Home > Chasing Shadows (First Wives #3)

Chasing Shadows (First Wives #3)
Author: Catherine Bybee

Chapter One

Left, right, cross . . .

Avery met each punch with a counter and waited until the fourth strike to move in.

Two hits in, Avery shoved her assailant’s nose into her knee and then fell to the left when a second attacker swooped in from nowhere.

Next thing Avery knew, she was on her back.

She froze.

Her head flew to the right.

The left.

“Stop.”

Her breath came in short, quick pants.

A boot to the face.

The pain . . .

She shot up to a sitting position. “I’m good.”

Brenda pushed in and knelt down on the mat. “Your hands were down. Your legs were free . . . you froze.”

“I didn’t.” The denial was quick on her lips.

“The sooner you realize you’re wrong, the faster you’re going to end this fear.” Brenda’s German accent cut through Avery’s muddy brain.

She pushed Brenda out of the way, pulled her headgear off, and threw it onto the mat.

Leslie, her opponent, had been studying krav maga for three years. Avery had a measly ten months under her belt.

The fact that Brenda was correct in her observation of Avery’s freeze only added to her anger.

At herself.

At the world.

At the dead asshole who made her freeze.

Emotion welled up inside and forced her feet to move. She pushed past her instructor and beelined to the locker room.

“Is she okay?” Avery heard Leslie ask.

“She’s fine.”

Avery let the door slam behind her.

Alone, she moved to the sink and turned the water on cold. She splashed her face, attempting to cool the hot anger swimming inside, and looked in the mirror.

Her flushed features were evidence that she’d exerted herself. The bloodshot eyes were a combination of lack of sleep and frustration. “Get a grip,” she cautioned herself.

A sharp knock on the door spiked her blood pressure.

“Are we doing this or not?” Brenda yelled from the other side.

Avery glared at herself in the mirror and shoved away.

“Yeah.”

An hour later she stood under the hot stream of the shower, nursing a stinging shoulder and a bruised ego.

Leslie had efficiently handed Avery her ass. Brenda had obviously coached Leslie to get her on the mat repeatedly. Twice Avery had started to freeze, and twice Brenda had yelled something in German that Avery knew was both offensive and condescending. And when their session ended, Brenda’s praise was nothing but a half-baked smile that lasted all of a second. If Avery had blinked, she would have missed it.

“You were slow, and your legs should be used for more than screwing.”

It was as close to a compliment as Avery could expect. Most of the time Brenda had a never-ending diatribe of faults that Avery needed to work on. To only have two roll off Brenda’s tongue was a rarity.

Leslie turned off the water in a neighboring shower, reminding Avery that she’d been standing in the hot water for ten minutes. She quickly rinsed the soap from her hair, turned the water off, and grabbed a towel from the peg outside the stall.

She padded into the locker room and kept herself from looking at the naked woman running a hand through her wet hair.

“Thanks for the workout.”

“I’m not sure how much of a sweat you managed, knocking my ass into the ground every five minutes.”

“Every opponent brings a new challenge.” Leslie reached for her underwear. “How come you don’t come to the group classes?”

“And let several people witness my humiliation?”

Leslie cocked her head to the side, her short hair falling in her face. “Brenda told me that you didn’t think you were any good.”

“Did she?” Avery tossed her towel to the side and turned her back. “What else did Brenda say?”

“That you were good.”

Avery glanced over her shoulder. “That’s a lie. Brenda never hands out praise.”

Leslie winked. “Yeah, I made that up. But you are. Good, that is. You should join us sometime.”

“I’ll think about it.” And then dismiss the idea. This was a thing she did under the radar. The fewer people that knew she was studying krav, the better.

Leslie pulled a light sweatshirt over her head and hid the tattoo that covered the entire right side of her body. She didn’t put on a bra. Dressed in black, with her dyed red hair spiked, she looked a lot more badass than when covered in protective gear.

“Wanna grab a beer?”

Avery thought about what waited for her at home. Nothing.

“Sure.”

“Cool. Meet you outside.”

It was early fall in Southern California, which meant hot, dry, and windy. Most of the time that meant fires in the foothills and poor air quality in the city. Tonight the sky was clear and electricity seemed to snap in the atmosphere.

