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She’d just closed the door of her room behind her and flipped the security bar when her cell phone rang. The screen said
Kate Tessaro
and Del smiled as she swiped to answer the call from the bride-to-be.

“Are you there yet?” Kate asked before she could even say hello.

“I just walked into my room.”

“Tell me it’s beautiful.”

Del looked around, giving a mental shrug. It was nice, though not nearly as lavish as the suites they hadn’t been able to get. “You’re going to love all the Christmas stuff in the lobby. There are nutcrackers taller than you and the biggest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen.”

Sukumar Roy, one of the greatest writers and illustrators in the history of Bengali literature, was born in 1887. Swift minded, he synthesized words and images. Unfortunately, his literary style is very difficult to translate. Satyajit made an effort to put into English some verses from 'The King of Bombardia”, from the book, Abol-Tabol. A Fighting Chance SlytherinSweetheart (Cherrypie) practically empty, the young boy opened the door the rest of the way and stepped past the threshold. His eyes were blue like the ocean with flecks of grey and white, his hair the color of coffee and kept relatively close to his skull. Fighting hard against the stunning spell to.

She heard the happy sigh over the line. “I can’t wait to see it, and I’m so jealous you get to be there early.”

Kate had fallen in love with a guy from Rhode Island on the internet and moved there from Boston to live with him. She hadn’t been able to get Thursday or Friday off from work since she was taking the week after Christmas for a stay-at-home honeymoon, but she wouldn’t have a long drive Saturday morning. And Brittany Woods, the third of their trio, was driving down from Vermont Friday night
and probably wouldn’t arrive until very late.

“Did you lose any money yet?”

Del laughed. “No, not yet. When I said I just walked into my room, I mean I literally just got here.”

She walked to the wall of windows as she talked and looked down thirty-four floors at the tiny cars driving around the bottom of the building, probably looking for the turn to valet parking. Beyond the perimeter
road was a wide river and beyond that, nothing but trees.

“Try not to lose all your money before we get there,” Kate said, but then she laughed. “As if you would. Are you even going to leave your room, or are you going to stay in your pajamas and watch movies and eat room service until Saturday morning?”

“Busted.” There was no sense in trying to deny it to Kate since none of them had
changed very much since their college days. Kate was the social butterfly and loved going out. She always wanted to
do something
. Brittany was happy either going out or staying in, but even with their limited space, she liked to have friends over and movie nights with popcorn or board games. Del was the quiet one, happy to have fun with a crowd, but happier to have a quiet night watching TV or
reading a book. At the time, they’d always joked about balancing each other out but looking back, it was a miracle they’d made it through four years together.

“I’ll let you get to it, then,” Kate said. “I have to make some phone calls to make sure nobody’s going to screw up my big day.”

Because she was getting married on Christmas Eve, Kate had to deal not only with the normal wedding
insanity, but the fact that most vendors were quitting early the day of her wedding, if they were working at all. Luckily it was a small family affair, but she still needed to coordinate the food and flower deliveries and make sure nobody dropped the ball because there was no Plan B available the night before Christmas.

“I bought new flannel pajamas just for the occasion,” Del said.

Kate laughed again. “Knowing you, you’ll still be in them when I get there, so I’ll admire them then.”

The phone on the desk rang. “Hey, they’re probably calling to tell me they’re bringing my suitcase up. I’ve got to run.”

Once the call ended and her luggage had been delivered, Del dug her charger out of her purse and plugged the phone in to charge while she freshened up. The new pajamas
were definitely calling to her, but she would go out and explore a little bit first. The website had listed all the high-end stores on site—selling everything from makeup to bags to jewelry and sports things—but she’d save the shopping until the others arrived. And, despite Kate’s jokes, she didn’t have a lot of interest in the casinos other than people-watching. But she’d find a coffee shop
and something to eat before finding something to watch for the night.

And it wouldn’t hurt her to explore a little bit. All work and almost no play was threatening to turn Del into a very dull girl.

