Read Underground Warrior Online
Authors: Evelyn Vaughn
Tags: #Romance, #Romantic Suspense
And here she stood, small, insubstantial, unarmed except for the pepper spray in her own pocket. But she refused to lower her gaze. No weakness.
He grinned, a white semicircle of teeth against his bad-guy pose. “Twenty dollars.”
Now she got it. Ticket taker.
“Ladies drink free,” Sibyl challenged him, and he laughed.
“Good point, babe, good point. Go in and draw more business for us, yeah?”
She neither nodded nor declined, just waited for him to pull open the door.
Noise swamped her as she stepped inside. So did the sudden warmth generated by so many crowded bodies, and smoke from cigarettes and from less legal substances. She could smell beer and liquor and human sweat. But the noise felt like a physical assault. She wove her way through the crowd, knowing that to stand still would make her appear confused, weak. She ignored the entrepreneurs hawking dirty coolers full of bottled refreshments, and the apparent pimp, two girls not much older than her under each of his arms. She wished she could ignore the people laying bets, either with money or ego. “My money’s on the big one,” shouted one chunky, redneck type and she ducked by, and his skinnier friend said, “I dunno, that Messican looks awful fast.”
Now she could see chain fencing, easily eight feet high, apparently the ring where this match took place. As she approached it, she thought she could smell blood.
But, no matter how loud the shouts, she should hear some kind of animal noise, shouldn’t she? Perhaps dogs fought silently, without barks, but wouldn’t they at least snarl? Yelp? All she heard was an occasional “oof!”
Finally, she cut far enough through the press of the crowd to see the truth. Not cockfighting. Not dog fighting. Just…fighting. Two large men wearing shorts and nothing else grappled with each other, sheer strength against sheer strength—and the larger was Trace. Her Trace.
Now that she recognized him, Sibyl couldn’t tear her eyes from his swarthy, sweaty near-nakedness. Broad shoulders. Tree-like limbs. Pure, physical power. His muscles gleamed and bulged. He and his opponent bared their teeth at each other, like wild animals, as they circled. The reek of violence filled the warehouse like the cheers of the maddened crowd, especially when the smaller man flew at Trace, feet first. Trace somehow dodged the kick. With a bull-like lunge, he tackled his opponent, hard, to the floor. Using his strength, his size, his power, Trace began to punch him. Again. Again.
Their bodies lurched with each blow. Violent. Raw.
Sibyl’s stomach twisted. So why couldn’t she look away? Where did the sudden, primal thought of
I’m with him
She should be willing the other man to yell for help, as if they were in an alleyway instead of a fenced ring. To bargain. To do anything. Not just get…beaten. She forced herself to disassociate from Trace and imagine herself as his victim. At another, particularly brutal blow, a more familiar cry cut through the chaos around Sibyl.
Trace’s head turned a mere fraction from his assault—and his full attention smashed into her. His eyes widened. And in that split-second during which their gazes met, Sibyl saw something she’d never expected to see in a true descendent of the Comitatus.
That shame struck her all the harder for her recognition of it.
What do I have to feel ashamed for?
she wondered—but another moment bludgeoned its way past. In that moment, maybe less, Trace’s seemingly helpless victim twisted. Struck. Wrapped him in arms and legs both, and held on.
Suddenly, Sibyl’s concern lay less with Trace’s opponent and more with her big, confusing lug. His piston-like blows began to lose power, faded into fumbling. Could he even breathe?
As he lurched toward the ground, seemingly lifeless, Sibyl’s life seemed to sink with him.
For once, she didn’t analyze.
She just ran, pushing and elbowing anyone in her path, practically climbing her way around the fenced enclosure to find her way in to Trace as he collapsed. The crowd erupted into cheering, into booing. Sibyl ignored them.
Sense or not. Violence or not. He mattered more.
Trace had a vague awareness of light and blurry faces. He barely remembered standing. Congratulating the winner. Staggering out of the octagonal ring without the money he’d come for. And then—
Was she real, or not? As his head cleared, he found himself sitting on a bench, out of the worst of the crowd. Someone even handed him an ice pack for his knee. But as the crowd’s attention turned to the next fight, Sibyl reappeared. Instead of freaking out on him—crying, or scolding, or cringing away—she handed him a bottle of cold water. “Drink,” she said firmly.
