They were at it again.
Carefully, and as quietly as she could manage, Alyson peeled back the blankets and crept toward the door. Even through two closed doors, the sound of her parents’ fighting reached her as though they were standing in the same room.
He had been drinking again…among other things. It was the only time her father ever raised his voice or fist to her mother, and lately, he’d been doing it every day. Pressing her palms flat against the wood, Alyson worked to control her labored breaths, straining to capture every word.
“I’m sorry,” her mother’s shaky voice cried. “I didn’t mean anything by it.” A loud slap of flesh against flesh followed, and Alyson squeezed her eyes shut at the sound of her mother’s shrill scream. Every fiber of her being shouted for her to do something—call the police, run and get help, make him stop. Just please make him stop. But her instincts held her in place, listening, doing absolutely nothing to help. What kind of person did that make her?
Crash. The shouting and the crying grew louder as her father moved the fight into the hallway just outside her bedroom door. Terrified of what would come next, unsure of what to do, Alyson moved back, her gaze fixed on the shiny gold knob. Would she be next?
A scuffle followed by the thud of a body hitting the wall, and then the commotion began to move farther away, toward the front of the house. A mixture of relief and guilt washed over her as Alyson moved backwards until the backs of her knees hit the bed, and she dropped down to sit. And listen. And pray.
One day it would be better. That’s what her mother always told her. She didn’t know if she believed her anymore, but it was the only thing she had to hold on to, because if it didn’t get better, and soon, she had a terrible feeling that something much worse was going to happen.
A gasp erupted from her lips, and Alyson slapped a hand over her mouth, fearing that the small sound would call her father back. The only thing she knew to do when her father was having one of his fits was to become invisible. At least then, she had some hope of escaping his wrath.
Silent tears slipped one after the other down her cheeks, and her shoulders shook from the effort of holding it in. One day she was going to get out of there, and when she did, she would never look back. This she promised herself as she sat absorbing the sounds of her world crashing down around her.
The unexpected dip of the mattress behind her startled her for only an instant, and then she felt the warmth of his body wrap around hers, and she knew, despite the destruction that was her life, everything was going to be all right.
The soft melody of gurgling water and birdsong eased its way into her dreams, rousing Alyson from a restless sleep. Fumbling blindly for her phone, she swiped the screen and pressed it to her ear, grunting a weak “Hello?”
“Hey, sleepyhead, what would you say if I told you that I just got us two tickets to paradise?” The sound of her best friend, Olivia’s, voice jarred her awake the rest of the way.
Rolling onto her back, Alyson rubbed the sleep from her eyes and stared up at the ceiling, thoughts of her past still fresh in her mind’s eye. Blinking rapidly, she forced them back into their box and sealed the lid shut tight. “I would say who did you steal the tickets from and where are we going?”
“To which I would reply, I totally ganked them from the top of my uncle’s entertainment center when he was in the bathroom and, joy of joys, they’re to this totally awesome, one night only event that’s being held at the Sports Arena downtown.”
A frown began to take shape as Alyson dragged herself from her bed and into the bathroom. “You stole tickets from your uncle?” she asked as she squeezed toothpaste onto her toothbrush.
“Oh, please,” Olivia scoffed. “He works at a printing press and has, like, a million of them just lying around. He probably stole them himself and was planning to scalp them or some shit. He won’t even notice they’re gone.”
Spitting minty white foam into the sink, Alyson rinsed the basin and then turned her attention to the shower. Knowing that it was futile to argue with her friend, she said, “Whatever. So when is this thing?”
“Tonight,” Olivia replied. “And wear something hot.”
“Define hot, and is there a reason I need to dress up?” Alyson asked suspiciously as she leaned her hip against the counter, watching a cloud of steam begin to grow before her.
“Do you need a reason to dress up?” Olivia questioned, as if the question were absurd. “There are going to be hot guys, and I mean H.O.T. hot, so put on something as tight and short as you can make it and still be legal.”
“You mean slutty,” Alyson corrected with a laugh. She knew how these things went. Olivia was gearing up to wrangle herself a man tonight, and wherever they were going, there would probably be a lot of competition.
“You say tomato, I say tomahto,” Olivia singsonged. “So, I’ll swing by around six and pick you up.”
With a resigned sigh, Alyson said, “Sounds like a plan,” and then she stepped into the shower and let the hot water wash her nightmares down the drain.
“How’s that feel? Too tight?”
