My words stuck in my throat, Joe steps forward and introduces himself. “Vince. How are ya? Joe Ralley from Ralley’s Gyms.” Vince shakes his hand and nods and looks to me. Awkwardly, I say nothing, so Joe does the formality. “This is my partner, Lily St. Claire, she’s the daughter of…”
“The Saint,” Vince Stone finishes Joe’s sentence and extends his hand. “Nice to meet you Lily. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
You have? I smile and shake his hand, words finally coming from my moving mouth. “Nice to meet you, Vince.” Curiosity gets the best of me and I can’t help but ask. “Were you a friend of my fathers?”
“No. I didn’t know him. But my trainers said he was a great guy. I’m sorry for your loss,” he says sincerely.
“Thank you.” I furrow my brow.
“My brother,” he says, seeing the confusion on my face.
“I didn’t realize you two…,” I trail off, not quite sure how to finish the sentence.
Vince smirks. “We didn’t. Until last night.” He leans down and kisses me sweetly on the cheek. “Go easy on him. He’s not such an ass**le after all.” He winks and then disappears.
My dad never missed going to the locker room to wish his fighters luck before a match. My gut tells me I should skip going to see Caden, but I’m with Joe, so I feel safe. Marco is wrapping his hands when we enter. I try to keep distance between us but Caden jumps from the table he’s sitting on and comes right to me. He hooks his big hand around my neck and pulls me for a kiss. It happens so fast, I barely have time to turn my head to give him my cheek.
“You’re not even gonna give me a nice good luck kiss?” he grumbles, annoyed at my response to his unwelcomed advance.
“I came to wish you luck, I see it was a mistake.”
“Oh, come on, Lil.” Completely ignoring my resistance, he wraps an arm around my waist. “Since when are you such a prude?”
“Caden, keep your hands to yourself,” Joe warns.
“Guess I should be thankful you’re here in my corner and not rooting for that pretty boy,” Caden mumbles jumping back up on the table for Marco to continue with his hands.
“What pretty boy? Who did you match against?”
Caden smirks a sinister smile. “You don’t know?”
“Why would I be asking if I knew?”
Marco hands me the fight card without a word. Jackson Knight, Washington D.C.
My eyes bulge. “Did you know about this?” I ask Joe.
“Don’t look at me, I’ve been with you all day.” Joe takes the card and reads it for himself.
“Three minutes till call.” A guy wearing a headphone pops in the room. “Let’s go.”
Vicious doesn’t even begin to describe the grin plastered on Caden’s face. It’s so evil and vindictive, it sends a chill up my spine and I’m not the one getting in the ring.
The arena is jam packed, the crowd loud with excitement. The usher explains that the last fight went the full three rounds and was the closest fight he’s seen in years. “Both bloodied. You missed a good one,” he says excitedly as he points out our seats in the dimly lit arena.
We’re four rows back from the octagon, I’ve felt numb since I read the card. I feel like I should do something. Not sit around and watch like I’m a bystander. I feel way too involved in whatever is about to happen in the ring to do nothing. Although I have no idea what that something would be.
Dad fought from the time I was a baby until I was sixteen. Yet I never watched a single fight. I was always there, but never in the arena. At first I was too young to watch, Dad said I wouldn’t have understood and watching him get into a fight would have upset me. By the time I was old enough to understand that it wasn’t a fight, it was a sport, a profession, I’d already gotten into the habit of watching the fight after the fight, on replay. I always felt it was my job to wait in Dad’s locker room anyway. I thought it brought him good luck since he won every time I did it. Sitting here now, I realize waiting in the locker room probably wasn’t good luck for Dad, but I’d give anything in the world to be in Jax’s locker room waiting for him at this moment.
Unlike title fights or main bouts, qualifying rounds are short. Three, three minute rounds with a minute rest between each. Winners move on to the finals, where rounds become longer and strike strength commonly leads to concussions for those that aren’t properly trained.
The lights flicker and a few seconds later the music comes on overhead. The entrances into the ring are a blur, I try to see Jax but I’m too short and can’t see over the crowd from the position of the door. Luckily, qualifying rounds don’t have much pomp and circumstance, and I’m grateful when the announcer starts in quickly after they reach the Octagon.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, in the red corner, standing six-feet-two-inches tall, weighing in at two hundred and one pounds, with a record of four and one…I give you Caden ‘The Barbarian’ Catone. The crowd goes crazy, I’m positive most people in the room have no idea who Caden is, but the adrenaline in the room is running high for any fight. Joe looks at me and nods, just like Dad it’s his way of telling me it will all be okay. Then he takes my hand.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, in the blue corner, standing six-feet-two-inches tall, weighing in at two hundred and three pounds, with a record of one and zero…I give you Jackson ‘Pretty Boy’ Knight.” The crowd goes crazy again, even though they’ve never even heard his name before. Heck, I’m not even sure when he could have possibly won his first fight.
