Fighter, p.4
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       Fighter, p.4
 

           Tijan
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  “Or they’re going to have you throw it?”

  “What?” He looked dumbfounded. “No fucking way that’s happening. I fight. I win. That’s what Jax Cutler does.”

  “And.” My eyebrows shot up. “Follow the bouncing balls.” Lifting my finger in the air, I pretended to point them out. “Dot, dot, dot. You’re known for winning. That’s your reputation. They told you to fight. They’re going to get in touch with you right before the game and make you throw it. I bet you anything.”

  He snorted. “No way. I mean, yes, I love my sister, but I have some dignity. My reputation would be down the drain then.”

  There had to be a way to fix all of this. Then a light bulb went off, and I snapped my fingers in the air. “Do what they want.”

  “Throw it? Are you serious?” He gave me an incredulous look.

  “Yes. Do it for Libby.” I shot a finger up in the air. “But, challenge the winner afterward to another fight.”

  His eyebrows furrowed together. One of his hands lifted to rub at his jaw. “And Chris Monroe?”

  “You did what he wanted, or what we’re assuming he’ll want. I mean, hello? Chris is going to want to make money. Having you fight is a no-brainer. You’ll win. Everyone will be betting on you, but if you challenge the winner the next weekend, you could win back your reputation and maybe even some money.”

  “The pot was fifty thousand.” He sounded wounded. “I’m going to lose out on that money.”

  “Jax.” I snapped my fingers. “Libby.” Did I need to say more?

  He sighed and finished his beer. “I know.” He tossed the bottle into the garbage, a clean shot, and reached for my beer. I hadn’t drank from it, and he took it out of my hands. “Just let me have a minute,” he added. “There’s a man’s ego at risk here. I’m going to have to take a beating.”

  “Literally.” I flashed him a grin.

  He nodded. “Exactly, but I’ll be fine. I’ll regroup. I’ll slam the fucker back down, whoever beats me, and Libby will be safe. All is good.”

  “And I’ll get to take you to jail that night.”

  “You’re right. You win too.”

  “Uh-huh.” My head bobbed up and down, but as we talked, darker sensations had begun to stir in me again. I felt the air grow thick with tension, and I was engulfed by nerves, excitement, lust—all that bang and buck together. It was like my body knew the talking was nearing an end and had started to remind me how much it wanted that man again.

  Trying to stall for time to put that cement wall back in place, I glanced around again. “Can we go somewhere else?”

  “Like where? Your brothers know me. I’m sure they have every place staked out.”

  Yeah. His places. I cursed under my breath. I should’ve thought of it sooner.

  “What?”

  “They’re looking at your places. Not mine.”

  “Meaning?” Then the corners of his mouth dipped. “No way. I’m not shacking at Haley’s. I’ve been there. No offense to your girl, but there’s too much pink and lace. I need to be able to fight, Doily. My manliness will be sucked dry if I set foot in her doorway.”

  “No.” My brother would be staking out that place, but in a whole other way. “My family’s cabin. It’s nice. It’s not seasonal, so they won’t even think of it being used. But its warm enough outside that we won’t freeze.” And it was clean. That was the more important factor. No allergies to clog up my lungs. “What do you think?”

  “I don’t know.” But he was thinking about it. I could see that, and his eyes flicked over the place. He lifted a hand and scratched behind his ear. “I don’t even want to know what boyfriend of Lady G’s this place belongs to anyways.”

  Hope surged up my throat. “Yeah?”

  “Yeah.” He gave me a grin and stood in front of me. Bending down, he patted his back. “Hop on, Doily. Let’s get out of here. It’s giving me the creeps too.”

  I slid down, my good leg wrapping around his waist. He reached back and kept a secure hold under my injured leg, then moved outside and deposited me in his truck. Disappearing back inside, he was gone for a moment. Then he came back with a case of beer in one hand and his bag in the other.

  He handed over his phone.

  I asked, “What’s this?”

