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Year:
2015
Publisher:
Shay Savage, LLC
Language:
english
Series:
Caged 1
File:
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Caged

Book 1

Takedown Teague

By Shay Savage





Copyright © 2015 Shay Savage

All Rights Reserved

Cover Design by Mayhem Cover Creations

Editing : Chayasara

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems-except in the case of brief excerpts or quotations embodied in review or critical writings without the express permission of the author, Shay Savage.

The characters and events in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.





Dedication


For Jadalulu, who sent a Tweet in July of 2012 wanting to read a story about a cage fighter. Thanks for always inspiring me, encouraging me, and keeping me entertained!





Table of Contents

Dedication

Chapter 1—Win the Fight

Chapter 2—Save the Girl

Chapter 3—Make the Move

Chapter 4 - Find the Step

Chapter 5—Question the Motive

Chapter 6—Meet the Ex

Chapter 7—Stake the Claim

Chapter 8—Realize the Truth

Chapter 9—Clean the Mess

Chapter 10—Accept the Arrangements

Chapter 11—Keep the Distance

Chapter 12—Admit the Reality

Chapter 13—Set the Rhythm

Chapter 14—Seize the Opportunity

Chapter 15—Toe the Line

Chapter 16—Fear the Worst

Chapter 17—Kiss the Girl

Chapter 18—Take the Trip

Chapter 19—Tell the Tale

Chapter 20—Reach the Destination

Chapter 21—Challenge the Beliefs

Chapter 22—Reveal the Past

Chapter 23—Take the Plunge

Author’s notes

Excerpt from Caged: Book 2—Trapped

More Books by Shay Savage

About the Author





Chapter 1—Win the Fight


I paced.

The cold cement of the hallway floor made my feet tingle a little even through the tape wrapped around my insteps. My hands clenched into fists, unclenched, and then clenched again. I didn’t know why I was feeling particularly fidgety—this night was like every other night when I worked. Something just seemed to have me on edge, and I didn’t know what. I danced back an; d forth on the balls of my feet a few times, tilted my head to the ceiling with my eyes closed, and blew out a long, slow breath.

Maybe I just needed to get laid.

The deep base of “Sonne” by Rammstein started thumping through the sound system, and the door in front of me opened. My muscles flexed from shoulders to ass, and I prowled out of the empty, slanted hallway and into the crowd.

“Eins…Hier kommt die Sonne…”

The noise was insane for such a small place. It always was. Feet First was a hole-in-the-wall drinking establishment in the crappier part of the city and probably couldn’t fit more than three hundred people inside of it and keep a fire marshal happy, not that anyone in a uniform came around that area. That was just asking for trouble, and the cops and other officials would just as soon go give someone a parking ticket. They were less likely to get a bottle over the head or a knife in the back that way.

“Zwei…Hier kommt die Sonne…”

Hands reached through the holes in the chain-link fence to try to grab at me as I raised my arms up over my head and roared at the crowd like some kind of half-domesticated circus animal. I spun in a small circle and absorbed the screams of the crowd into my skin as I made my way to the cage.

“Takedown! Takedown!”

I glared menacingly toward the onlookers, baring my teeth and growling. Near the end of the ramp and the door of the cage, I flung myself at the chain link between me and the patrons of the bar, snarling through clenched teeth and causing a group of them to scurry backwards. Their eyes were wide and bright as they laughed nervously before moving back toward the fence. Again, they tried to reach through with their hands.

“Drei…Sie ist der hellste Stern von allen…”

Executing another slow spin with my arms raised, I ducked slightly to enter the fighting cage. From across the other side, Yolanda sauntered over in shorts that looked about the size Barbie would wear, and a bikini top that left nothing to the imagination except for the bottom half of her nipples. She also took a little spin as she moved closer to me and tossed her sleek, black hair over her shoulder. More screams came from the audience—this time mostly from the guys.

The patrons of Feet First were mostly men though there were always more women watching the bloodshed than you might think. Probably at least two women to every five men would enter the bar nightly, and those that made it through the first two minutes of a fight usually came back for more. Yolanda thought they came back to watch me, but I thought they were just as bloodthirsty as the guys—they just didn’t admit it as readily.

Hoots and hollers came from all sides as Yolanda sauntered over to me and looked me up and down. I gazed right back at her, turning my head slightly as she began to circle. She was more familiar with the scene than I was, having been a fighter years before I ever even thought of it. In her mid-thirties, she could still pass for twenty-five with ease.

She walked around me like a cat, a single finger stroking over my shoulders and neck. She ran her fingernails lightly over the tribal tattoos covering my back and then dipped the tips of her fingers into my emerald green trunks. With still slow movements, she checked all around the hem of my shorts.

The maneuver was to verify the fighters didn’t have anything hard, sharp, or hidden inside, but in reality it was nothing more than foreplay for the audience. Classical conditioning. They were drooling now, and they’d all orgasm by the time the fight was over. I eyed her with a cocky half grin as she finished it off by running her hand over my dick, much to the pleasure of the crowd.

“Lässt dich hart zu Boden gehen

Und die Welt zählt laut bis zehn…”

My song faded, and some rap song started up instead. A big bald-headed guy emerged from the opposite side and yelled obscenities at the booing members of the audience. He had a cheering section as well, but this was my venue, and I was the favored fighter. He was shorter than me by quite a bit but stocky with long, hairy arms.

Yolanda handed me a mouth guard. I slipped it into my mouth and bit down. I stretched my arms up above my head once more and danced around on the balls of my feet. My opponent entered the cage, was given the same treatment from the sleek bronze woman, and the door was shut with a clang.

There was no referee.

There were no rounds.

There was really only one rule—whoever taps out or goes unconscious loses.

We circled each other, moving slowly without getting any closer. The noise of the audience lessened, and my eyes focused on the man in the cage with me. He crouched slightly, and his nostrils flared as he breathed heavily through them. His fists tightened as he raised them up in front of his body.

Awareness covered me. I knew the position of every muscle in my body, and I positioned each one in preparation for what was to come.

This was my element.

My show.

My life.

My one and only love.

I let him come at me first, gauging his tempo, favored hand, and which foot he liked to put forward. Leaning back quickly, I dodged his first blow and smacked him with an open palm across his left temple. He shook it off easily—it wasn’t a very hard blow—and backed off as I jumped toward him, which left me open for his foot into my lower back. I gasped through the mouthpiece at the clean hit and backed off a bit to recover.

He didn’t give me much time.

I kept my left hand up to block whatever blows he sent in my direction, while I jabbed with my right to punch him in the stomach. As he brought up his knee to connect with my kidney again, I wrapped my arm around his leg and held tight but didn’t let him fall. I turned to the side and followed the blow with my foot into his ribs. He fell backwards, recovered, crouched and jumped at me, landing a good blow across my temple.

I was stunned for a moment as lights flashed in the back of my head. I felt his arms wrapping around my chest and shoulders as he shoved me backwards and into the cage, his fist coming up and smacking me in the head again as my shoulder scraped against the chain links. I leaned back into the cage wall and lifted my feet to wrap my legs around his waist.

A fist landed forcefully against my thigh, causing the muscle there to clench, but I didn’t let go. I twisted to the right and then the left and smashed my forehead into his nose. He lost his footing, and we both toppled to the floor as the crowd screamed at us.

I landed on my back, but I kept my legs gripped around his middle. My vision blurred slightly as I twisted again and flipped us over. His feet were up in the air behind me, and as my thigh muscles gripped him tighter, I started raining open handed blows to his head and face.

Without gloves, closed fists hurt my hands almost as much as they hurt his face, but that didn’t stop me from switching to them. I could feel blood on my fingers, but I wasn’t sure if it was from my knuckles or his battered nose. His arms came up to shield him from the pounding, so I leaned back to punch his ribs.

Sweat ran down my back, and I had to work hard to keep breathing steadily through my nose. My ear was ringing a bit from the earlier punch to my temple, but my vision was clear again. My opponent tried to bring his leg up to kick at my back, but my hold was too strong. I kept up the punches with my right hand as my left arm sought his neck.

Once I had my forearm across his throat, the fight was all but over. I felt him struggling under me, but the intensity became muted and shallow. I hit him on the side of the head a couple more times before I felt the tap of his fingers on my bicep.

I released my hold on him, jumped backwards, and spit the mouthpiece out on the floor. I watched as he went nearly limp below me, a trickle of blood staining his cheek and forehead. I stumbled a little as I backed away, and the sting near my temple finally registered with my brain. My head throbbed, but I could still focus okay. I heard the door of the cage open behind me and felt Yolanda’s hand around my wrist, but I shook her off, still dazed.

The screams from those outside the cage filled my ears, and the sound rippled through my skin as I collected my thoughts, realized it was over, and reached up toward the ceiling. I screamed in victory as the fans chanted in unison.

“Takedown! Takedown!”

Yolanda’s hand reached up and grabbed my elbow, since at her height she couldn’t reach my wrist, and she shook at my arm as she cried out to the crowd.

“Takedown Teague—victor again for his twenty-seventh consecutive fight!”

The guy I was fighting rolled over and propped himself up on his hands and knees. Yolanda went to help him to his feet, and he moved over to toss his arm around my neck for what I guess was supposed to be a manly hug.

“One of these days, I’m gonna beat you, Teague. I swear it!” he laughed.

“Have we fought before?” I asked. The guy didn’t even look familiar, but then again, the fights all run together in my head.

He just laughed and shook his head.

“This is the third time you’ve kicked my ass.”

“I must owe you a beer,” I said, and we both grinned at each other.

Turning back toward the crowd, I was bombarded with faces and hands poking through the fence as well as cries of congratulations as I stepped through the cage door. I high-fived a couple dozen people on my way back down the ramp to the make-shift locker room on the lower floor for a moment of peace before I had to go out and meet the public again.

As the door closed behind me, the noise was at least partially cut off, and my head throbbed less as I made my way to the sink. Wincing a bit, I splashed cold water on the cut above my eye. It wasn’t bad and only barely bleeding. There was a place on my back where I hit the cage that was likely worse, but I couldn’t see how bad the cut was. Vanity was my main concern; I hoped it hadn’t fucked up my tattoo. That shit cost me a lot of money.

I stripped and headed to the single stand-up shower in the locker room. The water wasn’t hot enough to feel very good or relax my muscles, but it was certainly better than nothing. I washed quickly and grabbed one of the little towels folded up on a table next to the wall. They weren’t big enough to be considered actual bath towels, so I just ran one of them over my chest, ass, and crotch before tossing it in the corner. It wouldn’t fit around my waist, so there was no point in even trying to cover myself. Crouching down in front of a group of metal lockers, I started rummaging through my gym bag for clothes.

“Nice...”

