DON'T RUN FROM ME | (Read the first five chapters)
Aaron flexed his fingers and then squeezed his hands, the red and black wraps tight. He was ready, hearing the crowd, the noise, the cheers as the match before him went on: Dregar, unbeaten, versus Trooper, a new guy from Oregon. The crowd was electric, and the announcer on the overhead was loud, raising the crazed energy in the coliseum.
He was waiting for the call, for the locker room door to open. He could hear the frenzy. The energy was through the roof tonight, and he needed a minute to get in the zone, to focus on what he had to do and keep his thoughts from all the dark places they continued to slip to. He would focus on the fight and every punch he landed. He had trained for this, his body was ready for this, his mind was ready for this… He just needed to keep his thoughts centered and in the present.
The door squeaked.
“They’re ready for you,” said Jim, his trainer and manager. Jim knew Aaron well, knew his moods and his routine before every fight. He knew not to go on and on, because Aaron wouldn’t hear him. Aaron wanted quiet, with no one in his face.
He fisted his hands again, feeling the wraps snug, protecting his callused skin. His bare chest and abs were smooth, and he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror by the door. He was toned, hard. His bare feet were shoved into sandals, his red shorts low on his hips, a black robe resting over his shoulders. He slung his arms into it, knowing the routine.
Jim just walked with him without saying a word. Aaron was in his head, not hearing him or anyone else right now. He needed to settle his thoughts. He needed to contain the ache that always started in his chest, in his heart, eating away at his guts and moving up until it stuck in his throat and he would do anything to get it out. It was the same before every fight—the same pain and crushing loss. Her face would come to him slowly, then her scent.
Jim was in front of him as he left the locker room. The stench of sweat and cologne hung heavy in the air. The beefy security guys dressed in black sports shirts and blue jeans, all muscle, were controlling the crowds and lined the rows and the entrance. Then there were the fans in the arena, which was always jam packed. It was loud chaos, and he walked with his head down, focused, seeing only hands reaching out into the aisle as he passed.
He didn’t hear his name, but he heard the fans chanting, and that was when he felt the loss of her. The tightness filling his chest turned to fire and rage, and everything disappeared from his peripheral, the sounds drowning into a hum that built as he approached the cage. He was warm even though he knew the air conditioners were cranked. Jim pulled his robe off, and he stepped out of his sandals. A hand touched his shoulder. Jim said something, but Aaron was too focused on his pain, his hurt, and the fight he was facing. He nodded out of habit and to get him to stop talking. There was a zone he needed to get into to fight, but Aaron was past that now.
He was never scared.
He was ready to fight. He wanted to fight.
He stepped into the ring and heard the announcer, his name echoing in the arena. His opponent was on the other side: Matterson, from Georgia. He wore black shorts, the same tight second skin, five foot ten and one hundred eighty-five pounds. Aaron had three inches and fifteen pounds on him, but that wasn’t his only advantage.
As soon as the bell rang, he saw her. That was when it all hit him, not her face but the screams, the noise, the fear and the panic and the fact that he hadn’t been able to do a damn thing to help her, to get to her. He had been caught up in his own hell. He hadn’t been strong enough.
When he went at his opponent, even though he could hear his fists, feel the punches, the pounding of flesh, the connecting of bone, the blood, he didn’t stop. He kept going. His adrenaline surged and roared in his ears, and his two realities merged in that moment just like they did every time he stepped into the ring, stepped into a fight.
He would win, but he had already lost.
This fight, like every one, was a do over. What he’d once struggled against had been too much, and he was reliving it again and again in a different time, a different place. He could win his fights now, but the one that counted couldn’t have been won. He hadn’t been able to save her—Brittany. He relived the horror of that day twelve years ago. He’d been young, eighteen, believing he knew everything and could do anything. The fact was that he’d known nothing at all.
He fought for her now, but he still couldn’t save her.
His arm was raised as he was declared the victor. He was out of breath, seeing Matterson on the ground, his team around him, helping him to his feet. Aaron had won again, as he did every time he stepped into the ring, but it was a win that filled him with nothing as he took in the crowds. He could hear the noise, the cheers, the chanting for him. McCabe, McCabe, over and over. The energy should have lifted him, but it left him a spectator, seeing it all from the outside looking in.
He saw the groupies, the screaming women and cheering men. The vibration of adrenaline was still crashing through him. He blinked, suddenly back in the arena, seeing the lights, the rumbling crowds, and the flashing cameras. He took in the banner strung between two women, one in a tight stretched white tank, with no bra, leaving little to the imagination as she jumped in the air: McCabe, I love you! But she was just a face in the crowd, because the woman he loved, the one who haunted his dreams, the one he fought for every time he stepped into the ring, this was all for her.
