The waiting crowd was growing rowdier with each passing minute.
They were out for blood.
"I expected a different set of class with such a fancy location." Layla rolled her eyes at the upscale antique furnishings surrounding her. She was more comfortable in her standard janitor closet with concrete floors and a single light bulb with a pull string. The pale blue silks hanging as a bed canopy seemed as repulsed by her presence as she was by theirs.
"Well, baby girl, you know the smell of blood brings out the dogs. The scenery makes no difference to them." Sal shrugged as he handed over a familiar strip of satin. "Thought you might want to wear this."
Layla pulled the pale pink sash through her fingers shaking her head at the silver rhinestones spelling out "Princess Grace." She didn't have to look to know Sal had dug out her matching warmer robe. "This time is different, Sal. And when I say this is the last time, I really mean it."
"I'll just make sure they are put away safely."
Layla looked up when she heard the sadness in his voice. "Why is this time bothering you so much?"
Sal remained silent and refused to meet her eyes with his own. His lips parted as if he had something to say, but pinched them closed again and shook his head. "I'm not the one to be worried about. You need to focus on getting your mind set." Sal flashed a smile as he picked up a roll of white tape off the dressing table. "Did you want me to tape your hands for you?"
Knowing the discussion about Sal's reservations was not going to be productive, Layla cracked her knuckles on each hand before offering them to her trainer. "Why break tradition now?"
His soft laugh eased the tension between them, and for a moment Layla could believe it was four years earlier.
Sal had been tough on her, but it was for her benefit. There was never a question about why she was willing to put herself through such ordeals. A dead father and a drug addict for a mother weren't exactly the ideal providers of food and shelter for Layla and her sister. Losing focus could mean going hungry for a week. While she might be willing to suffer the consequence as a penance, she couldn't watch her baby sister Sophie licking cracker crumbs out of a plastic sleeve trying to quench the gnawing in her gut. Sal made sure to always remind her what was on the line.
She glanced over her shoulder at her reflection in the gilded mirror. She didn't look much different either. She had maintained her sweet expression despite the horrors she had seen at too young of an age. Her wide blue eyes and delicate nose still portrayed an innocence that deceived most men into thinking she needed protecting.
They only needed to see her deliver a left hook to an unfortunate face to understand she could take care of herself.
Layla snapped back to the present when the door to her dressing room opened. Adam and Caleb, two other members of her loyal team, entered the room wearing the same wary expression as Sal.
"We ready?" she chirped trying to ignore the less than supportive atmosphere.
"Just about. They wanted to know if you were set and they would start the intros." Adam tried to return the fake cheerfulness. Layla heard the strain in his voice and narrowed her eyes.
"I want to know what the hell is going on and I want to know now."
Sal and Adam became interested in the pattern of the rug, but the large figure in the doorway that acted as the muscle of the group drew a deep breath. "Someone should tell her. Sal?" Caleb crossed his arms and filled the doorway with his massive frame to indicate no one would be leaving the room until Layla was filled in.
Sal tore the end of the tape and smoothed the edges around her wrists. He didn't release her hand but pressed it between his palms. He exhaled a weighted sigh and met her eyes. "We're all just worried. You've got a lot more on the line than you ever had before, and this fight won't be easy."
The omission in his statement was clear. He wasn't sure she would win. Losing was never never acceptable to her, but this time it was life altering.
Layla ignored the flutter of panic. They had never doubted her regardless of the opponent. "What am I missing? What has you guys all freaked out?"
Adam rubbed his face then met Layla's for the first time since he had walked in. "Alright, imagine if King Kong and a ninja had a baby. That's what we are talking about."
"She's studied martial arts so she's not your typical boxer. On top of that, the chick is a beast. Actually, I have my doubts if she is legitimately a chick at all. Pretty sure I saw a mustache. You know those weight lifters from countries with seventeen consonants?" Caleb smacked Adam's chest before he dug any deeper. "Ouch! Dammit! Don't ask me to tell the truth if you don't really want me to then!"
Layla exhaled trying to extinguish the anxiety creeping into her nerves. She tried to banish the prospect of losing her first fight when a realization raced through her body. "Where is Sophie?"
"Safe," Sal answered.
"Mason should have her across state lines by now. Don't worry about her." Caleb was a bear of a man, but his gentle sincerity was clear in his eyes. Layla allowed herself the small comfort of knowing they couldn't get to Sophie. All that mattered was she was safe.
Sophie was the only reason Layla had returned to the fight circuit, and insisted it would only be for one over hyped fight. Of course the Carson brothers had found an opponent that promised blood.
"Just do me a favor?" The three men nodded before they even knew the request. "Don't let my stupid sister get involved in anymore fights."
Adam chuckled. "Or at least not bet her own take on herself when the odds are against her?"
Layla shook her head in disbelief at her sister's stupidity. She was naive and stubborn with a desire to outshine her sister at any cost. When Layla had stepped away from fighting, Sophie was determined to crush her legacy. She made the grievous mistake of going in solo and getting involved with a horde of soulless bastards. Yes, even in underground fighting there were ethics to follow.
"Can I have just a minute by myself?" The men obliged and moved towards the door. Sal paused, placed his hands on Layla's shoulders and turned her to face him.
