Their Protector: An MC Outlaw Halloween Romance, page 63
Jensen backs away from his punching bag and shrugs, his eye on a practice match between two other guys in the center ring.
“Oooh.” He winces as one of the guys is knocked out. “She’d probably be okay with it,” he says. “Riley’s surprisingly cool. And it’s not like we’d be going to strip clubs or anything.”
“Oh sure, try to make excuses for why you broke our pact,” I tease.
“You know, the one where none of us three brothers are ever going to be in any relationships? Never settle down? And then you up and get married on us.”
Harlow laughs, and chimes in.
“Jensen claims it was on our account— so that we could be at the wedding before we deploy— but that’s just a convenient excuse for a very fast wedding! You sure Riley isn’t knocked up?”
“Oh whatever,” Jensen says, taking over on the punching bag. “Like you’re one to talk. You and Whitney are practically married around.”
“Yep, my brothers fell like bullets, and I’m the only man left standing,” I say.
And I like the fact that I’m still standing , I remind myself. I’m the only sane one among us.
“That’s why you need a fun trip to Vegas,” Jensen says, undoubtedly to shift the spotlight away from himself. “Sports games. Gambling. Whatever.”
I shrug. A trip to Vegas doesn’t sound very appealing. I have a lot of things to do. Not to mention, Monica has still been in my thoughts, way too much. I can’t believe I managed to develop feelings for her, when she obviously doesn’t feel the same way.
“Anyway, guys,” I say, to change the subject and get my mind off her. “The reason I wanted to talk to you is that I found an assisted living home for Mom. They can take her right away.”
Harlow and Jensen exchange uneasy glances.
“Well, how did she take the news?” Jensen asks.
“That’s the thing. I need your guys’ help breaking the news to her.”
They stare at me, dubious.
“I’ve mentioned to her that I was looking around, and wanted to get her set up somewhere before I left,” I tell them. “But she doesn’t take me seriously, or maybe she just doesn’t want to. All she does is get mad and say I want to dump her in the street like garbage. I think it will be really hard for her to accept that I’m serious, so maybe you guys can help me talk some sense into her.”
“I don’t know. You’ve always been the best at dealing with Mom,” Jensen says.
I can’t believe it. These fucking wimps. They don’t want to have to put up with Mom, but they want to make me do all the work of finding other arrangements for her. And they want me to be the one to look like the bad guy when I tell her she has to move.
But then again, I guess that taking care of Mom is a duty I willingly signed up for, and have been carrying out to this day. Why would they expect it to be any different?
“I feel kind of bad for her, having to go live somewhere with strangers and all,” Harlow admits.
“Well, do you have a better idea?” I swing hard at the punching bag, feeling as if I could explode. “She runs off even while she’s staying with me, so I never know where she is. And I can’t exactly keep tabs on her from the Middle East.”
Harlow says, “Jensen, what about you and Riley? Could you maybe take her in?”
Jensen laughs, then frowns as he realizes that Harlow’s suggestion was serious.
“Yeah, sure, that’d be great,” he says. “Move my crazy mother in with my new bride. I can’t see any problems there.”
“Well, I did have a plan, but if you guys have something different in mind, or can come up with something soon, fine,” I tell them. “Just let me know within the next day or so, so I can let Mom know, and start making the transition. And I’d really appreciate your help with that.”
“Sure,” says Harlow, and Jensen nods too. “We’ll help you, it’s just… a big change, is all. First she’s wandering around from guy to guy, who knows where, then she’s living with you and that’s going pretty well, and now she’ll be really upset to lose her independence and freedom.”
“It’s not as if she’s earned her independence or freedom,” I tell them. “She’s still drinking, still being a drifter. Except now she always has a roof over her head when she wants to crash. I’m beginning to think I’m not doing her any favors by enabling her like this.”
“How can she still be drinking?” Harlow says, his pout reminding me of when he was a little boy. “In your house? How can you let her?”
“She’s not exactly my dog that I can keep chained up,” I tell him. “If you and Jensen think he’ll have better luck, he’s welcome to try. But as you know, Mom has a stubborn streak and a mind of her own.”
“She sure does,” says Jensen.
None of us say anything, but I’m pretty sure we’re all having the same thought.
I guess that’s where we get it from.
Chapter 17 – Monica
I’m at work when a Master Sergeant comes up to me and asks for my opinion about jet maintenance. It’s not technically my field, but I have some knowledge from college, so sometimes they ask me in a pinch.
“You just need to do that once a year or so,” I tell him, but suddenly I feel something wet and cold dripping from my nose.
“Oh my god,” I tell him, embarrassed. “I’m so sorry.”
He runs to a supply closet and grabs some tissues, while I pinch my nostrils shut.
What the hell ? I never get nose bleeds…
“Here you go,” says the Master Sergeant, handing me the box of tissues.
“Thank you,” I tell him. “I appreciate it.”
