HE WAS SHIFTING AWAY FROM ME, SLOWLY removing his arms from around my body.
“You’re leaving?” My stomach twisted as I gripped his waist and kept my head on his chest.
He had stiffened when I first spoke but quickly relaxed and stroked my hair. “Go back to sleep. I have to get ready to go, but I’ll see you tonight after the fight.”
I unwrapped my arms from him. “Where are the tickets?”
He shook his head. “You’re not going. Stay here.”
Sitting up in bed, I met his eyes. “Of course I’m going. I’m not missing this fight.”
“It may not be safe for you to be in my guest seats.”
But he didn’t sound firm, so I pressed the issue. “Then I’ll get different tickets and sit somewhere else.”
He nodded. “Alright. You can pick up tickets at will call.”
His quick resignation made me feel sick. I was happy to get my way because there was no way I was missing the fight, but he seemed drained, and that wasn’t good.
I slid my arms around him again and pressed my cheek to his chest. “I’ll see you tonight after the fight. I’ll be here.” I didn’t want to bring up the possibility of losing, but I hoped he knew I meant I’d be here no matter what happened.
His hands ran up and down my back. “I know. I’ve got to get ready.” He pushed me back slightly to look at my face. His eyes bounced over me and then his lips pressed to mine, a brief spark before he pulled away.
Restless, I paced the common area of the suite, counting the seconds with my feet. I paused at the window, staring out at the busy city, the people going in all directions on the sidewalks, and the cars jammed on the street.
The door to the suite opened. I spun around as Dexter stepped into the room, panting and covered in sweat.
Adrenaline pumped through me, ready to react, until I saw him remove his headphones and look up at me with a slight smile.
“Hey. It’s good you’re back, but I’m sorry about your friend.”
His words tightened the knots in my stomach. Sorry was a stupid thing to say, and I didn’t want to think about her right now.
He walked over to where I stood by the window. “I went for a run. Had to clear my mind. Did you hear Leona left?” His eyebrow rose as he looked down at me.
I nodded. “Why? Where did she go?”
He sighed and sunk down on the ground. He stretched himself out on the floor, looking up at the ceiling.
“She went home ’cause I told her to.” He lifted his head to look at me, the corner of his mouth lifting wryly. “But I can’t figure out why I thought that was a good idea.”
I sat cross-legged on the floor next to him and picked at the fibers of the carpet. “Oh yeah? So did she leave mad or what?”
“Angry. She was angry.” He closed his eyes. “It’s probably for the best. That’s probably what I was thinking when I said it. But…” He shrugged and grabbed my hand. “What about you, Rea? You still angry with me?”
I pulled my hand from his. I had told him I would forgive him if he let me leave to see Nan. But that didn’t mean we were friends. Right now, though, I welcomed the distraction of talking to him.
I shook my head. “I’ve got too much going on to be angry with you.”
“I hear that and I’ll take it.” He propped himself up with his elbows behind him. “Maybe after tonight I can fix things with Leona, too.”
I looked at him. “I thought you said it was better this way?”
“What the hell do I know? I miss that girl. I love her and I know she loves me. This week has been stressful, that’s all.”
I frowned and my face pinched in. “That’s not all. It’s been more than stressful.”
He swallowed and cleared his face of all traces of humor. “I know, but it’ll be over soon.”
“I hope so.” I couldn’t focus on the uncertain night. “What exactly happened with Leona? Silas said Gage scared her off.”
He dropped back on the ground, hands cupped behind his head. “Nah, it wasn’t like that. He was mad that I let you go back, but we knew to expect that. When I was trying to calm him down and explain that you weren’t in danger, that it was Gage and I who were the targets, it clicked to Leona. I think she had been shook up by the other night and clung to me to feel safe. Then I said that to Gage, and she realized I was the one putting her in danger. She freaked out, so I told her to go.” His eyes cut to where I sat. “It’s true, though. It’s not you two that are in danger. Gage and I both were being selfish by keeping you with us.”
