Hard Knocks: An Ultimate Novella

In the stunning prequel novella to her new mixed martial
arts series,
New York Times
bestselling author Lori
Foster brings together an elite fighter and the woman he’s determined to win

Power. Brute strength. Unforgettable moves. It’s no wonder
Harper Gates hasn’t been able to get her fling with Gage “Savage” Ringer out of
her head. Months have passed since she laid eyes—or any other body parts—on him.
Months without a word of contact…until, sidelined by injury, he comes back to
town.

Staying focused on his training seemed like a smart move to
Gage, even if he thought about Harper every day. Seeing her again only makes it
clear how much is at stake. He’s got one night to earn back her trust. One night
to show her that behind his breathtaking skill and ripped body is a man who’ll
give her everything she needs.

Don’t miss
No Limits
, the first novel in
Lori Foster’s Ultimate series.

Hard Knocks: An Ultimate Novella

Lori Foster

Dear Reader,

Many of you have asked me to return to the MMA—mixed martial arts—world in my storytelling. We think alike! I’m so pleased to give you
Hard Knocks
, a prequel to help introduce you to my new Ultimate series featuring sexy alpha fighters who, despite strict training and grueling schedules, find the time for true love.

Be sure to watch for the first full-length novel,
No Limits
, out next!

I hope you enjoy
Hard Knocks!
Feel free to let me know. You can always reach me via social media like Facebook and Twitter, or email me using the links on my website at
www.lorifoster.com
.

Happy reading!
Lori Foster

About the Author

Lori
Foster
is a
New York Times
,
USA TODAY
and
Publishers Weekly
bestselling author with books from a variety of publishers, including Berkley/Jove, Kensington, St. Martin’s, Harlequin and Silhouette. Lori has been a recipient of the prestigious
RT Book Reviews
Career Achievement Award for Series Romantic Fantasy, and for Contemporary Romance. For more about Lori, visit her website at
www.lorifoster.com
.

CHAPTER ONE

G
AGE
R
INGER
,
BETTER
known as Savage in the fight world, prowled the interior of the rec center. His stride was long, his thoughts dark, but he kept his expression enigmatic to hide his turmoil from onlookers. He didn’t want to be here tonight. He’d rather be home, suffering his bad mood alone instead of covering up his regret, forced to pretend it didn’t matter. His disappointment was private, damn it, and he didn’t want to advertise it to the world. Shit happened.

It had happened to him. So what?

Life went on. There would be other fights, other opportunities. Only a real wimp would sit around bellyaching about what could have been, but wasn’t. Not him. Not publicly anyway.

Tonight the rec center would overflow with bodies of all shapes, sizes and ages—all there for different reasons.

Cannon Coulter owned the rec center. It was a part of Cannon’s life, a philanthropic endeavor that, no matter how big Cannon got, how well-known he became in the Supreme Battle Championship fight world, would always be important to him.

Armie Jacobson, another fighter who helped run the rec center whenever Cannon had to travel for his career, had planned a long night of fun. Yay.

Not.

At least, not for Gage.

Earlier they’d had a party for the kids too young to stick around and watch the pay-per-view event that night on the big screen. One of Cannon’s sponsors had contributed the massive wall-mounted TV to the center.

So that they wouldn’t feel left out, Armie had organized fun activities for the younger kids that had included food, games and some one-on-one play with the fighters who frequented the rec center, using it as a gym.

With the kiddie party now wrapping up, the more mature crowd would soon arrive, mixing and mingling while watching the fights.

The rec center had originally opened with very little. Cannon and some of his friends had volunteered to work with at-risk youths from the neighborhood to give them an outlet. They started with a speed bag, a heavy bag, some mats and a whole lot of donated time and energy.

But as Cannon’s success had grown, so too had the rec center. Not only had Cannon added improvements, but his sponsors loved to donate anything and everything that carried their brand so that now the size of the place had doubled, and they had all the equipment they needed to accommodate not only a training camp for skilled fighters, but also dozens of boys, and a smattering of girls, of all ages.

Gage heard a distinctly female laugh and his gaze automatically went to Harper Gates.

So she had arrived.

Without meaning to, he inhaled more deeply, drawing in a calming breath. Yeah, Harper did that to him.

He watched as Harper assisted Armie in opening up folding chairs around the mats. Together they filled up every available speck of floor space. She stepped around a few of the youths who were still underfoot, racing around, wrestling—basically letting off steam with adult supervision, which beat the hell out of them hanging on street corners, susceptible to the thugs who crawled out of the shadows as the sun went down.

