Just joining us? Links to previous episodes here.
Stadium seating rose high on either side of the steep concrete steps. Embry paused at a landing, ostensibly to check the row number nearby and swept her gaze over the cavernous space. Almost every seat was filled. Not surprising given that this was the last fight of the evening. In the center of the coliseum, she’d expected to see something like a boxing ring. Similar to what they had in the training areas at headquarters when they weren’t just doing mat work. But here there was an eight-sided platform, surrounded by black chain-link fencing, with some kind of thick padding on the railing. A cage. It reminded her of Mad Max, except that it was only about five feet tall.
Two men enter, one man leaves.
All around her people milled, talking in excited voices, making their way through all the sets of double doors that led into the arena. Everyone was focused on the fight to come.
Embry was focused on one of the fighters. He smiled, bigger than life on the screen of the Jumbotron hanging above.
Someone jostled her and she started moving again, down, down, down the steps, being careful not to stumble in the too high heels—how do other women wear these without breaking an ankle?—all the way to the front row. Right beside the cage so he couldn’t help but see her. He wouldn’t know her. That was the nature of the spell. But he would see her, and he was a man, after all. She’d dressed to appeal in a sexy black dress with an abbreviated hemline and a plunging neckline that accentuated her cleavage. Judging by the looks and leers she gathered from the predominantly male attendees in the seats nearby, she’d hit the mark.
She sat and tried to cross her legs, but that caused the short skirt to ride up into Hey, I’m for sale territory, so she tugged it back down and turned her eyes to the handbill she’d been clutching like a lifeline since she’d walked into the building.
As last season’s winner of The Ultimate Fighter, Cade Shepherd was the favorite for tonight’s fight. He was bulkier now, the picture showing muscular arms crossed over a broad chest, and a face that held none of the boyishness she remembered. He looked, quite simply, like what he’d been trained to be—a warrior. She found it interesting that he’d fallen into life as a fighter even though his memory had been stripped from him.
They called him The Shadow. And isn’t that ironic, thought Embry, tracing a light finger over the barely quirked lip that suggested he thought so too—or would if he remembered what he was.
She shifted her focus to the openings beneath the stands where the fighters would emerge. One to the left, one to the right. There was an excitement in the air, an electricity that crawled along her skin. It was a mixture of the crowd’s thirst for violence and her own sense of urgency, held ruthlessly in check.
There’s not much time.
As if in response to her thought, the announcer began to speak. “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome back to UFC Fight Night! It’s time for the main event! Please welcome our first competitor, weighing in at two hundred and fifteen pounds and six feet, one inch tall, from right here in New Orleans, Louisiana—” He rattled off a list of titles that didn’t mean anything to her. “—Cade ‘The Shadow’ Shepherd!”
Embry was only vaguely aware of the music playing, the crowd roaring. He came in from the left, dressed in a pair of boxing trunks, crossing right in front of her. And suddenly everything inside her went still. Oh God. He really was here, and he really was alive. Whole. She’d known it in an academic sense since Matthias had told her. Trusted it enough to conceive of this plan, the success of which depended on Cade. But it wasn’t the same as seeing him in the flesh mere feet away. Part of her thought it was a trick. A horrible diversion meant to keep her from breaking protocol and going against orders.
Relief and fury tangled inside her, an emotional maelstrom that threatened to burst into something hot and alive and very much out of place in a human crowd. Embry willed him to turn his head, to look at her. But he was utterly focused, controlled, as he’d always been during training. It was a skill she’d struggled to emulate back then. Well, she could remain focused and controlled too. She pulled the emotion tight inside her and locked it deep.
He went into the cage and the world snapped back to life. She missed everything the announcer said about Richard Archer except for the fact that he hailed from Iowa. Whereas Archer bounced on his feet, throwing a few test punches at the air like a boxer, Cade—she still couldn’t get used to the name—stood almost tranquil in his corner. He rolled his massive shoulders and popped his neck, all the while those glacier chip eyes followed his opponent. Both fighters walked to the center of the cage and listened as the referees spoke to them, presumably going over rules and asking for a clean fight. When they finished, the contenders bumped fists briefly and stepped back. The extra people in the cage backed out.
And then with the ding of a bell, the fight began.
The pair circled each other like wary animals. Archer, practically vibrating with adrenaline, made the first move, a lightning fast right cross that Cade evaded by bobbing back and slamming a roundhouse into the other man’s side. And just like that, the study period was over and fists were flying. Archer landed maybe one punch for every three of Cade’s, his face darkening with effort and frustration as Cade continued to dodge and strike. Moving, always moving.
And God could he move. He had always been able to move. That had been part of the attraction. Now he was better. Good. That would be good, Embry thought. She’d need those skills.
Cade landed an open-handed strike against Archer’s sternum. The blow knocked the other man back, but only for a second. He dove toward Cade like a freight train, tackling him around the middle and taking them both to the mat. Cade wrapped his powerful legs around his opponent’s waist and struggled to get him into an arm bar. They rolled, a human pretzel, Archer still trying to get Cade into any kind of solid hold. Then, in a move fluid as water, Cade got the upper hand, reversing their positions until he could strike at Archer’s head.
The bell rang, signaling the end of the round, and the refs separated the fighters.
Archer stumbled to his corner in a way that made Embry certain he had a concussion. Cade accepted a bottle of water from someone on the sidelines and stared into the ring. His expression was fierce and searching, but something in his face made her think it wasn’t totally about the fight. She knew that face, the barely leashed rage underneath. It was how he’d looked the last time she’d seen him. When he’d been trying to protect her.
* * *