“Except your brother didn’t stay with me.” Somehow jealousy found room to sit with my crowded emotions.
Dexter pushed himself up. As he stood he said, “I don’t pretend to understand Gage, but I trust him. He’s usually got his reasons. I’ve got to go shower and dress to meet up with him before the fight. You good here by yourself?”
I nodded; it wasn’t like I had a choice in it anyways.
It was between fights, but the arena pulsed with music and the big screen above the ring showed clips from past fights. I walked up the steps to my seat, on the end of the row on the second tier. The guy to my left glanced at me, disappointed hat he now had to squeeze in closer to his friends.
I sat down, heart in my throat, as I watched clips of Gage on the screen. His knockout punch from his last fight flashed and twisted a knot in my stomach. I prayed that this would go as smoothly.
The screen played clips of his opponent, Desmond Dennaki, a bald beast of a man. His face was hard and ugly, but intimidating. Gage’s muscles were cleaner and more defined, whereas Dennaki’s puffed out, making him seem larger even though their height and weight were about even. Dennaki’s scorecard read twenty-two wins, twelve by knockout, one loss, and two draws. I hoped tonight would be his second loss.
A voice broke over the speakers, announcing the start of the fight and the music shifted to Gage’s signature beat.
I stood, straining to see over the people in front of me, but the easiest way to see his entrance was on the large screen. Silas and Dexter walked out with him as well as two others. He strode in with his typical stone cold expression, gaze focused on the ring. The icy fury in his eyes gave me hope.
After climbing into the ring, Dexter removed Gage’s blue and silver robe, revealing his solid muscles. He stretched his neck and exuded cool and determined confidence.
Dennaki put on a show, or at least the people in his group did. Dennaki walked out with the same seriousness of Gage. His eyes honed in on him and never let up as he stalked to the ring. His large group was mostly female and slinked around in their skimpy cheerleader-esque outfits. They dropped away before he entered the ring.
In the ring, he raised his arms to the crowd and smirked as they cheered. The men next to me were on their feet yelling for him, and I wanted to hit each of them.
I sat as nerves took over. They were rapid fire under my skin and made me shaky on my feet.
The ding at the start of the first round jump started my heart. I was on the edge of my seat as the boxers circled each other. Gage had his hands raised high, blocking his face, but Dennaki kept his posture relaxed, his arms barely blocking his chest. His smug cockiness was soon wiped away as he attempted to throw a hook. Gage evaded it easily and moved out of the way of two more attempts. Then he threw his own punch.
Dennaki’s head snapped back as Gage’s fist connected. He shook his head, clearing it of the sting. The boxers gave each other more space after that exchange. Gage walked in slow circles around him, and Dennaki backed away from him anytime he got too close.
Dennaki stepped in suddenly and threw a low punch that connected with Gage’s chest. Two quick body shots followed and connected.
Instead of blocking, Gage threw his own punches, matching him on body shots. He pounded on his sides, and on the large screen it was easy to see the effect. Dennaki’s body shifted under each blow, whereas Gage’s body absorbed each punch without reaction.
Dennaki retreated, and they circled each other again. The bell ending the round surprised me and the boxers separated to their corners. Gage sat easily on the stool offered as Dexter wiped away sweat and applied more Vaseline to his face. Dennaki was given the same treatment as well as an en swell, a cold metal thing, pressed to his eye where Gage had hit him.
The next round started with Dennaki swinging, trying to take back control. Gage evaded most of them but one was landed on his jaw. Gage returned the punch and several others. Dennaki was stunned by the blows, unable to get away or block as punch after punch jerked his head around. Then he was down and I was standing, my heart in my throat.
The referee stepped in, pushing Gage back, as he counted. At four, Dennaki rose up to one knee and let the ref continue his count while he took the time to regain some energy. At nine, he stood up and the men next to me cheered.
Gage got in some more body shots, wearing down Dennaki, but stayed away from his head. Dennaki threw a flurry of punches, with a burst of energy, but only connected with Gage’s side two more times. Then the round ended.
