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Wild Card by Ava Ashley (1)

Chapter 1

Rafe

––––––––

Ah, fuck.

My phone buzzes again, then again, jolting me from sleep. It’s going off like we’re under attack. After the dream I was having, though, I’m suddenly glad something woke me.

I sit up in bed and rub my face, pulling myself out of the dream. It’s been a while since I dreamed about her, and I don’t plan to start thinking about her again now. Not gonna happen.

So what the hell could be so important? I glance at the screen and see several of my buddies are texting. My brain still isn’t ready to release the past. I set the phone down and decide to head to the bathroom first. 

After pulling on sweats, I walk across the bedroom to check my bruises in the mirror. I’ve been training hard, and my body shows it. The purple and black are fading away, and when I twist, I don’t feel any soreness. The light from the window catches on my old scars from prison crisscrossing my ribs and back, but I ignore those now, like I do most of the time.

I’m anxious to get back to working out. My abs are getting fitter and stronger, though my triceps could use some more attention this week. But all in all, I’m more ripped than I’ve ever been.

The tattoo on my right outside forearm says Courage. A constant reminder to myself that I have to be as strong as I can, as ready as I can, and as intimidating as I can. You can’t go into the cage looking like anything less than the biggest badass your opponent has ever seen.

Seven months. Seven months till the fight of my life, the title fight against Jesus Mariaso. He’s been badmouthing me for a couple of years, saying I’m not good enough to fight him. My opportunity is coming. I just have to be ready and patient.

I’m in the bathroom when I hear my phone buzz out on the table. Goddamn. I better see what’s going on with the guys.

Dude, turn on the TV!

Mariaso got arrested last night!

You up, man? What’s up with this shit?

What the hell? I’m wide awake, icy dread filling my chest. I need the fight with Mariaso! I flick on the widescreen, already set to ESPN, and pace as I watch the news unfold.

“Just breaking, the reigning light-heavyweight MMA champion, Jesus Mariaso, is currently under arrest. Now remember, Mariaso hasn’t lost a fight in seven years...”

Get on with it! Damn it, they’re stringing it out while I’m losing my shit.

“Mariaso was spotted drag racing with another vehicle around 2 a.m. Police pursued them and attempted to pull both cars over. The first driver pulled over... Do we have the identity yet? No, we’re waiting on that. But Mariaso fled the scene, resulting in a chase at over 119 miles per hour.”

Shit! If that asshole messed up our fight... I don’t even know what I’ll do. It’ll be ugly. I need that fight to prove I’m a contender. People still think I’m some poor boy from prison, who’s having his five seconds of fame. They don’t understand how fucking hard I’ve worked to get here.

The TV flashes to a car chase. The news anchor is stretching it out, getting all the yardage he can out of it. I get so frustrated I feel itchy all over and drop to the floor and do fifty pushups. Now I know I’m a 100 percent again. The bruising doesn’t slow me down at all.

The news report finally moves on to show a crash in progress. Mariaso’s black sports car veers toward the center, jerks back into his lane, and then takes a wild turn off the highway and into a residential area. Not good. The police are right behind him.

My stomach tightens and turns. This can’t be happening. I need to fight him and win.

The screen flashes back to the news anchors.

“Now Mariaso has a fight coming up with Rafe Maddox. What does this mean for the matchup?”

The million-dollar question.

“We can’t know for sure yet, but this could delay or cancel the bout.”

“I can’t believe Mariaso would do this with such an important fight on the line.”

I laugh bitterly at the anchors. Yeah, I can’t believe it either. How could he be so stupid?

As they go back to the chase, a clip plays in an inset box, showing Mariaso mouthing off after we signed the bout agreement a few weeks ago.

“I’m the best, and I’m going to stay the best! Who? Rafe Maddox? He’s a nobody. I don’t know why he’s getting all this attention. He ain’t no up and comer. That’s bullshit. He’s not good enough to fight me now or next year.” Mariaso stares right into the camera. “Just try to come after me, boy. I’ll send you back crying to your mama.”

I rake my hands through my hair—the sides are short, but the top is longer and usually styled off to the side. Now it’s probably standing straight up. I can’t believe this. My phone buzzes nonstop—people are blowing up my phone, but I ignore that. I need to keep my head clear.

The inset disappears as Mariaso’s car screeches around a corner, doesn’t make it, and shoots off the road. Its back end fishtails forward, so he slams sideways into a tree. I’m watching my dream fight crash and burn.

“Reports are coming in that the other vehicle smelled of pot. It appears there are drugs involved. We’re waiting to hear what charges will be filed.”

The co-anchor jumps in with a report about their injuries.

“Mariaso’s out of luck legally, but he might be lucky in reference to his injuries. He’s not seriously injured.”

