Authors: Sarah Castille
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Adult
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Copyright © 2015 by Sarah Castille
Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Blake Morrow
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Full contact / Sarah Castille. — First edition.
pages ; cm. — (Redemption ; book 3)
(softcover : acid-free paper) 1. Mixed martial arts—Fiction. I. Title.
To Kathy S. and Sabrina C., for your wonderful enthusiasm and support.
And always, to John.
Up close and personal
Bay Area Underground Fight Club (BUFC) Fight Night
Pier 70. Abandoned Boathouse. 8 p.m.
Headlining: The Predator vs. Tiny Tim
Code Word: Massacre
There he is.
Stalking across the ring after his prey. Slow. Sure. Effortlessly patient. No wonder the fighters at Redemption nicknamed him the Predator. I could get off just watching his muscles ripple. Come to think of it, I already have.
The crowd in the run-down boathouse in San Francisco’s Marina District erupts into muted cheers when the Predator knocks down his opponent, the not so tiny Tiny Tim, with a swift double leg takedown. Underground fights are illegal in California, and no one wants to attract the attention of the police, or worse, the California State Athletic Commission (CSAC). Most of the fighters here tonight are licensed MMA amateurs or pros, and being caught at an underground fight is a serious offense.
And still they come.
As do I.
There is nothing like the ugly, gritty, absolutely electric atmosphere of an underground fight. No rules. No mercy. Pure testosterone. Man, stripped to his primitive essence. And the occasional woman.
How can I resist?
“Sia, I’m going for a drink with Blade Saw after the fight. Will you be okay going home on your own?” Jess’s voice trembles with excitement. My best friend and co–underground fight enthusiast has been trying to get into Jimmy “Blade Saw” Sanchez’s pants since the first night I dragged her to Redemption, one of the Bay Area’s up-and-coming MMA gyms, to watch the Predator and my brother train. Unfortunately, for the longest time, Blade Saw was going out with Sandy, one of Redemption’s few female fighters. Looks like Sandy’s out and Jess is in on the rebound. Score!
“Um…no. I think I’ll make you come home with me just to make you suffer for distracting me from the Predator’s fight.”
Jess gives a sarcastic snort and pulls out her ponytail holder, letting her mid-length dark hair fan over her shoulders. With her green eyes, curvy frame, and olive skin, Jess is exotic with a capital
. We met in the hospital when we were both eighteen, and by the end of the night, we knew we’d be besties forever. Shared trauma forms a bond like nothing else.
“The Predator’s looking good tonight.” She nudges me as we watch the fight unfold. “Why don’t you make your move?”
“Because I didn’t come here to pick up guys like some people I know. I came to get inspiration for my art.”
Jess gives me a sidelong glance. “I believe the inspiration part, but I think your addiction to underground fights has less to do with art and more to do with the box of vibrators you have stashed under your bed.” She adjusts the kind of cleavage I can only dream about and then tucks in her T-shirt as if baring it all isn’t enough.
My voice drops to a low, irritated growl. “You’re the one who told me about the online sale at the Pink Lady Emporium. And what am I supposed to do? I’m tired of missionary men who don’t understand that women have more than one erogenous zone.”
“Then don’t go out with them anymore.” She glances over at the ring where the Predator is pounding his fist into Tiny Tim’s stomach. “Now, the Predator…he’s in a different league. A man who can fight like that will not be boring in bed. He probably doesn’t even know what a missionary is. You’ve come to every one of his fights for almost a year. Why don’t you just admit you’re crushing on him, grow a spine, and say hello?”
She lifts an eyebrow.
“Isn’t Blade Saw waiting?”
“No. He’s watching the fight.” She gestures toward the darkly handsome Blade Saw leaning against the wall beside a couple of his Redemption buddies: Doctor Death, Rampage, and Homicide Hank.
“How about you let
watch the fight?”
Jess gives my arm a sympathetic squeeze. “Sorry. It’s just…one of these days you’ll have to start trusting yourself. You’re drawn to him for a reason. Just because he fights doesn’t mean he’s a bad person. Look at your brother. Tag is one of the hottest, sexiest, most protective, hottest, funniest, hottest guys I know. If he even noticed I existed, I wouldn’t have to settle for Sandy’s seconds. Not that Blade Saw isn’t a nice guy, but he’s not Tag.”
