Making It (A Ringside Romance novel)

Making It by Christine d'Abo
 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-582-1
eBook release: 
Aug 7, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-583-8
Print release: 
Aug 7, 2017
Word count: 
~60,000
Page count: 
~226
Type: 
Cover by: 
 

This title is part of the Ringside Romance universe.

Ebook $4.99
Print $17.99   $14.39 (20% off!)
Print and Ebook $22.98   $16.09 (30% off!)

Devan knows exactly what he wants from life: a good career, a husband who loves him, and a child to call his own. He’s working at the perfect job, and has found the man of his dreams in Eli. That only leaves one box left to tick. When his friend offers to be a surrogate mother for Devan and Eli, he’s convinced all his dreams have come true.

Eli has been fighting his entire life. Fighting to keep his sick mother safe, fighting his frustration, and fighting daily as an up-and-coming MMA star. The one thing he can’t fight is the feeling that he’s made a terrible mistake agreeing to be a father with Devan. On the worst night of their lives, Eli knows Devan is better off without him, and leaves.

When Eli returns three years later he comes face-to-face with Devan and a son who might be his. Devan has moved on with his life, but seeing Eli once again reignites forgotten passion. Yet if Eli wants to make it work with Devan, he must decide if he’s ready for the biggest fight of his life.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Prologue

Devan hated waiting. He’d never been particularly good at it, especially when it involved something important to him. If there was even the slightest chance that his dream could be snatched away, he’d barrel through until he made it a reality. Who cared if there was a mess left in his wake? That could be cleaned up, polished, and moved past.

His foster mom had tried to help overcome this particular personality quirk when he’d first come to live with them. She’d eventually given up.

He still hated waiting.

The PA system voice cut through the din of the emergency room. “Dr. Coi, code white. Dr. Coi, code white.”

Devan turned the yellow hospital mask over and over in his hands, picking at the corners and snapping the elastic band. The only thing he hated more than waiting was feeling helpless. Sitting here, his mind turning over every worst-case scenario about what could happen to Meg and the baby . . . fuck.

Knowing if he and Eli were still going to be fathers was as high on his list of important shit as he could manage. It wasn’t that he was simply nervous; that state of being was par for the course most days. Nervous would have been manageable. This was terror: scared raw, right through to his bones, chew him up and spit him out. Terror like he’d never felt from any fight he and Eli had ever had. What if it all fell apart, and they went home empty-handed again? What if something happened to Meg? He’d never be able to forgive himself.

Please, God, let Meg and the baby be okay.

Eli put a hand on his leg. “Put that on. If you don’t, you know you’re going to worry about getting the baby sick once you calm down enough to think about all the germs in here.” They were the first words spoken between them since they’d arrived at the hospital. The first words since their latest argument and Meg’s phone call. Eli’s voice sounded wrong in Devan’s ears, foreign.

“Right. Thanks.” The elastic band felt odd around his ears and the air suddenly too close as he tried to calm down. He lasted about five minutes before he took it off again, earning him an eye roll from Eli.

Eli was like a rock beside him, but not the silently supportive kind. More like the actual hard, round kind that might start rolling in the opposite direction at any moment. It was startling to realize that although they were sitting together in the hospital, legs touching and waiting to hear if their baby would be okay, they were the furthest from each other emotionally as they’d ever been.

Their fights had grown more frequent in recent weeks. Devan had tried to figure out why one of them would eventually be set off. It was never anything big; money, the apartment, friends, that stuff they were solid on. It was the stupid little things.

Why’s there no milk? Fight.

Where have you been? Fight.

Want to go to the movies? Fight.

Devan knew—regardless of what Meg thought—that having this baby was what they needed. It would not only be the glue to solidify the weak points of their relationship, but it would finally give him the last piece of his ideal life. Eli was a good husband, despite his occasional bad mood, and would make an excellent father as well. All they needed was for this baby to be born healthy, and everything would be fine.

