Title: Fighter’s Best Friend
Series: Crown MMA Romance #2
Author: A. Rivers
Genre: Sports Romance
Release Date: March 18, 2021
He’s my best friend. Emotionally unavailable. Falling in love with him is the worst idea ever but try telling that to my heart.
As a doctor who aced her way through medical school, I should be too smart to fall for Gabe Mendoza, a man who’s married to his MMA career.
For years, I’ve patched his wounds and cheered him on, but I’m tired of hoping he’ll wake up and see what’s right in front of him. I’m ready to find someone who will put me first.
The last thing I expect is for Gabe to scare off my dates and tell me all the dirty things he wants to do to me. He asks for a chance, but with the fight of his life on the horizon, his attention is divided, and I’m scared that when push comes to shove, I’ll be left alone and heartbroken.
Can I trust Gabe enough to fight for our happily ever after? Or was our end written before it even began?
He’s not coming.
I’m starving, and exhausted from a twelve-hour shift at the hospital. The mouthwatering aroma of Italian cuisine surrounds me, but I’ve held off for fifty-eight minutes, waiting for Gabe to show up. At this point, I’m pretty sure he won’t. It’s not the first time he’s become caught up in training and forgotten about me. Probably won’t be the last, either. But I’ll give him two more minutes. Maybe he’ll text or call to say he can’t make it. That’s not too much to ask, surely?
My phone pings. Heart in my throat, I glance down, but it’s Lena. My stomach plummets. I like Lena perfectly fine. In fact, she’s one of my closest friends these days, but she isn’t Gabe. Moreover, she has a man who’s crazy about her, which only serves to remind me that I’m being stood up by the only man in my life. Again. And yeah, technically Gabe is my best friend and not my boyfriend, but we’ve known each other for most of our lives and have always been closer than many people are comfortable with. Deep down, I’m a little bit in love with him. Not that I’ll ever admit as much.
Gabe trains out of the same MMA gym as Lena’s boyfriend, Jase, and they’re both professional fighters. But while Lena is apparently—according to her message—eating Mexican takeout and about to have mind-blowing sex, I’m sitting alone in a booth like a pathetic loser, hung up on a guy who barely manages to return my calls anymore. Is it too much to ask for a bit of respect? Or at least to be treated like my time matters? Like I matter?
My glumness grows and becomes hotter. More angry. I’m sick of this. Sick of being alone at a restaurant after spending a day in the ER, waiting for someone who might never show. I don’t want to be achingly lonely. I dedicate far too much emotional energy to Gabe, and just-a-friend or not, I deserve more than that. There was a time when he’d do anything for me. Hell, the first time we met, he saved me from a bully who was pulling on my braids. But our relationship doesn’t go two ways anymore. It’s always me giving and him taking. How much longer until I have nothing left to give?
I summon the waiter, Marcel, who gives me a sympathetic look. “Can I get the pumpkin ravioli to go, please?”
“No problem, Syd.” He makes a note, then asks, “I take it Gabe is a no-show?”
“Seems that way.”
He pats my shoulder. “Sorry, sweetheart.”
This isn’t the first time Marcel and I have had this talk. It’s not even the first time this month. Moretti’s is a favorite place for Gabe and me to eat, but lately I’ve been studying the checkered wallpaper and chatting with the staff more than eating.
Scrubbing a hand over my carefully restrained hair, I close my eyes and picture the future stretching out before me, a series of evenings spent by myself, slowly becoming more bitter and disappointed by life. God, I don’t want that. I’m only twenty-six, I should be out partying and kissing dozens of frogs before I find my Mr. Right.
I can’t let things carry on this way, but if I don’t get over my fixation with Gabe, nothing will ever change. I need to let him go and go after what I want: a person who will always be there for me. Always put me first. Never leave me waiting and wondering.
Checking my phone, I see he’s an hour and five minutes late. As soon as my food comes, I’m out of here. I’m not even going to text to remind him he missed out. I’m tired of his stumbling apologies and complete lack of awareness of my feelings. I love him, but enough is enough.
