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"Not tight enough. Start over."
Though the guy suppressed his frustration well, Rich knew he was getting cussed out in the privacy of the teenager's head.
Tough shit, kid. Get yourself a paid fight and you can be the colossal dick for a night.
The gauze was obediently unwound from Rich's palm, the elaborate process started all over.
Mercer cut through the locker room chaos carrying a tub of Vaseline. According to the promotional materials, he was Rich's trainer. In truth, Rich trained himself. He liked it that way, not having to answer to anybody. But after tonight he'd be committing to a manager, landing a deal with a major mixed martial arts organization. He'd get hauled out of Boston and obscurity and shipped out west to train under a team of MMA specialists. Saddled with a half dozen guys riding his back about every mile he ran, every forkful of food or drop of booze that passed his lips, every last detail that led up to him stepping into the ring.
Oh frigging well. Price of success.
"You look good," Mercer said, crouching and unscrewing the tub's lid.
"You look real pretty, too, Merce."
"You look calm. If you're faking it, keep it up." He smeared Rich's temples, cheeks and forehead, to reduce the friction when he took a shot to the face.
When Rich's hands were finally wrapped and taped to his satisfaction, Mercer passed him his fingerless MMA gloves.
"Where's your mouth guard?"
"Quit fussing, grandmaI got everything organized. Go celebrate for a few minutes." Mercer's actual trainee, Delante, had won his first real pro fight twenty minutes earlier, with a skull-thumper of a closing punch. "Get that kid cleaned up for the press and tell him not to mumble."
"Fine. I'll be back." Mercer slapped Rich's shoulder and took off.
Rich tugged on his gloves, gave his fists a squeeze. Nice and snug. He liked the feeling with the medical tape in place, that promise of a proper scrap, no sparring tonight.
He was a good fightera hell of a good fighter, if you factored in how DIY his regimen wasbut he had more than that going. He was six-three and had made weight at 204. He was built and goddamn good-looking, and had what his late mentor called "the magic." That thing you can't build in a gym or find in a supplement bottle. That thing that made guys want to hit you and made their girlfriends want to wake up in your bed.
Nobody respected a pretty face inside the ring, and that suited Rich fine. Whatever had people hungry to see him lose, bring it on. Whatever had opponents hating him for winning, whatever had promoters eager to give him another match. Love and hate felt the same when you were high on adrenaline, and your detractors shelled out the same money for tickets as your fans did. That hate-ability plus a solid win tonight and Rich would get signed. Give it nine months and a couple decent matches and he'd be on the magazine covers, courted by equipment and vitamin companies for the right to slap his face on their ads. Whether it'd still be so pretty by then
Didn't matter. Rich would win, he'd sign, his future manager would handle the offers. He'd suck it up and take whatever orders his training team barked, and he'd be successful. Of that, he had no doubt.
But he wasn't hungry for thatfame or attention.
He was hungry for a fight, sure. That was a perk. But the thing that lit a fire in his gut, made him salivate for this moment, was the money.
Fifteen grand when he won tonight. Down the road, once he signedtwenty, thirty, fifty and up, plus the endorsement deals. And he'd lease his face to whoever offered him the fattest checks, and cash them with no qualms.
It might not be honorable, but Rich Estrada fought for money. Because fighting was the thing he was good at, the diploma he'd never earned, the only marketable talent he had.
He fought because if he didn't, his mom would be dead inside a year.
The arena was in turns dim and blinding, the air pungent with a hundred clashing aromas. Lindsey Tuttle was planted in the thick of it, three rows from the action and close enough to hear every kick and punch and grunt.
The cage was eight-sided, walled in by chain-link, and it held two bloodthirsty opponentsjust names off a fight card, men Lindsey didn't know beyond their records and vital stats.
She leaned in toward her boss and friend, Jenna, to shout-whisper, "Who's winning?"
"I dunno." On closer inspection, she saw that Jenna's eyes were squeezed shut. It seemed she'd reached her capacity for spectating during the previous match, watching with her hands clamped to her mouth as her boyfriend, Mercer's young protege, had won his first big fight. It hadn't been too bloodya lot of rolling around, then one wince-worthy punch that sprayed red across Delante's opponent's cheek. It had dropped the guy's limbs like deadweight and had the ref announcing a knockout halfway through the third round.
Lindsey watched the two strangers grappling under the lights. There was no commentary to explain what was happening, and she wasn't sure which of the guys tangled on the ground was pinned, and which was doing the pinning.
But damn, it was exciting.
