Authors: Kathryn Thomas
Footwork, Rosie. It’s all about footwork.
Her first few steps didn’t make a sound. One hand on the banister for balance, her other hovering right next to the wall, she inched her way down the staircase she’d descended thousands of times without thinking. This time, every ounce of pressure her shoes put on those ancient wooden steps might be the difference between being heard and slipping away unknown. Good thing she was so skinny. If she’d plumped for Big Macs instead of salads these past few months, maybe the game would be up by now.
She saw the front door. The double glazed, white plastic door her mom had chosen shortly before she’d….
Mom made this house liveable. Mike just lived here. And pretty soon, he’d be living here alone. I’ll see to that
“If he’s been scouting the back, I’m gonna check upstairs.”
Oh God. Mike is coming this way.
Rose thought about dashing for the front door but he sounded too close. He was
He’d catch her, do God knew what to her.
No, no. I need another way out and quick!
The same window Mike was coming up to check. She turned and raced up two steps at a time. In her over-eagerness to get there, she lost her footing, slipped on the penultimate step and smacked her knee.
That hurt, but not as much as being caught by Mike.
His heavy-but-rapid steps sounded one or two stairs behind. “I catch you, you’re fucking dead!”
Rose used her sister’s bed as a trampoline and hurled herself at the open window. She scrabbled through, clinging to the frame for dear life. Her jacket tore at the shoulder. Mike grabbed for her leg, but she kicked him in the jaw and slid all the way through the window. Before he could climb on the bed, she let go of the window frame and, with an agile part-swing, part-shimmy, transferred her weight to the drainpipe. From there it was a case of climbing down to the shed roof, something she’d done more times than she could count.
“You little bitch!”
She knew he wouldn’t follow her, that he was making his way back downstairs so he could get her outside the back door.
Not today, you sonofabitch!
She landed on the shed and climbed down the opposite side, using the window ledge as a step. By the time Mike started chasing her down the yard, she was already at the hole in the mesh fence he hadn’t bothered to fix in going on nine years.
She flipped him off, then sprinted away across the overgrown field where she and Cate had spent approximately half their childhoods in hiding. No way would he catch her now. No way would he ever have that power over her again. Not now that she had the means to get tough, rough, and more importantly, even.
Your turn’s coming, Mike, you piece of shit.
But then her thoughts turned to Cate and what he would do to her in the meantime.
Rose spent the rest of the day worrying about her sister. It was a jam all right. Cate could
she hadn’t known there was anyone else in the house, that Rose had to have been the mystery intruder, and that she’d climbed up the drainpipe because she was scared of asking Mike for something she’d left behind. Yes, she could try that angle, but would it work? Was it more likely than the two of them sneaking a meeting behind his back, while he was out, and playing him for a fool?
She texted Cate half a dozen times without reply. She even considered calling the cops, but the last two times she and Cate had done that,
gotten a warning from the boys in blue, for wasting precious police time. No marks, no bruises, no can do. Sure, there’d been no bruises
times, only death threats, which were kinda hard to prove anyway, but no less real for two young girls who knew—and had experience of—the bastard’s temper. Unless she had incontrovertible evidence of Mike assaulting Cate, Rose knew it was useless to stick her oar in. Mike would just counter-charge her with trespassing or some shit, and Cate really would face the music later, maybe in insidious, non-physical ways.
She went to Mitre’s library instead. The computers there were free for members to use for up to one hour, and they had pretty good printers. She linked her phone to the PC and downloaded the photos she’d taken of Mike’s black book, over 70 pictures in all. Then she resized them, one by one, and adjusted the brightness and contrast to make sure the writing was readable. Print. Seventy pages. At ten cents a sheet it stung a little, but she now had something to go on, the secret connections of one of Mitre’s shadiest citizens. Somewhere in those pages there
to be a name or an address that would lead her to the fight-fixers. Not just Mitre; most of the surrounding towns were mentioned in there, plus Sacramento and Los Angeles.
Just who the hell is Mike Hague? Who is he working for?
