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Fight For Me
By Jessica Linden
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Jessica Linden
All rights reserved.
Knox barely heard them shout his name. The minute he stepped into the cage, he was in the zone. Nothing existed except the fighter in front of him.
And nothing would stop him from winning.
As was customary before beginning the fight, he bumped his tattered, battle-scarred gloves with the other fighter's as a sign of goodwill. But it was all for show. Maybe in professional MMA fighting it meant something. However, in this filthy warehouse, it meant nothing. You did whatever it took to get the win.
The faint scent of bleach was in the air, not uncommon in the underground fight venues. Bleach washed the blood away. Once upon a time, Knox's blood had stained the cracked concrete, but these days that was rare.
Knox stayed light on the balls of his feet and hung back, studying his opponent. Size-wise, they were nearly equal. The guy was new to the circuit and young — Knox hadn't seen him fight before, so he'd wait to see what the guy brought to the table before making any moves.
He didn't have to wait long.
His opponent faked a left jab, then swung away with his right. Knox easily ducked out of the way, throwing an uppercut straight to the guy's kidneys. The kid responded by wrapping Knox in a clinch and attempting a takedown, but Knox planted his feet and refused to take the fight to the mat.
Knox preferred to win by knockout.
The kid came at Knox with a bull rush, trying to force Knox's back to the cage, but Knox anticipated the charge and looped his arm around the guy's neck, setting up a guillotine.
They centered up again, but before the guy could come at Knox for a third time, he closed in with a barrage of punches, unleashing the fury he'd saved up for just this moment.
Knox showed no mercy. MMA, like life, was not for the weak.
With a final and devastating right hook, the guy's neck snapped to the side, his hands dropped to his sides, and his body crumpled, falling to the mat with a satisfying thump.
Knox's gaze raised to settle on X's smug smile, the dim light glinting off his gold tooth. The shadows performed a grotesque dance over the scar in the shape of an X where his right eye had been. A suit next to X handed him an envelope bulging with money, a prize that Knox would only see a fraction of. It was an arrangement that was no longer welcome, but Knox had no way out of it.
As the ref raised Knox's right arm, Knox spat out his mouthpiece. He was done.
Natalie set her empty wineglass on the marble counter at the bar.
She shook her head. "No, just water, please." Her head needed to be clear tonight.
The bartender placed the requested glass on the counter, and Natalie dropped a bill into the tip jar. She wished Kat were tending bar tonight. It would have been nice to see a friendly, familiar face.
Natalie slipped away to an empty table in the corner of the room, where she could sit — hopefully unnoticed. At twenty-six and the sole heiress to the Farrington fortune, she was probably the youngest guest at the Kids Literacy Network gala.
She sipped her water, watching the elderly guests schmooze and dance while the full band played. This event itself probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to put on. Surely it would be money better spent to simply give it directly to the literacy fund, but when she'd mentioned that at the planning committee meeting, the horrified glares she received put her in her place. The older members of the group had an "older is wiser" mentality, and to them, she was still just a child.
She'd never been entirely comfortable at big events like these, dressed to the nines in designers she didn't care about and adorned with family heirlooms worth more than the servers here likely made in a year. Her father, on the other hand, was in his element. He'd shaken hands with everyone who was anyone in the room, even earning himself a seat at the local congressman's table.
Gerald Kent was a snake underneath his charming, smooth exterior. Natalie felt like she was the only one who knew what he was really like.
He was handsome — no one could deny that. As he'd aged, his dark hair had gotten gray at the temples, making him seem more distinguished, and added an air of sophistication he'd previously lacked. Her father had come up a long way in the world, wholly due to his late wife and her fortune. Anna Farrington had been kind, beautiful in a fragile way, a little naïve, and more importantly wealthy, making her easy prey for men like Gerald.
It had been fifteen years to the day since she died, and Natalie would give anything to have her mother here. Natalie's plans for the evening were fitting for the anniversary of her mother's death. It had taken her a while — too long if truth be told — to get the courage to move forward, but her mother would be proud.
She caught her father's eye from across the room; he crooked his finger at her and she knew that she was needed — or else. Sighing, she downed the last of her water and squared her shoulders, preparing to go into the lion's den that was the upper crust society at a charity event.
"Natalie, my dear," her father said smoothly. "Have you met our chief of police? This is Chief Follett."
Natalie affixed the smile on her face that she knew was expected. "It's a pleasure to meet you, sir."
"Likewise." Follett sipped what appeared to be scotch, scanning the room. Although Natalie had never met the man before, she'd read in the paper about him and how he'd worked his way up the chain from a basic beat cop to the chief of police. He had the grizzled look of a man who'd seen his fair share on the streets.
