The pungent smell of blood and sweat hit Nicole Torres like a swift right hook the second she entered Gloves Off. It didn't help that there was about a twenty-degree difference between the temperatures in the boxing club and outside, which made the smell more prominent. Champ, the owner, was old-school when it came to his thermostat. He believed heat kept the boxers lean and mean, and no one dared to contradict him. There were few things in life worth dying for, and the temperature in the gym was not one of them.
Nicole scrunched up her nose as she looked around, trying her best not to breathe in too deeply. It had been a while since she'd been inside Gloves Off. It was going to take her a bit to get used to it again. Not that she planned on being there long. Hell, she shouldn't be there at all. She was out of her mind to step one foot inside the building, but lack of sleep could do that to a person, which was her problem in the first place.
Nicole sighed at the predicament she was in. She was damned if she did and damned if she didn't. So she might as well get the asking over with. With a fake smile in place, she went in search of a familiar face in a sea of unfamiliar.
There had been a time when Nicole was a regular visitor at the boxing club, but all that changed when she'd stopped seeing Cyrus Gallagher. Once the former high school sweethearts called it quits, there hadn't been a reason for her to drop by every day like she used to. Sure, she'd made friends with the trainers and fellow boxers, but this was Cy's place, and being around him when they weren't together would have been as awkward as it would have been painful. For her at least.
From the way Cyrus acted when they ran into each other around the old neighborhood, one might think they'd been nothing more than kids who'd grown up on the same block. It seemed to Nicole that somehow, after six months apart, he'd managed to sweep any feelings he had for her under the carpet, where Nicole, on the other hand, was still wearing her heart on her sleeve for him.
Maybe it was a girl thing. Or a first love thing. But whatever it was, for Nicole, she couldn't just let bygones be bygones. She was in love with him still, which made him the one person she trusted to help her with her little problem.
As she walked around the gym, she noticed the changes that had taken place since she'd last been in. The only thing about the place that was the same was the smell. Everything else had been remodeled and replaced, including the crowd. Even though it was almost closing time, there was still a handful of folks mingling about. They weren't people she recognized from the neighborhood, which made sense considering the high-class vehicles she'd parked her hoopty next to in the parking lot. The change was so vast it left her speechless.
"Well, well, well," a familiar scratchy voice called out from behind her. "Lookie what the cat dragged in."
For the first time since entering the gym, Nicole smiled sincerely. If there was one person she missed almost as much as she had Cyrus, it was the battered old boxer who owned the gym. Turning around, she looked at the African American man who was standing next to three teenage boys and fought back a squeal of joy. Varnell "The Champ" Johnson was hands down one of the homeliest men Nicole had ever known, but also one of the kindest. Just seeing him again lifted her spirits to a degree they hadn't been in a long, long time. "Hey, Champ."
"Don't you 'hey, Champ' me." He scowled. "Come give me a hug."
"With pleasure." For Nicole, stepping into the solid man's arms was like coming home. Closing her eyes, she inhaled the familiar scent of Old Spice and cheap cigars and let the tension she'd been carrying slip away. It took everything inside her not to settle for the long haul into his much-needed embrace. She gave one last squeeze, centered herself, then stepped back and let go. "How are you?"
To the amusement of his audience, he held up his fists and shadowboxed with the skill and speed of a man half his age. "Still ducking and dodging. You know me."
"I'm happy to hear that."
Standing upright again, he hooked his arm around her shoulder and led her a short distance away. "How about you, baby girl?" he asked, pulling back so they were standing face-to-face. "You holding up okay?"
"I am." For the first time since her mother passed a few months before, Nicole was finally coming to grips with life again. She had survived losing her mother and gaining the guardianship of her twin brothers better than she thought she would have. Things weren't great, but they were good. "I'm holding up fine."
"And the boys?"
"They're..." Nicole paused to find the right words to describe her rambunctious thirteen-year-old charges. "Being boys."
