Authors: J. J. Knight
Tags: #New Adult Contemporary Romance, #MMA, #boxing, #fighting
Outside, Zandalee herself pulls up in the hearse. The specialty trainers load bags into it. The Cure calls up the stairs. “If you can’t get it all, just take the important things. Marianna can ship the rest to us.”
I lift my suitcase and take it down to the ground floor. My mother is in the kitchen, rapidly packing the picnic basket with sandwiches, fruit, and salad.
I watch her a moment from the doorway. I wonder why she has not married, what burdens she carries inside herself. I think we must not be different at all.
“Mom? You okay?”
She looks up from the basket. Her eyes are wet. “You will call me, right?”
I walk over to her. “Of course.”
“I don’t know what sort of things you are going through.” She turns to me and places both her hands on my cheeks. “But there is always a place for you here. We’ll get you here. We’ll find a way.”
She pulls me into her, and it is like hugging my own body. We are the same height, same compact little bodies. Only my hair trails down my back while hers is tucked securely into a knot.
Like my old ponytails.
Maybe one day I’ll tell her my story. Maybe it can help her recover from hers.
“This ready to go?” one of the trainers picks up the basket.
Mom lets go of me and shoves a few more containers into it. “Now it is,” she says.
She smiles at me one more time. “
,” she says.
“Let’s go!” The Cure booms. “Time to load!”
Colt comes in behind me and rests his hands on my shoulders. “We’ll see you again soon,” he says.
“Take care of my Jo,” she tells him.
“You know I will,” he says.
Then we’re hustled toward the sleek rental car, and on our way back from paradise to the streets of LA.
My jacket itches me to no end. I scratch at the rough sleeves of the wool suit Eve bought me for the hearing.
The mere posture of the lawyer strikes fear into my heart, so I’m sure he’s a good one. The Cure spared no expense to “Get this charade over with.”
During the flight back to California, The Cure explained the situation. Retta and Rich had indeed found a doctor willing to testify that the extent of his injuries from my assault was significant enough to warrant an extension of the statute of limitations. They moved the case to California, stating that due to my injuries, they would kindly make the trial easier on me.
“Conveniently,” The Cure said, “California allows a longer wait between a crime and when charges are filed. Their lawyer isn’t a total idiot.”
But The Cure wasn’t worried. He said the case wouldn’t hold up, not in a million years. “Before it’s over, the judge will want to assault the little twit for wasting his time,” he said.
Still, as we wait for the judge to come into the small courtroom, I am nervous. Retta and Rich won’t be here, at least. Only if it actually goes to trial. The Cure was certain the judge would throw the case out before it got that far. Apparently they have to prove there is a case against me for anything else to even happen.
I don’t know anything about how it all works. I just try to follow instructions. The lawyer has told me not to speak until he tells me to, if the judge wants a direct answer from me. But it shouldn’t be necessary.
The judge enters the room, followed by a man in uniform. We all stand up. I notice a few reporters are in the back of the room. I was hoping I was old news by now.
Colt isn’t here. The lawyer felt he would attract unnecessary attention, as would The Cure. So, it’s just me and this stranger in a fancy suit.
But right as we sit down again, I see Buster come in the back. I feel calmer instantly. I’ve missed him, and the gym, and the girls I was training. I have no idea how they have been doing while I was in Hawaii. I feel like I am a completely different person from the one who fought Diva Delaney that final night.
Now I have a mother, a family. I probably should have told Mom and Hudson about this. They don’t know why we left so suddenly.
But then she would know what I’ve been through. And I don’t want to trouble her with it.
It may not matter. If this goes to trial, everyone will know. Colt McClure’s girlfriend up for assault charges will be big.
The lawyers are talking. I haven’t been paying attention. I force myself to sit up. Another fancy-suited man is standing at a table on the other side of the room, gesturing while he holds a notepad.
“Rich Mahoney suffered multiple bone fractures, including his nose, arm, clavicle, and four ribs. He suffered a concussion severe enough to render him unconscious.”