"His wife, Mrs. Follett," her father said, continuing with the introductions.
"Are you enjoying yourself, my dear?" Mrs. Follett asked with a kind smile. She had the look of a grandmother who regularly baked chocolatechip cookies for her grandchildren, causing Natalie to once again feel a pang of loss for her mother and grandparents, who had passed shortly after the death of their only daughter.
"Everything has been lovely," Natalie responded.
Chief Follett gestured to two men sitting at the table behind him. "These are some of the police department's finest — the recently promoted Lieutenant Schafer and Lieutenant Vasquez."
The men, obviously uncomfortable in their dress uniforms, nodded stiffly at Natalie.
Mrs. Follett turned to her husband. "As much as I hate to say it, we should probably call it a night. Thomas has a baseball game bright and early tomorrow." She smiled at Natalie. "Thomas is our grandson. He's eight."
"Don't let us keep you," Natalie's father said. "It's been a pleasure."
When they had gone, the congenial look in his eyes was replaced by his normal calculating one. "Where have you been all night?" "I've been here," Natalie replied. "These shoes hurt my feet, so I've been sitting down."
He narrowed his eyes at her and surveyed the room one final time as he buttoned his tux jacket. "Well, I suggest we leave. There's no one worthwhile left to talk to."
He put his hand on the small of her back to guide her out of the room. She knew how they appeared — the perfect devoted father-daughter pair.
But they were anything but that.
As soon as they were settled in their limo, her father lit a cigar. She scooted as far away from him as she could and cracked a window. He knew she hated when he smoked in the car. She'd smell like cigar smoke until she showered, and even then, the scent would linger.
"Did you have a nice time?" she asked. It was easier to engage him in idle chitchat than to wait for him to accuse her of some wrongdoing.
"The salmon was dry," he said. "At a thousand dollars a plate, you'd think they could cook the damn fish properly."
"I'm sorry to hear that. The chicken was good."
"Weren't you on the planning committee?"
She nodded. Here it comes. She didn't bother telling him that the board members wouldn't let her actually help with anything. The only reason they'd even allowed her on the committee was because of the Farrington name and the money that came with it.
It seemed silly that the charitable cause had such a social hierarchy, like they were meeting in a high school lunchroom instead of five-star restaurants.
Strangely, her father let this one go, choosing not to criticize her. "I pledged several thousand more to the cause. We'll take it out of your trust's monthly allowance."
There it was. Living in the Farrington mansion, she wanted for nothing.
Nothing but freedom.
In theory, she was entitled to several thousand every month from her trust, but somehow every month the money was gone before she could get her hands on it. Her father controlled the allowance, generously decreeing that she could buy whatever she wanted using the family's American Express Black Card and her inheritance would pay the bill. But if she bought what she really wanted — a one-way ticket out of there — her father would sic the guards on her before she could even get one toe past the front door.
Natalie looked down at her lap and smoothed the wrinkles out of her dress, a smile threatening to erupt at the mere thought of the look that would be on her father's face when he woke up in the morning to find her missing.
Knox made his way through the crowd toward the locker room, the other fighters in X's crew congratulating him and giving him pats on the shoulder. He glanced back at the cage where two rookies were starting to battle it out in their debut matches. The smaller one had potential, but damn, he couldn't be older than fifteen. Too young for this shitty excuse for a life. Yeah, it was easy to get sucked in by the allure of X's empty promises. He'd fallen for the same ploy over a decade ago. Those ten years in the cage now felt like twenty.
And he'd give anything to go back and make a different choice.
He pushed through the door of the sorry-ass excuse for a locker room to find Tony, a fellow fighter, doing his warm-up stretches.
"Did you win?" Tony asked.
Knox snorted and sat on the bench. He was X's top fighter, but for whatever reason, X hadn't pitted him up against anyone of his caliber for at least the last year. This fight was a joke.
Tony laughed. "Stupid question."
Out of all the guys, Tony was the only one he considered a friend. He was a few years younger than Knox and had showed up about three years ago wanting to train. That was how it happened more often than not these days — X didn't have to actively recruit anymore. The guys came to him.
The other guys gave Knox a wide berth, but not Tony. He kept trying to bring Knox into the fold, like he was the damn social chair in a sorority. Knox liked the younger guy, but he didn't get him. He was an anomaly — an honest man among thieves. Everyone else had an element of asshole to their personalities, but Tony was an all-around good guy.
Knox wondered what had prompted him to turn to X, but he figured it wasn't his business. If Tony wanted him to know, he would tell him.
"You can't lose, man," Tony said. "One of these days, we're going to be watching you on Pay-per-view."