He was doing now what he hadn’t been able to do then, but none of it made him feel anything except the crushing weight of loss, because she was gone now, and it hit him harder than it had after any other fight. Brittany was the only woman he’d ever loved.
He climbed out of the ring and slipped into his robe. Hands dabbed at something on his face—a cut, most likely. There were smiles, cheers, slaps on his back and his shoulders from his team. He’d made his fans happy, his coach happy, the screaming women happy, except Aaron didn’t care about any of them.
The only person he wanted to make happy was the one person who wasn’t here: Brittany, with her sweet face, her hazel eyes, her auburn hair, and the dimples he loved.
He hung his head, his hood pulled up. Again it hit low in his gut, the thud of emptiness as he saw it clearly, the plea in her eyes as she’d reached out across a courtyard to him. That second had changed his entire life, because Aaron hadn’t been able to do then what he could have done now. He hadn’t been able to save Brittany.
The changing room was crowded. A reporter was talking to one of the other fighters, and Jim was standing with Aaron’s assistant, Trey, whose light hair was so long in front that he had to keep flicking it to the side. It was the only aspect of his efficient assistant that irritated him.
Aaron pulled on his sweats and slid his feet into sneakers, leaning down to tie them. An ice pack brushed against his shoulder, and he stood up, hearing the clatter of locker doors and the buzz of voices in the background. He tasted something metallic in his mouth—blood.
“Ice for your jaw, for the swelling,” Jim said. Aaron wanted to brush it away, but he knew the man wouldn’t let him. His mustache was in need of a trim, and his blue eyes meant business. “You need those cuts on your face tended to. See the sports doctor to get that one over your eye closed up.”
Aaron lifted his hand and brushed the wetness from his forehead, and it was then he realized he was bleeding. How had he not known? He closed his locker door and walked over to the sink, taking in his swollen face in the mirror: blood on his forehead, his nose and eye swollen, but nothing broken, just messed up.
“Nice,” he said, knowing his opponent looked far worse. “I can clean myself up back at the hotel.” He snatched his hoodie from the locker, pulled it on, and dumped everything else into his gym bag, the ice pack forgotten.
“Hey, hold up a second,” Trey called out as he jogged over from where he’d been speaking with the other fighters’ team members.
Aaron had his hand on the door and pulled it open. He was done and ready to go. He stepped into the hallway, which was packed with security, the other teams, and groupies who’d managed to make their way back, dressed like truck-stop hookers. He heard whistling, calling out, propositions, the same as every fight. He could take his pick, anyone or all of them. It was all the same, all about the sex. He simply pulled his hoodie up to cover his head and walked on.
“Aaron, you heading back to the hotel?” Trey said. “I’ll catch a ride with you. I wanted to talk with you about your next fight, some of the details…”
“Later,” Aaron said, cutting him off. Trey sported the beach bum look, but Aaron knew underneath he was all nerd, and his attention to detail never had Aaron wondering what the hell was going on. Trey handled everything for each fight, for training, for hotels, travelling, and PR. But now Trey was changing the rules. He kept walking, and Trey was still there. “Just the same, Trey,” Aaron said. “Catch a ride with Jim.”
Just like he did every fight, Aaron left alone. They got him there, and he got himself home, which he’d insisted right from the start. It was what he needed at his low point, which was where he was after each and every fight. He was raw, vulnerable, and he needed to slip out and patch himself up alone from the inside out. Then he’d be able to start another day.
He heard the yell, the familiar voice, and took in his brother Chase standing off to the side. His light hair was longer than usual, touching the sides of his ears. He hadn’t shaven, and his sharp blue eyes were unsmiling.
“Chase, what are you doing here?” Aaron said, and he gestured to the security guard to let him through. The guy was supposed to be manning the crowds to keep those not part of the teams away from the dressing room, but apparently groupies and women looking for a quick screw weren’t on the banned list.
It took only a second before Aaron realized Trey had actually left, walking the other way. He was rattled, and he wanted to get the hell out of here.
“You got a ride?” Chase said.
Aaron shook his head “Grabbing a cab back to the hotel.”
“I’ll drive you.”
He was about to say no, not to worry about it, but Chase was already walking to the back door of the arena and pushing it open, making his way past the crowds and more screaming women trying to get close to Aaron. He saw none of them. The parking lot was packed.
He saw the BMW, his brother’s car, and Chase clicked the lock and popped the trunk. The night was warm, and Aaron was sweating as he tossed his bag in and shoved it closed with one hand. Best to leave the hoodie on over his bare chest and his head, hiding everything about himself that felt open, exposed, and raw.
