THE OWNER FROM THE STORE FITNESS FIRST was running the show. She acted as the stylist and was directing the photographer on shots. Her first order of business was to demand I get my haircut and dyed.
Her curt directions turned me off at first, but the highlights, layers, and side bangs looked good. Not a big change, but it brightened my look. And as she kept the shoot moving, I came to appreciate her no nonsense attitude. After I adjusted to all the attention, it was actually fun.
“Let’s change gears now. Change into this.” She handed me a sleeveless zip up hoody and a bottom that wasn’t quite shorts. “And we can let your hair down now. Sylvie can you fluff her hair, you know that wild, sexy look.”
I didn’t mind this new outfit, the mini red shorts covered more than my bathing suits and after my hair and makeup was done, I had to admit the look was hot.
My stomach dipped as I stood in front of the camera and caught Silas staring, a self-satisfied grin on his face.
“Sharon, you’ve outdone yourself with this one.” He shook his head. “Regan, we might be able to branch out in a whole new career.”
I raised my now manicured eyebrow, “As long as I can box too.”
Silas’s laugh was loud and echoed through the open room.
“She’s a pretty girl that’s for sure, as long as she’s not bruised from being hit.” Sharon pulled me over near the front window. “Now, I think this natural light will work better here.” She pulled on my top, adjusting it, and unzipped the zipper some. “Take off the bra, you’re young and perky, it’s better to go without for this shot.” At my hesitation she continued, “We’re not taking off the top, but I don’t want the bra showing.”
I reached under the top and undid the bra, sliding the straps down my arm and pulling it from under the sweater. She pulled the zipper down to just below breast level and pulled on the edges so my natural cleavage would show.
“Perfect.” She smiled, stepping back out of the shot.
The camera flashed a couple times and Sharon directed, “Put your hands in the pockets, and turn slightly away from the camera. Show off the design on the back of the jacket.” After I did what she said, she added, “Arch your back a bit more, stick out your rump; don’t be shy now.”
Pinpricks of excitement and nerves crossed my skin, but I followed her directions. I found myself wishing Gage would step out of the back office now. He was there, I knew because I saw him arrive earlier, but he hadn’t come out this entire time.
I cleared my head of the distracting thoughts and focused on following Sharon’s directions.
“That’s good.” Sharon stood behind the photographer, looking at the pictures he had snapped. “Last change.” She went to her hangers and pulled out a bikini. “Here put this on.”
My blood drained from me as I looked at the strings. “Do you have a different one? Maybe a sports bra type top. I don’t wear string bikinis,” I tried to explain.
Silas’s forehead wrinkled. “You wear what she gives you, this isn’t about personal style.”
My heart flip-flopped in my stomach, but I raised my chin in defiance. “It’s not that… I won’t wear it. That has nothing to do with boxing, I’m not doing it.”
Sharon turned to Silas, “We agreed on the number of outfits and the bathing suit was part of it. It’s part of the contract.”
Hating that she was discussing this with him and not me, I interrupted. “I’ll wear a different one, but not that one.”
Silas shot me a silencing look. “Come with me,” he commanded.
I followed him to his office.
“Get out. I need to talk to Regan.” Silas’s normally level voice was strained.
Gage stood up from behind the desk, eyes widening as they grazed over me.
“What’s going on?” he questioned, not moving to the door.
“Sit down, Rea.” Silas gestured to the chair before turning to answer the question. “She’s refusing to wear the last outfit.”
His back rose and fell with his deep breath, and then he turned back to me, his face back to his typical smile. “Regan, I understand you being wary about modeling in a bikini. But I can guarantee you it won’t hurt your image. It’s for an athletic store, not some magazine. If anything this will help. People might see you as a pretty face and underestimate you, which could be used to your advantage in the ring.” He nodded like he had already convinced me.
I met his eyes, trying to make it clear that I wasn’t budging. “No. I won’t wear that.”
“Why?” he demanded.
I couldn’t answer that, protecting my scars was my top priority, no matter how angry Silas got.
“I’m a boxer, not a bikini model.” I didn’t break eye contact with him.
Gage put his hand on Silas’s shoulder. “I’ll go see if we can work something else out, maybe another outfit or something.”
I let out the breath I was holding, feeling a slight relief. But Silas wasn’t appeased by Gage’s suggestion.
“They already paid us up front. I’ll come with you.” He turned back to me. “Stay here while we clean up this mess.” He shook his head in disapproval before walking out.
What felt like an eternity later, Silas came back in. “Will you wear this?” He held up a sporty white and blue tankini, and I nodded with relief.
After changing, I hesitated on my way to the set up. Gage was standing there in blue and white surf trunks that matched my bathing suite. His tan body was shiny with oil, the same oil I was covered in.
My mouth went dry and I had to force myself to breathe. He watched me as I made my way over, his face blank, but an unreadable look in his eyes.
He took the few remaining steps to where I was. “They agreed to the switch of outfits as long as I stood in for this one.” His voice was low and his eyes kept dropping over my body, leaving electric currents in their wake.
