Fighter, p.1
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       Fighter, p.1

          
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  “Go, Dale!” my brother Dylan shouted in my ear. He raced from his side of the truck while I was still putting the engine in park. “Come on!” I heard him yell as he went past my door and veered to the back of the house.

  I loved all nine of my brothers, but I was not one of them. For one thing, I’m a girl. My real name is Delia Holden. Our mom decided to give me the family name, but that’s the most feminine thing about me. Delia had been shortened to Dele early on, and somehow that switched to Dale when I was in junior high. Which suited me fine. At that time, I liked fitting in with my brothers. I was scrawny enough to wear baggy shirts, baseball hats, and jeans with sneakers. People thought I was a boy, and I was athletic enough to play sports with most of the guys. That ended around eighth grade. My boobs came in, and my hips went out. Even though I was still thin, there was no way to hide my female lioness anymore.

  I hated this, and watching Dylan sprint away, I cursed at him. That was the other part of being female that sucked: my speed had evaporated. I could no longer race and tackle him to the ground. I’d enjoyed holding my own against my brothers, but that had stopped, and by freshman year they were too cool to even be associated with me. They’d come around eventually as we all grew up, but things were never quite the same. Now here I was, home for the holidays from my first year at college, and I’d been roped back into the bounty-hunting business.

  Our mom died from cancer when I was little, and our dad died when I was in high school. My mother had been sweet, quiet, and the perfect doting mom—a pile of crocheted doilies made for each kid testified to that fact. She really was perfect. Home-cooked meals, and she had picture books for each of us. I have memories of her waving goodbye from the window as the bus picked us up for school. However, our dad was the opposite. He was technically murdered in the back alley of a bar, but the real cause of his death was a lifetime of boozing, bar fights, and gambling gone wrong.

  The social workers tried to take us into the system, but Dean was already nineteen then. He refused and instead got a job at a local bounty-hunting firm. Fast forward ten years and he owned the business. Every one of our brothers now worked as agents. The only black sheep in the family was me. I went to college, and it was moments like this that I was glad. No six a.m. busts. No accidentally Maceing myself. No worrying if my Taser had the lock on it.

  I cursed under my breath, scrambling to tuck the keys into my pants and zip up the pocket as I tried to hold my gun so it wasn’t pointed at anyone. Honestly. I’d been gone for five months. Five months of normalcy. Five months of staying up late to eat pizza and drink beer. Five months of going on dates. Five months of doing what other college students did, and I would bet money my friends weren’t home chasing after a bail jumper. Oh, no. They weren’t worried about whether they’d remembered to grab their handcuffs or not.

  “Dale!”

  Another brother waited at the other end of the house. He waved me over. As I ran to him, already feeling short of breath, he gestured to the south corner. “Radio when you get there.”

  Radio?

  Shit. I forgot my damn radio. I glanced at him. Would he have an extra? Did I dare ask and risk being chewed out? Judging by the firm set of his jaw, I decided no. My cousins and brothers were nuts when it came to this stuff. If you forgot a piece of equipment, you got scrub duty at the end of the night.

  I ran around to the backyard and saw Dylan in the opposite corner of the yard. He was looking all around with a hand to his radio. I heard him say, “South right side clear.”

  My cousin added, “Left front clear.”

  The rest checked in, and I heard Dean, my oldest brother, yelling from the front. “Where is he? We know he’s here!”

  “Dale!” Dylan waved his arms. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “Check in! What’s wrong with you?”

  What was wrong with me? Oh, the fact that they woke me at up six in the morning might’ve had something to do with it. Or that I hadn’t worked out since I got on the airplane heading from California to Chicago back in August. Or the fact that I didn’t want to do this, and they’d just assumed I would jump at the chance. I wanted to scream back at him and give him the middle finger, but instead I did my job: scan the windows, look for anyone looking back, look for any movement in the curtains. Look for pretty much anything. When I saw nothing, I yelled back at him, “I’m clear.”

  He lifted his radio and waved it at me. “Check in.”

  Across his radio, I heard, “Dale, check in. Check in, Dale.”

  I had no fucking radio.

  “Dale!”

  That was it. I gave him the middle finger this time.

  He groaned in frustration, but checked in for me. “South left side clear.” He paused, then added, “Dale’s an asshole.”

  I lifted my finger higher above my head.

  He laughed, but then our drama was forgotten. We heard Dean’s voice from the front side of the house: “I don’t care what rights you think you have. We have a warrant, motherfucker. Let us in. Now!”

  I grinned, shaking my head. Memories of my childhood rolled back over me, and I adjusted my stance, leaning most of my weight on my left leg as I got comfortable. My job was to watch and report anything. My brother Dean’s job was to roust the bail jumper, and as he continued to yell at whoever had been unlucky enough to answer the door, he was doing it to perfection.

  I waved at Dylan and cupped my hands around my mouth to yell at him, “Who’s the jumper?”

  His hands immediately shot up in the air. “You didn’t read the file?”

  I’d been focused on dressing, coffee, brushing my teeth, coffee, finding my shoes, coffee, and then fixing my hair. They were lucky I remembered to grab a bulletproof vest. I shrugged.

