Cora had fought for her country. Had been enslaved for her loyalty and had escaped only after ten years of learning how to box the hard way. Now that democracy had been restored she was free but she had lost everything. Her family, her husband, their children, and now she had one hundred dollars and a bus ride to anywhere in a post nuclear war ravaged country to start over.
She’d been an intellectual before the war, an aspiring author with a few small credits to her name. Her husband had been a sensitive man and a good father. He had perished quickly under the stress of the fighting and when the army stole her young children from her and sent them to labor camps she’d almost buckled herself.
The bus line ended in Kentucky. Lots of people like her had probably settled there. One hundred dollars didn’t take you very far in a world like this. As she got off the bus she searched in vain for a glimpse of her son’s or daughter’s faces but didn’t see them. Democracy had been restored in Washington but it was slow in coming to the rest of the nation. Kentucky was no different, they were the newest state back into the fold and she could tell there was that sense of lawlessness lurking just beneath the structured surface.
She still wore her prison boxer league jacket as it was the only thing she had to keep her warm. It also advertised she could defend herself if need be. Cora looked around there was a motorbike store located to her left, and a car shop to her right. Most vehicles available to former government prisoners were ones stolen and refurbished from families like hers. Her turned her stomach to think she would buy one, but she slung her duffel bag over shoulder and walked up to the motorbike shop owner and cleared her throat. He looked up, then passed her and smiled.
“Wes, how goes it?”
Cora stiffened as the man behind her cut ahead and started talking to the owner as if they’d known each other for ages. The more they talked the more she started to lose her temper until she’d finally had enough.
“Hey.” They continued to talk. This time she shouted. “Excuse me assholes but I believe I was here first.”
The shop owner looked at her coldly. “And you think that gives you some special right to cut in from of this here reputable man?”
“Are referring to the fact I was enslaved after fighting for democracy and forced to box for my life on a daily basis as making me unworthy of your merchandise? Well fuck you. I happen to know where all that precious merchandise of yours came from, so this high and mighty bullshit you’re pulling? Save it for someone willing to believe the lie.”
The men looked genuinely shocked. “Wes, get her out of here before I call the boys in.”
Wes went to grab me but before he could I belted him hard in the stomach and gave him a hard uppercut just beneath the chin and sent him sprawling. The shop owner rose to his feet.
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Someone who just wants to get on with her life.”
“Not around here you can’t. Boys!”
Suddenly I heard a sound that chilled me to the core. The sound of metal scraping against metal. I froze.
“Now Rusty you know the law around here. We’re a democracy again and if this young woman wants to get on with her life the law says she can do exactly that.”
Cora turned and looked. Her heart pounded in her ears. She knew him. She wondered if he would remember her.
“What’s it to you, Scott?”
His blue eyes burned a hole through her. “She’s been through enough. Leave her alone.”
“And if I don’t?” the old man said.
Scott’s eyebrow arched, his blonde hair glinting in the rare glimpse of the sun. “Then I’m afraid I’ll have to get involved. Do you really want that?”
Rusty grumbled and settled down. “I don’t have to sell to her if I don’t want.”
“True. But I can make life very hard on you if you don’t.”
“Fine. Cheapest bike on the lot is one hundred dollars.”
Cora wanted to scream. Instead she walked over to a row of the nicest looking bikes and put her boot to them. “This is what I think of your offer.” She gave a hard shoving kick and the bikes fell over one by one like dominos. She fixed Rusty a venomous glare and said, “Have a nice day.”
Rusty went to charge her but Scott rose his gun and pointed it at him. “Now you were a dick and antagonized her, you had to see that coming. Let her go.”
Rusty sank back into his seat and she began to walk down the road in disgust. Cora could feel eleven years worth of trauma so neatly compartmentalized threatening to overwhelm her and break her. Her grief, her loss, her rage was so thick in her throat she was beginning to choke on it. She was supposed to be free now, but she might as well be back in her cage in D.C. awaiting her next match because even now, with the war over, she was only worth what another man said she was. If Scott Matthews hadn’t been there like a gift from the gods she’d be dead, or worse. And if memory served Scott wasn’t totally on the up and up either. He’d never betrayed her though and there was something to be said for that.
She heard a motorbike start up and start idling slowly until is was right next to her she looked to her side. It was Scott.
“You know, you really shouldn’t have kicked those bikes over.”
A lump anger threatening to cut her breath from her rose up in her throat. “What exactly was I supposed to do? Take his chauvinistic degradation he was treating me with like a good little girl and say nothing. Uh-uh, nope I’ve lived under what everyone else says I have to accept.”