“I was looking at the manual and it seemed to say something different,” he continues. “I should have brought it.”
I’m holding my nose with the tissue, pinching my nostrils tight, but he rolls up a tissue into a tiny worm-like figure and hands it to me.
“I know this is weird, but just stick this up there and leave it up there for a bit. It’s a little uncomfortable, and maybe embarrassing, but it’s really not very noticeable, and it’ll sop up the blood while stopping your nose from bleeding in no time.
“Thank you,” I tell him, impressed. “EMT training?”
A lot of military personnel have gone through it.
“Nope,” he tells me. “Just three kids.”
“Oh yeah,” I reply. “That makes sense. They must get a lot of nosebleeds between them.”
“Only now and again, when they hit each other with a baseball or something. But it’s more from the fact that my wife was pregnant three times. Each time her earliest signs were nosebleeds, which continued all throughout the pregnancies. I became an expert at helping her get rid of those pesky things.”
I stare at him. He’s laughing, so I laugh too.
My mind can’t seem to help itself. It entertains a flashback from a few years ago, when Pete and I were trying to get pregnant and I would endlessly scour the Internet for “early pregnancy signs,” while it was too early to take a pregnancy test.
Nosebleeds always topped the list of top earliest pregnancy signs. But I never had one back then.
“Well, thank you for sharing your tips and tricks with me,” I tell him.
“Glad I can put that random knowledge to good use.”
Stop being silly , I tell myself. Nosebleeds happen. Probably from a change in altitude. The difference between New Mexico and Florida is pretty vast, and it only makes sense that my body would need some time to adjust.
“Anyway, I’ll go and get the brochure…” he says.
“I’ll be happy to take a look at it,” I tell him. “And hopefully my nose will be done bleeding by the time you’re back.”
“If my tip is any good, it should be.”
I head to the bathroom, to wash any blood off of me.
I’m honored that my team trusts my
I can’t believe I’m considering retiring, after I worked my ass off to get this far. But, thinking of my brother again, I know I don’t want to press my luck. I would gladly give my life for my country, but I’m glad I haven’t had to.
I can’t stop myself from thinking about Ramsey. What if he dies during deployment?
I stare at myself in the mirror, shocked that I’m thinking about it, but also realizing that it’s a very real possibility.
I shouldn’t have left things so awkward between us. Sure, we’d made a pact. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t tell him a proper goodbye. Let him know that the short time we’d spent together had an impact on me.
I decide to take a chance— to show him I can’t stop thinking about him.
Chapter 18 – Ramsey
Four Days Later
The whistle blows for the next round of fighting to start, and I hurry to wipe away the sweat running down my eyes, even though I’ve just been toweled off.
I’m in the ring at Jackson’s Gym. It’s only the practice ring, but a small crowd of people gather to watch my fight against Carl Malone. I feel like a star, but I also feel a little pressure to win this fight.
Soon, all I feel is my adrenaline pumping again. And that’s the way I like it.
It’s the third round, and I’ve surprised myself by holding my own against Carl. This is my very first fight ever, but he’s won quite a few. He is actually going to do an amateur underground fight next month, and I’m part of his training regimen.
I know Carl expected me to be an easy win. Hell, everyone expects him to win. My main goal for today was not to get too hurt. The military would be really mad at me if they knew I was fighting MMA— even in a “practice” fight— so soon before deploying.
But what they don’t know won’t hurt them. And if MMA helps them not know about my PTSD, then it’s a win-win situation. I can’t help thinking about how they don’t know about Monica, either— and wishing she was here in the crowd.
Carl strikes me with his right arm, and I snap back to reality, reminding myself that I have a fight to participate in. I quickly block him with my left arm, and then come at him for a few fast jabs.
“Yeah! Get him Ramsey!”
The small crowd goes wild, and I can make out the voices of Harlow, Whitney, Jensen and Riley, and a few of our friends as well. I can’t believe everyone came to see me. The fight doesn’t even count for anything.
The next time Carl goes after me, I duck his punch and then push him to the floor. Grappling, I wrap my body around his and keep him down.
“All right Ramsey!”
“You’re going to win this!”
“He’s really good !”
My own fans sound incredulous, which would be funny if I weren’t so intent on winning. I get Carl into a choke hold.
The referee is kneeling down close, waiting for Carl to tap out, and everyone is shouting that I’m going to win by submission. I twist my arm tighter around him, starting to think he’s invincible, but then he finally taps out, right before he engages in some strange, drunken-like swinging motions with his arms, and passes out.
“You okay, man? Carl?”
I ask, but the ref is already pulling me up, thinking I intend to keep going after Carl.
After about thirty seconds, he comes to, blinking and shaking his head as if he doesn’t know where he is. Then he figures it out, with an angry look on his face, and stands up in a huff.
“Hey man, good fight,” I tell him, but he just says “hrmph.”
He shakes his head at me, like he can’t believe I took him down. Neither can I, actually.
