Because all proper sneak peeks come in threes, I present the current manuscript version of the third chapter of the third book in the Three Seconds to Legend book series. I expect to have The Twelfth Labor ready for publication by the end of February. Enjoy and keep your eyes peeled for a few more little tidbits and reveals to come in the next couple of weeks!
Chapter 3 The Steps of the Colosseum
“I hated you for many years, Dana Harding.”
Pai Shi was the first to speak and, despite the lion mask on her face, her face twisted as her lips pulled back sharply. Dana lowered her eyes from the fierce gaze, but she certainly couldn’t deny she had given the Lioness more than a fair share of reasons for that attitude. None of the others spoke as if these were confessionals, more than just the frank talk of friends.
“Ah suppose yew’ve got a fair right to that, Pai.” No better way to tackle it then head on, Dana thought.
“You had the backing of the Von Richters and with that you destroyed career after career. At every turn, no matter how honorably I fought, you were allowed to skate by with whatever dirty tricks came to mind and they looked the other way. You kept me from ever holding championship gold and I swore, one day, we would have a reckoning.”
The masked woman’s hands clenched into fists and she paused, taking several deep breaths. As they came and went, the snarl left her lips and her voice calmed. Dana thought the wise thing was to keep her big trap shut.
“The problem is that you are not the woman you were. You may bear the same name and the same face but there has been an elemental change in you. I know this.” Pai tapped her forehead. “Even so, part of me felt cheated, deprived of my righteous revenge. How could that part not sing when Angela Von Richter laid out this match?
“That is why I did what I did.”
“Ain’t no reason Ah see ta be ashamed of that,” Dana admitted. The Texan caught Pai Shi’s gaze and locked with it. “But we ain’t gonna do ourselves any good if -“
“No,” Pai interrupted. “You need say nothing more. We have a greater foe than our personal squabbles. Still, Dana, I must ask not for your forgiveness or understanding but for a favor. These feelings will not be purged with simple chatter.”
Dana felt Leilana’s worried gaze on her. The Texan only smiled and stretched her good arm across the table with an open hand.
“Ah know what yew want.” She smiled. “After this is over, Ah promise, we’ll settle things.”
Pai Shi regarded that hand as if it were a snake about to bite and gave a sidelong look at Lei. The Hawaiian only nodded slowly. Maybe she was starting to get up to speed on dealing with people after all.
“Agreed.” The two former enemies shook hands and that was that. Pai Shi settled back in her chair looking almost pleased with herself.
One down. Two to go.
Leilana wasn’t sure exactly what had just been agreed to but even she wasn’t so blind that she didn’t see it was a necessary thing between Dana and Pai. At least whatever it was, it was in the future. She looked at the Giovanni family next.
“Well, Mama -” Bambi began hesitantly.
“You go on, sweetling.” Maria’s huge face cracked into a small smile. “You can say it better than I can.” That one short phrase turned the surprisingly downcast Bambi around and she continued her own statement with a smile.
“Mama and I, well, we’re coming to terms.” Bambi nodded. “Yes, that’s the best way to put it. I need to stand on my own more and Mama, well …”
“Bah, don’t beat about the bushes.” Maria folded her arms and made a mock scowl. “Speak plainly. I need to let you stand on your own as much as you must do so yourself.” She gestured with a sweeping arm. “How can a mighty tree grow if it has no space to lay its roots?”
“I don’t think it will be easy for either one of us, but I think we will make it happen.” Bambi nodded with the certainty of youth. “We’re family, after all!”
Leilana smiled and nodded in return. She had learned so much about family just a scant few months ago herself. If only her father and mother could see how far she had come so soon.
“This is not quite over yet, bambina,” the Boar added. She took a deep breath and blew it out through her nose like a snort. Right beside Leilana, Dana pulled her Stetson down over her eyes, no doubt hoping there wasn’t another major problem about to brew.
Maria opened her mouth, stopped, seemed to consider it again, stopped, then Bambi nudged her with an elbow. That finally seemed to spur the large black woman onward.
“You beat me, Leilana, at my own game.” Though the elder Giovanni had admitted as much two weeks ago, it still seemed hard for her to say. “Power, toughness, courage, will, right in the steel cage, you proved the better woman. Si, this has all been said before and I thought I had quelled my jealousy but it is not so easy.”
“Mama has never taken this sort of thing well,” Bambi said. A sharp look from her mother only earned a shrug. “It’s true, you can’t deny it.”
“Maria, I may have won a match against you but that is far from taking your place or being your better.” Leilana spoke slowly, purposefully. She only hoped she came across as thoughtful as she was trying to be. “You have decades of knowledge and experience I do not.” Maria was already opening her mouth and it took Leilana’s raised hands to keep her from interrupting.
