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Jenna's heels clicked against the asphalt as she crossed the street. Though they'd proven adorable enough to earn compliments from three different strangers on the ten-minute walk, she'd have to rethink this shoe choice in the future. Boston was made for flats, with its warped old brick sidewalks. Made for flats and for doctors who specialized in ankle injuries.
She survived a final block to reach her destination, a building she'd seen only in photos until this moment. Five stories, a former hosiery factory long since divided and repurposed. She paused to picture a new sign above the entryway, but a river of speed-walkers engulfed her, their brusqueness making it known that 9:00 a.m. downtown was not the time and place for daydreaming.
Leaving the August sunshine behind, she stepped into a cool, wide front corridor, with a worn but handsome hardwood floor and brick walls. She smiled, clutching her purse with cautious hope. With a bit of polishing and some nice light fixtures and greenery, this place could be very stylish indeed.
To her right stood a display case of boxing equipment, its glass overdue for some Windex. Gloves and shorts, headgear, mouth guards, supplement bottlesthe accessories of her inheritance, surreal as that felt. She eagerly erased the image on her mental sketchpad and filled in the blanks, adding a couch and a couple of easy chairs, a shiny coffee table covered in magazines. Hopeful, excited people chatting as they waited. Waited for Jenna to make their romantic dreams come true.
In a few months' time, this would be the home of the Boston branch of Spark, New England's fastest growing matchmaking companyand Jenna its newest franchise owner. Spark was very old-school, unlike the online services, and that suited Jenna just fine. The web was great for impulsive commitmentssuch as shoes you'd never tried onbut one's love life was not a thing to march into blind. Finding Mr. or Miss Right could be mystifying, and as a future matchmaker she was excited to help shine some light through the fog.
At the end of the foyer was a wide stairway leading down to what a banner on the wall proclaimed Wilinski's Fight Academythe less savory half of Jenna's real estate inheritance. At the sight, she dropped back to earth from the clouds. The front doors opened behind her, and she tensed as a stocky man toting a gym bag brushed past and disappeared down the far steps. The misgivings she'd been flirting with for the past couple months flared, setting her body buzzing.
To her left was an office fronted with tall windows, welcoming if not private. Beyond the glass a man sat at a desk, typing on a laptop. If this was who she thought it was, he'd be expecting her. But not the news she had to share.
She took a final, calming breath and approached the open door, studying her adversary before announcing her arrival.
The man looked about thirty, with short brown hair. His thick arms and the formidable build beneath his T-shirt told her he was no stranger to the gym's recreational punishment. His physique made her heart race. In another context it would've been a guilty, pleasurable excitement, but this thumping at her pulse points was pure nerves. A strong, capable body might be an asset for a loverif you were into that kind of thing, which Jenna most certainly was notbut intimidating from an opponent. And this man was likely to prove himself the latter, once she spelled matters out for him.
She straightened the sweep of her bangs, the hem of her skirt, the set of her shoulders. Abandoning her silly, daydreaming self at the threshold, she knocked on the doorframe.
The man looked up and she saw him scan her in a breath before rising. He had a stern, pensive expression, but she thought she caught a widening of his eyes.
She stepped inside. "Yes. Are you Mercer Rowley?"
"I am. Nice to finally meet you." He came around the desk to shake her hand in his rasped one, the gesture gruff and un-giving, just as she'd expected. No doubt his personality would prove identical.
Still, he was younger than she'd imagined. She'd assumed her father would have left some late middle-aged casualty of the sport at the helm, someone like himself. Well, someone like the character Jenna's mother and the internet had painted for her in broad, unflattering strokes.
Mercer wheeled an ancient office chair from the corner for Jenna, and took a seat on the edge of the desk. He studied her as she got settled.
"Yes?" she prompted.
"Wow. Jenna Wilinski. You've got your dad's eyes." He said it slowly, a softness overtaking his voice and face. His gaze moved all over her body. Not ogling, but assessing.
Two could play that game.
Her brain clicked into pro-mode, making an inventory the way the matchmaking seminar she'd completed the previous month had taught her to.
Mercer had a boxer's nose if she'd ever seen one, broken who-knew-how-many times, and homely ears to match. One scarred eyebrow not as tidily angled as the other. Fearless.
