Warning: Spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the series.
© Copyright KIMBERLY DEAN, 2014
Dexter Jones adjusted the wrap around his left wrist for what had to be the tenth time and glanced again at the old round clock that hung on the gym’s wall. The second hand had given up the ghost years ago. It wasn’t moving, but neither were the minute or hour hands – or so it seemed. It was still early, but he was getting impatient.
He’d waited for this day for years.
He turned to head for the water fountain, but stopped when the door to the gym opened, letting in a crisp gust of fresh air.
Along with three of the most beautiful girls one could ever hope to meet.
Activity inside the dank old gym stopped. Admittedly, the place didn’t get many visitors of the female variety. The gym wasn’t one of those high-end cash suckers with shiny weight machines and rows of treadmills. No, the trainers here taught fighters how to throw a punch. A cardio machine was a jump rope, and the music system was a boom box that had seen its best days in the ‘80s.
“Holy mother of God,” the boxer training next to him muttered. The guy stopped punching the heavy bag in front of him, and his arms fell to his sides.
“Who’s their daddy?” said the middleweight on the floor doing sit-ups.
Dex nudged the man’s foot with his own. “I am.”
The boxer’s eyes widened. “Nah.”
Dex folded his arms over his chest. He might not look old enough to be their father, but he was. He was also the overprotective, surly kind of papa bear that leering creeps needed to avoid. The boxer quickly returned to his crunches.
Dex threw him an extra glare for good measure, but he couldn’t really hold it against the guy. His daughters were gorgeous. They were also identical triplets. Heads were going to turn.
Lifting his hand, he signaled and caught their attention. Damn if his gut didn’t tighten when three matching smiles lit their faces.
Roxie, Lexie, and Maxie. His girls.
After years of sorrow and regret, he’d recently found them again. He wanted to wrap every one of them up in his arms and never let them go, but they were grown women now. They had their own lives to lead, and men who loved them. But today was his day. Today, they were having father-daughter time.
If what he had planned was a bit unorthodox, he didn’t care. Their whole life as a family had been unorthodox.
“Hey-a, pops,” Roxie said, bounding up to the edge of the mat.
Lexie walked right on by her and gave him a hug. He wrapped his arms around his daddy’s girl and squeezed tight.
“Hi, Dad,” Maxie said. Her eyes were wide as she looked around the boxing gym, and her attention focused on the heavy bag.
The lightweight had begun punching it again, but his rhythm was off. His gaze kept veering to the brunette bombshells.
“Want to try it?” he asked.
Delight lit her eyes. “Yes!”
“Okay, after we go through some of the training I want to show you.”
“All right,” she said, bouncing around on the balls of her feet again.
She was good to go. Lexie was still looking around the place questionably, while Roxie already had the exits located and all the gym inhabitants evaluated. He’d seen the way she’d taken in everything when she’d walked in the place. She was instinctively aware of her surroundings, but she’d learned the habit the hard way.
It still killed him inside to know she’d grown up in the foster care system when she should have been with him and Alexis.
He cut the thought out of his head ruthlessly. This was no time to regret the past. He had them back now, and this was one thing he could still teach them. He taught self-defense for a living, and he wanted his daughters to be able to protect themselves.
“So what are we going to learn today, Daddio?” Roxie asked. Lifted her fists, she popped him lightly in the shoulder twice.
“Defense,” he said with a grin. “Not offense.”
She pouted. “But I throw a good punch.”
“Just ask Billy,” Lexie said, flicking back her ponytail.
Roxie rolled her eyes. “I’ve explained that. I thought he was a stranger putting a move on Maxie.”
“And she pulled the punch,” Maxie agreed, nodding helpfully.
“Yeah, yeah. We’ll see just how tough you all are,” Dex teased. “Gather around me on the mat here. I want to get started.”
The open space was why he’d chosen for them to meet him here. Not only was the owner a friend, but the mats were always out for anyone who wanted to stretch, wrestle, or work on their mixed martial art skills. The only thing that probably hadn’t been practiced here was yoga.
The place didn’t exactly have a Zen sort of vibe.
Roxie cracked her knuckles, and Lexie shook out her arms. Maxie was still eyeing the boxing bag with interest.
