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Raw Deal

By:Cherrie Lynn

Raw Deal
Cherrie Lynn

       Chapter One


Savannah Dugas didn't think she'd ever seen a bald eagle in the wild  before. It was somehow fitting that one glided above right now, stark  black against an impossibly blue sky. She could distinguish the  magnificent creature's white head from the darkness of its body, from  the majestic span of its wings. Tommy had loved eagles. He'd had a huge  tattoo of one on his back, fierce and proud, wings spread so wide that  the tips reached each of his shoulders.

She would never see that tattoo again.

As Savannah dropped her gaze from the eagle soaring above to Tommy's  bronze casket, a wash of dizziness overcame her and she thought for a  second that she might faint or throw up. It was no wonder; she'd barely  eaten for three days, but it took all her effort to clamp her jaw closed  and fight the nausea welling in her throat. Strong, she thought, I have  to be the strong one. Her mother's clawlike fingers dug hard into her  right arm, and Rowan leaned heavily on her left. Savannah knew that if  she crumbled the other women would crumble too. Regina Dugas had lost a  son. Rowan Dugas had lost her college sweetheart, husband, love of her  life.

And I've lost my brother.

The minister rambled on. And on. And on. From dust you came, to dust you  must return. Sniffles and soft cries surrounded her. Savannah couldn't  look away from the bright spray of flowers surrounding Tommy's casket.  As she stared, the colors blurred and bled together. He wouldn't have  liked them, she thought. He wouldn't have liked this small, private,  press-free memorial service at the family tomb. Tommy had been larger  than life-maybe so large that life couldn't hold on to him, and she was  certain he would've rather had a jazz funeral or a keg party for his  send-off. But oh no, that would've been too far beneath the Dugas  family's dignity.

Her big brother. Gone forever.

Tuning everyone out again, she glanced back up to watch the eagle. Maybe  it was Tommy peeking in on his own memorial service. Usually, she  wasn't given to such sentiment, but it was a nice thought. I know you're  probably disappointed, she thought to him, closing her eyes. Sorry. I  tried. Maybe everyone would think she was searching the heavens for  answers, but she was only wishing she could fly away too.

A tug on her left arm brought her back down to earth in a hurry. Where  Regina believed in maintaining dignity in all situations, Rowan was  currently beyond all reason, sobbing inconsolably, swaying into  Savannah's side. She kept her face buried in a wad of pristine white  tissues, muffling the anguished sounds tearing from her throat. People's  heads were turning in their direction, faces tear-streaked and  sympathetic.

Savannah put an arm around Rowan's quivering shoulders and pulled her  closer, murmuring soft, soothing nonsense. God, which was worse? Her own  grief or witnessing that of someone whose entire world had fallen  apart?

When Rowan lurched forward, near retching, Savannah steered her away  from the crypt before she could throw up, or worse, fling herself on top  of Tommy's casket and create a spectacle. She felt eyes on their backs  as she helped her sister-in-law away from the service and down a small  hill to a stone bench well removed from Tommy's perfumed mourners. Her  feet practically purred in relief as she sat. Bathed in the warm  sunlight and surrounded by the crypts and mausoleums typical of New  Orleans cemeteries, Savannah couldn't say she felt any better, but at  least she could breathe again.

"Thanks," Rowan said when she could catch a breath. "I couldn't take another minute of that."

"Me either." Savannah swiped away a few tendrils of Rowan's blond hair  that had become stuck in her relentless tears, then glanced upward. The  eagle was still there, circling. "Look up there."

Sniffling, Rowan obeyed, sucking in a small quivering breath. "Oh, wow."

"I know. It's been up there almost the whole time."

"I was with Tommy when he got his tattoo," Rowan said softly, watching  the bird glide lazily on the breeze and dabbing at her eyes with the  tissue. "Every session. He was so proud of it. I always griped at him  about all of the eagle stuff we had in the house, always wanted him to  move it all to his man cave. Damn eagles in every room of the house."  She chuckled sadly. "I know I'll never get rid of them now, though. What  the hell am I going to do, Savvy?"

You're going to get up and you're going to go on, even if it doesn't  feel like it right now. She couldn't very well say that. "You'll be  okay. You know we're all here for you. Nothing will change that."                       
       