Gage caught one boy as he recklessly raced past. He twirled him into the air, then held him upside down. The kid squealed with laughter, making Gage smile, too.

“You’re moving awfully fast,” Gage told him.

Bragging, the boy said, “I’m the fastest one here!”

“And humble, too,” he teased.

The boy blinked big owl eyes at him while grinning, showing two missing teeth. He was six years old, rambunctious, and considered the rec center a second home.

“I need you to take it easy, okay? If you’re going to roughhouse, keep it on the mats.”

“’Kay, Savage.”

Gage glanced at a clock on the wall. The younger crowd would be heading out in a few more minutes. Still holding the boy suspended, he asked, “Who’s taking you home?”

“My gram is comin’ in her van and takin’ all of us.”

“Good.” Luckily the grandmother was reliable, because the parents sure as hell weren’t. And no way did Gage want the boys walking home. The rec center was in a decent enough area, but where the boys lived...

The kid laughed as Gage flipped him around and put him back on his feet.

Like a shot, he took off toward Miles, who was already surrounded by boys as he rounded them up.

Grandma would arrive soon. She’d probably appreciate how the kids had been exercised in the guise of play, schooled on control and manners, and fed. The boys always ate like they were starving. But then, Gage remembered being that age and how he could pack it away.

Briefly, his gaze met Harper’s, and damn it, he felt it, that charged connection that had always existed between them. She wore a silly smile that, despite his dark mood, made him want to smile, too.

But as they looked at each other, she deliberately wiped the smile away. Pretending she hadn’t seen him at all, she got back to work.

Gage grunted. He had no idea what had gotten into her, but in his current frame of mind, better that he just let it go for now.

Very shortly, the most dedicated fight fans would arrive to catch the prelims. By the time the main card started, drawing a few high school seniors, some interested neighbors and the other fighters, there’d be bodies in all the chairs, sprawled on the mats and leaning up against the concrete walls. Equipment had been either moved out of the way or stored for the night.

This was a big deal. One of their own was competing tonight.

The high school guys were looking forward to a special night where they’d get to mingle more with their favorite fighters.

A dozen or more women were anxious to do some mingling of their own.

Armie, the twisted hedonist, had been judicious in handing out the invites: some very hot babes would be in attendance, women who’d already proven their “devotion” to fighters.

Gage couldn’t have cared less. If he hadn’t been fucked by karma, he’d be there in Japan, too. He didn’t feel like celebrating, damn it. He didn’t want to expose anyone to his nasty disposition.

The very last thing he wanted was a female groupie invading his space.

Actually, he’d been so caught up in training, he’d been away from female company for some time now. You’d think he’d be anxious to let off steam in the best way known to man.

But whenever he thought of sex...

Harper laughed again, and Gage set his back teeth even while sneaking a peek to see what she found so funny. Armie said something to her, and she swatted at him while smiling widely.

Gage did a little more teeth grinding.

Like most of the fighters, Armie understood Gage’s preoccupation and ignored him. Now if he would just ignore Harper, too, Gage could get back to brooding.

Instead, he was busy thinking of female company—but there was only one woman who crowded his brain.

And for some reason, she seemed irritated with him.

His dark scowl made the stitches above his eye pull and pinch, drawing his thoughts from one problem and back to another.

One stupid mistake, one botched move during practice, and he had an injury that got him kicked out of the competition.

Damn it all, he didn’t want to be here tonight, but if he hadn’t shown up, he’d have looked sad and pathetic.

“Stop pacing,” Harper said from right behind him. “It makes you look sad and pathetic.”

Hearing his concern thrown right back at him, Gage’s left eye twitched. Leave it to Harper to know his exact thoughts and to use them as provocation. But then, he had to admit, she provoked him so well....

He’d missed the fights. And he’d missed Harper.

The only upside to heading home had been getting to see her. But since his return three days ago, she’d given him his space—space he wanted, damn it, just maybe not from her. At the very least, she could have
wanted
to see him, instead of treating him like one of the guys.

Relishing a new focus, Gage paused, planning what he’d say to her.

She didn’t give him a chance to say anything.

With a hard whap to his ass, she walked on by and sashayed down the hall to the back.

Gage stood there, the sting of her swat ramping up his temper...and something else. Staring after her, he suffered the sizzling clench of emotions that always surfaced whenever Harper got close—which, since he’d returned home with his injury, had been rare.

He’d known her for years—grown up with her, in fact—and had always enjoyed her. Her wit. Her conversation. Her knowledge of mixed martial arts competition.

Her cute bod.

They’d recently taken their friendship to the next level, dating, spending more private time together. He’d enjoyed the closeness...

