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Authors: Teshelle Combs

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Core

BOOK: Core
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Core

 

Teshelle Combs

 

 

 

 

 

Teshelle Combs Books

This book is purely fictional. All characters, names, places, events, traditions, and other material
written by author is used fictitiously, even if such material exists in the real world.

Copyright © 2013 by Teshelle Combs

All rights reserved, including the rights of reproduction in print or online in any whole or partial form.

Book design and artwork by Nate Combs of Nate Combs Music.

Editors: Nate Combs and Megan Dalabes

Manufactured in the United States of America.

ISBN 9781484115572

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Nell, who read my garbage and loved it anyways.

For Meg, who kept me going when it hardly seemed worth
it.

For Shona, who was the first to tell me to shut up and write
already.

 

This is all your fault.

 

 

 

O
ne

 

Her

 

 

 

The crowd pulsed, hands cupped over their mouths, screaming and stomping their feet against the filthy floors. The air reeked of sweat and popcorn.  In the center of the small arena was a ring, blue and red ropes boxing in the fighters.

Cale cringed
from his seat in the bleachers as the boxers exchanged blows, the fighter in the red corner stumbling back a few steps as face and glove connected. Cale had taken his first hit to the face when he was seven years old. He had been wrestling with Rory, his older brother, and, completely by accident, had wedged his elbow right into poor Rory’s eye socket. Instead of running off to tell on his younger brother, Rory, who was not known for his ability to best his temper, took retribution by ramming his fist into Cale’s mouth. It was Cale’s first taste of pain, his first glimpse at the reality of combat.

So, when Cale witnessed the interchange between the fighters in the center of the ring, he leaned forward in his seat. A blow to the face
was not easily forgiven. He knew that it made the fighter’s nose throb and that it crippled her pride, because he’d felt the same.

Cale studied their techniques, not because he was preparing for a fight himself, and certainly not because he was a recruiter of any sort, but because he loved the sport of combat, because he loved the buzz in the air.
And because he couldn’t take his eyes off her.

His brother, Rory had convinced him to tag along, and Cale had to admit that he hadn’t put up much of a fight. Amateur boxing was even more fun than the professional bouts. The fighters were more desperate, less cocky. It
always made for a better match. Cale had been looking forward to a night of entertainment. The last thing he expected to find was the fighter in the red corner. 

The announcer had shouted her name over the microphone before the match started, but Cale had barely taken notice, then. As time passed he found himself racking his memory, trying to recall it.

Ava Johnson.

He hadn’t thought much of her at first. She didn’t seem familiar or even interesting. He could hardly see her at all beneath her head gear, and her red gloves hid most of her face. She’d been well prepared for the fight when they began, her brown skin already slick with perspiration, her muscles well-toned, her hair braided in cornrows down her back.

She started the match off well, landing some early midsection blows, knocking her opponent off her gait. But it wasn’t until she took her first hit to the face that Cale began to take notice.  Most boxers would have shaken it off, pushed the pain away, pretended it wasn’t there so they could continue on. But not her. She absorbed it. She nodded her head and lowered her chin in determination. Ava had embraced the hit and planned to learn from it. The way she angled herself told Cale she had made a conscious decision never to let the opponent in that way again. She was clever.

She was good.

The girl was an artist. Cale forgot to breathe watching her. The way she moved around the ring reminded him of a flame, small at first, but spreading itself as it danced, leaving trails of heat behind it. She circled the other fighter, throwing a jab whenever she decided to change directions. The blonde-headed opponent caught on to the pattern and prepared for it, arms poised to strike at the next direction switch. But Ava Johnson didn’t change directions that time. Instead she kept moving, landing a clean, strong right into blondie’s jaw when she expected a quick left instead. The girl crumpled.

Cale could finally get a good look at Ava when she removed her head gear. He was confused by her expression as the ref hoisted her arm into the air, signaling a well-earned victory. She didn’t look pleased. She didn’t look injured, either. Her eyebrows weren’t pressed together in pain and her mouth didn’
t curl in contempt. She looked…unaffected.

