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Strictly Not Yours First 3 Chapters





As soon as I walk through the door, I feel that something’s wrong. Call it intuition. Or superstition, maybe. Although it’s more likely a combination of the lack of sleep from pulling an all-nighter on my latest college assignment, combined with the shock of having my six-year-old nephew ask me first thing this morning if it’s true that babies come from a hole between your legs and that daddies have planted them.

I sent him packing to his mom to answer that one.

And now I’m standing right inside a swanky apartment in New York’s Upper East Side, cleaning supplies stuffed into my oversized backpack, trying to work out what’s out of place.

And nothing is.


Dr. Holden Salinger has to be the cleanest client City Slickers – the cleaning company I work for – has ever had. I’ve been cleaning his apartment for two years and there’s never anything out of place. Not even the photographs of his All-American family move an inch between my visits.

I know. I measured them once.

Putting my pack down on the floor, I close the front door behind me and slip off my shoes. We have to wear slippers while cleaning, though Georgie – my boss – has never specified what type of slippers we should wear. So I’m wearing Tigger ones that my sister bought me last Christmas. They clash with the pink cargo trousers that Georgie supplies, but I kind of like that.

It's as rebellious as I get.

With a Tigger-like bounce in my step, I walk across Dr. Salinger’s highly polished wooden floored hallway to the living room, where I shrug off the laptop bag I’m carrying and put it beside the desk. Then I take another good look around. His cream leather sofa looks untouched since last week, though I think there may be a new medical magazine on the black onyx coffee table that separates the huge sofa from an even huger TV.

The kitchen is just as untouched. Sometimes I wonder if Dr. Salinger actually eats anything. The touch sensitive halogen stovetop shines like a mirror and when I open his refrigerator, there’s very little in there.

I’ve never seen a half-eaten takeout carton in there, let alone the mouldy fruit or expired milk I’ve found in the shiny appliances of my prior cleaning clients. This is why Dr. Salinger is my favorite.

Even if I’ve never met him.

That’s the strange thing about being a cleaner to Manhattan’s richest and most successful. I probably know more about them than their closest friends. I know all their bad habits, their secret addictions – drugs, sugar, and otherwise – and I know all about their families from the photographs on the walls and the angry voicemails filling the quiet as I clean their spaces.

But they know nothing about me at all. They could pass me in the street and wouldn’t know who I am. I kind of like that. Being anonymous makes me feel safe.

And I’m all for that.

It’s only when I reach the main bedroom that I realize my intuition was right all along. The bed isn’t made. The white thousand thread count covers are half on the bed and half on the floor. And there’s something on the pillow. Wait. Is that blood?

I swallow hard and do something I rarely do when I walk in this house.

“Hello?” I call out, staring at the thick black door that separates the main bedroom from the huge bathroom that I’ve always envied. Is he in there? Is he hurt? Or has he hurt somebody else?

Protocol says I should call Georgie if something is wrong. She takes our safety seriously. Instead, I pad across the thick cream rug that covers his bedroom floor, my heart thudding against my chest.

“Dr. Salinger?” I gingerly push on the door, but it doesn’t give. “It’s your cleaner,” I say. “Blair.”

There’s no response. So I take a deep breath and grab the handle and push it down, half ready to run if some feral criminal who specializes in kidnapping doctors rushes me.

But there’s nobody in the bathroom. And yes, for a minute I feel envious all over again as I take in the shiny black floor tiles and the white marbled walls and the bathroom fixtures that cost more than I can ever dream of earning.

And though there’s nobody there, I fixate on the counter. There is used medical equipment. Sutures. And wipes with blood on them. Like he’s cleaned somebody’s wound and dressed it.


Again, I know I should call Georgie. She has a strict no-blood policy. We’re supposed to report something like this right away and leave. She’ll throw Dr. Salinger off her client list. Which is concerning because I need this job.

This one, I mean. In this apartment.

Because it takes less than an hour to clean his already-spick and span home. Then I get to use the rest of the three hours to catch up on my college work. If I didn’t have this apartment to clean, I won’t pass my degree.

And I have to pass my degree.

“Dr. Salinger,” I murmur. “You’re in luck. This is going to stay between the two of us.” I press my lips together and walk back to the hallway to grab my cleaning supplies and in less than a minute I’m pulling on my gloves, ready to attack the scene of the crime.


Not that I think he’s committed a crime. From what I can tell, he’s too busy for that. Never here, never eating, never making a mess. Still, as I pull out a trash bag and put away the mess he’s left, I can’t help but try to work out what’s going on.

Once the empty suture packets and wipes are in the bag, I spot a small black card nestled against the mirror. Lifting it up, I read the words on the front.

The Black and White Club.

Interesting. There’s an address there – it’s near my college, I think. I’ve definitely been down that road before. Although, I don’t remember seeing a swanky club there. The area where I study is definitely more down to earth than top notch.

Putting it in my pocket, I clean the bathroom with gusto, feeling proud of myself once it’s restored to its usual pristine state. Then I do the same with the bedroom, changing the bedding and taking the sheets down to the laundry, then vacuuming the rug before making sure there are no specks of blood on it.