He rested his large frame in the comfortable leather seat, fastened his belt, and didn’t look his brother’s way as Chase backed out of the stall. He didn’t give much attention to the long line of cars, horns honking, and the bright lights of the city. Chase said nothing at all. It was then Aaron heard tapping, Chase’s fingers on the wheel.
“Which hotel?” Chase asked.
“Anaheim Grove,” he said, hoping Chase wouldn’t ask to stay and talk. Hopefully he would just dump him and run.
They drove in silence, and Aaron took in the views of a city he had no intention of enjoying. His right side was blurred, and he was feeling the tightness of his messed-up eye. The swelling would pass, though, and his vision would clear. Tomorrow would be another day.
“You all right?” Chase asked as he turned another corner. More stop lights ahead, maybe ten minutes to the hotel. Hopefully less.
“Fine,” he said, wishing his brother would take the hint and shut the hell up.
“You want to stop at the ER, have a doc look at you? Make sure nothing’s broken, stitch up those cuts?”
Why was he asking now when they were almost at his hotel? “No.” Another left and two more blocks. Less than five minutes. Hurry the fuck up!
“You need ice on your face or you’re going to be a mess tomorrow.”
He’d been a mess before he stepped into the ring. At least there was a reason for it now. “Later,” he said, his adrenaline no longer spiked. He was starting to feel the tenderness in his ribs, the aches in his side, his shoulder, and his back from all the blows he’d never felt touch him. He’d take a couple Advil, raid the minibar, and sleep it off. Tomorrow he’d work through the welcome pain. It was a physical feeling that grounded him.
He was looking for the sign of the bright pink two-story inn that was surprisingly more comfortable than any luxury hotel he’d stayed in. It was quiet, peaceful, and roomy.
Chase pulled in front of it and parked, and Aaron opened the door before Chase could get into some long-winded discussion about how fucked up Aaron seemed, or analyze any part of the fight, or, worse, try to fix him in some way.
Aaron tapped the trunk with his hand, and Chase must have known, as he clicked the button and the trunk popped open. Aaron lifted his bag out, tossed it over his shoulder, and closed the trunk, then took in Chase standing there, watching him. His look was shrewd, uncomfortable. His brother was always sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Time to send him on his way, but instead Chase handed his keys to the bellman and stepped up on the curb.
“What are you doing?” Aaron said. It wasn’t lost on him that those were the most words he’d used tonight. His jaw ached every time he moved it.
“I’m staying here, too.”
Aaron just stood there with his bag over his shoulder. “Since when?” Coincidence? Hell no, not where Chase was concerned. Aaron was pissed and hoped his brother picked it up. He shook his head and made a rude noise, which was far easier than forming the Fuck off his mouth refused to say. Maybe that was why Chase smiled. Of course he knew.
“I already knew where you were staying. Checked in earlier. Wanted to have a talk with you.”
He didn’t let his brother finish as he walked into the hotel. Maybe if he weren’t so wrapped up in himself, in trying to dampen all his heartache and everything that had spilled out of him in that fight, he’d have given a damn about what an asshole he was being.
He stopped at the front desk. The girl behind it gasped when she saw him. Yeah, he did look pretty bad. “Key to my room, 106. Aaron McCabe,” he said.
Maybe she didn’t recognize him, as she was staring, her mouth open.
“Oh, Mr. McCabe, you’re back. How was the fight?” the other receptionist said. What was her name, Shawna or Sandy? His eye must have been swelling shut now, as he was having trouble seeing out of it at all.
“Fine,” he said. “Send ice to my room.” He grabbed the key card on the counter and walked away before she could say anything else, and he took in Chase standing there, frowning, his arms crossed. He should be nice, say something, but he wanted him to go away, wanted everyone to go away and leave him be until he could have time to sleep and stuff everything broken about himself back into that hidden place where no one could see it. His trainer knew, and even his assistant knew, so why couldn’t Chase follow the routine?
He walked right past his brother and down the wide hall, past the bright lights and spotless orange carpeting, to the suites at the end. He didn’t have to look back to know Chase was right behind him, dogging his heels.
He stopped outside his door and shoved the key card in his lock. It clicked, and he pushed it open. He could walk in and leave his brother, let the door slam in his face, except Chase was plagued with major character flaws that had him poking his nose in everyone else’s business.
“What the fuck, Chase?” Aaron said, and his jaw throbbed again, a painful reminder he needed ice, Advil, and whatever hard liquor was stashed in his minibar. “Go to your own room. I don’t need a fucking babysitter watching me all fucking night.”
“No, but I think it’s time you talked about the reason you step into that ring.”
Aaron dumped his bag on the floor. He could see his brother taking in the suite, the living room, the double doors that opened to his king-size bed. A sliding glass door faced the courtyard, all grass, trees, and green.