Cale was anything but. Rory shouted to his buddies, spilling the drink he’d smuggled in to the arena as he argued over the amounts they’d bet on the match. He stuck his sandy head in front of Cale’s
face and smacked a rough hand against the back of his younger brother’s neck.

“What a waste of time,” he said. “Let’s get out of here before I lose everything I own.”

Cale ignored him, trying to get a better glimpse of Ava. He wanted to see her, wanted to know everything about her all at once. But Rory impeded his view again.

“Cale, let’s go. What are you staring at?” He slapped Cale’s cheek a couple of times, but it had little effect. “What’s wrong with you? Wake up.”

Cale swallowed, but refused to tear his eyes away from the ring. “That girl,” he said, barely able to force the words out. His throat tightened. The rush of blood pounded in his ears.

“What girl? I don’t see any girl?” As always, Rory was looking for a tight skirt and heels.

“The girl. That one.”

Rory sat down next to him with a thud, stuffing a handful of popcorn into his mouth, then spitting the kernels back out onto the floor, as if he’d forgotten he didn’t like the stuff. He followed Cale’s gaze and wrinkled his nose.

“The one who won the match? I know,” he said as he shook his head. “She just cost me a hundred bucks. Could have sworn Blondie had her after she flattened her nose.”

Cale said nothing. He fought the urge to run to the girl and wrap her up into a hug. He wanted her to like him, to hug him back, to be close to him. Rory studied his little brother’s face,
then looked back at the girl. Finally, he stopped gorging on snacks and pointed at her, his face serious, his raised eyebrows hinting at disbelief.


That
girl? Really?”

Cale nodded his head. He hardly noticed that he had squeezed all of the drink out of his cup. The brown liquid pooled beneath his sneakers.

“Oh my god,” Rory said. “Just like that, huh?”

It took some effort for him to wrench
the crushed paper cup from his little brother’s hand. He tossed it carelessly over his shoulder. “Go talk to her.”

Cale shook his head, though it was all he could do to keep from leaping over the bleachers to meet her. His stomach burned as anticipation boiled up insid
e him, so much so that he could have choked on it. It was her. Finally. Already. 
Her.

“I can’t,” he said.

Rory frowned. “Don’t be ridiculous. You have to go talk to her. Just go find out who she is, at least.”

“I know who she is.” Ava Johnson.
The fighter. The one.

“Then go talk to her, Cale, before she leaves.”

“I don’t think I can. I physically can’t go over there.” Cale swallowed hard, his golden eyes wide, his dark hair stark against his skin. “What if she hates me? If she hates me, I think I’ll die, Rory. I’ll die.”

Rory grinned and pulled him up. At eighteen, Cale was already taller than his older brother, but Rory had plenty m
uscle to make up for it, enough to make it a wonder he even had room for organs. Rory shoved Cale, forcing him to stumble forward a few steps so that he nearly tripped over the seats in front of him.

“She won’t hate you, Cale. You’re impossible to hate. Just suck it up and go.”

Cale wasn’t entirely sure Rory was right as he took deliberate, slow steps toward Ava. 
I can think of several people that hate me intensely
. He didn’t even have to struggle to picture their nameless faces. They were the kind of creatures that would give normal people nightmares. But Cale was far from normal.

It took ages for him
to reach Ava, as though time was against him. He tried to turn back more than once, but Rory was right behind him, shoving him forward in her direction.

She was stuffing her gear into a backpack. Her wrists were still wrapped, her hair still in cornrows. No jewelry, no makeup.
Just a bloodied nose and traces of sweat running down her temples. After a few seconds of Cale silently looming over her, she straightened up and glared at him.

“What?”

Cale couldn’t find words that made sense. He was a jumble of energy and anxiety. All at once, he was sure he would throw up and sure he would break into song and dance. And neither of those things would Impress Ava.

“You did great tonight,” he said, almost in a whisper.

She all but scoffed, bending down to get her backpack. She swung it over her shoulder. “Sure, thanks.”

Rory was wrong.
 
Cale licked his lips, aware of the panic that was setting in. The little courage he’d mustered left him with each quick breath he took.
 She hates me.

Ava didn’t smile or take his hand in
hers. She didn’t invite him over or ask to meet his family. Instead, she made like she was going to leave. Cale reached out to stop her, almost touching her arm until she jerked it out of his reach, distrust flashing in her eyes.

