He's damaged. She's scarred. If they ever manage to face the truth, they might find the second chance they both deserve.
As a twenty-eight-year-old widow with one son, she’s determined to stay emotionally unavailable. Love is great until it ends; leaving you forever bereaved, and your outlook on life bleak and barren. After patching up her heart, she’s happy to be known as the hard-assed, single mum and occasional good time, party girl.
Being a twenty-two-year-old, MMA fighter has its perks. His days are filled with a never-ending rotation of free booze, good drugs, and easy girls. Life is good... well, it was until the night he broke his cardinal rule and let Amy get too close.
Now, he wants things he shouldn’t.
Things he can’t have unless he tells the truth.
What should be a brief encounter that scratches a mutual itch grows into so much more before either of them realises. Amy becomes worried about Nate's worsening behaviour and, before she knows it, she's facing a choice.
Will she stick around and help him or return to the safety of the lonely life she was previously sinking under?
Conflict is the second book in the Black Hearts MMA series by Kylie Hillman. This is a heart-wrenching tale of fate - where a damaged man might have found his forever in the arms of a woman who thought she'd lost hers.
* Non-cliffhanger, full length novel. Can be read as a standalone, however does contain some spoilers for the first book in the Black Hearts MMA series, Brawl *
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READ AN EXCERPT
Fight or flight? They are the commonly accepted responses to a perceived threat. Unfortunately for me, I don’t do either whenever I feel under attack. Instead, I freeze.
Not just physically or mentally.
In every way imaginable.
My feelings. My hopes. My dreams. My thoughts. My actions. I’d force the blood in my veins to cease pumping if it were possible. Everything stops for me during one long, drawn out moment before my life restarts and goes into hyperdrive.
Because after the freeze comes the defrosting and it’s even worse than doing nothing.
A cascade of emotions. A torrent of mistakes. A tsunami of regrets. Fuck up after fuck up. I alienate everyone who cares and make enemies of anyone who dares look at me wrong.
They say I’m wired differently. They give me pills to swallow to even me out and take blood to test their effectiveness. I’ve been monitored, jeered at, derided, and judged for as long as I can remember, yet none of that has ever made the slightest difference. I’m not normal. Never have been. Never will be. Never want to be.
I enjoy my life of conflict. In fact, I revel in it. It’s the one constant I can rely on. When life throws me a curve ball, I freeze… then I thaw, and everything turns to shit.
I’ll be honest. Not once has it crossed my mind to want my life to be different. Chaos is my thing. Destruction is my comfort. Annihilation is my reward.
Until I made the mistake of touching the one woman I shouldn’t have.
Before I could stop myself, I’d fallen for her warmth and basked in her sun.
Now that I’ve felt the heat, I want to be burnt. Engulfed by flames. Reduced to a crisp. Turned to ashes.
Only then will my life be different.
I am a phoenix and only her love can resurrect me from the ruins.
And, I promise… this time when I freeze, I’ll let my need for her set me on fire.
“Are you all set for tonight?” I ask my uncle. Unstrapping the velcro wrist-piece of my gloves, I tug the padded material off and drop them into my locker. “Not that Kryptonite stands a chance, anyway.”
Everyone in the locker room laughs at my comment. After grabbing my bag, I slam the door to my locker shut.
Despite everyone else’s mirth, my uncle remains silent. He doesn’t find humour in much anymore—not since the death of my aunt and my cousin three years ago. In a wordless show of support, I lay my hand on his beefy shoulder and squeeze.
“Not sure if you remember, but I’m meeting with Steve in an hour,” I tell him in a quiet voice. He’s not exactly on board with my plan to get another job, but I can’t keep mooching off him while his gym, Black Hearts MMA isn’t making much of a profit. “Gonna grab some supplies for tonight’s after party, then meet with him. I can come to the back rooms and hang with you before you go on, if you’d like?”
Muted expectation fills the locker room at my question. My best friend, Jep and the three other guys my uncle trains pretend—badly—that they’re not waiting for his answer. Truthfully, we’re all eager. No one has been allowed in his corner since my aunt’s death, and even though I’ve thrown the suggestion out there, I don’t hold much hope that those circumstances will change tonight.
