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anxiety. But if you ask anyone in Levi about it, they’d say she’s a
sweet, quiet girl who works hard to keep up her family’s small ranch
while holding down a job at the bookstore. No one knows that beneath
her smiles lay a shy introvert who wants nothing more than to stay at
home. It was easier to stay alone, stay isolated. That’s when she was
the happiest. But during one thunderstorm, all of that changed and
she met the first man she ever actually wanted to spend time with.
down, making friends, having a life only meant suffering. The
darkness that followed him since his adolescent years never left, not
really. It’d show up and ruin any hint of happiness that came his
way. Running from his past and the brother that cursed him with this
demon, Leo never expected to find something like home in the little
country town of Levi. And he didn’t expect one storm to bring him to
the barn of a girl with fire in her eyes and a face as beautiful as a
sunrise. A sunrise that could chase away all the shadows.
For the first time all day, Belle could finally breathe. As she curled up her feet on the sofa, a steaming cup of lemon jasmine tea between her hands, she basked in the comfortable silence. The rain outside had picked up and she had already spotted a few flashes of lightning through the speckled windowpanes, but that didn’t bother her. The thunderstorm added just the right ambience to help her relax.
The last hour had been spent actively trying not to go over the events of the day. She didn’t want to rehearse every word, every action, or overanalyze all that had happened to her in the bookstore. All she wanted to do was let her mind go blank. With the christening sip of her tea, its aroma soothing her anxious mind, she resolved to do just that.
On the coffee table sat her laptop and a lit lavender candle that added to the whole calming atmosphere she strived to create. She glanced to the screen and watched the four security camera windows with the black and lime-colored images of her animals in the barn. Three horses and a small flock of sheep all rested peacefully through the storm. There was the occasional stirring from an ewe or head toss from one of her mares, but nothing alarming. Just how she preferred it. A quiet night recuperating from the chaotic, stressful day.
Belle sunk lower against the mass of pillows and let the tea take effect on her rattled nerves. This was just another end to a long day that, to anyone else’s eyes, went off without a hitch. But to Belle, clad in her soft pajama bottoms and baggy Longhorn shirt, it was one of many that left her tired, drained, and in need of recharging.
All day, every day, she put on the mask. The one that gave a friendly smile to everyone, the one that spoke the right words every time, and never showed how truly terrified she was to be facing a perfect stranger. She spent so much energy keeping that mask firmly in place to hide her true self that at the end of the day, all she could do was crash on the couch with her tea and wonder if this would ever get easier.
Here, in her home, she was safe to be herself. It was her haven, her port of call. Her nearest neighbors were at least half a mile away on either side of her expansive farm, the one that had been passed down through her family for generations.
Everything in the barn and her two-story little farmhouse whispered the cherished memories of her childhood and a dozen childhoods before her. From the dining table in the kitchen that was made by her great-grandfather, to the wall of bookshelves in the living room packed with novels that had been collected over decades. Not to mention the three upstairs bedrooms that stored precious heirlooms dating back to her great-grandfather’s time when the house was first built. All of it embraced her and welcomed her into a safe place she would never trade for the world.
She might have been alone here, but she was happy. Here, she was able to let down her long brown hair, freeing the waves and curls she tamed back every day in a ponytail. Here, she could let loose and be who she wanted to be and not have to fake her own existence for the sake of being polite and normal.
Once she had drained her first cup, Belle begrudgingly stood from the sofa and made her way into the adjoining kitchen to pour herself another. Two more and she’d be ready for bed soon, the pacifying effects of the brew thoroughly cleansing away her anxiety. Her socked feet strode across the black and white checkered tiles, the ones her grandfather had laid when he first brought his new bride home. Her father once told the story of how she took one look at the patterned vinyl and demanded it be replaced. The project was completed in just two days before her grandmother made some comment about the cabinets, and they were replaced too.
