Until You're Mine (Fighting for Her)(3)

By: Cindi Madsen

“Chicken,” I teased, and he pulled me in like he was going to give me a noogie. I shoved at his chest, pushing him away. “I take it back, I take it back.”

“Do you want me to show you to your desk?” Finn asked.

“Already? Don’t you usually give new people the tour?”

Finn tilted his head. “You know every inch of this gym.”

“I know every inch of the front desk, too, and I’d rather walk through the gym again. Or there’s always the locker rooms.” Maybe I could get the minor fix I was suddenly itching for in there, a testosterone contact-high to get me through the day. I also wouldn’t say no to a quick introduction to every hot shirtless guy training here.

Careful, you’re tiptoeing into dangerous territory. Territory I’d exiled myself from. Besides, hot shirtless guys were the daydream version of the locker room. Usually it involved ten different kinds of B.O. and an out-of-control stack of towels that needed washing, and guess who’d end up doing the laundry?

My brothers and dad had acted so shocked that I didn’t want to turn the catchall admin and occasional cleaning lady into a fulltime career. When I’d told Dad about my plans to go to art school—after a disastrous gap year I never should’ve taken, nonetheless—he’d said, “Painting is a hobby you can do anywhere, when you have some time to waste. We run a family business, and you need to stay here and pull your weight. No one gets a free ride, and you can’t just run away from your life every time a guy dumps you.”

The following fight was uglier than any I’d ever seen in the cage, inflicting the kind of damage that didn’t heal with stitches, ice packs, and time. We didn’t talk for three months after I moved—against his wishes and without his financial support—and when he finally did call me, it wasn’t to apologize or even check in to see how I was doing. He asked about a file he couldn’t find on the computer’s hard drive. Residual pain rose as I remembered how inconsequential I’d felt, like I was only useful if I was one of his trained soldiers, barking, “Yes, sir,” after every order.

“B?” Finn waved a hand in front of my face, a mischievous gleam in the bright blue eyes we’d all inherited from Dad. “Are you on pause? Which button unfreezes you?”

“This one.” I lifted my middle finger, and he laughed. I expelled a deep breath, trying to send the pains of the past out with it—this was my life for the next couple of months, so I might as well accept it and throw myself into it. “Fine, let’s just get it over with.”

As we started toward the front of the gym, I glanced at the cage again. A buzzer sounded, meaning the end of a round. Usually they switched from striking drills to ground-and-pound to takedown ones. Sometimes they did that circuit a few times through. Other times they also threw a five-minute sparring round into the mix, since that was how long each round of a fight would be. I ignored the impulse to look for the fighter I’d spotted when I’d walked in, and forced myself to focus on Liam and Liam alone.

“How’s our big brother dealing with life without Chelsea?” I asked. Liam was the oldest and had always been the most serious of us, with a surliness that rivaled Dad’s. But for a certain number of people, he turned into a big teddy bear. Finn, me, and the girl next door. She was one of the few people in our lives without a connection to MMA, UFC, TSE, SCC, or any other three-letter acronym that translated to us living and breathing the cage-fighting world.

Finn ran a hand over his head of thick hair that used to be dirty blond but looked closer to light brown these days, a couple of shades darker than Liam’s and mine—well, like four or five shades from mine, but I had chemical help. “How do you think? He’s grouchy as hell, and if you bring up her name, he’ll just about take your head off.”

There were a lot of days Chelsea and I were the only two girls at the gym. She’d become such a permanent fixture, I almost expected to see her sitting off to the side, red hair piled into a high bun, either cheering on Liam as he sparred, or with her nose in a book as she waited for him to finally call it a day. She’d moved away for a job a month ago, and when I’d heard about it, I’d worried Liam would take it badly. They both insisted they were just friends, but occasionally I’d caught one of them looking at the other in a way that spoke to something beyond friendship. “Basically you’re saying that her move halfway across the country has made him a shoo-in for Little Mr. Sunshine.”

Finn snorted a laugh. “Bingo. But don’t even try to tell him that’s why he’s pissy, or the aforementioned off-with-your-head thing will apply again.”