Against the Ropes (Redemption #1)(11) by Sarah Castille

“I can’t risk getting caught. I haven’t told anyone but I’m applying for the amateurs. Being caught at an unsanctioned event might destroy any chance I have of getting in. Sandy and I will wait outside for you as long as we can.” Jimmy pivots and disappears into the dwindling crowd.

My heart pounds against my ribs and I climb into the ring beside Torment.

“Torment? Max?” I turn his face toward me. “Are you okay? Talk to me.”

His eyes open and he gives me a weak smile.

“Stay with me,” I urge him. “Keep your eyes open. Focus on me.” My hands are already running over his body, checking for breaks and injuries. He has a bump on his head and a cut on his temple. Possibly a concussion.

“You didn’t kiss me back.” His voice is so soft I barely hear him.

My eyes widen. “This isn’t the time. You’re hurt.”

“Kiss me better, Makayla,” he whispers.

Cupping his face in my hands, I lean over and brush my lips against his cheek. Electricity shoots through me like a bolt of white, hot lightning.

“A real kiss,” he grumbles as I pull away.

“That’s all you get,” I snap. “I’m not going to ignore your medical needs so I can indulge myself.”

He gives me a half smile. “I thought you were all about indulgence.”

The platform shakes. Misery pounds his way across the ring toward us.

“Enough. He’s talking, so the fight’s not done. Get out, bitch.”

My blood runs cold and I position myself between Torment and Misery. “He’s hurt. The regulators are coming. The fight is over.”

Misery’s face darkens. “I don’t take backtalk from bitches, especially not when their mouths should be doing something else. Looks like you need a lesson in respect.” He stalks toward me, a bald, sweaty Goliath with murder in his eyes.

My knees shake, my pulse races, and my mouth goes dry. Fragments of memories burst from my subconscious. Long buried. Another night. A man stalking toward me in the darkness. I hold up tiny hands, terrified I won’t be able to protect myself or the person on the floor. I scream.

Misery stops short. His eyes focus on something behind me and widen to the size of tea cups. Torment steps in front of me and throws a punch and then another. His fists fly, hitting Misery in the head and face, over and over and over again. Misery staggers backward into the ropes. He bounces forward and into Torment’s waiting knee before crumpling to the floor with a groan.

My heart thumps in my chest while my mind spins backward, desperately trying to fill in the missing pieces to a nightmare I haven’t had since I was a child. What happened when he reached me? How did we escape? The fight ring blurs, and I grab the ropes to steady myself.

“I’ve got you.”

Strong arms lift me and slide me under the ropes. My dizziness subsides. My vision clears. Torment jumps down to the floor and carries me easily in his arms. I frown at his concerned expression. “What happened?”

“I thought you were going to faint. You were a little…unfocused.” His arms are warm around me and his footsteps echo in the near-empty warehouse.

Oh God. He’s carrying me. “Put me down. I can walk.”

“No. You’ve caused enough problems for one night. Taking on Misery wasn’t the wisest of moves, especially for a girl who professes to abhor violence.” He ducks under the bleachers and heads toward an exit door hidden in the corner.

“Sorry. I was just trying to help.”

“You did help. You gave me enough time to clear my head and get to my feet.” He pauses and his voice takes on a more serious tone. “But next time don’t put yourself in danger. You’re the healer. I’m the fighter.”

“I’m not a healer.”

Torment frowns. “You have a gift—a passion—for healing people. Don’t downplay it. You don’t just heal bodies, you heal people inside. Somehow you can see what people need—”

My cheeks heat and I manage to wiggle my way out of his arms. “Okay. You got me. I like to help people. I like to make them feel better. But it doesn’t make me a healer.” If it did, I would heal myself.

“You’re wrong.” He pushes open the door and I follow him out into the cool, still night air.

“Mr. Huntington, sir, the limo is over here. You’d best hurry.”

A cut-glass English accent is not something one hears often in Oakland. My head whips around just as a tall, broad-shouldered man emerges from the shadows. He is shorter than Torment by about three inches, and heavier. He has a shaved head, rounded body, and a cheerful countenance. From the slight sag to his skin and the wrinkles creasing his brow, he might be in his early forties—older than Torment, and much older than me. His suit—a stiff white shirt, striped blue tie, long gray suit jacket, and matching gray dress trousers—is more appropriate for an office or a wedding and not a Ghost Town alley reeking of stale beer and rotting garbage.

