Fighter, p.5
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       Fighter, p.5
 

           Tijan
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  hitch. As one, we looked over at Dylan, who’d stopped in the middle of an aisle, halfway back to Haley. His mouth dropped open. Then he snapped it shut and sent me an accusatory look.

  I shrugged.

  Jax squatted and touched my shoulder. “Part one complete.”

  I nodded. Part one was getting him in the ring. Part two was his actual fight. My brothers couldn’t interrupt it, but he needed to win. Then there was part three: getting him out of the ring and out of the bar without my brothers getting him.

  The first bell rang, signaling the fight to start, and I glanced back at Haley. She nodded. She was ready for part three too.

  The Green Jacket didn’t fare well during the fight with Jax, who looked more like he was getting in a workout than waging a battle. He jumped around his bald opponent, dodging, weaving, doing funky-looking patterns with his feet. At the end of the first round, he dropped to his seat with a wide smile on his face. I didn’t have a towel, but I used the arm of the yellow jacket costume to wipe off some of his sweat. The fact that he wasn’t sweating much had my competitive side cursing at him and the girl in me swooning. Wrinkling my nose, I pressed the sleeve to the two tiny spots and wiped at some imaginary sweat on his cheek.

  “What’s wrong?” he asked.

  “What?”

  He gestured to my nose. “Do I smell?” Lifting an arm, he smelled under his armpit and jerked back, wrinkling his own nose. “Whoa. I don’t blame you, but that’s from being in there.” Tapping the mascot costume, his smile widened even more. “Are you ready for part three, because I’m getting ready to knock this bitch out.”

  I nodded, gathering the costume together into a ball of cloth. I tried to squish it as small as I could. “Yeah, just wait till it’s almost over, though. I need time to get this to Haley.”

  “Thirty seconds,” the ref called out, making sure Jaxon heard him. “Thirty seconds.”

  Jax nodded at him and looked over my shoulder. “How are you going to get it to her?”

  This was the third part of the plan. Haley would wear the yellow jacket mascot costume out of the bar, and because we weren’t too original, we were going to use the same ploy as the night before: I’d pull the fire alarm. Jax thought it was genius. My brothers wouldn’t expect the same distraction, and anyway, it was the best idea we had.

  Sneaking Jax inside with the mascot costume had been the most brilliant point of our plan. I only hoped Haley could get away from my brother long enough to put it on.

  “I’m going to the bathroom as soon as you start.” I looked over to see Haley resting against the wall, her arms crossed over her chest. When our eyes met, she nodded and glanced sideways to the bathroom.

  I closed my eyes in a slow, meaningful manner. I didn’t want to nod outright, as my brothers would see that as a signal to someone. To cover up my slow blink, I rubbed at my eye and peeked at Dylan. He was standing in front of Haley, with his back to her. He paid her no attention and glared at us.

  “Ten seconds,” the ref called.

  “You ready?” Jax asked me, standing up.

  I nodded. “I’ll go drop it off. Give me time to get in my position.”

  “Time! You ready?” The ref moved to the middle of the ring. He held one hand out between the Green Jacket and Jax, his other keeping his whistle in his mouth. As both fighters nodded, he blew the whistle, sending out a shrill sound that was quickly silenced as the crowd roared.

  I hopped off my seat and veered through the crowd. I knew my brothers were waiting for any movement from me, and as I went past Dylan, he caught my hand. “Where are you going?” He wasn’t paying attention behind him, and Haley used this to her advantage. Keeping our hands low, I passed the costume to her. She stuffed it in her bag and tapped Dylan on the arm.

  He turned to her. “What?”

  “I’m going outside. My mom just called me.”

  “Okay.” He turned and asked me again, “Where are you going?”

  I pointed to the restroom sign. “I gotta pee.”

  “Right.”

  “I do. Stand guard outside, if you want.” Instead of waiting for him to release my arm, I twisted it up, forcing his hand to let go. It was either that or it would’ve broken.

