Fighting Shadows (On the Ropes #2) by Aly Martinez

“WHERE THE FUCK HAVE YOU been?” a man’s voice growled as soon as I entered the conference room.

My eyes flashed to his for only a single second before I recognized them. The door had barely clicked behind me, but I already wanted nothing more than to bolt. My heart raced, and my mouth dried.

I have to get out of here.

“Um . . .” I stalled, giving myself time to formulate a plan.

“Sit. Down,” he ordered, pushing out the chair next to him, but there was no way I was getting that close.

“I’m good,” I said, taking a step backwards toward the door.

“Don’t even think about it,” he snapped. “I swear to God, if you so much as open that door . . .” His words might have trailed off, but the threat had been clearly stated.

I swallowed hard and slowly walked to the chair farthest away from him, perching on the very edge—waiting for the right moment to escape.

He looked down at the name badge around my neck and quirked an eyebrow.

“Victoria?”

“You can call me Tori if it’s easier.” I tried to fake a smile, but it only seemed to infuriate him.

He took several calming breaths, which did nothing to dampen the blaze brewing in his angry eyes. “I’ve been looking for you, Ash.” He snarled my name.

“Oh, yeah? Well, mystery solved. Here I am.” I pushed back to my feet, but I was halted when his fist pounded against the table. My whole body flinched from the surprise.

When the room fell silent, I slowly looked back up to find him staring at me with a murderous glare. Even while he was sitting down, I could tell he was huge, and as he held my gaze, the tense muscles in his neck and shoulders strained against the cotton of his grey henley. He blinked at me for several seconds before finding his voice again.

“You live in a homeless shelter,” he stated definitively, as if the words told a story all of their own.

And maybe they did.

“I work at a homeless shelter,” I quickly corrected.

Only he corrected me just as fast. “In exchange for a permanent place to live . . . in. A. Homeless. Shelter.” He enunciated every single syllable.

I looked away, because it was the truth.

A truth I hated.

But the God’s honest truth nonetheless.

Tears welled in my eyes, and I battled to keep them at bay.

My life was hard, but his being there made it infinitely harder. If I could just escape that room, I could disappear again. It wasn’t ideal, but neither was his showing up.

“I want you to leave,” I lied with all the false courage I could muster.

“I can’t do that. You stole something of mine.”

“Look, I don’t have your book anymore.”

A knowing smirk lifted one side of his mouth. “Liar,” he whispered, reaching into the chair beside him, revealing the tattered book, and unceremoniously dropping it on the table.

My eyes widened, and without a conscious thought, I dove across the table after it.

That was mine. Not even he could have it.

Just as quickly as the book had appeared, he snatched it away and grabbed my wrist.

I slid off the table and tried to pull my arm from his grasp. It was a worthless attempt though, because even if he had suddenly released me, his blue eyes held me frozen in place.

“Three fucking years,” he seethed.

“I had to,” I squeaked out as the tears streamed down my cheeks.

“Three. Fucking. Years, Ash. You took something that belonged to me.” He let go of my arm and pushed to his feet.

My mouth fell open and a loud gasp escaped as he took two impossible steps forward.

Pinning me against the wall with his hard body, he lifted a hand to my throat and glided it up until his thumb stroked over my bottom lip. Using my chin, he turned my head and dragged his nose up my neck, stopping at my ear.

After sucking in a deep breath, he released it on a gravelly demand. “And I want her back.”

My breath hitched.

I’d waited three years to hear those words.

If only I could trust them.

“Flint, please.”

I REMEMBERED IT ALL.

I heard the gun.

I felt the bullet.

I saw her fall.

In less than a second, my life as I knew it was over.

But, unquestionably, I would do it all over again.

For her.

“Flint!” Eliza cried from underneath me.

It wasn’t the way I had dreamed of at least a million times over the years. Her voice hadn’t broken in ecstasy. She hadn’t called my name as I’d been claiming her as my own, nor was it followed by confessions of love and declarations of forever. Instead, there was a sharp ringing in my ears and a tsunami of tears welling in her deep-blue eyes.

My heart was already pounding, but the earth-shattering pain on her face spiked my pulse even higher. I knew I had been hit, but that wasn’t what scared me.

“Are you hurt?” I rushed out.

“I’m fine,” she choked around a sob. As much as I hated to see her cry, the weight of my world disappeared with only two words.

“Are you sure?” I studied her, but she was focused on something else completely.

Peering over my shoulder, she lifted her hand off my back. Blood dripped from her fingertips to the floor.

“Oh God!” she exploded, scrambling from under me.

“I’m okay,” I tried to reassure her, but as I attempted to push up off the floor, I knew my words were in vain. I was nowhere near fine. “I’m . . .” I started, but the thought was stolen from my tongue. Pain overtook me, causing me to collapse face first to the ground where Eliza had just been lying.

I desperately tried to keep myself from passing out, but it was a battle I was quickly losing.

“Flint. Stay with me. Just hang on, please,” she said calmly, kneeling beside me. But as soon as she sat up, her true emotions were revealed. “Help him!” she cried. “Please, God, someone help him!”

My mind was drifting, rendering me unable focus, but even amongst the chaos of Eliza pleading for help and security rushing into the room, I somehow homed in on the announcer’s voice on the television blaring in the background.

“I really expected more from Till Page in the ring tonight,” he said.

It was then that I was reminded of a pain far worse than any bullet could inflict.

Till.

Her husband.

The father of her unborn child.

My brother.

He deserved her, but damn it, so did I.

My eyes never left hers as her screams drifted into silence.

I awoke to a searing pain in my back, and panic immediately flooded my thoughts.

“Eliza!” I screamed as loudly as I could, but it came out as nothing more than a gurgle.

“I’m right here.” She appeared at my side. “Oh God, Flint. Don’t do that again. You have to stay awake.” She began smoothing my hair down.

“Eliza,” I repeated when further coherent thoughts failed me. I was terrified—I knew that much. But my mind fought to catch up and answer the why. “Are . . . are you hurt?”

“No. I’m fine,” she assured me, leaning down and kissing my temple—a gesture I would have killed to be able to return.

Instead, I blindly reached out to the side, searching for her hand. “Stay with me.”

Firmly grasping my palm, she vowed, “I won’t leave you, Flint. I swear.”

If only she’d meant those words in the way I would have liked. However, right then, as I lay facedown, bleeding on the carpet of an upscale Vegas hotel floor with a bullet in my back, I would take it.

It wasn’t enough.

But it would have to be.

She isn’t mine.

She never was.

As she whispered soothing words into my ear, I went willingly into the darkness.

I slowly roused back to consciousness. I couldn’t quite figure out where I was or why my throat felt like I had swallowed a truckload full of burning embers. Even through my grogginess, I could feel an ache in my back. It wasn’t until I spoke that I realized how fucked I truly was.

“Ewliz.” What the hell? “Elyz.”

“Oh thank God!” Eliza cried, suddenly appearing at my side.

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