A dull ringing reverberated through his brain, and for only a moment, Dean Conor relived that instant the night before when a meaty fist had connected with his temple. He'd almost passed out.
But even as shadows crowded in, he'd maintained his hold on his opponent's knee, hyperextending the joint, using the very last of his strength... and two seconds later the ret* was there, calling a halt.
At first, Dean had protested. He wasn't done for. Not by a long shot. Dean Conor never gave up.
Then the cheers sank in.
Rather than take real damage to his leg, his opponent had tapped out. Dean had submitted the number one contender with a knee bar. He'd walk away from another fight as the winner—and this time he knew it was as much luck as skill and strength and speed.
That persistent ringing sounded again, followed by low voices. What the hell?
Dean opened his eyes and immediately regretted it. Bright morning sunlight cut through an opening in the curtains to slice painfully into his brain.
He felt like his head would shatter.
He felt like his guts would come up through his nose.
Groaning, he turned away from the light, and this time, barely peeked. Yeah, he was in his own room. How he got there, he didn't remember, but he was thankful all the same. With a slow, careful query of his body, he knew he was still whole, but aches and pains screamed for attention. His head, his shoulder, a rib. That Russian bastard's punch had the force of a tank, and he kicked like a deranged mule.
Jesus. At twenty-nine, Dean felt too old to continue competing. Already he'd fractured his collarbone, broken a wrist, dislocated an elbow and put more kinks in his nose than he cared to contemplate.
Not that he'd quit. Fuck no.
He lied to others, but never to himself.
The urge would return, as it always did. The cheers of the crowd, the satisfaction in getting bloody, in conquering a worthy challenger.... It was like a drug in his veins, his one and only vice. As long as the management called him to fight, he'd keep at it.
Luckily he'd have plenty of time to recoup before going back on the mat. He'd need every minute.
As Dean forced his throbbing body into an upright position, he heard his front door close. So he had a guest. But who? The last thing he remembered was getting the heavyweight belt strapped around him, his corner roaring in pleasure, and then the trip to the hospital.
A small crowd of groupies, both male and female, had tagged along with his trainer and members of his camp.
They wanted to party.
He wanted to pass out.
The doc had given him some pain meds that dulled the worst of it. He'd been iced, stitched, taped, and released to head home for rest.
Everything after that was sketchy.
Glancing down, Dean realized he was buck-ass naked. Not good. But then again, it could mean nothing.
Instead of feeling like a first-rate fighter in his prime, a heavyweight champion with a score of first-round knockouts to his credit, his joints and muscles strained like that of an old man.
Shit, he'd hate for anyone to see him now.
After locating boxers in the middle drawer of his chest—he wasn't up to putting on any more than that— Dean pushed the bedroom door open of his temporary apartment. He tried to stand straight and tall as he made his way to the kitchen where there seemed to be some activity. He took his time, working out the kinks along the way. Then he stepped into the open archway and saw a woman cooking at his stove.
She wore an official SBC fighting shirt that didn't quite cover the nicely rounded cheeks of her ass. Long blond hair hung down her back, and she swished as she turned pancakes on his stove.
A damned groupie.
Dean had a vague memory of her begging for his signature right before he'd fought. As he'd made his way down the long aisle to the spotlight, she'd stuck out an impressive bared rack and handed him a black marker.
Playing to the crowd had made him a fan favorite, so he'd scrawled his fighting name over her left breast. The roar of the audience almost drowned out the hard-rock music blaring throughout the events center.
It had been one hell of a night.
Propping his shoulder against the wall, as much for support as attitude, he said, "Morning."
She spun around. "Havoc! You're awake! Finally."
If he didn't miss his guess, she was na*ed beneath the tee. "I'm awake." He cocked his head at her, racked his brain, but couldn't come up with a name.
She laughed as if she could sense his problem. "Tiffany," she offered.
"Right." Never in a million years would he have guessed correctly. "So, Tiffany, how'd you get in here?"
She turned coy in an instant. "I brought you home."
"Simon allowed that?" His trainer-slash-manager-slash-agent was so watchful that Dean couldn't imagine him sending him off with an unknown broad bent on screwing him to death. Most of the more successful fighters had a team of people working for them. Dean had Simon Evans. He didn't need anyone else.
