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Below the Belt by Sidney Halston (1)

Chapter 1

Antonio “Scarface” Marino jumped up and down inside a steel cage in a sold-out arena in Tampa, Florida. All around him thousands of fans cheered him on. Well, they weren’t all cheering him on; some were booing him for his recent brawl at a nightclub. But for the most part, his fans had remained loyal. This was what he lived for, and he loved it.

“Hey, this isn’t wrestling, Hulk Hogan. Bring it down a notch. Concentrate,” yelled Slade Martin, his trainer and co-owner of the mixed martial arts gym Worth the Fight Academy.

“Bite me,” Tony hollered back as he continued to rile up the crowd. He ran inside the cage, grabbed the fence, and shook it. Then he ran to the other side and did the same thing. The rattling noise was deafening, but the crowd ate it all up.

Five months earlier, at his agent’s insistence, Tony had been shipped to the small town of Tarpon Springs, Florida, because the only trainer who hadn’t blackballed him was Slade, at his new, up-and-coming Academy. Tony still didn’t understand what everyone’s problem was. He had been fighting professionally for sixteen years. He knew the game. He could win in his sleep.

So he partied. Who cared? He liked sex. He liked to drink. There was no harm in having fun as long as he brought in the big money. He also loved his family, especially his nieces, but the media never covered that story. That story didn’t sell. But Tony making a scene at the local bar? Well, the media were all over that shit.

But even though his roots and family were still in Miami, he was beginning to like Tarpon Springs and the people in it, primarily the woman who was currently glaring at him from the front row: Slade’s business partner, Francesca Silva, whose long, lean, tanned legs were currently on display and distracting him. Tony had been ogling those legs since arriving at WtF Academy months ago.

Francesca had been the one who had ultimately decided that Tony was a risk worth taking and had convinced Slade to bring him on board. She was also the sexiest, feistiest woman he’d ever met, and she drove him absolutely crazy. She rode his ass every time he missed practice, cursed like a sailor, and didn’t give a shit about going out with him—and God knows he’d tried to get her to go on a date with him. If he didn’t get her naked and under him soon, he’d explode.

The music changed to a familiar heavy metal song, and the crowd roared as Jimmy Winters strutted down the hall and into the steel cage with his entourage. In MMA fights, the fighter always had a discipline they excelled in, and in this case both fighters stood on equal footing as kickboxers. But that was all they had in common, because at thirty-four, Tony was already headed toward retirement, whereas Winters was only twenty-seven and at the apex of his career.

Once both men were in the middle of the cage, the referee said some things into the mic that had the crowd roaring. But Tony paid him no mind, his focus solely on his opponent. They both eyed each other like two predators on the hunt for the same prey as they tapped gloves and moved to their respective sides to await the bell.

Tony’s adrenaline was pumping, and he wanted to pummel Winters, who’d been talking shit throughout the entire promotional campaign for the bout. It wasn’t unusual to have back-and-forth trash-talking between the opponents, but Winters had gone too far. It was time Tony taught the punk a lesson.

The bell rang.

Tony was ready for the cocky bastard and wasted no time showing him. Without hesitation he landed his famous roundhouse kick to the face, the one that had gotten him knockouts early on in his career. These days they broke jaws and cut skin but rarely knocked ’em out. Winters fell to the ground for a second, but quickly stood back up. Using the man’s pain to his advantage, Tony threw a punch that landed right in the gut. This continued for the duration of the five-minute round. By the time the bell rang, Tony was winded but had not a scratch on him. He felt elated, having obviously won that round.

Tony sat down at his corner. He could see Winters’s bloody lip and eye being treated. Just then he heard Cain, another trainer/fighter at WtF Academy, yell at him, “Slow the fuck down!”

Tony tried to speak, but he was really out of breath. He wiped his face with a towel and drank water, spittle seeping out of the corner of his mouth. When he finally caught his breath, he said, “I know what I’m doing.”

“No, you don’t,” Slade put in. “You need to slow down. You’re using all your energy in round one and there are two more rounds to go.”

“He’s right. Pace yourself,” Cain agreed.