Aaron yanked open the minibar and took in the selection: cheap wine, beer, or hard liquor. He settled on the bourbon, twisted the cap, and swallowed it right from the bottle, then groaned not from the bite but from the fire in his jaw, the burn in his mouth. A tooth was loose, and he tasted more blood. There was a knock on the door.
Chase at least made himself useful and opened it. He was talking to someone, and then the door closed. “Ice is here,” he said, and Aaron heard him filling a bag. Chase was efficient as he tied it closed and handed it to him. “Put it on your jaw,” he said.
Aaron just stared at the bag and snatched it from him, pressing it to his jaw, the freezing bringing more pain instead of relief. He tossed the bag on the table, downed the rest of the bottle, and dumped the empty on top of the bag of ice. He took in Chase again, who now appeared pissed as he sat in one of the chairs, crossed his jean-clad legs, and settled in. He was in no hurry to leave.
“Again, Aaron, your fighting.”
“Fuck off, Chase. My jaw hurts. Go away. I don’t want to talk.” He groaned as he reached in his bag, pulled out the bottle of Advil, and dumped three in his hand. Then he added another before tossing them back and swallowing them dry.
Chase was still watching him. “Have some water.”
Was he serious? Aaron just stood there.
Chase shook his head. “Great, then you can listen, because after all these years of watching you fight in that ring, tonight was the first time I realized that whatever is driving you in there isn’t human. Before I thought it was motivation, passion. I thought you had focus, knew how to get in and stay in the zone that makes you one of the best fighters there is. I believed you loved what you did, just like all those guys who step in the ring, but then it hit me tonight. I’ve always wondered whether it was something more. It’s like whatever is haunting you is driving you into that ring, and unlike any sane person, you see it as a chance to kill or be killed. Worse, I realized, watching you pound the shit out of that guy tonight, that if someone hadn’t been there to end that fight, to pull you off your opponent, you’d have kept fighting until one of you was dead.”
Anaheim had many attractions, all of which catered to tourists. In the light of day, the town was hopping with families, kids, and more kids. The bright sunlight filling his room resembled happiness and excitement, threatening to erase the heavy mood of the night before. Aaron wanted to pull the covers over his head to drown out the feeling of how different this morning was. Then again, the Advil, the bourbon, and the two sample bottles of tequila he’d found behind it had helped him relax and take the edge off the aches in his body.
He slid back the covers and slipped out of bed naked, then climbed into a hot shower. The water stung the cuts he hadn’t bothered to clean up the night before, but he allowed the heat to ease some of the stiffness that always came after a fight. He dried himself and wiped the steamed mirror, seeing his bruised face and fresh blood oozing from the cut on his forehead. The one on his chin had scabbed over. He grabbed a wad of tissue to put pressure on his forehead and rummaged for butterfly bandages in the kit he always carried. He applied two once the bleeding stopped and then took a closer look at the cut on his jaw. His nose was still swollen, and although his right eye was bruised as well, he could open it enough to see that under the swelling was a nice shade of bruised blue. Not bad.
He pulled on sweats and opened the bedroom doors he didn’t remember closing, then stopped when he saw a body on his sofa. Chase? He appeared to be sleeping, a blanket over himself, looking like a fine mess.
There was a knock at the door.
“I ordered coffee and room service when I heard you in the shower,” Chase said without opening his eyes. His voice sounded groggy as he lifted his hand to the door. “That’ll be them.”
“And you couldn’t go to your room?” Aaron said before opening the door. He took in a waiter wearing a white coat, bringing a cart laden with covered plates, a thermos, cups, glasses, and a jug of orange juice. “Come in,” he said, and he didn’t make too much of the waiter’s expression once he got a look at his face. It was always the same, and he didn’t want the conversation. “Put it there.” He gestured in the living room, then signed the check the waiter handed him.
The waiter didn’t stay, and Aaron settled on coffee after he downed a glass of juice, seeing his brother sitting up over his shoulder. His feet were bare, but he was still wearing jeans and a T-shirt. His hair was sticking up on the side, and he appeared to have had a rough night. Aaron took pity and poured Chase a coffee even though he was pissed that his brother hadn’t taken the hint and left after he’d downed the second tequila and went to bed.
“Again, you’re here on my sofa in my room because?” He handed his brother the coffee and noted his gesture of thanks.
Chase inhaled the drink and wasn’t looking his way. “Wasn’t leaving you in the state you were in.”
Aaron shook his head and then remembered his fight. The throbbing and pinch in his neck came out of nowhere. He must have made a face, as Chase appeared worried. He reached back and squeezed his neck. “Would you stop it, already? I’m fine. What did you order, anyway?” He lifted the plastic warming covers and took in an omelette, then another plate with pancakes, one with sliced fruit, one with toast, and one with oatmeal. He settled on the oatmeal so he wouldn’t have to chew even though his body was craving calories, carbs, everything he had burned off the night before. He wandered over to the chair and sat, resting his bare feet on the edge of the coffee table. “Why aren’t you with the kid and that new woman of yours?”
