Losing It (A Ringside Romance novel)
Finn Miller doesn’t do social. He works his IT job from home as often as he can to avoid people. If it weren’t for his weekly training sessions at Ringside Gym, he might never leave his apartment. And he only does that because of Leo, the gym member he’s in love with. When Finn gets talked into attending a speed dating fund-raiser at the gym, his greatest wish is to have the courage to try to say something—anything—to Leo.
Justin McCormick has spent most of his adult life being used, whether playing a corporate heavy, or acting as guard dog for his ward. So when he leaves Vancouver for a fresh start in Toronto, he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself.
The moment Justin sees Finn at a speed dating event, he knows there’s no way he’ll make it without a little help, so he offers to coach Finn on the art of conversation. What he doesn’t count on is his unexpected attraction to this shy boxer, or his fear that if Finn gets his way, Justin might lose out on his best chance at love.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Justin McCormick flexed his fingers as he stood outside of Ringside Gym. God, this was a terrible idea, but for the first time in his adult life, he was at a complete loss for what else to do. He had no job, his savings were getting dangerously low, and he'd burned more than a few professional bridges over the years while doing his former employer's bidding. That made getting out of this particular mess difficult.
Plus, he was wearing glasses for the first time in years. He hated glasses.
He hadn't anticipated needing to start over at this stage in his life. Everything had been going the way he'd wanted; he'd achieved each of his goals in order. And yet . . .
Like vapor, his career and personal life had vanished in a puff of smoke.
The warm air was unusual for this early in April in Toronto, or so the taxi driver had said on the way through traffic. Justin hadn't bothered to respond, not particularly caring about the current state of meteorological affairs. The nice weather wasn't going to make it any easier for him to get a job with a sufficient income to allow him to live in Toronto in the manner that he'd been previously accustomed to. His résumé — which would be the envy of most — hadn't gotten him much, but as far as he could tell, it was his reputation rather than his experience that was holding him back.
The main thing he'd spent a decade cultivating was now a liability.
The sidewalk was full of people of all sorts, many of whom were dressed for work, probably rushing off to some important meeting or other. Justin averted his eyes as a man, who appeared to be homeless, started to come toward him. He could feel the other man's gaze on him as he got close, but instead of engaging, Justin stepped toward the window and began to read a notice of a new kickboxing class.
The smell of body odor washed over Justin as the man moved to stand beside him. "Excuse me. Do you have any change?"
"No." Justin didn't bother to mask his gruff nature, and kept his gaze fixed on the poster.
The man nodded and passed Justin. "That's okay. You have a great day."
Justin turned his head and watched him ask a passing woman the same thing. She stepped around him, throwing him a dirty look as she went by. The man waved at her and took up a post a few feet from the gym entrance. Justin did his best to ignore him, but the longer he stood there, the louder his conscience started to yell at him.
Instead he reached into his pocket and took out the three toonies he'd been saving for a coffee. He walked over and held them out. "Here."
"You found some change after all." The man smiled and put it into his pocket. "Thank you."
Justin narrowed his gaze. "I can take it back if you want?"
"It's all good. Much appreciated." He'd moved a few steps away when Justin heard him mutter. "Asshole."
Justin ignored him and went back to the gym door, because what else could he do? He was an asshole, though he'd been trying harder in recent months to cull those behaviors. A fresh start, and all that shit. Except that now he was standing in front of the place where his former charge Grady now worked, skulking about like he'd been accused of doing so many times in the past.
This had been a horrible idea. They'd parted on decent terms, but Grady wouldn't want him around now that he'd gotten his own life on track. So, Justin took a breath, turned, and slowly walked past the gym. This wasn't what he needed, to reconnect with Grady and try to rekindle a friendship. No, he needed to find a job and a place to live.
Even if what he wanted, now more than ever, was a friend.
He spun around to face the one person who he hadn't considered would be here — Max Tremblay: Grady's boyfriend and the man whose life Justin had made miserable for several weeks a little over a year ago. With his heart pounding, Justin straightened and approached Max. "Ah, yes. Hello."