“Nah,” Hooligan replies. He lifts his head to meet my eyes and the sorrow in his green gaze hits me straight in the heart. “I’ll be right, thanks. You go have fun with ya mates. There’s some decent fighters on the card before me. It’ll be good for you to watch them in action. You’ll pick up better pointers from the side of the cage than you will hiding in the back rooms with me.”
With a wholly fake grin, I incline my head in agreement and chuckle. It’s an empty sound since every man in the room knows that it doesn’t matter how many techniques I learn; I’ll never be able to go pro while I’m medicated to the gills. My chances of surpassing Hooligan’s legacy are next to none. The underground fight ring is about the only place that welcomes guys like me.
Guys with weirdly wired heads that need medication to keep them under control.
“Yeah, sounds like a plan,” I declare once I’ve swallowed the lump that’s invaded my throat.
Hooligan barely offers me a shrug before he ducks out of the locker room and into his office. The guys he’s about to train go back to getting ready, and I take that as my cue to get the fuck out of Dodge.
Walking passed Jep on the way to the exit, I bump his shoulder with mine when I’m level with him.
“Meet you at Nitro’s?” I ask. He nods, a leering grin that wouldn’t be out of place on a wolf lifting his lips. “Pre-drinks on you?”
My feet are nimble as I weave out of his way when he throws a playful punch at my arm. I slowly jog out of the gym with his shouted reply echoing after me.
“In your motherfucking dreams, Nate,” he crows. “My last name’s not Harvie and I ain’t related to fight royalty. Open your own wallet for once, ya scrooge.”
His reply lifts the dark cloud that had settled over me. I can always count on Jep to add a little humour to any situation. He would’ve seen beneath my flippant response to Hooligan’s comment and known I needed a reminder of how blessed I actually am.
And he’d delivered with his usual smartarse attitude.
He’s right. I mightn’t ever get to see my name in lights on the main card of a UFC bout, but I’m still Nate Harvie. Infamous nephew of Hooligan Harvie. Manwhore extraordinaire. The girls at the fight tonight won’t give two shits if I swallow a medicine cabinet each morning to even me out so I can function like a semi-normal adult. All they’ll care about is the free alcohol I can hook them up with and the guaranteed ride on my cock they’ll take at the end of the night.
That’s what they’ll be gossiping to their friends about tomorrow morning, not my lack of pro-fights.
No one cares about the dream I’ll never realise.
No one but me.
Scooping my helmet from the front foot peg, I cock my leg and settle on the seat of my Harley. I tighten the straps on my back pack, kick up the stand, and hit the ignition button. With the powerful machine throbbing beneath me, I grin.
I have a good job on the horizon, a fight to attend, and a party to organise.
Money. Violence. Sex.
The three things that make my world go round.
One twist of the accelerator later, and I’m speeding out of Black Hearts MMA’s parking lot. Leaving a strip of rubber on the asphalt and my troubles behind me. The car I cut off toots its horn at me, and I flip the driver the bird.
Fuck my dreams.
Fuck my ADHD.
I’m Nathan Harvie.
And I run my little corner of this ‘burb.
My alarm erupts next to my bed. I lean over and silence the eerie, alien sound that’s playing. Apparently, Max has been messing with my phone again. It’s a little game he plays with me—changing my normal chimes to his preferred sound every time he discovers that I’ve changed it back. I pretend it annoys me, but it doesn’t.
How could I be mad with him when he inherited his silliness from his father?
It helps to wake up with a smile, considering I’m not normally a morning creature. Working nights does that to a person. Although, the wake-up call this morning was unnecessary since I’ve been tossing and turning in my bed for the last two hours.
After yet another dud date last night, I’m beginning to believe that I’m the problem.
Or more to the point, my inability to let go of the past is the issue.
Rolling onto my side, I place my hand under my head and prop myself up on my bent elbow. The gold frame that sits on my bedside table calls to me—just as it does every other morning. This morning I try to fight the urge, but it’s impossible. Like a junkie, I need my fix.
From the photo, Jon Parker smiles back at me. He holds our son on his hip with me tucked under his other arm. We’re happy. The picture-perfect, soon to be family of four. My rounded belly is obvious, as is Jon’s excitement. His big hand covers most of my tummy and Max stares at his father like he’s Superman.
Which he was until he left us.