With the memory of Meg’s first miscarriage dancing in his head, Devan glanced at Eli. Rather than looking concerned, he appeared as though he was reviewing his training schedule. Typical.

“This is taking too long.” Eli’s voice was low, gravelly. “It can’t be a good sign.”

“It’s probably just like the false alarm three weeks ago. Everything’s fine.” Devan spoke with a confidence he certainly didn’t feel. The look on Eli’s face said that he didn’t buy it either.

Meg had been Devan’s best friend growing up, and had offered to be their surrogate mother one night when the two of them had gotten into the tequila. She’d continued to make the offer sober, and after a bit of convincing, Devan had gotten Eli on board.

Now she was ten weeks pregnant and somewhere on the other side of the hospital wall with what sounded like another ectopic pregnancy.

It was probably nothing.

Devan turned the mask over in his hands again, before stopping to make tears in the paper.

“Will you stop fidgeting?” Eli glared at him. “That’s not going to help.”

“I’m not.” The words snapped out of him. “Sorry.” He set the mask on his lap for a moment before picking it up again. “There’s no reason why it should be taking this long. The last time . . .” The remaining words evaporated in his mouth.

This wouldn’t be like last time.

Eli grunted. “We’ll know soon.”

The clock on the wall told him they’d been not knowing for an hour and forty minutes now. What could they possibly be doing that it would take that long? Blood work maybe? An ultrasound?

Devan sighed. “I wish she would have let me come in.”

“She probably didn’t want to deal with your nerves.” Eli reached over and took his hand. The contact should have been comforting. “It’s going to be okay.”

“What if it isn’t?”

Eli squeezed his hand hard enough to make his fingers ache. “Then it isn’t. There’s nothing we can do.”

Devan slowed his breathing and did his best to relax. He’d managed to get himself under control, when a nurse came through the automatic double doors. “Devan Walsh?”

He got to his feet so quickly that he yanked Eli’s arm and the mask fluttered to the floor. “That’s me.”

“She’d like to see you.” The nurse eyed Eli. “You’re the husband?”

Eli nodded and stood.

“This way, please.” She scanned her ID badge and the doors swung open. “They took her to maternity.”

As they passed the little emergency room sick bays on their way to maternity, Devan tried to ignore the people within. Of course, he failed and caught glimpses of the patients. Elderly man surrounded by family, little kid and mom, woman and her husband. They kept going past the emergency room to the elevators. Up to the seventh floor, down the hall all the way to the last room. The nurse stopped and stuck her head around the drape before indicating they could go in.

“Oh hon, are you okay? You look so tired. Do you need anything?” Devan rushed to Meg’s side, not liking how pale she looked. Her blue eyes were bloodshot, her black hair was stringy around her cheeks, and her body looked so small in the large bed.

Eli stood with his back to the drape. As always, he was quiet, observing, not getting involved the way Devan did. Not that Devan gave him much of a chance.

Meg had been crying, the tear tracks visible, but mostly dry. She reached over and took his hand. “I’ll be fine.”

Relief hit him far harder than he thought it would. “Thank God. I was getting really worried out there waiting for you. I mean, I wasn’t even freaking out about the germs. No doubt I’ll probably get out of here with three strains of the flu—”

“Devan, shut up.” Eli’s voice hitched, causing Devan to turn to look at him.

Meg squeezed his hand again. “It’s okay. I’ve been his friend longer than you’ve been married. I know about the nervous rambling.”

“Yeah, she knows me.” He grinned before turning back to Meg. “If I weren’t gay, we’d have been hitched ages ago.”

Her smile was sad, but oh so very Meg. “We probably would have. Though you’re a slob and would have driven me nuts.”

“But this way I get the best of both worlds. I get you in my life, being the mother of my kid, and I get this bald, super-sexy fighter guy. Even if he’s a bit rough around the edges.” Even if they fought, and the chasm between them was spreading further apart.

