Maybe Gabe Cassidy couldn't save his brother, but he can save others like him. Which is why Gabe has dedicated himself to a program that keeps kids off the streets.
So it doesn't make sense that he's at odds with Felicity Spencerthe hot principal who's as committed to these kids as he is. It's true that her adolescent connection to his late brother adds a layer of tension to their interactions. And it's also true that the attraction between them adds a completely different kind of tension. One that's getting harder to ignore.
When they do manage to work together, they're phenomenal. And when they finally give in to the chemistry, Gabe recognizes that this relationship could be bigger than both of them.
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"You fight in the gym, not the street, Alex," Gabe Cassidy said, easily blocking the fourteen-year-old's jabs. "You know the rules." The kid was so much like Gabe's little brother it almost hurt to look at him.
"Li'l B disrespected Carmen," Alex said, extending his leg in a side kick that Gabe blocked. "I couldn't let that pass." The boy's eyes were on fire and he practically trembled with fury. Just like Robert, he had a lot of anger packed into his small body.
"You let him rile you." Gabe led with his right fist in order to work Alex's weaker left. "Stance," he reminded quietly. "Elbows." Alex forgot the basics when he got upset, so this was good practice for the upcoming meet. "Li'l B figures if you get kicked out of STRIKE, you'll join the gang."
Gabe's fighters stayed in school and out of trouble or they didn't train.
"Carmen's my girl. I had no choice."
"You always have a choice. You want STRIKE shut down? It's bad enough the window out front got broken." He worked Alex into the center of the ring, waiting for him to control his footwork.
"Li'l B's crew threw Carmen's bike at the window."
"What about the tags on the plywood? Any of them yours?"
Alex was an artistalso like Robert. He exercised his talent too often as graffiti, risking fines and jail time, which worried the hell out of Gabe.
"That's all toys," Alex said. Toys were wannabe taggers.
"Tagged-up plywood over a broken window is no way to impress the new principal." Last week, Charlie Hopkins, the principal who had let Gabe set up his gym in the charter school, had been fired over some political B.S. Now STRIKE's fate lay in the hands of his replacement, due any day.
"They won't do that," Alex grumbled, guiltily ducking his face into the padded sparring helmet.
Good. Gabe could use guilt. He used whatever worked to get through to his kids and keep getting through, day by day, as the pressure to drop out, screw up and go gangster mounted in their lives.
"Alex didn't throw a single punch, Coach." Victor had abandoned the bags to defend his friend, though they all knew Gabe would be fair. That was the promise of STRIKE.
He'd named his program after the offensive moves in Muay Thai and because his kids had to hit hard to break the barriers they faced in life. This part of Phoenix was a tough place to grow up if you were poor, brown and male.
"Only because the cops stopped the fight," Gabe said. His buddy on the gang squad had filled him in on the incident. The news hit Gabe hard. The idea of STRIKE was to give his boys the physical and mental confidence to stay clear of street fights, damn it.
He cared about all of his boys, but Alex got to him. The kid was a tough case, but he had so much potential.
"And he got the crew to step off," Victor insisted. A strong fighter, Victor ran nearly a mile from North Central High after his last class so he didn't miss a minute of STRIKE.
"You don't know how Double Deuce rolls," Alex said.
The 22nd Street gangEl Doble in Spanishran the neighborhood, and Gabe knew more than he wanted to know about how they rolled.
"Whoa, homes, Coach's old man was Ochoa," Victor said, awe in his voice.
Gabe's father, a lieutenant in Phoenix's oldest homegrown gang, the Baseline Kings, had been murdered when Gabe was thirteen, Robert ten, the twins newborns. Gabe hated gangs and always had. He did all he could to erase the lingering respect his boys had for the criminal thugs.
"Back on the bags, boys," his assistant coach hollered at the kids hovering around to hear Alex's fate. "The meet's coming up."
Reluctantly, they obeyed Conrad's order.
"Shadow my moves," Gabe said to Alex, delaying the verdict to sweat him a little more. Shadowing built a sense of rhythm and timingfinesse skills that trumped technique every time and two of Gabe's specialties.
