“Tampons slowing you down this morning?” I taunted the young businessman who’d volunteered to spar with me this morning. We’d been dancing around each other for the last five minutes. I wasn’t here to carefully gauge the length of his reach or the power of his jab. I wanted him to hit me, and I wanted to hit him back.
My smear on his manhood worked better than a fist to his gut. He jerked out of whatever fantasy he was concocting of being the next king of the Octagon and rushed me. I waited, slid slightly to the side, and then kneed him in the ribs. As he was bending over from the impact, I brought up a left uppercut and then a right punch. He crumpled like a tin can at a recycling center.
As he lay face down at my feet, it occurred to me I’d made a big strategic error. My third of the morning. I was a slow learner. I looked up to see Noah Jackson shaking his head at me. Noah was my best friend, Marine battle buddy, and roommate. He knew me better than anyone else.
He knew the lightbulb had just gone off over my head. There would be no more hitting in the Spartan Gym today, which meant my hope for a good match was as sunk as the guy at my feet.
With a groan, yuppie number three rolled over. I pulled off a glove and offered him a hand up. He looked at it for a couple of heartbeats like I might punch him again. Christ, I wasn’t a jackass. I didn’t mind fighting dirty if the situation called for it, but I wasn’t going to hit someone who was weaker than I was, who couldn’t fight back. You got smacked around here at the Spartan Gym. That was the whole point.
At least that was why I was here. I woke up every morning with an itch under my skin. I could work out that irritation a couple of ways. My preferred method was fighting. But the downed businessman with the soft hands was my third opponent this morning and not one of them had laid a hand on me outside of a few glancing blows that slid off my protective headgear.
I pulled back my hand and walked over to the corner, shaking my head in disgust. Pauli Generoli, the owner of the gym, climbed into the ring and glared at me. I wasn’t supposed to damage the merchandise. These rich guys were the way he paid for his gym and when they weren’t given enough opportunity to feel like conquerors, they didn’t want to come back. I ignored his summons to come over and jumped down off the platform. Noah was on the mats to the side, practicing some Brazilian jiu-jitsu moves.
Noah used to partner with me. Or actually, I sparred with him to ready him for a world of professional fighting. I wasn’t allowed to do this anymore, as Noah had been invited to be part of the UFC, the officially sanctioned group of mixed martial arts fighters.
Paulie, who trained Noah, said I was too dangerous and undisciplined to fight Noah. I thought it was better for Noah to face down dangerous and unpredictable in the safety of a gym setting before facing it inside the Octagon, where the UFC fighters battled for fame and money, but I never voiced any opposition.
If it were anyone other than Noah, I wouldn’t have kept quiet, but I wasn’t going screw up Noah’s opportunities here. Even if I wanted to because Noah could put a beatdown on me like none other, and we both felt better after. None of the other amateur fighters could get in enough blows to make a difference and my fight instinct was too strong to just stand there and take it.
I pushed open the door to the locker room, and the stifling smell of ball sweat and ass swept over me. Stripping out of my shorts and jock strap, I leaned into one of the two tiled shower stalls at the back to turn the water on. Paulie was not a generous owner. Complain about the cold water and he’d tell you it was called Spartan Gym for a fucking reason and that if we wanted some goddamned hot water we could go to the meatbars out west. Didn’t seem like much of a difference these days, with the infiltration of yuppies thinking they could grow a bigger dick by putting on a pair of boxing gloves.
The cold water washed away what little sweat I’d generated, but the excess energy inside me still pulsed just under the surface. The tension I’d woken up with hadn’t been pounded out of me, and I felt as agitated now as I had at the start of my workout. With all the good fighters off limits because I wasn’t supposed to hurt anyone while they were training, I was left with few options.
I dried off quickly and pulled on my underwear.
Throwing my towel on the metal bench, I sat down and scrolled through my phone’s contacts until I hit the right one.
Fight tonight? The response was immediate but disappointing. Too early in the week for an actual match.
Thursday. Casino. Real fight. Want in?
The reservations held the human version of cockfights because they weren’t bound by state laws. This could be awesome or I could go home on a backboard. Either one looked good to me right now.
The locker-room door creaked on its hinges as Noah pushed his way in.
“Already done for the morning?” I asked in surprise.
