He may have been a fighter, but Thomas hit a lot harder than he did. This was going to be cake.
I smiled and held up my index finger. “That’s your one.”
Benny’s unrestrained laughter filled the room while I finished his goon off. My elbow landed in the center of Dane’s face, knocking him out before he hit the ground.
“Amazing young man! Simply amazing!” Benny said, clapping with delight.
Immediately I grabbed for Abby, pulling her behind me when Josiah filled the doorway with his massive frame.
“Should I take care of this, sir?” Josiah asked. His voice was deep but innocent, as if he was just doing the only job he was good at, and didn’t truly desire to hurt either of us.
“No! No, no . . . ,” Benny said, still giddy with the impromptu performance. “What is your name?”
“Travis Maddox,” I said between breaths. I wiped Dane’s and David’s blood off of my hands and onto my jeans.
“Travis Maddox, I believe you can help your little girlfriend out.”
“How’s that?” I puffed.
“Dane was supposed to fight tomorrow night. I had a lot of cash riding on him, and it doesn’t look like Dane will be fit to win a fight anytime soon. I suggest you take his place, make my bankroll for me, and I’ll forgive the remaining fifty-one hundred of Mick’s debt.”
I turned to Abby. “Pigeon?”
“Are you all right?” she asked, wiping the blood from my face. She bit her lip, her face crumpling around her mouth. Her eyes filled with tears.
“It’s not my blood, baby. Don’t cry.”
Benny stood. “I’m a busy man, son. Pass or play?”
“I’ll do it,” I said. “Give me the when and where and I’ll be there.”
“You’ll be fighting Brock McMann. He’s no wallflower. He was barred from the UFC last year.”
I knew the name. “Just tell me where I need to be.”
Benny gave me the information, then a shark’s grin spread across his face. “I like you, Travis. I think we’ll be good friends.”
“I doubt it,” I said. I opened the door for Abby and sustained a protective stance beside her until we cleared the front door.
“Jesus Christ!” America cried upon seeing the splattered blood covering my clothing. “Are you guys okay?” She grabbed Abby’s shoulders and scanned her face.
“I’m okay. Just another day at the office. For both of us,” Abby said, wiping her eyes.
With her hand in mine, we rushed to the hotel, with Shepley and America close behind.
The only people that seemed to notice my blood-spattered clothes was the kid in the elevator.
Once we were all back in my and Abby’s room, I stripped down and went into the bathroom to wash the sleaze off me.
“What in the hell happened in there?” Shepley finally asked.
I could hear their voices murmuring as I stood under the water, recalling the last hour. As scary as it was for Abby to be in such real danger, it felt fucking amazing to unleash on Benny’s two goons David and Dane. It was like the best drug in existence.
I wondered if they had come to yet, or if Benny just had them dragged outside and left in the alley.
A strange calm came over me. Pummeling Benny’s men was an outlet for every bit of anger and frustration that had accumulated over the years, and now I almost felt normal.
“I’m gonna kill him! I’m going to kill that sorry son of a bitch!” America shouted.
I shut off the shower and wrapped a towel around my waist.
“One of the guys I knocked out had a fight tomorrow night,” I said to Shepley. “I’m taking his place and in return Benny will forgive the last five K Mick owes.”
America stood up. “This is ridiculous! Why are we helping Mick, Abby? He threw you to the wolves! I’m going to kill him!”
“Not if I kill him first,” I seethed.
“Get in line,” Abby said.
Shepley shifted nervously. “So you’re fighting tomorrow?”
I nodded once. “At a place called Zero’s. Six o’clock. It’s Brock McMann, Shep.”
Shepley shook his head. “No way. No fucking way, Trav. The guy’s a maniac!”
“Yeah,” I said, “but he’s not fighting for his girl, is he?” I took Abby in my arms, kissing the top of her hair. She was still trembling. “You okay, Pigeon?”
“This is wrong. This is wrong on so many levels. I don’t know which one to talk you out of first.”
“Did you not see me tonight? I’m going to be fine. I’ve seen Brock fight before. He’s tough, but not unbeatable.”
