I SLEPT HARD, THE KIND OF SLEEP that leaves you with no sense of time passing.
I had followed Leona to the second floor and she had wavered between two rooms. “Gage’s room or the guest room?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
I guess his whispered words to me hadn’t gone unnoticed by others.
Walking past her, I pushed open the door she had gestured to as the guest room.
The moment I settled in the sheets I was out. Gone to the world. No dreams, no nothing. And in the next moment I opened my eyes. The room was lit with bright, clear light from outside. Out the window, tiny flakes swirled in the wind, moving every which way, defiant to gravity.
Lying still on the bed, I listened for noises in the house. There was a faint scraping sound from below. Perhaps others were awake. The clock on the nightstand read 9:24.
Sliding out of the sheets, I stretched and smiled. I felt good today. My muscles were sore, but the good kind, the kind that meant I was working hard.
I paused, spotting my book bag against the wall. I had locked the bedroom door last night, but had not brought my bag up. It made me uneasy that someone had been in the room. I was typically not a deep sleeper and would have woken, but I also would usually never leave my book bag out.
I checked the bedroom door... it was locked. When I checked the bathroom, I discovered it connected to the hallway as well, that’s how they got in.
Kneeling by the bag, I did a quick inventory. Nothing seemed out of place or missing and the prickle of anxiety began to recede. Pulling the phone out of the front pocket, I saw several missed calls from Anthony, and text messages asking if I was okay, and telling me to call him if I needed him.
I sent a quick message letting him know I had went to bed early last night and his response was almost immediate.
Good. I kept you up too late Sunday, sorry. :)
His text brought a smile to my lips. I liked staying up and talking to him. It was easy. He was easy, and I was beginning to appreciate that more and more.
Gage set me on edge, I couldn’t figure out what he wanted, and didn’t know what to expect when I saw him. He flipped from angry to helpful to flirty at dizzying speeds. It was exhausting.
I hope you’re safe and warm. Call me if you need me. I’ll get a sled to pick you up if I have to.
Anthony’s text vibrated the phone in my hands, returning my smile. I knew he didn’t have genuine affection for me, that his interests were purely physical, but that just made it better. There was no pressure and he made no demands. I sent a quick thank you text and made my way downstairs.
“Rocky? Where are you?” Dexter’s voice trailed up the stairs.
I turned the corner and spotted Leona crouched down, looking under the couch in the living room.
“He’s here,” she yelled over her shoulder and then turned back to the couch, her long hair falling over her and spreading on the floor. Her tone morphed into a high-pitched baby voice. “Come on Rocky. It’s alright I won’t let Dexter put you outside in this mess”
Dexter walked into the living room, snowsuit undone from the chest up.
“Don’t make that promise Lee.” He saw me, and his smile grew. “Rea you’re awake. Just in time. We’re testing Rocky’s hunting skills in the snow.”
I raised my eyebrows, still confused. “Who’s Rocky?”
“My cat,” He said as he lowered himself by the couch to look under it.
Leona’s head popped up as she sat back on her feet. “He’s smart; he won’t come out for you.”
But Rocky did come out, almost immediately, and Dexter scooped him up in his arms. He or she was pretty. All gray with a big bushy tail.
I walked over to the cat in Dexter’s arms and ran my hand along its soft fur.
“Rocky, like Rocky Balboa?”
"No." He scoffed. "Like Rocky and Bullwinkle.” At my confused look he continued, “You know Rocky, the flying gray squirrel? Never mind. Come see what Jase and I have done. We’ve been busy this morning.”
Dexter whispered things to the cat as he walked towards the kitchen.
Jase stood by the sliding glass door to the deck, dressed in layers of sweaters and sweats. Snow gloves on, and a scarf wrapped haphazardly around his head.
Gage sat back in a chair at the kitchen table, watching his brother, a plate piled high with eggs, ham, and toast in front of him.
“Look Rea, we made a maze for Rocky. I want to see if he can find the treat I put at the end of it,” Dexter excitedly explained. “You got the video ready?”
The snow was about eight inches high, but rounded mounds showed where they had built tunnels on the deck. The maze was mostly enclosed, but holes spotted the top of the paths.