She switched her license, credit card and a small amount of cash into a wristlet before locking her purse, jewelry and tablet in the room safe. After making sure she could remember her room
number, she tossed the cardboard folder in the trash can and put the key card into the wristlet with her money.

There were a lot more people milling around when she returned to the lobby, and she chalked it up to it being later in the day. The people who’d had to work Thursday but had taken a three-day weekend were probably arriving. She was a little surprised to see so many people dressed
down in ripped jeans and T-shirts, though. Some had hoodies on over the tees and, though she wasn’t exactly dressed up herself, she felt she’d stepped into the crowd for a rock concert rather than the lobby of a hotel that charged four hundred dollars a night for their run-of-the-mill rooms.


She hung a left at the giant white tree and went down an escalator into the casino area of the complex.
There was a bar area at the bottom, and wide hallways split to either side of it. After flipping a mental coin, she went to the right. It was hard to walk past some of the shops and their tempting window displays without going inside, but she knew Kate and Brittany would want to hit every one of them later.

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Instead she focused on scanning the restaurant names, waiting for something to stand
out. They all had their menus hung outside their doors for passersby to peruse, and she stopped to read a few, but none lured her inside. She didn’t mind eating alone, but she wasn’t in the mood for long lines and loud restaurants tonight.

As she neared the end of the hall, which widened as it became the entrance to one of the big casino wings, she realized she’d come to the end of her options
unless she wanted to wade through the gamblers and cigarette smoke to see what else there was. Off to one side, near a smaller hallway leading to restrooms and elevators, was a map. She decided to take a look at it and see if there were any coffee shops or more casual dining options to be found if she’d taken a left back at the bar.

First, though, she had to get by the people. There was a
crowd gathered, with a line forming in front of a long table. There was nobody sitting there, but off to one side was a massive banner advertising what looked like an autograph session with shirtless men who were scowling at the camera and holding their fists up like they were going to punch somebody.

Are you here for the fights?
This must have been what the check-in clerk was talking about,
she thought. Boxing, maybe?

MMA, the sign said, and she knew from the hype surrounding a recent pay-per-view event it was like boxing, but mixed with wrestling and martial arts. Other than a few highlight reels on the news, she’d never actually seen it.

According to the sign, there would be an autograph session any minute and she had no interest, so she would have kept walking, but a
few of the people in line shifted slightly so she could see the bottom half. She could have her picture taken and get an autograph from Bryan Lavaud or Brendan Quinn.

Brendan Quinn.
It couldn’t be. She found it hard to breathe suddenly and the sounds around her faded as though sucked into some kind of vacuum.

Staring out at her from the poster, scowling and fierce, was the face of the
only man she’d ever loved.

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His brown hair was shorter than before, though still long enough to have the thick, bedhead look she’d found so sexy. Shirtless for the photo, he showed off rippling muscles, a sheen of sweat, and tattoos across his chest and down one arm. Those were new since the last time she’d seen him. But all she had to do was look into the dark eyes framed by eyelashes that
would make most women weep with envy to know the intense man in the photograph was

her Brendan. He wasn’t anymore, and he hadn’t been for almost six years. After taking a deep—if shaky—breath, she flipped off the poster and kept walking.


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* * *

Brendan leaned against the elevator wall, bobbing his head slightly in time to the bass thumping through his earbuds.
The music calmed him, blocking out the noise around him, as he focused on stepping into the persona that the fight fans expected him to be.

The elevator was almost full, but he stared straight ahead. His manager and trainer were talking to each other, but Brendan couldn’t hear them and he didn’t care what they were talking about. A uniformed security guard stood by the control panel. There
was also a member of the hotel’s security team and two people representing the fight’s promoter, one of whom was a very attractive woman named Janie whose job seemed to be making sure his every need was met. And she’d let him know that really meant
need. Brendan had ignored the blatant offer and told her he’d let her know if there was anything he wanted. There wouldn’t be.

The only
thing he wanted was for this fight to be over so he could go to the family cabin in Maine, maybe hit the snowmobile trails with his cousin Scott, if he didn’t take too much of a beating, and have some quiet recovery time before showing up at his parents’ for Christmas.

