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Excerpt for Shadowboxer by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Shadowboxer

By Jessica L. Webb

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Jessica L. Webb

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Shadowboxer

After a tough childhood and a brief and bruising career as a boxer, Jordan McAddie isn’t sure she has anything left to offer in a relationship. Desperately trying to make a difference, she focuses on becoming a social worker and helping street kids find their way. But someone is targeting her kids, luring them to an underground political group whose protests are becoming increasingly more provocative and dangerous.

 

When Ali Clarke – Jordan’s first love and first broken heart – walks back into her life and becomes intertwined with the youth boxing program, Jordan is torn between past and present. Dedicated to keeping her kids safe, Jordan fights old fears that she will never be good enough, while trying to believe she might have a future with Ali.

Praise for Jessica L. Webb

Troop 18

 

Troop 18 is the third in the Dr. Kate Morrison series and is another winner…The story is a fascinating mystery that had me stumped and I loved how it was told in a very understated way with so much going on under the surface.”—Kitty Kat’s Book Review Blog

 

“Jessica Webb, you are so good! I love a book that makes you feel, even if it hurts.”—The Romantic Reader

 

 

Lambda Literary Award Winner Pathogen

 

“Where did Jessica Webb come from? This is the second Dr. Kate Morrison book, the first is Trigger, and it was amazing. A reader should really read them in order, because they are both fantastic. I would sign up today to read the next ten books Webb writes.”—Amanda’s Reviews

 

 

Trigger

 

“The book reads very well and is full of heart pounding, adrenaline racing moments. I have zero clue if human bombs can be actually made, but Webb 100% sold me on the possibility through her story. I was held captive throughout the book, desperately needing to know how this was all resolved…This book has action out the wazoo, but it doesn’t stop there. Mystery, intrigue, and a fantastic couple are in full force as well.”—The Romantic Reader

 

“[A] really clever, intricate, and extremely well developed story line that has conspiracies, betrayals, and enough excitement to whet any reader’s appetite. I cannot commend this book highly enough.”—Inked Rainbow Reads

 

 

Lambda Literary Award Finalist Repercussions

 

“[A]lthough this is such an action-packed book, Webb still balanced it with some romance in such a way that the chemistry leaps off the pages in this intense, steamy kind of way. Webb is someone you can count on for accuracy and realism in her books, which I love because it makes it so much easier to fall into the story and forget the world around you. Her dialogue is well written and sounds conversationalist. She has a fast pace, good writing style, developed characters, plenty of action, and an exciting plot.”—Artistic Bent

 

“I loved this book! The author has balanced suspense and romance perfectly. The plot is edge-of-your-seat exciting. The writing immerses the reader. The action is plentiful with lots of twists and turns and there are some very interesting, creative ideas within the book.”—Melina Bickard, Librarian (Waterloo Library, London)

 

“Repercussions by Jessica L. Webb is nothing short of phenomenal. This book is everything you want and more. It is one delicious story, with amazing characters and an exciting plot…I could go on for days about how freaking fantastic this one is. All of Webb’s books are home runs, but somehow, someway, she took it to the next level with Repercussions. This book is going to hook you on by the first chapter. A roller coaster ride of awesomeness is awaiting you with this book.”—The Romantic Reader

 

“Jessica L. Webb can write a psychological thriller like no other in lesfic. This is her fourth book, and every time she manages to deliver an amazing story…She’s one of a few authors that I trust she’s going to take me on an imaginative and entertaining journey. Ms. Webb delivers again a pair of multilayered and authentic main characters with amazing chemistry and a plot with enough twist and turns to keep the reader turning pages.”—Lez Review

Shadowboxer

© 2018 By Jessica L. Webb. All Rights Reserved.

 

ISBN 13:978-1-63555-268-3

 

This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185

 

First Edition: September 2018

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

 

Credits

Editor: Jerry L. Wheeler

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design By Melody Pond

By the Author

Dr. Kate Morrison Thriller series

Trigger

Pathogen

Troop 18

 

Repercussions

Shadowboxer

Acknowledgments

A big thank you to my beta readers—Jen; Meredith; Katie; my parents, Ron and Val; and my sister, Rebecca. Thanks to my entire extended wacky family for being proud of me. Thanks to my readers, who lift me up with their reviews and comments and emails. Thanks to everyone at Bold Strokes Books for everything you do to get our books out into the world.

 

Special thanks to Katie for helping with the title and the cover.

 

Finally, thank you to my editor, Jerry. This partnership means a lot to me. Thank you for being you.

For my wife, Jen. For making the shadows less scary.

 

And for all of us who have ever felt like we’re not enough.

We are. We got this.

Chapter One

Jordan—Six

 

Six years old and it’s a warm time. Jory kicks the legs of her chair and hums a song they learned in school about God and all his creatures. Mama hums a different song, and Jory stops to listen, her legs still thumping, thumping, thumping. She’s cooking supper, Mama is, onions on the stove, something with apples and sausages. Mama is smiling, and Jory almost remembers a time Mama didn’t. A cold time when Mama never got up and Daddy cursed such big words and limped and yelled and Steven hugged her and Jakey growled and brought them cold food. Jory shivered. Maybe a bad dream, that cold time, maybe not the for real world with the leaves changing colour outside, that big chlorophyll word Mrs. Keenley used today in class and laughed when everyone tried to say it. Mrs. Keenley has a good laugh. It makes Jory warm and makes her forget she might remember cold times. Jory loves her teacher in a secret, proud way in her heart.

She loves her mama, too, and Jory looks up at her from under her dark eyelashes, so long and dark like her daddy’s. Her blue eyes were his, too. A gift, he tells her, the long sight and a long life. Steven has long sight, but not Jakey. Jory worries about Jakey, her biggest brother, nineteen and already working the docks. What about his long sight and long life? Mama laughed when Jory cried about it long ago. She’s too big to cry now, but then she cried and Mama said not to worry, all her babies were warriors like the Cressidys before them. She’d turned Jory’s arm over and showed her the veins in her wrists and arms and hands.