Yolanda waltzed in without knocking, as usual, and emitted a low whistle. I glanced at her over my shoulder before going back to the items in my bag. She just kept eyeing me, clearly checking out my junk as I squatted down in front of my locker.

Whatever. I didn’t have anything to hide.

Grabbing a pair of boxers, I stood and slipped them on before turning around and sitting on the little bench against the concrete wall. Yolanda knelt down in front of me and deftly removed the tape from my feet and ankles while I unwound it from my wrists. Once that was done, I grabbed a pair of ripped up jeans and pulled them on.

“Turn around,” Yolanda ordered, and I did as she said. “Sit. I can’t reach you from there.”

I sighed but couldn’t really argue. She was maybe all of five-two, and I was nearly a foot taller. She wouldn’t be able to check me out if I remained standing. I sat on the bench and she looked at my shoulder.

“What’s the damage?” I asked. “Tats okay?”

“Just a scratch,” she confirmed. “Tats survived.”

Yolanda pulled a bottle of rubbing alcohol out of her bag. Aside from being a cage fighter before she tore her ACL, she claimed to be a registered nurse. She certainly seemed to know what she was doing and even stitched up my side once when someone pulled a knife on me after losing a fight. The stitches weren’t pretty, but they kept me from losing a lot of blood on the way to the hospital. Yolanda tipped the bottle upside down with a piece of gauze over the opened lid and rubbed some of the alcohol on my shoulder, which made me hiss.

“Don’t be such a baby.” She clicked her tongue at me.

“That fucking hurts.”

“You’ll go nine minutes getting punched in the face, but a little alcohol always makes you whine.”

“I’m not whining,” I insisted, shrugging her off. It didn’t work, because she went after the cut over my eye next. Once she was done with her mothering, I opened my locker, located the small felt bag on the top shelf, and dumped the contents into my hand—two round silver earrings. I slipped them both through the matching holes in my left ear. “Don’t you have anything in there that doesn’t fucking sting like a bitch?”

“Pussy.”

I snorted, rolled my shoulder a couple of times, and then reached into my gym bag for a T-shirt.

“Don’t put that on,” Yolanda said with another exaggerated sigh.

“Why not?”

“Well, for one, you’ve got a lot of female fans out there tonight,” she explained. “You know they want you half naked, and you also know you love to show off the ink. Besides, you just pulled that nasty, wrinkled thing out of your gym bag.”

“So?”

“So, it smells like a dead dog.”

“Nice.” I tossed the shirt back in the bag and zipped it up. “Let’s do this.”

Back inside the bar, it was a madhouse. I shoved my way through, using my bulk and notoriety to get myself through the crowd and up to the bar. I maneuvered up to the very end to keep from being completely surrounded and stood next to a big poster on the wall. It depicted an old guy with a long, white beard holding up a rat. At the bottom it read:

“Feet first, Arthur. It’s the only way out of here!”

I had no fucking clue what it was supposed to mean, but Dordy, the owner of the bar, thought it was hysterical. He was a short, lanky guy with black hair and eyes. He was from the Philippines or maybe Malaysia; I could never remember exactly. He was behind the bar nearly every night and apparently bought the place because he liked talking to drunk people though he never had a drink himself. He used to work on a cruise ship and made killer frozen drinks.

About fifteen people tried to buy me drinks, holding out long neck domestic beers and other shit I wouldn’t touch. I did hand two of them to my now bandaged opponent, who seemed to need them more than I did anyway. I politely declined the rest of the drinks until Dordy placed a rocks glass with a single malt scotch in front of me—neat. When I looked up at him, Dordy motioned to a guy at the end of the bar, sitting there with a similar drink. His neatly styled dark hair was slicked back over his temples, and as our eyes met, he raised his glass.

I copied his motion and sipped at the whiskey. It was top shelf—well, for this place, anyway—and went down pretty smooth. I raised an eyebrow at him before turning away and smiling seductively at a young woman in leather shorts and a tank top. When I had enough of being pawed at by various women and barraged with enough questions about my fighting style from various men, I snuck out back for a smoke.

I climbed up the half dozen stairs that brought me level to the street, jumped over the side rail at the top and into the enclosed area behind the bar. It was well past two in the morning, and the street was completely devoid of traffic. Most people in this neighborhood didn’t have cars, and those who might have been passing through had done so in the safer hours of daylight. There wasn’t much of anyone around except a small group of guys sitting on the steps of an abandoned warehouse on the other side of the street, passing a bottle in a brown paper bag back and forth between them.

Subtle, I thought with a snort and lit up my cigarette.

The back part of the bar was supposed to be used just for deliveries and taking plastic bags brimming over with bottles to the dumpster, but since it also connected to the locker room, I found it convenient to come out here to smoke, away from the crowds that gathered outside the front doors. The area was surrounded by a chain-link fence, which was not unlike the one that made up the fighting cage inside. There was a large poster on it, displaying a picture of me advertising fights twice a week.

Takedown Teague

Cage Fights

Tuesdays and Fridays 10PM

I leaned against the chain-link fence next to the poster and wrapped the fingers of one hand through the holes. I pulled against it a couple of times and listened to the rattling sound it made while I watched the fight run through my head again. I inhaled smoke and blew it out my nose, trying to mask the heavy scent of garbage, vomit, and urine in the street.

The smells brought back memories, and they weren’t pleasant ones. At the time, I didn’t care. I had other ways of masking the odors. Now I had to make do with the cigarette, and it wasn’t nearly as effective.

My earlier thought of needing to get laid came back again, but I dismissed it. I hadn’t hooked up with anyone in months, and even though my cock was starting to cringe from my hand out of sheer boredom, I really didn’t want to just randomly fuck another fangirl.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

“A C-note, maybe,” I responded to the man with the sleek black hair. I forced my muscles to relax. I was not going to let him get to me, not this time. I glanced at him briefly and then looked back to the street. The bare bulb hanging just outside the door to the bar glinted off the silver earrings in his left ear. “What brings you here, Michael?”

“Just checking up on my favorite nephew.”

“I’m your only nephew.”

“Technicalities.”

I took another long draw on my cigarette and focused on the four guys across the street with their cheap bottle of booze and ratty clothes. One of them laughed loudly and shoved the guy next to him on the shoulder, which toppled the drunk over and onto the sidewalk. They all laughed as he tried to right himself again.

“Always loved this neighborhood,” Michael said. His voice was completely flat and emotionless, but I still recognized sarcasm when I heard it.

“Well, housing is cheap,” I said with a shrug.

“You still in that dump down the block?”

“It’s convenient to work,” I retorted. “Don’t play games, Michael—what the fuck do you want?”

“Just your yearly reminder that you don’t have to live like this.” My uncle walked up behind me and placed his hand on my bare shoulder. “Just talk to him, Liam.”

“No.”

“It’s been almost ten years.”

“Fuck him,” I replied. I could feel all my muscles tense from top to bottom—my shoulders, my arms, my back, my legs—all in a ripple down my body.

“You were a kid then.”

“Old enough to be thrown out on the street, apparently.”

“He regrets that,” Michael stated.

“My ass,” I growled. “He’s pissed off he couldn’t see into the future. That’s his only regret.”

Michael went silent, but I could hear his breath as he huffed it out through his nose.

“Your mother misses you.”

That was a low blow, but I swallowed hard and clenched my fingers through the chain-link, refusing to respond. It didn’t stop her face from popping up in my head, of course. Wavy brown hair covered her shoulders, and her bright smile made me feel loved and wanted.

Ultimately, she still took his side.

Michael stepped a few feet away from me and smoothed out his hair.

“Fuck her, too,” I muttered under my breath. I didn’t think Michael actually heard me, though. Even after all this time, I felt like shit for saying it and wanted to take it back.

“Ryan says hello.” It was a slightly better topic.

“Haven’t seen him in a while.” My cousin was a big-ass motherfucker. He would have made a great fighter, but he went into the family business with the rest of them. No room for that kind of shit in his life. Michael wasn’t actually his father. He had married a woman about fifteen years older than he was, and she came with a son. It was cool though, because up until then, I had been the only kid my age in the family.

Ryan and Michael were the only ones I still talked to at all.

“He’s been pretty busy,” Michael said. “Did he tell you he was going to marry Amanda?”

“I figured,” I said, feeling myself tense up a bit.

“Well, she’s planning the wedding to end all weddings, apparently.”

“There’s a shock,” I snorted.

Michael laughed, which quickly turned into a sigh.

“Not going to change your mind?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“Not this year,” I replied. “I don’t see ‘daddy dearest’ making the trek down here to talk to me. What makes him think I’m going to take the fucking subway all the way over to his office? He can park the fucking Porsche back here and come have a beer if he cares so much.”

“Liam…”

“You done?” I snapped.

“I guess so,” he said. He let out another long breath. “It was good to see you.”

“You, too.” I didn’t turn around and watch him walk back inside. His appearance brought up too many shitty memories, and though I did love my uncle, his presence left me feeling uneasy.

After a few more cigarettes, I tossed the last butt toward the street and headed back inside for a bit. It wasn’t long before I determined getting laid was not going to happen, given my mood and the general lack of teeth in the mouths of some of the patrons still left at Feet First come closing time. I untangled myself from one of the hornier ones by telling her I had to take a piss, went back to the locker room to grab my gym bag, and headed out the back door. Once outside, I dropped the bag, fished around for my pack of Marlboros, and lit one.

A lone car crawled by, momentarily obscuring my view of the drunk-fest that was still going on across the street. They were pretty fucking loud, which was disturbing my final smoke of the evening before walking home. Usually this was my peaceful time, the only real quiet of the night I would get before returning home and trying to sleep through the car alarms and gunshots. At least the idiots who used to fight at all hours of the night in the apartment below me finally moved out. Maybe they were evicted. Whatever it was, I didn’t have to listen to that shit anymore.

A chilly breeze blew down the street, bringing some of the more glorious scents up into the air and cooling my skin. I tossed the cigarette butt through the holes in the fence and into the gutter with the rest of the trash and then went back to the door to retrieve my shirt from my gym bag.

The trip-trapping sound of women’s shoes on pavement caused me to look up, and I watched a young woman come into view as she passed the dumpsters at the back of the bar. She walked quickly with her head down and a purse with a lengthy strap over her shoulder. Her long, brown hair was tied up in a ponytail at the top of her head, and she wore a pair of short-shorts, which showed off her long legs, and a tight T-shirt with the name across her chest of the bar and grill a few blocks down. I figured she was maybe five-foot-four and a hundred and fifteen pounds because I tended to size people up that way. Nice build, nice tits. She didn’t look over at me at all, just kept up her quick pace down the street with her eyes on her feet.

My first thought was fucking gorgeous.

My second thought was fucking stupid.

