|Posted on August 9, 2016 at 9:00 AM|
Shelley dressed quickly, hands trembling, as the fear of her first competition seeped into her mind. She smoothed golden brown strands of hair back into the thick braid that fell just a few inches short of her waist and hurried down the stairs to join the others already sitting on the floor along the edge of their designated mats.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she took long, slow, deep breaths, to help center herself. She tried to clear her mind, seeking the strength she needed to perform this seemingly simple task. Looking her opponents over, she took measure of the eight other women competing in her division. None were from her class at the “Y”. Except for herself, only the younger students from the YMCA had opted to participate in the tournament. Her instructor had pretty much let her know she was on her own because he had to be there for the kids. She assured him she’d be fine.
She’d acted so nonchalant, but truth be told, she wanted so badly to do well. She'd practiced for hours with her two young sons. Still, she reminded herself, the winning wasn’t important. It was progressing that was important, and participating in competition signified progress in her quest to become strong.
Feeling calmer, Shelley exhaled, letting her mind relax. The minute she did, the traitorous organ wandered immediately back to the man she'd run into. Why was she thinking about him? She hated men. Well, most men anyway. Okay, she didn’t hate them, but she sure didn’t trust them. Especially strange men. Still, as men go, that particular one had been quite attractive. Even so, was she really so shallow that a hunky male could distract her from the important task she was about to undertake? She shook her head. What a fool she must have seemed, crawling around on the floor, collecting deodorant and hairbrush. Thank goodness she didn't have anything more personal in her bag.
She rubbed her head, remembering the hardness of his body. Well, she thought, he was an impressive specimen. Even more impressive was his kindness, and, what was it? A calmness. There was a quiet calm that seemed to surround him. Realizing her mind had again wandered, she reprimanded herself, and quickly regained her concentration. While she waited for the tournament to begin, Shelley closed her eyes and desperately strove to “become one with the universe.”
It was only a minute later, however, that the event director began speaking into the microphone, snapping Shelley out of her reflection. He gave a small welcoming speech and went over rules of conduct. “Now I have a surprise for you,” the director continued. “I know we said we were unable to get a celebrity to attend today’s event, but it seems he was able to fit us in after all and he brought along a bonus. So, we’re extremely excited to have with us today two stars of the martial arts world!”
Shelley squirmed around excitedly to get a better view.
“I have the extreme honor of introducing to you a legend in our industry. A Master who has taught other Masters. Three time MART instructor champion and black-belt hall-of-famer, Master Eric Kino!”
Realizing now who she’d run into, Shelley's jaw dropped. She watched Master Kino stand and bow to the crowd and then he seemed to glance in her direction with a slight smile. She looked behind her to see who he could possibly be acknowledging, but there was no one. Me? Is he smiling at me? She was sure steam rose from her red face.
“And we’re very pleased and excited to introduce to you Master Kino's son, star of Shadow Warrior, The Lone Wolf, War Zone, and To Master the Art, just to name a few.” The applause all but drowned out the announcer. “I'm sure you all know– Ricky Kino!” The gym was filled to its four thousand capacity, making the wild applause and whistles deafening. Ricky stood and bowed to the audience very seriously, then broke into the famous broad smile, waving to all.
Shelley joined the crowd, applauding long and hard. Ricky Kino! The boys are gonna die. Oh, how I wish they could be here. She’d taken her sons to see Shadow Warrior just before they'd left to spend the summer with their dad. She couldn't wait to tell them.
“After our forms competition, Ricky will be honoring us with a demonstration.”
The crowd erupted again. It took the director several minutes to regain control and get the tournament underway.
While the women in her arena were called on to perform, sudden stage-fright overtook Shelley. Maybe I won't compete after all. I don't really need to. I have nothing to prove to anyone. She wanted desperately to rationalize her way out of it, but she couldn't. She really did have something to prove, if not to anyone else, at least to herself. She hadn't fought two years ago. She'd laid there and let him touch her. As usual, her stomach churned at the memory. She would not just sit idly by today.
Pushing the unpleasant memory aside, she tried to focus her mind on something else, anything else, and found herself thinking of Master Kino. Had she really asked him if he was competing? She shook her head and groaned inwardly. He must have thought her a complete idiot. She should have recognized him or at least realized he was not just a regular competitor.
Her head jerked around, the blood draining from her face as she realized her mind had been wandering all over the place, when she should’ve been paying attention. They called her name again, and she pushed herself into action. She rose and bowed, out of respect to her domain, which in this case was the mat, her home for the next few minutes. She walked bravely onto it, purposely avoiding any eye contact with the head judges' table.