"This is no different than every other fight before. You are faster and smarter. Strength only counts if she can catch you and no one ever has." He ran a finger down the bridge of her nose. "I have yet to see another fighter with a face as beautifully intact as yours. Keep it that way." He smiled as he pinched her chin between his thumb and first finger. Layla couldn't help but smile at tactics. Only Sal would attempt to appeal to vanity under such circumstances, but the distraction was a welcome one.
Layla nodded and swallowed down her trepidation as he left her to her thoughts.
She glanced back at the mirror. She smirked knowing her gym addiction had paid off. She was toned and chiseled without looking like a scary body builder. Her Barbie doll face was glammed up like the old days and she topped the look off with her pageant sash. She couldn't help but laugh and remind herself she was undefeated. She looked the same and had the added benefit of years of practice. She put on her robe and left the room convinced her record would remain intact for one more fight.
Adam led their group towards the growing roar of the crowd. She hardly registered the shouts of support as her opponent was announced. Zaria didn't sound like an intimidating name. But then her ring name didn't exactly invoke fear either.
Layla closed her eyes and focused on the deep bass thump of the intro song she had chosen years before. She felt the press of the crowd surrounding her as she made her way to the makeshift ring, allowing Sal to guide her with his hands on her shoulders.
"And now ladies and gentlemen, it is my esteemed honor to introduce to you all an undefeated treasure. She was retired and has returned only for tonight to spill some blood for your entertainment. Please welcome the lovely but deadly Princess Grace." It was difficult to form a complete thought as adrenaline surged with the volume of the crowd that had shown up to bet on their old favorite.
Layla slid off her robe and sash before opening her eyes to see Zaria.
All the fear and doubt she had fought off filled her veins with ice. Adam's description turned out to be horribly accurate. Layla even agreed with the question of gender as she sized up the enormous woman in front of her. She maintained a steeled expression, but Zaria sneered sniffing out Layla's concern.
"Just like we talked about. Quick feet, sure hits." Sal's voice in her ear wasn't providing the normal comfort she expected. "You are going to be fine." He squeezed her arm and released her to the snake pit.
Clenching her jaw and fists, Layla made her way to the center of the ring. She had to consciously force herself to ignore the instinct to run the hell away from the menacing creature moving towards her. She forced herself to listen to the zealous announcer trying to drown out her rational thoughts.
"Ladies, I know you don't need me to tell you the rules, which is great since you both know there aren't any. Just make sure to give these people their money's worth." With that he stepped off the over sized Persian rug designating the ring for the match.
Layla stepped back claiming her space and felt another surge of adrenaline. The same that always rushed to greet her seconds before the opening bell. Her old friend returned and brought with him a helping of confidence. Layla smiled for the first time at the beast in front of her. The primal instinct of tearing her enemy apart overwhelmed her fear and she hopped from one foot to another.
She was ready.
The metallic resonance from the starting bell was quickly drowned out by the crowd's enthusiasm. Layla began to circle the edge of the rug with lithe steps like a cat stalking prey.
Zaria's steps were heavier, but had a noticeable grace for her large frame. Layla scanned for any additional clues and quickly realized Zaria wasn't willing to give away much. She knew she would have to draw her out to find her flaws.
Layla closed in and faked a jab. She was rewarded with a bone crushing kick to her left side.
Breathless, Layla stumbled backwards fighting to stay on her feet. The adrenaline masked most of the pain, but she was fully aware of her broken rib. She fought to draw in a breath and maintain focus. Zaria had swiftly changed the odds.
She shifted her stance and concentrated on avoiding the tree trunk that was Zaria's right leg. She decided to wait for Zaria to instigate the next move and focus on a defensive strategy. She had worn out larger opponents before and overwhelmed then after they expended themselves. It was the only strategy she had for the present.
Not wanting to waste an opportunity, Zaria charged.
Layla processed the sight of Zaria's fist rising to meet her face and managed to sidestep at the last second while landing her own fist under the giant's chin.
Zaria grunted and stumbled but was otherwise unfazed. She charged again, this time anticipating Layla's speed. As Layla tried to step out of the way, she extended her arms and snatched her into a crushing bear hug.
Layla felt her feet leave the floor as her ribs screamed in protest from the unwanted pressure. Fear of suffocation fueled her as she pulled her head back and returned it with a snap. Her forehead connected with Zaria's face and the first blood was shed. Zaria released her with an anguished moan to clutch her nose.
The crowd roared with appraisal and Layla knew she had bought a few seconds to recover. She fell back to the edge of the rug by Sal. She couldn't distinguish his shouts of encouragement from the surrounding mob. Her side was starting to demand her attention and breathing was difficult. She knew she needed to end things quickly.
She rushed at Zaria and drove her fist into her gut. Zaria grunted but regained focus behind watery eyes. Layla retracted her arm to strike at Zaria's wounded face, but Zaria connected first.
Layla's head snapped back from the force of the punch to her nose. Her vision flashed white before she watched the crowd rise past her. She didn't notice her body land at their feet, but she felt the warmth of her own blood across her face.
That bitch broke my nose!
Her eyes watered and her brain fought for control of her surroundings. She was amazed as her vision tunneled out like the ending to an old movie. Darkness crept into the edges leaving her just enough sight to watch a panicked Caleb swim against the tide of the crowd to get to her.
She smiled knowing Sophia was safe. That was all that had mattered.
Her cheek rubbed against the intricate rug and she thought about how surprisingly soft it was before slipping into unconsciousness.