Everything went in one ear and right out the other. Tony was going to rip Winters apart, and it would be a knockout. He’d fought these young guys before and could tell that the man was already just one jab away from giving up. If he didn’t tap out on his own, one more kick to the face would do the trick.

Cain and Slade continued to give him unsolicited advice as the crowd cheered. Then the bell rang and Tony rushed toward Winters. Again he went full out as soon as he was close enough, but this time Winters caught Tony’s leg midkick and took him down. They wrestled for less than a minute before Winters was mounted on Tony’s chest, punching him repeatedly—left, right, left, right. Tony tried to flip the man over, but he couldn’t. He knew Slade and Cain were yelling at him, but the ringing in his ears was louder than whatever it was his corner was trying to get through to him. The referee circled the men to see if it was necessary to stop the fight.

Winters cocked his arm back, but Tony was able to catch his biceps before his fist connected with Tony’s face. With his other hand, he grabbed the back of Winters’s head and pulled him onto his chest. He lifted his hip and was able to get the man off him. For a brief moment both men lay on the floor trying to catch their breath, but the referee quickly made them stand up. The crowd wanted action. The men circled each other, measuring their distance, before the reprieve of the bell.

Tony didn’t know how he made it back to his corner because he was completely out of breath and had a cut right above his eye that obscured his vision. Cain and Slade shouted instructions while someone fanned him with a towel and pressed an enswell under his eye; the cold steel instrument stung at first but quickly relieved some of the pressure.

“…keep it on your feet…careful with the takedowns…get up fast when…” It was just a jumble of words that weren’t making much sense in his brain.

“Tony! Tony!” Fingers snapped behind him, forcing his eyes to refocus. He turned slightly and saw Francesca talking to him through the fence. “Listen to me.” She pointed two fingers at his eyes, then at hers. “Look at me. You see me?” He nodded. “You can do this. You hear me? Worth the Fight Academy trains winners. You’re a winner, Tony. I believe in you. You got this. Concentrate. Don’t let him take you on the ground. Stay on your feet.” He nodded again as he was handed more water. But all too quickly the bell for the final round rang.

He had still not been able to completely catch his breath, but he refused to go out this way, especially in front of Francesca. If he had any hope of ever sleeping with her, he couldn’t come out of this fight a loser. Not only would it be humiliating, but it would cause her to question her decision to take him on as a fighter at the Academy. In his long career, he’d never tapped out or been knocked out, and he wasn’t planning on doing so today. The guys were right; he shouldn’t have used up so much energy in the first round—his legs felt wobbly and his arms were spent, and he didn’t have much left now. Luckily, his opponent didn’t look that much better, with his left eye swollen almost shut and a split lip. The men circled each other for some time while both corners shouted advice.

This time Winters approached first. Knowing Tony’s weakness was the mat, he tried to take him down, but as he lunged forward in order to wrap his arms around Tony’s hips, Tony was able to knee him in the forehead. The man stumbled but didn’t fall. Tony took that opportunity to land a combination of punches; unfortunately, Winters managed to land a kick to Tony’s face. By the time the final bell rang, both men looked like they were ready to collapse and blood stained the floor of the cage.

Back in his corner, Tony sipped more water as the enswell was again pressed hard against his swollen face. Someone smeared ointment on his cuts to stop the bleeding, and someone else was fanning him with a towel. Then the referee called both men to the center of the cage, holding each fighter’s wrist as they waited for the results.

Tony’s arm was never raised because, by split decision, Winters won the fight. It wasn’t the first fight Tony had lost, but it was the first time in his life he was scared his career was coming to an end.

Tony loved women and booze. If Francesca could get him as dedicated to training as he was to tits, ass, and vodka, he could start winning major cage matches again—or at least showing up for them. Every time his face was splashed across a sleazy rag, Francesca cringed. She had taken a risk on him because Worth the Fight Academy needed a known name and a big fight under their belt in order to attract other fighters and sponsors.

Unfortunately, he had now lost his first major bout with WtF Academy. To make it worse, he was being the poster child for sore losers. He sulked out of the cage and back to the locker room, his ridiculously flashy blue shorts emblazoned with the logos of all his sponsors almost making the entire scene funny.

