MY STOMACH ROLLED AND SKIN WAS CLAMMY. Hot and cold warred inside me, erupting in beads of sweat on my skin. Bright orbs danced in my vision, blocking the small audience from view.
Closing my eyes, I swallowed hard, forcing saliva down my dry throat and replayed my conversation with Gage in my head.
“You don’t have to do this if you’re not ready, but I know you can.”
“I feel like I’m going to throw up. What if I throw up?” Panic had already taken up residence in me, a strong vine twisting and choking out everything else.
“Then you throw up.” He lifted his shoulders easily, a beautiful smile on those full lips. His hands circled around me, pulling me into his body and I was able to relax slightly.
I opened my eyes, the spots gone, the ring clear. Coach was behind me, removing my silk robe. Sylvie was next to him, encouraging me.
“You’ve got this Regan. You’re ready, more than ready. That girl doesn’t stand a chance.” She squeezed my shoulders with firm hands. “Loosen up some.”
“Babe, look at me.” Even in the dim lighting of the changing room, his blue eyes were bright. But all amusement was gone, his tone serious. “You’ve been training. You’re prepared. You know physically you’re the better boxer. The only thing that can get in the way is your fear.” His hands slid over my shoulders, down my arms. “If you’re not ready for this, we can leave right now.” His grip tightened, keeping me from pulling away. “You can do whatever you want and I’ll be right there. Go out there and try, but if it’s too much, walk out.”
I shook my head, dropping my eyes from his. I couldn’t allow myself to think of an escape. “I can’t do that. They’re counting on me. If I don’t do this, they’ll probably kick me off the team.”
He lifted my chin with his fingers, making me meet his eyes, a cocky glint sparking in them. “Do you know who your husband is? You don’t need this damn college team. You could throw up all over that ring and I’d still have you boxing next week if that’s what you wanted to do.”
Rolling my shoulders and shaking my arms, I turned around, facing the audience. I found Gage in the front row and my nerves slowed their rapid-fire assault. He inclined his head towards me and I could see the question in his eyes. Was I all right, could I go through with this?
I nodded and gave a tight smile in reassurance. Just knowing he was there was enough. Turning back towards the ring, I stretched my neck as I faced my opponent and waited for the announcer to finish.
The bell cut through my anxiety, my body propelling me forward, towards the girl, without thought. She was tall and thin, and held her body awkwardly, like she didn’t fit her long limbs.
I leaned, dodging her glove as she jabbed towards me with her right and blocked a left jab with my arm. Then she pulled her arms back to cover her face. Her reach was long, but punches sloppy. I almost felt bad for what I was about to do. Almost.
Her attack, no matter how weak, was enough to spark my adrenaline. Excitement replaced the fear and anxiety pumping through me, energizing me.
I jabbed her stomach and followed with a wide hook to the side of her head. She crumpled forward, but stayed on her feet, her eyes wide. I swung again and connected with the opposite side of her head. She dropped to the canvas with a thud.
Stepping back, I didn’t take my eyes off her. She wasn’t knocked out, but she was curled up on the mat. Her mouth opened and closed like a fish, no air reaching her lungs. I waited for her to push herself up and return to the fight, but she didn’t. The ref reached ten and declared me the winner. I was almost disappointed that it all ended so quickly, just as I was getting into it.
For a second, I wished Dexter had been there to shake me out of my thoughts and pump me up about my win, but the rush soon came on its own, flooding me with excitement. I did it. And it had been easy. I could keep doing this.
Sylvie was in my corner, rubbing her hands together. “Ragin’ Regan, this might be our year. With you, we might have a chance of making it regionally.”
Coach slid between the ropes, smile bright as he smoothed his grey hair back on the sides. “Hell, even maybe nationally.” His face lit up with his dream, but I’d be lying if I said the idea wasn’t enticing. I wanted it too.
But I looked past them as Gage pulled himself up onto the canvas. Everything else faded away, and only then did I feel breathless. The match hadn’t touched me, not like his presence did. His lips curled and he extended one arm to me.
My body was already there, gravitating towards him.
“I told you—” He started, but I gripped his collar, pulling him towards me, silencing him with my lips.
For once, I was able to kiss him after my fight, and I wasn’t going to waste the moment. I could feel his laughter bubbling out of him, his breath bouncing over my lips. So I slid my hands around his neck, pulling him in closer, sliding my tongue in his mouth.