Meg’s smile wavered, morphing into a frown for a moment before tears slid down her cheeks once more. “I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” Devan leaned over and kissed her forehead. “You’re amazing.”

She shook her head. “I . . . I lost the baby.”

Devan continued to push her bangs from her sweaty forehead. He’d heard the words. They’d registered in his brain, coalescing there. But his body refused to do anything to acknowledge them. He continued to brush Meg’s hair and wipe the tears from her face.

Meg reached up and took his hand in hers. “Say something. Please.”

Right, this wasn’t about him. This was Meg, his best friend and the mother of their . . . His throat began to tighten and tears welled up, causing him to blink.

Devan let out a sob. Only one. He then squeezed her hand. “You’re okay, right? Were there complications? Did this cause any damage?”

“I’m okay. The doctor said this thing can happen. Does happen.”

Did happen.

“Hon, it’s okay.” Devan kissed her knuckles. “Not your fault. Let us look after you for now.”

“I’m willing to try again.” She sat up a bit straighter. “Not like tomorrow or anything. But I’ll go through the in vitro again. I want to do this for you. I want this for you.”

“No.”

They both looked at Eli, who appeared as though he’d been stabbed. Devan felt the shock of his words like a shot to the chest. “What do you mean, no?”

“Exactly what I said.” His gaze locked on to Devan’s, and there was no mistaking the finality of his resolve. “I won’t go through this again. I can’t.” Without another word, he turned and walked away.

Meg shoved at his hands. “Go.”

“But—”

Go.”

Devan was moving before he realized it. Eli’s long legs had put him far ahead already, forcing Devan into a near run to try to catch him. He finally pulled him to a stop outside the elevator. “Eli, wait.”

His husband of six months stopped, keeping his back to him.

The doors slid open, letting five people out, drawing attention to the drama that was unfolding whether he wanted it to or not. Devan hesitated, but they needed to have this conversation sooner rather than later. “I know you’re hurting too. We all are. Come here and let me hug you.”

Eli didn’t move. “I can’t do this.”

His nerves chose that moment to begin to misfire, creating the sensation of creeping ants below his skin. Devan didn’t know exactly what Eli meant, not really. Eli was hurting and didn’t know what he was saying. “I know the thought of going through this again is painful, especially after we just found out a few minutes ago about the . . . about the miscarriage. I think Meg’s probably still in shock. We don’t have to do the baby thing again for a while. It’s best if we don’t. We can wait a month, or maybe more, if that’s what you need.”

“I don’t mean the baby.”

Devan’s stomach churned, making it difficult to think. “Okay. We can talk at home if you want.”

“Devan—”

“I should probably go back and stay with Meg for a while though.”

When Eli finally turned around, Devan was shocked to see tears. Eli never cried. He was the toughest man Devan had ever met. He’d seen him demolish opponents in the octagon, and verbally in the prefight interviews. Tears were for the weak. For Devan.

Devan swallowed hard. “Please don’t. Whatever it is you’re going to say, please . . . don’t.”

Eli didn’t back down. He took a step closer, his wet face shining from the glow of the dim hospital light. “I can’t do us anymore.”

Bile rose, and Devan had to swallow it down hard. “What?” It barely came out as a whisper.

“You and I. Everything happened so fast. We weren’t ready to get married, and definitely not ready for a family.” He glanced over at an orderly, who was pushing an empty stretcher down the hall. “I’m on the cusp of making something happen with my career. I have a match next month that I’m nowhere near prepared for. We’ve been fighting when I should’ve been at the gym training. I’ve been planning for a baby that we’re never going to have.”

The pain in Eli’s voice gave Devan a straw to grasp. “I know I’ve been hard to live with. I’ll do better. We’ll get better, and then we can still have a baby.”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. I don’t want one.”

“But . . .” Devan inched closer. “You said you did.”

