Book #4 in The Breaking Series
Released June 18th, 2019
Contemporary MMA Romance
He’s on a war path to fame.
And Levi Swain doesn’t care who knows it. The more people that know him, the better. As the hottest MMA rising star, opportunities are materializing out of thin air. When a wealthy sponsor approaches him, looking to have Levi cause a tabloid-worthy scandal, Levi only knows how to say yes. He didn’t come to war to lose.
Except he never counted on meeting Riley. The glam-shy bombshell who won’t touch fame with a ten-foot selfie stick. Levi planned on her ending up another notch on the bedpost, where every girl ends up. Instead, Riley is everything he wasn’t looking for. The artistic dark angel who can knock him out faster than a middleweight champion with just one glance.
Out here in Hollywood? He can have fame, or he can have true love.
But he can’t have both.
Riley waited until the last possible second to turn on the air conditioning.
The machine roared to life, sputtering out a cool, musty breeze. She’d been sweating in her little studio for damn near an hour but couldn’t afford to turn on the air until she really needed it.
And with clients on their way over within a half hour, this was the threshold to make sure the entire studio cooled down before their arrival.
She stood in front of the cool stream of air, sighing with closed eyes as she relished the breeze. Being cash strapped sucked. She was coming up on a year with the photography studio, and each month got worse. That wasn’t how businesses were supposed to work—not unless they were on their way to closing.
But it was make-or-break in Los Angeles. Everybody and their stepbrother knew a fancy photographer or had some connection to what’s-his-name from Milan or could get a discount on artistic portraits from somebody’s sister’s best friend.
She was an idiot for thinking she could ever make a career out of her passion. Yet, she still plodded forward, some sort of optimistic masochist, hoping against all hope that things would turn around. That something would start working. That business would begin suddenly multiplying, like every artist in LA had promised, and she’d be consistently making enough money for rent on the studio and rent for her shared house.
Riley shook her head into the musty breeze. Maybe it was time to give up. Here she was, hanging on by a thread, and the only work she could snag anymore was a bunch of glamour shots for some bodybuilders.
That’s mean. She frowned down at her off-the-shoulder T-shirt that said TRENDY AF. It was ironic. She wasn’t that trendy. But it should have read BITTER AF. Because she was thinking poorly of the only work to come her way for over a week.
Holt Body Fitness had been her sanctuary over the past year, and she’d grown close with the owner Travis and his girlfriend Amara. Not to mention that his entire staff felt like some fun, extended family she’d never realized she was missing.
This was more than glamour shots. This was a legitimate portrait session that Travis and his trainers needed for promotional purposes.
Except it fell so far from where she’d imagined her career going. She wanted deeply felt, poetic assignments, the type of projects that blurred surrealism and hyperrealism, things which haunted, faces that made someone feel uncomfortable.
She never imagined her portfolio would include the perfectly defined pectorals of a certified MMA fighter.
Really, she needed to sink to her knees and thank Travis for booking this with her. Even if it didn’t line up with her vision, he was saving her ass. At least now she could afford the majority of her rent. If they tipped, all of the rent.
If she really wanted to hit rock bottom, she’d start offering senior portrait sessions.
The front doorbell sounded—a smooth vocal recording of John Stamos saying “Oh hi!”—and Riley yanked herself away from the cool breeze.
Although she hadn’t envisioned her career leading her to MMA fighters, it wasn’t all bad. She couldn’t help but grin as the four men sauntered in. Travis Holt and his flock of fighters. That was the technical name for a group of MMA fighters—a flock. At least in her mind.
And damn, this flock was fine. Travis beamed as he entered, tipping his head back to look around the studio. Lex was on his heels, as well as Cobra and another man she didn’t recognize.
It was the unknown guy who caught her attention. No—he didn’t catch it, because that implied she was willing to part with it. This man came right up and robbed her attention. Stole it out from underneath her and ran away like a street urchin in a Charles Dickens novel.
Riley’s gaze soldered onto him, like he was the last thing she’d ever look at. He had long, wavy, chestnut hair, just past his chin, and playful honey-brown eyes that immediately returned her gaze. They’d already exchanged a day’s worth of conversation in the milliseconds of locking eyes, and she knew this type of connection was trouble.
She ripped her eyes off him, searching for her voice, wherever it had disappeared inside her esophagus. “Travis! Welcome, guys! Here it is!”
She wanted to sound playful and light. Not braindead from the unexpected appearance of this Gucci-grade guy who sauntered closer as if he could read every single thought scorching through her head.
“Place is cute,” Travis said, dropping his duffel bag on a hairy white arm chair by the door. Riley tended toward unique and artistic pieces—it was why not a single plate or bowl matched in her kitchen, instead all sourced from funky pottery shops and thrift stores—and seeing these classically handsome men against the backdrop of her weird space was oddly satisfying.
“I feel like I’m in Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” Lex said.