“Wes isn’t someone to be trifled with either.”
She stopped walking, so did her. “My husband was not built for warfare. So I had to decide was I gonna live or was I gonna die. And when they stole my children from me I didn’t care anymore. Capiche?” She started moving again. He started following her again. “Don’t look at me like that.”
She stopped again and said, “Like you give a shit about my lot in life at this particular moment.”
He sighed and asked, “How good were you?”
“At what? Taking the torture the government and everyone else seemed to be so happy to meet out?”
“No,” he said, “in the boxing league you were forced to fight in.”
“Good enough to have survived. It got me one hundred dollars restitution and a bus ride to one more place that doesn’t seem to have a place for me.”
“Look, I know you’ve had a hard time of it. But right now, you’re showing your underbelly to a group of people that are more than ready to use it against you.”
“I have no place to go. What about that don’t you understand?” she asked stiffly.
He licked his lips and she felt flush all over. There were some things about Scott that made him a formidable ally. He always worked both ends of the line, but for a time he was her friend.
He leaned in close and lowered his voice. “I run a boxing league.” He took her hand before she could walk off yet again. “Cora, I know the last thing you want to do with your life right now is to fight. What other skills did you have before the war?”
“I was a writer.”
“No, an author. I had a couple of e-books published and was trying to snag a Big Six contract.”
“I could arrange room and board if you would be willing to fight twice a month and do the promotional legwork for my business.”
“How many other fighters do you have this arrangement with?”
“In the past it was how I got my business off the ground. Now I have enough clout around here to do as I please. And it pleases me to offer you protection from some of the types of people who populate this area.”
“Oh yeah?” Cora said softening, “And who’s going to protect me from you.”
“That all depends,” he said whispering in her ear, “on just how much you really want to be protected.”
She laughed softly. “It’s nice to know some things haven’t changed.”
“Come on, get on the bike and let me take you home,” he said touching her cheek.
The gentle touch of his roughened hands on her skin was enough to melt her defenses. She had missed him. Even if their relationship had never been made to exist outside the prison, she had loved him greatly and she’d missed him when he’d been taken by government officials to another work camp to serve out his sentence. A tear slid down her cheek and he wiped it away.
“Okay,” she said.
“Good.” She slid on behind him. “Hold on tight. We have to go through some hairy areas and it wouldn’t be good if we had to stop.”
She wrapped her arms around his waist and rested her cheek to his back. It felt good to be near him again. Even if he did color in the pictures more in shades of gray, he’d been good to her during a time she’d really needed it. And for that Cora would always be grateful.
“It isn’t much, but it’s home,” Scott said tossing his keys to the table in the kitchen.
Cora smiled. “Home is more than a lot of us have right now.”
“Hey,” he said tenderly, “this place is home as long as you need it to be.”
“As long as I fight, right?”
“Can you think of any other way to put money in your pocket?”
Cora tried to take everything in and sank down into a chair. Setting her duffle bag down she started rubbing her temples. “So do you have a system you want me to abide by?”
“You’ve been in prison too long. There is no system.”
“Forgive me if I find that difficult to believe.”
“Typically I charge my boxers half of their restitution pay for the right to register with me. But I’m good to my fighters. I feed them, provide them with medical care, and I don’t take their kids from them,” he added this last part softly but it still felt like a punch to the gut.
Her shoulders sagged forward. “I’m just so tired of fighting…”
She could feel him close the distance between them. “I can put out a messenger to hunt for any news about your son and daughter.”
“I’m sure that’s exactly what that guy wants to do. Look for my kids.”
“That guy is well compensated for his troubles.”
“Why do you give a damn Scott?”
“I don’t know, I thought when we parted we ways were…”
“What? A couple? Couples didn’t exist in that hell hole.”
“Not that I can’t handle this craziness, but would you mind letting me in on why you’re acting like this?”
Cora felt the pain deep in her chest expand to her throat and she wanted to tell him everything. Especially about how happy she was to see him, even if he was using her to make money.
He pulled up a chair and sat down in front of her and covered her hands with his. “What is it you’re not telling me?”
“I’m dying,” she said brokenly. “Whatever they did to me in those prisons…I can’t forget, and I was so close to the fallout…”
Her nose started to bleed, Scott jumped up and snatched a towel from a drawer and pinched her nose shut with it. She took it from him.
“If it weren’t for you I’d be dead. You taught me how to box. If you want me to fight, I’ll fight. You should just probably know whatever’s wrong with me isn’t contagious.”
He gazed at her as if he’d just been shot. “What?”