“See?” she said. “Warrior blood.”

“Let me see yours,” Jory cried, fascinated.

Mama turned her arm over, and Jory did not see the faint tremor as she put her skinny arm next to her mama’s. She traced the dark blood veins through her wrist.

“Warrior blood,” Jory whispered. “But less, Mama? I’ve got less because I’m one-half Cressidy and one-half McAddie?”

“No,” Mama whispered. “That is the magic of warrior blood. All you need is a drop.”

Jory stared now at her hands and kicked the legs of her chair as Mama hummed in the kitchen. Just a drop, and she had a half. She was just about to ask about warrior blood because Mama didn’t mind questions in warm times, when the back door opened too hard and hit the wall. Mama stiffened and Jory shivered. Daddy muttered a dark sound outside of warm time and clanked, clanked, clanked as he limped into the kitchen carrying a box.

He looked like her warm time Daddy who had walked her to school that morning but wrong somehow, different, weighed down with that box. Jory could read, smartest in her class Mrs. Keenley had whispered to her, but the words on the box were not what frightened Jory. She remembered its shape. That sound of clinking bottles and the smell of them as they were stacked on the rotting front porch until Jakey, always so angry, carried them away.

Jory stopped kicking her chair and bowed her head, dark curls hiding her face. She gripped her wrist and shut her eyes as Mama and Daddy’s words got louder and angrier and the smell of burning onions made her eyes tear and she sat so still and so still until Steven came home. He tugged her sleeve and pulled her out of the kitchen and hugged her against his skinny twelve-year-old body, one half-full just like her, and they stayed like that, pretending cold time had not just walked through their door.

 

* * *

 

Jordan hung up the phone in her cubicle, rubbed her dry eyes, and pushed her hand through her short-cropped curly dark hair. It had taken over an hour to find a foster home that would take a young teenager who needed an emergency placement. She’d finally found one, but after a late night of studying, an early class at Dalhousie University, eighteen phone calls, and endless bureaucratic paperwork, Jordan felt like she’d already fought a few rounds. And her day was nowhere near to shutting down. But you didn’t go into social services to have a regular schedule. Jordan took it as a good sign that even in moments like this, she didn’t question her drive to become a social worker. She’d get there. And she’d still have days like this.

Her timing always ever so exact, her colleague Cay walked into their tiny, shared cubicle.

“Show time, chicken.”

Jordan grunted at the older woman and Cay laughed, her wrinkles dimpling and dancing across her broad, dark face.

“Snap out of it, darling, and quick. We need the clean, tough, articulate Jordan Pauline McAddie to show up at the gym in an hour. Impress the hell out of these suits, and we might have a private avenue of funding instead of having to beg for scraps from Children and Youth Services. A whole twelve months of funding for your gym, your program, your kids.”

“Ours, ours, and ours,” Jordan said as she stood up and grabbed her black leather jacket.

JP’s Gym had been hers for the past four years, but she never really thought of it that way. She often wondered if the last of her earnings from her short boxing career should have gone somewhere else. Maybe she could have gotten a real apartment, not the slapped-together but homey space above the gym where she lived. But then the kids would come tumbling and swearing and swaggering into the gym for their evening practice, and Jordan would remember why she’d purchased this building and stressed over the monthly bills.

Jordan checked the pockets of her jacket for her keys and wallet before tugging it on, feeling the newness of the leather as it settled on her shoulders. An indulgence, this jacket, given the steady level of debt accruing from her master’s studies and the fact that her car needed repair. She knew exactly how much food this jacket could have provided for the street kids she supported. She felt a little sick as she tugged it across her chest, smoothing it down over the plain black shirt she’d carefully chosen this morning along with dark grey pants that were not quite jeans but close enough. This was as close to an effort as the suits, as Cay called them, were going to get.

Cay eyed the jacket critically, and Jordan tried not to fidget under the scrutiny.

“It’s perfect, you know,” Cay said finally. “Stop hating yourself.”

A mind reader, Cay.

“Fuck off,” Jordan muttered, and Cay laughed.

“I said articulate, not muttering and sullen. The kids have got that covered without your help.”

Jordan laughed out loud as they walked through the sea of cubicles and offices that housed a myriad of social services. The community centre where Jordan ran some of the other teen programs was right next door. Jordan had worked here for seven years as a crisis and intake worker until Cay suggested she look into part-time studies at the local university. Her life was a balancing act with work and the gym and her studies. Jordan was busy. And for the most part, she was happy.

Jordan waved at Tim and Kayla at the reception desk and felt her phone vibrate in her back pocket and she pulled it out. A text from Madi, one of Jordan’s kids. Former kids, Jordan reminded herself as she pulled up the text. Madi was twenty now.

Where r u?

Jordan shook her head as she thumbed out an answer.

On our way. Patience, grasshopper.

Jordan didn’t hear back. Interesting. She would have expected an expletive and emoticon-filled response. Madi’s silence was telling.

“What is it?” Cay said. The day was already cold, and Jordan tugged her jacket across her chest again, preparing for the chilly ten-minute walk to the gym at the edge of downtown. Wind pulled at her hair, but she’d had it cut recently so it couldn’t do much damage to the short curls or the neatly shaved swath around her ears and neck.

“Madi,” Jordan answered Cay. “She’s nervous.”

Cay said nothing. She had her head down in her characteristic dash to whatever needed doing next. Jordan was momentarily suspicious Cay hadn’t taken the opportunity to rail at street kids having no home, no food, no hope. But they had a cell phone.

“Why’s Madi nervous?” Jordan pushed.

Cay stopped abruptly just before they reached the gym doors. Jordan could hear the bass from the warm-up music thumping from out here.

“This wasn’t my idea,” Cay said.

Jordan noted her friend’s unease and felt herself absorb the edges of it.

“This meeting? I know that. Children and Youth Services were contacted about a donation. I’m assuming Campbell has something to do with it, since it’s politics,” Jordan said, referencing their big boss.

Cay said nothing, just kept glancing from Jordan to the gym doors and back again.

