False Start (Beautifully Brutal #1) by Casey Hagen




1





Sharp and jagged pain speared through my side, making me suck in a hard, deep breath. My teeth dug into my mouthguard as I growled low in my throat. Glancing up at the pack as they skated into position, I met Tilly the Hun’s mean eyes. They crinkled at the corners when they narrowed, not with age, but with spite. The sneer spread over her face, a glimpse of the cold black heart that chugged inside her chest.

Of course the last bout of the season had to be against her team. Why wouldn’t it? We’d go head-to-head, our personal bitter rivalry a living, breathing heartbeat on the track. Each smackdown she delivered trying to gouge the armor of my confidence.

She refused to stop swinging at me.

And no matter how many times she came at me, no matter how hard, I refused to stay down.

Tilly’s calculating smile promised more retribution to be delivered the minute the ref blew the whistle to start the jam.

Retaliation for landing on her turf.

Punishment for being an outsider in her town.

Reckoning for refusing to leave.

Every bout, every blow of the whistle when our skates met the track in the same jam, she played out her need for revenge.

And I showed up front and center for the battle between us that would never be over.

Because in life, and especially in roller derby, when they knock you down, you get back up.

You always get back up.

Pathetic, emotionally bankrupt Tilly had no clue she’d been preparing me for this sport for a decade. She’d been hardening me with brutality to take hit after hit, building my endurance.

Fueling my tenacity, all to her own detriment.

She thought she could scare me away?

Fuck no.

As long as derby existed, she’d have to keep facing me. She’d never have this sport on her terms.

Free from me.

With one last glance over her shoulder, our eyes connected, and I grinned.

The gauntlet dropped with the shrill peel of the referee’s whistle cutting through the air. Pushing off my toe stops, I tapped into the adrenaline, the anger burning low in my belly whenever I saw Tilly’s face—heard her poisonous voice—and lunged forward, looking for a way around or through the pack.

Pockets opened but closed a fraction of a second later as bodies collided, muscles flexed, and determination-laced grunts filled the air.

Tuned into the calls from my blockers, I pushed at barriers, waiting for something to give.

Moving to the outside, I kept my eyes on the inside, looking for space to get through. Throwing my shoulder as though I planned to cut around the outside, pushing the boundaries, I lurched forward and the two blockers in front of me crowded right, keeping their bodies tight together, closing the gap, giving me the opportunity to dart around them in the middle.

The shouts melded together. The cheers of the crowd bled into the calls from my teammates. Sweat trickled into my eyes, the warm sting forcing me to blink.

Bite “N” Switch, their biggest blocker, with her head half turned, always watching and readjusting to thwart my every attempt to break through the pack while trying to propel her own jammer through the chaos, stumbled back after a solid hit from my teammate, Anarch-Eve.

Their showdown left Tilly trapped in the middle.

Away from me.

Despite the gap in front of me, another pocket opened on the inside. With Tilly pinned, I had a shot this time. Adrenaline surged through my veins, my instincts screaming for me to go for it.

I could never resist going for the inside.

Something about that boundary line called me every single time.

My shoulder brushed past their pivot, MissAdventure. Just two more strides and I could surge forward. I had it this time. I totally had it. With Eve on Tilly, nothing could stop me.

Our tangled skates threatened to topple me over, but I yanked my foot free while keeping my balance on my left. My edges flexed from the force of my weight. With a swing of my arms to propel my upper body, and a hop…I slipped ahead.

Fuck yes!

A sickening thud obliterated the cheer of the crowd. The air whooshed from my lungs as the sharp pain exploded in my ribs once again. My wheels ripped away from the floor, gravity and my trajectory turning them into lead weights on my feet.

Time slowed, our rivalry playing out like a scene in an action movie where victory was all but certain.

But whose victory?

She was the bad guy.

But maybe I was a bad guy too.

Maybe we weren’t the lead characters at all. Maybe our names were both lost in the second half of the credits. The font smaller. The roles forgettable. Secondary characters adding to the body count.