I couldn’t stop myself from drinking him in. This close range, I could easily read his tattoo along his ribs. Big bold lettering stacked on each other: Rage, Rage. The top word was in flames. When I raised my eyes, he was smirking, eyebrow lifted as he watched me, watch him.
“Come on. Let’s get this over with.” His blunt words squashed the anticipation that was dancing in me.
I gave myself an internal reprimand; I needed to take control of my body’s reactions to him, get this over with, and move on. Like he did.
The photo shoot was the ultimate test in my strength. We had to pose in each other’s arms. Standing face to face, he hung his arms low around my waist and my arms were on his chest. The heat was there, but tempered by the multiple eyes and directions being given. After a couple of shots it was over and Gage dropped his arms too easily and disappeared to change.
I showered, washing away the makeup and oil from the photo shoot, but not able to rid my skin of the feel of Gage’s hands. I put my wet hair in a no nonsense French braid, preparing for work at the restaurant. My new bangs helped to soften the look.
Slinging my book bag over my shoulder, I walked out of the locker room, almost running into Gage as I turned the corner.
He took a step back, taking in my outfit, his forehead creased. “You gotta work right away or do you have some time to talk?”
“I’ve got to work now,” I said with mixed feelings. I wanted to hear what he had to say, but didn’t want to answer any questions.
He shifted his eyes, and then leveled me with them. “Can I drive you?” He shoved his hands in his pockets, giving away his nervousness.
I nodded slow, not really sure, but knowing we needed to have this talk. Hopefully we could cut some of the awkwardness and at least have a working relationship.
He slid his seatbelt across him and paused, shooting me with a hard stare. “You can’t fight outside of the ring. You can get suspended for that.”
I looked away, out the window. “I didn’t mean to. I won’t do that again.”
He tilted forward, trying to get my attention. “Drinking or fighting?”
“Fighting.” I meant both, but I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of being right about me.
He pulled out of the parking lot and onto the one-way street. Checking his rearview mirror he said, “You don’t handle alcohol very well, you should stop that too.”
“You should stop telling me what to do,” I bit back. Then pressed my lips together, reigning in my anger. This had been a bad idea.
We stayed quiet, the car filled with tension, until we pulled up to my work.
I reached for the handle, anxious to escape. No longer interested in hearing what else he had to say.
“Wait,” he sighed. “I don’t mean to lecture you.”
I dropped the handle and turned back to him, eyebrow raised, silently questioning what it was he meant to do.
His eyes softened as they ran over me, causing goose bumps.
“You scare me,” he whispered.
“The things you say and do sometimes, it scares me. And you won’t listen to me; that scares me. But I thought that was part of the adventure.”
I didn’t absorb the words. The way he spoke them and left them hanging between us, made it clear that a big "but" was coming next. Something that would wipe them all away, and I was waiting for that, rigid.
He swept his eyes up me again, until they locked with mine. “I thought we could be fun, something new, an adventure. I embraced the fear as part of that. But when I saw that,” his eyes dropped to where my scar was, “It hit me; this is real. I’m scared to death that I might hurt you, more than you’ve already been hurt.”
He spoke softly but his words were like razors, scraping at me. I had to look away, no longer able to take the emotion in his eyes or the emotion he stirred in me. Or the way it seemed he could see through me.
“You deserve better than that, than me. I’m no good for you.”
And there it was. The dismissal. I met his gaze again, forcing him to look at me while he rejected me.
“You should be with someone who makes you laugh…”
I tuned out the rest of his words, agitation building. But his last words were a slap in the face.
“… Like Dexter.”
“Fuck you. You don’t want me? Fine. But man up and admit it, be honest. Don’t feed me some bullshit lines, and then try and pass me off on your brother.” I climbed out of the car, turning back to throw out my last words. “You’re disgusting.”
He popped out of the car, quickly coming around the vehicle to my side. I was trapped between two cars and he stood at the end of them, not letting me pass.
“That came out wrong. That’s not what I meant.” He stepped close to me and grabbed my elbow. “I’m not passing you off to anyone. Especially not Dexter. God, that would kill me. I don’t want you with anyone.” He took another step towards me, forcing me against the car, the heat of him penetrating through my jacket. “I should let you go, but I’m selfish. I still want you.” He trapped me between his arms, bracing his hands on the car behind me. “You should tell me to leave you alone. And I’ll try to.” His eyes dropped to my lips. “Tell me,” his breath warmed the skin on my forehead and the feeling spread through me like wildfire.
I shook my head slightly, and then his lips were on mine. They moved against me, like he'd been starving, a low growl vibrating from him. He sunk to my level as his hands left the car and cupped my face. Our tongues caressed each other’s and his fingers trailed down my neck, sending shivers through me. His body pressed me into the car, but our jackets were barriers, padding between us.
A chilly wind cut through our kiss, but he only pulled me tighter to him, our heat a shield to the cold. The kiss slowed to an end, but he kept his forehead pressed to mine. “I don’t want to let you go.” His breathing was strained, and his breath fanned over me. “Can I pick you up after work?”
I took a few breaths, trying to still my erratic heartbeat. “Yes.”
I didn’t know how I was going to get through the next couple of hours after what just went down, but I was happy to have the time to sort through the jumbled thoughts and emotions warring in me.