“YOU’RE taking me to a strip club? Seriously?” Molly stared at her friend/coworker/frequent rabble-rouser, Presley, hoping she was joking.
Presley slipped her arm through Molly’s. “Good golly, Miss Molly, this’ll be fun. I promise. See, Bloody Mary used to work here.”
The blond bruiser from Presley’s roller derby team known as Bloody Mary walked in front of them. “Why’d she quit stripping?”
“Last year she scored a job as a personal trainer. I guess the bosses at the skin boutique weren’t happy she’d put on so much muscle. They prefer their strippers to be tanned bags of bones with fake jugs.” Presley shrugged. “I don’t get that. If I were a dude paying to see tits and ass, I’d want a variety of tits and ass—know what I mean?”
“To be honest, Presley, I have absolutely no idea what you mean, or why you think I’d want to see any tits and ass. Hell, I don’t even want to look at my own boobs and butt.”
Then they were standing below a neon sign that boasted HOT EXOTIC DANCERS—READY TO DANCE FOR YOU!
“Hot and ready . . . Sounds like a pizza joint,” she muttered. When Presley didn’t respond, she cast a quick glance around the line of guys ahead of them, waiting to get in. The closer they got to the entrance, the more she was tempted to make a break for it.
“Don’t you even think about ditching me, Calloway,” Presley warned in her ear. “You will walk in and have at least one drink. If it sucks, we’ll go.”
The bouncer, a big African-American guy, threw open his arms when he saw Bloody Mary. “Marisol! Gimme some sugar.”
“Marisol was her stripper name,” Presley whispered.
“I gathered that.”
“Black Bart, baby,” Bloody Mary cooed. “You’re looking as badass as ever.”
“No need to flatter me. You know I’m waving the cover charge for y’all. Tell me who you’re bringing to class up the joint,” Black Bart asked.
“You remember Elvis from my Denver Divas roller derby team?”
It took a second for Molly to remember that Presley’s team nickname was—duh—Elvis.
Then Bloody Mary snagged Molly’s hand and tugged her forward. “We’re popping Miss Molly’s strip-club cherry tonight.”
Black Bart gave Molly a slow once-over. “You don’t say.”
She fought the urge to fidget. This man was used to seeing women with perfect bodies, naked women, letting it all hang out—literally. Please ignore me. That’d be easier than seeing a sneering expression that proved he found her seriously lacking.
But he offered her a hot-eyed stare and a very wolfish grin. “You need anything, pretty eyes—and I mean anything—you come find Black Bart and I’ll take care of you. Mmm-mmm, sweet thang. Would I love to take care of you.”
She blushed like a virgin. “Ah, thanks?”
Bloody Mary kept a firm grip on Molly’s forearm as she led the way inside. They paused in the doorway. “So, Cherry, behold Jiggles, the classiest strip joint in Denver. Which ain’t saying much. But trust me—this is ten steps above the other clubs in town.”
Cherry? Awesome, she’d gotten a nickname.
“Let’s sit there,” Presley said, pointing to a table in the back. “I don’t need to see a cooter up close.”
“Then why are we at a freakin’ strip club?” Molly demanded.
“We drink for free. See, dudes in here ain’t ever gonna get with a stripper, no matter how many lap dances they buy. So when they start looking around and see a table of available women . . .” She shrugged. “It’s win-win. We flirt, they buy us drinks, and sometimes we end up with a hot hookup.”
Molly noticed all the chairs at the table faced the stage, so she couldn’t look at, oh, the wall. “You’ve hooked up with a guy you met in a strip club?”
“In some ways it’s better than meeting a guy in a bar.” Presley plopped down next to her. “Just steer clear of the ones you can see masturbating under the table.”
Her mouth fell open. “You can see that?”
“It’s obvious by how fast their arm is moving,” Bloody Mary said. “I always felt sorry for the cleanup crew. They have to stock some special, industrial-strength jizz remover.”
The stripper strutted onstage wearing a spangly fringed top, slinky black pants, and a black cowboy hat. Molly recognized the song as “Wild West.” The stripper was gorgeous, with auburn hair that fell past her shoulders, long legs, and—holy crap—she just ripped off her shirt to reveal enormous boobs. After a few twirls around the stripper’s pole, another rip and her pants were gone. The woman had no hips to speak of, and her legs bordered on scrawny. Her sparkly G-string was the only item of clothing remaining, besides the five-inch acrylic stilettos.
She gyrated her hips, shook her nonexistent ass, spun around the pole, dropping into a squat and rolling up slowly. On the last spin she performed a backbend, keeping one hand on the pole until she did a walkover and landed in the splits. Then the stripper whipped off her G-string and played pussy peekaboo with her cowboy hat. Her final bow—with her head between her legs—gave everyone a full view.
The DJ warned the patrons to stick around because Madora the Sexplorer would be taking the stage in ten minutes.
Molly tried to play it cool, but she gawked at the women strolling around in ankle-breaking heels and itty-bitty scraps of silk. Even if she had a super-hot body, she doubted she’d ever have the guts to parade around half naked. She wondered if the dancers ever got cold.
Of course they do; look at their nipples.
Then again, with as vigorously as they rubbed a guy’s crotch during a lap dance, friction had to at least keep their butt cheeks warm.
The cocktail waitress took their orders. Bloody Mary ordered Jäger bombs. Jägermeister always reminded Molly of him.
Even his name dripped sex.
When Molly had signed up for a kickboxing class at Black Arts dojo, she hadn’t known Deacon “Con Man” McConnell was the instructor. He’d strolled into class and scared the crap out of her. It wasn’t his killer physique that turned her knees to jelly, although six feet two inches of a massively muscled, heavily tattooed, shaven-headed MMA fighter with icy blue eyes would kick-start any woman’s hormones. She’d never been attracted to a man with a don’t-fuck-with-me badass attitude, so the pull she’d felt toward him both fascinated and frightened her.
Not that Deacon had noticed. The only time he paid attention to her was to chastise her in class. But even when the man barked orders at her like a drill sergeant, she wondered what it’d be like to hear that sexy southern drawl whispering honey-sweet words against her fevered skin in the dark.
Since Molly’s boss, Amery Hardwick Black, was married to Ronin Black, Deacon’s boss, they occasionally ended up in social situations outside their class time. One night a group of them had gone out to a bar and Molly had sensed Deacon watching her. Liquid courage in the form of three margaritas had allowed her to meet his gaze. Those crystalline eyes showed no guilt at getting caught staring at her, yet she hadn’t seen a glimmer of attraction either, so she’d brushed it aside.
The man sent her mixed signals. He let her know he was pissed off that she’d signed up for private boxing lessons from Fisher Durant—another Black Arts MMA instructor—instead of him. Deacon didn’t mention his displeasure again for almost a year . . . until she’d missed three of his kickboxing classes. Then he’d shown up at her apartment—three Sunday afternoons in a row—for makeup lessons.
The following week he’d cornered her at the dojo and asked her out on a real date. She’d been so excited and nervous, it hadn’t occurred to her that he might’ve been messing with her. So she’d felt like a total chump, sitting in the restaurant for two hours waiting on him, only to get a Sorry, bad timing–C U around text that wasn’t an apology or an explanation.
Then, to make matters even more confusing, Deacon had passed off his kickboxing classes to Shihan Beck, the new second-in-command at Black Arts. So Molly hadn’t seen Deacon for two months.
That didn’t mean she hadn’t thought about him. She had, way more than was healthy, actually—which was sort of pathetic, even when half of her scenarios had a violent comeuppance, where she leveled one perfect punch to Con Man’s smug mug, which knocked him out cold. In front of everyone in the dojo.
Yeah? What about the other scenario? Where you lick his bulging, tattooed biceps and stroke his shaved head until he purrs? Tease him into a sexual frenzy so he regrets that he stood you up?
