Ways to screw up the MMA comeback I've been working so hard on:
1. Check out my trainer's little sister in front of him, which gets me hit in the head
2. Make excuses to stay at the gym afterhours so I can watch her face scrunch up while she balances the books
3. Forget that she's leaving at the end of the summer and we're supposed to be sticking to just friends
4. Get caught making out with her, earning even more hellacious training sessions, along with a warning to stay away
5. Switch my focus to proving I won't stop fighting until she's mine
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The past collided into the present as I stepped into the place that used to serve as my second home. The scent of rubber and worn leather accompanied the tap, tap, tap of gloved fists hitting punching bags and bare feet slapping mats. Phrases I'd heard a thousand times swirled into the mix, barked orders like "hands up," "move to the other side," and "stay on him." Even the slight tinge of sweat insinuated its way into the part of my brain that held all my memories, solidifying the you're home sensation rising through me, despite the fact that this gym — hell, even this city — hadn't been my home in years.
There was a time when I would've given up afternoons with friends and even the occasional weekend at the beach to help out Dad at his MMA training gym. Now it was the last place I wanted to be, and so not how the summer before my dream internship at a super hip gallery in San Francisco was supposed to go. Giving up afternoons with friends and weekends on the beach wasn't something I did willingly anymore, not for the guy who could never bother to show up at my things. Throughout the years, there'd been piano recitals, planned movie dates, art shows, and even birthday parties where he'd never showed.
Living several hours away made it easier, because then I didn't hold my breath, thinking that this time, Dad might actually show up. My goals and passions were never important enough to merit missing anything at the gym or in the cage, and since it constantly left me feeling torn up inside, I'd worked hard to get myself out of this world and put it mostly behind me. It was also why, when I was considering whether to go to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia or the San Francisco Art Institute, I'd chosen San Francisco — I'd needed to get away, somewhere far enough that I wouldn't be easily tempted back. Now here I was. Only temporarily, but still.
A loud smack drew my attention to the raised cage in the middle of the room. My oldest brother, Liam, had his mitted hands held up for striking training as he circled a guy with thick dark hair.
The guy's jab was solid, as was his undercut, and I couldn't help noticing that his body was also very ... solid. Without a shirt in the way, I could see every muscle and how they worked together, flexing and bunching as he moved and struck.
My anxious, hesitant pace slowed even more as I got caught up in a moment of testosterone appreciation. The speed and power of his punches, the glistening muscles. Holy shit, his arms ...
My heart went from beating to skidding, the lack of full beats leaving me a tad dizzy.
Okay, so I might've forgotten the dopamine rush that came along with being in the gym, constantly surrounded by ripped guys who dripped masculinity. But I'd moved past my arm-porn addiction and the lifestyle that came with the cutthroat world of mixed martial arts, and was much healthier and happier for it. The last thing I'd ever do is fall for another fighter. One of my favorite things about my boyfriend was the fact that he couldn't name an MMA fighter to save his life. Even more important, I didn't always feel like I came in last place anymore. Spending two months doing the long-distance thing was going to blow, and I was dealing with more than a little bitterness over losing my last summer of freedom before I fully jumped into the world of adulting.
It made me feel like a sucker that all it took was my brother Finn showing up at my graduation ceremony and telling me, "I know you couldn't wait to escape, but you've been gone for long enough. You need to come home, at least for a little while. Dad knows he screwed up with you, and ever since his health scare, he's trying to do better and make up for the past. He needs you, Brooklyn." And just like that, my summer suddenly involved a semi-famous gym and the supposedly-ready-to-be-adad who owned it and trained some of the top fighters in the nation. Or used to — it was a little less shiny these days. We were all a little less shiny than we used to be.
Finn had driven the guilt-stake home when he'd added, "We need you. The gym's struggling, and we can't keep up. Liam would never admit it, but he's feeling the burnout, too." A conflicting mix of resentment and regret had filled me when he mentioned Dad — and sure, I wanted to believe he could change despite also feeling like he was twenty-four years too late — but it was my brothers I truly came back for. Thanks to their busy training and fighting schedules, they'd missed a lot of my events and big life moments as well, but they'd also nearly killed themselves to attend the ones they could. They'd made it to more art shows than they'd missed. And if anyone ever so much as looked at me wrong, my brothers had my back. If I needed something, Finn showed up on my doorstep. He'd hopped on a plane or made the eight-hour drive from San Diego to visit me way more than I'd made the trip down.
I walked toward the open doorway to Dad's office and hung back, just out of view. I expected him to look different, worn by the tumor scare and the year and a half that'd passed without us seeing each other, but he'd stayed his burly, intimidatingly large self. Well, I wasn't intimidated, but most people instinctively were, and with the power he could put behind a swing if provoked, they should be. The hair on his balding head was buzzed short, the remaining strands more salt and pepper than they used to be. Same with his whiskered jaw. The lines in his forehead and around his eyes were pronounced in a way that only made him look more rugged, and the bump on his nose hinted at the fact that it'd been broken before. In his case, twice.
