Worth Fighting For
The first thank-you goes to Lorella Belli, my amazing agent. You floor me with your dedication. x
To the fabulous team at Forever: the cover designers, editors, proofreaders, formatters, and everyone else who works so hard to make this book what it is, thank you!
To Leah, thanks for joining me on this roller-coaster journey and for encouraging me to push myself and make Jamie and Ellie’s story the best it could be. x
To my girls Kerry Duke and Chloe Meyer, thank you for your endless support and incredible cheerleader-like encouragement when I so desperately needed it. Love you girls.
To my family, you guys are amazing and I’m lucky to have you all.
To you, dear reader, first I must apologize for the raging cliffhanger in Fighting to Be Free...oops...my bad. #SorryNotSorry. Second, thank you for taking this journey with me. I really hope you enjoy the conclusion of Jamie and Ellie’s story as much as I enjoyed writing it.
As always, a massive shout-out to all the fabulous, hard-working, and dedicated bloggers across the world who give up hours of their time, all for the love of books. I can’t say thanks enough. You guys are my rock stars. x
And last but certainly not least, to Terrie Arasin, my “superstar” PA. You came along at a time when I was drowning in social media and barely had time left in the day to actually write. I don’t know what I’d do without you (and your hot Texas accent that brightens my messenger!). I’d most certainly still be a disorganized mess who bumbles her way through, trying fruitlessly to manage everything on my own. As I said in the dedication, simply put, without you this book wouldn’t exist. Love ya, darlin’ (said in my best imitation of a Texas accent). Doughnuts on me. xx
’TIS BETTER TO have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson, said that in some poem in the 1800s. In my opinion, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was full of shit.
Maybe Lord Tennyson had never truly loved someone; maybe he’d never cared for someone else more than he cared for himself, because if he had, if he’d loved someone so deeply he’d been willing to die for them, how could he have written such a horseshit line? I’m merely speculating, of course. I’m no academic, so I know nothing about the guy other than that one quote. So how then, you may ask, does my opinion so vehemently disagree with his?
Because I was in love once.
And I lost her.
And I would give any fucking thing in the world to have never loved her at all. No, it most definitely is not better to have loved and lost.
Fuck love. And fuck Lord Tennyson.
HIS FIST CONNECTED with the side of my jaw. Hard. Pain instantly exploded, stretching across my face and neck. My head whipped to the side, my eyes seeming to rattle in their sockets at the sheer force of the blow. He obviously wanted this over with quickly.
I took a step backward, my hand going to my chin, touching the site of the blow as a slow, lazy smile stretched across my face. A low chuckle escaped my lips as I wiped my mouth, ignoring the blood that smeared across the back of my hand.
“That was good. More,” I encouraged him, beckoning him closer. I didn’t bother to put my hands up to defend myself; that would defeat the purpose of me coming here tonight.
The guy looked around, clearly disturbed by my apparent lack of interest or pain. Around us in the large abandoned warehouse, the venue for tonight’s fight club, the crowd was screaming and cheering—some of them yelling at me to get my act together and crush this guy, some of them encouraging him to knock me the fuck out. They wanted this over quickly—but I wanted to string it out as long as possible. The pain was a welcome distraction from the turbulence churning inside me. I was just happy to be thinking of something else, anything other than...her.
“Come on, dude, you gotta have more than that,” I taunted, spitting a mouthful of tangy blood at the floor. I held my arms out wide at my sides, granting him clear access. “Give me your best shot.”
His eyes narrowed and his lip curled into a sneer as he stepped forward, quickly throwing a punch at my stomach. Air rushed out of my lungs as I bent forward, struggling to draw breath. His knee slammed into my face. I fell backward, hitting the cold concrete with a harsh thud that seemed to echo through my bones.
The eruption from the crowd was almost deafening as they screamed at me. I closed my eyes and laid my head back, chuckling quietly to myself. The copious amount of alcohol I’d consumed tonight before the fights began was still sloshing around my system, making me disoriented and detached, even from the pain that I was sure to feel in the morning once the effects wore off.
“Kid, what the hell are you doing? I knew I shouldn’t have let you talk me into this! I’m stopping the fight!”
With colossal effort, I opened my eyes and turned my heavy head to see Jensen standing on the side of the makeshift fighting arena. He shook his head, his expression a mixture of horror, worry, and disbelief. His eyes narrowed, his jaw set tight. As owner and organizer of the illegal club, he’d stand to lose a lot of money if I lost this fight. Jensen clearly didn’t like me toying with him and putting his not-so-hard-earned cash at risk like this.