Chase raised an eyebrow at his remark. Of course it had been cutting, rude. He knew their names. He was just being an ass, hoping his brother would leave. “Rose and Billy Jo are at home. Rose is finishing up the house. She’s teaching Billy Jo how to use power tools and help. They’re fine.”
Great. He was glad to hear the kid was doing good. He understood so much of what she’d come out of, and he was glad she and his brother had found each other. Chase was the kind of father she needed: in her face, not letting anything skate, letting her know she was wanted. “So you came to see my fight, or is there another reason?”
“I always see your fights when we’re in the same part of the country. This is the first one that seemed different, though.”
“How so?” He shouldn’t have asked. He was encouraging his brother to poke into his business when he really needed him to leave. In fact, it was taking less and less time for him to bury everything that exploded from him into the ring each and every fight.
“I asked you last night what was going on with you.”
“No, you poked your head into my business, saying I was killing myself and my opponent.” He remembered that much, and he hadn’t liked the fact that Chase could see something in him that he didn’t want to see himself.
“You don’t talk to anyone, Aaron. You don’t want to share, but I can see something’s going on. I’ve never given it much thought, but your fighting is going to get you killed.”
Aaron knew he was giving Chase a look that said he was being ridiculous. This was Chase being dramatic, and he was in no mood to look too closely into his brother’s analysis of him.
“Hear me out,” Chase said. “I’ve watched you fight over the years, and it bothers me every time I see you step into the ring. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
“You don’t like fighting. I get it, Chase. Don’t come to the fights, then. It’s a rough sport. It’s not for everyone.”
“Seriously?” Chase rested his mug of coffee on the table, leaning forward. He was giving Aaron that look of his that told him he had already analyzed every part of the situation and figured out what was wrong and what needed to be fixed. Aaron didn’t like this side of Chase focused anywhere in his direction. “I don’t mind fights,” Chase said. “It’s not really something that excites me like most of the rabid fans in there who get their fix off all that aggression and blood, but it’s a sport. I get it. What I don’t get, though, is that you’re far different from any other fighter when you get in that ring. I wonder if you even saw your opponent last night, the way your fists pounded into him over and over. The guy you were fighting, I swear he was done the moment you went at him. It didn’t take long into that fight—two, three minutes, tops—and he was holding his hands up in the end, trying to fend off your attack. Yes, you won. You beat him into submission and would have kept going if the refs hadn’t pulled you off. His team was dragging him out. I watched as your arm was lifted for the victory. The crowd went wild, but you weren’t there.” Chase touched his head. “Whatever I saw in that expression on your face, past the blood, was inhuman.”
“You have no idea what it’s like to fight, and now you’re analyzing my fighting technique? Stick to what you’re good at and stay out of my arena,” Aaron said.
“Maybe so, Aaron, but I do know that for a lot of years, you’ve been fighting something, carrying something. Maybe now that I have Billy Jo and have seen how scarred and damaged she is, the way she seems to wage a battle inside her, I’ve realized you carry so much more than Luc, than me, even than Vic. You came to us when you were five, and you were a part of our family, but there has always been this part of yourself that you held tight and kept away from us. I knew you would always have that piece of you that was distant, and ever since your trip to Asia, you and Brittany and what happened there, to learn…”
“Stop!” Aaron shouted and was out of the chair, his bowl of oatmeal sliding across the table. “You don’t get to talk about that, to bring it up.”
It had been his choice, his idea to stay another week, to pick that area, to camp out at the beach in Thailand. It had been a sound he’d never forget, the change in the air, the birds, the energy of the moment as a wall of water came at him and hit him before he could take one step to save his girl.
“It’s been twelve years, Aaron.”
He said nothing, because the giant aching hole he buried after the last bottle of tequila was now threatening to choke him again.
“You need to let her go,” Chase said, but Aaron walked back into his bedroom and slammed the door, locking it this time to keep Chase from pushing anymore. Her face, her image, her screams drowned out by the muddy waves—the roar of the tsunami that had changed his life forever.
She’d followed his fights, every one. His career, spanning ten years, had taken him from Dallas, to Nashville, to Jersey, to the west coast. In his months off, he had a home in Greensboro, Alabama. Why there, she had no idea. It was a small house on sizeable land with a fishing hole where he supposedly spent time fishing, or so the media reported, though that seemed more along the lines of a story his PR team had spun to make him more relatable. Of course, as she thought about it, she wondered whether he’d ever fished at all.