The cocktail waitress dropped off the shots and whispered in Bloody Mary’s ear.
Bloody Mary stood and said, “One of my old regulars is here in the VIP section. I’m going to surprise him.”
What constituted a regular customer? Was there a VIP punch card? Buy four lap dances and get the fifth one free? And what kind of hard-up loser was a frequent strip-club patron anyway?
“Molly, you all right?” Presley asked. “You’re quiet.”
She gave Presley a fake smile. “I’m awesome. Cheers.” She held up her shot for a toast and knocked it back. “Whoo-ee! That’ll put hair on your chest.”
“I’d much rather have a hot guy’s hairy chest rubbing on mine,” Presley grumbled.
“Look around, Pres. You’re not gonna find that guy in here tonight.” Molly leaned closer. “My cherry is officially popped. I saw a stripper and had my one drink. Let’s ditch this place and go somewhere we can dance, okay?”
“Fine. I’ll go tell Bloody Mary we’re leaving.”
Molly stood. “I’ll do it. I have to use the restroom anyway.”
She wandered to the VIP section, which wasn’t cordoned off with velvet ropes, just a small sign that warned membership cards were required. The area was more smoke and mirrors than posh. The chairs were wider—likely for all of those free lap dances. A private bar lined the back wall.
A table of businessmen watched as a guy in the corner got a lap dance.
Single men sat at smaller tables among the groups of guys.
Molly’s gaze moved to the man, who had both his hands full of Bloody Mary’s ass as she straddled his lap, her boobs in his face.
Then Bloody Mary threw herself into a backbend, which gave Molly an unimpeded view of the “regular’s” face.
A familiar face, smiling at Bloody Mary with those icy blue eyes.
His sexy grin dried up when his gaze connected with Molly’s.
Her heart plummeted. Now I know why you stood me up, you bastard. Face burning, she retreated and kept a leisurely pace as she cut through the tables, her gut urging her to run outside, snag a cab, and go home.
Once inside the restroom, she braced her hands on the sink and dropped her head down, forcing deep, even breaths into her lungs. It didn’t help. Mortification had morphed into anger. Mad as hell, she let fly, “You motherfucking, cocksucking sonuvawhore, ass-licking fuckwad!”
The bathroom door opened.
“Whoa. What’s wrong?” Presley asked. “You ran in here like you saw your minister in the VIP section.”
“No. But guess who I did see?” She paused and met Presley’s eyes in the mirror. “Deacon.”
“As in our former kickboxing teacher, Deacon?”
“Apparently he’s Bloody Mary’s regular customer.”
When Presley didn’t say anything but became very interested in checking her makeup, Molly’s eyes narrowed.
“You’ve seen Deacon in here before.”
“Just once, okay? It was around the time Knox and Shiori got married, so I figured it might be a bachelor-party thing.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I didn’t know it’d matter to you.” Presley’s gaze met hers in the mirror. “Why does it matter to you?”
“Oh yeah? Then why are you so upset?”
“I’m not upset!” Okay. She sounded upset. Molly slumped against the wall. “Seeing him here clears up the mystery about why he pulled a no-show for our date. I’m not his type.”
Presley got right in her face. “Fuck that. And fuck him. You don’t want a man who drools over tits and ass, unless it’s your tits and ass. I’ll bet a lap dance is the only action he gets since he’s so big, mean, and scary-looking.”
Molly had watched ring bunnies hanging all over Deacon because being big, mean, and scary-looking was what made him so compelling. And she was smart enough to admit that was part of the reason he appealed to her too.
Appealed. Past tense. Let it go. “I need a drink.”
“Come on. I’ll buy.”
Molly followed Presley out of the bathroom.
Presley stopped in the middle of the hallway so abruptly that Molly ran into her.
When she glanced up to see what’d caught Presley’s attention, she froze.
Deacon leaned against the wall, his muscled arms crossed over his chest, one knee bent with his cowboy boot pressed behind him. The pose seemed casual, but she wasn’t fooled.
“Beat it,” he said to Presley. “I need to talk to Molly.”
Her stomach swooped.
“You have shitty manners,” Presley said.
Deacon ignored Presley and continued to level his brooding stare at her.
Talk about unnerving.
Talk about hot.
Shut up, hormones.
Then Presley moved and blocked Molly from his view. “Tell me what to do.”
“Go. I’ll give him five minutes.”
“Don’t take his crap.”
Presley’s gaze darted between Molly and Deacon as she backed away. “I’ll be right over there if you need anything.”
“I wasn’t talking to you, asshole.”
“I know. Keep walking.”
When they were alone, Molly kept the entire width of the hallway between them. “You were rude to her.”
“So you save your decent behavior for the strippers working the VIP section?”
His eyes flashed. “Sometimes. What are you doin’ here?”
“Drinking with my friends and soaking in the naked entertainment.”
“Doesn’t seem like your scene.”
“I hardly think you can chastise me for being here when it appears you’re a frequent patron of this strip club, Mr. VIP.”
In the blink of an eye, Deacon had caged her against the wall, his mouth next to her ear.
She shivered when his hot breath tickled her neck.
“Goddamn flowers,” he muttered. “You always smell sweet. Even after sweating in class for an hour, you didn’t reek like everyone else.”
“There’s a compliment.” Molly put her hands on his chest and pushed him. “Now move it.”
A soft growl vibrated against her cheek. “You drive me crazy, woman.”
“Hey!” a loud male voice shouted behind them. “Let her go.” The bouncer stopped a foot from Molly and set his hand on her shoulder. “Hey, pretty eyes. Is this fucker harassing you?”
“No, I’m not harassing her, but I’ll break your hand if you don’t take it off of her.”
“Deacon!” she gasped. “What is wrong with you?”
“Got a case of mine, I’m thinking,” Black Bart said. “You know this joker, sweet thang?”
What perfect payback to proclaim she’d never seen him before. But that’d set him off. And Deacon “Con Man” McConnell in a rage was dangerous for everyone. “Yes, I know him. He is—was—my kickboxing instructor.”
Black Bart grinned. “No kidding. You one of them ka-rah-tay chicks?”
“No. I’ve discovered I like beating the crap out of something a couple of times a week.”
“I hear ya there.” Despite Deacon’s warning growl, Black Bart stepped between them. “Say the word and I toss him out on his tattooed ass. I don’t cotton with any women being threatened in my club.”
“Our conversation got a little intense, but we’re done now.”
Deacon’s dark look said, The hell we are, but he kept his mouth shut.
“Okay. You need anything, come find me.”
“I don’t like the way he looks at you,” Deacon said softly, the menace in his tone unmistakable.
“Like you’d know how he was looking at me,” she said hotly. “You haven’t stopped glaring at me since the moment you trapped me back here.”
“Staring at you and glaring at you aren’t the same thing, darlin’, and you damn well know the difference. Especially with me.”
“My mistake. But you’re always glaring at someone. Is that MMA badass behavior? Daring someone to screw with you so you can beat the snot out of them?”
“Beat the snot out of them?” A smile curled his lips. “Babe. If I hit a guy in the nose, it ain’t snot running out.”
“Eww. Thanks for the visual.”
Deacon inched closer. “No one here knows I’m a fighter. I keep it my personal business.”
“I don’t imagine there’s much talking going on during a lap dance anyway.”
“Not usually, no.”
“Whatever. I’m leaving.”
He shook his head. “Not done talking to you.”
“We have nothing to talk about. I ran into you at a strip club. Big deal. You’re a single guy. It’s your personal business if you pay some chick with fake boobs to grind her bony ass on your crotch.” She paused. “Does that about cover it?”
“No. That doesn’t begin to cover it.” Deacon crowded her against the wall. “You still seeing Jake, that pussy banker friend of Amery?”
How did Deacon know that? Moreover, why did he care?