Sorry I didn’t reply Rosie. I’ve not had chance till now. He took me out with his boss’s son to Pizza Hut. I think M’s trying to hook me up with him. Don’t know why—the kid’s vile! I’m okay so far. M thinks you climbed up while we were in the kitchen. Or so he says. Are u okay? Luv. Cate. Xxx
I’m good thx! Got away from that dumb ape no problem. He’s sick 4 hooking u up like that. Who does he think he is? Glad ur ok tho. If he tries anything let me know right away & I’ll bring back-up. Pro-fighters don’t mess around. Rosie.
She included that last part as reassurance, but, in truth, she wasn’t sure if Avery and Luca would even
to get involved. It wasn’t their fight, and anyway they’d probably dial 911 before taking on a guy with Mike’s connections. Not only that, she
didn’t want them tackling Mike for her. That was her fight. It was something
had to do. When the time was right, the bastard wouldn’t know what had hit him. He’d only know who had hit him, and that would be her victory.
“Guys, this is our new assistant. Her name’s Rose, and she’ll be taking over for her brother on a permanent basis. If you’re thinking she won’t be able to keep up with you, think again. Avery says she’s one of the best runners in Mitre. So let’s get her involved. She’s my number two, so go to her if you’ve got any queries. We’ve taken our foot off the gas a little recently, so we could use a bit more of that old can-do attitude around here. And before anyone starts second-guessing the newcomer, you should know that Rose is currently helping us with the match-fixing investigation. As soon as we know anything, you’ll know. That’s all. Back to work.”
Luca jumped down from the ring and left the building immediately.
He’s put her in charge right away. Given her a head start.
Not that Rose needed it. She looked really good, maybe too good, in her black yoga pants, close-fitting blue polo shirt, and black headscarf, pretty much the farthest apparel from Ross’s dorky, baggy pants and shirt. Rose meant business, and this time she actually looked as if she belonged in a gym.
“Can you do me a favor? Set up the speed ball for Marlon?” she asked Avery. “I didn’t see him touch it once last week.”
“Really? It’s on his daily program. You sure?”
“Pretty sure,” she replied. “I think he’s more worried about his strength. He lifts weights and pounds the heavy bags all day, but he’s neglecting his speed exercises. You might want to have a word with him.”
The corner of his mouth twitched a smile. “I will. Anything else I should know?”
“I’ll let you know if I see anything.” She flicked him a wink, and as she walked away to the office, Avery watched her closely for signs that she was faking this newfound confidence. None. None whatsoever. It was spooky—in a good way. She looked so professional (and hot) and sounded so mature, it was hard to believe this was the same girl who’d skulked around the gym like Billy-No-Mates a week ago.
And he suddenly wasn’t sure how
felt about her working here. He wanted to train her, yes, but a part of him didn’t want to share her with these macho ego-jocks who probably couldn’t see past her tight body and perfect ass. They hadn’t seen her run a marathon plus change, battling a headwind and a storm, and they hadn’t seen it bring the best out in her afterwards, in the roadside ditch, when she’d looked and felt her worst. Unlike the flower she was named after, Rose Jacqueline bloomed in adversity. And in Avery’s experience, that was a rare quality.
Only one other girl he’d known had been like that. But he wasn’t sure if Maggie would have gotten along with Rose. Maggie had always been jealous of any girl he took an interest in, and he couldn’t deny it, the new girl more than interested him.
She was something else.
“We’ll start your training tomorrow morning, if that’s okay,” he suggested during their lunch break. Luca had just returned from shopping. He’d bought them each a six-inch sub. Avery’s was a melt with extra cheese, lettuce, and Southwest sauce. Rose had tuna with cheese and
the veggies. They shared a large packet of Doritos.
“What time?” she asked.
“Six thirty. On the dot, this time, or you’ll be doing star jumps for five hours on the roof.”
She snapped off a surly salute right in his face. Her comic timing was so good he almost coughed up his mouthful of chips.
“What if I don’t got what it takes?” she said. “I’ve never thrown a punch worth a damn in my life. I mean I’ve
plenty of punches, but they’ve never done any damage.”
“We’ll work on that,” he told her. “First you need to know
to throw a punch. The power part you can work on later. You’re too scrawny to hurt anyone now, but I’ll give you a diet and fitness program that’ll fill you out a little, pack on just enough muscle to do some damage. But not too much. I mean, you’ll still be turning heads the right way when we’re done.”
She watched him while she crunched on her Doritos. Then, nonchalantly, without looking at him, she said, “You think I turn heads?”
