In Her Corner
March 2014, #1913
ISBN-13: 978-0-373-60837-9 — Now in a new larger print format!
"In Her Corner is a fascinating look into the world of mixed martial arts. Essex’s talent with description will give readers a clear picture of the field. Terms for mixed martial arts and wrestling are smoothly incorporated, as is the backstory of Kyle’s problem at work with a former employee. His emotional issues over the work complication make him a sympathetic character."
—Alexandra Kay, RT Book Reviews
Bella Fiore has a lot to prove. For three generations her family has dominated the world of mixed martial arts—a tradition Bella dreams of carrying on. Her family, on the other hand, doesn’t agree. Without their support, she’s relying on the coaching of medal-winning Kyle Peters.
Training with Kyle is not what Bella expects. They’re constantly butting heads. And with the body of a Greek Adonis, Kyle’s mat technique isn’t her only focus. Not that this attraction can go any further. She has a title to win! Yet when Kyle proves Bella can always rely on him, a championship may not be the only thing worth fighting for….
Get IN HER CORNER in stores or online today!
KYLE STOMPED ON the brake and jerked the wheel to the right as the maniac on the bike barreled toward him.
The figure in black and red whipped by, his loaded backpack brushing Kyle’s newly detailed convertible. Something metal bounced against the side of the car like a dud missile, rolling under the chassis. He slammed the heel of his palm against the wheel. No one touched his baby.
“Hey!” he shouted as a horn blared. The cyclist darted out of the path of another car, wobbling on its suicide trajectory against New Orleans traffic. “What’s wrong with you?”
The bicycle skidded to a stop. The front wheel popped up and pivoted around as the rider deftly maneuvered it like a rearing show horse. A horn blared, and the driver of the car the cyclist had barely dodged rolled down the window, shouting obscenities. The cyclist studied the ground, frowning, eyes masked by reflective sunglasses. He looked up briefly and screamed an obscenity right back.
Jesus, the cyclist was a woman. All that lean muscle, plus the helmet and high-cut cycling top had effectively hidden any evidence of her femininity. Not that her being a woman subdued his temper. Kyle yelled, “Hey, lady, are you nuts?”
She ignored him as she walk-rode her bike back between the stalled lines of traffic, searching under the cars she’d passed. The driver who’d screamed at her started to get out of his car, swearing and waving his fist.
This was going to get ugly, and the cyclist had no idea the man was stalking toward her. “You’re riding on the wrong side of the road,” Kyle told her when she was within earshot. The driver from the other car continued yelling but was hesitant to stray too far from his vehicle. Kyle popped his seat belt, ready to intervene.
The woman scrambled off her bike and leaned it against the driver’s-side door. “What are you doing?” He fought the urge to shove her bike off the side of his convertible.
“I dropped my water bottle.” Her voice was smooth and sooty, tinted with an accent that definitely said not from around here. She got down on her hands and knees and reached under his car. Kyle got an eyeful of backpack, booty and muscular calves, and his ire was momentarily forgotten.
“Dammit.” She crawled back up. “I can’t reach it. Could you move your car?”
He blew out a breath. “Listen, lady, you can’t ride against traffic. It’s dangerous.”
“No, it’s not.” She said it matter-of-factly, without the slightest trace of defensiveness or irony. “I can see what’s coming, and so can you. I don’t see what you’re worried about—you’re the one behind two tons of steel.” She rapped on the side of the car.
Kyle’s temperature peaked. “Don’t. Touch. My car.”
She blinked, gave him an apologetic smile and lifted her bike off the door. “Sorry. Can I please get my bottle now?”
Her flippancy reminded Kyle of his sister, Jessica. He frowned deeply. He was not going to let her get to him—or have the last word. “Listen. I don’t know where you’re from, but in this city, you ride on a bike path and follow traffic laws. Otherwise, I can’t say what’ll happen. Not everyone is as nice as me.” He glared pointedly at the driver who’d gotten out of his car—the man looked like he still wanted to club her over the head. When Kyle narrowed his eyes at him, he stomped back into his vehicle.
The woman noticed the exchange. She lifted her chin a fraction, acknowledgment and challenge clear in her strong, stubborn jaw. He couldn’t see her eyes behind the mirrored lenses but felt as if he were being studied by a predator. “Of course. You’re right. I apologize.” Her full lips tilted up.
A jolt of surprise hit him. He’d expected her to put up more of a fight, maybe scream at him in a fit of bipedal road rage.
The traffic ahead was moving again, and the cars behind Kyle honked. He quickly buckled up and inched his vehicle forward, giving the woman enough space to retrieve her battered aluminum water bottle. She swung a leg over the bike and started to go with traffic, staying right next to Kyle’s side-view mirror. When he finally regained his speed, she kept up with minimal effort, legs pumping. Flashes of her well-sculpted body danced in his peripheral vision.
