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Second thoughts don’t belong in a boxing ring.
Jeremy Kater held his ground even as his head snapped back beneath the gloved fist of the man he’d hired to teach him the basics of boxing. What had seemed like an essential component of his transformation was proving to be more painful than he’d anticipated.
He had just raised his gloves to try and block the next hit to his face when his opponent took advantage of the movement and punished his unprotected abdomen with enthusiasm. Ray Denton was a legend in the world of boxing. Not only had he reigned as the world champion heavyweight boxer for several years during his youth, but after his retirement he had gone on to train more than one fighter who had won the same title.
You’d think that a man like that would be happy to give beginner lessons for a generous fee. However, convincing Ray to work with an amateur had been no easy feat. But Jeremy wasn’t a quitter. He’d countered every refusal with an offer of more compensation until he’d reached a number that Ray hadn’t been able to dismiss.
Years of playing Mighty Punch-Out on his vintage game console hadn’t prepared him for the reality of a trained professional. Nor had his one actual fistfight during his senior year of high school given him any skill when it came to breaching the defenses of the man who was currently dancing around him, easily blocking his punches, and landing almost every one of his physical rebuttals.
Another swing, another miss, another failed attempt to block what felt like a sledgehammer to his skull. Jeremy shook his head to clear it. The room spun and tilted. He took a step back to steady himself.
I probably should have waited until after the first lesson to pay him, Jeremy thought. At least he would have had incentive to make sure I survived it.
He’d expected his first lesson to include agility work, maybe some shadowboxing. He’d read how boxers used uppercut bags and speed bags to work on resistance. He’d even looked forward to an introductory light sparring match.
This was something entirely different.
The next well-placed hit sent Jeremy to his knees. He sat back on his heels, braced himself, and gasped for air. Ray’s face twisted with satisfaction, and Jeremy saw the ugly truth in his eyes.
He wants me to fail.
He thinks I don’t belong here.
Regaining his footing, Jeremy adjusted his headgear, clamped his teeth down on his mouth bit, raised his hands, and swung, a bit wildly, at his opponent. But Ray was too fast for him. Two quick jabs and a cross sent Jeremy stumbling backward against the rope of the ring. Whatever Herculean strength he’d hoped would surface in response to this beating was sadly absent. Even the sting of the blows lessened as they became more severe and his body weakened. His new challenge was no longer his opponent but a growing numbness.
Before he could pull himself off the ropes, a blur of feminine fury flew past him and took a protective stance in front of him.
Jeisa. Barely as tall as the boxer’s shoulders and chicly dressed in a sleeveless black jumper, oversized sunglasses, and high heels, his image consultant looked ridiculously out of place in the ring. She flipped her thick, dark mane of hair over one shoulder and waved a hand aggressively at Ray, who seemed momentarily surprised into inaction. Her normally light Brazilian accent thickened as she said, “Stop! He’s had enough.”
Jeremy pushed himself off the ropes. Although he appreciated her concern, he didn’t want her in the ring. This was between Ray and him. Jeisa may have been able to advise him in many other areas of his ongoing transformation, but not in this one.
He didn’t expect her to understand why he needed to be here.
He didn’t expect anyone to.
Ray looked Jeisa over, whistled in appreciation, and said, “You’re one lucky bastard.”
Jeisa stepped closer to the boxer and snarled, “And you are a poor example of a trainer.”
As Ray’s jaw tightened at her evaluation, Jeremy quickly intervened. He put a gloved hand on one of Jeisa’s shoulders and turned her around gently. “I told you not to come, Jeisa. This doesn’t involve you.”
Jeisa spun fully on Jeremy. She gripped his arm and said urgently, “If you want self-defense classes, I can sign you up for karate or something less violent.”
In a mocking tone, Ray said, “You should listen to your girlfriend.”
“She’s not my girlfriend.” This is for Alethea.
The trainer’s eyebrows lifted as he assessed Jeisa for a second time. He winked at her and drawled, “Then maybe she’ll be mine.”
Something in the man’s tone made Jeremy straighten to his full height. A rush of adrenaline seared through him. He met and held Ray’s eyes. Without glancing down at Jeisa, Jeremy ordered, “Jeisa, get out of the ring.”
“But . . .” she said.