“Don’t you dare. I got this. Just calm down and feel inside your pants for some balls. You seem to have lost them,” I joked. Even I could hear the drunken slur to my words. Awkwardly rolling to my side, I eased my arms under me and slowly pushed myself up to my unsteady feet.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Jensen pulling out his cell phone, speaking into it quickly, his eyes still locked on me. “Are you almost here? This is getting out of hand. Okay, well, hurry the fuck up!”
I frowned. “Oh yeah, go on, tell on me, call someone down here to babysit me,” I huffed. “Dirty fucking snitch,” I added, laughing moronically again.
Because I wasn’t paying attention, or simply because he was a coward who liked to attack from behind, the guy I was fighting slammed into my back, lifting me clean off my feet, and we both flew forward. The crowd, not wanting to be crushed or covered in blood, parted, so we smashed into the side of the truck parked at the edge of the fight ring. The ragged breath of my opponent came out thick and fast as he threw punch after punch into my lower back and side.
As pain radiated across every part of my body, I knew that I’d made the right choice coming here tonight. This was definitely my idea of a good distraction.
He grabbed my shoulder, jerking me backward, and then I was on the ground again, breathing heavily.
“Kid!” Of course Jensen would have called Ray. He was one of my best friends and Jensen’s cousin. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes.
Ray shoved through the crowd, dropping to all fours at the side of the ring. I turned to look at him, seeing the concern in his brown eyes.
“What’s up, buddy?” I muttered, trying to grin, but I was sure what I accomplished was more of a grimace.
“What the fuck are you doing? Jensen says you’ve been drinking! What the hell is this?” he ground out, shaking his head. I noticed with some satisfaction that he hadn’t broken the fight circle or attempted to touch me—that would be against the rules and would result in the match being forfeited.
Before I could answer, my opponent grabbed two fistfuls of my shirt and hauled me to my feet. I flinched, preparing for another blow, welcoming it like an old friend. As his fist connected with my cheekbone, I heard Ray speak, his voice firm and full of fury.
“Jensen, stop this damn fight or I will!”
“Okay, okay,” Jensen replied quickly.
Anger boiled inside me. If they stopped the fight, I’d lose. “No!” I roared,
I knew what I had to do. Losing wasn’t acceptable. I’d had my fun, I’d achieved what I set out to do—I’d had a reprieve from my thoughts for a while—but now it was time to take back control and end this.
I reached out, gripping the guy’s hand that was holding me in place. His eyes widened fractionally, his body stiffening because he clearly thought I was out of it and that he was about to apply the last blow that would secure his win and name him tonight’s victor. He was oh so wrong.
“Looks like I have to stop dicking around now. Sorry.” As soon as I finished speaking, I slammed my head into his face with such force that I heard his nose break even over the roar of the crowd. And that was it, as simple as that, no more dancing around and letting him beat the shit out of me for my own pleasure. His unconscious form sank to the floor instantly, his body limp.
I staggered a few steps, blinking to clear my blurry vision, ignoring the pounding in my head. My mouth was dry; my tongue felt furry. I desperately needed another drink because the effects of the alcohol were beginning to wear off.
Ray and Jensen both rushed forward. Jensen reached me first, gripping my arm and shoving it into the air. “Tonight’s overall winner...Kid Cole!” Only half the crowd cheered; the other half balled up their betting slips, tossing them down distastefully, or cussed under their breath. Either they were new and didn’t know never to bet against me, or they’d been taken in by the fact that I’d put away enough hard liquor to kill a small horse. Looks can be deceiving.
I smiled lopsidedly, leaning on Ray heavily as he wrapped his arm around my waist and guided me off to the side, toward the waiting plastic chair. I plopped down into it, my body so numb and uncoordinated I almost fell instantly off the other side.
Ray knelt down in front of me, holding out a bottle of water that he seemed to have magically procured from somewhere. “Drink this. Shit, you look rough,” he said, sliding his eyes over me and wincing.
I reached out, pushing the bottle away and grinning as I pointed at my leather jacket, which hung over the back of another chair. “Pass me my jacket?”
He obliged, his eyes concerned.
Without a word, I reached into the inside pocket, my hand closing around the object of my desire: a smooth, small glass bottle. Pulling it out, I heard Ray groan when he saw the half-empty bottle of whiskey.
I winked at him, unscrewing the cap with fingers that were bruised and covered in scratches and blood. Taking an enormous gulp, I relished the burn down my throat. “Want some?” I offered, my voice slurred and unintelligible.
He didn’t answer, just took the bottle from my hand and screwed the top back on, setting it on the floor. “What’s all this about, Kid? Seriously, I got a call from Jensen, who said you turned up here drunk off your ass and insisted on being entered into the fights tonight. You look like shit. That guy almost beat you!”
I scoffed distastefully at that. I’d been in control the entire time. “He can’t beat me.”
