Authors: J. J. Knight
Tags: #New Adult Contemporary Romance, #MMA, #boxing, #fighting
“Open the goddamn door,” she says.
He waves us past.
Brittany jerks on the handle. Inside is a hallway, half lit. But there’s a rumble, crowd noise drifting from somewhere.
“How did you know about this?” I ask.
“You do MMA for a while, you learn things.” She stops me a few feet down. “If things go south, don’t be afraid to cut and run.”
I would never do that, but I nod. We continue down the hall. I don’t know how this will end. I don’t have my hurricane anymore. I’m not sure how much fight is in me. I don’t know anything.
Brittany’s phone beeps. She glances at it. “Everything is a go,” she says. “Let’s get in there.”
We head down a set of stairs, and the noise increases. Finally, we push through a set of swinging doors and enter a basement. Hundreds of people are down there, screaming and shouting at two men in a cage pounding each other.
The room is dirty and hot. The cage has holes in the mesh, and dried blood has stained the platform.
A couple of people notice us, but we’re not the only women.
One fighter slams the other to the ground, and the crowd roars again.
A couple of men work the spectators, taking bets, holding wads of cash.
Just watching sends a surge of adrenaline through me. Now
is a cage match. No refs. No rules.
The fighter on top pounds the other man until he’s still. He stands up, arms in the air, and the fans are the ones who pronounce him the winner. When he leaves the cage, a couple of teen boys come in to drag the loser out. They drop him on a mat behind the cage and toss water on him until he comes around.
It’s a whole different world.
A cheesy salesman-type guy goes up in the cage. “Who’s up next?” he yells.
Brittany grabs my arm and drags me forward.
“Oh, ho! We have two lovely ladies stepping forward for a cage challenge!”
The crowd starts cheering, and the men taking bets dash around as people start putting money on the “blonde chick” or the “tiny one.”
When we climb the steps into the cage, Brittany steps up close to the man and tells him something straight into his ear.
“Oh, ho ho! This is a special night for you folks,” he shouts. He raises his hands to quiet the crowd. “We have a double-duo takedown about to happen here! FOUR girls, my friends. FOUR lovely ladies in the cage!”
About then, I see Parker. He comes through the back door, same as we did. Behind him are Lani and Annie, animated and excited to be coming to the underground fights.
They have no damn clue.
Parker is prepared for the moment they see us. When they stop in their tracks, reluctant to move forward, Parker nods at a couple of men already in the crowd. Between the three men, Lani and Annie are shoved forward to the base of the cage stairs.
“What the hell is this?” Annie shouts at Brittany.
“Let’s see if the ugly bitch has any fight in her,” Brittany shouts.
The crowd roars in response.
Parker pushes them up the stairs. I can see they want to resist, but Lani recovers first. “We can take these bitches,” she says to Annie. “Bombshell here hasn’t won a match in a year, and you already took the Baby Windstorm down in her own apartment.”
Annie steps into the cage. “No problem.”
The announcer yells out, “And here we go! Place your bets on the lovely team of Blondie and Small Fry or the Two Angry Chicks.”
Parker backs away. I catch his eye. He smiles grimly. We couldn’t have gotten the girls here without him. I’d put him in my corner any day.
Lani and Annie go into a fight stance, which makes the crowd go wild.
But Brittany’s a showgirl. She leans her elbow on my shoulder and points at them. She looks out at the crowd as if to say, “What, these pathetic girls?”
They cheer and whistle in response.
Annie gets riled first. She aims straight for me in a full-tilt charge, like a bull. It’s a stupid move. I whirl right out of her way, then turn to deliver a nasty roundhouse kick to her backside, flinging her into the cage.
Lani comes for me too. Without the hurricane, it’s all thoughts in my head. Her position. Which body part seems ready to strike, leg or fist. I try to predict her first move.
But Lani ignores Brittany to her own peril, because before Lani can even get to me, Brittany has swept her legs and sent her flat to the cage floor.
The crowd is screaming, but I block it out. Annie is considering her position, and what she wants to do. Lani rolls to one side and comes up in a flying leap, right for me.