“Most importantly, you are the heart of a great wrestling family. How many maneuvers, how many techniques, what kind of secrets do you know that I never will? You will pass them down to Bambi and her children and that chain will go on and on. I cannot be that.
“That is what you are that is so important, Maria. The head of a family, a family that needs you and could never replace you.”
The Boar of Italy sat there, chewing over those words. After a long moment, she silently stood up and began to walk around the table towards Leilana. Bambi followed her mother’s movements with wide eyes. For her part, Pai only acknowledged it with quirked eyebrows.
Leilana looked up at the solid slab of woman looking down at her. Confusion played through her thoughts and, for a moment, she wondered if she wasn’t about to be hit from some unknown offense.
“Get up please.”
“Now wait a moment -” Dana’s complaint was cut short by Leilana raising a hand. She herself said nothing and just complied with the request. This was Vegas after all, best to take a chance and roll the dice.
Maria Giovanni looked down those full eight inches at the Hawaiian girl and suddenly broke into a huge smile. She swept Leilana up into an engulfing hug before kissing both of her cheeks.
“Si, Leilana Ito!” she cried in delight. “That is the granddaughter of the great Nohokai talking. How could I be so blind?” Maria kissed the rather stunned woman on the forehead. “Wise beyond your years, much like my own.”
“Brava!” Bambi shouted with a certain celebratory gusto. As the Boar let Leilana go free from the loving but suffocating embrace, Dana glanced over at Pai and smirked.
“Ah think Ah liked our settlin’ things better.”
“My sincere apologies for your injury, Ms. Harding, and your loss this past Saturday,” Angela Von Richter said with soothing tones. A silver-tongued snake, that’s what came to Dana’s mind as she gave the queen of the GWA a hard stare. As much as she would love to cut the crap and drive a good right hand into the woman’s face, Dana was here on business.
“Ah’m sure yew’re just all broken up about it, ma’am, but don’t yew worry none,” Dana smiled, matching the viper’s smile with a bit of her own rattlesnake. “Ah’ll be fit as a fiddle in no time and, as fer losing, well, mah client won so Ah suppose that sits jes fine with me.”
Two things had struck Dana the moment she had been shown into Angela’s office. First, it was supremely ordered, like some kind of sterile museum. Even the paperwork on her desk was sorted and in almost perfect stacks.
The other thing was the flowers. Beautiful and aromatic, arrangements dominated most of the free surfaces. From the snips Dana’s sharp eyes spied tucked neatly to one side of the desk, she guessed Angela did all the work herself. Too bad all that beauty, just like Angela’s own, was wasted on someone who was so damn ugly on the inside.
“Speaking of your client, I do hope she will be in competitive shape before Saturday.” The rancor in the German’s voice was almost palatable when she made mention of Leilana. “There is quite a bit on the line and I would hardly want it to be a poor performance. The Colosseum is already sold out just from the anticipation.”
“Let’s cut the shit, Angela.”
“Language, Ms. Harding, we’re all civilized here, are we not?”
“Ah admire the set-up, Ah sure do. Worthy of some of mah best shenanigans back in the day. Yew throw wave after wave of crap an’, jes when things look good, yew pull the masterstroke. Beat down the girl with her own friends.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere.” The smile on that angelic face turned from beatific to demonic. “You have no chance of influencing me to alter the time or the date. These things are set in stone. Now, are you going to report to Mr. Kelso and get that contract signed or should we assume Ms. Ito is forfeiting the match on account of injury?”
“Mah girl’ll be there with bells on, don’t yew worry about that.” Dana tried to keep her tones even, not to betray too much emotion, but she couldn’t help but show a little protectiveness. “There’s jes one thing I want out of yew before Ah sign anything.”
“Very well, what sort of request would you like to make?” Angela spread her fine-fingered hands out magnanimously, though the Texan was more curious as to why such a delicate thing had the start of calluses on her fingers. “The management is always open to suggestions from its fine talent.”
“Yew keep the ringside clear. Leave it between those two to settle this once an’ fer all.”
“Interesting. Obviously, when say that, you know that means you as well. No one. No managers, no onlookers, no cheering teammates. For both sides.”
Dana took a deep breath. She knew that Leilana on an even field could take Sunny, no matter what kind of demon she had been turned into. Sure, there was no telling if the Von Richters would stick by a contractual stipulation, but it was at least some kind of insurance from further foul play. As much as she wanted to be there to see Lei make that big win, this was for the best.
“Fine. I’ll let Jeff know and it will be added to the contract.” Angela turned away from Dana and picked up a piece of paperwork. “Now, if you would excuse me, I have a considerable amount of work to do.”
“What I want to know is how this could have happened?” Kentaro Ito growled, leaning hard on his cane. “After all we’ve been through, I would have thought you both would have decided to trust me.”
