The first punch careened off Vaughn Wilde’s shoulder. He barely noticed it, but the quick second caught him alongside his jaw and thoroughly rattled his cage. He staggered sideways, tasted blood. Swiped at his mouth with his arm and came up with a streak of red.
Well, look at that. He was bleeding. Fuck. He’d gone soft in the last three months of inaction.
His opponent plowed into him like a bull seeing red and slammed him against the un-padded side of the cage. The metal links were so cold they burned his sweat-slicked back as he struggled to break the hold.
All around them, the crowd’s cheers surged into a dull roar that echoed off the empty warehouse’s ceiling. Bloodthirsty bastards wanted to see him, the reigning champion, lose this match, his first back in the octagon since a bomb nearly took him out last November. Hell, he was going to lose if he didn’t get his head into the fight.
No. He didn’t fucking lose. Ever.
Most people would have felt a surge of adrenaline then. Instead, Vaughn’s vision cleared, and time seemed to slow.
He managed to free one arm and drilled his elbow into the guy’s spine. It would have been a crippling blow if he’d been able to put any momentum into it, but as it was, it only momentarily distracted his opponent, giving him the opportunity he needed to break free.
And now that he was…
He rained punches down with a single-minded intensity, driving the guy across the concrete floor to the other side of the cage. The crowd’s cheers swelled again. As fickle as they were bloodthirsty, they were now firmly in Vaughn’s corner, chanting his name, wanting to see the champ rack up another win.
He wanted another win. Not for them. For himself. He needed the blood and sweat, needed the adrenaline burn, needed a goddamn distraction from the unsuccessful search for a woman he was starting to wonder even existed at all. She had to be a ghost or maybe a figment of his imagination—because Vaughn Wilde always found what he was looking for.
His opponent got in a good kick to his bad leg—the one he’d had in a cast until two weeks ago—and he managed to keep it from buckling by sheer willpower.
Fuck. His mind was wandering again. Time to end this little dance of theirs. It wasn’t giving him the release he needed anyway.
He launched a full-out attack, pummeling his opponent, landing strike after well-aimed strike until the guy collapsed under his fists. And once down, dude wasn’t getting back up without help.
Vaughn stood in the middle of the ring, his chest heaving, blood dripping from his knuckles, the crowd screaming and pounding on the cage all around him, and he felt…not a goddamn thing. No rush from the win, no thrill from the fight—nothing but his heart thundering way too hard in his ears, his aching knuckles, and the sweat dripping off him in cold rivulets, stinging the cuts on his face.
The crowd thundered their approval. All except one guy, who stood silently with his arms crossed over his chest, a frown pulling down the edges of his mouth.
Fucking hell. How had his twin found him?
Cam just shook his head, and his shoulders moved in a heavy sigh. He jerked his chin toward the front of the building, then walked away.
Oh yeah. He had a few choice words to say. Vaughn didn’t particularly want to hear any of them, and for a half second, he considered pretending he hadn’t seen Cam…
But no. That was a cop out, something a coward would do. And he was a lot of unflattering things—knew it, accepted it—but coward was nowhere on that list.
He grabbed his shirt, jacket, and water bottle and left the cage. The crowd parted. Either they sensed his shitty mood or they were just smart guys that knew he didn’t want any backslapping congratulations.
Or mostly smart guys. One overly-tanned little shit stepped into his path, and little was an understatement. He couldn’t have topped five-five, and maybe one-thirty soaking wet. He wore a white tracksuit and had so many chains draped around his skinny neck, it was a wonder the dude was able hold his head up.
“You fucking cheater.”
Vaughn stopped, a surge of anger heating the back of his neck. He scowled. “I don’t cheat.”
“My cousin doesn’t lose!”
“Neither do I.” This conversation wasn’t worth his time. Vaughn tried to step around the entitled little prick, but a much bigger guy who had the hard, flat eyes of a killer blocked him.