Champ laughed. "That's what I like to hear. You should bring 'em here. We'll put some of that untapped energy to good use. Boxing is good for boys. Gives 'em focus. Teaches 'em respect. Builds their esteem."
"You don't have to sell me on the merits. I saw it firsthand, remember?"
"I do." He beamed with pride. "Cy was a little hellion back in the day, and look at him now. Turned into a fine man. Good head on his shoulders. All the new stuff is all his doing, you know? I didn't really think it would work out, but I'd be damned if he didn't show me."
"I heard you guys went into business together. I'm glad to see it's all working out."
"Good." She never doubted for a moment Cyrus would do well for himself. "Speaking of the devil, is he here?"
"Of course. Just finished up his class a few minutes ago. Last time I checked, he was cleaning up the room."
"No." The old man smiled so hard his face almost disappeared into his sea of wrinkles. "He's teaching one of those new age fitness Boxercise classes. Can you believe it? Wall Street types paying money to have him yell at them and throw fake punches? Makes no sense to me, but folks pay up, so whatcha gonna do?"
The idea of Cyrus being put in charge of the very people he despised was highly amusing. And poetic. Five years ago, these types--these suburbia-living, New York-commuting types--wouldn't have offered a stale bottle of Bling water if Cyrus were on fire. After winning a few pay-per-view matches, he'd gained some status, in his neighborhood and theirs apparently. Who wouldn't want to take a class from a middleweight champ whose pictures had actually graced a billboard in Times Square?
"Say thank you and cash their checks," Nicole suggested.
"That's about right." He cackled. "Go on and head back there. His class is held in the old weight room. You remember the one, right?"
She glanced in the direction he was referring to and nodded. "Of course."
"And you bring those boys back here to see me. I'll get them a pair of gloves and put them in the ring."
The idea of her mischievous but lovable brothers going a few rounds made her grin. "I will," she promised, looking at Champ again. "They'll love that."
"Of course they will. Go on and head on back while I deal with these young men."
"Okay. Que Dios te bendiga." She said her good-bye in Spanish as she always did. Growing up Puerto Rican, she spoke and thought in both languages, which she knew could sometimes make talking to her a bit confusing. But people like Champ, who knew her well, were used to her bilingual nature.
"Bye, baby doll," he tossed over his shoulder as he made his way back to his charges. He left Nicole to find her own way, which wasn't difficult. She knew the gym like the back of her hand. Or the old gym, anyway. Things had definitely changed for the better, yet it still managed to keep a bit of the old-school charm she'd fallen in love with years ago.
She stopped on her way to the weight room to check her appearance. It had taken her longer than it should have to ready herself. There were so many dos and don'ts. She didn't want to look like she was trying too hard to impress him, yet at the same time she wanted to look good.
After about half an hour standing in front of her closet, she'd settled on a pair of formfitting jeans, a burnout tangerine scoop-neck T-shirt, and black boots. She knew the bright color of her shirt complimented the brown hues of her skin and brought out the natural highlights in her tightly coiled brunette hair.
She was blessed with clear, dark brown skin--so dark that she often was mistaken for an African American, despite the fact she was full Puerto Rican. With her skin tone being what it was she didn't have to wear a lot of makeup. Just a little black liner to bring out her eyes, and lip gloss with a hint of color to accentuate her naturally full lips. Nicole was a hottie if she had to say so herself, but it was going to take more than good looks to sway her ex in her favor.
With that in mind, Nicole gave herself an encouraging smile before making her way down the hall to the weight room. The glass walls made it easy to find and spot a shirtless Cyrus hard at work cleaning up. Silently she made her way to the open door and a few steps past the entryway, but then paused. He had his back to her and appeared unaware she was there.
She knew the polite thing to do would be to let him know of her presence, but she couldn't resist the opportunity to drink in the sight of him, if only for a few seconds more. Although she'd seen him around since their breakup, she hadn't seen him like this. He'd bulked up some since she'd last had the pleasure of seeing him undressed, not that he needed to. He'd already been built like an Adonis, but then again she was biased.