It had taken a lot of work and attention to renovate the Pane’e Wrestling School from the rundown state Nohokai had left it in. Yes, that had been Ken’s primary focus for these past months but, still, there was no reason that seemed sound as to why neither Marcy or Kahanu, his own wife, would tell him that his daughter had once more been trapped in the web of the Von Richters.
“Ken, please, you have to understand,” Kahanu soothed as they stood around Marcy’s hospital bed, “that the last thing I wanted was for you to give up hope and to fall into that belief in some family curse again. You were happy for the first time in years.” She frowned uncertainly. “I thought, well, what else could we do that Marcy and Dana couldn’t?”
“If you wanna blame anyone, Ken, you’d best be blaming me,” Marcy said with a shrug. “I figured it would be a cinch fer Dana to find her and drag her home. ‘Course, things never seem to turn out as well as we’d hope, aye?”
“I hate to say it, Marcy, but I’ve got to side with Mr. Ito on this one,” Rick Donner said. He had been the one to pick them up from the airport and he seemed now to be Marcy’s top assistant. “Not that Dana isn’t one hell of a tough lady, but it pays never to underestimate the Von Richters. Besides, we’re talking about the guy’s daughter. I’ve got some personal experience in what it’s like to hear about something like this after the fact.”
Though Ken hadn’t quite made up his mind about what to think of Rick, he did give the impression of a dedicated father. He certainly wondered now why exactly he and Dana were no longer together. He pushed it aside, something to worry about another day. Thankfully his own son, Akoni, was occupied, playing with the youngest of the Harding boys.
“That is what galls me most of all. I appreciate trying to protect me, but I have changed. Things are different now. I could have handled it and, surprisingly, I may have even be of some help.” Ken put his free hand on his hip. “So, what is going on now? What is the situation?”
“I’m sorry, dear.” Kahanu put a gentle hand on her husband’s shoulder, which he acknowledged with a brief nod. “Mr. Donner told you everything I knew during the ride over here.” She looked over at Marcy. “I don’t know what has else may now be happening. Why did you want us to come to the mainland?”
“Simple enough to tell ye. Your daughter, the spitfire she is, kicked the arse of everything thrown in her way and now the Girl Hercules herself is set for a championship match in Las Vegas the end o’ this week.” Marcy tapped her forehead. “I had a notion that, all things aside, you’d want to be there to cheer her on.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?” Kahanu asked. “Why wouldn’t those horrible women use that as a chance to snatch us as leverage, just like what they tried with Ricky and Tyler?”
“That incident still surprises me,” Kentaro said. “The Von Richters may be cruel, but that goes beyond everything Nohokai ever said about their love of personal honor.”
“Don’t worry none about that. It won’t happen again. You see, that was all Angela and let’s simply say the other side of the family didn’t much approve. It looks like Elise had to school her sister on the right way to do this kind o’ feudin’.
“Now, I’m not sayin’ this is safe, far from it, but if we show that we’ve got the stones to march into their own little kingdom, maybe it’ll rattle their cages, aye?” The aging Irishwoman had started to gesture fiercely as she spoke and stopped as much from rattling her shattered wrist as anything else, Ken surmised.
“It comes down to this, folks,” Rick added, “We figure that there really isn’t anything to stop the Von Richters from doing this same song and dance again and again ’till the cows come home. Marcy wants to start to push back and I have to agree. This won’t stop until we make it stop and we don’t do that by playing the next game they come up with.”
Kahanu looked confused, but thoughtful. Ken, though, believed he already knew what was being suggested. Taking his wife’s hand into his own, he gave Marcy and Rick a pensive stare.
“You mean to expand, to unify, to fight fire with fire?”
“Aye, Ken. I want ta take back yer father-in-law’s dream. I want ta make up ta his spirit fer the failure I was back then, when I walked away instead of stayin’ at his side.” Marcy’s eyes were distant, nostalgic. “I want ta take back the Global Wrestling Alliance an’ showin’ our backbone is the first step to that end.”
Kentaro and Kahanu looked in each others’ eyes. There was no need for words. They already knew they would each move heaven and earth for their children and they both had loved Nohokai. This was the right thing to do.
“When do we leave?” Kahanu said plainly.
“Well, that’s a relief.” Rick wiped his brow with a smirk. “Now I don’t have to try to get a ticket refund.”
Leilana pressed the cold compress to her cheek, trying to ignore the sharp pain. Despite having such a huge match looming over her head, Dana insisted that the Hawaiian take a couple of days to just recuperate and, well, as much as Leilana hated to admit it, Dana was right. She sat back in the chair by the side of the practice ring, watching the rest of her friends work out the kinks and pains in an effort to get some training in.