Who walked around this area of town in the middle of the night by themselves? I mean, yeah—I did—but I wasn’t a very easy target. She might as well have had a sign on her back that said “mug me”. I shook my head and went back to rummaging around in my bag. When I looked up again, the sound of her shoes was beginning to fade, but that wasn’t what caught my attention.

The guys across the street who had been sitting and drinking had gone quiet and were now all standing up with their heads close to one another. The guy with greasy, shoulder length, black hair turned his head to look down the street in the direction the girl was walking and then nodded before he and a guy with a backwards baseball cap took off down the side alley that ran perpendicular to the street they were on.

I’d lived in that area a couple of years, and I knew that alley intersected with another alley, which then met up with a walkway between two of the abandoned warehouses, and dumped out onto this street a couple blocks down. The last two guys in the group were heavyset with unkempt dirty blond hair. They looked like they might have been brothers. They quickly abandoned the bottle-in-a-bag and started walking quietly but quickly in the same direction the girl was going, pulling the hoodies up over their heads as they walked.

Their intent was obvious.

“Fuck,” I mumbled. I grabbed my bag, ignoring the shirt that fell out of it and onto the ground and heaved at the heavy gate that enclosed the area behind Feet First. For once, the damn thing was padlocked. I growled before flinging my bag up and over the fence, grabbing onto the links with my fingers, and hauling myself over it, too. I had to move pretty quickly if I was going to catch up with the drunks and their would-be victim.

I was never one to play the hero, but some things you just didn’t let slide.





Chapter 2—Save the Girl


Stepping lightly but quickly, I moved down the quiet, empty street. There was a bend just a couple of blocks ahead of me, and both the girl and the guys pursuing her must have already passed it. I couldn’t see anyone else on the street at all though someone could certainly have been hiding in the shadows. More than half the streetlights were out here—no one ever seemed to bother replacing them—and you couldn’t see the moon or any stars. The light pollution from deeper in the city was the only thing keeping the streets from being completely dark.

I moved a little faster, making my way around the curve in the street.

I saw them then, and I was correct in my initial assessment of their plans. They had already caught up to her—two in the front, two in the back. The one with the baseball cap and the greasy one were behind her with their arms held out a little to keep her in place while the two brothers shifted back and forth in front of her. They had her surrounded and were moving slowly, herding her toward the walkway between two buildings.

“Hey, baby,” the blond brother with the darker colored hoodie purred. I was pretty sure it was the one who had shoved his buddy down in the street earlier. “Relax. We just want to have a little fun.”

“Yeah, you know,” the kid in the backwards baseball cap said, “invite you to our little par-tay.”

I couldn’t stand it when people talked like that. It didn’t make them sound cool; it made them sound like morons.

“Leave me alone!” The girl slung her bag off her shoulder and held it in both hands, as if she might try to use it as a weapon.

The group laughed and closed in on her. One of them reached out and grabbed the large bag, wrenching it from her hands and spilling the significant contents all over the street. The guy with greasy black hair reached for her then, grabbing her by the tops of both arms and pulling her backwards as she cried out.

As if anyone around here would even notice or care if they did hear her screaming.

The guy in the hoodie stepped forward and began to reach for her. I dropped my own bag, no longer concerned with a silent approach, and raced down the street. They were far too occupied with their captive to notice me anyway, and I managed to get right behind the one grabbing for her.

My hand grasped the top of his head, clenching the material of his sweatshirt and his hair as well. I yanked him backwards and off balance and then released him as he fell on his ass with a thud. Changing my stance, I leaned over and let my foot fly out, catching another one in the side. I heard a distinctive crack as my booted heel came into contact with his ribs.

I turned my eyes to the greasy black-haired guy who was taking a few steps backwards, still holding the girl tightly and shaking her, as if threatening her would keep me away from him.

“Hey, man!” They were all the words I allowed to leave his mouth.

I stepped forward quickly and grabbed the girl by her ponytail. She cried out again, but I couldn’t pay attention to that as I pulled her face toward my chest and punched at the space over her head to land three knuckles right against Greasy’s trachea.

He released her arms immediately and grasped at his throat.

Spinning to my left, I kept the girl close to me for a moment and then shoved her off to one side before turning to the next guy who was coming at me. She cried out in surprise, stumbled, and ended up dropping to the street, but I couldn’t really think about that. I knew she wasn’t seriously hurt and was out of the way; that was all I needed.

The asshole with the backwards cap and the moronic ghetto-speak took a swing at me, which I easily ducked. He was still drunk enough that he almost knocked himself right over onto the street, but I caught him. I grabbed him by the collar and pulled him up close enough to slam my palm into his nose. I heard a snap just before I dropped him to the asphalt.

I quickly looked around me and saw two of the guys running off down the alley. The one I had just dropped to the ground was whining and moaning about his nose, and the last one—the one I had grabbed first—was heading in my direction.

He was, without a doubt, the instigator of all of this. My eyes narrowed as he approached and swung out wildly as if he didn’t even know where I was. I sidestepped and backed up—letting him come at me again. After a couple more swings, he seemed to be pretty much out of breath. That’s when I pounced.

Before I even touched him, I was in the zone though I never felt disconnected like some guys said they did during a fight. I was always completely focused; I just felt different at the same time. Everything seemed brighter even in the dim light coming from the one streetlamp at the end of the block, in sharper focus, and alive. Every muscle was poised, ready for my command. Every synapse was prepared to fire at my will.

Spinning around, my boot connected with the side of his head. Before he had the chance to fall backwards, I reached out and gripped his hoodie in my fist, twisting the fabric right under his neck around in my fingers. I could feel the string for the hood against my thumb as I pulled him up closer to me and slammed my other fist into his gut.

The air rushed out of him in a fragrant gust. He slumped toward me, but I held him out so I had better access to punch his kidney next. Then his face. Then the top of his arm. Then his face again.

He was screaming and crying at this point, begging me to let him go. For a minute I couldn’t understand why he didn’t tap out, but then I realized he didn’t know the rules. I released my grip with some effort—the knuckles had tightened up and ached when I straightened my fingers—and he dropped to the ground in front of me.

A moment later he was up again, turning and fleeing down the street with sideways-slouched, stumbling steps.

For a second I was confused. There wasn’t any cheering, and no one was grabbing my wrist to hold my hand in the air. I was just standing in a deserted street with my heart pounding in my chest and my breaths coming out in heavy pants into the night air. The cool September breeze no longer chilled my skin even as it collided with the sweat covering my chest and back. Then I remembered what I was doing and that the street wasn’t completely deserted.

I turned to the girl on the ground.

She was staring down the street in the direction the last of the attackers had run. A few feet away from her was the discarded purse—if you could really call it that—lying on the ground with the contents all over the asphalt. Whatever it was, it was too damn big to be a purse. Yolanda always carried those tiny little things that fit in your hand, but this one looked like you could fit a whole Butterball turkey in it.

My hands were still a little shaky. The fight hadn’t lasted more than about a minute and a half, and I had way too much built-up adrenaline. All my muscles were tight, and my hands were still clenched into fists. The desire to beat the shit out of something hadn’t ebbed nearly enough in such a short amount of time, and all the energy from my arms and legs seemed to back up into my brain.

I had an instant headache and wished there were a twenty-four hour gym somewhere close-by. As it was, there was only one place for me to vent my building energy.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” I heard myself shout. My hands continued to tighten into fists as the girl startled and gasped, and her wide eyes focused on me.

“I was just walking home…”

“In this neighborhood? At this time of night? Do you have a fucking death wish?”

I really had no idea why I was shouting at her. I just couldn’t believe how fucking stupid she was. Everyone knew how dangerous this area was in the daytime, and now it was past two in the morning. The fact that this obviously young, attractive girl—well, far more than just attractive—was wandering around this area in the middle of the night pissed me off.

“You know, if I had come out of the bar two minutes later or happened to have my back turned when those guys started after you, you’d be getting double-teamed in the alley about now!”

Her face went pale in the light of the distant streetlamp, and she looked a little sick. That didn’t seem to stop my mouth, though.

“Are you just stupid?” I probably would have gone on, but she wrapped her arms around herself and glared up at me.

“Stop yelling at me!” she screamed. She turned away, but I saw her reach up with the back of her hand to swoop underneath her eyes.

Shit.

I turned slightly away from her and practically bit down on my tongue to keep myself from saying anything else. I brought my fisted hands up against my stomach and tried to pull the tension inside of myself, work through it, and calm down. I could hear her crying combined with choked breaths and sniffles.

“Fuck,” I mumbled under my breath. I was starting to come off the fighting high I had been on—the tears might have helped with that—and my stomach felt tight.

After three long, deep breaths, I looked back to the girl on the ground and saw her frantically rubbing at her eyes and cheeks. She didn’t look at me as she reached out and pulled her mostly empty bag close to her. She looked inside and then looked around her at all her things on the ground.

“Sorry,” I mumbled. I wasn’t all that great at apologies, and I figured now wasn’t going to be much different. I’d obviously upset her with all my shitty comments, though. “I didn’t mean to…I just…”

I stopped talking. I didn’t know what to say, and I felt bad about yelling at her. She looked at me all red-eyed with tears staining her cheeks.

“Just don’t do that shit anymore.” I let out a big sigh.

She nodded once and then reached out to grab something off the ground near her and shoved it back into the bag. From the amount of stuff scattered all over the street, my estimate on the size of the so-called purse wasn’t too far off. There was an umbrella, a little flashlight, a bunch of tubes and bottles, and at least a half dozen pens. As I looked around some more, I saw a small notebook, a paperback book, keys, a bottle of hand lotion that was nowhere near travel sized, a stack of tissues wrapped up in a Ziploc bag, two sets of earbuds, and a checkbook. There was also a whole pile of ponytail holders, bobby pins, and those little hair-holder-things that looked like teeth.

There was shit from her bag from one side of the fucking street to the other.

She started crawling around, gathering it all up, and cramming it back inside, which gave me a fabulous view of her ass in the short-shorts style waitress uniform the place up the street usually demanded. I could kind of see how she might have thought she could use the bag as a weapon—there had been more stuff in there than really should have been able to fit. I looked around on the ground to see if there was an actual kitchen sink, or at least part of one, but I didn’t see anything metal. There was something that looked like a small rock, though.

“How do you even carry that thing around?” I asked.

“What?”

“That…that purse-bag-thingy there,” I said, pointing and shaking my finger at it. I wouldn’t have admitted it, but the whole idea of the thing scared me, and I wasn’t sure why. I felt like if I got too close to it I might get sucked in, never to be seen again. “It’s insane.”

Her eyes became little slits as she looked up to me.

“There is nothing wrong with my purse!” she growled.

“It’s huge,” I said.

“It has everything I need in it.”

