Against the Ropes

By: Sarah Castille

Chapter 1


Oh, Betraying Lips

“You come in. You fight. It’s simple.”

Me fight? He can’t be serious. Do I look like I pound on people for fun?

“Sorry. I think there’s been a misunderstanding.” Forcing a tight

laugh, I shuffle back to the red line marking the fighters’ entrance to

Redemption, a full-service gym and training center that is home to one

of Oakland’s few remaining unsanctioned, underground fight clubs.

Maybe I should have read the rules posted at the door.

“No, you don’t.” The hefty blond grabs my shoulders and pulls

me toward him. My nose sinks into the yellow happy face tank top

stretched tight over his keg-size belly. The pungent odor of unwashed

gorilla invades my nostrils, bringing back memories of school trips to

the San Diego Zoo. Lovely.

Gasping for air, I glance up and flash my best fake smile. “I’m just

here to sell tickets. One of your fighters, Jake, asked my friend Amanda

to work the door and she asked me to help her. Why don’t we just

pretend you didn’t see me cross the red line and I’ll get back to work?”

If I were a different type of girl, wearing a different—and lower

cut—shirt, I might try another kind of technique to get out of this

predicament, but right now, a smile is all I’ve got.

It backfires.

“Mmm. Pretty.” He releases my shoulders and paws at my hair,

mussing it from my crown to the middle of my back. What a waste of

two hours with the flat iron.

“I’m not too sure about pretty.” My voice goes from a low quiver to

a thin whine as he strokes my jaw with a thick finger. “But I am small,



fragile, delicate, easily frightened, and given to high-pitched screams in

situations involving violence.” In an attempt to make my lies a reality, I

suck in my stomach and tuck in my tush.

He frowns, and for the first time I notice the missing teeth, jagged

scar across his throat, and the skull and crossbones tattoos covering his

arms like sleeves. Not quite the cuddly teddy bear I had thought he was.

More like a Viking berserker.

My heart kicks up a notch, and I hold up my hands in a defensive

gesture. “Listen. I was chasing after some deadbeat who didn’t buy a

ticket. He came in just before me. Tall, broad shoulders, black leather

jacket, bandana—I only saw him from the back. He was in line talking

to people, and then suddenly he breezed past the ticket counter and

went through this entrance. Did you see him?”

A smile ghosts his lips. “You’ll have to talk to Torment. He deals

with all line crossers and ticket dodgers. Usually takes them into the

ring for a lesson in following the rules. He likes to hear people scream.”

His chuckle is as menacing as his breath. Maybe he ate a small child

for lunch.

“Let’s go. I’ll introduce you.” His hand clamps around my arm and

he tugs me forward.

A shiver of fear races down my spine. “You’re kidding, right? I mean,

look at me. Do I look like I could take on someone named Torment?”

My smile wavers so I add a few eyelash flutters and a desperate breast

jiggle to the mix. Unfortunately, my ass decides to join the party, and

my thighs aren’t far behind.

Wrong message. His heated gaze rakes over my body, and a lascivious

grin splits his wide face from ear to ear. “Torment likes the curvy ones.”

Now there’s a slap in the face. But maybe I can use the curves to my

advantage. If I can’t talk my way out of this mess, I’ll just wiggle.

“Come on. He’ll decide what to do with you.”

Heart pounding, I scramble behind the self-styled Cerberus deep

into the belly of Hell. I wish I had written a will.

Upon first glance, Hell disappoints.

The giant sheet metal warehouse, probably around 20,000 square

feet, boasts corrugated metal walls, concrete floors, and the stale sweat

stench of one hundred high-school gym lockers. The ceiling is easily

twenty-five feet above me. At the far end, a few freight containers

are stacked in the corner, and a circular, metal staircase leads up to a

second level.

Our end of the warehouse has a dedicated training area and a fully

equipped gym. Half-naked, sweaty, pumped up alpha-males grapple on

scarred red mats and spar in the two practice rings. Fight posters and

pennants are plastered on the walls. In one corner a man dressed as a

drill sergeant is barking orders at a motley group of huffing, puffing

fighter wannabes.

My stomach clenches as the drumroll of speed bags, the slap of

jump ropes, the whir of the treadmill, and the thud of gloves on flesh

create a gut-churning symphony of violent sound.

“Hey, Rampage, you get us a new ring girl?” A small, wiry, bald

fighter with red-rimmed pupil-less psycho eyes points to the “FCUK

Me” lettering on my T-shirt and makes an obscene gesture with his

hips. “Answer is yes, honey. Find me after the show.”

I berate myself for my poor choice of attire. But really, it is my sister

Susie’s fault. She sends me the strangest gifts from London.

Rampage leads me toward an enormous raised boxing ring in the

center of the warehouse. Spiky-haired punkers, clean-cut jocks, hip-hop

headers, businessmen in suits, and leather-vested bikers fill the metal

bleachers and folding chairs surrounding the main attraction. I’ve never

seen a more eclectic group. There must be at least two hundred people

here with seating for probably two hundred more. But there’s no sign of

Amanda. Some best friend.

We stop in front of a small, roped-off area about ten feet square.

Rampage opens a steel-framed gate and shoves me inside. “You can wait

in the pen. It’s for your own safety. We can’t have people wandering too

close to the ring.”

“I am not an animal,” I mumble as the gate slams shut. He doesn’t

even crack a smile. Maybe he doesn’t go to the movies.

I walk to the back of the pen for a good view of the ring and in-

stantly recognize the man with the black bandana, despite the fact he

has changed into a pleasantly tight pair of white board shorts with black



winged skulls emblazoned on the sides. “That’s him,” I shriek. “That’s

the guy who didn’t buy a ticket.”

Amusement flashes in Rampage’s beady black eyes. He stalks over

to the pen and throws open the gate. “You get that guy to buy a ticket,

and we’ll call everything off. I won’t make you face the ring.”

My brow crinkles. “Isn’t he a fighter? Does he even need a ticket?”

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