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The Look of Love
By Crystal B. Bright
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Crystal B. Bright
All rights reserved.
The adrenaline coursing through Gunnar Wells's body needed some release. The muscles in his arms and thighs tightened, ready for activity, for combat. A good workout would ease his tensions. Tonight, his mixed martial arts match would have to do.
He paced the cramped dressing room that smelled like rose petals and bleach, too dainty and too clean for what he had to do. The delicate aroma and the rough sport he would be engaging in soon reminded him of his mother, always a lady in demeanor and look, but a tough taskmaster.
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth before he could arrest it and pull it back down to a scowl. He needed to keep his mind on his match. Staying away from his childhood home helped keep him on track.
A mural of the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign painted on the locker-room wall snagged his attention for a brief moment. The blue, red, and white neon sign full of diverse geometric shapes attracted tourists every day. Gunnar saw the city as a place to start another part of his life. He didn't need a reminder of the location he'd made his home for the past ten years.
The Silver Streak Hotel and Casino spared no expense in keeping both the crowds and the performers entertained. Gunnar had heard that hosting these mixed martial arts matches had afforded the hotel enough funds to add a new wing to the hotel with another two hundred hotel rooms. He guessed beating a man to a bloody pulp meant good business.
Gunnar tilted his head from one side to the other to stretch his neck and help clear his head. Even with the door closed to his dressing room, the sounds from the audience in the main arena area filtered through the walls.
With each chant of "Guns" from the crowd, Gunnar's heart pounded harder and harder until both the chant and his heartbeat became one.
He swiped the back of his hand over his sweaty forehead. The tape on his hand scraped across his skin, leaving a tingling sensation in its wake. Gunnar glanced at the tape to make sure he hadn't ruined its integrity. After doing this sport for so many years, he found that every little thing mattered. A loose binding on his fist would distract him. Like a hunter, he needed to keep his focus.
For his match against a fairly established mixed martial artist like himself, he didn't feel unnerved. In his ten-year professional career, he'd battled absolute monsters. Being six-foot-three and two hundred forty pounds, he fit in the behemoth category. Like his mama always taught him, it's not the dog in the fight; it's the fight in the dog.
Gunnar attempted to push thoughts of his mother from his mind. He couldn't help but think about her and his brothers before each match. One brutal fight could leave him broken, destroyed, or dead. After all his family had done to support him, he couldn't let them down. He fought for them as much as he fought for himself and his career.
Truly the only woman who had ever understood him, thinking of her would only turn him into mush. For what he had to do in a few minutes, he needed to be on his game, an animal. He needed to be Gunnar "Guns" Wells, the heavyweight International Ultimate Fighting champion that the spectators loved to hate. Or maybe they hated to love him since he hadn't lost a match since starting the sport.
As he marched in his bare feet, he closed his eyes and envisioned the entire match, a calming technique he'd employed for years thanks to his yoga-loving mother. He stomped on the thin carpet that covered the concrete flooring. The hardness reminded him that nothing came easy to him, and it shouldn't. Only hard work would get him the rewards he wanted. Fighting afforded him the lifestyle he'd only dreamed of as a youth. If only he could have shared the success with someone.
"No negative thoughts. No negative thoughts." Gunnar talked to himself a lot to get into the headspace needed for his match.
As usual, he'd made sure to clear out his locker room before his match. No one disturbed him or retrieved him until he got called to the ring. After each winning match, he did the same ritual. He called his mother and then his two brothers, Gideon and Thane. All three of them understood the mentality it took for him to psych himself up to perform.
His brothers, as professional athletes themselves, had their own pregame rituals. Their mother proved to be a bit harder to train. She would call to wish Gunnar luck every now and then, probably when she thought his opponent looked too gruesome or menacing. She'd gotten better lately about letting him have his space.
After this match, he really had think about going to visit her. It'd been far too long since he'd been down to Virginia Beach and seen his mama. As soon as the thought entered his mind, his gut wrenched like he'd already been kicked in it by his opponent. The usual cold sweat he would get anytime he ventured close to the East Coast covered the back of his neck and back.
Although his mother would welcome him back home, not everyone would. Time and distance hadn't cleared Gunnar's mind of his past mistakes. He had a feeling some other people he'd left wouldn't be as open to his appearance.
Gunnar squeezed his eyes shut and stopped moving, stopped marching. He allowed the moment to be real for him, this fight, his job. He squeezed his taped hands, allowing the tightness of the adhesive to stretch over his achy knuckles.
He gazed down when a sharp pain struck a nerve in his wrist. He shook his hands to relieve the ache. The discomfort would be temporary. Security would last forever.
A two-rap knock sounded on the door before his trainer, Chuck Wilhelm, poked his shaved head into the locker room. Gunnar's insides twitched as soon as he saw the man. He knew what the next step would be. Showtime.
