Rex faced Ajax and grinned. Sometimes his manic crazy face was intimidating enough to freak out the opponent and make the fight shorter. Tonight, Rex wanted out of this cage. He didn’t know why. His animal was going nuts inside. It was like suddenly the wolf couldn’t handle the wire between him and the crowd. It made no sense. The wolf knew they always got out in the end. The wolf knew everything would be okay.
And yet the wolf was hating this.
Rex lunged forward, and Ajax lunged right toward him. They came together in a clash of bodies, thudding with impact. Ajax had a rougher time than Rex, though. He started to slide down, but Rex held him up, landed two punches to the guy’s ribs. It wouldn’t hurt as much as the one he was about to give the kidneys, but Ajax spun and knocked Rex’s feet out from under him.
Dammit. He’d missed the shot. Rex got up fast, springing like he’d just jumped to the mat of his own volition, then swung his leg high and made contact with Ajax’s head.
Ajax went sideways with the impact, but he stayed upright. He swung his left hand, clocked Rex’s shoulder because Rex dodged, but came up with another fist too fast for Rex to move.
Rex took it to the temple.
His head rang. Gemma’s face swam before his eyes again, that laughing smile. He missed her so bad it ached.
Deep within him, his wolf growled. Something was wrong.
Rex swung back before he was fully recovered. Wasted energy—he was still too slow to get Ajax. He tried again, this time making contact, but the hit was weak.
Ajax came back with a kick to the other side of Rex’s head, and Rex went down. The ground at the bottom of the cage smelled rank with old blood and sweat.
The crowd was singing Ajax’s name, thirsty for the Rose King’s blood. Rex had never tried to do anything to endear himself to the crowd—he hadn’t cared. They were there for one reason only—to make sure Rex got paid every fight. The winning prize was the best, but even if he lost he’d take a cut of the entry fees.
Tonight they hated him. They wanted Ajax to win no matter what.
Maybe, tonight, Rex would accept a knock-out. Float the waves of pain into a temporary oblivion.
But then another voice joined the chorus—only this voice was higher, and this voice was not calling for Ajax’s blood.
“Rex! Get up! Get up, damn you!”
Ajax was getting ready to jump on Rex, but that pretty voice caught Rex’s attention and grabbed hold. Rex rolled along the floor, out of Ajax’s way, and jumped on Ajax’s back, stopping him in place. He held a fist up high. He brought it down once, twice against Ajax’s face.
Ajax stopped fighting back. The world grew still again. The crowd roared—anger, pleasure, joy—Rex couldn’t know. Rex didn’t care to know. The ref stepped forward, grabbed Rex’s wrist, lifted it high. “Ladies and assholes, once again our winner is the Rose King!”
More cheering or jeering. Rex stared out at the ocean of faces. Searching for her—the one voice that had called to him, to Rex, to get up.
There she was. Gemma.
He nodded to her, letting her know he saw her. She better not move that pretty ass from her spot, because he was going to find her as soon as he could and drag her from this stupid sideshow.
How could she be here of all places?
They let Rex out of the cage on one side, and someone helped Ajax out on the other. Rex went to the locker room, showered, changed back into his jeans and his long-sleeved thermal.
The back door wasn’t his destination this time, though. He wondered if he could get into the crowd without them recognizing him. Usually he had a mouth guard in, and not having it would change his face slightly. Wishful thinking. A mouth guard was hardly a disguise.
Looking through the lockers, he found an old hooded sweatshirt. It must have been there for months form the old scent of it. It reeked to his shifter senses, but no one else would likely notice. He shrugged it on over his thermal and went back out into the crowd.
This time, he pretended to watch the fight. Jim was there, started to wave, but Rex shook him off. “Not now,” he mouthed.
Jim nodded in understanding. As much as Jim pushed, he was still an okay guy. Not like those thugs, Corbett and Masters, who had some alternative agenda. Jim was here because he loved the purity of the fight. Rex couldn’t always agree with him, but the fight had saved him during the past two years, saved him from going off the deep end after he’d spent too much time away from—
Gemma. There she was, her cheeks flushed with anger, her deep brown eyes glaring daggers at him.
Not exactly the reunion Rex would’ve hoped for. He had to get her out of this warehouse—it wasn’t safe. Fights often broke out in the crowd randomly, without any warning. With long strides, he closed the distance between him and his mate.
“Gemma,” he said, reaching toward her. “Let’s get you out of here.”
“Get back,” she said. “I don’t want to be out of here. I’ve got a job to do.”
“Job?” he said.
“Yes, a job, damn you. And damn your fighting hands, too.” She stubbornly turned away from him. Strands of her dark brown hair caught on her cheeks.
He reached out to touch her, to smooth that hair away from her eyes.
Then he saw the blood on his hand—he’d missed it when washing up after his fight with Ajax.
He pulled his hand back, quickly, realizing that although she was finally right next to him, he was farther away from her than he’d ever been.
Gemma tried to walk away, but Rex’s firm hand covered her arm once more. She stomped her foot and wrenched her arm away again. People around them were throwing glances in their direction, but she figured a couple arguing in a place like this would be old news. Sure enough, the onlookers were already turning to the next cage match.
“What the hell, Rex?”
He stared back at her, his deep green eyes bright with intensity. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“Really?” she said, unable to keep the bitterness from her voice. Let him hear it. “Then why now, suddenly? You know what, never mind. I need to get my phone. I have to call your parents and let them know you’ve been found. We’ve all been worrying sick about you.”