Okay, yeah, this might be trouble. He sized the guy up, pegged him as having no military training. Judging by the tats on the side of his neck, he was nothing more than a thug who had done some time. Definitely the more dangerous of the two, but still nothing to write home about.
He dismissed the pair of them and shouldered between them.
The little guy grabbed his arm. “Don’t walk away from me. I lost ten Gs on this fight.”
Vaughn shook off his grip. “Not my problem.”
“I’m making it your problem. Everyone knows my cousin doesn’t lose. Ever.”
Vaughn stared down at him. Who the hell was this kid?
At the rumbling voice, the crowd went silent. Vaughn’s stomach knotted as a barrel of a man walked toward them. This guy, he knew. Giuseppe Bellisario, former heavyweight champ and current head of the Bellisario crime family. He’d known the Bellisarios ran this underground fight ring, but he’d never seen any of them here before. He glanced over at the little shit in the tracksuit and inwardly groaned. That must be Tommaso “Tommy” Bellisario, Giuseppe’s nephew and by all accounts, the future don since Giuseppe’s son, Marcel, had been killed several years ago.
“He beat Cristiano fair and square,” Giuseppe said to his nephew, and there was no mistaking the note of shut-the-fuck-up in his tone. Then he turned back to Vaughn and held out a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt. “It was a good fight. You have a name?”
Fuck. He really didn’t want to be on a first name basis with the crime boss, but refusing the handshake was tantamount to suicide. “Vaughn.”
“You pack a hell of a punch, Vaughn, and you fight like nothing I’ve seen before. May I ask what you do for a living?”
Again, he’d rather not answer, so he settled on a half-truth. “I was military until a few years ago.”
“Ah, I thought maybe. No job now?”
“Occasional P.I. work.” Another half-truth. He wasn’t about to drag his brothers or Wilde Security into whatever this was. And it was something. Calculation lit Giuseppe’s dark brown eyes as he sized Vaughn up.
“Not many people can beat my son. He takes after me that way.”
Yeah, Giuseppe Bellisario had been a legend in his day. He still was. There were rumors of guys challenging him, and those fights never ended well for the challenger. At nearly sixty, Giuseppe was in awesome shape. Getting in the octagon with him was a fight to the death.
And holy fuck, his son? Vaughn gazed back toward the cage, where another bodyguard-type dude was helping Cristiano Bellisario to his feet. He hadn’t known there was a second son, but now it made sense Cristiano had a spotless record. No guy in his right mind would dare beat Giuseppe’s only living son unless they wanted to end up at the bottom of the Potomac with concrete shoes.
“A thinker, not a talker, huh?” Giuseppe said after the silence on Vaughn’s end dragged on too long.
“Honestly, I’m calculating my odds of living through the next ten minutes.”
Giuseppe gave a genuine, full-bellied bark of laughter. “Do you think the odds are in your favor?”
“Yeah, I do. If you wanted me dead, you’d have already sicced one of your attack dogs on me.” He motioned to the tatted killer with his chin.
“I’d be on my way to meeting my maker instead of standing here chatting with you.”
The crime boss made a noncommittal sound and turned to watch his son stumble from the cage with the help of two of his men. “Tell me, did you know Cristiano was my son before the fight?”
“No.” Vaughn straightened his shoulders. “But it wouldn’t have changed anything if I had. It’s not in me to throw a fight, no matter who my opponent is.”
Giuseppe grinned. “Nor is it in me. I respect that.” He reached into his coat, and Vaughn’s heart rate jacked up, his shoulders tightening in preparation for another fight. Giuseppe only chuckled and produced a card, which he held out between his pointer and middle fingers. “If you’re ever in need of work, I might be able to find something for you.”
Tommy sputtered. “Uncle, you can’t—”
“Go see to your cousin, Tommy. And if you again dare to tell me what I can’t do, I’ll cut out your tongue.” Giuseppe never took his eyes off Vaughn as he spoke, but he didn’t have to. He was the kind of man used to having his orders followed without protest. Tommy straightened to his full height and glared daggers at his uncle’s back, but he did as he was told.
