Excerpt Copyright 2014 by Fran Lee
My first lesson was at eight, and once my student got over his shock at being greeted by yours truly instead of Jose, he seemed to be quite willing to accept the fact that I was a qualified instructor. He grinned at me. “Where’s Jose?”
“He’s overbooked, I understand. I hope you don’t mind the last-minute replacement.” I gave his crisp white gi the once-over, noting his fairly recent black belt.
Solid-looking. Overly confident. Very good-looking. Well aware of it.
“I don’t mind at all.” His eyes slipped over me and I drew a deep breath as I counted to ten. “I’ll bet you could teach me one hell of a lot more than he could.” His voice had dropped to a husky breath.
“I’ll bet so too, but not the way you’re thinking,” I smiled as I bowed him in. “I understand you want to work on some fighting moves today.”
He shook his head and held up his hands. “I don’t want to hurt a woman.”
“You won’t,” I replied. “I hear you have excellent kicks. Let’s see you hit me with one.”
He grimaced a bit nervously. “You’re kidding, right?”
I lifted one brow and waited.
He licked his lips and took a fighting stance, but before he could even move I gave him a quick shove and he staggered sideways, catching his balance. “Whoa. What was that for?” His frown was almost enough to make me smile.
“Your stance sucks. Anyone could knock you off balance, even a hundred and thirty-five-pound woman.”
“Oh really? Let’s see you shove me around now.” He settled into a typical strong fighting T, and I swept his front foot just enough to throw his balance off. Before he could recover I dropped into a scissors and spread his legs like a wishbone, then snapped a kick into his chest and he came crashing to the mat.
“Holy shit. That was fantastic. Show me how to do that.” He was on his feet in one bound, and I shook my head.
“Anyone can learn that. What I want you to learn is to be light—to move quickly—to avoid being swept, tripped, knocked off balance. Got that? If you can’t be taken by surprise and you can’t be knocked off balance, you can manage to stay alive, and even in the movies you can recognize a real martial artist as opposed to a trained monkey."
He hesitated a moment and said, “I think I get it, but you have to show me that stuff. It’s good shit.”
At the end of the hour he wasn’t ready to go. I told him his lesson was over and he said, “I’ll be right back.”
I was wiping the sweat off my face with a soft towel when he came back into the room and said, “I just told Jimmy to set me up for another hour.”
An hour later I went out to the office and found my employer on the phone. He held up his hand to let me know he would be with me in a minute. He finished his conversation, then turned to glance up at me. “You’re off to a good start. You had Lance eating out of your hand.”
“I can’t believe anyone paying a fortune to learn how to do a takedown and how to avoid a takedown. Is he a millionaire or something?” I hung the towel around my neck and sank into the thickly upholstered chair opposite his desk.
He lifted his brows. “You don’t know who he is? Don’t you watch TV?”
“I watch the news, and ESPN sometimes.”
“You don’t watch soaps.” He grinned. “Lance Stevens is the heartthrob of daytime. He makes enough money from what he does to pay for one hell of a lot more than two hours. He was ready to spring for another hour but his manager got him on the horn and told him he had a script to review.”
“Daytime? Oh. No. I suppose I don’t watch much TV,” I replied, swabbing the perspiration from my nose with the tip of the towel. “I think the last daytime TV show I watched was in 1995.”
“Well, you made a hell of an impression on him. Around here, word of mouth is important. If you could impress him, you’ll be in demand.”
I glanced at my watch. “At eighty dollars an hour, I wouldn’t mind that too much.”
“Good, because you have another student waiting, a walk-in. She’ll tell you all about what she needs.”
“She” was the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl. She began to tell me that her daughter needed to learn how to stop a certain contrary young classmate from harassing her and how to defend herself from people who stole her coat and money at school. I gazed at the girl for a moment and sensed that she was embarrassed to be there and unwilling to cooperate, but Mom wasn’t paying attention. I said quietly to the woman, “I teach without audiences. There’s a lounge down the hall. Could you wait in there for Hilary?”
The moment Hilary and I were alone she glared at me and said haughtily, “I don’t need you to teach me anything. I gave my friggin’ coat away. And my lunch money. You can try to teach me but I won’t pay any attention.”
“Did the person need it more than you did?”
She eyed me warily. “Is that a trick question?”
“Not at all. Did the person need the coat more than you needed it?”
