MMA champion Gabriel “The Sandman” Maddox prefers to live his life quietly and intensely. He plays by the rules, respects the sport, and trains harder than any other fighter. It’s this unwavering focus that helps him block out the pain from a devastating loss in his past. He spends his days slaying his monsters in the octagon, and his evenings numbing himself with sexual conquests. With his painful baggage, he’s not looking for anything beyond his no-strings-attached lifestyle.
But journalist Megan Sinclair won’t leave him alone. She’s intensely drawn to Gabe from the moment she meets him, and wants to know more about the secretive man who both intrigues her and makes her heart race. As she gets to know the quiet, brooding fighter, she realizes that giving in to their intense chemistry could mend her scars. Will these two be able to heal each other, or will ghosts from the past keep them apart?
About the Author
Tara Wyatt is a contemporary romance and romantic suspense author. Known for her humor and steamy love scenes, Tara’s writing has won several awards, including the Librarian’s Readers’ Choice Awards, Golden Quill Award, and the Booksellers’ Best Award. When she’s not hanging out with your next book boyfriend, she can be found reading, watching movies, and drinking wine. A librarian by day and a romance writer by night, Tara lives in Hamilton, Ontario with the world’s cutest dog and a husband who makes all her of her heroes look like chumps. Find her online at Tara-Wyatt.com.
Read an Excerpt
Take Down 1
MEGAN SINCLAIR COULDN’T help but think that if good things really did come to those who wait, Gabriel Maddox was setting himself up to be really freaking awesome.
She was in the conference room of the World Fighting Championship’s Las Vegas headquarters, sitting alone at the gleaming glass table, surrounded by eleven empty leather chairs, waiting for the subject of her interview to grace her with his presence. She picked up her phone to check the time. She rearranged her digital recorder, moving it a few inches closer to the chair where he’d sit. Her chair squeaked as she flopped back against it, and she tapped her pen repeatedly against the table. Even though she had the recorder, she always took handwritten notes during an interview—there was something about putting pen to paper that fired up her brain.
She stared down at her notepad where she’d written the date and two words. The name of the man she was waiting for.
Gabriel Maddox. The enigmatic fighter who’d intrigued her from the first time she’d laid eyes on him. There was something about him—an intensity, an energy—that made her want to know what was happening behind his muscled, gorgeous exterior. Some people were much easier to read than others. Megan had learned that, much like books, the difficult, challenging ones were often the most compelling. The most rewarding.
And Gabriel Maddox was nearly impossible to read.
He was also now—she checked her phone again—nearly fifteen minutes late.
Megan didn’t have a long list of pet peeves: close talkers, people who were rude to restaurant staff, talking during movies, drivers who didn’t seem to understand the purpose of turn signals.
And sure, those were all annoying, but none of them were quite as irritating as the sense that someone was wasting her time. Because she knew, better than most, that time was a gift. Everyone was in possession of a beautiful hourglass, with a finite amount of sand. Nothing frustrated her more than to think she was wasting those grains.
Irritated, she opened up Instagram on her phone and scrolled through her feed, hoping to distract herself with memes or pictures of puppies, delicious food, or pretty clothes. But then she stopped, her finger poised just above the screen. Her most recent ex, Logan, whom she’d forgotten to unfollow, had posted a picture with his new girlfriend. Logan, who’d told her that she was the most beautiful cold fish he’d ever slept with. That the only reason she hadn’t come was because she was too uptight. Well, he could go to hell. If he’d spent months going through chemoradiation and recovering from life-altering surgery, he’d probably have issues too. She’d wasted far too many of her hourglass’s grains on him.
“I’m sorry.” A quiet, deep voice came from behind her and shivered right down her spine. She sat up straight, the chair squeaking again as it rolled back a few inches. She stabbed the heel of her pump into the carpet to stop it from going any farther. Dropping her phone onto the table, she rose, smoothing her black pencil skirt as she turned to greet her interviewee.
Gabriel Maddox stood in the doorway, filling it almost completely. His long blond hair was damp and pulled half up, the rest falling around his shoulders. He wore a white T-shirt that stretched tight across his broad, muscular shoulders, the cotton straining around his biceps. His jeans hugged his strong thighs, and as Megan swept her gaze back up all six foot three of him—she’d memorized his stats—she appreciated the work of masculine art standing in front of her a second time.
She met his gaze, admiring the sapphire blue of his eyes. She’d seen him before, a handful of times, but never this close-up. A layer of scruff clung to his jaw, emphasizing his full lips. His expression was neutral, completely unreadable, and gave nothing away. He shifted, and suddenly the room felt smaller.
And, shit. She was staring. Glancing down at the floor, she licked her lips, needing to break away from that arctic gaze to regain her focus. For some reason she felt as though he’d walked into the room and taken over, which was crazy. All he’d done was show up. “You’re late,” she blurted out, looking back up. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, and those blue eyes tracked the movement. Something—not warmth, exactly—prickled over her skin. But she could feel the weight of his gaze on her, and again, his expression was unreadable.
Did he like what he saw?
And more importantly, why did she care?
