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A heavy fist connected with his jaw. Gage Harper's head snapped backward and the crowd, pressed tight against the raised platform, roared.
All Gage heard was the rush of adrenaline as it poured through his body. It drowned out the words that had been haunting him all night. "In a war that brings mostly sad news, tonight there is a brighter story to tell." Someone should tell the solemn man who delivered that statement to the world that bright and war should never be used in the same sentence.
But Gage wasn't going to be the one to do it.
Instead, he squared his feet beneath him and countered the blow he'd received with several of his own. Head, gut, kidneys. This wasn't the sort of place that worried about rules. The backwoods fighting ring was exactly what he needed to distract him from the memories he didn't want.
Micah's flag-draped casket being loaded into the transport for home. A hard-eyed insurgent yelling into his face before ripping both of his thumbnails out with pliers. The screams of his friends as they endured torture.
Torture he could have prevented if he hadn't screwed up.
Yeah, this was a great use of a Thursday night even if he'd had to drive an hour out of Sweetheart, South Carolina, to find it. The blessed numbness would be worth every fist to the face.
Grounding his weight onto his left leg, Gage lashed out with a roundhouse kick. Channeling all the frustration, rage and guilt built up inside him, he put more power behind it than he'd meant to, aiming straight for the guy's gut. He was finding it difficult to hold back after months of fighting for his life. Those kind of hard-won instincts were a bitch to get rid of. Luckily the other guy blocked.
Scenes he thought he'd dealt with flashed across his mind. Gunfire. Smoke-filled hallways. A dark, dirty cell with barely enough room to lie down. Tanner, a fellow Ranger, bloody and broken before they'd even been thrown into that room, moaning in pain. Needles. Knives. Pliers.
But he didn't break. He hadn't told them a damn thing.
Gage ground his teeth and pushed the memories away. Nothing could change what had happened to Tanner.
Or bring Micah back. The man he'd met in jump school was gone. Killed when his gun misfired while cleaning it. That, more than anything, was what bothered him about his friend's death. He knew Micah. Had trained with the man. Micah could disassemble, clean and reassemble his weapon in his sleep. They all could.
Dying in battle, that he could have dealt with. They'd all signed up for that possibility. But not some freak accident.
That anger, grief and skepticism were what sent him out into the scorching desert looking for the same kind of fight he'd found tonight. Something to silence the racing thoughts and numb the pain he didn't want to deal with. He'd gotten a distraction, all right. And several good men had been pulled straight into hell with him.
He never should have watched the national news story his mama had saved. The latest in a long line of shouldn'ts.
Who knew she could operate the DVR? When he left for basic training twelve years ago she could barely get a DVD to play. He'd been looking for something mindless, like old football games or episodes of CSI. Instead, he'd found hours of news stories detailing his capture and high-profile rescue from Taliban insurgents.
The worst had been the leaked propaganda videos. The close-up shots of his own dirt- and blood-streaked face as they'd forced him to deliver their messages to the U.S. government. He could still taste the bitter words, hated himself for saying them even if he'd done it to save Tanner from more torture he wasn't strong enough to survive.
He'd wanted to turn them off. Should have. But couldn't. What those slick news anchors with their perfect white teeth hadn't said was that what happened was entirely his fault.
His thumbs began to throb where his missing nails should have been. Gage clenched his fists tighter, asking for more. He relished the pain. The reminder. His injuries were nothing compared to Tanner's. If he hadn't let grief and a mindless need for a distraction blind him to the warning signs
If he hadn't taken unnecessary risks and pushed them all straight into a trap, his buddy wouldn't be lying in a hospital bed looking at months of rehab, learning to live without a limb and the possibility that his military career was over.
The guy in front of him, clearly some gym rat trying to show off the muscles he'd honed in air-conditioned luxury, twisted on his heel and threw out a leg aimed straight for Gage's head. He easily blocked the kick, letting the other guy's foot glance off a shoulder.
He could wipe the floor with this guy. It had taken Gage less than ninety seconds to pick up on his weaknesses, and if they'd been in the middle of the desert instead of a crude ring made from worn padding, plywood and rope, he wouldn't have hesitated. But he wasn't there to defend his life or a set of ideals he wasn't even sure he believed anymore.