"What are you doing here?" Max was wearing a short-sleeve, collared shirt that showed off his defined forearms and biceps. Justin did his best to keep his gaze off the muscles and on Max's disapproving gaze. It wouldn't help his cause to be ogling Grady's partner.
"I found myself in the city and thought I might pay Grady a visit." Not really the truth, but not exactly a lie. The middle ground he always loved to walk.
Max closed the distance between them. "You don't find yourself anywhere you don't want to be." He crossed his arms and looked down at Justin. Having witnessed Max knock one of Grady's relatives out with a single punch, Justin was more than aware of the strength Max possessed. And Justin knew Max's strength went far beyond the physical; he'd been an emotional rock for Grady last year. Justin could only assume Max was still that for Justin's former ward.
"Not true. I once ended up in a bowling alley in Saskatoon. I can tell you that was absolutely accidental."
Max growled. "Why are you here? The truth without the bullshit."
Justin wasn't normally easily intimidated. He'd learned how to protect himself early on in his life, using his wit and his words more than his physical prowess. It was far easier to cut people down with a sharp tongue than a fist.
But Max was Grady's boyfriend, and given everything that had transpired between them last year, Justin couldn't help but feel a certain degree of trepidation about him. "I've left Vancouver, and I'm looking for work here."
Max's gaze narrowed. "Grady's dad didn't put you up to this? I know things are a bit better between them, but if he thinks he can get involved, start controlling him again — "
"No. I haven't spoken to Theo since I quit." When Max frowned, and cocked his head, Justin smiled. "Grady didn't tell you that?"
"Before the wedding, I told Grady what I thought he needed to hear, and then I quit. I was pleased when I'd learned that he'd moved here to be with you. It's good to know that he's finally happy."
No longer being a key part of Grady's life might have broken Justin's heart, but he cared for Grady. If he wasn't the one who'd be able to make Grady smile, then Justin was happy that person turned out to be Max.
Max glanced around, his hands on his hips and a frown on his face. "If you're looking for work, why are you here? No offense, but you're not exactly personal trainer material."
Justin sniffed, lifting his chin. "I've done my fair share of working out. Just because I'm not built like yourself, doesn't mean that I'm not fit."
Max's annoyed expression morphed into a grin. "That's not what I said. Though it's good to know I can ruffle your feathers if I need to."
Justin forced his body to relax. He'd thought he'd gotten past his annoyance at Max's ability to tell-it-like-it-is, but apparently not. "Me coming here was a terrible idea. I'm going to head back to the hotel. Tell Grady I said hello." He spun around and marched down the sidewalk toward where he hoped he'd find a taxi.
"Justin, wait." Max caught up to him and placed a hand on his shoulder, stopping him dead in his tracks. "I'm sorry. Can we start over?"
"I don't think that's a good idea. It was a mistake, me coming here." Justin pushed the bridge of his glasses up his nose once more, annoyed by their pressure.
Max motioned at Justin's face. "Those are new."
"I needed a new prescription and my disposable contacts were no longer fiscally viable." One more annoying reminder of the life he'd left behind.
"They suit you." Max smiled. "Come back to the gym."
The warmth in Max's voice eased the tension in Justin's back. "I don't want to start something."
"I can see that." Max let his hand fall to his side. "Look, I know Grady will want to say hi to you. I was here to take him out to lunch, but the two of you should go instead."
Damn it, why did he have to be so fucking gallant? "I wouldn't want to disrupt your date."
Max rolled his eyes. "Just come to the gym. Talk to Grady like you'd been planning to and we'll go from there. Okay?"
The familiar urge to lash out, to keep the other person on edge so Justin could get what he wanted flashed in him. He closed his eyes and took a breath before nodding. "Thank you."
Max thankfully said nothing else as they retraced their steps to the gym. Justin couldn't help but mentally evaluate everything about Ringside the closer they got. There'd been a number of changes since the last time he'd been in Toronto. The sandwich board sign, which currently announced a weekend-warrior training class, hadn't been there. Neither had the obviously brand-new, yet retro sign over the front door. The latter was the perfect blend of old and new, nostalgia and leading edge.