With obvious reluctance, Jeisa slid between the ropes back to the area around the ring. “Fine,” she said, “kill yourself if you want to. You’re right—I shouldn’t have come. I’m leaving.” But she didn’t. He knew she wouldn’t.
A dark emotion he didn’t take the time to identify surged within him, and he went at Ray with renewed force. Ray saw him coming, but he underestimated the momentum his nearly beaten opponent had mustered. Jeremy landed one punishing hit to the boxer’s face.
The two men circled each other. Jeremy met the boxer’s aggression with his own. Ray might knock him out, but he would not force him to back down. Ray threw a punch at Jeremy’s abdomen. Jeremy surprised him by blocking him and then retaliating. His punch connected and set the boxer back a step.
Then everything changed.
Ray’s face went red with fury. Trainer turned fighter, and Jeremy prepared himself for what he knew was going to be a very painful rebuttal. Heaving for air, Jeremy planted his feet with determination. There’d been times in the past when he’d allowed the opinions of others to hold him back.
This was not one of those times.
Jeisa Borreto gripped the back of a wooden chair in the dingy South Boston gym to stop herself from hopping back into the ring. The man who called himself a trainer was clearly on a sadistic ego trip, and Jeremy seemed not only to recognize that fact but also to accept it.
Still, the smell of sweat and the sound of fierce exhalations were both incredibly intimidating and disturbingly exciting at the same time. Her own adrenaline was coursing through her, making it impossible for her to look away even when she knew the fight was only going to become more painful to watch.
She jumped when Jeremy’s punch connected and Ray’s head snapped back. Normally she didn’t condone violence, and she was definitely not a fan of this sport in particular, and yet her heart was racing and she felt as if Jeremy’s triumph was her own. Was this the high the Romans had sought when they pitted man against beast? Although Jeremy’s chance for survival seemed as slim as that of a gladiator, he blocked Ray’s next hit and landed another of his own.
Jeisa surprised herself by cheered him on out loud. What would my father say if he could see me now? A ghost of a smile flitted across her lips at the thought. He’d think I’ve finally lost my mind. He was already reeling from what he considered her mid-twenties rebellion. She really couldn’t blame him. She’d gone to the private schools he’d sent her to without issue. She’d even graduated with a degree in International Relations from the University of São Paulo. She’d been raised to follow the rules, maintain a blemish-free public persona, and blend into the background like a beautiful painting—cherished, but silent.
Was it wrong to want more than the comfortable life he’d given her? If her father had had his way, she’d be married to some wealthy Brazilian businessman, spending the rest of her life being pampered and protected.
I don’t want my only decisions to revolve around who will sit together at the dinner parties I host for some highly successful and equally boring husband.
Life has to be about more than that.
She’d decided to get a job and show her father that she was perfectly capable of supporting herself, but finding employment after the influential Romario Borreto made it known that he didn’t want his daughter working wasn’t easy. Out of desperation, she’d looked beyond the borders of Brazil and outside of her educational background. No one was willing to take a chance on a foreign unknown—until she found an au pair position through an international classified ad. Not her ideal job, but a way to pay the bills until she found something better.
With her bags packed and with an equal share of enthusiasm and naïveté, she’d flown to Boston, imagining the hardest part of her new life would be acclimating to the cold New England weather. She’d made many American friends at school but had lost touch with most of them when they’d moved back to the States. Still, she’d dreamed of living in America since she was little—Boston in particular. It was as romantic and exotic to her as Paris.
No one would know her. For the first time in her life she could be simply Jeisa. She didn’t worry about being alone since she’d be living with an American family.
An ideal way to get to know the culture while hunting for a better job.
Except for one minor detail.
Reese David, the man who’d hired her as a nanny for his family, hadn’t mentioned that he wasn’t married. And, oh yes, he didn’t have any children.
Stranded in Boston and unwilling to call home for help, Jeisa had done what many young people do when they apply for their first job. She’d lied.
Lied well, apparently, because she’d landed an entry-level secretarial job at Corisi Enterprises. But even with miles between them, her father left her little room to breathe. He called once a day. So, unwilling to tell him about the nonexistence of her first job, she’d lied once a day—the stories growing like weeds between her and her father until she could no longer see a way around them.
Too late to confess.
I should have spilled the truth before I named the imaginary children.
Definitely before I gave them hobbies and personalities.
