Home > Downfall(16)

Downfall(16)
Author: Jay Crownover

I lifted a hand and fingered the healing bruise. “Guy was better than me, I guess. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.”

The Boss opened the small fridge he had tucked away in a corner and offered me a bottle of water. “It doesn’t happen. Because no one is better than you, kid. Not even me.”

I cranked the lid off the bottle and swallowed down the cool liquid. I told myself not to blush at the praise. “You’re the best.”

The Boss snorted and propped a hip on his desk. “I was, but then you came along. I wouldn’t waste my time on anyone who wasn’t the best. Not when it comes to cars, and not when it comes to a fight. You wanna know what I think?”

I did, but I also kind of already knew what he was going to say. The man didn’t pull any punches and his honesty was brutal most days.

“You’ve got too much going on, kid. All those distractions and responsibilities are going to get you killed if you aren’t careful. This place, your mom, the fights, and on top of all of that, there’s the pretty redhead you brought into my shop. You’re drowning.”

I crushed the empty water bottle in my hand and jerked my eyes away from his penetrating dark gaze. “I’ve got it all under control.”

It was the first time I’d ever lied to him and I felt like shit the minute the words left my mouth.

He sighed, reached out, and clapped a strong, rough hand on my shoulder. “We never have control of anything in this city. You’re smart enough to realize the truth of that. I think you’re also smart enough to recognize when someone comes along who needs you more than the things you already decided were the most important things in your life. If you get hurt because you’re spread so goddamn thin, who’s going to watch out for the people who need you most?”

I bristled at the implication I was failing in any way. “This was a one off. You know I win more than I lose.”

“All it takes is one bad fight, kid, and then it’s not only you who ends up losing.” He sounded like he knew that first hand. I hated that he was speaking from experience. I tended to think of him as indestructible. I didn’t like the reminder he was a fallible human just like me.

I sighed and rubbed a hand across the back of my neck. “I don’t really have a place where I can cut ties right now. Everything I’m mixed up with is kind of impossible to walk away from.”

The Boss nodded and crossed his arms over his massive chest. “I remember that hamster wheel. Running and running but the view never changing. Which is the only reason I’m about to put this offer on the table.” He tilted his chin up and narrowed his eyes at me. “Our mutual friend was approached by some rich assholes with too much money and a thirst for blood. They want him to set up a private fight. One of their guys against one of ours. It’s a private event, closed to the usual scavengers. It’s going to be a blood sport for bored billionaires. The payout if you win would be enough to keep your mom comfortable in that facility for the next couple of years. You could finish school, get a legit job working on cars, and stop running yourself into the ground.” He shrugged. “You know how things work. If you agree, you go in on your own. No rules. No regulations. No escape if it goes wrong, and the bastard in charge still takes a cut.”

My breath whooshed out in a rush and I felt slightly lightheaded. That was a lot of money. It would be a huge weight off my shoulders if I could secure enough funding to keep my mother in the private facility long enough to finish the certification I needed.

“Sounds like there should be a catch.” Nothing in my life was ever that easy.

The Boss nodded slightly, dark eyes narrowing. “The man in charge didn’t get a good feel from the men who approached him. He mentioned the whole thing felt off. He’s a piece of shit, but no one in this place has better instincts or can read a room the way the Devil can. If he doesn’t trust these guys, then I don’t either. But I have seen the way you’re struggling, so I couldn’t tell him no on your behalf. Typically, I trust you to keep yourself safe no matter what the situation may be.”

Surprisingly, I wanted to say no. I remembered Noble’s precious kiss on my black eye, telling me she would make my owie all better. I didn’t want her worried about my battered face and broken body. She was too young to already be taking care of the adults around her.

Sadly, the truth of the situation was simple, I couldn’t afford to say no. It didn’t matter how many reservations I, or anyone else, had about the situation. “Tell the Devil I’ll do it. I promise to go in with my eyes open and to be extra cautious.”

The Boss sighed, because he knew what my answer was going to be. “I’m going to tell that idiot if he lets you die on his watch we’re going to have a major problem. I don’t like this, kid, but I’m not surprised at the way it’s playing out. You be careful, you hear me?”

I nodded and turned toward the door. I stopped in surprise when my phone started ringing from my back pocket. The thing was quiet during the day while I was working, so I had a moment of panic that something had happened to my mother. I didn’t recognize the number as I slid my finger across the screen to answer the call.