"He was here, too. But he couldn't stay. Something about live interviews on your fight."
Yeah, that made sense. He hadn't been in any shape to be interviewed, so naturally Simon would take up the slack. "And you're still here because . .. ?"
Her smile slicked up a few notches. Strutting toward him, making sure that everything bounced just so, she said with a purr, "I couldn't rouse you last night."
"But you tried?"
Her laugh rubbed up his spine and wormed into his aching brain. Obviously rudeness wouldn't make a dent in her determination.
"Forget I asked." Dean had a vision of her molesting his drugged and down-for-the-count body.
To his surprise, the thought stirred him even as it disgusted him.
She stopped right in front of him—and cupped her hand over his crotch.
The corners of her soft mouth lifted with satisfaction. "Let's hope I'll be more successful today."
Self-preservation kicked in and Dean grabbed her wrist. "I need a shower."
"Want me to wash your back?"
He thought about it, considered tossing her out, then decided what the hell. He hurt, but not bad enough to turn down her offer. After all, he wasn't dead.
"Yeah." As he turned away, still holding that slender wrist, he noticed the envelope on the table, and belatedly remembered the ringing doorbell. "What's that?"
"Just a letter." She cuddled up close to his side and rubbed herself against him. "It came special delivery."
Which explained the bell and voices. While Tiffany plastered her boobs to his back. Dean lifted the thick envelope.
Seeing the return address sucked all the air out of his lungs.
In the twenty-one years since his parents' deaths, he hadn't received a single card or note from that address. For him, Harmony, Kentucky, had ceased to exist. Uncle Grover had taken him away, and he hadn't been given the opportunity to look back. Ever.
"Hold up." He pushed the blonde away and started to open the envelope . . . but he hesitated. God, had something happened to one of his sisters? That thought annoyed him. Hell, could you call someone you hadn't seen or heard from in over two decades a relative?
He slipped a finger under the envelope flap and tore it apart.
"Havoc," Tiffany complained. "Can't you read that later?" To punctuate her impatience, she took a stinging love bite on his back.
"Ow, damn, leave off, will ya?" He shrugged Tiffany away.
In thick tones of petulance, she whined, "But I have to leave soon. I have work."
While unfolding several sheets of paper, Dean said absently, "Something's come up. I need you to go."
A huff nearly parted his hair. "I made you pancakes!"
He glanced at the still warm stove top. Oh yeah. But he hadn't invited her in, damn it. Groupies were like that: pushy, outrageous, and looking to add another notch to their bedposts.
"Thanks." And he meant it. The breakfast would be good. Then he held up the letter. "But this is important, so how about a rain check?"
Her bottom lip stuck out and she pouted—for about two seconds. Then she turned calculating. "All right. If you'll also get me ringside tickets to the August fight in Atlantic City."
Those tickets would go for about six-hundred a piece— if bought now. In a few weeks, they'd go for double that. "Sure." He turned away, already distracted again. "Write your name and address down. I'll see that you get them."
"You'll be there, too?" She trailed a ringer down his spine to the waistband of his shorts. "For the rain check?"
Lying through his teeth, Dean muttered, "Wouldn't miss it."
She squealed, went on tiptoe to put a wet, sucking kiss on the nape of his neck, then whispered, "You won't regret it."
"I'm sure you're right." His attention back on the letter, he noted a three-month-old date in the upper left-hand corner. So his mail had been following him around for a while?
He glanced at the feminine handwriting.
I hope this letter finds you well. I know it's been a lifetime and I regret that. Aunt Lorna always said there was no way to reach you. But I finally did some research when Uncle Grover died. That's how I found your address.
Dean flipped the page and skimmed to the bottom of the next sheet. It was signed, Hopeful, Camille.
His sister, Cam. She'd be ... what? Twenty-three now. And Jacki would be twenty-one. The image of them both as babies—Cam a toddling two year old, Jacki still an infant—sent a melon-sized lump into his throat.
They were grown women now, well past the age of needing a big brother. If they'd ever needed him.
A pain clenched in his chest; it was unlike the aches rippling through his bones and muscles.
It was fu**ing worse.
