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The auburn of his hair was shot through with silver. His face was narrower, more haggard and lean, the strain of the last decade etched around his eyes and mouth. Beneath the patchwork of livid bruising, his cheeks had gone white, and his mouth opened in silent question. Son?
Gage drew on all his training to keep reaction off his face. He shifted his attention to Mackey. “What the fuck is this? This old guy’s already been beat to shit. He can’t fight.”
“Oh I think you’ll find that he can,” said Mackey. “He’s tougher than he looks.”
Gage looked appraisingly back at his mentor, who’d managed to cover his own surprise. He lifted his hands, cracking his knuckles to hide the quick, jerky message he signed to Adan. Here to rescue you. Fight now. Questions later. At the barely perceptible nod, Gage rolled his shoulders back, popped his neck and danced a little from foot to foot. “Okay then, let’s rumble.” He paused. “But I can’t be held responsible if I break him.”
Adan backed up and began to circle. Gage fell into opposite step, studying his foster father’s movements, assessing his injuries and weaknesses. Despite his appearance, his gait loosened as he moved. He favored his right side in a way that suggested he had a cracked rib, but that was nothing he hadn’t fought through before. They could pull off an exhibition match. But then what? And God help them, what would happen if Embry came back to find her father in the ring?
Conscious that he had to appear to fight as normal, Gage held back, waiting for Adan to make the first move. But his mentor only continued to circle, loosening his muscles. He hadn’t gone up against anyone in the last ten years who fought like he did—careful, analytic, waiting for his opponent to telegraph his intentions. It dialed up his adrenaline another notch. At the sound of the first catcall, Gage struck, his right hook snaking under Adan’s guard to slam into a kidney.
With an ooph, Adan stumbled back two paces before he righted himself. Barely even an attempt to block the blow. His fist snapped out, the breeze of it brushing Gage’s cheek as he bobbed to the side. This was not good. If Adan didn’t kick things up, the fight wouldn’t be believable.
As if hearing the thought, his mentor jabbed a knee up and into his side.
Gage jerked back, following the fight sequence in his mind and deliberately making the wrong move to draw it out. Adan landed more blows, keeping him at a distance with the reach of his kicks. It was like being a trainee again, falling into the traps, and he struggled to hold himself back.
A whistle blew. They separated, going back to their respective corners, though no one offered bottled water or towels to mop off the sweat and blood. He bent to stretch, surreptitiously checking the clock. Embry had been gone for nearly twenty minutes. He didn’t know how much more time he could give her. The sentiment of the crowd was shifting, unsatisfied. They expected to see an ultimate fighter, and he was letting Adan kick his ass like a newb. So when the whistle shrilled again, he changed tactics.
Focusing on the uninjured parts of Adan’s body, Gage moved in and hammered on his mentor, knocking him back on first one shoulder, then the other before dropping him to the mat with a sweep of his leg. Adan was ready for it. Almost as soon as his back hit the ring, he whipped his body up again, using that momentum to snap a punch that made Gage’s jaw sing. The crowd roared in approval.
They circled, trading blows more evenly now, moving so quickly that none of the observers should be able to see how they pulled back at the last second. It was Adan who moved the fight into grappling. Here Gage had to be more careful of the damaged ribs and other injuries. He needed Adan in good enough shape to move, if they had an opportunity for escape. Minutes ticked by. They continued to trade the upper hand, waiting for the end of round whistle. But none came.
As he rolled to the top, working for an arm bar, Gage caught sight of Mackey’s face. The sergeant looked grimly satisfied, arms crossed over his broad chest, his eyes holding a gleam of bloodlust that Gage recognized from people who came to fights only to feed on the violence. Mackey wanted Adan brutalized or dead. He wasn’t going to blow the whistle.
Taking advantage of his distraction, Adan got loose. Gage felt his leg a hairsbreadth away from a leg bar and rolled to mitigate the hold. They couldn’t keep this up forever. He couldn’t actually hurt Adan, and whatever orders he may have been given, Adan wasn’t about to really hurt him. Maybe if one of us feigned unconsciousness . . .
An alarm rang out, shrill and repetitive in a tone that Gage fully expected to be echoed by the metallic thunk of mechanized bunker doors sealing shut. He froze.
Above him Adan stilled, blood dripping down from his temple onto Gage’s chest. Abruptly he was snatched back by a couple of soldiers who’d climbed into the ring. Another pair roughly jerked Gage up by his arms.
“What the fuck, man? We weren’t finished,” he complained, eyes searching the room.
The crack of a fist on flesh drew his attention to Mackey. Another soldier reeled back from where he’d been struck, and Gage recognized Embry’s escort to the bathroom. Had he just discovered her missing? Or had they actually found her elsewhere in the base?
“Find her,” growled Mackey at a nearby group.
Well that answers that.
The sergeant gestured and the pair of meatheads trying to cut off circulation in his arms hauled him out of the ring and forced him to his knees before Mackey. “Who are you?” he demanded.
Gage put on his best outraged celebrity face. “I’m Cade Shepherd. What the fuck is this about? Let me go.” He jerked experimentally against the hold on his arms. He could shove to his feet, get loose, but he wouldn’t get far.
“Your little . . . manager has disappeared.”
“So what?” Gage asked, trying to interject boredom in his voice. “She probably just got lost on the way back from the bathroom. This whole fucking place is a maze.” Please, dear God, don’t let them find her. He nodded at her escort. “I thought he was supposed to bring her back.”
As Mackey’s reddened face turned toward him again, the soldier took another step in retreat. “I . . . I was. But she was mighty sick. Throwing up. Said she’d be a while and didn’t want me to miss the fight.” His cheeks reddened as he realized he’d been taken.
“Fucking idiot!” snapped Mackey. “Take them to the detention level. Pattenson, Rictor. Take your teams and make a sweep. Find that woman.”
Gage was hauled to his feet and marched toward the same doors through which Adan had entered. “What the hell, man!? I’m a U.S. citizen! You can’t do this to me! I have rights!”
Nobody paid a bit of attention to him. Their contingent had eight guards. Gage noted that they hadn’t taken the time to put Adan back in his shackles and chains, and clearly they weren’t worried about him personally. He cataloged the route as they marched. Down the corridor, into a large elevator. Down more than ten floors below.
How the hell were they going to get out of this?
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