Leslie leaned against the brick building, her cell phone in hand, when Avery walked outside the studio. “We can walk. It’s not far.”

Pug’s Pub was a dark lit bar with three men for every woman. The jukebox played old rock and roll from the seventies, and the bartender appeared to have made a lifetime career out of pouring drinks. Overweight and out of shape, the guy blended in and wasn’t dressed to earn tips from his customers. From the limited selection behind the counter, Avery assumed the man’s talents were limited to Jack and Coke and whiskey, straight up.

“I wouldn’t suggest the beer on tap. Safer to ask for a bottle,” Leslie suggested.

“Good call.”

A handful of men sitting on beaten up barstools watched while they found a high table with a couple of empty seats.

“Hey, Keith.” Leslie waved to the man behind the counter, put two fingers up in the air.

“You come here a lot?”

“After a class, some of us come here to decompress. Hard to go home and go to sleep with all that adrenaline swimming inside.”

Avery could attest to that.

She sat at the table and winced at the pain in her side. As much protective gear as they used, there was still some pain involved when practicing the fine art of kicking the shit out of someone.

Keith made his way to their table and put two longneck Stellas in front of them. “New friend?” he asked.

“Avery, this is Keith.”

“Nice to meet you.”

Avery smiled and put out her hand. “A pleasure.”

Keith smiled, wiped his fingers on a towel, and reached for her palm. “You class the joint up just by walkin’ in the door.”

Avery grinned.

“That wouldn’t take much,” Leslie teased.

“Hey, watch it.” He smiled, unoffended. “Where is the rest of the gang?”

“Just us tonight.” Leslie tilted her beer back.

“Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Gotcha.”

Keith walked away, and Avery let the cool liquid roll down her throat. Yup, this was exactly what she needed.

“So what’s your story?”

“My story?” Avery asked.

“Yeah. Why krav? Why now? Why do you forget everything the second your back hits the mat?”

Avery took another swig of her beer. “Nothing like easing into a conversation.”

“Ease isn’t my style.”

“Okay . . .” She took a deep breath. “A dirtbag ambushed me last year. I barely knew what hit me before I was waking up in the hospital. Lived in the ICU for a week and got a nose job out of the whole thing. Once I recovered, I decided to take up krav instead of a polite form of martial arts.”

Leslie listened without emotion. “What happened to the dirtbag?”

“Dead.”

Her eyebrows lifted.

“It wasn’t a random act. And it’s a long story. So I put the alarm in after I was ripped off, so to speak. I figure the next time someone tries to put me in the hospital, I’m not going without a fight. Fool me once, shame on you and all that, right? Besides, the stronger I felt taking krav, the less frequent my nightmares kept me up.”

Leslie leaned in on her elbows, peered closer.

“What?”

“What did your nose look like before?”

The question made her smile and helped lift the heaviness that sat in her chest anytime she thought about that time in her life. “What about you? What’s your story?”

It was Leslie’s turn to pause and take a drink from her beer. “My daddy liked little girls. I was the closest little girl he could get his hands on.”

Avery swallowed, the levity of a moment before gone. “Jesus.”

“Nope, Jesus wasn’t a part of it. Anyway. I did the high school dropout thing, ran away. Blah, blah . . . then I met this guy, total douche, but he didn’t believe in hurting women. He taught me a few things about fighting. Firearms. Got my GED.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Six years. Took up krav a few years back, right as I was getting out of the Army.”

“You were in the service?”

“Four years.”

“Wow,” Avery said.

“Wasn’t a career for me, but it was exactly what I needed at the time.”

“What do you do for a living now?”

“I design video games.”

Avery stared in disbelief. “Get out.”

“True story. What do you do?”

Avery played with the condensation on her beer and was happy to be able to say she actually had a way of earning a living. “Estate sales.”

“Yard sales for rich people?”

She laughed. “It’s a little more complicated than that, but essentially.”

“We probably never would have met in the real world.”

“I’ve met a lot of good friends that way.”

Leslie lifted her beer to Avery. “To new friends.”

Liam kept himself ducked in a back corner of the bar, his eyes trained on the one woman in the place who didn’t belong. He’d been staring at her so hard for twenty minutes, it was surprising she didn’t feel the heat of his eyes.

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