"The front isn't what I expected." Justin slowed his pace, making sure to look around at the surrounding businesses. "It certainly stands out."
Max smiled as he put his hands on his hips. "Zack and Nolan did a great job bringing everything up to snuff. Russel, the previous owner, would have loved it."
A glance through the window told Justin that it wasn't overly busy inside. "You don't have much of a lunch crowd."
"It's Tuesday. Most of the people are upstairs at the lunch yoga class." When Justin turned and frowned at Max, the man simply shrugged. "Nolan's idea. It's turned out to be pretty popular."
"Interesting." Justin adjusted the strap of his duffel bag, doing his best to ignore the ache in his shoulder.
Max must have noticed, because in the next moment he was holding the gym door open for him. "Grady's inside. Come on."
Justin's chest tightened, making him painfully aware of each breath he pulled in. It would be easy to walk away from this, to find a library with a computer and make another list of jobs that he'd qualify for. Despite his reputation, he'd be able to find something. Right?
He stepped inside.
The gym smelled of sweat and cleaning supplies. There was a huge boxing ring in the middle of the room, a relic from a bygone age when men had felt the need to beat each other senseless to prove their worth. As he watched two women circling one another, protective headgear covering their faces and boxing gloves making their arms look like match sticks, he realized that stupidity was no longer relegated to men.
"Sandra is going for the women's featherweight competition next month." Max pointed to the smaller of the two women. "She's brutal. I won't go near the ring with her in it."
"Charming." Justin had never been a person for physical violence. He'd never once found it necessary.
Max led him toward a small office, that currently appeared empty. "Why don't you wait in there and I'll find Grady. I'm sure he's out back somewhere."
Justin nodded and dropped his duffel bag to the floor before taking a seat in the guest chair. The walls of the office were covered with picture frames. Each one held a photo that depicted life at Ringside Gym. Some were clearly old, the colors faded and the paper creased. Some were new and showed smiling faces of old and young people, all dressed to box.
One picture directly behind the desk, front and center on the wall, was a framed photo of three men. Max was easy to pick out. Presumably, the other two men were Zack and Eli, Max's friends. The three were all involved with the gym in some manner or other, having attended the facility as teens.
Justin had never had that experience, that form of camaraderie as a youth. He was an only child, and his parents had been far too busy to take him to activities growing up. He'd had his books, his computer, and the library, even if he'd lacked friends to share his ideas with. He'd taken classes, learned whatever he could about any topic of interest on his own. Words had become his companions, and it hadn't taken him long to master their use.
A chorus of loud voices behind him caught Justin's attention. Turning in his seat, he saw one of the men from the picture walking toward the boxing ring. Sporting a shaved head and a short beard, he appeared every inch a fighter. Justin couldn't take his eyes off him, which was why he jumped at the sound of Grady clearing his throat.
"That's Eli. He's pretty impressive to look at."
Justin smiled at Grady's sudden appearance. His heart pounded and his mouth went dry as he gave his head a shake. "Hello."
Grady was as handsome as ever. His skin was tanned and there was a sparkle in his brown eyes. His black curly hair was fashionably slicked back, the curled ends kissing his cheek. He appeared far more relaxed than the last time Justin had seen him. Obviously, life in Toronto had been good to him.
Grady smirked. "I didn't believe Max when he said you were here."
God, he's so happy. Justin let his gaze linger a tad longer than he should, but in that moment he realized he was okay with the idea that Grady had found happiness with someone else. His feelings, while still full of love for the boy who'd grown to become the man standing in front of him, weren't romantically driven. And that was as much of a shock to him as it probably would be to Grady.
His shoulders relaxed. "I found myself in town and was curious as to how you were doing. I thought I'd stop by and say hello."
"Justin, we've known each other far too long for bullshit." Grady came into the office and closed the door. "Why don't you tell me what's going on? Is this about Father?"
The verbal jab hurt more than Justin would have guessed. "Not at all. I haven't spoken to him since I quit." The mere thought of Theo Barnes made Justin's stomach turn. Justin had done far too many things for that man, most of which had put him at odds with Grady.
