It took Adeline Kendrick two laps around the massive casino resort property before she found the correct turn for the hotelâ€™s valet parking, but she finally pulled under the right porte cochere and handed over her keys.
While the staff took her suitcase out of the sporty SUV sheâ€™d bought herself for her twenty-fifth birthday earlier that year, Del sent a quick text letting her mother know sheâ€™d arrived in one piece. The drive from Providence to the Connecticut casino was only about an hour, but Joan Kendrick had a tendency to work herself into a ball of anxiety when anybody in the family stepped outside their usual daily routine. Going to a casino was definitely out of the norm for a Kendrick.
As expected, Del got a flurry of text messages in return. Her mom started with donâ€™t talk to strange men and moved on to not writing her room number on her key card and more, finally ending with not leaving her drinks unattended. Then, after a few seconds, a have fun, honey.
The heels of her boots clicking on polished marble floors, Del made her way to the check-in desk, feeling as though sheâ€™d stepped onto a holiday movie set. It was the weekend before Christmas and the casino had spared no expense in decorating. Trees and garland and life-sized Nutcracker soldiers were everywhere, and the music being piped into the lobby was jazzy instrumental Christmas music. The massive lobby marked the junction of hotel and casino, and in the center was the biggest white tree sheâ€™d ever seen, with colorful lights twinkling in time to the music and magically lifting her mood.
She was ready to celebrate.
â€śGood afternoon.â€ť The woman behind the desk had a smile that rivaled the Christmas lights. â€śAre you checking in?â€ť
â€śYes, I am. Adeline Kendrick. I have a reservation for the weekend.â€ť A long weekend, really, since it was only Thursday. She was coming in the day before Kate and Brittany because she hadnâ€™t had a vacation in two years. One night with room service and Netflix before the festivities began sounded like heaven.
â€śAre you here for the fights?â€ť the check-in clerk asked as Del handed over her credit card.
â€śFights?â€ť She wasnâ€™t sure what kind of fights the woman was talking about, but it didnâ€™t matter. She wasnâ€™t there for any fighting. â€śNo. One of my best friends is getting married and weâ€™re here for a girlsâ€™ weekend. Itâ€™s sort of like an extended bachelorette party, I guess.â€ť
â€śThat sounds like fun.â€ť She handed Delâ€™s credit card back to her, along with the key card, and then went through a long spiel of the services they offered and gave her instructions on how to request almost anything her heart could desire.
Delâ€™s heart desired food at that moment, but she knew it wouldnâ€™t take them long to deliver her luggage since the check-in area hadnâ€™t been very busy. And she wanted to see her room. Theyâ€™d hoped to get a big suite and relive their college days, when the three of them had arrived on campus as strangers andâ€”after four years of laughter, tears, stress and funâ€”had graduated as sisters. But theyâ€™d found out the suites were not only booked long before the holiday season began, but were priced a little high for a girlsâ€™ weekend out.
Sheâ€™d just closed the door of her room behind her and flipped the security bar when her cell phone rang. The screen said Kate Tessaro and Del smiled as she swiped to answer the call from the bride-to-be.
â€śAre you there yet?â€ť Kate asked before she could even say hello.
â€śI just walked into my room.â€ť
â€śTell me itâ€™s beautiful.â€ť
Del looked around, giving a mental shrug. It was nice, though not nearly as lavish as the suites they hadnâ€™t been able to get. â€śYouâ€™re going to love all the Christmas stuff in the lobby. There are nutcrackers taller than you and the biggest Christmas tree Iâ€™ve ever seen.â€ť
She heard the happy sigh over the line. â€śI canâ€™t wait to see it, and Iâ€™m so jealous you get to be there early.â€ť
Kate had fallen in love with a guy from Rhode Island on the internet and moved there from Boston to live with him. She hadnâ€™t been able to get Thursday or Friday off from work since she was taking the week after Christmas for a stay-at-home honeymoon, but she wouldnâ€™t have a long drive Saturday morning. And Brittany Woods, the third of their trio, was driving down from Vermont Friday night and probably wouldnâ€™t arrive until very late.
