Rex parked his beat-up Nissan behind Jim’s Gym and came around the front. When he walked in, Jim, Rex’s trainer, acted like he’d block the door, although they both knew Rex could push his way through, well, just about anything.
“Should you be training today?” Jim asked. His brown eyes were squinted in concern.
Rex gave him a look. “I’m good for it. Trust me.”
“That’s what they all say,” Jim said, eyeing him suspiciously. “But you’re the only one who’s ever really been okay. What’s your secret, man?”
“Do you see me swilling booze after the fights like all those other douche-nuggets?” Rex asked.
Jim started cackling. “Douche-nuggets?”
Rex forced a laugh. It was a Gemma-ism. She used to come up with the most hilarious names for people. He hadn’t meant to use it himself, but she’d been on his mind lately.
Rex listed on his fingers, “Besides not drinking, I don’t do drugs, I don’t use uppers or steroids, and I actually eat the occasional vegetable—not just potatoes, which everyone in Idaho seems to think are vegetables.”
“Potatoes are vegetables,” Jim grumbled.
Rex sighed. “Anyway, look at my eyes, look at my face. I’m good to go.” Rex had carefully kept some of his injuries visible, only healing the bruises no one would notice missing.
Jim stared hard at him. “Yeah, fine. But if you feel at all out of sorts, you better stop, you hear? Don’t push it. You’re one of my best fighters.”
“Got it,” Rex said.
Jim stepped aside, and Rex entered the gym. As he went, he reached out to ruffle Jim’s salt and pepper hair, and Jim faked a punch in defense.
Laughing, Rex headed first to the locker room to drop off his duffel bag, and then straight for the weights. Weights first, then cardio, and then back to the weights. Then the punching bag, and then the ring. Best to get all the workout out of the way first, so he’d practice when he was tired. He’d be tired in the cage at the fights, stretched to his limits, so that was how he approached his training.
Toward the end of the day, Jim came up to the edge of the ring and watched Rex sparring with a new guy. “You guys are looking good up there,” Jim called. “Rex, you’re leaving your left side open when you advance. Karlson, you’re gonna need to do some footwork.”
The other guy, Karlson, looked down at his feet, and Rex suppressed a grin.
“Rex, can I borrow you for a sec?” Jim asked.“I got some people I want you to meet.”
Rex nodded and trotted over to the side of the ring, yanking off his gloves. “Sure.”
Jim gestured toward the entryway or his office, and Rex stepped between the ropes to join him.
“Stand up fellas,” Jim said. “Corbett and Masters. They want to be your managers.”
Aw, hell. Rex didn’t want managers. He did just fine on his own, and better yet, nobody got in to take a cut of his winnings. But he’d put on a polite face—which on him meant he wasn’t outright grimacing—and say hello. Jim had done a lot for Rex, taken him in when he didn’t know a jab from an uppercut. The least Rex could do was say hello to Jim’s buddies.
He followed Jim over to the office. Inside were two men. One had lighter brown hair. He was short and stocky and looked like he’d been a fighter, if his crooked nose was any indication, and his gold incisor. The dark-haired guy was taller, but still broad. He’d have been a heavyweight if he’d been into fighting. Rex evaluated his stance. The guy carried himself like an athlete, but not a boxer. Maybe he’d been a football player.
“These are my pals, Corbett and Masters,” Jim said by way of introduction.
Rex’s shifter senses told him immediately this was a lie. The lie wasn’t in the names, though, it was in the distinction that they were ‘pals.’ Interesting. He shook the men’s hands and gave a lie of his own. “Nice to meet you.”
“We heard you were in the market for some management,” the guy on the left, the short one with the gold tooth, said. “I’m Mike Corbett and I think we could help you with that. Masters and I know everything about managing fighters, and we can bring you even more money.”
It wasn’t a lie, exactly, but Rex knew he didn’t want whatever it was they were offering. No amount of money would be worth it to him to tangle up with some guys who screamed “thug” with every flexed muscle and defensive stance of their feet.
“Thanks,” Rex said, trying to sound humble but firm, “but I’m actually not in the market for managers.”