“Cay, spit it out.”

“There was a meeting already. Campbell and this company.”

Jordan still didn’t understand. “So?”

Cay sighed. “And Madi.”

Jordan felt the burn of anger start as a tremor in her hands.

“What do you mean?” Jordan controlled her voice. She’d had a great deal of practice.

“I don’t know the details. I overheard Campbell talking about a new avenue for funding involving Madi as a sort of poster child—” Cay put up a hand when Jordan growled. “Hang on. It involves top executives as part of an outreach or mentorship program. When I asked Campbell how Madi was pulled in, he told me to keep it to myself. Said he wasn’t going to let your overprotectiveness of an independent adult who was no longer a Crown ward get in the way.”

The anger spread, gaining tension and momentum as it traveled up Jordan’s arms and across her biceps until it settled in a seething mass across her neck and shoulders. It was true, Madi was no longer part of the system, but it didn’t mean she didn’t need someone looking out for her.

“Do you know if Madi’s agreed to anything?”

Cay shook her head. “She hasn’t been around this week for me to ask.”

Brilliant and tough and alternately raised by the system and the streets, Madigan Battiste was a poet whose small frame belied a voice and a message that could punch you in the gut so hard it would leave you breathless. Jordan smiled to herself. And Madi could punch, too. She checked her watch.

“Let’s go find out what this is.”

Cay put a hand out and tugged gently at Jordan’s sleeve. Some of the fire had returned to her eyes. “Don’t go looking for an opponent if there’s not one there.”

Jordan grimaced. She hated that she still needed the same advice as her kids. “Yeah, yeah.”

Cay rolled her eyes and opened the door, hissing, “Articulate, McAddie.”

Jordan laughed and entered the gym.

The space was wide and open with one ring along the back wall and workout and sparring stations spread throughout. It was ugly but clean. None of the equipment was new, but when Jordan pulled in a breath, the smell of cleanser balanced the smell of sweat. Nineties-era rap reverberated off the walls and the ceiling, the voices of kids high and excited as they warmed up, yelling along with Maestro Fresh-Wes to drop the needle. Jordan guessed it was Rupert’s turn to choose the warm-up music. Show up to train four days in a week, and your name went into a draw to choose the music. Only once had the music ever caused a fight. Surprisingly, it hadn’t been the Gregorian chanting that ended in violence.

“Jordan! Jesus, finally.”

Madi jumped up from a seat outside the change rooms. She was dressed in her characteristic head-to-toe black. Skinny jeans and a plain black tank top. Her pixie-like face was framed by long dark hair and flashing grey eyes.

“Hey, Madi.”

“Every other fucking day you show up early, but not today.” Madi shoved her hands into her back pockets, her eyes bright and fierce.

Jordan assessed the young woman, checking her pupils and reading her body language out of habit. Madi was stressed but not high. Anger masked her nerves, but she seemed in control. Jordan relaxed. It had been a long time since she’d seen Madi high.

“I’m here,” Jordan said. Staying calm helped the kids stay calm. Usually. “What’s up?”

“This meeting. It’s weird. I mean, it’s fine. These guys are bringing in a boatload of money for the gym and the program. So it has to be worth it, right?”

Jordan felt two steps behind already. She hated that feeling.

Cay jumped in. “Let’s hear what they have to say before we answer that question. You get to draw the line, Madi. It’s your life.”

Madi rolled her eyes, but she relaxed her shoulders a little. Power and choice were commodities on the streets. Jordan and Cay tried to give them for free wherever they could.

“Sierra’s with the suits,” Madi said. “I should get back. As her manager, I should be there.”

Madi was a graduate of the youth boxing gym program. She still worked out at the gym, but she was also unofficially mentoring with Jordan to be a general manager. At twenty, Madi had the charisma and brains and heart to be whatever she wanted to be. But the world held few opportunities for a young woman with only a high school degree and a complex host of mental health needs. And now that she was an adult, at least in the eyes of the system, Madi could no longer access services through Jordan and Cay. It had been a rough year of transition. Jordan’s counterpart in adult services, Helena Cavio, had taken Madi under her wing. Jordan and Madi were still working out their shift to friendship.

Jordan looked over by the ring where a small group gathered. A man and a woman in casual business wear stood talking with Sierra.

“You’ve met them already?” Jordan indicated the group by the ring. It wouldn’t do Madi any good to let her discomfort show.

Madi shrugged. “Yeah. They seem copacetic.”

Cay laughed and Jordan grinned. Madi finally smiled.

“Lead on, Ms. Battiste,” Cay said. “You can be in charge of the introductions.”

Kids called out to the trio as they made their way back to the boxing ring. The warm-up was almost complete, and soon the kids would start their circuits, taking turns as coach and boxer at each station. It was a way to address the power struggles, but it was only partially successful.

An older man with neatly styled white hair and a plain suit turned and smiled as they approached. Jordan suspected this was Tom Lawrence, president of the Centera Corporation, the company looking to buy some good PR by offering to fund the youth boxing program for a year. At least, that was Jordan’s cynical take on it. Jordan shifted her attention to Sierra, who looked relieved at their arrival. She was sixteen and strong and already had a left hook that made Jordan wary. Right now she looked like a scared kid.

Madi started the introductions, her voice rising above the din of the gym and showing none of her previous nerves. But the words and the sounds were suddenly drowned out for Jordan, a mere buzz in the background as she took in the other person standing silently in the group.

She was tall, close to Jordan’s height, and dressed simply in dark grey pants and a white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She had dark blonde hair that barely reached her shoulders. Then the woman turned fully around and Jordan took in the blue-grey eyes she had looked into a hundred times before. Jordan tried to swallow as her heart bottomed out, then pounded painfully against her ribcage. Ali Clarke, the first girl Jordan had ever loved, was standing in her gym.

Ali’s smile was full of confidence and knowing, the expression of a woman who knew exactly where she was in the world. The pictures in Jordan’s mind of Ali just as confident and sure at seventeen were rapidly replaced by this living, breathing, beautiful woman.