He had no wife, no children, and a family he rarely saw. He kept to himself, he trained, he fought. He had people around him, but he was so alone. It was there in the photos, for those who followed—those who knew him and were really looking.
“Mary, customers out front!”
The bell jangled as Mary worked her way out to the front counter. This was a small mountain tourist trap with overpriced sandwiches and even pricier gifts, not far from LA.
“You want me to stay?” said Harry Rankin, who had worked there every day since opening the shop three years earlier. He had dark hair and a great smile, genuine, sweet, that lit up his face. He was nice, in his late thirties, married to her sister, and Mary figured they took pity on her, a struggling artist who lived in a one-room cottage at the back of their property, rent free.
“I got it. Thanks, Harry,” she said as she took in the customers. Newlyweds, she was sure, by the way they clung to each other.
Harry wandered over to her where she’d moved behind the counter with her laptop. She had the article up on Aaron’s fight the night before, and she noted Harry’s frown as he took in the photo, the headline: McCabe cleans up the night.
She closed up the screen and glanced over to the couple, who were perusing the many gift items she knew had at least a three hundred percent mark-up, considering any stop at a dollar store in LA would uncover the same item. Here, because of the locale and the resort, anyone could hike up the price and no one would think twice at doling out cash for an item that would likely end up in next year’s garage sale.
“Thank you,” the husband said before they left. He was obviously smart, considering he’d nearly choked at the price of the laughing donkey before he plucked it from his young wife’s hand and stuck it back on the shelf.
Harry leaned on the counter, resting on his elbows and taking her in. She could feel him watching her and knew the question he was going to ask. “So is this just you stumbling across his article, or are you keeping tabs on him?”
Right to the heart of the matter. Mary tried not to encourage him, tried not to let him get a read on what she was thinking or feeling or give him an idea of what she was about to do.
“I see,” he said with a sigh.
Quick, she needed to discourage him before her sister was walking into the cottage and demanding to know what the hell was going through her head and sticking her nose in her very personal business. “It’s just curiosity, is all, no biggy. Stumbled across the article as I was checking my airline reservation for tomorrow.” She wondered whether her nose grew as she took in the clock: two more hours and then she could close up. “Harry, don’t make something out of nothing.”
“You sure it’s nothing? Susan is probably going to freak when she hears you were looking at his profile, and then with you going away tomorrow…”
“Why tell her? You know my sister overreacts to everything. This is no big deal, I told you, now go on. No point us both being here, bored to tears. You won’t have the free labor after tonight.” She silently kicked herself for being so careless.
He tapped the counter and then tossed her the keys. “Lock up and cash out in an hour if it’s still slow.” Then he paused at the door, and she knew he wasn’t going to let it go. “Your sister, I don’t keep things from her.”
“You’re not keeping anything, because this isn’t anything. I told you before it’s just an article. Just stumbled across it in between an article about how to whiten your teeth and change a tire in under two minutes. Either of those something you want to share?” she said so matter of factly as she looked at him again, his hand on the door. When he pulled it open and waved goodnight, she realized she’d convinced him. It was then she breathed a little easier and lifted open the laptop again, pulling up the images, even the video clip and the article of the previous night’s fight, when he’d taken out his opponent in under three minutes. She’d seen his face, seen the photo from the last punch that had taken Matterson out. His face, the expression, was pure animal, that of a warrior, a man in battle.
He gave everything he had in that ring. He was one of the best fighters and was now at the top of his game, but what had he given up to be who he was?
She knew what he’d sacrificed. She now knew what he’d done, and tomorrow, when she flew to Alabama, she’d be confronting a lot more than she was comfortable with.
She also knew her sister could never find out.
Aaron was back at his house in Hale County, just outside Greensboro. It was a cute place, with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sweet kitchen, and a cozy living room. It had been owned by only one family before, a husband and a wife with three grown kids who’d traded the east for the west, California, and a cute coastal town that boasted all the perks for retirees. Luc was convinced Aaron had bought it on a whim and had asked four times, “Why Alabama?” Chase had been busy with the congressman, so his nose hadn’t been shoved in Aaron’s business at the time, unlike now. Vic had never asked, which was fine with Aaron.
After checking out of the hotel, Aaron had taken a minute with Chase again before meeting up with his team, Trey and Jim. This time Chase had backed off and was headed back to the kid he was adopting and the woman he was in love with. Aaron was happy for him, but he knew he hadn’t seen the last of him. Chase wasn’t one to just roll over and walk away from any part of his family.
Aaron unpacked his clothes and dumped everything into the washer before changing into shorts and a loose gray T-shirt, then shoving his feet into sneakers. The day was hot and muggy, not the best time for a run, but he was restless and needed to work out his battered and bruised body before he started training for his next fight. A run always cleared his head, centered his thoughts.
