1 - Connor
The vultures wanted a piece of me.
My gaze swept through the people who were piling in for the news conference. I recognized more than a few of them, but there was only one I was looking for and hoping he wouldn’t show up.
Richard “Dick” Morgan. He was the nemesis I didn’t want, but had anyway.
“Connor, stop gawking at them. You still have a few minutes before you need to face the press.” My agent, Jeff Faber, said from behind me.
I turned and met Jeff’s steely eyes. “This is bullshit, Faber, and you know it.”
Jeff shrugged. He’d been a fighter too, back in the day. While age had caught up with him and he couldn’t perform in the ring anymore, he kept his finger on the MMA pulse by grooming new talent. He’d found me when I had been young and raw, and molded me into the household name I was today. I owed another person for my fighting prowess.
“Calm down. You want the big money, this is what you should do. It’s five fucking minutes for Christ sake.”
I grunted and crossed my arms. “I’m not talking about the bloody press conference.” He’d hired a fucking “image consultant” for me. I’d spent the past years being the hot-headed Irish fighter that put asses in the seats, and eyes on the TV during Pay-Per-View matches. But the sponsors who I wanted in my corner thought I was too violent and off kilter.
It was bollocks. But I knew he was right. My last purse had been high, almost two-million dollars. But compared to the advertisement and endorsement revenue I could pull in, it was abysmal and not worth the battle wounds. I was getting older, and my body was letting me know I couldn’t be fighting forever.
“Where is she?” I finally said.
A woman pulled away from the few ring-bunnies milling around. There was always easy tail at events like this. After my news conference, there’d be a weigh-in and the usual circus bullshit that came with fights for another class. They kept themselves warm and ready in case any fighter came their way wanting to score.
If I hadn’t known she was my new image consultant, I’d have thought she was just a groupie. The girl was fucking stacked. Her honey-blonde hair was pulled back into a sleek ponytail that made her neck look long.
I didn’t even bother disguising that I was checking her out. She was dressed professionally, not showing much skin except for her bare arms. But the sheathe dress she wore, and the black and pink color blocking, accentuated her buxom body.
She would be a distraction.
I turned to Jeff. “No. No fucking way.”
The girl glared at me and crossed her arms. All that did was hike up her amazing tits until my eyes were latched onto them again.
I pointed at the chick. “See that shit? That’s called a distraction. Get me a man, a gay one.”
“There’s no one else. Everyone is booked up, and no one wants to sully their reputation when you go flying off the handle. It’s either her, or no one.”
The girl stayed quiet as we talked about her as if she weren’t there. Color snapped in her cheeks, though, and her bright blue eyes glittered with danger.
Yeah, she wasn’t happy, but she was too professional to tell me off.
I’d turned shit-talking into an art form, and now I had to play nice. This was such bullshit.
Jeff got into my face and pitched his voice low. “You need her right now, Connor. You’re turning over a new leaf. If you want that seven-figure payday, you can’t go off half-cocked anymore.”
I looked over Jeff’s shoulder. She really was a fucking ten. How was I not going to flirt with her? Shit, my cock was already stirring to salute her, and she was glaring at me as if she wanted to geld me.
“What’s your name.”
“Nice to meet you Crystal, you’re fired.”
“You don’t have any say in my employment, Mr. McGrath.” Unphased, she unzipped the Michael Kors tote slung over her shoulder, and pulled out a lint roller. “Turn around.”
I arched a brow and Jeff shrugged. “She’s right. I hired her, you didn’t.”
I grumbled and showed her my back.
I was dressed in a five-figure suit, and she attacked the back of my jacket as if it offended her. It wasn’t the clothing that offended her, but the man in them. If she didn’t like my attitude now, she would hate me when I was preparing for a fight.
Maybe that was a trick, get her to quit. If only I didn’t need her.
She rolled the sticky side up and down my back, and even brushed it over my ass.
“You almost done back there, sweetheart? I know my arse is nice, if you want to touch it you can just ask.”
Crystal let loose with a sexy growl in the back of her throat, but she stepped away. I turned, and she pointed the roller at me and shook it. She reminded me of the nuns back home in Ireland, promising me I’d meet the devil if I kept acting the way I did.
They’d been right. I’d met the devil, and won. But I hadn’t emerged unscathed.
Maybe if she kept shaking the roller at me, I could keep that school-marmish idea in my head. Only she didn’t look like a nun, and that imagery would never stick.
"Mr. McGrath," she began.
She pinched her lips together and her nostrils flared. "It's unprofessional for me to call you Connor, Mr. McGrath."
"Well, you have to deal with it, lass. Because I ain’t no Mr. McGrath. If you want me to answer, it’s Connor or ‘Oh God.” I flashed her my best panty-melting smile.
Her lashes fluttered as her eyes closed for a brief respite. I had that effect on women. If they didn’t want to fuck me, they wanted to kill me.
I waited until she calmed herself.
"If you work with me," and I stressed IF in a capital letter type of voice. "You will call me Connor."