He drank. Then he faced the situation. “How’d you find me?”
“You said the address out loud, on the telephone. I was…” Her eyes darted away from him. “Curious.”
“Yeah, well you’re not safe here.” The very idea of her traveling alone, to this neighborhood, washed his lingering disorientation away as thoroughly as the cold water.
Sibyl looked at the ice pack on his knee and raised her eyebrows. Little she might be, but something about her didn’t seem anywhere near as young and helpless as before.
“Well I know what I’m getting into. But you shouldn’t…” He scowled, then tried again. “I didn’t want—why’d you have to come?”
She cocked her head. “You don’t want me here?”
“What do you think?” He regretted his fierce response the moment it grunted out of him, but she didn’t even flinch. How’d someone as tiny as her get this tough? “I didn’t want you or the others to see me doing this.”
“You’re ashamed.” She didn’t make that a question.
“Hell, no!” That fast, he knew he wasn’t. But then he had to figure out why he played the fights so close to his vest, around his highborn buddies. “These are good fights! And it’s good money, because I kick butt at it, when I’m not distracted by little, nosy…distractions.”
Her lips twitched into a smile, and he couldn’t tell if she was laughing at him or with him, but as long as his words kept coming, he let them.
“Look, people think I should be ashamed, and that’s bad enough, okay? They think extreme fighting is, you know…barbaric. Or ‘vulgar.’ And I don’t want to try explaining why it isn’t, when people like you already have your minds made up.”
“My mind’s not made up.” And she was there—which was enough to give him nightmares all by itself. How had she…?
“You hate violence.” He remembered something cute. “You hid your face in my shoulder during that movie at Greta’s, when the bad guy got—”
“My mind’s not made up,” Sibyl insisted more loudly. Then she added, “There are no people like me.”
That, he might agree with.
“Tell me.” Sibyl sank gracefully onto the bench beside him as if he weren’t sweaty and bloody and probably stinking. “Why isn’t it vulgar?”
“It’s real, is what it is. Honest fighting, not some cleaned up pretense of it, you know? Those college prep guys…they learn sword fighting with a bunch of rules, warm up first, wear the proper gear, three-minute bouts, fifteen touches and you’re out.” He hadn’t sucked at fencing, especially with the heavier épée, but the rules had about driven him crazy. “Like in a real fight you’d never get ‘touchés.’ Like swords weren’t invented to attack or defend at any cost. Like that Charlemagne guy would’ve given anyone fifteen ‘touchés.’”
Sibyl looked down—he remembered that she didn’t wholly like the swords.
“Or boxing,” he continued quickly, wondering if he’d suffered a head injury, to be talking like this. Or maybe he just hoped she’d stay here, all clean and good-smelling, at least until he finished talking. “Rich folks go to boxing matches all the time. The senator who’s been getting extreme fighting banned all over loves boxing. It’s like if you toss in some stupid Marquess of Queensbury rules, that makes it okay. That hides the fact that it’s still about one guy trying to pound the other into submission. It’s a lie. In No-Holds-Barred fighting—at least we’re honest.”
She still hadn’t fled him in disgust.
“It’s not like we don’t have any rules. You can’t gouge eyes or hit a guy in his—or look at the bare knuckles.” If she noticed his sudden edit, she didn’t show it. “You think boxing gloves protect the other guy’s skull, but they protect the fighter’s knuckles. Boxers die of head injuries every freakin’ year, but not NHB fighters. We can’t do multiple head-strikes without breaking our hands. The hurricane fencing’s safer for fighters, too, because falling against the ropes can give you a kind of whiplash, but the chain takes a guy’s weight evenly. We almost always walk out of the ring on our own. Even if we are kinda bleary,” he added, since he really couldn’t remember whether she was there as he left the cage or not. “And…”
Should he say it? Ah hell. He was being honest so far.