“What the fuck is Pee-wee’s Playhouse?” Cobra asked. The four of them had come in matching black track suits which said HOLT across the front. They were living, breathing ads for the gym.
“Riley, let me introduce you to the newest member of the training camp,” Travis said to her while Lex schooled Cobra about the ins and outs of the cultish kids’ show from the nineties. He jerked his chin toward the unnamed fourth guy, the Adonis with the honey gaze. “This is Levi. He’s my newest mentee. We’re getting him ready for a full schedule of fights starting this month.”
Levi started a slow swagger toward her. If he was an alien space ship, she was caught irrevocably in his tractor beam.
“Pleasure to meet you, Riley,” Levi said, bowing forward slightly as he offered his hand. His voice was silk and bass. She didn’t know if she should run or take off her clothes. Men that looked like him, with flyaway tresses and broad, masculine shoulders, could never be trusted. They were too hot for their own good. She knew where looks like that led.
Straight to the back alley of Cheaterville.
Riley hesitantly took his hand. He squeezed it gently but didn’t bring it to his lips for a kiss as she feared. Phew. “Nice to meet you, Levi. You picked a good trainer.”
“Yeah, the rest of the league thinks so, too.” Levi cocked a grin, pure haughtiness and pride. “But he only wanted me.”
“Dude’s about to smash the records in the WFC,” Lex said, jabbing his thumb over his shoulder toward Levi. “Wait and see.”
“Smashin’ faces, smashin’ records,” Levi said, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
Riley died internally—she could have watched him all day, just observing his mere existence. Like teeny boppers could have watched Nick Jonas blink dully at a television for five hours and think it was the most exciting thing in the world. Levi inspired the same sort of fanaticism, but Riley knew better than to fall prey to such things.
She was born and raised in Los Angeles—Hollywood, specifically—and had rubbed elbows with enough famous people to know looks often meant nothing, and true beauty had nothing to do with prettiness.
But still, it was hard to look away when drowning in testosterone.
“I have everything ready here,” she said, sweeping toward the large open space where they’d take the portraits. She had several backdrops prepared, based on her conversations with Travis. This was standard stuff—head shots for ads, Travis’s website, league promo. All she had to do was grab a few pictures of the men in their track suits and then slowly get them to remove the layers.
Her gaze moved to Levi as he tucked chestnut tresses behind his ears, a shit-eating grin on his face as he listened to whatever Cobra and Lex were joking about.
Maybe MMA portraiture wasn’t so bad.
“Let’s start with group shots.” Riley needed to hyper-focus on the task at hand. She should be used to beautiful men by now, living in this city, but something about Levi threw her off. He’d barely said ten words, but already she felt like she knew him. Knew his type. The way he probably scanned women for fuckability as opposed to personality. Walking through life like a proud cock solely because he knew how to beat someone up and had a face like his. The throngs of women he probably touted on each arm, telling each and every one of them a different story. A different version of the same lie.
She really did need the T-shirt that said BITTER AF.
After her last boyfriend had created the cheating scandal of the century, with the whole world gasping and pointing, she could start her own damn clothing line.
“I want to get a few of you in the track suits,” she said, eyeing up the shot as the men collected in front of the white screen. She popped off a few test shots to test the color balance, and then realized something was missing. “Hang on.”
She set her camera down and scurried toward her front desk. She hopped belly-first over the desk to reach behind her laptop and flick on her playlist. One of the many she used during photo shoots in the studio. Today’s selection included everything from the Talking Heads to Esso.
As smooth chords filled the space, the four fighters smiled, relaxing a little. This was what she needed. Pliable, happy models.
From here, she could work her magic.
“One last thing,” she said, flicking a lighter to the tip of an incense stick.
“Trying to get us in the mood?” Lex cracked.
“Um, excuse me, miss.” Levi propped a hand on his hip. “The sign here says, ‘No Smoking,’ but you are clearly smokin’.”
She smirked, trying to fight the laugh that threatened to pop out of her. “That was dorky.”
“He’s the king of dorky jokes,” Cobra said. “You’ll get used to it.”
“Hey,” Levi said, feigning insult. “These jokes aren’t dorky; they’re the coolest.”
Travis shook his head, faking a jab at his face. “I’d pop you if you didn’t need to look pretty.”
Riley grabbed her camera, sweeping back toward the guys. She made quick work of snapping shots while the guys ribbed Levi about his jokes. They looked like coworkers, models, and family all at the same time. Once she’d gotten enough of the group, she called for individuals.
“Who wants to start?”
Levi’s hand shot up.
Travis smirked. “Yeah, hot shot needs to go first.”
Cobra, Lex, and Travis drifted away from the screen as Levi turned his cocky gaze toward Riley. He flicked his zipper back and forth.
“So this is the part where I take my clothes off, right?”
Riley fought the urge to snap back with, You wish. “Correct.” She swung back to address Travis. “You want progressive or just in the shorts?” She couldn’t look at Levi for too long, or she’d lose her cool.