There aren’t, thank goodness.

By the time I’ve done the same to the rest of his apartment, a little more than an hour has gone by. I have two and a half more hours before the laundry is finished so I head back to the living room and slump down in Dr. Salinger’s leather captain chair, taking in the photograph of six men propped up on the mahogany desk which I suspect he also doesn’t use.

They’re all standing in a field by a lake, their arms around each other, laughing as they look at whoever’s behind the camera. They have to be related, brothers maybe, and all of them have the kind of perfect smiles you only get with expensive dentistry and good meals. They’re tall, muscled, healthy, and they make me yearn for something, though I’m not sure what.

All I know is that any photographs of me and my sister aren’t like this at all. We’ve never even been near a lake as pretty as that one.

I linger on it a moment more, wondering which of the six muscled, dark-haired men is Dr. Salinger. 

And then I pull my eyes from the photograph and grab my bag to take out my laptop, opening it up and connecting it to my phone’s hotspot. I might be cheeky, but I’m not cheeky enough to use Dr. Salinger’s Wi-Fi to do my homework. 

Funny thing, he has no idea who I am, and yet if it wasn’t for him, there’s no way I could graduate this year at the age of thirty-four. 

Maybe one day I’ll be able to tell him that.


* * *




It’s only four o’clock in the afternoon, but I’m already yawning. Something to do with being called into the emergency room at the ass crack of midnight to consult on an eight-year-old girl who was rushed in with a headache causing vision issues but had a suspected brain tumor.

And now I’m sitting across from two people who are looking at me like I’m the worst person in the world. Because at this moment I am. I’m the person who’s just told them that their world has changed. That their child’s scans are showing dark shadows and though we still need to run some more tests, they need to be ready for the worst.

The mom – Alice – is crying. The dad is trying to look stoic but his bottom lip is trembling and he won’t look up from his hands. Next to me, Carter, our intern, is taking loud whooping breaths. I kick his shoes with mine because he knows better than this.

“It can’t be,” Alice whispers. “We’re going on vacation next week.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation since I finished my pediatric oncology fellowship, but not once has it ever been the same. Sure, there’s a similar vein to the movement from disbelief to anger to possible hope, but every parent’s response is different.

“You can still go on vacation,” I say. “We’ll give you some advice on what to do and what not to. We can start the treatment once you’re back.”

I don’t tell them it’ll probably take that long to get authorization from their insurance company to go ahead with whatever course we decide to follow, but it’s true. I spend half my life on the phone with goddamn insurance companies, fighting for the treatment plans. But that’s my problem, not theirs.

And we will make it work.

“What about her hair?” Alice asks. “She loves her hair. Please tell me she won’t lose it.”

Carter whimpers next to me. I nudge him again, but dammit, I can tell he’s on the edge. My jaw tightens. And then I wince because I still need to properly clean up the wound I got last night. The sutures I put on right before I was called out need redoing. It was a ham-fisted attempt and I’m annoyed with it.

“Shut up about her hair. She has cancer, dammit.” That’s the dad. He’s already at the angry stage and I don’t blame him. I’d be furious if it was my kid.

Which is one of the many reasons why I don’t have any. 

Still, if it was one of my nieces or nephews, I’d also be furious. At the doctor, at the world.

I speak softly to them both, trying to reassure them as much as I can, before they go to see their daughter who’s on the ward, while I turn to Carter and lift an eyebrow at him.

There are tears pouring down his face. He looks at me and it reminds me of how I used to feel years ago when I first started doing this.

“Wipe those away and shut the hell up,” I tell him, keeping my eyes narrowed, mostly because one of them is swollen from last night. And the bruising is coming out too. “What did I tell you?”

“That we shouldn’t cry.” Carter sniffs. He looks at my swollen eye and opens his mouth as though he’s going to say something else, then closes it again.


“That’s right.” My voice is tight because I’m annoyed with him. He knows this already. “And why shouldn’t we cry?”

“Because…” Carter sniffs again. “Because I’m stealing their emotions.”

“And?” I lift a brow. Shit, that hurts.

“And they need to believe in me. That I can help.”

“That’s right. So what aren’t you going to do next time?” I ask him.



Carter stays silent for a moment. And I don’t take my eyes off him. He’s not a kid, even if he looks like one. He’s a medical student, and he needs to harden up. The same way I did. 

The way all of us have.

“When does it get easier?” he finally asks, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.


“It doesn’t,” I tell him. “And it shouldn’t. The day it gets easier is the day you should quit your job."

“But you don’t blink an eyelid. You just told those people their kid has a brain tumor.”

“I know. And I fucking hate it, but you know what? I’ve learned to deal with it. Go get a hobby, Carter. Kiss your girl, go running, do whatever it takes to work through the pain, but don’t you ever.. and I mean ever… cry in front of a patient or their parents again.”

Carter looks like he’s going to cry again, but somehow he stops himself and nods, then sniffs loudly and runs out. That’s when I see Rose, our senior ward nurse, standing by the door. She gives me one of her looks – the kind that scared me shitless when I first joined the team here.