“It’s traditional in our culture to shake hands, Jordan.”

Madi’s sarcasm cut through Jordan’s thoughts, and she realized Ali was holding out her hand. Jordan mumbled an apology and shook Ali’s hand, the contact far too brief to bring Jordan any joy or clarity.

“I’ve taken Ms. McAddie off guard, I think.” Ali’s voice was smoother than Jordan remembered, as if she’d modulated out the elation of childhood.

“A little, yes.” That seemed inadequate, but Jordan was suddenly very conscious of the group surrounding them. “It’s good to see you again.”

“You know each other already?” Cay said.

The beat of silence was so brief, but Jordan felt the weight of years.

“We were in our final year of high school together,” Ali said. Her tone was easy and conversational. Her eyes held a different message, but Jordan was unsure she could decipher it.

“Another Saint Sebastian graduate? Excellent!” Tom, the CEO, looked genuinely pleased. “Alison has told me a great deal about that school.”

“Just my final year of high school,” Jordan explained. The all girls private school trained elite athletes, and Jordan had attended only part of one year. Her world had just fallen apart and one of the trainers from the boxing gym, a cop and his wife, had taken her in, convincing Saint Sebastian to give her a scholarship and a chance. She’d shown up late in September, battered and angry, focused on her goal of doing whatever she needed to get the hell out of Halifax and away from her family.

“Madi, why don’t you take Mr. Lawrence and Ms. Clarke on a tour of the gym, and then we can all meet up in the office,” Cay said.

Jordan was thankful Cay had stepped in to lead this meeting. She was thrown by Ali’s sudden presence, a whip backwards to a time of intense happiness and bruised anger.

After a quick and curious look to Jordan, Ali followed Madi and her boss. Jordan and Cay fell in behind as Madi explained the set-up of the boxing program, focusing on the mentoring and co-op systems Jordan had implemented to try and provide structure and opportunity for the kids who came through her gym.

“Anything I should know?” Cay said.

I just shook hands with my biggest regret.

“No.”

“A no which means yes,” Cay sighed. “My favourite kind.”

Madi continued to lead the group around the gym, drawing the details into a story as only Madi could. Jordan caught a glimpse of Ali’s face in profile as she listened to Madi’s speech, steeling her stomach against an unexpected sensation of sudden nausea.

Jordan had always thought Ali Clarke was golden. She was athletic and fearless, stubborn and intelligent. She set goals and climbed toward them with precision and pride. At seventeen, Ali’s privileged upbringing had afforded her a status that never once diminished a rigid moral compass of right and wrong. Ali never seemed to falter. To eighteen-year-old Jordan, a tough exterior hiding the softness of her internal bruises, Ali shone like a summer sun in a Maritime winter.

Jordan had walked away from that sun fourteen years ago and wondered if she’d ever been warm since.

“You’re scowling.”

Jordan blinked into the present. “I’m not.”

Cay arched an eyebrow. “She’s beautiful. I can’t help wondering why that makes you grumpy?”

Jordan had to laugh. “It’s a long story.”

“The best kind. Let’s have coffee this week, and you can start at the beginning. Right now, however, I think Madi’s gym tour is done and you’re up next.”

Jordan checked on the group ahead. Madi was answering questions but kept giving Jordan quick glances. She obviously needed a rescue.

“Got this,” Jordan muttered to herself.

“It’s only the future of these kids riding on your shoulders,” Cay stage whispered. “Don’t screw it up.”

Jordan grinned at Cay, then squared her shoulders and shook out the tension in her arms. All eyes turned to her as she approached, and Jordan took the three short steps to remind herself why she was here. Soon she would be a social worker, fighting for her kids and the resources that could give them a chance. This was about their future. Past was past.

“I was thinking now that you’ve had a chance to see the gym, we could head upstairs to the office to talk about what you’re proposing. We might actually get to hear ourselves think up there.”

“It smells better, too,” Madi added.

The group laughed and Jordan smiled at Madi, whose eyes were bright with her recent success. Jordan anchored to that look. Madi and the others needed Jordan to be strong and certain, not tangled up and tripping over history and regret.

Jordan led the group up the metal staircase to the second-floor office and general meeting room. Her own apartment was on the other side of the whitewashed cinderblock wall. The room was pretty banged up and dingy but serviceable. Jordan gestured for everyone to take a seat, but Tom was distracted by the pictures, medals, and awards along the back wall. There was an eight-by-ten black-and-white photo of Jordan during a match. Her face was half-hidden behind her glove and one tattooed, muscled shoulder. The look in Jordan’s eyes was calculating and focused.

“Ms. Battiste was telling us you made a career out of boxing for a period of time,” Tom said.

Jordan stole a quick glance at Ali, who was already seated across the table. She looked politely interested. The strangeness of casually discussing what had driven them apart was nearly overwhelming.

“Yes, I toured the professional circuit for a few years when I was younger.”

“You fought as the Dock Rat, is that right?”

“I did. It was a nod to my working-class upbringing.” The answer she always gave. No need to explain she’d felt no better than a dock rat for so long. Working class meant living below the poverty line during cold times, and part of her always feared she would never be any better.

“And would you consider it a successful career?” Tom said.

Jordan had no idea how to measure success. She’d won bouts, even a few championships. She’d learned what to do with her fear, even if she’d never completely conquered it. She’d fought and learned and made her way out of Halifax. And she’d gained enough insight to know when it was time to come home.

“Yes, I think so. Boxing gave my life structure, it gave me a goal, and in the end, it gave me the financial means and the confidence to finish university and buy this gym. So yes, it was a success.”

“Thank you for answering that. I recognize it was a personal question, but I’m insatiably curious about how people define success.”

Jordan didn’t know how to respond. She wasn’t sure what to make of this man. Where she’d been expecting bluster and self-aggrandizement, she found thoughtfulness and a good listener.

“What weight class did you compete in?”

“Welterweight.”

Tom raised his eyebrows. “Really.”

Jordan laughed. “I had more muscle mass back then. And my coach wanted me to fight just outside my weight class.”