â€śDid you lose any money yet?â€ť
Del laughed. â€śNo, not yet. When I said I just walked into my room, I mean I literally just got here.â€ť
She walked to the wall of windows as she talked and looked down thirty-four floors at the tiny cars driving around the bottom of the building, probably looking for the turn to valet parking. Beyond the perimeter road was a wide river and beyond that, nothing but trees.
â€śTry not to lose all your money before we get there,â€ť Kate said, but then she laughed. â€śAs if you would. Are you even going to leave your room, or are you going to stay in your pajamas and watch movies and eat room service until Saturday morning?â€ť
â€śBusted.â€ť There was no sense in trying to deny it to Kate since none of them had changed very much since their college days. Kate was the social butterfly and loved going out. She always wanted to do something. Brittany was happy either going out or staying in, but even with their limited space, she liked to have friends over and movie nights with popcorn or board games. Del was the quiet one, happy to have fun with a crowd, but happier to have a quiet night watching TV or reading a book. At the time, theyâ€™d always joked about balancing each other out but looking back, it was a miracle theyâ€™d made it through four years together.
â€śIâ€™ll let you get to it, then,â€ť Kate said. â€śI have to make some phone calls to make sure nobodyâ€™s going to screw up my big day.â€ť
Because she was getting married on Christmas Eve, Kate had to deal not only with the normal wedding insanity, but the fact that most vendors were quitting early the day of her wedding, if they were working at all. Luckily it was a small family affair, but she still needed to coordinate the food and flower deliveries and make sure nobody dropped the ball because there was no Plan B available the night before Christmas.
â€śI bought new flannel pajamas just for the occasion,â€ť Del said.
Kate laughed again. â€śKnowing you, youâ€™ll still be in them when I get there, so Iâ€™ll admire them then.â€ť
The phone on the desk rang. â€śHey, theyâ€™re probably calling to tell me theyâ€™re bringing my suitcase up. Iâ€™ve got to run.â€ť
Once the call ended and her luggage had been delivered, Del dug her charger out of her purse and plugged the phone in to charge while she freshened up. The new pajamas were definitely calling to her, but she would go out and explore a little bit first. The website had listed all the high-end stores on siteâ€”selling everything from makeup to bags to jewelry and sports thingsâ€”but sheâ€™d save the shopping until the others arrived. And, despite Kateâ€™s jokes, she didnâ€™t have a lot of interest in the casinos other than people-watching. But sheâ€™d find a coffee shop and something to eat before finding something to watch for the night.
And it wouldnâ€™t hurt her to explore a little bit. All work and almost no play was threatening to turn Del into a very dull girl.
She switched her license, credit card and a small amount of cash into a wristlet before locking her purse, jewelry and tablet in the room safe. After making sure she could remember her room number, she tossed the cardboard folder in the trash can and put the key card into the wristlet with her money.
There were a lot more people milling around when she returned to the lobby, and she chalked it up to it being later in the day. The people whoâ€™d had to work Thursday but had taken a three-day weekend were probably arriving. She was a little surprised to see so many people dressed down in ripped jeans and T-shirts, though. Some had hoodies on over the tees and, though she wasnâ€™t exactly dressed up herself, she felt sheâ€™d stepped into the crowd for a rock concert rather than the lobby of a hotel that charged four hundred dollars a night for their run-of-the-mill rooms.
She hung a left at the giant white tree and went down an escalator into the casino area of the complex. There was a bar area at the bottom, and wide hallways split to either side of it. After flipping a mental coin, she went to the right. It was hard to walk past some of the shops and their tempting window displays without going inside, but she knew Kate and Brittany would want to hit every one of them later.
Instead she focused on scanning the restaurant names, waiting for something to stand out. They all had their menus hung outside their doors for passersby to peruse, and she stopped to read a few, but none lured her inside. She didnâ€™t mind eating alone, but she wasnâ€™t in the mood for long lines and loud restaurants tonight.
