© 2023 by Jordan Summers

CAGE CHAPTERS 1-3

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

Fighting with a lion shouldn’t be this easy...

Chrysus, the black panther, dug his paws into the firm soil that packed the Pit floor. Spotting an opening, he lunged at the lion and caught him across the chest with a vicious swipe of his sharp claws.

His opponent roared in anger and surprise, the lion whipping around to swipe at the panther, missing him by a whisker. Chrysus leapt back, slamming into the crude cage that surrounded the fighting arena. The rusted enclosure clanged and groaned, straining metal echoing throughout the amphitheater before being muted by the fortress’s stone walls.

Chrysus snorted. It was a rare day that anyone got a claw on a lion and he intended to relish the moment—from a distance.

He was so focused on the lion that Chrysus didn’t hear the jaguar sneaking up behind him. The other cat grabbed him by the haunches and yanked his legs out from under him. Chrysus went down hard, getting a paw beneath him before his face hit the dirt.

Incensed at the two-against-one tactic, Chrysus twisted and slashed the jaguar’s nose, bisecting his left nostril before the big, spotted cat leapt away. The panther scrambled to his feet and backed up until his tail hit the fence. From this position, Chrysus could keep both beasts in his line of sight. He should’ve known the lion wouldn’t be so easily taken down.

Deep furrows from the panther's long, deadly claws scored the golden lion’s massive chest. But if he was in pain, it wasn’t obvious. The lion stared at him with unblinking amber eyes. Eyes that told him that he would wait all day and night for his chance at revenge.

The black panther’s gaze moved to the jaguar, prowling from side to side. Blood dripped from his nose, creating a crimson mosaic on the hard ground. Beneath the spots covering his body, the cat’s muscles quivered and its tail swished back and forth, as he searched for an opening.

The panther snarled and hunched down. Chrysus leapt into the air and collided with the two angry felines. They came together in a clash of claws and teeth. Exhaustion rode him hard as all three hit the ground in a heap.

The lion latched onto the panther’s front leg and bit down to the bone. Chrysus snarled, but couldn’t pull away without shredding flesh. When you were a Pit Fighter, embracing pain became second nature. He dug his claws deeper into the lion’s sides, unable to get at the beast’s throat through his thick mane.

The jaguar grabbed him from behind to drop him. A panther was no one’s prey. Chrysus rolled, forcing the other two cats to roll with him. The move broke the lion’s hold, allowing the panther to claw the jaguar across his belly and leap out of the way.

Every muscle in Chrysus's body hurt as he limped across the fighting field. He could feel blood running down his leg, pooling on his paw. He flexed his claws. Pain seared his flesh. He needed to shift, but the battle wasn’t over yet. He turned in time to see the two cats stalk toward him.

A sudden roar came from the far side of the Pit. A roar that was unexpected, yet instantly recognizable. The sound made the fur rise on the panther’s neck. Chrysus saw the jaguar and lion stiffen, all conflict instantly discarded as they turned to face the new arrival.

Hades, the Dark King, swaggered into the amphitheater and stopped at the entrance to the Pit. His bright blue gaze locked on the three cats, then he signaled for the warriors to join him. As he did so, something squirmed and squealed in his arms. Hades juggled the bundle, then gently clicked his tongue. None of the warriors ever expected to hear that sound come out of their King.

Fur receded from their bodies and their claws retracted. Within seconds, the three predatory cats were gone: exhausted, naked warriors stood in their place. Chrysus, Zeph, and Asher made their way across the Pit, gathering discarded items of clothing as they approached.

The Dark King’s face shifted, the faint markings and features of a liger emerging. The auburn-haired little girl in his arms giggled and reached for his sensitive whiskers. She gave them a hard yank. Hades didn’t even wince. He simply wiggled his nose, then shifted back.

“Peek-a-boo,” he said.

His blue-eyed daughter giggled again and wrapped her tiny hand around his finger. She immediately pulled it into her mouth and sucked on it.

“I have to get you back to your mother,” Hades mused. “You’re hungry again.”

Chrysus watched the exchange, unspeaking. He had little knowledge of Earth children’s dietary needs, but knew that Phantom young ate continuously. Most Phantom Warrior males envied the Dark King for he possessed a well-endowed mate. She’d be able to feed fifty babies with her ample assets. And if the Dark King had his way, the Queen would whelp that many.