It was the fourth fight of the night, the big-deal bouts still to come. Lindsey worked for Jenna's matchmaking company in Chinatown, and their office was located one floor above the mixed martial arts gym Mercer managed. Aside from Delante, the only fighter Lindsey knew from the gym was slated for the third-to-last match. She glanced at his name on the fight card. Rich Estrada.
But only because she didn't want her acquaintance getting his face broken. Not because Rich's huge, alarming body gave her feelings. Most certainly not. He was singularly the most obnoxious man she'd met in ages.
As shouts rose all around her, she realized she'd spaced out. The crowd roared, but with delight or disappointment? Men's emotions all wound up sounding the same if you doused them with enough testosterone and alcohol.
A winner was proclaimed, his sweaty arm hoisted by the ref.
If Rich won his match, he stood a chance of "escaping the dungeon," as Mercer had worded itmoving on to bigger and better things than toiling all day in the subterranean sweatbox also known as Wilinski's Fight Academy. It had been a respected boxing gym in the eighties when Jenna's dad, Monty, had opened it, but after a criminal scandal and the sport's decline in popularity, the place had gone to seed.
Now Mercer was at the helm, saddled with the unenviable task of bringing it back into legitimacy with the addition of MMA training and some overdue improvements. Delante and Rich winning their matches could do wonders, he'd said. Bragging rights were everything in this business.
"I need a drink," Jenna said, eyes finally open. Her face was pale. This was clearly not her sport. Too bad she'd fallen in love with Mercer. His years as an amateur boxer had left him with a misshapen nose and cauliflower ears, and Jenna must have been imagining it was his face being pounded every time a strike landed.
She rose and Lindsey rooted in her wallet for a ten. "Get me a beer?"
Lindsey was enjoying the exotic atmosphere. Cleaners had to disinfect the ring between matches, mopping away the blood and sweat, and the air was charged with adrenaline. She'd grown up in a family of hockey fanatics, but with hockey, the fights were a bonusicing on a cupcake. MMA was nothing but frosting.
As the prefight prep wound down, her fascination shifted. Rich's match followed the next one. Her energy dropped low, humming in her belly.
Just nervous for him, she told herself, nearly believing it.
Rich was a handsome, fearless showman, the center of his own universe. And he was annoying enough simply acting as though Lindsey must be in awe of him when he swung by their office to flirt. He'd surely be insufferable if he found out she had an actual crush on him, as superficial and physical as it was.
Superficial and physical and inconvenient. She was supposed to be trying to make her current relationship work.
Work being the operative word. Relationships shouldn't be work at twenty-seven. They should be fun and natural.
But things with Brett were exhausting and serious, and if she wasn't mistaken, they were moving backward. They'd gotten engaged before relocating from Springfield to Boston. He'd moved to take his first law job and she'd followed after securing her own gig as a wedding planner. He'd broken the engagement after one month of cohabitation. Nothing like faking adoration for other women's diamond rings right after packing your own away in the back of your sock drawer.
They'd needed to slow things down. Too many changes, too soon, he'd said. New city, new career, new home old girlfriend, she'd inferred. A girlfriend who'd sufficed when Brett had been a broke student, but didn't seem to be cutting it now. She knew that whatever he felt about the old apartments he'd lived in and his former identity as a kind, lovable dork he now felt the same about her, too. They'd been friends since eighth grade, confidants through high school and finally a couple when Brett came back to Western Mass for law school. That history had been the backbone of their romance. But Lindsey had borne witness to the old Brett, and it seemed the new, polished, hotshot Brett resented her for it. It made living with him a daily struggle.
Jenna returned, handing Lindsey a plastic pint of beer and a wad of change.
Jenna sat and gulped half her red wine in one swallow. Lindsey laughed. "You're going to make the worst fight wife ever."
"Don't tell me you're actually enjoying this?"
"Oh, God, yeah. I have no idea how to tell who's winning, once they get rolling around on the ground, but it's still fun. Plus you know. Half-naked sweaty men."
Jenna shot her a squirrelly look. During a wine-soaked working lunch the previous week, Jenna had weaseled the Brett situation out of Lindsey. She normally liked to keep her personal life personal, but that was hard when your bossand best friend in a new citywas pathologically romantic.
Last week, Lindsey and Brett had been on-again. As of three nights ago they were off-again, to the tune of a mutually negotiated free-to-see-other-people experiment. They still cared for each other, but as friends now, more than lovers. She'd poured years of love and energy into what they had, but it had begun to feel like an obligation, not a commitment.
"Brett doesn't care if I look at other guys," she assured Jenna. Let her think they were still together if it made her happy. "You're not one of those types who think checking people out is cheating, I hope?"
"I'm not that old-fashioned."