Giuseppe wiggled the card. “I need a man with your skills in my corner, and the money’s more than you’ll ever see as a P.I.”
Vaughn hesitated only a heartbeat before accepting the card. “I’ll think about it.”
Giuseppe inclined his head and stepped back, allowing Vaughn to pass. Killer didn’t look any happier about the job offer than Tommy had been, but the guy was smart enough not to voice his opinion. He just did his best to murder with his glare as Vaughn left.
Outside, Vaughn stopped and laced his fingers behind his head, sucking in a deep breath of the bitter February air. The conversation had left him jittering with an adrenaline burn, and the little bit of relaxation he’d found in the fight was long gone.
Cam waited in the parking lot, propped against his new ride, a newer model of the 4Runner that was blown up in the same bomb blast that had put Vaughn in the hospital for a month.
“I know your doctor hasn’t cleared you to fight,” Cam started as soon as he appeared.
“Do I look like I give a fuck what the doctor says?”
“You look like you have a death wish.” Cam pushed away from the SUV and followed Vaughn over to his Hummer. “Last week, you waited until the very last second to open your chute when we went skydiving—”
“C’mon, man. How many jumps have I done? I knew what I was doing.”
“It was an unnecessary risk, another in a long line of many recently. And now you’re illegally cage fighting. You know who runs this place?”
“Yeah.” Unfortunately. He shrugged on his jacket and casually slipped Giuseppe’s card into his pocket.
“You could lose your P.I. license,” Cam said.
He should probably care—Wilde Security was his bread and butter now that he’d left the SEALs—but he didn’t and pretending to was getting fucking old. And hell no was he telling Cam that, so he grunted in response and tried to open the Hummer’s door.
Cam slapped a hand down, holding it shut. “You’re in a tailspin, bro.”
The warehouse’s door squealed open behind them, and Vaughn’s heart thumped hard. If any of the Bellisarios walked out and saw Cam…
No. His twin was not getting caught up in the pile of shit he’d just stepped in.
He peeled Cam’s hand off his door. “We’re not doing this here.”
“Here’s as good a place as any.”
Two men emerged from the warehouse. Just a couple of guys from the crowd, nobody to worry about, but having Cam in direct line of sight of that door set his teeth on edge. “Get in your car, Cam, and drive to the office. I’ll be right behind you.”
Cam’s eyes narrowed, then his gaze slid over to the door. Yeah, he knew something was up. That was the problem with having an identical twin. Couldn’t hide any-fucking-thing from him.
Vaughn crossed his arms over his chest and stared Cam down. Lesser men withered under his glare, but after thirty-one years of living with him, his twin was indifferent.
“Fine,” Cam said and started toward his vehicle. He opened the driver’s door but stopped before getting behind the wheel. “You better be right on my ass all the way there, got it? And then you’re gonna tell me why you’re all tied up in knots.”
Vaughn waited until Cam’s 4Runner pulled out of the parking spot before climbing into his own vehicle. But after sticking the key in the ignition, he sat back and closed his eyes.
Cam was right. He was in a tailspin, one he hadn’t been able pull himself out of, one that had just landed him on the Bellisario family’s radar. And yet he was still humming with restless, edgy energy. The fight and the encounter with Giuseppe should have burned it off, but it seemed like nothing helped anymore.
Nothing…except for a blue-eyed brunette who had once gone by the name Lark.
And that had abso-fucking-lutely nothing to do with why he was determined to find her. She was a criminal, an identity thief who had stolen something from him while he was incapacitated in the hospital. But that wasn’t even the worst of it. What got him was that Lark had used Libby, his sister-in-law. Lark had pretended to be Libby’s friend, had used her to get a good job and a foot into a higher social circle, and then broke Libby’s heart with the disappearing act.
Fuck with him? Fine. But fuck with his family? He wasn’t about to let anyone get away with that.
If only he could find her.