As she neared the end of the hall, which widened as it became the entrance to one of the big casino wings, she realized sheâ€™d come to the end of her options unless she wanted to wade through the gamblers and cigarette smoke to see what else there was. Off to one side, near a smaller hallway leading to restrooms and elevators, was a map. She decided to take a look at it and see if there were any coffee shops or more casual dining options to be found if sheâ€™d taken a left back at the bar.
First, though, she had to get by the people. There was a crowd gathered, with a line forming in front of a long table. There was nobody sitting there, but off to one side was a massive banner advertising what looked like an autograph session with shirtless men who were scowling at the camera and holding their fists up like they were going to punch somebody.
Are you here for the fights? This must have been what the check-in clerk was talking about, she thought. Boxing, maybe?
MMA, the sign said, and she knew from the hype surrounding a recent pay-per-view event it was like boxing, but mixed with wrestling and martial arts. Other than a few highlight reels on the news, sheâ€™d never actually seen it.
According to the sign, there would be an autograph session any minute and she had no interest, so she would have kept walking, but a few of the people in line shifted slightly so she could see the bottom half. She could have her picture taken and get an autograph from Bryan Lavaud or Brendan Quinn.
Brendan Quinn. It couldnâ€™t be. She found it hard to breathe suddenly and the sounds around her faded as though sucked into some kind of vacuum.
Staring out at her from the poster, scowling and fierce, was the face of the only man sheâ€™d ever loved.
His brown hair was shorter than before, though still long enough to have the thick, bedhead look sheâ€™d found so sexy. Shirtless for the photo, he showed off rippling muscles, a sheen of sweat, and tattoos across his chest and down one arm. Those were new since the last time sheâ€™d seen him. But all she had to do was look into the dark eyes framed by eyelashes that would make most women weep with envy to know the intense man in the photograph was her Brendan.
Or was her Brendan. He wasnâ€™t anymore, and he hadnâ€™t been for almost six years. After taking a deepâ€”if shakyâ€”breath, she flipped off the poster and kept walking.
* * *
Brendan leaned against the elevator wall, bobbing his head slightly in time to the bass thumping through his earbuds. The music calmed him, blocking out the noise around him, as he focused on stepping into the persona that the fight fans expected him to be.
The elevator was almost full, but he stared straight ahead. His manager and trainer were talking to each other, but Brendan couldnâ€™t hear them and he didnâ€™t care what they were talking about. A uniformed security guard stood by the control panel. There was also a member of the hotelâ€™s security team and two people representing the fightâ€™s promoter, one of whom was a very attractive woman named Janie whose job seemed to be making sure his every need was met. And sheâ€™d let him know that really meant every need. Brendan had ignored the blatant offer and told her heâ€™d let her know if there was anything he wanted. There wouldnâ€™t be.
The only thing he wanted was for this fight to be over so he could go to the family cabin in Maine, maybe hit the snowmobile trails with his cousin Scott, if he didnâ€™t take too much of a beating, and have some quiet recovery time before showing up at his parentsâ€™ for Christmas.
There had been a time, after he walked away from the woman he loved, that heâ€™d dreamed of becoming an MMA superstar. To fill the void in his life, heâ€™d joined a gym and found out the owner trained a couple of fighters. He had some natural skill and it wasnâ€™t long before heâ€™d stepped into the octagon. Heâ€™d replaced his desire for Del with desire for the cage. A desire for guts, glory and money. Pay-per-view and endorsement deals. And a flashy belt draped over his shoulder as the camera flashes blinded him.
Then, two years before, his older brother had hit black ice going too fast and the whole world stopped. Unable to leave his dad to run his roofing business alone, Brendan had scaled back on his dreams and his training time. Heading to New York or Los Angeles and fighting his way into a top gym wasnâ€™t an option, so heâ€™d gone back to his Boston gym. He fought on the local circuit and got some marquee fights from time to time. He won some and he lost some. And he made a little extra money to supplement the paychecks from Quinn Roofing without giving up fighting. He was happy. Mostly.
