Just for Christmas Night

By: Lisa Marie Perry

Chapter 1

Gone too long...

Miami was the place he had depended on for the past four years. It was his refuge...where he slept. Partied. Trained. Decompressed after championships. Lived as a prince who finally knew the vices and virtues of luxury, yet refused to quit fighting dirty with his fists, like the pauper he’d been for most of his existence.

But Florida wasn’t where Joaquin “Sinner” Ryder belonged. Las Vegas—no, Ryder’s Boxing Club, the single-level concrete gym built on the labors of friendship, favors and six-packs of beer, with the hands of men whose aged Polaroid photographs were stuck with tape, tacks and wads of chewing gum to a chipped cork bulletin board in the lobby—had possession of his heart.

Without the place that anchored his entire damn life, without the place his soul’s compass had always pointed toward, he’d begun to drift. Now wasn’t the time to veer off the narrow road to victory. He was a man whose wealth could satisfy his greed, but he couldn’t afford to let the international hype surrounding his upcoming pay-per-view fight, his ex-fiancée’s malice or the pressure to remain America’s undefeated super middleweight champ get to him.

So he’d found his way back to his uncle’s gym, where it had all begun. He was making the boxing ring his own again. Here, he found his greatest strengths and laid down his every vulnerability.

In this gym, he followed the establishment’s cardinal rule: no lies, no bullshit. The truth was rarely a pretty thing, and the men who trained and sweated and mingled with triumph and defeat inside these walls never expected it to be.

Which was why he felt no stirring of remorse or apology when he let out a gritty curse and motioned for his uncle, Jules, to drop his hands. “Got company,” he ground out, making a concentrated effort to relax his stance in spite of the tension pouring over his spine like liquid lead. It wasn’t the tension of channeling his thoughts, instincts, emotions and maneuvers into a trainer-versus-student session with a man who never gave less than his strongest assault in the ring.

This sensation was foreign, exotic, and had everything to do with the woman who knew she had no right to be in his arena but was invading it anyway.

“Company? Eh, what the hell you talkin’ about?” Jules jabbed his chest, his eyes alight with camaraderie Joaquin couldn’t force himself to imitate, then snapped up his chin at his sons, who’d been circling the ring, observing. “The Blues are as good as family ’round here.”

Tor immediately took to the ring, loose-limbed and ready to remove his father’s battered boxing gloves, which could’ve been as old as Tor himself. His younger brother, Othello, three years past Joaquin’s thirty-three years, remained stationed at one of the posts, looking past Marshall Blue to the waiflike woman trailing in his shadow.

Beautiful destruction. That was Martha. Spontaneity and lust and complication packaged in a little-bit-of-nothing dress that appeared too flimsy for a fifty-degree December day and cemented Joaquin’s belief that he would never see a sexier pair of legs.

You don’t want to tangle with her, man. The word of caution was skating around on his tongue, but he clenched his teeth. For four years it had served him well to see no Martha, hear no Martha. Getting involved, even just to advise his Casanova cousin to direct his curiosity elsewhere, would do him no good. Wild, unwise and as deep as a puddle of dog piss she might seem, but Martha knew too much. Always had.

“Big man! Came this way to see Vegas’s prince?” Face sweaty, hands taped, Jules hopped off the platform and cut across the room to shake Marshall’s hand.

Topping six and a half feet, strapped with muscles and both blessed and cursed with a hard face that set strangers on edge, Jules was the harshest opponent Joaquin had ever sparred with. Being rescued from a crack house and brought into the man’s household a skinny, self-conscious kid with a stutter had been a terrifying hell with two older cousins to whip his ass, until Jules had taught him to defend himself...to fight for respect.

Jules rivaled Marshall Blue in height and bulk, but “big man” referred to Marshall’s status. Damn near a baron in this city, he had social influence and a Midas touch when it came to wealth. Investing in BioCures West Energy Corp., one of the country’s most prosperous power companies—a move that had doubled his net worth—wasn’t enough for Blue, who regarded everything in his world as a competition. He and his wife had purchased the city’s NFL franchise, and if the sports section of the Las Vegas Sun was right, the Las Vegas Slayers were looking at going into play-offs with a near-perfect season.

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