Almost.

He’d just lost the Academy a lot of money, so laughter was last on her list at the moment. She was now questioning whether the overly confident ass had been worth the investment. If only his skills inside the cage matched his ego, she thought. He was a spotlight whore. There were equal parts boos and cheers coming from the crowd, and Tony loved all of it—or he had before he lost. Now, she could tell, he wanted to crawl into the nearest hole and hide. She shook her head in disappointment. The spectacle he’d created had made the defeat that much worse.

The Cuban fighter with the destructive kicks and scarred face had been the most sought-after fighter in MMA for years due to his string of undefeated bouts and his signature kicks. But then his partying and barroom brawls began overshadowing his success in the cage.

“Our cash cow turned out to be more cow than cash,” Slade whispered.

Francesca cringed. “You shouldn’t call him a cash cow.”

“Why else would we invest so much to bring him here?”

“I didn’t say it isn’t true, it’s just…it sounds terrible. He’s your friend.”

Slade smiled knowingly. “He’s our friend.”

Everyone knew Tony had been asking her out repeatedly over the last five months. “Just because he flirts with me all day doesn’t make us friends.”

“Hmmm,” Slade teased.

“Don’t hmmm me, Slade Martin.”

“Whatever you say,” he said with a laugh. “You do realize that the more you reject him, the more you’re fueling his desire to go out with you.”

“So I need to go out with him just to shut him up? No way. Not going to happen. And anyway, he doesn’t actually want to go out with me; he wants to sleep with me.” She shoved Slade’s shoulder. “Let’s go find our guy so you can console him.”

“Me? You’re the girl. That’s your department,” he said.

She raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, you’re right. You’re not a consoling kind of chick. Come on, let’s go find him.”

“You go on ahead. I’m going to find the medic to make sure he’s coming to look at Tony’s cuts.”

Back in the locker room, the big angry Cuban punched a locker and said every curse word known to man—both in English and in Spanish.

“I shoulda won!” His hands were on his waist as he paced the room, breathless. “Bullshit!”

When Francesca walked into the locker room, she saw Slade sitting calmly and Tony pacing with a swollen eye. As soon as he saw her, he stalked away and yelled, “I don’t want to hear your shit right now, Francesca!” When he was angry, his accent became heavier and it sounded more like “chit” than “shit,” but he was obviously too upset to care.

“Whoa!” She put her hands up. “Relax. I just came in to see how you were doing.”

“How I’m doing?” He stopped and glared at her. He punched the wall of lockers again. “It was a fixed fight. I shoulda won. This is bullshit!

A tall, lanky man in his fifties came in to check on Tony’s injuries. “Don’t fuckin’ touch me. I’m fine,” he yelled at the medic.

The man, who seemed accustomed to dealing with adrenaline-fueled prima donnas, rolled his eyes and said, “If he’s yelling, nothing’s broken. Call me if he passes out.” Then he walked right back out.

“Come on. We need to check out that eye.” Slade stood and began to walk over to Tony, but the fighter held out his hand to stop his trainer from approaching. His eyes found Francesca again. “Are ju goin’ do something? Ju wanted me to come to that hick town to train, and then the fight is fuckin’ rigged and ju don’t do chit. You bitch all day about training, but when shit gets real you parade in here in your uppity suit and do nothing. You’re all talk, and this is bullshit. I shoulda won.” He grabbed his bag and threw it over his shoulder. “I’m outta here.”

“I have to catch Cain’s fight.” Slade stood, turned to Francesca, and gestured toward Tony before leaving the room. “You deal with him. He’s so pissed off, his accent is all outta whack. Good luck.”

Francesca moved quickly on her sky-high heels and grabbed Tony’s forearm. “You want real? I’ll give you real. You suck on the ground. Terrible. You need to work on your floor techniques. You should have been more concerned with your training than with whatever loud, misogynistic rap song you were going to parade out onto the ring to. You only started training, really training, two weeks ago. Before that, you spent months drinking, partying, fucking. What the hell did you expect to happen? It wasn’t rigged, Antonio. You lost fair and square because Winters was the better fighter. Now, you can be a prick or you can take a breather tonight, lick your wounds, and be at the Academy early in the morning to start preparing for the next fight, which is in four months. I assure you, it will be a lot tougher than this one.” She released her grip and crossed her arms over her chest, meeting his glare. “Your call. What’s it gonna be?”