One drunk driver. One brave husband who pushed me and Max out of the way and bore the brunt of the impact from the vehicle when it mounted the curb and came directly at us. One dead husband on a slab in the morgue and an angel baby I had to birth from my battered body even though I already knew she was gone.
That’s all it took to ruin my life.
Now, I live for the first few seconds of each day when I wake, and I can pretend that I’m not in this bed by myself. Then, I look at the photo of how my family once was, two short years ago, and it all hits me.
I’m all alone in this room we used to share. Bereft and barren. Left to find a new normal that I never signed up for. Just me and Max, and one stupid promise I made to my dying husband that I would try to move if he didn’t make it.
“Mama,” my son yells for me as if on cue. “Mama. Bà ish here.”
“Great,” I mutter to myself. Throwing myself on my back, I jam my pillow over my face and scream. My bloody mother is here and that’s the last thing I need this morning. She’ll want an update on the date I had last night with the nice Vietnamese doctor she set me up with, or worse, she’ll know that I botched it and she’s here to berate me.
Turning back onto my side, I shake my head at the photograph before kissing my fingers and placing them on Jon’s smiling face. The love I feel for him remains as solid as ever in the middle of my chest, except as time has passed it’s been poisoned by something much less noble.
“This is all your fault,” I tell him. A lump lodges in my throat at the unfairness of it all. Blinking fast when my eyes burn, I continue, “I know it’s wrong and mean and fucking futile of me to tell you, but I miss you more every damn day. You didn’t save us; you sentenced us. I wish you’d let that bastard take all of us. It would’ve been better that way.”
With my daily diatribe out of my system, I force myself to get out of bed. It kills me to unload all my anger on Jon every day, however it’s the only coping strategy I’ve found that works. Whenever I’ve tried to skip a day, I’ve either ended up in tears or tearing strips off some poor unsuspecting person over a minor infraction.
As crazy as it is, it’s easier this way.
My hands shake when I grab my robe from the hook on the back of my door. Pushing my arms through the silky material, I knot it around my waist, and slide my feet into my fluffy slippers. I jam my hands into the pockets to hide my trembling from my mother and head toward my bedroom door.
Just before I breach the doorway and turn into the hall, I stop. I shouldn’t be this needy, not after almost two years, but I can’t help myself. Spinning on my heel, I glance back at the photograph.
“I love you,” I say. “Wish me luck.”
Closing my eyes, I concentrate as hard as I can.
It’s been taking more effort lately, yet I refuse to concede defeat until I hear him.
“Love you, too,” Jon’s voice reverberates around my head after ten seconds of serious focus. “Knock ‘em dead, angel cakes. You’ve got this.”
Once he’s spoken, the shaking stops. I’m as balanced as I’m ever going to be again.
“Maxie,” I call down the hallway. “Mama’s coming. Just let me pee first.”
“Okay,” my boy yells back. “Bà make pancakes.”
As I duck into the bathroom, I hear my mother chastise him for being so loud. I relieve myself, then wash my hands and splash my face with cold water. The soft towel I use to dry my face hides my reflection from view, not that I’m actually planning on looking at myself.
Hiding from myself is my other coping strategy. It’s also the best one—the one I hold onto the hardest. The longer I evade taking a good look at myself, the longer I can continue to live this half-life where I’m as comfortable as I’ll ever be.
Because I know the day when I’ll be forced to face reality is quickly approaching. It’s stalking me like a lion, prowling behind me, nipping at my heels, breathing down my neck with its promise to strip me of my ruse and deliver me into the truth I’ve been stubbornly dodging since the day Jon died.
I’m not sure if I want to keep living like this.
Tossing party food and drinks into my shopping cart, I speed through the aisles in the supermarket. When I pass a pair of old ladies with purple tinged white hair, I wink. They both gasp and it makes me laugh. I turn back to look at them with a flirtatious quip on my lips that’s brought to an abrupt halt when I run into something.
“Ouch. Fucking hell, watch where you’re going!” A female voice curses me out. When she twists to face me, my eyes widen. She’s hot as fuck. Nineteen, maybe twenty years old. Tattooed and athletically built with hatred in her eyes. Exactly my type. That little tasty fact is solidified when she glances down at the back of her leg and cusses me some more. “Look what you’ve done. Moron.”
Fuck. I think I’m in love.