He braked for a stoplight. She halted at his elbow. “Do you mind?”
She flashed bright white teeth. “No.”
“You’re following way too close.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t touch your car as long as you drive predictably. Anyhow, it seems safer riding next to you than trying to get around everyone else. And you’re obviously a good enough driver that you wouldn’t hurt me.”
He stared. He didn’t know what this woman’s problem was, but he was done with her. He was going to be late for work and he had an important client coming.
“I’m taking the next right,” he said, then cursed himself for warning her.
“Me, too.” She gave him an enigmatic grin.
Kyle gripped the steering wheel, suppressing the urge to yell at her to back the hell off. His heart thudded. Sweat dripped from his brow. The sweltering New Orleans heat was only slightly moderated by the thin cloud cover. He wished now that he’d put the top up and turned on the air conditioner. At least then he wouldn’t have to deal with his cycling stalker. He’d have to shower again before his new client arrived. A Fiore was not someone whose hand you wanted to shake when you smelled like balls.
He tried to focus on driving, but the whole time he was ultra-aware of the pilot fish cyclist in her skintight cycling gear. She stayed so close that at stoplights, he could practically smell her—a strangely enticing combination of spice and something like fresh-baked bread. Like a hot-cross bun.
His eyes darted left as she slowed. Staring at her hot-cross buns nearly made him miss his turn. He yanked the wheel right. She arced away from the car, caroming into the next lane. Suddenly free of her, he floored it, speeding ahead and leaving her far behind as traffic closed around her. His tense shoulders relaxed as he pulled into the parking lot next to Payette’s, the official Unlimited Fighting Federation’s mixed martial arts gym he’d been managing for the past three years.
He grabbed his gym bag from the backseat and headed to the front door. His footsteps faltered as the cyclist coasted to a stop and alighted from the still-moving bike right beside him. She snatched it up as if it were broomstick.
Kyle stifled a groan.
“You left me behind.” She took out a sturdy U-lock from her backpack and attached the bike to a stand in front of the building.
Kyle didn’t say anything as he continued into the gym.
“Hey, wait up!” The woman’s sooty voice dogged him.
“I have somewhere to be,” he said without turning. He was used to dealing with hangers-on. Maybe she recognized him and wanted an autograph or something. If she tried to give him her number, he’d be sure to lose it as quickly as possible.
“We all have somewhere to be,” she said as he reached the entryway. “It just so happens I have to be right here.” She touched his arm. Something electric shot through him, and he whipped around. “With you.”
She was shorter than he’d first thought—five-eight at most. But she was built like a brick house with thick biceps that showed through the stretchy biking top and a trim, tapered waist. He’d been wrong to say that the biking gear hid all her feminine assets, because he could see them clearly defined now. Her grin widened as she unsnapped her helmet and shook out her hair. Long, thick, wavy black tresses slick with sweat tumbled out, barely tamed by an elastic hair tie at her nape.
He shouldn’t have been intrigued. Pushy girls weren’t his thing.
She stuck out her hand. “Kyle Peters, right? I guess you don’t recognize me.”
He panicked, searching through his internal catalog of bedroom conquests. He tried to place her face—something about her seemed familiar, but he would’ve remembered a body like that.
She lifted her sunglasses to rest on the crown of her head. When he saw the glass-green eyes her family was famous for, he knew he’d made a huge mistake.
* * *
“BELLA FIORE.” SHE extended her hand again, cooler now that she knew what Kyle Peters was really like. Any man who cared more about his car than a human life didn’t rank high on her list.
It wasn’t even a very nice car.
She watched his expression shift from embarrassment to frustration to regret and then, surprisingly, to anger. “You recognized me and didn’t introduce yourself?”
“In the middle of traffic? I didn’t think it was the safest place to do so.” She kept her smile polite, even though she wanted to laugh at him. The guy was a lot more high-strung than his reputation suggested.
He opened his mouth as if to retort, but then shook his head and pushed into the gym. Bella followed, unable to resist a peek at his shapely behind. It’d been seven years since he’d wrestled professionally, but he still had the great glutes of an Olympic medalist. Actually, all of him was admirable—thick muscles on his upper body, a narrow waist, strong thighs and not an ounce of extra meat visible on him. He was the living portrait of a Greco-Roman wrestler, complete with broken Romanesque nose and dark brown Brutus-style haircut. She wondered idly if he’d ever wrestled naked like the pugilists of those bygone days.