Jami flexed his fingers, forming a tight fist and releasing it to test the bandages. “No, they’re good.” He met Don’s gray-blue eyes. “Spencer here yet?” He caught the flicker of disapproval on his face before his coach turned to begin putting the wrappings away. For some reason that Jami couldn’t puzzle out, Coach didn’t approve of his friend. Maybe it was his insatiable appetite for women, or his high-strung personality that made him stand out from the rest of the group. Whatever it was, Jami was just glad it hadn’t caused a big enough issue to put a crimp in their bottom line—winning the championship title.
He cast a look around the room at his ragtag group of friends that were more like family than his own family had ever been. In one corner stood his body guard, Dwayne, whose body was so big, he was fairly certain he was the one holding the wall he was leaning against up, rather than the other way around. Will, Bobby, and Collin, a dirty blond trio of brothers with deep southern roots, occupied a stretch of bench, in various states of repose. In comparison to Dwayne’s tatted up and menacing demeanor, they were less brawn and more bite, but each of them held their own in keeping him safe, and each had earned their place as his friend.
Don’s sandy voice called back his attention. “Haven’t seen him. I’m sure he’ll turn up soon.”
As if on cue, the locker room door banged open and Spencer’s excitement-filled voice echoed around them, and was chased by the muted roar of energized fans. “You would not believe what Bonecrusher just did to that guy’s face!” Rounding the corner, his cheeks flushed with excitement, a mile-wide smile greeted them. Standing at just under six-feet with closely cropped brown hair and facial piercings in his left eyebrow, and the center of his bottom lip, Spencer was easily the outsider of the group. His energy alone set him apart from the rest them, those who were so calm that no one would ever guess that they were preparing to put on a show in front of a packed house of diehard MMA fans. Spencer threw a left hook followed by a right into the air. “Holy shit, dude, it’s fucking crazy out there.”
“It’d better be,” Jami chuckled as he stood to embrace his closest friend. “The show is sold out. Where the hell you been all night? I was starting to wonder if you were going to show up.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? I’ve been here,” he said, pointing to the floor. “You know I wouldn’t miss this shit for the world.”
“Only because I wouldn’t pay your lazy ass,” Jami chided. Behind him, his coach held up his walkout shirt for him, and he turned to slip his arms and head inside the holes. This was the part he loved best—the moments just before he entered the ring. He could feel the adrenalin beginning to build—the anticipation, the high he got from a thousand people chanting his name. Coming from his background, the only people he would have expected to ever shout his name would have been a lynch mob, not a crowd of adoring fans rooting for him to succeed. It was something that would never get old.
“Lazy?” Spencer said, pulling a face. “Dude, who do you think makes sure the bills get paid? How do you think you get to sleep in the fanciest fucking hotels in every city we travel? And what about that fancy fucking chef you got in your pocket cooking up those tasteless meals you seem to love so damn much?” He jabbed a finger at himself. “Me, dude. That’s all me.”
Jami held up his hands. “Chill the fuck out, man. We all know you’re the shit, right, Coach?” He turned to look at him, but Coach didn’t seem to be paying any attention. In fact, with his head angled down and his eyes glued to his phone, he appeared to be actively avoiding the conversation.
Shrugging, Jami returned to Spencer. “How’s it looking for the women? You pick anyone yet?” Spencer was a player, and he used the events as if they were his personal fishing hole. While Jami fought in the ring, Spencer scanned the stands for females who fit the bill, which wasn’t that hard to do. The only qualifications they had to meet were ready, willing, and able with a nice face and tight body—and women like that were never in short supply.
“Nah, not yet,” Spencer said, his eyes darting away. “I was taking care of some business, but don’t worry. By the time the final bell rings, I’ll have plenty for you to choose from.”
Jami grinned and held out his fist, bumping it against Spencer’s. “That’s why I pay you the big bucks.”
Spencer huffed. “Yeah, right, and pigs fly.”
Jami’s brows pinched at his friend’s offhand comment, but before he could question him further, Coach’s heavy hand clapped him on the shoulder. “Ready, son?”
If at all possible, the crowd had grown louder. He could hear them chanting his name, and he felt the adrenaline spike in his veins. Tilting his head from side to side, he cracked his neck, then laced his fingers together and bent them back, cracking those, too. Bouncing on his toes, he shook out his arms and wrists, loosening his joints. And then the announcer’s voice boomed through the loud speakers, and as a group, they moved forward, out the doors, and down the darkened hallway toward the arena.