Her eyes darted towards Jeff who was watching our reaction with an amused smirk. He shook his head. No one could curb my tongue, not even Jeff.
Her nostrils flared again, but then she flashed me a smile full of gritted teeth. “As you wish, Connor," she said with snarky little purr in her voice.
Damn, I wondered what she’d be like in bed. Talk about unprofessional. She'd be fucking screaming and running if she knew the thoughts I was having about her.
She threw the lint roller back into her bag. “Do you know what you’re going to say to them?” She nodded towards the reporters. Her ponytail swished, and damn if I didn’t want to give it a tug.
"I do. I'm to talk about my last fight, and suggest that my next one will be even bigger. I’m to be a good fucking boy.”
“Exactly. And you are not going to be calling the press any of those wonderfully colorful names you like to spew at them. Right?"
My upper lip curled in a sneer. I smoothed my hand down the front of my lime green tie. “I promise I won’t call them cock-gobblers tonight, Ms. Lawson. Or fuck-wads, or gobshite.” I winked.
She scrunched her face up a little, but didn’t flinch. Her cheeks caved in as she forced a smile. “Yes. Now go get them.”
She patted my arm, and then stopped. She blinked down at my bicep, and I knew exactly what she’d felt. I flexed for her, and she jumped back as if she got burned. She might pretend that she was unaffected by me, most girls were mostly because I had the type of face only a mother could love. But once they got their hands all over my muscles, their panties came off and their whole mood changed.
Crystal Lawson wasn’t immune.
She swallowed and took a few steps away.
How was I going to be around her without causing a sexual harassment suit? I looked at Jeff, but he was busy talking to another fighter.
Crystal and I were apples and oranges. She looked like some belle of the ball, southern debutante who said please and thank you. I was an Irish brawler who climbed up from the streets and made it big.
Just because I was polished right now, didn’t mean underneath I wasn’t dirty.
I flashed her a smirk, turned on my heel, and went to face the press.
It wasn't a secret that they liked to antagonize me. It was all part of the show. Up until now my motto had been that any press was good press. If my name was in the headlines, people were talking about me, and thinking about the next fight. I’d made MMA a celebrity event, and TMZ loved me.
But if I wanted a bigger piece of the pie, bigger than the cool two-million I had just earned for my last fight against Woodley, I needed to be marketable to Jim and Jane Smith from middle America. Which meant no flying off the handle, no street fighting, and definitely no womanizing.
That last part was a hard one. I liked my women. I’d never met a pair of tits and ass that said no. Except Crystal. On the other hand, I’d only just met her. But with the way she was stroking my muscles earlier, if I wanted her, I could have her.
I shook my head, and patted down the freshly styled ginger hair on my head. Then I walked onto the stage.
A few fans roared my name, and I waved toward the noise. Even though I was blinded by the lights the cameras focused on me. Flashes popped as the cameramen took their shots, and then settled back for the video to kick in.
I sat down in a cheap black chair, behind a long gray table, and leaned towards the plethora of microphones in front of me. I folded my hands, and radiated self-assurance. They weren’t going to get under my skin today.
"Looking good Connor," a reporter I recognized from a cable sports channel said.
“It will take more than Woodley to mess up my pretty face.” They laughed as if cued.
Truth was, there wasn't a lot to mess up.
I’d broken my nose a dozen times over the years from bareknuckle boxing, and more than a few vicious kicks to my face. The ridge was nearly flush to my face, and flared out at the bottom. My cheekbones were flat, and the last few fights had knocked a few teeth free. Though I had implants, I knew they were there. And I wasn’t going to even mention my ears.
But I dressed impeccably, and sometimes that brash blend of confidence, and obvious wealth, wooed people into a false sense of comfort. I pretended to be something more than I was, even if I was just an Irish born lad who made it big in America.
The journalists peppered me with questions. I managed to keep cool through most of them.
Then I saw him, the asshole that had been the reason Jeff decided to hire an image coach for me. The last time he and I had met, I almost punched him out. Being that he wasn’t a fighter, that was a bad idea. So, Crystal had been brought in to polish the edges off, and clean up any issues that might pop up.
Like wringing this prick’s neck on live TV.
How the fuck had he gotten in? He was black listed. But there he was. He’d been lingering in the back in the standing-room only section. He weaseled around the edge of the room until he stood in front of me. The only thing separating us was the long rectangular table I sat at. If I wanted at him, not even a brick fucking wall would stop me.
The lights suddenly seemed hotter.
Those who followed my career knew exactly who he was. The reporters who’d been so genial before now were like sharks scenting blood in the water. They shifted, and the cameramen backed up to get both of us in the shot.
I tightened my fingers together, hard enough that the scars on my knuckles blanched white, but I kept my smile in place.
"Connor," he had said.
"Dick," I smiled.
His name was Richard, but no matter what he said, I called him Dick. It was more than just his name, but his general attitude. He was the owner of a rather hot E-magazine that focused on sports and MMA fighting. He’d been one of the first back in the day to see the potential in pit fighting, so a lot in the business kissed his ass.