“You’re too hard on them,” she says.

“He’ll thank me later.” He probably won’t, but I’m not sure I care. I’m trying to harden him up for a reason.

She steps inside my office and passes over some papers. “These need signing. And maybe you should take some of your own advice.”

I read each paper and scribble my name across the bottom. “What advice?” I murmur.

“Kiss a girl. Rather than doing whatever it is you’re doing to get an eye and lip like that.”

I look up. “I tripped.”

“Sure. And I won the lottery. That’s why I’m here, working my guts out.”

A smile slides across my lips. Rose gives me hell, but I don’t mind. She’s the best damn nurse I’ve ever met. Smart, hardworking, tough, yet she makes our patients feel special. I don’t know what it is about her but I wish we could bottle it and spread it throughout the rest of the team.

“You’d still come to work even if you were a millionaire,” I tease, because I seriously suspect she would. “There you go.” I pass the papers over – mostly orders for tests and lab work – and then pick up my coffee cup full of dark liquid that’s gone cold but I drink it anyway, because I probably won’t get another coffee for hours.

“And you need to find a new hobby,” Rose says. “That one’s going to kill you.”

She’s probably right, but it’s also the only thing that keeps me sane. Not that I feel very sane for the next two hours as we all run ourselves ragged around the ward.

It’s only at seven o’clock, when the next shift has come on, that I realize I haven’t slept for almost forty-eight hours, and I really should head home for bed.

But first I walk into the private room at the far end of the ward. It has posters on the wall, not of boy bands, but of Penguin classics. The same kind of books are stacked on the table next to the bed.

And the patient sitting on that bed – Mabel – has her earbuds in and her nose in a book as always. It’s not until I touch her arm that she realizes I’m here, almost jumping out of her bed.

“You scared me,” she says, frowning. At sixteen, she’s one of our oldest patients, though we treat some all the way into adulthood. She’s also one of my favorites. I don’t know why. She just has this grit about her, even though she’s been in and out of the pediatric oncology ward for the past year.

“What are you reading?” I ask her. She passes me the book and I’m careful not to lose her place, sliding my thumb between the pages. A Tale of Two Cities is written across the front, with Charles Dickens at the bottom. The front image shows a man standing on wooden gallows with white buildings behind him. 

“You get bored with The Hunger Games?” I ask her. The last time she was in, she was on some kind of post-apocalyptic kick. 

“I finished them. But now I’m onto the classics,” she says, taking the book back from me. “Have you read it?”

I laugh because it’s a running joke between us. I don’t read. I can’t remember the last time I opened a book. Or watched television or went to the movies.

“Is it the one about the hungry kid?” I ask.

Mabel rolls her eyes. “That’s Oliver Twist. And what did you do to your eye?”

I reach up with my free hand to touch it. I’d forgotten about that. “I fell on the sidewalk.” And that’s when I remember I left the bathroom in a bloody mess. “What day is it today?” I ask her.

She gives me a look only a teenager can. “You’re the doctor, you tell me.”

“It’s… Thursday?”

Another eye roll. “It’s Wednesday.”

Shit. Shit. My cleaner comes on either Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on her working pattern, and I’m pretty sure this is a Wednesday week. And I know I left crap everywhere in the bathroom this morning. And if I had any energy I’d be worried because I’m a doctor and I know better than to leave human waste out for somebody else to touch.

Actually, I am worried. 

I hand her the book back and tell her to get some sleep. 

“You too,” she says. “That eye thing looks nasty.”

“It’s fine,” I reply. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

And for the first time she smiles. It feels good because I haven’t seen too many of those today. 

The rest of the day shift has already clocked out by the time I head to the locker room to grab my things and head into the cool night air.

And for a minute I consider heading east, to The Black and White Club. But it’s a bad idea, I know that.

So instead I go home, grabbing a pizza on the way, then pretty much stumble into my apartment.

It’s only later when I go to throw the empty box out that I realize that it’s clean and tidy and somebody else is responsible for that.

And yeah, that makes me feel like a bit of an asshole.







Early mornings in our apartment always resembles that moment in a movie when everything goes to hell and all the characters begin running in different directions. I’m trying to upload next week’s half-written assignment to the cloud so my stupid, old laptop won’t magically delete everything I’ve written between home and school. Annie, my sister – younger by four years – is trying to make a brown bag lunch for her son, Evan and pack her own bag for work, all while she has a phone wedged between her ear and shoulder because she’s on a conference call since she should have been at the office an hour ago.

And Evan – actually, where is Evan? Our apartment is tiny. Two bedrooms, if you can call them that, plus a kitchen- dining- living room that always looks like a hurricane has passed through on the way to something more exciting.

Then I hear it. The wheezing. It’s only light, but it makes me wince.

Annie looks at me and frowns, taking in my pinched brows and pressed-together lips.

“What?” she mouths.


She pulls the phone from her ear and listens. “Shit.” She scrambles through his Spiderman bag that’s open on the kitchen table and pulls out his inhaler. I grab it from her, motioning for her to go back to her call because she needs this job and they’re already murmuring about her not showing the ‘appropriate level of commitment.’