“It has everything you and ten of your friends could need for a week,” I replied with a laugh. “I know there are people who carry Chihuahuas in their purse, but you could fit a Dane in there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Okay, a decent-sized schnauzer, then.”

I got another glare, but this time it sort of made me smile. As the corners of my mouth turned up, I couldn’t help but take it further.

“A pair of poodles?” I asked. “They could sit under the umbrella and read to each other from the book.”

“Not really.” She seemed to be actively trying to keep her frown on her face now, and her tone had definitely changed.

“I bet there are lost works of art in there,” I teased. She just shook her head. “Undiscovered sonnets.”

“You are very strange,” she said, but she had cracked a bit of a smile.

“I could be a lot worse,” I said. She went silent as she looked back down the street and a shudder ran through her body. “I’m gonna get you home, okay?”

“Home?”

“You live around here, right?”

“Um...well, yeah,” she stammered. She looked in the direction she had originally been walking.

“I could walk you home,” I suggested. “Make sure…well, just get you home.”

“How can I trust you?” she said cautiously.

“Trust me?” I asked, trying to decide if I was offended by the very notion that I was somehow not trustworthy. I mean, I had certainly just saved her from a rough night, and most likely a whole lot worse than a little pushing and shoving. I raised both brows at her. “Well, if I was going to rape you and kill you—which was probably their plan—I would have just insisted on going first, not chase the other guys away.”

Her eyes went wide, and she dropped whatever she was holding onto the pavement. She quickly scrambled after it while I ran my hand through my hair and tried to get myself back together.

“Sorry,” I muttered again. I closed my eyes and rubbed my fingers into the sockets before looking back at her. “I think, all in all, you’re better off with me than you are by yourself.”

“Better the evil I know?” she responded with a smirk. The look and the tone of her voice didn’t match her eyes, though—there was fear there. It was entirely possible I was a bit too blunt, but that shit was also true.

“Something like that, but you don’t know me, either.” I smirked right back.

“You’re my hero,” she said but seemed to immediately regret the words. She looked away from me, and her throat bobbed as she swallowed.

She had a beautiful neck—long and pale. I could see the outline of her carotid artery as it pulsed just under her skin. Her heart rate was still a little higher than normal, and I wondered if I was the cause of her current fear. I tried to put her at ease, at least as much as she could be at ease in the dark street with a guy she didn’t know minutes after she was attacked.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I told her. She nodded but didn’t look up. “I’m just going to make sure you get home safely, okay?”

“Okay,” she said flatly.

I wondered if she was going to go into shock or something. I definitely needed to get her behind a locked door as quickly as possible so she could relax again. I hoped, since she was walking, she wouldn’t have too far to go.

“Where do you live?”

“Just around the corner,” she replied as she collected the last few items from the pavement and added them to the collection in the monster-bag. “A few blocks to the left. You don’t have to go out of your way—”

“I know the area,” I interrupted. “I’m walking you home.”

I wasn’t asking anymore, and she didn’t try to fight it. I picked up my gym bag, and she picked up her purse. I thought about putting a shirt on, but then I remembered I had dropped it back at Feet First. Considering Yolanda’s comment about how it smelled, maybe that was for the best. Besides, I was still warm from the exertion, and it wasn’t more than a ten-minute walk home.

I grabbed a couple of the other items that had been hanging out near my feet—packets of salad dressing, a tube of lipstick, and something else round—shit, a fucking tampon—and handed them to her without meeting her eyes. She took them quickly, mumbled a thank you, and shoved them into the huge, practically overflowing handbag.

She stood up and looked at me, and her eyes got big again.

“You got hurt!” she said as she lifted her fingers up toward my temple and then pulled away without touching me.

I reached up and felt the little cut above my eye and snickered.

“They didn’t touch me,” I assured her. “That was from work.”

“Work?”

“Yeah, I’m a fighter.”

She paused and her eyebrows screwed together.

“A what?”

“A fighter,” I repeated. “You know—two guys in a cage beating the shit out of each other.”

“In a cage?” she asked with disbelief.

“Yep.” I stated it simply and without making a grandiose noise out of the final consonant because that would just sound stupid.

“For real?”

“Yeah, for real.” I laughed.

“I thought that was just on TV.”

“We all have to start somewhere,” I muttered.

“Sorry,” she said. She wrapped the strap of her bag around her neck and shoulder.

“What for?”

“I didn’t mean to be…insulting.”

“I’m not insulted.”

“Oh…well, okay then.” She ran her teeth over her bottom lip and looked down the dark street. I was pretty sure she shuddered a little.

“Let’s get you home,” I commanded as I started walking.

She nodded, and I walked next to her as she headed off in the same direction I usually walked home anyway. She kept her fingers wrapped around the strap of the huge bag and continued to stare at the ground as she walked.

“Don’t do that,” I said.

“Do what?” Her eyes met mine for a moment.

“Look at the ground,” I said. “You aren’t paying attention to your surroundings, so it makes you an easier target.”

“Oh,” she responded. At first she looked right back to the ground again, but then she seemed to process what I had said and held her head a little higher.

“Where are you from?”

“What makes you think I’m not from here?”

“You aren’t from the city,” I stated.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Yes,” I snickered. “Girls from around here know better than to walk alone, except the hookers, but that doesn’t seem your style.”

She glared at me out of the corner of her eye.

“I’m from Maine,” she said with a tone that told me I had just about reached my question quota.

“You’re a long ways from home,” I said. “How long have you lived here?”

“Two weeks,” she answered. “I’m going to school here.”

“You got a name?” I asked.

“Of course I have a name,” she replied, rolling her eyes. “It’s Tria. Tria Lynn. You?”

“Liam Teague,” I told her, and I held out my hand. She took it, shaking it briefly before she nearly tripped over her own feet on the flat ground. “I hope you don’t chew gum.”

I laughed at my own joke.

“Very funny,” she snapped back. “I’m not overly…coordinated.”

We walked the next block in silence. I felt kind of bad for picking on her, so I tried another approach.

“So what are you studying?”

“Economics.”

“Really?” I narrowed one eye at her.

“Why is that so surprising?” she asked, obviously displeased with my reaction.

“I dunno,” I responded with a shrug. “Just not what I expected.”

“What did you expect?”

“Um…teaching? Maybe nursing or physical therapy—something like that.”

“Why, because I’m a woman?”

“Uh…um…” I didn’t really know how to respond to that. I wasn’t really sure why I thought she would say something else; economics just didn’t seem to fit. “Well, why economics?”

“Because I don’t understand why some people have a ton of money and others don’t have anything,” she said simply. “It doesn’t have anything to do with how hard they work. I thought if I learned more about it, it would help me understand.”

I laughed again.

“I’m not a comedian,” she growled. “Stop laughing at me.”

“I’m not.” I shook my head. “I mean, I am, but…not like that. It’s just…weird.”

“I am not weird!” she yelled as she stopped in her tracks and snarled at me. “It makes perfect sense, and maybe you have just been hit in the head too many times to understand anything other than punching people, but I really don’t see how your opinion ought to matter to me!”

“Whoa!” I called out, stopping and turning to face her and holding my hands up in surrender. “Easy there! I just…shit…I just never heard of anyone wanting to study something like that. It’s cool.”

Her look softened but remained wary, so I turned it around on her.

“And now you have insulted me,” I told her.

“What? How?”

“I have not been hit in the head too many times—I fucking win.”

I grinned at her before I started walking across the street. She rolled her eyes again, but continued on beside me. We were quiet now with her speaking up only when we made a turn to the right and crossed another dark street.

“This is my street,” she said.

I felt an odd tingle run through my arms but didn’t respond.

Tria stopped in front of a three-story apartment building with faded brown paneling that tried to give it some sort of Tudor flair but failed miserably. There was a barred door painted black with one of those keypad security systems attached to it. The windows on the ground floor also had bars though the ones higher up didn’t. I glanced up the fire escape stairs next to the door and saw a black-haired girl swinging her legs and smoking a cigarette. The ash flicked out into the air and landed beside me on the chipped sidewalk.

“This is where you live?” I tried to stop from smiling too much. I mean, what were the odds?

“Yes,” she said. Her tone was dark. “It’s not as bad as it looks from the outside.”

“Heh.” I snorted. “Yes, it is.”

I reached forward and gave the barred door a good yank. It opened immediately, even without entering a code or anything. Bullshit security system hadn’t worked in at least eight months. Tria kind of glanced at me sideways as I held it open and made a grand gesture with my arm.

“After you,” I said.

“It’s supposed to be a secure building,” she said. “They said they were going to be getting that fixed soon.”

“Yep,” I replied, “that’s what they tell ya.”

“I’m not really supposed to let anyone inside the building.” She looked off to the side, like she was afraid to send me away while looking me in the eye.

I chuckled.

“You aren’t home yet,” I told her. “I said I would walk you home.”

“It’s just inside,” she said.

“First floor?”

“Yes.”

“What number?”

Her jaw tensed and she continued to look away from me. It looked like she was focusing on a stack of broken up pieces of brick lying in a haphazard pile near the entrance to the apartments. She glanced up at me before blowing out a big gust of breath.

“Fine,” she grumbled. “Come on in.”

Tria led me to the fourth door on the right, which had faded, not-really-brass numbers tacked up on it. Number 142.

I laughed in one quick burst.

“You live here?”

“Yes,” she said as she fished around in her purse for keys.

I had been wondering if my nights were going to be a little quieter, and now I had my answer. I chuckled softly to myself.

“Why is that funny?”

I shook my head as she glared at me.

I started to consider the reasons it was funny, but the reasons that all of this was not funny popped into my head instead. They were especially obvious as she continued to fumble around for her keys with her head practically buried in her monstrous over-the-shoulder bag.

I mean, she had just led a perfect stranger—hero or not—right to her door.

“Tria…” I shook my head a little to try to keep my cool. I started counting on my fingers. “One, stop being so trusting—this ain’t the small town you grew up in. Yeah, I’m not one to rape you in the street, but that doesn’t mean I’m not the kind of guy who would get you back somewhere private and do the same. Two, get your keys out before you get to the door. Hold them in your hand—like this.”

I grabbed her wrist before she could move and pushed a little, rubbery, lobster-shaped keychain against her palm. Then I positioned the keys on the ring between her fingers.

“Go for the eyes,” I said. I raised her hand up with mine and wrapped her fingers into a fist. The keys jutted out between her fingers, turning her hand into a fairly impressive weapon. “Third, don’t fucking walk on that street at night by yourself. Get a fucking ride. Someone where you work has to have a car. Fourth, look where you are going, for Christ’s sake. Get your head up like you know where you are going and what you are doing even if you don’t. Fifth and final—let me know if you need anything. I’m right above you in apartment 242.”