“I don’t want you to do this, Trav.”
“Well, I don’t want you to go to dinner with your ex-boyfriend tomorrow night. I guess we both have to do something unpleasant to save your good-for-nothing father.”
SHEPLEY SAT BESIDE ME ON A BENCH IN A SMALL BUT well-lit room. It was the first time I wouldn’t walk out into a basement for a staged fight. The audience would consist of the shadow people of Vegas: locals, mobsters, drug dealers, and their arm candy. The crowd outside was a dark army, exponentially louder, and far more thirsty for blood. I would be surrounded by a cage instead of people.
“I still don’t think you should do this,” America said from the other side of the room.
“Not now, baby,” Shepley said. He was helping me wrap tape around my hands.
“Are you nervous?” she asked, uncharacteristically quiet.
“No. I’d be better if Pidge was here, though. Have you heard from her?”
“I’ll text her. She’ll be here.”
“Did she love him?” I asked, wondering what their dinner conversation consisted of. He was obviously no preacher man now, and I wasn’t sure what he expected in return for his favor.
“No,” America said. “She never said so, anyway. They grew up together, Travis. He was the only person she could count on for a long time.”
I wasn’t sure if that made me feel better or worse. “Did she text you back yet?”
“Hey,” Shepley said, smacking my cheek. “Hey! You have Brock McMann waiting for you. Your head needs to be in this one hundred percent. Quit being a pussy and focus!”
I nodded, trying to remember the few times I’d seen Brock fight. He’d been banned from the UFC for sucker punches and a rumor that he’d accosted the UFC president. It had been a while, but he was a notoriously dirty fighter and pulled blatantly illegal shit just out of sight of the ref. The key would be to not get in that position. If he locked his legs around me, it could go downhill pretty fast.
“You’re gonna play this safe, Trav. Let him attack first. Kind of the same way you fought the night you were trying to win your bet with Abby. You’re not fighting some varsity wrestling reject. This isn’t the Circle, and you’re not trying to create a show for the crowd.”
“The hell if I’m not.”
“You’ve gotta win, Travis. You’re fighting for Abby, don’t forget that.”
I nodded. Shepley was right. If I lost, Benny wouldn’t get his money, and Abby would still be in danger.
A tall, large man in a suit and greasy hair walked in. “You’re up. Your trainer can join you on the outside of the cage, but the girls . . . where’s the other girl?”
A lined formed between my eyebrows. “She’s coming.”
“. . . they have reserved seats on the end of the second row on your corner.”
Shepley turned back to America. “I’ll walk you there.” He looked to the suit. “Nobody touches her. I will fucking kill the first person that does.”
The suit offered a ghost of a smile. “Benny already said no distractions. We’ll have eyes on her at all times.”
Shepley nodded, and then held out his hand for America. She took it, and they quietly followed me through the door.
The announcers amplified voice echoed through huge speakers placed at each corner of the vast room. It looked like a small concert hall, easily seating a thousand people, and they were all on their feet, either cheering or eyeing me suspiciously as I walked out.
The gate to the cage opened, and I stepped inside.
Shepley watched the suit seat America, and once he was satisfied that she was okay, turned to me. “Remember: play it smart. Let him attack first, and the goal is to win for Abby.”
Seconds later, music blared from the speakers, and both the motion and volume from the stands exploded into a frenzy. Brock McMann emerged from a hallway as a spotlight in the rafters illuminated the severe expression on his face. He had an entourage that kept the spectators at bay while he bounced up and down to stay loose. I figured he’d probably been training for this fight for weeks if not months.
That was okay. I’d been beat up by my brothers my whole life. I’d had plenty of training.
I turned to check in with America. She shrugged, and I frowned. The biggest fight of my life was minutes away, and Abby wasn’t there. Just when I turned to watch Brock enter the cage, I heard Shepley’s voice.
“Travis! Travis! She’s here!”
I turned, desperately searching for Abby, to see her running down the steps at full speed. She stopped just short of the cage, slamming her hands into the chain-link to stop herself.