  “I just realized your brothers might think I’ve kidnapped you. I’d be in worse trouble then. Can you call them? Let them know this isn’t that type of thing.”

  I lifted the phone and dialed my oldest brother Dean’s number. I knew he’d scream and blame me somehow, but Jax was right. He didn’t need another warrant, one that would ensure him some prison time.

  “Dale?”

  I let out a silent sigh, getting ready. My brother sounded pissed.

  “Hey, um, you’re not going to like this,” I told him, “but I’m going to stay and talk Jaxon into going to jail…”

  “Bullshit. Are you in bed with him already?” Dean argued. Then he was quiet for a moment. I could hear him breathing. “So you’re saying you’re going to help him?”

  Well, the whole idea of not letting him know the plan had gone south. Not wanting Dean to think that I was a floozy (even though my loins cried at the injustice of being accused and not actually being in Jax’s bed), I said without thinking, “I am not sleeping with him! I’m just helping.” And immediately after, chaos ensued.

  Dean started shouting. I shouted back. Curse words were thrown, along with a few threats, and eventually Dean delivered an ultimatum: “Tell us where you are right now or you’re cut out of the holiday party,” he said, sealing the deal for me.

  Oh, hell no, my brother.

  I’d been leaning against the truck’s passenger door, but I jerked upright after that. Without pausing, I snapped back, “I may not like the holidays, but kicking me out of the family party isn’t your call, Dean. But fine. Fuck it. See if I want to come anyway.” I set my jaw and reared back, ready to throw the phone into the dashboard, but Jax swooped over. I flung it in the air and his hand snatched it, just a few inches from mine.

  My eyes went wide at his quickness, and I crossed my arms over my chest. I wanted to pout. My brother was going to kick me out of the party—but damn, Jax’s swiftness was seriously hot. I shot him a look. “I hope you know what you just cost me.”

  He smirked, his eyes sparking. “Your family’s parties are always the same: Booze. People getting drunk. Boxing on the television, and everyone threatening to take out their Taser guns. You hate your family parties.”

  Shit. He was right. Still, it should be my decision whether or not to go. I leaned back against the truck. “I stir at the stove—that’s my job—and I drink. Dylan always bitches, but he brings me a new beer every time he sees I’m out. And I stand there because I can listen to all of the conversations at once.”

  “You miss your family, huh?” Jax’s voice softened.

  I closed my eyes against that tone from him. Shit, shit, shit. It was enough to make my toes curl and little tingles shoot through me. The cement wall was crumbling again.

  I looked over at him. “Because of the party? No. I’m being stupid. You’re right. I usually hate them.” The fighting. The loud voices. The bickering…which led to wrestling which led to laughter about how the wrestlers both sucked, and then the night would end around a bonfire. Stories being told. More laughter.

  All of it was pure chaos, but Jax was right. I had missed my family—since we broke up. I sighed. I’d ended things and left two weeks later. I hadn’t been back since.

  Feeling my tongue swell at more of my stupidity, I waited to see if he would bring it up.

  There was a moment of silence, and when he spoke, his voice sounded odd. “If we’re going to devise a plan for how to get around your brothers tomorrow, we should get going. Your cabin is another twenty-minute ride, and I think we both could use some sleep.”

  And fuck me.

  The caring and soft Jax just went away. I could feel a wall slam into place between us, and w
hen he started the truck and pulled onto the road, I had a feeling neither of us would be getting much sleep tonight.

  And I didn’t.

  When we got to the cabin, there wasn’t much conversation between us. The bed in the master bedroom was a king. Not sure about the sleeping arrangements, I looked around, but Jax made the decision for me. He pulled me down onto the bed and laid behind me. I expected an arm to come over me, like the old days, but he turned over and slept with his back to me. It wasn’t long before I heard his deep breaths and knew he’d fallen asleep. I’m pretty sure I listened to him breathe all night long.

