All of Me by Tiffany Patterson
Get this deal done.
That was the only thought on my mind as my town car pulled up next to the curb across the street from one of Los Angeles most popular lounges.
“Before the night’s over, you need to make your move on Eli,” my business partner and closest friend, Preston, said through the phone line.
“You think I don’t know what I’m doing?” I asked as I surveyed the crowd forming outside of the downtown Los Angeles restaurant.
Before Preston could answer, the driver opened my door. With a nod, I exited the vehicle and turned to wait for my date.
“I know you’ve got this despite how much you hate LA.” Preston chuckled. “I would’ve taken this trip, but I’m here.”
“You’re handling business elsewhere,” I said, noting that he was on the East Coast for our athletic management company, No Sweat Management.
“Speaking of, everything went well with Chris’ game. We’ve got another sponsor lined up for him.”
“Sounds like it went more than well, then,” I responded.
“Yeah, but I hate being here on the East Coast,” Preston grunted.
I snorted. “No more than I like the West Coast. I’m going to wrap this shit up with Eli and get my ass back to Texas.”
“Later,” Preston said before disconnecting the call.
I slipped my phone into my pocket and finally looked at my date for the evening.
“How’s Preston doing?” Annabelle asked with a lift of her plump, cherry red lips.
“He’s handling business.”
She pouted. “A shame he couldn’t meet us out here in LA. I’ve got a girlfriend who’d be perfect for him,” she purred as she pressed closer into my body, gliding her finger down the length of my torso.
I wrapped my much larger hand around hers. “He’s busy,” I said firmly. “And so am I.”
Annabelle pulled her hand free from mine and gave me a slight roll of her eyes. “Right. You’re here to sign your next athlete. You couldn’t possibly take the time to talk about our relationship,” she whined.
I stiffened. “Relationship?” The word tasted sour in my mouth as I spit it out.
“Yes. That’s what we have, isn’t it, Gabe?”
“Where did you get an idea like that from?” Regretting the question, I held up my hand with a shake of my head. “Don’t even answer that. I’m here to connect with some people in my industry. Most importantly, to convince an up-and-coming fighter to sign with my company, and that’s it. You’re here because you needed something to do on a Friday night.”
“I’m here because I look good on your arm, and you can’t show up to these types of events dateless.”
“That too. Are you ready?” I held out my arm for her to take, not willing to discuss this shit any further.
Annabelle knew what she and I had was far from a relationship. Yeah, we went out on a date, fucked, and shared some laughs here and there when I was in town, but that was the extent of it. She knew a lot of people in LA since her father was a former promoter.
She was helpful in that way, but she was far from my girlfriend.
“Fine. We’ll talk about it later,” Annabelle said as she took my arm.
I didn’t bother taking the bait on that. I had bigger things to focus on.
“Good evening,” the host greeted as we came up to the doorway. “Mr. Townsend and Ms. Jeffries, please enter.”
We passed through the main entrance, and as soon as we did, Annabelle’s expression switched from pouty to cheerful. She was an out of work actress, like so many other people in that damn city. Of course, she could turn it off and one on a dime.
“I heard Lena Clarkson is going to be here tonight.”
“Who?” I asked, only half caring as I gazed around the room, mentally checking off who was there and who wasn’t.
“She’s a singer. You had to have heard of her.”
With a frown, I replied, “Does she sing rock?” It was a rhetorical question. I knew she didn’t because if she had, I would’ve heard of her.
“No. Lena’s sound is more R&B, soul, and some pop.”
“Pass.” I didn’t do the sappy music shit. All the whining about love lost, forever love, missed opportunities? No thanks. Give me fast tempos, electric guitars, and screaming vocals over any of that sentimental nonsense.
“There’s Roger Wolcott.” I gestured with my head in his direction. “We need to speak with him.”
Wolcott owned a major boxing gym chain in LA, was a fight coach, and was heavily involved in the amateur MMA scene in LA.
For the next thirty minutes, I rubbed elbows with guys in suits who enjoyed talking more than they enjoyed working. Yet, they were the connectors I needed to get to Eli.