Evan is in the bathroom when I find him. He looks at me like I’m an idiot when I hold his inhaler up.

“You’re wheezing,” I tell him and he wrinkles his nose because he hates the inhaler and he hates having asthma.

I hate it, too. But I give him the albuterol anyway, and his breathing returns to normal. He grabs the gel he likes putting in his hair and slicks it back. 

“Do I look cool?” he asks me.


“As a cucumber.” I wink. 

He grins. And I know he’s fine to go to school – if we kept him home every time he wheezed he wouldn’t graduate until he’s sixty – but I still hate it.

“Everything okay?” Annie asks, a worried look on her face as she walks into the bathroom.

“It’s all good,” I tell her. “Go.”

She leans down to kiss Evan. “Be good for Auntie Blair. I’ll pick you up from Emma’s, okay?” Emma is the babysitter who picks Evan up on the evenings I have late classes and can’t be to his school by three pm.

“Okay.” Evan nods. He’s such an easy going kid. Doesn’t complain, doesn’t ask much of anything. I have this dream of getting him out of New York, away from the congested air and the lack of trees and the cost of living that means we don’t get to do much more than survive here.

Take this apartment. The only way we can afford to pay for it is because I’m currently studying under the GI bill. And yes, it’s kind of ludicrous that I’m a student at my age, but once I get my degree, everything’s going to change.

I’ll get a job somewhere different. Somewhere that we can afford a house with a backyard that’s green and air that doesn’t taste like a mixture of gas and dust. 

The front door slams and that leaves me and Evan to finish getting ready. I keep a close eye on him as we pack everything up and head out of the apartment. As we hit the streets his breathing is still fine. But it doesn’t stop me from reminding him that if he has another attack he needs to tell his teacher right away.

And I know Annie will have phoned the school on her way into the office.

The next eight hours are taken up with lectures and tutorials and study groups in the library. I’m studying for my masters in library science, and our current project revolves around creating digital archives, which is pretty much as dry as it sounds.

But it’s all part of the plan.


* * *



It’s raining by the time I leave just after six that evening. My stomach is rumbling but I ignore it and head for the bus stop. Before I get there I pass a building with a sign outside that I must have passed a thousand times before without looking.

But now I look. Because the sign has words that interest me painted in silver across a black-and-white striped background.

The Black And White Club.

Without thinking, I turn around and walk back toward the club, taking in the faded sign and the peeling letters. It looks nothing like the swanky club I imagined a man like Dr. Salinger would visit. The ones that have VIP rooms and guest lists and sell Patron by the bottle.

Instead, it looks almost boring. Nondescript. And because I’m an idiot I push at the door, almost jumping when it gives and immediately swings open.

One day curiosity is going to kill this cat.

The rain is getting heavy, so I step inside, closing the door behind me, and my eyes take a moment to adjust to the gloom of the club. Blinking, I look around the empty room. It looks normal, like the bars I used to go to in a different lifetime.

On one side is a counter that stretches the entire length of the wall. Bottles and glasses neatly arranged on the shelves, along with some television screens that are turned off. There are wooden and leather bar stools neatly pushed against the counter – and even from here I can tell they’ve seen better days.

The main floor is filled with black tables, white chairs stacked on them like somebody has been cleaning the wooden floor. In the corner is a stage and speakers, with a little space where I assume people can dance.

It’s clean enough. Not City Slickers standards, but as I walk across the floor my shoes don’t stick to it.

The far wall is full of photographs. I can’t tell who’s in them from where I’m standing but they look like the ones that have celebrities in them who’ve visited the joint and then sign them as a favor to management.

“Hello? Who’s there?” An older man walks through a door at the far end of the bar, his eyes landing on me. He must be around fifty. Wearing black pants and a white shirt that’s tucked over his pot belly, his hair is gray and sparse. From the way it’s slicked back I can see the pinkness of his scalp.

“Oh, sorry.” I grimace, embarrassed at being caught snooping. “I was just going.”

He tips his head. “Wait? You here about the job?”

I open my mouth to say no, but nothing comes out.

“Come on over here so I can see you,” he says, and for some stupid reason I do.

Maybe it’s because I owe him an explanation for why I’m standing in his empty bar when I should be on the bus heading home. Or maybe it’s because I’m still wondering what the hell Dr. Salinger was doing in a place like this – where I assume he ended up either bleeding or meeting somebody who was.

“Yeah, you’ll do. You have any experience?”

“I’m sorry?” I blink. And hold back a gag because this guy must be wearing an entire bottle of cologne. It’s not bad smelling but it’s so strong that it’s filling my nose up.

“You worked behind a bar before?” he asks me.

“Yes.” That’s the truth at least. I’ve done pretty much every job imaginable to supplement the money I get from the government to pay for my education. “A few times.”

His eyes scan me. “You know what this place is, right?”

“The Black and White Club,” I say and a smile pulls at his lips.

“You don’t, do you?”

I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. 

“It’s okay. We’d just need you behind the bar anyway. Three nights a week. Seven until one. Twenty dollars an hour plus tips. Most of the team makes at least three hundred a shift on the weekends.”