She had amazing eyes.
Jade green with flecks of amber red in them. They were focused, unflinching. Warrior eyes.

“I’m Cale.”

“Okay,” was all she said.

She looked him up and down, trying to pinpoint his motive for offering his name to her. Then she turned on her heel and walked right out of the arena. She didn’t even look back, as though Cale had made no Impression on her whatsoever. No Impress
ion at all. Rory raced up to Cale with a smile and threw a burly arm over his shoulder.

“So, how’d it go? Did you ask her? Did she say yes?”

Not even close.
 He could barely open his mouth in front of her. But he had looked her in the eye. And for Cale, that was all it took. He could taste the fire in his core threatening to break free. He could feel the blood in his veins begging for just a spark, just a flicker. He opened his mouth to let out the smoke that was filling his lungs and ignored the white wisps as they disappeared into the air.

It was as good as done. He belonged to Ava Johnson. Know it or not, she had herself a dragon.

 

 

 

 

T
wo

 

Fine

 

 

Ava didn’t feel like talking. She slouched in the passenger seat of T’s car and repositioned the AC vent so it wasn’t blasting her in the face. Somehow
even the cool air made her nose throb.

T had his left arm out the window
, his other hand on the wheel as he fought the urge to put the radio on. Even the old Alicia Keys CD that had come with the beat up sedan would do. Anything to break the silence. But he knew Ava wanted it that way. Quiet. So she could think. Finally, he readjusted himself and cleared his throat.

“You sure you don’t want to come?” he asked
for the third time. “The party’s for you, after all.”

Ava pulled at her seatbelt as though it was choking h
er. “No, home’s fine.”

At twenty, T was only three years older than her, but he had enough experience to step in as assistant coach when Walter wasn’t around. Ava preferred Walter, not because
T was bad at his job, but because Walter understood her, respected what she wanted. Maybe it was his old age, but the seasoned trainer didn’t find the need to try so hard. He let her be. T hadn’t learned that yet.

“You know, pretty soon you’ll be ready to go pro,” he said, still trying to make small talk. “You think that’s something you’re going to do?”

Ava sighed. 
It’s none of your business.
 She rubbed her temple, already impatient.

“I don’t know, T. We’ll see.”

T turned his attention back to the road, only glancing at Ava occasionally. They would have looked good together. Their skin tones complemented each other, T’s just a shade darker than Ava’s light brown. His nose had been broken a few times, leaving a lump in the bridge of it, but other than that his features were immaculate. Sharp jaw, keen brown eyes. And she was petite enough to make his biceps look impossibly large if he put his arm around her.

It didn’t matter how they looked together, though. Ava kept her distance.

T pulled into Ava’s driveway, and she hesitated before hurrying away from the awkward car ride like she usually did. Her eyes were glued to the silver Mercedes in the driveway. She took a deep breath. 
He’s home early.

“Hey, you okay?” T asked
, slicing through her thoughts.

He was used to Ava’s quick escapes. Most of the time, he tried not to take it personally. But there was a flicker of hope in his face as Ava sat for a few moments, just watching the house.

“I’m fine,” Ava said at last. “Thanks for the ride.”

She got out and closed the door behind her. T watched as she avoided the front entrance and jogged around to the back of the house. It was odd, but it was Ava. He knew it would do no good to ask questions. So instead, he reversed and headed back out the way he came.

Ava circled the house until she got to the rear wall. She slipped her fingers under the barely open window and pulled it upwards, thankful that Miriam hadn’t forgotten to unlock it for her. She pushed her backpack in first, maneuvering it gently so that it landed on the ground without a sound. Then she slid her own body in, legs first. She retrieved her bag and tiptoed through the family room, careful not to let her sneakers squeak against the marble floor. She sighed as she unlocked her bedroom door, glad to have made it back unnoticed.

Ava had to clamp her hand over her mouth to keep from making a sound. Miriam Conrad was perched on the edge of Ava’s lavender bed, her legs crisscrossed, her eyebrows knitted together at the sight of her foster daughter.

“It’s a good thing I brought ice,” Miriam said softly.