In a voice as loud as she could muster, she called out the name of her form, her instructor and school. She then addressed the three judges sitting to one side of the arena. “With your permission I will begin.”
The judges nodded. She backed up three steps to the exact center of the mat, bowed and took her stance. Forms, hyungs, or katas, require intensity and concentration in order to be properly executed. The forceful yet fluid movements are to be “thrown” as though each blow lands on an imaginary opponent. Inner vision and discipline are necessary. The judge can count off for the slightest variation such as an arm too high, fingers not together, foot turned out too far.
Shelley had worked hard perfecting her form. Every muscle of her body from her fingertips down to her toes was tense, yet she moved smoothly and gracefully as she stepped and kicked first one invisible opponent to her left then the other on her right. She became completely immersed, imagining the attackers coming at her from each side.
“Watch her and tell me what you think,” Eric said to Ricky as he pointed to the woman with the long hair in arena two.
Ricky waited for her to finish. “She's a looker, but I guess that's not what you mean, huh?” When his father didn't answer he got serious. “She has potential,” he allowed. “Someone you know?”
“Someone I'd like to know,” Eric answered softly without taking his eyes off her.
“Hmm,” Ricky considered. “I see.”
Eric turned his head. “You see what?”
“Oh, nothing,” Ricky answered with a sly smile.
Ignoring his son, Eric folded his hands together and rested his chin on them. He watched as she finished and returned to sit beside her mat, thinking about how she'd looked up at him in the lobby. He'd nearly grabbed her by the shoulders proclaiming her “the one.” He'd looked into beautiful, big, brown eyes and felt hypnotized. He'd seen those eyes before, in his dreams.
She'd blushed under his gaze which made her appear quite innocent. He'd had to fight an overwhelming urge to wrap his arms around her and comfort her. The need to protect was strong. Now that he’d found her, it seemed obvious that his task is to train her. Ricky was right, the woman in his dream and the student he is to teach for the MART are one and the same. And he probably has been led to her to train her because there is some unfortunate event lurking in her future.
So positive now of the direction he should take, he wondered how he should approach her about becoming his student. If he explained to her how he's seen her before in his dreams, she’d think him a lunatic. However, he knew he cannot let the opportunity to meet her go by without taking action. Nothing to do but go with instinct. He was pulled from his thoughts when the forms competitions in each category neared their end.
Eric turned to his son. “Ready?”
“Always,” Ricky grinned.
Ricky stood and stretched his thick, muscular arms above his head then walked back to a clear space behind the table to limber up. Eric pulled a box of boards out from under the table. Ricky would blast them to bits in his demo.
A group of kids leaned over the railing, looking down at Ricky as he warmed up. Ricky glanced up grinning and waved. They shrieked with laughter.
Leaving his son to his antics, Eric looked back to arena two but they had been dismissed. Rising, he walked slowly through the crowd and up the steps, but didn’t find the person he sought. He went into the lobby, grabbed a bottle of water and spoke to a few teenage boys who asked his thoughts on a particular defense movement. He set them straight. “The best defense is offense. Don't mess around. End it and end it quickly. Then there is no room for error.”
He shook their hands, autographed their programs and started back, but pulled up short. There she was, at the top of the stairs, gazing out over the crowd. She’d changed out of her uniform and was dressed now in jeans and an airy white blouse. Light brown hair with streaks of gold, still crinkly from the braid she'd worn earlier, cascaded over her shoulders. It wasn't cut into one of the day's trendy styles. Instead, it flowed down her back in long, golden curls. It added to her inherent femininity and made a statement that she wasn’t your average woman. He found himself longing to comb his fingers through the thick curls.
Eric watched her for just a moment as she went up on her toes and leaned over the railing, looking down on the activities below. Her hair stopped just short of a trim waist. Her jeans hugged her bottom. Man, what was he thinking? He sighed. He was thinking like a man and not like a martial arts instructor, because he envisioned running his very lethal hands all over that firm backside. Getting himself under control, he strode up to her and lightly touched the small of her back to gain her attention. She stiffened and spun to face him.
“Hello Shelley,” he said softly. “Sorry if I startled you.”
“Oh,” she said, drawing a breath to calm herself. She smiled at him. “You know my name?”
“I heard the judges call you. By the way, you did well.” He watched for a reaction in her eyes, but she looked down too quickly.
“Thank you, Master Kino.”
“Please, call me Eric,” he insisted.
She looked back up at him, nodded in agreement. “Have you seen the scoring results?”she asked anxiously.
