119,056
07.03.2019

On Sunday afternoon, when I walk through the gym door, Shawnasee’s is the first face I see. You remember him, right? The prick I mentioned awhile back, who’s in dire need of a good beat down?

Looks like today’s his lucky day.

He grins menacingly. “You wanna go a few rounds, or you gonna pu**y out again?”

Something inside me tears—like the Hulk when he shreds his T-shirt—and I answer, “Let’s do this.”

I can’t wait to get in the ring. To hit something—to vent the frustration and guilt and generally bad feelings that have been churning inside me for the last six days. I bounce on my toes, roll my head left to right—cracking my neck. Then I duck under the ropes, tap my gloves together, and walk to the center of the ring.

Shawnasee’s already waiting for me, looking both confident and eager. Ronny stands between us and recites the typical directions about clean fights and good sportsmanship. We hit gloves, go back to our corners, and wait.

Then the bell rings.

I come at him, hard and fast, but my head’s not in it. If you want the truth, I’ve got no f**king business fighting right now. Because my focus isn’t on my opponent at all. It’s on the unfairness of life. The bitterness of wanting something—someone—that doesn’t want me the same way. At the moment, I’m all about pain and heartbreak—feelings I’m hoping punches will purge.

Shawnasee and I dance and dodge in a circle around each other . . . and then movement from the front door distracts me. And I forget all about footwork, defensive postures, jabs, right hooks, and body blows.

Because standing there in the doorway is Delores Warren.

In a nanosecond, my mind takes her in from head to toe—her hair’s pulled back in a ponytail, revealing a makeup-free, beautiful face. Her plain white T-shirt is tied at the hip over tight blue jeans and black Converse sneakers. I don’t have time to greet her or even wonder why she’s here.

Because the instant after I see her, Shawnasee’s fist makes contact with my chin—like an uppercut from Thor’s hammer.

My teeth crunch together and my head jerks back. My eyes close automatically as I fall straight back and crash to the floor.

I don’t know how long I’m out, but it must only be a few moments. The next time I open my eyes, Ronny’s stubbled face is inches from mine. My vision is blurry—colors and lights stretching and bleeding into one another. Sound roars in my ears, like static from an out-of-commission television set.

Through the din, Ronny’s voice breaks through. “Fisher! Can ya hear me, Fisher?”

I blink and answer, but my speech sounds muffled, like I’m talking underwater. “Yeah, I . . . I hear you.”

“Can ya see me all right?”

“Sure, Ronny. I see a whole bunch of you.”

Ronny turns and talks to someone next to him. I only make out a few words: “. . . concussion . . . hospital.” Then he leans back over me. “I need you to get up, Fisher.”

My legs don’t think that’s a good idea.

“I’d rather just stay here, if it’s all the same to you.”

“You need to stand, Matthew.”

Nope. My legs still say “Go screw yourself.”

“I don’t think I can.”

Then I see her. She kneels down next to Ronny—next to me. Her warm hand touches my bicep where my T-shirt ends. And she whispers, “Get up, ya son of a bitch . . . ’cause Mickey loves ya.”

Instantly, I’m choked up. Not because of the stirring movie quote—but because of what those words could mean.

For us.

“You watched Rocky Five?”

Delores nods. “I watched them all. Mickey dying was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen in my life, you bastard.”

Then her face crumples, and she’s crying.

She doesn’t try to hide it. Her hand doesn’t cover her face or stifle her sobs. Because she doesn’t pretend to be someone she’s not. Take her or leave her, what you see is what you get.

That’s what I love about her. One of the many things I love.

My arm is heavy, but I raise it. One still-gloved hand brushes at her tear-trailed cheek. “Don’t cry, Dee.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I was awful to you.”

“No . . . I was an ass**le. I promised you I’d be patient, and then I . . . wasn’t.”

“No, you were right. You were right about everything.”

I’m reminded of our audience when Ronny cajoles, “All right, boys, let’s hit the lockers for a few. Give these two lovebirds some time to cry all over each other.” As the other guys follow out, Ronny shakes his head at Dee and me. “This is exactly why I don’t want women in my gym.”

Once we’re alone, I force myself to sit up. This is not a conversation I want to have on my back. Well . . . unless I was naked and on my back.

Dee helps me take the gloves off my hands, and then I rest my upper body against the corner of the ring.

She asks, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. It feels like a semi ran over my face, but otherwise I’m good.”

With vengeful eyes, she glances toward the locker room door where Shawnasee entered. “I’m going to slash that guy’s tires before we leave. Will that make you feel better?”

I chuckle. “Never change, Dee.”

She sobers and looks down at her hands. Then she confesses, “The thought of having feelings for you—real ‘forever’ kinds of feelings—scares the shit out of me.”

Her declaration doesn’t bother me. She’s not telling me anything I didn’t already know. But the fact that she’s here . . . that means everything.

“I know.”

“I didn’t want to get used to being with you, because I knew once I did, when you left . . . I’d be miserable. But it’s too late. I was miserable anyway. These last few days . . . I’ve never felt so sad. And lonely. Empty.”

“It’s been the same for me.”

She smiles at that, though there are still tears in her eyes. And in her voice. “But when I’m with you . . . when you’re here next to me . . . it feels perfect. You make me happier than I ever thought I could be, Matthew.”

“Well that’s an easy fix. I’ll just have to stay with you . . . all the time. It won’t be too difficult. Because . . . I’m kind of . . . totally in love with you.”

“You’re an amazing man, Matthew. You’re funny and warm, you’re thoughtful and sexy as all hell. You’re . . . you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” Her eyes are soft and tender as she looks into mine. She touches my face gently. “I love you, Matthew.”

❮❯