Before I knew it, it was Friday and I had to show up at Nassir’s club for the fight. I hadn’t been in a knock-down, drag-out, blood-splattering, dirty-as-hell fight since the first year I was locked up. Once you put down all the guys who were bigger than you out of sheer desperation, they stopped trying to take you down a peg. In fact, they stopped trying to mess with you at all. There were always scuffles and dustups, that was going to happen with a bunch of violent men locked up together, but fighting for my life or my pride wasn’t something I’d had to do in a long time. Fighting for a paycheck wasn’t something I had done since I was a teenager. I hoped I could still take a beating and bounce back enough to function the next day.
I was smoking like a chimney. Full of nervous energy I would never admit to. Nassir’s had turned from an electric house party to a hollowed-out fight club. Instead of trendy kids filtering in from the Hill and the university looking for a good time, it was now packed to the rafters with men and women looking for an animalistic and gory show. I didn’t want to know what the odds were. I had caught just a glimpse of the other guy when he rolled in with his entourage, and there was no denying he was a monster. He probably had a good inch on me, but was leaner and more cut. I had a thick, bulky build that came from cheap prison equipment. This guy looked like he had a trainer and a team of people whose sole purpose was to make him a fighting machine.
“Nervous?” Nassir’s smooth voice scraped across my already frayed nerves as I looked down at the bare circle someone had drawn on the center of the factory floor with red spray paint. No ring. No pads. Nothing but fists and blood. It was a brutal way to make a buck.
I looked over my shoulder at him. He was holding a tumbler of Scotch that was older than me and watching me with unfathomable eyes.
“I’m surprised you agreed to do it. Seventy-five hundred is a fair chunk of change and I know you squirreled away most of what Novak paid you. You can’t be hurting for cash. I thought maybe it was to save face in front of the redhead, but then you showed alone.”
“I don’t have to save face for anyone.”
“Ahhh . . . but she was different. I’ve been around a long time, Bax. My primary job is to instantly read and judge people. There was something more to her than one of your typical tramps.”
I gave him a dark look and opened and flexed my hands mechanically. I had never been much of a drinker because of my mom, but right now I was wishing I had a bottle of tequila and a dark room all to myself to get myself psyched up in. I wrapped my hands around the linked chain railing and watched the crowd below mill about. More than half wanted my head cracked open, and the rest didn’t care who won as long as they got their payout at the end of the night. It made my stomach hurt. I didn’t want this scene to be what my life looked like anymore, but I doubted I would ever fully be rid of it.
“She’s important to someone who’s important to me. That makes her different.”
“It’s more than that. A man like you—put him in a cage for long enough, and he either becomes domesticated or regresses to all wild animal. You went in wild, so that means all there was for you to do was be tamed. Your edge is gone, Baxter. I can see it, and if I can see it, that means Novak is going to see it and exploit it. You need to be careful.”
His words wormed under my skin and made my blood throb in my head. Without thinking about it, I grabbed the tumbler out of his hand and sent it sailing over the open railing to the crowded floor below. I watched as it shattered on the ground, sending glass and expensive liquor in every direction and splattering the crowd. Nassir clicked his tongue at me and squeezed me on my shoulder.
“See what I mean? Before, you would have just ignored me. Good luck, my friend. Normally I wouldn’t think you’d need it, but tonight I am not sure that is the case.”
He turned toward the steps. “You have ten minutes, I suggest you use it to get your head in the game.”
I blew out a heavy breath and hung my head. I squeezed my eyes shut so hard I saw stars behind my lids. It galled me, but Nassir was right. I wanted out before getting locked up. Doing time had just solidified that living my life like I had nine lives and was bulletproof was getting old and just made me feel foolish. When I pried my eyes open, the first thing they landed on was a shock of orange-and-red curls moving through the frantic and frenzied crowd. I blinked because I thought I was hallucinating, but sure enough, she turned to look up, and our eyes locked. A girl with a stylish blond bob put a hand on her shoulder and yelled something in her ear and she nodded, never looking away from me.
I hadn’t seen her in a week, since Tuesday morning, but it felt like longer. Like her skin was paler, her eyes were smokier, her freckles more prominent across her pert little nose, and like she wasn’t sure what she was doing here either. Her friend grabbed her elbow and pulled her out of the way as the other guy suddenly bounded into the center of the circle.
A loud roar from the crowd went up and he started screaming like a lunatic. Shit, I bet he was hopped up on something. There was no other way to explain the bulging veins and wild-eyed look he was sporting. He ripped his black T-shirt off and threw it into the crowd, getting everyone even more whipped up. He had on cargo pants and black smudges of something under each eye like this was some kind of combat mission. I felt my night get ten times longer.
Grumbling under my breath and wondering why Dovie was here, I went down the stairs and headed for where I had last seen her. I didn’t need to look very hard because she waylaid me as soon as my booted feet hit the main level. I took off my hoodie, fished out my cigarettes, and handed them all over to her without saying a word. Her friend was gaping at me and looking me up and down, but I was ensnared in that forest-green gaze.
“I got a text saying if you were fighting, Race was bound to be here. They even sent the code to get in that crazy purple door.”
Her hands clutched around my hoodie as I shook my head. “He’s not going to be here. It’s a setup. They want you here so I’ll be distracted and that Hulk has a chance to cave my skull in.”
Her eyes got big. “Benny?”
I shrugged. “Novak. That’s way too smart for Benny.” It bugged me to no end that I was actually happy to see her. I really liked the stubborn tilt of her chin and the messy waves of her endless hair. I pulled my shirt off over my head by the collar and handed her that as well. I saw her gaze drop to my chest then dart right back up. She might think I was scum and question my motives, but she was hot for me, no doubt about it.