“Looking at Tag is
job.” Jess has been in love with my brother, a part-time trainer at Redemption and full-time pain in the ass, since the day we all met. Unfortunately, the feeling has never been mutual.
“Well…if you’re too afraid to go after who you really want, what about Doctor Death?” She gestures toward Blade Saw’s teammate, a blond Adonis with the chiseled face of a soap opera star. “He’s always watching you at these events.” She looks up and waves. “He’s looking over here right now. Give him a smile.”
“He’s too pretty for me. And I’ve heard rumors about him and some of the women at Redemption.” Doctor Death, a heart surgeon and sometime ring doctor who trains casually at Redemption, will hit on any woman with a working set of lungs. Still, Jess can’t understand why I don’t return his interest. But I like my men with a little edge, a bit of rough, and a lot of danger.
She sighs. “Fine. Lucky for you I’ve got something set up for you tomorrow night.”
“No more blind dates.”
“Yes. You’ll love this guy. He’s a fireman. Not Predator hot but still hot. Cute, funny, sensitive. Entirely nonthreatening. Beta male. Smiley. Four serious relationships. Doesn’t play around. He’s a little on the pudgy side, but I’ll bet he knows more than one way to stoke your fire.”
I groan. She laughs. The crowd cheers, but not for me.
After Jess leaves to flirt with Blade Saw, I lean against a pillar and focus again on the fight. The Predator is holding his opponent on the ground in a painful-looking submission, and by all appearances, he’s just waiting the guy out. Disappointing. I like a bit of action, and usually the Predator gives a good show.
Although he does nothing to play to the crowd, his gruff recalcitrance and the speed and ferocity with which he defeats his opponents have won him legions of fans. No fighter has ever moved up through the underground league as quickly as the Predator. And I’m sure no fighter has ever had a more secret or dedicated fan than me.
Miraculously, Tiny Tim breaks the Predator’s hold, rolls, and pushes himself to his feet. His freedom is short-lived. The Predator feints to the left and grabs Tiny Tim by the shoulders, using his momentum to carry him to the ground. Within seconds, he locks poor Tiny Tim in a quick triangle, his thigh against Tiny Tim’s throat. He pulls Tiny Tim’s arm across his body, tightening the hold, cutting off his air.
My breath leaves me in a rush and suddenly I’m Tiny Tim on the mat and the Predator has me in a different hold, his hand on my neck, his fingers splayed over my throat, forcing my head back. His grip is firm, but gentle, one finger resting in the hollow of my throat. My pulse kicks up a notch. Oh God. To be that vulnerable and not feel afraid. To trust. My ultimate fantasy.
Cheers echo through the boathouse, pulling me back to reality. From the camaraderie of the crowd to the glisten of bloodstained concrete, and from the sound of knees slamming into ribs to the crash of elbows against cheeks, nothing fires my blood or inspires my art as much as a good old down-and-dirty brawl. Nothing except the Predator himself.
Tiny Tim writhes and struggles, but in the end he succumbs, as all fighters do, to the power of the Predator.
The ref blows the whistle and raises the Predator’s arm in a victory salute. Moments later the Predator disappears behind the screens set up as a makeshift changing room.
Show’s over, folks. The Predator has left the building.
After saying good-bye to Jess, I leave through the side entrance and walk along the wharf toward my car. Water laps against the worn wooden pilings, and in the distance sea lions serenade the moon. Pausing for a moment to breathe in the salty scent of the ocean, I pull my leather jacket around me against the late-night autumn chill and tighten the red scarf around my neck.
And then he comes.
of a police siren and the glare of headlights destroy my peaceful moment in the dark. With an irritated snort, I turn and continue my walk along the wharf. I always feel brave after watching the Predator.
The police car pulls up beside me, and the window slides down with a grating squeak. Eyes focused on my drab gray Volvo, only fifty feet away, I keep walking. Maybe I’ll be able to make a clean getaway. He’s not going to engage in a high-speed chase with so many people around.
“Sia. Stop.” His voice hits me like one of the Predator’s punches, stealing my breath away. I hate that tone of voice—bossy, commanding. The last thing it makes me want to do is obey.
So I don’t.
When I hear the crunch of tires as the vehicle pulls over, I have to fight back the urge to run. It’s not that I’m afraid of being taken down, but I hate confrontation, and I can smell it coming like my mother can smell a lie.