“I don’t know I just, when I saw you I thought…”
“You thought we could be like we were?”
He smiled shyly and said, “Of all the women I’ve known, you were the toughest. But you had the ability to hope and seeing that go out in you isn’t something I care for.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“And suppose I did?”
“I don’t think I’m worthy of a yes. But I don’t think I could handle a no,” she said setting her towel aside.
He cradled her cheek. “What did they do to you, Cora?”
“Too much to talk about,” she said, her lower lip trembling.
He wiped away her tears. “I was there. I know what it was like. What is so bad you can’t tell me?”
She broke down, she could hold it in no longer. The grief and burden of keeping the secret was too much. “They took Cristian.”
“They took who?”
“My baby,” she said looking up into his eyes. “Our baby. They took our son.”
Stunned, he wasn’t sure how to react. Women had claimed he was the father of their children before and he’d easily disproven it. But with Cora, with Cora he knew she wouldn’t lie about something like this. And seeing how shattered she was he knew she was telling the truth. When he didn’t react she bolted.
“Cora!” he called out. He got to his feet and went after her. He heard his bedroom door slam and he could hear her gut wrenching sobs coming from the other side. He knocked, “Cora open the door.” He tried the knob and it turned. Rushing inside he found her on the bed her hands at her face. He went to her, his heart in his throat. “Cora look at me. I’m not mad. But when I left I have to know, did you know you were pregnant?”
“I couldn’t burden you with the knowledge something bad was going to happen when you were being transferred because of our relationship.”
Scott took her in his arms and she wrapped her arms around his waist. “What happened to him?”
“Please Scott, don’t do this to yourself. They told me he was stillborn.”
“Honestly they had me so drugged I don’t know. I thought I heard him cry.”
“Did you see him?”
She gazed up at him, “He had your eyes with my dark hair. He was beautiful.”
“Then he was alive.”
“I can’t allow myself to think like that, I can’t cope as it is with the idea that Mary and Paul are out there, unprotected with a miserable sack of shit like me unable to find them. The idea that our son is out there too…? I can’t.”
He took her face in his hands. “Do you remember the last thing I said to you?”
She laughed through tears. “You told me I was necessary. That you needed me to fight for us.”
“Every time I went into the ring and came out alive.”
“Then I need you to find that same strength to climb out of this dark place you’re in and fight for our son. Because if he’s out there he needs us to find him.”
“You never struck me as someone who wanted kids.”
“I wasn’t. I was selfish bastard. I still am. But women like you just don’t drop on my doorstep or even in my life.”
She gazed up at him and touched his cheek and said, “I loved you so much and now it just seems so far away and out of reach.”
His eyes burned brilliantly as the rays from the sun hit them. It took her breath away. His hand trailed down the side of her neck and he leaned in close, his mouth brushing against hers. Heat flooded her body as if they were back in their cell in D.C. and old feeling raced to the surface.
“I’m no saint,” he said huskily, “but what we had, I believed in it. It kept me sane. It made me a better man. It gave me hope.”
His breath rushed over her skin and she longed to lose herself in him as she had all those years ago. “I don’t want to fight anymore.”
“Everyone fights around here. But not to the death. And not at the cost of your freedom.”
“Tell me there’s no one else,” Cora pleaded softly.
“Cora you’ve always had my heart. As the mother of my son you always will.”
“I want my children back.”
“We’ll find them, we’ll be a family,” he said stroking her cheeks with his thumbs.
“Don’t lie to me Scott, I’ll shatter into a million pieces if you do.”
“You’ll always have me Cora, always.”
He kissed her, crushing his mouth hungrily to hers and she let him in. Plunging is tongue inside of her mouth her head spun as their tongues touched and tangled. Her drew her close and she held on tight, clenching his shirt in her fists. She kissed him back, remembering how safe she felt, and remembered how easy it was to lose herself in his passion for her. When the kiss was over he ran his fingers through her hair and smiled down at her.
“God how I’ve missed you,” he said resting his forehead to hers. He gave her another lingering kiss.
She kissed him again. This time so tenderly she ached for more. “Promise me it’s going to be okay,” she murmured against his mouth as he leaned her back to the bed and ran his hand down her chest to her waist.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said rolling on top of her. “I promise.”
She wanted more than anything to believe him and when he kissed her again she let herself believe for just a little while that was the case.