If lies were pennies, she’d surely earned her way to hell a few times over already.
I’m no better than Reese. Well, I’m not a sexual predator trying to take advantage of women I lure away from their families with false promises—so perhaps I’m a bit better.
Still, I’m a liar, and there is always a price to pay for being dishonest.
Jeisa winced as Jeremy’s brief success enraged the old fighter. Guilt weighed heavily upon her. It’s my fault he’s here. A professional wouldn’t have allowed him to come. But I’m not a professional—I lied about that, too. If only life were like an Etch A Sketch that could be shaken and erased when you drew yourself into a real mess.
I don’t want to lie anymore. I don’t want to pretend to be someone I’m not. I thought I was better than this, stronger than this.
Did I ever tell you about how my first client died? Yes, he had this ridiculous idea that learning how to box would toughen him up, so he hired a trainer and got himself killed during his first lesson.
Why didn’t I stop him?
Well, that’s a funny story . . . one that took Jeisa momentarily back to how she’d gotten what some might call her third job in the United States.
“I don’t know anything about being an image consultant,” Jeisa remembered clearly telling Mrs. Duhamel. However, denying the matriarch of Corisi Enterprises was as productive as telling the wind not to blow. Always impeccably dressed, she was a maternal force of nature. She knew the names of everyone in the company’s Boston building, and they certainly knew her. Everyone stood a little straighter, smiled a little more pleasantly, and typed a little faster when Mrs. Duhamel entered the room.
All that information would have been helpful to know the first week on the job, when Jeisa had stepped into the hallway during a break in what was a particularly harsh, albeit well-deserved, discussion regarding her job performance.
Having typed papers and passed her college courses, Jeisa had figured she could easily handle an office job. And the computer programs they’d asked if she knew how to use? Could a person be blamed for optimistically believing she’d be able to master them before anyone noticed her complete lack of exposure to them?
Really, what was one more little lie when you were bathing in an ocean of them already?
It was a reason for dismissal, at least as far as her supervisor had been concerned. He’d started a conversation that had likely been leading to her termination when he’d been cut off by a phone call, and she’d been sent to the hallway outside his office while he took it.
If only she could go back in time and tell herself not to offer help to the older woman she’d seen carrying a parcel into an elevator. I should have been fired, called my father with a confession, and worked my way out of this malfeasance.
Instead, I’m here, watching a good man get a beating because I haven’t worked up the nerve to tell him the truth yet.
Why did Mrs. Duhamel—Marie, Jeisa corrected herself mid-thought—choose me to help Jeremy? Why did I say yes? The second question was easy to answer. No one refused a request from Marie, not even when the very formidable woman asked to be addressed by her first name. And no one lied to her. With those sharp hazel eyes and a few pointed questions, she’d wrung Jeisa’s life story and every last embarrassing truth out of her. Right down to lying about her job qualifications. Instead of firing her, Marie had laid a sympathetic hand on hers and ordered tea, and a friendship was born.
A friendship that had changed everything, even things she hadn’t wanted to change.
Her supervisor no longer cared when she couldn’t complete a project; instead, he would ask others to input the files he’d assigned her, replacing that work with typing. On one hand it was a relief to be given a job she could do. On the other, it distanced her from her coworkers, whose once-friendly banter evaporated in response to the preferential treatment she now received. They never voiced their resentment outright, however, and Jeisa doubted they ever would. Marie wielded more influence with her friendly visits than most men did when they boomed orders.
Otherwise alone, Jeisa found comfort in Marie’s friendship. They started having lunch together whenever she was in town. With Marie’s support, Jeisa started to think she’d be able to turn things around. She could make it. She hadn’t done anything so awful that it couldn’t be repaired. She just needed a little more time.
So when Marie had asked Jeisa for help, refusing hadn’t felt like an option. All she had to say was that she was an image consultant. One more small fabrication and she’d have a real shot at being independent. An enormous increase in salary, an opportunity to travel and build a résumé that wasn’t based on a fictitious employment history. Oh yes . . . and no more typing.
Until now, Jeisa hadn’t felt bad about deceiving Jeremy. She’d felt qualified. Her background had prepared her to teach him how to blend in with the wealthy. And today she’d been proud of his transformation.
Moments like this were payback for tempting fate with the question—What could go wrong?
Sorry, Marie, I broke the first client you sent me—next, please?
