The woman hesitates, assessing me briefly, but then punches a few keystrokes on her computer and looks up at me confused. “I’m sorry. Mr. Knight has already checked out.”
“Do you know when?”
She punches a few more keys. “Last night. Looks like he checked out early.” She shrugs. “Oh wait a minute. I remember Mr. Knight. I checked him out last night. He was the one that was injured during the fight, right?”
“Yes, that’s him.”
“Right. He didn’t leave actually. His girlfriend brought back his key. She said he was going to be staying in her room so he didn’t need the room anymore.” The woman whispers, “I’m not supposed to give out room information, but they’re in the Penthouse if you want to reach them.”
The sudden image of Jax and another woman makes my heart ache and my stomach revolt. Why hadn’t it dawned on me that he would move on so quickly? I think deep down inside I believed he really cared about me. The realization I was so easily replaced rips open the wound created the day I found out he was planning on forcing Ralley’s into bankruptcy. It stings with fresh pain.
A sinking feeling of despair hits me and I want nothing more than to go home. Get the hell out of the craziness that is Vegas, even though the fights aren’t over yet. I walk to the elevator bank in a daze, feeling sad, the old woman’s words coming back to haunt me. You either forgive or you forget. I guess I was easy to forget.
I pack up my things and call Joe to let him know I’m leaving a day ahead of schedule, but he doesn’t respond. We have dinner planned with some potential vendors interested in stocking their lines in the gyms, I’m sure they’d rather talk to Joe than me anyway. But I don’t want to leave without letting Joe know, so I go down to look for him.
Vince Stone is at the security desk. I smile politely and show my badge to the guard. “Lily,” Vince calls from down the hall as I start to walk away.
“Everything okay?” Vince questions.
“I’m looking for Joe Ralley, have you seen him?”
He shakes his head. “Haven’t seen him.”
“Thanks.” I take a step away and then something stops me. He may not be mine, but I can’t help myself. I need to know he’s okay. “Have you seen Jax? Is he okay?”
“Broken rib, pretty bruised. But he’ll live,” he says. “Liv said he woke up a little while ago, doc gave him pain killers so he was out like a light for half the day.”
Liv. A lot has happened in the last few weeks. Jax is apparently close with a brother he despised only a few weeks ago and his new girlfriend has a name. Liv. Wonderful, how cheery, perhaps he’s working his way through the alphabet, L-i-l, L-i-v.
I nod, wishing I’d never asked, and begin to walk away. Vince yells over his shoulder, “He’s in the Penthouse if you want to visit.”
Sure, I’d like nothing more than to spend some quality time with Jax and Liv.
Jax – 2 days later
The hairs on the back of my neck rise before I see him. My body alert when he turns the corner into the hotel lobby where I’m standing. He grins, it’s the face of a madman. I already know he doesn’t play by the rules, the twisted f**ker has balls of steal as he walks right up to me. I’m standing between Nico Hunter and Vince Stone, two of the most powerful fighters in the world, and he doesn’t hesitate one bit.
Nico takes a step forward. “Give me one reason, you piece of shit.”
Ignoring him completely, Caden focuses on me. “I’ll be back inside that sweet pu**y in a week,” he leans forward and whispers. He must have a death wish. I grab him by the neck and warn, “You’re out of your f**king mind, Ralley. I’ll have the police waiting for you when you land in New York.”
He doesn’t flinch. Probably thinks I’m talking about the fight. “I know all about the money you stole. Told Joe about it this morning. Heading to talk to Lily about it now. Was going to let them decide what to do with you, but on second thought, your ass definitely needs to be locked up. So you step one foot in New York, I’ll make sure you do five years for grand theft.” His face is turning purple from my grip, yet he makes no attempt to break free. Twisted doesn’t begin to describe how f**ked up this guy is.
“He’s not worth it,” Vince warns.
I squeeze harder, knowing I could crush his windpipe right at this moment. I probably should, although the thought of sending this jacked up ass**le with rage issues to prison is a lot more appealing than a death that comes quick and relatively pain free. I let go and he grins and walks away.
“That’s one sick son of a bitch,” Vince says as Caden walks away as calmly as he approached.
“No shit,” Nico agrees.
My taxi pulls up out front and I say goodbye. “Thanks for everything.”
“You got it.” Nico says with a nod. “Take care of yourself, man. If you’re ever in Chicago, stop by the gym.”
I nod and turn to face my brother. “I can’t thank you enough for everything. I owe you.”
“You’ll give Liv an exclusive when you win the title next time. Recover, get your girl back, then get back in the ring.”
I smile. “Okay, but I’m going to lose a few pounds and drop down to your weight, so she has to write about how I kicked your ass.”
He laughs. “In your dreams, brother. In your dreams.”
At the airport, I change my ticket to D.C. in for a ticket to New York. Joe told me Lily left early. I need to tell her about Caden stealing and go to the police. If she doesn’t want to be with me, I’ll deal with it, but there’s no way I’m letting that sick son of a bitch anywhere near her.
