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For Sebastian Delacroix, stepping into Hard Knocks Gym was like coming home.
He paused just inside the entrance, listening to the grunts from bags being punched, ropes being jumped, flesh being pummeled. Smelling the pungency of sweat and blood and testosterone. Yeah, nothing like the gym to welcome him back to New Orleans.
“Look what the wind blew in.” An older man, with liberal doses of salt shaken into the pepper of his hair, walked up and slapped Sebastian on his back. He remained still with an effort; Armand Duparte still packed a punch and he knew it. “Sebastian Delacroix as I live and breathe! When did you get back?”
“Hey, old man.” Sebastian gave as good as he got, clapping his mentor on the shoulder. “My plane landed late last night, then I spent the morning taking care of business, setting things in motion. I figured I could come in and work the kinks out this afternoon and check in with you.”
“You know you’re always welcome.” Armand Duparte stepped back, giving Sebastian the once-over. Again, he stood still as the older man’s keen gray eyes took his measure much like he’d done twelve years ago when an eighteen-year-old Sebastian had first stepped foot in the gym full of fight, raw talent, and absolutely no discipline whatsoever.
Duparte was the closest thing he had to a father figure and though he’d resented the trainer’s hard-ass methods and harder attitude, his mother had bought him the gym membership as a last-ditch effort to keep him out of trouble. Eventually Sebastian had recognized that Duparte had exactly what he’d needed. Duparte had given Sebastian more than he could ever repay. He’d missed the old man more than he’d admit.
“What sort of business brought you back to town?”
Sebastian hesitated. So many things brought him back home, business being one of them. He had a much larger goal in mind than moving his billion-dollar empire back to his hometown, though. Goals that included making up for past mistakes, making right the things he’d turned so wrong. Making the future better than the last five years had been.
“We’re in the process of moving DJD Holdings back here,” Sebastian explained, hedging. He wasn’t ready to share his true plan yet, especially not with Duparte. If anyone could make him question his approach and his intentions, it was his mentor.
“I know that, and I didn’t have to read the Business Chronicle to find out either,” Duparte said. “I heard it from Raphael, who’s already splitting his time between here and Baton Rouge. I thought he was handling the relocation effort.”
“He is.” Sebastian made a mental note to throttle his partner, Raphael Jerroult, who always talked too much for his own good. “Raphael closed the deal on our offices last week, and he’s in the process of transferring some of his people in from Baton Rouge. We’re going to keep the offices in Los Angeles just to maintain a presence.”
“So then you’re here because . . . ?”
Sebastian gritted his teeth. He knew Duparte wouldn’t leave him be until he knew the truth, just as he knew Duparte already suspected what that truth was. He’d put off the reveal for a little while longer though, as he decided what to tell his mentor—and how to get his help.
“I’m here to loosen my muscles and get my house in order. How’s the equipment holding up?” he asked, gesturing at the wide array of equipment bearing a black-and-blue Hard Knocks Athletics logo.
“Pretty good.” Duparte looked around the gym. “Then again, the manufacturers know I’d knock them upside the head a few times if they retrofitted my gym with shoddy equipment.”
“Which is why it’s the best equipment on the market.” Sebastian had thrown in some of his prize money with Raphael and another of Duparte’s Lost Boys, Gabriel Devereaux, and with his permission, had adopted the gym’s name for their first company, Hard Knocks Athletics. They now supplied fitness equipment to some of the most successful college programs and sports franchises in the country, and were making inroads in the home gym market. It didn’t hurt that all three of them were champions in their respective disciplines—boxing for Sebastian, Muay Thai for Jerroult, and mixed martial arts for Devereaux. They’d each gone on to make millions in other areas, with Raphael officially taking the helm of his late father’s business, JerTech. Sebastian had branched out into several other businesses, but Hard Knocks would always have a special place in his financial heart, thanks to the man in front of him and his penchant for taking in Lost Boys.
