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“I can’t give him the collection notices again,” I whisper in a rush. “I...can’t...”
It’s not what I meant to say. I meant to ask for a recommendation, but somehow the intention became a traitorous ninja. Now that the spillway of the dam’s been opened, the words cascade like a long drop from a mountain.
“I don’t know what to do. Mom constantly works and she’s tired and she doesn’t know how to handle Dad and when I bring the notices home...” I hesitate. Not home. That hellhole is not a home. “To the house and—” that low-life slimeball of an uncle “—he sees them, then it gets worse and I can’t do it, okay? Not today.”
Not when I lost my dream. Not when everything inside me is so twisted it hurts to breathe. Not when I don’t know if I’ll ever get accepted to college or, if I do, whether I’ll have a way to pay for it.
The stone expression slides off John’s face and his dark eyes soften. Mom has his eyes. So do I. My grandmother loved our eyes. In two strides my grandfather reaches me and angles himself to hide me from the fighters. The moment I’m out of view, my shoulders sag and I close my eyes.
“It’s okay,” he says under his breath.
It’s not. It’s never going to be okay again. He places his hand on my arm, squeezes, and that one show of emotion, show of support, jostles the fragile foundation on which I stand. Tears form behind my closed lids. I shake my head, wishing he’d go back to being an ass**le.
“Give them to me,” he says. “I’ll take care of it.”
I swing the pack around and hand him the new notices. “What are you going to do with them?”
“Something.” John barely has the money to keep his gym open. “Don’t worry.”
I tuck my hair behind my ear and rub the back of my neck. Jax has stopped watching the demonstration and leans against the cage with his gloved hands resting on the fence over his head. He whistles at my brother, Kaden, and nods his chin at me.
Jax isn’t related to John, but after the first few years of family gatherings and witnessing how Jax’s father treats him like garbage, John became Jax’s surrogate grandfather. My grandfather does his best to counteract the evil that is Jax’s father.
Now not only do I have my grandfather’s full attention, but that of my cousin and brother. The fact that I’m here after a yearlong hiatus—six months when I left to train with the competing gym, Black Fire, and the past six months spent protesting the sport of kickboxing altogether—is reason enough for Jax and Kaden to be nosy. The fact that my grandfather and I have spoken without ripping each other into dog food is enough for them to be dying of curiosity.
“Is there something else, Haley?” And the warm, fuzzy moment we shared vanishes.
I pull out the scholarship application I found this morning in the guidance counselor’s office. It offers to pay for books for four years. It’s not huge, but it’s something, and sometimes in life you just need something, no matter how small it is.
“I thought you could help me with this.”
He snatches the papers out of my hand quick enough to cause a paper cut on my finger. My breathing hitches with the sting, and a discontented sigh escapes his lips. How easily I forgot he has no room for weakness.
His eyes roam the page before settling on me. “I don’t get it.”
“It’s a scholarship application.”
“I can read.”
Not big on repeating himself, he tilts his head with enough annoyance that I have to work on not shrinking.
“I have all the requirements.” I was a student athlete who showed leadership potential, my GPA is high and I’ll major in kinesiology if they grant me a scholarship. I’ll major in dinosaur dentistry if someone will give me money. “I need a letter of recommendation from someone who knows what I’m capable of, and no one knows what I can do better than you.”
Not true. My father was the complete expert when it came to me. He’s the one who taught me how to fight. He’s the reason I loved kickboxing, but a recommendation from a trainer of my grandfather’s caliber is what’s required. Not a letter from my father. Not a letter from someone who hasn’t fought or trained in years.
“Did the trainer from Black Fire turn you away?”
Even though I knew it would be coming, the mention of my ex-boyfriend Matt’s gym wrings me of energy like water from a sponge. “I won’t go to them.”
“So you’re saying you need a recommendation for betraying your teammates? Your family? For being a quitter?”
I honestly flinch, because that dagger stabbed into my heart hurt like hell.
John flips through the paperwork. “Kinesiology. Study of human movement. A study for people interested in physical therapy or becoming trainers. A degree for sports people.” John slams the papers back into my hand. “Not you.”
He leaves. His back turned to me like I don’t matter. No. This isn’t how it’s going down. An insane flash of anger propels me forward. “I hold a national title.”
“Held.” John weaves through the punching bags and I follow. Twice I have to jump out of the way of a bag kicked too hard.
“That’s right,” I say. “Held.” A bag flies in front of me and I push it back.
“Out of the way!” the fighter behind it shouts.
“Screw you,” I snap, and then I say to John, “That’s a hell of a lot more than most of the people training here.”