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“Great!” Nik said back, and was immediately ashamed that she’d adopted the other woman’s exclamation points. This was just like how whenever she went to the South, she started drawling and saying “y’all” after the first five minutes.

None of them needed the locker room, so they shuffled into Studio A. It was a big, brightly lit exercise studio, with shiny wood floors, mirrors covering one wall, and a water fountain in the corner. A big sign by the door told them—in more metallic gold letters—to turn off their phones and put any personal items in the cubbies by the door.

“Are we in kindergarten?” Dana said, gesturing toward the sign. “I don’t know about this place, Nik.”

Courtney quickly shed her jacket and tucked it and her purse into a cubby.

“I obey any sign that sparkles at me—you know that,” she said to Dana. “Have an open mind! You’re too used to your high-pressure SoulFit or CrossMethod or whatever the hell it is you do when you work out.”

Dana raised her eyebrows at Nik.

“Some sparkly signs and this woman is all in. I’ve never seen her change her mind so quickly about anything.”

Thank God her friends were with her. There were many things in life she would cheerfully do alone—go to movie, out to dinner, on an international trip—but she never would have had the guts to come to a class like this alone.

She took out her phone to turn it off, and what the hell, send one more text.

Now you’re just making things up, but I swear I just heard someone at the gym call someone else Sunshine.

At seven on the dot, the blond woman from the reception desk bounced into the center of the room.

“Welcome, everyone!” All of the murmurs quieted down, and everyone turned to her. “I’m Natalie, and I’m so glad to see all of your beautiful faces here today!”

Oh God. This was the kind of person who said “all of your beautiful faces.” What had she gotten them into? She saw Courtney and Dana exchanging glances.

“So, as you all know, this is a six-week course to teach women how to fight.” She smiled at the half circle of women gathered around her, and they all smiled back. More or less. “Some of you probably signed up for this class thinking about how they do self-defense classes for women in the movies. You know, a man all dressed up in lots of padding, and everyone gets to beat him up and knock him down; we all laugh, right?” They all nodded, more sure of themselves this time. That was exactly what Nik had wanted. To be able to punch a man and walk away from the class confident knowing she could.

“Well, that’s not what we do here.” Natalie’s voice had changed. It was still pink and sparkly, but somehow had steel behind it, too. “We don’t want this to be some fake empowering nonsense that lets you leave here after you knock down a man covered in padding, who was unable to move and who’d given you, like, ten minutes of warning that he was going to try to attack you. What the hell good does that do you?”

Hmmmmm. This was getting interesting.

“If we did that, you’d leave after six classes, still completely unable to face whatever it was that drove you to sign up for this class. That’s not what I’m about. In my classes, we’re going to face those fears head-on. And we’re going to teach you how to punch like a girl. Because you know what?”

Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” suddenly blasted from the invisible speakers in the room, and the whole class jumped, then laughed, then sang along.

“That’s right. We run the world, girls. Don’t ever let anyone forget that.” Natalie beamed at them. Nik suddenly noticed the size of her biceps. She had definitely misjudged this woman by her blond hair and cheerful voice, that was for sure.

“I know, I know, you’re all looking around for the punching bags and boxing gloves. That’s next week. Today we’re going to start with loosening up and learning some form.” She smiled at them, a smile that felt like a hug. How did she do that?

“Okay, everyone!” Natalie bounded to the front of the class and faced them. “Now, we’re going to learn proper form. We have to get your hands, your arms, your shoulders, your back, and your legs all in order.” She demonstrated a punch, her ponytail swinging. “That’s what you are all going to look like before the end of next week’s class. Now, let’s talk about how you stand. That’s the most important part.”

Nik imitated Natalie’s stance. She already felt stronger. She bet if Carlos saw her now, he wouldn’t think she was some sort of weakling.

Well, okay, she still didn’t know how to throw a punch, but she would very soon, which was the important part.

“We get to use punching bags next week, you guys!” Courtney said as the three of them walked out of the gym an hour later. They were dripping with sweat and had huge grins on their faces. “I can’t wait.”

Nik looked over at Dana.

“What did you think, D? I know this one became a convert as soon as she saw the sparkles, but you were more skeptical. You going to keep going with us?”

Dana jumped into the front seat of Nik’s car.

“Absolutely. Now that I think about it, I’ve always wanted to know how to punch someone in the jaw.”

“Same here,” Nik said.

* * *

• • •

Carlos woke up extra early on Friday morning and went for a run. The hell with apples; it was a run a day that kept the doctor away.

He was so tired of Angela bugging him about going to the doctor, and lately Jessie had been doing it, too. They’d started bringing this doctor thing up over a year ago when he made the mistake of letting it slip that he hadn’t been to the doctor in years. He knew it was because they were just paranoid about something happening to him like it had happened to his dad, but he was fine—he kept telling them that. He knew his own family history all too well; he didn’t need to go into detail with someone else about it. And he already knew everything he needed to do for his health, and he didn’t need some other doctor bugging him to cut carbs and exercise more, blah blah blah.

He’d planned to take a few hours off on Friday afternoon, so when he left work early, he drove down to Los Feliz to the bookstore he liked there, Skylight Books. He’d promised Jessie that he would pick up some books for her to read while she was on bed rest. He was pretty sure that Jessie was more stressed about having preeclampsia than she’d let on to him. Books would help her relax, no matter what she was reading.

“Looking for anything in particular?” a voice next to him said. Oh thank God, someone on the staff to give him advice.

“I am, and I need some help.” He turned around to find Nik standing next to him, that worried look on her face from Monday night replaced by a grin.

“Hey! What are you doing here?” he asked. He pulled her into a hug. He’d been on the point of asking her to get a drink last night, but she’d gone radio silent on him for a few hours, and when he heard from her again, it would have been way too late.

“I’m here all the time,” she said. “Today there’s no particular mission other than seeing if I can find a book I’m in the mood for. I have stacks of brand-new books at home, all of which I was excited to read when I bought them, but now . . . none of them seem quite right to me.”

He nodded.

“Yeah, I know how that is. All of the books that you have are sad books when you’re in a happy book mood, or vice versa. Or dense when you want a page-turner.”

She smiled up at him. Her skin almost glowed in the warm light, her hair bounced as her head turned, and her huge smile made him feel warm inside. He couldn’t help but to smile back at her.

“Exactly! All of the books I have right now are either very smart nonfiction books about very important issues that I would rather jump in front of a moving train than read right now or novels where all of their New York Times reviews said the writing was ‘beautiful,’ and I don’t have the patience for beautiful writing right now. What are you looking for?”

They walked a few steps together, away from the woman who seemed to be bothered by their above-a-whisper-level conversation.

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