I don’t even notice my knuckles bleeding until Preach’s loud voice pulls my attention from the bag. It’s five a.m. and I’ve been at it for hours already. No matter how hard I go at it, I can’t wear myself out enough to close my eyes and not see his face. The face that will haunt me for the rest of my remaining days.
“You been at it all night?” It’s the first time Preach has spoken to me since the fight. He’s yelled and ripped into me, but nothing he’s said has required a response until now.
“You’re getting blood all over the bag. Go ice ‘em.” He doesn’t give a shit about the bag, it’s Preach’s way to tell me to ease up.
I look down at my hands and see the mess I’ve made for the first time, even though they were always in my line of sight. There’s cuts and blood covering my knuckles and most of my fingers. A few are swollen to twice their size and I’m pretty sure they’re broken. But I don’t feel any pain. I want to, but I’m numb.
I head to the gym’s small kitchen in the corner and wrap my knuckles in ice. I don’t bother cleaning the blood off my stained hands. Preach follows and offers me a bottle of water and three pills.
I know what they are without asking. A heavy duty sleeping pill and two pain killers. My cocktail of choice for almost three months after my last fight. Preach threw them all out one night, at least I thought he did, when I got myself to the point of self pity that I could no longer function without a handful. I was popping them like a kid with a bag full of M&Ms. When he took them away, it cost me almost ten grand. Ten grand worth of repairs when I ripped my own gym apart in anger because the damn doctor wouldn’t write me a new script to replace what Preach took. I’m surprised he’s even offering them to me now.
Preach pushes his hand cupping the pills further in my direction. “God damn it Nico, take the f**king things. You need to sleep, your body needs to rest and that stupid ass head of yours isn’t going to shut down long enough to let it. You take em like they’re supposed to be taken, a day or two to heal, not like f**king candy.”
Hostilely, I take the pills and swallow them in one gulp and leave Preach standing there with the unopened water bottle in his hand.
Some of the regulars are starting to trickle in now and they yell their congratulations in my direction. I don’t want to hear them, don’t deserve anyone’s well wishes.
After not hearing from Nico last night after the fight or all day today, I head to his gym after work. He hasn’t responded to my texts and my calls go straight to voicemail. Either he’s ignoring me or his phone is off. All I need is to make sure he’s okay. Worry has built inside of me all day and I find myself at almost a jog going from my car to the entrance of the gym.
The usual desk guy recognizes me and I ask if Nico is around. My worry ratchets up a notch when he tells me he hasn’t seen him all day. Now I’m starting to wonder if he’s lying unconscious somewhere with an undiagnosed head injury from the fight.
Preach spots me and calls my attention in his direction with a loud whistle and a shake of the head. He’s holding the heavy bag while some guy with no neck is punching and kicking so fast, it looks like he’s having a seizure.
I make my way over to Preach and the guy without the neck stops hitting the bag and gives me a leering smile. It’s a smile and look that makes me want to shower. Immediately.
“That’s Nico’s girl you big moron. He catches you looking at her like that, you’re gonna be looking for a new gym. After you spend ten minutes looking for your teeth.” Preach’s tone isn’t playful when he speaks.
I give a half-hearted smile to Preach. “Have you seen Nico? He hasn’t answered my calls all day.”
“I put him to bed this morning.” Preach looks at me and then back to neckless. “Make yourself invisible for ten minutes.”
Without complaint, neckless disappears. If I wasn’t out of sorts, I’d probably find it oddly amusing, the power that Preach has over men twice his size. “You had to put him to bed? Is he okay?”
Preach pulls a towel from his back pocket and wipes his hands as he speaks. “He’s got some issues, Elle, you know this already, right?”
“You mean what kept him from going back in the cage?”
“Yeah, that. Well, I found him trying to exhaust his body into submission to get some sleep. It’s how he deals with things. He trains. Hard. Too hard sometimes. I think he’d been at it all night. Screwed up his hands. They’ll heal. But other than that, I think the worst of it’s in his head. I can fix the body. I can’t fix what’s in here.” Preach’s pointer finger taps on the side of his head.
“So how did you get him to go to sleep?”
“Drugs.” Preach states matter-of-factly and without remorse.
“You gave him drugs?”
“Don’t look at me like I’m the devil. They’re his drugs. Doc prescribed ‘em for him after the last fight. He started taking them too much so I took ‘em away. But he needed ‘em this morning, so I gave him enough to get him some sleep. The boy’s got more energy than anyone I’ve ever met when he’s on a tear. But the longer the tear, the harder the recovery. Nipped this one in the bud.”
“Has he slept all day?”
“Haven’t seen him, so I’m guessing he did. I wasn’t going up to check.”
“I’m going to go check on him.”
Preach nods his head. “I’m sure he’d like that better than waking up to me.”