  As soon as his hold was gone, I swept into the bathroom. Then I waited to calm down. My heart raced, and adrenaline pumped through me. The fight, sneaking in, and now knowing we’d be sneaking out? All of it mixed together, and I was ready to burst. Pressing a hand to my chest, I took two deep breaths. My heart rate didn’t slow, but whatever. My cover wasn’t blown, and now it was show time.

  I left the bathroom, pausing in the doorway. I needed to wait until Jax saw me. As he did, his mouth curved up, and he ducked to avoid a punch, then brought his left arm up in an uppercut. The Green Jacket fell back two steps, and I started forward. Dylan was there. He reached out to grab me, but I dodged his arm and shoved into the crowd. There were so many people. If I kept my head down, I didn’t think he’d be able to track me, and after a little bit, I looked back and saw I was right. Dylan was trying to find me in one direction, so I veered the other way.

  The plan after this was more elementary. Haley needed time to get into the costume. I needed time to find a fire alarm, and Jax would finish the fight. Once I found an alarm, I waited. It didn’t take long.

  The Green Jacket was already sluggish. His foot kept dragging on the floor. I was surprised he’d tired out so quickly, but Jax kept moving around, looking like he was at home horsing around with a friend. He glanced at the crowd for a second, but it was a second too long. I cringed, seeing it unfold.

  As Jax turned back, the Green Jacket saw his moment. He flung out a fist and caught him across the face. Jax fell into the ropes, and his opponent was on him, raining punches. Jax frowned and held an arm up to block some of the hits. It wasn’t working. The Green Jacket hit him from both sides, and Jax knelt down, cradling his head in his arms to deflect the blows.

  I held my breath, but as I continued to watch, I saw the spark of anger appear in Jax’s eyes. His jaw hardened, and a mean glint settled in. My heart picked up its pace. This was the Jax I’d fallen for. No matter how he was pushed down, there came a moment when he was done. Every time that line was drawn, Jax came back fighting.

  I knew it was coming, but when Jax stood back up, caught his opponent’s fist in the air, and reared back to deliver a punch, it didn’t matter. The cement wall I’d tried to erect was gone. As he delivered that hit to the Green Jacket, everything I’d been trying to hold back or ignore exploded as well.

  I reeled.

  So did his opponent.

  The crowd went nuts and started chanting Jax’s name.

  The Green Jacket fell to the ropes, stunned, and Jax didn’t waste any more time. He stepped back, then switched his hips and lifted his foot in a perfect roundhouse kick. The back of his heel connected solidly with the Green Jacket’s jaw, and his opponent went down with a thud.

  He didn’t move. It was a knockout win. And that was my signal.

  Jax whirled around, and I nodded, reaching up to pull the fire alarm.

  The ear-splitting alert sounded, and everyone cursed around me. Jax flashed me a grin, our gazes holding for a moment. My heart swelled, and something else swelled too, but I wasn’t going to pay attention to that throb. Then he launched himself over the ropes and began to scurry through the crowd to me.

  A second later, I knew he’d been successful. A hand wrapped around my wrist and pulled me down.

  “Hi.” Jax bent low, keeping his head beneath the crush of people as they streamed past us for the exits.

  I grinned at him. “Nice punch.”

  He shrugged. “He pissed me off. I hope it wasn’t too soon, though?”

  “Hold on.” I stood up just enough to see my brothers peering all around. “I’m not sure.” Then I saw her. Haley was doing her best to sneak out with the crowd, and that was the very last signal. I tugged at Jax’s arm. “She’s there. We
have to hurry.”

  As Haley went past Dylan, Jax and I headed out the other way. I heard a shout over the noise of the crowd, and just before we slipped through the exit door, I stood up and looked back.

