Authors: Kathryn Thomas
This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons--living or dead--is entirely coincidental.
Fierce copyright @ 2016 by Kathryn Thomas. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles or reviews
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Rose Jacqueline knew she was too scrawny to make much of an impression in a fight. The miles she ran around the lake every morning and every evening had toned her body so that she had very little fat left on her. She’d read up on the science of what it took to be in peak physical condition, had stayed up nights to learn that stuff: diet, nutrition, cardiovascular performance. What she’d missed out on in schooling, she’d made up for with this drive to be the best athlete she could possibly be.
But there was a big piece missing. Being extremely fit counted for nothing when your opponent was bigger than you and had years of professional fight training. You might be a quicker-swinging punching bag, but you were still a punching bag. It was time to change that. And in the town of Mitre, California, the only way she could think of to change it was to become a man.
Or at least pretend.
Gaining regular access to a boxing gym was her next, most important step in what had become her life’s mission: Get tough, get rough, and get even.
Rose parted her mousy brown hair and put her slightly dorky glasses on. She never wore them outside, but today was different. They were a little masculine, definitely bookish, and more importantly, they felt like a disguise, something she could hide behind for this all-important interview. Good thing she had small boobs. The white sports bra and white tee hid them well enough under the baggy men’s shirt and the tie she’d bought from the used clothes store. Lastly, her gray suit, while comfy enough, now seemed way too big; it made her look like she had a wasting disease, and the shoulders were so padded and pronounced anyone would think she had wings folded up in there.
They’d laugh her out of the goddamn interview!
Tough shit. It’s too late to turn back now. Not every day a job as a gym assistant opens up in the one gym I need.
There were two gyms in Mitre. Neither had been a possibility for Rose until this position had opened up. Her interview was at Wright Hook’s over on Van Buren Avenue, the all-male boxing gym named after its famous co-owner, undefeated UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Avery Wright. She’d never been inside, but from the online photos and its reputation around town, it was the grittier of the two. Definitely the more macho. It also had a patchier record with its stable of fighters. Several had gone on to have solid careers, but an equal number had either crashed and burned or become embroiled in scandal. Recently, one of Wright Hook’s up-and-comers had taken a blatant dive in the semi-final of a high-purse MMA tournament down in San Diego.
But the gym’s big advantage, as far as Rose was concerned, was that she didn’t know anyone there. She could be anonymous—keep her head down, do her job, and when everyone had gone home and she was left to tidy up,
she could come alive. The gym would be hers, and she could train like a maniac for as long as she wanted, free of charge and under the radar.
she could pass this interview.
So, did she look like a man? Fortunately (and unfortunately), yes. Yes, she did. A scrawny and geeky one no woman in her right mind would hit on, but this could work. Years of yelling at her stepfather and her teachers and pretty much the whole world around her had left her a bit hoarse. Modulating her voice to sound like a man’s was not hard. And the banter was one thing she didn’t need to fake—the streets of Mitre were pretty much unilingual—trash talk was its native tongue, with a wicked dose of sarcasm. That had been her best defense growing up, at least until the Culver “Twitches” (twin bitches) had stepped in to change the rules.
She scraped the bottom of her fake fruit bowl for bus fare, finding the last of her shrapnel, barely enough to reach the edge of town. She’d have to walk back. One last look in the grubby mirror and then she left the flat, praying to hell no one would recognize her.
Outside was warm, a little overcast, muggy. She was overdressed, hence the bus. Walking all the way across town, whilst fretting about the interview, would only make her sweat like a pig. One of her neighbors drove by, glimpsed her but didn’t look twice. So far, so good. While she was waiting at the bus stop, Zeke Reilly, a cute guy she’d slept with in high school, strode right past her with his pals, a few of whom she knew by sight if not by name. No recognition. None.
She smiled and sat up straight. Confidence was hard to come by these days, but she had some now. If
couldn’t see her, she must be invisible.
The bus arrived, and after a fretful journey—the crazy route took in too many places she knew too well—Rose decided to get off a couple of blocks before the gym and walk the rest of the way to clear her head. Also, her throat was brick dry. She spied a convenience store on the opposite side of the road, suddenly craving an ice-cold Pepsi.
As Rose was crossing Van Buren Avenue, an elderly woman gave a frail cry from the alley adjacent to the store. A purse-snatcher yanked her handbag so hard it dragged the old woman off her feet, but she wouldn’t let go. He dragged her across the sidewalk. The old woman squealed, finally let go, and rolled into the gutter.
Rose saw red and sprinted at him. He didn’t see her in time, and they collided. She lashed herself to the handbag’s strap and held on for dear life. The prick was twice her size, unshaven, and looked mean. He grabbed Rose by her hair—even though it was cut short—and punched her in the temple. She saw stars, but they were on a red backcloth. That fury she had inside her, that hate she felt whenever someone preyed on a weaker person, took over her. She kicked and thrashed at him, somehow managing to tangle her legs in his and bring him down when he tried to escape.
“Get off me, you little shit!”
“No, you get off her bag, fuck-face!”
They got to their knees at the same time, playing tug of war with what had to be the strongest goddamn handbag ever made. However, she had no chance. Her punches barely registered. Her head butt only enraged him. He slugged her in the gut, and she doubled up, forced to let go of the bag. It felt like a tunnel had collapsed inside her, trapping the air in a tiny, toxic pocket. Then he slammed her head onto the concrete. Rose blacked out.
