The arena was booming. Lights flashed from every direction. The music rumbled like thunder. Or maybe that was just my heart.
“I’m going to puke.” I didn’t even bother whispering to myself. Everyone around me was standing, laughing and shouting to be heard as they talked. The crowd reveled in the spectacle.
Meanwhile I seemed to be the only person in a complex that held twelve thousand who was actually sitting in her seat.
My hands trembled. Sweat beaded at my temples, not from the heat but from nerves. I dragged in a breath, smelling concrete and beer and the guy behind me wearing too much aftershave.
The chairs beside mine, one on each side, were empty.
Foster had invited his parents tonight but they’d opted not to come. His mother had said his fights were too violent. His dad had said they’d get a better view at home on TV. I was grateful they’d declined because I was not going to be good company tonight. Besides, we’d see them next week before we flew home.
So I sat alone, knees bouncing, praying these front-row seats would remain empty. Unlikely, but the idea of making small talk with strangers spiked my anxiety, so I didn’t think about the chairs.
At my right, a bald man in a black suit coat raised his hand in a wave before returning to his conversation. Foster’s manager. I’d met him on Thursday at a meeting. Foster’s agent was probably milling around close by too.
I didn’t even bother to smile as people walked by. I was too nervous to smile. Was Foster okay? Was he stretching or warming up? Was he drinking enough water?
His weigh-in had been yesterday morning and he’d been rehydrating since.
To call the past four days intense would be an understatement. Foster had shifted into a different mode since we’d come to Vegas. He’d trained harder. Pushed harder. Focused harder. He’d had press conferences and meetings.
I’d stayed by his side through it all. Every time I’d offered to give him space, he’d taken my hand, wordlessly keeping me close.
So I’d stayed, watching in awe as the man I loved prepared for his last professional fight. The culmination of his career. If he was upset, Foster hadn’t let it show.
This fight tonight had been his focus. The only breaks in his concentration had been to call Kadence. And late at night, in the dark hours, with the Las Vegas lights streaming in through our hotel’s window, when he’d lost himself in my body and let go.
It was the end.
And a beginning.
My knees bounced faster. Would he regret this? Would he miss this energy? It pulsed through the building, bouncing from wall to wall until it collected in the center of it all.
Even empty, the eight-sided ring was intimidating. Those seated in the highest levels of the stands would watch the action from the enormous screens hanging overhead. Millions of people would be tuning in from the comfort of their own homes, including my family.
And I would be here, sitting in the front row, hoping I didn’t vomit on television.
I hadn’t been this nervous before taking the MCAT. I hadn’t been this nervous on my first day at Quincy Memorial. I hadn’t been this nervous delivering that baby all those years ago.
My stomach churned and I closed my eyes, willing the dizziness to ease.
When I opened them, Chase, the young man who’d escorted me to my seat earlier, was marching my way. He was Foster’s manager’s assistant or something. Did Foster need something?
I’d spent most of the afternoon and evening in the locker room. I’d hovered against the wall, doing my best to stay out of the way as person after person came in to talk to him. Then as time had gone on, as the arena had opened and people had flooded into the stands, Foster had given me a long kiss goodbye.
In Chase’s hand was a notepad and a pen. His smile was wide, a kid who was loving every minute of this. I envied his unbridled excitement. Too much dread churned in my mind to enjoy the show.
If Foster lost, it would be crushing. I didn’t want that sort of disappointment for him. Not after all that he’d been through to get here. Not after all he’d decided.
Chase glanced over his shoulder, and I followed his gaze.
“What?” I gasped and shot to my feet.
Lyla rushed over, her arms open for a hug.
Behind her, Eloise’s mouth was hanging open as she took it all in.
“What are you doing here?” I asked, holding my sister tight.
Eloise joined the group hug. “Foster didn’t want you sitting alone.”
So he’d flown my sisters to Vegas to sit at my side.
Oh, how I loved that man.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I said, holding them tighter.
“Are you okay?” Lyla asked.
I shook my head. “Nervous.”