“What about the douche bag caught your eye? The snappy suit? The nine-to-five work hours? The freakishly perfect groomed hair?”
“Maybe it’s that he didn’t stand me up for our first date,” she retorted. She gave Deacon’s shiny head a blatant once-over. “Sounds like you’re jealous of his hair, baldy.”
His eyes hardened. “Shaving my head is a choice.”
“How do I know you’re not sporting a chrome dome because otherwise you’d have a bad comb-over?”
Omigod. I cannot believe I said that. To Deacon.
Molly braced herself for his reaction.
But nothing could’ve prepared her for his mouth coming down on hers in an explosion of heat, need, and possession.
His kiss inflamed her. Head spinning, Molly fought the temptation to hold on to him for dear life—because holy buckets, his kiss packed as hard a punch as his fist. She melted into him, and that changed the tenor of the kiss from passion to sweetness.
The twining of tongues slowed, and he teased her lips with tiny nibbles and tender smooches. Then Deacon buried his face in the crook of her neck and his big body trembled. “Fuck. I knew it.”
“Knew what?” she managed.
Deacon stepped back. He didn’t act shocked or even contrite. He rubbed his hand over his mouth, and grim determination darkened his eyes. “I didn’t mean to do that. Not here, not like this. But I’m considering it a sign.”
“Of what?” My stupidity?
“That we’re gonna happen.”
The music had kicked on, so she must’ve misheard him. “What?”
“We’re gonna happen. I’ve wanted you for too damn long. I see you—I fucking smell you—and I can’t get you out of my head. I’ve tried staying away from you—for your good and mine. But now that I’ve tasted that sweet mouth? No more denying this.”
“Are you always this cocky?” she demanded.
His eyebrow winged up. “You kissed me back.”
Molly blushed. Dammit. He had her there.
Admit that the man could have you anywhere. Anytime. Anyplace.
“Don’t tell me you don’t want this.”
“I don’t even know what ‘this’ is, so you and I are never gonna happen, Deacon.”
That dangerous look settled in his eyes again. “Because a guy like me—a tattooed fighter without a college degree—ain’t good enough for you?”
“Oh, quit acting hurt. You lost that right when you pulled a no-show for our date. The only reason you want me is because you haven’t had me. Or maybe I’m more appealing to you now that I’m telling you no.” I’m not your type, Mr. VIP. Don’t make me say that out loud. This is mortifying enough.
“You sure got a mouth on you these days.” He locked his hooded gaze to hers, stalking her until her back met the concrete wall again.
“I’m glad my transformation from mousy to mouthy amuses you.”
Then his hands were on the wall beside her head. “I’m not amused. I’m proud. You should be too. You’ve come a long way, learning to stand up for yourself—verbally and physically.”
There was the mother lode of compliments. But it was too late.
“Happy as I am to have your professional approval of my progress, this is me standing up for myself. Goodbye, Deacon.”
Molly ducked under his arm and walked away without looking back.
THE punishing rhythm Deacon had set on the treadmill finally started to wear him down.
His body had become too slippery for the heart-rate monitor to stick. Even the armband holding his MP3 player had slid down and he’d had to take it off. So he’d run to the sounds of his thudding footfalls and measured breaths.
Black Arts was quiet as a tomb on Sunday—the way Deacon preferred it. After Sensei Ronin Black’s sojourn to Japan last year, he’d hired additional jujitsu instructors, which meant Deacon spent less time teaching and more time focused on MMA. Despite Deacon’s protests, Shihan Beck had taken over his kickboxing classes.
Not that any of his classes had been overrun with eager students. He had high expectations, and only the hardiest of souls lasted in his classes. So what if his students were afraid of him? If he didn’t push them beyond their expectations, they’d show up for class uninspired and unconditioned. Fear was a great motivator.
It’d definitely worked for Molly.
Just the thought of that woman sent fire through his veins. She’d gone from trying to melt into the wall whenever he came near her to telling him he was a sadistic bastard right before she released a flurry of punches at the heavy bag.
That’d been one of his proudest teaching moments.
Her fierceness in class had spilled over into her interpersonal dealings. He’d heard that her managerial skills had lessened his boss’s wife’s workload. He’d seen her increased confidence when their group went out. Yet, with all the changes, she’d retained genuine niceness, sweetness, and thoughtfulness. He wanted her in a way he’d never experienced. Yeah, he wanted to fuck her and watch those brown eyes heat with lust, but he also wanted . . . more. And since that was a new feeling, he had no fucking clue what to do about it or how to act on it.
As he kept up the brutal cardio, his thoughts drifted to the first time he’d considered taking action with her outside of class.
Last year the Black Arts crew had converged at Fresh, a fetish club, for Ivan Stanislovsky’s birthday party. While their friends had been doing shots or sneaking off to see club demos of spankings, floggings, and fire play, he and Molly had gotten into a heated argument.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were taking private boxing lessons?” he’d demanded when they had a moment alone at the table.
She rolled her pretty brown eyes. “Because I knew you’d act like it’s a personal affront to you.”
To keep their friends from eavesdropping, he’d moved in close enough to count the freckles on her nose. “Whose kickboxing class are you in?”
“Yours.” She studied him. “You’re telling me you’re a more dedicated teacher than Fisher?”
“Do I look like I give a damn if my students excel in a fitness class? Huh-uh. I try to break them.”
“Survival of the fittest, babe.”
“Sorry, but that attitude does make you a shitty teacher, Deacon.”
“Fish-dick is a shitty teacher. I break my students down to build them back up stronger than they were before.” He had a hard time keeping his eyes off that lush fucking mouth of hers, which needed his mouth on it pronto. “So did you hire Fisher because you wanted private one-on-one time with him?”
“Yes, that’s it,” she cooed with sarcasm. “Instead of showing me how to increase my impact and speed, Fisher ties me to the heavy bag and fucks me in front of the whole dojo. I’m surprised you haven’t heard about it.”
He forced himself to focus on the challenge dancing in her eyes rather than hooking an arm around Fisher’s neck and choking him out right there in the booth. Every time he inhaled, Molly’s flowery scent floated to him.
“But if you’re so desperate to prove your dick is bigger than his, I’ll bring a ruler next time.”
He laughed. “Better bring a yardstick for me, babe, not a puny ruler.”
“I’m surprised you can get pants on over that monster-sized . . . ego.”
Speaking of monster-sized. Jesus. All night he’d tried to keep his gaze off her truly spectacular tits. Something had prompted her to ditch the modest clothes she usually favored. And it made him fucking crazy to think she’d dressed differently because Fisher was here.
Needing to push her a little, Deacon lifted his hand to twine a long, shiny brown curl around his index finger. As his finger wound the spiral higher, the backs of his knuckles brushed the creamy swell of her full breast.
Molly’s refusal to slap his hand away intrigued him. As did the way her pulse hammered in her throat as he touched her.
“Tell me why you need to take more classes to increase your hitting power?”
“Are you asking if I’m still afraid of my own shadow?”
“From where I’m sitting, you’ve made great strides in confidence and the ability to defend yourself.”
She didn’t look like she believed him.
“Do you know what I did today? I helped teach a self-defense class. I stood in front of fifty girls and told them about being attacked. How I’d felt like an idiot for being oblivious to my dangerous surroundings. How I’d felt lucky that at least I hadn’t been raped. Then I confessed I couldn’t go outside by myself after dark for more than a month after it happened. Even if I’d forgotten something in my car, I couldn’t make myself leave the safety of my apartment. A big, strong, tough guy like you doesn’t have any idea how it feels to be frightened out of your fucking mind. So getting to tell those girls today that I took control of the fear by enrolling in self-defense classes made me feel ten feet tall.”
Shit, he knew what was coming.