Now, dark wood offset the green countertops, giving the rustic kitchen a mis-matched look that Belle couldn’t bring herself to remodel. There was too much character here, and even the thought of replacing the old appliances made her feel a little sad. So, she tolerated the dryer that had a mind of its own in the corner with the washer, and the gas stove that didn’t always want to start, and the refrigerator whose icemaker broke when she was ten years old.
No, she wouldn’t change a single thing about any of it.
As she poured hot water from her overused kettle over a fresh teabag, she heard a loud crash followed by a peel of thunder. Belle glanced over her shoulder to the darkened window but saw nothing except the pattering of raindrops against the glass.
She went straight to her laptop table and peered at the surveillance videos. She couldn’t see anything obviously wrong until one of the feeds showed that the barn door had come unlatched and banged furiously against the outer wall. This startled the horses and though there was no sound on the footage, she could hear all three mares knicker and the loud cries of the ewes over the pouring rain.
With a sigh, she knew she’d have to wait to start on that second cup of tea until she fixed the door. But just when she was about to turn away, Belle caught sight of something in the camera. For just a moment, she thought she saw something moving outside of the animal pens. It was too big to be a sheep and stood upright like a person.
She stared at the screen longer, her pulse racing as she tried to make sense of what she saw. Nothing moved again, but that didn’t keep her from spiraling into a panic. Maybe someone had broken into her barn. Her entire body went ice cold at the thought.
Another clash of lightning made the power flicker and she could see the bright green glow of the string lights flicker and die in the live video feed. Belle had convinced her father years ago to rig the barn with electricity so they didn’t have to take a lantern or flashlight with them if they had to check on the animals at night. However, that power had always been glitchy and unreliable at best. She had left the lights on to give some comfort to the animals during the storm, but who knew if they would turn back on.
Donning her rubber boots and raincoat, she grabbed a flashlight from the hook on the wall and dove out into the storm as she tried to ignore every instinct to stay inside where it was safe and dry.
Mud sloshed all around her pant legs, soaking them through until she felt the water chill her ankles and seep into her socks. Not even her boots could keep out the torrential downpour. Plump, cool drops splashed on her face, thoroughly dampening it despite the hood that concealed much of her head.
The rain fell across the yellow beam of light, almost obscuring her view. Somehow through the darkness and haze of rain, she saw the barn door slapping against the front side of the barn with every gust of wind.
Belle stopped to examine the damage, her shoes sinking into the deep puddles that had already formed on the ground. She knew for a fact that she had locked up the barn before going back inside that night. The padlock couldn’t have been knocked off by the wind and the key was still sitting on the kitchen counter. It had to have been broken by something. Or someone.
Fear rose up in her throat, but she tread softly toward the barn doors. Belle swallowed hard as she inspected the lock and found that it, along with the latch, had been ripped completely off, and lay in the mud just in front of the entrance. Whoever had gotten in was either incredibly strong or had a tool sturdy enough to rip off the lock.
When she shined her flashlight around the opening, she saw what the intruder must have used. An iron crowbar lay in the dirt just inside the threshold. It hadn’t been there before, but Belle recognized it as her father’s. His initials had been etched into the handle when he forged it himself for a school project.
Belle picked up the crowbar and swung the door shut behind her. She pushed back her raincoat hood and shined her flashlight around inside of the barn, willing for the beam to stop bouncing as her hands continued to shake. She swept it along the horse stalls, then to the sheep’s pen to the far back right corner, then to the old run-down Volkswagen opposite from them.
There was a thickness in the cool air that confirmed her suspicions that something wasn’t right. Whoever had broken into her barn must have still been there, lurking in the shadows where her flashlight couldn’t penetrate.
After another quick check with her light, she roamed to more closely inspect the barn. Nothing appeared to be missing in the way of supplies or animals. Yet, there was still an unease that filled her spirit. It just didn’t feel right, and she hated the way her heart pounded against her ribs with painful urgency.
