Gage.

I stepped back, my rapid fire nerves making me jumpy.

Amusement shown in his clear blue eyes as he tapped his own ear, signaling me to pull out my headphones.

When I did, he crossed his arms and tilted his head to me. “I'll give you this one time. Go ahead and say it.”

My mind swirled. What was I supposed to say? I looked around the crowded gym. Surely he couldn’t mean anything about the other day. “What?”

He smirked. “I told you so. Go ahead and say it, I know you want to. I was wrong, and you were right.” He lifted his hand waving it at himself. “Go on, let’s get it over with.”

I shook my head, flustered by this teasing side of him, not sure how to respond. “I don’t need to say it. You already know.”

He chuckled low, a real smile spreading his full lips. “You’re right." The way his eyes dropped over me set me on fire. “So what’s next?”

Heat filled me, and I had to look away, get away. I couldn’t process his question, unsure if he meant my fighting or us.

Thankfully, Silas caught my attention. He waved me over to his office.

Gage stopped me from walking away. Grabbing my elbow, he stepped into me and spoke low, “We’ll talk later.”

I pulled away and nodded, knowing I couldn’t avoid the conversation forever. I didn’t want to make any more enemies and had to let him know I would keep his secret.

Silas waited for me in the doorway, stepping back as I entered, eyes narrowed at Gage. His frown deepened as he closed the door and addressed me.

“So now tell me Regan, what did you mean this morning when you said you wanted a new gym? Are you not happy here? I’m sorry if you don’t feel like your needs are being met, you are important to us. I had to finish a previous meeting or I would have talked about this right when you said it. But know that I have been concerned since you said it. So please explain.”

I had tried to come up with a believable excuse, but I knew it was weak. “I’m moving and thought I might be able to find a closer gym.”

He sat back and pressed his fingers together under his chin, considering me. “Just a new gym, not a new manager?”

I shrugged, not sure what was best. I respected Silas and appreciated his trust in my decision-making, but I didn’t necessarily trust him. He had something going on with Gage; I could feel it when they were together, some sort of undercurrent of tension. It was possible that Silas could be just as shady as him.

“I need to know what you want. Your performance last night caused a stir. I’ve had another offer for a fight. Next month, two thousand dollars. If you win this one, big things will start happening, and I think you have a great career in front of you. I want to be there for that. So tell me, what do you want?”

His words thrilled me. I pushed down my reservations, blinded by the lure of success. So what if he had a shady side, as long as he kept me out of it.

“I want what you just said. I want to fight. I want big things, and I want you to get me there.”

His smile was dazzling, showing off his white teeth. “We can get there together. Let’s get started.”

***

Silas’s praise and encouragement reinforced my dedication. This is what I needed, what I could build a life with. Boxing. That’s all I should be focused on.

The only obstacle I could see was standing by the exit of the gym, blocking my way out. The lightness I felt leaving Silas’s office was weighed down at the sight of Gage. An anchor tethering me to a world I didn’t want to be part of. Time to cut him loose.

He was leaning against the front wall, watching me walk towards him. His smirk evaporated as I got close, maybe he could see the determination in me. Whatever he saw, I don’t think he liked it.

He pushed off the wall, standing up straight as I stopped in front of him.

“You leaving?” he asked.

“I’ve got some time before I have to be at work. We can have that talk now?”

His eyes flicked behind me and back down. He shifted on his feet and grabbed my elbow, pulling me closer to him. “I want to. Trust me, I want to, but…” he tugged on my elbow again, moving me slightly to the side so we were both parallel to the wall. His head ducked down to meet my eyes. “I can’t right now. How about later? After work?” He scanned my face, pleading with me.

I stepped back, trying to escape my own reactions to his touch, to being near him. The rush to my head made it hard to think.

I licked my dry lips and swallowed hard, trying to take back control of my traitorous body. “I can’t tonight.” I had plans with Anthony. We only had two more nights together, I couldn’t abandon him now, especially not for Gage.

The intensity in his gaze scared me. I felt like his prey, but I wasn’t going to let him devour me.