As Hades cooed over his little girl, Chrysus’s chest twinged. He rubbed the spot and glanced away. He must’ve hit the ground harder than he realized. The child smiled at her father, causing the discomfort in his chest to increase.

“Are we needed for another mission, Sire?” Chrysus had been on more missions than he could count, but if the King needed him, he’d pull himself together and go.

All male Phantoms were warriors, but these Pit Fighters were in a different league. They’d been handpicked for their ruthlessness and cunning to be part of an elite team of fighters that the King sent out far ahead of his army.

Their motto: Take care of problems before they arise.

“Yes,” Hades said simply. He juggled the baby once more, then settled her against his chest and stroked her back. “Once again, I require your service.”

Chrysus nodded. “When do we leave?” he asked.
“You have two days,” Hades said.
“And our destination?” Zeph asked.
For the first time, Hades’ full attention moved from his daughter to the fighters.

“Earth,” he said.
Chrysus glanced at his brethren. Their expressions held the shock that he felt.

“You...you want us to go to war with Earth, Sire?”
Phantoms had never invaded a planet without provocation.
“No,” he said, then smiled ruefully. “Though sometimes I think that would make

things easier for our people in the long run.”
“Then is there someone on Earth you need us to eliminate?” Zeph asked.

Hades looked at them. “No.”
Chrysus frowned. “Sire, I do not understand. Then what is our mission?”
Hades’ blue gaze roamed over their faces. “I want you to have what I have.” Chrysus’s eyes widened in alarm. He didn’t mean...surely he wasn’t talking about...

He glanced at Zeph, who seemed rooted in place, but looked ready to run. As always, Asher remained cool and calm. Nothing rocked the six foot four, golden-haired lion shifter.

“Sire, what is it you wish us to have?” Asher asked. Hades grinned. “A chance.”
“At what?” Chrysus asked, more than a little confused. “Happiness,” Hades said.

Chrysus was suddenly aware of the silence of the pit. He could feel his heart pounding in his ears, and hear the breathing of his fellow fighters. And he knew of himself—as he knew was true of them—they would all rather be back in the throes of the fight than having this encounter with their King. None of them answered. There was no way to do so without ending up in a true Pit challenge. And no one went against the Dark King and lived.

The silence grew. Perhaps only seconds, but it felt like an age. They all knew this was not the way these discussions were meant to happen. The Dark King was accustomed to his fighters’ immediate and enthusiastic obedience.

Instead, in the midst of the standstill, Chrysus heard himself—and could hardly believe hearing himself—begin, “But, Sire...”

A growl rumbled out of Hades’ chest, threatening to morph into a full-blown roar. His daughter sobbed.
The men took a step back and fanned out, as her wails grew in volume.
Their eyes widened as they glanced at each other.

What do we do? Chrysus mouthed.
Don't know, Zeph mouthed back. Spots appeared and disappeared on his arms. Asher gave them a tense shrug.
The Dark King deflated. “Athena, don’t cry. Daddy was just teasing.” The cold gaze

he shot to the warriors said otherwise. “You’re going to Earth to look for mates.”

Chrysus's chest tightened, making it hard to breathe. His two hearts felt like they were trying to break through his ribs. What was happening to him?

“But, Sire, we’re Pit Fighters,” Asher protested.

The lion’s reaction surprised Chrysus. His commander was always the first to follow orders—and give them. He never questioned Hades. Ever.

“There is much training to be done here on Zaron,” Asher continued.

“It can wait until you return,” Hades said. “I’ve already spoken to Helio. He volunteered to fill in while you’re gone.”

Asher frowned. “Helio is a child,” he said. “He’s a good warrior, but the bear is not ready to lead the rest of the Pit Fighters.”

The Dark King’s tawny brow arched. “Then it’s a good thing I’m here,” he said softly.

Chrysus’s feline side bristled.

Asher took a step back and dropped his gaze to the ground. “I meant no disrespect, Sire.”

“I know,” Hades said. “It’s the only reason you’re still standing.”
Asher blanched.
“I think what the commander meant, Sire, is that we’re needed here,” Chrysus said. The tightness in his chest got worse. Was he dying? Chrysus didn't fear death. He

considered the goddess a friend. But he'd never felt anything like this. Fear before a mission was normal. Fear kept him alive. But whatever this was, was dangerous. Unpredictable. This kind of emotion could get him killed.