Not even Reed can get me to smile the last two days.
I go to work, spend twelve hours a day trying to get caught up, and come back home to share a quart of Ben and Jerry’s with my best friend. I’m a ball of fun.
The last member exits, I lock the door and sit behind the reception desk to draw. It’s the only thing that brings me any peace. Although it’s probably not healthy because I have no desire to draw anything but Jax.
I lose myself in sketching the rigid lines of his jaw, drawing him from memory, I close my eyes and picture the stubble on his face. Remembering the way it felt under my fingers as I brushed my hand across his skin in the early morning after we spent all night exploring each other’s bodies. A light tap on the door startles me from my daydream.
For a second I wonder if my memory is playing tricks on me. Because suddenly, standing a few feet on the other side of the glass, is the man in the flesh. My heart leaps in my chest and I feel more alive than I have in weeks. I take steps toward the door, but my feet feel weighed down and getting one foot in front of the other is like wading through a pool of neck high water.
I unlock the door and he opens it slowly. “Can I come in?”
I blink my eyes a few times to snap myself out of it. “Yes. Sure. Sorry, you just caught me by surprise.”
I lock the door behind him and turn. He’s right there, so close I could reach out and touch him. It’s all I want to do, but I don’t. My body is drawn to his with a pull that’s surreal. It’s a test of endurance just to keep my hands at my sides.
“How are you feeling?” I ask referring to his ribs.
“Better now.” His eyes are such a beautiful shade of blue and so full of emotion, I almost believe that it’s me that makes him feel better. Then I remember the girlfriend that was in his Penthouse taking care of him and I force down my own desires. I walk back around the counter to put a safe distance between us.
“I’m glad you had someone to take care of you.”
He nods. “He turned out to be a pretty good guy.”
“Yeah. Him and Liv took care of me for a few days. Doctor gave me painkillers that knocked me out pretty good.”
Liv. Does he really need to bring her up? How insensitive can he be? “What can I do for you Jax?” My entire demeanor changes, my body might not know this man no longer belongs to me, but my brain sure does. I’m actually glad he brought her up, it has the effect of throwing a glass of cold water in my face. Waking me from my dreamy eyed stupor.
He furrows his brow, noticing the change. The temperature just dropped ten degrees, it would be hard not to. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No. Why would you think that?” I say, sarcasm unmistakable in my voice.
“What’s going on, Lily?” he walks to the counter.
“Nothing Jax. What did you want? I’d prefer to discuss whatever it is you came here for. I really have no interest in discussing your Penthouse romp with your girlfriend.”
“My girlfriend? What are you talking about?”
“Liv. I went to the front desk to see how you were feeling and they told me your girlfriend had checked you out and into her Penthouse.”
“Is that what this is about?”
“No. It’s about forgetting. I just need to move on with my life and you aren’t helping every time you decide to pop back into it.”
“You’re jealous of Liv?”
“I’m not jealous of anyone!” I defend myself a little too vigorously.
“Liv is Vince’s girlfriend. I was staying with Vince and Liv. In the second bedroom of the Penthouse they shared together.” He crosses his arms tightly over his chest. His jaw tightens and I can’t tell if it’s from the argument or the touch so close to his ribs.
“Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Just tell me what you’re here for.” My head feels so jumbled.
“You think so little of me that I would be over you so quickly? That I’d bring a woman to Vegas knowing you’d be there?”
Feeling painfully confused, I look at him, my emotions in turmoil, and he glares at me, waiting for a response. Only I have no idea what to say.
“I don’t know what to say, Jax.”
“You just said it all,” he says quietly, his handsome face looking forlorn. “I need to tell you a few things and then I’ll be gone. I won’t interrupt your life anymore after that. I promise.”
There’s a somberness in his expression when he continues. “Caden has been stealing from you for a long time.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Remember the auditor that came in? Mrs. Waters?”
“She consolidated the ledgers from all sixty-two of your gyms to see if she could find any redundancies when she was here. Sixty-one of the stores were paying a management fee of a thousand dollars a month to Ralley Management Inc. for the last nine months.”
“Who is Ralley Management?”
“That’s what she wasn’t sure of. She thought maybe it was a note the gyms were paying back to Joe, so she didn’t mention it at first. But the checks were cashed on a City Bank account so she was able to verify the account owner. There was only one. Caden Ralley. He’s been syphoning sixty-one thousand dollars a month for close to a year. That’s why your cash flow was tight. It was hard to see it since it wasn’t a big amount for any one location.”
A knot forms in my throat and I can barely breathe. “I don’t understand.”
“You said yourself you leaned on him after your father died. He took advantage. Probably set it up with the stores when you were going through a hard time, so none of the managers bothered to ask you about it.”
The memory comes back to me. “I sent out an email telling the managers to work with Caden, that he would be helping keep the books organized while I was out for a while.” I sit down, feeling suddenly dizzy and overwhelmed. “I’m such an idiot.”