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, his deep voice sending more of that same awareness racing over her skin. He moved into the room, extending his hand toward her. “I’m Gabe.”
She placed her hand in his and sucked in a surprised breath at the electricity tingling up her arm. His touch was a study in contrasts, his hand so much larger and stronger than hers, his skin rougher and paler. She swallowed, forcing herself to speak. “Megan Sinclair.”
He gestured for her to sit, and she noticed the shadowy outlines of matching tattoos on the underside of each bicep. Wings? Feathers? She couldn’t quite tell, but she found herself wondering about the significance of them. She sat back down, and Gabe dropped into the chair facing hers. “My training went long.”
Megan shook her head as she picked up her pen. “It’s okay. What I should’ve said was, Thank you for taking the time out of your day to sit down with me. I really appreciate it.” It wasn’t like her to get off on the wrong foot with someone, but something about him had unnerved her.
He eased back in his chair, the hint of a smile playing on those full lips. “That is what you said, isn’t it?” The skin around his eyes wrinkled. Heat, completely unexpected, rose on her cheeks.
She returned his smile. “Let’s go with that. I’m not sure how much Jules told you, but I’m writing a series of articles for Mosaic, the online magazine, about the WFC and its fighters.”
He nodded but didn’t say anything, so she continued.
“The current plan is for the series to span four to six articles, each posted two weeks apart. I’ll be interviewing you, Nick Giannakis, and some of the other rising talent in the league. I’ll also be at various upcoming WFC events, and I’ll be interviewing the WFC’s president, as well. My hope is to provide fans, both new and old, with a fresh inside look at the WFC.”
Again he nodded but didn’t say anything, and she stifled the urge to keep talking to fill the silence. She turned on her digital recorder and opened her small notebook with her list of questions.
Her best friend, Jules Darcy, had started working for the WFC several months ago, and Megan had come with her to the fights, more out of curiosity than anything, but she’d been intrigued. What made someone want to fight like that? She hadn’t been able to let the why of it go, and for months now she’d been toying with the idea of doing a story on the WFC and its fighters. When the opportunity had arisen, she’d pitched it to Elliott Wagner, one of the managing editors at Mosaic, and he’d been completely on board. Mixed martial arts was growing in popularity at an astronomical rate, drawing in new fans with each fight night. And thanks to her inside connection—Jules was the WFC’s marketing director—she had easy access to the fighters, the fights, and behind-the-scenes info. Jules was excited about the series of articles, joking that Megan was simply doing Jules’ job for her.
“So, Mr. Maddox,” she began, but he cut her off before she could dive into her first question.
“Gabe. Just Gabe.”
She glanced up and met his eyes, icy hot and commanding. She felt the sudden urge to cross her legs, and she fought back the shiver wanting to cascade down her spine. She’d need to get used to those eyes, that voice. Clearing her throat, she started again. “Gabe. What exactly does it take to win the light heavyweight championship belt?”
For several seconds Gabe stared at her, his quiet intensity seeming to fill the room. Liquid heat worked its way through her body, but she refused to look away. Or maybe it was that she didn’t want to. Something about the way he looked at her—quiet, controlled, reserved—made her feel . . . good. At ease in her own skin somehow, which didn’t make a lot of sense. Either way, she wasn’t sure what the hell was happening to her. Maybe she was coming down with something.
Or maybe Gabe Maddox was really freaking hot.
He folded his arms across his chest, raising a hand to rub his thumb over his bottom lip. She could practically hear the seams of his T-shirt stretching and straining.
Yeah. Really freaking hot.
Finally, he shrugged. “Exactly what you’d expect. Hard work. Discipline. Sacrifice.” The light in his eyes shifted on that last word, and she made a note on her pad.
“What kind of sacrifice?”
The lines of his face deepened, but then he shook his head slowly and they were gone. She made another note—he’d self-edited, erased what he’d really been about to say.
“To get to the top, you have to put everything aside. Training can’t just be your number one focus; it has to be your only focus. You eat, sleep, and breathe fighting. It doesn’t leave a lot of room in your life for anything else.”
Megan frowned slightly, thinking of Jules and her relationship with the current middleweight champion, Nick Giannakis. Nick certainly didn’t seem to have any issues making room for Jules in his life. She decided to poke a little. “I guess that’s one way to approach it.”
Gabe cocked his head, studying her. “Meaning?”
“Have you ever tried making room for other things?” she asked, leaning forward a little.
“There’s nothing I want.”
God, the way he said those words—hollow and haunted and raw—she felt them right in her chest. And it only made her want to know more. “Nothing? What about a social life? A girlfriend?”
“I’m friends with the other fighters.” His eyes held hers, pinning her in place. “And I’m not looking for a girlfriend.”
“I wasn’t offering.” She meant it as a joke to try to ease the tension, but Gabe leaned forward, and the tension hanging in the air thickened.
“Mmm.” It wasn’t a word so much as a rumble of sound.
She gave in to the urge to cross her legs. Desire pulsed through her, and for the second time, she wondered what was wrong with her. Blowing out a breath, she took a sip of water and scanned her questions.
“What made you decide to become a fighter?”