“Just wanted to put my two cents in,” Noah said.
“Figure you’re trying to set up some fight this week because this morning’s rounds were so disappointing.”
I just shrugged in return. I wasn’t exaggerating about Noah’s familiarity with my behavior. More than a decade of friendship and four years of military service deployed together to Afghanistan made us tighter than an ass in spandex.
“Look, I don’t want to be the heavy, but one of these days you’re going to come out of these fights a vegetable.”
I scratched the back of my neck and took a deep breath to gather some patience. I didn’t want to say something that would end up pissing us both off. “Okay, Grandma, You’re one to talk.”
“It’s sort of a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ type of lecture,” he admitted sheepishly.
“You have other suggestions?”
“Not really. Just be careful. I think the crew back in San Diego would spit on your hospital bed if you ended up in a coma after you’d come back hale and hearty from deployment.”
He wasn’t wrong. No one liked to hear the news about a brother who survived the war only to come home and get fucked up in some random accident. It seemed pointless, a total waste of a good man, but I wouldn’t ever put myself in the “good man” category. “Yeah, got it.”
I stood and pulled the rest of my clothes from the locker. Jeans, ratty T-shirt, boots, and a heavy winter coat that weighed about ten pounds. I hated the cold. As I threw my clothes on the bench, the clink of metal sounded loud against the concrete floor.
Noah walked over and picked up the heavy coin that had fallen. “What do you think this guy would say about your fighting?”
The heavy coin with the emblem of the Medal of Honor stared up at me, almost as if it looked disappointed. Do the Corps proud, both in uniform and out.
I rubbed both hands over my face. “You’re a dirty fighter, Noah Jackson.” I snatched the coin from his hand and curled my fist around it until the rope-finished edges bit into my skin.
His response was to wrap his hand around my shoulder and squeeze it tight. “Semper Fi, brother.”
You’re going to regret not being in biology with me, I texted Ellie Martin, my best friend since kindergarten and now college roommate. We were taking the dreaded science elective that every other student took their freshman year, but Ellie and I’d managed to duck the requirement until our second year. Our advisor, Dr. Highsmith, told us to get it over with or he would drop us. I thought it was an empty threat, but we both loved him as our academic advisor-hideous sweaters, tendency to spit, and all. Dr. Highsmith was considered one of the foremost economic thinkers in the country, and his chair was endowed by some bigwig alum who credited his post-college success to theories that Dr. Highsmith taught. I planned to be the CEO of my own insurance company someday and endow my own chair. The AM West Chair of Economics. That had a nice ring to it.
You’ll be the one with regrets when you have nightmares about flying monkeys.
Ellie had been afraid of tornadoes since she watched The Wizard of Oz when we were seven. She’d heard from someone that they watched storm chaser footage during biology class and she changed her science elective that same day. No amount of arguing with her about how biology had nothing to do with the weather could convince her otherwise, which was why I was walking into class by myself. I sent her a picture of the flying monkeys that I’d saved to my phone this morning for just such an occasion, grinning at her immediate curse in response. Getting the finger through text just has no power.
“You’re gonna run into that stage.”
My texting conversation with Ellie came to a halt at the softly drawled warning. About five inches from my shin was the front of the lecture stage in my Biology 101 class. The warning had saved me from sure embarrassment, but my cheeks heated anyway as I turned to see the person behind the voice. I’d an idea who it was, but I was two parts dismayed and two parts enthralled by the sight of him. Bo Randolph.
I knew of Beauregard Randolph. Everyone at Central did. Central College was one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation, nestled in an urban area in the Midwest, but it was smaller than some city high schools. Gossip whispered at the start of morning classes at one end of campus was heard at the other by noon in the cafeteria. Or some version of the gossip, anyway.
I’d never envisioned attending any other college than Central, but one drunken party later and I wished for the anonymity of those public universities and their enormous student populations. So while I’d heard many rumors about Bo, I didn’t know how many of them were true. The rumors about me—that I was a slutty girl who’d banged the entire lacrosse team—had only a grain of truth. I’d given up my virginity after one fraternity party to some lacrosse player, who then bragged about it to his teammates.