With that, I turned and left her, mouth agape, in front of her door while I headed for the stairs at the back of the hall. I could feel her eyes on me, and found myself compelled to look back one more time and grin at her before I headed up the stairs. She pursed her lips, but they quickly spread into a smile just before she entered her apartment and closed the door.

I was never one to get attached, but I had the feeling I’d be seeing her again.





Chapter 3—Make the Move


My apartment was way too quiet, and I had too much pent-up energy to even consider going to sleep. I took a quick shower and pulled on a pair of sweats, commando style. I was just about out of clean underwear, and I fucking hated doing laundry. The refrigerator called to me, but when I opened it, I was not particularly impressed with the contents. The only thing that interested me mildly was the six-pack of Guinness, but I wasn’t in the mood for beer.

My hands began to shake a little. It was probably the pent-up energy from the brawl. I wished it were easier for me to calm down after such things, but any change in my routine usually ended up being a little dangerous for me. Though it has been years, the desire to slip up never really goes away.

I shut the door to the fridge and looked over the small, four-room apartment. Every room could be seen if you stood between the kitchen and the living room and looked past the small opening to one side that led to the single bedroom and bathroom. It wasn’t pretty, but…

Well, but nothing. It was a dump. The whole building was. It did fit the unique qualifier of being a place I could afford though, which wasn’t much. Most of the apartments in the building were advertised as furnished, which was an overstatement. I had gotten a deal on mine because the previous dude took most of the furniture with him the night he disappeared. I had to supply my own, but the rent was lowered to make up for it.

Most of the living room furniture came from Freecycle.

The mattress had been new when I got it, at least. I’d splurged a bit on it when I moved in, deciding I could make up for its cost by eliminating the box spring and a frame, so it’s not actually a proper bed. It just sat on the floor of my bedroom next to a little nightstand made of cinderblocks and plywood.

Still, it was better than squatting in an abandoned building or living out of car. I tried to remind myself of that on a regular basis.

I walked over to the gym bag I had discarded by the door and pulled out my cigarettes. Clambering over dirty laundry on the bedroom floor, I hauled the window open and threw my leg over the sill. Right outside was a ledge of decent width, so I could make my way over to the fire escape.

On one side of the three-foot by six-foot platform was a miniscule woman of completely indeterminate age. If you just looked at her size, you’d think she was about twelve, but her eyes were a whole different story. They were deep and dark and gave the impression they’d seen a lot of deep and dark shit. If you judged her by her eyes, you’d think she was a hundred. If someone asked me to really guess, I’d probably say she was in her thirties, but that was still a guess. Her hair was a mess of spiky black tangles, and I kind of doubted she owned a hairbrush.

“What’s shaking, Krazy Katie?” I wasn’t expecting a response and didn’t get one as I dropped down on my ass next to her and lit my cigarette.

Krazy Katie lived in the apartment next to mine and had been in the neighborhood longer than the nine years I had been here. She didn’t really say much of anything, let alone talk about herself, so I didn’t really know much about her. The assumption was she was on disability for whatever the hell was wrong with her head, living here in the half of the apartments dedicated to Section 8 housing. She spent almost all her days and nights sitting on the fire escape and chain smoking.

Every once in a while, she’d start yelling predictions about the future at people on the street, and the police would get called. That always stirred shit up and had even been pretty damn entertaining more than once. Most people just ignored her, but I sometimes kind of liked talking to someone who almost never said anything back, and she didn’t seem to mind me sitting out here with her.

I never knew what she would be doing when I crawled out the window. Sometimes she’d make a lot of strange sounds. Sometimes she’d spend the afternoon pushing her finger into each and every hole in the fire escape grate, one-by-one. Sometimes she’d take off her clothes and just lie up there in her underwear until the landlord or police made her put her clothes back on. Sometimes she ditched the underwear, too.

Tonight she was stacking cigarette butts into a little pyramid of sorts. She had done this before, and at least her timing was a little better. When she did it during the day and a door in the building slammed shut, they would all tip over, and she’d go ballistic.

“Pretty,” Krazy Katie said. She took a long draw on her cigarette, which brought it all the way to the filter. I cringed a little at the smell, knowing what that tasted like, and shook my head.

“You saying I’m pretty?” I asked with a quiet chuckle. “I didn’t know you were into guys.”

She didn’t respond, and I didn’t try to get her to do so. I had been around her enough to know that random shit just came out of her mouth for no particular reason. I used to try to figure out what she was talking about, but I never got very far, so I didn’t try any more. She could have been talking about me, the stack of butts, or the crabgrass growing in the gutter, for all I knew.

I leaned back against the brick wall behind me, then hissed and pulled away. It was damn cold. I decided to sit up with my knees against my chest instead. I took a long draw on the smoke and watched the ash fall between the holes in the grate below me. Krazy Katie lit up another cigarette off a little butane lighter she kept shoved in the center of her bra and actually looked at me for a minute. As soon as I looked at her, she looked away. She never looked me in the eye.

I shivered a little, wondering if it would be warmer inside than it was outside. I concluded it was probably about the same. At least inside, there was a blanket on the bed and no wind. I sucked down my cigarette and started to climb back inside.

“Don’t stay out here all night, Krazy Katie,” I said on my way in. “And eat something, for Christ’s sake. I’m afraid you’ll fall right through the grate.”

She didn’t respond or even look at me.

Rubbing at my eyes, I clambered onto the queen-sized mattress and dropped onto my back. I sighed heavily and pulled the sheet and blanket up to my chest before I rolled over to my side. It was too cold to sleep comfortably but too warm to actually crank up the heat. I had already had the electricity turned off once when I couldn’t cover the bill. Now I tried to economize as much as possible on heat and lights.

Physically I was exhausted, but my mind wouldn’t turn off. Images of the girl in the street with her ridiculous purse-slash-Bag of Holding ran through my mind.

Tria.

She just didn’t seem to be the kind of person who would be living in this area, working at that nasty bar and grill, and having a bunch of guys ogle her for tips. And studying economics? Really? Who does that, other than the Northsiders and their high society business and bullshit majors? People didn’t study economics because it sounded interesting—they did that because Daddy told them that’s what they needed in order to take over as CEO.

“Just your yearly reminder that you don't have to live like this.”

“Fuck you, Michael,” I mumbled into my pillow. I told my mind to shut the fuck up as I brought the blanket up a little higher and dropped off to sleep.

*****

Still bleary-eyed, I laced up my running shoes and carefully locked my apartment behind me. I couldn’t help but glance at apartment 142 as I went by and realized I was kind of hoping to run into the new neighbor as I took off for my mid-morning run. It had been a week since we met in the street, but I hadn’t seen her again. Sometimes when I would get home, I’d see her lights on but never actually saw her.

I took off running across the street, checking for cars as I went. It was good weather for running, at least. It wasn’t as hot as it had been just a few weeks ago. I turned left and headed out of the neighborhood on my typical route.

My usual three-mile run took me out of the slums and into an industrial district. There were a lot of warehouses and factories that had shut down in the recession, but a few were still open. I knew at least a couple people in my building who sometimes got work in one of them, but the layoffs were frequent, and they’d be right back on welfare a few months later.

At least I wasn’t that bad off.

I had a good deal working for Dordy and Yolanda. I got paid a hundred a fight, win or lose. If I won, I got more. Fighting twice a week put me at just enough to live on and not much more. I could make rent on my crappy apartment, feed myself, and pay for the utilities. I usually had a little left over for smokes and weekly pizza delivery.

I did better than a lot of people I knew, and having any extra money was dangerous for someone like me.

Thinking about my own livelihood made me wonder just how Tria was doing. She had only been around a few weeks; she had told me the night I met her. I wondered how she was adjusting to school, work, and living in a shit neighborhood that was probably very unlike whatever she had at home.

There was a scrawny little tree surrounded by the only patch of real dirt for a mile in any direction. It was the spot that marked my halfway point. I circled wide and then at a slightly faster pace headed back in the direction of my building. Once I crossed the street, I checked my time and walked around the block to cool off before going back inside to down three large cups of water.

I looked over at my hand-me-down rowing machine in the corner of the living room and sighed. I didn’t work out much on fight nights. I’d run early in the day to loosen up but keep myself from doing too much right before a fight. Tonight was going to be a challenge night, too, which always took a lot out of me.

There wasn’t shit to watch on television, and I wondered why I even bothered to steal cable from Krazy Katie. Not that it was really stealing from her; we just kind of…shared it. I brought her smokes when she ran out, and she didn’t respond when I asked her if she minded if I strung another line through our windows. She let me in to do it, so I figured it was okay with her, at least.

Boredom set in, and I was starting to sweat just a little. I ran my hand over my face. My fingers were trembling, and I glanced down at the aging marks on my arm. Boredom was a dangerous mindset, and I had to get myself moving before temptation became more than just an itch in the back of my head. As long as I kept moving, I wouldn’t go searching.

I grabbed my gym bag and headed to the bar early. Dordy and a kitchen chick named Stacy were there, serving a single customer whose name I couldn’t remember, but he was a regular and always hammered. Phil? Peter? Some “P” name, I thought. It was still too early for the after-work crowd to start showing up yet, so he was on his own, muttering bullshit about the upcoming presidential election.

“Hey, Teague!” Dordy called out as I walked in. He rubbed at the inside of a pint glass with a towel. “You’re early.”

“Bored,” I announced. “Figured talking to you was better than talking to myself.”

“You ordering?”

“If you’ll spot me from tonight’s take.”

“No problem,” he said.

Dordy didn’t carry anyone on credit—no fucking way. He let me get by with it on the day of a fight, though, since he would see enough at the door to make it worth his while even if I didn’t show up and he had to jump in the cage himself. The day before a fight, I’d be shit out of luck, but fight days were okay with him.

“Scotch?” Dordy asked.

“Veggie Burger?” Stacy asked. The large, grandmotherly woman stocked them just for me.

“No scotch—just the burger and a beer. Thanks.” I sat down on one of the stools nearby while Dordy drew a Guinness from the tap. I hung out and had a couple drinks while people slowly began to trickle in. The early ones knew who I was and would come over to make small talk before the crowd arrived. A couple hours before the fight, Dordy’s bouncers, Gary and Wade, waltzed in. Gary was just freaking huge height-wise. He had long, grey whiskers hanging from his chin down to his collar and was shaved bald. Wade was a little older, also bald, and used to train for MMA. He wasn’t as physically intimidating, but he was definitely the more dangerous of the two. Gary couldn’t fight for shit, but he was big enough that he rarely ever had to do anything other than stand up straight to get a patron to behave.

“Takedown fights again!” Gary roared in greeting. I fist-bumped him, then went back to nursing my beer. A few minutes later, Wade cocked his head to one side to point at the door, and I followed him out for a smoke.

“Word on the street says you fucked up some guys on your way home the other night.”

“Oh, yeah?” I said, raising my brow as I lit up. “Who said that?”

