Chelsea is smart, funny, gorgeous, and the best friend I’ve ever had. Ever since she left, I’ve been a wreck. I’ve been focused on keeping my family’s MMA gym afloat while I train and coach fighters, anything to not miss her more. But now she's finally back, along with her grumpy, possessive cat, and things are weird between us.
By weird, I mean I can’t stop thinking about her in that way. She’s in the room next door, and it takes all my control not to storm in there, sweep her up, and bring her back to my bed. Even stranger, I’m pretty sure she’d be into it.
And this time, I’m not going to stop fighting until we’re more.
Each book in the Fighting for Her series is STANDALONE:
* Until You're Mine
* Until We're More
About the Author
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He's my best friend; he's my best friend; he's my best friend ...
I inhaled another gulp of the ocean-scented air that'd welcomed me home and pushed inside the MMA gym where I'd spent countless hours sitting on the sidelines, forever suspended between whatever literary world I'd escaped into and a world of striking drills, sparring, and ripped guys talking about past or upcoming mixed martial arts fights. That beautiful junction used to be my home base, but thanks to a whole mess of complications involving one of the guys who ran the gym, I hadn't been here in way too long. Liam Roth was a light heavyweight contender, coach and fighter for Team Domination, and he also happened to be my stoic, laconic best friend.
My breath leaked out of me like a balloon that hadn't been tied, complete with the screechy noise. Liam stood in the middle of the caged-in area with no shirt on, the sweaty sheen coating his body accentuating all the muscles upon muscles. Really, universe? Couldn't you at least hook a girl up and help make my goal a little attainable?
I hadn't been back to San Diego in six months, and goal number two — right after proving I was upper management material — was to only think of Liam in the most platonic of ways. No more having romantic-type feelings for him. Nope, I was over that. Done being a slave to unrequited love. Of course, it was much easier to stay on track from hundreds of miles away.
The scent of rubber and worn leather invaded my senses and the familiar tap, tap, tap of gloved fists made me yearn to settle into my usual chair and turn into the girl I used to be. The one who avoided her actual home by watching her best friend train for hours. Past Chelsea hadn't had much of a social life besides that, but since it meant being around Liam, that version of me hadn't cared.
Current Chelsea was working on grabbing life by the balls, although she still preferred nights in, and there hadn't been much ball grabbing, which was a whole different issue. I've been doing so well, though. I went out on that date a month and a half ago.
For the record, I knew better than to grab the balls. Not that I'd gotten near enough to do that, and not that I wanted to do that. The point was to put myself out there and engage in life instead of letting it pass me by, which included dating with the intention of bedding. Eventually. When I found the right person. If that ever happened.
Full disclosure: I'd accidentally compared my last date to Liam, and naturally the guy fell short, but again, I was trying.
If at first you don't succeed, jump on a dating app and swipe, swipe again.
Vaguely I noticed no one was seated behind the front desk. Prying information from Liam — especially over the phone — was like convincing a baby to release their death-grip on a sucker, but I'd gleaned that nowadays, Liam's sister only occasionally worked at the gym yet still came in often, since her newish boyfriend was also part of Team Domination. As much as I wanted to see Brooklyn, I was sorta glad no one manned the desk right now because it made it easier to hang back and soak in the action. Aka, ogle the fighters, and I had my eyes on one in particular. The very same guy I'd watched strike and hit more times than I could count through the years, and my pulse skipped to the rhythm of his motions.
A digital clock on the wall ticked down the time the fighters had left in this training round — three minutes to go, which meant they'd started these drills two minutes ago.
Three minutes to figure out what to say to him, which felt so foreign and ... icky. After a few long months of hardly any contact when I'd almost given up on him, Liam had actually started picking up the phone once in a while. Things were still more stilted than they used to be, and thanks to that, a combination of missed calls on both sides, and then deciding it'd be fun to surprise him, he had no idea I was coming. Maybe part of that also stemmed from my worry that he wouldn't be as excited as I was, and I definitely didn't want to hear him tell me I should stay put, several states away.
My heart dropped and tightened at the same time, which left the organ struggling to function properly. Things hadn't been the same between us since shortly before I left. For years we'd fended off assumptions and accusations of being more than friends. Again and again we'd explain that we were just friends and why was that so hard to believe? Back then I'd even meant it, and I had no doubt he did, too.
Then, about a year ago, my feelings went rogue on me. I'd tried to stop them. But, hello, he was tall and buff and he had this longish, forever-tousled blond hair that made him look like a certain Norse god who wielded a hammer. While I'd always noticed Liam was hot, suddenly I couldn't notice anything but that.
I didn't have many friendships, and I couldn't risk messing up ours unless he felt the same. Problem was, Liam had never been what you'd call forthcoming with the emotions, and I debated the best way to test the waters, while also being terrified of what I'd discover if I actually got brave enough to dip in a toe.
