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Steph paused at the bottom of the steps, gym bag in hand, and gave the space a long study. Wilinski's Fight Academy.
It wasn't how she remembered it from her last visit, in November.
It looked like a bomb had exploded.
The cardio equipment and mats and the boxing and octagonal rings were crowded to one side, the other half overtaken by milling contractors and stacks of cinder block.
In the fighters' cornerthe sounds of gloves whacking and men grunting, the bass din of the hip-hop that fueled their drills.
In the workers' cornershouted questions and directions, the squeal of a band saw or sander from inside the space that would become a second locker room in a couple weeks' time. A thick sheet of rubber flaps hung over the would-be door, but dust still escaped.
Sweat and concretethe scents of laboring men.
Steph had sampled enough of each to last a lifetime. The next time she got close to a guy, she hoped to heck he smelled like a gentleman. Whatever gentlemen smelled like. Cedar, maybe, or citrus or leather, or that stuff from Hermes that she'd bought for her older brother one Christmas. Robbie had taken one sniff and made a face, so she'd snatched it back, promising to get him Bruins tickets instead. Now the bottle lived in her bedside drawer, and occasionally she spritzed it on her pillow and pretended it was evidence of her incredibly urbane boyfriend, out of town in Brussels, attending a convention for surgeons or dignitaries or CIA operativesany job that came with really sophisticated Christmas parties, so she'd have an excuse to wear heels and curl her hair. Someday. Somehow.
For now, here she was in a gym, construction dudes on one side, fighters on the other, a big old buffet of the kinds of guys she used to date. Perfectly nice ones, likely. Good, hardworking men like her dad and brothers and her friends and exes from Worcester. But she was in Boston to start a new chapter, one that might feature a boyfriend with soft, strong hands and a college degree and a knowledge of Scotch.
And one who wouldn't be embarrassed to introduce her, saying, "And this is my girlfriend, Steph, the retired cage fighter."
Yeah, good luck with that.
She toed off her sneakers and tucked them in one of the cubbies by the door. Giving the construction chaos a wide berth, she headed for the workout area, scanning for a familiar face. She found one, its owner busy leading a group in kickboxing drills.
Rich Estrada. She'd met him at a big event in Vancouver the previous spring, and she ought to sue him for emotional distress, for hoisting her hopes up to such dangerous heights.
The first time she'd laid eyes on him, he'd been dressed for a press thing, sauntering around in a suit. He didn't have a fighter's facenot yetand she'd been intrigued. The kind of sophisticated guy she never crossed paths with. The event had been held at a huge casino, and she'd assumed he was some jet-set high roller visiting from the Riviera or someplace. She'd been in for a shock the next day when she glanced to her side and found him whacking a heavy bag in the gym. And when they'd spokenthat accent. He sounded like every guy she'd known growing up, dropping all his R's and sticking extra ones where they didn't belong. The most elegant man she'd ever seen, and he winds up being Boston disguised as Barcelona.
He called a water break now and she caught his eye, waving.
She winced. She'd been fighting as Penny for ages, a nickname from when her baby brother hadn't been able to pronounce "Stephanie." It had stuck because her hair was red as copper, and she'd competed as Penny beginning with her preteen karate days. Since then it had followed her through her first true love, judo, then jujitsu, then on to mixed martial arts. It was time she put her foot down. Here and now she'd quit being the person everyone imagined she was, and start being who she wanted to be.
"I prefer Steph," she reminded Rich.
"Sorry, I knew that. Steph. Welcome home."
She looked around, nodding. "This'll do."
"Don't say that. You're here to help us haul this dungeon out of the dark ages. Make Wilinski's into Bahstan's premieh gym for mixed mahtial ahts," he said, making fun of his own accent.
"I'd have thought that was your job, Mr. Celebrity." She sighed, frowning her commiseration. "Sorry about Rio." He'd lost his title to Vicente Farreira a couple months earlier in Brazil, under suspect circumstances. "If the organization doesn't run a doping investigation on Farreira, they're in for a shit-storm. Nobody's build changes that muchnot dropping down a weight class."
Rich shrugged. "The controversy's been good for me. Got a match in August with a payday that'll keep me from bitching about pretty much anything. And months to prepare."