There had been a time, after he walked away from the woman he loved, that he’d dreamed of becoming an MMA superstar. To fill
the void in his life, he’d joined a gym and found out the owner trained a couple of fighters. He had some natural skill and it wasn’t long before he’d stepped into the octagon. He’d replaced his desire for Del with desire for the cage. A desire for guts, glory and money. Pay-per-view and endorsement deals. And a flashy belt draped over his shoulder as the camera flashes blinded him.

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two years before, his older brother had hit black ice going too fast and the whole world stopped. Unable to leave his dad to run his roofing business alone, Brendan had scaled back on his dreams and his training time. Heading to New York or Los Angeles and fighting his way into a top gym wasn’t an option, so he’d gone back to his Boston gym. He fought on the local circuit and got some marquee fights
from time to time. He won some and he lost some. And he made a little extra money to supplement the paychecks from Quinn Roofing without giving up fighting. He was happy. Mostly.

This would be his toughest fight in a couple of years, for a big promoter who’d lost a guy to a training injury only three weeks before. Brendan was a local favorite and would be the only East Coast fighter on the
card, so the crowd would love him and that would help fill seats. He’d been offered enough money to make the training crunch and the risk of showing up at his mom’s Christmas dinner with his face and body bashed up worthwhile.

When his manager’s elbow jabbed him, Brendan lowered his hood and popped one earbud out. “What?”

“He’s talking to you.”

was the guy who seemed to be some
kind of liaison between the promoter and the casino, and Brendan struggled to remember his name. “Sorry. What’s up?”

“There’s a pretty good line already, so we’re having extra security brought in. People have been waiting a while, so we need you to go straight to the table without stopping, because if you do a photo or autograph for some random person where the folks who’ve been waiting can
see, we’ll have a potential crush to get to you.”

Brendan nodded. Corey was the guy’s name, he thought. Corey something. “No problem.”

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He thought
was a bit of an exaggeration. While he might be the hometown boy and he had a decent fan base, none of the fighters had exactly reached celebrity status. Not even Bryan Lavaud—whom he’d be facing in the cage and who was expected to win—though
he’d been on a few pay-per-view undercards. Brendan was definitely the underdog, but he’d have a good chunk of the crowd chanting his name and anything could happen when the energy level was high.

Today they’d be signing autographs and probably posing for endless selfies with fans who cared enough about the fights to show up a day early and put more money in the casino’s pockets. Even the
fans who didn’t stay in the very expensive hotel rooms would eat overpriced food and drop money in the casino before heading home or to the cheaper motels down the road.

“It’s showtime,” Janie said as the elevator settled on the casino-level floor.

Brendan put the earbud back in and pulled his hood up as the doors slid open to reveal two more security guards, big guys in black suits
with earpieces, as though they were pretending to be secret service or something. All part of the show, Brendan thought. The more important the security looked, the more important the person they were protecting appeared to be.

Corey put his hand over the door bumper to give them all time to disembark, with the fighter going last. It was all a performance and it wasn’t Brendan’s favorite
part of being a fighter, but the better the fan experience, the higher the ticket sales.

They’d set up for the autograph session near the entrance to the main casino, and he could hear the noise as they walked down the hallway. The others were around him, like an entourage, which always amused the hell out of him. Brendan Quinn with an entourage.

But he didn’t let the amusement show.
Stone-faced, he concentrated on walking tall, with a swagger that crossed the line into arrogant. As Janie had said,

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As they neared the end of the hall and he could see the crowd standing in line, he watched a curvy brunette standing in front of the giant poster, staring at his face. Maybe it was her upscale outfit that caught his eye—since she wasn’t wearing the merchandising T-shirts
that most of the other women were—or the way she was so intent on the poster, but he couldn’t stop himself from watching her.

Then she flipped his giant face the bird and spun on her heel to walk away.

“Okay, that’s weird,” he heard Janie say in a low voice, and he sensed the circle of people around him closing in as the woman veered in their direction.

She was looking at her phone,
but she must have sensed she was approaching a crowd because she glanced up and started stepping to the left to avoid them.