He stretched his arms and shoulders and took in the surrounding area, the big trees and dirt roads. This part of the country was a far step from any place he’d been. It was a slower way of life, but he was sure that was most likely from the heat, the slow economy, and a different culture. He ran until he felt his body loosening, until he felt that the edge that had been gripping him was loosening its hold.
A four by four blasted its horn and screamed around him.
Aaron jumped to the shoulder and took in the beast with raised suspension giant wheels and a couple good ol’ boys laughing in back. Dust was flying, and so was the truck. Assholes.
He walked the rest of the way back to the big oak at the corner of his driveway. It gave him a sense of home, and he was considering going right to the old barn he’d converted to a gym to work a round on the bag, do some interval training, when he noticed a black car parked out front of his house. It was an average model, nothing he recognized. Had to be someone lost, considering he didn’t know anyone around these parts other than the realtor who’d sold him the house and the carpenter who’d renovated the barn, and neither drove this car.
“Hello?” he called out when he didn’t see anyone as he walked up to the side of his house. Sweat was running down his face, and he wiped it off with the edge of his soaked T-shirt. He took in the car, a closer look at the Alabama plates, before he turned the corner and spotted a woman, her light hair pulled up in a messy bun, wearing capris and a floral shirt. She was peering in the glass at his front door. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Oh, sorry!” She jumped and placed her hand over her chest, appearing startled. He waited as she strode down the steps. “Are you Aaron McCabe?” she said. Her voice was soft, and the way she asked and the fact he didn’t know who the hell she was had all his senses shooting off a warning. He narrowed his eyes and stared at her.
“Who’s asking?” he said, knowing he didn’t sound friendly at all.
“Madison Hill.” She reached out, leaning in. She was young, plump in the hips, of average height—plain, with light hair, a square jaw, and brown eyes, but her smile seemed genuine. He hesitated and noticed the way she flinched, looking at his face. Yeah, he knew how bad it looked.
He took her hand. “Yeah, I’m Aaron McCabe. What can I do for you?”
She had an uneasy smile. “This is kind of awkward, but I’m here because of my mother.”
He said nothing as he wondered what this was about. He also didn’t move any closer. “Your mother, do I know her?” He didn’t really have anything to do with people in the area.
“You were adopted, right?”
That she was getting into his private business had him wanting to take a step back. Who was this chick, and what did she want?
“I’ll take that as a yes. Sorry, I hope this doesn’t sound too creepy, but I think you’re my brother, and when I was going through her things, I found out so much about you, some information…”
“Whoa, back up a second.” His ears were ringing, and he was stuck on “sister” and “mother” and What the fuck?
“I see I’ve rattled your cage just a bit. Did you know you were adopted? Oh, maybe I’m talking out of turn. My mother said that was always one of my flaws, my many flaws.”
He shook his head. “I knew I wasn’t wanted,” he said, taking in this woman standing on his steps. She looked as if she were in her thirties, older than him.
Her expression pinched as she looked off into the distance. “Not wanted? I don’t believe… It’s complicated.”
“How so?” he asked as he walked around her and up the steps, where he pulled open his door and walked in. The screen door clattered, and he pulled off his soaked T-shirt and dumped it on a chair. He took one of two dozen water bottles from his fridge and cracked the top, then swallowed half. He heard a squeak and turned to see the woman cautiously step inside. He studied her and her awkwardness, her discomfort, and how she took in his modestly furnished place with its bare walls. How could she say they were related? It was bullshit.
“So why would you think we’re related? Maybe your mom was a fan. Who knows, seriously?”
Her expression said it all. “No, she didn’t like fighting. You know, you have Mom’s eyes. I could see it as soon as I saw your professional photo from a fight, but here now I can see that it’s more.” She gestured to her face. “It’s around your eyes. It’s a different color, but it’s Mom…and she told me.” There it was, the awkward smile again.
He wiped his face and took her in, this very plain woman. “You say we’re related. Were you adopted, too?”
She shook her head. “No. Have a brother in Indiana. We grew up not far from here, in the area.”
Chilling, yes. He knew he’d been born here. That was why he’d bought the house. It had been crazy, stupid, and he’d never shared that with anyone. They’d think he was insane. After all, he’d been tossed away. But his mom had kept two other children? He really hadn’t been wanted, after all. “I’m not sure I want to know any more. What was wrong with me?”
Her face took on a sympathy he didn’t like to see on anyone. It was pity.
“No, don’t answer that,” he added rather sharply.
“Aaron, I’m so sorry. I debated whether to come, and I even told myself it would be better to just leave you be. You seem successful and have a life. You didn’t need me coming in and messing things up for you. Look, the fact was that I had a happy childhood with a mother and father, a brother who was a year older than me. I was shocked when I learned about you.”
