CHAPTER 1 - Bree
I wanted to punch a baby. I mean, not literally, because that was just cruel and unusual and, frankly, psychotic. But my little sister knew exactly how to take me from feeling like a serene, undisturbed lake to a raging hurricane hellbent on utter destruction in two seconds flat.
It was a gift, really.
“What do you mean you'll lose your scholarship if I don’t help you?” I ground out into my wireless earbuds. Beads of sweat trickled down my back.
Marissa always had the best timing.
Why the hell had I agreed to a cell phone again?
I tightened my grip on the mop’s handle. Oh right, because I had a sister determined to send me to an early grave.
“Wait, what took you so long to answer?” Her voice was hoarse, which didn’t bode well for where this conversation was headed. “Toilets clogged again?”
“No, Benson wasn’t here last night, thank the tides,” I said, fighting to keep those stomach-churning memories from rising. I’d almost quit that day.
Some people might think the worst part of my job was cleaning up blood, but it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. You see, the blood that was spilled and flung across the fighting ring and surrounding crowd wasn’t due to disrespect or not giving a fuck.
Quite the opposite.
The fighters gave life to the ring and honor to each fight by spilling their blood.
So what was the worst part?
Cleaning the bathrooms after a fight night.
Good gods, men had zero aim after getting punched in the head or squinting between blackened and swollen eyelids. To be fair, most had poor aim no matter the circumstance, but everything was worse if they got punched in their gut or had anxiety shits. Way worse.
Nausea churned in my stomach again. I needed to stop thinking about the toilets. “Stop stalling, Riss. What do you mean about losing your scholarship?”
Her sigh was barely perceptible through the earbuds, but I knew that dramatic flair well. “I have an appointment I’m not going to make.”
I loosened my grip on the mop. Dramatic, as usual. People didn’t lose scholarships over a missed appointment. “So, call the client and reschedule like a responsible adult.”
The gym’s front door lock clicked and the door opened, allowing the bright morning light to stream in. One all-too-familiar, scuffed-up combat boot snuck in before the door could close again. Using her butt to hold it open enough, Frankie squeezed the rest of her body through. She carried a couple of boxes with two styrofoam coffee cups perched precariously on top of the stack.
How she managed to not drop anything was a mystery.
And also probably magic.
Francine Delgado—Frankie to everyone but the cops—was my boss and the owner of this gym. It wasn’t your typical gym, though, not the kind with those expensive machines and fancy yoga studios.
No, Subliminal was a boxing gym and home to a fight club for people like us—supernaturally gifted.
It was also just plain home to my sister Marissa and me.
The door swung shut behind Frankie, and the lock reengaged. Blocking out the sunlight, black paint covered all the windows and doors for two primary purposes: keeping the gym from getting too hot during humid D.C. summers, and keeping prying non-magical eyes from seeing what they shouldn’t if the spell disguising the building failed.
“I can’t just reschedule this appointment, Bree,” Marissa said, so aghast you’d think I’d asked her to chop someone’s head off. “This client is super important. VIP.”
“Coffee?” Frankie asked, her voice filled with gravel from years of smoking, as she strode around the boxing ring toward me.
The stack of boxes covered most of her face, but somehow she still hadn’t dropped the coffee cups yet. I knew Frankie was dexterous for her age, but this was impressive even for her. Her boots left tracks through the wet cement floor, but that was par for the course. These floors would be disgusting again in just a few hours.
When she reached me, she paused to peek around the boxes. Her dark grey and white hair swept her chin in a frizzy mess of curls that she rarely tried to control, and today’s jeans included so many rips and tears, I wasn’t sure they could be called fashionable anymore.
“If they’re so VIP, why can’t you make it?” I asked, pointing to my earbud after Frankie shot me a confused look. “Marissa.”
“Is that Frankie?” my sister asked. “Tell her hi and thanks for the advice.”
“Tell her yourself when you get here for your super important appointment. And what advice?” I asked, eyeing Frankie suspiciously.
Chuckling, the gym owner shook her head before disappearing into her office. After ten years of us living under her roof, she was well-accustomed to our sibling banter.