His eyes narrowed on her as his chest rose and fell with his shallow breaths. The silence was deafening for about thirty seconds as he seemed to contemplate what she’d said. “Fuck you!” he grunted before storming out of the gym.

As soon as Tony escaped outdoors and the warm air hit his face, he winced. Everything hurt, but he stubbornly climbed into the 1969 Camaro that was his pride and joy and took off. Anger pulsed through his body.

The woman should’ve consoled him. Coddled him. He was her goddamn client, after all! Instead she’d accused him of not having trained hard enough. He’d been after her for months because she was hot. It had been purely physical and the thought of having her toned, lean body naked against his had been a challenge he couldn’t let go. Her constant rejection of him had just further fueled his need to have her. But now, seeing this cold, heartless Francesca, he was left wondering what the hell he’d been thinking.

Oh, yeah, that she’s stunning and her feistiness makes my blood boil and my dick hard. Damn dick!

Maybe he just needed to get laid. It had been way too long, and his dick was obviously confused.

Tony sat at the bar in a dark nightclub. He knew his face looked like hell, but he didn’t care. At least he’d gone to the hotel that he’d been calling home for the last five months to change before coming here. He needed a drink and a warm, willing body for the night, and he didn’t want to be around anyone he knew, so he’d picked this particular club located a few miles outside of Tarpon Springs. The thumping music was deafening, and Club Zee was packed full of sweaty dancing bodies, reminding him of the clubs he loved to frequent in Miami. Normally women swarmed to him, but tonight his fuck-off vibe was keeping everyone away.

He had his drink in his hand when a group of drunk women squeezed in between him and the stranger next to him in order to get the bartender’s attention. The jostling almost caused him to spill his drink, which pissed him off. Lately everything pissed him off. A few months ago, he would’ve been on the dance floor with some woman he’d wind up taking home for the night. Instead, he sat at the bar, unable to enjoy the beats or the beautiful ladies.

His move to Tarpon Springs and WtF had come after a series of tabloid mishaps—or, as he liked to call them, overreactions. The bar fight that had almost gotten him arrested hadn’t been his fault—it had been the smug bartender’s fault. Tony had heard the bartender making a lewd comment to some woman, and he’d intervened—but of course, the media didn’t care about that part of the story. All they had reported was that he’d been in yet another bar fight after one too many drinks. He probably could’ve handled the entire situation differently—he could’ve called security or management and reported the bartender instead of breaking the kid’s nose—but containing his temper had never been his strong suit. After that, his agent had threatened to quit, and there were rumors that some of his sponsors wanted to pull out. His career was on the line. He needed to get his shit together, as his agent, his PR person, and his lawyer had all warned him.

Tony was thirty-four years old, and younger fighters were beginning to pose a serious threat to his career. It was getting hard to ignore how sore his body felt after a full sparring match during training, or how his knees creaked in the morning. Hell, if he was being completely truthful, everything creaked and cracked in the morning. He used to knock his opponents out in the first round. But now there he sat in a dark bar licking his wounds after almost having been knocked out after three strenuously difficult rounds.

Tony swirled the thin red and white cocktail straw around his empty glass. The heat from all the bodies pressed together was getting to him.

“Hey, I know you. You’re that guy.”

Tony’s focus went from his drink to the red fingernails on the hand wrapped around his forearm. He didn’t even bother to look up at her face because he was pretty sure he knew exactly what he’d find: a ready, willing female who undoubtedly wanted him to buy her (and her friends) drinks before going back to her house for a night of no-strings sex. Someone who had as much money and fame as he did didn’t have to try. Dating, flirting—those weren’t things he did. His MO was satisfying, emotionless sex. Something he’d never pass up. Something he’d never complained about before. So what the hell was wrong with him tonight?

