Fighting Shadows (On the Ropes #2)(7) by Aly Martinez

“You’re not done.”

“Oh, I’m not?” I laughed humorlessly, rolling my eyes. After releasing the brake, I began to leave again, but Eliza had other ideas.

Moving in front of my chair, she leveled me with a menacing glare. Bending over, she rested her hands on my thighs. “Kiss me.”

“What?” I questioned, leaning away.

“You love me, right? You’re leaving because of that, right? Then kiss me. Who knows? Maybe I’ll like it.” She shrugged and moved in even closer.

I had envisioned kissing Eliza no fewer than a million times. Never once had it been out of pity or desperation. Those two things were enough to ruin even my wildest dreams.

“Wow, Eliza. I didn’t take you for a cheater.”

“It’s not cheating, because I would feel nothing.”

I laughed again, trying to hide the hole her words had carved in my soul. “Well, when you put it that way.”

“Then tell me why you’re leaving,” she demanded, never moving away.

“I told you. College. Besides, I’m sick of you guys taking care of me. I need to do this on my own.”

Oh, and because I want to rip the arms off my brother every time he touches you.

“Bullshit. You’re leaving because of me.”

“Wow. Aren’t you full of yourself today? Not everything is about you.”

“I’m well aware of that, but this is,” she hissed. “I love you, Flint Page. And I know you love me, but not like this. If finally kissing me will make you see that this thing you have for me is nothing more than an infatuation, then I’ll take the hit.”

“The hit? Christ, now I’m in the mood,” I said sarcastically, but my eyes dropped to her mouth.

Fuck it.

Suddenly, I grabbed the back of her neck, hauling her impossibly close. Her eyes went wide and her chin quivered, but she didn’t back away.

I’d spent years pining over Eliza, but with her lips less than an inch from mine, I was hit by the overwhelming reality that it was never going to happen for me with her. I could steal a single kiss, but I’d never have more than that. I should have realized that about the time she’d married my brother, but it wasn’t until right then—as fear and anxiety covered her gorgeous face—that the truth sank in.

My chest ached as I made the decision to finally let her go. She stared at me, pleading through her sparkling, blue eyes—a single tear spilling out then trailing down her cheek.

Fuck. That one fucking tear gutted me.

It was the end.

With that realization lingering between us, my angry façade melted away, leaving me stripped and vulnerable in its absence. I couldn’t even stop the truth as it tumbled from my tongue.

“I don’t know what to do. I’m so fucking bitter, Eliza. I don’t even know why most of the time. I mean, of course, there’s the obvious.” I looked down at my legs. “But God, it’s so much more than that. I’m starting to hate him because I love you. Yet, at the same time, he’s my brother and I love him, but I hate you so fucking much for loving him too.”

“You don’t love me, Flint,” she whispered.

“You can’t say that! You don’t know!” I boomed before falling quiet. “I just need to get away from here.”

“Okay. Then I won’t fight you. If you want to move out, fine. But I have this feeling that you’re not planning to come back.” She dropped to her knees in front of me. Then she squeezed my hand painfully tight. “I need you to swear to me that, even if your address changes, you’re not actually going anywhere.”

“I can’t . . .” I trailed off.

“You don’t have be around me if you don’t want, but please don’t do this to Till and Quarry.” Her voice hitched.

Damn it, I’m such a prick.

“It’s not just you, Eliza. I mean, that’s part of it, but . . . fuck. I’m drowning. Everyone’s so happy. Till’s running the gym with Slate now. Quarry’s destroying the amateur boxing circuit. And I’m . . . sitting in the stands, watching.”

Releasing my hand, she inched even closer. Palming each side of my face, she said, “You’re not sitting in the stands, Flint. You’re just adjusting. You’ll be back in the ring in no time.”

“Don’t,” I whispered. “We both know I’ll never be back inside that ring.”

She shook her head in disagreement, but she didn’t say the lie out loud. “God, you’ve had a hell of a year. You can’t possibly expect—”

I interrupted what was sure to be a pep talk. “Let’s just be real here.”

She sighed then rested her elbows on my useless thighs. “Maybe you’re right. As much as it’s gonna kill me, your moving out and starting your own life might not be the worst thing to happen. You always were a nerd,” she teased through tears. “College will be great.”

God, she was amazing. And for that reason alone, I blurted, “You were right too. I am saying goodbye.”

Her whole body tensed. I hated witnessing the verbal slap I had just issued, but if there was ever a woman who deserved the truth, it was her.

“I need a fresh start, and I can’t do that here. I need to figure out my life now that this is my new reality,” I told her. I could tell she assumed I was talking about being paralyzed, and I can’t say that she was wrong. Although she wasn’t right, either. So much of my life had been caught up in her. I wasn’t quite sure how to move forward.

I was about to try though.

“I know you do.” She sniffled, pushing herself off her knees. “Okay. No more crying. This is a good thing for you.” She sucked in a deep breath and used the backs of her hands to wipe the tears away.

Then her shoulders squared.

Fuck.

“I’m gonna need you to take that check from your brother,” she told me sternly.

“I can’t do that. Till made his own way in life. I’m a grown-ass man now. I want to do the same.”

“You might be a ‘grown-ass man’”—she tossed me a pair of air quotes—“but you’re still his little brother. Flint, he sat in silence for years to be able to earn enough money to write you that check.”

“I’m sorry—”

“Shut up and listen to me.”

I rolled my eyes, but she didn’t seem to care.

“When Till initially went deaf, he gave me three excuses as to why he needed to continue boxing instead of getting the cochlear implant: to buy me a home.” She waved her arms around the room. “To pay for the best specialist for Quarry.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “And lastly, to be able to pay for your college. He always brags to anyone who will listen about how smart you are. He adores the fact that you actually enjoy school, and he wanted to be able to give you that. He doesn’t want you to have to bust your ass the way he did.”

“I can’t take his money,” I repeated.

“You have to. And if you want me to let this go and keep my mouth shut about the real reason you’re leaving, then you will take that check and drive off in that van he bought for you months ago.”

“I’m not taking the minivan. It’s ridiculous.”

“It really is.” She laughed before getting serious again. “But you’re gonna take it. And that check too. If you’re planning to disappear for a while, at least give us both the peace of mind that you aren’t struggling.”

“I don’t want—”

“Here you go,” Till announced, walking back into the room. “I wasn’t sure how much the dorms are. I tried to look it up, but I swear it just confused me more. Anyway, I think this should cover that and tuition. Let me know if you need more. I’ll get a stipend set up for you next week.” He extended the check in my direction.

I immediately backed away. “Listen—” I started, but Eliza cleared her throat, catching my attention.

“Take it,” she mouthed behind his back.

Till was absolutely not paying for my college, but I could take his check to keep the peace. Cashing it would be a different story.

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