I leaned a hip against the doorframe. "Hey, Dad."
He looked up, almost as if he'd expected the voice had merely been a figment of his imagination. "Brookie. Wow, look how grown up you are."
"Which is why I don't go by Brookie. I'm not two anymore." If I were, I'd run into his arms and squeal as he tossed me in the air. Part of me wished for the little kid optimism and excitement I used to have. Honestly, it would be kind of nice to be wrapped in a bear hug right now. But I had to put up boundaries and walls or else my heart was left unprotected, and I'd grown tired of it being as beat up as a loser who stepped out of the cage, bruised, bloodied, and dealing with defeat.
Dad nodded. "Right, right. Finn said you were coming back to help with the admin stuff over the summer. I was afraid to get my hopes up."
I bit back the urge to say well, I've been afraid to get my hopes up when it comes to you for a good seven or eight years. Finn swore Dad was trying really hard to make amends, and asked me to give him not only a break, but also a real chance. Easy for him to say. He got to be the fun-loving, easy-going guy who'd always been one of the apples of Dad's eye, my other brother capping off the pair.
Speaking of, I spotted the instigator striding across the gym. Since Finn had always taken care of my heart, I didn't waste any time rushing over and wrapping him in a hug. He lifted me off the ground, and for some reason, when he treated me like I was a kid, I didn't mind.
He lowered me to my feet, and I glanced up at him. "Holy shit, did you get even taller?"
"I think you got shorter. Do you have to shop in the kids' section still?"
I slugged him in the shoulder, and he acted like it hurt, even though he took harder punches from guys twice my size on a regular basis. He and Liam were both following in Dad's footsteps, turning training and fighting into full-time careers. Between the three professional fighters in my life, dating in high school had been somewhere on the hellish to nearly-impossible side of the scale. They tended to scare off most of my would-be suitors, and the few they couldn't ended up being of the jerkish variety.
Dad had moved to the doorway of his office to watch Finn's and my reunion, and he nodded at us, the almost-smile that counted as an outright grin in Blake Roth World on his face.
With a firm hand square on my back, Finn — the ever-meddling glue that held our nonconventional family together — nudged me toward Dad.
He stepped forward and then we shared a quick, awkward hug. He followed it up with a hard pat on the back that almost dislodged a cough. "I'm so glad you're here."
Four years ago, he'd demanded I do my duty to my family and stay, so I couldn't bring myself to say "me, too," although a bittersweet sense of nostalgia kept tugging at me.
Hug delivered, Dad returned to the gruff, hulking dude who refused to show emotion and headed back into his office.
I raised an eyebrow at Finn and coated my words in sarcasm. "Yeah, big change. I hardly recognized him." Not that I was surprised. When it came down to it, I didn't think people were really capable of changing. Sure, maybe they could tweak a few things about themselves, but big changes to their personality and who they were to the core? I didn't buy it, and in my opinion, it was healthier to accept that than to hold my breath and wait for something that wouldn't happen.
"It's not easy for him. You could summon up a little more enthusiasm so he has something to work with."
"Why do I have to? He's the one —"
"I know, I know," Finn said, holding up a hand. "I'm not looking for a fight."
"Funny, I thought fighting was kind of your thing."
"Yeah, but I only take on opponents I'm confident I can beat. I'm not volunteering for a verbal sparring match with you."
"Chicken," I teased, and he pulled me in like he was going to give me a noogie. I shoved at his chest, pushing him away. "I take it back, I take it back."
"Do you want me to show you to your desk?" Finn asked.
"Already? Don't you usually give new people the tour?"
Finn tilted his head. "You know every inch of this gym."
"I know every inch of the front desk, too, and I'd rather walk through the gym again. Or there's always the locker rooms." Maybe I could get the minor fix I was suddenly itching for in there, a testosterone contact-high to get me through the day. I also wouldn't say no to a quick introduction to every hot shirtless guy training here.
Careful, you're tiptoeing into dangerous territory. Territory I'd exiled myself from. Besides, hot shirtless guys were the daydream version of the locker room. Usually it involved ten different kinds of B.O. and an out-of-control stack of towels that needed washing, and guess who'd end up doing the laundry?
My brothers and dad had acted so shocked that I didn't want to turn the catchall admin and occasional cleaning lady into a fulltime career. When I'd told Dad about my plans to go to art school — after a disastrous gap year I never should've taken, nonetheless — he'd said, "Painting is a hobby you can do anywhere, when you have some time to waste. We run a family business, and you need to stay here and pull your weight. No one gets a free ride, and you can't just run away from your life every time a guy dumps you."