“I lied. You wanted to get married. You wanted a kid. I wanted you.” Eli shook his head. “I’m going back to our place. I’ll get my belongings and be gone before you get back. Thank Meg for me. Tell her I’m sorry. She went through a lot for us.”

All for nothing. “Please don’t do this.”

Eli tossed the car keys to him as the elevator doors opened once more. “Keep the car. You’ll need it more than I will.”

Eli turned, hands in his pockets, and stepped into the elevator.

Devan could only watch as the doors slid shut, his body shaking as he clenched the car keys in his hand. The two most important people in his life were both hurting, each in a different way. Meg had given so much, and was still willing to give more despite what she’d been through physically and emotionally. Eli had simply left.

“Fuck you, then.” He wiped the tears from his face and went back down the hall to Meg.

The nurse was checking her blood pressure when he finally stepped into the room. “She’s doing really well. The doctor will be in to go over what to expect in the next few days.”

“What?” He walked around to the other side of the bed. “I thought . . .”

“Remember? It . . . ah doesn’t happen all at once.” Meg couldn’t meet his eyes. “It takes a few days.”

“Right.” His heart ached a bit more. “I’ll take some time off work so you’re not alone.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

The nurse pulled the Velcro cuff from Meg’s arm. “Let your man pamper you. Plus, it’s good to have someone with you. As support.”

Meg waited for the nurse to leave before she met his gaze. “Where’s Eli?”

“He’s gone.”

“I knew this would be hard on you, but I didn’t think he’d take it that hard.”

It was weird how he’d gone from being overwhelmed by his emotions to feeling a bit dead inside. “I mean he’s leaving me.”

“What?” Meg bolted upright. “The hell he is. He loves you.”

“Yeah, apparently not enough.” He straightened his shoulders. “Well, fuck him. I have you and don’t need anyone else.”

“You needed this baby.” Meg leaned back against the pillows, wincing. “It might have made a difference.”

“I don’t think it would have. He . . . Things haven’t been great for a while. Maybe I saw things that really weren’t there.” Dating, the sex, their engagement, they had been a whirlwind. “I did want a family. Do want. I thought he did as well.”

How had things gone so wrong, so fast? He loved Eli, loved the idea of the life they’d been building. But apparently even if you spent time polishing a turd, that didn’t magically turn it into gold.

“I can’t worry about Eli tonight.”

Meg slid her hand across his. “I was serious. The doctor still has all the genetic material. We’ll have to talk to him, try and figure out exactly what we need to do, but I’m willing to have your baby.”

Was that something he could do alone?

Devan smiled at her. “Let’s focus on getting you healthy. We’ll figure the rest out later.”

Even if that meant going it alone.

 

Chapter One

Three years later

Eli hadn’t realized how badly he’d needed to come home. Toronto was a place like any other, a city that welcomed dreamers, that laid opportunity in front of its citizens and dared them to go for it. Toronto was a piece of him, the thing that had cemented the foundation of his self and allowed him to build up.

Strange, then, that he’d gone to such lengths to avoid coming back here.

A police car blasted by on the street behind him as he stood inside the front of Ringside Gym, staring. God, this place . . . so many memories, both good and bad, were tied here: bruises, tears, and hours of laughter. This little hole-in-the-wall gym had been at the heart of his teen years, had played a huge part in making him the man he was today.

He’d always known that Zack would eventually get this place up and running again—that man didn’t know how to quit once he’d set his mind to something—but this? The new sign, announcing to the city that Ringside Gym was opened for business, shone bright in the daylight. Everything was beyond his expectations. He stepped further inside, letting the smell of sweat and the echo of voices wash over him.

The gym, while still holding on to some of the old features, was fresh and clean in a way that it hadn’t been when he’d hung out here as a teen. The ring in the center of the room was original, that much was obvious from the chipped wood around the base and the dull color of the ropes. The place wasn’t overly busy, though that wasn’t surprising given the time of day. Two men were practicing punches by the side mirror, while a woman was using the heavy bag.