He shook his head.
She shrugged. “It doesn't really matter. I'm just glad I got through it. This was my first competition and I was extremely nervous.”
“If you were nervous, I certainly couldn't tell.” Eric gazed into her eyes. He could glimpse something in her. A quiet strength. He smiled at her. Simple words had been spoken. Nothing of importance. Yet the feeling something of magnitude was taking place was hanging there, waiting for him to grab it.
Eric watched her as she glanced away, looking out over the huge gym as down below, competitors and their families ran helter skelter, trying to find the place that would offer the best view of Ricky Kino’s demonstration. He told himself it was merely the master observing a potential student, yet there was a certain pull that he couldn’t ignore. She was extremely attractive, in a simple sort of way. There was an innocence about her, a sweetness. And, well– and she was sexy as hell, he admitted, though he would have to quell those kinds of thoughts. He was here to help her. In his dream, she'd been in peril. He needed to keep his mind clear if he is to help her, and the need to help her was strong.
“Are you staying for the rest of the tournament?” he finally asked.
She turned back. “Oh, yes I wouldn't miss any of this for the world,” she gushed. “It's all so wonderful and everyone's skill is amazing. I just love it!”
Her face was a delightful pink, her eyes sparkling, her enthusiasm refreshing. She rolled her eyes and he knew she silently reprimanded herself for getting carried away.
He paused, took a deep breath. “So, please don't think it too forward of me, since we've only just met, but, when this is over I'd love to have you join me for dinner.”
He watched her face go from pink to fire engine red.
Shelley went over his words in her mind, making sure she really did hear what she thought she'd heard. Master Kino just asked me out. This can't really be happening. Why me? Why would this man ask me to dinner? Maybe it's like you always read about celebrities, they have girls in every town. One night conquests. I don't even know if he's married. Why me? Does he see me as a groupie that would be just too easy to pass up? No. It can't be like that. He is, after all, a Master and someone in the public eye. He’d want to show irreproachable behavior, wouldn’t he? If he just wanted to find a girl to have for a night, he could have his choice of any of the women here, most who are younger and beautiful and— Oh, what am I doing? Okay. Okay. Get a grip. I’d be perfectly safe with him. This is a once in a lifetime invitation. What could it hurt? Besides, the boys would never let me hear the end of it if I were to turn down Ricky Kino’s father.
“Well,” she started slowly, trying to think of a clever way to accept his invitation. Nothing came to mind. “I'd love to,” she finally blurted out.
“Wonderful,” he beamed, hitting his fist gently against the railing. “May I meet you in the lobby as soon as the tournament is over?”
“I’ll be there,” she said, nodding her head.
“See you then,” he said as he walked away, pulling out his phone immediately. He needed to rent a car.
Shelley watched him walk, his well-muscled arms swinging down from broad shoulders. Her eyes followed to the trim waist, powerful buttocks and magnificent thighs. He was dressed for the occasion in black silk Kakama pants that were snug at the waist, ballooning out at the sides and a black silk sleeveless shirt. His hair, also like black silk, was back in a queue, swaying gently as he walked. His voice had been soft, yet commanding. He'd spoken her name in a way that moved her. A soft caress, almost as if he'd touched her cheek.
Taking a deep breath, she told herself she was not hallucinating. This really had happened. She'd come to a tournament, met a martial arts master and he’d asked her, yes her, out to dinner. Not any of the gorgeous young girls in any given direction. Her. Why? And why, with her aversion to men, had she accepted? She should be terrified to accept an invitation from a man she’d just met. So why did she? Because, she thought, somehow, he made her trust him.
Shelley maintained her place at the railing as the room grew quiet with anticipation. The announcer needed no other words than the few he spoke. “Ladies and Gentlemen— introducing, Ricky Kino!”
Accompanied by the roar of the crowd, and dressed in a black and gold martial arts uniform, Ricky entered the floor at a run, turned five back hand springs, ending with a full layout. He bowed and waited for the narration.
“In the martial arts, nothing is as important as your reaction time in defending yourself against an attacker. If you’re ever caught with your pants down —”
The laughter made speaking impossible for a few moments while Ricky joked around, pretending to check his waistband.
“If you’re ever caught with your guard down,” the narrator corrected, “it's all over and you may very well have made a fatal mistake. In actuality, it isn’t reaction as much as anticipation. Some call this instinct, some magic. Whatever you prefer, it is a skill that with enough practice can be acquired by anyone.”
All eyes were riveted on Ricky. Shelley was amazed at how quiet the room had become when just moments before the crowd noise had been deafening.