Knotting his hand in the papers, Dean tried to make himself toss them away. But he couldn't. His teeth locked. His eyes burned.
Slowly his fingers opened again.
"Here you go, sweetie."
He glanced up to see Tiffany dressed in jeans and sandals, with the same shirt now knotted at the side. She'd brushed her hair and put on lipstick.
Still radiating "come and get me" vibes, she put a card on his table and grinned. "'See ya in August."
"Right. August." Dean dismissed her from his mind. He barely registered the sound of his front door opening and closing. But he felt the new stillness of being alone.
Which was just how he liked it.
Heart pounding in what felt like rage, but was probably anxiety, he sat down at the small table and smoothed the papers out again.
I'd love to see you. Can you come for a visit? Please? There's so much to tell you, and so much I want to ask. I want to explain everything. I want to get to know you. I want you to know me. I want us to be family.
Dean grunted. People in hell wanted ice water; that didn't mean they got it.
But he couldn't keep from reading the rest, more of the same, more entreaties, more . . . desperation. Yeah, somehow the desperation was there, woven between the lines. Subtle, but detectible.
Or maybe it was his friggin' imagination, brought on by too many knocks on the head.
When Dean finished the note, he sat there, numb, undecided. Torn. Anxious.
And damn it, as hopeful as Cam claimed to be. Not that he'd ever admit it to anyone. But again, he didn't lie to himself.
Amazingly enough, he forgot his bruises and cuts. Unsure what to do next, he went to the stove and picked up the platter of pancakes. He covered them in syrup, and still standing at the stove, shoveled them down by rote.
At least Tiffany was a good cook.
Refusing to think any further than the here and now, Dean finished off the breakfast, then indulged in a long, hot shower. Some of his stiffness eased. A good scrubbing left him refreshed and removed the last of the dried blood. After he'd toweled off, he found his pain pills and popped one, then shaved and brushed his teeth and ...
He gave up.
As Cam requested, he'd go home. He'd talk to her. He'd talk to Jacki. But nothing had changed and he'd be sure they knew that. They had nothing in common any more, beyond blood. And when it came right down to it, blood didn't stand for much.
If it had, they would have been raised together instead of on opposite sides of the country.
If it mattered at all, one of his sisters would have contacted him before now.
Within four hours of deciding, Dean finished a dozen phone calls, packed up his belongings, turned in the key on his week-by-week rental, and booked a flight.
Simon was pissed. But he'd get over it. Dean didn't go into details on why he needed to make the sudden trip on top of being beat to a pulp, and Simon didn't press it. He had Dean's cell number, and Dean promised to call him when he got settled in Harmony.
It wasn't like he had to be training three times a day now, the way he did in preparation for a fight.
With recent trips to Europe, The UK, and Boston, he was up on his PR. He had offers pending from other sponsors, but they could wait. He deserved a few months off.
He deserved to see his family.
And more than that, he deserved a chance for retribution.
* * *
STANDING at the interior balcony, her bare arms folded over the cool steel railing, Eve Lavon watched the line dancing below. In so many ways, Roger's place was the perfect setting for a bachelorette party. The low-key honky-tonk offered drinks, dancing, private rooms, a festive environment. . . but God, she detested Roger. She didn't want to do business with the swine.
Blindly Eve reached for her longneck beer sitting on the tiny round table beside her. She finished it off, then turned to head for the bar to get another.
The sight of a tall man, roughed up and rugged, standing in the doorway, stopped her in her tracks.
He perused the area with a jaundiced eye, lip curled in disgust, body set in lines of weariness. Obviously Roger's place wasn't quite what he'd expected.
From the outside, Roger's Rodeo looked like any other small-time bar. From the inside, it boasted a disco atmosphere with an open first floor that overlooked the basement below by way of a balcony that circled the entire floor. Both levels provided a bar, and each floor had a smattering of private rooms. But the action happened downstairs: line dancing, mechanical bull rides, billiards, pinball machines.
Two-seater tables lined the balcony, with enough space between to accommodate spectators. Tonight Eve had come to watch, to make a decision on whether or not to organize an event in one of the private rooms in the basement. Harmony, Kentucky, didn't have a lot of options, and most of what it did have, Roger owned. The group hiring her wasn't interested in going out of town, so ...