I couldn't believe it.
That is, I couldn't believe I was here, that Amy and I had flown all the way to Los Angeles to attend a wrestling event at the Staples Center. Who am I kidding? I still couldn't believe I was dating a pro wrestler. No...that was something Amy would do, not me. I always figured I'd end up with somebody more...stable. Like an accountant. Or maybe a funeral director. Definitely not a guy who beats people up for a living.
When I imagined my ideal guy over the years, well, it wasn't Paulie. He only had two of the traits on my wish list: a good heart and a great sense of humor. But then, those two were the traits that mattered most to me.
He'd gotten us front-row seats. We had an unobstructed view of the ring. This was the first time I'd actually attended one of his matches—and I wasn't sure what to expect. Yes, I'd watched him wrestle on TV, but I knew everything was scripted. They knew who would win the match before they entered the ring. Still, wrestlers did get injured, sometimes seriously. If this was all staged, how could that happen? I had so many questions....
He'd told me about his opponent. He said his feud with Mad Dog Mueller wasn't just part of the act. He and the current World Champion really did not get along. How had he put it? Oh, yes—"I hate the dumbass, but tonight, I get to take the belt from him."
That was why he wanted me to be there. He wanted me to celebrate his victory with him. He wanted Amy and me to meet the rest of his family—his parents, his sister, and his brother-in-law, the artist. Meeting his family suggested he was ready to take our relationship to the next level.
I was well past ready. I loved him. I wanted to marry him.
I took a deep breath as the program got underway. Maybe the World Championship wasn't the only thing we'd be celebrating before the night was over....
Mad Dog was in a foul mood. To say he wasn't crazy about the idea of losing the championship—especially to me—had to be the understatement of the century.
"I may have to let you have it, but I don't have to make it easy for you, Cantwell," he growled as he yanked open his locker. "You just might be having your victory party in the hospital."
I laughed, even though a part of me thought the douchebag might be serious. "Just don't forget your trunks this time," I told him. "I can take a lot of abuse, but the sight of your junk flappin' around in the wake of me body slammin' you would be cruel and unusual punishment."
Mad Dog looked at me, eyes narrowed—and growled!
Mike and J.J. came into the locker room. "Hey, Mad Dog—goin' commando for the TV cameras tonight?" Mike asked as he dropped his duffel on the bench.
J.J. laughed, too. "Nobody saw anything last time," he said, pulling off his shirt. "The camera crew would have had to have at least one camera on zoom to catch anything that small—"
Before he could finish, Mad Dog grabbed him and slammed him against the wall, almost choking him. It took both Mike and me to pull him off our kid brother. "Let him go, you stupid dick!" I yelled.
He reluctantly released J.J. and turned his venom on me. "It would be worth getting fired just to be able to keep you from getting this." He snatched up the championship belt and shoved it in my face for a minute, then pulled it away and headed for the exit.
"Like you could!" I called after him.
Mike looked at me, worried. "He's a powder keg tonight," he said. "You better be careful out there."
"Think he meant it?" J.J. wondered aloud.
I tried to shrug it off. "I can handle Mad Dog," I assured them. But I was wondering, too. It was no secret that Mad Dog and his manager, a loudmouthed, brain-dead moron who looked more like Jabba the Hut than a real human being, had vehemently protested the relinquishment of the belt. They'd tell anybody who'd listen that Mad Dog was getting screwed.
Personally, I thought that would make Mad Dog happy. That's the closest to screwed he's ever gonna get.
Finally. Time to head for the ring.
It felt like an eternity, watching match after match on the monitors while I waited for my turn. I wanted to get it all over with, take the belt and get out of here. The championship would have meant more to me if I could win it honestly, but that wasn't going to happen. It's not how things are done in our business. But tonight wasn't really about the championship. It was about Amelia and me. It was about my parents and Robyn and Alex meeting her and her sister, Amelia and Amy getting to know them....
I poked around in my duffel until I found the box—the jeweler's box with the ring inside. Amelia loved rubies, so I got her a ruby and diamond ring—an engagement ring. I was going to pop the question tonight—I'd ask her as soon as we were alone. I'd tell her I'd been thinking of a short engagement and let her decide when and where we'd get married.
I just hoped I wouldn't be popping the question in the emergency room.
I looked toward the ramp as Paulie's entrance theme started to play. AC-DC's Shoot to Thrill...Paulie was an Iron Man fan and thought it the perfect entrance theme. He appeared at the top of the ramp, wearing only black spandex trunks. “He looks pretty hot,” Amy told me.