“Then good for you but you should have told your mother the truth.”
“She wouldn’t understand.” She crossed her arms across her thin chest and stomped away from me.
“Sometimes people surprise you.” I stared at our reflections in the mirror.
“I don’t tell her much of what goes on at school. I let her jump to her own conclusions and she always does. She’s good at that.”
“Maybe you need to talk to her and make her understand,” I said quietly. “Try telling me. It’ll be good practice.”
I walked around so that I was in front of her again. As I met her blue gaze she drew a deep breath and said, “It’s none of your business.”
“That’s right, it isn’t, but I think you’re very upset about something, and I would like to try to help.”
I saw tears welling in her eyes and she turned away again. “Nobody can help.”
“Does your mother beat you?”
She looked at me in surprise. “Of course not.”
“Are you pregnant?”
She turned and stared at me. “No.”
“Are you dying of some rare disease?”
Her brows knitted. “Not.”
“Let me see, if I keep guessing, I might get warm.” I sank onto the mat and sat cross-legged, gazing up at her.
“Why do you care?” she snapped.
“Because I can see you’re in pain and I’ve been taught to care.”
“You sound like my mother’s shrink,” she huffed, blowing a stray strand of hair out of her eyes. “Adults are all alike. You all try to get inside of my head and tell me I’m all screwed up. I hate that.”
“I don’t believe you’re all screwed up. Just a little upset. It usually helps to talk to someone who doesn’t know you from Adam and won’t try to judge you.”
She crossed her arms over her thin chest once again and said shakily, “It won’t do any good. Nothing will change.”
“Yes it will. You’ll change. You can’t change anything or anybody but you. If you change the way you go at something maybe it’ll work out better.” I shrugged, lying back and clasping my hands under my head and gazing at the ceiling.
She frowned at me. “Aren’t you getting paid to teach me something?”
“Yep, but you don’t want to learn.”
“What’s your name?” she asked, sinking down onto the mat beside me and crossing her legs.
“Lisa,” I said as I started to do crunches.
“Why are you exercising?” She frowned in irritation.
“To keep my muscles in shape. I’ve been pretty lazy lately. Been lying around a lot.”
“What does that do?” she asked as she watched me do them.
“Tightens my abs and belly up so I can take a punch without getting hurt.”
“You get punched?” She eyed me dubiously.
“Sometimes, when I’m not fast enough to avoid it.”
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Sure it does, but that’s life. If you teach karate, you get punched.” I grunted as I finished a set of fifty crunches and lay back to take a deep breath.
“You really are a karate teacher? You don’t look like one.”
“Oh? What does one look like?” I started another set of fifty crunches.
She sighed and twirled her hair absently around her fingertips. “I figured a woman who teaches karate would be…you know. Sort of macho?”
“Some are, some aren’t.” I grinned. I finished the second set and did a reverse shoulder roll to get to my feet, moving a couple of steps away to kick the heavy bag with some solid roundhouses. The bag resounded with deep thuds and the chain shook as if the bag were going to drop.
“Wow. How’d you learn to do stuff like that?” She was standing close beside me when I glanced at her, and I shrugged.
“Anyone can learn this but it takes hard work. Most people start when they’re little.”
“When did you start?”
“When I was about your age.”
“How old are you?” she asked, and I knew she was going to open up in a few more minutes.
“I turn twenty-seven next Saturday. Getting up there, huh?”
She watched me as I threw a few punches, then I heard her ask, “Do you think I’m ugly?”
I glanced at her, my eyes moving critically over her face and body. “Nope. Just a little out of shape.” I decided to take the bull by the horns. I wiped sweat from my forehead with the back of one wrist and said, “Since we’re not really doing a lesson here, would you mind if I dumped this canvas jacket? I feel like I’m melting.” I pulled the gi top out of my belt and shrugged out of it, dropping it nonchalantly onto the mat beside the heavy bag. Her eyes widened and I tried not to grin as I did a few combinations on the bag.
“God, but you are ripped,” she said with her eyes wide. “I wish I looked like that.”
I made a wry face. “Actually, I sort of think I’m too skinny. I don’t keep much fat anymore. I used to have a pretty good shape until I started working out a lot. You lose all those nice curves.”
She gaped. “You think you don’t have a good shape? My God. I’d kill to have your shape. You look great.” She shook her head.
