Suckerpunch: Round One in the Woodshed Wallace Seriesby Jeremy Brown
Despite the best efforts of his trainer and mentor, 28-year-old heavyweight mixed martial artist Aaron Woodshed”Wallace just can’t move beyond the low-level MMA fight rungs. His criminal past and self-destructive tendencies have proven to be the biggest hurdle he can’t seem to overcome. So when Woodshed is offered a match against the rising… See more details below
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Despite the best efforts of his trainer and mentor, 28-year-old heavyweight mixed martial artist Aaron Woodshed”Wallace just can’t move beyond the low-level MMA fight rungs. His criminal past and self-destructive tendencies have proven to be the biggest hurdle he can’t seem to overcome. So when Woodshed is offered a match against the rising heavyweight star of the largest MMA organization in the Western hemisphere, he’s all over it. The night before the fight, Woodshed runs into Lance, a small-time criminal from his past, and Lance’s bookie Kendall. Ever the opportunist, Kendall plans to bet big on Woodshed to win; and to increase his motivation, Kendall kidnaps Lance. Blaming himself for the kidnapping, Woodshed resolves to attempt a rescue. But in order to have any chance of tracking Kendall down, Woodshed has to reconnect with a gunrunner and a drug dealer from his crime-ridden past and risk losing his big MMA opportunity.
Read an Excerpt
By Elizabeth Sinclair
Medallion Press, Inc.
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Love is what's in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen." -Bobby, age 7
"Dora, Grace is okay. Her fall was broken. No harm done."
Calvin, the Senior Angel in charge of Celestial Maintenance, meant well, but his reassurances didn't make Dora's blunder easier for her to handle. She pulled her knees closer to her chest and stared off into the clear, cerulean sky, her mind full of the image of poor Grace hanging from a cloud by her fingertips, her wings flapping uselessly behind her. This foul-up, just one more in a long line, convinced Dora even more that she had no right to call herself an angel.
Bad enough when she messed up with an angel she didn't know very well. But Grace had been her best friend since they'd graduated from the cherubic choir and got promoted into Celestial Maintenance. Gracie had stuck by her through thick and thin, guided her over the bumps in the clouds, and had never let her down when Dora needed her. And this was how she repaid her?
Dora squinted up at Calvin to block out the glow surrounding the tall man, and then swallowed her tears. "What if her fall hadn't been broken? What if that cloud hadn't scuttled by and caught her at just the right moment?"
Calvin laid a large, calming hand on her shoulder. "But it did, and she's fine. We must be thankful for what we get and not brood over what might have been."
His words of wisdom went in one of Dora's ears and out the other, and in no way calmed her distraught emotions.
Emitting a sigh laden with impatience, he squatted next to Dora, took her chin in his fingers, and tilted her face up to him. "You haven't been in Celestial Maintenance long. It takes time to settle in."
Dora pulled from his grasp. "I know. But sometimes I wonder if I ever will. Last week, I polished the shine right off Hermione's halo, and she lost her ability to transport for two days. The week before that, when I was supposed to be mending her sleeve, I sewed the bottom of Estelle's robes closed by accident, and she nearly tripped off the cloud and fell into the middle of Chicago's rush hour traffic. Today, I replaced the levitation feathers in Grace's wings with landing feathers, and she almost broke her neck when she tried to take off. And that's only the tip of a ruptured rainbow." She took a deep breath and then shook her head and swirled her fingertips through the wisps of mist rising from the disturbed cloud on which she sat. "Let's face it. I'm just a celestial screwup."
Calvin cleared his throat and frowned down at her. "Dora!"
She knew how much he disliked that mortal phrase, but today she didn't care what Calvin thought. She just wanted to pull a cloud over her head and immerse herself in it for eternity. How much bleaker could her celestial future become?