Deep, steady breathscalm under pressure. Perhaps a comforting presence for an anxious woman, or a foil to a chaotic one. He'd chosen a competitive, physical vocation, appealing to a passionate, ambitious type, should he somehow end up in Jenna's singles database. Though as a selling point, "local color" probably should not equal black-and-blue.
"So," she said. "My father left you in charge."
Mercer nodded. "I've been training here since I was fifteen, under your dad. Then I started working with the younger guys about three years ago, and managing some aspects of the business. Your dad was grooming me for it the last year or so. Since his final hospitalization."
Her stomach soured at the realization this stranger had known her father infinitely better than she had. That they'd shared a sport, a working-class accent, some brutal male appetite. That he'd known her father was dying, when she hadn't been informed he'd had so much as a cold. The man from a handful of old photos, holding her as a baby, carrying her on his massive shoulders when she was a tiny kid. The man from old news headlines, convicted of drug-running and money laundering fifteen years earlier, out of this very building. The sentence had been overturned during an appeal, due to insufficient evidence, but as far as nearly everyone was concerned, Monty Wilinski had been guilty.
"Well, welcome to your inheritance," Mercer said. "Do you have any interest in fighting? In overseeing the gym, I mean."
"No, none at all."
His smile was mild, but warm. She suspected he could have been quite good-looking, if he'd chosen vanity over violence. Striking was how she'd package him to a potential date. A dangerous, inadvisable breed of sexy, the kind that didn't let a woman ever truly relax. His unwavering gaze made her feel all squirmy and naked. She clutched her purse strap to still her hands.
"Yeah, your dad didn't expect you'd be interested," Mercer said. "Though it was nice of you to come all the way to Boston and see what you've signed up for. I'm happy to keep running the place. It shouldn't give you too much trouble."
Perhaps not, but this man might She decided to tear off the bandage, no point dancing around the issue. "It was a stipulation of my father's will that I keep the gym open."
"But only through December thirty-first." Her body went strange and cool and calm as the words rushed out.
Mercer's lips parted but he didn't speak for several seconds. "Okay. Right so. And then what happens? You're not thinking of closing it, are you?"
"I don't know." She hated how hard and stuffy she sounded, but this was her first act as a businesswoman and a boss, and she was determined to prove herself an assertive one. Or fake it. "It's quite likely that I might."
Mercer sat up straight, brows drawn into a tight line. "Why would you do that?"
"It hasn't turned a profit in eighteen months."
He slumped. "Well, no. But we're not hemorrhaging money, either. It's just been a rough patch, with your dad being sick, and the economy It'll bounce back. Keep it open and you won't have to think twice about it, aside from getting deposits in your account back in California or signing the random piece of paper"
"I've moved to Boston, actually. As of this morning."
He blinked, hazel eyes going glassy as he processed the news. "What do you think you'll do if you shut us down? Sell the property? The market's not great"
"I'm not selling it. If I do decide to close the gym, I'll probably rent the basement to an outside business." She indicated the office they were in. "I'm going to use this floor for a company I plan to open."
"You're going to close an established business to gamble on a new one?"
Jenna steeled herself, an invisible bell clanging to announce the official start of their bout. Her blood warmed and fizzed with adrenaline. Let the debate begin.
"It's not a matter of choosing one business over another. But I've sunk all my savings into a franchise I'm investing in, and I'm not bankrupting myself to keep the gym on life support. The basement rental could bring in close to ten grand a month. Can the gym do that?"
His face fell. "It's never made that much."
She'd seen the past decade's bank statementsshe knew it didn't. Even in good years, the profit it turned was a modest one. The gym was only still in business because her father had owned the space outright, and because he'd loved the place too much to put it out of its misery, even after the scandal had gutted its membership and scared away all its former sponsors. Without doubt, he'd loved it more than his family. Jenna and her mom could have used that money in the early days, back when they'd essentially been homeless, moving every six months, crashing with one set of relatives after another.
"Unless something seriously changes, the gym's a charity I can't afford to support."
"It's your inheritance."
"The property's my inheritance. My dad's will made that clear, and I'm happy to conform to his instructions and keep it open until the New Year. It's the least I can do, considering he left me a nice little slice of Downtown Crossing."
Mercer's eyes narrowed, wrecking his poker face. A humorless smirk quirked his lips. "Unless you want to load this building onto a truck and move it a block north, you're in Chinatown."
Fine, it wasn't Summer Street, but it had a downtown zip code, and was rent-free. Jenna didn't stand a chance of topping this windfall ever again in her life, short of winning the lottery.