His eyebrow glided up. “Tomorrow?”

I nodded, feeling a little more confident as I took another step away. “In the morning, here. Before my work out. Seven.” Anthony had to work tomorrow, too, so he could drop me off early. 

He nodded as his closed lip smile grew, and I got the sinking feeling I might be walking into his trap.

***

“What are you doing?” Anthony pulled his hand back, avoiding the phone I extended to him.

“I’m returning this to you. I got my own phone today. I can pay you back for the minutes, too.” I shook the phone, encouraging him to take it from me.

He hesitated before grabbing it, his forehead creased in wrinkles under the soft sweep of his hair. “Do I get your new phone number?”

We were in the police cruiser, both having just got off work. 

I patted the firm material of his uniform, smoothing the black collar. “Do you want it? This might be a good time to jump ship.”

He shook his head, with a slight, sad, smile. “Is that what you want? What’s going to happen on Monday when you don’t need me anymore?”

I shrugged, leaning back in the seat, looking out the window at my own dark reflection. “I’m not thinking that far ahead. Whatever we want to happen can happen.”

His hand slipped into my hair, turning my head to look towards him. “I know what I want--"

“I know what you want, too.” I interrupted, leaning across the console to meet his lips, my hands moving to his belt buckle.

***

My nerves were exploding. Little bombs going off one after another, increasing rate and intensity the closer we drove to the gym.

Anthony pulled the car to the curb and I scanned the area for Gage. A slight relief relaxed my muscles when I didn’t see him.

“Give me a call when you get off work. I’ll be there.”

I pulled my attention back to Anthony, throwing him a smile and nod as I opened the door to leave.

“Hold up.” He leaned over the passenger seat.

Standing outside the car, I leaned back in and gave him the kiss I knew he was requesting. I pulled back before he could grab me and extend it, and then I shut the door on any further delays.

I took a deep breath, letting the crisp morning air fill my lungs. Preparing myself, I wasn’t sure if I was more scared of Gage himself, or my reactions to him. The worst thing was he knew he had an affect on me. I was going to end that today.

The gym was nearly empty; a few people spotted the open room, getting their early morning workout in. Gage was at the body bag, pounding low on it, back to me. He was shirtless and glistening with sweat. The muscles on his arms and shoulder flexed with each blow. He was amazing to look at.

Stilling the bag, he turned slightly, spotting me. He reached to the ground and picked up his towel, wiping the sweat from his body.

I was frozen, staring at the tattoos’ extending down the side of his ribs and stomach, dark thick lettering with a flame at the top. His gray shirt dropped into place, covering the words before I could read them.

He smiled, like he knew he had me. He nodded his head towards Silas’s office and walked in that direction before I even moved.

Giving myself a mental chastising, I followed him. I needed to do better if I was to pull this off.

“Silas won’t be in for a while. We can talk in here.” He stood at the door, inviting me into the room.

I hesitated. “Are you sure Silas is alright with people in his office?”

He cocked his head, and his eyes assessed me. “It’s half mine. I just don’t use it much.” At my confused look he continued, “The entire gym is half mine.” He nodded his head inside the room. “Come on.”

I pressed my nails into the soft skin of my hand, trying to focus on something other than my racing heart, beginning to regret my decision to show up today. But I couldn’t back down now. Against instinct I stepped into the small room with him, and my heart skipped when he closed the door.

Reminding myself that this was a public place didn’t help to quell my rising panic. This closed room didn’t feel public.

He narrowed his eyes and crossed his arms. “You don’t need to be scared of me.”

I stood up straight at his words, trying to burry my fear. “You keep saying that.”

“Because it’s true.” He stepped towards me, and I was thankful for the chair between us.

“Who should be scared?” I thought about the look of fear that crossed Damien’s face.

He shook his head, eyes not leaving mine. “My opponents. Anyone threatening the people I care about.” He took a step to the side of the chair, and I gripped the back of it, to keep from moving. “Anyone threatening you.”

I swallowed down the lump in my throat and stomped the butterflies in my stomach.