He was just there to forget. And the quickest way to that was to let this guy beat the crap out of him so he could concentrate on something other than pointless regrets and decisions he couldn't take back. Besides, he didn't need the prize money these guys were after. Better to let some struggling father win the pot so he could buy something nice for his family.
Gage's lip split. Blood splattered across the floor. His head wrenched sideways and something in the audience caught his eye. The familiar flash of green-gold eyes and dark blond hair he hadn't seen in twelve years.
Well, unless you counted dreams. And he didn't.
Hope Rawlings. His belly tightened, a sensation that had nothing to do with the repeated blows he'd taken.
Gage twisted, skillfully maneuvering his opponent so he could scour the faces surrounding them. But whatever he'd seen was gone.
Or maybe he was imagining things. Was it crazy that he would think of her now that he was back?
Given their history, yes, it probably was. Although, while he was reviewing regrets.
In that single moment of distraction the force of Gym Rat's fist exploded across Gage's left cheekbone. The pain reverberated through his entire face. The crunch of bone on bone burst in his ears.
"Shit." He spat out with a mouthful of blood. Well, the guy had gotten his attention again. With a sigh, Gage resigned himself to a good tongue-lashing when his mama saw him at breakfast in the morning. And decided there was no way he was letting this guy win. The next guy could take the purse.
Hope Rawlings watched Gage get the crap beat out of him. For fun. She tried to stay dispassionate about it. After all, it wasn't a new occurrence for him. Well, this underground, full-contact fighting for money wasmaybe she could turn this into an expose on men shedding their suits in an attempt to connect with their inner cavemanbut not his penchant for finding trouble.
If they awarded medals for that Instead, he had the Bronze Star, Prisoner of War Medal and Purple Heart. Just the thought of what he'd gone through to get those made her chest ache. And her head swell to the point of explosion. She fought against the urge to climb into that ring, snatch him by the ear and drag his ass out. Hadn't he given them all enough heart palpitations recently?
But that wasn't her place. Not anymore.
Years ago she would have been right beside him, turning blue in the face as she unsuccessfully attempted to talk him out of whatever dangerous scheme he'd hatched. They'd been friends since Gage stole her sippy cup and hit her over the head with it. They were neighbors. Their parents were best friends. They were best friends. Or had been. Once.
He'd been home for a couple days and was already jonesing for a hit of adrenaline. It had taken a long time for Hope to learn that she'd end up the only one hurt by hitting her head against that brick wall. Gage did what he wanted and always had. Screw anyone who stood in his way or challenged him.
That didn't make watching the smackdown any easier. Especially knowing the physical hell he'd just been through. When, exactly, would he finally say uncle? When would he have enough?
Although watching Gage was far from a hardship. They might have been friends, but she wasn't blind. Even as a teenager he'd been gorgeous, and knew it. Girls, attracted by the pretty face and edge of danger, had thrown themselves at him. She'd been right there beside him, dismissed by the ones who bothered to notice she was even there.
The familiar spurt of jealousy came out of nowhere. Hope pushed it down. She hadn't liked the reaction then and she definitely didn't like it now.
Wearing nothing but a pair of gym shorts, everything he had was on display. War might have left him with scarsvisible and unseenbut it had definitely honed his body into something beautiful. The way he moved should have been a sin, all smooth grace and deadly calculation.
The guy he was fighting was an idiot if he couldn't see the way Gage sized him up. His stomach muscles bunched as he went on the attack. Shoulders and biceps strained. He maneuvered the other guy into a corner, limiting his opponent's range of motion. His thighs and calves flexed with every step.
Hope tried not to notice, but it was hard to tear her gaze away.
Gage was vibrant. Alive. Electric. Just being close to him always left her with the same warm buzz, like a contact high. And yet, it scared the hell out of her, too. He attacked everything so hardlife, love, danger, war. That kind of intensity was intimidating and draining for anyone standing in the fallout zone.
Dammit, when would this match end?
She wasn't here to ogle him or reminisce. She was here to interview him. He'd been avoiding her ever since he got home two days ago. Hope tried not to take it per-sonallyhe was avoiding everyone. But it still hurt.