Thinking that it might have been the storm making both herself and her animals nervous, Belle turned to leave, willing to dismiss what she saw on the camera feed as a moth or bug that got in the way of the lens. Maybe the wind had picked up a sturdy piece of lumber and knocked it against the lock to make it fly off instead of the crowbar she found. The wood of the barn door wasn’t new by any means and probably bore the beginnings of dry rot anyway. She couldn’t remember the last time the latch had been replaced, so it was possible that there was no intruder after all. That’s what she wanted to believe.
Then, she heard a sneeze. It wasn’t an animal sneeze, as she knew them all too well. This was a human sneeze and it sounded distinctly male.
Belle whipped around, crowbar poised and ready to throw or beat down whoever came near her. Her flashlight darted to all the corners, but still found nothing.
Finally, she called out in the strongest voice she could muster, “Show yourself now or I’m calling the cops!”
It took a moment, but there came some movement from the stack of hay bales near the back wall. Belle, as shaky as she was, stood her ground and gripped her weapon tighter. Though her teeth were clamped tight, her ragged breaths came sputtering out from her nostrils. There was no hiding her fear, no matter how she tried.
A man came forward with his arms raised in submission. He was shirtless, only clothed in a pair of battered jeans, torn and stained. His body made the air in Belle’s lungs freeze. Residual rainwater dripped from his barrel-chest down his toned, rippling abs and curving along his narrowing waist. He had broad shoulders and beefy arms as thick around as her thighs, all muscle and power.
Her flashlight stopped at his neck, but her eyes continued to roam upward. A pair of pure blue eyes sparkled from beneath dark brows. A beard covered his jaw and around his mouth, as black as the night sky. His equally dark, damp hair was slightly flattened and tangled by the storm, its tips grazing against the bare skin of his collarbone.
But it wasn’t the striking contrast of his hair and eyes that stunned her. It was the way he looked directly at her, ignoring the weapon she held, and the harsh light shining on his torso. He wasn’t afraid, but neither was he on the offensive. There wasn’t a hint of malice anywhere in his expression. There wasn’t a hint of anything. He met her stern gaze with a steady, gentle one that both intrigued and unnerved her even further.
Yet, somehow, she couldn’t look away, even if she wanted to. She would have given anything to drop her eyes in submission. Her mask wanted to come up, to protect her from this man and his hypnotic gaze. But, it couldn’t. Why couldn’t it? Maybe it was the long day or the tea she had drank earlier. It put her at a disadvantage, and she wasn’t prepared to face another person that evening. Exposed, caught off-guard, and terribly vulnerable. Anything could go wrong here, and she needed to be brave and detached. But the mask wouldn’t stick as long as this man was looking at her like that.
They stood there, in a stalemate for what seemed like several minutes before he spoke in a deep voice that rattled her bones. “Are you still going to call the police?”
left to discover. Now determined to reject her mental illness, she’s
decided to be brave and not let her anxiety disorder take her away
from what matters. With the help of her friends and her faith, she’s
sure that she can finally have her life back. Something greater is
stirring in her heart and the man that had served as her solid ground
might just send her world off kilter again. All it takes is one
moment of honesty.
The Darkness and his murderous brother are closing in, but he
believed that as long as he has Belle, he can find a way to break the
curse upon his soul. With the power of love and prayer, he’s
finally fighting for his life and the chance to share that life with
the beautiful farm girl. Fate brought them together, but is he strong
enough to rebel against the forces of evil that have hounded him for
so long? Can he, once and for all, defeat his demons?
The heaviness continued to drop onto his chest as Leo drove further and further away from Levi. Further away from Belle. It always happened every time he distanced himself from her or the farm. The only way he could reason it was that it must have had something to do with all that praying she did.
Ever since that night when she first dispelled the darkness with one small, impromptu prayer, Leo began to see the pattern. On those days she prayed, the darkness stayed away. His nights weren’t tormented by dreams of fire and death. His soul didn’t feel as weighted and burdened. So, each morning, he asked if she prayed and if she said she hadn’t yet, he would slyly drop a hint that she should. Of course, she didn’t complain. Why should she? It was nothing to her. Just a string of words sent up to God to protect them and the farm from evil.