"Then what?" As Grady sat on the edge of the desk, Justin couldn't help but feel that for the first time in their acquaintance, Justin was at a disadvantage. "Everything you do and say has a purpose, and Toronto isn't exactly next door to Vancouver."
It was Justin's turn to look away. The unexpected concern in Grady's gaze was too much for him to deal with at the moment. Especially if he wanted a chance to make things right. Taking a slow, deep breath, Justin relaxed as much as he was able. "I need your help."
"Okay." Grady gave Justin's arm a squeeze. "What's the problem and what can I do?"
"It's as simple as that? All I have to do is ask and you'll drop everything and come to my rescue?" Given all of the crap that Justin had put Grady through when he was younger — their relationship had been rocky at best — he'd expected to do some groveling to get to this point.
Grady pinched the bridge of his nose before letting out a throaty chuckle. "We never seem to be able to talk like normal people." His hand fell to his lap, and he smiled. "Maybe we need to start over. Hi, Justin. I'm really happy to see you. How have you been? I was worried about you when you fell off the map before Lincoln's wedding. No one knew where you'd gone."
Justin's throat tightened. The sincerity in Grady's voice was overwhelming. "I'm . . . okay. I needed some time to myself, to think. You and Lincoln appeared to have your lives under control, and I knew the last thing you needed was me butting in places I wasn't wanted. Distance seemed like the best option."
"You know, I actually missed having you around." Grady shrugged when Justin snorted. "What? I did. You've been a part of my life for ten years. I felt like I'd lost a weirdly shaped extra limb."
"I have no doubt Max was more than happy to help fill the gap."
"Good to see you haven't lost your sense of snark. And I'm serious. I missed you."
Unshed tears squeezed his throat and made it difficult for him to swallow, forcing him to clear it once again. "I missed you as well."
Grady turned away. "If you show the least bit of emotion here, I'm going to cry, and that won't end well for either of us."
He was right, and Justin knew they'd both dissolve into a blubbering mess if given half a chance. Instead he straightened up and smiled. "Fine. Do you know what I don't miss? Not having to clean up your messes. God, you were a pain in the ass."
"Not something you have to worry about any longer. I'm like a real adult now and everything." Grady chuckled as he got up from the desk and sat in the chair beside Justin. "Okay, we've mastered the small-talk section of our day. Now, what can I help you with?"
Taking a beat to get his thoughts together, Justin turned to look squarely at Grady. Best to rip the bandage off. "I need help finding a job. I can't live in Vancouver any longer. I'd burned too many professional bridges over the years working for your father to find a position where my talents will be wanted there. Toronto seemed the next logical place."
"Oh, how the mighty have fallen." Grady laughed.
Justin recoiled as that stab cut him deep. "If it's going to be a problem, I'll leave." He started to stand, wanting to put some distance between them.
"No, no." Grady put his hand on Justin's arm and encouraged him to sit back down. "I'm sorry. Old habits."
Justin nodded. "Fine."
"Have you spoken with your parents?"
Justin rolled his eyes on reflex. "Of course. My lack of employment is the primary topic of conversation with every phone call."
"They won't help you?"
Grady didn't know everything regarding Justin's relationship with his parents, so Justin forgave him for asking. "They don't exactly have the sort of connections that would be useful." Not to mention that his mom had flat out refused to let him move home again.
"And you think I'll be able to help?" Grady sat back, his frown making him look years older. "I don't have many connections here personally, but I can see what Zack and Max might be able to come up with. They're both well-known in the business community and can send out feelers."
Even having that small measure of a plan helped Justin relax. "I would appreciate that. And I won't be waiting around. I'll be talking to some headhunters to see what options are out there for me."
Grady nodded. "What about a place to live? Where are you staying?"
"I'm in a hotel for the moment. I only arrived this morning. I'll need to be out by the end of the week. I . . . don't have much in the way of accessible cash right now. I've pretty much burned up everything that I had in my savings."
Grady got to his feet so fast, Justin's breath caught. "Hang on. I have an idea."
"Wait, where are you going?"
"Just hold on. Stay there." He was out the office door before Justin had time to speak.