One night he went to give me a goodbye peck on the cheek, the way he'd done dozens of times through the years. (Back in high school, I was the sole proprietor of the mushy farewells, but eventually he began reciprocating.) My daydreams got tangled up with real life, and in an uncharacteristic moment of impulsivity, I turned my head so that our mouths would line up instead. Last second, I came to my senses — with a side of chickening out — and he caught the corner of my lips.
I froze, my heart bruising my ribs with every too-strong, too-fast beat.
Visions of him pulling me closer for a purposeful, square-on-the-mouth kiss flashed through my brain as a sizzle worked its way through my veins.
He shook his head, a hint of confusion in his features. Then he gestured to the swollen, purplish-blue eye he'd gotten from a sparring session gone too far. "Sorry, my depth perception must be off."
He backed away, as if he needed to ensure no more accidental brushing ensued, and I pretended that my squashed hope wasn't twitching like a dying bug.
In order to keep myself from screwing up our relationship, I'd resorted to drastic measures. Not that I was testing him or anything, because an amazing job opportunity had come up, and in a lot of ways, it seemed like the escape I'd been looking for. If it hadn't been for Liam, I would've probably put more space between my toxic family and me the second I graduated high school. So when I'd mentioned the job and told him it included having to relocate to Denver, I'd watched his face, hoping to see anything that might lead me to believe his feelings ran deeper. I could stay for more, but I couldn't keep waiting and hoping and wrecking my career goals and social life on something that'd never happen.
Seriously, do you have any idea how hard it is to date when you have a ginormous, overprotective best friend? The few guys who'd actually hit on me ran in the other direction once they met Liam.
Instead of saying he didn't want me living that far away, Liam told me a fresh start would be good for me and that the job sounded perfect, and the fact that he was so blasé about it made it clear I needed some space before I went and did something that'd ruin everything. And the time away had been good for me. I'd grown a lot over the last six months. I'd learned how to be bolder — although I was still working on that, particularly when it came to my job — and how to make new friends.
It gave me a chance to attempt to date and experience what it was like to spend time with people other than Liam.
Naturally, the move wasn't without a downside or two. I occasionally missed the beach and the MMA gym and even my dysfunctional family, although that was a slippery, complicated slope. While the distance erected a natural barrier, I'd feel bad I wasn't there for my mom the way I should be, tell myself that maybe things would be better now that we'd had space, and finally answer one of her calls. Before I could fully get out the words "Hi, Mom," I'd be wrapped up in her net and end up sending money to placate her, as well as my guilt.
As for the number one con, though, the one that surpassed them all ...?
He was standing in the center of the caged-off rectangle, still hammering out fighting drills.
What if he's not excited? What if he's moved on and is Mr. Popular now, so many friends he doesn't have time for me? Even in my head that didn't seem right, not because he couldn't be a local celebrity with a nonstop social life but because it so wasn't him.
For the first time since I'd asked — i.e. practically begged — for my boss to add me to the team that would be opening a branch here, doubt over my decision crept in. Not great, since I already had enough doubt I could pull off showing the marketing firm I worked for that I was managerial material.
I have six weeks to prove that I'd be a great manager, and that I'm an asset to whatever team I'm on.
Six weeks to enjoy San Diego and spend as much time as possible with Liam — without falling for him all over again and making things weird. Again.
No big deal. I'm the picture of self-control.
Just ask that box of doughnuts I plowed through on my drive halfway across the country. Okay, so I'd meant to only eat a couple, but that was different. Doughnuts obviously loved me back.
First things first, I needed to summon some of that boldness I claimed to have gained over the past several months and see where Liam and I were even starting from.
My gaze returned to my guy — er, my guy friend — and blood rushed through my head in that way that made it hard to think straight, and I just ... Well, I was right there with every girl who'd ever swooned in Liam's presence, which was a lot. I used to watch in amusement as they would turn into babbling idiots around him, and I'd even teased him about his groupies, but right now, it didn't strike me as very funny. I had all the empathy for any girl who went and fell for Liam Roth. Especially since he was so damn hard to get over.
The five-minute buzzer sounded, Liam's unwavering focus on his training broke, and slowly — like that serious slow-motion-type shit you see in romance movies — his eyes scanned the area and landed right on me. My heart stopped for one second. Two seconds ...
A grin curved his lips, and then my feet were propelling me forward, and he was rushing down from the caged-in training area, and a floaty, fuzzy sensation took over my body.
Just when the hugging I desperately wanted to commence was finally within my reach, Liam stopped short, his arms dropping to his sides.
Oh no. My worst fears have come true. We don't even know how to act around each other anymore.