“Here he is now,” Wolcott said sometime later.
I turned to find the man I’d been waiting on all night strolling up to our small circle.
“By the looks of it, I’m right on time,” Eli Gatlin said with a lift of his chin.
Wolcott introduced him to everyone in the group. When he got to me, Eli’s gaze narrowed, and the corners of his lips raised.
“Gabriel Townsend. I’ve gotten at least a hundred messages from your company between you and your business partner.”
I withheld my frown. “The cage isn’t the only place you like to exaggerate,” I commented as we shook hands.
That got a laugh out of everyone around us, including Eli.
“My partner and I have reached out to you. We’re certain we can make the transition from amateur to pro worth your while.”
His eyebrows rose, and he glanced around the semi-circle of men, chuckling. While he tried to appear unaffected, I spotted the way his eyes glittered with interest. “You sound confident as fuck. Looks like the cage isn’t the only place you like to play wolf,” he goaded, using my fight name.
“I don’t play anything. I take my business as seriously as I take any fight,” I assured.
“A lot of people make promises they can’t keep,” an unfamiliar male voice interjected.
Eli shifted, which allowed me to see the man standing behind him.
“Eli, this is Nate Richards,” Roger Wolcott introduced. “Nate, this is Eli.”
“I know who he is,” Nate answered.
I studied this new intruder, noting the wide smirk, Italian suit, and large, gold pinky ring. He had that LA trying too hard look about him that always grated on my nerves.
From the way he attempted to grab Eli’s attention, it was evident that he was also interested in managing the fighter. I would’ve been nervous if I didn’t trust my gut so much. Nate Richards wouldn’t be a problem.
However, as I mentally dismissed Nate, I locked gazes with a pair of cinnamon eyes, with flecks of gold in them. All of the background noise ceased to exist. The asshole to her left was no more, and it became difficult to remember my intention of signing Eli Gatlin as the next fighter to my company.
Her cinnamon eyes dared to turn upward at the corners, like a cat’s. The eyes were only part of her appeal. The pert nose at the center of her face gave way to a set of naturally plump lips. Rare for Los Angeles.
All of those features joined together to complement the flawless toffee skin.
Her head didn’t reach past my shoulder. At six foot three, that wasn’t out of the ordinary for me. She looked as if she stood no taller than five foot two. My gaze cascaded down the length of her petite frame, finding it wrapped up in a designer black cocktail dress, which she made look like a million bucks.
She was slim but curved in all the right ways.
“Oh my God, Lena Clarkson,” Annabelle gasped, reminding me that she was still there. “I heard you would be here,” my date gushed.
The woman blinked before she turned toward my date and smiled.
My heart rate increased. I had to smother my frown at Annabelle.
“You’re even more beautiful in real life,” my date said.
Her voice was melodic and soothing. It had memories of the warm milk and honey my mother used to prepare for me on the nights when I couldn’t sleep dancing through my mind.
I felt warmer all of a sudden.
“Anyway, Eli,” the douchebag beside her continued, shaking me out of my memories. “As I was saying, you need a management team around you that’s going places.”
He briefly glanced my way after that comment.
I let him talk his shit because I knew he was full of it. If he had the resources he claimed, I would’ve heard of him before. The fact that I hadn’t was all the ammunition I needed to blow his entire argument up in smoke.
“What’s Eli’s amateur record?” I finally asked.
Nate stopped, his eyes widening before he pivoted in my direction. “What was that?”
“His amateur record?” I stepped closer. “You should know something as basic as his fight record, seeing as you’re so anxious to take him on as a client.”
I could feel the eyes of the rest of the group on us. No one said anything while Nate’s mouth opened and closed a few times. Nate’s eyebrows dipped as he peered up at me from his approximately five-foot-ten height.
Nate looked over at Eli, widening a smile, and shrugged. “Records don’t matter to your manager. It’ll be my job to deal with your sponsors. And I’m hella good at that part. Ask Lena.” He dipped his head toward the woman at his right side.