“For the next few minutes you will be witnesses to a type of martial arts paint ball, minus the paint, of course. Nothing has been preplanned. When a lethal punch is thrown, you must stay down. Let’s see how Ricky Kino fares against these guys. By the way, he’s never met any of them before today.”
Shelley watched Ricky prepare to fight five black belt assailants. His body tensed for a moment, then suddenly he straightened and shook his head, wagging his finger. One of the assailants didn't have on his head gear. Ricky motioned for him to put it on.
“What about you?” the young man asked.
“I'll take my chances.” Ricky grinned.
Shelley giggled along with the crowd at the banter even though it was obvious it had been scripted. Finally, the competitors swung into action. Ricky was amazing as he worked against the men. It became quickly evident Ricky wasn’t just a movie artist. His skills were real. With Master Kino for a father, Shelley figured that was as it should be.
When the five attackers were down, the audience stood and cheered, none more enthusiastically than Shelley. Next Ricky grabbed the nunchakus from Eric, in this case a pair of bright red and black hard wooden sticks joined by a chain. Ricky spun them around to get their feel.
Suddenly, he stopped, dropped the weapon to the floor. Much to the delight of the young girls in the crowd, he untied his belt, and pulled his uniform top over his head. Shelley had to admire him along with the rest of the crowd. His golden skin glistened with perspiration, his broad shoulders and rippling abs eliciting “oohs” and “ahhs” from the female assemblage. One even called out, “I love you, Ricky!”
There was laughter as Ricky looked up and blew a kiss in her direction. An excited scream, more laughter.
A murmur of admiration hummed through the crowd as he warmed up by working through a series of movements with the nunchakus. His speed was incredible. He then proceeded to demonstrate his skills using kicking pads as targets, held by twelve assistants. The weapon made a loud “pop” as it hit each pad. A back somersault, “pop” as he hit another target, then speedily to all sides of the circle, more pops. It began to sound as if someone had set off a string of firecrackers. The audience roared.
In the last part of Ricky's demo he broke boards using hands, feet, elbows and fists. When he finished, Ricky knelt on one knee as thundering applause rocked the arena.
He finally arose, looked up smiling, bowed and ran off the floor. Immediately the tournament was set back in motion, but Shelley kept her eyes on Ricky, as he joined his father. Eric threw a towel at his son and patted him on the shoulder.
Shelley studied them both, deciding they were quite a pair, and apparently very close. They looked like brothers, she thought. She felt intense admiration, and was thrilled to have witnessed such perfection. Since Eric was the “Master”, Shelley wondered if he ever gave demonstrations.
Moving down the steps, she settled into a seat. This tournament had been a long time coming and she wanted to soak in every bit of information she could. Soon enough it would be over and she’d sit across the table from Master Kino and speak with him, and listen to him and— Oh my God! What could I possibly have to say that would interest him? Get a hold of yourself. Talk about the tournament. That's it. The tournament. Now sit and watch, you need conversational ammunition. With as much patience as she could muster, she sat back and waited for things to begin. Things like– the free sparring– the weapons' forms– and her life.
One of the judges spoke into the microphone. “Attention everyone. Before we move on to the next portion of our tournament, we want to announce the winners of the form's competitions.”
Eric looked up, curious to see Shelley’s reaction. He knew exactly where to look because this time he hadn't let her out of his sight. When they called her name for third place her expression fell and his heart went out to her. During their brief conversation she’d told him that winning didn't matter, yet he could see that it had.
He watched as she leaned forward, her elbows resting on her knees, her head in her hands, a childlike pout on her face. He had to smile. She was very readable and entirely too cute. He blew out a breath as he thought of his base reaction to her, acknowledging the fact that he found her extremely appealing. Shaking his head at his weakness, he struggled to push the thought from his mind.
When the women's sparring began Shelley sat totally entranced. Could she ever progress far enough to be able to hold her own in a sparring match?
Shelley noticed one girl in particular who stood out from the others. She was beautiful. Shoulder length blond hair, tall and lean. A Taekwondo brown belt with a killer smile. She glowed with confidence, practically oozed with it. Shelley picked her to win and the woman did, with ease.
When the tournament finally ended, Shelley watched as one by one the names were called and Eric and Ricky handed out trophies, ribbons, and certificates to the participants. Unable to sit still during the long awards presentation process, she freshened up in the restroom and headed toward the lobby to meet Eric, excitement and apprehension building.
Slowly, to calm herself, she strolled around, reading the plaques and trophies on display. Her daughter, soon to be a college freshman, had just graduated from this school. Shelley searched for and found Bree's name on the most recent cheerleading plaque and allowed a proud smile to cross her lips.
