Until You're Mine (Fighting for Her)

By: Cindi Madsen

To Gina Maxwell and Rebecca Yarros, for being amazing friends who accept me as I am but also make me a better person.





Chapter One

Brooklyn

The past collided into the present as I stepped into the place that used to serve as my second home. The scent of rubber and worn leather accompanied the tap, tap, tap of gloved fists hitting punching bags and bare feet slapping mats. Phrases I’d heard a thousand times swirled into the mix, barked orders like “hands up,” “move to the other side,” and “stay on him.” Even the slight tinge of sweat insinuated its way into the part of my brain that held all my memories, solidifying the you’re home sensation rising through me, despite the fact that this gym—hell, even this city—hadn’t been my home in years.

There was a time when I would’ve given up afternoons with friends and even the occasional weekend at the beach to help out Dad at his MMA training gym. Now it was the last place I wanted to be, and so not how the summer before my dream internship at a super hip gallery in San Francisco was supposed to go. Giving up afternoons with friends and weekends on the beach wasn’t something I did willingly anymore, not for the guy who could never bother to show up at my things. Throughout the years, there’d been piano recitals, planned movie dates, art shows, and even birthday parties where he’d never showed.

Living several hours away made it easier, because then I didn’t hold my breath, thinking that this time, Dad might actually show up. My goals and passions were never important enough to merit missing anything at the gym or in the cage, and since it constantly left me feeling torn up inside, I’d worked hard to get myself out of this world and put it mostly behind me. It was also why, when I was considering whether to go to the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia or the San Francisco Art Institute, I’d chosen San Francisco—I’d needed to get away, somewhere far enough that I wouldn’t be easily tempted back. Now here I was. Only temporarily, but still.

A loud smack drew my attention to the raised cage in the middle of the room. My oldest brother, Liam, had his mitted hands held up for striking training as he circled a guy with thick dark hair.

The guy’s jab was solid, as was his undercut, and I couldn’t help noticing that his body was also very…solid. Without a shirt in the way, I could see every muscle and how they worked together, flexing and bunching as he moved and struck.

My anxious, hesitant pace slowed even more as I got caught up in a moment of testosterone appreciation. The speed and power of his punches, the glistening muscles. Holy shit, his arms…

My heart went from beating to skidding, the lack of full beats leaving me a tad dizzy.

Okay, so I might’ve forgotten the dopamine rush that came along with being in the gym, constantly surrounded by ripped guys who dripped masculinity. But I’d moved past my arm-porn addiction and the lifestyle that came with the cutthroat world of mixed martial arts, and was much healthier and happier for it. The last thing I’d ever do is fall for another fighter. One of my favorite things about my boyfriend was the fact that he couldn’t name an MMA fighter to save his life. Even more important, I didn’t always feel like I came in last place anymore. Spending two months doing the long-distance thing was going to blow, and I was dealing with more than a little bitterness over losing my last summer of freedom before I fully jumped into the world of adulting.

It made me feel like a sucker that all it took was my brother Finn showing up at my graduation ceremony and telling me, “I know you couldn’t wait to escape, but you’ve been gone for long enough. You need to come home, at least for a little while. Dad knows he screwed up with you, and ever since his health scare, he’s trying to do better and make up for the past. He needs you, Brooklyn.” And just like that, my summer suddenly involved a semi-famous gym and the supposedly-ready-to-be-a-dad who owned it and trained some of the top fighters in the nation. Or used to—it was a little less shiny these days. We were all a little less shiny than we used to be.

Finn had driven the guilt-stake home when he’d added, “We need you. The gym’s struggling, and we can’t keep up. Liam would never admit it, but he’s feeling the burnout, too.” A conflicting mix of resentment and regret had filled me when he mentioned Dad—and sure, I wanted to believe he could change despite also feeling like he was twenty-four years too late—but it was my brothers I truly came back for. Thanks to their busy training and fighting schedules, they’d missed a lot of my events and big life moments as well, but they’d also nearly killed themselves to attend the ones they could. They’d made it to more art shows than they’d missed. And if anyone ever so much as looked at me wrong, my brothers had my back. If I needed something, Finn showed up on my doorstep. He’d hopped on a plane or made the eight-hour drive from San Diego to visit me way more than I’d made the trip down.

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