Authors: J. J. Knight
Tags: #New Adult Contemporary Romance, #MMA, #boxing, #fighting
Buster comes up behind me and puts his hands on the back of the wheelchair in a protective stance. My heart is hammering enough that I can feel it banging against the wound in my shoulder.
“Here it comes again,” The Cure says. “Lovely little segment. They rotate it through about every half hour.” The Cure perches on one side of the sofa, his arms crossed over his suit front.
A woman reporter comes on, holding a microphone. “And in an unexpected twist, the girlfriend of injured MMA fighter Colt McClure, who is still in the hospital in critical condition after being shot, turns out to have a violent history of her own.”
I grip the arm of the wheelchair with my good hand.
“After pictures of the girl hit the national media following the brutal attack in an alley behind the gym where the couple trains, her stepmother and stepbrother came forward with a shocking allegation.”
The footage cuts away to an image of Retta and Rich standing outside the old house where I once lived. Just seeing the front door makes sweat pop along my brow. Rich is leaning on a walking cane, his face screwed up like he’s in perpetual pain. With one glance, I already don’t buy it.
He’s older now, but looks mostly the same. Retta has dyed her hair black and fusses with it as the reporter points a microphone in her direction.
“That ungrateful girl beat my poor boy senseless and stole half the things from our house,” Retta says.
I leap from the wheelchair. “That’s a lie!”
“Careful, Jo,” Buster says. “Settle down.” He pushes me back into the chair.
Rich talks next. “When we saw she was a fighter, I finally understood how she got to me.”
Right. He has to explain how his little sister took him down.
Retta grabs at the mike. “Rich has been through three years of physical therapy for his injuries by that crazy girl. He can’t even work.”
I want to snort. Like he ever worked. He managed to blow every interview Retta set up for him. On purpose, no doubt.
“I hope they find her and make her pay for what she did to him. She’s dangerous. She needs to be locked up.” One of Retta’s false eyelashes comes loose on the end and flaps like a bird wing.
“That’s enough,” The Cure says. Eve lifts the remote and shuts off the television.
And everyone in the room turns to look at me.
Buster speaks first. “Is that the stepmother you mentioned?”
I nod. I feel cornered. I don’t want to talk about all the things Rich did. And I know the answers to all the basic questions make me look bad. Yes, I beat him. Yes, I ran. No, I didn’t call for help. Yes, I left him to die on the floor.
It’s like one of those moments in a movie when the hero is in the center of a circle of soldiers all aiming their swords at his throat.
But I don’t have any heroic way of getting out of this one.
“Jo?” Eve asks quietly. “What did that boy do to you?”
My chin quivers. She gets it. She knows I wouldn’t blow without a reason.
I glance over at the orderly. He whirls around and heads for the door. The hired guards are outside. In this room now, it’s just me and Buster and Colt’s parents. I am so grateful for Buster I could weep. I don’t know how I would be getting through this without him.
“I think these are questions that can wait for another day,” Buster says. “Let’s get Jo back into bed. She’s not even a full day out on her surgery.”
Eve stands up. “Come, Geoffrey. Let’s go check on Colt.” She watches Buster pull back the covers to the bed.
I don’t really want to get in there, but I do. As much as I want to see Colt again, I don’t think I can do it with his father around.
“Someone will bring your things from your room,” The Cure says. “I’ll work on finding a lawyer to go deal with the police so they won’t try barging in here.”
I hug the covers to my chest. “Colt already hired one.”
Eve raises her perfectly arched eyebrows. “So, he knew?”
“I wonder who he brought on,” The Cure says. “I’ll see what I can find out.”
He’ll be back in Colt’s affairs. Just what Colt was trying to get out of when he broke away from the family corporation. I’m not sure I can do anything about it. I don’t know who he hired either. “Do you have his phone?” I ask.
The Cure tugs it from his pocket. The screen is cracked, probably from the fight. “He’s got a lock code on it. If I have it wiped to get in, I lose the data.”
I hold out my hand. “I might be able to figure out what it is.”
The Cure stares at me like I’m a street kid begging for money. I pull back my arm.