Sometimes she felt she'd never get the hang of being an angel. Aside from her friendship with Grace, Dora had never quite fit in among the other angels and suspected some of them laughed at her behind their wings. Her halo was always askew. She had no control over her wings and flew into things on a regular basis. When she sang, entire galaxies cringed. Cloud vapor often sent her into uncontrollable sneezing fits that disrupted her surroundings for hours, and despite every effort she made, she'd never really developed a taste for ambrosia.
In every conceivable way, Dora simply didn't fit into the accepted image of the stereotypical angel or their community. However, the career opportunities up here went beyond being somewhat limited, so if she couldn't be an angel, what could she be?
Dora gazed at the glassy, smooth surface of the Earth Pool and thought about the hours she'd spent gazing into it, observing the humans below. How she'd enjoyed watching them over the last few weeks, buying gifts, singing carols, and decorating trees for the coming holiday, interacting with their families. Would she fit in any better down there?
If she never tried it, she could never be sure that mortality would be any better than an angelic life. Perhaps it was time she found out.
The idea made her brighten slightly. Maybe now was the right time to ask Calvin about an idea she'd been toying with for a long time. "Calvin," she said, her voice echoing her insecurity, "I was thinking ... maybe I'd be better at something else. Maybe I could-" She cut herself off, still fearful of his reaction to her totally unprecedented request, but nevertheless, a desire that had lain hidden in her heart for decades.
"Maybe you could what, Dora?" Calvin's voice was gentle, encouraging, and perhaps just a tad too eager to move her somewhere beyond his jurisdiction.
Poor Calvin. She hadn't made his job easy. Not a day had gone by in the last century that he hadn't feared the wrath of the Heavenly Council because he'd had to bail her out of some kind of trouble or repair one of her many mistakes.
She stood and brushed the wrinkles from her robe. In her reflection in the Earth Pool, she could see her halo had tilted sideways above her white-blond curls, something that irritated Calvin, who seemed to exist to please his superiors. He lived in constant fear that one of the Archangels would stop by for an unscheduled inspection, and the Celestial Maintenance Department wouldn't live up to expectations.
Not wanting to risk upsetting Calvin right now, she righted her halo, stiffened her spine, and faced him.
"Maybe ... maybe I could become a ... mortal?" she asked timidly.
Calvin's mouth dropped open. His eyes grew large and mirrored his outrage and apprehension. The feathers in his wings fluttered into total disarray, a definite signal his agitation level had risen beyond his control.
He glanced furtively around, as if expecting a lightning bolt to be hurled at them. "Oh, dear. I ... I ... uh ... I ..."
"Please," she begged, clutching the sleeve of his robe. "Please ask them for me. Maybe I'd be better at being mortal than I am at being an angel." She gazed longingly at the Earth Pool.
"That's absurd. You know it works the other way around. Such a request is ... unacceptable. Totally unacceptable." His hands fluttered nervously, pleating and unpleating the fabric of his robe. "Angels don't become humans. It's just never been done. Never."
As the words tumbled from his mouth in a jumble of thought, Calvin's face began turning bright red, and the feathers on his wings vibrated into even greater disarray. In an effort to calm him, Dora reached out to smooth the feathers, but he retreated beyond her touch.
"Please, Calvin. If you explained how miserably I've failed at being an angel, then maybe the Heavenly Council would allow me to go to Earth to just ... try it." She smiled her best cherubic smile. "And, if I were down there, I wouldn't be your responsibility any longer." She held her breath and waited. Knowing how eager Calvin was to be rid of her and the trouble that accompanied her, she was not surprised to see him pause to give her request serious consideration.
"Well ..." he said, looking away, obviously savoring the idea of not having to repair any more of her disasters. Then he shook his head. "No. Absolutely not. If I'm lucky, I'd be laughed out of the Hall of Prayers. If I'm not lucky . . ." He shuddered. Obviously, he couldn't tolerate even thinking about the alternative, much less putting it into words.
She understood Calvin's reluctance. Dora knew that angels didn't venture into the Hall of Prayers where the Archangels, the Heavenly Council, reigned supreme unless they were summoned or they had an urgent problem. Still, this was urgent, at least from her perspective. She had to convince him to try and, as cruel as it was, she had an idea that might make him see things her way.
