The sound of her fist beating over and over echoed off the concrete walls. One fist, turn and then the back of another. Kick to the ribs, spin and kick to the kidneys.
Six months had passed since the fight with Charlie but even now, she envisioned his face on the bag. As it swung back at her, she slammed an uppercut to jaw and then a right, another right, another right and finally a left.
Serves. Him. Right.
Exhausted she grabbed the thick, heavy canvas bag hanging from the ceiling and held on. Her lungs racked against her chest, so she swung her head down and panted. Sweat poured down the front of her tank top. Tears burned her eyes and her nose dripped. Her muscles screamed. Guess that means it was a good session, she thought.
She wasn’t sure she could make it over to the water fountain just yet so she just kept her head down and gulped air as fast as she could. Buzzing overhead from a very small and very ineffective ceiling fan hummed in her ears.
Slowly, very slowly, she began to see straight again and her lungs stopped threatening to take out a rib.
When her leg started to shake, she kicked it out directly behind her.
“Oomph,” came a deep sound.
Swinging around to the sound of the voice, she was mortified to find a sandy-haired man in gyms shorts and a t-shirt bent over clutching his stomach.
“Oh my god! Are you OK?”
The stranger’s hand came up with its index finger pointing up and he nodded his head.
“Are you sure? Let me get you some water,” she said in a panic.
“No, no, I’m fine. It’s a good way to start a workout,” he said and stood up just enough to put his hands on his knees.
She scowled when his eyes scanned her from head to toe.
“It’s also not every day I get kicked in the stomach by a pretty girl at the gym.” He grinned. “I’m Ed. Nice to meet you.”
She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips.
“Jackie,” she said and glanced at her bag. Roughly two steps away. An easy enough distance to grab her knife if she needed it. “Do you always try to pick up chicks from behind?”
“Only when I’m at the gym.” He laughed and offered his hand.
Finally relenting, she smiled and put her hand in his and instantly regretted it. Her heart slammed into her chest as his fingers closed around hers in a slimy handshake. He was pretty big. She knew the heat creeping through her gut was a fight response but deep in there was a warmer feeling -- one melting her need to kick his ass. She hadn’t felt this tug in a long time, the pleasure of knowing she was attractive to a man.
Ridiculous, she thought. Letting go of his hand, she grabbed a bottle of water from the bench and tossed it to him. As she watched him drink, she wiped a towel across her face, neck and pushed her hair from her forehead and took him in. His stocky build said baseball but his polished look and demeanor said money. His chest reflected obvious hours lifting weights.
“So what’s your routine?” She yielded and then rushed to clarify. “In the gym.”
He finally stood up and he was tall, at least six and a half feet.
“Nothing much.” He took ginger steps over to the water fountain. Putting his bottle under the stream, he looked at her. “Flipping tires, running with sand bags, pull-ups. You know, the usual.”
“Crossfit?” She shoved her towel in her bag and grabbed another bottle of water.
“Yep. You?” He walked back over to her.
“I do a little Crossfit but mostly it’s Kempo.” She picked up her dry tennis shoes and sat on the far end of the bench to switch them out, and to put a little distance between them. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Street karate. Very cool. Are you here often?”
“Only when I want to get away from people,” she said.
He put his hands up, palm out. “Gotcha,” he said. “So, I won’t be picking you up here at the gym.”
“I appreciate that.” She smiled at him.
“How about I pick you up at home instead? For dinner maybe? Tomorrow night?”
“Oh,” she hesitated and her heart beat harder and her head felt a little light. This conversation was probably the longest she’d had in months with someone who wasn’t family. Most of her time was spent at home on the lake, away from anyone who could provide her address to Charlie. Ed seemed nice enough and was certainly easy on the eyes but she was not ready to take that risk. Besides, she’d never filed the divorce papers.
The slamming of the gym door had them both looking up, and she thought she saw a small flicker of annoyance on his face. A tall, lithe blond wearing baggy, paint-splattered overalls glided across the gym floor toward them.
“Stacey,” she said and secretly thanked the universe.
She stood up, put her workout shoes in the bag and zipped it shut.
“Hello gym people. Why you spend time here obviously trying to kill yourself, I’ll never understand,” she said and her ponytail swung behind her. “I see Alabama’s most eligible congressman has joined you today,” she said and Jackie watched her give Ed a quick hug.
“Creating master pieces of art boring you today Stace?” Jackie scooped up her bag and slung in over her shoulder.
“Touchy,” Stacey said. “Nope, just needed a break.”
A month after her father moved them to Sweet Gypsy Springs, Alabama, in the tenth grade, Jackie rear-ended Stacey’s brand-new, bright green Volkswagen Beetle. Since she had swerved to miss Ben Robertson’s cat, giving Stacey an excuse to visit the star quarterback, all was forgiven and they’d been best friends ever since. She’d even been in love with Stacey’s brother Brody for a summer.
Stacey was now a famous, modern art painter and Mrs. Ben Robertson. And Brody, a fledging writer, was off finding himself in Key West.
“I didn’t know she had found a workout partner and Ed, you certainly make a good one,” said Stacey.
“We’re not partners,” she said.
“Yet,” Ed said and flashed a sly grin at Jackie. “Not to worry, though, I’m working on it.”
“You’re a devil. Always have been,” she said. “Why don’t you work on it at my house Saturday night? I already have Ed’s RSVP from his assistant. But Jackie, I haven’t heard from you, and your sisters are driving me crazy.”
“They drive everyone crazy,” she said and hoped this little exchange would end soon.
“And since I’m hosting a fundraiser for your daddy this weekend,” she began, ignoring Jackie’s retort. “Your attendance will keep them off my back and just as importantly, yours too.”
Her family had given her a lot of space since she moved back to town in December. Now that her father’s race for senate was heating up, though, there were ever-increasing and not-so-subtle hints for her to become more involved. Apparently, it did not bode well for a senatorial candidate to have a recluse for a daughter. But large crowds strangled her and so far she had been able to avoid all campaign events.
“Honey, it’s a small group. Only about 50 people.” she said with compassion that was palpable. “ And I’ll be there with you and you can rip off the proverbial gossip band-aid,” she said in a whisper.
If she didn’t go, she knew her sisters would unleash. The town had little else to gossip and speculate about since her arrival after Christmas and prancing through this party could at least begin to put some of that to rest. Besides, she was getting a little tired of being alone and Stacey and Ben lived on the next door. If she wanted to leave early, it would be as simple as walking the worn connecting path through the woods.
She nodded at Stacey, then dug out her sunglasses and put them on.
“Seems that it worked out for us to get together after all,” said Ed. “Should I bring the punching bag?”
“Only if you need me to flatten you again,” she said and walked out of the gym.
“I’m pretty sure you’ve already done that.” She heard him whisper but kept walking.