"It's a very pervy sport," Lindsey said with approval. "Our payback for women's beach volleyball uniforms."
"You perv all you want, but I'm keeping my eyes shut. They ought to make special blurry glasses, so you can't see the blood."
After a noisy introduction, the next match began.
The guys seemed to be getting bigger, the crowd more excited. Lindsey felt the energy herself, an electric stirring in her middle, not quite fear, not quite arousal, but as primal as both.
No shoes, no shirts, fingerless gloves. Muscular men rolling around. She scanned the crowd, surprised by how few women were in the audience. Then the guy on the mat took an elbow to the face and the resulting blood reminded her why that was. Jenna hissed with fear, squinting through her bangs.
But Lindsey leaned forward, mesmerized.
The very concept was thrillingtwo humans stripped and tossed in a ring, out to prove which one was the stronger, better competitor with a minimum of rules, etiquette and padding. Lots of blood and sweat, surely lots of bruises when dawn arrived. Lots of skin. Lots of everything she was missing out on since Brett had ripped his new, urbane identity out of an Esquire spread.
The match ended with an anticlimax, the outcome decided by the judges. Next up, the third-to-last fight, yet as far as Lindsey was concerned, the main event.
She watched the ring prep, heart thumping harder, harder, until she swore she could hear it over the rabble. She twisted her program into a tight tube again and again.
"Rich is next," Jenna said, the collar of her shirt fisted in both hands. "Why couldn't Mercer be into fly-fishing? Or ultimate Frisbee?"
"Too bad you didn't inherit your dad's love of fighting, huh?"
Instead, Jenna had inherited the gym, along with a portion of the former factory that housed it. She'd been estranged from her dad but had moved to Boston to take advantage of her odd inheritance sight-unseen and open a new franchise of Spark, a regional matchmaking company. Lindsey was awfully happy she had. She liked her new job. In fact, she'd probably love it, once her own romantic hangover subsided. At the moment it wasn't the easiest thing, mustering enthusiasm for other people's relationships.
"I just don't get it," Jenna said, blue eyes on the activity in the ring.
Lindsey shrugged. "Mercer will never get matchmaking. It's healthy to have some autonomy." Did she believe that for real? Or was she just trying to make herself feel better about how much space she craved from Brett?
The announcer scattered her thoughts.
"Next up, the match to decide the New England MMA Light Heavyweight Championship!" Music started up and the gigantic arena screen displayed two open double doors.
"In the blue corner, defending his title, a mixed martial artist from Warwick, Rhode Island. Thirty-one years old, five feet eleven inches, two hundred and five pounds. Greg 'the Trucker' Higgins!"
Striding down the aisle toward the cage, Higgins was meaty and pink-faced, with a tacky chinstrap beard and a trucker cap that helped explain his fight name. Several men in matching hats and shirts followed.
Jenna clapped politely. Lindsey hated Higgins out of principle, and booed along with the minority as he strutted to Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere, Man." He stripped to his shorts and entered the ring, warming up as his music faded.
"A-a-a-nd in the black corner, a boxer and kickboxer hailing from Lynn, Massachusetts. Twenty-eight years of age, six feet three inches, two hundred and four pounds, Rich 'Prince Richard' Estrada!"
Her breath hitched when Rich appeared on-screen. She twisted in her seat to watch him descend. His intro music was a remixed hybrid of hoity-toity chamber music and some infectious Latin hip-hop. He wore black warm-up pants and an open, deep purple sweatshirt lined with ermine fleece, hood cocked. Raising his arms, he welcomed the modest applause, and hisses from the Higgins fans. He dropped his hood with a grand, arrogant gesture and bared his chest, fists thrust triumphantly in the air, his entire body emanating 10,000 watts of pure, blinding smugness.
Mercer trailed him, along with a couple other guys Lind-sey recognized from Wilinski's, his corner for the fight. Unlike Higgins, Rich's team didn't have special gear splashed with sponsor logos, just black T-shirts with Wilinski's Fight Academy, Boston, silk-screened on the front.
"This match will be comprised of three five-minute rounds," the announcer confirmed for the fans.
Rich stripped and Mercer shoved a mouth guard between his lips. When one of the guys from Wilinski's slicked his arms and chest with Vaseline, Lindsey suppressed a ridiculous stab ofjealousy. He entered the ring to warm up and the lights over the audience went dark as the music faded, setting Lindsey's skin prickling.
The men fought barefoot. Higgins wore loose-fitting kick-boxing trunks covered in sponsorship logos. Rich sported far snugger, plainer shorts, ones that hugged his thighs and butt and other places, and made Lindsey feel funny. Dangerous-funny.