“But according to you, I’m still traumatized from that attack. I shouldn’t speak out publicly about what happened to me. I shouldn’t share the precautions other girls can take so they don’t end up in that situation.” She glared at him. “You think I’m weak. That’s why I didn’t ask you to teach me. Fisher has never seen me as a victim.”
When she attempted to pull her head away, Deacon held tightly to the piece of hair wrapped around his finger. His gaze encompassed every inch of her face. From the fire flashing in her big brown eyes, to the wrinkle in her brow, to the heat and alcohol turning her cheeks rosy, to the pursed set of her lips.
“Let me go.”
“You’ve had your say; now I’ll have mine. I told your friends not to assume you’d want to help with the class. The reason I said that? Because you’ve never spoken to me or anyone else at the dojo about the attack. So I assumed it still had a hold on you. That mistake is on me and I’m sorry. But I’ve never ever thought you were weak—especially since you faced down your fears and have been kicking them in the teeth. Do I tell you to toughen up in my class? Yep. But I tell everyone to push harder.
“The real reason you didn’t ask me to teach you? Darlin’, you’re afraid of this pull between us.” His focus momentarily slipped to her cleavage. “The thought of being alone with me, with my hands all over you, my body in tight behind yours, my voice in your ear . . . sent you running. But here’s a warning, babe: Don’t think I won’t chase you.” Another round of shots had arrived, breaking the moment.
Molly didn’t speak to him the rest of the night.
And he hadn’t found the balls to ask her out for another year. A year. Talk about fucking pathetic. He might be fierce in the ring and in his classes, but he was a chickenshit when it came to man/woman personal stuff. So when Molly had skipped his kickboxing class three times, he’d seized the chance to turn their teacher-student relationship into something more. He’d loaded his portable fast bag and other training equipment and shown up at her apartment.
The look on her face when she opened the door to him? Priceless.
But then she’d tried to bar him from entering. Rather than laughing and shoving her aside, he’d asked if she really wanted to drop his class. Because the only way he’d allow her to return was to make up the hours she’d missed.
Molly had reluctantly let him in.
Deacon was pretty sure she’d imagined his face on the boxing dummy as she’d pummeled it. After the workout, he’d ordered Chinese. They’d eaten side by side on her couch and watched three episodes of Bar Rescue.
So he’d warned her he’d be back the following Sunday for another makeup lesson. After a grueling session, she’d shocked him by cooking a pork roast with all the trimmings. Those few hours with her had been burned into his memory banks forever.
But the third lesson—he hardly remembered that one. Due to an unseasonably warm afternoon, she’d worn spandex workout pants and an eye-popping sports bra. They’d done mostly floor work because watching her gorgeous tits jiggle every time her fist connected with the dummy . . . A man had only so much willpower. He’d given her a lame excuse and left right after the workout.
Then all that crap had gone down.
And she hadn’t given him a chance to explain.
Not that he’d know what the fuck to say to her anyway. Because even to his own ears it sounded like a lousy fucking excuse.
“Get off that thing. Now.”
Christ. His trainer’s booming voice could compete with thunder.
When Deacon didn’t immediately comply, Maddox leaned over and stabbed buttons on the console until the machine shut off.
Unprepared for the sudden loss of movement, Deacon smacked into the handles. Then, bracing his feet on either side of the belt, he pulled the towel from around his neck and mopped his face and head.
“What is wrong with you?” Maddox demanded. “Three hours on the goddamn treadmill means you won’t be worth a damn for other cardio training tomorrow.”
Deacon slowly raised his head, his chest heaving from exertion. He respected the hell out of his trainer. Not only was Maddox Byerly the force driving him to finally get somewhere in his MMA career, but he’d become a good friend. Spending six days a week together, though, meant they had to maintain a line between friendship and training at the dojo.
“Don’t pull that silent-treatment crap on me, Deacon. How fucking hard is it to just tell me the problem?”
“Hard as hell, to be honest.”
“Tough. Park it. I ain’t going anywhere until you start talking.”
In the rare instances in the past that he’d needed advice, Deacon had relied on Ronin or Knox. They never pushed; they waited until he came to them. But Maddox was a fucking bulldog—he demanded full disclosure about Deacon’s life outside the ring because he claimed it’d affect Deacon’s performance inside the ring. So in the last six months, the motherfucker had tried to force—tried being the operative word—Deacon into talking about every-fucking-thing. Hadn’t worked so far, so he attempted to hedge. “I don’t know what your problem is. I thought you’d be happy I got my cardio in.”
“Nice try. Take your time working up to the real issue. I’ve got nowhere else to be today.”
“You plan to load me up on chocolate and tampons after I share my feelings with you?” he retorted. Hadn’t these new guys gotten the memo that he—Deacon “Con Man” McConnell—did not do let’s-talk-it-out friendship crap?
Maddox scrubbed his hands over his cheeks. “A bottle of Midol would help you immensely, dickhead.”
Deacon wanted to laugh. Maddox didn’t take his shit, which was why they got along so well. He grabbed his water bottle and drained half of it.
“What happened to make you punish yourself like you’re training for a marathon?”
As much as he wanted to say, None of your fucking business, he knew if he didn’t lay it all out now, he’d get steamrolled. “An incident at a strip club.”
Maddox’s head snapped up. “Please tell me you didn’t get into a fight.”
“Not with guys hanging out in the club, a bouncer, or the owner.”
“Jesus, Deacon. You got into it with a stripper?”
Deacon dropped into the chair next to Maddox. “No.”
“Start from the beginning.”
Looking at his ratty-ass running shoes was easier than staring Maddox in the eye. “I couldn’t shake off my restlessness after practice yesterday. Sitting at home flipping through channels would just piss me off because I end up watching cage fights. So I went to my strip club.” He felt Maddox staring at him, so he looked up. “What?”
“Why do you have such a hard-on for strip clubs?”
“What’s not to like, watching hot chicks dancing around naked?” He took another sip of water. “Not all strip-club regulars are pervs who can’t get dates.”
Maddox continued to look skeptical.
“Some people attend plays, ballet, and opera for entertainment,” he said defensively. “To me, it’s entertaining to see beautiful women with killer bodies dancing around naked.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“It’s cheaper than a Saturday-night date to the movies with popcorn. Even after tipping out for a lap dance.”
He snorted. “I’ve never fallen prey to the delusions that the hot brunette grinding on me will want to see me outside of the club.”
“So you’ve never dated a stripper?”
“Explain what you mean by date.”
“Pick her up, take her to dinner, then end up banging the headboard.”
Deacon shook his head. “I ain’t the dating kind. I’ve fucked a few strippers.”
“I don’t get it.” Maddox held up his hands. “No judgment on your choice of amusement. But when I look at the dancers, all I see is their age. It doesn’t make me feel pervy watching them. It makes me sad. Admitting that probably makes me sound like a prude.”
“That makes you a decent guy because you wanna save them.”
Maddox leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Back to the story. So you went to the strip club. You’re sipping a drink, minding your own business, when . . .”
“One of my favorite former dancers visited me in the VIP section.” Deacon scowled. “She plopped herself on my lap, stuck her tits in my face, and when I glanced up, I saw Molly.”
“Molly. As in Molly—”
“My former student who I’ve wanted to bang like a fucking drum since the moment I saw her? The woman you forced me to stay away from while I was training for the last fight? Yeah, that Molly.”
Maddox whistled. “So she what? Used some of Fisher’s boxing moves on you?”
“A punch in the nuts would’ve been easier to take than the way she looked at me.” He let his head fall forward. “You have any idea how much I hated standing her up two months ago?”
“I’ve a good idea. I’m sorry for it now, but you won the fight. That’s what I needed from you. And what you needed for yourself. You can’t deny that you’d never been more focused.”
Only because he’d cut himself off from everyone. He trained, ate, slept, and trained some more.
“Being with Molly then would’ve been a distraction.”
