I stop to watch Keane and Jax, and I have to admit, I’m impressed. They are not holding back or pulling their punches. Each hit, every kick, is precise, brutal, and savage. Sweat glistens on their bare chests and soaks their hair. Blood drips down from a cut on Keane’s brow, coating one side of his face and turning his pretty-boy looks into something lethal. Jax is leaner than his opponent, but no less packed with defined muscle.
With their shirts off, I’m able to catalog many of the tattoos I’ve only gotten brief hints or glimpses of. Circling one another in the ring, the images on their torsos blend together, a swirling kaleidoscope of fractals made of four colors. Keane’s ink is all bold blues, grays, and blacks; whereas, Jax’s are more vibrant—bright red pops of color among the dark, coal black of the images. From where I’m standing, I can’t make out individual pictures, except one, and both of the men have it inked on their backs: a gorgeous, unearthly phoenix rising from the flames of hell, its wings outstretched. Gripped in the phoenix’s claws are the words, “DEATH IS ONLY THE BEGINNING,” written in bold, block letters. They are the same words that are written in script on the wall of Rafe’s room.
“Did you design that?” I ask Rafe.
His full lips part slightly. “How did you know?”
“I snooped in your room,” I reply honestly. “Didn’t Keane tell you?” I say, throwing his friend under the bus.
“No.” Those kissable lips press together as his focus lands on Keane in the ring.
Keane is circling Jax, trying to anticipate his next move. Jax drops his guard just a fraction, and I know he made a huge mistake. Keane strikes out fast and swift with his left fist, but Jax is quick enough to deflect it, delivering a kidney blow to Keane’s right side with his knee. I feel like I’m watching a lion battle a panther. I’m tempted to ask Rafe to grab us some popcorn, so we can sit back and watch the show.
Jax gets momentarily distracted when he spots me in his peripheral vision, but it’s enough for Keane to gain advantage, sending Jax to the mat with an uppercut and sweeping his legs out from under him.
“Fuck!” Jax loudly gripes and smacks away the proffered hand Keane holds out to help him up.
Keane reaches for a towel from a top rope and wipes the blood from his face. “Enjoy the show, princess?”
“Very much, thank you,” I muse. “The best part was seeing Jax kick your ass. Oh, and you missed a spot,” I remark with as much sarcasm as possible, using his own words he said to me a half hour ago.
I indicate with my hand where there’s still blood on his cheek.
A sharp bark of laughter emits from Keane, and I stare at him, dumbfounded. He never laughs. Ever. Or he used to never laugh. Not one that’s real anyway. It totally transforms his face, making a set of dimples pop out and his eyes sparkle. Jesus Christ, I need a lobotomy.
Jax slips through the ropes and goes over to one of the treadmills, ignoring me completely. He’s not wearing his glasses, and for some reason, I don’t like that.
“Anytime, Tinker Bell,” Keane states from the ring, leaning forward on the ropes, looking bored.
My head snaps from Jax to him. I swear the guy lives to get a rise out of me. My eyes flash a warning of indigo ire.
“Call me Tinker Bell one more time and Rafe will be carrying your unconscious ass out of here.”
One dark eyebrow raises with interest. “Rafe, get her hands wrapped. Let’s see if she can deliver what she so recklessly proclaims.”
Like the obedient manservant he is, Rafe does as he’s told without question. Just like he did when my father commanded that he was never to see me again after finding us together in bed. My father had his men tie Rafe up to a chair and forced him to watch as I was degraded and beaten in front of him with my father’s belt, until strips of skin ripped off my back and buttocks, and I passed out from the pain. When I woke up, I was alone in my room, naked and sticky with dried blood. Rafe broke up with me the following day over a fucking text message. I never forgave him for not fighting harder for me. He should have spat in my father’s face. Defied him. Loved me enough to walk away and take me with him. But he didn’t.
Kellan turned rabid when he found me the next afternoon after I failed to come down for breakfast and lunch. The following week, I was hauled onto a plane with my mother, heading for Europe. A part of me has wondered if Kellan was the reason I was sent away. I hope so. It would mean he finally stood up for me and got me out of that house and away from our father’s abuse.
I try not to think about those bad times, but it’s hard to do, especially when they keep creeping up in my nightmares. If it wasn’t for Kellan, I probably would have killed myself long ago. I think that’s why I’m so desperate to be with my brother now. He was the only good thing, the only bright light, in my dark, lonely world. At one time, I thought Rafe was too. How wrong I was.
Rafe finishes taping my hands. I flex my fingers and make tight fists, testing out his handiwork. Then I look my ex in the eye, still caught up in my horrid past.
“I never did tell you,” I say in a hushed tone.
He leans in slightly, the smell of his heated skin enticing. “What’s that?”
“I hate your fucking guts.”