“One of the guys you fucked up.”

I laughed and took a deep drag.

“He came in here last night saying Takedown Teague broke his nose,” Wade told me. “He thought that as his employer, Dordy ought to pay for it.”

“Oh, yeah?” I said again. “What did Dordy do?”

“Had me break one of his fingers.”

That had me nearly in tears.

“So what’s the deal?” Wade asked. He blew smoke out of his nose as he talked. “You don’t get enough fighting as it is?”

“They were fucking with some girl,” I told him.

“You in the business of saving damsels in distress now?” He snickered.

“That shit ain’t right,” I said. “They didn’t need to be messing with her.”

“Who is she?”

“Just some girl,” I said with a shrug. “I hadn’t seen her before that night. Turns out she lives in my building, though.”

“No shit?”

“Yeah. Remember the couple I was always bitching about? The ones who would fight and scream all the time?”

“Yep.”

“They’re gone, and she’s in the apartment below me now.”

“That ought to help you sleep better,” Wade replied.

“Amen to that shit,” I agreed. I thought about the dude whose nose I had broken. “I wonder why Dordy didn’t mention that.”

“Because he wants to hold it over your head later,” Gary said as he stepped out from behind the front door and joined us for a smoke. “Did you fuck her?”

“Who?”

“The bitch you saved.”

“No.” I scowled at him.

“Well, what’s the point, then?” Gary asked. He grinned a ridiculous grin and winked at me, but I didn’t find anything funny about his comment, and he caught on to that and tried to make a serious face. “Who is she?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “If you wanted the whole fucking story, why didn’t you come out sooner?”

“Dordy had me hauling beer from the delivery truck,” Gary replied. “Are you going to see this girl again?”

“I don’t know,” I said again. “What’s with the fucking twenty questions? It was some random chick who is obviously so fucking stupid, she would walk through this neighborhood at night by herself. I beat the shit out of a couple drunks and then walked her home. I don’t know her. She lives in my building and works at that greasy spoon place with the big screen TVs. That’s all I know, bitches.”

“Fin’s?” Wade asked.

“Whatever it is,” I said, knowing full well that was the name of the place.

“They got a new brunette waiting tables there,” he said.

“That might be her,” I said. “She said she moved into town a couple weeks ago.”

“Pretty little thing—hair in a ponytail?”

“Could be,” I shrugged. “Sounds like her.”

“I know who you mean,” Gary said. “Nice, pretty mouth, too. And with that ponytail? Mmm…”

I rolled my eyes.

“Just makes you want to wrap it around your wrist and go to town!” Gary put his hands in front of his crotch and moved them back and forth in front of him, as if he were bouncing a basketball on his dick. His hips moved suggestively.

Wade just shook his head.

“Don’t make me fuck you up,” I threatened. I tossed the butt of the cigarette beyond the ashtray on the sidewalk and into the gutter before turning around and walking back inside.

There wasn’t a scheduled opponent for me tonight, which meant it was a challenge night. Anyone in the bar was free to challenge me in the cage, and anyone who made it past five minutes without tapping out won a hundred bucks. On top of my normal hundred a fight, I received an extra ten bucks for each guy who didn’t last.

I was on number six, and he was the first of the night to make it past three minutes.

He swung and hit me in the gut as I danced away. I had landed several good blows on him, but the dude was fast and wiry. He landed one good one that knocked me down and slammed my head on the ground, and the fight hadn’t been completely in my favor since. I couldn’t seem to get a grip on him long enough to get him in a hold and choke him to unconsciousness. I was getting a little frustrated. It wasn’t often an amateur managed to last this long with me, and it pissed me off.

I decided to stop fucking around and just beat the guy.

We had spent the past two minutes smacking and just trying to get a hold of each other, and he seemed surprised when my tactics suddenly changed. I just dove at him, ignoring tactics and his fists as they came at my face. He tried to move back and away, but I shoved with my shoulder and pushed him up against the corner of the cage. I could still feel his hands punching at my shoulders, but it didn’t matter anymore—I had him where I wanted him.

Using my head, I slammed against his sternum. He cried out, stunned for a moment, and then gasped as my knee connected with his gut. I hit him with my forehead again—this time in the shoulder. It hurt like a bitch, and I would pay for it later, but it worked. Then I stomped on the top of his foot. His grip on me faltered, and I turned him around and slammed him against the cage.

Now that I had my arms around him, I wasn’t about to let go even as he pounded on my shoulders and back, trying to get away. I wrestled him to the floor of the cage and knocked his head against the ground a few times, then started throwing actual punches.

He tapped out a few seconds later, but it was enough to break five minutes.

I was annoyed to realize he had lasted so long, but he deserved it. Dordy was going to be pissed off, though. I hoped I would still get the fifty I earned from the last few fights. When he and I first worked out our business arrangement, he would take it out of my pay when one of the guys from the bar won.

Helping the guy back on his feet, I shook his hand and dusted him off a bit. Yolanda led him out of the cage door and announced I would be back on Tuesday to fight some guy from across town. My ears were ringing, and I could barely focus on the crowd as I headed to the locker room.

I rubbed at my head a bit. The last guy had gotten me pretty good a couple of times, and the face in the mirror was kind of a mess. I was cut above both of my eyes, one cheek, and my lip was busted open. Blood smeared my chest and my forearms.

“You okay?” Yolanda’s voice came from behind me. “You took a couple good smacks.”

“Ears ringing,” I mumbled. “Need some air.”

“Let me check you out first,” Yolanda insisted.

“Fuck you,” I growled as I headed for the back door. I felt her slip around me just before she popped up in front of me and shoved me backwards with both hands on my chest.

“I’m going to check you out,” she said through clenched teeth. “If and only if I decide you are okay will you go out for a smoke. Got it?”

Closing my eyes and huffing breath out my nose, I turned around and dropped down to the bench next to the lockers. If I was going to admit it to myself, I was a bit dizzy. Besides, I had a sneaking suspicion Yolanda could kick my ass if she wanted to.

“Fuck you!” I cringed and yelled as she shined a little penlight in my eyes.

“Stop being such a baby,” she said. She had gone back to acting all soft and mothering again, which was kind of funny for a chick who was always watching me move around naked. What was the opposite of an Oedipal complex? Electra? Nah, I had something backwards. Yolanda was more of a lioness. Or was it a cougar?

Maybe I did have a concussion.

I let her poke around at the back of my head, which was pretty tender but didn’t make me see spots or anything. Then she asked me a bunch of bullshit questions until I got pissy.

“Come on, Yolanda,” I whined. “I wanna smoke. I’m fine.”

The dizziness and ear-ringing were gone, and I did think I was okay. Yolanda either agreed or was tired of arguing with me because she let me up and watched me head out the door. I stomped up the stairs with my head throbbing in my temples, still ticked off that the guy lasted as long as he did. Overall, I was not in a good mood.

When I got to the top of the stairs, I immediately saw a figure leaning against the outside of the fence and looking back and forth down the street quickly. Each time the head turned, a long brown pony tail bobbed around, and strands of hair got caught in the chain links. If the short-shorts and Fin’s logo on the shirt weren’t enough to go on, the gigantic, evil handbag gave her away.

“What the fuck?” I snarled through the fence.

Tria startled and looked at me, turning quickly on her heel and holding up her keys clenched in her fist. I tilted my head to one side and raised an eyebrow at her. What was she going to do, wave them around at me from the other side of the fence?

“I’m pretty sure that was not meant to take the place of a ride,” I said, nodding toward the keys in her hand.

“You scared the shit out of me!” Tria yelled. She adjusted the mega-monster purse on her shoulder and ran her hand through her hair. “The girl who was driving me got another job. She just walked out today, and there wasn’t anyone else on my shift with a car.”

“So you’re walking down this street again?” I yelled. I slammed my palms into the chain links, making the whole side of metal rattle. She jumped away, stammering.

“I…I…”

I didn’t give her much chance to finish. I was livid.

“After what happened the last time? Seriously, Tria?” I paced over to the edge of the building and back to the fence again. My fingers wrapped around the links and yanked. “You do have a fucking death wish, don’t you?”

“I do not!”

“Then why are you being so stupid?” I screamed. I planted my feet right where they were, and my heart thumped audibly in my chest.

“I was trying to find you!” she yelled back.

“Well, why didn’t you come in the fucking bar?” I tossed my hands up into the air. “Is there not a big ass poster right there in your face saying exactly where I am on Friday nights?”

“I tried,” Tria said with a glare. “The bouncer wouldn’t let me in.”

“Why not?”

“I’m only twenty,” she said with a shrug.

There was something about that news that flipped a switch in my head. I knew she looked young, but I didn’t realize how young. The idea that she was out here on her own, trying to make a go in this place without even being old enough to get into a bar killed my anger and made me feel something a little odd as well. Respect? Maybe even pride?

Whatever it was, it also hardened my dick.

“Jesus Christ,” I muttered. I turned away from her and ran my hand through my hair, trying to get my dick under control before it made itself known through my shorts. I cringed as my fingers came across the tender spot on the back of my skull. At least the sharp pain killed my erection.

“You’re hurt,” Tria stated. I didn’t look up, but I could hear her hands grasping the links of the fence.

“All part of the job,” I responded. Turning around to look at her again, I could see concern in her eyes. I remembered what my face had looked like in the mirror, and I knew what she was seeing appeared a little crazy. I looked worse than I really was.

“Why?” I heard myself ask as I moved back to the fence that separated us. “Why did you come looking for me?”

She looked away, her neck craning to the side a little as she looked down the street.

“I was hoping…maybe…maybe you could walk me home?” Her voice quavered as she looked back at me. Our eyes met through the links, and my knuckles tightened around the little metal bits between my fingers.

I swallowed once, trying to understand why my heart was still pounding so forcefully in my chest. My appearance right now was probably as frightening as anyone on the street, but she was still asking me for help, just like I had told her to do the week before.

I moved my eyes somewhat involuntarily over her form—slender, young, beautiful, and in need. I ran my tongue over my lips, tasting blood, as these thoughts echoed through my head. My chest rose as I inhaled slowly.

She just looked far too tempting.

Another set of words that described her ran through my head: easy target.

I didn’t like those words so much, not just for me, but for anyone around here. She had no fucking idea what she was doing or how to live in the city—that much was obvious. If she did, she would have told Wade or Gary at the door that she was twenty-one and just forgot her ID. They would have let her in. She also could have pushed her boobs up a bit, and they would have forgotten to ask altogether. Worst case, she could have said she knew me, and they would have allowed her in, too.

And here she was again, hanging out in the back street behind the bar not fifty feet from where a group of guys had been waiting to ambush her a week ago. Granted, she had learned—she was on alert and holding her keys right—but still, her precautions wouldn’t have done much if someone decided they really wanted a piece of her.