The judge is a woman, her gray hair touching her shoulders, not unlike Tutu back in Hawaii. I looked up the word later. It’s the same as Granny or Nana or any of the cute words kids will call a grandmother. I’m glad it’s different from what I called Grandma.
The lawyer is still droning on. “This family took the defendant into their home after her father’s death, raising her like she was their own. And this was the thanks they got.”
My fingers are squeezed into tight fists. Raising me like I was their own. Ha. Retta didn’t even seem all that grief-stricken by my father’s death. She did, however, want to be set up as my guardian. She had more money after Dad died. She bought furniture. A big TV. I was only eight, but now, thinking back on it, I realize she got something from his death. A settlement from the company, maybe?
No wonder she kept me. I probably was worth money to her.
My lawyer speaks up, citing some legal language I don’t quite understand. Hearsay or something. I wish I understood what they were talking about.
I vow to get my high school degree. Then maybe I can go to community college. I could study to be a physical therapist, or at least learn to be a cutman so I can patch people up during fights. If I’m going to train girls, one of them might want to fight. And I’ll have to do what Nate does for me, stopping bleeding, making sure the fighter can go on.
Yes, that’s what I want.
I’ve stopped paying attention again.
My lawyer is talking now. He asks to approach the bench and passes a sheet of paper to the judge. Then he gives one to the other lawyer.
The woman puts on a pair of black-rimmed glasses and reviews the page. Then she looks up. “Is this true?” she asks the other lawyer.
The man has a poker face about what he’s reading, but I can see some tells. His fingers on the hand dangling by his hip open and close. A muscle in his jaw ticks.
But he’s a professional. “In light of this,” he says, “I would like to request to postpone the hearing pending a reassessment of the victim’s medical history.”
My lawyer returns to our table. “Your honor, given the fraudulent nature of this evidence and how it was obtained, plus the length of time between the alleged incident and the filing of charges, which, in the state where they occurred, have an expired statute of limitations, I submit that this case be dismissed. There is no legitimate proof that the victim sustained injuries that would extend the statute of limitations on this case.”
I realize I’m not even at issue here. They don’t care who I am or where I was or if I did it. Something else has happened.
“This is preposterous,” the judge says. She removes her eyeglasses and glares at the other lawyer. “What were those two thinking?”
I’m itching to ask what is happening. My lawyer looks smug. In any other situation, I would have disliked him intensely, but right now I’m glad he’s in my corner. Whatever he’s done is devastating to the other man’s case.
The other lawyer frowns. “I request a postponement of this case.”
“If this boy was that badly hurt, he should have done something about it three years ago. And not faked a medical record.” The judge glances at me. “Case dismissed.”
We stand up. The two lawyers shake hands, smiling and joking now as if they weren’t just knocking heads a moment ago.
I don’t get this business at all.
They call up another case, and we’re done.
My lawyer packs up his papers and motions for me to follow him.
When we’re finally outside, I ask, “What happened?”
“Your stepmother faked the whole medical report. She got a form off the Internet and tried to forge a signature.”
“How did you know?”
“The form was easy to find. But the doctor she chose to fake is, unfortunately, very much dead.”
“She picked a dead doctor?”
“You can buy this stuff online. They trick people like her all the time. People who want to sue for injuries. It’s a racket. It wasn’t hard to pick up on what she had done.”
“So, it’s over?”
He pats my shoulder. “Yes, it’s over.”
“They can’t try again?”
“Nope. Once a judge throws out a criminal case, you cannot be brought up on the same charges a second time.”
“But she didn’t ask me anything. Like if I did it.” We walk through the concourse of the courthouse. A reporter tries to approach us, but the lawyer waves him off.
“Doesn’t matter if you did it. It only matters if they followed procedure. And they didn’t.”
He leads me out the front doors. The Cure and Colt are waiting in the Mercedes out front.
The sun seems impossibly bright, like a whole new day has dawned.
My past can’t haunt me anymore.
Buster goes all out for our return to his gym. It’s crazier than the time I walked up to find Brittany and Colt announcing their engagement.