“She’ll be a distraction now.” The best kind of distraction—not that he’d admit that to Maddox. “But now I have a better handle on what you expect of me for fight prep. And you know that I won’t hand grenade my career because of some random chick.”
“Molly wasn’t a random chick for you, Deacon,” Maddox pointed out. “That’s why we had to intervene.”
He shoved aside his resentment for the Maddox-led, Ronin-executed intervention—for the good of his career. “So when I saw her at the strip club, those brown eyes snapping fire at me, all I could think about was how much I wanted her and I’d been patient with her and the situation long enough.”
“You didn’t tell her that?”
Deacon looked at Maddox sharply. “Of course I did.”
“What exactly did you say to her?”
“That her and me were gonna happen.”
Maddox groaned. “Then you grabbed her by the hair, threw her over your shoulder, and stomped out?”
“The bouncer was watching me or I would have.”
“Been a while since you’ve been in a relationship, huh?”
Fuck if he wanted to tell him, but he admitted, “Since I was fifteen.”
Maddox shook his head. “I’d laugh and call bullshit, but I don’t think you’re kidding, D.”
“I’m not. After my last . . .” Hold on. Should you share the ugly part of your past with the guy who’s helping you build a future?
Deacon shrugged. “I’ve stuck to sex without entanglements. I don’t even understand why it feels different with Molly. I sure as fuck don’t know what to do about it now that I’ve royally screwed up again.”
“Tell her that.”
“Show up on her doorstep and blurt out what an idiot I am?” he said, a little horrified by that thought.
“You really are clueless.”
“That’s helpful, fuckhead.”
“Maybe something will come to you while you’re groveling. But make no mistake—that’s what it’ll take.”
“What if she won’t forgive you?” Maddox asked.
Deacon shot Maddox a dark look. “I’m blaming you. Then I’ll grovel and promise her that it’ll be the last time my trainer interferes with my love life.”
“Love life, eh?” Maddox nudged Deacon’s shoulder. “Speaking of . . . Now that you’ve poured your heart out to me”—Deacon snorted—“it’s time for you to return the favor.”
“I’ll definitely need to be punching shit while you’re jawing on about it.”
Maddox smiled. “That I can help with.”
MONDAYS were always busy at Hardwick Designs. But Molly thrived on it. She remembered the lean times—which hadn’t been that long ago.
Since she’d taken over as office manager, she’d freed up her boss, Amery, to work more on the creative side of the graphic-arts business. And Molly had streamlined their operations so Amery could spend more time with her husband, Ronin.
Part of the streamlining process had been hiring Presley Quinn—aka PQ, or Elvis—a kick-ass artist and one of the most out-of-the-box thinkers Molly had ever met. But Presley, for all her tats, piercings, funky clothes, and offbeat lifestyle, had no problem with taking direction and was very much a team player. After interviewing a dozen potential employees, Molly knew how rare that trait was in creative types. The irony was they’d met in Deacon’s kickboxing class at Black Arts, so they’d become friends first before Molly had approached Amery on the subject of hiring Presley. So far everything had worked out better than either she or Amery had imagined.
In addition to hiring Presley, Molly had convinced their friend, and Amery’s former coworker, Chaz Graylind, to work for Hardwick Designs. Chaz had some professional highs, followed by lows, and having a steady paycheck appealed to him. Plus, he’d proven in the last year that he had Amery’s back, after a personal issue caused her to question their friendship and his loyalty. The bonus was since they were all adrift from their families in some form, they’d formed their own family.
So after spending most of the day on the phone, Molly was happy when things wound down around four o’clock. Presley had a roller derby bout, so she left early. At five, Chaz breezed by, kissing her cheek, expressing regrets she couldn’t come along to happy hour. But she couldn’t wait to finish out her day in blessed quiet.
Lost in spreadsheets, she glanced up from her computer screen an hour later, when the front door chimed. Chaz must’ve forgotten to lock it.
She wheeled her chair around and headed to the reception area. Whoever had stumbled in could just deal with her bare feet, because those killer pumps were not going back on.
“Sorry. We’re closed—” was all she managed when she saw Deacon standing in the center of the room, shrinking the space with his presence.
Her intent to order him out of the building vanished when his smoldering gaze rolled over her and he said, “Looking good, babe,” in that sexy southern drawl.
“What do you want?”
“I said everything I needed to say Saturday night.”
“Fine. Then you’ll listen.” His long strides erased the distance between them. He grabbed her hand and towed her around the corner. Then he backed her against the brick wall.
And she let him, which annoyed her.
“Don’t know if I oughta be worried or excited by the way you’re looking at me.”
Her face heated. “Go with worried and go away, Deacon.”
He didn’t laugh. Point for him.
Even being mad at him didn’t lessen her attraction to him, which also annoyed her.
“I was a dickhead to you Saturday night. I’m sorry.”
She said, “That’s it?” with cool detachment.
Deacon shook his head. He opened his mouth. Closed it.
When a few moments passed and he didn’t tack on anything else, she said, “Can you get on with it?”
“Can you give me a goddamn minute? I can’t think when you’re glaring at me. Jesus, woman. You’re intimidating as fuck.”
Her jaw dropped. “What? Me?”
“Yes, you. You are smart and clever and you can just say what you mean the first time. I had this whole speech prepared, and then I get here and I see you and it’s just . . . gone.” The tension in his body and the fact he couldn’t meet her eyes indicated his distress.
Cut him some slack.
Molly couldn’t believe she was about to do this. “The best way to remember your speech is to recall the high points.”
His gaze snapped back to hers. “The what?”
“High points. The most important thing you wanted to say.”
“I already did that when I said I was sorry.”
“And . . . ?”
“And I was a dickhead.”
“And . . . ?” she prompted more firmly.
“And I want to start over with you.”
“You had the chance to start over and you blew it when you stood me up.”
“You never let me explain.”
“You never tried,” she retorted. “You showed up at my house three times when I missed kickboxing class. But after you stood me up, all I rated was a lousy text message?”
“Technically, I didn’t stand you up.”
“Yes, you did. And it’s too late for excuses.” She ducked under his arm and pointed to the front door. “Go.”
“Not an excuse but an explanation. See . . . I was there that day, the day of our date, sitting in the parking lot, watching you.” He described her outfit in detail, along with her facial expressions. “I was a fucking coward, staying in the car instead of coming in and telling you the truth.”
“Oh, that you suddenly remembered you weren’t attracted to me because I’m not a hot-bodied stripper?”
“Not. Even. Fucking. Close.” Deacon took a step forward with each terse word. “Maddox overheard our entire conversation in the dojo when I asked you out.”
Molly put her hands on his chest, stopping his advancement.
“He reminded me I needed to focus on my fight. When I told him my life off the mat wasn’t his fucking business, he made it his business.” The muscle in his jaw flexed. “He went to Ronin. They pulled me from teaching to concentrate fully on MMA training. I was pissed as hell.” He paused to inhale a deep breath. “Mostly because they were right.”
His blue eyes shimmered with regret. “And after the fight was over, I figured I’d grovel, but you’d already moved on. I worried I’d lost out on you to that pussy banker.”
Molly stared at him. This wasn’t the overly confident Deacon she knew. This man had vulnerability in his eyes as if he expected rejection. “It’s your career, Deacon. I could’ve handled you needing to focus on training. I would’ve been disappointed, but not angry and hurt.”
“Would you’ve gone out with Jake?”
Why did that bother him? “Would you have expected me to wait around until you were through with your fight?”
“Probably not.” He curled his hand around her face. “I can’t change the past, babe. I can apologize for it. Which I’ve done. I can ask you to forgive me for hurting you, which I’m doin’ now. And I can admit I want us to happen.” He offered a wry smile. “I did a shit job trying to get that across to you Saturday night.”
With Deacon close enough she could feel his body vibrating from nerves, she had a spark of hope this could be the beginning, not the end.