“Shorts,” Travis said as he started roaming the studio, checking out the art on the walls. Cobra and Lex flopped into arm chairs near the front windows, where occasional pedestrians walked by.
“We can still do progressive if you like,” Levi said with a wink while his zipper hissed open. “And see if it progresses to something more.”
Riley flattened her lips, focusing on her camera’s settings. Anything but this guy, who grew cockier and more arrogant by the second. He was a client, though—she couldn’t give him a piece of her mind like she wanted.
So she’d say nothing.
“That was a joke,” Levi clarified, shoving his track pants down.
Riley glanced at him—big mistake. Half-naked, the man was even more irresistible. His muscles bulged with restrained force, broad shoulders marked by a strong collarbone.
And Lord in heaven above, his skin. A constellation of light brown freckles cascaded across the tops of his shoulders, sprinkling across the expanse of his back. Riley shifted, sucking in a quiet breath. Levi looked up at her as he tossed the pants aside, a heartbreaker grin crossing his face.
“You like the skin polka dots?”
She was obsessed with them. But he couldn’t know that. “They’ll look good on film, that’s for sure.”
“So you do talk.”
His observation made her clench her teeth. Maybe she was being too standoffish. Maybe she’d been hurt enough times by men that now she couldn’t even treat a total stranger with respect. Maybe she needed to loosen the hell up.
“Just focusing on my work.” She offered a small smile, simultaneously annoyed and turned on by this cocky, funny guy. Ha ha, skin polka dots. So funny I forgot to laugh. She needed the BITTER AF shirt immediately. “I’m going to change out the backdrop real quick. I think we should get in some earthier tones for you.”
“It’s because of my Greek heritage, right?” He swiped a hand through his tresses again, which caused a whole litany of muscles to ripple and shudder across his abs and down his sides. Her nostrils flared as she forced herself not to screw up the backdrop. “My olive skin tone probably looks great on camera.”
“Well, it is olive, so there’s that,” she said, not wanting to give him a fraction of a compliment. He knew how hot he was—he certainly didn’t need her validation.
He rested his hands on his hips, then ran his fingers through his locks again. She shot him a look. “You better stop touching your hair, or else your olive skin tone won’t be the only thing on camera.”
“What do you mean?”
She jerked her chin toward him. “All that dandruff you’re shaking loose.”
Cobra snorted from across the studio, and Lex said “Ooooh, burn.”
“I don’t have dandruff,” Levi said, stepping closer. “I have charm and amazing traps. Or haven’t you noticed?” He turned a bit and flexed, that shit-eating grin sparking more lust—and more annoyance.
It was hard not to notice. But she’d never tell him that.
Besides, the fire her comment stoked inside him played very well with the camera. She snapped a few shots of his aggressive puppy stance, then lowered the camera.
“These are coming out pretty good.” She sent him her best I’m-a-cool-girl smile. The type that said she didn’t give a damn about his body or his flirting.
“Obviously.” Levi smirked, pointing at his abs.
She sighed, looking up at the ceiling. Sure, he had a point. But why did he have to be so blatant about it?
“I was kidding,” Levi said again. “I meant obviously because you’re taking the pictures. You’re a professional.”
“Yeah. I’m sure.” Riley clucked her tongue, bringing the camera back up to her face. God forbid she ever need to see this man outside of a professional context. They’d probably end up fist fighting, or worse—fucking. She didn’t need either of those in her life.
“He’s not as big of a dick as he sounds.” Travis piped up from the other side of the studio, where he inspected a three-panel set of photographs from a shoot she’d done in India.
“Thanks for the ringing endorsement.” Levi grimaced with a thumbs-up.
“I have no opinion,” Riley said, lining up another shot. The camera clicked a few times as she captured Levi’s gaze wandering across the studio. Every damn thing the man did played well with the lens. Her heart needed to ignore it as much as her career needed to capitalize on it. “I’m just a photographer.”
“I need a photographer in my life,” Levi said, propping his hands on his hips. Riley bit her tongue against a snarky response. “I need someone to do a nude shoot for me.”
Lex cackled from the front windows.
“You wanna take the pictures?” Levi asked, his eyes sparkling with the idea. She snapped a few more pictures, immortalizing the moments after he’d voiced the salacious idea. And yes—she wanted to accept. For all the wrong reasons. Maybe just so she could confirm the exact dimensions of that bulge in those skintight shorts. But her morals—her dignity, dammit—wouldn’t let her.
“Depends on the price, I guess,” she murmured, though it was a lie.
“But I need you to leak ’em to the press afterward,” Levi said.
He couldn’t hear the record screech inside her. The way every muscle of her body went rigid at the sound of the words leak to the press. She lowered the camera, her eyes narrowing to slits.
So the guy got worse—not only was he starving for female attention, he was a fame whore.
He lifted a brow, his smile so cocky she could have slapped him. “You in?”