“Can I get you ladies anything?” Chase asked as we broke from our hug. “Drinks? Food?”
“Drinks,” Lyla said.
“And food,” Eloise added.
“Of course.” He nodded, then extended the paper and pen. “From Mr. Madden.”
I glanced at the sheet. The top was blank but there was a slight darkening beneath the page, so I thumbed to the next. And found Foster’s note.
I love you, Tally. Do me a favor. Keep track of how many times I punch Scott Savage.
I laughed, my eyes flooding as I pressed the notepad to my heart.
“What?” Lyla asked.
“Nothing.” Just Foster knowing that there was no way I’d be able to sit idle tonight.
“I’ll be back with drinks and snacks,” Chase said. “Text me if you want anything else.”
I nodded, waiting until he walked away, then took my chair with Eloise sitting on my right and Lyla on my left.
“He’s going to win,” Lyla said, taking my hand.
Eloise grabbed the other, squeezing tight. “And then we’re going to party.”
I held on to my sisters as the minutes passed and the anticipation built higher and higher. More people took their chairs. The referee came into the Octagon, making a loop around the edge. Then an announcer joined him, carrying a microphone and shadowed by three cameramen.
“This is intense,” Lyla said. “Are you breathing?”
No. I gulped down some air.
The lights in the arena dimmed. Spotlights made a loop around the room before zeroing in on the Octagon as the announcer lifted the microphone to his mouth. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are live from Las Vegas! It’s time!”
The crowd roared. The cheers spurred on the announcer, who only got louder, and the atmosphere went from electric to crazed.
There were five fights on the card tonight. Foster and Scott Savage would be the main event, taking place last.
Sitting through the first four was agonizing. The people around us cheered and yelled, rooting for fighters during the first four fights. Lyla and Eloise snacked and drank cocktails while I had to force myself to breathe.
In and out.
The wait was torture. I clutched Foster’s note as Chase kept bringing food and drinks, none of which I touched, until finally, the fourth fight was over and the Octagon was prepped for the main event.
“Here we go,” I said, closing my eyes. Don’t let him get hurt.
Maybe another woman would have prayed for a win. But all I truly cared about was that Foster walked out of that ring.
The lights swung toward a tunnel. Scott Savage came walking out with at least ten people in his entourage. He puffed out his chest, yelling and pounding a fist against his sternum as he stepped into the ring.
“I can’t wait for this guy to lose,” Lyla said, leaning close so I could hear her.
“Look.” Eloise pointed to the right as Foster emerged from a different tunnel.
A stone-faced Jasper walked at his side. Behind them were the other guys I’d met in the locker room as well as Foster’s manager and agent.
Whatever the announcer said faded to a blur as I kept my eyes glued to Foster. And his focus was entirely on the ring—until Jasper nudged his elbow and jerked his chin my direction.
Foster’s eyes locked with mine.
Love you, I mouthed.
The corner of his mouth turned up.
“Oh my God, you’re so going to be on TV.” Lyla laughed. “I hope Knox is recording this.”
I couldn’t think about TV right now. I just kept my attention on Foster, not caring what they said about me. Not caring if they knew who I was.
Foster shot Savage a scowl as he stepped into the cage, walking to his own corner and stripping down to only a pair of fitted black trunks that showcased the strength in his thighs and the perfect globes of his ass. Every muscle in his body was defined. His abs bunched as he bent, stretching his hamstrings. His corded arms rose high as he rolled out his shoulders.
The announcer droned on, running through a list of sponsors, naming the judges and introducing the referee.
After Foster stretched, he bounced on his toes, keeping his body warm. His face was blank as a cameraman closed in tight. His eyes were narrowed. His wrists were taped in red and his knuckles covered in gloves.
Please don’t get hurt.
“Introducing the undisputed UFC middleweight champion of the world.” The announcer dragged out every word as he spoke, almost like a song. “The Iron Fist. Foster Madden.”
Lyla and Eloise clapped, cheering with thousands of people as they jumped to their feet.