Two men in sweat-streaked shirts sauntered past the office windows, glancing in and making Jenna feel distinctly as though she'd been locked in one of those submersible shark-observation cages.
"You can't close this place." If Mercer was panicking, he hid it well. Jenna's own heart was thumping hard. She dreaded confrontation, but Mercer looked like six feet of unflappable muscle wrapped in a white T-shirt. Why did that make her feel so damn edgy?
"It was your dad's whole life, this gym."
Yes, indeed it was. "As much as this place might mean to you, it's my choice. And I haven't made my decision yet. I'm not allowed to until the end of the year, and you're welcome to try to change my mind," she added as a consolation. Jenna thought that time would be far better spent looking for greener pastures. "But this place has been in the red the past year and a half. And it's got enough savings to stagger on for another, what? Maybe two years, at this rate, before that account's bled dry?"
Mercer's jaw clenched. "And I can tell you all the reasons why we're in the red, and all the things that can be done to change that."
"I'm sure you can." And she was sure there'd be some ugly debates in her future over whether she'd be financing any improvements Mercer might have in mind. The gym needed full-on head-to-toe plastic surgery, but its budget would barely cover a concealer stick. Any money she agreed to sink into these changes would surely be too little, far too late. He hadn't bothered suggesting she sell the gym itself. He knew as well as she didas even the most foolish investor wouldit was a lost cause.
He rubbed his face. "What do you want the ground floor for, anyhow? Why not rent that out?"
She felt her cheeks color, embarrassed to admit such a girlie endeavor to this no-nonsense man. "I'm opening a matchmaking business."
"Wait. Like fight promotions?"
"No. You know, matchmaking. Arranging dates between compatible people?"
Mercer's eyebrow rose, the one not hampered by scar tissue.
"Legitimate, romantic dates," she elaborated, in case he was imagining something more akin to an escort service.
"Hasn't that gone extinct? Don't all those desperate people just go online these days?"
"Not everyone. Some people don't want to shop for a relationship the way they might for car insurance or " She trailed off, knowing her own feelings on the matter must be showing. "Anyhow, it'll cater to busy professionals, people who want a personalized, more traditional approach to dating. And it's not desperate at all. It's very practical."
"And you'll be using the office for that?"
"I will. So during the time the gym stays open, I'll need to move the display cases and everything in here downstairs."
Mercer's gaze swiveled to the ceiling, nearly an eye-roll. "Of course you will."
"Don't look so annoyed. I'm being put out, too, you know, consulting with potential clients with bruised, sweaty men staggering past the windows." She jerked her head toward the entryway, just as another such specimen went by.
"Some women might like that."
Jenna shot him a skeptical look.
"When's all this going down? Your evil plans and this new business?"
"My evil plans? I'm not the bad guy here. I know what this place is about. I've read the articles." She eyed the desk, wondering if that was where her father had sat, funneling drug money through the gym's accounts.
"That was more than a decade ago. And it was a handful of assholes who did that, not your dad. He was acquitted."
Not before he was convicted, and just after a whole bunch of evidence was very conveniently mishandled.
Mercer leaned to the side, bracing a palm on the desk. It was unnerving, being in this room with this man, sitting feet apart in the same space, at complete and utter odds. There was tension crackling between them, hot and sharp, an electrical current. She wondered if this was what stepping into a boxing ring felt like, conflict as visceral as lust.
Round two, she thought. He'd come out slow, scouting for her weak spots, maybe; now he'd surely start swinging. But he surprised her, his tone turning soft and sincere.
"If your dad was guilty of anything all those years ago, it was trusting the wrong people. He put his faith in guys like me, but that time he got burned. Bad."
"Maybe." But likely not.
"He might have been a crappy father and husband, not even much of a businessman, but he wasn't a criminal. Listen. As shady as this place used to be, and still is, in some people's eyes"
"A lot of people's eyes."
"It meant the world to your dad, and to dozens of us. Jerks like me, but kids, tooteenagers, you know? If the gym weren't here, those guys would take whatever energy they pour into training and redirect it the wrong way. I know 'cause I used to be that kid myself, until my mom made me come here and your old man taught me about discipline and dedication. But it's nothing like it used to be. I'll show you every last corner of it. Every receipt from the past ten years, if you need proof. We've got nothing to hide."