But to Leo, it was everything.
It meant the difference between walking around with an easy smile, because he had finally settled where he wanted to stay, or looking over his shoulder and starting at every loud noise, thinking it might be the demon coming to collect his payment.
It took a great deal of courage to mount his motorcycle and head south toward Little Rock, far away from Belle’s protection and deeper into the world he had tried to leave behind. It was all for her, though. If he didn’t do this, it’d take that much longer for Belle to achieve her dreams.
One call to an old acquaintance – the only one he had left that would still speak to him – sealed his plans for the evening and with a little money in his pocket and a change of clothes in his duffle bag, he left in the late afternoon.
The two-and-a-half-hour drive did little to settle his nerves or clear his head. He used to love riding on the highway. Of all the vehicles he had ever driven, the maneuverability of a motorcycle appealed to him the most. He could weave in and out of traffic, zoom on and off exits and effectively lose whoever might happen to be chasing him. On those drives when he could relax, let the wind pound his face and feel the grind of the wheels on the blacktop, Leo could zone out and not think so much. He didn’t have to think about his past or his future. Just this moment with only him, the road, and the deafening rumble of the engine beneath him.
He could do anything but relax now, because he knew exactly where he was going and what he’d be doing that night. Something he thought he’d never have to do again after he arrived in Levi.
It didn’t take long to find the place. Mack gave detailed directions that a toddler could follow. Even over the roar of his bike, he could hear the multitude of voices and music booming out of the warehouse just outside of town. The parking lot was packed, but he managed to find a cramped spot on the side closest to the river.
Leo didn’t make eye contact with the people he passed as he made his way toward the entrance. Smokers, groups of men with beer bottles in hand, couples displaying their affection in obscene ways, bookies, dealers, and thugs. It wasn’t so long ago that he knew this scene by heart. Being in Levi had cleansed him somehow and as he approached the bouncers at the door, he began to question himself again. The darkness practically lived here, and in places like it where sin went unchecked. He could feel its pull, like a black hole that Leo had once dangerously skirted the edges of not so long ago. And here he was again.
Did he really want to do this? He was capable of it. He was completely capable of winning the money for Belle’s stallion. But there was no turning back now. He had already called the man in Fayetteville and made the deal. He was expecting the money first thing in the morning.
“Mack called me in,” he told the two bouncers who were just a hair bigger than him.
The bald one flipped through his clipboard while the other sized Leo up, taking in his jeans and leather jacket. Leo could admit that he didn’t look like he was ready for a fight, but he never needed a fancy rig to pound another man into the dirt. He learned bareknuckle boxing when he was just a teen in Brooklyn. Most who did this for a living couldn’t say that.
The bouncer made it to the final page and tapped at the bottom of the sheet. “He penned you in.”
“Realized he couldn’t leave out his best guy.” Leo gave them both a cocky smile and they reluctantly let him through. In a place like this, arrogance was the common language.
The stench of cigarette smoke and beer hit him, making his eyes water a bit before he could adjust. The bass from the speakers beat against his ears and made the fabric of his clothes vibrate, once more dazing him before he could get a handle on his senses. He squinted against the flashing strobe lights as he pushed his way past the throngs.
The tip of his boot hit something on the floor and sent it rolling. He didn’t have to look to know it was a syringe. His arms reflexively jerked away from the seductive touches of the women who tried to grab his attention as he looked for Mack in the crowd. The fight was still a quarter of an hour away. If he guessed right, the man would be near the bar, taking more bets and organizing the tournament tree one last time.
Leo felt something brush at his pockets and he turned just in time to seize the hand that tried to make off with his keys. What he didn’t expect was for his fingers to connect around a small wrist. The boy looked up at him, the colorful lights like a kaleidoscope across his youthful face. He couldn’t have been more than ten years old.