“Okay, the most important thing about defending yourself is awareness,” Dex began. He’d given this speech a thousand times, but it had never before been so important. “Be aware of your surroundings and the people around you. Know where the shadows are and try not to wander off by yourself. If you do, keep your car keys in hand. Not only can you use them to trigger your car alarm, they’re something sharp you can jab at an assailant’s eyes.”
Lexie cringed visibly.
He shook his head. “If somebody is intent on harming you, I don’t want you to hesitate to hurt them back or do anything you need to do to get away. Understand?”
She nodded. “But Cam is usually with me.”
“What if he needs help?”
A steely look entered her eyes, and he nodded. She was on board.
“Okay, let’s pair up. Lexie, you’re with me. Maxie, you’re with Roxie.” They lined up, facing one another. “Avoidance is the best form of protection, but if you do find yourself in a situation where you need to defend yourself, make as much noise as possible and fight back.”
“The car alarm,” Maxie repeated.
“Right. Use anything. Kick over a garbage can, set off somebody else’s car alarm, and scream for help. If you’re forced to engage, go for the vulnerable points on an attacker’s body. Aim for the eyes, the neck, the nose, the knees, or the groin.”
He punctuated each point by with a simulated strike. Lexie flinched, but the guy at the bag winced even louder at that last one. Activity had started around the room again, but most of the men exercising were more interested in what was going on with his girls.
Dex held back a disapproving grunt. That was going to take some getting used to.
“All right. Let’s see you give it a try. I want you to pull your punches now, but in real life, be ready to give it everything you’ve got. You could have only one or two moves before an attacker subdues you.”
He nodded at Lexie, who was in serious mode. It made him soften a bit inside. He remembered that same look on her face when she’d been a toddler, stacking blocks.
“Let’s start with a nose strike. Like this.” He repeated the move slowly until he was sure all three had seen. “Now you.”
“Good,” he said when Lexie thrust the ball of her hand at his nose. He moved around behind her and adjusted her stance. “Make sure you’ve got a good base beneath you. When you make contact, you want it to do some damage.”
He glanced over in time to see Roxie holding her nose.
“Like that,” he muttered.
Roxie jabbed a finger at Maxie’s shoulder. “He said to pull the punches.”
Maxie rubbed her shoulder. “Stop poking me.”
“Why? Does it hurt? Like my nose?”
He walked over to break them apart. “Come on, you two.”
“It was her fault,” Maxie said grumpily.
“You hit me.”
“Because you walked into it.”
“Enough,” he said, trying not to laugh. He clapped his hands to get their attention. “Show me what you’ve got.”
He nodded when they both showed off their skills. He showed Maxie how to throw her punch more from her shoulder, and then had them switch places so Roxie’s back was to the center of the gym. His extroverted daughter was way too easily distracted and was already mockingly challenging other boxers to a fight.
When he returned to Lexie, he found her on her phone.
He plucked it out of her hand. “It will have to wait, Cam,” he said before ending the call and dropping the phone back in her purse.
He raked his fingers through his hair as he looked at the three of them. “I remember this.”
Three happy, shining faces looked at him innocently. Keeping up with them had always been never-ending.
Roxie rubbed her hands together. “What’s next?”
For the next hour, he put them through their paces. He showed them elbow jabs and knee strikes. He showed them how to break holds and use their purses, their heels, and anything they could get hold of to protect themselves. “Think Jackie Chan,” he instructed. “Watch his fight scenes. He’ll employ anything in reach as a weapon.”
“But what if we’re caught?” Lexie asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” Roxie said. “Show us some throws.”
“Those are more advanced that what I’d planned to get into today.”
“Pleeeeease?” Roxie batted her eyes in a way she knew was irresistible.
“Pretty please?” Lexie added. For all her hesitancy when she’d walked inside the door, she’d been the most focused of the three.
“All right,” he conceded. He knew he was being a pushover, but he’d worked them hard enough. It was time to let them have a little fun.
He eyed the three of them. Roxie was a natural, although he had a feeling she’d gone through some of this training before. It would only have been smart of her, with her job at the bar. Maxie was gung-ho, but her moves were cautious. She was tender-hearted and didn’t want to hurt anyone – other than poking her sister.
He’d have to work with her to get her past that.