Eve takes the phone from him and walks it over. “Let us know what you find.” She squeezes my arm. “Take good care of her,” she says to Buster.
And finally, they head out.
Buster sits in the chair Eve used earlier. I press Colt’s phone against my chest, over my heart. It helps holding something that is his.
“So, what is your real name?” Buster asks. He stares at the floor. The hospital lights gleam on his bald head.
“Joanna Mahoney.” I hold tight to the phone. “I was born Joanna Barnes, but my stepmother made me change it to hers when my dad died.”
“This boy, you roughed him up pretty bad?”
“He deserve it?”
Buster leans back in the chair. “Good enough for me.” His eyes meet mine. “Looks like The Cure is coming around.”
“He didn’t offer me any money to head east.”
Buster chokes on a laugh. “You’re probably costing him more than that Annie girl.”
“You mean the because of the lawyer?”
“He’s paying your hospital bill, too.”
“Can he even do that? I’m not family.”
“Sure. You’re the one who went down there and announced to everybody that you were Colt’s wife.” His eyes have a little sparkle to them now.
“You heard about that?”
“Killjoy is friends with one of the guards. They think you’re a little pistol. Not too many girls who would jump a pair of former heavyweight boxers.”
“Why is this place crawling with men in black suits? You’d think The Cure was a mob boss.”
Buster folds his hands behind his head. “You’re not far off. He’s got a lot of enemies, and his hands are in a lot of pockets.”
“Why did you ever agree to let him take over your gym?” The covers are hot, so I kick them away.
“The Cure helped me out once when I really needed it. I owed him one. More than one.”
“He really used to train there?”
“Sure. The Cure was just an upstart fighter then.”
“Did he always manipulate people like he does now?”
Buster laughs. “He was more of a charmer then. He had nothing. Came from nothing. Got by on pure grit.”
“He told Colt that he didn’t want him to make the same mistakes he did. That’s why he bought off Annie and tried to buy me off.”
Buster kicks out his legs and tries to get more comfortable in the chair. “His first wife sort of trapped him. I was there for that part.”
I hold out Colt’s phone. I might have been a little cocky when I told The Cure I could guess the code. I don’t know enough about him to be certain. Heck, I don’t even know his birthday or the year he was born.
But I do know the things he loves. How he wakes up. His lopsided dimples and all the ways his hazel eyes can change between green and brown.
I press a button to wake up the phone. It asks me for his password.
The image on the screen is disrupted by the crack, but I know it. It’s the picture from the first time Colt kissed me, when we got caught by the photographers after his engagement announcement.
And that’s how I know his secret code.
Colt has a flood of text messages from people asking if he’s okay. I recognize a few as fighter names. There’s none from Brittany, so he really must have found a way to block her.
I switch to his phone log. In the last few days before the attack, he has a long complex list of people helping him move his team to LA. Further back, almost all the calls are to me.
I scroll to the day we first returned to Buster’s, when he said he would call the lawyer. I narrow it down to about three numbers. Good enough. I’ll call them later, or let Buster do it. I’m feeling drained and exhausted.
Buster just watches me as I slip down the bed. I really am tired. And then I’m asleep.
“Jo?” A gentle hand squeezes my good arm. “Jo, can you wake up, dear?”
For a crazy moment, I think the voice is my mother. She’s found me too. Somehow she knows it’s me even though she only saw me once, the day I was born.
I open my eyes. The windows have been partially shuttered, so the room is dim. The woman by my bed is wrapped in scarves covering her hair and shoulders, like a goddess from another land.
“It’s Eve,” Colt’s mother says. “I’ve come to take you to see Colt.”
This jolts me awake. “Is he okay?”
“They brought him out of the medical coma,” she says. “He’s all right. He’s asking about you.”
I can’t push the covers off fast enough. My foot tangles in a blanket, and I fall roughly on my injured shoulder as I try to get out.
“Careful, Jo,” Buster says. “He’s not going anywhere.”
“Is he still in ICU?” I ask, dropping my feet to the floor.
“Yes,” Eve says. “I don’t think they’ll discharge him to a normal room for a while yet.” She rolls the wheelchair close to my bed.