           



       

"I feel like this is all a nightmare. I keep waiting to wake up. Praying to."

"I wish it were, Ro. But we're both in it. We're all in it."

"Sorry if I was making a scene."

"You weren't."

"I just . . . God! I had a bad feeling about that fight. I told him I  did, and I can't stop thinking about the way he laughed me off."

"He laughed you off because you had bad feelings before all of his  fights. Neither of us liked it. Mom had to sedate herself every time he  stepped in the cage."

"This time was different, though. Didn't you feel like it was different?" Rowan's green eyes searched Savannah's beseechingly.

"I really didn't, Ro. No more than usual. You never said anything to me about it."

"I know. I only told him." She looked up at the sky again. "Think it's him saying goodbye?"

Savannah shrugged. She'd had the thought herself, but it seemed silly  now. The truth probably wouldn't make Rowan feel any better, though.  "Maybe so."

"If Mike Larson were here right now, I'd spit in his face."

And there it was, the same hate and blame Savannah had been hearing  thrown around since the night of Tommy's ill-fated MMA fight with the  number-one ranked contender poised to challenge the heavyweight  champion.

While Rowan might be brave enough to spit in Larson's face, Savannah  wasn't so sure herself. His scowl alone could make the blood run cold;  she couldn't imagine insulting the man. During all of the prefight  press, she had observed his sullen, ice-blue eyes, arrogant swagger, and  swollen muscles and been damn glad she didn't have to fight him. She  hadn't admitted it to anyone at the time, but she'd felt a little sorry  for Tommy having to get in the cage with him.

"He claims it was a freak accident," she said softly. In the postfight  interviews, she'd noticed some of the iciness had melted from Larson's  eyes. Some of the gravel had smoothed out in his voice; he'd looked  sorry. Sounded sorry. She, at least, wanted to believe he was sorry,  while Rowan wanted someone to blame so she didn't have to feel like fate  would be so cruel as to yank Tommy away for no reason whatsoever in the  prime of his life.

The fight that could make his career, he'd said. He'd trained so hard.  If only he'd known it would end his life-well, knowing him, he probably  still would have taken the risk. The match hadn't been one-sided; Tommy  had given as good as he got, at least in the beginning. She'd had hope.  She'd been so proud. But when he'd begun to run out of steam in the  third round, she'd seen it, and then at the end . . . with one  devastatingly placed blow to the head . . .

Subdural hematoma, the doctors had said. Bleeding in the brain. He'd  been knocked out cold, but he'd regained consciousness only to collapse  again at cage side. After that, he hadn't been able to fight his way  back to them.

She couldn't let herself think about those chaotic few minutes too much,  or she would be in worse shape than Rowan. One thing was for certain:  she didn't think she could ever watch another fight again.

Sucking a deep breath and locking down hard on those memories, she  absently stroked Rowan's back and stared at the distant mourners. God,  would that preacher ever stop preaching? It was all a show to cover the  fact that everything Tom Allen Dugas was, everything he had been or  would ever be, was gone, reduced to a name on the plaque on the family  tomb. Nothing to tell of his accomplishments or his passion or his love  for the woman sitting beside Savannah right now.

"An accident," Rowan scoffed. She didn't elaborate, but Rowan knew her thoughts well enough.

This particular truth definitely wouldn't make Rowan feel better, but  Savannah gave it to her anyway. "What else could it have been? Surely  you don't think he did this deliberately?"

"There isn't a tiny bit of you that realizes Tommy would still be here if not for him?"

"Yeah, but Rowan . . . Tommy got in the cage. He took on the risk. I saw  Larson as bloody as Tommy was. All I saw were two men trying to win a  fight."

"You can win," Rowan said bitterly, "without pummeling the other guy to death."

Savannah fell silent. It was useless, and she guessed it didn't really  matter. Whatever made Rowan feel better, well, that's what she could  believe. Besides, Savannah had looked away the moment things had gone  badly for Tommy, as always. Seeing someone she loved take punishment  like that had always been difficult for her. Thankfully, for that  reason, she hadn't seen the final moments. She never wanted to see  them-ever. Larson had been cleared, Tommy's death ruled accidental. That  was all she knew and all she had to keep telling herself.                       

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