He frowned as he glanced down at himself — since he was looking at his muscles, I figured that made it okay for me to follow suit. You know, in case he had any questions. Why, yes, your abs do look crazy-amazing and I have imagined licking them.
So much for my thoughts behaving themselves. Self-control was ... a process.
"I'm all sweaty from training." Liam glanced over his shoulder, in the direction of the locker room. "I'll hit the showers real quick and then —"
I flung myself at him, not caring. Needing my arms around him and his arms around me, because conflicted feelings or not, I'd missed him with a nearly consuming longing that begged to be appeased. "You look ... I mean, training is obviously ... And I'm so happy to be ..."
Great. Now I was the babbling idiot in his presence, something I hadn't been since I was twelve. Guess that was karma, paying me back. In addition to being a bit flustered by his hotness, it went deeper than that. This was my Liam, my rock, my friend who'd always been there for me. The guy I could have fun doing absolutely nothing with.
He tightened his grip, hugging me so vigorously my toes left the ground. "Damn, I missed you." His deep voice rumbled through me, unfurling heat in my gut, and just like that, my goals turned hazy all over again.
He's my best friend; he's my best friend; he's my best friend ...CHAPTER 2
As much as I tried to deny it when my brother and sister claimed I'd been grouchy ever since Chelsea moved away, the calming sensation I'd missed for months washed over me now that I had my arms around her. We'd made do with texts and the occasional phone call — I'd never been great at small talk, and over the phone, my skills went from barely passable to nonexistent. Mostly she talked and I listened, which was one of the greatest things about Chelsea. Whenever I was with her, I didn't have to do any of the talking. I could just sit back and listen, and she'd make me smile as my stress and worries melted away.
I reluctantly set her down, not too keen on the idea of letting go, since after the last time I'd hugged her this tightly she'd driven away and it'd been six extremely long months. I didn't even mind her ponytail in my face. I'd missed her silky red strands and how I constantly found them on my T-shirt or couch or in my car, and now I had the oddest urge to run my fingers through them. Maybe even lift a curl and get a better whiff of the peach shampoo she used. When it came to Chelsea, "missed" was an understatement.
The door opened, and I shifted Chelsea to the side to make way for the group of women coming through. She looked from them to me, her forehead all scrunched up.
"We started offering classes," I said. "To help keep a steady source of income for the gym, no matter where we are with fighters and fights." Not my idea, and something I'd originally balked at along with my dad, but I'd do whatever it took to keep his legacy intact and the gym and my family financially afloat. Before offering the new services, I'd spent way too many sleepless nights wondering how to take care of everyone, including the fighters who'd also become family.
She arched an eyebrow. "You're teaching classes?"
"Don't say it all incredulous like that. You'll make me self-conscious about my teaching skills," I teased.
Chelsea's brown eyes narrowed, and she studied me as if she thought I was scamming her. "What are you teaching them? Grunted Responses 101?"
"Very funny." I reached out and pinched her side, grinning when she jerked away with a squeal — she'd always been super ticklish. "Self-defense mostly. Although I do cover the odd kickboxing and interval training class." I ran my fingers down her arm and couldn't help noticing how soft her skin was — apparently I also needed to touch her to prove to myself she was here. "You wanna stick around? Or I could meet you later? How long are you in town anyway?"
Chelsea smiled. "I think that's the most words I've ever heard from you at once."
"Well, it's been so quiet without your constant chatter that I had to take Grunted Responses 201, which included a few key phrases. 'Yes,' 'no,' and 'Why the hell did it take you so long to visit?'"
"That last one seems oddly specific."
I grunted, and she laughed. The happy sound danced across my nerve endings and settled deep in my chest. She eyed me again, her brain clearly working a mile a minute, and I sensed she was also double-checking this was happening and that things were okay between us, something I'd often wondered about since she'd moved. I wasn't sure how I'd managed to let my life get so wrapped up in the redhead next door, but over the past several months, it almost felt like I was missing a limb — not ideal when I needed every single one of them to fight.
"I've wanted to, but I've been really bus —"
"Chelsea Jessop!" Brooklyn pushed through the front door of the gym. "Oh my gosh, is it actually you?" my sister asked, and then she and Chelsea crashed into a hug.
They both started talking over each other, their words blending together, and I grinned and soaked in the happy chatter. For a while, life had been a monotonous loop of training other fighters and training for my fights and getting the new classes up and running, and I almost forgot what it was to smile. Something Brooklyn and my brother, Finn, accused me of not doing enough. Now that my sister was living here again, working full-time at an art gallery, she swung by whenever she could to pick up the slack and convince us to take a break. She didn't always succeed on the latter, but things felt less overwhelming with our family all together and mostly in harmony again. With Chelsea also here, it was like the old days, back when I experienced things besides stress and too many ticking clocks.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Until We're More"
Copyright © 2018 Cindi Madsen.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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