News vans are parked at angles all over the street. The area where the attack happened in the back is cordoned off like it’s part of a museum.
Colt and I are in our fight suits. Reporters shout questions at us. I let Colt answer them.
“When are you getting back in the cage, Gunner?” one asks.
“When I don’t have a big hole in my belly anymore,” Colt says. Everyone laughs.
“Are you going to challenge Striker in the cage?” another shouts.
“I don’t think he has his ‘Get out of jail free’ card yet,” Colt says.
He has such an easy manner, evading tough issues with humor, deflecting questions aimed at me.
One persistent reporter finally says, “Can we get just one answer from the Hurricane?”
Colt looks down at me, then says, “Jo prefers to let her fists do the talking.”
“But we want to know if she’s got any fights set up. If she’s ready to go back.”
My stomach turns over. Colt is about to speak again, but I know they’ll just keep badgering him. I squeeze his arm. He’s got me in a tight grip, one hand around my waist.
“I’m helping Colt train,” I say. My voice isn’t very confident or loud, so people shush each other to hear. I point back at the gym. “And I have a whole fleet of girls in there to train too. I’m happy doing that.”
Several try to speak at once, now that I’m answering something. Finally, one wins out. “Are you trying to get the other women ready to fight?”
Before I can answer, another shouts out, “Or beat up their brothers?”
A few laugh at that, and others seem upset by the jab.
Colt squeezes me again.
“I want them to be able to defend themselves against jerks,” I say. Then I shrug. “And jerk reporters.”
That makes them laugh.
“I think we have some celebrating to do inside,” Colt says. “They’ll let a few photographers in at a time. Talk to Brent.” He thumbs at my old coworker. Buster hired him back.
Brent puffs up with importance and shouts at them to form a line to get in. Colt and I go in ahead of them. In the front room, the girls I’ve been training are waiting, the ones willing to be part of the publicity. Sammy, a girl who started working with me to feel safer walking around her college campus for her night courses, turns out to be a press hound. She shows off her new skills, punching and kicking. I think she’s got something. Maybe she’ll end up fighting. Maybe she’ll be my first.
My phone buzzes. I’m going to ignore it, but Colt gets pulled away by a photographer who wants to take a shot of him by the practice cage. So, I pull it from my pocket. Then I almost drop it.
The message is from Brittany, the woman who used to train with Colt, who posed as his public girlfriend, then fiancée. She is a model for a cosmetics company now. She used to be my biggest enemy. Now she’s simply out of my life.
The message says:
Meet with me. I have the perfect revenge. Those girls are going down.
Brittany sits on the hood of a beat-up pickup two streets down from our destination. Colt slows the red Stingray to let me out.
“You sure about this?” he asks.
“And you won’t let me come?”
“I think it’s better if you’re not involved.”
He sighs. “I’m going to worry.”
I lean over the center console and kiss his cheek. “I’ll call you when it’s over. If I don’t get arrested.”
“My legal bills are going through the roof,” he teases.
“I know. But I’m worth it.” I open my door. “I’ll text you.”
Brittany hops off the hood of the pickup. She’s in gray sweats. Her hair is back in a braid, same as mine. She’s not wearing makeup for once. We both are down to the basics. Comfortable clothes with a full range of motion. Keep it simple.
She waves at Colt as he drives away. “You ready for this?” she asks.
“You sure we should do this?”
“Oh, yeah, sister. Those girls messed with the wrong posse.”
We walk the last two blocks through a seedy part of LA. It’s bad, super bad, but I’m not worried. I’ve stared death in the eye a time or two now.
We turn down an alley. By a door lit with a single yellow light, a burly man sits on an overturned trash can. His face is obscured by a ratty ball cap. His frayed plaid shirt is a size too small, and unbuttoned to reveal a black T-shirt with a giant glow-in-the-dark skull.
He looks up at us. “You girls best move along now.”
“We spit on pigs,” Brittany says. These are the code words to get in.
He squints his eyes. “You sure about that?”