Jase took off his gloves and pulled out his phone, holding it up towards the maze. “All set.”
I walked to the side of the sliding glass door to get a good view, but still stay out of the shot.
Dexter kissed the top of the cat’s head. “Good luck buddy.” He released him at the start of the tunnel. Rocky patted at the snow a couple of times, and then crouched low, taking off into the maze. At the first hole he popped out, and ran on top of the course to the end. He dipped his head into the hole, coming up with a piece of ham, and jumped onto the deck rail before sailing off the other side.
I gasped as I saw him spread his arms and legs, disappearing out of sight.
“Is he okay?” I followed Dexter, Leona, and Jase outside. I peeked over the edge and saw him running down the pier. Relieved, I hopped back inside, my bare feet freezing in the snow.
“That wily bastard foiled our plans,” Jase said.
“Good for him,” Leona declared.
Dexter just laughed.
“Regan, eat some food and then we'll train.” Gage pointed to the stove. A frying pan was filled with eggs and another with ham. He stood up and walked to a cabinet. “Here’s the plates and toast is here.”
“Thanks, but I can’t eat in the morning. I’ll take coffee though.” I could smell the coffee in the air and began scanning the counters for it.
He shook his head, his face showing his displeasure. “No. You need to eat to have energy for our workout. Make yourself eat.” He forced the plate in his hands towards me.
My face pinched in frustration, but I kept quiet. I could feel all eyes on me and didn’t want to start a fight.
“Fine. I’ll have some toast,” I relented.
So much for my good mood this morning. Thirty seconds of talking to Gage wiped that away. I tried to shake off my frustration, but him watching me eat with his self-satisfied smile made it hard.
I restrained the retorts that popped in my head. He said he would train me today and as angry as he made me, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn something. I needed to win next week. I tried to focus on that as I forced the toast down my throat.
When I finished, I raised my eyebrows to him. “Better?”
He nodded, smug. “Now go get dressed. I’ve got a gym downstairs we can use.”
I did as told, but was still hesitant to approach him in the hallway upstairs when he came out of his room. He was dressed in a form-fitting Under Armour shirt and loose shorts.
“Can I use your washer and dryer? I mean, I could give you some money, it’s just I can’t get to the Laundromat today…”
“Don’t worry about it. That’s fine. Go get your clothes, we can start them now,” he cut off my rambling.
I hated that smile he had. He knew I needed him, and it showed. It didn’t feel like a good position to be in with him.
His gym was legit, equipped with a weight bench, speed bag, punching bag, treadmill, mats, and free weights. He had me show him my form on the punching bag first.
“Stop,” he ordered. “You started off good, but now you’re getting sloppy. Keep your wrist straight.” He grabbed my arm, running his hand along my forearm and over my gloves. “Always keep this a straight line. Don’t increase your speed if you’re not in control.” He met my eyes, looking for understanding.
I nodded and swallowed down the lump in my throat. He wasn’t being condescending or judging, just helpful, with an even voice. I wanted to prove I was good enough, better than he thought. But he made me feel inferior without even trying.
I pulled out of his grasp and went back to the bag.
“Good. Better.” He nodded in approval.
I hit harder, but kept control, focusing on the line of my arm and the strength of my punch.
Dexter sauntered in. “Hell yeah Rae, work that bag.” He walked over to Gage, who was lifting weights. “Figure I’ll put in a little time. They're all up now watching TV. Maybe we can go on a drive when we're done.”
I did a cycle of strength training and skill moves, ending on the bag again. I felt good about the workout, already able to do much more then my first day at the gym. My good mood from this morning was back.
Gage and Dexter were at the weight bench spotting each other, so I took the opportunity to let loose on the bag. After a combination punch, I lifted my leg in a roundhouse kick.
“What the hell was that?” Dexter laughed.
I smiled to him. “Just getting a full body workout.”
“You do know there’s no kicking in boxing right?” Gage asked dryly.
I couldn’t read him to know if he was teasing. “Yeah, I know that. But you know in real life you need to be prepared. Maybe I should switch to MMA.”
Dexter groaned, “Don’t even get Gage started on that. He’s a purest.”