“So you didn’t know?”
She was shaking her head. “Not really. You were born when I was three. I remembered Mom had a baby. My dad was away in the army, gone for almost two years. I had forgotten who he was. I didn’t even remember you. I was so young. You were there and then you were gone.”
He didn’t know what to say. Their mother had kept her and not him.
“You came to find Mom how many years ago?” she asked, appearing uncomfortable, and he noticed then the gold band on her finger. He gestured to it.
She smiled as she glanced down. “Yes, ten years. Have two kids.”
“It was twelve years ago I started looking for her. Tracked her to Birmingham. Patricia—”
“Randolph,” she finished for him.
“Yeah,” he said, holding the water bottle and then putting it down on the table. He walked to the back laundry room and took a clean shirt from a stack he’d left folded on the dryer. He pulled it on and walked back in, then gestured to the sofa. It was deep gold, with hints of brown and red. It had been pricey, a replica of a vintage set, deep and plush. She evidently understood his quiet ways, as she walked around the sofa and sat down.
“I’m sorry, Aaron. Mom told me last year, all of it, and I was so angry at her at the time, but she made me listen. I’m glad now she did. She didn’t tell me who you were, though I kind of put it together from all the articles about you she had collected. It wasn’t that you weren’t wanted, Aaron. It was that Mom made a mistake. My dad was away all the time, a lifetime in the army. Mom was lonely, had an affair. She said it was a neighbor. Then she found out she was pregnant. My dad was gone, so of course it wasn’t his. She had a baby. I was too young to understand.
“Even thinking back, I was too young to figure out any of it. She had you and kept you until you were almost ten months, she said, and then my dad was coming home and being restationed overseas. We were moving to Germany, and you had to go. Mom put you up for adoption. She told me you came looking for her twelve years ago, knocked on her door, and she felt horrible for sending you away. You see, my dad never knew about you, but Mom told me and begged me never to share it with him or Tom.” She had linked her fingers and was squeezing them together.
“Tom?” He had to clear his throat as he tried to understand. His mom had cheated, and he was the expendable result. He wasn’t sure, but he thought this was worse than anything else.
“My brother. He doesn’t know about you.”
He nodded, because it seemed as if she didn’t plan on telling him. He was a dirty little secret.
“I’m sorry. Were you adopted by a good family?” she added, sounding hopeful. She really was nice, this sister who was a stranger. She had no idea how much worse she was making everything by being here and telling him.
What could he say to her, that he had been adopted when he was five after having been in how many foster homes, never shown an ounce of caring but just another mouth to feed, never held or hugged until Shelley and Jerry had taken him in? They had wanted him. “Yes,” he said, and he omitted everything else because it would only add to what he could see weighed on this lady.
“Good. I know this may seem a little late, and you may not want to hear it, but I don’t believe a day passed that Mom didn’t think of you.”
She was right, he didn’t want to hear it, but he said nothing, instead making a rude noise. It took him a second to understand what she was saying. “And she’s still with your dad now?”
Again she looked so sad. “I’m so sorry, but she died last year. I think she knew it was coming, because she told me about you a few days earlier. She died in her sleep, a heart attack. My dad was devastated. That was when I found the articles on you. I cleaned out Mom’s things for him before he sold the house and moved down to Florida.”
He didn’t know what to say, how to feel for a woman he remembered seeing briefly—the panic in her eyes, her gray hair pulled back in a loose bun. She had been slightly overweight in the middle as women her age often were. It had been terse and pointless, and it had made him feel rejected, so stupid for having made the effort to find her only to have the door slammed in his face. He didn’t know how to feel something other than a lot of hurt and betrayal from someone who should have loved him.
He stood up, hearing his cell phone ringing from somewhere in the house. He didn’t bother looking for it as he took in the stranger he was related to. He didn’t know what to say to her. “You said my father was her neighbor?”
She was shaking her head. “He moved away before Mom knew about you. He had a wife. I don’t know who he is.”
Then she stood up, reached for her purse, and pulled out a card and held it out to him. “That’s my cell phone number. My husband and I live maybe twenty miles from here on the other side of Greensboro. He’s a mechanic.” She shrugged.
He wasn’t sure why she said it that way. Then she started to the door, the awkward moment heavy. He stared at the card, wondering why she’d given it to him, but he didn’t ask.
Then she stopped in the doorway and took him in. “Aaron, I would like to stay in touch. Hope you’d be okay with that.” She really was nice. He said nothing. “Maybe you could come for dinner, meet my husband, my kids.”
He could see something hopeful in her expression. “You know what?” he said. “I’d like that.”