The announcer speeds through a list of rules and rattles off some information about disciplines I can’t make out between his mumble and the swiftness of his words. The two men turn to make their way to their respective corners and Jax is facing my direction for the first time since he entered the arena. My heart flutters seeing him again, being so near. He is undeniably gorgeous, every woman’s fantasy, only he’s real, in the flesh and my pulse races at the sight of it all. He’s tall and strikingly handsome with a stubbled masculine jaw and eyes the color of the sky on a perfect cloudless day. And his body, oh that body. The muscles in my thighs tighten remembering tracing the valleys that define his muscles with my tongue. I’m not the only one to take notice either. You’d have to be blind not to find something to catch your attention and leave your mouth hanging open staring at Jackson Knight shirtless and ready for a fight. Women whistle and catcall to him like construction workers when a pretty girl with big boobs passes by in the heat of summer. Jax either doesn’t care or he’s so focused he doesn’t let outside interference in. The women sitting behind me describe, in detail, the things they’d like to do to him. Joe squeezes my hand as I’m just about to turn and give them a piece of my mind.
Caden has only Marco in his corner, but Jax has a small team. Marco’s cousin Mario, who trains Jax in the D.C. Ralley’s Gym, is standing in front of him giving him a prefight talk. Flanking Marco to the left is Vince Stone, to the right the legendary Nico Hunter. A third, older man stands behind the cage as the men all huddle in the final moment before the fight begins. Jax nods his head and puts in his mouthpiece and the men take turns wishing him good luck before stepping out of the cage. Vince is the last one in the cage and my heart swells watching the two brothers share a moment. Something happened in the last few weeks to bring the men together, whatever it was, it appears to have been the beginning of a bond. With no trainers left in the cage, Jax takes a moment and scans the crowd. At first I think he’s taking the moment in, searing a picture into his memory. But then his eyes find mine through the crowd and I realize he was looking for me. There’s probably five thousand screaming spectators in the arena, but for one second in time everything else fades away and there’s only me and Jax. He doesn’t smile or acknowledge me outwardly, but the look in his eyes says it all and I know there’s still unfinished business between us.
The first round is only three minutes long, but it feels more like three days. I quickly learn why my dad had always insisted that I stay behind in the locker room, rather than watching ringside. I’ve been to thousands of fights, but it’s way more difficult to watch a fight when you’re in love with the person inside the cage. I may not have spoken to him in weeks, but my feelings haven’t quelled one bit. Seeing Jax so close again only reminds me I’m far from over him.
I suck in a deep breath as the bell rings and squeeze Joe’s hand so hard my knuckles turn white. There’s no fancy footwork and dancing around foreplay in this fight. Boldly, Jax strikes first. Lightning fast and powerful, the rapidness of his moves catches Caden off guard and he stumbles back a step as he lands a blow to the chest. Caden’s face changes, dark fury and anger rising to the surface and he retaliates just as quickly as Jax made the first strike, only he retaliates with a roundhouse kick followed by a strong right elbow to the shoulder. And then it only escalates. Blow after blow, landing strike after strike, the two men literally beat each other breathless by the time the bell dings. The referee has to pull them apart, I’m not even sure either man actually heard the call for the end of the round, they’re both so laser focused on pulverizing each other.
I let out a breath I quite possibly have been holding since the round started and my head is dizzy for air. The trainers rush in to treat the fighters, both already bloodied, skin splitting from brutal fists to the face.
“You okay?” Joe asks pensively, catching sight of my face.
“Can’t remember the last time I saw a fight like this. There’s a lot of heart up on that mat today, that’s for damn sure. Neither one of those boys is going to stop until one of them can’t move a muscle anymore.”
That’s completely what I’m afraid of. The two men are back at it after a rest that was too short for me to catch my breath, no less a fighter. Again, there’s no jumping around or warm ups, the blows starting almost immediately. Caden lands a strike connecting directly to the right side of Jax’s jaw and I watch in slow motion as Jax’s head flails back from the sheer momentum of the blow. A real wave of nausea rolls over me and I worry I might be physically sick. Jax stumbles but remains on his feet. Taking full advantage of his opponent’s unsteady stance, Caden follows up with a leg kick from his rear leg that lands on Jax’s inner upper thigh, frighteningly close to the groin. The ref steps in and gives Caden a warning. Groin strikes are illegal and inside leg kicks are the easiest place to slip up with an accidental groin strike. Although with Caden, it wouldn’t be an accident, he’s known for fighting dirty and I’m glad the ref either sees it or knows of his reputation.
Jax backpedals in a subtle manner, then stops and sets his feet. He quickly swivels his hips thrusting his rear left leg forward and lands a low strike on Caden just below the knee. Catching Caden in a moment of unbalance forces him to retreat from his attack and reset himself. Not many fighters would have taken two strong hits and have been able to turn it around so quickly like Jax just did. Whereas Caden’s strength is in his offense, Jax is equally strong both offensively and defensively and seems to have picked up on Caden’s weaknesses quickly.
Jax plants his feet again and prepares to unload another kick. This time Caden sees it coming, however, he assumes it will be another attack to his leg. Defensively, Caden drops his posture preparing to catch the kick and turns, leaving his head unprotected. Jax strikes, landing a powerful kick flush to Caden’s face and stumbles him backwards again. Before Caden can reset, Jax capitalizes with a combination of punches. Round two may have started off strong for Caden, but by the time the bell dings, Jax has turned things around and clearly taken the points.