Although, considering the things they'd both said the last time they'd spoken she wasn't surprised. If it wasn't for the phone call she'd received three days ago she might have been avoiding him, as well. But she couldn't.
Gage Harper was her ticket out of Sweetheart.
"You want a permanent position with us, Ms. Raw-lings?" Mr. Rebman had asked. He was the managing editor for the Atlanta Courier, a gruff man who'd only spoken to her once before for about sixty secondsthe length of time it took him to say her experience managing the Sweetheart Sentinel for her father did not make her a journalist. He was a real winner, but the man had the power to grant her every wish.
She'd practically tripped over her own tongue answering, "Yes, sir."
"I understand that Gage Harper is from your hometown."
And immediately Hope's stomach had seethed with sickness.
Somehow she'd found herself answering, "Yes." At least she hadn't told the man that they'd grown up together.
"He's refusing all interview offers. If you can get me an exclusive, I'll consider finding a place for you here."
Hope frowned as Gage landed another punch. So here she was, in the middle of backwoods South Carolina on a Thursday night, stalking Gage.
That sick feeling was back in the pit of her stomach.
With a sigh, Hope melted into the back of the crowd. In her four-inch heelsout of place amid the roughed-up cowboy bootsshe could still see the ring just fine. Enough to know Gage had stopped playing cat and mouse and was finally going in for the kill. His opponent, a guy who never stood a chance, dropped to the floor with a groan and stayed there.
Gage bounced on his heels away from the guy, staying alert for any sign of deceit. As the nice man who'd spilled beer on her jeans had explained, there weren't any rules so dirty fighting was more than allowed. But the guy stayed down. Some in the crowd cheered and some booed.
An older guy who looked to be in charge jumped into the ring. He announced Gage as the winner, using his loud voice instead of a PA system to combat the crowd. Hope got the impression this was a traveling circus and that kind of equipment would have been a little too expensive to abandon if the cops showed up.
The guy at the door, probably a recent graduate from a halfway house, only let her in after she told him she was with one of the fighters and pointed out Gage. Even then, the way he'd eyed her with skepticism made her uncomfortable.
The crowd shifted. Someone called out demanding another fight. And with a smile and a nod of his head, the guy in charge waved the next fighter into the ring with Gage. Apparently, this wasn't the kind of place that worked off brackets. No winner-against-winner here, Gage was going again.
Hope groaned and closed her eyes, but she couldn't keep them that way for long. Not with the sound of flesh on flesh ringing in her ears again. Her overactive imagination was far worse than watching the beating. She cracked one eyelid.
Like before, Gage played with the guy for a few minutes, sizing him up. He took a few shots and gave a few back. It was clear, at least to her, that Gage had his opponent's number. So it surprised her when he left himself wide open for an uppercut beneath the chin. His back hit the floor with a resounding crack.
A man close to her groaned. He passed a handful of bills across to another guy wearing a gleeful grin. Gage didn't move. The crowd was thick enough that she couldn't tell if he was unconscious or just stunned.
Her heart fluttered uncomfortably in her chest, an echo of the panic she'd felt when news of his capture had come into the newsroom just a couple weeks before.
Here she'd thought his rescue would cure her of the unwanted reaction. Apparently not.
Hope fought against the mass of people, trying to get closer to the side of the ring. The breath she hadn't realized she was holding leaked slowly from her parted lips when he finally started to stir. His hands spread wide on the floor and he pushed upward. His head hung between those straining shoulders, as if it were too heavy for him to hold up.
Her gaze searched him for signs of serious injury. She jostled the handful of men standing between her and the ring. She yelled, demanding they let her through, and slapped at the ones who didn't listen.
Gage finally picked up his head. His gaze connected with hers through the flimsy barrier of ropes. The same punch she always felt hit her, as if she'd been the one taking shots to the solar plexus. But just like always, she ignored it.
Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. His right eye was already swelling and bruising. Hope's hands curled around the edge of the ring floor. The sharp pain of a splinter pierced her left palm.
His golden-brown eyes flared with recognition and something warmer before narrowing down to indecipherable slits. He frowned and asked gruffly, "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you."