The city, this place, for a second, washed away the pain and loneliness of the last three years of his life. Seeing his childhood haven resurrected was worth the deluge of reminders of the life he’d walked away from all those years ago.

“Eli!”

One moment he was standing by the ring and the next he was being squeezed by a smiling Zack Anderson. He returned the hug, making sure to give Zack’s arms a bit of a once-over. “Dude, you’re wasting away. You’re losing all of your muscle mass. I thought you said you were at this place twenty-four seven?” He wasn’t that bad, but Eli hadn’t pushed Zack’s buttons in far too long.

“Do you honestly think I have time to do anything other than paperwork? I train a bit here and there when I have a chance.” Zack pulled back, but kept his hand on Eli’s shoulder. “Now I know why Russel was always on the hefty side.”

“That had more to do with the beer and watching TV than being busy.” Eli looked around, not sure what to take in first. “Dude, you’ve done an amazing job.”

Eli couldn’t help but notice the strain that had always characterized Zack’s personality was gone. He was smiling, and his eyes sparkled in a wonderfully unfamiliar way. “You look good, man.”

Zack grinned. “Let me give you the tour. I also have someone I want you to meet.”

Ah, a guy. That makes sense.

They walked into the small office that once had held more boxes of old files than there’d been room for living people. The musty scent that used to permeate every corner of the place was gone, replaced with fresh paint fumes. The best improvement was the thin man sitting behind a small computer desk, glaring at the screen. His hair was a bit long, covering part of the left side of his face. There was an intelligence in his eyes that Eli couldn’t help but notice.

“Hello, handsome.” Eli wasn’t normally one to flirt, but he couldn’t help it, and chuckled when Zack stiffened beside him. “You come around here often?”

“Back off. I don’t care what your MMA rank is, I’ll kick your ass,” Zack growled. “Nolan, this asshole is Eli McGovern. Eli, this is my partner, Nolan.”

There was no missing the emphasis on the word partner. The memory of Devan’s face flashed in his mind, and he immediately squashed it. Eli bumped Zack out of the way as he leaned over the desk and held out his hand to Nolan. “Nice to meet anyone who can tolerate Zack.”

Nolan’s smile was more cute than charming. “Thank you so much for coming to help us with the grand opening. Having you here is going to generate so much publicity for the gym, I’ll have to setup a wait list for registration.”

“I still can’t believe you’ve managed to get everything going again, Zack.” Eli turned to look through the office door, a wave of nostalgia washing over him. “It’s perfect.”

“Everything is up and running. You can practice here too.” Zack grabbed his forearm and gave it a squeeze. “Don’t want you softening up while you’re on vacation.”

It was weird to think of having any time off. Eli had been on the road, in the gym, or competing for nearly three years now. “The nursing home won’t let me stay with Mom, so I’ll have plenty of time to work out.”

This was the second major stroke his mom had gone through in four years. As much as he hadn’t wanted to come back home and risk reopening the festering wound that had replaced his failed marriage, he couldn’t ignore his mom’s deterioration and worsening dementia.

He was here for her, here for Ringside’s opening, and that was all.

“It will be so amazing to have a well-known fighter here. Has Zack shown you the steam room?” Nolan got to his feet a bit too quickly and banged his knee. “Ouch.”

“Not a lot of room in here.” Zack moved around to help Nolan. The smile they shared was an unexpected stab to Eli’s heart. “Nolan is also determined to get our yoga studio open. Can’t leave well enough alone, this one.”

The urge to run hit Eli. Jesus, Zack was happy and clearly in love. Because Eli’d screwed his marriage up didn’t mean he couldn’t be happy for his friend.

Focus on the here and now. Smarten up. “Yoga is great for core strength and it gives you a different way of getting people into the gym.”

Nolan stopped moving, turned, and faced Eli. “I’m sorry, would you be so kind as to repeat that, please?”

Zack groaned. “Please don’t.”