I was struggling for air, about to burst, as the third round started. The only round that mattered. I couldn’t stand or move; I was cemented to my seat. With my eyes glued to the ring, everything else disappeared.
Gage came out swinging this time, but Dennaki blocked it, taking the hit in his shoulder. But the next one connected with his stomach, making him fold slightly. Gage followed it with an uppercut that sent him flying back on the ropes.
A quick one-two punch dropped Dennaki to the canvas. The ref stepped between the boxers, counting. Dennaki rose up at seven and I was in danger of throwing up, my vision shaking from the lack of oxygen. He was fully on his feet by ten and stayed back from Gage.
But Gage charged him, trapping him in the corner while throwing punches. Dennaki tried to block, arms up in front of his face. After a moment, Dennaki wrapped his arms around Gage and stepped in; he was too close for Gage to get a good punch in. Instead, Gage could only throw weak side punches.
The referee stepped in-between them, separating the two, allowing Dennaki a way to escape Gage’s attack.
But Gage quickly cornered him again, not letting him close enough to grab him as he landed his hooks. He stepped back as Dennaki fell over, letting him drop to the canvas again.
My vision flicked between the ring and screen. Dennaki was struggling to raise himself up, and I prayed he wouldn’t.
Gage watched him and wiped away sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm. His whole body shined with perspiration and his chest rose and fell harshly as he tried to catch his breath.
As Dennaki stood, blood streaming from his nose, my vision blurred and I quickly wiped away the tears that filled my eyes. I needed to see everything.
Gage’s face was twisted with rage as he charged back to Dennaki. Dennaki raised his arms, trying to block the next wave of punches.
Then the bell rung, saving him but shredding me.
A strangled cry escaped me and I nearly fell out of my chair, my stomach spasming with anguish, but I pulled myself together as I watch Dennaki in the corner; he was surrounded by three men, pushing at his face, trying to stop the bleeding. I grabbed the hope that they might call it. The ref stepped over, checking out Dennaki’s status, but all too quickly the bell rung again, starting the fourth round, and all hope was ripped away.
I had no reaction. I sat stunned and numb, unbelieving. Gage won in the next round, but it didn’t matter. The fourth round wasn’t the third. The only round that mattered was the third, and he hadn’t won it.
I watched, a shell of myself, as Gage was announced the winner and the ring was stormed with reporters and others congratulating him. Everything seemed normal; he talked to the reporters as the screen replayed his knockout punch and others began streaming out of the arena.
I don’t know how I made it back to the suite. But I was here; I must have been on autopilot. I sat on the couch, waiting for the doors to open. I needed them to open and for someone, preferably Gage, to walk through and tell me what would happen now.
But nobody walked through the door, not for hours. When the door finally opened, it was only Dexter.
“Is Gage coming back here?” I knew the answer already, but asked all the same.
Dexter couldn’t meet my eyes as he walked to sit by me. “Rea, you’re not supposed to be here. Gage told me you were supposed to leave.”
I had thought he understood that I was going to be here for him no matter what. I shut the doors to my emotion and trapped them inside a locked box, as I looked back to Dexter.
“Where is he now?”
He shrugged. “He left with Silas. They were heading back to B-more. I was told to get everything and check us out in the morning. You can ride back with me then.”
I dropped my eyes, focusing on the swirls in the carpet, trying to plan my next step. I had thought I would be doing that with Gage, but I should have known I would have to do this myself. Alone.
Standing, I said levelly, “Okay. I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in the morning.”
As I lay down, I tried to untangle my thoughts, unsure if I should listen to Gage or not. Should I run away or after him? I had lost Nan because I didn’t act, and that guilt was crippling. I don’t think I would survive losing Gage, too.
And I also held blame for tonight. Gage hadn’t slept because of me. Instead, he stayed with me at the hospital, and to make it worse, we had sex instead of sleeping. He had been so close to winning in the third—just a bit more energy could have changed the results. I had been the one to take that away.