"Nice." Steph could appreciate how luxurious that must feel. The female side of MMA wasn't nearly as popular, and with fewer major events, she'd often taken offers with less prep time than was ideal, not wanting to miss an opportunity. But now she was retiredfrom the stress of the road, if not the sport. At the moment she felt relieved, though she knew in time she'd probably miss the focus that came with a match on the horizon. Though not as much as she'd come to miss feeling grounded the past couple years.
She'd be thirty in less than three weeks, and was ready to start working toward goals that hadn't mattered until recentlya place of her own, a taste of real dating, a relationship, a family down the road. Her aggressively autonomous twenty-three-year-old self would've laughed, but Steph apparently had a biological clock. And it had begun to tick, if softly. A rough loss and a stress fracture had officially cooled her commitment to the pro life. She'd managed to never break anything worse than her nose and a few toes all these years, and for the first time ever, she realized she might like to keep it that way.
Rich whistled to call the members back from their break. "Get in on this, if you want," he told her.
"Just let me change. Am I still in the lounge?"
"'Fraid so. But until our female membership takes off, you'll practically have that new locker room all to yourself once it's finished. Though I'll warn you, it's tiny. You wouldn't believe the loopholes we had to squeeze through to even get planning permission to retrofit it."
"I'm sure it'll do."
She crossed to the room beside the gym's office and closed the door. There was no lock, so she pushed her bag against it, rooting through her workout clothes, swapping her winter coat and jeans for warm-ups and a jog bra. She tugged on the latter, untwisting the straps as she dug for a top. Thenbonk.
The door was shoved in, whacking her in the nose.
No matter how many times she took a punch there, the startling, white pain of it never got easier. She cupped her hands to the spot as she straightened, suddenly face-to-face with one of the construction guys. His recognition dawned slowly.
"Oh, sorry. Did I just thump you in the head?"
"Yes." She drew her fingers away. When his blue eyes widened, she glanced at her palm, covered in blood.
"Holy shit. I'm sorry. Uh, here.. " He muscled his way through the half-open door, toppling the contents of her gym bag, tools from his canvas belt clattering and clanging against the metal frame He unbuttoned his flannel work shirt, offering it to Steph.
Not wanting to drip blood on her own clothes, she wadded it against her nose.
"Sorry," he said again. "I didn't know anybody'd be in here. I'm supposed to wire your new TV." He nodded to a big box leaning against the wall, splashed with a picture of a flat-screen. "I'm the electrician."
Preoccupied with pressing her bridge, scouting for a break, Steph didn't reply.
"Should I get on with it, or ?"
She abandoned her nose, spreading her arms to showcase the rather obvious fact that she was dressed in her bra. "I'm kind of changing, here."
"Oh jeez. Sorry."
"Never mind." Steph wasn't modest. She'd changed in far less private venues than this, and once a warm-up banished the January chill from her muscles, she'd be back down to her bra for training. "Just shut the door and get on with it."
He did, sidestepping the mess he'd made of her clothes. "I won't look," he assured her, busying himself with the box. "Just pretend I'm not here."
She checked to make sure the bleeding had stopped, then tugged on a long-sleeved compression top. She cast her hapless assailant a glare as he crouched to organize TV components on the carpet.
He looked like every guy she'd taken shop class with in high school, the very epitome of Massachusetts working-class guyhood. Sandy brown hair that managed to look messy despite its short cut, caramel-colored Carhartt pants, work boots, a forest-green tee whose front Steph was positive would bear the logo of a contracting company. The cotton was pulled taut between his broad shoulders, but she was through being seduced by such sights.
She knew this guy too well already. He'd have a truck parked along the curb outside with a Sox decal on one side of the rear window, Pats on the other. He grilled a perfect burger and owned a large, happy dog, and played touch football with his buddies on the weekends, come rain or snow. His name was Ryan or Mike or Pat or Brendan. Brendan Connolly, Doyle, McCarthy, McAnything. Sully, Smitty, Murph. His hands felt like sandpaper and his skin smelled of Lever or Zest.
She knew these things, because she'd already dated this guy ten times over. Guys as comfortable as a broken-in pair of sneakers, but Steph wanted something more. She wanted to be swept off her feet, not pulled onto the couch for an afternoon of SportsCenter, with Coors-flavored makeout sessions during the ads.