Her body crashes into mine, and we land together. But she and I have sparred a lot, when I thought we were friends. I know all her moves. When she foolishly tries to put me in an arm bar straightaway, I knock my head back into her face.
This ain’t MMA. I can hit her anywhere I want.
Just like in that alley.
“That’s for hiring thugs,” I growl at her.
She lets go. Blood gushes from her nose, which makes the crowd go crazy.
Annie jumps on my back. Brittany is fed up with her and jabs her freely while Annie’s arms hold on to my shoulders.
But I am strong. I give a little hop with Annie piggybacking me. Brittany realizes what I’m going to do and steps away. I throw myself backward, landing on top of Annie. My elbow smashes hard into her ribs. Annie wheezes, trying to get her breath back.
“That’s for attacking me in my own apartment,” I tell her.
Lani wants to intervene, realizing Annie is down, but Brittany snatches at her, keeping her away.
It’s time for me to finish Annie. Now she’s the Bad Boy bag, and I’m all the people Annie has messed with.
I smash a fist into her face, glad I took the time to wrap my hands. “There’s a broken nose for leaving Colt high and dry,” I tell her.
I elbow her ribs and feel a satisfying crack. “And that’s just for being a bitch.”
I don’t need the hurricane, not with her. My elbows smash into her midsection. I know she’s swallowing blood. I slow down a little and wait. Sure enough, her belly starts to convulse. I jump off to let her roll over and vomit all over the cage floor.
The crowd loves it.
I don’t. But it’s what had to be done.
I turn to see what’s going on with Brittany. Lani has her pinned. Damn it, Brittany. This girl has got to learn to fight. But she kept Lani off me, so at least she managed that much.
I take a running charge, flying through the air to knock Lani off Brittany. Lani and I roll together into the mesh.
I’m really flying now, the adrenaline hitting its peak. Lani can’t get a blow in as I rain punches at her. She manages to stand and backs up, holding out her hands. I remember that she doesn’t ever actually fight in cage matches, so she’s probably had enough.
I step away from her.
Maybe we don’t need to take them all the way down. Maybe they can just crawl out of here in humiliation.
Someone’s thrown a towel over the top of the cage, and Annie is laying her head on it. I think she’s done.
Brittany comes up behind me.
“Do we just let them walk out of here?” I ask.
“Hell no,” she says.
She takes a running leap at Lani, elbow out in front. Lani tries to dodge it, but that just means she takes it straight to the chin instead. When she falls, she goes down hard, flat on her back. Brittany kneels over her, fist in the air. “I don’t give a shit if you’re down,” Brittany says. “You’re going to remember what you and your brother did to Colt for a very long time.”
And she goes straight for the knockout blow. Lani’s head jerks to the side. Her nose is obviously broken. And she’s out cold.
Brittany and I stand together in the cage for a moment. She’s bleeding quite a lot, and her eye is swelling. She won’t be modeling for anybody for weeks now. I hope she thought this through. We watch Lani and Annie, making sure we’re done.
The boys come in the cage to take the girls out.
Brittany wraps her arm around my waist and pumps her fist in the air. The crowd noise is intense in the hot little room.
I would never in a million years have thought we’d ever have a moment like this.
“Baby, you look horrible,” Colt says when we make it back to his condo. “Should I call Doc Simon out?”
I’m having trouble getting out of the low-slung sports car. My knees are screaming, my shoulder will barely move, and one of my cheeks has puffed up like a balloon.
“Let’s get inside first,” I tell him.
He helps me to the elevator. The hallway feels ten miles long. “Here,” he says when he opens the door. “I should have carried you the whole time.”
He sweeps me up.
“No, Colt, it’s too much.” I see the twinge of pain hit him by the way his jaw clenches.
“If I’m going to get back in there, I have to push,” he says. He kicks the front door closed.
We only make it to the sofa. He collapses on me as he sets me down to avoid straining his abs. The bandages are long gone, but the scar tissue plagues him. Doc Simon says it will be as much about mental toughness now as anything. The muscles will knit back together, but the pain will never really ever go away.
“Let me get an ice pack for that cheek,” he says.