This would be his toughest fight in a couple of years, for a big promoter whoâ€™d lost a guy to a training injury only three weeks before. Brendan was a local favorite and would be the only East Coast fighter on the card, so the crowd would love him and that would help fill seats. Heâ€™d been offered enough money to make the training crunch and the risk of showing up at his momâ€™s Christmas dinner with his face and body bashed up worthwhile.
When his managerâ€™s elbow jabbed him, Brendan lowered his hood and popped one earbud out. â€śWhat?â€ť
â€śHeâ€™s talking to you.â€ť
He was the guy who seemed to be some kind of liaison between the promoter and the casino, and Brendan struggled to remember his name. â€śSorry. Whatâ€™s up?â€ť
â€śThereâ€™s a pretty good line already, so weâ€™re having extra security brought in. People have been waiting a while, so we need you to go straight to the table without stopping, because if you do a photo or autograph for some random person where the folks whoâ€™ve been waiting can see, weâ€™ll have a potential crush to get to you.â€ť
Brendan nodded. Corey was the guyâ€™s name, he thought. Corey something. â€śNo problem.â€ť
He thought crush was a bit of an exaggeration. While he might be the hometown boy and he had a decent fan base, none of the fighters had exactly reached celebrity status. Not even Bryan Lavaudâ€”whom heâ€™d be facing in the cage and who was expected to winâ€”though heâ€™d been on a few pay-per-view undercards. Brendan was definitely the underdog, but heâ€™d have a good chunk of the crowd chanting his name and anything could happen when the energy level was high.
Today theyâ€™d be signing autographs and probably posing for endless selfies with fans who cared enough about the fights to show up a day early and put more money in the casinoâ€™s pockets. Even the fans who didnâ€™t stay in the very expensive hotel rooms would eat overpriced food and drop money in the casino before heading home or to the cheaper motels down the road.
â€śItâ€™s showtime,â€ť Janie said as the elevator settled on the casino-level floor.
Brendan put the earbud back in and pulled his hood up as the doors slid open to reveal two more security guards, big guys in black suits with earpieces, as though they were pretending to be secret service or something. All part of the show, Brendan thought. The more important the security looked, the more important the person they were protecting appeared to be.
Corey put his hand over the door bumper to give them all time to disembark, with the fighter going last. It was all a performance and it wasnâ€™t Brendanâ€™s favorite part of being a fighter, but the better the fan experience, the higher the ticket sales.
Theyâ€™d set up for the autograph session near the entrance to the main casino, and he could hear the noise as they walked down the hallway. The others were around him, like an entourage, which always amused the hell out of him. Brendan Quinn with an entourage.
But he didnâ€™t let the amusement show. Stone-faced, he concentrated on walking tall, with a swagger that crossed the line into arrogant. As Janie had said, showtime.
As they neared the end of the hall and he could see the crowd standing in line, he watched a curvy brunette standing in front of the giant poster, staring at his face. Maybe it was her upscale outfit that caught his eyeâ€”since she wasnâ€™t wearing the merchandising T-shirts that most of the other women wereâ€”or the way she was so intent on the poster, but he couldnâ€™t stop himself from watching her.
Then she flipped his giant face the bird and spun on her heel to walk away.
â€śOkay, thatâ€™s weird,â€ť he heard Janie say in a low voice, and he sensed the circle of people around him closing in as the woman veered in their direction.
She was looking at her phone, but she must have sensed she was approaching a crowd because she glanced up and started stepping to the left to avoid them.
Brendan stopped in his tracks, the name ricocheting through his mind like the echo of a primal scream, but it left his lips in a whisper.
Their gazes locked before her eyes dropped to his mouth as if to read her name there. Then her eyes lifted and her green stare seemed to bore straight into his soul.
â€śDel.â€ť He said it out loud, ripping the hood back and yanking the earbuds out, but he didnâ€™t need to. He knew sheâ€™d recognized him because he could see the shock in her expression, but she didnâ€™t speak.