“And Sib, I’m good at it. When I fight, I’m me. For a few years there, I kind of lost track of that. I was trying to be who my dad wanted, and then to be whatever my dad didn’t want, and it got me all twisted up. But the confusion goes away when I fight. Maybe that’s why I like that sword so much. Because it connects me to other fighters in my family, and not just…not just the bad guys.”
And there it was. More truth than maybe he’d ever realized on his own. Definitely more than he’d ever told a woman.
Sibyl watched him as she took it in. He liked that she didn’t seem to make snap decisions, that she really seemed to see
in all his sweaty, oversize, whatever-the-opposite-of-glory was.
Then she smiled the smile that had first hit him in the gut with the thought
It worked exactly the same way this time.
“Can you fight again tonight?” she asked. “Or did I get you disqualified?”
He hadn’t scared her. He hadn’t disgusted her. She looked at him, and she saw
—and she was smiling at him?
He grinned right back at her. “No guts, no glory.”
e won. Whether the presence of his “fair lady” had anything to do with it, Trace couldn’t tell, but that one win earned him more than a month of day labor would have. He handed the stash to Sibyl, to hide in her cowboy boots, as he stiffly pulled on his clothing. He was going to hurt like hell, once he came down off the adrenaline. But pain was honest, too.
He followed her as close as a bodyguard as they made their way out through the crowd, putting the fear of God into anyone who looked too closely at her or her cute butt. Sibyl seemed surprisingly comfortable with them.
“I thought you didn’t like people,” he challenged, once they reached the relative silence of the morning-dark warehouse district.
“Not all people. Just powerful puppet masters who hide their evil behind anonymity and don’t care who they destroy to get their own way.” Uh-huh. She shrugged her slim shoulders. “The guys back there are just lowlifes.”
“Lowlifes can be dangerous.” His limp was proof of that. Damned knee.
“I can handle them.” Yeah, sure. “At least I can see them coming.”
As opposed to the Comitatus? But he was too damned tired for more conversation. He even let her drive the car Mitch had loaned him, as long as she agreed to dig some money out of her boot for a twenty-four-hour drive-through.
“Your wish is my command,” Sibyl promised him, starting the car.
Trace kept his eyes closed, both to rest and to avoid cluing her in on any further wishes he might have…not that he could follow through on any of them tonight, even if she were willing. But it didn’t hurt to wish.
Especially since his attraction toward her had somehow shifted beyond merely finding her cute to finding her…special. Accepting. Honest.
Okay, so the pain
By the time Sibyl pulled the car to a shuddering stop in the driveway of Greta’s old Oak Cliff house, Trace had fallen asleep. So much for impressing him with her mad driving skills. She cut the engine, then spent a few minutes just considering him in the wash of a street-light.
The way she softened inside fascinated her, and not just because of how long she’d kept a distrustful distance from most people. More from the sticky, dizzying effect he’d had on her earlier, as she’d watched him wipe down all that sweaty, tanned, dark-haired muscle after the second fight, his broad, naked chest, his bulging arms, his impossibly thick, planed legs…
“Lust,” she defined to herself, as quietly as possible—that she was talking to herself again showed how unsettled she felt. “Not love. Lust. Normal.”
Except she wasn’t normal. After what the Comitatus had done to her…
She mustn’t lose herself in the memories again.
Look at Trace. Trace is safety.
He really, really was. She’d seen how powerful he could be. To be on his side…
but you’re not. He’s Comitatus.
Trace Beaudry wasn’t polished-handsome, not like the wealthy boys she’d known at school—points in his favor right there. He wore his hair short for fights, but only shaved now and then. His nose showed more than one break. Tonight’s shadows gave his features a faint hint of caveman, big and hard and capable of terrible violence…
But not toward her.
He wouldn’t hurt her. She knew that, beyond all doubt, because he’d risked his life for her. Because he’d had numerous opportunities to overpower her, and hadn’t. What he’d said…well, she knew better than to believe mere words, because people lied, even to themselves. But what people did, that was truth.
But the reminder carried less and less power the more often she tried using it to distance herself from her feelings.
He looked so gentle now, his eyes closed like that, his mouth slack. She remembered what his lips would feel like under hers, and shifted in her seat, bit her lower lip.
No guts, no glory.