“You mean a week,” I say.

“No per shift.”

My mouth drops open. Three hundred a shift, for six hours' of work. That’s… yeah, above minimum wage for sure. A minute ago I was planning to tell him this was a mistake before apologizing and running out, but holy hell, the things we could do with that kind of money.

And then I feel a little tingle on my neck. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my time scrimping and saving and working all the hours I can, is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Like the time I started working as an assistant to an older gentleman who needed help to get up in the morning. Turned out he liked to pretend to be a baby and wanted me to change his diaper.

Hell to the no.

“Your bartenders earn three hundred for a six-hour shift,” I say, my voice disbelieving.

“We have some very high tipping customers.”

I look around the bar. “In here?”

“No. Mostly in there.” He inclines his head at a pair of double doors on the other side of the room. “You’d only need to deliver drinks. And take payment. That’s it.”

“What’s the dress code?” I ask, because if it’s a bunny suit or a bikini I’m out of here.

He shrugs. “Whatever’s comfortable. Jeans. T-shirt.”

Okay, I’m going to ask. Even though I’m not sure I really want to know. Part of me just wants to say yes. Take the job whatever’s involved.

But Momma brought me up to be a good girl. 

“What’s behind the door?”

His smile widens. “Finally. Come on.” He walks around the counter, pulling a ring of keys from his pocket, and strides across the bar. I follow him slowly, calculating the distance between me and the front door. If I need to, I could outrun this guy. Yes, it’s been a while since I did daily PT but I still keep my fitness up despite having left the Army years ago. 

He doesn’t seem to notice my hesitation. Or that I’m hanging back as he slides the key into the lock. It clicks open and I swallow hard, wondering what I’m going to see.

A strip club? Women in cages? What?


When he pushes the door open and flicks some lights on, I’m more confused than ever. There are chairs and tables – black and white again – and then just chairs closer to the center of the room. But the thing that draws my eye is right at the very center.

It’s a boxing ring. All in black and white, with the club’s name written in the center. The ropes are white, too. Though much like the rest of the club, it’s tatty and has seen better days.

But still. 

It’s not a strip club or a human trafficking ring or anything like that. The Black and White Club is a fight club.

And though I hate fighting with a passion, if they want to pay me three hundred dollars a night while people smash the bejeezus out of each other, hell, I’m all in.


* * *




It’s Friday night as I’m walking out of my office, nodding at Rose who is talking to the parents of one of the new patients, showing them where the kitchen is and explaining that they can bring their own food in or use what’s in the community fridge when one of them stays with their five-year-old son, who’s been diagnosed with a malignant bone tumor.

I leave them to it and walk down the corridor, checking in on a couple of patients who had procedures today, and once I’m satisfied that all is well I pop my head into the last room on the left.

Mabel is out of bed, sitting on a chair, her feet propped up on a little coffee table. And of course she’s reading again.

“How’s Dickens?” I ask her.

She looks up and wrinkles her nose. “I finished that one. I’m onto Wuthering Heights.”

I smile because at least I know something about this. “Heathcliff, huh?”

“Have you read it?” She looks almost hopeful. And part of me wants to lie and say I have. But I made a pact with myself long ago that I’d never once lie to my patients.

“No, but I might have seen the film. He’s the handsome angry guy that everybody falls in love with, right?”

She makes a gagging sound and for a minute I go into doctor mode. But then I realize she’s pretending to vomit.

“He’s not handsome and nobody should fall in love with him,” she says. “He’s an asshole. And so is she. They all deserve to be miserable.”

I smile. “I’ll take your word for it.”

“You really should try reading a book sometime,” Mabel tells me. “It’ll expand your mind.”

“I’ll just watch the movies, it’s quicker.”

She sighs. “That’s cheating.”

“Good night, Mabel.” 

“Night, doc. By the way, your eye is looking better.”

“Thanks. Sleep tight.”

When I get to the parking lot and into my car, I know I should head home. I’ve worked non-stop all week and I actually have a chance to sleep for two days. But instead of turning left at the exit, I hit the right indicator and head east, driving for twenty minutes to the one place I know I shouldn’t be.

There’s only a couple of spaces left in the parking lot. I pull in between a Bugatti and a Ford and climb out, then walk to the front of the nondescript building that houses The Black and White Club. One of the security guards nods at me and opens the door, and as soon as I walk inside it feels like my whole body is relaxing for the first time in days.

I’ve been coming here since I moved to New York and started working at the hospital. Before that, when I was in Chicago, I used to mostly box in a gym. But my hours here are always erratic, and joining a gym that kept the same hours was almost impossible.

That’s when I heard about The Black and White Club. A normal bar with a jukebox and the occasional live music in the main room, and then at the back there’s a boxing ring where they hold fights most evenings. All amateur, all levels of ability, and all kinds of men who like to fight. I’ve exchanged blows with bankers, lawyers, shop workers, and teachers.

But we all have the same aim. We relieve our stress by fighting in a controlled manner. And yeah, it’s not something I exactly broadcast across the hospital. But if I didn’t come here I think I’d end up losing my mind. Or drinking too much. Or taking drugs like I’ve seen so many of my colleagues do.