He called over a guy jumping rope whom he knew did some jujitsu. “Okay, Henry here is going to be the attacker. Most likely, the three of you will be at a disadvantage when it comes to weight and strength, but you can use leverage and momentum to help you.”
“Here, I’ll show you.” He gave Henry his back and started walking casually across the mat. He heard the footsteps coming and prepared for contact. The moment Henry bar-armed his throat, he flew into motion. Bending at the waist abruptly, he grabbed the arm that was circled around him and used his attacker’s forward motion to keep him going forward, right over Dex’s shoulder. Henry hit the floor, but training had Dex following through and obtaining the upper advantage before his assailant had time to get off his back.
When Dex looked up, three pairs of brown eyes were bugging out. Lexie’s jaw had actually dropped.
“Whoa,” Roxie said.
“Our dad’s a stud,” Maxie whispered loud enough for the entire bay to hear.
He grinned. “Your turns. Who wants to go first?”
To his surprise, Lexie raised her hand.
“Henry, do you mind helping out?”
The man smiled. “Not at all.”
Apparently, neither did any of the other men in the rundown gym. They’d all stopped to watch, including the boxers in the ring. They were leaning against the ropes and drinking from water bottles as they watched the more interesting action.
Dex shot a quick look of concern at his daughters. If they were uncomfortable, he’d put an end to it now. To his surprise, they took the attention with ease. They’d apparently gotten used to the stares. He supposed people couldn’t help but gape when the three of them were together.
He knew he couldn’t. He’d missed the sight of them so much.
He cleared his throat. “All right, Miss Lexie. Come on over here and show us what you’ve got.”
Henry slowed down his motions and played it easy. Still, when he grabbed Lexie from behind, she was rendered immobile. Dex stepped in to show her what she needed to do, and her sisters clapped from the sidelines.
“You can do it, Lexie,” Maxie called.
“Come on, Lex Luthor.”
Lexie threw a grimace at Roxie. “Lex Luthor?”
“Lex-treme,” Roxie improvised. “The Lexecuter, The Lexative.”
Maxie snorted and shoved Roxie. “Stop it. You’re distracting her.”
Distracting, maybe. Or possibly inspiring. Dex watched the interplay with interest. His triplets may have grown up separately, but there was a bond between them that anyone could see.
One of the boxers in the ring called out encouragement, and then others joined in. The place was getting loud by the third time Lexie braced herself. When Henry caught her this time, she used her base to ground herself. She yanked hard, getting Henry’s feet off the ground. It happened in slow motion, and Dex almost thought she’d lost again when she managed to gradually flip Henry over her. The man landed with more of a poof than a splat, but she’d done it.
“Yeah! Lex-eeeee,” Maxie hooted.
“The Lexterminator! Woot! Woot!” Roxie followed.
Dex stepped forward quickly, concerned she’d hurt herself. She’d used more brute force than he’d thought possible from that skinny body, but when she straightened, her grin was taking up most of her face.
“I did it!” she cried, bounding around.
She sprang at him, and he caught her in a hug. “That’s my girl.”
He planted a kiss on her temple and then turned to her siblings. Roxie had already stepped onto the mat and was pointing at the guy who’d made the rude comment when they’d stepped into the place.
“What about you, sugar cakes?” she asked.
“No,” Dex said. He didn’t want that guy near any of his girls.
The boxer’s chest puffed out, and he wiggled his fingers at her. “You know you can’t handle this, honey buns.”
“I’m so a-scared,” Roxie mocked.
Dex’s muscles bunched, but then he caught the glint in his daughter’s eye. He nearly started laughing.
“Okay,” he agreed, stepping back. His curiosity was piqued.
Again, the cheering started from around the gym. Roxie started walking across the mat in a way that had Dex rubbing the back of his neck in consternation. Good God, she was playing this for all she was worth.
“Shake it, don’t break it,” Maxie warned her sister.
“Roxie,” Lexie called, more worry in her tone.
Mr. Show-Off came up behind her with much less care than Henry had used, and Dex flinched. He was already moving forward to take the guy out when Roxie moved like a cat. One minute, the cocky guy was grabbing her and saying something suggestive in her ear. The next, he went flying through the air like an uncoordinated trapeze artist. He let out a surprised cry that ended in a squeak when he hit the mat with a solid thump.