His next step forced me to turn my back to the chair so I could face him. His body was almost flush with mine, but not touching, although I felt him as if we were.

“But not you.” His hand rose towards me.

The shock of his fingers on my cheek made me jump back, nearly stumbling over the chair behind me. I pushed it out of the way, allowing myself room to move.

“Quit that shit,” I reacted with anger.

He paused, shock freezing him, his arm still dangling in the air. Then his eyebrows knitted together, and he curled his open hand into a fist. “What?”

“Breathing on me.” I wasn’t thinking. I just knew I had to make it clear that he didn’t affect me. That he didn’t have the upper hand. Even if it was a lie.

He straightened up to his full height, confusion lining his eyes. “Breathing on you?”

I stepped further away, putting the chair between us again. “Yeah, you get too close, too often. And you breathe on me. It’s fucking annoying. Stop it or I’m leaving.”

He let out a stunned puff of breath and a ghost of a smile played on his face. “Well, damn. That’s--” he shook his head and sat in the other chair behind him, the lines of his jaw working. “You’re cold.” His eyes locked with mine. “Ice.”

I pressed my lips together to hide my own smile. His reaction encouraged me. He wasn’t getting scary angry, and the fact that he sat down made me sure I had shocked him. Maybe now he’d listen.

I scoffed, continuing the show. “Because I don’t fall all over you? Well get over it.” I sat in the chair in front of me, trying to pull off relaxed, even though I felt anything but.

He narrowed his eyes. “Fine. I’m over it. That’s not the point of this talk anyways. The other day,” he leaned forward in the chair, forearms resting on his knees, “What went down at that apartment, I’ve got to explain.”

I shook my head. “You don’t have to. I won’t say anything to anybody. I’m sorry I brought you there.”

He leaned back like I slapped him. “You’re damn lucky you brought me. What are you doing with people like that?”

My spine stiffened at his accusatory tone. “You seem to have known them too, and people much worse.”

He ran his hand over his face, frustration clear in the way he moved. “I can handle myself around people like them.”

My heart squeezed at that. What he implied was loud and clear, I couldn’t handle them. And he was right, somewhat. “They’re not all bad,” I said with a soft edge.

He watched me for a moment before responding. “I know, people usually aren’t. She was your friend, but you’ve got to see she’s no good for you.”

I was done talking about me and what I should be doing. “And what about you?” I snapped. “What about your friends? Are they good for you?”

He leaned back, running a hand over his hair, making it stand up in a mess of spikes. “I’m not involved with them anymore. I was before Silas and I partnered up, but not now.”

Fear spread like wildfire in my stomach. “So your threat to Damien was empty?” I didn’t want to be around when he found out, and thinking of Nan still with him scared me. What if he took it out on her?

He scooted closer and almost reached for me, but thought better of it. “No. They would still have my back if I called them. It’s complicated, but it’s my family.”

 “So Dexter too?” I held my breath for the answer. If he was involved than my judgment of people was crap.

Gage sat up, indignant. “I would never let my brother get involved. He’s not part of it. I did it for him, so we could get away.”

Relief drained some of the tension in my shoulders, but confusion throbbed in my head.

“It was my dad. His family, his life. He was in prison for most of my life, but when he got out, he helped out.”

I didn’t want to know the details. I didn’t want to hear names. But I had to ask, “You’re not involved anymore?”

He swallowed. “My dad died. I still talk to my uncle sometimes, but they understand that’s not the life I want. They're not bad people.”

I nodded and stood up. Still unsure, but feeling slightly better. “Alright. Thank you.”

“Wait.” He stood up. “Silas said you were moving gyms. Don’t do that because of me.” The corner of his mouth tugged up, just barely. “I promise not to breathe on you.”

I eyed him skeptically, my own smile mirroring his. “You better not. Now that I know you and Silas are partners, I know you have to behave. Silas said I could do big things and that would benefit both of you. You can’t afford to push me away.”

He crossed his arms, full of smug confidence. “I can afford,” he stretched out the word afford, “to do whatever I want. But I won’t, because you don’t want me too.” 

***

Aliya held tight to the bottle while Zoe tugged at the wine opener until the cork slid out.