The car door slams. Police-issue shoes thud behind me, shaking the wharf. Although I know what’s about to happen, I can’t stop my heart from beating that little bit faster. When a meaty paw clamps down on my shoulder, my breath catches in my throat. Steeling myself, I turn around and glare at my brother, Tag.
“Seriously? Did you have to use the siren? Why all the drama? Everyone will think I’m a criminal.”
My attempt to take control of the situation fails miserably in the face of Tag’s anger.
“What the hell are you doing here? I told you I never wanted to see you at an underground fight again. It’s after midnight, and you’re walking alone in the dark.”
Tag’s glowering face ruins my evening, as it has ruined many evenings in my life, from my first kiss, to my first fumble in the dark, to my abruptly terminated first time in the basement of my parents’ house when I was sixteen. Overprotective does not even begin to describe my older brother, and now that he’s a cop, I can run, but I can never hide.
“Well?” His hands find his hips, drawing my attention to the weapon holstered on his belt, an unconscious gesture I’m sure, but effective just the same.
“Well…” I am very selective about the opportunities in which I defy Tag, but watching the Predator fight is always worth the drama. Not that I would ever tell Tag that I’ve been crushing on his Redemption teammate for over a year. I like my life. Sort of.
“I have a lot of fighter clients, and I needed inspiration. I’ve gone to sanctioned fights, but they just don’t have the same ambience. My clients want gritty. They want real. They want something that reflects their primitive side. I can’t find it in a sanitized ring with ads plastered on every surface and so many rules most of the fights turn into boring grapples on the mat.”
Tag huffs and his cheeks redden, which means
in Tag-speak. Jess, who practically lived at my house after we met, is intimately familiar with Tag-speak and thinks he’s beyond cute when he’s angry. If I weren’t his sister, I’d probably say he is moderately handsome. Shorter and broader than the Predator, with a square jaw and warm brown eyes, he shaved his head when he joined the Oakland Police Department, and after six years, I’ve almost forgotten he used to have thick, dark hair like mine.
“Get in the vehicle.” He raises his voice so loud, heads turn. My cheeks heat. But his anger isn’t just coming from concern. Before he became a cop, he was a fighter and a damn good one. But he had to give it up because of me. And although it’s hard for him to teach at Redemption, it is harder for him to be here because he loves the underground fights most of all.
“I brought my Volvo.” I lean against the metal railing and sigh as the waves lap sympathetically against the wall below, sparkling under the light of the street lamp above me. Definitely not the car of my dreams, but safe, reliable, and acceptable to Tag, who helped me finance the deal.
His eyes narrow. “I don’t like you driving alone at night. I’ll take you home, and we’ll come back tomorrow to pick it up.”
“C’mon, Tag. I’m twenty-five years old, and you made me take every driving safety course in the known universe. I have no desire to ride home in the back of a police car like some vagrant you picked up off the street. I promise I’ll drive carefully.”
His jaw twitches and the pulse in his temple throbs as his foot taps an impatient beat on the cement. Uh-oh. Something else must have happened tonight because he’s about to lose it, and in a big way. Tag has one hell of a temper, but it takes a lot to get him riled.
“You know where I was all night?” He thuds his hand on the metal railing and the clang of his watch rings down the dock. “I spent the night at the crime scene of an eighteen-year-old girl who was—”
Anticipating what he’s about to say, I cut him off with a raised hand. “Stop. Please.”
But he doesn’t listen. He’s ranting now, his face a mask of pain. The pain is why he’s here. It’s a pain he never should have been burdened with and one he should never have to experience again. Pain I gave him.
Turning away, I look out over the water, trying to tune him out, but I catch a few words I didn’t want to hear:
. He knows I don’t want to hear this. He knows it brings back the nightmares. Whatever he saw tonight must have been bad, because Tag has never been anything but sympathetic and understanding about what happened to me.
I focus on my breathing, just like my therapist taught me to do in times of crisis. In and out. I hear nothing but the sound of my breath. I see nothing but inky black waves. I feel nothing but a gentle stroke on my cheek.
Looking up, I see the Predator with one hand on Tag’s shoulder and the other drifting away from my cheek.
My breath catches as I stare at my savior—strong jaw, dark with a five o’clock shadow; rough craggy face; and eyes as deep and blue as the twilight sky. Eyes that have haunted my dreams for almost a year. The face of my every fantasy.