She looked stunned, as if he threw her into the deep end of the pool without warning.
“Didn’t I get you that huge makeup contract earlier this year?” he asked, almost accusatory.
She cleared her throat, her gaze briefly colliding with mine before looking away. “You did get me that deal,” she answered.
I grew hot around the collar, hating to hear her defend him, which was ridiculous since this woman and I had never even spoken to one another. By the looks of the sizeable diamond on her left ring finger, she was spoken for by this asshole.
“See what I’m saying? That was after her last two albums damn near flopped.”
Lena’s eyes widened as she tilted her head upward at Nate. “They each sold over a million copies. That’s hardly a flop,” she commented.
I smirked, semi-proud that she hadn’t taken that not-so-discreet insult lying down.
“I enjoyed both of those albums,” Annabelle said. “Though I would have to admit Broken Kisses is my all-time favorite album of yours.”
I found it curious when Lena’s shoulders dropped ever so slightly before she caught herself and gave Annabelle a wide smile.
“Right, and that album was six years ago. She’s never had another album do that well. But I was able to get her signed with a premier makeup brand,” douchebag said.
“Are you sure it was you?” I interrupted.
Again, all eyes turned to me.
“What?” Nate asked as if he hadn’t heard me.
“Was it your business acumen that got her the makeup deal or the fact that she’s a highly talented musician with a face any makeup brand would be a fool to pass up?”
I kept my eyes locked on Lena even while I directed my words to her date. He was insignificant as far as I was concerned.
Her lips parted and a small sigh escaped them.
“It takes more than a pretty face to get a deal like that,” Nate replied after a few silent moments.
“I’m sure it does.” I turned to Eli. “Like knowing your 9-2-1 record. Nine wins, two losses, and one tie. That tie should’ve been a W, by the way.”
Eli frowned before looking over at Roger Wolcott. “The ref was full of shit,” he said to me.
“That loss to Tucker was surprising as well,” I said, mentioning his most recent loss.
Eli cleared his throat. “What the fuck ever. I know that bastard is on ’roids or something.” He huffed. “You know my record. Good for you,” he said with an air of arrogance. “What can you do for me?”
“In addition to getting you top dollar for your first professional fight, we have a line of sponsors already in the bag. They’re hungry for new talent. Especially in the MMA world.”
Lifting his chin, Eli nodded. “Aren’t you going off to Thailand? How are you going to manage me while managing your own career?”
I was glad to see he had done some due diligence. I had agreed to spend months in Thailand to train and scout new talent.
“Even while I’m in Thailand, Preston will remain in Texas handling business at home,” I answered. “But also, you could use some training when it comes to your kickboxing skills. Thailand is the perfect location for that. It’d give you a jump on the international circuit.”
That raised his interest if the way his eyebrows lifted and he cocked his head sideways were any indication. Eli and I spent the next few minutes discussing his training alongside me in Thailand for the next nine months.
While speaking to Eli, I noticed Lena lean over and say something to the douchebag before leaving. As much as completing this deal meant, I found my attention wandering to the woman walking away.
* * *
I pushed out a long breath as I gripped the sides of the sink. The bathroom’s walls muffled the sound of the music from the lounge. After glancing in each stall, I finally sighed, grateful there was no one else in there.
Pinching the bridge of my nose, I turned to lean against the sink.
It’d been a long day. I had a studio session with an up-and-coming musical artist, followed by a photoshoot with the very same makeup company my fiancé had just bragged about getting for me. All I wanted to do was to go home and lay down.
Yet, I promised Nate that I’d come out with him, even though I had no idea what this event was about.
On a sigh, I closed my eyes, and suddenly, an image of hazel and green colored eyes appeared. The image was so intense that I gasped out loud, recalling the man introduced as Gabriel Townsend from earlier.
I’d been almost dumbstruck when I first laid eyes on him. I hoped no one noticed, but as he turned his attention on me, a spark of something overwhelmed me. It was difficult to merely push the words nice to meet you through my lips. There was something about him that I couldn’t pinpoint.