And yeah—guys definitely wanted a piece of that.

“Liam?” she said quietly. I focused on the movement of her lips, and images similar to the one Gary had conjured up with his bobbing hands and thrusting hips came to mind. “Would you?”

“Would I what?” I responded.

“Walk me home?” Her voice was small and scared, and it brought out something primal inside my gut.

“Yeah,” I said with a quick nod. “I can do that.”

I was never the outdoorsy type, but I started walking her home every night after that.





Chapter 4 - Find the Step


I walked slowly back and forth in front of Fin’s Bar and Grill and watched people smelling like grease walk out of the place. Just the smell of greasy food made me feel a little sick—there was no way I’d ever actually eat in such a place. I couldn’t even bring myself to walk through the front door.

Tria bustled out just as I finished my cigarette. She was trying to walk and find something in Godzilla’s Clutch Purse at the same time, which made her trip on the step as she was coming out the door. I tried to keep from laughing out loud.

“One of these days,” I told her, “you are going to stick your hand in there, and it will get lost in all that shit. You’ll never find it again.”

Tria sighed and tilted her head at me. She pulled her hand out and held up a little tube of lipstick or ChapStick or gloss or something—maybe all three—like it was some kind of trophy. She put it on with exaggerated flair before dropping it back into the bag.

“You just don’t understand,” she said.

“I hope I never do,” I admitted.

“Wow...who would have thought?” she said under her breath. Her eyes darted over me.

“Thought what?” I asked, looking down to see if I had pizza sauce or something on me.

Tria's cheeks tinged with red.

“That you owned a shirt,” she said with a small smile as she looked me over again. “Well, most of one, anyway. I've never seen you in one before.”

“Heh...I guess not.” I reached up and fiddled with the collar of my plain, black T-shirt with the sleeves sliced out of it, leaving it mostly open down the sides. I never thought much about what I was wearing. Most of my clothing came from secondhand stores.

We fell in step together, moving without a lot of rush down the sidewalk and across the street. It was Wednesday, and I wasn’t working, but Tria had gotten off late again. She was supposed to get off before the place closed, which was one in the morning, but she always seemed to get stuck doing something else until closing time. It was only a twenty-minute walk, but she’d be so late, we usually wouldn’t get back to the apartments until two thirty in the morning. This night wouldn’t be any earlier.

I had given her a bunch shit about hanging out for so long behind Feet First the week before. It wasn’t much safer than the street. Apparently, she thought she would be “close enough” to me that it would be okay, which set me off pretty bad. I took her around front and introduced her to Wade and made her promise to come inside when I was working on Friday.

“So who made ‘patron of the evening’ tonight?” I asked.

“This guy with a big green Mohawk,” she said immediately. “He’s a vegetarian and wanted me to get the chef to make something special for him since there wasn’t anything vegetarian on the menu outside of fries and onion rings. It’s a bar, dammit—not a four star restaurant! We don’t serve pasta primavera! We don’t even have spaghetti!”

“I’m a vegetarian,” I said with a sideways glance at her.

“You are not,” she said with a roll of her eyes.

“I most certainly am.”

Tria looked over at me, trying to determine if I was making this up or not.

“Really?”

“Really,” I replied. “Since I was about seventeen.”

“How old are you now?”

“Twenty-six.”

Her lip disappeared behind her teeth for a minute.

“So why did you become a vegetarian?” she asked.

“Nope,” I said. “You grilled me about cage fighting last time. It’s my turn to annoy you with questions.”

“Ugh!” Tria groaned, and I laughed.

“Why did you decide to move here?” I asked. I shoved the tips of my fingers into the front pockets of my jeans and kicked a chunk of cement into the center of the road with the toe of my tennis shoe.

“I told you—I’m going to school.”

“Yeah, but why here?” I asked.

“Hoffman College gave me the best deal,” she said with a shrug. “Aside from the financial aid and scholarship, they have a service that will come and pick me up to get to classes.”

“You’re going to Hoffman?” I tried not to sound too shocked.

“Yes,” she affirmed. “Why?”

“You just hadn’t mentioned it before,” I replied nonchalantly as images of the tall brick buildings filled my head. I remembered the ladies in the alumni center who would always give me candy when I accompanied my mom on one of her visits. “It’s a pretty small school.”

“That’s one of the things I liked about it,” Tria said. “It’s actually family-owned and gives more money in scholarships than other programs. The econ department is really well known as well.”

There would be no argument there—Hoffman College was quite well known for a few of their programs. I hadn’t really heard about the economics department before, but I also didn’t pay much attention to that shit when I was a kid.

We continued along the sidewalk past the back side of Feet First and around the corner toward our street. When I looked up, there were two guys heading toward us, and I heard Tria let out a long breath. Glancing over at her, I could see the muscles in her arm tense as her fingers gripped the strap of her bag, and she moved a half step closer to me.

I was pissed that they had scared her even though I knew they were only walking at this point. I looked ahead, trying to determine if I had ever seen them before, but they didn’t look familiar. They certainly weren’t part of the group that went after her a couple of weeks ago—I was sure of that.

With a quick side step, I moved behind Tria to stand on the other side of her so the two guys would pass us beside me, not her. They didn’t even stop their conversation as they walked by, but Tria relaxed immediately after they passed.

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

“No worries,” I replied. She was still gripping her purse tightly. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Just remembering.”

“Well, don’t,” I suggested. Tilting my head to look over at her, I offered her a goofy half smile. She returned one of her own, so the desired effect was attained.

“Thank you,” she said again. “I mean, for the other night. I don’t think I ever really properly thanked you.”

“You were kinda in shock,” I reminded her. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” she told me. “You didn’t have to go after those guys and risk yourself for—”

I interrupted her with a sharp laugh.

“Risk myself? With those douchebags? Hardly.”

“Still,” she continued, “you got into a fight for someone you didn’t even know.”

“I like fighting,” I told her. “I like to beat people up. It’s what I do for a living, you might recall.”

“I remember.” She sighed and her nose wrinkled up a bit. “The point is still the same—thank you for rescuing me.”

“I was in the neighborhood.” I shrugged and offered her another half smile. She looked back down at her feet and shook her head a little before looking back at me. Her large brown eyes darted back and forth between mine.

“And for doing all of this,” she said with a wave of her arm. “You don’t have to do this—walk me home every night, especially when I get off so late. I wasn’t expecting you to do this, but I’m not even sure if Stan is going to hire another server at this point, and—”

“Tria, don’t worry about it,” I told her. “I only work two nights a week, and I stay up late every night. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be sitting in front of the TV, trying to figure out why people watch the shit that is on there.”

Tria snickered.

“You’re still going out of your way,” she said, looking up at me again. “And in the middle of the night, no less. I appreciate it.”

I just shrugged again, not yet willing to admit to myself, let alone her, that this little walk of ours was quickly becoming the highlight of my nights. I was kind of disappointed she didn’t have to work the next day.

“Why did you pick this area to live in?” I asked.

“Fin’s offered me the job,” she said. “School isn’t too far away to use their transportation service, and I needed the work. I didn’t have much experience when I filled out job applications, and no one else even called me back for an interview. Everyone seems to be looking for a job, and there don’t seem to be enough to go around.”

“Can’t argue with that,” I said. “I keep hearing that the economy sucks, and whatever politician you are talking to, it’s the other one’s fault. I assume you are going to fix that after you graduate, right?”

“I’ll be happy if I can at least makes some sense out of it all,” she responded.

We made it to the apartment entrance, and I glanced up to see Krazy Katie lying on her back on the fire escape. She had her legs straight up in the air and was doing a bicycle peddling exercise or something.

At least she had her clothes on.

“You’ll never get anywhere on that bike!” I called up to her but didn’t get a response. I laughed quietly as I jerked the door open and let Tria go in first.

“Who is that?” she asked.

“Krazy Katie,” I replied. “She’s the resident psycho. Every apartment building needs one.”

“What is she doing?”

“Who knows?” I laughed. “She’s a nut. Harmless enough, but still a nut.”

Tria slid her key into the lock and opened her apartment door. She turned back to me then, and I became increasingly aware of how close we were standing, even though we weren’t actually touching. That made me realize I had only actually touched her twice—once when I yanked her back against me and away from a thug and then later that night when I showed her how to hold her keys.

Her eyes were on mine, but I couldn’t understand her expression. It seemed to be a combination of apprehension and wonder, but that didn’t make any sense. Mostly I noticed the shimmer of the lip shit she had put on earlier, which was emphasized as her tongue darted out over her lips.

My hands began to feel a little clammy, and I didn’t know where to put them. I considered leaning against the frame of the door, but it didn’t feel right, so I ended up shoving the tips of my fingers back into my pockets again.

I swallowed, trying not to focus on either her mouth or the area where the pale skin above her breasts was exposed. I pulled more oxygen into my lungs and realized I experience a similar feeling right before a fight starts—anticipation, excitement, and something else deeper and unnamable.

“Thanks for walking me home,” Tria said softly. Her eyes didn’t leave mine, and I wondered if her cheek felt as soft as it looked.

“You’re welcome,” I replied simply.

“Good night,” she said. Her face flushed, and she used her tongue once more to stroke her lips.

“Night.”

She turned slowly and moved across the line of the apartment door, and whatever had been going on in my head abruptly stopped when her eyes moved from mine.

I didn’t sleep well that night. In my head, I blamed the cold and figured I would have to turn the heat on by the end of the week.

I was never one to face my emotions, but I knew I was already in deep.





Chapter 5—Question the Motive


“Just let her in, and don’t fuck around.”

“Hey—it’s not my fault!” Gary tossed his hands in the air. “I didn’t know who she was, and she pulled out an ID that said she was underage! Shit, dude…”

“You’d seen her before, asshole,” I growled. “You knew who she was.”

“What, ‘cause she brought him a basket of onion rings once?” Wade grinned. “Dude, I never saw any higher than her tits when you brought her over here.”

I took a step forward, about ready to beat the shit out of him. Two minutes after he walked in the cage, I’d already pounded the fucker who came all the way across town to challenge me. I had plenty of energy left and balled my hands into fists as I moved toward the bouncer.

“Easy, Teague,” Wade said. He held his hands out in front of him, surrendering. “I’m just messing with ya. I’ll point you out to her as soon as she shows up.”

“You do that.” I snarled.

I was in a shitty mood; there was no doubt about that, but I couldn’t pinpoint a cause. I won the fight without a lot of trouble and barely a bruise, so that wasn’t it. Yolanda was getting on my nerves, but I also knew she wasn’t doing anything she didn’t normally do. Her usual banter was just pissing me off.