The scent of rubber and sweat filled her nostrils as they entered Payette’s. Some things didn’t change gym to gym. The main reception area included a few café tables and a bar where a fridge supplied clients with bottled water, energy drinks and protein supplements. In one corner, UFF merchandise and workout gear—gloves, hand wraps, apparel and so forth—were displayed for sale. A faded sign proclaiming everything at 50 percent off hung askew from the ceiling.
Kyle paused at the front desk where a young woman with dark blond hair gave him a cursory smile. “Morning, boss. You got a call from Hadrian Blackwell.” She handed him a slip. Kyle scowled at it as the receptionist—her name tag read Liz—turned a brighter smile on Bella. “Hi, how can I help you?”
“I’m early for my ten-o’clock appointment with him.” She hitched a thumb toward Kyle, who continued to stare at the phone slip, his brow bunched.
The receptionist’s face brightened. “You must be Bella Fiore. It’s so good to meet you.” She shook her hand vigorously. “We’ve been really excited about having you here. I’m a huge fan.”
“Of my brothers, my cousins or my grandfather?”
“Of you,” Liz said with a light laugh. “But of your whole family, too, of course.”
Bella kept her smile modest. She couldn’t walk into a mixed martial arts gym and introduce herself without getting a lot of oohs and aahs over her lineage. The Fiores were like royalty in the MMA world.
“Liz, please show Ms. Fiore around. I need to make this call.” Kyle barely looked at her as he strode away.
Bella watched him go, chewing on her lower lip. Apparently, Mr. Three-Time Olympic Gold Medalist didn’t have to use his manners. But her oldest brother, Marco, had said Kyle Peters was one of the best wrestling coaches around. He’d helped a lot of MMA fighters, including the current UFF welterweight champion, Dominic Payette, for whom the gym was named, climb to stardom. That he was willing to make time for her in exchange for her working at the UFF gym was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
Liz gave her an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Kyle’s kind of a bear before his first cup of coffee. And he hates having his morning routine thrown off.” She rounded the counter. “Let me give you the fifty-cent tour.”
Bella had seen photos of Payette’s, but they didn’t do the state-of-the-art facility justice. The place was enormous, big enough to fit a full-size MMA cage and a boxing ring on the same floor with room for universal machines, free weights and other fitness equipment. The second floor housed a separate multipurpose martial arts studio covered in thick rubber mats. Mirrors lined one wall. Six men of various sizes worked on the heavy bags chained to the exposed metal beams. One of them looked up and shouted across the room to where a man slouched against a pillar reading a magazine. They both came at Liz’s beckoning.
“These are our senior coaches,” Liz said as they approached. “Tito’s our physical therapist and Muay Thai instructor—” Bella shook hands with the stouter of the two “—and Orville’s our judo teacher. Boys, this is Bella Fiore.”
“I trained with your cousin Robert a few years ago in New Jersey,” Orville said to Bella, a big grin splitting his face. “When I heard a Fiore was coming here, I thought it was going to be him.”
“Sorry, you’re stuck with me.”
“Oh, I don’t mean—”
She waved him off, giving him an understanding smile. She didn’t mean to sound defensive or self-deprecating, but she knew what everyone was thinking: Why on earth was a Fiore training outside of a Fiore-run gym?
“Rob devotes most of his time to teaching at the family studio in Dallas now,” she said. “I’ll tell him hello for you.” There was no need to explain herself further. No need to get into the details of her break from the family, though people would probably hear about it sooner or later.
Liz led her back downstairs and showed her the ladies’ locker room. “I’ll let you get changed while I pull the paperwork together. Feel free to explore, use the equipment, warm up. This’ll be your gym, too, for the next six months.” She glanced toward the office at the end of the room, her lips pursed. “Kyle’s probably going to be in his office for a bit.”
“A bit” wouldn’t hurt, Bella decided. She needed time to get her head into the game and figure out what Kyle Peters’s problem was.
* * *
“BELLA FIORE, EH?” Kyle pictured the president of the UFF, Hadrian Blackwell, sitting back in his executive office chair. With his thick, dark hair and perpetual five-o’clock shadow, the man looked and sounded like the real-life Fred Flintstone. “A perfect 6-0 record, with three KOs and one submission. She’s got talent, that’s for sure.”
“She does.” Kyle had a YouTube video of Bella’s most recent fight running on mute on his laptop. She’d dominated her opponent in the three-round matchup in April. She had a mean right hook and delivered a devastating roundhouse kick to the other woman’s head that made Kyle wince. “But it’s not as if she has a lot of competition in her weight class.”
“She would if she dropped ten pounds. The women’s 145-pound weight class has got some serious contenders and lots of up-and-comers.”