She stood and handed Ava the ice pack that she’d wrapped in a kitchen towel. Ava pressed it to her nose and kicked her sneakers off.

“How’d it go?” Miriam asked.

“It went okay.”

Ava couldn’t remember if she’d wiped all of the blood off her nose before leaving the arena. She knew how queasy Miriam got at even the sight of red.

“Does that mean you lost?” Miriam asked.

She was whispering. They both were. Jim was home.

“No, I won,” Ava answered, unraveling one of her braids with one hand, applying the ice to the bridge of her narrow nose with the other.

Miriam scooted to the edge of the bed and motioned for Ava to come over. Ava did, sitting down so that her back rested in the space between Miriam’s knees. It was one of the few routines that both Miriam and Ava still enjoyed. When Miriam applied for a foster daughter behind her husband’s back, she hadn’t expected four year old Ava to show up at her doorstep with a mess of kinky curls and a scowl. Ava’s hair was so thick the girl could hardly fit through the front door. Miriam had no choice but to learn how to tame it. She even took a class on braiding.

And because thirteen years later, Ava only found cornrows useful for fights
and not every day wear, Miriam took her time unbraiding them, savoring every minute. She pinched the loops she’d woven together earlier and pulled until the strands separated, inch by inch. Ava’s hair had grown lighter as she aged, going from black to a rainbow of browns, but still the tight curls, along with her brown skin and full lips, betrayed her mixed blood.

Mixed with what, Ava didn’t know. All that really mattered was that she was different, and it showed. She carried it around with her everywhere she went.

“You don’t look very excited for someone who just won her match,” Miriam said.

Ava shrugged. Winning didn’t carry as much weight for her as it did fo
r other fighters. It didn’t matter that she was on her way to leading her division. That wasn’t why Ava trained every day. It wasn’t why she fought.

“I wish I could have been there,” Miriam said. The sound of regret welled in her words. “I would have loved to cheer you on.”

“I don’t think you’d like a boxing match as much as you think, Miriam. It can get nasty. Would you have wanted to see this happen?” Ava moved the ice to show the black and green bruise that was spreading across her nose.

Miriam winced. “I guess not.” She gave Ava her best attempt at a smile. It came out watery. “I guess I’m not the kind of mom who can stomach that.”

Ava didn’t comment. She’d lived with the Conrad’s for years, for almost as long as she could remember, yet it still felt strange to hear Miriam call herself “mom.” And it wasn’t Miriam’s fault. Ava knew that. She was a good mother, the best Ava could have ever asked for.

“Well, Walter called,” Miriam said. “He told me to remind you to rest and take it easy for a day or two. And he apologized for missing the match.”

“I’m not mad he couldn’t come, if that’s what he thinks. T did a good enough job.”

Miriam frowned at her daughter, wanting to comfort her, but she knew Ava would rather she leave. In solitude, Ava showered and slept, and by the time morning came around, she was up befo
re the sun. She took her usual run, making it the six miles around their gated community in record time. She surveyed the driveway to make sure Jim’s car was already gone before she walked through the door and into the kitchen.

“I thought Walter said to rest for a few days,” Miriam said, flipping pancakes with one hand on her hip. “That doesn’t seem like
resting to me.” She pointed at her with the spatula. “And look, now you’re limping.”

“I have to keep my
pulse rate up,” Ava said. “Or I’ll have to work even harder to get back in shape.” She attacked the plate of pancakes Miriam had already set out for her and stretched her left leg to shake the cramp from it.

“It’s Saturd
ay,” Miriam started tentatively, “and I was thinking maybe you’d want to go to the mall with me. There’s a new sporting goods store that opened, and I have some money saved up….”

Anger sizzled up in Ava. It happened like that often. F
ine one moment, then a trigger–something small–and her whole emotional state changed. 

Money saved up.
 The Conrad house was a statement of wealth. Jim Conrad–state senator extraordinaire–lacked for nothing. The foreign car, the marble floors and granite counters, the silk curtains. Yet, Miriam resorted to hiding her soggy stash of dollar bills behind the pots in the kitchen cabinet, someplace her husband would never think to look.