Coming to the club and fighting under their rules – seems like a better option.

“Hey, Salinger.” 

I look up to see Jimmy, the owner, walking toward me. 

“Jimmy.” I nod at him.

“Your eye any better?”

I reach up to touch it. The bruise is mostly yellow now. Not exactly looking great but it’s on the way to healing. “It’s fine,” I tell him.

“I threw the other guy out. He’s not coming back.”

I nod, because Jimmy likes a clean fight. The guy hit me after it was over, when my headgear was off. He had a grudge and he used it. 

“You fighting tonight?” he asks. “I got a couple of slots.”

I shake my head. “Just watching.”

“Well if you change your mind let me know.” 

I nod and walk over to the bar, feeling the fatigue of the week finally wash over me. I’ll grab a drink, watch a fight, and go home. Katrina is standing behind the counter and her eyes follow me as I reach the bar. 

“Hey handsome,” she gives me a wide smile. I’d take it personally but Katrina flirts with everybody. “The usual?”


She grabs a glass and a bottle of water, pouring it in. “Ice?”

“No thanks.” As she passes it to me I become aware of another woman behind the bar. She’s talking to a customer, but all I can see is the back of her head as she nods.

“New girl,” Katrina says, following the direction of my stare. “Pretty sure she’s not going to last more than one night. She hates the fighting.”

My lips twitch. “Then she came to the wrong place.”

Katrina shrugs. And I look at the new girl again. Or woman, because that’s what she is. I can tell that much from the way she holds herself. The natural color of her dark hair and the smoothness of her shoulders tells me she’s younger than me, but not a kid.

Her hair falls over her shoulders in waves, shining beneath the dim bar lights. She’s wearing a black tank tucked into her jeans, and as she leans forward I can see the upper part of her hips, where they flare out from her waist. 

“There ya go,” Katrina says, passing me the water. “On the house.”

I put a tip down for her anyway and grab my glass, taking one last look at the back of the new girl.

It’s weird how a sense of familiarity washes over me. Maybe she’s a past patient or a family member. 

And as I head over to the backroom, walking through the doors, I push her out of my head because it doesn’t matter. I’ll watch one fight, head home, and get some proper sleep for the first time in forever.

But of course, I’m lying to myself.

Because I don’t.






The night goes past fast, filled with drink orders and deliveries. According to the security guard, who came in to intervene in an argument between a drunk woman and her husband, there’s now a line of customers halfway around the block.

I can’t believe I didn’t know this place existed. I must have walked past it a hundred times on my way home from class. But I guess it was the wrong time of day, and maybe I’m the wrong woman.

One thing I know is that my tip jar is almost empty and Katrina’s is stuffed with tens and twenties and even some fifties and I’m beginning to think that Jimmy was full of it when he said I would earn three hundred dollars a night.

“We don’t share tips,” Katrina says, catching me eyeing her jar. She’s been nice to me since Jimmy introduced us half an hour before the club opened, but she’s also keeping her distance. I kind of appreciate it, to be honest.

“I know, you told me.” I flash her a smile. I’m not going to steal her tips.


I take a deep breath, because either I ask this question or I probably won’t come back tomorrow. “How did you earn so many tips?”

Katrina stops what she’s doing and looks at me. A band has set up on the stage and they’re playing that country song about a Traveling Soldier and I kind of like it and kind of hate it because it reminds me of my time in the Army.

“If you want to make tips you need to serve in the fight room,” she tells me. “Nobody’s gonna tip like that in here.”

Oh! I’d asked not to serve in there. I really don’t like fighting. Not for its own sake. Another hangover from my previous career, I guess. 

I pull my lip between my teeth because I’m torn. The line between money and morals is at its thinnest when you’re at your most desperate.

“Why don’t you take these in?” Katrina says, sliding a tray full of whiskeys to me. “Try it. They don’t bite. They’re mostly too busy watching the boxing to even notice you.”

“I hope they notice me enough to tip,” I say wryly.

For the first time all night she smiles at me. She’s very pretty, with long blonde hair and eyes that beg for that slanty eyeliner. I’m kind of impressed by how steady her hand has to be to draw such perfect lines on her skin.

“They’ll notice you enough for that, honey.”

Shaking my hair over my shoulders, I take the tray, glancing down at the check to see it’s for table twenty-four. I carry the full tray across the main room, dodging the few people dancing on the floor, then use my shoulder to nudge open the left side of the double doors, stepping in as it gives.

It’s like stepping into a different world. The atmosphere feels thicker, on edge. It’s like the bar out there doesn’t exist. And Katrina’s right, nobody pays me any attention as I weave through the tables all angled toward the boxing ring. They’re mostly full of men, some in suits, others dressed more casually, and all of them are facing the ring as two men beat the hell out of each other inside the ropes.

I try not to look, instead I lay the tray on table twenty-four, and pass out the whiskeys. When I slide the check on the table a tall man dressed in a black suit and black shirt takes it, then passes me a hundred and fifty dollars.

Sixty more than the cost of the drinks.