  After a day of plotting, we felt ready, and the next evening, Sally’s was packed. Again. A pit had been formed around the ring so the throng of drunk people couldn’t clamber onto the boxing match. It was for their safety, not the fighters’. The fighters would just punch them and send their bodies soaring back into the crowd.

  Surveying the scene from where I’d taken position at one of the ring’s corners, I could see my brothers around the bar. Dylan chatted with Haley by the palm tree—still decorated with multicolored thongs and condoms. Dean had taken point at the fire escape this time, and when he met my gaze, he folded his arms over his chest and gave me a disapproving look. It shot right through me, taking me back to when I was six and had strapped firecrackers to his Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. I’d thought it hilarious to see little bits of bikini models floating through the air, but he hadn’t been amused. And he wasn’t now either.

  I looked away. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. They were. But if we explained the situation to them, I knew it wouldn’t matter. Not to Dean at least. Dylan would be sympathetic, but our other brothers followed whatever Dean said. And in Dean’s mind, this was business as usual. Extenuating circumstances for the jumpers wasn’t our headache. That’s what he always said. And he had a point. Every jumper had an excuse, a reason why they’d missed court, blah blah blah. Dean had had to stop caring or he’d never take his jumpers in and never get paid.

  But this was Jax and this was different.

  “Are you ready to get stuuuuuuunnnng?”

  I narrowed my eyes and stifled a laugh. A yellow jacket mascot now jumped around the ring, pretending to sting people in the crowd. He directed his last taunt my way, his black, beady eyes looking at me almost the same way Dean just had, but he didn’t wait for a response. Hopping around to put his rear in my face, he rolled his hips from side to side, wagging the long, black stinger in rhythm with the music blaring from the speakers.

  People around me laughed, and when I saw the stinger coming back toward my face, I batted it away. The mascot turned around and huffed, “You don’t have to be so violent, woman.”

  “Get out of my face, you bee-wannabe.”

  He grumbled, shaking the large yellow jacket head from side to side. “You got no Christmas cheer in you, do you?” Then he laughed, jumped back from me, and raised his black-costumed arms. Striking a pose so his biceps bulged, he rounded his fists toward his head and stuck out his groin. “You know who has Christmas cheer?” He thrust his groin at me again, then turned to the crowd and flung his hands up. “Do you know who has Christmas cheer?”

  They roared back, “The Green Jacket does!”

  I rolled my eyes. Jax’s opponent called himself the Green Jacket, and because it was Christmas time, he liked to strut around wearing an elf costume. His whole shtick was that he stung like a green jacket, even though his mascot was the yellow jacket. It didn’t make sense, but when the Green Jacket came out, no one cared. He was six-foot-two and a solid 250 pounds.

  Jax was way leaner. His advantage was his speed, and as I looked around again, I knew we would need that. Three more of my brothers had popped up around the perimeter. And if they were showing themselves, that meant they had other friends positioned all around the bar. Not good. They also liked to keep four outside, just in case. They usually surrounded the place, and I knew they wouldn’t abandon that, not with one of their own helping the jumper.

  “God rest ye merry peeeeenis!” A group of carolers had come in from outside. Two on the end were weaving on their feet, laughing, and the rest of the bar turned toward them. I closed my eyes. A headache formed once again at the base of my skull. I knew where this was going. With the next line, the rest of the bar joined in the song: “Let anyone…” The carolers raised their voices. “…jerk you off!”

  “Oh god,” I muttered to myself. This song might never end.

  A roar of laughter sounded around the bar, and the carolers kept going. “Remember to rub and savor. And do it every morn.”

  “Where’s your boy?”

  I stiffened. Dylan stood right in front of me. Looking past him, I could see Haley still at the condom-decorated palm tree. She lifted her eyebrows and mouthed, “Sorry.”

  So much for her keeping him busy.

  Whatever. I could deal with him. Making sure I wore a guarded mask, I asked, “Who do you mean?”

  He snorted, shaking his head. “Come on, you’re playing dumb now?”

  I waved a hand around. “I’m just sitting here. Enjoying the show.”