“Oh no, he really needs to.” Nolan’s grin could have powered a small country for a year. “I believe your friend and professional athlete just said that I was right.”

“Traitor.” Zack spun Nolan around toward the back of the gym, but not before Eli caught the sparkle in his eyes. “This way.”

For a heartbeat, Eli couldn’t move.

His gaze had locked on to Zack’s hand and how his thumb stroked the side of Nolan’s neck as they walked away. It was a simple touch, casual in a way that betrayed their easy intimacy. Eli hadn’t touched anyone like that for three years. His hands were built for destruction, not love.

Devan laughed as he threw Eli’s dirty T-shirt at him. “I can’t believe how disgusting your shit gets.”

“The stink helps knock my opponents out.” He tossed the shirt in the hamper before making his way to Devan.

“Don’t touch me, you’re gross.” He didn’t pull away when Eli wrapped his arms around him. “God, go shower.”

Eli reached up and cupped Devan’s cheek. “Why don’t you come join me?”

There it was, the sparkle in his eyes that always sent blood to Eli’s cock. Devan leaned in and placed a gentle kiss to his lips. “Sweet talker. Let’s go.”

“Dude, you coming?” Zack had turned back to face him.

He shoved memories of Devan deep down into the recesses of his brain and nodded. “Yeah. Show me this yoga space.”

Over the next half hour, Zack and Nolan took him around the gym, while Eli and Zack reminisced. The scent of fresh paint and wood breathed life into his soul. If this rundown place could be resurrected, then there was hope for anything.

And everyone.

The yoga studio was nearly finished, still needing some of the mirrors to be placed on the wall.

“Should be done for the grand opening next week.” Nolan leaned against Zack’s side as they surveyed their accomplishment. “I wanted it to be a hot-yoga studio, but there was no way we could afford that yet.”

Eli’s head had started to pound, no doubt from the lack of sleep and the need to eat. He walked fully into the studio and did his best to ignore the quick kiss Zack planted on Nolan’s cheek.

“Hot yoga is a big draw.” Eli moved away from the leaning mirrors, his gaze now fixed on the exposed pipes in the ceiling. “It would be expensive to convert this place though.”

“Maybe if we expand to a second location.” Zack draped his arm around Nolan’s shoulder as Eli turned to face them once more.

The pounding in Eli’s head intensified. “I think I’m going to head back to Mom’s. I need to lie down for a bit.”

“Sure.” Zack frowned in a way that told Eli he had a thousand questions but wasn’t going to ask. “Need a drive?”

“Naw, I’ll be good. I rented a car.”

“Max wanted us to come by the bar tomorrow night for a private party.” Zack reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card. “In case you forgot the address.”

“Thanks. Not open on Mondays?”

“Nope, so it will only be the five of us.”

Five? That meant Max had also found someone while Eli had been away. “I can’t wait to see him.”

“Before you go, I wanted to show you the promo.” Nolan disappeared into the hallway before Eli had a chance to argue.

“He’s very excited about the promo.” Zack smirked. “Even if you don’t like it, lie. It will make his day.”

Eli didn’t know what Zack was worried about. Nolan came back with several posters that featured the Ringside logo, the date of the grand opening, and Eli’s professional headshot. “I hope you don’t mind. I spoke with your manager, and he sent the picture. I figured if we’re going to promote the fact that MMA-up-and-comer Eli McGovern is our guest of honor, then I wanted to do it right.”

“It’s pretty damn good. Can I take one?”

Nolan rolled the poster up and handed it over. “I’ve reached out to local media, bloggers, and the newspapers. We also have a special event for Big Brothers Big Sisters. I have a friend over there who said the kids can’t wait to meet you.”

This was a bigger event than Eli had assumed. Not that he minded: Big Brothers Big Sisters had been a godsend for him as a kid; it was the least he could do to give back. “Sounds good.”

“You okay?” Zack squeezed his shoulder.

“I’ve been on the go too long today. I have some shit to do at Mom’s place, then I’ll probably crash.”

