It started with a laugh, one unmistakably female. Next thing I knew, a mitt hit the side of my face and ringing replaced the sound of laughter.
“Dude,” I said, shaking my head to regain my bearings. Because, seriously, not cool.
Liam gave a nonchalant shrug. “You get distracted, you get hit.”
Sure. In the cage. While we were technically in a cage, we were doing striking drills and I didn’t have headgear on. If we were sparring, all bets would be off, but it didn’t matter what I said or thought, regardless of being on my second round of striking drills and my arms feeling like wet noodles. Team Domination had taken a chance on me, and I owed them, so I’d take whatever Liam or Blake Roth himself dished out.
Ground zero sucked. Especially since it wasn’t my first time there. No matter how much I wanted to argue I shouldn’t have to start completely over, I stuffed those words away. That was one of the conditions of joining the team. It was their way or the highway, and after going down too many wrong roads, I knew I wanted this one.
I struck faster and harder, pushing my body to the brink and then throwing myself on over.
Whack, whack, whack.
The buzzer rang, and Liam tossed the mitts aside. “You’ve got two minutes rest and then it’s cardio time.”
In our line of work, we knew how to get down to business and sweat our asses off, and I was all for it. Most of us gave each other a hard time and were competitive enough to help push each other to our limits, but we also knew how to dick around and have some fun now and then. As a trainer, Liam was more masochistic than most, and he didn’t strike me as someone who even knew how to have fun. Today made five days I’d been working with him, and I hadn’t seen so much as a smile. Since his being one of my coaches meant walking the lines of “Thank you, sir, may I please have another,” I gave a sharp nod, took off my gloves, and pushed out of the cage.
I tried not to think about used to’s and should be’s because they didn’t change where I was right now. It was downright depressing how six years of hard work and slowly crawling my way up the MMA rankings had been undone in one shitty year.
Soon that’ll be a distant memory. I have a couple months of hard work ahead of me, and then I’ll start climbing that ladder again, even if I have to start on the bottom fucking rung.
But I couldn’t complain. The one thing I’d wished for more than anything else had come true a couple of months ago, and even if I never got to strap a big, shiny gold belt around my waist, it would’ve been worth it.
Even in my head, the lie tasted bitter. I was beyond grateful things had turned out so well for my mom, but I wanted that fucking belt, too. Was it so wrong to want both?
I heard that laugh again, and I glanced toward the front desk, automatically lifting my hand to block, just in case anyone else tried to land a cheap shot—let the record show I learned from my mistakes.
The girl with the infectious laugh stood next to Finn. I took in her long curly hair, pale blond on top with dark purple streaks peeking out from underneath, and then my gaze ran down her body. She had on shorts that hugged her curves and left a whole lot of her sexy legs on display.
My quickening pulse thumped through my head, and finding out if her front half was as intriguing as the back was the most I’d looked forward to anything in a long time.
She turned, and holy shit, the front matched. In fact, if I had to choose, I couldn’t. Curves and pouty lips and a figure that’d make a Victoria’s Secret model jealous. We’re talking the most perfect tits I’ve ever seen, and her shirt could hardly contain them.
She smiled, and for a delirious second I thought she was waving at me. Hell yeah, baby. I’ll be right there.
Then Liam lifted a hand, and fuck me sideways, the guy actually could crack a smile. I was starting to think he had some stick-up-his-ass condition that no one was brave enough to get close enough to cure.
“Damn, is that Finn’s girlfriend? She’s fine as hell. I’d like to get my hands on those—”
“That’s our sister.” His sharp voice sliced and his grin turned into a glower pointed directly at me. “She’s also taking up her old job as our receptionist, but I think you better focus on the sister part.”
Great fucking job, Knox. How did one smooth over a situation like this? I’d skipped etiquette classes in favor of street fights and detention. I’d tried to reprogram myself once my life took a turn for the better, but sometimes the old me wanted to come out swinging. “I had no idea, or obviously I wouldn’t have…” If looks could kill, I would’ve dropped dead on the spot. “Let’s just say that so far my attempt to make a good impression is off to a rocky start. And unfortunately, not like a Rocky Balboa start.”
“Funny, because running stairs Rocky Balboa style is suddenly on tomorrow’s agenda. Until then—”
“Treadmill,” I said. “I got it.”
Sometimes my friends—my true friends who hung with me before the money and fame and were still there when my MMA career crumbled—asked me why I would submit myself to so much physical torture. Why I would give so much to an organization that’d used me as a novelty when I was this close to becoming the youngest guy to win the welterweight title, but immediately dismissed and forgot about me after I lost a few fights. Three in a row was all it took, and I wasn’t even fully present for any of them.
It wasn’t like there were a lot of jobs a guy like me could get, and I knew I could get back into fighting shape and regain my former glory and then some. I felt the need to prove myself to people who’d called my winning streak a fluke, or downplayed how fucking hard those fights had been. To prove myself to people who’d scattered the second it looked like I wasn’t their money train or ticket to fame anymore. Now I knew to put my trust in the right people, and that’d make the difference. I’d also be a hell of a lot smarter with my money.
With my goals in mind, I stuck in my music, turned it up to ear-shattering level, and jumped on the treadmill. When my lungs and legs burned, I sped up instead of slowed down. My feet started dragging after mile four, so I lowered the speed and upped the incline to make up for it.
For the next two to three months, this was my life. Train, train, and train some more. My coaches would say jump, and I’d ask how high. Blake “Bring the Wroth” Roth had been one of my idols, and I still couldn’t believe I got to train with him. There’d been whispers that Team Domination wasn’t what it used to be, but that only attracted me to them more. I wanted a scrappy team who knew how to fight, whether from the top or the bottom, and I had no doubt they could get me to where I needed to be.
My coaches had also assured me that if I showed them I was ready for a fight, they’d find me one ASAP. I was hungry for one, the bigger the better, so I’d dived right into training camp mode, letting that tenacity take control.
Out of the corner of my eye I caught blond hair, and I jerked my head down and stared at the numbers on the display. I couldn’t afford distractions, and the last thing I had time for right now was a girl, no matter how sexy, or how tempted I was to take a quick peek.
Just one more look for old times’ sake. Never mind that we didn’t have old times. Better resist, it’s not worth it. Liam’s already ready to bury me, and knowing him, he’s probably watching to make sure I’m not slacking on my cardio.
Right then and there, I gave myself a good talking to. Blondie was a Roth, and that meant she was completely off-limits. From now on, I wouldn’t so much as check her out.