Sunday hadn’t been easy but it was encouraging that everyone had come to terms with their faults. Amends were never easy things to make so maybe Leilana could lead people. Maybe she did understand them after all. Now, though, it all came down to her. No matter how solid this team had become, their collective hopes and dreams might very well rest on one match on one evening, squarely on Leilana’s broad shoulders.
As they were preparing in the ring, Pai and Bambi were talking, exchanging ideas for a new hold, when the Lioness held up a hand for silence.
“This is important though, I -” Bambi tried to continue.
“No, it’s not that, Bambi Giovanni, it’s her.” Pai pointed out of the ring, somewhere behind Leilana herself. Unable to deny her curiosity, Leilana turned in her chair, only to lock gazes with Elise Von Richter herself, dressed in a smartly tailored black suit that matched the hard lines and angles of her features perfectly.
“Leilana Ito, please come with me.” Her voice was as hard and cold as the first time they had met. Leilana stiffly pushed up to her feet, but Maria shouted from inside the ring.
“If she goes, we all do.” The Boar pointed a finger at Elise. “We can’t trust a witch like you.”
“Si, Mama’s right.” Bambi started to climb out of the ring. “All of us together or none at all.”
“Are you perhaps afraid, Elise Von Richter? That you will not have the courage to say what you must collectively?” Pai Shi limped up to the second turnbuckle and glared down onto the scene at ringside.
“It would be wise not to try my patience, ladies,” Elise sneered. “This matter doesn’t concern you. It’s a private affair. Family business.” Elise gave a glance at Leilana. “Tell them.”
Though she wasn’t sure what Elise was going on about, there was something in those ice-blue eyes that resonated with Leilana. She turned her head back to the others and smiled at their show of loyalty.
“It is okay, everyone. This is … different.” She looked back at Elise. “I am sure it will be just fine. Go back to practice.” Elise gave the Hawaiian a brief nod.
“Are you sure?” Bambi called out as Leilana already began to walk towards Elise.
“I am quite certain.”
To Leilana’s surprise, they didn’t go far. Instead of going to one of the GWA offices, Elise led Leilana to a small private lounge looking out into the city. With a gesture, she offered a seat to Leilana while she walked to the large bay windows.
“What family business are you talking about, Elise?” Leilana tried to sound tough but it certainly didn’t sound right coming out, no matter how much anger she held towards the Von Richters.
“The quiet voice suits you better, at least out here.” Elise began to carefully stretch and crack each joint of each finger. “The business is simple. I would, after all, be remiss in my duties if I didn’t inform you that the rest of your family will be in attendance this Saturday.”
Leilana was on her feet, fists clenched and anger surging, before she even realized it. Ready to charge, the Girl Hercules was halted by Elise’s cool expression and raised open palm.
“Please, hold the righteous indignation. This isn’t my doing or my sister’s doing. They are coming entirely voluntarily.” She glared at the Hawaiian. “You should know with all that happened in Oklahoma with the Harding brood that I don’t deal in those games.”
“How do they even know about this then if not from you or Angela?” Leilana held her ground, keeping her anger stoked but in check. The problem, of course, was that Elise was a skillful liar. Not like her sister but for someone so socially inept as Leilana was, Elise was clever enough to get most anything past her.
“I don’t know though it certainly didn’t come from here, be it us or any of your ‘friends’.” She shrugged. “Nor is it really any of my concern. As per your contract, they will have fine ringside seats set aside for them. Of course, also in accordance to your contract, you will not get to see them before or after the match either.”
“What if I win?”
Leilana and Elise stared hard at each other, eyes locked and unblinking. Leilana only searched for the truth in whatever dared come out of Elise’s mouth. Elise seemed to be looking right through into Leilana’s heart, as if trying to weigh what degree of courage and determination was there.
“We will discuss your victory after it happens, Ito.” She turned away, folding her arms under her chest. “Until then, I would suggest you do your best to mend and prepare. I can assure you that Ms. Clover has been counting the hours until this contest.”
Leilana let out a harsh sigh and turned towards the door. Elise was right in that but, before she opened the door, right at its threshold, Leilana stopped.
“You make it sound like you never had any doubt that this is how it would end up.”
“That would be because I never did.” There was some shift in Elise’s voice. This was truth. This was coming from the German warrior’s heart.
“You forget that we have matched skill in the ring already. Despite my partner’s failures leading to our defeat, I would be an idiot not to come to recognize your prodigious strengths.” The sneer in her voice was evident as she concluded, “No, none of the common rabble in this league could stop you. That is meant for others of a higher station.”
Leilana nodded slowly and opened the door.
“Elise,” she said as she left, “I swear that nothing is going to stop me.” With surprising vigor, Leilana added one last thing.
“Not even you.”