Somehow that one encounter became the entire team. Once a field bunny, always a field bunny. The lacrosse squad made it their goal to see that everyone believed I was fair game, prey to be chased down and taken at any opportunity. Sober, not sober. Willing, not willing. I wished there had been an informational sheet in my freshman welcome packet warning that hooking up with a lacrosse player resulted in social ruination.
The rumors about Bo ran the gamut from him being a professional fighter to having killed some guy on the east side of campus for looking at him wrong. Oh, and don’t forget the women. Bo’s name was linked to every sort of girl here at Central. It didn’t matter if a girl was sporty, artsy, quiet, or popular, Bo seemed have hooked up with them all. Naturally, this only served to heighten Bo’s reputation with both sexes. If you were a guy, your conquests made you a god. If you were a girl, you were the conquered, no better than a toy.
I’d sat directly behind him in Advanced Economy Theory last semester and spent months battling twin emotions of lust and resentment. Resentment because of the unfairness of how differently our actions painted us in the eyes of our classmates, and lust because Bo made it exciting to go to class. It wasn’t because price discrimination was a fascinating topic or that economics was my actual major. No, the highlight of those days was staring at the interplay of muscles and skin and tendons when Bo wrote, stretched, or reached behind him to pull his backpack over his shoulder. He looked like the live model for a Rodin sculpture. Even the tinkling of what I assumed to be his dog tags striking each other when he moved generated a Pavlovian response of craving in me. About the only flaw I could see in Bo was his messy dirty blond hair, but even that just invited me to sink my fingers in it and smooth it down.
Ellie told me the only way to exorcise those conflicted feelings was to engage in a long bout of angry sex with Bo. But all I did was fantasize. Like most things I enjoyed about Central, my pleasure in Bo Randolph was taken surreptitiously and privately. Only Ellie knew.
“Miss, in the yellow sweater, if you’ll sit down, I can start my lecture,” the professor barked out.
I turned to look to the side to see if anyone else was standing, but Bo just shook his head sadly and leaned forward to whisper, “He’s talking about you.”
If my cheeks were hot before, it was nothing like the five-alarm fire blazing this time. Bo stood and waved me into the empty space beside him and I had no choice but to sit down. I rushed and tossed my messenger bag on the empty table space. If I had taken one second more, I could have moved down five seats or even farther before I bumped into another student, but in my panic I didn’t notice.
None of these things were like me. I tried to draw as little attention to myself as possible on campus. I sat in the back of the classroom. I did not make a spectacle of myself in front of an entire classroom of one hundred students. I could only be grateful that these were freshmen and hope that whatever rumors swam through the college artery system about me couldn’t be immediately attached to my rarely-seen face.
I pretended I wasn’t sitting next to Bo, that I hadn’t been called out by the professor, and that a hundred pairs of eyes weren’t pinned on my back. Instead, I pulled out my laptop and opened my IM screen to ping Ellie. Humiliation had to be shared in order to be endured.
AM_1906: Bo Randolph is in my bio class.
Eggs_Martini: What? Why is he not in Rocks for Jocks?
Rocks for Jocks was Geology 101 and was so nicknamed because all the athletes took it to pad their GPAs. It was commonly known that Bio 101 was harder, but at least you avoided spitballs hurled across the room and suffocation from the smell of gym socks and sweaty jerseys.
Before I could reply to Ellie, the professor began telling us how a typhoon would swallow us up eventually or that the sea level would rise gradually, so that all the land would be eroded. Nice. I could see Bio 101 was going to be swell.
Out of the corner of my eye, I heard the rustling of paper and then the scratch of a cheap pen. Bo was a lefty, and he took notes the old-school way. By hand. With a pen and paper. Insane.
AM_1906: Good call on changing science class. Apparently we’re all going to die soon. From a natural disaster.
Eggs_Martini: Escape now.
AM_1906: Like rocks for jocks will be better? You can die from a mudslide or avalanche or other geological disasters. Global warming, anyone?
Eggs_Martini: Rocks do not cause or are not related to global warming.
AM_1906: I’m pretty sure the class is more than about rocks.
Eggs_Martini: Clearly not or it wouldn’t be rocks for jocks.
I was so intent on my IM conversation with Ellie, I hadn’t noticed that Bo had angled himself to view my screen until I felt the brush of his arm against mine.
“Nosy much?” I hissed, turning the laptop away, my anger and surprise overcoming my initial nervousness.