That stopped his laughter, and he wrapped his arms around my waist, lifting me to him, off of my feet. The ropes wedged between us pressed into my stomach, but I didn’t care about that, only that it was a barrier from his body. He lowered me down until my feet were firmly back on the mat, reluctantly returning me to the ground and letting the outside world back into our bubble.
“Lawson, hold up.” A voice cut through the buzz of the gym, just as I exited the locker room.
Gage pushed off the wall he had been waiting on, saying a quick goodbye to the group of people he’d been talking to. He grabbed my hand as he turned to the caller. “Yeah?”
At the same time, I turned towards the voice with a raised eyebrow.
Coach pushed through the concession line and stopped in front of Gage and I.
“Lawson.” He paused between us with a small laugh and shrugged. “Both of you. You leaving already? Not going to stick around for the next fight?”
“Hey, Lightning. Good fight last week,” someone yelled as they passed by.
Gage nodded to the person and then continued, “We’ve got plans.”
I didn’t know about that and hoped it was a lie. I wanted nothing more than to get him alone and work out this adrenaline and energy coursing through me. Gripping Gage’s hand tighter and stepping closer to his body, I smiled politely at Coach Finnegan.
“Well, I’ll see you at practice on Sunday then?” At my nod he continued, “Hell of a job tonight girly. Hell of a job.”
Gage dropped my hand and slid his arm around me, turning me away from the older man and towards the door.
“Thanks, see you Sunday,” I called over my shoulder with a giggle as Gage whispered in my ear.
“I need you alone. Now.” His voice was low and heated, and his breath sent chills down my skin.
Escaping out of the side door, we made our way to the deserted parking garage. Even with the crazy city traffic, Gage had insisted on driving. The garage was filled with cars, but empty of people. Our whispered teasing echoed in the concrete space, and our steps were even louder, bouncing off the walls around us.
He laughed into my neck, swinging me in front of him so I was forced to walk backwards as he dragged his nose over my skin.
“Babe, I knew you could do it.” He growled as his lips reached my ear. “You were hot as hell in that ring. That girl didn’t stand a chance.” His lips claimed mine, and his hands slid to my ass, easily lifting me onto him in an instant.
I gripped him tighter, wrapping my legs around his waist with a small moan. The slow burn that had been simmering low in my stomach erupted.
“My sexy fighter,” he mumbled, sliding his lips over my chin to my neck.
My head fell back with a laugh, giving him better access. I loved the shocks of sensation he sent through me, all the way to my toes.
He pushed me against the SUV, reminding me of where we were. Hell if I could stop this though. I didn’t want to stop him.
“My champ.” I blew into his ear before sucking the lobe into my mouth, and my fingers curled into his hair.
He walked us around the car and then opened the passenger side door, setting me on the seat. With his hands free now, he slid them under my shirt. His head dipped down to my neckline, nipping and licking the skin at my collar and completely stealing my air in a rush of fire.
He froze, and I popped my eyes open.
Before I even registered what stopped him, he was up and whipped around. He had one gun pressed to the man’s chest in front of him, and another aimed at a second man’s head.
“Drop it,” Gage demanded of the second man who had a gun vaguely pointed in my direction.
I sat up, drained of all heat as I processed the scene. The taller man in front of Gage with spikey black hair and black eyes didn’t have a gun. Gage must have taken it because I didn’t recognize the gun he had aimed at the man. The second man, a shorter man with a bald head, lowered his gun. He was looking directly into the barrel of Gage’s gun, a gun I recognized, the one he carried on him at all times.
“Good.” Gage’s voice was calm, and his face blank. “Now Regan, go back inside. Wait by the locker room. I’ll find you soon.” He didn’t take his eyes off the men in front of us.
I was already reaching under the seat. I had hoped I’d been paranoid in thinking I would need this again one day, but it proved useful now. Pulling out the gun I had strapped there, I clicked off the safety and stepped out of the car.
Aiming directly at the second man, I removed the gun from his hand and stood beside Gage. “I’m not going anywhere.”
I felt Gage look at me, and I let my gaze meet his out of the corner of my eye. He was smiling as he shook his head, but he surprised me by placing a brief kiss on my neck.
“Well okay then.” Gage slid one gun back into his waist, looking between both men. “Who’s going to talk first and tell me what the fuck you think you’re doing?”