Fighter Sneak Peek
The moment I walked into the MMA Center, I knew exactly what would happen: snap judgments, a flare of annoyance, and maybe even concern. But I walked in anyway, because desperate times call for desperate measures.
This fat lip wasn't going away fast enough.
On purpose, I stepped inside at 8:50 pm, ten minutes away from closing, so I didn't get roped into a conversation I didn't want. My old black backpack was slung halfway across my back and my maniacal brown curls tamed into something of a ponytail.
There weren't many people left here, which wasn't surprising. The MMA Center was a place for athletes across the country to train in mixed-martial arts, not an every day gym. But Benjamin Mercedy, the owner and founder, had been forced to pack it with weight machines and treadmills and ellipticals for the average mortal to use in order to pay the rent. The giant mats taking up most of the room, however, belied the casual jogger's attitude.
This was a serious place.
A girl across the room spritzed down gym equipment with a bright spray, then wiped it with a white cloth. A heavy-set guy huffed away on a treadmill below a TV with the news streaming across it, ticker-tape style.
My gaze honed in on the girl. Medium height, just like me. Strong, but unassuming. She was way more wiry than I was—I had thighs thick enough to be proud of, as Mama said—but I sensed an understanding soul in her. She'd get me. No judgment from a fellow woman. I turned toward her, but stopped when a deep, rolling voice to my left asked, "Can I help you?"
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up when I paused midstep. Fantastic. Just what I didn't want—Benjamin himself. I responded without looking over. Maybe I could make it in and out of here without him seeing my swollen face.
"I just had a question about classes." I adjusted my backpack strap. "And what you offered."
"We have a full schedule on—"
"I saw it online."
Finally, I turned to face him. I couldn't talk to the mats on the other side of the room without looking like a total weirdo. As expected, Benjamin stood behind a counter, both of his hands on the desk. He peered at me through golden eyes framed with thick eyelashes enough to flutter away. Longer brown hair normally grew in waves around his face, but tonight he'd pulled the top half of it back. The rest wasn't long enough. His arms coiled in muscles all the way up his neck. They'd probably ripple down his back, too.
His adam's apple bobbed as our eyes collided. I stared right at him to avoid looking at the rest of him and I forced my voice to remain normal. "I . . . I just wanted to see if you offered self defense classes."
His gaze immediately dropped to the fat red line down the middle of my lip. Maybe I could have passed it off as dry skin or some weird condition, except for the swollen, fat state of the lip beneath it.
Two days later, it still stung.
When his eyebrows came together slightly, I realized I'd lost the game. I dropped all sense of pretense and leaned on the counter an intentional mimicry of his posture.
"Look," I leaned waved a hand around my face. "I know what this probably looks like, particularly considering my need for a self-defense class. But I'm not an abused woman in a relationship with a crappy boyfriend. That's not what this is. That's not my jam."
A flicker of amusement traveled through those honey-gold eyes before he nodded. "All right. No, we don't offer self defense classes right now. We tried, but no one came."
"Well that's stupid," I muttered.
He lifted an eyebrow.
My body felt tense, like I was preparing to meet a blow to the stomach. That wasn't the case this time. I was just preparing myself for his inevitable judgment. The quiet talk about what my resources were and how I deserved better. Um, no. Not again, please. I'd already been through this with my boss.
This wasn't that.
Except . . . it wasn't far off from that, either. I was potentially one more bad situation away from being a statistic, which was why I just needed someone to get me the basics.
"Do you need some help with whoever did this?" he asked, nodding toward my fat lip.
There was an underlying promise of vengeance in his words that sent a little chill through me. This guy didn't even know me, and I'd very intentionally not allowed myself to know him for the last eight weeks.
What could he possibly want retribution for?
"Nope," I replied cheerily. "Tip top over here." I leaned forward again, affecting a casual air. "Can you tell me if you have any plans for opening some sort of self-defense thing in the next week or two? I'd rather not drive up the canyon to Jackson City for one, but I will, if that's all there is."