“Breathe, warrior,” Hades said. “The panic will pass in a moment.”
Panic? Was that what this was? If so, Chrysus didn't like it one bit.
“You need to find mates. This proves it,” Hades said. “Fighting for your people is

honorable. You have my loyalty and gratitude because of your willing sacrifice. But you need more.” He bounced Athena until she laughed. “Listen to that sound. It’s the sound of happiness. The sound of contentment. I had no idea it was missing from my life until I met my mate.”

The word ‘mate’ sent a shiver of unease through Chrysus. Normal Phantoms mated. There was nothing normal about the Pit Fighters. Sure, the Phantom people revered them for the sacrifices that they made on their behalf, but they also feared them.

Not even Pleasurers wanted the scarred assassins in their beds. It took double the credits to get them there and most kept their eyes closed during the sex act.

How in the worlds could the Dark King expect them to find mates on Earth? The sight of them would traumatize any female in her right mind.

Chrysus loved his fellow Pit Fighters like brothers. They were his family. The only family he needed. Didn’t the King understand that?

“You have two days to prepare,” Hades said. “I suggest you use them wisely.” “That’s not enough time, Sire.” There was no use arguing with the Dark King once

he’d given an order, but Zeph still tried.
“Would you rather I make it one day?” Hades asked.
“No, Sire.” Chrysus hit Zeph in the arm to silence him. “Two days is perfect. We’ll

be ready.”
Hades laughed. “I doubt it,” he said. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find my

mate. My daughter isn’t the only one who’s worked up an appetite.”
The Dark King disappeared down the hall that led out of the Pit area.
Spotted fur sprouted from Zeph’s arms. “What are we going to do?” he asked. “I

don’t want to go to Earth. Humans are so...fragile.” He rubbed the newly healed skin on his nose and began to pace.

“What choice do we have?” Chrysus struggled to remain calm. He wasn't the only one shaken. Even Asher's hands trembled as he shoved them into his pockets.

“None,” Asher snarled. “We have to go...” He hesitated, then suddenly smiled. “But not all missions end in success.”

Chrysus saw a slow grin dawning on Zeph’s face, and felt his own expression shift. An unspoken understanding passed between them. They’d go, make a show of trying, then return home.

Some of the tension fled from Chrysus. When he’d joined the team, he had accepted the fact that fighting, bleeding, and eventually dying for the safety of his people was the best that he could hope for out of life. Searching for a mate had never been part of the plan. Still wasn’t.

“Do you think he’s told the other fighters?” Zeph asked.

“Not yet,” Asher said. “I’d wager we’re first in line for this particular...privilege.” He spat the last word.

Zeph nodded. “Should we warn them?”
Asher grimaced. “Not unless you want Hades to remove your head.”
Chrysus ignored their bickering. He tried to picture himself on Earth. Tried to

picture himself blending in with the human population. He couldn’t. He felt far too savage, too scarred inside and out for that primitive planet. The thought of laying his paws on an Earthling female sent chills up his spine.

What if his claws came out? He imagined a moment’s inattention, the ease and shame of injuring some helpless woman, and his entire being recoiled. For a Pit Fighter, there would be no greater dishonor.

“I’m not touching any of them,” Chrysus said. “I won’t take that chance.” “What are you talking about?” Zeph asked.
“The women. The Earthlings.” Chrysus held his meaty hands up and slowly

unsheathed his claws. “These hands aren’t for touching human skin. They’re for mauling. They’re for killing. Sending us to Earth is a mistake.”

“On that, we’re in agreement,” Asher said.

CHAPTER TWO

Wedged between two abandoned warehouses, in an area far removed from the wealth of Orange County sat a small gym covered in sun-bleached blue paint. A chunk of concrete from the broken sidewalk propped the door open, allowing the remnants of the sea breeze to drift inside. The salt air did little to cut the body odor that clung to the walls and permeated the mats.

“I want a clean fight.” Stevie Cash sounded the bell. The anemic clang died quickly. “Get him, Julio,” she shouted, as the men in the boxing ring took jabs at each other. “Don’t let Anton corner you against the ropes again. Keep your guard up.”

Stevie climbed onto the side of the ring so she could keep a better eye on the fighters. Julio glanced at her to see if she was watching. “Julio, eyes front and center! Pay attention!” He was going to get pummeled if he kept that up.