That is one bright spot in this. But if he faces criminal charges, the fight will be off. Fighters with any type of legal issues have to resolve them before they can compete. We just signed our deal a few weeks ago, finally giving me my big break, and now it’s slipping away. This blows my mind.

Growling, I grab my phone and flip through the texts. There’s a few calls too, but the only one that interests me is from my manager, Quentin. Before I can return it, my phone starts ringing again.

“Quentin, what the hell are we going to do? I need this fucking fight.”

“I know, I know. We’ll fix this. It’ll happen. We’ll make it happen. Listen, ESPN wants to get a statement from you.”

I sigh. He knows I hate dealing with this shit. He feeds me some lines, and I work with it—Quentin doesn’t have the finest touch when it comes to words. “Fine, try this,” I say. “I’m sorry to hear about this incident and hope it doesn’t interfere with our upcoming bout. Mariaso’s time is coming no matter what. I will show him in the cage who’s the real champ.”

Quentin laughs. We get off the phone.  My attention shifts back to the TV. Waiting around for updates isn’t productive, and I’ve put off starting my day too long already. I need to get to my workout. I’ve been training a little light, but I feel ready to go at it full force again. Pulling my gaze from the screen, I flick off the TV, down a protein shake and some fruit, and get ready for the gym. 

A drizzle starts as I pull my KTM Super Duke sport bike onto the street. It hasn’t rained in a while, so the roads will be slick as the oil comes up. The voice of reason tells me to turn around and take the truck, but, damn, a ride sounds good right now. I need to clear my head, so I crank it, grinning as the engine roars and I take off. The cold air blasting through my bike suit feels good. So good, in fact, I almost feel like myself when I arrive at the gym and hit the heavy bag. I go at it like I want to win, picturing Mariaso’s face as I swing each hit. Upper cut. Rib shot. One, two, three—knockout! 

After a two hour workout, I grab a shower and head out feeling relaxed. The fight is in the back of my mind, but I keep it there, especially when I’m back on the bike. The rain stopped while I was inside, so the streets are a little wet, but the weather is better for riding. I take a turn sideways, my body and bike one, and as I come out on the other side, I see a fucking huge yellow Hummer in my lane.

Adrenaline hits my nerves so hard it feels like I hit a brick wall.

The driver glances up from his phone in time to see me, but not in time to react.

Fuck!

My body tenses. There’s only one option.

I take my bike down, sliding it onto its side to avoid a head-on hit.

A TV screen flashes through my mind, but this time the news anchors are talking about me... Fucking ironic, isn’t it?

I almost make it.

I clear the front of the Hummer, skidding full throttle to the side.

Then the bumper nails my side. The pain doesn’t feel real. It’s like I’m not here. My head snaps and slams onto the ground. This can’t be it. Fight it, goddammit! But I’m fading out.

***

“Rafe?”

Quentin? I work my eyelids until they open. My manager’s grizzled face appears, blurry at first. I watch his mouth moving, but the words don’t make sense. Pain radiates from different places in my body. Great. I probably cracked some ribs. My right arm aches, and I feel sore all over. It must have been one hell of a fight.

“Did I win?” I croak.

He laughs, a good hearty sound that gets raspy at the end from all his smoking. “Win? You took on a drunk, distracted asshole driving an oversized Hummer. The Hummer won.”

The room spins, and I gather I’m in a hospital.

“But hey, man, good to see you awake. How ya feeling?”

“Like shit.” I take stock of the bandages and lift my right arm, making sure I can move everything. It’s sore, but working. Next I check for damage on my arm tattoos. I’ll check my side later.

He laughs, pulling up a stool and sitting next to the bed. “You might have a cracked rib or two, but nothing major. No internal organ damage. Nothing that won’t heal quickly.”

“My head? I thought I hit it or something.”

Quentin squints. “Rattled it a bit the doc said, but your scans are fine. Just totaled your bike. Sorry for that. I know you loved that thing.”

“I’ll get another.” It would hurt, but I’m making real money these days. Things, those you can replace.

“But you!” He throws a mock punch my way. “You’ll be up in no time.”

“Good. I want that fight. I need to heal up and get back to training as fast as I can.”

He didn’t argue, but there was something in his expression.

“Quentin? Did you hear anything?”

“Nothing definite yet, sorry. Mariaso isn’t allowed to travel. Not sure what that’s gonna do. I mean, they gotta lift that before the fight.”

“That’s it? Really?”

“Well, the rumor is, Mariaso should have enough time to clear this up. And look, everyone I can get a hold of is saying the fight’s not cancelled as of now. They could, but you know what, a lot of people got a lot of money into this already.”

“Not cancelled, but not confirmed either? So it’s just up in the air?”

“He wants this fight as bad as you do. I have a feeling it’ll all work out. You know how it is. He’s got money and the right people to take care of shit like this.”

