Fighting Solitude (On the Ropes #3)(5) by Aly Martinez

Shaking my head, I responded, “Later, Liv!”

AS TIME PASSED, QUARRY AND I only became closer. We were best friends. And, even though we didn’t get to see each other every day, it was unforgettable each time we were together.

Over the next year, Till’s dream came true as he started boxing professionally. Uncle Slate was his trainer, which meant, as the head of his security, my father was on the road with the Page family more often than not. It also meant that I got to see Quarry almost every weekend. Those visits were the highlights of my week. I spent Monday through Friday at my private school in Chicago, counting down the days until I got to see those hazel eyes and that boyish smirk again.

Quarry followed through on his promise to me and tried really hard not to go deaf, and I followed through on my promise to him and learned sign language just in case. I had to quit soccer in order to make the nightly classes at the local community center, but I was okay with that. Quarry was more important, and to be honest, shin guards and grass stains clashed with everything.

When I was ten, Quarry beat the snot out of some kid at one of Till’s professional boxing matches for having called me a nerd. I hadn’t even heard the comment because I’d been wearing my headphones and engrossed in a book. But that didn’t mean I didn’t take great pleasure in watching Quarry teach that jerk a lesson. He was always there for me, even when I didn’t even know I needed him to be. It was yet another layer of security my timid soul so badly needed.

A fragility only Quarry knew existed within me.

And one he protected regardless of the punishment that usually followed.

When I was eleven, I broke my arm after he’d finally given in to my constant begging and agreed to teach me how to skateboard. He’d tried to catch me as I’d fallen, but the skateboard had clocked him pretty nicely in the head when it shot out from under my feet. He never left my side as I lay crying on the sidewalk. After ordering a kid to get my mom, he rubbed a soothing hand up and down my back while whispering profuse apologies intertwined with a million curse words. Just before we left for the hospital, he brazenly climbed into the backseat beside me even after my dad had told him that he couldn’t go. Quarry didn’t budge though.

Burying his hands in his lap, he boldly returned my dad’s stare in the review mirror and said, “No disrespect, Leo, but this is my fault. I’m going.”

We all knew that it wasn’t his fault, but after a quick glance at me, and at my mother’s urging, my dad gave up and slowly pulled out of the parking lot.

With a black-and-blue knot on his forehead, Quarry spent four hours painting my cast to look like a zombie hand. My dad laughed and patted Quarry’s shoulder as I proudly showed it off around the gym. It was badass—especially after my mom had added a purple bow around the wrist.

Later that same year, Quarry’s life got even harder when his oldest brother suddenly went deaf. The whole On The Ropes family pitched in to help the boys during the initial adjustment. And that family included my mom and dad. We spent a week in Indianapolis. I hated the reason why we were there, but spending a whole week with Quarry was the equivalent of a Disney vacation for me.

Unfortunately, it didn’t feel like one. During that time, I saw something in Quarry Page I’d never be able to forget: fear. Of course, he’d never admit it, but the broken innocence hidden behind those hazel eyes was devastating even to a young girl like me. My heart shattered for him.

For the present in which he was forced to watch his brother fumbling through his new life in silence.

But mostly for the future in which he’d share the same fate.

He leaned on me. Or, more accurately, he let me sit beside him while he repeatedly held his breath and pretended the world didn’t exist. Quarry wasn’t lying; he did like the quiet. He also liked the dark. So, with my headphones blaring in my ears and my iPad illuminated in my lap, I spent countless hours in a secluded corner, pretending tears weren’t dripping off his chin. We were at least six inches apart and we never spoke a single word. But we were together all the same. My company was the only comfort Quarry would allow me to offer him.

One thing I’d learned was that Quarry hated hugs. He dodged my arms every chance he got. I, on the other hand, loved them, so I snuck them as often as I could—usually by ambushing him from behind. He’d always curse and complain, but his body would relax almost instantly, and when I would bury my face between his shoulder blades, I could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He’d stand there motionlessly until I was done and then walk away as if it hadn’t happened.

But it happened.

And I had a sneaking suspicion that he gave it to me because he thought I needed it.

Which I absolutely did.

But so did he.

It’s funny how much a person can grow and change in only three hundred and sixty five days. On the flip side, sometimes there aren’t enough days to ever change some things.

When I was twelve, I fell in love with Quarry Page. And not the kind of love that had me doodling his name in hearts on every notebook I owned. I’m talking the kind of love that seeps into the marrow of your bones and becomes part of your very being. I didn’t have daydreams of wearing a white dress and meeting him at an altar. I did, however, want to sleep every single night for the rest of my life at his side.

I discovered that magical feeling on one of my numerous trips to Indianapolis.

It was Aunt Erica’s birthday, and we were in town so my parents could go to the surprise party Uncle Slate and my mom had been planning for months. Minutes before they were supposed to leave, their usual nanny called out sick. Erica was ready to cancel the whole thing and stay home, but Slate scrambled, and luckily for me, newly turned eighteen-year-old Flint Page was first on his list of replacements.

I liked Flint. He was nice enough. Boring, but still nice.

But he wasn’t why I was lucky.

My night took an exciting turn when Quarry came strutting in behind his brother. His dark hair was swept to the side but still hanging in his eyes as his gaze found mine. That dimple dented his cheek as a crooked grin formed on his lips.

“Sup.” He lifted his chin in my direction, acting every bit as cool as he looked in a pair of purposely tattered jeans and a T-shirt that was hopeless to hide the muscles that made him appear far older than thirteen.

I, however, wasn’t cool at all.

“Q!” I squealed, bouncing on my toes.

He laughed only to quiet suddenly when my dad caught him by the back of the shirt and said, “I’m watching you, boy.” It was a threat, but he said it with a smile.

Everyone knew that Q and I were close. They also knew we were only friends. My parents loved the Page boys and trusted them implicitly. Sure, Quarry got into his fair share of trouble—usually my trouble he took the wrap for. But they always knew he’d never let anything happen to me. My dad actually adored how protective he was over me. It was probably the only reason he allowed his little princess to spend so much time with a rough-around-the-edges boy.

“Yes, sir,” Quarry quickly responded.

“Okay, Flint. I put a list of emergency numbers on the fridge. Ty and Adam are both asleep in Adam’s room, but if they wake up, turn on the sound machine and leave the door cracked. They’ll fall right back to sleep,” Aunt Erica said to Flint as my mom huddled beside her.

“Oh, don’t worry about Ty. He sleeps like a rock,” my mom added.

“I put a sippy cup in the fridge for Riley. It’s the pink one. Not the blue one. Just remember: She’s the girl. Pink.”

“I think I can handle that,” he replied, flashing his eyes to Uncle Slate in a plea for backup.

“Erica, leave the boy alone. This isn’t exactly his first time with the kids!” Slate shouted.

“It is with Ty and Liv too! Four kids is a lot different,” she called back, never dragging her eyes off Flint. “Are you sure you can handle this? I mean, it’s not too late to say no.” She nervously toyed with the ends of her long, blond hair.

“It’ll be no problem.” He laughed. “Riley and Adam are easy, and if Ty wakes up, Liv can help me with him.”

Erica smiled, but her hesitance was still obvious. Turning to my mother, she asked, “Are you sure you’re okay with this, Sarah? We could always go out another night.”

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