Against the Ropes (First to Fight #2)


AgainsttheRopes (2)

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As a troubled teen, Gregory Higgs channeled his energy into boxing instead of breaking the law. The ring gave him purpose and something to strive for. So did the Marines. Combining the two seemed like a natural fit.

Another natural fit? Reagan Robilard, the sweet athlete liaison who keeps all the fighters out of trouble and manages their PR—a job that gets more challenging when someone digs up the truth about Greg’s not-so-shiny past after equipment is vandalized at the gym.

Even if it wasn’t her job, Reagan can’t let Greg take the fall. Because passion doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to matters of the heart…

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BelowtheBelt_comp.inddFight to the Finish

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Excerpt

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And now, he was officially one of the team.

Gregory Higgs turned from the list on the door of Coach Ace’s office and scrubbed a hand over his face. That was that. He was officially on the Marine Corps boxing team.

Oo-rah and all that.

“Hey, is it up yet?” Graham Sweeney jogged over, beating the crowd. “The list, it’s up?”

“Yeah.” Greg stepped aside to let Graham by. “I forgot to check for your name. Sorry.”

“No problem. You were checking for your crew. I totally get it.” His friend’s finger slowly scanned down the list, pausing every so often as he noted a member of his own unit. “Damn, Monticino didn’t make it.”

As Greg wasn’t sure who that was, exactly, he said nothing.

“And…there.” He breathed deeply. “There we go. I’m in.”

Because he knew it mattered, greatly, to his friend, Greg slapped his shoulder. “Well, look at it this way, even if you’d have been cut, the commute home would have been simple.”

“Back gate, five minutes into Hubert.” Graham grinned and punched Greg’s shoulder. “Congrats, man. We did it.”

“No shocker you two managed to pull through.” Walking carefully, Brad Costa ambled toward them. From one hand, a black knee brace dangled.

Just to mess with his roommate, Greg stepped in front of the list. “Pull through what?”

Brad made a face and stopped in front of him. “Move.”

“Why?” He glanced at Graham. “What’s he want?”

He,” Brad said sarcastically, “wants to see the list. Move.”

“It’s like he cares,” Greg added, eyes wide. “Grandpa, are you ready for your nap yet?”

Brad bent over as if he were ready to charge and Greg side-stepped, laughing. “You’re too easy, man. You’ve really got to tone it down or I’m going to have way too much fun poking at you while we’re traveling.”

“So…” Suddenly serious, Brad stepped up and scanned down the list. Much like Dude, he sighed when he caught his name, then went back to find the rest of his team. “Damn.”

“Missing one?”

“Two. Or maybe one and a half.”

Greg glanced at Graham. “Half?”

“Chalfant’s listed as an alternate.” Brad turned, face grim. “What the hell does that mean?”

“I think it means they send them home, but ask them to keep training while they’re there. If someone on the team gets hurt or can’t compete, they’ll bring them back.”

Brad gave a tight nod, then headed toward the mats the team used to warm up. A few younger Marines walked in to the gym and jogged toward Coach Ace’s door.

“Who else did you lose?” Greg asked, catching up.

“Tibbs. But I already knew that. There was no way they’d keep him after that debacle with the motorcycle last weekend.” Sitting down carefully, Brad began to stretch out his legs. The brace lay next to his hip, unused.

“Forgive me for my lack of a medical degree, but aren’t you supposed to be, I dunno, wearing that?” Graham pointed to the brace. Brad kicked it at him. Graham kicked it back.

“You’re kidding me, right?”

At the sound of their pint-sized drill sergeant of an athletic trainer, all three men froze. The sounds of groans and cheers from across the gym echoed. As one, the three Marines turned to see Marianne Cook standing just off the mat, looking surprisingly adorable in an oversized t-shirt he could easily guess was from Brad’s collection, and some sweatpants that bunched at the ankles and were clearly about five inches too long. The toe of one running shoe tapped, and her arms were crossed. The scowl she sent Brad could have frozen the nuts off a bull.