He snatched away what was his and set the boy free, knowing he would just steal again from someone else. As much as he hated it, the boy wasn’t his responsibility and it wasn’t his place to correct him. With a sigh, he skimmed the crowd again and found the Red Socks ball cap bobbing lively across the sea of strangers.
Leo pushed through a cluster of drunken college students and edged past a tight grouping of ladies in leather skirts dancing with martini glasses before he could put his hand on Mack’s shoulder.
The manager jumped and spun around, wide eyes looking through a pair of tinted glasses. When he saw who had grabbed him, he let out an exaggerated breath.
“Scared me, man!” he shouted over the trap music. “Lookin’ good!” Mack reached out and squeezed Leo’s bicep in the kind of way that reminded him of a man who looked to buy a piece of livestock and wanted to test its sturdiness.
Leo smacked his hand away, effectively startling the manager. “I need a place to put my stuff,” he said, jerking his chin toward the duffle bag slung across his chest. Mack recovered and offered out his hand to take it there for himself. “Someplace no one will get to it,” he clarified, unafraid to sneer at him. It didn’t pay to be friendly in a place like this.
Mack’s throat worked when Leo dropped into that serious tone and then nodded. “All right. All right. I’ve got a locker in the backroom. You can put it there.” He handed Leo the tiny padlock key and gave him his usual thorough directions.
“When’s my fight?” Leo asked, making the key disappear in his fist, so no one would try to pinch it.
“You’re my first matchup!” Mack announced proudly, his one gold tooth blinking in the club lights. As if to prove that he wasn’t lying, he took the dry erase board he had been working on at the bar and showed him. The column of names on one side of the tree didn’t matter to him. The one blank spot where the winner’s name would be written did.
Mack began to list out the scant regulations set down for the tournament. The only restriction appeared to be the usual. No eye gouging and no groin shots. Everything else was permitted until his opponent tapped out or passed out.
“Kicks and grappling?” Leo asked.
The manager grinned. “All fair game.”
More than enough. Leo nodded in approval and pulled out his wallet to count out the bills.
“Buy-in’s five hundred.”
He froze in the middle of his count and shot Mack a glare that could peel paint. “You told me it was four.”
The wanker only shrugged. “Must have misspoke.”
Leo feigned a smile. “Must have.” He stacked what bills were needed to get him into the fight and held them out for Mack between his two fingers. Before the manager could take them, Leo grabbed for his shirt collar and pulled him in close. “You better not cross me on this,” he growled in warning. “If I find out you skimmed my winnings again, I will find you.”
And Mack knew Leo could. He didn’t have connections, but he had his demon who loved a good fight. The bookie’s hairy brows shot up and he nodded quickly, hands raised as if he had already been caught in the act.
“We’re clear,” he assured. “But I didn’t cross you that time, you know. It was – “
Leo shoved him against the bar counter, knocking over a few beer bottles in the process as Mack’s feet were nearly lifted off the floor. He could have easily snapped this weasel’s spine if he wanted to. Good thing for him, Leo still needed the money.
“I know it was you,” he snarled, getting close enough, so only Mack could hear him. “Be grateful I’m in a forgiving mood tonight. Otherwise, you’d be in the river by now.”
Before Mack had a chance to open his mouth and dig himself a deeper grave, Leo tucked the wad of bills in his front shirt pocket. Under the watch of several patrons to the bar, he let Mack nearly crumble in a heap and strode away to find the locker room.
He regretted nothing. Mack was a snake, no different than any of the other managers and bookies he had met across the country. They would sooner double-cross someone they thought wouldn’t notice and take a bigger portion of the payout. Leo wouldn’t be fooled. Not tonight. Not ever again.
Once more, he had to maneuver his way through the crowd, upsetting plenty and spilling drinks along the way. The long hallway to the locker room might have been the only empty place in the club. Can lights lit the path that stretched in a straight line toward the back of the complex, but shadows lined the walls and spaces between.
