All the frustration I’ve worked off over the past two hours comes flooding back at the sight of Lena—furious expression, sassy walk, and all. Her cheeks are flushed with anger and her eyes may as well be shooting laser beams straight at me. Her lips move, but I don’t hear the words. My blood has redirected from my big head to my generously proportioned smaller one. Fuck, she’s hot when she’s mad.
She thumps me in the chest, and I scarcely notice. Her fists are tiny. She could probably punch me in the nose and not even crack the bone. Her eyes narrow, and she gets up in my face—a hard ask when she’s several inches shorter than me.
“Do you think this is funny?” she asks, jabbing me in the chest with her free hand. I glance down and see she’s holding a magazine. With a sinking sensation, I take it from her and hold it up so I can see the cover. It’s a photograph from yesterday, of me standing over Erin like a brute. The headline screams at me, and I show Gabe, then shove the magazine into Lena’s hands, sick to my stomach. I won’t read it. I already know it’s full of vitriolic bullshit, and I don’t even blame the reporter for spouting it. I handed the media a gold mine by going after Erin. I’ve made her the poster child for standing up in the face of domestic abuse, with me cast in the role of monster.
Lena was right all along. This is serious.
“There are others,” she says, in case I’m holding out any hope that the story has been picked up by a lone tabloid. Closing my eyes, I mutter a stream of curses, growing more creative with each one.
“Hey, brother.” Gabe claps me on the shoulder, which nearly knocks me over since his forearms are covered by heavy kick pads. “You can get past this.” He turns to Lena. “You can fix this, right? That’s what he hired you for?”
Lena releases a long, slow breath. I can sense her hesitation, and it fuels a desperation deep within me. I worked fucking hard to get to where I am. It’s not possible that a selfish girl with a taste for the spotlight could take it away so easily, is it?
“Please.” I grab her free hand between both of mine even though she has a perfect manicure and my gloves are soaked with sweat and completely disgusting. “You’ve gotta try.”
She stares at me, some of her hostility fading, and nibbles on her lower lip. Finally, an excruciatingly long moment later, she says, “You just made my job so much more difficult. I hope you understand that.”
“Trust me, Lena,” Gabe adds. “He may come across as a douche, but he’s not a stupid one. He knows he fucked up.” He shucks his pads and stands shoulder to shoulder with me, the both of us facing her down. This doesn’t seem to intimidate her as it might others. It fires her up. She flicks her sexy red hair over her shoulder and gives us a single, firm nod.
“Well, okay then. Glad we know where we stand.” There’s a brief moment when I think she’s going to move on without rubbing salt in the wound. Then the moment passes. “For the record, I’ve met mushrooms with more forethought than you.”
Should have known she wouldn’t let me off so easily. I suppose if she wants to compare me to fungi, at least it’s a tasty one.
“If we’re going to do this, you need to be a whole lot more open with me. I want no-holds-barred access to your life, Jase. I ask a question, you answer it immediately and truthfully. I make a suggestion, you do everything within your power to make it happen. If you want to climb out of this hole you’ve dug, I need your complete and total commitment. Think you can manage that, fighter boy?”
“That’s fighter man to you.” I can’t resist needling her, and her face screws up the way I knew it would. “But yeah, I’ll do what you say and I’ll accept any help I can get.”
“Good.” Her lips purse, and she seems to have run out of steam. I can see her mentally switching from bulldozer mode to thinking mode, calculating our next steps, figuring out how to get ahead of this, and for the first time, I feel like maybe she’s on my side. Maybe she’s actually invested in me.
The next question out of her mouth is one I don’t see coming. “Is there any truth to Erin’s story?”
“No,” Gabe and I answer at the same time.
“Okay,” she nods, accepting our reply at face value, and I can still see the information running through her mind and being processed. She has a shit poker face, but that’s beside the point. This woman is actually listening to what I have to say and taking it on board. Is she for real?
Her belief in me—if that’s what it is—feels good. Like, unreasonably good. I want to grab her around the waist and twirl her in the air, or take her face between my palms and kiss her irresistible ruby lips. When another ten seconds pass without her saying anything snarky, I’m halfway tempted to strip her clothes off and bang her on the floor, audience be damned.
Finally, she comes to a decision. “There are some things I need to take care of. I’ll be in touch with you later.”
Her hand is still in my grasp, and I squeeze it. “Thanks.” My voice is raspy with emotion, and I cough to clear it. Goddamn it, I am not a pussy.
She studies me, and I’m not sure what she sees, but she seems to like it. “You’re welcome, fighter man.”
My lips quirk up. “You know what I think?”
She tugs her hand away and places it on her hip. “Do I want to know?”
Ah, there’s my mouthy girl. “I think you like me.” She starts to scowl, but I barrel on. “I think you care what happens to me.”
“Do not,” she says, a deep blush traveling down to the neckline of her shirt. With a complexion like that, I bet her entire body blushes, and I want to tear her blouse in half to find out. “I care about keeping my career on track.”
“Uh-huh.” I give her a cocky grin that I know will rile her more. “You tell yourself that, cutie pie.”
She huffs. “You’re insufferable.” Then she whirls around and marches away, the curve of her butt bouncing with each step.
When she’s gone, Gabe whistles under his breath. “Man, she’s something.”
I punch him in the gut, hard enough to sting but not hurt. “Eyes to yourself. She’s not here for your viewing pleasure.”
He guffaws. “That doesn’t stop you.”
“I don’t need you pointing out my hypocrisy.” I stretch my legs and shake them, refusing to analyze why the thought of anyone else checking Lena out makes me want to wrap my arm around the asshole’s throat—friend or not. “Let’s get back to training.”