"Now I remember why we always get the boxed kind." Zoe untwisted the cork from the screw.

Aliya giggled, already loose from wine with dinner. "But this is a special occasion. We have a new roommate." Her smile turned to a pout as she faced me. "But you're not even drinking. We're supposed to be celebrating together."

I held up my water glass. "I'm celebrating. Tonight's been fun and dinner was great."

Leona stood up. "Thank you. You can thank my mom though; I had her cook the empanadas."

"So Rea, will we be seeing that police friend of yours around?" Aliya questioned as she refilled her wine glass.

I sat on the couch with Leona. Zoe sat with her legs curled under her, on the opposite couch. She held up her glass and Aliya topped it off and sat down next to her. All three of them watched me, waiting for my answer.

I had forgotten that they saw us kiss that day in the snow. I shook my head. "No, don't worry, he probably won't be around."

Leona's eyebrow went up. "Really? That's a shame because he was really cute."

"Especially in that uniform," Aliya added.

Zoe set her glass down. "A police officer? You were dating one? Is that why you didn't go with Gage the other night at the bar?"

The questions stumped me. It took a minute to regain composure, and I wanted to laugh. These girls were excited about me possibly dating an enforcer of the law. Nan would have kicked me out on the spot. Maybe things really could change.

Aliya spoke up first. "Ooh that's right, why wouldn't you go with Gage? He is, like, the hottest guy and super sexy."

"He also had two other girls with him that night," I responded and then regretted it; that made it sound like I would have went with him. "Plus, he's too bossy."

Aliya smirked. "He could boss me around any day. You wouldn't mind would you? If I hooked up with him?"

Leona rolled her eyes. "It's never going to happen. He barely talks to you."

Aliya crossed her arms with a huff. "There's always a chance, especially with our Atlantic City trip next week." She stared off in exaggerated dreaminess. "How I would love to be one of the girls he chooses after he wins. God, I can't even imagine how hot that would be. I'm getting wet just thinking about it."

"Eww," Zoe knocked her over with a pillow.

Aliya giggled and sat back up, eyebrows raised to me. "You wouldn't mind then, right?"

"No. Do whatever you want." I tried to excuse the way my stomach turned sour thinking of her with him. It was probably the way she was excited to be chosen out of many that got to me. She could do better than that.

"Is there anyone you're interested in?" Zoe asked me, sweeping her eyes to Leona.

I shrugged. "The police officer, Anthony is his name. He's a friend, but maybe." I don't know why I said that. Except I wanted to talk to these girls, and they had been excited by him. And I wanted to deny any attraction to Gage. There was also the look between Zoe and Leona; I needed to make it clear there was nothing with Dexter either.

"You should tell her what you told me, Leona. Get rid of any tension tonight so we can all get along," Zoe advised.

I sat back, waiting. I thought I knew where this was going.

Leona stood up with a nod. "Come with me for a minute, so we can talk."

I followed her to her bedroom down the hall. She sat on her bed and I sat on the rolling chair at her desk.

"You get along really well with Dexter. I've been trying to brush it off as nothing; I'm not usually the jealous type. I mean, Dexter gets along with everyone. I've talked to him about it and he explained your connection, about the attack, that I shouldn't worry, you two are just friends. But I wanted to make sure you weren't mistaking it for more."

I frowned as her words sunk in. "He's nice, but only a friend. What did he tell you about our connection?"

She waved her hand. "Just that because he was there that night when you were attacked he feels a bit like your protector. He wants to make sure you're okay."

I hated that I hadn't picked up on that. He was another person who wanted to keep me safe. I didn't want that. I wanted someone that was my friend, simply to be my friend.

Running my hand through my hair, I responded, "You don't have to worry about me and him. It's like he said. Also, I would never do that to you, to anyone."

She stood up with a smile. "I'm glad we had this talk then. Can I ask a favor though?" at my nod she continued, "Can you try not to be alone with him. That way there can never be any doubt."

I nodded. "Sure, I'll try."

***

I pulled the phone away from my ear; Anthony's voice was loud.