“He wanted to push you.”

“Bento wanted me to focus. He thought matching me with opponents heavier than me would force me to keep my head in the game.” Jordan hesitated. The answer was incomplete. She saw Madi looking at her expectantly from the corner. “He wanted me so scared of getting pounded that I’d have to fight my way out of the ring every single time.”

Jordan was acutely aware of Ali sitting across from her. They’d spent hours talking about courage and fear and skill and focus. Ali had always believed Jordan could fight. Maybe even right up until the moment Jordan had run away.

“Did it work?” Madi said. She knew a lot of this story, most of the kids did. “Pitting you against ogres. Did it work?”

“That’s a good question,” Jordan said with a quick grin. “I learned a lot about controlling fear from Bento and from boxing. But I really needed to learn what came after I succeeded at survival. Those lessons took a lot longer.”

Madi rolled her eyes and Jordan laughed. Jordan knew Madi hated being preached to. She also knew Madi would give a sharp retort or insult whenever a moment cut just a little too close. Jordan respected those boundaries.

“Would you say you incorporate a lot of your coach’s methods into the boxing program?”

Jordan wondered where the CEO was going with this line of inquiry. She needed this meeting to go well to secure the funding for the next year, but she wasn’t prepared to defend her practices to a third party who likely knew very little about social services.

“He’s not evaluating you, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Ali said from across the table. “Tom is fascinated by organizational leadership and the psychology of workplace hierarchy. I keep telling him he should have been a psychologist, not a CEO.”

“Your opinion has been noted, Ms. Clarke,” Tom said wryly. “I believe you even sent me a memo to that effect on legal stationery when you finished your law degree a few years back.”

“And yet you still haven’t given me control of the company. Interesting.”

Tom laughed as Ali grinned. Even though Ali’s smile wasn’t aimed at her, it did absolutely nothing to control the spinning of Jordan’s stomach.

“You get to talk to your boss like that?” Madi said.

“‘Get to’ might be stretching it a little. I’ve worked with Tom since I graduated from college. I’ve learned where the line is and not to cross it.”

“That sounded like a lesson. Hang on.” Madi pulled out her phone and fiddled with it. Then she looked up at Ali with a false eagerness that made Jordan squirm. “Okay, I’ve got my notes app open. Lay some more wisdom on me, O mentor.”

Madi’s declaration was met with silence. Cay looked concerned and Tom contemplative. Then Ali laughed, Madi grinned, and the tension broke.

“I think we’re going to get along just fine,” Ali said.

“If I may interrupt this meeting of the minds for a moment,” Tom said. “I think it’s important to note this mentorship initiative is not about Alison mentoring you, Ms. Battiste. The exact opposite. You have been chosen to mentor Ms. Clarke.”

“I don’t get it,” Madi said. “You mean in boxing?”

“In whatever wisdom and knowledge and life experience you have to share. That’s not up to me to decide. It’s not even Alison’s choice. You are the mentor, she’s here to learn from you.”

Jordan could read Madi’s agitation in the slight shift of her posture, the way she flicked her fingers on the table, the tilt of her head.

“Maybe you could fill me in on some of the details, Tom.” Jordan would normally not interfere, but she thought Madi could use a moment to listen before she was expected to react. “What obligations are you placing on Madi and the gym with this mentorship program? It would be helpful to understand the expectations.”

Tom looked surprised. “No obligations at all. The funding is in place for a year regardless of what happens from here on out.”

“Then why are you here?” Madi said. “You have to want something out of this, even if you’re telling me I don’t need to do anything.”

Madi’s question was met with silence. Tom seemed at a loss, and Jordan didn’t exactly blame him. She doubted his business skills extended to dealing with mouthy young adults.

“Centera fucked up,” Ali jumped in. Tom winced. “Big time. We’re a holding company, so we don’t produce anything. We just buy up the stocks of other companies and take on their risks. But our investors walked a grey legal line to try and make our last quarter look more profitable than it really was so our shareholders wouldn’t freak out. While they were busy trying to defend the legality of their action, we failed to recognize we had quite resoundingly crossed a moral line. We put our customers’ data at risk and narrowly avoided selling them out to a third party. It was a legal nightmare, and we barely emerged unscathed.”

Tom picked up the story. “And then we walked right into an ethical dilemma. Do we tell our stakeholders and customers? The crisis was averted, but we sell them trust and security. A disclosure would be disastrous.”

“But failing to disclose and being discovered would have meant the end of Centera Corporation,” Ali said. “Years of legal battles, our names raked through the mud, blacklisted from our place amongst the top international holding companies.”

“Let me guess,” Madi said. “You did the right moral thing and told everyone you fucked up. And they were unhappy. Now you’re trying to win back their love and trust by throwing money bombs at street kids.”

Tom’s shoulders seemed to droop and Jordan nearly felt sorry for him. But Madi was dead on as usual, and Jordan wanted to hear how the CEO of a massive multinational would react to being called out.

“Yes,” Ali answered.

Madi narrowed her eyes like she didn’t trust the direct answer.

“Another guess, here. You were voluntold to be part of this little community outreach project.”

“Yes.”

“Did you fuck up? Is that why?”

Ali shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me.”

Ali half smiled and gestured at Madi. “Get your notes app open. I think you’ll want to write this shit down.” Ali leaned forward. “It doesn’t matter which individuals screwed up. I work for Centera. I am Centera. One of us falls, we all fall.”

Jordan expected another string of curses from Madi. She’d spent her entire life surviving and looking out for herself. Boxing had taught her to channel some of her anger. Coaching, mentoring, and managing had taught her it was okay to take a risk and care about others, to twine your futures together, even for a short time. Madi was incredibly protective of the teens in the gym, but she hadn’t yet learned those lessons and wasn’t comfortable with caring.