“He looks even better without them,” I replied, unable to not smile.
He did something called a crotch chop, then started down the ramp toward the ring. As he climbed up on the ropes, he looked down at me and winked.
I waved and wondered if I'd be too much of a distraction for him. Maybe I shouldn't have come.
"It's like watching a gladiator about to go into battle for the hand of the woman he loves," Amy said, seeing a romance to this spectacle that completely escaped me. As much as I loved Paulie, to me this seemed to me more a reality TV show—and like all reality shows, there was little in the way of reality going on.
Then, his opponent emerged to the sound of wild booing and Who Let the Dogs Out? The guy who called himself Mad Dog looked like a rabid dog—a big, incredibly ugly rabid dog. I almost expected him to hike his leg and pee on the ring post to mark his territory.
"Is he actually wearing a dog collar?" Amy asked, amazed.
I hadn't noticed before Amy mentioned it, but he was—he was wearing a thick leather collar with metal spikes. His manager was holding something—he had his client on a leash!
“It's hard to tell which one belongs on the leash,” Amy said. “It's a clear case of the owner being uglier than the dog.”
“I think it's a toss-up,” I disagreed.
"Hey, Harvey!" Paulie called out. "When you gonna get that ugly critter neutered?"
"I'll neuter you!" Mad Dog shouted.
"And maybe a flea dip, too," Paulie taunted. "It's hard to pin him when he stinks like that!"
Mad Dog jumped up onto the ring apron, then turned his attention to me. "Say goodbye to your little friend and his little friend," he snarled. "He gets this belt over my dead body!"
"Hey, MD—you don't have to give me an extra incentive," Paulie shouted.
The bell was rung to start the match. It didn't get off to a good start for Paulie. Mad Dog was tossing him around like a rag doll. "It's like watching the T-Rex fighting the raptors in Jurassic Park," Amy commented.
I might have laughed, had anyone but Paulie been in the role of raptor. This was scripted? Paulie was being paid to have his bones broken? I wanted to jump into that ring and take on the monster myself. "This looks too real," I said in a low voice.
"Paulie's going to become champion tonight," Amy reminded me. "They have to make it look good."
It didn't look good to me at all. Stop it! I screamed internally. Leave him alone! The beating seemed to go on endlessly. “How's he supposed to win the belt if this monster keeps beating the crap out of him?” Amy wanted to know.
“I don't know,” I said, concerned. Paulie had told me they had to make it look good for the fans, but this beatdown was scaring me.
Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse, they took the battle outside the ring. They were fighting brutally on the ramp, hitting each other with trash cans, metal folding chairs, ladders, anything they could get their hands on. Then they disappeared backstage.
“This can't be right,” I worried aloud. “They're supposed to fight out here, where the fans can watch. Paulie was right. This guy's out of control.”
“It's got to be part of the act,” Amy disagreed.
“I don't think so.” I kept my eyes on the entrance at the top of the ramp, waiting for them to come back. Then, abruptly, an image appeared on the jumbo screen above the entrance. Mad Dog was slamming Paulie's head into the front of a truck. Paulie's head was bleeding. “This isn't put on,” I gasped. “They're fighting for real.”
“I don't think so.” Before Amy could do anything to stop me, I pushed my way through the barricade separating the audience from the ring area and ran up the ramp.
“Who's that?” one of the commentators asked.
“I think it's the Punisher's girlfriend,” his colleague said, also for the entire arena to hear.
“The Punisher has a girlfriend? And she's human?”
“She kinda looks human.”
I ignored them. I ran to the backstage area to put a stop to the brutality. I found them near the production trucks. Mad Dog was still slamming Paulie into the front end of the truck. I looked around for something to use that might actually stop the brute. I found an empty beer bottle, grabbed it—and smashed it over Mad Dog's head.
He never knew what hit him. He fell to the floor in a heap.
“Mad Dog Mueller just got taken out by...a girl!” one of the commentators shouted.
Paulie got to his feet and stared at me for a moment. “Amelia—what are you doing back here?” he asked.
“I couldn't let him keep beating you,” I said, dropping what was left of the bottle.
“Do you realize what you've done?” he asked.
“I think I just saved your butt.”
He nodded slowly. “And cost me the championship,” he said slowly. “It's a DQ, a disqualification.”