Calvin had a vulnerable spot. All the angels knew what it was, and that they could get him to agree to almost anything by using it. Hating to take advantage by doing something she'd always believed to be underhanded, she'd never resorted to it before and abhorred employing it now, but this was far too important to her. His stubborn refusal had left her no alternative.
Dora gazed up at Calvin and squeezed out a few glistening tears. "Calvin, if they let me go down there and try being mortal, just for Christmas, I promise I'll come back and do my job here. You'll never hear another complaint from me. I'll work extra hard to be the best celestial worker you've ever seen." She sniffed and blinked, forcing a generous cascade of tears to escape her swimming eyes.
As the plump teardrops ran down her cheeks, Calvin's eyes widened in alarm. "No! Oh, dear, no! Not angel tears! The last time an angel went on a crying jag, the entire West Coast of the United States was underwater for weeks. Streams overflowed their banks. Houses washed away. Trees ripped out by their roots. People left homeless. Cities without power. Mudslides of mammoth proportions. One of His favorite mountains nearly slid into the San Fernando Valley. I had a terrible time explaining it." Frantically, Calvin dabbed at her eyes with his sleeve. "I'll ask. Just don't cry anymore. But I have to warn you, I'm afraid I already know what the answer will be."
He gazed down at Dora, shook his head, then shimmered out of sight. As he disappeared into the celestial cosmos, she could hear him muttering to himself, "I should not have to be subjected to this embarrassment. I've always been a good angel, always done my job without complaint, always made sure the Department of Celestial Maintenance ran with all the accuracy of the tick of time."
Dora stared at the spot in the sky where Calvin had disappeared. Hope filled her heart. She dragged her gaze to the Earth Pool and looked into its smooth surface. With any luck, she would soon be down there taking part in the lives of the people she so envied.
Since the Archangels did not really favor sending angels to Earth, and because of his fear of reprisal, Calvin more than likely might not present the most convincing argument, Dora thought, and her hope faded quickly. In all probability, she would be condemned to spending eternity up here among the clouds.
She sneezed and her halo slipped sideways.
* * *
After tucking in his six-year-old niece for the night, Tony Falcone returned to the kitchen. His next-door neighbor, Millie Sullivan, put away the last of the freshly-washed supper dishes. Her flushed face, surrounded by a halo of black curls, screwed up in a frown of concentration as she worked to slide the clean casserole dish back into her tote bag.
"Thanks for the lasagna, Millie. It wasn't necessary, you know. I can take care of feeding Penny and myself."
Millie shook her head and waved a dismissing hand. "I had to cook for two anyway. What's two more? Besides," she added, throwing him a mildly reprimanding look, "that child's told me about the meals you fix for her." She made a tsking sound and shook her head. "Poor baby. Hot dogs and beans, cereal, chili dogs, pizza. What nutritional value can she get from all that junk food? Your sister ... God rest her soul," she made the sign of the cross on her chest, "would turn over in her grave if she could see it."
Millie had been his sister's neighbor for five years. From the time Rosalie and her husband had found their house and bought it, Millie had been a good friend and neighbor, part of what Rosalie had always viewed as the miracle that surrounded the purchase of this house.
When Rosalie and Matt had inquired about the house, they'd been told that, despite the For Sale sign on the front lawn, it had already been purchased by another couple, and the real estate agent had forgotten to remove the sign. Oddly enough, two days later without warning or reason, the couple had withdrawn their down payment and moved cross-country. Rosalie had always believed that, knowing how much she wanted this particular house, Heavenly intervention had made it all possible. Tony, on the other hand, had attributed it to being at the right place at the right time.
After the car crash that had killed the little girl's parents, Tony had moved in to care for his niece. That was when Millie had shown up and, feeling it her duty, had taken on the task of caring for Tony and Penny. Though Tony was grateful, Millie sometimes got on his nerves with her well-meaning advice. He didn't need to be reminded of what a lousy job he was doing taking care of Penny, not when he already realized it every day. But he usually smiled and said nothing.