“For me, this isn’t about buying back trust,” Tom said. “I want to change corporate culture, Ms. Battiste. I need to change corporate culture. We have become too concerned with pushing the legal boundaries of what we can do to make more money and have lost sight of who we are ultimately serving. So I am embedding a dozen of my top executives in communities across North America. I want them to listen and learn and return to the office with a perspective of people and society we are sorely lacking. There will be no cameras or media announcements. Each executive is expected to maintain a journal and will give a short presentation at our AGM in Chicago next year. You are welcome to attend. Your insight and judgement would be welcome.”

Jordan slid the facts around in her head like tiles in a game, not only Tom’s words but his obvious passion to do better. Jordan trusted it. She wasn’t sure what Madi thought.

“I bet your shareholders are unhappy,” Jordan said.

“They think I’m absolutely off my rocker,” Tom announced happily.

Madi was still looking at Ali with suspicion. Ali seemed relaxed, perfectly comfortable with the scrutiny.

“So you’re just going to follow me around and become inspired by my story and my struggle to survive, is that it? Maybe by the end we’re braiding each other’s hair and you’re offering to pay for me to go to university because you’re so moved by everything I’ve taught you. Sound about right?”

Ali’s expression didn’t change, and she didn’t look to anyone else for support. Jordan respected her for that. “You’re here at the gym four or five times a week, is that right?”

“Yes,” Madi said.

“I thought I’d start by coming by for a few practices. I’m interested in seeing how the coach and boxer roles coincide with your friendships. I thought we’d start there. Is that okay?”

Madi cocked her head to the side. “Yeah. Sure.”

“As for the other, I’m a lost cause when it comes to anything to do with hair. But if that’s what you want to teach me, I’m up for the challenge.”

Madi nodded but said nothing. Jordan was pretty sure Ali confused her. It took a long time for Madi to trust anyone, and she gave them a hell of a ride along the way. This could get interesting.

“You’re here for a year?” Jordan’s thoughts were still on how this whole program would affect Madi, weighing the pros and the cons. She hadn’t considered how Ali might perceive her question.

“I’m committing to this mentorship for a year, yes,” Ali said. Jordan tried not to squirm at the correction. Ali’s voice softened just a little when she continued. “I’ll be working part-time at our Halifax office for the first six months, but I’ll still need to travel fairly frequently back to my main office in Chicago.”

Jordan nodded a short acknowledgement like she hadn’t just heard Ali Clarke was walking back into her life.

“Well, then,” Tom said. He leaned back in his chair, obviously pleased with where this conversation had gone. “I’d like to thank you all for your time. I’m heading to the West Coast tomorrow morning, but I’ll be checking in regularly with Alison to see how her homecoming is going and how things are working out with Ms. Battiste.”

They pushed aside their mismatched chairs and shook hands, all the social niceties that Jordan had come to learn and respect.

“I’ll answer your question,” Madi said, remaining seated.

“Madi?” Jordan said.

Madi had her eyes fixed on Tom. “You asked Jordan if she used any of her coach’s methods in the boxing program with the kids. With us.”

“Yes, that’s right. I did ask that,” Tom said.

“The answer is no. Jordan already knows we can survive tougher opponents. She’s teaching us to focus, not fight. She’s teaching us to expect more from ourselves and the people around us. And she would never use fear as a teaching tool. None of us would be here if she did.”

Jordan thought she might cry. Right here in front of Madi, the bright fierceness in her eyes a perfect match for her voice. She was going to cry in front of Cay, in front of the CEO of a multi-million-dollar company. In front of Ali Clarke.

Then Madi stood and grinned, breaking the tension. She nodded toward Ali.

“You might want to start your journal with that mic drop moment.” Madi walked toward the door with a wave. “See you at practice tomorrow.”

The adults were left staring at each other, the kid having walked out of the room with all of their words.

Chapter Two

Constable Rachel Shreve was sitting on the step outside the gym when Jordan showed up the next day. Rachel was in a T-shirt and jeans, short hair tucked behind her ears, gym bag by her feet. Her eyes were closed and her head tilted back in the sunlight, a half smile on her face. Jordan had always thought the cop was attractive. Rachel was also a good friend, a huge asset as a volunteer at the gym, and married to one of the nicest men Jordan had ever met.

“Tell me you’re dreaming about Adam,” Jordan said.

Rachel opened her eyes and laughed. “If I was, I wouldn’t tell you.”

Rachel was a community officer who’d started her career on the very same streets where Jordan and most of her kids had been raised. Now that Rachel had two youngsters at home, she was making her way to the investigative branch of the Halifax Police Department. The move would be a good one for the young cop, but Jordan would miss her on the streets, knowing she always looked out for her kids.

Peppy music drifted out from the gym, punctuated by gleefully shouted instructions. Jordan rented out the gym to a mom-and-me boxercise class a few times a week, one of the ways she kept the bills paid and the doors open. She had a partner, Sean, who ran all the adult programming at the gym, arranging scheduling and membership. He’d even recently brought Jordan a proposal for small classes and private clients. But as much as he wanted to make JP’s Gym lucrative, he respected Jordan’s primary objective was to run the programming for vulnerable youth.

“You’re here early,” Jordan said, taking a seat beside Rachel.

“Yes and no. I’ve got some official business to get out of the way before practice tonight.” Rachel hurried to clarify. “Everyone is fine, but I just wanted to check in with you about something I’ve been hearing on the street.”

Jordan turned her face into the October afternoon sun and let her heart rate return to normal. After a restless night followed by another busy day, the sun felt good against her cheeks. She’d lain in bed for a long time last night, thinking about Ali. She could feel her presence somehow. Something tangible was in the air, as if Ali’s arrival in the city had changed the molecules. Eventually she’d gone to sleep, frustrated by her inability to put Ali’s presence into perspective. Jordan had focused on work all day today, trying not to become distracted by the clock.

Rachel pulled her phone out of her pocket and scrolled through a series of images. Then she passed her phone to Jordan to take a look.

“Do you recognize this symbol? Is it at all familiar to you?”

Jordan was looking at a picture of a tattoo. Stylized sun rays on one side and what looked like sword points or knife points on the other. It was simply designed and looked professionally done, unlike some of the horrible ink she’d seen come through her gym. But Jordan didn’t recognize the symbol.

