I haven’t done and official announcement on this yet, but my new book comes out in less than two weeks! Since Caged Warrior will be released on the 13th of September, I thought now would be a good time to offer a sneak peek at chapter 1!
First, here’s the blurb:
Meet the Underground Fighters—men battling it out in illegal cage matches for money. All have their reasons for fighting. But will love be enough to free them?
Diego: Loner. Bad boy. Ex-con.
As far as the world knows, Diego Johnson is dead. And in some ways, he is.
Diego has his own reasons for fighting. Mostly, he just wants to be free. But for that he needs money, and there are only so many jobs a man can do when he’s supposed to be dead. Especially when violence was his only tool for so long.
When he meets Rosalyn—a gorgeous and mysterious redhead—at one of his fights, he realises what he’s been missing.
Rosalyn has her own reasons for getting close to sexy, tattooed Diego. She’s a journalist determined to prove herself, and a story about the underground fighters is exactly the kind she needs to impress her boss. But the brutal world she stumbles into is not what she expected. All the men have their reasons for being there, and they protect their own.
Only when Diego claims her as his does she have a hope of making it out alive.
This new series is about fighters in illegal cage matches – inspired by my love of the trope in action movies. I’ve obviously added a lot more romance than most of those, though!
Anyway, I really hope you like it as much as I enjoyed writing it! Without further ado, here’s Chapter 1:
The fist flew out of nowhere.
Diego ducked, narrowly missing Chen’s knuckles as they flew past his face. He returned with an uppercut, catching Chen on the jaw with a brutal blow that sent the smaller man staggering backward. Blood splattered from his nose, falling across the filthy concrete floor like a fucking Jackson Pollock painting. But Chen didn’t go down. Instead, he narrowed his eyes from across the makeshift cage and readied himself for another attack.
Diego braced himself, keeping his mind blank. If he tried to anticipate what Chen would do next he’d probably assume wrong and end up flat on his back. His chest bellowed as he tried to suck in enough air to get him through this next skirmish. Blood dripped into his eye from a cut on his forehead, obscuring his vision, but he didn’t take the time to wipe it away. The instant his guard was down, Chen would strike.
He was flagging. The fight had already been going for ten minutes without a break. It never seemed like much from the outside, but maintaining this level of energy, this fight-for-your-life mentality, was draining. And in illegal fighting, there were no rounds to give you a break in between.
Chen charged, leaping off the ground to gain height as he drove his fist down into Diego’s face.
He should have expected it. Chen was short but he was fast, and could jump like nobody’s business. Diego fell to one knee as his head buzzed from the impact.
Chen dove forward, aiming to get Diego in a headlock and choke him out, but he had enough presence of mind to twist out of the way. There was no recovery time in these fights. No gentlemanly allowances. All you had were your strength, skill, guts, and instincts.
Diego gained his feet and shook his head to clear it. He kept his eye on Chen as the man bounced on his feet, looking for an opening, a fount of seemingly endless energy.
The crowd beyond the cage was eerily silent. Diego didn’t think he’d ever get used to the quiet, watchful spectators in these fights. From past experience—in his old life—everything from a sporting match to an off-the-cuff fight would attract a cheering audience. But these rich assholes didn’t want to exert themselves that far.
Instead, they wanted to watch the fighters do it for them.
Diego launched an offensive manoeuvre, slipping past Chen’s guard to land a solid punch to his chest. Without waiting for Chen to recover, Diego slipped around his back and knocked Chen’s feet out from under him. He controlled the fall, but the impact on the hard concrete—no mats for these fights—still knocked the breath from his lungs. He didn’t let it distract him, rolling so he had Chen in a headlock and his arm twisted in an uncomfortable position. Diego was in complete control. All he had to do was stay focused, not let Chen slip out from the hold.
He squeezed tighter, blocking off Chen’s airflow. Not long now.
A flash of red at the corner of Diego’s eye distracted him. He glanced up, past the rickety cage that had been constructed to separate the fighters from the spectators. Red hair, gold dress, creamy skin. The woman was a goddess of light in the midst of the dirt and misery of the fights.
He didn’t know what it was about her—there were plenty of beautiful women here tonight, from McCready’s women serving champagne to the guests, to the guests themselves. Often the women were trophies or partners of the rich men that attended, but a few came of their own accord to watch the fights as well.
But this woman…there was no way. Her eyes were wide with curiosity as they scanned the cage, not flat with cynicism. Her dress wasn’t skimpy enough for her to be one of McCready’s women, since they all wore a kind of uniform. But nor was it right for her to be part of the crowd, either.
He’d been fighting these damn fights for nearly a year and he’d never seen anyone like her within these filthy, hallowed walls.
So what was she doing here?
He was torn between wanting to find out and wanting to avoid her entirely. She had trouble written all over her. And he’d had enough trouble in his life.
Her gaze shifted, their eyes locked. A surprising bolt of heat hit him, making him forget where he was, what he was doing. Chen twisted, almost slipping out of his grip, but Diego tightened his hold, locking the man in place.