“I’m sorry,” I say, dropping to my knees. When I take hold of her ankle, she jerks in my grip. My fingers tighten as a reflex and her struggle ends immediately. “I didn’t see you there. Let me have a look.”
I peer up at her when I finish inspecting her ankle and find amber eyes staring down at me. There’s hungry intent in her gaze as she runs it over my face and down my body. Lifting her ankle closer to my face, I draw my eyebrows together and pretend I’m worried about her injury.
In truth, it’s not that bad. The skin is slightly broken, and a little bit of blood has formed. She’s lucky, the way I hit her could have caused a lot more damage.
“I’m okay,” she purrs. Seems she’s changed her tune now she’s got a good look at me.
My thumb has a mind of its own, drawing circles on her soft skin. The tiny gasp she makes spikes my desire and I decide on the spot that I’m going to taste this chick, if it’s the last thing I do.
A shudder runs the length of my spine when she tugs her leg free and stands fully upright again. Her long dark hair sways around her toned shoulders and we both take a moment to really look at each other. It’s clear that I appreciate her edgy look—tight tank, denim cut-off shorts that highlight the huge-arse tattoo that covers her right thigh, and Doc’s that should’ve protected her ankle better than they did—as much as she likes my dirty denim, faded Harley T-shirt, and chains.
“I don’t think it’ll bleed too much.” She follows her statement with a come-fuck-me smile.
I reply with a chuckle, “I’d say I’m sorry, but I’m not. Your pain has turned out to be my gain.”
One perfectly sculpted eyebrow arches, and she tilts her head to the side. “How so?”
Running my gaze over her face, then dropping it to her chest, I smirk when she pulls herself taller and visibly preens under my inspection.
“If I hadn’t hurt you, then you wouldn’t have cussed me out, and I wouldn’t be taking you out tonight.” I answer her question with unconcealed desire in my voice. Holding my hand out, I continue, “I’m Nate, by the way.”
She leaves me hanging. “You’re very cocky, aren’t you, Nate?”
“You have no idea.”
“Too bad, I already have plans for tonight.” The little hottie wriggles her eyebrows at me as she turns me down stone-cold with a smile. “But you have a good day now.”
Without giving me the chance to convince her, she pushes her shopping cart away. Smelling a game commencing, I follow her. One tug on the handle of her cart is all it takes to stop her from leaving.
“I’ll bet I can show you a better time than anything else you’ve got planned.”
With a shake of her head that’s at odds with the ground she concedes when she speaks, the little hottie continues to play coy. “I’ll think about it. Maybe we can meet up later tonight? Discuss our options further?”
“Sounds like a plan to me. Where? And how will I get hold of ya?”
Eyes hooded with desire; she yanks her shopping cart free of my grip. “I’ll be at Nitro’s from about ten ‘til it closes. Find me there.”
“I’ll see you tonight,” I yell after her. Her arse sways, a definite sashay in her step, and I take a second to appreciate the sight before one glaring omission hits me. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“I only wanna fuck, not friendship. Names aren’t necessary,” she retorts.
Holy fuck. I think I’ve just met my soul mate. Throwing my head back, I bellow with laughter. When the old ladies that I winked at when I entered the aisle titter with shock at her profanity, I clutch my stomach and laugh harder.
I was already looking forward to spending tonight at Nitro’s since Hooligan is fighting in the basement of the club. Knowing that this girl might come is icing on the cake.
Little hottie won’t know what’s hit her.
“I won’t be home until after you’re asleep,” I tell Max once we’ve eaten lunch together. Crouching in front of him where he sits in his playroom watching cartoons, I place my hands on either side of his chubby face and plant a kiss on his pouty little lips. “Be a good boy and have fun with Bà. I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Love you, Mama.”
Smoothing his shiny black hair down, I walk into the living room so I can grab my hand bag. My mother is sitting on the couch with one of the soaps she records over here playing on the TV. Her addiction is our dirty little secret. My father turns his nose up at her trashy shows and he’s managed to use the rest of our family to shame Má into hiding her habit from him.
“I’m going now,” I say, quietly. Interrupting her soaps isn’t smart, even though she can pause them since they’re recorded. The resulting lectures are not worth pointing that little fact out. “I’ve left food in the fridge and money on the counter if you don’t want to cook.”