The young Hispanic fighter focused on his opponent.
“Anton, work him!” Stevie shouted. “He’s getting cocky!”
Anton punched Julio in the face, his fists moving with dazzling speed.
Julio danced back deflecting the brunt of the force.
“That’s better,” Stevie said. “Keep it up.”
Anton Sheffield outweighed Julio Rodriguez by twenty pounds and stood a good six

inches taller, but he was the closest in size to the current middleweight champ that Stevie could find. Sparring with him would hopefully make Julio a better fighter—or at least get him used to the size difference.

Bam! Slap! Bam! They came together in a quick jab, left hook, jab.

“Looking good, Julio,” she said. “That’s it! Show him who the next champion is going to be!” Everything she owned was riding on the lean fighter. If he didn’t win...well Stevie couldn’t think about that possibility.

More punches flew as the fight intensified. Training in the rest of the small gym came to a halt. Stevie glanced over her shoulder. “Did I say you could stop?”

“No, sir,” said a small chorus of voices.
Grunts filled the air as one of the fighters attacked the hanging bag in the corner.

Here, Stevie was one of the guys. She was also the lead trainer and owner of the place. So what she said, went.

Curtis Jones, the featherweight fighter training closest to her, picked up his jump rope. The fighters in the ring quickly drowned out the slap, slap, slap of the rope hitting the concrete.

Julio hooked Anton under the chin with an uppercut, lifting him off his feet. His back smacked the mat. Anton sat up and shook his head to clear it, then spit out his mouth guard.

Stevie had no choice, but to call it. She rang the bell. “Good job, guys!” She clapped her hands.

Anton climbed to his feet and sucker-punched Julio in the gut. Julio gasped and clutched his abdomen. When he caught his breath, he muttered an expletive in Spanish and asked, "“Why'd you do that?”

“Because Ivan is unpredictable,” Anton said. “You need to be ready for anything.” Slam. Bam. Bam. Jabs followed left hooks and right hooks, as the fight continued. Stevie climbed into the ring to separate them. “Okay, that’s enough, guys.”
Julio put his hand between his knees and tugged his glove off, then reached for his

mouth guard. He smiled when Stevie approached. “How was I?” he asked.
“Good,” she said. “But you’re still dropping your left. We’re going to have to work

on that before the championship fight or you’ll be admiring the mat like Anton here.” “Great fight,” she said to Anton. “Next time, don’t baby him.” She winked. “Hit him

every time he drops his left.”
Anton grinned, flashing two gold teeth. “Will do.” He climbed out of the ring and

headed to the showers.
“I felt good today.” Julio ran a wrapped hand over his sweaty face and rolled his

shoulders. His brown skin glistened like melted sugar, displaying every ripple of muscle. At 5’8, he was three inches taller than Stevie, but height in a fighter only helped so much. Mental strength won fights.

The phone in her office rang. Stevie didn’t have to see the number to know who it was. Neither did anyone else.

“You’d better get that before Henry decides to come down here and check on everyone for himself,” Julio said.

And he would, if given half the chance. He’d use any excuse to get back in the gym. Stevie hurried to her office and grabbed the phone. “Hey Dad, how’s it going?”

“What took you so long?” Henry asked.
“I was watching Julio fight,” she said.
“And?” he asked.
“He should be ready.” He had to be ready. There was no other option.
Stevie looked around the small office she’d inherited from her father. The smell of

fresh paint blended with years of cigar smoke. She walked around the old battered metal desk and dropped into the chair that had more duct tape than padding. It was silly, but Stevie hadn’t been able to part with her dad’s old furniture. The pieces reminded her of happier times. Now she couldn’t afford to change it even if she wanted.

“You don’t sound sure,” he said.

Henry ‘The Hummingbird’ Cash was a fighter when most bouts were arranged with a handshake. He’d rose through the fight ranks—thanks in part to his speed—and made enough from his winnings to open the gym. After retiring from fighting, he’d gone into training and became an even bigger success.

He’d trained Stevie, and she'd earned a Muay Thai championship thanks to his guidance. It was a moment of pride for them both. Henry would still be training, if a heart attack two years ago hadn't sidelined him.

Stevie knew the gym was his second baby, so she'd retired from fighting the very next day and took over running the club, determined to keep her dad’s legacy alive and prove that his faith in her was well-placed. Stevie did her best to keep the doors open, but despite her efforts, the business hemorrhaged money.