Leo gave himself permission to breathe again, but the darkness was close. He could tell in the subtle drop in temperature and the way the lights flickered and dimmed. It didn’t surprise him that the demon would show up here. Away from Levi, away from his lighthouse of calm, Leo was vulnerable again. But this was what the darkness wanted. Pain, fear, blood.
“I almost thought we’d never be here again.”
The voice scratched at the corners of his mind, slinking with him along the corridor. He knew, if he cared to look, what he would see. Either a floating immaterial orb of black mist, or a form that appeared much less sinister, like a swindling gambler or underhanded dealer ready to make bargains on souls. By the more substantial presence in his peripheral vision, he knew it was the latter.
“Don’t get excited,” Leo said. “I’m not staying.”
The demon edged closer in the form of a man wearing a neatly pressed suit and jacket, jet black hair and coals for eyes gleaming in the fluorescent light. “Oh, come on. You know you miss this.”
Leo scoffed. “Yeah, I totally miss the smell of piss, alcohol, and weed. Such a pleasant smell.”
A disturbing laugh bubbled up from the demon’s throat. “There’s that humor I missed. See, we’re so much better off here than in that little town in the middle of nowhere.”
He slid a scathing glare to the darkness, but wouldn’t slow or protest. “Here to collect payment?”
“You’ve had a week off, Leo. Thanks to that little – “
“If you call her anything but a lady, I’ll – “
“What?” he snapped. “Punch me? Strangle me? You forget that you can’t do anything, Leo. You’re powerless and always will be.”
He didn’t need to be reminded. Whatever the darkness wanted to do, he could do it. Except when Belle prayed. That was his only saving grace, but there was no way her prayers could reach this far. Could they?
“Just pay attention during the fight and you’ll get all the payment you need,” Leo directed, slamming the door in the demon’s face as he walked into the locker room.
It did little good. The darkness rematerialized beside him as he worked the padlock with the key he had been given.
“I know why you’re doing this,” the demon said, grinning to show his perfectly straight white teeth. “You’re trying to make your girl happy. It won’t work.”
“Watch me,” he dared.
“I’ll make you throw the fight. Take you out of the first round before you can get anywhere close to the semi-finals.”
“You won’t do shi-“ Leo stopped himself and bit back the word he wanted to use. “You won’t do anything. Think of all the lads I’ll beat into the floor tonight. You need that payment. Remember our deal?”
Leo stripped off his shirt and wadded it up before zipping open his bag to shove it inside. He then set to taking off his shoes and socks to join his shirt.
“And you remember what I told you? I need more than the typical payment, especially since your brother is getting closer.”
One thing about demons, he had learned, was that they didn’t have an ounce of loyalty in them, not even for the man who had tethered them to a victim. Twelve years he had lived with this curse, the darkness serving as the constant thorn in his side. But he did have one useful thing going for him. He told Leo when Matthew was catching up.
Leo shot a look to the demon to see if he was lying just to get a bigger blood payment. That was the agreement they had made months ago. If he did his part and gave the darkness what he wanted, Leo and Belle would be left alone. Of course, the game changed when Leo decided to pursue her. Now that they were living together in a hotspot that the darkness didn’t care to be in, the cost of their protection went up.
“How close?” he asked, hoping for an honest answer.
“Very. And I would rather not be around when he does come. Think of how mad he’ll be when he finds out I’ve been masking your trail for the sake of an extra fix.”
That was laughable. “You poor wee thing,” he mocked. He crammed his duffle bag in the locker, thoughtless to how the luggage would damage Mack’s package of cigarettes or the tiny bundle of cocaine tucked away in the back. Leo hoped he busted the plastic bag.
“Why don’t we stay in Little Rock? It’s such a fun town,” the darkness suggested as Leo began the methodical process of wrapping his hands in the gauze and athletic tape to protect his knuckles. By the end of the night, they would be stained red with blood.