You’re such a sickening optimist.
No. You’re just a fool.
A fool about to take a big chance.
“Say something,” he urged.
“I only went on three dates with Jake and I didn’t sleep with him,” she blurted out.
Deacon eased back to look at her. “It kills me to ask this, but why not?”
“Because Jake didn’t do it for me. Like Fisher doesn’t do it for me. It’d be easier if . . .”
If other men did it for me, but they don’t. Not by half.
She’d tried, dammit. Telling herself over and over that other men besides Deacon were hot. Other men sported amazing bodies. Other men were inked with cool tats. Other men broadcast that don’t-fuck-with-me vibe. Other men spoke with a sexy voice that hit the mark between rough as gravel and smooth as whiskey.
But when all of those attributes belonged to one man and that man owned them without apology?
Goodbye, other men.
“Molly. Tell me.”
She swallowed hard at the intensity in his eyes. “You do it for me in a bad way, Deacon McConnell. You always have. Even when you scared the crap out of me.”
Then he slanted his lips over hers and kissed her with tenderness. And he seemed as surprised by that as she was. “Give me another chance,” he said as he feathered kisses up her jawline. “I can figure out how to do this relationship shit.”
“That’s what you want? A relationship with me?”
In that moment, when their gazes collided, the heat in his eyes imparted a few things.
Sex with him would be raw. Borderline rough. Rarely tender.
There wouldn’t be candlelit dinners beforehand.
There wouldn’t be cuddling or spooning afterward.
Being naked with him would likely ruin her for sex with mere mortal men.
Those thoughts must’ve been easy to read on her face, because Deacon treated her to the most wicked grin she’d ever witnessed. “I see a whole lot of interest in those pretty brown eyes, and no fear.”
“Oh, there’s fear.”
Right now she had too many to name, so she picked the most obvious one. “That you seeing me naked won’t be nearly as thrilling as me getting the full monty from you.”
“Not a chance in hell, babe.” Deacon’s hands landed beside her head. He leaned in, letting his smooth jaw rub against hers. His breaths teased her cheek, then moved lower.
The combination of the soft drag of his lips and the scrape of his teeth turned her skin into a mass of goose bumps.
“You wanna test that theory right now?”
“How would you do that?” she asked breathlessly.
“Unbutton your blouse,” he murmured against her throat.
She obeyed him without question—and she didn’t stop to ask herself why she had zero hesitation. She untucked her shirt from her skirt and started at the bottom, working her fingers up. When she reached the button between her breasts, the back of her hand brushed his chest. After unhooking the last button, she let her shirt hang open.
Deacon didn’t waste time. He planted sucking kisses from the hollow of her throat to the V of her cleavage. Then he traced the edge of her bra with his tongue, up the swell of her left breast, back down, then up the right side. He didn’t speak; he just tormented her with hot kisses, leisurely licks, and tiny nips. He muttered, “Fuck,” then sank his teeth into her flesh and sucked hard.
Molly gasped, more in surprise than in pain.
Keeping his mouth in place, he snagged her left hand and pressed it against the fly of his jeans.
Her palm met a rock-hard bulge.
He broke the suction of his mouth on her skin. “You’re half undressed and I’m fully hard. So yeah, I’m thrilled by the idea of seeing you naked, babe.” He brushed a soft kiss over the mark on her breast.
She glanced down; he’d left a big red hickey on her boob.
Then Deacon nudged her chin back up, forcing her to meet his hungry, sexual gaze. “You look at that mark over the next couple of days and make sure you understand what it means to be involved with a man like me.”
“Is that supposed to scare me?” Thankfully, her voice didn’t shake when she tossed out, “It doesn’t. Know why?”
He waited, those blue eyes still blazing at her.
“Because it’s really hot that you used your teeth on me just because you wanted to, so I guess I passed your little test to see if I’d get prudish.” Feeling reckless, Molly tilted her head, baring her neck. “I liked it. So mark me here.”
He didn’t hesitate. He opened his mouth over the spot. When he started to suck, her knees wobbled. But Deacon held her up, pushing his leg between hers. Palming her breasts. Squeezing the flesh with his strong fingers in time with the pulse beating in her throat.
She reached for him, wanting to feel the muscles in his back rippling as he positioned himself over her. Wanting to feel the muscles in his ass flexing as he powered into her. Wanting to feel the muscles in his chest abrading her nipples as he moved against her.
Cool air met the wet spot he’d created as he trailed kisses up her neck to her jawline.
“That’s what I want. My name on your lips.” He fit his mouth over hers and delicately licked the inside of her bottom lip until she opened for him fully.
No explosion of need, just pure sensual torture.
He ended the kiss but didn’t release his hold on her.
Breathing hard, they stared at each other.
Then Deacon leveled that devilish smile on her. “No more denying there’s nothing between us. From here on out, we are together.”
Not a question; a statement. “So it appears.”
“So what are we doin’ tonight?”
We. Lord, the man was a bulldozer. “Presley has a roller derby bout in Centennial. I need to change before we go.” We again.
“Need help?” His gaze swept over her from her unbuttoned shirt to her bare toes.
She pushed past her normal response to hide her body and listened to the voice that dared her to tease him. As she headed for the bathroom, she let her blouse flutter to the floor. She paused just outside the door and unzipped her skirt; then it too hit the carpet. Looking over her shoulder at him, she said, “Maybe next time.”
His eyes were firmly on her ass. She might’ve heard a growl before she shut the door in his face.
As she pulled on her jeans, her gaze caught on the red spot on her breast. Her fingers traced the mark. She’d never had a love bite before—just another rite of passage she’d missed.
When she leaned closer to the mirror to check her makeup, she noticed kissing Deacon had made her lips full and pink. No need for lipstick. She adjusted the drawstring on the hoodie and saw the other love bite. Holy crap. It was huge. She smoothed her hands down her hair, pulling the sections forward to frame her face and mask the mark. After slipping on her pink and black canvas sport clogs, she shouldered her backpack and exited the bathroom.
Deacon leaned against the wall, her blouse and skirt dangling from one finger.
“Thanks for picking those up.”
“I figured there might be questions in the morning if you left a trail of clothes.”
Molly rolled to her toes to peck him on the mouth.
Instantly Deacon’s arm circled her lower back, holding her in place as he kissed her with surprising sweetness. Then he released her and said gruffly, “Let’s go.”
She shoved her clothes in her backpack, shut off the lights, armed the alarm, and locked the front door.
On the sidewalk, she blocked the late-afternoon sun, noticing that Deacon already had his shades in place. “Do you wanna follow me?”
“Nope. I’ll drive us.”
“But then you’ll have to come all the way back here.”
“I don’t mind.” Then he relieved her of her backpack, slipped the strap up his left arm, and draped his right arm over her shoulder.
He brushed a soft kiss over her temple. “Love the shoes, babe.”
“They’re unexpected. Can’t wait to find out what other surprises you’ve got in store for me.”
“DO you go to a lot of roller derby bouts?” Deacon asked.
“It’s not like I attend them all like some rabid fangirl.”
Deacon peered over the top of his sunglasses and looked at her Denver Divas hoodie.
“Hey, I bought this at their fund-raiser.” She resisted sticking her tongue out at him. “I support my friend’s activities. Presley would do the same for me if I suddenly took up racquetball or golf. Not that it’ll ever happen, since me and athletics don’t go hand in hand.”
“You showed great improvement in kickboxing.”
“Improvement doesn’t count as much as natural ability.”
“Natural ability can only take you so far. Continual improvement is all that matters.”
“Are you improving with Maddox training you?”
“Be a sad state if I wasn’t with as much time as I spend with him,” Deacon drawled. “Did you attend my last fight?”
Molly shook her head.
“Because I stood you up?”
“Yes. You weren’t my favorite person. I might’ve rooted for your opponent that night.”