“But Jim here says you don’t got anybody,” the tall guy, Masters, said. “You can’t go this alone. You need some brains to help with all that brawn.”
“I’m managing myself okay,” Rex said.
“We’d manage you better,” Corbett said. His gold tooth glinted.
“Thanks, but I’m not interested.”
Corbett looked like he’d argue again, and his gold tooth gleamed when he gave a smile that was anything but a smile. But just then, something caught Rex’s eye over Corbett’s head—movement in the front window. A face, peering through the grimy glass.
Gemma? Rex mumbled, “Thanks anyway, excuse me,” and bolted past the men and out the door.
But Gemma, or the woman who had looked just like her, was nowhere to be seen.
Rex leaned back against the window, staring out at the street. His damn mind was playing tricks on him. Wishing so hard for her that now he was seeing her out on the streets, not just inside his head anymore.
His shifter hearing was stronger than a human’s, and he heard Masters say through the window, “We’ll get him. It’s just a matter of finding his weakness.”
Stupid, stupid stupid, Gemma muttered. Of course it couldn’t have been Rex. It had looked like him at first, and then she’d pressed her face against the glass like a peeping tommette, and caught his attention. The glare that bearded stranger had leveled in her direction had nearly made her piss her pants.
Why had she agreed to come here, again?
Anyway, that hadn’t been Rex, she told herself. That guy had been way bigger and way meaner. And Rex wouldn’t have been caught dead in a fighting kind of gym. Hell, Gemma didn’t even know what to call this place, and she bet Rex wouldn’t know what to call it, either. He was super gentle and hated violence.
She couldn’t pretend he wasn’t on her mind if she was going to start seeing him in strangers, though.
The parking lot was nearly deserted, so she hightailed it to her car. On the way there, she saw a burly man with a buzz cut getting out of his own car. “You don’t look like you belong here, sweetcakes,” he said.
Sweetcakes? Ew. “Nope, just got turned around. Thanks.”
“Too bad. We need more beautiful faces at the fights.”
Wait. Fights. “Really?” she said. “I guess I kind of lied…that stuff fascinates me. I was hoping to see some of the guys training in there, but I got a dirty look. Didn’t want to make a nuisance of myself.”
“You should see the real thing,” the man said. His smile was bright white. Looked fake. Maybe he’d gotten too many teeth knocked out. “You wouldn’t be a nuisance at the cages. I can get you in.”
“You could?” Gemma batted her eyelashes, half hating herself for it, half thankful she had long eyelashes to bat. If she’d been Bill from the office, she wouldn’t have gotten nearly this far.
“Sure thing. You just show up at the door and say that Ajax said you’re good to go in. They’ll let you in no problem.”
She smiled up at him. “You’re one of the fighters?”
“Yeah, and I’ll be there tonight. Fighting the Rose King. Maybe we can catch up after.”
“Maybe,” she said, forcing a note of brightness instead of hell-no-ness to her voice. “How do I get there? They’re in Helene, right?”
“That’s right. So you just go up 15, and branch off at Lucky Road. You’ll see the warehouse after a mile or so. They won’t let you bring in phones or cameras, so leave that stuff in your car.”
“Thanks! So I’ll see you there,” she said.
She waited until he’d walked around the corner of the gym before she unlocked her car. Got in. Locked the door again. Leaned back. Yikes, that had been scary. No way could she go to the fight tonight—she wasn’t ready. She had to…gather more resources. Gather more information.
She banged her head against the headrest. She had to get her ass to the fight, was what she had to do. That’s what Karin would tell her. Karin wouldn’t hesitate, so Gemma wouldn’t, either.
Back in her hotel room, Gemma carefully chose her outfit. She needed something sexy, but not too sexy. She needed to blend in, but also appear that she’d gone there to be noticed. She looked at the slinky black dress she’d pulled out of her suitcase. Nope, she just couldn’t do it. Putting on jeans and a blouse, she finished her hair and makeup and headed out into the gathering dark.