“Lindsey,” the woman shrieked, “look, it’s that guy.” Her grip on Tony’s arm tightened. “You know, the guy from the magazine. What’s his name?” she asked her friend, as though he weren’t sitting right there next to her. He noticed that her friend had red hair, similar to Francesca’s. He’d never had a “type” before. They could be blond, brunette—hell, they could be bald so long as they went home with him. But tonight the woman with her hand on his arm was annoying the hell out of him.

“Oh, yeah.” The other woman, Lindsey, leaned closer to him. “You’re that bad-boy fighter, Scarface,” she yelled into his ear. “What happened to your eye?”

Tony pushed his chair back. The music was too loud for anyone to hear the screech the chair legs made against the floor. At the abrupt movement, the women wobbled backward.

“Hey, don’t leave. We’re okay with the eye thing,” the one who wasn’t Lindsey yelled over the music. “C’mon, buy us a drink. We’re real fun. Actually, the scar’s really sexy.” She reached toward his face, but he grabbed her wrist to stop her from touching him. He hated when people touched his scar. Now completely annoyed, he dug into his pocket, slapped some money on the bar, and without so much as a single word to the ladies walked out.

The Florida heat immediately wafted over him, but it was something he was used to. He had been born and raised in Miami. Heat, humidity, and mosquitoes were the norm for him. So the fact that it was even hotter outside than it was in the club was no surprise. His gray button-up shirt stuck to him, and he unbuttoned the cuffs and rolled the sleeves up to his elbows as he walked to his car. His rib cage was starting to ache, but he was still too pumped with energy to bother with it.

Losing the fight had really gotten to him, and Francesca had done nothing to comfort him. In fact, she’d just poured salt in his wounds. She was too opinionated, and she loved to remind him what a fuck-up he was. Plus she was always on her moral high horse, trying to make sure he wasn’t out having fun. She needed someone to remove that stick from up her ass. Maybe if she had a little fun herself, she’d loosen the reins a little.

She never had anything positive to say when it came to him, and he was tired of it. She called him out on anything that didn’t fit with her master plan to make him their top fighter, and he was sick of it. He hadn’t allowed his own father to treat him like a workhorse, and he’d be damned if he’d let her do it. What was her problem?

To add insult to injury, she kept refusing to go out with him.

Thirty minutes later, he was back in Tarpon Springs and parked in front of Francesca’s house. It was time he gave her a piece of his mind. She was the co-owner of the gym, but she wasn’t his mother. If he wanted to drink, then he would. So long as he trained and won the next fight, who the fuck was she to dictate what he did in his personal life? Especially since she didn’t want anything to do with his personal life.

Tony slammed the door of his car, marched up to her front door, and knocked. Nothing happened. He knocked again, harder this time. When she didn’t answer, he pulled out his phone and called her. Again, nothing. It was well past midnight; her car was parked in the driveway and through the window he could see that her lights were on.

He should have left.

He should have…but he didn’t.

Instead, he walked around her house to the backyard. The longer it took him to find her, the angrier he became. Maybe she was on a date. Maybe there was a man inside the house. He didn’t care either way—he was prepared to go toe-to-toe with the hellion, and he would definitely give her a piece of his mind.

But then he saw red hair draped over the back of a lawn chair a few feet from the pool. As he opened the gate and approached her, he saw a magazine lying open on her chest and a glass of wine on the small table next to her. She had fallen asleep still wearing her formfitting business suit. Her high heels sat neatly on the patio next to her. He had half expected her to open the door wearing her pajamas, but God forbid she would ever have a hair out of place. He wasn’t sure how to proceed. He kneeled next to her.

“Francesca, wake up.” No response. “Francesca.” He tapped her on the shoulder. Nothing.

Slightly annoyed by the situation—he couldn’t very well leave her outside—he gently scooped her up and stood. He was sure she would wake up and kick him in the balls for touching her. For a brief moment he contemplated tossing her in the pool as payback for being so judgmental and mean after the fight. As if she’d heard his thoughts, though, she stirred slightly and nestled closer to him, and any thoughts about retribution quickly subsided. Carefully, he opened the sliding door and walked inside and down a hall to the first room he found.