“And the winner, by submission, is Ramsey Bradford.”
My brothers rush onto the practice ring, disregarding the presence of both Carl and the ref. They practically jump on me, hugging me and shouting in my ears.
“Good job Ramsey!”
“You’re really good!”
“You might have a real future in this.”
I laugh. A practice fight with Carl is nothing like fighting professionally, or even as an amateur. But I appreciate their support and enthusiasm all the same.
“Now let’s go get a beer!” Jensen says.
“Not yet,” I say. “I need a shower. And we all agreed to talk to Mom, remember?”
Everyone groans, but nods. I’m just glad that we’re getting it out of the way. And that I have this unexpected victory to help keep my spirits up while we do it.
* * *
“So, Mom, as you know, I’ve been looking for an assisted living facility for you to stay in while I’m gone,” I tell her, carefully. “And I found one.”
We’re all gathered in my living room, although Mom was an unwilling participant.
“I know,” she practically spits at me. “You had to bring everyone here just to gloat about sticking me away somewhere for good.”
“Ma, just listen to what Ramsey is trying to say,” Harlow urges him.
“Yes, Mom. Please listen.” I keep my voice even and calm. “They are able to take you now or at any time in the near future. But . We’ve all come up with another solution, that you might like better.”
She looks at me suspiciously, but with a glimmer of interest.
“Jensen and Riley have offered to have you live with them while I’m gone,” I say, nodding in their direction.
“But, there are conditions,” I tell her.
She glares at me.
“Well, it’s nice to hear that not all of my sons want to dump me out in the cold,” she says, nodding at Jensen, which is her way of thanking him. “But I don’t like the sound of ‘conditions.’ I’m not a little child.”
“We know that, Mom,” I say. “But, as I’ve told you, you can’t just come and go as you please, staying out for all hours or for days at a time. We worry about you. You also can’t drink. You’re supposed to be in recovery.”
“You were doing so good with that for a while, Mom,” says Harlow, looking wistful. Sometimes my heart breaks for him, for the little boy he was when Mom left us, and for the part of him that will always be that abandoned child, continually let down. “What happened with that?”
“I told Ramsey,” she says, defensively. “I just needed to have a little break. A little fun, is all. I’m back to not drinking.”
“Well, that’s good,” Jensen says. “Because our offer is only good as long as you’re following the rules. Not drinking, not going out without letting us know when and returning at an appropriate hour, not yelling or cursing at us.”
“You make me sound like some monster,” Mom says. “I can do as I please. I’m a grown woman. Why would I want to live with people who treat me like this?”
“Well, that’s up to you, Mom,” I say. “You can go into assisted living, or you can go with Jensen and Riley. It’s really your choice.”
She crosses her arms and glares at us. I leave out the third option, because she already knows about it. She was already doing it before I took her in. Living on the street or with a random guy.
“I’ll give it a try,” she says, reluctantly.
“Great,” I respond, glad she’s acquiescing, albeit while putting up a little fight. “And just so we’re clear, I’ve informed assisted living that you might be coming. If you don’t follow the rules that Jensen and Riley set, you’ll be transferred there instead.”
“Ramsey, you don’t have to patronize me,” she says. “I hear you loud and clear. And I’d rather be dead on the street before I wind up at some old folks’ home.”
“Well, we look forward to your stay with
Mom glares at her, as if the feeling isn’t mutual.
Riley really must be a saint.
With that matter finally settled, everyone gets up to leave. We have plans to meet up at Elephant Bar for appetizers and drinks. It’s obvious that we all want to say, “Time for that beer!” but not in front of Mom.
I walk them out and say, “See you guys soon,” under my breath.
I open the mailbox at the front of the house and look through it as they nod their goodbyes. Harlow and Whitney get into Harlow’s car and Jensen and Riley onto Jensen’s motorcycle.
Something in the stack of mail catches my eye. It’s a plain brown package, but it has Monica’s name as the return address.
I wave at my brothers and their ladies as they leave, and go back inside.
“I hope you’re happy, with your scheming little plans…”
My mom is saying, but I wave her off.
“I’ll talk to you later, Mom,” I tell her. “I need to be somewhere.”
I sit down on my bed and open the package. It’s a CD. And a note.
Dear Ramsey ,
I feel I left on less than a good note than I would have liked. I wanted to let you know that I had a great time, Just For One Weekend. I’ve put together a ‘mixtape’ of sorts, like back when we were kids. It’s a soundtrack, of our time together. I hope that when you listen to it, you will know that I’m thinking of you, and fondly remembering the time that we shared.
Your partner in secrecy and in musical journeys,
I can’t believe it. Part of me wants to throw the package away, because I have a feeling that once I listen to the songs, I won’t ever be able to forget Monica. Not that I’m so sure I could, anyway.
The weaker part of me wins. I put the CD into my computer and upload the songs, so that I can play them in MP3 version on my phone, in the Jeep.
“Bye, Mom, I’m headed out.”