“Harsh.” The edges of his mouth turned up, half grimace, half smile. “There’s no in between with you?”
“If there weren’t, Deacon, I wouldn’t be here.”
That answer didn’t make him happy.
Molly looked out the window. As they drove along the outskirts of Denver with the rolling hills and animals grazing in the fields, she realized it’d been a while since she’d ventured out of the city. In the spring she’d always made a point of hiking several of the wildflower trails in the foothills, but she hadn’t this year. The summer wildflowers weren’t as vibrant as the spring varieties, and she knew if she didn’t make time to do it, it’d be another source of enjoyment abandoned. Maybe she could convince Presley to go with her. God knew Chaz would likely complain about bugs, sun, and dirt. Amery spent weekends with Ronin. Her next-door neighbor, Nina, might be game.
“Why the frown?” Deacon said. “What’d I do now?”
That sounded a little paranoid. “Nothing. I’m just thinking.”
She faced him. “Are you really interested, or just making polite conversation?”
“Babe. I’m not so much with polite conversation. You know this about me.”
“True. So I was thinking about taking a wildflower hike in the foothills.”
“Lemme know when and I’ll make sure my gun is cleaned before we go.”
We again? Really? Before she did a total dork move and squee’d, the gun comment registered. “Why would you bring a gun?” And why hadn’t he shot out a derisive remark about her stopping to smell the wild roses?
Because this Deacon—with the hot eyes and even hotter kisses—isn’t the brooding Deacon you know.
“Bears,” he said without sarcasm. “Those motherfuckers cover a lot of ground in the summer. Better to be safe than bear meat.”
“You like to hike?”
“I’ve never been. I’ve never been to a roller derby bout either.” A half smile flirted on his lips. “You’re getting me to try all sorts of new things.”
“I’m sure there are all sorts of new things you’ll get me to try too,” she returned with a provocative look.
After tossing his sunglasses on the dash, he placed a soft kiss on the inside of her wrist. “I stick to the basics when it comes to sex.”
“The basics?” she managed to get out. The heat in his eyes burned away the moisture in her mouth, making it hard to form words.
“Hot, wet, and as often as possible.” He sank his teeth into the fleshy part of her thumb.
She bit her lip, but a moan escaped.
“You don’t get to do that.”
“Try to keep quiet when you like the way I touch you.”
Molly felt her face and neck flush, but she didn’t look away.
“Sexy thing,” he murmured. “You tell me when it gets too intense.”
“Is that even possible?”
His eyes darkened. “Jesus, Molly.”
“I’m not being flip. I’ve only ever experienced intensity in small, singular doses.”
“And yet you say this doesn’t scare you?”
“How can I fear what I’ve never had?”
“Killing me here, babe.”
That gruff, sexy tone sent a shiver up her spine.
Deacon continued to stroke her cheek. “One hour.”
“One hour since I apologized. One hour since you agreed to give me a chance. One hour since I kissed you. I oughta be happy we’ve come this far in one hour.” His thumb returned to her mouth, and he outlined her top and bottom lips. “But it ain’t far enough. If I had my way? We’d spend the next hour, the hour after that, and the hour after that in my bed.”
Her sex pulsed. If he could rev her up this fast with words, what kind of heat and power could he generate with his mouth, his hands, and his body?
“You know . . .” she offered, “roller derby is overrated.”
“Don’t even fucking kid about that,” he growled. Then he kissed her hard. “Get outta the car.”
“Leave this for now. We’ll revisit it when we’ve both got clearer heads.”
Molly freed her inner temptress—who preferred instant gratification and thought revisiting this later was a bad idea—and unzipped her hoodie.
One tine at a time.
Deacon’s avid gaze followed that movement.
She stopped below her cleavage. Then she pulled the tank top aside. “Which mark screams clearer head to you? The one you gave me? Or the one I asked for?”
He bent his head over her chest.
She expected a quick nip, not a featherlight kiss.
Locking his gaze to hers, he righted her clothing. “Let’s go.”
Deacon draped his arm over her shoulder as they walked toward the school. “How long does this last?”
“It depends. I’d say . . . two hours. Why?”
“We’re eating after.”
They reached the ticket table by the door. She said, “Two, please.”
Deacon paid before Molly fished her wallet out. “When we’re together, I pay. Always.”
“Get used to it.”
With the large crowd in the gymnasium, Molly was relieved to see seating and not standing-room only. She pointed to the top of the bleachers. “That’s the best place to watch.”
After they settled in, Deacon threaded his fingers through hers. “Explain how this is played, because it doesn’t look like what I’ve seen in the movies or on TV.”
“This is a flat track. It’s used more commonly than the elevated track. Presley told me that when the team first started, they didn’t have a dedicated training place, so they had to practice in a parking lot.”
Deacon winced. “Sounds painful. I did my time training under less-than-ideal conditions.”
“I guess sweeping the area off with industrial brooms cut down on road rash. Everyone who started with the team has scars.”
“What’d they do in the winter?”
“They only played in a summer league.”
A commotion broke out on the floor, and Bloody Mary shoved an opposing team member.
Deacon stiffened beside her.
“She looks a lot different as Bloody Mary, doesn’t she?”
“Jesus. Marisol is a roller derby queen now?”
“I don’t know about being the queen. She’s the jammer. I’m surprised you recognized her with her clothes on.”
A heavy pause. Then, “Look at me.”
Dammit. She felt his pull and turned her head.
“I thought we were done with the strip-club fallout.”
“Then you don’t get to throw shit like that in my face.” Deacon lifted his hand and cupped her cheek. “One hour.”
“We became this one hour ago. I had a life before that. So did you. What—and who—came before doesn’t matter.”
“Ignoring things that happened in the past only means they’ll be harder to discuss down the road.”
“I’m not a big discusser, babe.”
“Well, I guess that’s about to change—isn’t it, babe?”
Deacon’s eyes narrowed.
Molly offered him a sunny smile. “We will have a detailed discussion about our expectations—both social and sexual.” She patted his thigh. “Chin up, buddy. It’ll give you something to look forward to during dinner.”
He stared at her.
She didn’t crack—but, lord, perky and determined was hard to maintain when faced with those calculating blue eyes.
Then Deacon smiled. A smile she hadn’t seen before. A smile that shot straight to the heart of her.
“Killing me, babe.” He kissed her decisively. “Now explain roller derby to me.”
The bout started, and the noise level in the gymnasium increased dramatically. Molly did her best to explain what a jam was, what rules a player violated to get a penalty, the difference between a jammer and a blocker. She admitted the scoring never made much sense to her.
When Presley went sailing across the floor and ended up dog piled by the opposing team, Molly stood and booed along with the rest of the Divas fans. Then she booed louder when Presley, who had a bloody nose and a gash on the outside of her calf, was penalized for tripping.
“You suck, ref! Pull your head out!” Molly shouted.
Deacon looked at her strangely when she plopped back down next to him.
“You’re a vocal fan.”
“Embarrassed you, did I?”
“Surprised me is all.” He ran his knuckles down the side of her face. “You’ll yell and scream at my opponent when you come to watch me fight?”
She couldn’t tell him the thought of seeing him bloodied turned her stomach. “Would that make you happy?”
“It’d make me very happy to see you sitting in my corner, babe. Never had my woman cheering me on.”
My woman. The growly way he said that just . . . got to her.
Another loud cry arose from the crowd.
Molly looked down on the floor. The players were in a massive fight. Punching, pushing, elbows flying, and more pushing. Even the secondary players skated into the fray.
“What just happened?” Deacon asked.
“I have no idea. I’ve never seen this before. Usually it’s a lot more sedate.”
Deacon hissed in a breath. “The chick from the other team just clocked Marisol.”
Blood Mary roared. She grabbed her attacker and knocked her down. Before Bloody Mary lived up to her name, whistles blew.