But he’d yet to enjoy her naked.

Time and circumstances had conspired against him on that one. Just when things had been heating up with Harper, just when it seemed she was ready to say “yes” instead of “not yet,” he’d been offered the fight on the main card in Japan. He’d fought with the SBC before. He wasn’t a newbie.

But always in the prelims, never on the highly publicized, more important main card. Never with such an anticipated event.

In a whirlwind, he’d gone off to a different camp to train with Cannon, getting swept up in the publicity and interviews that went with a main card bout...

Until, just a few lousy days ago—
so fucking close—
he’d miscalculated in practice and sustained a deep cut from his sparring partner’s elbow.

A cut very near his eye that required fifteen stitches.

It made him sick to think of how quickly he’d been pronounced medically ineligible. Before he’d even caught his breath the SBC had picked his replacement.

That lucky bastard was now in Japan, ready to compete.

And Gage was left in Ohio. Instead of fighting for recognition, he fought his demons—
and got tweaked by Harper.

He went after her, calling down the empty hallway, “I am not pathetic.”

From inside a storage room, he heard her loud “Ha!” of disagreement.

Needing a target for his turbulent emotions and deciding Harper was perfect—in every way—he strode into the room.

And promptly froze.

Bent at the waist, Harper had her sexy ass in the air while she pulled disposable cups off the bottom shelf.

His heart skipped a beat. Damn, she was so hot. Except for bad timing, he’d be more familiar with that particular,
very perfect
part of her anatomy.

Not sleeping with her was yet another missed opportunity, one that plagued him more now that he didn’t have the draining distraction of an upcoming fight. His heart started punching a little too hard. Anger at his circumstances began to morph into red-hot lust as he considered the possibilities.

But then, whenever he thought of Harper, lust was the least confusing of his emotions.

Now that he was home, he’d hoped to pick up where they’d left off. Only Harper had antagonism mixed with her other, more welcoming signals, so he had to proceed with caution.

“What are you doing?” he asked, because that sounded better than saying,
“Damn, girl, I love your ass.”

Still in that tantalizing position, she peeked back at him, her brown hair swinging around her face, her enormous blue eyes direct. With her head down that way, blood rushed to her face and made her freckles more noticeable.

There were nights he couldn’t sleep for wondering about all the places she might have freckles. Many times he’d imagined stripping those clothes off her, piece by piece, so he could investigate all her more secret places.

Like him, she was a conservative dresser. Despite working at a secondhand boutique clothing store she always looked casual and comfortable. Her jeans and T-shirts gave an overview of sweet curves, but he’d love to get lost in the details if he could ever get her naked.

She straightened with two big boxes in her hands. “Armie had small juice containers out for the kids, but of course adults are going to want something different to drink. Same with the snacks. So I’m changing up the food spread.”

Due to her schedule at the boutique, Harper had been unable to attend the party with the youngsters, but she’d sent in snacks ahead of time. She had a knack for creating healthy treats that looked fun and got gobbled up. Some of the options had looked really tasty, but if she wanted to switch them out, he could at least help her.

She glanced at the slim watch on her wrist. “Lots to do before everyone shows up for the prelims.”

Since pride kept him at the rec center anyway... “What can I do to help?”

Her smile came slow and teasing. “All kinds of things, actually. Or—wait—do you mean with the setup?”

“I...what?” Was that a come-on? He couldn’t tell for sure—nothing new with Harper. Clearly she’d been pissed at him about something, but now, at her provocative words, his dick perked up with hopes of reconciliation.

Snickering, she walked up to him, gave him a hip bump, then headed out of the room. “Come on, big boy. You can give me a hand with the folding tables.”

As confusion warred with disgruntlement, he trailed after her. “All right, fine.” Then he thought to remind her, “But I’m not pathetic.”

Turning to face him, she walked backward. “Hit home with that one, did I?”

“No.”
Yes.

“I can help you to fake it if you want.”

Despite the offhand way she tossed that out, it still sounded suggestive as hell. “Watch where you’re going.” Gage reached out, caught her arm and kept her from tripping over the edge of a mat.

Now that he had ahold of her, he decided to hang on. Where his fingers wrapped around her arm just above her elbow, she was soft and sleek and he couldn’t stop his thumb from playing over the warm silk of her skin.

“Thanks,” she said a little breathlessly, facing forward again and treading on.

“So.” Though he walked right beside her, Gage couldn’t resist leaning back a bit to watch the sway of her behind. “How would we fake it? Not that I need to fake shit, but you’ve got me curious.”

Laughing, she leaned into him, smiled up at him, and damn it, he wanted her.
Bad.

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