He couldn’t allow himself to get distracted, no matter how intriguing he found the redhead.
A few seconds later and it was all over. Chen slumped, losing consciousness, and Diego waited a moment before slowly peeling himself away.
The crowd clapped politely, making Diego feel like a fucking performing monkey. He scowled at them, still breathing hard, as he rose to his feet. They stared back, unafraid and uninterested now he’d won the fight.
Diego glanced at Chen. The guy was waking up, seeming no worse for wear, so he ignored him. Instead, his eyes searched through the crowd. First he found McCready, standing at the back with a cadre of fighters around him. His fighters, the ones that did whatever he said, including throwing fights, and even on a few occasions killing their competitors in the ring. There was no proof it was on purpose, but they all knew how this shit worked. They were fodder, their lives were in McCready’s hands, at his mercy if he wanted to make a quick buck by getting the crowd a bit more worked up by adding real danger to the mix.
McCready strained the seams of his slick, three-piece suit in vibrant blue, with a tie and pocket square of complementary purple. He had broad shoulders, and plenty of residual muscle even though the man must be close to fifty. His hair was slicked to the side, his face worn and cragged.
McCready gave him a nod to signify he accepted the win—Diego would get paid tonight. Chen wouldn’t. He’d fought well, but not well enough to beat Diego. He wanted it too badly.
He turned to leave the cage, and that was when his eyes found the woman yet again. He hadn’t imagined it. She was beautiful, totally out of place, and absolutely none of his fucking business.
He tore his gaze away and rattled the door to the cage. Another of McCready’s fighters unlocked it, freeing him. Diego strode out, the fighter shadowing him until he was no longer in reach of the rich assholes that had so disinterestedly watched him fight, in case he took it into his head to go after McCready’s cash cows.
Spider met him on the edge of the crowd. Spider was McCready’s right-hand man, and a fighter himself. Diego had only met him once in the cage, and both men had nearly killed each other in the vicious fight. Diego had won—just. And Spider had never forgiven him.
Spider was of average height, but nearly as wide as he was tall, with muscles bulging from his biceps. He’d lost a few teeth, the holes visible as he sneered at Diego, and his shaggy hair was thinning a little on top.
“Here’s your cash,” Spider spat, shoving the notes into Diego’s chest.
Diego narrowed his gaze and calmly extracted the bills from beneath the other man’s hand. He’d dealt with way worse than this thug.
“Thanks. Reckon McCready will give me a bonus next time we fight?” he asked. “When I win again, I mean.”
Spider’s jaw flexed, and looked ready to throw a punch. Diego wiped away the blood trickling down the side of his face and prepared himself in case Spider was stupid enough to start a fight. Spider glanced over at McCready and saw the fight financier watching them. After a moment’s hesitation, he stepped away, thwarted violence written across his face like a promise.
Diego wasn’t worried. Spider wouldn’t fight Diego outside of the ring without McCready’s permission—mostly because McCready couldn’t profit from a fight that happened away from the crowds.
And McCready owned Spider’s ass.
“See you around,” he said with a wink, then strode away from the seething man. He walked out to the back of the warehouse—otherwise empty apart from the fight and the audience—and slipped into an office right before the back entrance. It was empty except for two chairs and an older, silver-haired man wearing thin-rimmed spectacles.
“Doc,” Diego greeted him. He didn’t know the guy’s real name, and preferred not to. Sometimes it was inevitable to find out, but it helped Diego keep his distance if he didn’t know the people in this world too much. Everyone else seemed to have the same idea. They didn’t go for drinks after the matches, barely even talked to each other. It made it much easier to force his fist into someone’s face if he didn’t know or care about them.
“DJ,” Doc replied. Diego would never get used to the fake-ish name he used here. He’d always been Diego, everywhere and anywhere he went. His last name was Johnston, so when he’d needed to give a name to these guys, it had seemed like a decent choice.
But it wasn’t the real him.
In a way that made it easier to do the things he did. He could think of it as DJ doing them, not himself.
Not that Diego was much better.
“Did you win?” Doc asked.
“Good for you.”
Diego lowered himself into one of the chairs with a wince. He’d be sore tomorrow. For such a scrawny guy, Chen packed quite a punch. He didn’t have to take off his shirt, since he didn’t fight in one—only boxing shorts and strapped hands.
Doc examined him, starting with shining a small flashlight into his eyes. Doc was kept around to examine each fighter once they came out of the cage. Not because McCready had a soft spot for them—he just didn’t want them to die outside of the ring where the crowd couldn’t bet on it.
Doc was technically no longer a doctor, as far as Diego could tell. He’d lost his licence some time back. Diego didn’t know why—didn’t ask—but he suspected it had something to do with the way the man’s hand shook as he held the flashlight.
Doc cleaned the cut on his forehead and stuck an adhesive bandage over it.
“What did I say about Vaseline?” he asked Diego.
Diego rolled his eyes. “I use it sometimes, but the crowd likes the blood.”
Doc eyed him curiously. “You’ve never cared before what they want.”