“It looked to me like he was killing you! One more punch and you’d have been out of there.”
I shook my head adamantly. “He only did what I allowed him to do. What I wanted him to do.”
“You wanted him to fuck you up, then, did you? You wanted this...this...mess?” He waved a hand in the general direction of my face as an example of said mess.
I shrugged, looking away from his inquiring eyes. Ray seemed to have this remarkable ability to read me and know what I was thinking a lot of the time—I hated it.
He sighed, setting a hand on my shoulder, squeezing gently. “What’s this about, Kid? When I saw you earlier today, you were fine, and then you go get hammered and come here wanting to fight. I don’t get it.” His tone was encouraging, soft, caring.
“I just needed to think of something else. I needed a distraction. I didn’t mean to come here, I just thought a couple of drinks would help, but it turned into three, then four, and...” I glanced down at the half-empty bottle, not admitting that it was my second bottle tonight. I swallowed and shook my head. “The drinking didn’t help, I kept going back to it, and then the fighting seemed like a good idea. I thought maybe someone would beat it out of me and give me something else to think about. Even that didn’t work, though. It’s still there.” I hit the heel of my hand roughly against my forehead a couple of times, trying to knock the thoughts out, forget them.
“Kid, you’re not making sense.”
My chest ached, and not from the beating I’d just sustained.
This was a deep-rooted ache that had started three hours ago, when I’d stumbled across something on the news. I couldn’t say the words, so I reached into my jacket pocket, pulling out the pages I’d printed from the CNN website earlier, before I’d gone on my destructive drinking rampage.
I held them out to him and closed my eyes, wishing I could unread the words.
Ray took the papers, unfolding them, and started to read the article aloud. My heart seemed to constrict further with every syllable, my grief intensifying.
“A hit-and-run accident on I-95 this afternoon leaves one dead and another fighting for life. Police said the driver, Michael Pearce, aged forty-five, died instantly when a dark blue Ford pickup truck careened into his lane, forcing Pearce’s car into the highway divider at high speed. The pickup failed to stop and then fled the scene.
“Michael Pearce was killed instantly. His wife, Ruth, forty-four, is in critical condition and was rushed to the hospital by emergency personnel.
“Police are appealing to any witnesses or anyone with information regarding the pickup or its driver to come forward.”
Ray turned his attention back to me. “Michael and Ruth Pearce, who are they?”
I huffed out a deep breath. “They’re Ellie’s parents.”
He recoiled, understanding instantly flickering across his face. “Oh, shit.” Silence rang out for a full minute before he spoke again. “I guess...I guess that means she’ll be coming back, huh?”
My eyes dropped to the floor, my body sagging into the chair. Ellie was going to be crushed by this news. She was a total daddy’s girl, and the loss of her father would hit her hard, let alone the fact that she now faced losing her mother, too. All I wanted to do was hold her, but I hadn’t seen or spoken to her for over three years, not since I made the phone call that shattered both our hearts.
“I guess it does.”
BORED. SO BORED that I’d spent the last five minutes ruthlessly picking off my hideously grown-out gel nail polish. Laura, my nail technician, wouldn’t be very impressed with my peeled and chipped manicure when I turned up next week, but I couldn’t help it. Standing around doing nothing wasn’t something I was good at. It was either pick at my nails or pick at the snacks that sat in cardboard boxes behind me. Something had to take my mind off the fact that the balls of my feet were burning because I’d been standing so long. At least the night was almost over, though, just another couple of hours to go.
I sighed and looked around for something to do, settling on wiping the already-clean chunky mahogany bar one more time.
For a Friday night, the pub was pretty dead. At this time, the King’s Arms would usually be full. The quaint, typically English pub with its dark wood, chintz wallpaper, and red patterned carpet would be packed with locals who had just finished up work for the week. But tonight there was a grand total of nineteen customers in the bar. And everyone’s glass was full, hence my boredom. I was already well ahead of schedule: The dishwasher had been emptied and refilled, the glasses had been polished and stacked in the little racks at my knees, and the toilets were already checked and cleaned. Once the last customers left, all that would be left to do was cleaning up after them and locking up. There wasn’t much I could keep busy with.
Walking up to Toby, my
Chuck, the elder of the two customers, grinned, causing crinkles to form at the corners of his eyes. “No worries, we don’t mind being interrupted by a pretty young thing.” He winked at me as he tugged on the unkempt grayish-white beard that he’d grown for the winter months and would soon be shaving off now that spring was on its way. He grew one every winter to keep his face warm, he’d told me when I remarked on it. Chuck was one of my favorite customers. He was kind and cheerful; he reminded me a little of my paternal grandfather before he’d passed away.