Nico is lying diagonally across his bed, face down on his stomach. He’s still wearing the trunks from the fight the afternoon before. I watch his back rise and fall. Relief floods me that he’s still breathing.
Quietly, I back out of the room and pull the door shut again. I don’t want to wake him after what Preach told me. I find a pen and paper in the drawer in the kitchen and leave him a note on the table. Stopped by to check on you, didn’t want to wake you. Sweet Dreams. Elle
It’s almost ten o’clock at night by the time my phone finally rings. I grab it off the end table anxiously. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Nico’s voice is groggy and it sounds like he might have just woken up.
“Did you just wake up?” If he did, those are some powerful drugs because he would have been out for almost sixteen hours straight.
“How do you feel?”
“I’m fine.” Nico’s inflection tells me he doesn’t want to talk about it. It seems like I’ll be getting answers with minimum words again.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“I said I’m fine, Elle.” It’s not lost on me that he uses my name. I became Babe to him the first week I met him. It shouldn’t be significant, but for some reason the simple change makes me feel like we’ve taken a step back. And his tone, I try not to get offended. I remember people trying to help me, when I wasn’t ready to accept it yet. It just pissed me off. But still, I can’t help but feel disappointed that he is going to close me out with everyone else.
There’s an uncomfortable silence that sits between us. Something that I’ve never experienced with Nico. My stomach twists, but I wait for him to speak first.
“I need to make something to eat. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
I act like nothing’s wrong, even though I feel my heart squeeze at his words. He’s blowing me off. “Okay. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” I do my best to sound upbeat when I’m anything but.
For the first time, I realize I’ve really fallen for Nico Hunter.
It’s f**king killing me to keep away from Elle. She’s all I can think about, but I don’t want her to see me this way. Weak. Scared. I can’t even fight anymore. I thought I’d moved past it all, moved on with my life after more than a year of running in place. But the nightmares are back. I can’t sleep and god damn Preach won’t give me any more of the pills.
She knows I’ve been avoiding her. I’m ruining the one good thing that I’ve found in a very long time, because I’m afraid to close my eyes and see his face. He haunts me. Haunts me for what I did to him, but I f**king deserve it.
I’m on the other side of the gym listening to one of Preach’s lectures for the hundredth time, when she walks in. I’m not expecting her, I don’t hear the door open or the sound of her voice, but somehow I feel her presence. I turn around and look for her. Our eyes find each other like magnets. Fuck, she’s beautiful. I love her in those god damn prissy looking suits she wears. Her face is apprehensive at first, like she’s not sure if showing up unannounced is going to be welcome. Jesus, I did that to her. Made her feel that she may not be welcome. What a total ass**le I am.
She smiles at me from across the room and I can’t help but feel the first glimpse of light I’ve felt in days. I watch her as she gets closer and see her face falter when she gets a good look at me. I look like shit. I haven’t shaved since before the fight and my eyes are dark from sleepless nights. I’m pretty sure I’ve been wearing the same shirt for at least thirty-six hours and I’m wondering if I might also smell too.
“Hi.” I see the concern in her eyes when she reaches me and speaks.
“Figured if I didn’t ask, you couldn’t tell me not to come.” She smiles at me apprehensively and it makes me want to reach over and kiss her so hard she’ll never doubt I want her near me. But I don’t. Instead I stand like an ass**le and say nothing and just nod my head as if I can comprehend what is actually going on in that beautiful head of hers.
“Preach, do you mind if I steal him for a little bit?” She turns to the bastard that was chewing me out a minute ago, who is now all smiles for her.
“By all means, take him. You can keep him for all I care.” The second part is mumbled under his breath as Preach walks away, but we both hear it.
“Can we go upstairs and talk?” Her voice is low, sweet.
I nod and lead the way. I pull down the gate to the elevator to my loft and suddenly it’s just the two of us and the car feels small. She smells so damn good. Everything about her is good, unlike me. I hate myself for wanting her so much, even though she deserves better.
Elle puts her purse on the kitchen counter and takes a few minutes before she turns around to face me. But when she does, she looks nervous.
“I want you to talk to me. You won’t let me in.” Her voice is shaky, but when I look at her she squares her shoulders and digs deep for whatever she is working towards.
“I don’t want to talk Elle.” What does she want me to tell her? That I need time to sort out the demons in my head? The demons that I deserve to haunt me every hour of every day for the rest of my life?
She takes two steps toward me, stopping just in front of me. “I can help… and there’s grief counseling…and groups to help people going through things like this.”
My response is a sardonic laugh and I can see immediately it’s the wrong reaction. Elle’s face quickly changes from concerned to pissed off. She crosses her arms in front of her chest and it looks like she is ready for a fight.
“You think it’s funny that I want to help?”
“No I think it’s funny that you think you can help.”
“I can help. But you have to let me.”
“Elle, run while you have the chance. You can’t fix me. I’m not some project for you to take on like charity. You’re better off with someone who is more like you.”