“Makayla, this is Colton. Colton, Makayla.”

Colton nods. “How do you do, Miss Makayla. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”

Finally? How does he know about me? Why does he know about me?

Instinctively, I thrust out my hand. “Hi.”

Amusement glitters in Colton’s clear, sparkling blue eyes, and he gives my hand a gentle shake. Then, he snaps his fingers and a sleek, black Bentley limo purrs out of the alley and stops beside us.

My eyes widen. “What is this? What’s going on?”

“Why did you bring that?” Torment grumbles.

“I thought it might be more comfortable if you were unconscious again, sir. We had difficulty keeping you upright last time in the Lexus.”

A door slams and a man in a black suit and flat-brimmed hat races around the limo and pulls open the passenger door.

Torment sighs. “Makayla, this is Lewis. He insists on wearing a uniform despite my preference for casual attire. Lewis, this is Makayla.”

Lewis narrows his eyes and gives me a tight-lipped smile. I immediately don’t like Lewis in his fancy uniform. I also don’t like limos appearing out of nowhere in dark alleys and men in suits who call Torment “sir.” I especially don’t like not understanding what the hell is going on.

Torment places his hand on my lower back and urges me forward. “After you.”

My breath catches in my throat, and I stare at the vast expanse of polished chrome, the uniformed chauffeur, and…Colton. Words fail me and I shake my head.

His jaw tightens. “It’s okay. You’re safe with me.”

My voice, when it returns, is soft and hoarse. “But what about your motorcycle?”

“Mr. Huntington’s motorcycle is already on a truck and on its way home,” Colton answers.

Everyone stares at me. Waiting. Expectant. But my brain is still playing catch-up and my feet refuse to move. “Why are you riding around in a limo with a chauffeur and a—”

“Butler, Miss Makayla.” Colton is quick to fill in the gap in my knowledge.

“Butler. You have a butler. Who are you?”

Torment tugs off his bandana and rubs his hand over the back of his neck. “We can talk in the limo. We don’t have time to discuss it here. The regulators are coming, and we need to clear the area before they get here. Jake is inside getting rid of the last stragglers and shutting things down. He’ll help Misery’s cornermen get him out. We’re free to go.”

Something inside me tightens. He isn’t who I thought he was. I don’t know him at all. But I do know not to get into a car—or a limo—with a stranger.

He reaches for my hand, but I back away.

His face falls. “Makayla—”

“Who. Are. You?” Raising my voice, I enunciate each word no longer caring if the regulators find us.

“You haven’t told her?” Colton asks.

Torment shakes his head.

Colton’s eyes flick to me and his blue eyes soften before his gaze returns to Torment. “Might I suggest you give her your phone and let her look you up on the Internet, sir? I retrieved your personal belongings when the whistle blew. I suspect in your current state, you will be unable to do justice to yourself and given our time constraints it is best if she receives her information from a reliable source. She might then be able to assure herself of her safety in your company.”

Torment’s shoulders slump and he nods. Colton reaches into the limo and retrieves Torment’s phone.

“You can just speak to it.” He hands the futuristic gadget to me. “Tell it to search for Max Huntington.”

“I’ll do it the old-fashioned way.” Hands trembling, I type “Max Huntington” into the search engine and get dozens of hits.

My mouth drops open when I read about Max Huntington, one of America’s youngest leading venture capitalists and partner of IMM Ventures. I scroll through article after article about him in the business newspapers and financial magazines. His name also appears in society and gossip columns as one of California’s most eligible bachelors. Here he is at a charity event with a woman I recognize from the movies. And here he is looking breathtaking in a tux with a beautiful model clinging to his arm on a luxury yacht. My eyes drink in pictures of him at lavish parties, gala openings, media events, and even the Academy Awards. But none of him fighting in Ghost Town.

I exhale slowly and my heart thuds into the ground. For a moment I can only stare at him, stunned. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Torment shrugs. “You liked me as Torment. Except for Sandy, the women I’ve been with couldn’t see past the money and would have been horrified to know I was on the underground fight club circuit.”

Sirens wail in the background. Lewis sniffs.