“I bet you feel like you’re on top now that you beat Woodley and got that big payday.”
“What can I say. I’m a winner. I win and get paid.” The other reporters in the crowd chuckled a bit at that one.
“You know you’re not the true champion though, right?” His brown eyes arched, and he angled his portable recorder at me. It was all for show, though. I doubted the thing was on. The only ink he slung about me was what an overhyped fighter I was.
I smiled. “Well, I got the title. Just exactly who do you consider the ‘real’ champion?"
Damn, I must have asked the wrong question, or right one, because Dick flashed me all his pearly white teeth, that made me think of a jackal, and I was his dinner.
I waited for the other shoe to drop. "Well, there was that one guy who beat you."
He was not going there. My throat went dry.
Except he was. He was going to talk about my injury.
“And just what are you talking about, Dick?"
“I’m talking about El Toro, Connor.”
The fucker was gloating now. He showed me his hand, and even I had to admit it was a good one. The Bull, the only fighter who had beaten me, was a hot button topic for me. He’d only won because he’d gotten in a cheap shot and busted up my knee.
It had been bad and required numerous surgeries and physical therapy, and most people hadn’t expected me to come back to fighting after an injury like that. But I had, and I came back stronger than ever.
But Dick was right, I wasn't the world champion, because Toro was the one man I hadn’t beaten, and couldn’t. He’d stopped fighting not long after I was injured.
I sat stiffly. "Well, Toro’s retired, so that ain’t happening.”
The other reporters laughed slightly. The tension eased. I leaned back, feeling more in control of the interview.
"You wouldn’t fight Toro then, if he wanted to?”
"I didn’t say that.”
"If you were the real champion, Connor, you'd be doing anything to get him out of retirement.”
He had me there. Sweat trickled down my back, and I tried not to squirm beneath the lights. Being back in the ring with El Toro wasn’t at the top of my list. Fighting that dude had been brutal, and every time Dick mentioned his name, my knee ached with phantom pain.
"I can’t force him to come out and fight. I don’t have the right bait.”
"I just might," Dick said with a big grin.
A vein throbbed beside my eye, and I waited. I knew where he was going. He was showing off now, making me squirm before he made some announcement that I wasn’t going to like.
“Me, and a few sponsors, are willing to put up $25 million for a fight between you and El Toro.”
That motherfucking snake.
The crowd gasped, and there were quite a few whistles. Twenty-five million for one fight was unheard of.
Sweat gathered on my forehead as I glared at the weasel.
“What do you say, Connor, would you fight Toro again for the cash and the real title?” The way he sneered ‘real’ made me want to punch his teeth down his throat.
I squinted my eyes at Dick. He was baiting me, and I was trying not to give in.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I have nothing to prove.”
He grinned and turned towards the cameras trained on us. “You heard it folks, Connor McGrath is afraid of El Toro. He’s chicken.”
Oh fuck no. There were a few things I tolerated, the ‘c’ word wasn’t one of them.
“You cockbiter,” I jumped up and slammed my hands onto the table in front of me. The microphones wobbled. “I didn’t say that.”
“You’re a fake champion, that’s all you are McGrath, a fucking fake.”
I'd had enough of his attitude.
“Fuck you, you manky shitehawk.” I slammed both fists onto the table. The table legs squealed in protest. “Is that what you want, you feckin’ knobrot? Do you want me and Toro to dance around on your string? Fucking fine.”
I shrugged out of my jacket, and then yanked open my shirt. The buttons popped like gunfire. The phoenix tattoo I had inked after my injury healed blazed over my chest. I hammered it with my fist. “I’ll fucking do it. I’m the Phoenix now rising from the ashes. Come at me, bitch. If you can guarantee it, and Toro will be there, I’ll do it. How about we make it one for the history books, huh? Somewhere no one has ever fought before.” I paused like I was considering my options. I clenched my fists, and plastered my trademark cocky smirk on my face. “El Toro is Chilean. So how about somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. I spun a globe last night for the hell of it, and my finger landed on Easter fucking Island. Does that get you off, Dick, getting me to say yes? Or are you gonna pussy out now that you got what you want.”
The crowd murmured. The reporters in the room furiously typed into their smartphones. They were probably tweeting about Easter Island already.
Dick smiled at me. In his eyes, I’d played right into his hands. “Maybe you can be a champion, but I doubt it. I guess we’ll be seeing you on Easter…Island?”
His brow furrowed.
I knew why I chose Easter Island, a small volcanic island not far from Chile. But he didn’t. In that I had the upper hand.
“That’s what I fucking said. Grab your panties and put your apartments on Airbnb, or whatever the fuck you reporters do to pay for the flight. Because I’m challenging El Toro, and his fuck face mouth piece Dick over here, to a fight on Easter Island, and it’s going to be the fight of the century.”
I saw Crystal facepalm in the corner.
It wouldn’t be the last time I’d see her do that.