"My name's Steph, by the way," she said, angling to learn his.
He kept his eyes on his task. "Sorry again, about your nose, Steph."
"I've got a shirt on now."
He turned and got to his feet, the promised logo from J.T.'s Contracting greeting Steph. He was tall, six feet or so, and had a handsome, honest face, the kind that advertised a man's every emotion. Strong jaw behind a couple days' stubble. And those blue eyes were so blue. Steph wanted to slap herself for even noticing.
The guy frowned, squinting at her nose. "It's not broken, is it?"
She shook her head and tossed him his button-up. "Just a nosebleed. I've had worse." Though usually she at least got paid for it.
His eyes rolled back with relief. "Oh good. I mean, not good. But you know."
"I know." She cocked her head at him. "What's your name?"
Of course it is. "I'll see you around, Patrick. Maybe next time you'll knock."
"I will, don't worry. Againsorry. Seriously."
He wore the guileless look of a scolded puppy, and Steph felt some annoyance lift. She offered a half-assed smile and turned away, tucking her gym bag in the corner.
Rich spotted her as she approached the mats, dark eyes widening. "Jesus, what happened to your nose?"
"Your electrician punched me in the face with a door."
"You punch him back?"
She smirked. "Thought I'd save that for the ring."
"Is it broken?"
"No. Just tell me if it starts bleeding again." Steph could sense the well-groomed professionals forming an orderly queue outside the gym, just dying for a chance to woo such a glamorous woman as she.
Rich asked her to take the lead on grappling drills and she was relieved to find Patrick gone from the lounge when she went to pull on her gi. Wilinski's didn't have a proper jujitsu program yether arena, nowbut she did her best with the ragtag group of uniformless members.
If the guys were feeling weird about having a woman in their ranks, they didn't show itno leering, no skepticism. Some men could be royally macho pricks, but on the whole, fighters were a sensitive group. Theirs was a humbling, emotional sport, most of the bravado reserved for the cameras.
She'd had better offers than Wilinski's, money- and profile-wise, but there was something appealing about the challenge. She could step in as it went co-ed and feel like a part of the evolution, feel invested and valued. Feel rooted to something after way too many years of going wherever the fights were. Stability, after all that transience.
Once the lunchtime sessions wrapped, Rich showed her around the office and the computer system.
"Mercer's better with this crap," he said, frowning as he clicked through folders on the laptop. Mercer was the gym's general manager.
"His wife owns the dating service upstairs, right?" Sparka slick-looking operation whose glass-fronted office shared the foyer with the gym. The most mismatched neighbors in small-business history.
"His fiancée," Rich corrected, managing to find and print the form he'd been looking for. "Jenna Wilinski."
"Her dad opened this place in '82. She inherited both floors."
Her brows rose. "The plot thickens."
"She nearly gave the gym the chop, but luckily Mercer managed to seduce her away from reason."
"I'd have thought that was your job."
He grinned. "I know, right?"
"Doesn't your girlfriend work up there, too?" If memory served, the woman was refreshingly down-to-earth, compared with all the glammed-out girlfriends-of-fighters Steph had met over the years.
Rich nodded, fetching the papers the printer had spat out. "It's all very incestuous around here. Must be in the water."
She held in the questions she was longing to ask, knowing Rich was the kind of guy who'd tease her mercilessly if she gave him the ammunition. So is she good, this matchmaker? What sort of guys might she find for a chick who's spent the past decade scrapping in chain-link octagons? Would I look dumb for even asking if she 'd want me as a client?
Steph had grown up an hour's drive from here. She didn't know anyone in Boston, not outside this gym, and didn't have the first clue how to go about meeting the kind of men she'd like to date. She was useless at the bar scene, given what a teetotaler training turned one into, and didn't relish taking up tango or speed-dating or going it alone on some freebie personals site. If she was going to find a boyfriend, she'd do it the right way. Do it through a service that attracted sophisticated, grown-up men who were looking for something serious. Spark might be the perfect solution and a worthy expense, provided she could muster the balls to ask.
"Autograph this," Rich said, handing her a safety waiver. "And Mercer's got tax and payroll forms for you, too, someplace." He rummaged through a filing cabinet and Steph read and signed all the papers.
"So, how you settling in?" he asked, relaxing back in the chair. "You find a place you like?"