I stood, my heart racing as Foster held up an arm, greeting the crowd. He circled his half of the ring, then returned to the corner where Jasper was up on a stand, bending over the edge of the Octagon.
“And our challenger,” the announcer said.
I didn’t hear any of what came next because every person around me began to boo. Even Lyla and Eloise cupped their hands over their mouths, jeering Scott Savage, who adjusted the waistband of his white shorts.
Savage preened through his introduction, waving his hands to rile up the crowd and taunt Foster.
A woman dressed in booty shorts and a sports bra circled the ring with a giant number one. Two doors to the Octagon, opposite each other, were open, and as the announcer flipped to the last page of notes in his hand, people began filing out of the ring.
The crowd quieted as people took their seats.
We were beneath the television screens and unable to see what they were showing. Not that I’d look. My attention was locked forward as the referee waved both Foster and Savage into the center of the ring.
Foster held out his hand for a shake.
Savage turned and walked away.
“Asshole,” I muttered, shooting Savage a glare before taking out my notepad. Keeping track of how many times Foster punched him was going to be my pleasure.
My heartbeat was frantic as the referee nodded. Then a ding echoed through the space and the first round started, both men facing off and maneuvering around the ring.
Five seconds of assessing each other, then Savage went on the offensive first. He attacked Foster with two punches that looked sloppy and wild. Foster blocked one and dodged the other. Then Savage attempted a front leg round kick that Foster caught with an elbow.
It had to have hurt because Savage hopped funny for the rest of the round, and when he came to his corner, even from a distance I could see the goose egg forming on the top of his foot.
Foster looked relaxed and calm as he spoke to Jasper. Entirely in control as they started the second round. Except I had yet to make a tally mark on my notepad.
“Come on, baby,” I whispered.
Savage took a swing with his right arm that went wide.
Foster ducked, missing it, and when he rose up, his left jab smashed right into Savage’s eye before his right fist connected with Savage’s kidney.
Blood pooled from a cut in Savage’s eyebrow as he stumbled backward just as the round finished.
Two. I drew two neat marks on the page. When I looked up, Foster stood in the center of the ring, his chest rising and falling. And instead of heading to Jasper, who was waiting, Foster stared at me.
I held up the notepad and two fingers.
He held up one.
What did that mean? One more round? One more hit?
He winked, then strode over to Jasper, who squirted some water past Foster’s mouthguard. When he returned to the center, standing at the ready, Savage joined him again. The cut on his forehead was greased and taped.
“Win this, Foster,” I said, inching to the edge of my chair.
The referee gave them the signal and they jumped straight into the third round, circling and weaving, trying to get in a shot.
Savage threw a cross, putting his entire weight into it, and all Foster had to do was lean back. Savage’s glove barely skimmed Foster’s nose.
And then he attacked. A left jab to the nose followed by a right uppercut to the chin. Foster’s left swung again, this time connecting with Savage’s jaw. And then the right, which slammed into Savage’s temple.
Four punches and Savage hit the floor.
The referee rushed forward, likely to stop Foster from leaping onto Savage and punching some more.
But Foster just stood above his opponent, staring down as Savage attempted to push up on an elbow only to fall down again.
Knockout. “Yes!” I was on my feet before I’d even realized I was standing. My arms were in the air, the notepad clutched in a fist.
Lyla and Eloise were screaming, both jumping up and down beside me.
Tears poured down my face as Foster rushed to Jasper, getting a clap on the back.
My lungs expanded, able to draw in a full breath for the first time in hours. My heart climbed out of my throat. And I clapped and cheered and joined in the frenzy as they announced Foster’s win.
A champion. That man was a champion. And he was mine.
The celebration continued until the lights in the arena turned on bright and people in the upper sections began to trickle out of the center. Lyla, Eloise and I stayed in our seats, waiting until Foster was able to push through the door and hop down from the Octagon.
We rushed to each other. His arms wrapped around me as I held him tight. He buried his face in my hair. And above the noise, I barely heard his whisper.