“Sorry, couldn’t resist,” drawled Bo. The rumor about Bo being a southerner? True. His drawl was as recognizable as the shocking blue eyes he sported. They were so blue I wondered if they were fake. I stared at them for a moment too long, looking for the outline of a contact lens, but saw nothing but pure ocean blue, like the waves you see in the spring break pamphlets of the Caribbean Sea lapping against the white sand beaches. Who needed Cancún when you could stare at Bo Randolph’s eyes for a week?
I wrenched my gaze away. Bo was the poster child for every disaster that female singers warbled about. He’d break your heart and do it smiling. Worse, he’d make you think you were better off for having your heart broken because it was done in by him.
“Why are you even here? Aren’t you a senior?” I said, anger at myself making me sound peevish. At least I kept my voice low enough to avoid getting us in trouble. The professor was on the other end of the stage, making sure everyone in the room was sufficiently depressed with their dim prospects for survival.
“No, I’m a junior college transfer and I’ll be a junior forever unless I get my science prerequisite out of the way,” Bo said, unperturbed. His reportedly quick trigger was apparently not set off by snippy girls. “Why are you here? You seem like a responsible person who would’ve taken her science elective in her first year.”
His gaze swept me like a scanning machine and I felt so thoroughly examined I wondered if he was planning to make a 3D model of me later. Probably wishful thinking, but it didn’t stop a thrill from shooting up my spine at the thought of Bo pulling up a mental picture of me during a private moment.
“How do you know I’m not a first year?” I whispered.
He looked at me disbelievingly. “Because you were a sophomore when you sat behind me last semester in advanced economic theory, AnnMarie West.” He emphasized my name. It was my turn to be disbelieving. I could not believe that he knew both my name and that I sat behind him in class last semester.
I didn’t have a chance to respond because the professor had strolled back to our side of the auditorium and was instructing us on how to sign up for a lab partner.
“The TA will hand out sign-up sheets. If you know someone and have arranged to be their lab partner, please indicate that on the sheets. If you don’t have one, one will be assigned for you at the end of the day, randomly. Thirty-five percent of your grade will depend on your lab work. Choose your partner wisely.”
My heart sank into my feet. With Ellie in geology, I would be assigned to some random freshman. It could be some guy who would think he could make obscene passes at me because I was that girl, or a girl who thought I’d try to steal her man. This was part of the reason I’d put off my science requirement.
The teacher’s assistant handed Bo, who was sitting at the end of our table, a sheet and he scribbled his name and another. I wondered who he was partnering with and why he wasn’t sitting next to that person. I didn’t know what to write down, given that I avoided all the other students and knew only a few names, none of whom were sitting in this room. But Bo didn’t hand me the sheet when he was done. Instead, he leaned past me and laid it on the far side of the empty table, where another student grabbed it and started writing.
“Hey,” I said, trying to reach for the paper, but Bo covered my hand and jerked his chin at the first-year to go ahead.
I rounded on Bo. “I didn’t get to write my name down.”
“You don’t have to,” Bo said, still holding my hand in his. His large hand made me feel tiny and fragile and, briefly, I allowed myself to enjoy the feeling of being protected, like Bo was the shell of my frail turtle body. I shook it off and reminded myself I had my own protective casing called self-reliance. I tugged gently, but he refused to let me go. “We’re going to be lab partners.”
“We? As in you and I?”
“That would be the correct composition of individuals making up the ‘we’ in my sentence.”
“But…” I wasn’t sure whether I was secretly indignant or relieved.
“You don’t want to be stuck with a first-year. You’re smart, given that you were in advanced theory last semester. You’ll be a good lab partner.”
“But are you a good lab partner for me? You’re taking a first-year elective in your third year. You were in advanced economic theory with me, a sophomore.”
Bo laughed but then grew serious. “Fair enough. Yes. I have good grades, and I never let a teammate down.”
A tremor shot through me at Bo’s words. I didn’t have many people on my team, and this guy, this much-wanted guy, was suggesting he was going to stand beside me? It’s for the class, I cautioned myself. But the part that crushed on Bo all last semester? That small, secret part was whispering things I knew I should not allow myself to believe. Like that Bo wanted to be on my team.
I looked down at my hand, still engulfed in Bo’s, and knew that want was winning the battle against fear.