Something about the way his stare lingered on me. And that compliment he’d stuck so smoothly inside of his comeback at Nate. Many people had called me pretty, but none of those compliments bounced around in my mind the way his had.
“Get a grip,” I whispered to myself. Pushing away from the sink, I spun around to look myself over in the mirror. I retrieved my makeup bag to powder my face and revive my look for the rest of the night. There was no telling how much longer we’d be out.
With Nate, a simple, in and out event could turn into an all-nighter if he felt so inclined.
After applying the powder and freshening up, I paused, playing with the diamond on my ring finger. It felt heavier than usual. It started to feel that way over the past year.
Most days, I hardly wore the ring, but whenever we went out, Nate insisted I put it on to show it off and let people know we were still very much engaged. When I used to ask him to settle on a wedding date, he’d continue to put me off. It was never the right time, according to my fiancé. I stopped asking over a year ago.
While I started for the door, my cell phone rang.
“Hello?” I answered even though I didn’t recognize the number. Very few people outside of my immediate circle had my cell phone number. However, it wasn’t uncommon for one of my parents to call me from a number I didn’t know.
“How does it feel to know he’s only with you out of pity?” a mechanical female voice taunted.
I pulled the phone from my ear and stared at it. “Who is this?” I demanded, only to roll my eyes at myself.
Whoever it was on the other end of the line went through measures to hide their identity. It’s not like they were going to answer my question with the truth.
“He doesn’t love you anymore. When he was in my bed, he told me he never did.” She let out a shrill laugh.
“Then why is he still with me?”
“Pity, bitch. We all know your career isn’t going anywhere. He feels sorry for you,” she responded.
“Fuck you.” I disconnected the call and let out a frustrated growl. That was the third call I’d received like it over the past few months. The first couple of times, I ignored it. In the entertainment industry, there were always groupies and people angling to get my or Nate’s attention.
This time, the tingling sensation of awareness creeping up my spine told me that I needed to confront Nate about the situation.
With my phone still gripped in my hand, I stormed toward the bathroom door and yanked it open before exiting and walking into a brick wall.
“Shit.” I would have fallen back against the door if it weren’t for the heavy hold that wrapped around my elbow, preventing my stumbling backward.
When my feet steadied, I peered up to find the same oddly colored eyes I imagined in the bathroom. It was as if I conjured them up.
“Gabriel.” His name whooshed out of my mouth on its own.
His pink lips spread into a smirk. The dark brown whiskers of the beard surrounding that smile were as enticing as his lips. A beard that perfectly outlined a square jaw.
Briefly, I thought, I must’ve heard the earlier conversation all wrong. There was no way this guy could be a professional fighter. He was much too pretty to mess up that face in a fight.
Yet, it was those eyes. They told a different story. While the rest of his face read magazine model perfect, those eyes screamed watch out. I found the color of his irises interesting. It was as if they couldn’t figure out whether they wanted to be hazel, green, or blue. Yet, there was almost a darkness to them.
His eyes reminded me of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. If given enough time, I might’ve been able to figure it out, but that deep, shuddering voice of his broke my concentration.
“Heading somewhere important?”
With a blink, I tried to recall my last thought before I exited the bathroom. It was mere seconds earlier, and I knew wherever I was going, it was important. But with this man staring down at me, I had zero recollection of what on Earth had held my attention before this very moment.
Thankfully, years of performance training kicked in, and I stood a little taller, lifting my chin and clearing my throat.
“Y-Yes, actually.” Though a little wobblier than usual, I was pretty proud of how strong my voice sounded.
He lifted an ash-colored eyebrow. “Where to?”
Before answering, I honed in on the song that started playing in the lounge. Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes” felt like the perfect description of the depths that resided in this man’s gaze. And like the ocean, the darkness of the unknown in his eyes called to me.
I had to pull it together.
“My fiancé,” I replied, holding up my cell phone. I gave myself a proverbial pat on the back when I managed to keep from flinching at the mentioning of Nate to Gabriel.