  A litany of curse words left him. “Are you kidding me?!”

  I waited. He’d break. He’d tell me, acting like he was super disappointed. But I knew Dylan. He’d forget about this the instant we actually got the guy. Anyway I still had my fingers crossed, hoping the radio incident wouldn’t be remembered later. I could grab a radio back at the office…hopefully before anyone remembered to confront me about it.

  He swore again, but shouted back, “Your ex.”

  My what? I looked back at the house. Not recognizing it, I asked, “Which one?”

  Then a curtain moved, and I saw him. Holy fucking hell.

  Dylan yelled, “Jaxon,” but he didn’t need to. I stared right into the piercing brown eyes of the one ex-boyfriend I’d hoped to never see again in my life.

  Shit!

  His brown hair was shaved into a crew cut, but it made him even more mouth-wateringly attractive. As I watched him look around, saw how the shadows played across his chiseled cheekbones and those perfect lips, I knew I could testify to exactly how they could be used. I thought the fucker went to New York to pursue a modeling career. What was he doing back? And why was he the bail jumper? Well…okay. I wasn’t that surprised by that last part.

  Then he saw me too, and I felt whiplash from the sting. His eyes narrowed. He stood there shirtless, his lean physique perfectly molded and sculpted. A smirk appeared, and I could read his thoughts. He was thinking of running for it.

  My groin ached already. Jaxon was the guy I’d had to quit. For real. I had to quit him. He was an addiction, and he got me into trouble, rather than keeping me out of it. My brothers hated him, but oh god…my eyes trailed down his chest again, and I remembered all the reasons I’d stopped listening to them.

  He leaned back, brought up his foot, and my hand went to grab my radio. It grabbed my shoulder instead. Crap. This was why I should’ve swallowed my pride and asked for an extra. He was really going to run, and Dylan was looking the other way.

  “No!” I yelled.

  Jaxon flashed me a grin. Good lord, he was gorgeous. He flung himself out the window, and I stopped admiring his perfect dimples.

  I looked to see if Dylan had heard me. He hadn’t. His ear was pressed to his radio, and I heard buzz coming from the other side of the house. Then he took off, disappearing around the side.

  “Dylan!”

  He didn’t stop.

  Jaxon had landed in a roll and was up on his feet. He looked like a damn cat. The athleticism in one of his pinkies equaled all of mine (even in good shape) and half my brothers’. We were screwed.

  He dashed past me and laughed. “Looks like you’re going to have to tackle me, Doily. It’s just you and me.” He didn’t wait around, though. He turned and soared into the woods behind the house.

  For a moment, just one moment, I was mesmerized by the image of his ass. He wore black cargo pants, and they molded to his backside. It’d been too long since I had some of that fun. Then I remembered what I was supposed to be doing, and I tore after him.

  I screamed over my shoulder, “Runner!” I wasn’t holding my breath for help, and, gritting my teeth, I really was going to try to get him, just for the enjoyment of tackling him underneath me one more time.

  Five minutes later, I realized I had no shot of getting him. My lungs protested, threatening to shut off completely if I didn’t slow down, and my legs weren’t helping. It was like they’d forgotten how to run. I almost pitched to the side twice, and my knees wanted to buckle, but in the end a log was my demise. I was running, or still trying—I was wheezing so loud that if I’d had a radio, I wouldn’t have been to talk into it—when I saw the log. I jumped over it and was airborne when I saw the second log.

  I screamed as my foot hit the log and my ankle went one way while I went the other. I crumpled to the ground.

  Searing pain flared all over me, making my insides feel like they were burning up. I clutched my ankle and pressed down. My brothers always said to stop the swelling. I’d never read the bounty-hunting first aid manual to understand why swelling was bad, but I held my ankle like it was a life preserver. As I bit my lip and rocked back and forth, the rest of me tried not to let loose the water works. I was a girl, but fuck, I couldn’t act like a girl. No crying, or I’d hear about this moment twenty years from now.

  “Doily.”

  I glanced up. Jaxon had come back. He’d stopped a few feet away and watched me warily. Sweat ran down his chest, and he rested his hands on his hips. His pants slipped down, showing the V his muscles formed as they dipped beneath his waistband. As he knelt, his stomach muscles clenched even more tightly together.

  I wanted to scream again. He looked so damn beautiful, and here I was. Sweaty. I felt my face and looked at the blood on my fingers. My hair was probably a mess, and I wore a pink tank top underneath my vest. It would’ve been hot, if the bottom wasn’t disintegrated into shattered ends. Looking down at my jeans, I saw a big hole had ripped, and horror filled me as I followed the rip from beginning to end. Yep. It began at my knee and ended at my crotch.

  Jaxon hadn’t knelt to look at my ankle. He was staring right at my bright orange thong underwear.

  “Stop.” I groaned. Bending down so my forehead pressed to my leg, I thought maybe he’d go away.

  His low, smooth chuckle rippled over me, sending old sensations and tingles through me too. He stood and came closer. Stopping so he was out of reach, he asked, “No radio, huh?”

  I snarled at him, “Go away.”