On instinct, Gunnar raised his hands, readying them to have them outfitted with his trademark black gloves with an eye embroidered on the backs of each. He already had his hair pulled back into a ponytail, something Chuck hated.
"Shave it all off," his trainer would tell Gunnar.
"What? And look like you? No way." Gunnar never thought his shoulder-length hair caused him a problem, especially since he never lost a fight because of it.
As Chuck approached him, Gunnar noticed his trainer carrying a cell phone.
"Call." Chuck held up the phone.
Gunnar shook his head. "You know the rule. No calls. No interviews. Just fighting." He picked up a plain black T-shirt and slipped it over his head.
"It's Mama." Chuck smirked.
"What?" Gunnar stopped moving.
"Queen Elizabeth." Chuck snorted. "Still don't understand how a big, blond dude has a black mother who calls herself Queen Elizabeth."
Gunnar didn't answer Chuck's standard question. He'd heard that comment about his relationship with his adoptive mother since she'd taken him and his brothers into her home.
Gunnar snatched the phone from Chuck's hand and turned his back to him. "Mama, how are you?"
To anyone else, Gunnar would have bitten their heads off and yelled about calling him before his fight. For the woman who had given him more chances than he deserved and a better life, she'd more than earned his respect.
"Darling," his mother said her standard opening that she gave to everyone. "How are you?"
As much as he didn't want to, Gunnar couldn't help but smile. She'd done it. With her smooth delivery and tone, she turned his insides to pudding. "Kind of a strange time to call to ask me how I'm doing, don't you think? I have my match starting in a few minutes. Chuck is getting me ready." He turned back to Chuck and held up one hand so that his trainer could slip on at least one glove.
"Oh, you have that thing tonight, don't you?" Her enunciation of each word further solidified her Queen Elizabeth nickname.
This time Gunnar did laugh out loud. "You can call it work, Ma."
"Good luck at work tonight." Elizabeth coughed.
The way she coughed raised the hairs on the back of his head. A standard Queen Elizabeth cough consisted of something that sounded like a slight puff of air through her always richly painted lips. She would usually follow what she considered an impolite expression with an apology. This time, she said nothing.
"Ma, what's wrong?" Gunnar squeezed his now-gloved hand into a fist.
"Why do you always assume the worst? You, out of all of my boys, are the most pessimistic, and I don't--"
"Don't start with me on that. You know--"
"Did you just interrupt me?"
His mother's stern tone came through clear on the small cell phone.
"I apologize." Gunnar had violated rule number one from his mother. Always hear a person's complete thought without interrupting. He certainly wouldn't want someone to cut him off midsentence.
"That's better. I think you hanging around those, um, those--"
"Coworkers," he added.
Elizabeth released an exasperated sigh. "You've done this fisticuffs thing long enough. I think it's time for you to come home."
Gunnar blinked. In all the years he'd done MMA, his mother had never asked him to quit and come home. Goose bumps sprang over his arms and crept up to his neck to the top of his head. He swallowed hard as he digested every word in her request. Then he heard a high-pitched beeping noise in succession ... like in a hospital. A stone dropped in his gut.
"What's that sound?" Gunnar grounded himself to one spot. "Where are you? Are you in a hospital?"
"Guns, you've got to go." Chuck grabbed Gunnar's other hand.
The hold forced Gunnar to brace the phone against his ear using his shoulder. "One second." Gunnar didn't care about the match or Chuck. He needed to know what Elizabeth had neglected to share at the start of the call. "Ma, what's going on with you?"
"I know you have to go. We can talk later." Her voice cracked a little.
Gunnar's heart snapped. "Ma, don't hang up."
"You will be disqualified if you don't get out to the ring now." Chuck pulled on Gunnar's arm.
Gunnar snatched his limb out of his trainer's grip. "One damn minute!" he snapped at Chuck.
"We will talk later. Go do your fighting thing."
Her light voice made Gunnar imagine his gorgeous mother smiling. He couldn't smile. At the moment, his chest felt like every opponent he'd fought in his lifetime sat on it and constricted his air. He couldn't get out from under the weight. Right now, with his mother across the country, an arena full of people waiting for him, a ravenous opponent in the ring, and his impatient trainer, Gunnar found obstacles everywhere he turned.
Gunnar heard another woman's voice in the background.
"Queen, you cannot be on the phone."
"Who is that? Is that a nurse?" Gunnar scratched his head.
His mother cleared her throat. "No, it's not."
Gunnar heard some shuffling on the other end of the line.
"You need to get your rest. You can make your calls tomorrow before your tests."
Gunnar strained to hear this stranger's voice through the phone. It sounded a little familiar, but he couldn't place it.
"I love you." Elizabeth made a kissing sound through the phone before it disconnected.