“I took martial arts as a kid. I used to actually teach karate,” he said, seeming to loosen up a little, a faint smile turning up the corners of his mouth, but then it faded. He stopped talking, so she prodded him.
“What made you stop teaching karate? Get serious about fighting?”
He shrugged, and there was that hollowness around his eyes again. “Priorities change.”
“And what made yours change?”
She arched an eyebrow.
“You think I’m lying?”
“No, I think you’re avoiding the question. What made you get serious about fighting?” she asked again.
Anger flared in his eyes, and he leaned forward and tapped her notebook, his jaw tight. “New question.” It wasn’t a suggestion. It was an order.
Her toes curled in her pumps, and she had to force herself to swallow. Holy hell. She wouldn’t have guessed in a million years that she’d like a man taking control the way he’d just done, but something about it made her feel both alive and calm. It was a heady feeling, knowing she’d pushed him there. “Uh, sure.” She scanned her eyes down her list of questions. “You had your first professional fight nearly five years ago. After all this time, what motivates you to continue fighting?”
“Ten years.” She raised her eyebrows in question, and he continued. “I started taking fights off and on ten years ago, but I didn’t get serious until Imperial.”
She glanced down at her notes. “Right, you joined Imperial MMA five years ago and soon became champion. Then Craig Darcy recruited you to come to the WFC and now you’re a champion here.” Making a quick note to ask about his transition from casual to full-time fighter, she asked, “Now that you’re champion . . . again . . . what motivates you to keep fighting? You clearly don’t have anything else to prove.”
“Because it’s what I do.” His words hung between them as she waited for him to offer up more, but he didn’t. She narrowed her eyes at him before scratching another note onto her pad.
He’s holding back. Is he naturally reserved? Or is there more? “But why is it what you do, Gabe?”
“Why are you a journalist?” he asked, his hands folded over his flat stomach.
“Because I think the world is fascinating and I want to share it with as many people as possible. I want to expose people to new and interesting things. Beautiful, heartbreaking, intriguing things. The vastness of human experience. We’re only here for a short time, and I want to know everything.”
The light in his eyes shifted as she spoke, but she didn’t know what it meant. Her pen slipped against her notepad, falling out of her fingers and rolling to the floor. With the easy grace of an athlete, Gabe bent to retrieve it. Heat pulsed through her body at the fluid, controlled way he moved. So much leashed strength and power.
He offered her her pen, and she took it with a small smile. Her fingers brushed his and their eyes locked. Electricity zapped over her skin and her arm nearly went boneless, causing her to almost drop the pen again. With his free hand, he wrapped her fingers around the pen, and then took his hands away. God, she didn’t even know him, but she liked the feeling of letting him guide her body.
She made a mental note to take her temperature when she got home because she was either coming down with something or she was losing her mind. Those were the only two explanations for the heat pulsing through her body.
She exhaled slowly and decided to try a new question. “Where did you grow up?”
She smiled as she made a note. With his long blond hair and blue eyes, she could see him on a Southern California beach, surfboard in hand. “Any brothers or sisters?”
“No, just me.”
“You said you took martial arts as a kid. How did you get into it?”
He relaxed slightly, the tension in his shoulders easing as he decided to share a piece of himself with her. “My parents went through a bad divorce when I was about ten. I started acting out and I needed discipline. My mom signed me up for karate classes—she didn’t know what else to do with me. I was angry. I had all this energy and no outlet for any of it.”
So he was willing to talk about his childhood but not his recent history? In her experience, people with difficult childhoods didn’t voluntarily talk about them. Interesting. “So you studied karate, then started teaching it?”
“And what inspired your transition from sensei to mixed martial arts fighter?”
This time instead of silence, he simply ignored her question. “I started fighting in California as an amateur, and then got the chance to fight with Imperial MMA in Chicago. That was my chance to go pro, so I took it. I was there for a few years, and then the opportunity to fight in the WFC came up.”
She nodded, listening while noting that there was a gap in his story, one he didn’t want to talk about. Whatever it was, it had happened relatively recently. She decided to push.
“Do you miss teaching karate?”
“What made you give it up?”
His jaw tightened, and heat pulsed low in her belly. “No time to teach when I have to train full-time.”
“But what made you choose to go full-time?”
“I thought we were going to talk about the WFC.”
She tapped her pen against her lips. “I can get WFC info from Jules. I want to know what makes the light heavyweight champ tick.” More and more so the longer she talked to him.
His eyes traveled a slow path down her body, and he rolled his chair several inches closer to hers. “I don’t think you could handle what makes me tick.” He stood and loomed over her, and she felt her lips part as though she needed to breathe him in. “Hope you got what you needed.”
He turned and left the room. For several seconds Megan stared after him, her heart throbbing in her chest. Even though he’d given her mere scraps for her article, she had to admit that Gabe Maddox was one of the most interesting, exciting, and intriguing interviews she’d ever had. She’d been completely in the moment, completely focused on him. Everything around her had disappeared except for Gabe and his quiet intensity, and all she knew was that she wanted more.
Yeah. He’d been worth the wait.