There was a tattoo across his upper back that was new. A flowing banner with the words "Luck of the Irish" tatted in a fancy font. The ink made her smile. Cyrus was as proud of his Irish heritage as she was of being Puerto Rican, and he enjoyed letting the world know where his ancestors hailed from.
Not that anyone who looked at the tall, pale-skinned man wouldn't have been a little aware to begin with. If the freckles on his shoulders, back, and arms didn't give it away, then his dark auburn hair and green eyes would have been a bit of a hint. Combine that with the large clover tattoo on his arm and bam, it was a dead giveaway.
But then again, if someone was looking at Cyrus, it wasn't because they were trying to decode his DNA. They'd be looking because the man was absolutely gorgeous. It wasn't fair to lesser men for him to be so damn fine. Hell, even his chosen profession should have made his face less than attractive, but instead boxing gave him a rugged warrior appearance that suited his muscular body to a T. He looked dangerous thanks to a scar that zigzagged through his left eyebrow and a nose broken and reset one too many times. Rather than taking away from his appeal, it only added to it.
When women looked at him, they didn't see a pretty boy. They saw a man. Someone who could protect and defend. Someone who could toss your skirt up and fuck you over a table in front of your man and dare him with a look to say anything.
With all that had gone down between them, good and bad, she still couldn't resist watching him move. For someone who could knock a man out in a three-minute round, he was surprisingly graceful. Even now, as he did something as simple as wiping down the punching bags, she couldn't help but stare. His fluid motions showcased the muscles in his back and arms, and when he bent over, his shorts stretched over his firm ass, causing her to bite her bottom lip in order to keep her moan of approval at bay. Watching him work was like viewing her own version of porn. Ay Dios mio, the man was beautiful. Lord, she'd missed the feel of his body on hers.
Missed him, period. And if he agreed to do what she wanted, she'd have to eventually get used to him not being around all over again. But she wouldn't stop loving him. That she would do until the day she died.
Crap. Maybe this is a bad idea after all.
Losing her nerve, Nicole began to back out of the room, trying to be as quiet as when she'd entered, but before she could slip into the hallway, Cyrus turned around to throw the towel into the laundry bin and caught sight of her. He stopped midmotion and lowered his arm. Silently he stared at her, his face blank, his body stiff. There was nothing welcoming about his demeanor whatsoever, which let her know it was going to be up to her to make the first move.
Nicole set her shoulders back and took the necessary steps to put herself in front of him. "Hi."
He blinked hard as if waking himself from a trance. "Hi."
"How are you?"
He slung the towel he'd been about to toss in the bin over his shoulder, then crossed his arms over his massive chest. "Fine."
"Good to hear." She waited for him to do the polite thing and inquire after her, but he didn't. Feeling more unsure of herself by the second, Nicole walked over to one of the red boxing bags and toyed with the seam on one side. "The place looks great," she said after a while. "I hardly recognize it."
"It's shaping up."
"It really is. And lots...lots of new faces. Good for business, I bet."
"Yeah, it is."
"That's great." She looked around the punching bag and smiled shyly. "For you and Champ. I think it's all really...great."
"You said that already." Cyrus took the towel off his shoulder and tossed it in the bin. "And if that's all you came here to say, then you can leave."
"Then you want to tell me what you're doing here, 'cause I don't have time to shoot the shit. I have work to do."
Irritated by his ready dismal, she came from behind the bag. So much for the honeymoon stage of becoming reacquainted. "Charming as ever, I see."
"That's me. Prince Charming." Cyrus picked up the bin and moved it outside into the hall. When he was done he came back inside and faced her again. "So ready to spit it out now, or do you still want to dance?"
Her temper flared to the surface, egged on by his indifferent tone. If he could be cavalier, so could she. "I need a favor."
"A favor." He cocked an eyebrow and mockingly pointed to his bare chest. "From me?"
She resisted the urge to kick him, but barely. "You see anyone else in the room?"
"Color me surprised, but I'm a little shocked right now. I mean, there was a time when you said you didn't need anything from me at all."
