He’s a fighter who never loses, but is he tough enough to win her heart?
There was a time when I had everything–a wonderful family, a bright future. Love. But all that was taken away in a single night, torn from me like flesh from bone. Since then, I’ve hidden away in my second-choice job as a makeup artist. But I prefer it that way, actually. I’m comfortable in the shadows, where no one can see my scars.
Kiefer Rogan literally took my breath away the moment I met him. MMA champion-turned-actor, notorious playboy, charming to a fault—he’s everything I vowed to avoid.
But he just wouldn’t stop until I opened up and let him in. Maybe I should’ve tried harder to resist him. Maybe I shouldn’t have fallen in love with him. Because I, of all people, know that everyone has secrets. Scars. And that they’re usually ugly and painful and destructive to the people we love most.
I just never guessed that they could be deadly, too.
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Katie, five years ago
Something is prodding me to wake up. Like an insistent finger poking my shoulder and someone whispering, “Wake up, wake up, wake up.”
But I don’t want to. I only want to hide. Hide from the light, hide from the world, hide from reality. I turn deeper into unconsciousness, but there’s no rest for me there.
Wake up, wake up, wake up.
A dull pain begins to spread down my left side and sounds that were a distant backdrop only moments before come closer, closer, closer. One by one, I can make them out.
Screaming. Awful screaming.
It sounds so familiar, that scream. That voice, although I can’t figure out why. The answer is fuzzy, like the face that swirls behind my eyes.
Distorted. Mocking. Cruel.
The face belongs to Calvin.
Panic swells within me, forcing me toward wakefulness. I don’t want to go, don’t want to wake. I claw and scratch. I dig in with my heels, with my hands, but nothing can stop my ascent.
Agony rushes in. It steals my breath and sweeps over me like flames, licking at my skin, turning the air to napalm.
More screaming, only this time I recognize the voice. I know it. I’ve listened to it my whole life.
And then I remember.
Just before the blackness welcomes me back.
I rouse again, despite a gut instinct that tells me not to.
I wake to harsh voices, shouted commands and muffled road noise.
The face is still there, still there behind my eyes. Taunting me, haunting me. Smug and satisfied.
Horrific pain radiates from the left side of my body. It sears its way across my nerves, gaining strength, gaining momentum until I can’t fight the blackness.
So I don’t.
My eyelids flutter open. I see white metal above me, the dark head of a man beside me. I’m lying on my back. He’s sitting to my right. I don’t know who he is or what he’s doing. I don’t even know where I am. All I know is that something is wrong. Terribly wrong. I know it. I can feel it, like frantic fingers picking at my consciousness, picking away the scab. Tearing away the blindfold. Luring me into awareness.
But I can’t go back yet. Not yet. So I turn away. I retreat into the nothingness.
Seconds, minutes, hours pass. Time has no real meaning. It’s only a series of disjointed sights, sounds and feelings. Fear. Dread. Pain.
And aloneness, even though I know I’m not alone; I’m far from alone.
I hear dozens of different voices now. Sounds, too. Beeps. Thumps. Scrambling. And I can smell. Something awful, putrid even, mixed with the chemical scent of a hospital.
I can’t focus on it, though. The pain is what overwhelms it all. It’s nearly unbearable, like my left side is trying to secede from the rest of my body. Nerves tearing away from skin, muscle ripping away from tendon. Flesh falling away from bone.
So I run.
I run into the deepest part of my mind, the part that refuses to participate with the outside world. I hide there until the pain stops.
Only it never stops. It never stops stalking me from the shadows.
“You’re not the least bit excited to be putting makeup on the Kiefer Rogan?”
Mona and I slow our walk as we approach my office. I use the term office loosely since mine is really just four thin walls that house a makeup chair, a bank of lighted mirrors and a wraparound counter. Two of the four walls are covered with shelves that hold the supplies of my trade—a wide array of everything from pancake makeup to prosthetic noses. It’s not fancy, but it feels as much like home as any place does.
I turn my eyes to Mona’s cornflower blue ones. She is the only person who might even come close to being called my best friend. “Am I excited to be putting makeup on Kiefer Rogan?” I repeat. Am I oddly nervous? Yes. Am I extremely uneasy? Yes. But am I excited? “Not even a little bit,” I reply sincerely.
Her full lips fall into a disbelieving O. “Wow! I can’t even imagine not getting excited over a guy like him.”
“He’s just a guy,” I declare with a shrug. I wish I felt as casual as the gesture indicates. Kiefer Rogan is just a guy, but guys like him spell trouble. For that reason alone, I can’t really be as nonchalant as I pretend to be. There’s no point in dwelling on it, though, so I try to redirect her. “Besides, why should you care anyway? You’ve got a boyfriend.”
She grins, which makes her look even more innocent than her platinum hair and eyes that are too big for her face. Physically, Mona is the perfect split between a Barbie Doll and a Precious Moments figurine, all with a touch of clueless porn star thrown in for good measure. She can work her assets like nobody’s business, but she does it in such a way that doesn’t make her detestable. That alone is quite a feat. She’s very genuine, too, which is one of the things I like most about her. That and the fact that we are polar opposites in practically every way.
Mona is tall and fair and beautiful with a sweet, outgoing personality. I am none of those things, which is probably why we get along so well.
“White’s great, but he doesn’t look like that.” White Bristow, Mona’s boyfriend, is the executive producer of the show. He’s fairly good looking, but nothing like the man I’m about to meet, Kiefer Rogan. White’s as much of a player as Kiefer is alleged to be, but Mona loves him enough to overlook it. No matter what else he’s doing (or who else he’s doing), he always comes back to Mona. I guess maybe he loves her in his own way and that seems to be enough for her. “God, I wish he did, though.”