Diego shrugged, but a slight heated entered his cheeks. He felt almost like a small boy caught doing something he shouldn’t. “McCready sometimes gives bonuses if he’s really happy with the fight—if the crowd bets a lot. I can’t pass that up.”
Doc stilled. “I see.” He hesitated a moment. “What will you do?” he asked softly. “When you get whatever you’re fighting for?” There was not only curiosity in the man’s eyes, but a kind of yearning. Doc wanted to escape, too.
“Be free,” was all Diego said. Neither said anything more as Doc resumed his examination. A polite clapping came from outside, and Diego assumed the next competitors had entered the cage. He thought it might be Alexei after him—the huge Russian man with questionable English skills and a mean right hook.
A few minutes later, Doc pronounced him ready to go home with a clean enough bill of health. He wouldn’t be running a marathon tomorrow, but he’d survive.
“Thanks, man,” Diego told him.
Doc just gave a nod and a slight smile.
Diego left then, out the back door and toward the truck he’d parked in the back corner of the lot. It was dark—not quite midnight—and the one streetlight a few feet away was the only source of light in the vicinity. He kept his guard up, not nervous, but knowing Spider’s temper and not willing to take any chances the guy might accost him out of McCready’s sight.
He’d reached the driver’s side door when he heard the footsteps. He didn’t turn, they were too light to be any of the fighters he knew, but he waited. A voice sounded behind him.
“Hey there.” Smokey, sultry. Like a hot summer’s night with a bite to it. A bolt of heat shot through him at the sound, making him think all kinds of sinful thoughts. Two guesses who that voice belonged to and the first didn’t count.
He turned, taking in her flaming hair, challenging eyes, and confident stance. Her gaze flickered over him, once, taking in his bare chest. His heart kicked as lust speared through him, and he was forcibly reminded how long it had been since he’d been with a woman.
And this woman—she was something else. Curvy, feisty, but with a hint of vulnerability that kicked him in the gut. There wasn’t any room for vulnerable in his life, and there hadn’t been for a very long time. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d been so close to someone so soft and untried in the ways of the world.
Because there was no way a woman like this knew of life’s hardships. She’d never be stupid enough to be alone with an asshole like him otherwise.
But maybe she wasn’t so naïve. There was something—maybe a tightness in her shoulders only a fighter would recognise—that told him she was bracing herself. For what—rejection, or a straight out attack?—he didn’t know.
“If you’re here to get a piece of the winner, I’m not in the mood. I’m sure Chen wouldn’t mind the comfort, though.”
Surprise widened her eyes, then they narrowed. “I’m not, but thanks for the assumption.” The ‘asshole’ at the end of the statement was implied. Diego suppressed an amused smile. He was perversely glad to know she wasn’t a fighter’s equivalent of a puck bunny. Not that he would get involved with her, even for a night. He knew better than to get tangled up in a girl like her.
“So why are you here, Red?”
“My name’s Rosalyn.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
She crossed her arms over her chest in annoyance, which had the distinct advantage of pushing her cleavage up like an offering. Diego glanced once, then back to her face. Don’t be tempted.
She glared at him, obviously not impressed by his disinterest in her. She didn’t say anything immediately, so Diego opened his truck door and went to hop in.
“Wait!” she stopped him. Diego paused but didn’t take his leg out of the truck. “I’m new to this whole thing. I want to ask you some questions.”
Diego sized her up from over his shoulder. Her hands were balled into fists, betraying both her nerves and her determination.
Diego sighed and stepped away from his truck. “Look, Red. You don’t belong here. That much is obvious. My advice? Turn around and go back to where you came from. Pretend this place doesn’t exist.”
She straightened her shoulders. “Who says I don’t belong?”
Diego rolled his eyes. “You’re too curious. People come to these fights because they’re so beyond jaded by life. They have no other thrills, except to watch men beat each other with the chance that one might die. They bet on our lives—did you know that? They put money down on who might die in the cage. This isn’t normal MMA—not even an unsanctioned fight, since those are legal. These fights aren’t. They are underground, and brutal, and messy. It’s very clear you’re none of those things.”
She tilted her chin up. “So why do you fight?”
He shook his head and backed away from her. “I have my reasons, and they’re none of your concern.” He slid into the driver’s seat.
“So if I want my questions answered, who’s the best person to talk to?”
Diego’s hand froze on the door. He turned to her, trying to express with his gaze how utterly serious his next words would be. “You don’t. Ask too many questions around here and you might get disappeared or killed. It’s not worth the risk. Go back to your own life and leave whatever you’ve got going on behind you. Trust me.”
With that—his first virtuous move in a good long while—Diego slammed the truck door shut and turned on the engine. Red—Rosalyn—stared after him, but didn’t try to stop him as he backed out of the parking lot.
As he drove away, he couldn’t help hoping she’d take his advice to get far away from this place, and its misery. It had a way of sucking people into its orbit so they could never leave. Not alive, anyway. Diego had a plan to escape, but in the meantime, he couldn’t let someone like that near those fights. Not unless he wanted to see all that fire extinguished.