“Oh, I don’t know. Nobody ever thinks they look very good. Have you noticed that?” I did a light leaping change kick. “I guess you could get into shape if you worked out a little, but I don’t know—karate is sort of risky. It’s rough, and most girls can’t handle it. They wimp out. Guys don’t believe we can do it as well as they can.”
She looked as though she really wanted to try something, and I gave her the opportunity by saying, “I guess I could show you a few things—see if you can really do it, if you want. It’s your dime.”
“Well…” She sighed. “I guess it might be sort of fun.”
The rest of the hour flew. She found out she liked exercise and she was sweating too, by the time her mother came and popped her head back into the room. I noted the shuttered expression that came down over her face when her mother appeared, and she said in a drawling tone, “I told you I didn’t want to learn anything.”
I glanced at her mom. “She’s a tough nut to crack. I’m afraid you wasted your money. Maybe later on she’ll want to try karate.” I pulled my gi top back on and said to the girl, “Well, I enjoyed your company. Come back and see me sometime.”
I shook her hand and smiled at her. She wiped a drop of perspiration from her forehead, then said too softly for her mother to hear, “I’ll be back next week but I’m not telling her that.”
When she was gone I glanced at my watch. I had another hour before my noon lesson and I was hungry. I untied my belt and hung it around my neck, then headed for the bathroom. I was just stepping back out of the ladies’ loo when James Rhee’s voice made me jump, and I turned to frown at him.
“You have got to stop sneaking up on me like that. You could get hurt.”
“You have a regular—every Wednesday at ten.”
“The kid. You seem to have the golden touch.”
“No. I just listen well. I don’t think she’ll be learning karate as much as she’ll be learning to deal with that mother of hers.”
“I take it you don’t know who that mother of hers is, do you?” He shook his head at my hopeless lack of knowledge of the elite clientèle we served.
“You’re right. I haven’t the foggiest.”
“Ella Wainwright has had two Academy Award nominations and three Emmys. She’s one hell of a high-powered lady,” he said as we walked along the hall toward the coffee room. “She seemed to be favorably impressed that you managed to get through to Hilary.”
“If she used less of that high power on her own kid, she might get through to her,” I breathed.
“I see we have a crusader here.” He chuckled as we stepped into the coffee room and I grinned at him. I was almost able to conceal my drool.
“Yep,” I replied as I reached for the coffee pot and a clean cup.
“Pour me one too,” he said as he picked up the phone on the wall and dialed a number. “Chun, this is Jim. Send over some Chinese—the usual. Yeah—enough for two.”
Ignoring the feeling that I was his waitress, I poured two cups and handed him his as I went over to sit at the well-polished, Formica-topped table. He sat opposite me and let his eyes move over the opening of my gi top as I stirred a teaspoon of sugar into my cup. I met his gaze, trying not to swallow my tongue at the sudden acceleration of my heart rate, and he said, “You’re quite a surprise, Lisa.”
“Oh? How so?” My voice was almost normal.
“You’re good with people. You’re good at what you do. And you’re a good teacher.”
“Why is that a surprise?” Frustration must have shown in my eyes.
“It’s a surprise because most women with your looks are far too much like Ella Wainwright—self-centered and basically uncaring.” His words made me blink and stare at him.
“My looks? Pardon me, but I do possess a mirror and I don’t exactly find my looks all that wonderful.” I sipped my coffee.
“So you told Hilary.”
“You were spying…”
“I was observing. You did well with the girl and you’ll succeed in teaching her karate as well as self-respect. I thought that your method of getting her interested in trying was…exceptional.” His lips curved and I blushed.
“I’m glad you approve.” How much had he seen and heard? I didn’t like to work out in front of an audience, especially a male audience, in anything quite that brief. I had done it mainly to show the girl that karate was a good way to stay fit, and I knew that I had a well-muscled body. I hadn’t figured I was giving a striptease show.
He took a swallow of coffee and said, “I’d keep my gi top on around Jose, though, if I were you. I seriously doubt he could keep his hands to himself if he ever saw you in your skivvies.”
I’m sure my face was bright red as I glared at him. “I have to remember that you spy. I only did that to show Hilary that exercise can keep a female body strong too.”
“I tried not to look, really.” He chuckled and I wanted to give him a finger-poke to the eyes.
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