“I’ll get you some change,” I mutter, even though my inner-Katrina is screaming at me.

“No need, sweetheart,” he murmurs. “Keep it.”

Okay then. I exhale a thick breath and take the empty tray, muttering something about wishing them a good evening, but they’re not paying attention to me at all. They’re watching the game, laying money down on the table. 

Are they gambling on the result? I’m not sure I want to know.

I’m kind of relieved when I reach the doors back into the bar. I’ve been in barracks and guard rooms and once in a strip club, and not one of them felt as full of testosterone as this place. 

Before I can walk out there’s an enormous cheer, and I look to see one boxer slumped against the ropes, the other in the middle of the ring, the referee holding his arm up.

He doesn’t look too beaten up. Neither of them do. And for the first time, with that tip in my hand, I wonder if I can actually make this work.

If I’m here until graduation, I could build up a good nest egg. I’m still thinking about it as I walk back to the bar and pass the money to Katrina.

“Nice,” she says, putting it in the register then pulling sixty back out and putting it in my jar. “How was it?”

“Okay. There was a knockout.”

“Was it Dickie?”

I blink. “I don’t know.”

“Short guy. Looks like Joe Pesci,” she says. 

“Yeah, I think it was,” I nod. “I’m not sure.”

She grins. “If you stay around you’ll get to know them all.” She passes me another tray. This one has a bottle of Dom Perignon and some glasses on it.

“Ready for another?” she asks.

“Don’t you want to do it?” I blink, because she’s being way too nice. And I bet she wants these tips as much as I do.

Katrina shrugs. “We can share tips if you like.”

Of course we can. 

“Starting now,” she says, when she catches me eyeing her jar again.

And because she’s been here a while and I need her help – and because the tips are already better than I’d hoped for – I agree. And for the next hour we take turns serving the fight room, sliding bill after bill into our jars. 

I find out she’s a single mom to two boys, that her ex is a junkie who only comes around when he wants to steal something. That she lives with her mom who babysits every night so she can work here to make enough money to keep the four of them with a roof over her head.

I warm to her. Especially when she shows me the trick to changing the vodka optic without spilling it everywhere, and points out the customers I should avoid because their hands always go where they shouldn’t.

By the time midnight comes around, I’m carrying trays across the bar with ease, sliding them onto the tables, and handing the drinks out so smoothly that I usually get an appreciative nod along with the tip.

I’m mentally calculating how much I’ll be taking home tonight when the emcee breaks through my thoughts.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, for our last fight of the evening, we have a couple of old favorites,” he says, his voice thick like he’s been chain smoking. “Please put your hands together and give a warm welcome to The Medic and The Mechanic…”

Loud voices erupt as two men climb into the ring. The first one has a shiny robe on, his name emblazoned on the back. He shrugs it off and gives it to a woman standing next to the ring, then leans down to give her a passionate kiss.

He’s the mechanic. I know because it said it on the back of his robe.

But it’s not him I’m looking at anymore. It’s the tall, muscled man in the center of the ring, wearing a pair of low slung shorts that cling to his defined hips. My eyes slowly rise up his body, taking in the perfectly chiseled stomach muscles and the flat thickness of his chest, along with the scruff on his chin that frames his perfectly straight lips.

There’s a tattoo on his arm, but I can’t quite tell what it‘s of. And to be honest, I don’t even care. Because all I really want to look at is his eyes. They’re strikingly blue. Almost unreal. I’d say he was wearing contacts but even I know that would be a foolish thing to do in a fight.

The other thing about those eyes? I recognize them from a photograph. And they’re looking right at me. 

Warmth suffuses my body.

For a moment there’s nothing else. Just him and me standing there, the two of us staring at each other.

And then the noise around us rushes in. The Mechanic pulls his headgear on, and piercing blue eyes does the same. 

No, not piercing blue eyes. Holden Salinger. My client. My boss. I have no idea what to call him. All I know is that I can’t watch him fight but I also can’t look away.

“He’s hot, huh?” Katrina whispers in my ear. I turn my head to see her smiling.

“I guess.”

“Word from the wise, he’s definitely one to avoid,” she tells me. 

“Why? Is he a groper?”

She shakes her head. “Worse. He’s a commitment-phobe. Avoid him at all costs.” 

They’re pulling on their gloves now, and the noise of the crowd is reaching a crescendo. Katrina has to lean closer to whisper in my ear.

“You know why they call him The Medic?” she asks.

I turn to look at her. “Because he is one?” 

She blinks. “How did you know? When I found out I thought it was wild. His job is supposed to be saving peoples’ lives. Then he comes here and beats the shit out of them. And he always wins.”

I swallow hard, because I know way more about Dr. Salinger than she does. But I’m not supposed to. Sure, a few hours earlier I was thinking about walking out of this job after tonight and not coming back, but now that my tip jar is stuffed full I’m reevaluating.

And I’m thinking that if this guy finds out who I am it could all be in danger.

“It was a lucky guess,” I say, then I turn and head for the double doors, because I’m here for one thing. Make enough money to make our lives easier. Mine, Annie’s, and Evan’s.

Those two are the only ones that matter. And I need to remember that.