“And then I’ll take care of him in the cage.”

Quentin pats me on the arm and gets up, feeling his pockets for his smokes as he heads out of the room. A nurse comes in right behind him. Man, I am not looking forward to the next few days.

***

Two days later, Quentin walks into the room as I’m getting ready to be released. It hasn’t been a fun few days and something about his face doesn’t look good.

“What is it? They called it off?”

He shakes his head, startled. “Ah, no. No, don’t worry about that.”

“Then what’s up?”

“So, I have something to talk to you about.” Quentin looks around like he wants to pull out a cigarette and light up right here in the hospital. “You know, you won’t be able to train for a while.”

“Yeah, it sucks.” I lean back on the bed, trying to control my frustration about that. I’m dressed in a T-shirt and board shorts, just waiting on the final okay from the doc so I can get out of this place. I’m still sore, but I know how to put up with pain and work through it. This is just a speed bump. “Don’t worry, Quentin,” I add. “I’ll be up to speed in no time.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure.”

There’s something on his mind. He grabs a stool and pulls it over to sit next to me.

“Spill it, Quentin.”

“The guy from that dating show’s calling again. Liam, remember him?”

“Ahhh, fuck, Quentin. You know I don’t want anything to do with that shit. I can get my own girls.”

We’ve been over this a dozen times. Sure, it’d be good PR, but I’m a fighter.

“That’s true,” he says, nodding and rubbing his chin. He’s considering what to say.

“I can have any girl I want, and I do. You know that. And they know what I want and that I don’t want anything more than that. You’ve seen them. They line up for their turn anyway, more girls than I can handle.”

The truth is, I’ve kept myself distant from women. I date, but I keep my heart out of it. Sounds shitty, but you gotta do what you gotta do. And I know how badly a woman can hurt me. I trusted once and she betrayed me, saying she loved me and then leaving me high, dry, and in jail. I don’t want to be bitter, but I don’t want to ever go through anything like that again either.

Quentin doesn’t say anything.

“So, I don’t need to do a show like this.” I keep a few girls on my friends-with-benefits list for when I need to scratch that itch, so I really don’t need anything else. Training is my life. MMA is my life. Not some dating show.

“Rafe... Don’t you want more?”

He’d brought this up a few times recently, saying how I could use a woman in my life. Like my manager needs to give me life advice.

“I have everything I want.” I throw my hands out like I can show him my life right here. I could critique his life and lack of a woman and any family, but I don’t need to be an asshole.

“Yeah, what if you’d died out there, huh? What then? Who would have even come to claim your body?”

I start to shrug but the pain in my shoulder stops me. “You. You’d come say this ugly mug was mine, wouldn’t you?”

He doesn’t laugh like I expect him to.

“Fuck, Rafe. Me? Really?”

“What’s wrong with that?”

He throws his hands up. “I don’t know, Rafe. I don’t know, but you can’t train like this. We should work on promotion, getting your name and face out to more people.”

“With a dating show? A stupid reality show? Come on, don’t sappy women watch that? It’s not like the right people will see it.”

He shrugs. “But it builds name recognition. It makes you appear even more successful. And, you know what? It will make you more intimidating. The more success, the bigger you are, the more you have going into that cage and the more leverage I have setting your bouts.”

That might carry a little truth to it. Quentin sees me soften and pushes harder.

“And you know you’re going to go nuts with these injuries. You need something new to fill your time.”

I don’t answer that one and turn to gaze out the window at the gray sky. He knows I got used to a strict routine on the inside, and I’ve kept myself busy ever since so I won’t ever have time to think about my old ways.

“But a reality show? Come on.”

“But,” he holds up a finger, “who doesn’t like women? But what about your life after your career?”

“Now why would I want to do that?” I grin like a daredevil.

The doctor finally walks into the room while Quentin is searching for his next line. I’m ready for a once-over or something, but Dr. Harris simply asks a few questions, reads through my chart, and signs off.

“Get some rest and recover, okay? And good luck with that match.”

“Thank you.” I hold out my hand for a shake.

When we’re alone, Quentin gives me his pretty-please look. It was probably cute when he was seven... so like fifty years ago.

I grab my bag with an exasperated growl. Quentin takes the bag from me as we head out the door and walk toward the elevator. Two nurses pass us and smile at me.

“Come on, Rafe. We’ll make good money and get good promotion on this, and you’ll have something to do. It’s not like you’re actually going to commit to someone and marry them, for Christ’s sake. It’s just a show, an entertainment show.”

“Just a show?”

“Yeah, easy-peasy. Easy money, beautiful women flirting with you, and your name out there reaching the right age group. What do you say? For me? For old Quentin?”

A sense of finality settles over me. He wants me to do this, and he’s always done right by me.

“Ahh, fuck.”

Quentin punches the air in victory.

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