Jeisa gripped the back of the chair so tightly that her knuckles whitened. She welcomed the discomfort. Marie hired me to help him and look at me—just watching instead of doing what I know is right and putting an end to this.
Jeisa cringed as the trainer stopped toying with her client and his next hit crumpled Jeremy to the ring’s padded floor.
“Stay down,” the trainer barked, but Jeremy was already pushing himself up off the floor and back onto his knees.
Jeisa nervously chewed her bottom lip. He’s going to get killed. Why won’t he just stay down?
Jeisa held her breath as, with heartbreaking effort, Jeremy struggled to stand. He wobbled. He faltered. Eventually, he straightened and raised his gloved hands in front of him again.
Ray pulled back as if he were about to deliver a final, deadly blow. Jeremy swayed but said nothing. Blood dripped from his nose onto the mat below as the two men stared each other down.
Jeisa took a step toward the ring. An indelicate amount of wrath filled her. If he hits Jeremy again, that old man had better run, because I’m going kill him.
“You don’t give up,” Ray said in recognition and expelled a harsh breath. He lowered his hands and began to remove his gloves.
Jeremy lowered his own and stumbled as his legs gave way a bit beneath him. Relief flooded through Jeisa. She grabbed a clean white towel from a bag near the ring and rushed to Jeremy’s side. She slid beneath one of his arms and took his weight on her shoulders, wiping the blood from his chin with the towel. Jeremy took the towel from her and held it to his nose.
Jeisa glared at the trainer. “What were you thinking?”
Ray scowled at her. “He’s fine. Nothing a little ice won’t fix.” He met Jeremy’s eyes and said, “Come back next week and I’ll train you.”
A faint smile stretched Jeremy’s swollen and split lips. Jeisa said, “Don’t you dare look pleased with yourself. You’re lucky if you don’t have brain damage from this.”
The trainer sized them both up again and asked, “You sure you’re not his girlfriend?”
Jeisa said some choice words in rapid Portuguese.
The trainer held one of the ropes up so that Jeisa could maneuver Jeremy out of the ring more easily. He said to Jeremy, “Be here Tuesday morning at eight.” Jeremy nodded. “But leave her home.”
Jeremy chuckled and groaned. “I’ll try.”
Jeisa glared at him as she helped him remove his gloves and wraps.
Together they made their way across the gym toward the exit. Jeremy’s dark blue eyes were dancing with triumph and a wave of attraction hit her like a sucker punch. When they’d first met, the description that had come to mind had been earnestly adorable. Had it really been only a few months since she’d met him? Gone were the old clothes, the unruly mop of brown hair, and the boyish expressions. Even his gray sweats and matching T-shirt were from a modern athletic-wear designer Jeisa had discovered.
Not that fashion had done much to aid Jeremy this day.
He paused and shook his head. Jeisa slid beneath one of his arms again to help steady him. The heat from his body spread like wildfire through her own. Jeremy was all man now, and Jeisa could feel how much he’d changed in every place that their bodies touched. The strong arm draped across her shoulders no longer felt like it belonged to a man who spent his life behind a computer. Boxing was only a small piece of Jeremy’s plan to physically transform himself. He’d started running and lifting weights very soon after they’d met. Jeisa hadn’t thought it was necessary . . . But oh, the results were nice.
He stumbled as they walked. Her hand flew up to steady him, coming to a rest in the middle of his hard chest, and she felt him catch his breath.
Is he thinking what I’m thinking?
No, no, no, she thought frantically.
Unlike me, Jeremy has always been painfully honest.
Remember that he’s doing all of this to win the heart of a woman.
As in, not me.
Her body didn’t care. She looked past the swelling and the blood and all she could see were his beautiful, sexy blue eyes. They paused for what seemed an eternity and she couldn’t look away.
What would it be like to be loved by a man who is willing to do anything to win your heart?
You could be yourself with such a man.
Love like that doesn’t follow the rules.
It is sweaty, and passionate, and the stuff that romances are made of.
An odd expression entered Jeremy’s eyes and he straightened away from her, breaking contact. “Jeisa,” he said in a gruff voice, “let’s go home.”
“Yes,” she said, and chastised herself for entertaining such thoughts about her employer. She was part of Jeremy’s life.
Just not in the way she wanted to be.