  “You’re supposed to trick me into getting close. Then you put those handcuffs on me. Remember?” He nudged my leg with his foot. It was a gentle touch, but I gasped. This hurt.

  He bent down so he could actually look at my ankle this time. “That’s how we used to have fun, remember? Hmmm…it doesn’t look broken. Ice it and you’ll be fine by tonight.”

  “What’d you do, anyways?”

  His light, flirty look disappeared. He grew serious and stepped away again. “I can’t tell you that, my little Doily.”

  I hated that name.

  “And since you’re not going to die, I’m going to complete my escape now.”

  “Jaxon.” I looked at him, pleading now. “You can’t leave me like this. Carry me back. They’re probably still searching that house. They won’t even think to come look for me.”

  He shrugged. “That’s your problem. And they’ll look for you.”

  At that second, we heard shouts behind us, and a wide grin came over his face. “See? You’re the baby girl. They’ll always look out for you.”

  “Jaxon, for real. What’d you do? I can help you.” I needed to stall. Shoving the pain down and out of my mind, I focused on him. Bringing him in would prevent a lot of the teasing I knew I was otherwise going to endure. Come closer, a little closer. I started to wedge out my handcuffs from my waist and opened them. One quick flick of my wrist and I might be able to get them on his foot. Maybe. Using my fingers, and holding my arm in place to shield them, I started to slide the handcuffs wider.

  He laughed. “I don’t think so, sweet cheeks. Listen, I’ll turn myself in after this weekend. I promise.”

  “Why not now? What’s so important—” But even as I spoke, I knew. “Oh no.”

  He’d been watching me. As I connected the dots, his smirk grew. “Yeah. Sorry.”

  “You’re fighting again?”

  “I gotta make money somehow. I’m in the Boxing Day match this weekend.”

  I groaned, rolling my eyes. “We’re not in Canada. We don’t have Boxing Day.”

  He laughed, his top lip curved up in an adorable way, and began walking backward. He lifted a hand to wave. “Still. I’ll see you this weekend. I’ll even come to your bedroom so you can get the jump. How’s that?”

  He had a wicked glint in his eyes, but I knew he would follow through as promised. I also knew that meant we wouldn’t be catching him until then. He was going underground, and we might not be able to find him until he was ready to be found.

  “Dale!”

  Dylan’s voice came from back down the path. I looked over my shoulder, but he wasn’t within view yet. “I’m here!” I yelled.

  When I turned back, Jaxon was gone.

  I sat on the couch with six bags of ice all around my ankle. I only needed one, but nope, my brothers thought it was hilarious to make the pile as high as it could be. Dylan wanted to see if he could get it all the way to the ceiling, but Dean yelled at him for using too many ice packs. However, when I tried removing them, they just laughed and brought them back. I’d managed to wedge a blanket between some of the ice packs so there was only one actually on my ankle. I used the other ice packs to hide the blanket, so it was a win-win. My brothers kept laughing at me, my leg stuck under a house of ice bags, but I was secretly laughing at them.

  Dumb shits.

  It was either this or be harassed because I went into the field without a radio. Really. I knew better. The only one who was actually angry at me was Dean, but he was pissed because I hadn’t used my feminine wiles on Jaxon. But hello? It’s Jaxon. He’s not exactly dumb—not like my brothers.

  That evening around nine, someone shouted, and four of my brothers sprinted past the door to the back of the house. When I heard the office door slam shut and car doors open, I pushed myself upright.

  Dylan sprinted past, or tried to. He held a coffee cup, so he could only jog or it would spill.

  “Hey!” I yelled.

  He jerked, and the coffee spilled on his arm. He turned to me with a scowl. “What the eff, Dale? I have coffee here.”

  “I have a question here.”

  He growled at me and looked around. When evidently he didn’t see what he wanted, he used the bottom of his shirt to wipe off some of the coffee. “Yeah? What do you want? You got me while I clean up. Then I’m out of here.”

  “Where’s everyone going?”

  “Oh.” The growl left him, and he started laughing. “You were had, little sister.”

  “What’re you talking about?”

  “The Boxing Day fight. Your boy lied to you.”

  “He’s not my boy, and how do you know?” I wasn’t surprised to hear Jaxon had lied. That was another factor in our breakup.

  “We got a tip. He’s fighting tonight, not on Boxing Day—although he could be fighting then too. But yeah.” He finished cleaning up the coffee and frowned at his flannel shirt. Putting his coffee cup on the counter, he decided the shirt had to go. He tossed it on a chair and pulled off his white tee shirt, which had absorbed most of the coffee.

  “Oh my,” came a voice from the doorway.

  There, holding onto the doorframe with her mouth formed in an O and her eyes traveling slowly down my brother’s body, was my best friend. While I had straight, dark brown hair, Haley had blond curly hair. Almond eyes, tiny little lips, freckles sprinkled over her complexion—she was cute and gorgeous all at once. She had a small frame, boobs she wished were bigger, and slender hips, and she wasn’t the only one drooling. Dylan’s eyes were glued to her. No. Correction: they were glued to her rack.

  I motioned to her. “Haley.”

  She didn’t answer. She completed her first scan, arriving at his feet, and started back up.

  “Haley.”

 
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