More like impossible. Pros weren't allowed anywhere near their matches, and anyway, X would never let him go.
The door clanged open, and X entered the room wearing his usual all-black ensemble — black suit, black shirt, black tie, black shoes. He'd never altered his clothes, not in all the years Knox had known him. Back when Knox still gave a fuck, he wondered if X's good eye had been damaged when he'd lost his other one.
X stretched his arms wide as a seedy smile stretched across his face. "Gentlemen." He was the king of this dusty dank hellhole, and he beckoned his subjects to worship him.
Fuck that. Knox had spent enough time sucking up to this asshole.
"Sir," Tony said.
"You're due out on the floor," X said. Tony nodded and exited the locker room.
X waited until the door had slammed closed before approaching Knox. "What did you think of your match?"
Knox was surprised by the question. Since when did X care about his opinion?
"I won," he said in a neutral tone. Just like when fighting, it paid to not give anything away. He would use it to manipulate you, back you into a shitty corner, and never let you out.
"I know it's early to talk about your next fight, but we need to," X said, getting down to business. The niceties were over. "What if you could earn five times your normal cut in just one fight?"
Knox almost snorted. If he got that, he would be getting his fair share, what he was actually worth in the ring.
Pros easily made that money. A small kernel of hope surfaced, but Knox crushed it immediately. He wasn't actually stupid enough to think that X would ever go legit, because that would mean he'd have to walk the line.
"What's the catch?"
"The catch is inconsequential."
At least he didn't bother denying there was one.
Knox stayed silent, waiting for X to elaborate. This whole situation was strange. Knox was stuck — he knew it and X knew it. He was a high school dropout with no skills beyond those he gained using his fists. Fighting was the only thing he knew. So he'd fight, and he'd win. What was so different about this fight that X felt they needed to chat?
"How long has it been since you've lost a fight?"
Knox shrugged. "A while." Years.
"You're a sure bet." He paused. "There's a new guy coming in next week. I hear he's pretty good. 'Bout as good as you, I'd say."
Knox clenched his fists. Goddammit, X liked to hear himself talk. Get to the fucking point.
"It's not a stretch to think you might lose."
It took Knox a second longer than it should have to put it all together.
"Fuck that. You want me to lose? Hell, no. I won't take a dive." He started to stand, but X put both hands on his shoulders and shoved him back down on the bench.
"You can't think about it that way. This is a business arrangement."
"Again, fuck that."
Knox was a good fighter, arguably the best, and that was the only thing he had going for him. He'd trained hard to get there, and he'd be damned if he was going to compromise what reputation he had. The integrity of the fight was the only thing that kept him going. His opponents might not be as good as he was, but he won his matches fair and square.
"Knox, my boy, I've been building you up for just this moment. Don't be a fool and let all this preparation go to waste. I need you on board so I can make the deal tonight. Just think of the money. It's time you got your payday. "
It all made sense now — why X hadn't been putting him up against better fighters. He'd been setting him up this whole time.
Anger clawed at his gut — a hungry monster that demanded to be fed. He had to get out of there before he did something he couldn't take back.
Knox stood. "We're done here."
"We're done when I say we're done," X sneered.
Knox slowly turned, clenching his fists so hard his arms shook.
"That's right, son. You stay when I tell you to stay. You fight when I tell you to fight. And you lose when I tell you to lose. You're nothing without me. I made you. You got that? I ... made ... you."
Fuck. Knox closed his eyes for a brief second, his blood pounding in his ears. He was done. So fucking done.
Before X could see it coming, Knox swung with his right hand, clocking X in the temple and sending him sprawling across the bench.
"What the —" X didn't have time to complete his sentence.
Knox picked him up and slammed him into the wall of lockers. X threw one arm up to try to protect his ribs while reaching down with the other one to pull out a knife tucked behind his belt. The blade wasn't long, only about five inches, but that made it easier to handle in close combat. The knife flashed across Knox's arm before he shoved X away, causing him to crash into the sink. A stunned expression graced his face as if he couldn't believe his number-one fighter was turning on him.
X had no idea how long Knox had been waiting to shed his blood. He'd barely been able to contain his rage in the last few months, though it had been building for years. Now that he was giving in to it, an odd sense of freedom washed over him.
It was something he hadn't felt in a long time.
Knox held his arms out in an imitation of X's earlier stance when he first entered the gym. "Still wanna tell me what to do?"
In his hand, X rotated the knife already streaked with Knox's blood. Knox glanced down at the gash in his arm, but he didn't even feel it. All he felt was the fury running through his blood.
Excerpted from Fight For Me by Jessica Linden. Copyright © 2016 Jessica Linden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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