Ava swallowed her distaste, pushed her pancakes aside, and filled her water bottle. “Actually, I have to go to the gym for a while.
Maybe tomorrow.”

She wasn’t trying to make Miriam feel bad, and a little pang of guilt hit her gut as her foster mother frowned into the pancake batter, forehead wrinkles creased into her otherwise attractive face.
Blonde hair, pale blue eyes. Every time Ava looked at Miriam, it was clear she could never be her daughter. Not really. So she filled up her water bottle, thanked Miriam for breakfast, and left for the bus.

Ava pushed the gym doors open to scattered applause.
She ignored the aquaintances that had tried to throw her a victory party the night before and tossed her backpack carelessly into a corner. It took a moment for her to scout out a spot devoid of other trainees, but once she found the discarded box of jump ropes, she hurried to them. She tugged at one of the ropes, but it was stuck. In fact, every rope was tangled together into one irritating snake’s nest.

She
continued to tug at it, ignoring the stranger who moved closer to her. The boy stood and watched, and Ava held back the urge to tell him to back off. 
Why do people hover?
 Pulling the rope recklessly wasn’t getting the job done, so Ava sighed and dumped the box onto the floor.

“Hey, you were great last night,” the stranger said, still watching.

Ava grunted in reply, still focusing on freeing the jump ropes from one another.

Cale wiped his palms off on his jeans, even though his hands were nowhere near clammy. “I was wondering if you give lessons,” he said.
 
Better,
 he thought. 
To the point and still polite. Get her to spend time with me, then BAM, show her my stuff.

“Look, I’m really busy,” she said, not bothering to glance up at him.

Cale frowned, unable to mask his disappointment. It wasn’t working. He needed her to like him. To more than like him. To more than love him. He needed Ava to want him. Forever.

“What if–
what if I paid you? Then could you teach me?”

The idea of bribing her made Cale feel a little dirty, but he pushed the guilt away. He wasn’t paying for her
loyalty, he was paying for a lesson. Then, he planned to earn that loyalty. Thinking of it that way made him feel slightly less queasy.

“Pay me, huh?
How much?”

H
ope. The beginnings of an actual two-sided conversation. “I can pay you whatever you think is reasonable.”

Ava got prize money for winning amateur matches, but nothing close to what professionals like T earned. And any of the money she did win went into new equipment and association fees. At that moment, she had about four dollars to her name, some of that in nickels and dimes.
 
I could suffer through a lesson or two.

“Twenty an hour.”

Cale was about to accept, more than eager to shake her hand if she offered it.

“Cale?
Cale Anders?”

Walter interrupted the transaction, putting a calloused hand on Cale’s shoulder and turning him around. The older man’s deep set eyes were crowded by wrinkles, his hair littered with grays. “Cale, what are you doing here?”

Walter?
 The anxiety Cale had been battling turned to fear. If the old man was clumsy, if he said something to Ava before she was ready to hear it, he would ruin everything. Cale tried to reason with himself. Walter had been around for years and had kept their secret safe. It was his secret too, really. He wouldn’t destroy Cale’s chances. 
Not on purpose.
Suddenly, Cale wanted to throw up. Or at least go for a run and come back a few hundred years later.

“You know him, Walter?” Ava asked.

She abandoned the jump rope for a second, fully attentive. She hadn’t expected a random fan to be connected enough to know her coach. For the first time, she took a good look at the stranger. Short, dark hair and a strong, lean build. Light brown eyes and a mouth that naturally held a slight smile, even while he frowned. Handsome. But Ava couldn’t care less about handsome.

Walter’s wrinkles multiplied when he smiled and slapped Cale’s shoulder once more. “Cale’s an old friend of the family, you could say,” he explained.

“If you’re friends, then why didn’t you just have Walter give you lessons?” she asked, her eyes moving from Cale to Walter and back. “He’s the one who taught me in the first place.”

Cale stammered, scrambling for an answer that wasn’t a lie. He was terrible at dishonesty. He counted it as one of his biggest faults. Of all the red dragon traits he’d inherited,
immaculate honesty was the least useful gift.


Oh, Cale doesn’t need me to teach him,” Walter laughed, his dark brown skin creasing even more. “He could probably take both of us, baby girl.”

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