“Yeah, sure.” Zack leaned in and gave Nolan a kiss. “I’ll walk him out.”

“Sure. Nice to meet you.”

Eli nodded and followed Zack down the stairs and out to the street and the city air. The moment he took a deep breath, some of the tension bled away. “I hadn’t realized how hard it would be to come home.”

Zack crossed his arms. “How’s your mom doing?”

“I haven’t seen her yet. The staff at the nursing home says she’s not bad, considering how big this last stroke was.”

“Shit. I’m sorry, man.”

“Nearly three months of hell.” And he wasn’t there for her. Again. Despite knowing she was in a safe place, getting the best possible care, he’d grown too comfortable with the idea of someone else looking after her. “Doctor thinks she might show some more improvement, but it’s hard to say at this point.”

“That’s something.”

“My manager, Stephan, is pissed that I’m here, but I needed to make sure she’s doing okay.” He couldn’t afford to fall off everyone’s radar at this stage of his career, but this was his mom. It didn’t matter that Stephan had been trying to get another fight lined up for him. If he walked into the cage with his head somewhere else, he’d get his ass handed to him. No, it was for the best that he was here, at least for now.

Eli loved to fight. He loved the camaraderie and grandstanding, and the blood, sweat, and tears. Devan used to caution him that one day all that would be over, and he’d need something to fall back on. That his family needed him to be there for them.

Devan . . .

He’s not your concern anymore. You fucked that up.

He didn’t have a family. The last time he’d spent any time with his mom, she’d had moments when she couldn’t remember his name. The blank stare she’d leveled at him, the little shudder of fear when he’d reached out and taken her hand . . . Fuck, that was too much for him. And Devan?

Stephan had been thrilled when Eli told him he was unattached.

“Yeah, sure. I personally don’t care about who you’re fucking. I don’t want to know. But let’s just say there are some in your audience who wouldn’t pay money to see you fight if they got a whiff of . . . certain things. So I’m going to tell you what I tell all my fighters: if you’re gay, don’t be.”

He didn’t need a family when he had a fast track to making it big in the ring. “Stephan will be after me to get back to Montreal as soon as I can. He hates the idea of me not being ready to fight at a moment’s notice.”

“He sounds like a real charmer.” Zack shoved his hands in his pockets. “You seeing anyone?”

Eli forced his body to stay relaxed. “No. Why?”

“I was wondering if we should extend tomorrow’s invitation to anyone else. Hate that you’ll be flying solo.”

“It’s fine. I’m used to it.” Fact of the matter was, he’d had no interest in dating for the past three years. He’d walked away from the best relationship he was likely to ever have; there was no sense putting another man through his shit.

“Are you going to call Devan?”

Eli’s gaze snapped to Zack’s. “I know it’s been a while since we’ve hung out, but you know better than to go there.”

Zack looked at him—hard—before he slowly nodded. “Wanted to see the state of things. I’ll let you get to your mom’s. And let me know if you need me to help with anything. She’s family too.”

“Thanks. She’s good for now.”

Zack backed away slowly. “We’re here if you need us. See you tomorrow.”

It was strange seeing Zack after all this time. Three years ago, when they’d last gotten together with Max, Zack had possessed as many edges and angles to his personality as Eli had. More. He wasn’t going to chalk up Zack’s softening to being in a relationship—he hadn’t seen enough of Nolan to know for certain—but there was something churning in his stomach that told him that was the truth.

Would Eli have turned out the same if he’d stayed with Devan? Probably not. Zack’s anger, his temper, had always been quick to boil over, but equally fast to dissipate. Experience and time could help with that.

Eli’s issues were different.

Slipping into his rental car, Eli gave himself a moment to blank his mind. Emotions were too much of a liability both in the ring and in life.

Calm.

Focused.

Empty.

After letting out a slow breath, Eli pulled into traffic.