She came around in time to see the purse-snatcher darting into a side alley with at least three men in hot pursuit. He’d got away from her, but maybe she’d stalled him long enough for someone else to nail him.
Nail him hard,
she thought, her head throbbing. An Asian man helped her to her feet, handed her the glasses she’d lost, then asked her if she was okay. Did she want to wait for medical treatment? The ambulance was already on its way.
“No, I-I’m good,” she replied, almost collapsing into the gutter when her left leg gave way. The Asian man caught her.
“I think you’d best take a ride with me, sunshine,” the old lady said. She was sat on the curb, nursing her sore ankle and rearranging her torn stockings at the same time. “Thank you for trying.” She patted the curb beside her, then jabbed her thumb in the direction of the side alley. “Not much we can do when they’re that size. But at least we tried.”
Rose sat beside her. “Are you okay?”
“Hurting all over and probably cut to ribbons. Old skin, I’m afraid.” The elderly woman trembled as she surveyed the damage through her too-many layers of clothing, wincing several times when she prodded a sore spot. “I’ll be black-and-blue tomorrow, but I’ll live.”
“You really hung on to that bag, made that shithead work for his—” Rose suddenly remembered the interview…and the
“Agh! Sorry, lady, I gotta go.” She got up and limped across the street, then realised her leg wasn’t as bad as it had felt a minute ago and decided to jog the rest of the way to the gym.
Ever since that epic beating she’d received from the Twitches, her goal in life had been simple: Get tough, get rough, and get even. It was like a switch flipped inside her that day, setting her on this single-minded path. It would solve all her and Cate’s problems, and no one would ever be able to fuck with them again, if only Rose could achieve this goal. Whatever obstacles lay in her way, they were nothing compared to what she’d had to overcome to get this far.
Right now she would rather die than back down from what life threw at her.
The pungent smell of sweat almost made her gag when she stepped inside Wright Hook’s. “Excuse me?” She accosted a boxer ringside. He was black, wiry, and wore a colorful bandana. One of his front teeth was missing. “I’m looking for Mr. Wright.”
The irony of those words hit her as soon as she’d spoken them, but Gap-Tooth didn’t seem to notice. He arched his eyebrow and looked her up and down, as if to say,
fuck are you doing in here?
She felt horribly self-conscious.
Can he see through my disguise? Or is my suit dirtier than I’d realized?
“Which one?” he said.
“Whichever one’s interviewing for the gym assistant job,” she replied.
Gap-Tooth shrugged, then pointed her to an office in the far corner. Several other boxers stopped what they were doing to watch her cross the gym. She heard snickers and felt judgmental gazes on her back. No, she didn’t belong here. Yet, she was here all the same, and she had a mind to stay. To hell with what these numpties thought of her dorky alter ego.
And she had to admit, some of them were really cut—like genuine hard-knuckle hotties. All ages, all sizes. If it weren’t for the smell, she could definitely feel at home here, just watching them.
First things first. Prove that you’re the right man for the Wright job, then take it from there.
The office was empty, and she didn’t want to make a bad first impression by waiting in there without permission, so Rose sat on the bench against the far wall. It was a bigger gym than she’d expected. The photos on the website hadn’t shown the array of low-tech equipment—barbells, wrestling mats, speed balls, skipping ropes, double-end bags; they’d focused more on the snazzy new ring and the treadmills and weight-lifting machines, probably to entice new members. However, the heart of Wright Hook’s, she realized, was old-school.
Mixed Martial Arts might be fairly new to the mainstream, but its component disciplines were centuries old. Avery Wright and his brother/manager, Luca, were from the streets of Detroit. They’d risen up through the sport the hard way. They’d started out with no more than she had now, except they’d probably always been tough. However, heart and determination could get you a long way. If they’d lived a century ago, they’d still have been great fighters. Modern equipment and kinesiology just made it that bit easier to get in shape.
She waited for twenty minutes. No one showed. An arthritic old man wearing a flat cap mopped the floor in excruciatingly slow stages, but apart from him, there didn’t appear to be any staff in the building.
No wonder they needed an assistant.
She was about to ask the old-timer where the owners were when a cute, shaven-headed guy breezed into the gym. He was in his early twenties, Italian-looking, had a toned middleweight build, and wore a Lakers tee and smart trousers. Sweat poured off him, as though he’d been running. He walked right up to Rose and said, “You the guy who tackled the purse-snatcher?”
“Um, yeah. I tried to, but he got aw—”
“That part doesn’t interest me. You tried. That’s what matters.” He invited her into the office. “Ross Jackson, right?”
“Nice to meet you.”
He glanced at her over his shoulder while they walked. “You’re, what, a buck-five? A buck-ten?”
Rose swallowed. “Not sure. Something like that.”
“That guy had over a hundred pounds on you. What made you want to tackle him like that?”
“You saw it?”
“I saw you jump him. I was at the back of the store. You were down by the time I got there.”
“Did you catch him?”
Luca’s cute brown eyes were wide, livid. He shook his head. “Not this time. But if he ever shows his face around here again, I’ll nail the bastard. I never forget a face.”
“Me either,” she replied. “I just hope the old lady’s all right.”