“Hmph,” she grunts at me without turning from the television.
After I’ve checked my bag for my keys and slid my phone into the internal pocket, I drag in a deep breath and approach her.
“I really appreciate you watching Max for me today and tonight.” I pause for a moment to make sure she’s listening. “I know Papa gets mad when you come here, and it means the world to me that you came anyway.”
When she continues to stare intently at the screen, I sink my teeth into my bottom lip and shrug. At least I tried. No matter how little impact my thanks has on my mother, I can rest easy at night knowing that I’ve acknowledged her as much as I can. I turn away from her before I give into the urge to press my point further or launch into another explanation about why I can’t be the type of daughter they want.
“It is my duty.” Má raises her voice over the people talking on the TV. “And my honour. You’re my daughter and Maxie is my grandson. It won’t kill your papa to fend for himself for one night.”
We laugh together. A subdued sound that neither of us completely commits to because underneath the surface all our issues continue to bubble away.
“I’m sure you’ve left enough food to feed an army,” I quip. She finally pauses her show and looks at me. Matching dark-brown gazes take the other’s measure. A damning silence grows that I am the first to break. “Well, I should get going. Don’t want to be late. Call me if you need anything.”
I’ve turned the handle and pulled open the front door of my little three-bedroom cottage before Má speaks again.
“You know, if you moved home until you remarry, you wouldn’t have to work these crazy hours. Maxie could have his mother and we could have our daughter back.”
And there it is. The main problem between us. I brought shame to my family when I eloped barely a month after I finished high school. It’s an embarrassment I compound every day now that Jon is gone by refusing to move home and live within the umbrella of my family’s expectations. Until I am the dutiful daughter I should be, I will be harangued daily with only the level of their protests differing.
The date with the good doctor last night was only the beginning of their pressure.
My official mourning period is almost over. The two-year anniversary of Jon’s death looms nearer every day. Soon Papa’s silent treatment will become vocal condemnation and my mother’s passive defiance of his wishes will end.
Then, I’ll either capitulate or defy.
A choice that brings consequences either way.
“I know, Má,” I reply as evenly as I can. An angry bubble of grief builds in my chest as my heart rejects what I say next. “I’ll think about it.”
She clicks her tongue; a noisy challenge to my noncommittal answer. We both know that I’m simply keeping the peace because my back is against the wall. I’m reliant on her goodwill whenever Max’s normal sitter can’t have him, and Má will take advantage of that for as long as she can.
Stepping out in the morning air, I let the front door shut swing behind me. My legs are weak and my heart hammers hard as I stumble my way to my car. Once I’m safely cocooned inside, I let the sorrow that’s been boiling within me simmer over the edges. It spills free—from my mouth in sobs and my eyes in tears. Careful not to mess up my makeup, I wipe under my eyes with my thumbs and try not to blink too often.
The drive to The Fitness Hub where I work as the one of two office manager’s gives me barely enough time to get my shit back together, but as always, I manage. I guess there’s perks to living under the constant cloud of sorrow that has dogged me for the past two years. It’s taught me how to get my emotions outwardly under control while my insides dance to their own bleak rhythm.
By the time I’ve greeted everyone at the gym as I head deeper into the building toward my desk outside the owner’s office, I’m back to myself. Snarky and sassy Amy. Beautiful but unobtainable Amy. Personable yet professional Amy. Funny Amy. Friendly Amy. Eager to assist Amy. I’m a multitude of things to those I work with—yet not one of those personas is the real Amy.
That Amy is kept hidden behind a careful mask, and only comes out of hiding when she’s in the safety of her own bedroom. She’s the one who mourns her husband and daughter, rails angrily at the photo of a dead man, and refuses to leave the room until he’s wished her a good day. No one here—no one anywhere—knows that Amy and that’s the way it’s going to stay.
“Can I help you?” I ask the blond man with his back to me when I enter the office area.
He finishes reading the poster on the wall, then shoves his hands in the pockets of his jeans and turns to me. My breath catches in my throat at the sight of him. He’s beautiful—mid-length blond hair that flops on his forehead, long, athletically muscled limbs covered in tattoos, intense emerald-green eyes that cast a spell over me, and a disenchantment with the world that clings to him like an invisible cloak. At first glance, I can tell that he’s bad, he’s sad, and he’s mad at everything.