"And there was a time you said nothing but death would keep us apart," she countered just as swiftly.
Her reply knocked the sarcastic look right off his smug face, and his lips thinned with anger. "Things change."
"So do people. I'm looking around and"--Nicole gestured to the new, improved gym--"I see you have. You're doing good for yourself."
"Hoping to cash in on that?"
"Excuse me?" He could not be implying what she thought he was. Even he wouldn't sink so low.
"Ever since I won those fights, everybody and their mama have been hitting me up for this and asking me to help them pay for that. Family members who wouldn't even take me in when my parents were fighting have actually come begging." He gazed at her with undisguised contempt. "You next, Nicole?"
Ay Dios mio. Apparently he could sink that low. Nicole jerked back as if she'd been jabbed. There had been a lot of bad blood between them, but the fact he could even think that of her hurt more than the telling. "No, I don't need or want your money, cabron." And right now she didn't even want his help anymore. Furious, she spun on her heels to leave, but rage overcame her, forcing her to turn back around and confront him with a truth he apparently forgot. "For the record," she said, storming up to him. "My mom and I took you in plenty of times when your dad was off the wagon, and if you recall correctly, it was I who doctored up your cuts and bruises and held your hand through the night when you were in too much pain to sleep."
His swift about-face, combined with the hint of shame in his voice, dried the well of her anger. "I know am," she replied stiffly, but with less heat and hostility.
"I'm sorry." He looked a bit uncomfortable, like a man obviously unused to apologizing or admitting fault. "That was uncalled for. Your mom was very good to me. You were very good to me. So if you do nee--"
Nicole shook her head and halted his words. "I don't need money, thank you," she said in a haughty tone. Her mother's death had been mercifully quick but sadly unexpected. She'd died two months after being diagnosed with lung cancer, but she continued to take care of her children after her death, leaving them with a large insurance policy that had enabled Nicole to pay off their brownstone, and put money away for college for the boys. There had even been enough left over for Nicole to take a sabbatical from work so she could help the boys cope with things without having to tighten her purse strings. "The boys and I are fine."
Impatience flashed across his handsome face, almost as if he was irritated she didn't need his money. "So what do you need me for?"
"I told you. I need a favor."
"Yet you haven't said what it is."
That was because she hadn't quite figured out how to, but it wasn't going to get any easier if she kept avoiding the confrontation. With a heavy sigh, Nicole let go of her fears and just came out with it. "I'm tired, Cy. So tired. I need some sleep."
"See a doctor," he said as if the answer was obvious. "They have pills for that."
"The pills they gave me made me gain a crapload of weight." Nicole turned around so he could see her bubble butt. "Look at it. Mi culo is getting ginormous. I had to go up a pants size."
"Look..." He cleared his throat before speaking again. "Fine. You were always underweight to begin with."
"Umm, thank you." She tried not to be too pleased by his lackluster compliment, but it delighted her all the same. A bit flustered, she tried her best to get back to the subject at hand. "But on top of the weight gain I was tired all the time, having wacky dreams, sleep eating. It was just horrible. In the long run, the juice wasn't worth the squeeze, you know. So I stopped taking them, but now I can't sleep again."
"Try something else."
"I have. I went to a holistic healer. I've even tried yoga and meditating. Nothing worked. After months of no relief I started searching online and found a bunch of articles that made a pretty radical suggestion. A suggestion I wasn't opposed to, just not sure of. So I printed them out and took them to my physician. She thinks it's worth a shot. And that's why I'm here to see you."
"What's the treatment?" he questioned with a frown.
"You." Her cheeks felt as if they were on fire from the heat rushing to them. "Sort of."
"I'm the treatment?" His eyebrows shot up.
She nodded weakly. "Sort of."
"Sort of? Fuck a duck, Nicole. Just spit it out. What do you want?"
"You," she blurted out. "I want you."
His eyes flashed with annoyance. "To do what?"
She'd gone too far to back out now. Taking in a deep breath, she blurted out her request. "Fuck me."