  “Comfort and joy!” The crowd was almost screaming the carol now, and they weren’t helping my headache at all. Dylan didn’t respond, but his shoulders had a settled look to them. When he still didn’t reply or move, I had the dreaded feeling he was planning on taking root right next to me.

  That wasn’t in the plan. I needed him to go away. “What do you want, Dylan?”

  “Wanking it for comfort and joy!”

  His eyebrows furrowed together, and he turned toward the carolers. While his back was turned, I waved at Haley. She lifted her hands in a helpless gesture. I snapped my fingers and pointed at my brother. She mouthed back, “I don’t know.”

  I glared at her, inclining my head forward. She winced and bit on her lip. I wasn’t getting help from her. I could see that now.

  The mascot came back to us, waving his arms in the air in rhythm with the crowd. He paused in front of Dylan and turned to wave his black stinger in the air, rubbing against the front of Dylan’s pants. I waited. This wasn’t going to go well, and it didn’t take a second swipe before my brother reacted.

  His hand shot out and grabbed the stinger. “Buzz off, asshole,” he growled. “If you rub that thing against me one more time, I’ll drag you into the ring for an impromptu ass-beating.”

  The mascot looked back. He swung those beady eyes to Dylan, then to me. After a second, he lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “Suit yourself.” He moved over, his stinger poised toward me now, and I tensed.

  “That’s it, you fucker—” Dylan started forward.

  “A blessed angel came, wearing wings and nothing else, brought tidings of glad releases—” The carolers continued, but a roar came over the crowd, cutting off my brother and their music.

  “Green Jacket! Green Jacket!” the crowd chanted.

  A spotlight went to one of the doorways, and there stood Jax’s opponent, striking a pose—similar to the one his mascot had used just a few minutes earlier.

  Dylan cursed, skimming the crowd with his eyes. “Where’s your boy, Dale?”

  The mascot jumped into the ring and began dancing in circles. He waved his arms, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

  Holding back a grin, I ignored my brother and turned to watch the Green Jacket instead. He made his way toward the ring, and as he got to us, he grabbed the ropes—and saw the mascot. Pausing, he frowned, but glanced at the crowd. They were clearly loving the mascot, and he shrugged, pulling himself up into the ring.

  I hit Dylan’s shoulder and pointed to Haley. “You might want to help her.” The carolers had stopped singing, and instead, the one closest to Haley was giving her the up-and-down look. He licked his lips, and his eyes darkened.

  Dylan groaned. “Where’s Jax, Dale?” He started walking backward toward Haley, but he was still waiting for my answer.

  I pointed to the mascot. “He’s already
in the ring. You’re too late.”

  Dylan turned to look, and the announcer started the introductions. “Ladies and gentlemen, your main event! In one corner, at two hundred sixty-three pounds and six feet, two inches with a record of twenty-eight wins and six defeats, heralding from our neighbor Broughten Falls, is the Green Jaaaaaaaacket!”

  The announcer pointed, and Jax’s opponent went to a corner in his green elf robe. At the end of the introduction, another man removed it and handed it to a group standing outside the ring like I was. The Green Jacket swiveled his head around, a questioning glint in his eyes. The only others in the ring were the announcer, who turned to the corner where I stood, and the mascot, who continued to swing his black stinger at the crowd.

  A hip-hop song came over the loud speakers, and the yellow jacket waved his stinger with the beat, pretending to pounce and thrust it out at the crowd, to their continued amusement. Laughter and cheers filled the room.

  Then the announcer started again. “And in the other corner, we have our local reigning champion. Weighing in at one hundred seventy-two pounds and standing six feet tall with an impressive record of twenty-four wins and two defeats: Jaxon Cutlerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”

  As the announcer finished, the yellow jacket jumped one final time, then reached up and yanked off the mask. A grinning Jax smirked back across the ring at his opponent, whose eyes took on a feral glint. Then Jax turned and looked down at me. I wasn’t even trying to hold back my own smirk. The plan had gone off without a
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