Ambling around to the doors, she peered out. The early June temperatures had already reached record highs. Heat waves distorted the street and cars, but Shelley didn't mind the heat. In fact, she loved it. She loved getting into her car after it had been sitting in the sun with the windows up. It was comforting, like slipping into a hot bath.
She turned as people began filing into the lobby area, signaling an end to the day's proceedings. Several of the female competitors entered the lobby together. Shelley went over to offer her congratulations to a few of the winners.
“Thanks,” drawled the pretty blonde Shelley had chosen to win her division. “I watched you do your forms. You were pretty good but you should think about competing in the sparring. That's when it really gets fun. I think you could probably do well.”
Before Shelley could answer another piped in. “Look who's talking, Angel. You do pretty well yourself.”
“Yeah,” a third teased. “As long as there are male judges.”
The blonde placed her hands on her hips and pursed her lips in a strategically cute little pout, obviously accustomed to using her beauty to get whatever she wanted, but not liking anyone to accuse her of it.
The blonde changed the subject. “Speaking of looks, what did y'all think of Ricky Kino?”
A much better subject, Shelley thought. It certainly piqued her interest.
“God, he was fantastic,” one woman answered.
“Forget fantastic, did you see that body? He's gorgeous.”
“Yeah, and don't leave out his dad. Girl, you can see where he gets it.”
“Oh yeah, the man is definitely fine.”
“I'd love to have a daddy like that,” the blonde purred, causing giggles to erupt.
“What was the dad's name again?”
“I don't remember, I only remember how his biceps bulged when he handed Ricky the nunchakus. After that, it's all blank.” More giggles.
Shelley decided to speak up and help out. “His name is Eric.”
“Yeah, that's it.”
“No, it's not Eric, is it? Are you sure?”
Shelley smiled. “I'm positive. It's Eric.”
A sneering smile from the blonde. “Whatever it is— all I know is, I bet he looks as good under his shirt as his 'little boy.'”
“And if anybody can find out, it's you,” Angel's friend assured.
Jealousy reared its ugly head. Shelley tamped it down. Jealousy rooted itself in low self-esteem. She was working on that.
The blonde grinned with the challenge. “I suppose little old me will just have to see what I can do.”
Shelley could only roll her eyes.
“You see what you can do, Angel, and I'll baby-sit the ‘little boy’,” Angel’s friend offered.
Shelley considered telling them she had a date with Eric, but she came up with two good reasons not to say anything. First, she passionately hated catty females and she wasn’t about to join their ranks. Second, they probably wouldn't believe her anyway. She barely believed it herself.
She endeavored to find a polite way to leave the group while the women continued raving about and lusting after various parts of the two men's anatomy. However, before she could excuse herself, one of the ladies nudged another and whispered loudly. “Speak of the devil.” She nodded in the direction just behind Shelley. “Oh, God, here he comes.”
Shelley turned, feeling chills popping out all over her body. Master Eric Kino approached the women, his eyes on Shelley. Smiling, he joined the group, sending temperatures and heartbeats through the stratosphere.
“Hello, ladies. I trust you all had a good time today.”
The blonde gave a feminine squeal, spoke in her very best southern drawl. “Oh myyyy, yes!” She extended her hand. “He-ey, my name is Angel.”
Eric clasped her hand. “A great pleasure to meet you, Angel. I'm Eric.”
“Oh, I know who you are,” she tittered.
The others began offering hands and blurting out names.
Eric took each lady's hand as they introduced themselves. All, except Shelley, who was succeeding in self-control.
Angel nudged her. “Speak up, honey, don't be shy. He doesn't bite. Introduce yourself.”
Shelley knew the words Angel spoke had been constructed to make her feel small and look silly. And it worked. What she didn't know was if Eric purposely rescued her with his words and actions. He turned to Shelley with a familiarity that didn't yet exist, and gently brushed a stray hair back from her face, which for the umpteenth time that day, had reddened.
“This one I already know,” he said softly.
The others looked on, their faces a mix of surprise and envy. There was an eternal moment of awkward silence, which Eric finally shattered. “Are you ready to go?”
He lifted Shelley's bag. “Excuse us ladies,” he nodded as he turned and placed his hand on the small of Shelley’s back. She was tempted, so tempted, to turn to the group and make some kind of gesture, like– what? Stick out her tongue? No, no cattiness. She held her breath at the feel of Eric’s warm hand resting gently on her back. The evening was about to become very interesting.