The fight scene wasn’t like it used to be. Little places like hers closed their doors every day. You needed deep pockets to stay in the game. Pockets she didn’t have. Without a title win to put the place on the map again, she wouldn’t be able to keep the gym open for much longer. Stevie sighed. Losing the gym would break what was left of her dad’s heart.

“You daydreaming again?” Henry asked.

“No! No, I heard every word.” Stevie kept her voice steady as she tried to recall the last thing he’d said. “Julio’s doing really well.”

There was a pause on the line that told her she’d failed. “Is he keeping his left up?” he asked.

Stevie grinned. “We’re working on it.”
“Work harder,” he said, which was Henry’s motto.
Margie came on the line. “Stevie, honey, are you still coming over for meatloaf

tonight?”
“Yeah, Mom. I’ll be there.”
“Good,” she said. “Maybe you’ll be able to get your father to eat his vegetables

while you’re here.”
“I eat my vegetables,” her dad grumbled. “There are only so many twigs and leaves

a man can eat before he needs a steak.”
“Don’t sass me, old man,” Margie said. “You don’t think I see you feeding your

vegetables to the dog, but I do.” She clucked her tongue.
Henry chuckled. “I’m just sharing,” he said.
“Well share a little less,” she said. “The vet says Nico’s put on ten pounds and you

have a doctor’s appointment on Tuesday.”
Nothing put her dad in a sour mood quite like the mention of a doctor’s appointment.

He was convinced he didn’t need to see the doctor now that the ‘incident’ was over. In fact, he’d convinced himself the whole thing was a bad case of indigestion from her mother’s fish tacos.

“I have to go,” Stevie said. “Gym is going to be closing in thirty minutes and I need to get cleaned up if I want to make it to dinner on time.”

“Dinner isn’t until seven,” Margie said. “That gives you over two hours.”
“I need all that time to get ready, Mom,” she lied.
“Oh.” Margie sounded disappointed. “I thought maybe you were meeting someone

for coffee or a drink before you came over.”
Stevie snorted. Who had time for coffee or drinks? That would imply she had a

social life. She thought about it a moment. Nope! Stevie couldn’t remember the last time she went out on a date. If it weren’t for the toys in her dresser drawer, she wouldn’t see any action at all.

“See you soon,” she said.
“The door will be open,” Margie said.
“No, it won’t! This is L.A., woman,” Henry said. “Ring the bell when you get here.” The playful argument was still in progress, and Stevie was smiling when she

disconnected the call. She glanced up and found Julio in the doorway fresh from his shower. He’d slicked back his dark hair and he’d changed into a pair of soft blue jeans. A red T-shirt did wonders for his beautiful skin. His long lashes, rock-hard body, and dive- worthy dimples attracted women by the droves. Nobody noticed his slightly crooked teeth or the bump in the middle of his nose, especially when he smiled.

“You heading out?” she asked.

“In a bit.” He leaned against the doorframe. “Need help cleaning up?” His brown gaze warmed as he stared at her.

Stevie wasn’t entirely immune to his charms, but she knew better than to fall for them. It helped that she considered Julio the brother she never had and knew that he flirted out of habit. Julio loved women—all women. Young, old, thin, fat, it didn’t matter. He loved them all and they loved him. She did, too. Just not in the way that counted.

His motives didn’t matter, since Stevie had a rule against dating fighters—a rule she’d come by the hard way.

“I can handle it,” she said. “But thanks for the offer.”
Anton popped his head into the office. “You about ready to go?”
“Yep,” Julio said.
“Is Stevie coming?” Anton asked, straightening the collar of his navy dress shirt. “What do you think?” Julio replied.
Anton grinned. “You work too hard, boss.”
Stevie laughed. “Someone has to,” she said, then added, “remember, you’re in

training.”
Julio chuckled. “I’m not going to let nachos and beer stop me from winning the

championship on Saturday,” he said.

“Have fun,” she said. “Enjoy your beer. Just don’t expect me to take it easy on you tomorrow.”

Julio’s grin widened. “Never. Good night.”
“Later.”
He strutted out of the gym. The view from the back was as good as the one from the

front. Some girl was going to get lucky tonight, but it wasn't going to be her.
When she’d been younger, she’d gone out with a few fighters. It wasn’t until later

that she’d learned they’d only asked her out to get close to her father. They had no interest in her personally. Didn’t really see her as a desirable woman, but that hadn’t stopped them from sleeping with her.