He watched her gaze sweep over the entourage surrounding him before returning to his face.
Missing this woman had been a constant ache heâ€™d learned to live with over the last six yearsâ€”like the dull throbbing of a bum kneeâ€”but as he looked at her it flared to life. He took a step toward her, but the anger that flickered over her expression made him stop.
The Del heâ€™d known would have run and thrown herself into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist as he lifted her. Heâ€™d loved her laugh. Not the polite laugh that was all most people ever got to hear, but her real laugh, when she would have to hold her stomach as tears rolled down her cheeks.
But heâ€™d walked away from that Del and even as he tried to think of something to say, she started walking away from him.
â€śDel, wait.â€ť He pushed past Janie and his trainer, Eric Maxwell, desperate to get to her.
â€śBrendan, we donâ€™t have time for this,â€ť Janie called after him.
He ignored her. â€śDel, please.â€ť
She hesitated, and he knew she was weighing her desire to get away from him against her distaste for public scenes. Then she turned to face him, her mouth fixed in a cool, polite smile that cut him to the core. It was the kind of smile a woman gave an annoying stranger sheâ€™d rather not talk to.
â€śHello, Brendan.â€ť She spoke quietly, looking him directly in the eye.
Then she reached up and tucked her hair behind her ear in a familiar nervous gesture. It was her left hand and he looked for a wedding band, his stomach in knots. But there were no rings. No telltale indent or tan line. He wasnâ€™t sure how he felt about that.
â€śYour entourage looks nervous,â€ť she said, looking at some point past his shoulder.
â€śWeâ€™re running late. And they saw you flip off my picture.â€ť
Her cheeks flushed a light pink and her smile thawed, becoming a little more genuine. â€śI didnâ€™t expect to stumble across a giant picture of your face.â€ť
â€śWhere are you headed now?â€ť He was afraid sheâ€™d leave and heâ€™d never see her again, even though heâ€™d been the one to do the leaving last time.
He wanted to know how sheâ€™d beenâ€”whether his decision had been the right one, no matter how painful.
She tilted her head toward the signs for the restroom. â€śI was going to the ladiesâ€™ room to text my sister and tell her I saw your face on the poster so she could remind me what an asshole you are. Not that I really need reminding.â€ť
That hurt, probably more than she would ever guess, but he had it coming. â€śI have to do this thing for like an hour. Will you meet me after?â€ť
Her eyes widened. â€śMeet you for what?â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t know. For coffee. To talk.â€ť Talk about what, he didnâ€™t know. He just knew he wanted to see more of her. He needed to know that she was happy.
â€śBrendan, we have to go.â€ť That was Jonathan Campbell, his manager, and he didnâ€™t sound very happy.
â€śDel, please. Just a coffee. Thereâ€™s a little coffee shop on the hotel level thatâ€™s reasonably quiet. Give me one cupâ€™s worth of time.â€ť
He was prepared to beg if he had to, but to his surprise, she gave him a curt nod. â€śIâ€™ll be there in an hour and a half, in case you run late or whatever. One cup.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll be there.â€ť
She nodded again and then walked away, not toward the restrooms, but back the way sheâ€™d come from. He watched everybody watching her walk by and knew theyâ€™d be full of questions, but he had no intention of telling them who she was.
â€śBrendan,â€ť Janie said, her voice tense. â€śBryanâ€™s already at the table.â€ť
He replaced the earbuds and hood, mustering an expression suitable for sitting next to a guy he was supposed to pretend he was looking forward to punching in the face. In reality, he didnâ€™t know Lavaud well, but he seemed like an okay guy. Good fighter.
But he didnâ€™t even care about the fight anymore. He would sign autographs and glower into front-facing smartphone cameras with the fans who insisted on selfies, but part of his mind was already trying to figure out what he was going to say to Del.
He had one cup of coffeeâ€™s worth of time to convince her he wasnâ€™t an asshole. And to convince himself that, even though it had damn near broken him, letting her go had been the right thing to do.