  Dylan had spotted Haley. He lifted his radio to his mouth, and as one, all my brothers converged. In the next second, Dylan lunged in the air and tackled Haley the yellow jacket, slamming her into the palm tree. It went sideways as both of them fell to the floor. A bunch of condoms rained over them from the tree, and as Dylan reared up to tear off the mascot’s head, a green condom fell into his hair. His eyes went wide when he saw it was Haley beneath him, and she smiled, reaching up to pluck the condom off his head. She held it up to him, as if offering a gift.

  Jax yanked my wrist and pulled me from the doorway. My brother David ran past me, but it didn’t matter. The crowd was our camouflage for the rest of the way, and instead of taking Jax’s truck, I pulled out the keys to Haley’s car. It wasn’t long before we drove right past his truck, where two of my brothers were positioned, and out onto the road to drive away.

  Jax sighed. “That was awesome.”

  I nodded, feeling a grin on my face. I had to admit, it was.

  After the fight, Jax informed me he wanted to shower, and to be honest, that was fine because I needed time alone to regroup. The whole night had been one long adrenaline ride, and I was exhausted—though I was still debating whether to fall asleep or jump him and have wild, crazy sex.

  When we got to my family’s cabin, I was still caught between those two possibilities, so I grabbed a box of wine and headed for the screened-in patio. I was on my second glass when I heard the shower cut off and footsteps leaving the bathroom a moment later.

  I held my breath. He was coming my way. Waiting…no, he went into the bedroom. At that image, a whole new fevered rush surged through me: Jax. Bed. Wet. Dripping.

  My hand clenched around the wineglass, and I dumped the rest of its contents down my throat. As I leaned forward to fill it right back up again, I reached for the fan on the wall with my other hand. I was hot and bothered. The fan started up on the lowest setting, but that wouldn’t do. I switched that thing so it was blowing on high and right in my face.

  Then I felt him.

  I sat in one of the leather chairs. The doorway was right behind my shoulder, and he didn’t say anything. But damn, I could feel his presence.

  My blood pumped faster. I needed another fan. I realized I was squeezing my wineglass and forced myself to loosen my grip. I didn’t need shattered glass stuck in my hand. Then he’d have to hold it, help me clean the wound, peer close, breathe on it—I sat up straighter in my seat. Stop thinking, Dale!

  I finally looked up. Yep. He was staring right down at me. I expected a knowing, cocky look, but instead there was something serious in his eyes. He could see right into me.

  Fuck. I didn’t need that. My loins were already on fire, and that just dumped kerosene on them. My mind began to turn off. I felt myself standing, pushing out of the chair…

  Then he said, “Box wine, huh?”

  “Yeah.” I slumped back down, hoping I’d passed it off as just shifting positions. That word came out like a raspy, garbled moan.

  He tossed something in my lap, and I looked down to see a small box wrapped in newspaper with a red ribbon around it. “What’s this?”

  He moved to sit in the other leather chair. “Something I left here last summer.”

  Last summer? “You mean…” The night I ended things with him. That night?

  He burst into an abrupt laugh. “Yep. That night. It was an early birthday present, but everything went to shit, and I forgot it. But now, with all you’re doing to help me and in the Christmas spirit…” He lifted a shoulder in a shrug, but looked out toward the lake. “Merry Christmas, Doily.”

  Shock rendered me speechless for a moment. He’d remembered my birthday. Two months ahead, too. “I’m sorry, Jax.”

  He waved me off. “Trust me, it’s fine. I was an ass most of the time, and I was being one that night too. When you tossed me, that might’ve been the best thing that could’ve happened. Losing you was a wake-up call. You ripped my heart out, but thank you for that. I mean it.”

  Oh god. I had no idea what to say. Then I felt tears threatening to spill, and I shook my head. That’d be more mortifying than anything else. I fanned myself, thinking funny thoughts so I wouldn’t cry. Dylan sacking Haley. Dylan getting sacked in the junk. That helped a little.

  When I knew the tears had stalled, I started. “Jax, that night—”

  He held up a hand. “You were right. I was drunk, getting into fights all the time. And that night, I had no right to do what I did.”