That garnered attention. The coaches separated the players and sent them back to their respective benches.
The ref skated over to the penalty box to confer with someone.
“Is there medical personnel at these bouts?” Deacon asked.
“Not officially. But the Divas’ coach’s wife is a nurse.” She paused. “Speaking of medical personnel, what do you think of Riggins?” Riggins was one of the new jujitsu instructors, who also served as medical adviser for the athletes in the MMA program and took care of injuries in the dojo. Big Rig was intimidating—partially because of his massive size, but also because he was majorly hot. Molly suspected some of the female students faked injuries just to have Riggins put his big hands on them.
“He knows his shit.”
“That’s not really an answer.”
He shrugged. “It’s what you asked. But if you meant what do I think of Riggins’s role at Black Arts? Whether he’ll stay through the building of the MMA program, or if he’ll just train with Sensei for belt advancement? Don’t think Riggins knows the answer to that.”
The referee moved to the center of the floor, brandishing a microphone. “According to regulations set forth by the national organization, in light of actions by both teams, I’m ending this bout as a double forfeit.”
A chorus of boos rang out.
“That’s a weird end to this.” Molly nudged Deacon’s shoulder. “Means you’ll get to eat sooner. But I have to see if Presley’s okay first.”
Deacon insisted on holding her hand, so she let him lead the way. When they reached the floor, Molly noticed the coaches were in a heated discussion with the referee. The players had spread out to remove their skates.
Presley was perched on the edge of a wooden bleacher seat, holding an ice pack to her face. A smile broke out when she spied Molly. But then she dropped her gaze to Molly and Deacon’s joined hands. “I left you three hours ago. In that time you managed to forget every damn thing we talked about?”
“Deacon showed up at the office and apologized. We realize we have a lot to talk about”—Deacon snorted—“but I’d promised I’d come tonight, so here we are.”
“I don’t know whether to smack you or hug you.”
“I wouldn’t recommend smacking her,” Deacon drawled. “Molly consistently outpunched you in class.”
“She outpunched everyone because someone gave her special treatment.”
“Nope. She’s just that good.”
“What happened tonight?” Molly asked, trying to change the subject, but secretly she basked in Deacon’s compliment.
“Double forfeit. They started the fight knowing we wouldn’t back down. Now the forfeit puts our losses even with theirs. So they did it to move up in the standings.”
Molly didn’t point out the Divas could’ve avoided the loss by not taking the bait and avoiding the fight. “When’s your next bout?”
“I’d have to look at the schedule. But I know we’re holding tryouts next month.” Presley said the last two words in a singsongy manner. “The Cisco Kid is moving back to Oregon, so there’s an opening on the team.”
Bloody Mary strolled by and did a double take at seeing Deacon. “Hey, hot stuff. Couldn’t get enough of me, eh?”
He lifted one eyebrow.
That’s when Bloody Mary noticed Molly and Deacon were holding hands. “You and Cherry? Never would’ve called that one.”
Rather than let it go, Molly said, “Why is that?”
“You lost your shit seeing me fully clothed on his lap. Imagine how you’d react seeing me doing this”—she gyrated her hips and lewdly thrust out her ass—“wearing only a G-string and a grin.”
“I’m imagining it, all right. Not sure whether a spinning back kick or an uppercut would be most efficient to knock you off his lap.”
“Jesus,” Deacon said under his breath.
Bloody Mary looked her over. Then she smiled. “Gotta respect a bitch who don’t back down when it comes to defending her gals or her guy.” Then she smirked at Deacon. “Watch your balls, ’cause sweet Cherry here is gonna own them.”
“And . . . we’re done,” Deacon said, dragging her away.
Shoot. She didn’t even get a fist bump from Presley for her excellent defense of her man.
He’s your man? After only a few hours?
Sure felt like it. Especially when Deacon pressed her against the building as soon as they were outside and devoured her mouth. The hot, wet kiss sent her pulse tripping. She became so light-headed she had to clutch him to keep herself upright.
He slid the heel of his hand above her heart. “Babe. Gotta remember to breathe when I kiss you.”
She sucked in a lungful of air on a huge gasp.
Deacon eased back and locked his gaze to hers. “Two things. One, there’s no fucking way I’ll ever let you strap on a pair of skates and run with those crazy-ass bitches. Two, made me fuckin’ hard hearing you threaten to take on Marisol for me.”
The possessive glint in his eyes? Hot. The decree of what he’d allow her to do? Not hot. At all.
Molly fisted her hand in his shirt, pulling him closer. “Two things. One, I’ll try out for the Divas if I want to. Two, now that we’re together? No more strip clubs.”
They stared at each other.
Surprisingly, Deacon broke eye contact first. He said, “Fine,” and kissed her.
But it was hard to maintain the kiss when she couldn’t stop smiling.
• • •
DEACON took her to a hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint.
He scooted into the booth so she could sit next to him. Then he stretched his arm behind her and played with her hair.
After they ordered, she said, “The staff seems to know you.”
“I eat here once a week. It’s the only place in Denver that serves Tex-Mex.”
“Mexican food is different in Texas?”
“Do you miss the Lone Star State?”
“Do you miss your family?”
“How often do you go home?”
“Don’t get along with them?”
Molly decided to stop asking questions that could be answered with one word. She jokingly said, “So I guess that means you won’t be taking me home to Texas to meet the family.”
He scowled. “I don’t do family shit, so no.”
She slid out of the booth and moved across from him, folding her arms on the table. “If you keep scowling like that, your face will freeze that way.”
Deacon finally smiled. “Good one.”
“First-date rule. Tell me something about yourself that you’ve never told another woman.”
A momentary look of panic crossed his face. Then the mask settled in place again. “I don’t like to answer a bunch of questions.”
“Ha! I’ll bet that’s standard answer with you. Not new, so try again.”
“I hate this shit.”
“I know. But that also doesn’t count as an answer. Tell me a secret.”
“I like to watch skating on TV.”
“Men’s or women’s or pairs?”
Molly leaned forward. “Hockey is not figure skating, Deacon.”
“I didn’t say figure skating. I said skating. Hockey players are the shit on the ice. So hockey counts as skating. Just a rougher version. Your turn.” He lifted his beer to hide his smirk.
You asked for this, smart-ass. “Sometimes I fantasize about a rougher version of sex.”
Deacon choked on his beer. “What the hell, Molly? Why would you . . . ?” His eyes narrowed. “You’re fucking with me.”
“Not yet,” she said sweetly. “And no more than you were when you said you liked to watch skating on TV.”
“I was telling the truth.” He sighed. “I changed it to hockey at the last second because I thought it might make me sound like a pussy, all right?”
She didn’t believe him. “So you really like figure skating?”
“To the point I fucking DVR’d the world championships and the Olympics.” He pointed at her with his beer bottle. “And if you tell anyone that, I’ll lie.”
“I believe you. Anything you tell me, I’d never tell anyone else.”
“Good. Back to your answer. Do you really like it rough?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never had it that way, which is why I said I fantasize about it.”
“What? Men don’t look at me and imagine pushing me up against a wall and fucking me, pulling my hair as I’m being fucked, or just taking me fast and hard in the heat of the moment.” When Molly looked up at him, her stomach cartwheeled at seeing the hunger in his eyes.
“You toss that out there? Expect I’ll pick it up and run with it. Because, babe, I can do rough.”
“Good. That’s what I want.”
“Then that’s what you’ll get,” he said softly. “But sometimes you’re gonna get it sweet from me too.”
Chills skittered down Molly’s arms from his first declaration, and her heart went mushy at his second. “I can deal with that.”
The waitress dropped off their food.
Molly eyed the two grilled chicken breasts topped with sliced avocado, the cup of whole black beans, and the pile of plain rice on his plate.
Deacon caught her looking at his meal. “What?”