Almost two decades of boxing couldn’t prepare Clayton for the biggest fight of his life—one that put love on the line.
Boxing had been Clayton James’ life for nearly twenty years, but the threat of a serious injury if he continued to fight forced him into retirement. Refusing to be down for the count, he carried his love of the sport into a new career as the owner of a gym. But low membership and a tightly stretched bank account mean he’s faced with closing his doors—or taking one more match to save his business.
The bullying that Tyler Kirk thought he’d left behind in high school not only managed to carry over into college but also seemed worse. Being older than the average student because of the years he’d taken off to rehabilitate his sister after the accident that robbed them of their parents didn’t lessen the attacks he faced. His chance to find peace was in the meaty hands of the finely chiseled and sexy-as-hell owner of the gym he hoped could give him self-defense training.
Neither man expected the adversarial start of their relationship to melt into something that quenched Clayton’s long-neglected need and one that Tyler wasn’t even aware he had. Nor could they prepare for the intense sexual chemistry that flowed between them to quickly morph their training schedule into a hot and heavy hookup routine.
But the risks of Clayton’s final match are amplified when it’s no longer simply his health and well-being on the line but also the love of a good man and the promise of family.
Reader advisory: This book contains references to a fatal car crash, as well as homophobic violence and bullying.
General Release Date: 26th May 2020
Sweat rolled down my body and landed on the floor around me. With every switch kick I made to the heavy bag, the familiar thrumming of pleasure ran through me. The steady drop in membership, the red ‘past due’ stamps on my bills and my slow fade into obscurity all disappeared as endorphins sang through my veins. This would always be my life’s blood, even if I was retired.
I snorted to myself as I alternated between kicks and jabs that made the vinyl cylinder swing from the ceiling with each assault. Retired. I was thirty-five years old and I carried such a ridiculous fucking title as ‘retired.’
Thirty-five years on the earth, but the proud owner of a broken body that is much, much older, my stupid, logical brain reminded me.
With one final roundhouse to the bag, I peeled the Velcro on my grappling gloves and tossed them into the bin. Water. I needed water and a towel.
On my way to my office, I noticed a skinny kid with glasses standing at the front desk looking awkward, uncomfortable—and directly at my bare chest, his mouth hanging wide.
Water, a towel and a shirt, I amended the list of needs in my head. “Hey, Joey!” I called for my gym manager and best friend as I tugged open the office door so inconveniently located right behind the reception area. “Help out the guy at the front counter, will ya?”
I spun at the single, snarled word and drew my brows together. “Excuse me?”
He folded his wiry arms across his chest. “You told your little lackey to come help ‘the guy’ at the counter.”
Did he seriously just make air quotes?
“But I have a name—and it’s Tyler.”
That was the exact moment Joey chose to reappear from whatever hole he had been hiding in, no doubt sexting his latest conquest—or doing anything other than manning the front desk like he was supposed to. If the asshole wasn’t my best friend and hadn’t managed to inadvertently open the door to the career I loved…
“Joey, this is Tyler. Tyler, this is Joey. He is the manager and can get you whatever you need,” I offered with forced politeness.
I knew I was being a dick, exaggerating the introductions like that—and if I wasn’t fully aware of it, Joey’s amused grin confirmed it—but the kid annoyed me. All I wanted was water. Was it too much to fucking ask to get that?
“Sure thing, boss.” Joey leaned his dark forearms on the thick wooden slab separating him from the kid. “What can I help you with, Tyler?”
The boy rolled his almost indecipherable eyes—which were hidden by the thick, plastic frames—heavenward. “I’m a newbie at a gym? What the hell do you think you can help me with?”
I shut my door just as Joey began to employ his ‘placate the customer’ tone. It was why he handled the public and I simply created training plans. I scrubbed the navy terry cloth against my skin as I attempted to mop up the rivers of sweat running down my body, criss-crossing through the valleys between my muscles. In that respect, I was in perfect physical condition. Each contour was toned and defined to damn near perfection.
But my head…
My head and my neck were vulnerable, and no hardcore exercises or interval training would strengthen those. Neither could be fixed.
So I’d been left with one of two choices—risk the next opponent’s blow turning my brain to mush and potentially making me a paraplegic or retire. After a length of time deciding that had made my doctors question my sanity and my agent need about two additional blood pressure medications added to his regimen, I’d taken the shittiest fucking option and exited the ring, which meant I’d had to relinquish my title as I left.