I dipped the mop head into the yellow bucket of brownish-white water. The bubbles were long gone. Almost time to get fresh water and soap. I’d mopped half the gym already, one of my many tasks to keep this place up and running and off the city inspector’s list.
Bodily fluids left unattended were a bit of a no-no for businesses.
“Nothing you need to worry about,” Marissa said. “Anyway, I may have miscalculated the time I’d need to get there.”
“Wait, is it today?”
“Um, did I not mention that?”
As I lifted the dripping mop into the bucket’s wringer, I paused, my skin prickling with goosebumps. You could get almost anywhere in DC within an hour. “Marissa, where are you?”
“There was a party last night at a private mansion in Virginia. Oh, Bree, you should see this place,” she said in a rush. “It’s absolutely gorgeous and—”
“You better not be asking what I think you’re asking.”
“Bree, you have to,” she pleaded.
I pushed the wringer’s lever, squeezing out the excess water from the mop head. “No, I’m not covering for you again. Call and reschedule.”
“You don’t understand.” Her guilty conscience was audible through the phone. “I will definitely lose my scholarship.”
“That’s a harsh punishment for missing one client’s massage.” I slapped the mop back onto the floor.
The silence stretched on until it clicked.
I groaned and leaned my forehead against the mop’s handle. “Riss…how many jobs have you missed?”
“Um, I mean, who’s even counting? It’s a stupid rule anyway. I should be able to set my own hours, but the school constantly books these early ones without asking me.”
Only my sister could make following the rules sound so offensive. “And what time is this appointment exactly?”
“Just remember this could cost me everything, Ree. Danielle said she’d have no choice but cancel my scholarship if it happened again.”
My heart dropped into my stomach, and I closed my eyes. She only called me Ree when she was desperate to get her way, and I was such a sucker about it because it was what our mother had called me. Marissa had barely been old enough to remember her when she died, but I’d told her enough stories to fuel her imagination.
Ree and Riss, her heart and soul.
Guilt gripped my insides and held on tight. I’d promised my mother that I would protect my little sister, and I would fulfill that promise no matter the cost. I owed her that much. After all, it was my fault she’d died.
Goddamnit. I clenched my teeth together. We couldn’t afford her massage therapy school without that scholarship. Money wasn’t exactly easy to come by when you had to hide your gifts.
“What time?” I asked, resigned.
I glanced at my watch. “Marissa! That is in 30 minutes!” Throwing my hands up, I nearly dropped the mop. I scrambled to catch the handle before it clattered to the floor. “I’m not even done mopping.”
“I’ll clean twice for you, I promise.” Excitement filled her tone. She knew she’d won.
“Three times,” I said sternly.
“That seems excessive.”
“Three or no deal.”
“How about two and a free massage?” A distinct whine tinted her tone. She hated cleaning more than I did.
“My massages are always free. Three.”
She sighed. “Fine.”
“This is the last time. I mean it. I can’t keep bailing you out.”
Marissa’s squeal of delight nearly burst my eardrums. “You really are the best big sister ever. I’ll send you the address. Just pretend you’re me, and it’ll go great. Love you, bye!”
Why the hell did I let her do this to me?
How did she always get away with this crap?
The answer was simple: I was such an enabler.
I tugged my phone out of my pocket and waited for the address. If I could have afforded a new one, I would’ve thrown the traitorous device against the wall and pretended like I never got her message. Since I couldn’t afford it, I settled for glaring ferociously at the background picture of Marissa and me making silly faces at each other.
I wasn’t mad, per se; this was far from the first time she’d behaved this way. Taking me for granted and all that.
No, not mad—I was disappointed.
Yeesh. Talk about becoming our father.
Swallowing hard against the sudden lump in my throat, I banished those thoughts back out to sea where they belonged. I’d chosen to leave, and I would bear the cost for the rest of my life. Anything to give Marissa a true chance at a free life, to choose whether she’d get married and to whom.
My phone buzzed as her text came through with the client’s address. I plugged it into the maps app and groaned. Great. It was on the opposite end of the Wharf, and there was no way I’d make it on time unless I left two minutes ago.
Better late than never. I was sure I could fake some tears if it came down to it.
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