To them, she’d been someone who could further their careers. When she’d called them on their behavior, they’d told her point blank that they considered her one of the guys. It had hurt—bad, but Stevie had learned her lesson.

These days, she didn’t mind being one of the guys, but there were times—times she barely admitted to herself—that Stevie longed for something more. What would it be like to have someone see her for who she truly was? The idea was so far out of her mental toolbox that she couldn’t even imagine. And given her life as of late, that wouldn’t be changing anytime soon.

Stevie locked the gym behind them, then headed to the small utility closet in the hall that led to the showers and locker-room. Her mom had wondered why it would take over two hours to get to the house. Stevie didn’t have the heart to tell her that she’d had to let the cleaners go because she could no longer afford to pay them. She gathered up her cleaning supplies, then got to work scrubbing the gym.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

Two hours later, Stevie headed to her parents’ house in Hawthorne. The yellow 1940’s bungalow her folks lived in looked much like the others around it—steadfastly middle class. The sight of the house brought a smile to her face. No matter where she lived, this would always be home.

Stevie parked her Jetta and grabbed the bottle of wine she’d picked up on the way over.

The door opened before she could knock. Her mother’s arms came around her in a bear hug. The aroma of fresh baked cookies clung to Margie’s clothes and skin. Stevie’s stomach growled.

“You’re late.” Margie took the wine from her hands. “I’m glad you were able to stop by.”

“I come by most nights, Mom.” The only time Stevie didn’t was when she was too exhausted. She loved hanging out with her parents. It wasn't a chore to visit daily.

“It’s still nice,” Margie said.

“Did you make me cookies?” Stevie stared at the flour on her mother’s cheek. It was a familiar sight growing up. One of the few things she could count on.

“No,” Margie said. “You know your father can’t have sweets.”

No one made cookies like her mom. They were legendary in the neighborhood. Stevie pretended to pout.

Margie lowered her voice. “I might have some lying around.” She winked.

Her mother’s definition of ‘some’ meant there were racks and racks of cookies scattered about the kitchen.

They broke into giggles. This was a routine she and her mother went through every single week, but neither was inclined to break it since both of them loved it so.

“Electricity costs money,” Henry said. “Stop standing there with the door open and come in here and give your old man a hug.”

Stevie shut the door and moved deeper into the living room. Over-stuffed furniture had been situated around the room in a half ‘U’ to face a massive television. Her father sat in his recliner with the remote by his hand. Stevie leaned over to hug him and gave him a kiss on the cheek.

He hugged her back, then quickly shoved her away. “Enough of that mushy business,” he said. “Tell me about Julio’s fight today. Did you remember to tape it?”

Stevie pulled out her digital recorder and plugged it into the TV. A minute later, the fight came on the screen. Henry studied the men as they moved around the ring.

“He’s favoring the right.” He shook his head in disgust. “It’s going to get Julio in trouble in a championship bout.”

“I know, Dad. I’ve told him as much,” Stevie said.
“You’re going too easy on him,” he said.
“No, I’m not,” she said.
Henry’s gray eyes narrowed. “He needs to keep his eyes on his opponent, instead of

looking to see if you’re watching him.” That same careful gaze swung around to pin Stevie to her seat on the couch. “Is he sweet on you?”

“No,” she said. “This is Julio we’re talking about.” Stevie quickly looked back at the television screen.

He nodded in understanding. Everyone knew about Julio’s reputation. “Well, whatever you do, don’t encourage him,” Henry said. “He’s distracted enough.”

“I don’t encourage anyone, Dad.” The second the confession was out of her mouth, Stevie regretted it. Even if it was the truth, it made her sound pathetic. Like she had no life. “What I mean is, I’m just Julio’s trainer. Nothing more. Nothing less. It’s unprofessional to get involved with the fighters who train at the gym.”

He gave her a hard stare. “It is,” he said. “Never forget that, if you want other trainers and fighters to take you seriously.”

Stevie sank down on the couch. “I won’t.”

Margie cleared her throat, then stepped into the room carrying a tray full of cookies. She held the tray out for Stevie to examine. “Only take two,” she said. “You don’t want to ruin your appetite.”