The following fight was uglier than any I'd ever seen in the cage, inflicting the kind of damage that didn't heal with stitches, ice packs, and time. We didn't talk for three months after I moved — against his wishes and without his financial support — and when he finally did call me, it wasn't to apologize or even check in to see how I was doing. He asked about a file he couldn't find on the computer's hard drive. Residual pain rose as I remembered how inconsequential I'd felt, like I was only useful if I was one of his trained soldiers, barking, "Yes, sir," after every order.
"B?" Finn waved a hand in front of my face, a mischievous gleam in the bright blue eyes we'd all inherited from Dad. "Are you on pause? Which button unfreezes you?"
"This one." I lifted my middle finger, and he laughed. I expelled a deep breath, trying to send the pains of the past out with it — this was my life for the next couple of months, so I might as well accept it and throw myself into it. "Fine, let's just get it over with."
As we started toward the front of the gym, I glanced at the cage again. A buzzer sounded, meaning the end of a round. Usually they switched from striking drills to ground-and-pound to takedown ones. Sometimes they did that circuit a few times through. Other times they also threw a five-minute sparring round into the mix, since that was how long each round of a fight would be. I ignored the impulse to look for the fighter I'd spotted when I'd walked in, and forced myself to focus on Liam and Liam alone.
"How's our big brother dealing with life without Chelsea?" I asked. Liam was the oldest and had always been the most serious of us, with a surliness that rivaled Dad's. But for a certain number of people, he turned into a big teddy bear. Finn, me, and the girl next door. She was one of the few people in our lives without a connection to MMA, UFC, TSE, SCC, or any other three-letter acronym that translated to us living and breathing the cage-fighting world.
Finn ran a hand over his head of thick hair that used to be dirty blond but looked closer to light brown these days, a couple of shades darker than Liam's and mine — well, like four or five shades from mine, but I had chemical help. "How do you think? He's grouchy as hell, and if you bring up her name, he'll just about take your head off."
There were a lot of days Chelsea and I were the only two girls at the gym. She'd become such a permanent fixture, I almost expected to see her sitting off to the side, red hair piled into a high bun, either cheering on Liam as he sparred, or with her nose in a book as she waited for him to finally call it a day. She'd moved away for a job a month ago, and when I'd heard about it, I'd worried Liam would take it badly. They both insisted they were just friends, but occasionally I'd caught one of them looking at the other in a way that spoke to something beyond friendship. "Basically you're saying that her move halfway across the country has made him a shoo-in for Little Mr. Sunshine."
Finn snorted a laugh. "Bingo. But don't even try to tell him that's why he's pissy, or the aforementioned off-with-your-head thing will apply again."
I stopped a few feet short of the half wall the front desk was nestled behind. "I know that in theory they were just friends, but did he at least tell her he cared about her before she left? Did he fight for her at all?"
"What do you think?"
I sighed. "Of course not — the Roth men are famous for being emotionally stunted."
I patted Finn's cheek. "Except you, of course. You're all evolved and shit." My sense of humor evaporated when I rounded the wall and looked at the stacks of disorganized madness on the desk. "Are you frickin' kidding me?"
"I told you it was rough over here. We've had the hardest time keeping someone behind the desk since you left. We've tried nice old ladies, mean old ladies, college kids, and a couple of uptight accountant dudes." Not sure why the ages mattered, but Finn always was a bit of a chatty oversharer. "The last chick — a pretty coed who mostly distracted the guys by doing yoga in the corner — just up and quit, and when we started going through the books, it was clear that she hadn't been inputting anything for months."
"Of all those people, how many did Dad scare off?" Like I'd said, gruff and blunt was his M.O. Any losses the gym took, he, in turn, took out on whoever sat behind this desk. I'd told him dozens of times that a receptionist and an accountant were two very different things, but he'd insisted on saving money and getting a twofer deal. I was pretty sure I was the only twofer deal who could handle it, and that was because he couldn't plow over me as easily as everyone else.
Finn shrugged, and I crossed my arms, giving him the narrow-eyed look that — if I still had it — would get him to crack. "Fine. Like seventy-five percent." He lowered his voice and mumbled, "Plus, maybe another twenty."
"This is really why you wanted me back for the summer." I lifted a stack of unopened envelopes that most likely held overdue bills. "So I can fix the disorganized shit pile and do all the crap no one else wants to."
"Wow, a little heavy on the poop metaphors, sis." At my glare, his grin only widened. Then he sat on the desk, facing me. "It's not just that we don't want to do all that stuff — even though, yes, a valid assessment — we seriously don't have time. We can't keep up with our training and do the training and admin stuff. I've already had to postpone a fight, and if I do it again, it'll be a bitch to ever book another."
Excerpted from "Until You're Mine"
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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