  Oh boy. This conversation had been avoided for a reason. Now I knew it was time. Holy hell. This was going to burn. “You slept with a friend of mine.”

  “No.” He shook his head. Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees, his eyes piercing through the darkness. “I didn’t. I’m not lying to you. I really didn’t. Susannah told you that, but it was a lie.”

  “But…” I frowned. “I saw the two of you leave. You were holding hands, and she led you into the woods.” I gestured outside. Even though it was dark, I could see the trees in the moonlight. “Right over there. I saw you.”

  “She kissed me. That was it. I thought it was you holding my hand. Do you remember how drunk I was?”

  “But—” Anger crept in. “What happened then, if you didn’t sleep with her?”

  “Nothing. As soon as she kissed me, I knew it wasn’t you. I shoved her away and left.”

  The whole thing played out in my head again: She’d been holding his hand, leading him into the woods, and Jax had been laughing, but he was talking to his friends. He wasn’t looking at her—I hadn’t even thought about it. I’d stood there, watching him follow her into the woods, and I saw the outline of them. They were pressed together, and I heard a moan.

  I left after that. Too many fights. Jax’s reputation was as the best, and I’d grown tired of the guys who always wanted to try to best the best—and the girls. God, the girls. There were so many. I’d fought a lot of them myself. Some of those nights were spent in jail, some weren’t, but either way, I was bloody and bruised afterward. Physical pain was always better than the other pain. Always.

  I brushed away a tear.

  “I came out and saw you leaving,” Jax said softly.

  I nodded. That was right. He’d found me in the parking lot, even more drunk than I’d been earlier. “I was trying to erase that image of you and her together,” I whispered.

  “I didn’t know you’d seen us. I just saw you leaving.”

  My hand curled around the present. “What is this?”

  He shrugged again, but grimaced. “It’s...something I should’ve given to you anyway. I’m sorry it took so long.”

  “Jax?”

  He cursed and hissed as he flexed his hand. His knuckles were swelling.

  “There’s an ice pack in the freezer,” I murmured, holding the present tight to my chest.

  “Yeah.” He stood and moved toward the kitchen. Pausing behind me, he touched my shoulder. “I’m sorry for being a dumbass kid for so long. I have changed, despite this weekend. I really have, Dale.”

  Dale. Not Doily.

  My chest swelled with emotion I didn’t want to name. I cursed in my head. I shouldn’t have helped him. Jax was a weakness of mine. I’d been stupid to think I could guard myself from him.

  I heard him in the kitchen and wiped another tear from my eye. But as I opened the gift, I realized I shouldn’t have bothered. I took one look at a pendant with a picture of my mother and the birthstone we shared and just lost it. Bending over, clasping the pendant to my heart, I let everything go.

  “Hey…” He kneeled beside me. He touched my shoulder and lifted my chin up. “Hey.”

  I looked at him, but couldn’t talk. The tears clogged my throat.

  “Oh.” He took the pendant and
traced his thumb over it. “Yeah, I know how much you still miss her. I’d been messing up so much. I wanted to make it up to you somehow, so I used some of the money I’d won from a fight. I hid it in the bathroom, behind the cupboard’s wall. Did you know that’s been broken for years? I thought it would’ve been fixed, but I checked it just now. It wasn’t, and this was still there.”

  The cupboard wall was broken? A chuckle left me. I had no idea. For some reason, the fact that the only one who knew was my ex-boyfriend struck me as hilarious, and I bent over, pealing in laughter.

  “Uh…” Jax leaned back. His hand patted my back awkwardly. “Yeah. Imagine that. Still there.”

  I shook my head, still cackling. He didn’t know why I was laughing. I didn’t either. Then the tears started again. Sitting back up, I took a few gasping breaths and tried to stop everything: the crying, the laughing, the snort I felt coming. I wiped some of the tears from my face. After my emotions calmed a little, I turned to him with a soft smile. “Thank you.”

 
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