“No, sorry. It doesn’t look familiar,” Jordan said as she handed back the phone.

“I guess it’s too much to ask if you recognize the tattoo artist?” Rachel said.

Jordan shook her head. “It doesn’t look like a street tat, that’s pretty much all I can tell you.”

“It was a long shot, thanks.” Rachel sighed and put away her phone. “This symbol was spray-painted in a dozen places around the downtown core last night. Mostly tourist spots but also the food bank and a methadone clinic.”

“Seems pretty random.”

“I think so, too. Or maybe it’s not. The tattoo is from a resident who lived at one of the homeless shelters. He was found non-responsive a few weeks ago, and we investigated cause of death. Turns out it was medically related, not suspicious. But that symbol really stuck in my mind.”

“Think it’s a gang tattoo?”

Rachel blew out a breath. “God, I hope not. We’re finally getting things under control the last few years with the Halifax-Toronto trafficking pipeline. I’d hate to think something else is moving up to take its place.”

Jordan felt the same way. They were constantly on the lookout for gang activity, especially around the girls.

“I’ll keep an eye out.”

“Thanks, friend,” Rachel said and closed her eyes again. “Hey, I’ve never asked you about your ink. Did you get any of it done in Halifax?” Rachel said.

“Just the one between my shoulders,” Jordan said. It was a detailed tree with reaching branches and anchoring roots. Her brother Steven’s initials were set into the whorled knots and branches.

“And the rest?”

Jordan pushed her T-shirt up over her shoulder and looked at the half-sleeve on her left arm. She touched it lightly, smiling. It was a tableau of water with cranes in the distance and a sky that was half storm and half sunshine.

“I got these done in New York. A woman I met on the boxing scene.” Then Jordan blushed and Rachel laughed.

“A boxing fan, huh?”

Jordan smiled. It was hard to feel too embarrassed around Rachel. “Nadia grew up around boxing her whole life. She was an artist and a philosopher and a psychic.”

“A psychic boxing fan. Did she predict your wins?”

“No, nothing like that. She came up to me after a bout, told me we should have tea and talk. My coach said I should go, said no one ever turned down Nadia Sokolov. So we talked and drank some strange herbal infusion. I told her about my childhood, about how boxing scared me. When she asked me about my deepest desire, I told her I wanted to run away from my life.”

Rachel remained quiet. Jordan had already trusted her with some of the darker moments of her past, including her brother Steven’s death when she was fifteen.

“Was that really your deepest desire?”

“Yes. In a way.” Jordan didn’t add that what she’d really wanted back then was to be with Ali, somewhere far away from Halifax and from boxing. Jordan tilted her head back and blinked into the afternoon sunlight. Ali was here. She swallowed and continued her story. “Nadia turned my story into the design for this tattoo. She believed we carry our past, present, and future around with us, and our stories deserve to be told in some form or another.”

“That’s a beautiful story,” Rachel said softly. “Thanks for sharing it.”

They sat in silence in the sunshine as the boxercise class wrapped up, the sound of the dance music replaced by laughter and conversation.

“I imagine that would be a hard story to tell your kids,” Rachel said. “But I wish they could hear it, you know?”

Jordan did know. “I wouldn’t have heard it at their age. I wasn’t ready. And I’m not an artist or a storyteller. I just want to keep them alive so they can hear it when someone like Nadia walks into their life and asks to hear their story.” Jordan wasn’t sure she was making any sense. Past and present still seemed so mixed up, a whirl of emotion instead of reason. Jordan hated this off-kilter feeling. She dropped her head and sighed.

“Sorry,” Rachel said quickly. “That was a little intense for a Thursday afternoon.”

Jordan laughed. “No, you’re good. Really. Just a lot going on these days.”

She was grateful Rachel let it pass. Moments later, the gym doors opened and moms with strollers and babies and bags pushed out into the afternoon sun, their faces bright with exertion and endorphins. Jordan envied them their chemical high. She checked the time on her phone. She could still get in a workout before the kids arrived.

“Want to spar today?” she asked Rachel.

Rachel grinned, and her eyes flashed with the challenge. “Yeah, definitely. Just don’t flatten me.”

Twenty minutes later, they had changed into workout gear and warmed up. Jordan checked in with Sean, who was heading home to feed his kids. He’d be on-site later for the adult gym time, once her teen program was done. Sean was an easy-going guy and had always reminded her of Steven. Not in their looks—Sean was a ginger from a long line of Irishmen—but his temperament. Like Steven, Sean was laid-back, solid, and empathetic without being overbearing.

Once Jordan finished talking with Sean, she pulled on her cracked and worn sparring gloves. They felt comfortable and she had never once felt the frisson of fear and self-loathing her boxing gloves had once elicited.

Rachel already had her mouthguard in and her gloves on. She’d been training with Jordan and her kids for five years, and she’d even tried fighting a few real bouts before she got pregnant with Hannah. Rachel was small but completely driven to excel. She fought with a joy Jordan knew she could never match. She grinned as Rachel threw shadow punches.

“I’m on defense,” Jordan said, mouthguard only half in. “Chase me.” Jordan pushed in her mouthguard the rest of the way and raised her gloves.

Rachel moved in fast, but Jordan easily sidestepped her opening gambit. They were only sparring, aiming for light blows that would score points if anyone had cared to keep track. Rachel tried to back Jordan against the ropes to slow her footwork so she could land something. Jordan danced out of reach, weaving once under Rachel’s outstretched arm in a showy move that would have earned her a blistering lecture from Bento if she’d ever tried it in a bout. But this wasn’t a real match, and Jordan felt the edges of lightness as she continued to take Rachel’s punches on her gloves, her body warming. She anticipated another of Rachel’s punches, allowing Rachel’s sparring gloves to touch her high on the shoulder before she landed a three-punch combination on Rachel’s torso. Then Jordan pivoted away to the other side of the ring, leaving Rachel frustrated and laughing.

