Until We're More(4)

By: Cindi Madsen


“Don’t say it all incredulous like that. You’ll make me self-conscious about my teaching skills,” I teased.

Chelsea’s brown eyes narrowed, and she studied me as if she thought I was scamming her. “What are you teaching them? Grunted Responses 101?”

“Very funny.” I reached out and pinched her side, grinning when she jerked away with a squeal—she’d always been super ticklish. “Self-defense mostly. Although I do cover the odd kickboxing and interval training class.” I ran my fingers down her arm and couldn’t help noticing how soft her skin was—apparently I also needed to touch her to prove to myself she was here. “You wanna stick around? Or I could meet you later? How long are you in town anyway?”

Chelsea smiled. “I think that’s the most words I’ve ever heard from you at once.”

“Well, it’s been so quiet without your constant chatter that I had to take Grunted Responses 201, which included a few key phrases. ‘Yes,’ ‘no,’ and ‘Why the hell did it take you so long to visit?’”

“That last one seems oddly specific.”

I grunted, and she laughed. The happy sound danced across my nerve endings and settled deep in my chest. She eyed me again, her brain clearly working a mile a minute, and I sensed she was also double-checking this was happening and that things were okay between us, something I’d often wondered about since she’d moved. I wasn’t sure how I’d managed to let my life get so wrapped up in the redhead next door, but over the past several months, it almost felt like I was missing a limb—not ideal when I needed every single one of them to fight.

“I’ve wanted to, but I’ve been really bus—”

“Chelsea Jessop!” Brooklyn pushed through the front door of the gym. “Oh my gosh, is it actually you?” my sister asked, and then she and Chelsea crashed into a hug.

They both started talking over each other, their words blending together, and I grinned and soaked in the happy chatter. For a while, life had been a monotonous loop of training other fighters and training for my fights and getting the new classes up and running, and I almost forgot what it was to smile. Something Brooklyn and my brother, Finn, accused me of not doing enough. Now that my sister was living here again, working full-time at an art gallery, she swung by whenever she could to pick up the slack and convince us to take a break. She didn’t always succeed on the latter, but things felt less overwhelming with our family all together and mostly in harmony again. With Chelsea also here, it was like the old days, back when I experienced things besides stress and too many ticking clocks.

That reminds me, I need to get someone to look at the clock in the corner. The lights are going out, and it probably needs to be replaced. And the budget will no doubt inform me it’ll have to wait, along with a dozen other more pressing repairs.

Shane Knox, one of our newer, most-promising additions to Team Domination, came over, wrapped his arm around Brooklyn, and kissed her. Although the guy occasionally got too handsy for my tastes, I’d come to terms with him and my sister as a couple. As soon as they finished up the PDA, Brooklyn introduced him to Chelsea.

“Ah.” Shane glanced at me and then back at the girls. “So this is the famous Chelsea.”

He was going to give her the wrong idea. Yes, I’d missed her, but we’d always been friends and nothing more. Sure, there’d been a handful of times through the years I’d had to work to keep it that way, but there were certain lines you didn’t cross, and since I wasn’t a relationship guy, I wasn’t about to ruin things with my best friend. Especially since she always had more than enough people tugging her in opposite directions, taking advantage of how damn sweet she was—seriously, the girl had empathy for those obnoxious seagulls who dive-bombed you to get your food. From the moment she strolled right up to me and basically gave me her life story in a matter of minutes, she’d reminded me of a Disney princess. The red hair and her affection for sea creatures leaned toward Ariel, but she’d fit right in to any of those fairy tales. One day she’d find her prince, and I tried to tell myself I wanted that for her, even though I would have no problem kicking the guy’s ass if he didn’t treat her right. Admittedly, I kind of wanted to kick his ass for simply existing.

But for the here and now, I was going to take advantage of whatever time I could get with her.

I put my hand on her back—still here, still real. Long-distance friendship had been harder than I expected. Talking to her always reminded me of how much I missed her and made it that much harder to be supportive of what Chelsea needed, when I’d sometimes rather be selfish. Things had felt a bit strained between us since shortly before she’d moved, and the distance only amplified it. I hoped now that we had the chance to catch up in person, we could fix it and return things back to normal. “I’ve gotta teach a class, but if you stick around, we can grab dinner after.”