He didn’t respond, not verbally anyway. But his jaw constricted, and his eyes moved to glance at the cell phone in my hand.
“He must be missing you if he’s calling you in the bathroom.”
There was no need to tell this man that the reality was that I was going to confront Nate about another one of his mistresses calling my cell phone. So, I lied.
“We’re very close. Inseparable almost.”
The words were barely out of my mouth before a chuckle pushed through his lips. The sound reverberated through my chest, sending shooting tingles down to my toes.
“That’s bullshit.” He said it so cleanly and decisively as if he knew my statement couldn’t have been anything more than a pure lie.
“And how would you know?” I went to fold my arms across my chest, and that was when I realized he continued to hold onto my elbow.
My movement broke his grip on my arm. A coldness invaded my body when his hand slid away from my skin. I swallowed the lump in my throat before peering up into those eyes again.
It was dangerous territory. Yet, like a magnet, I kept returning to those pools. If I could figure out what they reminded me of, maybe I wouldn’t feel the need to keep staring at them.
His gaze flickered to the end of the hallway that led to the main area of the lounge. “Because nothing’s closer to him than his fucking ego.”
A sharp intake of air sounded, and it took a few heartbeats for me to recognize that sound had come from me. In less than an hour, and probably half a dozen sentences exchanged between them, this guy was able to sum up what took me years to figure out about my fiancé.
Guilt formed in the pit of my stomach. I took a step backward, creating the space needed to gather my thoughts. Nate had a massive ego, but he wasn’t all bad. He managed me for the better part of a decade and helped me have a successful career doing what I loved.
On top of that, I did love him.
“He talks a lot, but he is very capable,” I defended.
There was that smirk again. “He talks enough to make you think he knows his stuff.”
“You don’t know him or me.”
“I don’t need to. I trust my gut and my gut says he’s full of shit.”
I didn’t know Gabriel. Why I felt the need to defend Nate to him was beyond silly.
“He’s your competition. You want to manage that fighter out there, and you’re afraid Nate will sign him first. Don’t try to bring my relationship in the middle of your business.”
He snorted. “Your fiancé’s arms are too short to box with me. He’s not even in the realm of my competition … in the cage, as a manager, or anywhere else.”
It was the anywhere else that started a low humming in between my ears. In the time it took to blink, I envisioned where that anywhere else could entail.
Moving pictures of king-sized beds, tangled bedsheets, and ash-colored hair between my legs danced like sugar plum fairies in my mind.
Yeah, time to end this conversation.
“You have a good evening, Mr. Townsend.” The words felt strangled coming up my vocal cords, but I managed to get them out, and that was what mattered.
New guilt shot through me at the sound of Nate’s voice. He stood at the end of the hallway, a look of impatience on his face. I knew that expression well.
“What the hell is taking you so long?” he demanded. “I need you to meet some people with me.”
“She was busy.”
That deep voice stopped me in my tracks as I’d started walking in Nate’s direction. I didn’t miss the way Nate’s eyes’ widened either. I felt like a deer in headlights, caught between two men. But that was ridiculous. I was committed to Nate, a man I’d been with for almost nine years since I was twenty years old.
I’d met Gabe less than two hours earlier.
I wasn’t caught between two men. With that settled in my mind, I glanced over my shoulder at Gabriel before turning to Nate, who approached.
“Busy doing what?” I didn’t miss the accusation in his voice.
The call I received in the bathroom came to mind and was on the tip of my tongue to bring up. Yet, I still felt Gabriel’s presence behind me. I wasn’t about to air our dirty laundry in front of him.
“Using the bathroom. There was a line,” I said. “Who was it you wanted me to meet?” I asked, wrapping my arm around Nate’s for good measure.
He gave Gabriel one final suspicious look before bringing his attention back to me.
I listened as he talked about the supposed business tycoon he wanted to introduce me to, or more like, have me at his side while he did most of the talking. But I felt eyes on my back as surely as if it were a hand pressing into me.
There was no need to glance back to find out if I was correct or not. I already knew Gabriel was watching.