“After this is over, I’m going to Fayetteville.”
The demon came around to face Leo. “There’s nothing in Fayetteville worth seeing.”
“And then I’m going back to Levi,” Leo stated impatiently, as if he had been saying it all night in one way or another. He wouldn’t leave Belle, no matter how much the darkness wanted him to. Like she said that day when he almost skipped town without telling her, he needed to take control of his life, one choice at a time. This choice, though made for odd purposes, was what he wanted, and the darkness would not pressure him into returning to this way of living – if it could even be called that.
“Why not stay a few days?” he said, almost whining like a child who was denied candy and was one refusal away from throwing a tantrum. “We could use some of the winnings to get a hotel, order room service, order some girls and – “
Leo shot daggers with his eyes that instantly made the vile mouth shut tight. He would have threatened to leave Little Rock right then if he thought it would do him any good. The darkness was smart enough to know that Leo needed this money just as badly as he needed the blood payment.
He finished wrapping his hands and left the locker room just as he heard the music dim for a minute to allow the presenter to publicize the first match. He didn’t care if the darkness followed or not. He’d be in the crowd, watching, absorbing the pain and misery of Leo’s opponents. It’d be just like old times.
Unceremoniously, Leo entered the main hall where the fighting would take place. His bare feet slapped against the cold concrete floor, wetted by the spilled beer and liquor from earlier that night. Mack was by his side as if he were a personal sponsor and hyped up the crowd when his name blared over the intercom. Men roared and cheered while women let out whistles and offers that were lost in the din.
He was led to the center of the room where one bright light hovered over the space sectioned off for the tournament.
Spectators leaned on the rope partitions to get a look at Leo as he swaggered forward to meet his first opponent. As always, his stomach tangled, but then he reminded himself that as long as his brother’s curse tarnished his soul, there was little man could do to him. He was kept alive to suffer and cause suffering for others. He’d get hurt, but death wasn’t in his near future. Not yet.
The ropes were closed behind him and he raised his fists, keeping his stance easy and light. The other man, leaner and an obvious novice, blew air past his protective mouthpiece and hopped about like an eager boxer.
Don’t waste your energy, he told himself. You’ve got a long night to go.
When the bell sounded, and the crowd shouted for their favorites, the thinner man came charging forward with a wild hook. Leo dodged and sent an uppercut into his ribs. The guy recoiled and put a hand to his side, eyes wide like he had never expected to be hit.
Leo shook out his hands and flexed his unpracticed knuckles. His fight with Drake was the last time he’d ever hit bone that hard. He readied himself again for the next assault, but was disappointed when the man came at him again with a similar greenhorn move.
He left himself open and Leo took the opportunity. He ducked and wrapped him in a chokehold from behind. One kick to the back of his leg buckled him to the ground. For a minute or two, they grappled with one another. Leo saw stars each time a punch connected with his head, but he willed himself to stay conscious during every reversal. Limbs twisted as they rolled across the concrete, scraping the skin of their arms and backs along the way.
Each time he thought the guy would tap out, he kept coming at him with more desperate jabs and kicks. Leo felt a bit of blood trickle from his nose after an elbow slammed into his face. He could taste its metallic essence on his lips.
He was kicked off and stumbled backward, giving his opponent time to jump to his unsteady feet. Leo wouldn’t give him the chance. He landed one solid punch to the jaw. He heard the crack, but didn’t care. The man finally crumbled to the floor and he waited for a hand to smack the pavement.
When it did, Leo spat a bit of the blood from his mouth and looked up. His eyes instantly met the devilish stare of the darkness in the crowd. The black pits that bore through him told enough. This tournament wouldn’t be a walk in the park for him like it used to be. The demon would drag this out and make the poor boys he fought think they had a chance against him.
The darkness wasn’t just in the business of making Leo’s life a living hell. He’d also drag along any other susceptible soul with him. That was why he needed to protect Belle, the only thing he cared about anymore.
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