He’s a kindred spirit—someone who’s felt the wrath of the universe and come off second best, just like me.
He’s trouble with a capital T.
“Yeah,” he answers me in a husky drawl. “I’ve got a meeting with Steve.”
My gaze refuses to move from his face and my feet won’t cooperate when my brain screams at them to take me behind my desk. The blond goliath seems to instinctively know the affect he’s having on me and I can see that it amuses him. His mirth is exactly what I need to regain control of myself. It reminds me that I’m not here for anyone’s enjoyment.
“Okay. Let me check.” With a deliberate sway to my hips, I make my way to my desk. His sharp intake of breath is the perfect balm to my bleeding ego, and I drive home my point by leaning lower than necessary when I leaf through the pages of the owner’s diary to get to today’s date. When I return my attention to his handsome face, I’m forced to supress at smile at the way he quickly averts his gaze from my cleavage. “Name please?”
“Ah, Nate… Nathan Harvie,” he replies.
Finding his name on the page, I run my fingernail along the line to see what he’s here for. He’s our new Night Manager it seems. Which is surprising since I was part of the interview process with Steve and I’m certain I would remember him if he’d taken part. Since my boss is known for his altruistic ways, I rein in my surprise.
How else would a widowed mother of one with only a high school diploma and no previous experience hold down an office manager’s job complete with flexible hours?
Nathan Harvie is just another in a long line of Steve’s pet projects.
I don’t mean that snarkily—I am one myself.
I lift the phone’s handset from the cradle and press “1” for Steve’s office. He answers on the second ring.
“You’re here early?” he questions me.
“I swapped with Jules to have last night off,” I remind him quickly. My normal hours are three in the afternoon until midnight—The Fitness Hubs peak evening hours—which I’d swapped with the daytime office manager in order to attend the ill-fated date with the doctor last night. “I’m pulling a double today.”
“That’s right,” Steve replies, happily. “I forgot about that. How was the date?”
“Lame as hell,” I groan. “Another one of my parents’ good intentioned meddling’s gone wrong.”
Steve chuckles. I open my mouth to elaborate when I’m interrupted by a fake cough. Nate Harvie has perched his arse on the edge of my desk and is leering over me with annoyance on his face. Glaring at him, I hook my foot around the leg of my office chair and wheel it out from under my desk.
“How’s my calendar looking today?”
“I’ll just check,” I tell Steve.
Once I’ve settled myself comfortably in my chair, I smirk at Nate. He crosses his arms over his chest, and I lean back in my seat and inspect my nails.
“Seriously?” Nate snaps. His green eyes are darkening as his mood turns sour so once I’ve decided that he’s been sufficiently punished from taking amusement at my momentary lapse in decorum, I put him out of his misery.
“Okay, Steve,” I say slowly, pretending that I’m still going through his schedule. “Your day looks pretty good. Your lunch appointment is here—Nathan Harvie. Do you want me to send him in?”
Steve coughs, then answers me with a splutter. “Ah, shit. Yeah. Send him in.”
“Will do,” I reply.
“Um, Amy,” Steve ventures in a timid voice. “Can you get an employment contract together for me? I might’ve promised Nathan the Night Manager’s job, even though we agreed on that other guy, and then forgot to tell you about it.”
Reading between the lines, it’s clear to me that Steve not only forgot to tell me, but he also forgot to tell Jules and everyone else who works here. This is par for the course with my boss. His flights of fancy and on-the-spot gut calls should cause a lot more chaos here than they do; yet he somehow manages to find his way through the mess to own one of the most successful twenty-four-hour gyms in Sydney.
“Will do.” I end the call the call with a giggle. Looking up at Nate, my earlier annoyance with him is forgotten. Steve has a way of making me forget all the crap in my life. “He said you can head right in.”
Confusion is the dominant expression on Nate’s face when he runs his green gaze over me. I smile wide, innocence personified, and determined to throw him further off balance. He shakes his head, then shrugs. Desperately suppressing my laughter, I bite down on my lip and pretend that I’m not watching his tight arse as he walks away from me.
“Jesus, Amy.” I throw myself back in my seat and giggle like an idiot once he’s closed the door to Steve’s office behind himself. “Get a grip.”