Avery looked at her askance, reacting to the charged atmosphere in the office. It had been there all along, he knew, a kind of bristly undercurrent between them, but now it was electric. He could almost taste the attraction.
“You turned mine when you came in,” he replied.
“And every other guy’s in here,” he recovered, not wanting to complicate their coaching relationship before it began. This was an uncertain time for Rose and for Wright Hook’s, and especially for Luca. He’d seen the potential in her that first day; he’d taken a big risk in keeping her on as his assistant with a different identity; it would feel like betraying his trust if Avery were to take this attraction any further.
Far better to keep things simple,
“Then the new me must be working,” she replied, a little deflated. “At least they’re not seeing the dork anymore.”
“No. No, they’re not.”
“What about you?”
She was fishing for compliments, seemed determined to get him to admit how he felt about her.
Not a good idea.
“You mean what am I seeing?”
“Uh-huh.” She held her coffee cup half an inch from her lips.
“A girl who means business.” The most neutral reply he could think of. She didn’t react, just sipped her coffee, her gaze never leaving him. It made him uncomfortable because he knew she was reading him correctly. Damn it, he
want her. The yoga pants and headscarf were major turn-ons; together with her cute little body and sharply attractive face, she was potential dynamite if he didn’t bury the idea here and now.
A crash from the ring, followed by angry shouts, caused everyone in the gym to stop what they were doing. “And that’s my cue,” he said. “Sandbox duty.”
“It’s what it feels like here half the time; these kids just don’t play nice.”
“Can I help?”
“You can watch…this time. Who knows, maybe they won’t spit their dummies out with you watching?”
But they did, and Avery wound up sending Rick McGill to the locker room to cool off. His sparring session with Gino Rossi had gotten heated when Rick had remarked on the shape of Gino’s sister’s ass, a typical enough taunt under ordinary circumstances, but Gino’s sister had recently been assaulted in Green Acre Park on her way home from school, a fact Rick hadn’t been unaware of. Once they’d patched things up, the two fighters put on an impressive boxing display.
Avery saw how closely Rose was watching their every move, even nodding her approval at some of the hit combos. He reckoned she was going to be a quick study. She’d read up on a few of the major MMA disciplines—Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, kickboxing, karate, professional wrestling—and if she was as receptive to his coaching as she was to his sexual longing, this promised to be an interesting relationship.
This relationship was never going to work, she knew, unless Mr. Wright-Hook-But-Two-Left-Feet came clean about how he felt about her. The more he kept her wondering, the more frustrated she’d get, and the more she’d rebel against his coaching. People who patronized her
brought the worst out in her; half her teachers in school had learned that the hard way. And sooner or later, if he didn’t admit that he wanted to sleep with her—even if it was to tell her why it wasn’t a good idea—she’d have to ask him outright. Sure, it would be a cringer, but these games he was paying, pretending there was nothing going on between them one minute, kinda flirting the next, then stonewalling her altogether…it would drive her nuts long before she learned how to slap a choke hold on someone.
But the good news: his man-management skills were amazing. The way he’d resolved the argument between Gino and Rick was something the cops could learn from. He’d spoken their language, laced it with as many
as was required, and he’d never talked down to them, not even when they’d spat their respective dummies out. Then he’d tailored his talk to each of them individually, pushing the right buttons to get them to see sense, the way a director might coax his actors to elicit the mood he wanted in a scene. So the guy had patience. He had tact. And the people who knew him liked him. They were willing to see things his way. Luca was an instantly likeable guy, but Avery’s charms took a little digging to find. He had to trust you before he’d let you into his sandbox.
She returned to the office and logged into the computer, brought up the itinerary for Marlon Washington’s upcoming trip to Reno, Nevada. His application to take part in the UFC tournament there had been accepted, and it was the first professional event scheduled for a Wright Hook’s fighter since Gunny’s disgrace. Luca and Avery were nervous about it—especially with the long distance involved. Anything could happen in that sleaze pit of a town, so Luca had suggested taking someone else along with him, an extra chaperon for Marlon for those times when Luca couldn’t be with him. There were promoters to see, fighters to scout, hands to be shaken, plenty of chances for someone to get to Marlon behind his busy manager’s back.