His gaze narrowed. "What do you need?"
The blood of my enemies, I wanted to say. What do you think i need if I'm asking for a self-defense class?
I quelled the burst of inner sarcasm. My bad mood had nothing to do with Benjamin Mercedy. Actually, scratch that. It did. The quiet power in the way he held himself, his muscular frame, and the unassuming way he lived his life was all way too attractive for me to deal with in a constructive way.
Instead of answering right away, I chewed on my bottom lip and looked back to the equipment sprinkled through the gym. My gaze lingered on the lifting equipment, treadmills, and a few other things against the far wall, near the mirrors.
His question had been a fair one. What did I need? Confidence. I needed confidence. Power. Quick reflexes. I needed to be a fighter, and all of that sometime before 3:00 pm tomorrow.
"Safety," popped out instead.
He lifted an eyebrow.
"Wait, stop. I take that back." I waved my hands in the air, thoroughly annoyed now. The smell of marinara and chicken carbonara wafted through the air as I tried to take that back. "Ignore my dramatics. I'm in a safe—mostly safe—situation. I just need to be able to defend myself against a surprise attacker for a few more weeks."
"The one that hit you already?"
"Yes, if you must know," I ground out, then pointed to him. "And he is not my boyfriend or my fiancee or my husband so don't even go there. I'm not a victim. He's not . . . an attacker either. It was all an accident. I think," I tacked on, the regretted it when his lips tightened.
Except I was sort of a victim in the way that any woman would be against a much larger man she couldn't exactly escape.
The details were murky.
Benjamin frowned. "Look, our roster is full. There's literally no mat time available to host a self defense class."
A curse word slipped out under my breath, but before I could back away, he held up a hand.
"But maybe you and I could figure something out."
"What does figure something out mean?"
He tilted his head to the side. "I'll teach you a few things. Self defense isn't that hard to get started with. We'd need an hour, tops."
He nodded. Despite having a larger-than-life presence with his body, he had a calm way about him. Coming in here had been one of the hardest things I'd ever done, and some days, that was saying something.
"Why?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Let's just say I'm a sucker for a damsel-in-distress."
My blood boiled, and for two seconds, I saw the world in shades of red. Is this how Talmage felt? Is this why I had a big fat lip? Some genetic predisposition to instant rage when helpful people were just trying to help? Maybe I had too much pride.
Without realizing it, I had taken a step back sometime between the word distress and my indrawn breath of rage.
"Then find someone else to rescue," I snapped. "This damsel can save herself . . . with a few well-placed self-defense lessons from someone that isn't you," I added for good measure. "I have some pride, no matter what you've judged of me."
I spun and shoved out the front door.
Cool spring air washed down my face as I headed for the mountain bike I'd parked close to the back, out of sight. My bike had been stolen before, and thankfully recovered, but I couldn't afford another fall back. It was my only transportation.
My cheeks had exploded with heat in the ten seconds it took to tell him off. Humiliation had a way of coloring me bright crimson, and I hated it. Damsel-in-distress? Seriously? I wanted to yell. I wasn't sitting at home, waiting for the next fist and prince charming.
Fuming, I jerked the backpack on the rest of the way, grabbed the bike handles, and had one leg almost over the bike when a hand grabbed my ankle.
On reflex, I kicked back with a grunt. Whoever had my leg shuffled at the shifting weight, but didn't budge. They released me. I whirled around to find Benjamin there. My helmet swung from my hand as I wheeled it toward him, but he dodged the flying foam missile like a featherlight ninja, then too a step back and held up two hands.
"Sorry," he said, "I shouldn't have touched you."
Chest heaving, blood thumping, I let my hand rest at my side. The helmet hit my thigh uselessly. Embarrassed at my overreaction—but seriously, he grabbed my ankle?—I took a deep breath.
"What?" I snapped again. "You made your position very clear."
"I want to help."