Jordan heard the kids enter the gym, but she wanted Rachel to be the one to end the sparring session. Sometimes defeat was easier when you were the one allowed to admit it. Jordan took a few more punches on her gloves, narrowly avoided Rachel’s surprise right jab, and managed to score another point before retreating to the other side of the ring. Rachel followed, but seemed to think better of it. She stepped back and touched her right glove to her left shoulder, signaling the end to their sparring session. They met in the middle of the ring and embraced lightly before walking to the ropes, pushing off their gloves, and spitting out their mouthguards.

“You’re barely sweating,” Rachel complained good-naturedly as she used her T-shirt to wipe her face. “One day I’m going to take you down, McAddie.”

Jordan laughed. “That’s the spirit.” She cuffed her friend lightly on the shoulder. “Thanks for the spar. I needed that.”

Rachel grinned.

“Hey, Jordan. We doing ring work tonight?”

Jordan looked through the ropes to see Rupert and Sierra looking up at her hopefully. Sierra was already in loose shorts and a T-shirt, and Rupert held a plastic bag in his fist. The likelihood he’d washed his gym clothes from yesterday was slim.

“Sure,” Jordan said, making a quick decision. Better to work out with the kids than sit around watching Ali all night. “But get warmed up first, at least half the circuit.”

Rupert and Sierra high-fived. Sometimes they were simply puppies, tumbling and cheerful and energetic, but those puppies had teeth and claws and a history of hurt. Jordan never forgot that.

Jordan jumped down off the mat and found her water bottle. Kids were still trickling in, and Jordan could hear the slam of car doors as foster parents or older siblings dropped them off. A few graduates came in, waving at Jordan. The space between childhood and adulthood didn’t exist for them in the same unyielding way it did for government services. What Jordan wanted to provide for all the kids she supported, regardless of when they turned nineteen, was constancy and care. She considered it a success when the graduates returned.

“Hey.”

Jordan tried not to flinch when she heard Ali’s voice, unexpectedly close and undeniably familiar. When she turned around, the laughter in Ali’s eyes said she’d failed miserably.

“Hey,” Jordan said. She couldn’t think of a single other word to say.

“You always did scare easily,” Ali said.

“And you always found it weirdly entertaining.” She wondered, maybe a little late, if she should be encouraging this connection. That’s why she’d been awake so much of the night.

“You’ve got more ink than I remember,” Ali said, nodding at Jordan’s bicep.

Jordan looked down briefly. “I had no ink when you knew me.”

“True. But it was just a matter of time.”

Before Jordan could interpret Ali’s words, Madi approached.

“How well do you two know each other, exactly?” Madi said, pulling her long hair into a braid. She obviously intended to work out tonight.

“Just our last year of high school,” Jordan said. Her being gay wasn’t a secret and never had been. Specifics were not necessarily open for discussion, however.

Madi continued to eye Jordan and then Ali while she tied off her braid and tossed it over her shoulder. “It’s cute the way you think that answers my question. I’m trying to establish the nature and depth of your history, not the exact year you met.”

Jordan loved this kid. She really did. But she absolutely did not want to answer this question. Ali clearly had other ideas.

“We dated. I guess we weren’t that much younger than you.”

Madi gave Jordan a triumphant look before turning her attention more fully to Ali.

“So we’re talking young love, then. What was Jordan like? I’m imagining she was angry and wounded, maybe discovering her sexuality, all seething—”

“Enough, Madi,” Jordan said, smiling even as she put down the boundary. “My story and my life.”

Madi grimaced at Jordan, though she clearly wasn’t surprised by the rebuke. “Fine. But if you really don’t want everyone to know Ali is your ex, you’re going to have to stop looking all dopey and bashful when she’s around.” Madi jerked her chin over at the circuits where most of the kids were now warming up. “These guys will know in five minutes you’ve tapped it.”

“Madi.” Jordan’s voice had an edge this time.

Madi threw her arms up in surrender. “I’m out.” She walked away, smiling.

Jordan watched her go. She did not want to look at Ali.

“She’s a firecracker, as my dad would say.”

“Yeah, she is. And incredibly bright with very high emotional intelligence.” Jordan took a breath and turned to Ali. “Which she uses for good and evil.”

“Maybe she should be a lawyer,” Ali said.

“You should tell her that.”

“I will.”

Someone cranked the music, and Johnny Cash came blaring through the speakers.

“Nice warm-up music,” Ali said.

Jordan said nothing. She suddenly wanted to be away from Ali; away from the uncertainty of what to say and how to act; away from the constant awareness that she needed to apologize to Ali for walking away when they were younger.

Running, Jordan thought to herself.

“I should go,” Jordan said awkwardly. “You know, get the kids organized.”

“Sure.” Jordan thought she caught a moment of doubt in Ali’s expression. That couldn’t be. Ali Clarke was never uncertain. “I’ll catch up with Madi.”

Jordan nodded and turned to go, uncomfortably relieved to have Ali out of her line of sight. It was going to be a long night. And an even longer six months.

“Hey, JP!”

Jordan’s heart bottomed out and rebounded, and she closed her eyes at Ali using her old nickname. But they weren’t seventeen anymore.

“Can I buy you a beer later?”

Jordan shook her head slowly. “I’m buying,” Jordan said. Ali grinned and Jordan tried desperately to school her expression before she approached her kids.

Rupert and Sierra were waiting impatiently for Jordan in the ring. They were throwing imaginary punches at each other from opposite ends of the ring, laughing and trading insults. Rupert was smiling, and right now he looked like a boy with a crush. Sierra seemed to like the attention. Jordan made a mental note to check in with Cay, who was her social worker. At sixteen, Sierra had already had a baby removed from her care. She had committed to getting her life back on track and getting her baby out of the foster home. Jordan and Cay planned to help get her there.

“I’m going to take you down,” Rupert called across to Sierra, throwing a wobbly right hook that left his head wide open.

“Not with that, you’re not,” Jordan said as she climbed into the ring. It was easier to focus with the music and the noise of the kids in the background. “Sierra, tell him why you’d have him on the mat with that throw.”


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