“Looks aren’t everything,” I remind her softly.
Her expression falls into one of regret and sadness. She reaches out and smoothes the hair that I always keep swept over my left shoulder. It can always be found draped around my neck to hide my scars. She’s one of the few people who know what lies beneath the swath of hair. And how sensitive I am about it. “No, looks aren’t everything, but if they were, you’d still be one of the most wanted.”
I smile. That’s Mona—always seeing the best in me, whether it’s accurate or not. “That’s sweet, but you and I both know that’s not true.”
“Oh, but it is. Look at you, Katie. All this thick, wavy auburn hair, those big dark blue eyes and you’re so tiny! I’d give anything to be petite like you.”
“Mona, you’re like a living, breathing Barbie Doll. If I were you, I wouldn’t want to change a thing, not even your Amazonian height,” I tease. She’s not the least bit insecure about her five-eleven frame. In fact, she’d be the first to tell you that it’s her unusual stature, replete with legs that go for miles, that helped her get the attention of White. And White is the person responsible for bringing her into the Hollywood world.
I stop in front of my “office” door and turn to face her. Mona leans up against the jamb, her eyes going all dreamy. “I wonder if Rogan likes tall women,” she muses.
Back to Kiefer Rogan, I think with a deflated sigh. I won’t be able to avoid him much longer, so why do we have to talk about him now?
My bitterness surfaces. A guy like him—beautiful, wealthy, had the world in the palm of his hand—showed me just how destructive men like these could be, and he left me with scars to prove it. Scars that won’t ever let me forget it.
In an uncharacteristic show of emotion, I let that bitterness flow, secretly hoping it’ll stop her from bringing the conversation back to him. “From what I’ve read in the tabloids, he likes anything with boobs. But I think he’s into the divas mostly, which would count you out. Thank God!” I, for one, am glad that Mona isn’t conceited about her looks or her position here at the studio. She’s utterly guileless, happily clueless and I like her just the way she is—diva not included.
“I could be a diva,” she says, straightening, her expression turning enthusiastic. “I could totally be a diva. If it meant having those flirty green eyes and that drop-dead gorgeous smile turned on me, I’d be whatever he wanted me to be.”
Her little-girl giggle belies her words. She could never be a diva. “You don’t have a diva bone in your body. Besides, why would you want a guy like that? He dates the most horrible women and he goes through them like water. I mean, look at Victoria,” I say, lowering my voice as I scan the hall left and right to ensure we aren’t being overheard. “What kind of decent person would date her? She’s awful!” I go on cynically, finding some strange comfort in pigeonholing him, calling a spade a spade. Hoping that maybe if I build up my armor against him, I won’t be swayed by his pretty face. “I bet he’s a conceited jerk who only cares about what his arm candy looks like.”
“Guys who look like him can be annnything they want, as long as they stay hot.”
“Well, he’s all yours, then. I don’t have room for cocky, obnoxious, self-involved sleazeballs in my life.” I glance at my watch. Six fifteen a.m. Mr. Rogan should be here by six thirty, but I won’t be holding my breath. “I bet he doesn’t even show up on time. Jerk!”
Mona sighs, tilting her head, a faraway look in her eyes. “I’d wait all day for a guy like that. He makes my special places shiver.”
“Well, you and your special places are welcome to him. I don’t see what the big deal is,” I reply, turning into my office. “He’s not even that good-looking.”
I take two steps through the door and come to an abrupt halt. There, settled in my makeup chair with one ankle resting on his other knee, looking highly amused and as though he’s been here for a while, is none other Kiefer Rogan.
More gorgeous than words.
A rising star.
My first client of the day.
And the guy I just insulted.
I sit in the makeup chair listening to the conversation happening out in the hall. I don’t feel guilty. I’m not trying to eavesdrop. They brought that shit to my door. Literally. So of course I’m going to listen.
I’m curious to see what the two women who are talking look like. One is obviously very complimentary, while the other is anything but. I’m more used to flattery than dismissiveness, so I’m already working on a mental picture of the skeptic. I mean, yeah, I have an ass-ton of flaws, but I was lucky enough to be born with a decent face and a strong body, a combination that never leaves me without plenty of female attention. I’m not arrogant about it. It is what it is. I don’t try to be handsome. I guess I just am. I mean, hell, I make a living getting punched in the face. Well, not anymore really. There aren’t many who are good enough to land one on me these days. That’s the beauty of rising to the top in the mixed martial arts arena.
I’m surprised when the two women walk through the door into the room where I’ve been waiting. I’m even more surprised by the way they look. One is a tall, blond goddess, the kind of woman I love to spend my nights with. The other is shorter and darker, but no less appealing. In fact, something about her immediately snags my attention. Holds it pretty damn tight, too.
She’s staring at me with wide, midnight eyes, her deliciously lush mouth hanging open in shock. A long, thick rope of reddish hair is swept over one shoulder in a sexy wave and she’s wearing a prim little dress that’s the color of an apricot. What’s inside that dress is just as appealing as the rest of her—two plump, more-than-a-handful tits pressing rhythmically against that soft cotton. They make my palm tingle to touch them, to see if they’re as firm as they look.
When I make my way back to her face, I realize quickly enough that she was the one running me down. She doesn’t have to say a word. It’s all right there in her expression. The blonde looks dazzled. This one just looks . . . shocked.
Of course, me being the healthy guy that I am, she’s the one I want.
The one who doesn’t want me.
Excerpted from "Tough Enough"
Copyright © 2015 M. Leighton.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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