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Fire and Foreplay by Melanie Shawn (1)

Chapter 1

There’s a cute blonde in your hotel room who’s very excited to see you.

Gabe Maguire’s lips curled as he read the text that he’d just received as inconspicuously as possible. If it were up to him, he’d be headed up to see that cute blonde right now, but it wasn’t up to him. He had a job to do. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how much longer this job would take.

It felt as if he’d been in front of these lights answering questions about his upcoming fight for at least twelve hours. In reality, he knew it was most likely closer to three. But just like objects in side mirrors appear closer than they really are, press junkets feel longer than they really are.

Lifting his gaze, his eyes locked with his friend-turned-publicist as she stood beside the camera. He’d known Maxine Russo-Marshall since she was just little Maxi Russo. Her father was legendary boxer and world-champion trainer Charlie Russo. Charlie had coached Gabe’s older brother, Glenn, and since Gabe had always been his big brother’s shadow, he’d spent a lot of time in that gym and so had Maxi.

Even at six years old, girls had been on Gabe’s radar. He remembered getting a funny feeling in his stomach when he saw Maxi at the gym. She had dark hair and light eyes and she was so pretty.

They’d never dated though, even as teenagers. They’d been friends for too long and he hadn’t been ready to settle down anyway, and Maxi definitely wasn’t the kind of girl you played with. Especially considering who her father was. By the time he was ready to consider making a move, she’d gone and married Billy “The Big Bad Wolf” Marshall, a boxer who was another one of her dad’s trainees. Gabe couldn’t be happier for both of them. Billy was a good guy, but that didn’t stop Gabe from messing with him every chance he got. Now, using the telepathic shorthand they’d developed as kids, he raised a brow, thus asking her how many more interviews he had to sit through. From her post beside the camera, she lifted her forefinger up as she mouthed, “Just one more.”

Thank God.

These interviews were a necessary evil and even though he’d signed up for them, didn’t mean they weren’t torture. Some people thrived on being the center of attention. They loved being asked questions and could easily talk about themselves for hours. He wasn’t one of those people.

Gabe had always been a private person and that natural inclination had only increased over the past five years when he was forced into a hiatus from MMA after being diagnosed with Osteosarcoma.

His phone buzzed again, and a picture of a smiling blonde in his hotel room accompanied the caption: Waiting patiently…sort of.

A wide grin cracked on his face as he looked into the biggest brown eyes in creation. They were practically begging him to go and see her.

Mentally, he estimated how much time until he could. Five-minute interview. Five-minute wrap-up and strategy session with Maxi. Ten minutes to make it through the lobby to the elevator.

His fingers flew across the screen. Just finishing up. Be there in twenty, just as the final interviewer slid into the chair that forty others had already sat in before him.

Gabe tried not to let his agitation show as he shifted in his chair so that he could put his phone back in his pocket.

Determined to be present and in the moment, Gabe focused his attention on the task at hand. When he did that he noticed the baby-faced reporter sitting across from him. A thin spattering of facial hair the young man was sporting was the only thing that kept him from looking like he was a preteen. And while the dark-framed glasses helped age him slightly, nothing could take away from the fact that he looked like Dennis the Menace. And not an adult version.

Gabe had always prided himself on not judging a book by its cover but, in this instance, he automatically assumed that this had to be some kind of high school paper or blog.

The kid leaned forward and extended his hand. “Albert Simpson from MMA-addict-dot-com, nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

MMA Addict was one of the few blogs that Gabe actually read. They’d just come out with a story on steroid use and the medical use of marijuana vs. opioids for pain management that had been both in depth and well researched.

Not wasting any of the time that he was allotted, the blogger got right down to business. “What does it feel like to be getting back in the octagon after five years away?”

“It feels good. I’ve always known that I was coming back. It was never a question in my mind.”

“And you’re facing Nunez, who you were slotted to fight before your sudden withdrawal due to health issues five years ago. Was that decision something else that was never a question in your mind or did you consider other contenders for your return?”

Gabe responded the same way he had every time this question was posed. “Nunez was my first choice.”

“For those fans that may not know, can you talk a little bit about why you took a step back?”

Inhaling slowly through his nose, Gabe shut his eyes for a split second and took a moment to compose himself. “Sure,” he answered as he opened them.