“I don’t need that,” I say.
Eve picks up a shopping bag. “The hospital is still crawling with reporters,” she says. “Let’s adjust your look a little.” She reaches into an oversized handbag and retrieves a long white scarf. When she wraps it around my head, the lingering trace of an expensive perfume wafts down.
Next she tugs out a silk robe, pale blue and shimmery, to cover my hospital gown. She slides my good arm inside and drapes the other side over my shoulder and sling.
“That’s better,” she says. “I’m going to go on ahead of you now so that it’s not clear who you are. Johnny and Frank will take you down.” She squeezes my hand. “I’ll be there when you get there.”
Eve opens the door to my room. “Give me about three minutes,” she says to the guards. “Then bring her down in the physician elevator.”
She waves at Buster. “We’ll be back in a minute.”
I try to force my head to clear as I sit and wait. My eyes are sticky. I swipe at them with the back of my hand. Dull pain pulses in my shoulder. With the IV gone, I’m not getting any pain medications by force, and I don’t want the pills. The pain is a reminder of what I’m up against. That I shouldn’t get too comfortable and let my guard down.
I miss Zero. I miss regular life. For the millionth time in the last few days, I feel like crying.
“It’s all going to be all right,” Buster says.
God, he knows me already. This new me. The emotional me.
“Has Zero figured out where I am yet?” I ask.
“Your phone has been buzzing in that bag. One of the guards brought your things up from the old room while you were sleeping.” He points to the sofa.
The clothes I wore the night of the attack, freshly washed and free of blood, are stacked in a neat pile next to a small bag. There are also several boxes with pretty bows. The name of the shop imprinted on them is the same as the bag Eve brought, so I’m guessing they are more gifts from her.
My throat tightens. The Cure doesn’t deserve someone as nice as her. I wonder what she sees in him. Money, maybe. I don’t know. I don’t like feeling cynical about her. I’m just glad to have an ally in Colt’s family.
I tap out a quick note to Zero telling him I’m on the eighth floor but it’s locked up. Then one of the bulky suited guards peers inside. “Time to go,” he says.
I follow the guards down the hallway. They buzz us out of the big door. Once we’re back in the main hospital, I realize how quiet and empty our section is. Here, doctors, nurses, visitors, and patients are everywhere. I see why The Cure wanted me tucked away. Anybody could be a reporter, or someone wanting to get to me. I’m not paranoid about this, but I’m glad to be shielded from cameras and microphones.
The next corridor is quieter, away from the hubbub of the main wards. The guard produces a key that works a small elevator at the end of a hall. We ride down to the ICU ward in silence. I figure the entrance there is the trickiest part. If I was looking to get a scoop, it is where I would wait.
But this elevator doesn’t go in the front of ICU and the main entrance, but somewhere behind it. I follow the guards through a maze of halls, then I recognize the opening that leads to the actual ward. I’m about to dash ahead, when one of the guards holds me back. “This isn’t the one.”
Of course. There are probably several rooms like the one Colt was in. But my excitement is mounting. I’ll see him. He’ll be awake. We have survived this.
At an alcove leading to another ward, the guards stop. I peer inside. Colt is still where he was before. The Cure and Eve are standing near him.
I dash across the room. “Colt!”
Eve steps aside to let me close to the bed. He’s still lying back, but his eyes are open. The tubes are out of his mouth, although he still has a tiny set going into his nose.
I snatch up the hand closest to me even though it has an IV taped to it. I kiss his fingers. He is less blue today, although still washed out. His hair is all over the place. A bruise highlights one of his cheekbones. I’m pretty sure I have a matching one, but I have avoided mirrors since I’ve been able to walk around.
“I hope the other girl looks worse,” Colt says. He manages a half smile.
“Actually, it was four men, and yeah, they do.” I hold his hand against my chest.
“My little Hurricane,” he says. “They shouldn’t mess with you.”
My legs feel wobbly, so I brace my elbows on the rail. Colt has always seemed so strong to me, so invincible. But here, in this hospital bed, I see he is human like the rest of us.
“It’s a mistake for anyone to take on the two of us together,” I say.
“You got that right,” he says.