Alex bobbed and shifted, matching Gabe's every move. The kid had focus and fire and heart. He could be a real champion if he could just keep his head on straight. Gabe swore a silent vow. I will not lose you.
Not like he'd lost Robert at age sixteen. His brother had been headed to his first Muay Thai bout when he was killed in a gang brawl. Gabe, on his way to watch the match, had found his brother bleeding on the sidewalk and held him as he died. That was fifteen years ago this week, and the old ache and regret shadowed Gabe as relentlessly as Alex now shadowed his fight moves.
Gabe sped up, working Alex until he was about to drop.
"Done," Gabe said, tapping Alex's fists. "Here's your punishment. A hundred words on ways you could have beat Li'l B without using your fists. Also, you're on your own this week. No clinic with me or Conrad."
Alex blanched. Back talk was not allowed. "Sorry. What about the meet?" He was pushing hard to take a trophy this time around.
"You're lucky you're still here. Train up the newer fighters. You want to coach one day, right? You'll learn, too."
Clearly crestfallen, Alex set off to take his punishment.
With Robert's death so fresh in his head, doubts darkened Gabe's thoughts. Had he gotten through to the kid? Sometimes it seemed hopeless. No one escaped the fight he got dropped into, try as he might. The match was rigged, the outcome set, the winners and losers known in advance.
Deadend thinking. Useless. He leaned on the padded bar of the ring and surveyed the place. STRIKE was a tough gym, known for training winners, and Gabe was damned proud of it.
He'd equipped it frugally with secondhand gear, donated items and punching bags he'd made himself by filling military duffels with sand.
His pride and joy was the ringa regulation MMA Octagon he'd inherited from Kurt Cost, the coach he'd found for Robert, who had later trained Gabe.
He even loved how it smelledof sweat, rubber, dust and a hint of laundry soap left from when the gym had been a Laundromat, since the school was located in a failed strip mall.
Now the music of the place washed over himthe shouts, grunts, thuds and clunks of his fighters building their bodies, beating their weaknesses, boosting their strengths, learning self-control and discipline.
He watched them work, sweat pouring down their bodies, muscles straining past all endurance, pushing themselves and each other with all their might. Each boy had a story. Each boy needed STRIKE.
Every month they scraped together the fifty bucks Gabe charged in addition to the "scholarships" he provided from the cash he'd also inherited from Kurt.
Damn it, STRIKE was worth it. It made a difference. He had to believe that. His boys' lives hung in the balance. If the new principal had a heart in his chest, he'd see that, too.
Felicity Spencer's heart raced. She hadn't expected a line at the bakery counter and time was tight if she was going to set up her meet-the-new-principal breakfast before the teachers began to arrive. This was her first day and she wanted to greet each person when they entered.
She'd called ahead with her order of panuelosMexican sweet rolls topped with flavored sugarfrom the market near the school, but there were four people ahead of her and service was slow at Feliz Mercado, which had tables in the bakery area for diners to enjoy their purchases.
She shifted the sack she carried from one arm to the other. She'd spent too much of her paltry savingscome on, first paycheck!on the freshly ground Italian coffee, real cream and three kinds of juices she'd bought. But she wanted to show her staff she valued them even in this subtle way.
First impressions were crucial.
She wiped the trickle of sweat from her temple. Her walk from the light-rail stop had been short, but the early March sun was warm even at 7:00 a.m. She'd selected her apartment because it was only a few stops from Discovery Middle School, since she had no car.
Now the bakery smells reminded her she'd had to skip breakfast, since she hadn't had time to unpack her kitchen boxes. She'd moved into the tiny studio apartment only two days before.
The job offer had come abruptly, contingent on an immediate start, since her predecessor had been fired.
She was excited and scared. This was her first principalship and it was at a middle school. Her experience as an assistant principal had been at two elementaries. On top of that, Discovery was a charter, also new to her.
She faced challenges, for sure, but she would meet them head-on, as always.