Lost Boys. That’s what Duparte and many others had called the stray youths Duparte collected in his gym. Young men with nowhere else to go, with violence the only currency they dealt in. They were all around the same age, and had been taken under Duparte’s wing about the same time. All of them had bonded through blood, sweat, and the chips on their shoulders. Sebastian couldn’t count many people as friends, but Jerroult and Devereaux had his loyalty and his back, as he had theirs.
“The best equipment,” he repeated, allowing his pride to spill into his voice. “We wouldn’t put your name on just anything. The Lost Boys owe you more than that.”
Duparte nodded. “Speaking of Lost Boys, where’s Gabriel?”
“Hell if I know.”
Duparte shook his head. “Don’t see how you boys can run a multibillion-dollar empire when you don’t even keep track of each other.”
“We don’t need to be face-to-face. That’s what smartphones are for.” Sebastian couldn’t remember the last time they’d all been in the same time zone, much less the same room. Gabriel still fought in MMA matches and bloodier underground cage fights, probably to battle some personal demons. They had their once-a-week videoconferences for the decisions that needed consensus and brainstorming, and e-mails and phone calls otherwise. But they’d all planned to return to New Orleans for their company, for Duparte, and for their own personal reasons.
He thought about his own personal motives—or rather, one large motive. The only reason that mattered, the reason that had pushed up his timetable. The cause: the biggest fight of his life. The goal: total victory. The prize: the only woman he’d ever loved.
Duparte folded his arms across his chest. Though the man had at least two decades on Sebastian, he still had the strength, toughness, and form of a fighter with the added ability to see through anyone’s bullshit. Which he did now. “You don’t want to share, fine. Maybe loosening your muscles will loosen your tongue. You want a bag or someone to spar with?”
Sebastian raised his fists. He may have been a couple of years out of the ring, but he kept his fighting form. Today, though, wasn’t about teaching any young up-and-comers a lesson. “Bag’s fine.”
“Come on, then. I’ll get you taped up.”
He followed Duparte over to a quieter corner of the gym, dismissing the curious stares and smartphones pointed at him as he crossed the floor. He supposed it wasn’t every day that a former heavyweight champion strolled into Hard Knocks Gym, especially one who had managed to parlay his prize money into a billion-dollar empire. His presence in the gym would be all over social media within minutes. He just had to hope it would hit the Web too late for his quarry to run back to Vegas.
“You boys aren’t the only ones who’ve come back around.”
He set his bag down on a nearby bench and pulled out his wraps. “Oh yeah? Which one of your other strays decided to come back home?”
“Not my stray. Yours.”
The deceptive casualness of Duparte’s tone put Sebastian on alert. “I don’t have any strays.”
“Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. You’ll know for sure if you stay around for another hour or so.”
“Stop speaking in riddles, old man, and just say what you need to say.”
“I will, as soon as you stop beating around the bush and tell me the truth of why you decided to return to New Orleans now, and showed up in my gym today of all days.”
Instead of answering immediately, Sebastian concentrated on wrapping his hands. Duparte took the wraps from him as if Bas were some noob fresh off the street and made quick work of wrapping his knuckles and wrists for the practice gloves.
“Okay, I heard some rumors out of Vegas,” he admitted as Duparte handed him his well-worn training gloves. “I decided to check it out.”
“Which you could have done with one phone call.”
“Some things need to be checked out in person,” Sebastian replied. He pulled his sweatshirt off, then spent some time warming up, working the business kinks out of his muscles, slipping into the fighter mind-set that was never far away. “It’ll make it easier to put my plan into motion.”
A grin split the old man’s features just before he roared with laughter. Sebastian waited with gritted teeth for Duparte to pull himself together. One did not punch their mentor no matter how much he deserved it. “What’s so funny, old man?”
“You,” Duparte answered, wiping at his eyes. “A plan. You think having a plan is going to work?” He laughed again. “I’ll be in my office. Be sure to stop in before you leave. I can’t wait to hear all about your plan.”
Chuckling again, Duparte made his way to the back of the gym and the office he kept there. Sebastian turned to the bag to start his workout. He always did his best thinking while pushing his body, and today was no exception. With each strike he plotted and planned his next moves. Because while business had brought him back to New Orleans, a woman would be the reason he’d stay.