The restaurant door opens, and a cold breeze blows through. I glance up. There he is. All six feet three inches and 200 pounds of Gabriel Mendoza. He’s not smiling—he rarely does—but his eyes crinkle at the corners when they land on me. I don’t smile back, even though he steals my breath. It’s unfair how hot he is, with thick, dark hair, melting brown eyes and golden skin, courtesy of his Argentinian parents. Some would call his face brutal, with sharp cheekbones and a nose that’s been broken more than once, but to me, it’s fascinating.
“Sorry I’m late,” he says, sliding into the seat opposite me. “You ready to order?”
He’s over an hour late, and all I get is one half-ass “sorry”?
No, I don’t think so. I deserve better than his casual thoughtlessness.
“I’ve already ordered,” I tell him. “For myself. Takeout.” In case he’s unclear about how pissed I am, I add, “You’re an hour late.”
He winces. “Yeah, sorry about that. The Ruby Knuckles fight is coming up in a few weeks and I needed to get in some extra rounds on the pads.”
The Ruby Knuckles event is a big deal for Gabe. He’ll face off against Leo “The Lion” Delaney, another scion of boxing royalty. But the opponent isn’t what makes it so important. The Ruby Knuckles is an elite mixed martial arts elimination tournament, and it famously marked the end of Gabe’s dad’s career when he was knocked out in the last round of the finals. Gabe is determined to win where his dad—now manager—failed. He’s defeated five other fighters to get to the finals, and now he’s really feeling the pressure. I get that. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s no excuse not to take twenty seconds to send me a message.
I cock my head. “So Seth asked you to stay later?”
Seth Isles is his coach, and the owner of Crown MMA Gym, where he trains. It’s one of the best martial arts gyms in Las Vegas, if not the best.
“Uh, no. He didn’t.” He scratches the back of his neck. “Dad did.”
He holds up a hand. “I know, I know. Seth is in charge of training. Dad is supposed to butt out and manage the other stuff, but you know how he is. I couldn’t say no. I’m here now though, and I’m hungry as fuck.”
A sharp pain pricks my heart. I understand how hard it is to let a parent down—I feel like my life is one great big let-down to my mom—but does he actually think so little of me that it didn’t cross his mind to, say, get his dad to text me while he was busy training? And does he not see how unacceptable that is? If he respected my time and feelings at all, I’d be at home in bed. My stomach growls, cuing my anger higher.
Oblivious to my hurt, he continues, “Give me a minute to order and we can take it back to your place.”
I stand. “You know what? Don’t bother. I had a busy shift, I’m tired, and I just want to go home.”
He stands, too. “We could watch a movie and blob out on the couch.”
I shake my head. He isn’t getting it. “Gabe,” I say, heart heavy, “I just want to be alone.”
* * *
Dread creeps up my spine. Sydney never wants to be alone. She lives for contact with people—both physical and emotional. It’s what makes her such a great doctor—well, that and her brilliant mind. Something is seriously wrong. Perhaps something happened at work today. She’s in an emergency room rotation, and it can’t be easy seeing some of the things she does.
“Bad day at work?” I ask.
“You’re an hour late,” she repeats through clenched teeth.
Uh-oh. This isn’t good. Her attitude is directed straight at me, but I’m not sure exactly why she’s reacting this way. I mean, yeah I’m late, but I’ve been late before. I have the fight of my life coming up, and time gets away from me. Usually, if I tell her I’m sorry and offer food or to spend time with her, she doesn’t make a big deal of it. But I can tell from the stubborn set of her mouth that she’s willing to make a fuss this time.
“You’re angry.” I state the obvious.
“No shit, Sherlock.” She sighs and runs a hand over her tightly-bound black curls. “I just can’t do this tonight. I need some time alone.”
“You want to be alone,” I repeat dumbly. Something feels different about this. Different and wrong. Like if I don’t say what she wants to hear, I could be in trouble. I don’t know how to handle her when she’s like this. She’s typically so easygoing and eager to hang out that I’m confused and wary of what to do or say next. Should I try to sweet talk her so she comes around? I’m not really a sweet guy, but I can give it a try.
“What about if I buy us dessert on the way to your place?” I suggest. “That brownie you love from the cafe near your apartment?”