As he recited the information about his diagnosis, treatment, and subsequent remission that collectively equaled the greatest fight of his life, his battle with Osteosarcoma, all Gabe could think was, does anyone really care? His family and his team had convinced him that sharing his story would inspire people. They’d put pressure on him to participate in a documentary that chronicled his journey back to the cage that showed day in and day out, the good, the bad, and the ugly of what it took to come back from such a life changing blow. So, for the past year, he’d been followed around by two filmmakers, Mackenzie and Theo. They were very low-key and noninvasive, but it’d still been a struggle for him.

The only thing that had ever given Gabe one second of pause about returning to the sport that had been ripped away from him was the very thing that had done the ripping. His battle with cancer. He knew that it wasn’t a subject he could ignore. As much as he understood the curiosity about his health, he considered that part of his life as personal as it got.

Gabe’s journey had been a private battle that he’d chosen to fight on his own. He hadn’t shared his struggles with anyone. They were internal. He’d been strong for his family and pushed most of his friends away. It was the only way that he’d known how to beat it.

He’d trusted the same instinct that had given him success in the cage. During the entire ordeal, he’d believed that if he’d allowed himself to start depending on people, if he’d let them into what he was going through, that it would’ve made him weak and vulnerable.

He’d been in remission for almost four years. He was stronger than ever, both mentally and physically. Emotionally might be another story. He was numb. On a scale of one to ten, with sad a one and happy a ten, he hadn’t moved from a five in years.

No matter what was happening in his life, good or bad, he just felt like he was going through the motions. He knew it would need to be addressed at some point but he didn’t have the time to explore or deal with it now.

Gabe finished his thirty-second summary response, and Simpson followed up with, “Your immediate goals are obviously to win on Saturday night, but what about the future? There’s been a lot of debate over whether or not this return is a onetime deal. Is that the case?”

Gabe didn’t know how to answer that question. He’d been fueled by the need to get back into the cage and finish what he’d started. He had no idea how he’d feel once that score was settled. “Right now I’m just focusing on Saturday night.”

“Fair enough. So switching gears, you’re as well known for your status as a sex symbol as you are for being a fighter. You’ve been credited for doing for the sport of mixed martial arts what David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo did for soccer. You brought in a younger, female base to the sport, but do you ever worry that your sex symbol status overshadows your work on the mat?”

“First off, I don’t see myself as a sex symbol. But, anything that brings more attention and viewership to MMA is a good thing, in my opinion. And as far as being compared to Beckham and Ronaldo, well that’s not bad company to be in. They are both amazing athletes who have used the attention they receive off the field to shine a light on the sport they love.”

“There’s been a lot of talk about the story that recently went viral that gave us all a peek into your other life as a firefighter. You apprehended an armed man that was threatening his pregnant girlfriend.”

Gabe was still overwhelmed and humbled that the situation had turned out as well as it had. He’d acted on pure instinct, and it had worked out, but it could’ve just as easily ended tragically.

He’d been a firefighter for the past two years and he believed that being a first responder had saved him. The chemo and radiation’s effects weren’t limited to physical. The emotional battle he’d been forced to fight was harder than any of the side effects he’d endured. Once the treatments were over, he’d suffered from depression and anxiety. He’d tried to white knuckle through it, but it had felt like a hopeless uphill battle. After a few months, he’d known that he needed something to change the tides that were swallowing him whole.

His father was a firefighter for thirty-four years before retiring at the age of sixty. Besides fighting, it was the only thing that Gabe had ever pictured himself doing. So, he’d put all of what little energy he’d had into completing his degree in fire science and becoming a paramedic. From the first time he’d put on the gear he’d never looked back. He’d saved lives during his time as a first responder, but that was only right because firefighting had saved his life.

“Is firefighting something that you see in your future?”

Future.

That was something that Gabe had never allowed himself to think about. Partly because it had been so uncertain for so long, but mainly because he’d been robbed of what he’d wanted.

A picture that Gabe knew would never be popped into his head. It was a table filled with kids and a beautiful wife. There was laughing, talking, and even some bickering. His dreams had been pretty clear growing up. He’d wanted to be a world champion fighter, and a father.

The first should’ve been the most difficult to make happen. But life was funny. At age twenty, he won his first international belt. The second, the one he would’ve thought would be the easiest, was the one that he’d recently learned might be out of reach.