 

Chapter Two

Devan frantically raced around his apartment, picking through the chaos in a vain attempt to find Mr. Fuzzy. There was no way Matthew would last five minutes at his sleepover with Aunt Meg if Mr. Fuzzy wasn’t securely in his hands. Hell, he wouldn’t make it out the door without screaming bloody blue murder.

“Where the hell are you?” He dropped to his knees and began to sort through the toys, the laundry he hadn’t managed to put away, and the shredded remains of a Maclean’s magazine he’d yet to read. He caught a flash of dark brown, and crawled across the floor. “Aha!” Mr. Fuzzy’s floppy ear protruded from under the edge of the sofa. With a gentle tug, the well-loved bunny emerged, a wad of dust stuck to the chewed, stitched nose. It took a second to clean him off and check to ensure the white tail he’d made an attempt to sew back on was still safely attached. “You will live to flop another day.”

Matthew’s chatter echoed happily through the baby monitor. He’d rediscovered his truck this morning, which had given Devan a full thirty minutes of bliss. He should have done dishes, or rescued the laundry that had served as Matthew’s playground last night before bed. Instead he’d sat staring at the monitor while sipping his coffee. One day, he promised himself that he’d learn to not feel guilty when he needed to relax.

No doubt that would be around the time Matthew was ready for college.

Only eighteen years to go!

Carefully checking the diaper bag once more, Devan went through the mental list of everything Meg would need for the next two days. It would be weird going about his Monday morning without having to prepare for daycare, but there was no way he’d be able to manage everything while getting a root canal.

Devan liked to think of himself as a superman, but dental work and painkillers sucked the life from him.

The buzzer went off, and he rushed to the panel. “Hey.”

“It’s Meg.”

He buzzed her up and unlocked the front door before racing into Matthew’s room. “Hey, big man. Auntie Meg’s here. Want to go see Meg?’

Matthew was only eleven months old, but sometimes when he looked up at Devan, he swore his son understood so much more than the books said he should. Not to mention he had rich-brown eyes that reminded him so much of—

No. He wouldn’t think that name.

“Hello?” Meg called out before groaning. “You’re a slob.”

“Let’s go, buddy.” With one easy swoop, he picked Matthew up, who giggled with glee. There might be moments when being a single dad was hard, but there were far more cases of it being the best job in the world. When he got back to the living room, Meg had already managed to pick up half the laundry, folding it into a quick pile. “Leave that. I’ll get it when you’re gone.”

Meg took Matthew and smiled, though it didn’t quite make it to her eyes. “There’s my guy.”

Matthew blew a raspberry in response.

“Hey, you okay? And don’t try to bullshit me and say nothing.” He knew Meg far too well for her to try to pull one over on him.

“I would never try to bullshit you, darling.” The worry on her face bled away as she rubbed noses with Matthew. “I promise it’s nothing serious. Nothing that will put a damper on me looking after my little man here.”

“Think you’ll ever wear Josh down about having a baby of your own?” No matter how much he’d tried to include her as the mom after she’d given birth to Matthew for him, Meg insisted that he was Devan’s alone. She was content to be Aunt Meg and nothing more.

“Yeah, I don’t think that will happen. Especially since we have this little guy to play with whenever the mood strikes us. I totally have the best of both worlds.”

Handing over the diaper bag, Devan could tell there was still something bothering her. “So, what’s going on?”

Meg sighed big and dramatically, but Devan knew she was serious to a degree. “I didn’t want you to find out about this somewhere else.” Shifting Matthew to her hip, she reached into the front pocket of her jeans and pulled out a folded piece of neon paper. “I debated telling you at all, but then I heard it on the radio and, well . . .”

It was strange how Devan knew that opening that paper was going to be the hardest thing he’d have to do. A sick burning formed in his stomach as he unfolded the sheet. The print was creased, distorting the letters and the address, making them difficult to read. Not that it mattered. The only thing he could stare at was the face looking up at him.

Eli.