She just looks at me, her dark features solemn. “They’ll be closed. So no, thank you. I’m not in the mood, anyway.”
I wince. From Sydney, this is practically a slap in the face. She doesn’t know how to be mean, but she’s being distant and snarky, and that’s almost worse. She’s supposed to be my best friend. The person I get to see once or twice a week, and who always, always makes me feel better and brings a smile to my face. She’s the person I most look forward to seeing. Now I deflate, beginning to realize I’m not going to get my dose of Sydney today.
Marcel arrives, and hands her a package that smells amazing. He sends me a look, and it’s not friendly. “That all, sweetheart?”
“Yes, thanks, Marcel.” Without a word to me, she pays him and heads to the exit. I follow, both because I’m not willing to let her leave without talking this through, and because the neighborhood around her apartment isn’t the best and I need to make sure she gets home safely.
Outside, she whirls to face me. “What are you doing?”
Shrugging, I shove my hands in my hoodie pocket. “Walking you home.”
“No, you’re not.” She clutches her takeout to her middle like it’s a guard between us. Man, I hate that. Since when has she needed protection from me? “I already told you—”
“I’m just keeping you safe, Syd.”
To my astonishment, she rolls her eyes. Usually a statement like that would have earned a soft smile.
“I don’t need a guard.”
She continues walking, and I fall into step beside her. She speeds up, but despite her sensible work shoes, her legs are significantly shorter than mine and there’s no way she can out-pace me. She’s determined though, so I drop back and slink along behind her like a fucking stalker because she clearly doesn’t want me next to her.
My gaze falls onto her lush, rounded ass. Bad mistake. There isn’t much I wouldn’t do to grab fistfuls of that butt. Except hurt her. And therein lies the reason I haven’t made a move on her in many wonderfully torturous years of being friends—I would hurt her. It would just be a matter of when.
My dick stirs in my pants. It likes Sydney’s curves a little too much. I’ve fantasized about running one hand over her lush hips while gripping her ebony hair in my other hand and kissing a path down the column of her throat. Tearing my attention from her ass, I toss a nasty scowl at a guy in a stylish jacket who looks at her for too damn long. He glances away rapidly. Wimp.
I dog her footsteps all the way to her apartment building, giving myself permission to be fascinated by the tendril of hair that caresses the bronze skin of her shoulder.
When we arrive, she gives me the first hint she knows or cares I’m there, calling over her shoulder, “I’m safe, you can go now.”
Isn’t she going to invite me in? I’d been sure she’d cool off and change her mind on the way over. Sydney doesn’t have a temper, which means I was right: something is seriously wrong. I’m beginning to think I’ve screwed up. I should have tried harder not to be late. Even if I couldn’t take a break because Dad was spurring me on from the sidelines, I should have got Jase or Devon—my training buddies and the closest thing I have to brothers—to send her a text. But surely she isn’t like this just because I was running behind for dinner?
“Syd…” I trail off when she doesn’t look around. “I’m sorry.”
“Yeah? Well, so am I.” With that, she enters the building and shuts the door behind her. The click of the lock is soft but it echoes like a gunshot in the night. Like a fucking moron, I stare at the door for a good long moment before processing what it means. She’s angry at me, and I won’t be seeing any more of her tonight. Brooding over what to do next, not accustomed to being cut off like this, I backtrack to the diner and approach Marcel.
“Gabe,” he mutters when he sees me.
“Did something bad happen to Syd?” I demand, desperate to understand what’s going on, and furious at the thought of anything upsetting her. “Was someone rude or unpleasant to her?”
Marcel rests his forearms on the counter and looks me in the eye. He’s one of the few people who’s not afraid to do that, because he’s known me since I was a kid. “Nothing happened,” he says. “Except that she sat there for an hour looking miserable and lonely.” He shakes his head. “You’re a good guy, but I’m sick of seeing her wait on you. A girl like that should be cherished.”
Cherished? Yeah, she fucking should be. But not by me.
“We’re not a couple.”
Marcel raises a brow. “If you want it to stay that way, you’re going about things right.”
Releasing June 24