AVAILABLE IN eBOOK AND PAPERBACK FORMATS
He’s damaged. She’s scarred. If they ever manage to face the truth, they might find the second chance they both deserve.
Amy Parker-Nguyen. 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.
Nate Harvie. Being a twenty-two-year-old, MMA fighter has its perks. His days are filled with 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.
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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 hyper-drive.
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. Man-whore 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.