And all at once, Greg was very glad Brad had been the one to catch the cute AT’s eye early in training camp, and not him.

“Bradley Costa, you put that brace on right now.”

Graham snickered and bent over his knees, hiding his grin.

She turned on him in a snap. “Don’t feel superior, Marine. You’re on my shit list, too. You didn’t come in so I could look at those two fingers yesterday like I asked.”

He held his left hand high, keeping his chin tucked to his chest. His voice was muffled as he said, “Here they are. Still attached.”

“Everyone’s a tough guy,” she muttered as she marched over to look at the fingers on display. “Put it on,” she demanded of Brad without even sparing him a glance. Gingerly, she probed at Graham’s hand. It was only because Greg sat next to him that he heard his friend’s sharp intake of breath.

“Falling apart, both of you,” Greg said cheerfully as he pulled his heels in toward his crotch and bent over.

“Figures the guy who wasn’t even sure he wanted to make the team remains suspiciously healthy,” Brad muttered as he struggled to get the brace on over his shoe. After a minute, he gave up and took the shoe off before slipping the brace on.

More Marines joined them, spacing themselves out across the mat. Greg’s unit–teammates now–came over as they filed in to tell him they’d made the team, except the one who had been cut. He stood to shake the man’s hand, wish him luck and a reminder to add him on Facebook so they could keep in touch.

Brad gave him a baffled look as he sat back down. “You just make friends everywhere, don’t you?”

“Him?”

The loud, booming shout stopped conversation cold as every Marine turned their heads to look toward the door. Two men stood at the coach’s door, one clearly attempting to calm the other down. The enraged one shook his friend’s restraining hand off his shoulder and pointed toward the group stretching.

“Him? They kept the old guy with a jacked up knee and let me go? Is this some kind of joke?”

“Uh oh,” Graham muttered under his breath. Brad groaned and got to his feet. Greg stood beside him. After a moment, Graham stood as well, forming a three-strong wall.

The pissed off Marine stormed toward them, and Greg had a momentary vision of a bull charging a red cape. Right before he would have slammed into Brad, Greg dove for him. Catching the man by surprise, at a diagonal, they went sprawling over the mat. He first went for restraint, but anger lent the dude too much strength.

Oh, well. Practice came a bit early today.

Dodging several clumsy, if strong, blows, Greg ducked and shouldered the man back a few steps. He had strength, but if memory served, the guy was never fast enough to keep up. His jabs were like swinging tree trunks. Potentially dangerous, but inaccurate as hell. And Greg was too fast to get hit.

Another swing and Greg tossed the man to the ground. Arms wrapped around his waist, keeping him from going back for seconds. Graham sat on the downed man’s chest, tisking his tongue.

“That was pathetic. No wonder you got cut instead of the old guy.”

“Shut up,” Brad said easily.

The man squirmed, but Graham found a pressure point in his shoulder that had the man moaning and subsiding quickly.

“Ease it down, Higgs,” Brad said quietly as Greg fisted his hands again. “That was my fight, anyway.”

“I needed the exercise.” Greg forced his fingers to relax, mentally willing the adrenaline to die down. Knowing the way his body and mind worked together, he could do too much damage in two minutes with an amped up system. He had to calm down.

“Oh, lovely.”

They all turned as a clicking sound echoed over the hardwood floor. And the business-suit-hottie they’d all seen lurking around the gym the last week or so headed toward them on curvy legs, hips swaying in her dark skirt.

“Testosterone for breakfast. Move over, Wheaties.” The woman paused by Marianne, who had a disgusted look on her face. “Are they done now or will there be another round?”

“They’re done,” Marianne said with finality.

“Since today was an informal practice anyway, Coach Ace said I could use his office.” She pointed at Greg, or more specifically, at his still-heaving chest. “You, come with me.”

Greg—and probably every other Marine—watched as she spun on pinprick heels and sashayed across the floor toward the office.

“Anytime,” he breathed, and, shaking Brad’s grip off, followed.

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