"...The date has been set for next month, March 25th. I'll be there to testify. You should be getting information soon. I know Detective Andres wanted to get a hold of you. Have you given her this number?"

"Not yet. I'll give her a call tomorrow." I sat in my empty bedroom with only a bed for furniture.

I gripped the soft blankets, unsure how to feel. The date for court had finally been set, but it didn't cause excitement or relief. It was a dark hole, with fear hiding in the shadows. That's what those boys had done, released the fear that I had always locked away. And now it plagued me during the night.

"So, I know I'll at least see you next month then," Anthony spoke soft. I had to press the phone back to my ear.

I was too lost in my thoughts to respond.

"Unless you want to see me sooner?" he said after a moment of silence.

"Maybe. That wouldn't be bad." I didn't know what I wanted anymore. But I knew I felt comfortable with him. He took me just the way I was, and I liked that.

I could hear the smile in his voice. "I'm off on Thursday."

After hanging up with Anthony I tried to call Nan again. I had tried twice already. It went to voicemail and dread swirled in me. It was normal for her not to answer, but I wanted to hear from her. I wanted to make sure she was alright. The last time I saw her she seemed so weak, and I was no longer sure she could stand up for herself, especially with Damien. And I couldn't really blame her for not leaving with Gage and me; we had both been shocked and scared that day.

***

I had my head back, drinking deeply from my water bottle after my workout. My muscles were drained, and I wanted to fall over flat. But Gage walking towards me made me stay standing, stiffening my spine.

I busied myself by picking up my towel and wiping my face. I didn't want to watch him as he made his way over, but I couldn’t pull my eyes off him. He was in a tank top and his arms were distracting, especially the half sleeve of dark tattoo's on one.

"Silas told me about the offer. How are you feeling about that?"

I nodded, avoiding eye contact. Silas told me this morning that a local sports store wanted to photograph me in their clothes. It would help advertise for the gym as well, plus I needed professional pictures to advertise fights. The photo shoot was in two weeks.

I took another sip of water before answering. "Another part of boxing I hadn't expected. But I guess it's a good thing."

"You'd be surprised how many photo shoots you're going to be a part of. I've done a few myself."

My lips pressed together to hide my smile. I might have to Google that later.

"Silas also told me he wants to keep you at this lower weight class. You'll have a better chance at earning a title."

I nodded. Silas had already told me this. "I've got to get ready for work now."

"I can help. I can show you some simple recipes, take you shopping..." He shrugged and the corner of his lip tugged up. "After all, you are a good investment for the gym."

I eyed him, skeptical of his intentions.

His eyes shifted to the door, narrowing. "Hold on," he murmured as he walked past me.

A young teen boy had just walked in. He was dressed in street clothes, a puffy coat and skinny jeans positioned low to show off his boxers. He wore a Ravens hat over his braids and his face was twisted with anger.

Gage grabbed his arm and the boy shook his head, saying something as they both walked back to Silas's office.

I sat on the bench behind me, needing to rest. I couldn't stop my creeping suspicion, but I tried to push it away. Whatever was going on, I would stay out of it. Everything would be fine as long as I stayed out of whatever Silas and Gage were doing.

The more I thought about what Gage told me the other day, the more questions I had. The biggest one was about the guns. Silas had one the night I was jumped, and Gage had brought one to Nan's.

Gage came back out of the office with the boy. The teen turned around to face him and said something while simultaneously pulling up his pants. Gage pushed the back of his head in a teasing way and looked in my direction. He held up his finger, signaling the boy to wait and came over to me.

"I have to go. But we'll talk later."

Doubt must have shown on my face because Gage sat next to me and nodded in the direction of the kid. "I have to take him back to school. He got mad and walked out."

My eyebrows popped up in surprise. "Oh," I said lamely.

Gage smiled. "I help at a sports camp for boys during the summer. That's how I met Javon. He's a good kid, but sometimes he needs a little guidance." He shrugged, and his blue eyes lit up. "I'll see you later then?"

I leaned back, stunned. This man was full of surprises. "Alright."

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