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Proving Ground: A Kira Brightwell Short Story (Direct Exclusive)

Proving Ground: A Kira Brightwell Short Story (Direct Exclusive)

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Abduction survivor, local hero—Kira Brightwell should have nothing to prove.

Try telling that to the guys at her MMA gym. Even after nine months of hard work, her training partners still see her as an interloper—the only female at the gym.

...And some of them seem more eager to get rid of her than others.

Can Kira earn her place among them? Find out in this story from the Kira Brightwell Quick Cases series.

(This adventure takes place before the first novel in the Kira Brightwell Mystery series, Split Decision.)

Exclusively available direct from Jacquelyn’s store.


Kira Brightwell’s fists pounded the heavy bag in a steady rhythm. Jab, jab, right hook, jab…

The bag swayed under the intensity of her blows. She mixed things up by adding a spinning back-kick and a few knee and elbow strikes for good measure. Even though she couldn’t hear it, she knew the chain connecting the bag to the gym’s rafters must be jingling. The sound was drowned out by her own grunting breaths in her ears and the seething voice of Trent Reznor belting out the chorus of Nine Inch Nails’ angst-infused anthem, ‘Wish’ from her headphones.

She didn’t listen to the Broken EP often. She loved Nine Inch Nails, but the album was a bit on the angry side for day-to-day listening (at least in her opinion).

Right now, it suited her mood perfectly.

She shook her head to brush a lock of dark hair that had come loose from her ponytail out of her eyes. She licked her lips and tasted salt. A trickle of sweat dripped down her brow to land on her eyelashes. She blinked it away and kept hitting the bag.

She suspected (with good reason) that at least one of the guys training around her was keeping an eye on her workout. Even though roughly nine months had passed since she had joined, she was still the sole female member of La Valentia’s only MMA gym. Women in the California suburb town tended to be more of the spin-cycle or yoga class types—either that, or wealthy members of the local country club. Either way, Kira had yet to meet another local woman who would even entertain the idea of learning mixed martial arts. (Then again, maybe that was more of a reflection of her introvert tendencies than anything else.)

But Kira wasn’t like most women.

She punched the heavy bag again. Usually, when she was this aggressive, it was because she was imagining she was hitting the unknown man who had abducted her, along with seven other women almost nine months ago. Even though Kira had escaped, and rescued her fellow captives, the man known only as the Procurer had gotten away clean. She had signed up at the MMA gym shortly afterward. She was determined to do whatever she could to make sure she wouldn’t be a victim again. And when she found the Procurer…

She wanted to be ready.

But today was different. The idea of taking down the Procurer had been shoved aside by another source of anger.

Anger at herself.

She had been training hard over the past nine months. Not to win fights inside the cage, or praise from her trainers. For her, the stakes were higher than that. She knew she needed to hone her skills as quickly as possible, both for her own safety and sanity.

Would the Procurer come after her again? He had taken her the first time so easily. And then there had been the flowers that had been sent to her after the lawsuit she had helped to organize had reached a substantial, private settlement. (After some investigation, Kira had discovered that she and all of the other women who had been targeted had used the same company’s security system, which had failed to go off when they had been taken.) There had been no name on the congratulatory card, but Kira knew the bouquet of purple irises must be from the Procurer. It was as if he was content to let her run free for the time being, while he kept tabs on her.

But if Kira was being honest, she knew her drive to become the best fighter possible had another motive.

She was the only woman who trained at the gym. Some of the guys were OK with that, but a lot of them were absolute dicks. Those guys were more aggressive with her than anyone else. They seemed to think if they worked her hard enough, she would pack up and quit. (Because being a tough, well-trained fighter must have a penis requirement. Obviously.)

Kira had a feeling if any of those guys had woken up inside a locked room, in a different set of clothes, to the sound of a woman screaming next door like she had, they wouldn’t be anywhere near as tough as they acted at the gym. Still, it meant she had to be better than any of her training partners in the class, just to earn the chance of being grudgingly considered acceptable.

Which only made her work harder.

She held herself to a higher standard than any of them held for themselves. But today, she had fallen short. They had been practicing takedown defense in class. Everyone had a turn with everyone else. Much to the chagrin of each of her partners, she had managed to block them all.

Except one.

At least it was Ryan. It could have been worse…

Ryan was one of the precious few guys who treated Kira as if she might actually belong there. They weren’t friends, but he was always decent, and never lost his temper if she actually managed to get the better of him. He had a few months more experience than her, so it didn’t happen as often as she liked. Still, she knew she could have blocked his takedown. But she had allowed herself to get distracted by her other successes. She couldn’t afford to make that kind of mistake. Here in the gym, there weren’t any consequences. But out in the real world…

She gave the bag one last punch before lowering her trembling arms. Her knuckles throbbed, even beneath her padded, fingerless gloves. Trent continued to pour searing lyrics into her ears, but her heart was no longer in it. Her entire body felt like a limp, wet rag.

She reached down to the phone in the pocket of her fitted shorts to stop the music. She flinched in startlement as her phone started to chime through her headphones.

She tapped the Answer button without thinking.

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