In the dimming spring light, his face was bathed in shadows. A glimmer of something showed in his eyes anyway, and he tucked two hands into his front pockets. He normally stood with his arms at his side, like a god come to life. His face was usually analytical and serious.
Now it was . . . concerned.
Fantastic. I engendered pity in the man I'd secretly tried to ignore for months now. And maybe—just maybe—that had been a bit of an overreaction. Mama always said that defensiveness meant there was truth in what the other person said.
So . . . there was that.
"I'm sorry," he said. "That came out arrogant and not entirely true. I don't see you as a damsel-in-distress or whatever. I just . . . I want you to help you better your situation however I can. I want you to be safe."
My racing heart calmed. I studied him for another short eternity. "I overreacted," I said. "I'm sorry too."
He lifted his eyebrows. Was it surprise or a follow up question? Going with the latter, I stumbled over my own thoughts. Did I want to trust him? Yes. Could I?
At least I could sense that much beneath the layers of vulnerable bravado and muscle that I sensed held something of a charming man. He was coiled quiet. Deadly precision. Probably moved faster than I could think.
Not probably—definitely could. I'd seen the videos of his last fight.
There was nothing normal about Mercedy, but something told me that everything in him wanted to be.
"I just need someone to teach me the basics in case I need them." I ran a hand through my hair, which had fallen from the loose ponytail and gone full-curl-powered-frizzy at some point after leaving the restaurant. "Like poking eyes or groin kicks or something. I'm pretty open in the afternoon. I work from six to three at the diner Monday through Thursday and on Saturday."
His gaze followed my gesture to the diner sign across the way. For several moments, a machine seemed to move behind his eyes.
"Come at 9:00 tomorrrow," he finally said, "just after we close. I'll teach you what you need to know. But it's not going to stop someone that's determined to hurt you. If—"
"You'd do that?"
I rolled my eyes. "Because you want to be the hero?"
"No," he said softly. "Because I want you to be."
My natural snarky response froze in my throat, and all I could do was nod. Geez, what was I doing? Giving Mercedy—it was easier to picture him as a non-god if I called him by his last name—attitude. Not only that, but I'd be alone with him.
For an hour.
"Okay, I'll take that." I nodded, hair waving around my face, and held up a finger. "Can I pay you?"
"I don't need the money."
"Great! Then I'll bring food," I said quickly. "Dinner is on me. And it won't be from the restaurant. I'll make it."
A hint of amusement appeared like a crack in his veneer. "It doesn't matter where it's from. And you don't have to bring me food."
I tilted my head back and forth. "Well, I really shouldn't steal food from the place I work, you know? And yes, I do need to give something back. I demand it. Is this a deal?"
Feeling a sense of euphoria for the first time in weeks, I stuck my hand out. It had been too long since I had a real win. Only a few seconds before our hands came together did I comprehend that I'd be touching him.
Whom I quietly stalked from behind the diner windows and tried to ignore all at the same time.
When he gripped my hand in his, tiny little fireworks erupted under the skin of my palm and electrified the rest of my body. I hated that physical response. The pooling collection of heat in my belly that just seeing him caused.
He gave me a short nod, and I couldn't help but wonder if he ever smiled.
"Deal," he said.
"Thank you. I appreciate it. Oh! Do you have any allergies?"
"Nah." He took a step back, our hands falling apart. "I eat just about anything."
Like a madwoman, I wanted to rush forward and snatch his hand back. To cradle his in mine. To imagine what that thrumming touch would feel like on my shoulders. My neck. My cheek. Instead, I let my arm drop back to my side.
His head tilted back in amusement, as if he didn't know what to make of me. He certainly wouldn't be the first. I climbed on top of my bike, one leg bent as I put a foot on the pedal.
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Serafina. You can call me Sera."
I shoved off, my bike tires humming on the pavement as I pedaled away.
Don't you just love an anti-damsel-in-distress? Because I adore Serafina in all her snarky glory.
I just know you will fall in love with Sera and Benjamin in Runaway.
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