Fighter (Coffee Shop #4) - Katie Cross



The moment I walked into the MMA Center, I knew exactly what would happen: snap judgments, a stare of concern, and maybe even annoyance. But I walked in anyway, because desperate times called for desperate measures.

This fat lip wasn't going away fast enough.

On purpose, I stepped inside at 8:50 pm, ten minutes away from closing. Easier to avoid a conversation I didn't want. My old black backpack was slung halfway across my back and my maniacal brown curls tamed into something of a ponytail.

Ready for this.

There weren't many people left here, which wasn't surprising. The MMA Center was a place for athletes across the country to train in mixed martial arts, not an everyday gym. But Benjamin Mercedy, the owner and founder, had been forced to pack it with weight machines and treadmills and ellipticals for the average mortal to use to pay their mortgage.

Or so the small-mountain-town rumors said, anyway.

The giant mats taking up most of the room, however, belied the casual jogger's attitude. This was a serious place.

A girl across the room spritzed down gym equipment with a bright spray of cleaner, then wiped it with a cloth. A heavy-set guy huffed away on a treadmill below a TV with the news streaming across it, ticker-tape style.

My gaze honed in on the girl. Medium height, just like me. Strong, but unassuming. She was way wirier than me. I had thighs thick enough to be proud of, as Mom said, but I sensed an understanding soul in this girl. She'd get me. No judgment from a fellow woman. I turned toward her, but stopped when a deep voice to my left asked, “Can I help you?”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I paused midstep. Just the man I didn't want to encounter. Benjamin Mercedy himself.

“I just had a question about classes,” I responded without looking his way. Maybe I could slip in and out of here without him seeing my swollen face.

“We have a full schedule on the website.”

“Yep. Saw it.”

Silence answered. I closed my eyes and sucked in a slow breath. Obviously, this was awkward. He had to see the lip. I couldn't talk to the mats on the other side of the room without looking like a total weirdo.

Finally, I turned to face him.

As expected, Benjamin stood behind a counter, both of his hands on the desk. He peered at me through golden eyes framed with eyelashes thick enough to flutter away. Dark hair framed his face in a short cut that, only a few weeks ago, had been shoulder length. The absence of hair gave him a swoony, chiseled facial structure. His neck coiled with muscles all the way across his shoulders and down his arms. Said muscles probably rippled down his back, too.

His Adam's apple bobbed as our gaze collided. I stared right at him to avoid looking at the rest of him and forced my voice to remain normal. “I . . . I just wanted to see if you offered self-defense classes.”

His gaze immediately dropped to the fat red line down the middle of my lip. Maybe I could have passed it off as dry skin or some weird condition, except for the swollen state of the lip beneath it. Two days later, it still stung.

When his eyebrows crashed together, I realized I'd lost the game. I dropped all sense of pretense to lean on the counter in an intentional mimicry.

“Look.” I leaned forward and waved a hand around my face. “I know what this probably looks like, particularly considering my need for a self-defense class. But I'm not an abused woman in a relationship with a crappy boyfriend. That's not what this is. That's not my jam.”

A flicker of amusement traveled through those honey-gold eyes before he nodded. “No, we don't offer self-defense classes right now. We tried, but no one came.”

“Well that's stupid,” I muttered.

He lifted an eyebrow.

My tense body felt like I was preparing to meet a blow to the stomach. That wasn't the case this time. I was just preparing myself for his inevitable judgment. The quiet talk about what my resources were and how I deserved better. Um, no. Not again, please. I'd already been through this with Bert, my boss.

This wasn't that.

Except . . . it wasn't far off from that, either. I was potentially one more bad situation away from being a statistic, which was why I just needed someone to teach me the basics.

“Do you need some help with whoever did this?”