Colton tenses. “It sounds like they’ve brought the police with them this time, sir. It would be a PR nightmare if you were caught here.”

My hands clench into fists. “You lied to me. You made me think you were a regular guy.”

A pained look crosses Torment’s face. “I never lied to you. I just didn’t tell you everything.”

“Sir. We have to go.” The urgency in Colton’s tone makes the hair on the back of my neck prickle.

“Come with me. Please, Makayla.”

My head spins. Too much. Too many things to process. Torment coming to my house. The fight. Our almost kiss. The rebirth of an unwanted memory. And this. My beast turned into a prince. Or is it the other way around?

Tears well up in my eyes. “I know Torment. I know pizza and picnics and motorcycles. I don’t know you, Max, with your fancy limo and your staff and your movie star girlfriends. I don’t know what kind of man you are. All I know is that you’re incredibly rich and I’m…well, me. I buy my shoes at Handi-Mart. I eat cereal for breakfast and, recently, for dinner too. I have had to sacrifice my principles to make money to pay my…rent. And I don’t know what will happen to me if I jump into your rabbit hole.”

His steady gaze falters, almost as if I’ve hurt him, and guilt crawls through me.

“I’m the same man,” he rasps. He pauses, and the disappointment in his voice is almost palpable. “But I understand. Colton can call for a taxi and he’ll wait with you until it arrives.”

Colton nods and speaks into a headset I didn’t even notice he was wearing. He gives me a sad, guilt-inducing smile. “Taxi will be here in two minutes.”

Torment brushes a kiss across my cheek then turns and steps into the limo, leaving me with a sense of loss deep in my stomach and a hole in my chest.

“Wait.”

He pauses, one foot in the limo and one foot on the street.

I close the distance between us and take his face between my hands. I search his eyes, looking for Max. Instead, I see Torment.

Torment in pain. Torment in need.

Blood trickles down his cheek. His eye is badly swollen. His jaw is cut and bruised. I stand on tiptoe and run my hand through his hair. He winces when I touch the lump where he hit his head on the metal post and again when my hand runs over the slight swelling where Misery hit him.

He is rich, successful, and until the fight, breathtakingly gorgeous. He has everything. Why does he need the fight club? Why does he need me?

“You’ll need a stitch here,” I whisper, brushing my thumb over his cheek. “And maybe here too.” I run my hand over his chin, rough with stubble.

His eyes darken and he takes my hand, pressing his lips to the underside of my wrist. “Maybe you could just kiss it better.” The deep rumble of his voice sets my nerve endings on fire.

I take a deep breath and step into the limo. “Maybe I could.”

Chapter 8

Where’s my muffin top?

“Good morning, Ms. Delaney.”

“Sergio, it is exactly one minute past eight o’clock on a Monday morning. Surely you have better things to do than call me at work, especially since you promised to give me an extra week.” A weekend of Internet research about student loan collection and a brief chat with Amanda have made me cocky. I lean back in my chair and wave the next patient over to Charlie’s desk.

Sergio laughs. “Calling you is my job and since you are the most pleasant of all my debtors, who better to call first on a Monday morning. I just wanted to remind you about your payment."

“And I wanted to remind you that you cannot enforce a minimum payment without first assessing my financial position. I’ve also filed an online complaint with the Education Commission. I understand collections have to be frozen until the complaint is resolved.”

Sergio’s voice turns cold. “I haven’t received any notice of your complaint, and until I do, you must make the payments as they fall due. Otherwise, sneaky debtors like yourself could claim to have filed a complaint to avoid making their payments. I know all the tricks, Ms. Delaney. All the tricks.”

My confidence wavers. “Well, you still have to do a financial analysis. I’ll send you my financial statement and you will see there is no way I can make the minimum payment.”

“I know that trick too.” Sergio sighs. “You spend weeks pretending to look for the documents. Then you pretend to have sent them. After a few weeks, you suggest they are lost in the post, and we have to go through the whole process again.”

“I wouldn’t do that. I spent all weekend getting them together and I can send the statement to you today.”

Sergio laughs. “How refreshing. Please do send it to me. I would be delighted to read it. You have my details in the letter I sent. But I will tell you now the minimum payment will not change. That is our final number.” He emphasizes the last two words in a voice so loud I have to hold the phone away from my ear.