There’s a thud and a cheer and I can’t even turn around to see who landed on the floor and who is still standing.

It’s none of my business. 

But somewhere deep in my heart I know exactly who’s won. Mostly because I can feel the warmth of his blue-eyed stare on my back as I walk out of the fight room.


* * *


“Okay, new girl, you can go home,” Katrina tells me right after last call. “I’ll finish up here.”

The band has finished and there’s a slow song playing from the jukebox. The bar is half-empty, two couples sway drunkenly on the dance floor, clinging to each other like one of them could fall at any moment. 

“How long will I be the new girl?” I ask Katrina, kind of amused. She’s still got a little frost to her, but she’s definitely warmer than she was earlier. Probably because I worked like a demon tonight and ended up making more tips than she did. We split them, the way we agreed though.

“Until I think you’re planning on staying,” she says. “Most don’t.”

“I’ll be staying,” I tell her. At least for a while. 

“We’ll see.”

I grab my jacket from the hook and pull it on, then stuff my half of the tips into my purse.

“You should get a cab home,” Katrina tells me. “I’ll call you one.”

“I’ll take the bus.”

“With that money?” she asks, eyeing my stash. “You should take a cab, honey. That way you won’t get robbed.”

I shrug. “Okay, sure.”

She gives me a half smile. “See you tomorrow?”

“You will.” That’s one thing I’m sure of. 

“Good,” she says, nodding. “You did good.”

I say goodbye and wind my way through the chairs. I’m too busy thinking about what to do with the huge wad of cash in my pocket to notice a shadow passing over me. It’s only when my body slams into six feet two inches' worth of steel-grade muscle that I realize I’ve walked straight into him.

The Medic. Holden. My boss that doesn’t know it.

My chin catches the bone of his clavicle, making me bite into my tongue. “Ow!” I step back, wincing as I taste blood in my mouth.

Just my luck that I’ve been perfectly balanced all night until now. I haven’t spilled a drop of whiskey or champagne despite all the hazards in this place. And now I’ve spilled my own blood.

His eyes sweep over me. 

“You okay?” His voice is deep. Deeper than I expected. I can’t quite tell whether it’s laced with concern or amusement.

“I’m fine.” I glance at his chest again. How does somebody punch that without breaking their knuckles? No wonder they all need to wear gloves.

Those pretty blue eyes of his catch mine. “Does it hurt anywhere?” he asks. 

“No,” I croak. “I don’t think so.” Apart from my pride. And my tongue. But I’m not telling him that. I rub my chin, because that took a bit of a beating, too.

Okay, it hurts. But I’m not going to admit it.

“Did you bite your tongue?” he asks. He definitely looks concerned now.

“No. Why?”

“Because you’re sucking at it.”

I immediately stop. “I might have caught it inadvertently.” 

He’s so close and I’m so tired and a wave of dizziness washes over me. I might sway a little. Enough for him to suddenly reach out and steady my shoulders.

What kind of reflexes does this man have? And I’m really trying not to notice how good he smells. Like the rain had a baby with a forest and it grew up to be a strange doctor who likes to hit people.

When I focus on him his eyes are narrowed.

“What’s your name?” he asks.

“Why?” I ask genuinely. Why would he want to know that?

His lips twitch. “I’m trying to find out if you’re concussed.”

Oh. I could see how you could get concussed against his chest. “I’m Blair.” 

“Blair, do you know what year it is?” he asks. His voice has a softness to it. Must be part of his bedside manner. 

“Nineteen seventy-four. Nixon just resigned over Watergate. Somebody should make a movie about it with Redford and Hoffman.”

He smiles and I have to swallow hard, because somehow an amused, boyish Dr. Salinger is way more attractive than the muscled hard ass fighting one.

“I think you’re okay. Sarcastic, but fine.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

He lifts a brow. “How do you know I’m a doctor?”

Oh shit. “I saw you go into the ring.” I didn’t say his last name, did I? Please God tell me I didn’t.

Luckily he doesn’t look suspicious. “It’s Holden,” he says.

“Hi Holden.”

He’s still half smiling. “Hi Blair.”

It’s only when my cheeks ache that I realize I’m smiling at him, too. And that neither of us have said a word for way too long. “I need to go,” I say. “But thank you.”

He tips his head to the side, watching me. “You need a ride?”

My cheeks flush again, because I’m imagining a whole different ride to the one he’s offering. What the hell is wrong with me? “No thank you. I’ve got a ride.”

He nods. “Well take it easy, Blair.”

“I will.”

And my stupid heart pounds rapidly against my chest as I walk toward the doorway. When I get to the door I turn to look at him again. He’s at the bar, talking to Jimmy. I hadn’t noticed earlier, but he’s wearing a pair of jeans and a gray t-shirt, his hair slightly damp like he’s taken a shower.

Before he can catch me staring – again – I walk resolutely through the front door and into the cool night, heading straight to the bus stop despite my promise to Katrina.

When it arrives I take a seat at the back and lean my head against the cool glass of the window, and all I can think about are blue eyes and powerful hands.

Damn, I’m in trouble.

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