Millie meant well. She loved kids, and if she had any regrets about her life with her husband, they could all be boiled down into one thing: Millie was barren and, as a result, she and Preston had never been able to have any children of their own. As a result, Tony believed the world had become Millie's child to care for, guide, and feed well. Still, her good-hearted prodding sometimes got under Tony's skin.
Tony was trying his level best to do what was right for Penny, but having no previous experience with children made it tough. What made it even tougher was that Penny never complained, so Tony constantly entertained doubts as to whether or not he was doing the right thing. He'd tried to do what he thought Rosalie would have wanted, but without his sister to guide him ...
Determinedly he pushed aside thoughts of Rosalie. It had been a little less than a year since her death, and she would never give him advice again. Dwelling on it still hurt too much.
Tony enveloped his neighbor's slight shoulders in a hug. "You worry too much. Penny loves the meals I prepare for her, and I make sure she takes her vitamins every morning just in case. We're fine."
But were they really fine? Oh, maybe Penny was. A quiet, obedient child who enjoyed playing alone in her room, she seemed to be adjusting much better than Tony to the loss of her parents. Millie's words right after the funeral-Children heal fast; thank God, they forget much easier than we do, and they have little trouble getting on with their lives-had been prophetic.
Though Penny still had moments when the loss of her parents crept up on her-and Tony could see those moments by the sadness in her eyes-such incidents were becoming more and more rare, even if she wasn't able to talk about them. That had to be a good sign.
Tony was another matter. When he'd lost his sister, he'd lost his best friend, his mentor, and his surrogate mother.
He'd been told that Penny needed to live in familiar surroundings. So he'd sold his condo and his business, packed up his life, and left Georgia to come back to upstate New York and move into Rosalie's eight-room, rambling, colonial house. He'd accepted that. What had come as part of the package, he was finding harder to accept.
Until Rosalie's death, he'd never expected to be responsible for raising his niece. There were so many things about the responsibilities entailed in caring for a little girl that were beyond the comprehension of a confirmed bachelor. There were little challenges he hadn't counted on and simply could not seem to get the hang of. Bottom line was, he was just no good at coping with the needs of this little girl.
Maybe, if Penny had been a boy ...
Hell, who was he trying to kid? The sex of the child wouldn't have mattered at all. Truth was, boy or girl, he'd never expected to be responsible for raising any child. Aside from Millie, he was on his own, and she had a sick husband to tend to, so relying on her too much was out of the question. Aside from Penny's invalid paternal grandparents, Tony was the only other relative Penny had left, so taking care of her had fallen to him. Of course, there was Lisa, Matt's sister. But no one in the family had seen or heard from her since she'd walked out of rehab after only a week, and that was years ago.
Having to be Penny's caregiver had seemed like a big thing at the time of the accident. After all Penny's was Rosalie's blood, and he owed his sister that much. She'd raised him, taken on the task of being a mother after theirs passed away, and gave up her life to work two jobs to send him through college.
Not until he'd actually arrived here and realized the enormity of the task he'd taken on, did it fully hit him how totally unprepared he was to look after his niece. That had been a little less than a year ago, and things had not gotten better. If anything, they'd gotten measurably worse.
In his defense, kids and marriage had never been high on his list of must-dos. He'd enjoyed the freedom of his bachelor lifestyle. No one to report to. No one to worry about. No one to-
"Have you done any Christmas shopping?" Millie's voice cut into his thoughts. "Penny'll be expecting a visit from Santa, you know. You only have four weeks. And what about a tree? She'll definitely expect a tree." Tony could almost hear her brain ticking off the items on her mental to-do list. "Aren't Rosalie's decorations in the attic?"
Excerpted from Angel Unaware by Elizabeth Sinclair Copyright © 2008 by Elizabeth Sinclair. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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