She kept hoping that somehow she’d miss Lucky Road. Apparently, she wasn’t that lucky, because she found it on her first try. She didn’t want to be here, she didn’t want to do this. Why hadn’t she simply told Karin no?
One did not say no to Karin if one wanted to keep one’s job. If that wasn’t in the internship handbook, it should damn well be added.
Up ahead, she saw the warehouse, just like old Ajax had promised. Several cars and trucks were parked in a dirt lot adjacent to it, so Gemma found a spot, parked, and tried to drum up some courage. She’d gotten this far, she wasn’t going to chicken out now.
The warehouse was small as far as warehouses went. Looked like it used to be some kind of storage facility. Factory parts or something, if the rusted metal pieces to the side were any indication. Her boot heels crunched on the gravel scattered in front of a low, narrow door. A tall guy, bigger than Ajax, stood in front of the door, arms at his sides but looking anything except at ease. The bouncer gave her a good look-over, and she wondered if he was going to insist on frisking her or something.
“No cameras, no phones, no nothing,” he said.
“Yeah, I know,” she squeaked. Ajax had told her as much. She did have a small container of pepper spray hooked to her belt loop. It wasn’t completely hidden, but she didn’t care. She just needed something.
“No weapons,” he said, pointing to the pepper spray.
She looked hard at the guy. Took a step back. “Then forget it,” she said. “I’m a woman. I’m not going in there unprotected. Ajax said to tell you I’m good to go in.”
He practically stumbled over himself to take it back. “Fine, no problem. Take it. You can go on in.”
Maybe they were desperate for women in the audience, or maybe the bouncer was afraid of Ajax. Shrugging, she stepped through the door and was instantly in a huge room. Lights were pointed at the cage, but there was enough of the light to filter into the crowd. Gemma looked around. Of the few women there, most of them wore super skimpy clothes, and hung on the arms of guys. Hair made up, makeup done in dramatic dark colors. Gemma touched her own face. She’d gone easy on the lipstick, heavy on the eyeliner and mascara. Seemed she mostly fit in, although her shirt was slightly larger and less see-through than a wet Kleenex. So there was that.
She pushed her way, politely, through the crowd, then realized she’d never be able to see anything from so far back. “Excuse me,” she said to the people milling around in front of her, but no one moved. “Excuse me,” she said again, more loudly.
No more politeness. Especially when a hand grabbed her ass. She reached back and twisted it until a guy nearby started howling. Then she smiled sweetly in his direction and let him go. “You must have mistaken me for someone else,” she said.
He nodded and backed away.
Ajax was announced, followed by his opponent, The Rose King. Gemma watched passively while Ajax was hustled into the cage. On the other side, a man came in. His back was to her, and Gemma immediately figured out why they called him the Rose King—he had a giant, beautiful red rose tattooed in the middle of his back between is shoulder blades. It was a gorgeous piece of body art.
Wait. That was her tattoo. She had a matching one on her hip.
How was that possible? She’d had hers done special for her eighteenth birthday. Her middle name was Rose, so she’d always had a thing for them. Rex had even gone with her to the tattoo shop, more than once, as she worked with the artist to make the perfect rose. That rose was supposed to be one-of-a-kind, just for her.
Afterward, Rex had kept the paper. Said he liked the design and wanted to hang onto it. The next time she’d gone to his house, it had been stuck to the bulletin board over his desk. It did look pretty.
The Rose King.
Rex meant king in Latin. And the rose tattoo. And Gemma’s “Rex sighting” earlier that day.
It couldn’t be.
This man had dirty blond hair with an undercut, the top sections pulled back in a super-short ponytail—Rex’s hair was lighter and he’d always cut it evenly. This man had a beard so thick that even from the back, she could see the sides of it—Rex had always kept his face bare. This man had gigantic muscles and looked like he could squash anyone like a bug. In fact, he looked like he could squash an entire city block like a bug. This guy was a giant.
Rex had been muscular, but lean.
But when he turned and looked out at the crowd, when his blazing green eyes scanned the sea of people, Gemma knew. She knew.
She was staring at her old best friend.
I hope you enjoyed this! <3