Taking a deep breath, he gave his rote answer. “Absolutely. MMA was never the long-term plan. My father was a firefighter, as well as my grandfather. It’s in my blood.”

Simpson nodded. “I’ve seen countless interviews when you were coming up in the sport, and you often named your father and older brother as your biggest inspirations. Is that still true today?”

“Yes,” Gabe responded without hesitation. “My dad has been, and will always be, my hero. Forget Batman or Superman my dad was a real-life superhero. And as a kid, I idolized my older brother, Glenn, and as a man, I respect and admire him.”

“Your dad was a firefighter, and you followed in his footsteps. And your brother Glenn made quite a name for himself in boxing. Did you ever consider following in his footsteps as well?”

No. Gabe had spent most of his life growing up in Glenn’s shadow, which was fine, as a kid. His older brother wasn’t just an incredible fighter, he was also an incredible student. He was hilarious, smart and everyone loved him. Gabe had been compared to Glenn by teachers, coaches, and even girls. The last thing he’d wanted to do was try and fill his shoes in a boxing ring.

He didn’t share any of that. Instead, he went with a different, no less honest, response. “I’ve always been drawn to mixed martial arts. I saw the movie The Karate Kid when I was five or six and I begged my parents to let me take karate lessons. From there I took Judo and Jiu Jitsu and then in my teens, I began my practice in Muay Thai. MMA was a natural progression for me with my background.”

Simpson switched gears, asking, “You recently relocated your camp to Hope Falls, California to train with Lucky Dorsey. Some were skeptical of that move so close to your fight. Was that a decision that you struggled with?”

Gabe grinned. “No. When Lucky called, I was on the next flight. I would’ve been a fool to pass up the opportunity to work with one of the greatest fighters alive today.”

“And you have family in Hope Falls, correct?”

This kid had done his homework. “Yes. It was a win-win.”

“Do you plan on making Hope Falls your permanent base?”

He’d thought long and hard about leaving Chicago, his brother, and his two–year-old niece, but he’d decided that it was the right thing. He wanted a fresh start. “I do.”

Simpson went on to ask him several more typical pre-fight questions. What holes did Gabe see in Nunez’s game? Did he prefer to stand with his opponent or take him to the ground? What was his favorite strike or submission move?

After a few more minutes, the interview wrapped and Simpson stood and extended his hand. “Thanks so much for your time. I’d love to set up a follow-up interview with you when the dust settles after the fight.”

Gabe nodded and shook his hand.

“That sounds great.” Maxi smiled brightly as she smoothly stepped in and handed Simpson her card.

He took it as he promised, “I’ll be in touch.”

Before the reporter was out the door, the bright halogen lights were turned off and the sound guy was removing Gabe’s microphone.

Maxi spoke quickly as she filled Gabe in on his itinerary. “Okay, so you’re off duty for the rest of the evening. Tomorrow morning we’re meeting Kenzie and Theo in the lobby at five a.m. sharp. They’re shooting your run to the training facility. And remember, tomorrow is press day.”

More press.

“Enjoy your night off, but don’t go crazy. I don’t want a repeat of Coopergate.”

“I was eighteen.” The first time Gabe had come to Las Vegas was for his brother’s fight against Samuel Cooper. He’d used his cousin Jake’s ID to get into bars and gotten into some trouble that weekend. To be honest, he didn’t remember most of it. Only flashes.

“Still, I don’t want you ending up in the Bellagio fountain, naked. Again.” She smiled and patted his arm with her left hand that held a rock the size of Gibraltar.

“I was eighteen.” He reiterated before changing the subject. Taking her hand he tilted it so that the diamond sitting on her left hand would sparkle. “Damn. I still can’t get over the size of this ring. Billy-boy made sure people could see that thing from space.”

“It’s pretty.” Maxi’s lips curled up at the edges as she admired her ring as the man who’d given it to her entered the room.

Pretty damn huge. But you deserve it.” Gabe leaned over and kissed the top of her head, the same way he’d been doing since he hit his growth spurt at thirteen and began to tower over her petite frame. Now he mostly only did it to irritate her husband.

“Hey, lips off my wife, Maguire.” Billy’s voice boomed as he strode up to them and wrapped his arm around Maxi’s waist.

“Yeah.” Maxi ran her hand over the top of her head and scrunched her face as she teased, “I don’t know where those lips have been.”

Nowhere fun.

