Fighting Solitude (On the Ropes #3)(10) by Aly Martinez

His shoulder shook as he chuckled. “I’m okay. I see you kept up your end of the deal and learned sign.” His voice was thick but unreadable. “I’m kinda failing on my end. Sorry.”

Don’t you dare apologize. You didn’t fail anything. This was—

He gently pushed my hand down with his glove to interrupt me. “You can talk, Liv.” Stepping away, he turned to face me. No sooner had he stilled than his eyes flared wide as he drank me in for the first time in over three years. He wasn’t the only one who had grown up—and had grown up well. “Jesus,” he breathed, dropping his gaze to the ground after it had lingered on my boobs for a beat too long.

I was used to the attention. When I was fourteen, I’d gone from an A cup to a D. I no longer looked like a little girl in any regard. While I wasn’t the most popular girl in school, there wasn’t exactly a shortage of boys asking me out. There was, however, a shortage of me being interested—a fact that thrilled my parents. But, with only a single glance, I was suddenly very, very interested in one boy in particular.

Thankfully, my mind was still focused on the reason for our little reunion. Snapping my fingers in his line of vision, I drew his attention back to my hands.

How are you handling all this?

“Stop with the sign language and talk.”

I tipped my head to the side in confusion then once again started to sign.

He barked a laugh. “Liv, I can hear you. Just talk.”

“What?!” I shrieked.

He tapped his ear with a gloved hand. “Hearing aids.”

“What?!” I repeated.

His lips spread into a wide smile that only grew when my eyes became fixated on it.

“Jesus,” I repeated and flashed my gaze away.

“I heard that.”

“Wha…how?”

“Shit, Liv, did you go deaf? I said…hearing aids.” After tucking a glove under his arm, he tugged it off and then repeated the process on the other side.

I glared at him. “Oh my God! Did you lie to that magazine? It said you were deaf! That’s seriously messed up.”

He laughed loudly while raking a hand through his hair. His abs flexed deliciously—not that I noticed or anything.

“I didn’t lie. But I probably would have if I’d known it would bring you back from that cave you’ve been hiding in.” He smirked.

A real-life, mouth-watering, manly smirk. It was infuriating—and gorgeous.

For a champion boxer, his reflexes were seriously slow. Thus, when I threw a punch, it landed squarely on his shoulder.

“I’m not back!”

That freaking smirk morphed into a megawatt grin as he rubbed the spot where I’d hopefully left a bruise. “She’s back.”

“I’m not back! But tell me why a magazine reported you were deaf when—”

He crossed his thick arms over his chest, regarding me humorously. “When what?”

“You can hear.”

“I can.” He bent at the waist and leaned in close. “With hearing aids.”

I threw my hands out to the sides. “That’s not deaf!”

He tipped his head to the side. “I wasn’t aware you got your medical license over the last few years.”

I crossed my arms over my chest, mirroring his posture, only I was sporting a scowl instead of a smile. “It’s good to see you’re still a liar.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Liar? How exactly do you figure that?”

I was becoming more and more annoyed. Mainly because I wanted to be annoyed but couldn’t manage it due to my overwhelming relief that he could still hear. But also because, with every word he spoke, I realized just how much I’d missed him over the years. Unfortunately, I also couldn’t forget how much he’d hurt me.

And, just like a switch had been flipped, I was suddenly able to overcome the annoyance and longing. I replaced it with anger—irrational, juvenile, straight-up-bitch anger. I wasn’t above a low blow.

Mocking a deep voice, I said, “I can’t protect you, Liv. I’m a failure, Liv. Hey, let me get my kicks out of scaring the fucking piss out of you, Rocky.” I spat his nickname for me like a curse. Dropping the voice and stepping toward him, I poked his chest with my finger. “Yes, Quarry. You’re a liar. You’re also a coward. And I hate you for it. And I hate myself because, even knowing all of this…I’ve still missed you.”

The shit-eating grin disappeared from his handsome face, but it didn’t make me feel better in the least. The remorse left behind was staggering.

I didn’t cry, but as I stared into his haunted hazel eyes, I still wiped my face because I was sure the tears were on their way.

I wanted to go back for another verbal jab, just to make him hurt, but my voice broke. I couldn’t do it. No matter how mad I was.

“I never should have come here. I’m glad to see you aren’t deaf,” I called over my shoulder as I headed for the gym door.

I didn’t get but two steps away before his arm snaked around my waist and pulled my back against his chest. I didn’t fight him. Sure, he was more than twice my size, so there was no use anyway. But, honestly, I just liked the way I felt in his arms.

“You’re right,” he gritted out. “I was a coward. I was also a thirteen-year-old boy who had no idea how to deal with the fact that the woman I consider a mother had been kidnapped and my brother had been paralyzed. I was fucked up, Liv. Christ, I’m still fucked up. Thirteen, seventeen, eighty. That shit was enough to screw with anyone’s head regardless of age.”

“That’s not an apology!”

“I see you didn’t read my letters.”

“I see you’re a moron,” I bit back. It didn’t make much sense, but with him so close, it was all I could come up with.

“I apologized a million times in those letters.”

“I didn’t want your apology then.”

“But you want it now?”

“Yes! I mean…no.” I sucked in a deep breath and tried to cling to some semblance of composure. I wasn’t there to make up with my best friend.

As far as I was concerned, those didn’t exist.

I was only selfishly attempting to quell my own anxiety. “Look, I didn’t come here to rehash this. It happened. I just came because I thought you were deaf.”

“I am deaf.”

“Oh my God! Quit lying! If you just heard me say that, you aren’t deaf!”

His whole body stiffened behind me, and his arm flexed around my stomach. “You can sling whatever fucking insult you want at me, and I will happily take them all from you. I’m an asshole for locking you in that closet. I’m a dumbass who sent you a million goddamn letters in order to apologize. I’m also an idiot who even went so far as to tell your dad what happened, hoping for some kind of help in delivering those same damn letters.”

Now that was a surprise. It also explained why my mom had lied about our little excursion.

“You told my dad?”

“Yep. And trust me—not my smartest decision. He. Was. Pissed.”

A giggle slipped out when I tried to imagine how that conversation had gone down.

“What I am not is a liar. I won’t even take that shit from you, Rocky. Yes, I can hear you now, but if I take these hearing aids out, I wouldn’t be able to understand a damn word you said. I can still hear noises, but I’m useless with words. Five weeks ago, they vanished. And doctors are predicting even the noises will be gone soon enough.”

“Oh.” My cheeks heated with embarrassment.

“Yeah. Oh.” His arm fell away as he took a step in front of me, fisting his wrapped hands on his hips. “You had three hours on the ride down here. I figured you’d have at least read the article.”

Hmm. I should have read the article.

“I was worried,” I snapped, holding his glare.

He arched an eyebrow. “You didn’t ask your parents before driving all the way down here?”

Damn. I really should have let my mom finish.

“I was worried,” I repeated, narrowing my eyes.

It only caused one side of his mouth to tip up. “Right. Well, I’m glad. I’ve missed the fuck out of you too. I seriously need the cardio. I haven’t run a punishment lap in years.” He poked my side.

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