“You’re watching girl fights now?” The UFF president had once infamously said that women’s MMA was an insult to the sport and that no woman would ever enter a UFF cage unless she was in a bikini and holding round numbers.
“MMA’s my business. I watch everything that has to do with my world.” Hadrian said it so sharply that Kyle’s humor shriveled. “And speaking of business, what’s going on with my gym?”
Kyle had been anticipating this conversation. He took a deep breath. “Economic downturn. People just aren’t signing up for memberships.”
“According to the numbers, people are leaving Payette’s. None of the other gyms are losing business. What gives?”
Kyle’s throat felt tight. “We’re working on a new campaign strategy. I’ll be forwarding details to you soon.”
“I don’t give a crap about ads and handing out free passes. The reputation and quality of the trainers speaks for itself. You’ve got what should be the crown jewel with all your heavy hitters. So what’s the problem?”
Kyle dug his thumb into the knot of stress between his clenched jaw and his ear. “I can’t say, sir.”
“Can’t say? Don’t know? Don’t care?” He let out a frustrated huff. “Shit, Kyle, I expected to hear a better excuse than that. Does it have anything to do with that thing that happened with what’s-her-face?”
“No, sir.” He clutched the edge of his desk. “She has nothing to do with it.”
“And you’re behaving yourself?”
“Yes, sir.” Kyle’s cheeks burned. He took a deep breath to still the quivering in his gut, then exhaled, trying to purge the impotent anger gathering inside him.
“Anyhow, that’s in the past. Let’s look forward, all right? You have a Fiore in your gym now—you know they don’t teach a lot outside of their tight little circle of friends. So don’t screw this up.”
“Yes, sir.” Kyle hung up and sat back, attempting to regain his calm as he stared at the screen. YouTube had queued up another video about Bella, this one a cheaply produced feature with shots of her training at the Fiore Brazilian Jujitsu Studio in São Paulo, Brazil. He unmuted it. The video stuttered, the music was cheesy and the transitions rough. He watched it while fuming over Hadrian’s humiliating dressing-down. As much as he respected him, the UFF president was the least sensitive man he knew. Next to his father, of course.
He pushed away from his desk and yanked his damp T-shirt over his head. He’d never gotten used to the humidity in NOLA. He applied another layer of antiperspirant under his arms and hung his street clothes in his private office locker to air, then pulled on a black T-shirt with the Payette’s UFF logo printed on the breast. The heavy cotton grew damp at his touch and chafed his skin. He knew he should have gone with the more expensive moisture-wicking uniform tees, but he’d already had a thousand of them printed. It felt like a waste not wearing them.
Liz knocked and stuck her head past the door. “You decent?”
“What’s the point of asking if you’re going to come in anyhow?”
The receptionist bustled in, a cup of coffee and a clipboard in hand. She put them both on his desk and went around the room, drawing the blinds open so he could see out and everyone could see in. “Wayne’s at a dentist appointment this morning. Root canal. We shouldn’t expect him back at all today.”
Kyle rolled his eyes. “He’s such a baby.”
She didn’t comment. “I shuffled his clients between Tito and Orville. I’ve also got five potential members scheduled for tours.”
“Maybe I should do those.”
Liz regarded him archly. “Um, aren’t you forgetting something?”
“No.” He sipped his coffee, letting the caffeinated miracle nectar flow through his veins. His headache eased.
“Uh, yeah. Bella Fiore? It’s her first day here.” She planted her fists on her hips. “You were kind of rude to her.”
Probably, but she was off-putting—and he didn’t like off-putting. “She’s crazy, you know. She was riding her bike against rush-hour traffic. I don’t even know where she was headed—she was going in the complete opposite direction of the gym.”
“She told me she likes to ride around the city before a workout to warm up. It gets her blood pumping.”
It probably got her in the right frame of mind for punching things, too. The way she biked, it was as if she was aiming to piss off people so they’d yell at her to get her good and mad. Not exactly the Zen-like discipline the Fiores were known for.
“What did Hadrian say?” Liz asked after a beat.
He stalled by spinning his chair around and staring at his wall calendar, noting the dates of all the different MMA events the gym’s clients were involved in. “Kyle?” Liz prompted.
“Nothing important. He was just calling in to check on us.” And tell me to behave myself. And sell more memberships. And be nice to Bella Fiore. Or else.
Liz looked like she wanted to say something, but whatever it was, she held back. “Bella’s warming up now. You need to go and greet her properly before she gets the wrong idea about you.” With that, she departed.
Of course, Liz was right. He had to play nice with Bella Fiore. Her family name had been the only reason he’d agreed to train her in the first place, and he hated to admit it, but he needed her reputation more than she needed his.
He wasn’t about to tell her that, though.
IN HER CORNER is available in print and ebook formats!