I close my eyes. That was a crazy thing to do, challenging Lani and Annie in the cage. When Brittany came up with the idea, livid that neither of the girls were even going to be brought up on charges for their role in the attack on me and Colt, I was hesitant.
I hadn’t fought anyone in two months. I knew I probably wouldn’t again.
But I did it.
Colt returns with a gel pack from his freezer.
“You’re way more prepared than I ever was,” I say as he presses it to my face.
“Well, you know what happens when the ice comes out,” he says.
My throat tightens. With all the things we’ve been through since we met three months ago, I’ve never told him how I felt. I’m not sure why. Fear, maybe, that he didn’t feel the same way. I guess it sounds silly, being all lovey when we’re supposed to be these tough fighters.
I grasp his wrist when he applies pressure to the bruise. “Colt?”
He must hear some tone that is new to him, because he lets go of the ice pack and it falls to the floor. I keep my grip on his arm.
He takes that hand and brings it to his lips. “You didn’t have to do this for me,” he says.
“I did it for us,” I say. “For payback. For justice.”
He nods over my fingers.
“And because I love you.”
He squeezes my hand a little tighter.
I remember what he said about Annie. How he messed up. He wasn’t clear to her how he felt, and that’s why she decided to take the money from his father and leave. As the silence lengthens, I wonder now if maybe he doesn’t feel the same way about me.
And even though he knows he has to do it, has to say something to me or risk me leaving too, he can’t.
The silence is long and awkward.
I sit up. “It’s okay, Colt.” I try to pull my hand away. I can go to Hawaii. I have family now. Maybe I can even drag Zero there with me. We’d have the best time. I know the people at the Imperial Gym. I could work there. I am not dependent on Colt. Not anymore. I’m my own person.
I realize Colt is talking. “Jo!” he says, more urgently. He hasn’t let go of my hand. “Hey. You’re doing it again.”
“I’m going to get my diploma,” I say. “Maybe I’ll go to community college, get a tech degree in something. Paramedic, maybe —”
He stops my words with a kiss.
I remember that first kiss, where he asked if I could trust him. And how I couldn’t answer.
But then our kiss said everything. That I could. And that he was so happy I had said yes.
His kiss tells me that he has heard me, and that this is hard for him. And that he’s more vulnerable than ever, because he doesn’t know what he has to offer me. He might not be any good in the cage now. He might not be the hero anymore.
I break the kiss and pull him close, my head on his shoulder. “I love you no matter what happens, Colt. You were losing every fight when I met you, if you recall.”
He pulls away and looks at me. His personal brand of ever-changing hazel is very green right now, luminous. “I don’t care about that. I care about you. And I want to be with you. We’ve already been through the worst.”
He stands up and brings me with him. We walk over to the panel of windows, floor to ceiling, and the lights twinkling over LA. “I would give you the whole city if I could.”
“I don’t deserve a city.”
“You deserve everything.” He turns me around to face him. “And I’ve known it from that first day when I saw you fighting that mess of boys in front of Sac ’n’ Pac. You’re the one I was put on this planet to find.”
His finger goes beneath my chin to make sure I’m looking at him, that I’m listening. “And I’m not good at saying what I feel. And I’ve made a lot of stupid mistakes because of that. But you make me want to do things right. Because of who you are. And because you make me want to be a better man.”
I can barely breathe. He’s never talked like this, so urgently, with such emotion.
“I love you, Jo, Josefina the Hurricane, Joanna Barnes Mahoney Jones. I love
My arms go around his back so I can hang on. He kisses me again, and the various pains just erase. I’m lost in him, his mouth, the heat of his skin, the hardness of the muscles of his back.
“Let me show you how much,” he says, his voice rumbling through me just like that first time, in Buster’s Gym. We walk together, bodies still pressed tight, to the bedroom.
Moonlight filters through the windows onto the bed. I slide across the cool silkiness of the comforter. Colt undresses me slowly, carefully, looking for bruises and scrapes, kissing anything he comes across.
The gray sweats hit the floor, then the athletic bra. When he gets to the panties, he kisses his way across the lace edge, hip to hip, below my belly button.
The satin slips down, inch by inch, as his lips move over my skin. He lifts my hips to pull them off, never letting his mouth break contact.