The scars she bore on the outside of her body were indicative of the deep wounds to her psyche and soul. And as she let the water cascade of her head and down her body she tried to remember a time when physical pain wasn’t a moment by moment reality. Making love with Scott had been enough to set her back on track from her meltdown, but the truth was her life had been shattered into a million pieces and one roll in the hay wasn’t going to cure her ills. Not that it wasn’t nice. But Scott was always a considerate lover who knew how to make her forget her troubles even for a little while.
She leaned forward to grab the shampoo and felt a rush of cool air. She stood quickly, aggravating a fighting injury. She gritted her teeth and grunted. The sensation Scott’s hands at her neck messaging it made her feel like jelly. “Jesus you know exactly where all my old aches and pains are.”
His voice rumbled in her chest when he chuckled and said, “I remember everything about you Cora.” He kissed her at her neck and she leaned against him, his body was hard and solid against her curves. His hand slid around to her stomach and up to her breasts, groping freely and sucking at her neck. He slid one of his hands down between her legs and started rubbing her clit with his fingers. He was working her into a near sexual frenzy as she writhed and moaned.
He released her and turned her around and kissed her hungrily as she wrapped her fingers around his cock and began to stroke it lovingly. He broke his mouth from hers and smiled and chuckled. She smiled at him as she teased him to a rock hard state.
“Well aren’t you the little vixen.”
“Only when I want to be,” she sighed and freed him.
He grew serious for a moment. “Have you ever not wanted to be?”
“On more occasions than I care to count. But with you I want to be.”
She could tell this hurt him. “I wish I could’ve found a way to get you out before now.”
“I’m with you now, isn’t that what matters?”
“Did you mean what you said earlier?”
He wrapped her up close and whispered in her ear, “About loving me?”
“Who’s the girl now?” she asked giggling.
“I’m going to take that as a yes.”
“I have a charity I run.”
“Clearly, you’ve taken me in.”
He nibbled at her ear. “That’s not charity.” His breath rolled down her neck and she moaned and shivered. “You like that do you?”
Her breath quickened. “What’s this charity?”
“It’s called the Lost Ones. For a fee usually I send out a team to reunite parents with their children they lost before the war.”
“That’s life in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”
“What about my children, what about our son?”
“I wouldn’t charge you.”
“And that makes it better?”
She tried to pull away. He held fast. “Look at me, Kentucky may be back under democratic rule but you saw how you were treated. I can’t show weakness or they will cut me down. And now that I have you and our son to consider, I can’t make any changes except as to where you’re concerned. Don’t look at me like that.”
“Like I’m a monster. You knew what I was in that prison league and you loved me anyway. Can you do it now?”
“Stop charging families to find their children. It’s wrong. The boxing league. I get that, that’s good business, maybe a little shady, but all things considered in this world fighting for a living is better than fighting to the death.”
“It’s high risk. The fee is to pay for protection of the guys I send out to do the hunting.”
“And if you were in those parents’ shoes, looking for our son. What would you do?”
“What wouldn’t I do,” he said suddenly, gripping her by the arms, his eyes burning. “I wouldn’t pay for someone else to do it, I would go out there and find them myself if I could. As for the fee, there is no amount too great to make it happen.” She cried out and he released her. He grabbed her by her face. “Look at me.” She tried to look away, he forced her gaze back to his. “I’m not a saint. You, you’re like this angel who shined her light on the darkest parts of me and loved me anyway. You didn’t think I was a monster then. Has that changed?”
She could see that he loved her, and that it hurt him to think she would ever stop. She turned her head and kissed his palms. Then leaned against him and rested her cheek to his chest. She wrapped her arms around him.
“You’re not a monster. I’ve seen real monsters. And I’ve been at their mercy. I love you Scott. I just wish you wouldn’t call it a charity.”
He ran his hands up and down her back and kissed the top of her head. “Okay. I won’t call it a charity. Just…don’t call me a predator.”
Cora looked up at him. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, you just said what everyone around here probably thinks.”
“I don’t care what everyone around here thinks.”
She slid her hand around the back his neck and whispered, “Now where were we?”
He smiled and whirled her around, pinning her against the wall and lifting her leg up over his hip and slid his cock inside of her. She started to close her eyes as he pushed in and out of her.
“Keep your eyes on me. I need to know you want this.”
“I love you Scott,” she said before he kissed her.
As they made love she could feel him move inside of her make her his, and when she came his name was on her lips and he thrust hard one last time.
“I love you too, Cora,” he murmured as he nuzzled her neck. “And we’re going to find our son.”
“My other children?”
“If they’re alive we’ll find them. I promise.”
She held onto Scott, his skin was warm and he smelled good, he tasted salty, and she was his and he was hers. Come what may, nothing would ever change that.