He laid her gently on the bed, but as soon her body made contact with the mattress, she startled and instinctively jumped up off the bed in one quick movement. “What the hell?” Her eyes were wide, and she was standing in a way that reminded him of a fighter about to pounce on his opponent.

He held his hands out in front of him. “Calm down. It’s just me.”

“T-Tony? What the hell are you doing?” She looked from side to side, as if trying to figure out what was happening.

“You were asleep.” Suddenly he felt ridiculous. “Outside.” He indicated toward the door with his thumb. “You fell asleep outside. I couldn’t just leave you there.”

Still standing in her defensive pose, she snapped, “What are you even doing here?”

What was he doing there? What the hell had been the point? Oh, yeah…he was going to give her a piece of his mind. Instead, what came out of his mouth was, “What’s up with your hair?”

She looked at him as though he’d grown a second head, then brought her hands to her hair and pulled out the rubber band holding it in place. “What the hell, Tony?” She ran to a mirror. “I wasn’t expecting company.”

She was in the middle of smoothing her hair when he put out a hand to stop her. “I didn’t mean it in a bad way. I’ve just never seen you look…not perfect. Do you sleep in a suit?” He reached out and touched the lapel of her white oxford shirt.

“Oh, stop.” She shooed his hand away, still fussing with her hair. “I fell asleep. I didn’t know you’d be stopping by.” She pointed at him. “Speaking of clothes, I’ve never seen you dressed up.”

He looked down at his slacks. “I went out.”

“Figured you would,” she said, her hands on her hips.

He ran a finger down her arm; he couldn’t help it. He wanted to stop, but he needed to touch her; for months he’d been dying to touch her. “You look beautiful. You always look beautiful.”

She stepped back and crossed her arms. “You still haven’t told me why you’re here.”

“Honestly?’ he asked sincerely.

She nodded.

“I don’t really know. But now that I am, I just want to kiss you. I’ve wanted to kiss you for so long.”

“A few hours ago you told me to fuck off. You weren’t thinking about kissing me.”

He moved closer. “Trust me, I was, and if my face didn’t hurt so fucking much, I might even attempt it.”

Her steely demeanor softened and she smiled wryly.

Inside, Tony felt confused. One moment he wanted to shake her into being nice, and the next he wanted to bend her over and have his way with her on the nearest flat surface.

“Come on.” She gestured for him to follow her to the bathroom and had him sit on the edge of the bathtub as she rummaged for supplies. Sitting there watching her move around relaxed him a little, and as the adrenaline subsided, the pain escalated. She stood in front of him and said, “Tilt your head back.” He did as she instructed, looking up at her hazel eyes and full lips.

Her warm breath and soft hands on his skin helped to put him at ease. She cleaned his wounds with alcohol swabs, putting ointment and butterfly bandages on the bigger cuts. When she was finished, she sat down next to him. “I don’t think you’ll need stitches, but you should clean the cuts a few times tomorrow. Maybe put ice on your…well, everywhere, I suppose. I’m guessing your shoulder took the brunt of the beating?”

“Yeah.” He rubbed his shoulder. “Thanks for patching me up.”

“You’re welcome,” she said, seeming uncomfortable with his closeness. She stood up, took a step back, and began cleaning up. “About earlier tonight—”

“You don’t need to apologize. I know you were just trying to make a point,” he said.

“Apologize?” she scoffed. “I wasn’t going to apologize. I was going to say that I really think you could be a great fighter again if you just trained a little harder and partied a little less.”

“What the hell? A great fighter again? I’m already a great fighter.”

“No, you used to be a great fighter, and we could get that back. Together we can work on your techniques and make you number one again. You lost tonight. You lost big, and you need to accept that and move on.”

“It was fucking rigged and you know it!” He glared at her.

“Are you seriously still blaming everyone but yourself? You know what? I’m done arguing with you about this. I’m trying to help you, Tony!”

“How? By insulting me?”

“Because I’m not telling you the things you want to hear, I’m insulting you?”

“You know what—oh, forget it! Just…fuck you! I’m outta here!” He stomped out of the bathroom and for the second time that night told her to fuck off.

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