“Hello?” I sounded far harsher than I meant to.

“Solo?” I stopped with my hand on the door to the interior of the garage at the sound of Orley’s voice.

“Yeah, it’s me. What’s up?” I didn’t ask how she got my number, figuring if she’d gone to the trouble of tracking it down, whatever she needed must be pretty important.

“I need to ask a huge favor.” She sounded nervous and a little like she wanted to throw up, which made me chuckle.

“Shoot.”

She sighed and I heard a thump like she was banging her forehead on something hard. “I’m supposed to pick up Noble from Erica’s in an hour. She’s got something going on tonight and needs all the kids gone by three thirty. My boss just asked me to pick up a private party. The gratuity on the bill would be enough to keep the lights on this month so I hate to say no. Is there any way I can convince you to watch my kid for an hour or so? Don’t feel like you have to say yes, but I had to ask.”

I froze for a second and then felt a smile spreading across my face. Last night I told her she was going to learn to trust me with her monsters; instead, she was trusting me with her heart, the most precious thing in her life. It meant so much more. I wondered if Orley even knew how significant this small moment was between the two of us.

“Gotta check with the Boss, but I’m sure I can skip out of here a little bit early.” I had no idea what I was supposed to do with a toddler, but Noble seemed like she was easy enough to entertain. She liked to run around and burn out all of her childish energy, so maybe I’d take her outside and give her that race she was always angling for. If all else failed, I figured we could sit down and watch Star Wars together. I hadn’t seen the originals in a very long time.

“I’m so sorry. I know I’m always asking you for stuff but I just don’t trust anyone else to keep an eye on her.” she sighed again. “I honestly don’t know what I’d do without you.”

I glanced over my shoulder and noticed the Boss was watching me with a knowing grin stamped across his hard face. He lifted his chin and pointed at the door. “Beat it. Not like you’re getting anything done in here today as it is.” I nodded and turned back to the door, only to stop short when his deep voice quietly reminded me, “Keep in mind what you’re fighting for in the future whenever you step inside that circle. It’ll keep you sharp and more on your game than any amount of training you’ve ever gotten.”

A shiver slid down my spine as I slipped out the door, assuring Orley we would be okay and that I wouldn’t let anything happen to her daughter while she was in my care… or ever, if I had my way.

Orley

The party turned out to be a big group of restaurant campers. After dessert, coffee, and paying the bill, they stuck around for at least an extra hour. I was beyond late when I scrambled home to get Noble from Solo. I’d called him twice to let him know I was held up. Each time he assured me my kid was still breathing and they were fine. He even promised to get her fed when it became clear I wasn’t going to get out of the restaurant until after the sun went down. He didn’t sound annoyed at having a toddler around, even though he was the busiest man I’d ever met. He didn’t seem bothered by the fact I kept asking for more from him every time we turned around. He came across as completely unfazed that I trusted him enough to watch the most precious thing in the world to me, even though we hardly knew each other. After that kiss in the hallway, our dynamic had shifted. I wasn’t sure how to define what we were doing, or who Solo was to me, but I knew he was much more than a friendly neighbor.

Fortunately, the party compensated me well for the extra time spent waiting for them to leave. The tip they left meant I could get Noble her cake and cookies for weeks, and I wouldn’t have to worry about running out of gas any time soon. It was such a relief to finally feel like I was starting to get my head above water. I was finally starting to make things work out, even if it was in an impossible place, and for the first time in a long time I didn’t feel like a failure. I didn’t feel like I was letting my daughter down.

I practically ran up the stairs and down the hallway to Solo’s apartment. I was going to pound on the door and free him from his babysitting responsibility when I realized it was far later than expected and well after dinner time. There was a good chance Noble had fallen asleep, regardless of how entertaining her company was. Not wanting to wake her if she was down for the night, I tapped lightly on the door and tried in vain to fix my disheveled appearance.

I wrinkled my nose at a mysterious white smear on my black pants and groaned when I saw some kind of sauce stain decorating the front of my shirt. Before I could swipe at either, the door swung open and was filled with a shirtless Solo. I blinked at the expanse of toned, tattooed skin in front of me and had to force myself to remember to breathe. He had his baseball hat on, a low-slung pair of black athletic shorts… and not much else. The sight of him made my mouth go dry and had me forgetting the reason I was at his door in the first place.

   
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