“I’m here! I’m here,” she breathed.
We kissed through the space between the fence, and she held my face in her hands with the few fingers she could fit through. “I love you.” She shook her head. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”
I smiled. “Yeah, I do.”
“Let’s do this, Romeo. I don’t have all night,” Brock called from the other side.
I didn’t turn around, but Abby glanced over my shoulder. When she caught sight of Brock, her cheeks flushed with anger, and her expression turned cold. Less than a second later, her eyes returned to mine, warming again. She smiled an impish grin.
“Teach that asshole some manners.”
I winked at her and smiled. “Anything for you, baby.”
Brock met me in the center of the ring, toe to toe.
“Be smart!” Shepley yelled.
I leaned over to whisper in Brock’s ear. “I just want you to know I’m a big fan, even though you’re kind of a prick and a cheat. So don’t take it personally when you get KTFO’d tonight.”
Brock’s square jaws worked violently under the skin, and his eyes lit up—not with anger, but with stunned confusion.
“Be smart, Travis!” Shepley yelled again, seeing the look in my eyes.
The bell sounded, and I immediately attacked. Using every bit of force, I let the same fury free that I’d unleashed on Benny’s goons.
Brock stumbled backward, trying to position himself to guard or kick me, but I gave him no time, using both of my fists to run him into the ground.
It was an extraordinary release not to hold back. Relishing the pure adrenaline ripping through me, I forgot myself, and Brock dodged my blow, coming back with a right hook. His throws had a lot more bite than the amateurs I went up against at school—and it was fucking awesome. Fighting Brock brought back memories of some of the more serious disagreements I’d had with my brothers, when words escalated to an ass whipping.
I felt right at home trading punches with Brock; in that moment, my rage had a purpose and a place.
Each time Brock’s fists landed a blow, it only served to amp up my adrenaline, and I could feel my already powerful punches picking up more steam.
He tried to wrestled me to the ground, but I planted my feet in a squatlike position, stabilizing myself against his desperate movements to throw me off balance. While he thrashed around, my clenched hand made contact with his head, ears, and temple numerous times.
The once white tape around my knuckles was now crimson, but I felt no pain, only the sheer pleasure of unleashing every negative emotion that had weighed me down for so long. I remembered how relaxing it felt to beat the hell out of Benny’s men. Win or lose, I looked forward to what kind of person I would be after this fight.
The referee, Shepley, and Brock’s trainer surrounded me, pulling me off of my opponent.
“Bell, Travis! Stop!” Shepley said.
Shepley dragged me to one corner, and Brock was pulled to the other. I turned to look at Abby. She was wringing her hands together, but her wide smile told me she was okay. I winked at her, and she blew me a kiss. The gesture reenergized me, and I returned to the middle of the cage with renewed determination.
Once the bell rang, I attacked again, this time taking more care to dodge just as many times as I threw a punch. Once or twice, Brock wrapped his arms around me, breathing hard, and tried to bite me or knee me in the balls. I’d just push him off and hit him harder.
In the third round, Brock stumbled, swung or kicked and missed. He was running out of steam fast. Feeling winded myself, I was taking more breaks between swings. The adrenaline that had once surged through my body felt tapped out, and my head was beginning to pound.
Brock landed a punch, and then another. I blocked a third, and then, ready for it to end, went in for the kill. With my remaining strength, I dodged Brock’s knee and then swung around, planting my elbow straight into his nose. His head flew back, looking straight upward, he took a few steps, and then fell to the ground.
The noise from the crowd was deafening, but I could only hear one voice.
“Oh my God! Yes! Yay, baby!” Abby screamed.
The referee checked Brock, and then walked over to me, lifting my hand. Shepley, America, and Abby were all let into the cage, and they swarmed me. I picked up Abby and planted my lips on hers.
“You did it,” she said, cupping my face in her hands.
The celebration was cut short when Benny and a fresh batch of bodyguards entered the cage. I set Abby on her feet, and took a defensive stance in front of her.