Avery knew her mouth was gaping open. “I didn’t know you had a crystal ball.”
“Talk to me. Isn’t that what we’re here for? Isn’t that the point behind the First Wives Club? Cut the crap and talk about the trials in our postmarriage lives?”
Avery’s chest lifted with the oxygen she needed to open up. “I won’t be the one to kill Trina’s buzz. She deserves to be happy.”
“Good thing I’m not Trina.”
Avery glanced at her lap, noticed her bruised knuckles. “I had three guys on rotation before New York.” She didn’t need to explain the reference to New York. Everyone in their little club, along with bodyguards and detectives, were knee-deep in the drama surrounding the violent attack that changed her life. “I cut them all off when I returned.”
There was silence.
Avery had asked herself that question many a night since. “I think the easy answer is I didn’t feel safe anymore. But that’s not completely it. I’ve changed. The doctors said that a personality change after a head injury is normal. I didn’t question it very much. Sometimes I feel like my old self.”
“But not all the time.”
“No. Most of the time I feel like an imposter.”
“Is there anyone?” Shannon asked quietly.
Avery shook her head.
Shannon placed a manicured fingernail on Avery’s bruised knuckles. “What’s up with this?”
Avery closed a fist, turned to look Shannon in the eye. “Trina doesn’t need to know. Not yet. She’ll blame herself.” Considering it was Trina’s late father-in-law that hired the thug who attacked her, it was safe to say she’d suck in any blame for Avery’s issues and change in lifestyle.
“I’m the silent one. Secrets are my thing.”
Avery lifted her hands in the air, turned them backward and forward. “Self-defense class.”
Shannon released a short breath. “Oh, thank God.”
“What did you think I was doing?”
“I don’t know, punching walls. I read up on head injuries, too, and I didn’t rule anything out.”
“You’ve been thinking about this a long time.”
“A few months. And you’re right. I think Trina would take it to heart that you’re feeling the need to bulk up on survival skills.”
Avery smiled. “Listen to you talk like a badass.”
“You went through hell last year. I think you’re incredibly smart to empower yourself. It’s what changes a survivor into a warrior.”
“I like that.”
“I’d love to take credit for it, but I’m sure I read that somewhere.”
Avery leaned her head against Shannon’s shoulder.
“What about your mom?”
She squeezed her eyes closed. “Is there a class for dealing with self-absorbed mothers?”
Shannon’s shoulder shook as she laughed. “Sign me up if there is.”
Fifteen minutes later, after delivering the CliffsNotes version of her Adeline high tea, Avery fell into bed and closed her eyes. It felt good to have the validation of one of her friends. There wasn’t a thing wrong with the direction she was taking in her life.
She was a warrior.
Which was a hell of a lot better than being a victim.
He was a contractor, not a freaking handyman. So why was he nailing racks to walls in a gym like an apprentice?
Oh, yeah . . . that’s right. He’d started going down this fork in the road once he realized that the blonde named Avery didn’t take the group class. He’d told Brenda, the owner of the studio, that he had to work for her after his normal working hours to give her the deal she needed. And when the group class turned up empty of his target, he might have seen the schedule on Brenda’s desk when it “accidentally” fell open on the floor. After flipping a few pages, he saw Avery’s name and insisted that Tuesday or Friday was the only time he had to finish his contracted job.
A voice in his head suggested that his motivation was a tinge too close to a stalker’s.
He was good with that.
The door from the locker room to the studio slammed.
“You need to get this door fixed, Brenda!”
Liam didn’t turn around.
It was her. He could tell by the way the hair stood up on his arms.
“Your warm-up is on the board,” Brenda yelled from her open office.
“I hate burpees.”
Liam felt his lips split into a smile while he lifted his level to the rack he’d just attached to the wall.
“I haven’t seen you in a week. You’re weak and pathetic,” Brenda sneered.
Avery’s displeasure was voiced under her breath. It was then that Liam glanced over his shoulder.
He was in trouble.
She was taller than he remembered. Or maybe it was the spandex she wore that seemed to add inches to her frame. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. No makeup. Curves.
Rail-thin women did nothing for him.
She noticed him for the first time.
Her eyes narrowed. “Hello.”
“Hey.” Yeah, he was playing it cool, like a damn teenager. Hey? Who said hey?
“Do I know you?” she asked.
Liam started to shake his head.
“Ignore him. He’s working. Fifty burpees. One-legged. Twenty-five each side.” Brenda took a breath. “Stretch first.”
“Brutal,” Liam said quietly.
Avery rolled her eyes before lifting her hands over her head.
Spandex. He loved spandex.
She caught him staring and waited for him to stop.
“Sorry.” So not sorry. He turned around.
“One,” Avery called out. “Two, three.”
Liam made the mistake of looking over his shoulder on ten.
One leg up, her shoulders peeked out from under her skintight shirt, making his mouth go dry.
Since when did a woman’s shoulders make his dick stir?
He closed his eyes, shook his head, and turned around before she could catch him staring a second time. Get it together, man.
On forty-seven, Brenda walked out of her office, past him, and stood over Avery.
“You’re not sweating,” she said once Avery announced she was done.
There was a pause.
Avery grumbled. “I hate you.”
“As long as your check clears, I don’t care.”
Liam laughed. He couldn’t help himself.
“Are those shelves done?” Brenda asked.
Brenda turned and focused on Avery as she did her last ten burpees.
“Damn, that hurt,” she said as she collapsed on the mat after the last one.
“That’s because you missed Friday.”
“I had to leave town.”
“Yes, I know. But take your workout with you and it won’t hurt as much when you return.”
Liam finished screwing in one of the brackets and moved on to the next, all the while eavesdropping on the conversation as much as he could.
“Today we’re starting with punches.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Avery twisting on a pair of boxing gloves while Brenda placed pads on her hands to catch Avery’s swings.
For five minutes Brenda yelled out a series of numbers: One, two. One, two, one. One, two, three, four, one, two. Jabs, cross hits, uppercuts. He had no idea krav had so much boxing involved.
Avery was sweating; her rapid breathing accompanied the grunts that would occasionally follow her efforts.
Brenda broke them off. “Get a drink. The next round is on your back.”
Liam had never worked so slowly in his life. Once Avery caught her breath, she lay down on the mat, and Brenda straddled her. He was pretty sure he’d seen something like this before. Only the women were wearing bikinis and were covered in mud.
“Left, right, until I call it.”
Avery started punching. Each slap of her boxing gloves to the mitts the instructor wore cracked the room with noise.
Brenda called time and instantly told Avery to force her off the domineering, if not slightly erotic, position she held over her.
For a brief second Avery sighed and acted as if she were going to just lie there, then, in a blur, Brenda was knocked off to the side, and Avery was two feet away and on the balls of her feet with her hands in front of her face.
Brenda shook off her mitts and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. “Don’t be impressed.”
For an instructor, Brenda didn’t seem to have a lot of motivational skills.
“I’m impressed.” Liam met Avery’s eyes.
“She refuses to spar with others.”
“I was with Leslie last week.”
“You have ten pounds on her. And she kicked your ass.”
Avery didn’t argue.
“You need more of a challenge. There is only so much I can teach you one-on-one. One of these days a man his size is going to challenge you, and you won’t have the skills to get away.” She pointed to Liam.
He placed his hands in the air. “Don’t look at me. I don’t attack women unless they ask for it.” He was pretty sure he smirked.
Avery rolled her eyes. “I could get him off of me.”