After pulling open the door, I grabbed a bottle of water from the compact refrigerator beneath my desk and chugged it. The frustration-fueled workout had been invigorating, but I knew I’d pushed a little too far without hydrating. I drained a second bottle before my tongue no longer stuck to the roof of my mouth.
I tugged the fitted gray shirt, emblazoned with my logo—CJ Gym & Boxing Club—over my head. The initial success of my brand had lulled me into a false sense of security. The novelty of being trained by a former world boxing champ must have worn off and my membership list was showing it.
My gym was floundering and I fucking missed fighting.
I’d spent the past two years since my retirement looking for some great meaning to life—both personally and professionally—and had come up empty-handed. I’d found no perfect man, no white picket fence and now even my business was in jeopardy.
Raised voices pulled me out of the dark thoughts clawing to the front of my mind from the far periphery where I mostly kept them banished. Joey had never, not once, lost his cool with a potential client, but the step-by-step elevation of his deep baritone was unmistakable.
“Listen, kid… I don’t know what you think we do here, but we aren’t going to train you to be a vigilante, we aren’t going to teach you how to kill a man with one blow and we sure as hell won’t be showing you the ropes of how to pulverize some unsuspecting classmate with a sneak attack from behind.”
I paused at the door for a moment, the embellishments on the silver handle pressing into my hand. Is he still talking to that nerdy guy? I shook my head and turned the knob. Impossible.
Or not so impossible. Tyler couldn’t be more than five-foot-eight and was completely dwarfed by Joey’s six-five frame, but still they stood locked in a verbal standoff. I’d be more tempted to laugh if the kid hadn’t been shaking with rage. His pale skin was an ugly, mottled red.
I was the last person who should be dealing with a testy customer, but I stood next to Joey, folding my arms in front of me and gripping each elbow. “Is there something I can do to help?”
Tyler slapped his palms against the smooth oak surface that separated us. “Yeah. Tell André the Giant here that there’s no good reason for him to try to stop me from joining and taking some one-on-one training classes.”
“There is a good reason when you tell me that you want to fuck up some guys at your school. That’s not what we do here.” Joey overly enunciated each word between gritted teeth.
With a mirthless laugh, Tyler snatched the glasses off his face, revealing a ring of purple surrounding his piercing green eyes. “I’m short, I’m skinny and I’m gay. This is about surviving college.”
Oh shit. He was a kid…in college. So the wave of warmth that had washed over me when Tyler had gaped at my bare chest and the itch of my fingers to run through his dark, wavy hair were both completely inappropriate.
He snorted, his gaze sweeping up to meet mine. He lingered on the ink of my exposed forearms for a second longer than any other part of me. Fuck, I shouldn’t like that.
“So whaddaya say, Hulk?”
I blinked slowly, less convinced the kid had been beaten up for being scrawny or gay and more because he had a smartass mouth. “Hulk?”
He slid the glasses back on and rolled his eyes again. “Well, I could call you ‘big boy’, but I’m pretty sure that would piss off your girlfriend and land my ass another beating.”
Joey choked on a laugh beside me and I elbowed his ribs. “Sign the kid up.” I lifted my chin at Joey and turned to go back to the sanctuary of my office.
A surprisingly firm grip landed on my arm from across the front desk, halting my movement. Fireworks spread from the point where we were connected, crackling along every nerve of my body. “My name is Tyler.”
I pulled free before I did something stupid, like deck him—or kiss him. Both options were equally absurd and clearly indicative that it had been too damn long since I’d been laid. Whose stupid idea was it to kill the random hookups and concentrate on work and finding a permanent relationship? Oh, right, mine. “Fine. Sign Tyler up.”
With a twist of the knob, much harder than necessary, I wrenched my office door open. I twisted my head to look at Tyler over my shoulder. “By the way, I don’t have a girlfriend and I’ve never been called ‘big boy,’ so your next beating won’t come from anyone in my world.”
Word Count: 30,336
Book Length: SHORT NOVEL
Coffee, chocolate, and books make up Lily’s world, often all three at the same time. Whether reading or writing she is a sucker for an over-the-top happily ever after… only following an appropriate amount of pain, of course.
When she is not writing or reading (which is not very often) she enjoys exercising her right brain in non authorly ways such as creating mosaics, crocheting, knitting, scrapbooking, and taking one man’s trash to create something new. But never, ever ask her to draw something. That is a beast best left alone.
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