Typical Grady. Justin also rose, his back already aching from the thin padding on the seat and the awkward angle, and he stepped out into the main gym. This was such a strange place to find himself, the polar opposite to the libraries and bookstores he'd loved growing up. Sure, he'd spent his fair share of time in gyms over the years, mostly taking spin and kettlebell classes. They helped to relieve stress. But a boxing gym? Never in his wildest imagination had he thought he'd ever set foot in a place like this.
A man walked through the front door, catching Justin's attention. His blond hair spilled out the sides of a Blue Jays ball hat and his jogging pants were riding low on his hips. The man winked at Justin as he passed on his way to the changing room. It had been a long time since a man had turned his head. He'd grown so used to putting his personal needs second that he didn't know how to process flirting.
Not that he was about to chase the man into the dressing room and ask for his number. That wasn't Justin's style.
The handsome newcomer had apparently caught the attention of another gym member as well; the man was tall, with short-cut black hair and the most amazing crystal-blue eyes Justin had ever seen. His gaze met Justin's briefly, sending a full-body tingle rolling through him. The blue-eyed man blushed before he squared his shoulders and went back to hitting the heavy bag hanging from the beam.
"Justin!" Justin turned at the sound of Grady's voice, surprised when he was flanked by Max and the third man from the picture. "This is Zack Anderson, owner of Ringside. Zack, this is Justin, an old family friend."
Justin shook Zack's hand, and couldn't help but assess his character through the strength of his grip. "Nice to meet you."
Zack was taller than him by a few inches, and his aura screamed businessman. "Grady here says that you need a job and a place to stay."
"Yes. He mentioned that you might have some contacts who you could put me in touch with." This wasn't a handout, simply a friend doing him a favor. No reason whatsoever to feel like a failure for accepting what was being offered.
"I do. I also have a proposition for you." Zack crossed his arms and looked at Justin in a way that made Justin sure he wouldn't like what was coming.
"How would you like to live and work at the gym until you find an alternative?"
Justin cocked an eyebrow. "Do I get to sleep in the ring? Or is there a cot in the locker room?"
Grady chuckled. "I told you he was a smart-ass."
"You did, and Justin, no, you don't have to worry about staying in here." Zack indicated for him to follow, and they moved farther into the building. "I own the whole building, and we've been working on getting the rest of it renovated now that the gym is mostly finished. There are a few apartments that I want to convert, maybe make them executive suites. Exactly the sort of thing that I could use someone to help me develop and promote." Zack led him to an internal stairwell and up to the third floor.
"Given all the work you did with Father, I figured you would have tons of insights." Grady's voice echoed in the stairwell. "What do you think?"
The hallway they stepped into was clean enough, though it was clear no one had lived up here in quite some time. Justin waited for Zack to unlock the door closest to them, before following behind him. The apartment walls were exposed brick, with large industrial-style windows lining one side. It was an open space, with a small, dated kitchen off to the left side.
There were also moldy cupboard doors, along with hardwood floors that had seen better days and the most unusual smell Justin had ever experienced in his life.
Zack moved through the empty space, growing more animated the longer he spoke. "It's not much now, but I have great plans for it. We've budgeted enough to convert one apartment immediately, which we'd use as a model to show potential clients. If you're interested, you can live here and help me with the development of the rental units until you find a better job."
Grady came up beside Justin and smiled. "He'd been talking about wanting to do this for a while now, but hadn't reached out to anyone who had the experience. It's a win-win for both of you."
Crossing the room to where Zack stood, Justin laced his hands behind his back. "Free rent and a small stipend while the renovations are underway. I won't be able to look for other employment while I'm working on this, and I do occasionally like to eat. I'll also need a budget and timeline to see if what you're proposing is feasible — I'm done trying to work miracles in my professional life. Grady burned that out of me. And the windows need to be opened up. I'm not sure I want to know what that smell is."
Zack grinned. "You and I are going to get along just fine." He stuck out his hand. "I'll do up a contract. You have a deal."
Justin shook on it and, for the first time since he left Vancouver, felt the pieces of his life slipping back into place.