Dexter drove me to my house and stayed to talk to Leona, who warily accepted him into her room. He made it clear he knew nothing about where Gage was or what he was doing. We both tried to call him, but as expected, there was no answer. There never was with him.
I couldn’t handle waiting for information, so the next day I slipped the gun Gage had given me into my hoody pocket, just in case, and walked to the metro stop outside the house.
My first stop was Gage’s house, but nobody answered. The house was dark and empty, no cars in the drive way.
Next, I went to the gym, the only other place I could think to find him… my last resort.
It was full, which was typical for a Sunday morning. Scanning the room, I didn’t see any sign of Gage, but there was a large banner up advertising his win and my heart raced. I hoped I would see him again and that he was okay.
After leaving me again, I don’t think I could ever go back to what we were, but I had to know what happened. I had to make sure he was alright. More importantly, I had to say goodbye.
“Rea!” one of the employees greeted me. “I haven’t seen you around in a while. Working out today?” His eyes looked over my jeans and pullover.
I shook my head. “Have you seen Gage?”
The boy smiled. “Nah, but with his win the other night I bet he’s out celebrating. He usually takes a couple days off after a fight. Probably won’t be in today, but Silas is in the office.”
Determination made me rigid. I steeled myself and walked to the office with a muttered thanks.
Silas looked up with red-rimmed eyes as I walked in without knocking.
His smiling mask dropped into place within an instant. It took me this long to finally recognize it for what it was, a lie. All this time I had thought he was genuine and open.
“Regan, have a seat.” He gestured to the chair on the opposite side of the desk.
I stayed standing. “Have you seen Gage?”
He nodded, his smile still in place. “I have, just last night actually. Have a seat, let’s talk.”
I felt the reassuring weight of the gun resting in my front pocket. I didn’t really think I needed it for Silas, but it gave me the confidence to take the seat and sit tall.
He nodded at something, perhaps his own thoughts, and stood, coming around to sit next to me.
“Regan, I know you’re angry with me, but I was hoping you wouldn’t let that interfere with your career. I meant what I said. You can do big things and I want to be there to help you do just that.”
I looked directly at him, unflinching. “No. I’m done working with you. I’m only here looking for Gage. I need to talk to him.”
His eyebrow rose as he leaned back in his seat. “You care about him?”
His tone sent ice down my spine.
“Then help him. Help yourself. Come back to boxing.”
I didn’t answer; instead, I stared at him, trying to read his meaning.
“He wants to help you, too, but he can’t do it on his own. If you come back to boxing for us, you’ll have others protecting you, too. It’ll make it easier for him.”
I narrowed my eyes. “What are you talking about? Protecting me from what?” I had thought Gage was just being overprotective, but Silas’s statement relit my fear, setting me on edge.
He cocked his head, considering. “From Rock’s thug. I think they called him Dee?”
Damien. The fuse of anger was lit, burning quickly. But what did Silas know? “What are you talking about?”
His lip turned up. “Gage didn’t tell you? That night after we left you at Gage’s, we went looking for Rock. We didn’t find him, but we found some of his crew and one of them knew about Gage and you. It worked to our advantage. He was so hell bent on destroying Gage he didn’t even realize we brought others with us.”
He paused, pointing at me. “He said a lot of shit about you, too, and it didn’t sound like empty threats. You’re a marked woman, Regan. You need protection. We can give you that if you fight for me again.”
“By ‘we,’ you mean Rusnak? You’re in thick with them?” I needed to know where he stood. What he said about Damien ignited all the anger I felt for him and reminded me of how I failed Nan.
He spread out his hands and shrugged. “It is what it is. They’re good people to have on your side. So what do you say? I’ve always been honest with you about your career and let you get the final say. This would be a smart move. You get to fight and you get protection.”
I nodded, my decision made. “I don’t want protection. I want something more.”
He lifted his chin, gesturing for me to go on.
“I want him dead.”
A slow smile filled his face. “I think we can work that out.”