Renata Giordano, champion boxer and the love of his life. The one who’d gotten away. Granted he’d been a dick and pushed her away, but it didn’t make being without her suck any less.
After her father had died, she’d leaned on Roddy Cooper, her trainer who became her manager, then her fiancé. Not that he could begrudge the man for stepping up when Sebastian had stepped back. As far as he’d been able to follow from a state away, Roddy Cooper had done a decent job of managing Renata’s career. That she’d also fallen in love with him and became his fiancée was Sebastian’s cross to bear.
Growling, he pounded the bag harder. He had never been a turn-the-other-cheek kind of guy. He didn’t believe for a moment that a grown man who called himself Roddy was a better choice for Renata than he. Rumor was, she’d broken up with her asshole of a fiancé and manager, packed up, and left Las Vegas. There was also talk that she’d been signed to a championship bout to take place later in the year, but now she had no trainer, no manager, no support system. There was only one place she’d go for help, only one place she would trust. Which was why he was back in New Orleans ahead of schedule but ready to reclaim his prize.
Silence rolled across the gym, eventually reaching Sebastian. He caught the bag, stopping its swinging motion, then turned to face the door.
A woman stood in the entrance dressed in black fitted pants and a gray hoodie, gym bag in hand. Sunlight spilled in around her, highlighting the red streaks in her dark brown ponytail even as it cast the rest of her in silhouette. Women were a rarity at Hard Knocks. He didn’t think there were any even on the cleaning crew. Most women took a step inside, realized the only classes were competitive weight designations, and quickly retreated.
This woman didn’t. Instead, she strode into the gym as if she belonged there and knew the layout. Knew that nothing was soft in Hard Knocks, not even the towels, and neither was she. Sebastian could admire a woman like that, a woman who owned the space she claimed, and dared anyone to knock her out of it.
Sebastian’s gut tightened. He knew of only one woman who’d made a place for herself in this gym, one woman who trained hard and punched harder than many of the wannabe fighters who came through Duparte’s doors. Was she here already?
He narrowed his gaze as the woman walked toward his area. He knew that walk. Knew the tilt of her head, the swing of her shoulders, the sway of those hips. Knew every inch of that toned body, the strength of her punches and her legs wrapped around his waist. Renata.
She unzipped her hoodie one-handed as she crossed the floor, revealing one of those sports bra tops and the Mona Lisa equivalent of six-pack abs on a woman. His hands curved inside his gloves. Good God, the years of dominating the ladies’ light welterweight championship had been good to her. Most of that weight was solid muscle, though she had curves where it counted. High, tight breasts he could cup in his hands, an equally cupable ass, thighs that could grip a man and hold him in place as they fucked each other stupid. Defined arms that powered a serious punch and a brutal right hook, but fingers so soft and sure when they wrapped around his cock. All that awesomeness born of a Sicilian father and Puerto Rican mother, Renata was a whirlwind of passion and energy that he’d loved getting caught up in.
Fuck. With a growl he renewed his attack on the punching bag, imagining Roddy Cooper’s face on the polyurethane cover. Cooper had had years with Renata that should have belonged to Bas. He’d known the moment it happened that he shouldn’t have walked away from her. Shouldn’t have let his fucking fear and newfound sense of honor push away the best thing that had ever happened to him.
After another vicious punch, Sebastian stopped the bag then turned to face her again because he couldn’t not look at her, even when it hurt. She strolled through the gym, oblivious to the stares that followed her. Oblivious to him.
He gritted his teeth as she made her way to the back offices, obviously here to meet with Duparte about training for her fight. Duparte had been her trainer previously, before she and her father had moved to Vegas. Before Bas had given her a reason to uproot her life here in New Orleans. Yet she’d walked right past him as if he didn’t exist.
To hell with that. He yanked his gloves off then pulled a towel out of his bag, wiping sweat from his face. Five minutes. He’d give Renata and Duparte a chance to get reacquainted and then it was his turn. Time to put his plan into action.
He’d get Renata back. If she didn’t knock him out first.