Not content with ending the conversation that way, Gunnar tried redialing his mother. As he'd suspected, the number went to the reception desk at Virginia Beach General Hospital. After demanding to get transferred to Elizabeth Sommerville's room, he waited through several rings before disconnecting the call. Then he tried calling her cell phone. The call went straight to her voice mail.
He tried calling the hospital again. Once he got the main desk representative again, he asked about his mother. At the word cardiology, he nearly dropped to his knees. How could a woman who opened her home to three strangers have anything wrong with her heart?
After being transferred to the nurses' station, Gunnar unleashed a verbal assault. "I need to speak with a patient on your floor." Before she could ask for a name, he spouted, "Elizabeth Sommerville. Get her."
"Okay, please hold, sir."
Listening to the easy-listening jazz that played when the nurse placed him on hold didn't help to calm his nerves. Gunnar marched back and forth this time.
"Guns, you have to go." Chuck held the doorknob. He must have thought better of his decision to touch Gunnar again.
"One second." Gunnar held up his finger.
The music stopped. "Sir, Ms. Sommerville's daughter has requested no more calls for this evening. You can call again in the morning after eight."
Gunnar felt like flames engulfed his body. "Daughter? My mother doesn't have a daughter. She has three sons, and I'm one of them."
"Sir, I'm sorry. Your mother concurred with the young woman in the room with her, and we did just give her medication to help her sleep. Please give her a call in the morning when she wakes up." The nurse kept her voice even and authoritative, and before Gunnar could keep up his argument, she disconnected the call.
"Keep trying to call her." Gunnar shoved the phone at his trainer before cursing.
He hadn't even found out why his mother had to go to the hospital. Had she had a heart attack or a stroke? Every scenario he thought about had him grinding his teeth in anger.
"You have got to go." Chuck opened the door to usher him through.
A wave of chants flooded the room. The support should have been like a warm blanket around his body. Instead, Gunnar likened the shouts to spectators in a coliseum waiting to watch a hapless gladiator get mauled by a lion. Little did they know, he had enough fire in his belly to crush a lion, a tiger, and a whole damn safari.
"Something is going on with my mother. I'm fine just walking away right now. Just hop on a plane and go all the way back to Virginia." Gunnar put his fists to his hips and glared at Chuck to get across his intent.
The idea of going back to Virginia brought a layer of cold sweat that dripped from his head. He chewed the inside of his cheek, a habit he hadn't done since childhood when he'd prayed in his head that the foster father he'd had before getting with Queen Elizabeth wouldn't come home drunk with his own need to fight ... anyone. Gunnar had left Virginia for a reason. Returning to it would stir up more questions and problems than what he faced in the ring.
Chuck held his hand up as a way to calm Gunnar, but Gunnar couldn't be reasoned with, calmed, or reassured until he either spoke to his mother or, better yet, saw her.
"Tell you what. I'll keep trying her. After your fight, you can talk to her again." Chuck placed Gunnar's heavyweight championship belt on Gunnar's shoulder.
Gunnar nodded. "Get her on the phone after the fight." He adjusted the heavy metal belt on the thick black leather backing.
Without another word, Gunnar stormed out of the door and headed to the octagon. The cheers from the audience roared in the large auditorium. He kept his stare directed on the lit ring. Fans grabbed at Gunnar's shirt and his arms as he stormed to the middle. He paid no attention to them.
The closer he got to the ring, the more his surroundings got smaller until his competitor became the only thing he saw at the end of his tunnel vision. He stepped into the ring and didn't bother stomping around like Tony "The Shark" Palombo. With it being a championship match, Gunnar handed his belt to the referee.
He didn't like the entertaining part of doing MMA. He just wanted to fight. Right now, he had a lot of aggression to get out of his system.
Gunnar broke his attention away from Tony for a moment to check Chuck. From the side of the ring, Chuck held up his phone to Gunnar and shook his head.
Gunnar wanted to race to the side and scream at his trainer to keep trying to get his mother. Why the hell was she in the hospital? Why wasn't that the first thing she'd said to him? Whatever afflicted her, it scared her enough to want him to come home. That fact consumed his thoughts more than anything else. He attempted to look at Chuck again when Tony got in his view.
"You're going down!" Tony screamed and stood an inch from Gunnar's nose.
Gunnar gritted his teeth. Right now, this hefty man sporting a Mohawk and tattoos covering the vast real estate of his enormous, chestnut-colored body stood in between him talking to his mother.
Gunnar removed his T-shirt and tossed it to Chuck. The screams heightened, especially from the women. He didn't pay attention to them. He had a job to do. He kept women out of his personal life so as not to get diverted from his goals, a decision that haunted him since jumping on a Greyhound bus ten years ago.
Excerpted from The Look of Love by Crystal B. Bright. Copyright © 2015 Crystal B. Bright. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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