The reputation that Gabe still carried today was one that he’d earned in his youth. He’d enjoyed sowing every last wild oat he’d had. But that was pre-diagnosis. Once he’d heard the doctor say the C-word, everything changed. In a split-second, his life had shifted. The rug had been pulled out from under him. Everything he’d thought was important, stopped mattering. Time became the most valuable commodity in the world to him, and all oat sowing had come to a screeching halt.

Over the past five years, he’d had a few short-lived relationships, but nothing that had lasted longer than a couple of months. He hadn’t dated anyone in the past two years. He’d been solely focused on getting ready for this fight.

Maxi’s phone rang and she pulled it out of her pocket and answered it as Billy did his best to distract her from the call. Her husband buried his head into her neck so she lifted her shoulder and silently giggled as she half-heartedly shooed him away.

While she was distracted, Gabe slid out the side door of the conference room. As he headed toward the elevator banks through the casino, he put in earbuds and kept his head hung low as he walked with purpose. Low key, blending in with the crowd, that’s what he was going for.

In his day-to-day life, he didn’t attract much attention to himself, but with larger-than-life posters advertising the upcoming bout hanging off every available surface, staying under the radar was easier said than done.

He heard the moment he’d been spotted. Even the music he was playing couldn’t drown out the squeal of twenty-something female fans.

“Gabe Maguire!”

“Oh my God!”

“And look it’s him! It’s the other one!”

Gabe looked over his shoulder expecting to see Nunez, the man he’d be facing in the cage, but instead, he saw Eli Bishop. Eli was the only other firefighter in the room when they’d saved the pregnant woman from her gun-wielding boyfriend.

He hadn’t expected to see Eli here in Vegas.

Gabe smiled, “Hey, man—”

“Do you know where Kenzie is?” Eli cut him off.

“Last I heard she was going up to her room. We’re not filming until tomorrow morning.”

“Can we get a picture?” One of the girls asked.

“With both of you?” Another girl clarified.

“Please?” The last one folded her hands in a prayer position.

Gabe’s eyes cut to Eli. He seemed like a man on a mission. Kenzie was part of the documentary team that had been following Gabe around for the last year. Gabe wasn’t sure exactly what was going on between her and Eli, but Gabe sensed it was about to come to a head.

Eli begrudgingly nodded.

What started out as a small trio of college girls wanting selfies quickly multiplied to a crowd of about twenty guys that were obviously in town for the fight. Some even donning T-shirts with his face on them.

“All right, I’ve got to get going. Thanks guys!” Gabe announced.

After pointing Eli in the direction of the South Tower, he took the North Tower elevator up to his own room. As he stepped out into the long hallway on his floor, his heart started picking up speed at the thought of who was waiting for him.

He pushed the card into the reader, and when the light went green, he pushed it open. He was already smiling from ear to ear, but when he saw a flash of blonde hair hurling toward him his smile widened even more.

“Unco Gabe!”

“There’s my favorite one year old!” He held out his hands.

“I’m two!” She held up two chubby fingers.

He caught his niece midair and spun her around. “Hello, my favorite two-year-old named Anna!”

She leaned back and framed his face with her small hands. Staring straight into his eyes she spoke slowly. “My name is Aubrey, Unco Gabe!”

“That’s what I said.” He kept his expression serious. “Ally.”

Her face scrunched in the mad expression it did every time he called her the wrong name, but it dissolved into a fit of giggles as he flexed his fingers and tickled her ribs. When he set her down, she clung to his leg, and he walked across the room with her hanging off of his right leg like a monkey.

His brother stood from his lounging position on the couch and pulled Gabe into his arms. “Someone’s a little excited to see you.”

“Aww, I’m excited to see you, too, bro.” Gabe teased.

Glenn leaned back and shook his head and smiled.

What Gabe had said in the interview was the truth. He was so proud of his older brother. When he’d unexpectedly become a single dad after the baby mama bailed on them, Glenn had stepped up. He was an incredible father.

“Unco Gabe!” His niece released her monkey grip on his leg so she could clap her hands. “I went on a pwane.”

“You did?”

She nodded and lifted her arms above her head so he would pick her up. He swooped her up and flew her around his hotel room like she was a plane.

A voice in the back of his head reminded him that this was the closest thing he’d ever have to a family of his own. He knew that if that were the case, it was okay.

He would be the best damn Unco Gabe he could.

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