If she could just get to the darn school in time. She glanced at her watch. Hurry up!
She caught snatches of conversation from the nearby tables in both English and Spanish. She hoped her high-school Spanish would be enough to communicate with the non-English-speaking students and parents.
"I still can't believe they fired Charlie," someone at a table slightly behind her said. Felicity's ears perked up. The man she'd replaced was Charlie Hopkins.
"The district got tired of him complaining about money," someone else answered.
They were definitely talking about her school. Felicity listened hard.
"What did your friend in personnel say about the new one?"
"Not much. She's cute. A cheerleader who looks all of twelve."
Hey. Felicity was thirty-one, damn it. Sure, she was petite and bubbly with a high voice that might make her seem younger, but she had experience and she'd proved herself over and over. She would prove herself here, too.
"From California, right?" the other woman said.
"Yeah. She was pedaling some New Age self-esteem program as a consultant, but had to get a real job."
"Funding has dried up everywhere," the other woman said.
Exactly. Felicity wanted to hug her.
"If I had a dollar for every touchy-feely California pipe dream they foisted on us, I'd buy an island in the Pacific and retire."
"You and me both, April."
April Felicity recognized the name. An English teacher? Felicity had pored over the school's website and asked the assistant superintendent for as much background as possible so she could hit the ground running. They were partway into the spring semester already.
She wasn't surprised by the cynicism, but Enriched Learning System was research-based and had earned awards. Teachers loved it once they heard the details. She was sure they would love it at Discovery, too.
"Maybe she'll be good. We can always hope," the nice one said.
"How good can she be? They're paying her a first-year teacher's salary."
Felicity cringed, embarrassed this fact was known. The pay was low, but there were few midyear openings anywhere. Plus, this was a chance to test her system with older students in an at-risk school, which would earn her the credibility she needed. Her goal was to score a curriculum-director spot in a large district so she could bring her system to thousands of kids. Eventually she would reopen her business in California and reach thousands more.
The bakery line moved, but Felicity held back to listen.
"It's all part of the plot, Marion. The district wants us to self-destruct, so they can say they tried to reach at-risk kids, but it couldn't be done."
"I don't buy that. The alternative schools are Tom Brown's pet projects." Tom Brown was the man who had hired Felicity.
"He's an idealist. He ignores what he doesn't want to see." This made Felicity's stomach tighten. Tom had promised district resources. Would he come through?
"With regular schools hurting, boutique schools are a luxury we can't afford. That's the hard truth."
"We can't abandon these kids," Marion said.
"They mess up the district's No Child Left Behind scores."
"Screw the scores. What about the kids? These kids washed out of regular schools. The alternative schools are their last chance."
"You're preaching to the choir, Marion."
"If we're on the chopping block like you say, we need a powerhouse principal. Why did Tom hire a lightweight, for God's sake?"
Felicity's cheeks burned.
"Don't you know? Phil Evers is a relative. She's his niece or stepdaughter or something. Tom had to hire her."
So. People knew she was related to the superintendent. That was unfair. Jefferson district was so big her uncle had no involvement in personnel decisions. She'd confirmed that with Tom before she'd accepted the job. Besides that, her mother had been estranged from Phil since before Felicity was born.
"I help you?" the round-faced Latina behind the counter asked Felicity.
Not likely. Even if she greeted her staff with a seven-layer flaming tiramisu, they would still think she was an unqualified phony. Turned out her first impression had already been made for her.
She paid for the rolls, then turned, thinking maybe she could clear the air with April and Marion. But they were gone, leaving only lipstick-stained mugs, wadded napkins andpanuelo crumbspretty much what remained of Felicity's hopes for the day.
She set off down the block, lugging the food, the bag of rolls fragrant and warm against her arms, with just enough time to spare. When she reached the school, she saw one window had been boarded up and was covered with ugly gang tags.
So much for the cheerful breakfast greeting she'd planned. This was what the teachers would see when they got to school. She'd be lucky if they didn't throw her precious panuelos right back in her face.