His gaze looked regretful all of a sudden. “They know where I am.”
“They—what? What do you mean?” Her heart beat fast. She’d been in nearly weekly contact with the Johannsens, checking in with any leads she’d had on Rex, asking if they’d heard from him. They had kept telling her things like, it’s okay, you can stop looking, we’ll let you know the second we hear anything, but she hadn’t been able to stop. Usually she’d ask about Rex and follow up with news from her college or what she was doing in her new job, and ask about Mrs. Johannsen’s gardening exploits or Mr. Johannsen’s baking.
But Rex was saying they knew where he was?
“They know,” he said. “I talked to them yesterday. And the week before last.”
“What—the—fuck, Rex? Seriously? I’ve been calling them. Are you saying everyone’s lying to me?”
He gave a soft shake of his head, and she wanted to scream.
“I don’t even know you anymore,” she whispered, turning away. She didn’t want him to see her eyes filling with tears. This was betrayal like she’d never experienced before, not even when dumb-ass Spencer Grey had fallen in love with her roommate. This was…this was worse.
Rex had been her best friend.
“Hey,” he said, scrubbing his hand against his jeans. “Hey, c’mere.”
She wouldn’t look at him, but he reached out with a somewhat cleaner hand, and turned her chin so she would face him. She wouldn’t look at his eyes.
Suddenly, though, his face was right in front of hers, and his lips were moving closer—
And he kissed her.
She opened her mouth in shock. She’d always—always—wanted this. She’d dreamed of it, starting in middle school, then all throughout high school. Rex’s lips on hers. Rex’s breath, mingling with hers. His soul reaching out to touch hers—
Shut up, Gemma, she told herself. This was ridiculous. There were no souls here, just an unasked-for kiss, courtesy of a man she no longer knew.
“Back the hell off me,” she growled, shoving his chest.
He stepped back, a puzzled expression on his face. Touched his lips. She would have laughed at the gesture—it was like something a teenage girl would do in an old film or something. But then his gaze went past her shoulder, and his expression hardened.
“We have to go,” he said, grabbing her arm again. “It’s not safe here.”
“Why not? Never mind, stupid question.” Out in the middle of nowhere, at an underground fight club. Of course it wasn’t safe.
She allowed him to hustle her outside, her mind brimming with questions the entire way. The bouncer looked up as she left, and raised his eyebrows.
“Finally taking a prize, huh, Rose King?” he said, leering.
Rex ignored the bouncer and led Gemma to her car. How did he know what she drove? He asked for the keys. “Come on,” he said. “We need to hurry, before you’re seen.”
“Before I’m seen? I was invited here,” Gemma said.
But he didn’t answer, just took her keys from her outstretched hand and unlocked her door, then helped her into the car. He handed back the keys and she started the engine, but before she could go anywhere, he was sitting in the passenger’s seat next to her.
“You stink,” she said.
“You’re right.” He lifted the sweatshirt and oh lordy, but Rex had grown up into a fine, fine man. She’d seen him shirtless in the cage, but he’d been far away. Up close? He was perfection sitting in her passenger’s seat. His muscles rippled as he pulled the sweatshirt over his head. The bottom of his thermal caught on it, revealing his abs. Gemma couldn’t help it, she squirmed in her seat to relieve the tension between her legs.
Rex rolled down the window and shoved the sweatshirt outside.
“You smell better now,” Gemma said. He looked better, too.
He still looked anxious, so she put the car in gear and drove out of the parking area. When she got on the highway, she said, “So where to? Anywhere I can drop you off?”
“I’m coming to your place.”
“Oh, no you’re not. Like I said, maybe we used to be friends, but I don’t know you anymore. I’ve—Rex, you have no idea how long I’ve looked for you.”
“I have an idea.”
“Wait, so you knew I was searching for you?”
Looking miserable, he nodded.
Gemma pounded on the steering wheel, and the car veered. “You knew I was trying to find you to figure out what happened to you? I was so worried, you asshole.”
Rex was quiet, his eyes downcast.
Gemma wasn’t done. “Seriously, I’m not spending another minute with you. As soon as we get into town, you’re out.” That actually sounded pretty generous, to her. It was all she could do to not stop the car and kick him out onto the shoulder.
“I’m going to your place,” he insisted, that stubborn set to his jaw that she recognized too well. “Some things I gotta explain.”
She was quiet. She didn’t want to hang out with him. She wanted to hit him. And at the same time, finding out why he’d disappeared, finally understanding what this was all about—it was tempting.
“Fine. You can come in for ten minutes. That’s it.”
“Bet I can convince you to let me stay for longer.”
Those bets again. She kept her mouth firmly in a not-smile as she said, “We’re not playing that game.”
But if kisses were involved—another one like the one he’d just stolen, man, she wouldn’t be taking any bets. He could stay the whole damn night.
What was she thinking? He was her friend. And he’d betrayed her in the worst way—an abandonment and a betrayal.
She argued with herself as she drove, listing off all the reasons she couldn’t trust him. But it was hard to listen to reason when he was sitting here, gorgeous, and looking at her with that earnest expression on his face.
“Even after all this,” he asked, “do you think you can trust me for at least ten minutes?”
“Even after all this,” Gemma said on a sigh. “Yes.”