Gage narrowed his eyes at Dexter. “I don’t mind the UFC. I like watching it. I’m not going to do it though. Boxing’s all about the strength of the punch, I focus on that.” He nodded towards me. “But you’re right, in real life you got to know more, especially if you’re a girl.”
I nodded in complete agreement. “So you’ve thought about the UFC?” I asked, looking at both of them.
Dexter smiled and nodded to Gage. “He has, I never would put this body through that.” He ran his hands over his shirt, down his torso.
“Just your face?” I semi teased.
“Boxing is straight forward. And at least I don’t have the danger of broken limbs,” Dexter responded.
“I’ve done some training with UFC fighters, but it’s like Dexter said, I prefer boxing. The pure battle of strength.”
I contained my eye roll. I didn’t want to poke the bear. Of course Gage thought his choices were best, he couldn’t just be honest like Dexter.
“So you’ve got some kicks. What about escaping, do you know how to break free of holds?” Gage questioned, taking a step towards me.
My mind immediately flashed to that night last month, when the one boy had his arms around me, and then James’s hands around my throat. The blood drained from me, leaving me cold. I thought I knew, I had studied videos about how to escape different scenarios, but it hadn’t worked.
I shook my head, stepping away from the bag and Gage. I didn’t want to think about this anymore. “We’re done right? I’m going to get a shower.” I left without waiting for a response.
I dressed in my warmest hoody and jeans, and made sure to put on two pairs of socks with my chucks.
A knock came from the bedroom door.
“Regan?” Gage’s voice was low from the other side.
There was just something about my name coming from his lips that sent a shiver through me every time.
“Come in,” I called, sitting on the edge of the bed lacing up my black shoes.
I focused on tightening the laces, to avoid looking at him, and wondered which Gage was visiting. The sexy flirt, whose touch affected me more than it should, or the jerk, who criticized my every move. Tiny storms of chaos swirled through my veins. He caused them, and I didn’t want him to see.
He sat on the bed next to me, and I tensed slightly, sill moving my fingers over my laces, doing nothing really.
I looked to him, surprised at his words. I raised my eyebrows, questioning. There was plenty I could imagine him apologizing for, but I didn’t expect one.
“For yesterday.” His eyes locked with mine.
I shrugged, unclear if he meant last night’s flirting or his harsh words at the gym.
“I was wrong to accuse you of not taking this seriously.”
I swallowed, pushing my heart back down my throat.
“Dexter told me about yesterday. Have you been staying at that motel for a long time?”
Sweeping my eyes to the ground, I broke our eye contact. I didn’t like the look in them. He felt sorry for me, and I didn’t want his sympathy.
“Only one night,” I said in a measured tone.
His question irritated me; I didn’t want to explain anything. “To have a place to sleep,” I stated the obvious.
He sighed, lowering his head to catch my eyes again. “Where would you sleep tonight, if not here?”
His icy blue eyes demanded answers. I broke away again. Standing from the bed, I shrugged.
His fingers wrapped around my wrist, keeping me from walking away. Everything in me focused on the spot where he touched me.
“You can stay here.” He tugged on my arm, urging me to meet his eyes again.
I should have felt relief, but instead I felt like I was hit with a ton of bricks, and the weight was crushing. I lifted my eyes to meet his, not wanting to give anything away.
“You can stay here as long as you need to. And I’ll help you train. I know you need this.”
I closed my eyes, waiting for the “but” or “if”. There are always conditions. No offer comes string free.
“All you have to do is tell Silas you’re not taking the fight next week.”
I jerked my arm free. “What?” It took a few moments for my mind to catch up with the anger he lit in me.
“I’m not doing that. You can’t say you know what I need in one breath, and tell me not to take that fight in the next. I have to fight. I need that money.”
He stood up suddenly and rounded on me; I took a step back, bumping into the bed. His face twisted with confusion and anger. “I’m offering you what you need; all you have to do is listen to me.”
His next step forced me into sitting on the bed, anger lighting his eyes, as he hovered over me.
His anger surrounded me, his breathing intense as he tried to pull it back in. And I stayed still, barely breathing.
He took a step back, eyes glared down on me. “Think about it.” Then he left.
Alone, I wrapped my arms around myself, trying to subdue the panic in me, breathing and focusing on each body part until I had myself under control.