If I were going to admit it, I would have had to say I had been feeling tense since I dropped Tria off two nights ago. It started the very next day after a shitty night of sleep. I went for my usual morning run and found myself walking a little slower past her apartment both before and after my run, kind of hoping she would suddenly walk out, but she didn’t. I also started taking smoke breaks just outside the building instead of on the fire escape with Krazy Katie just in case Tria came out the door or maybe back home from a class or something.

That didn’t happen either.

I had no fucking idea why I was even doing these things. Normally, if I wanted a girl’s attention, I just did a little flexing, let her feel my abs, and then asked her to come back to my place to fuck, but that just didn’t work in this situation. For one, my place was just too damn close to hers and asking her to come upstairs with me seemed weird. Besides, Tria was a small-town girl, and she didn’t seem like the “just fucking” type. I didn’t do relationships—never, ever again—so there was only one thing I was interested in, and I was always honest about that.

I definitely needed to get laid.

This brought me to the next conundrum—if I did do the casual sex thing with Tria and it didn’t work out, she’d still be right there in the building, and she would still need someone to walk her home. The idea of her walking by herself brought out a seriously pissy side of me that wouldn’t have anything to do with the very thought of it. If I did something to piss her off, who was going to get her home safely? Not that fucker who employed her, that was for sure. He hadn’t even managed to post the position for a new server during her shift yet.

I dropped my ass onto a bar stool and accepted a beer from some random fighting fan. He was going on about the details of the fight while the chick he was with eye fucked me under the pretense of checking out my tats. I alternated between watching the door and watching the time, knowing Tria was due soon. She finally appeared at the door. According to my internal clock, it was hours. The actual clock on the wall said it had been only ten minutes. I jumped up without excusing myself and moved through the crowd to meet her.

“It’s about time!” I growled.

“I just got off work,” she explained. She shoved her hand into the Titan’s Knapsack and pulled out a bottle of hand sanitizer and rubbed a bit around on her palms.

“I’m going to have to come and meet you there,” I grumbled. “You probably shouldn’t be walking to this place on your own, either.”

“It’s a block away, and there are people all over the street out front,” Tria pointed out. “The streetlights all work out there, too. I was fine.”

“This time.”

“You said you were obligated to hang out here until two,” she reminded me.

“I am. I could still sneak out for a few minutes—take a smoke break and a walk. No big deal.”

“No,” Tria said. She shook her head as she crammed the bottle back into her bag. “I never seem to get out of there on time, and you already do enough. I don’t want you getting in trouble for me.”

“Whatever,” I grumbled. “There’s a half hour left before I get paid and can get out of here. You want a drink?”

“I’m not twenty-one,” she reminded me.

“You must be,” I said with a smile. “Otherwise you couldn’t get in here.”

Tria rolled her eyes and followed me as I moved back through the crowd, which was starting to thin out a bit. We made our way to the edge of the bar where I liked to hang out after fights. It was a good combination of a place where people could see me and come up to talk but also a little bit sheltered so people didn’t get too crazy on me. It didn’t happen often, but every once in a while, I’d get a nutty fan or a fighter who wasn’t happy about losing, and they’d make a scene.

I stopped and turned back around to face her and saw her eyes on the cage. I stood up a little straighter as she looked it over, and an odd sense of pride came over me along with a touch of apprehension. I didn’t have a clear sense of what she thought about cage fighting, and she wouldn’t be the first chick I had known who hated the whole idea of it.

“Pretty cool, huh?” I gave her a half smile and raised my eyebrows at her. My heart was pounding, and I felt a slight chill against the naked skin of my chest.

“That’s where you fight?” Tria asked and she stared wide-eyed into the enclosed space.

“Yeah, it is,” I replied. Something about her tone seemed off, and I took a slight step away from her. I leaned on a nearby barstool and watched her, feeling a little wary all of a sudden. “What do you think?”

“I thought it would be…bigger,” she said. “There isn’t even any room for you to move in there.”

“There’s plenty of room,” I told her. “I can move around pretty easily in tight places.”

The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.

“Nice.” Yolanda piped up before I could try to take back the words. She walked out from around the edge of the cage and came over to us. “Liam’s finally admitting size matters, huh?”

I glared at her.

“Not something I’ve ever worried about too much,” I replied coldly. My earlier annoyance with her returned, and I cocked my head to one side as I looked up at her with a “what the fuck do you want” expression.

Yolanda wasn’t fazed. She looked from me to Tria and back again.

“Is this her?” she asked. “The girl whose virtue you saved?”

Tria looked away for a minute, and I couldn’t see her face. I found myself taking a step forward—angling myself between Tria and Yolanda. I surveyed the whole room, taking my first really good look at the place since the first day I walked into it. The lights were dim, which only barely masked how shabby everything was inside. The barstools were frayed, and the felt on the single pool table was almost completely worn out. The people who frequented Feet First looked like people who came to drown their sorrows because that’s who they were. They were as shabby as the interior of the bar, and most of them were way beyond casually drunk.

“This is Tria,” I said. My voice was monotone, and I narrowed my eyes at Yolanda as I spoke. I didn’t like the way she was sizing up Tria as if she were a target.

Tria was a small-town girl trying to get herself an education and somehow make the world better. I didn’t think she had much more of a chance of achieving that shit than a lightweight did against me, but I couldn’t help but admire her spirit for trying. Yolanda was a whole other story.

“Hi, Tria,” Yolanda said. She didn’t take her eyes off me, though. Her expression matched mine, and she even went as far as to raise an eyebrow at me.

I mouthed “fuck you” at her, but she ignored me and turned to Tria.

“I’m Yolanda. Welcome to Feet First, but you are a little late to see my man in action here.”

“I was…um…working earlier,” Tria said, stumbling over her words a bit. “I just got off.”

Yolanda snickered and reached out to run her hand over my chest.

“Wouldn’t be the first time that happened to a woman around Takedown.” Yolanda smirked. She looked back at me and put a hand on her hip. “I put your winnings in your bag and locked it in your locker. I’m outta here. See you tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” I said with a curt nod.

Yolanda sauntered through the crowd and out the front door, and I looked back at Tria, wondering what she was thinking. The look on her face told me nothing, but her words made it clear.

“So that’s your girlfriend,” Tria said matter-of-factly. “She’s really pretty.”

“She’s not,” I said.

“Are you kidding? She’s beautiful.”

“She’s not my girlfriend.” I clarified. “Yolanda’s a fighter, like me. Well, she was before she fucked up her knee. We still work out together on the weekends.”

“I see.” Tria didn’t sound convinced.

“She’s been in the cage a lot longer than me,” I said. I didn’t know why it was important to me that she understand there wasn’t anything between Yolanda and me. “She helps me train. That’s it.”

Tria just nodded and glanced around the bar again. She hadn’t touched the bottle of beer sitting next to her.

“So, why ‘Takedown’?” she asked as she looked back in my direction.

I laughed.

“Um, well,” I started, “it’s not much of a story, really.”

Tria looked at me expectantly.

“Okay, when I first started fighting here, Yolanda told me I needed a catchy nickname of some sort. We toyed around with a few and figured “takedown” fit well with my name and sounded pretty tough.” I stopped and looked around, wondering if this was something I really ought to be advertising to the world, but most of the world had already departed—either in mind or body. “There’s a lot of theatrics about it, ya know? People remember catchy names.”

It all sounded kind of dumb when I explained it.

Tria blinked a couple of times.

“So, I started going by Liam ‘Takedown’ Teague.”

“You were right,” Tria said.

“About what?” I asked, confused.

“That isn’t much of a story.”

We both laughed.

Most of the crowd was pretty much gone, so I said goodbye to Dordy, grabbed my gym bag, verified the cash inside was right, and then we headed off down the backstreets and toward home. Tria seemed quiet and thoughtful, which kind of drove me crazy because I had no idea what she was thinking.

“So, what’s your impression of Feet First?” I asked.

“It’s…interesting,” she said noncommittally.

“That’s it? Just interesting?” I pressed for a better answer. “What kinds of places do you usually hang out at?”

“I haven’t spent a lot of time in bars, really,” Tria admitted. “I don’t have much to compare it to.”

“I thought every small town had at least one bar,” I said. “Did yours skip that little facet of entertainment? Had to be a really small town.”

Tria laughed quietly.

“I grew up in a trailer park outside of town,” she told me.

“So, like those little rows of houses all shoved up next to each other?”

“Not exactly,” she said quietly. “Everyone lives in those mobile homes, and it’s really more like a campground.”

“Bet you had a great view of the neighbors.” I grinned when she scowled at me. When she didn’t answer, I tried another tactic. “What did your parents think of you moving all the way from Maine to here?”

“Well…um…my parents split up when I was a baby,” she said. “I’ve only seen my mom a couple of times since then. Dad died when I was six.”

“Oh, shit…sorry.” I suddenly felt like an absolute ass.

“It’s okay,” she replied quietly. “It was a long time ago. Mom’s kind of a basket case, so I was raised by my dad’s friends.”

It seemed like she was going to say something else, but she didn’t. I considered pressing, but her mood had darkened a little. I decided to lighten it up.

“What’s your favorite color?”

“My favorite color?” she repeated. “What kind of question is that?”

“A normal one,” I said. “Well?”

“Yellow, I suppose,” she said. Her cheeks tinged with pink, and I wondered what about the color yellow would make her blush.

“Why yellow?” I urged her to answer.

“It’s bright, like the sun in the summer,” she said quickly. “Yellow is warm and inviting. The sun makes the trees grow tall. It’s so hazy here all the time, and there aren’t any trees. I haven’t seen a single tree in this neighborhood though there are a few planted on campus.”

“There’s one,” I said. “It’s a few blocks away.”

“A tree?”

“Yep.”

“Where?”

“It’s about a mile and a half down, actually,” I told her. “It’s in an area that used to have a park in it when all the factories were still in business. I think it was set up for people to go eat their lunch or something. I go past it every day.”

“Every day?” she repeated.

“Yes, every day,” I mocked. She glared at me. Her expression made me grin—she was such a tiny thing but definitely had a temper to her as well. Even though I was still aware of the shitty closed-up storefronts, broken glass, and vulgar smells around us, everything else seemed to fade into the background as I talked with her. “I run in the mornings.”

“Do you work out every day, too?”

“Uh-uh,” I said as I shook my head from side to side and tapped my chest with my thumb. “I’m performing the interrogation here.”

I eyed her as I pulled a cigarette out of the pack in my pocket and lit it.

“You got a boyfriend back home?”

“No,” she said bluntly.

“Oh.” I didn’t really know what to say about that. She didn’t offer anything else, and again I got the idea I should find another subject. “Favorite flower?”

“Seriously?”

“Just tell me!” I snapped.

“I don’t know…um…orchids, I guess.” She reached up and pulled the band out of her hair, which then fell around her shoulders. “They’re so complicated. You can look at t