Her dad reached for a cookie. Margie playfully slapped his hand. “You know you can’t have any of these. The doctor said...”

“I don’t care what the doctor said,” Henry interrupted. “A man should be allowed to have a cookie on occasion.”

Margie’s lips pursed. “Fine, but only one.”

Before Henry could reach for the tray, Margie picked a cookie from the pile and handed it to him. “There,” she said. “Now hurry up, dinner will be ready in ten minutes.”

They watched the rest of the fight in silence, each enjoying their cookies. When the fight finished, Stevie looked to her dad to judge his reaction. “What do you think?”

In her heart, she believed that Julio had the makings of a champion, but her father knew fighters better than anyone. If she had missed something, he’d tell her—whether she wanted to hear it or not.

“He’s fast,” Henry said. “Not quite as fast as me back in the day, but fast. That’s good. He’s going to need to be in order to stay out of Ivan Turner’s way.” He glanced back at the screen. “He keeps dropping his left, leaving that side open. A good fighter will take advantage of that. Maybe I should come down to the gym tomorrow and have a talk with him?”

“That’s not necessary, Dad,” Stevie said. “I can take care of it.” She didn’t want him to get excited. Over-excitement was bad for his weak heart.

His gray gaze met hers. “I know you can, but a man to man talk with him can’t hurt.”

And there was the rub. Stevie might be one of the guys, but she’d never be a man. Which meant she’d always be lacking no matter how hard she worked, no matter how many champions she trained.

“Give me one more day to work with him, before you drop by,” she said.

“Okay, but if I don’t see changes in his form tomorrow night, then I’m coming in,” he said.

Henry would be in whether he saw changes or not. That was just the way her dad operated.

His lack of confidence in her stung, but Stevie was very good at hiding her emotions. She’d learn to be growing up at the club, then later fighting in the ring. There was no room for tears or tantrums in the ring. Those she kept bottled up until she got home.

She could handle Julio on her own. Stevie could handle anything. She just needed time to prove it. Unfortunately, she only had two days to convince her dad that she could coach like a man.


Chrysus sat in a bar by one of the many beaches that stretched along the California

coast. Nets hung across the ceiling of this particular bar. Someone had tossed coconuts and seashells into them, along with a few plastic crabs. Faux torches lined the walls and a bank of windows looked out upon the ocean.

Waves crashed and salty air permeated every inch of the place, wiping away the scent of fried food and stale beer. Chrysus sat on a stool at the end of the s-shaped bar, sipping something called a Mai Tai.

The sweetness appealed enough, but he didn’t understand how humans got intoxicated from the beverage or any of the others the bar sold. They weren’t strong enough to affect a child on Zaron so drinking them seemed senseless.

He’d been on Earth a week. Chrysus still hadn’t gotten used to all the sights, smells, and sounds. If he hadn’t found the ocean, he was pretty sure he would’ve gone insane. Since he’d arrived, Chrysus had seen hundreds of females none of which held his attention for long. He wondered how much longer he had to stay before he could return home.

Chrysus glanced around the bar. A young, noisy crowd had poured into the place an hour ago. He hunched his shoulders. He may be a similar age, but they made him feel old. Or maybe it was just the years of fighting that did.

When you’d seen as much carnage as he had, joy was hard to come by. Chrysus found frivolity irritating. The women twirled and shimmied to the thumping music. He watched them simulate sex and felt nothing at all. He wondered if there was something wrong with him. You’re a Pit Fighter. Chrysus turned back to his sweet drink and took another sip.

One more week. That’s all he’d give this planet, then he’d call the ship to come pick him up. His failure to find a mate would be a surprise to no one. He and his brethren had made their feelings about the subject clear before they left Zaron. Nothing Chrysus had seen or heard since had changed his mind.

Three men stepped through the door and threaded their way through to the crowd. They stopped beside him, then signaled the bartender. These men didn’t look like the others. They carried themselves differently. Chrysus sniffed and caught the scent of blood. He stiffened. Warriors. But not Phantoms. These warriors were human.

“That wasn’t a bad bout today,” the shorter of the two said.

“Yeah, you got lucky with that uppercut,” the mocha-skinned, well-dressed one replied.

The shorter one snickered. “Luck had nada to do with it, old man. That was all skill.”

“Skill my ass.” The taller one clapped the shorter man on the shoulder. “That’ll cost you a beer.”

They broke into laughter.