Roxie didn’t stop there. She circled the guy before he could move and planted her tennis shoe center of his chest. A collective gasp rose in the gym.
She planted her hands on her hips and cocked her head. “Like that, Daddy?”
Dex let out a bark of laughter. “Just like that, baby.”
Her sisters high-fived her as she came off the mat, but then it was Maxie’s turn.
“You really want to try this?” Dex asked his quiet daughter.
She nodded firmly, but he could see the doubt in her eyes.
“You can do it.” He gave her ponytail a gentle tug. He didn’t want her to the be the only one who didn’t succeed.
“Henry,” he called. No way was “sugar cakes” going to get near this one of his kids. Then again, the guy was still trying to get a solid gulp of oxygen into his lungs.
Henry slowed things down to nearly frame-by-frame level. Maxie was game, but she just couldn’t snap off the moves her sisters had. She had the technique down pat, she couldn’t find that explosiveness that was needed to fire everything into action. She tried over and over again, to the point where Henry was even helping her.
People were gathering around the mat, trying to urge her on.
“You won’t hurt him, Maxie,” Lexie called.
“Try to hurt him, Maximum,” Roxie argued.
Maxie gritted her teeth and even snarled, but it was a no go.
Finally, Dex waved Roxie onto the mat. “Let’s try someone lighter.”
“And someone who might have irritated you in the past,” Lexie quipped.
Roxie stuck out her tongue.
Dex tapped his youngest daughter under the chin. Maxie had been the last to arrive, and the only one who hadn’t cried. “You can do this.”
Her gaze locked with his, full of determination. He stepped back.
Roxie strode up behind her sister like a mugger.
“Hi-ya,” she yelled as she wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
Maxie jumped into action, but Roxie was tougher.
“Stop being timid,” Dex called.
“What?” Roxie blurted. “No!”
Her expulsion of air was heard round the gym as she went tumbling through the air. Dex’s eyes widened. She looked to be ten feet off the ground as she flipped, her hair flying everywhere. All that motion came to a sudden stop when she hit the floor with a whomp.
Her groan was dramatic.
“Oh!” Maxie clapped a hand over her mouth. “Did I do that?”
Dex hurried over to Roxie. Going onto bent knee, he looked at her. “Are you okay, Rocket?”
His concern earned him a solid poke in the chest. “You had to call her timid?”
“What?” He glanced around at his other two daughters. He didn’t know what that meant.
But they apparently did.
They hardly exchanged a look, but in the next split-second they were all moving at him. Some kind of communication had just happened. He hadn’t seen it or heard it, but he suddenly realized he was a target.
Timid, his ass.
Roxie sprang up from her back, while Lexie and Maxie converged.
“Get him!” they said as one.
Dex was quick and he was trained, but there were three of them. Three wriggly, warm, giggling girls attacked like a pile of puppies. Laughing, he soon found himself at the bottom of the pile. He grimaced as kisses smacked against his face.
“How’d we do, Dad?” Maxie asked.
“Are we the best students you ever had?” Roxie asked as she snuggled up close.
He laughed. He’d always intimidated his students before. He must be losing his touch. “Top notch,” he agreed.
“Think we could take you?” Lexie asked.
He snorted. “Hardly.”
“What if we practiced?”
“We could do that.” He had all the time in the world for them. “What about next week?”
“We can’t,” Maxie said, sitting back on her haunches. “Mom’s going to teach us how to paint.”
He groaned. “Paint?”
Three eager faces nodded.
Lord help him. Visions of paint spills, flinging paint, and paint in the hair assailed him. He was going to have to buy extra tarps for Alexis’ studio.
“It’s going to be fun,” Roxie grinned.
He chuckled. “I’m sure it is.”
“Just like this.” Lexie held his shoulder against the mat as if she could keep him there. She grinned. “We got ya, Daddy.”
The ache that had been in his chest for over a decade loosened and was replaced by a warmth he hadn’t felt for a very long time. “Yeah, babies. You got me.”
They had him for good. Finally giving in to the urge he’d had all day, he gathered his triplets into a group hug and squeezed tight. He wasn’t ever going to let them disappear from his life again.
“Can we hit the bag now?” Maxie asked.
He chuckled. “We can do anything you want.”
“Ice cream?” Lexie asked.
Self-defense, boxing and ice cream. It sounded like the perfect day.