The blonde bartender sidled over to the men. “Hey Julio, long time no see.” She tossed her hair back and played with the long gold chain around her throat that dipped between her large breasts.

Julio grinned at her and leaned over the bar to get closer. “Hey Stephanie, I’ve been meaning to call, but the boss has me training night and day.” His lips brushed the side of her hair as his fingers traversed the edge of her tight pink shirt.

“Sure.” She rolled her eyes and giggled, as if the slight was no big deal, but her flushed face and hard nipples said otherwise. “What can I get you guys?”

Julio slapped the man next to him on the back. “Anton here wants a glass of your finest ale. That’s what old people drink, right?” he asked Anton.

Anton shoved him aside. “I’d like a Grey Goose on the rocks,” he said. “Do you have a Sippy cup back there for his rum and coke? I’m not sure our boy Julio here is ready for something without a lid.”

Stephanie snorted. “I’m sure I can find something,” she said, then acknowledged the third man. “What can I get you, Curtis?”

“The usual,” he said.

She set a beer in front of him a moment later, then made the other two drinks. Chrysus listened to the men talk. After a while, it became clear that they belonged to a fighting club of some sort. That explained the blood, bruises, and the enlarged knuckles.

Restlessness pulled at him. Maybe that was why he was feeling so out of sorts. Since Chrysus had arrived on this backwater planet, he hadn’t sparred and he hadn't shifted to his other form. He sized up the three men. None of them would be much competition, but fighting them would be a way to pass the time.

If nothing else, it should be amusing, Chrysus thought.

He swiveled on his barstool. “Couldn’t help but overhear your conversation,” he said.

Suspicion filled their eyes.

“I’m new in town,” Chrysus said. “Been looking for a place to train, but haven’t had much luck finding one. Mind if I ask where you train?”

Julio stepped forward and eyed him up and down. “We don’t belong to a health club. So if that’s what you’re looking for, there are plenty of them around.”

“I do not seek a club for my health,” Chrysus said. The very thought was ridiculous. He was in perfect condition and immune to all human diseases. Having to hide his true nature from the humans was tedious and exhausting. It would be so much easier if they knew that they weren't alone in the universe. “I’m looking for a place to fight.”

Julio stared at him, then glanced over his shoulder at Anton and Curtis. “What do you think?”

Anton shrugged. “Stevie could use the business,” he said.
Julio’s jaw clenched. “Where have you trained?”
“Here and there,” Chrysus said.
Julio’s dark eyes narrowed. “You better not bring trouble to the gym. That would be

very bad for you,” he said.
Chrysus hid his amusement. “For a moment, I thought you were afraid of

competition.”
The smaller man’s face hardened. “Big words from a big man. Tomorrow we’ll see

if your skills match all the talk.” Julio signaled for Stephanie to come over. “I need a pen.” “Anything for you, Julio.” She winked and handed him a pen.
Julio jotted the address to the gym down on a napkin, then scooted it across the bar

to Chrysus. “Be there tomorrow bright and early,” he said. “We’ll see what you can do?” “Should we let Stevie know that he’s coming?” Curtis asked.

Julio smirked. “Nah, I don’t think he’ll show.” He shot Chrysus a look that clearly said what he thought of him. “See you tomorrow, Rocky.” The men snickered and left.

Stephanie wiped down the bar in front of him. “Don’t let them get to you,” she said. “Julio’s under a lot of pressure. He has a prizefight coming up. He’s going to be the next champion.”

“Is that why he treats you poorly?” he asked.

“He doesn’t—” She flushed. “I mean...we’re not a couple. We just hooked up one time.” Stephanie gave him an enticing smile. “You waiting for someone?”

It was Chrysus’s turn to be uncomfortable. “Just biding time until I can go home.”

“If you want to hang out some time, you know where to find...” Her voice trailed off as he squirmed on the stool.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Chrysus said.

He glanced down at the address scrawled on the napkin. It wasn’t far from here. A few miles at most. The men sat at a table across the room. They kept glancing his way. Chrysus wasn’t sure what they thought they’d see, but he had no doubt that come tomorrow they’d be in for a surprise.

He finished his drink and threw some money on the bar. Chrysus didn’t need a lot of rest, but he did need quiet. He glanced at the men one final time and smirked. Julio frowned. He’d be doing more of that tomorrow.

Chrysus laughed and walked out.

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