James Mason held the katana above his head and tried to still the anxiety that seized his mind. He took a deep breath and allowed himself to feel the familiar weight of the three-foot razor blade in his hands, brushing a thumb across the suede wrapping that covered the length of the hilt. Ignore all but the target before you, he told himself. There was no point in focusing on anything but his objective.
He banished his fear on a quietly exhaled breath, then stepped forward and let the sword fall. The katana struck the target and passed through effortlessly, dropping a freshly sliced section of rolled bamboo mat to the floor. James turned away from the tatami stand, eager to slip from beneath the gazes of the fifty or so students who stood around the room watching. Daniel Summers Sensei approached as he was leaving, however, and patted him on the shoulder encouragingly.
“That was good,” the man said, holding him prisoner before the watchful eyes of the crowd. “Just remember to stay relaxed in the future and let the blade do the work. Your body knows the movement, all you need to do is relax and step forward.” James sheathed his katana, bowed in thanks, then rushed off to the side. He kept his face still as he walked, despite the distaste he felt at being in front of so many people. When he finally came to rest near Cory, his training buddy who had agreed to accompany him to this seminar, he felt the tension bleed out of him. Blessedly, the room’s attention had shifted to the next person who was stepping up to make a cut, allowing James to fall back into a shroud of reticence.
Cory leaned over, nudged James with his elbow, and whispered, “Good job, man. That mat never stood a chance.”
James smiled, but didn’t reply while the class was still in session. Before he and Cory had left Alabama, Ewan Sensei had asked that they not give him a bad name in front of Summers Sensei—one of the country’s foremost instructors in Japanese swordsmanship. Even though James knew the man had been mostly joking, he figured it wouldn’t hurt to be on his best behavior.
Cory, however, seemed to lack such restraint. Not that he was disrespectful, by any means, but he was simply incapable of going unnoticed. James watched as he walked forward, pulled his sword from its place at his hip, and passed the blade through the mat so efficiently that the severed section stayed in place atop the rest of the roll. “Very good!” Summers Sensei called as Cory reached out, grabbed the loose section of mat, and tossed it over his shoulder with a smirk. The gathered crowd of students chuckled at the display. James shook his head with a low, quiet laugh of his own as he awaited his next turn to cut, already steeling himself against all of those watching eyes.
By the time the day’s training had ended and James was driving the rental back toward the hotel, the sun was nearly hidden behind the skyscrapers on the western side of Langford. This was apparently the largest city in the state of Montana and was by far the largest James had ever seen. The sight of it took him by surprise every time he drove back toward the hotel. Between the impressive skyline and the massive mountain range to the southeast of the city, it was a wonder anybody ever did anything besides sit and stare.
“When that chick made three cuts before the mat could even fall, I thought I was going to have to ask her to marry me,” Cory said from the passenger’s seat and James snorted a laugh. Since leaving training, the man had been giving him a play-by-play of the weekend’s events with an exuberance James understood all-too-well. Cory shook his head. “Man, that was a fun weekend.”
“Yeah, it really was,” James said, “We are going to have to buy some of those mats and do this with our guys when we get back.”
“Oh, no kidding,” Cory said. In the following silence, his phone buzzed and he glanced down at it with a growing smirk. “Graham said, ‘try not to strike out tonight.’” He began typing, “Of course, I’m telling him that in order for you to strike out, you have to actually nut up and talk to her in the first place.”
“Ha-ha,” James said, rolling his eyes as they crossed over the shimmering Wallace River, the expansive stretch of water that split the metropolitan city of Langford down the middle, “You’re just mad that the blonde shot you down.”
“She didn’t shoot me down. She said she already had plans for that night,” Cory said, then sprouted a mischievous grin, “Which is why I’m meeting her downtown tonight.”
“Whoa, really?” James laughed, “Nicely done, sir.”
“Why, thank you,” Cory said, sketching a small bow from his seat.
“So, I guess I’ll be without my wingman tonight,” James said.
“You want a wingman, I’ll give you all the wingmanning you need right here.” Cory turned in his seat to face James. “Walk up and talk to her. Boom. Wingman duties fulfilled.”
“Wow. You should write that down for me.”
“Dude, for real,” he said in a more serious tone. “You’re gonna kick yourself if you don’t.”
James blew out a lungful of air as he pulled up to the Marigold Hotel’s parking garage, “Maybe, but what’s the point? We fly home tomorrow night. Why get to know her and then fly across the country twenty-four hours later?”
“Get to know her?” Cory asked with a laugh, then shook his head, patted James on the shoulder, and opened his door, “You’re hopeless, buddy.”
“Thanks,” James laughed as he and Cory climbed from the car and got their bags and training weapons from the back seat.
“I’ll tell you what,” Cory said as they approached the hotel’s side door. “Forget the girl from the bar. Come downtown with me tonight and you can talk to lots of pretty girls.”
James scowled, holding the door open for his friend to pass through. “I would, but I would really like to talk to this girl. If only to prove to myself that I can.”
“You’re actually going to leave me stranded to soothe your ego over a girl you’ve never actually talked to? Who will be there to hold your hand?”
“We both know you won’t be ‘stranded’,” James said with a laugh, “and I don’t need anybody to hold my hand.”
Cory stepped inside and shrugged. “Could have fooled me.”
“I hope she shows up again tonight,” James said, ignoring the jab.
“I think she knows the bartender,” Cory said as he punched the up button to call the elevator. “I bet she will show.”
The doors opened and they stepped through. James hit the button for the fifteenth floor and readjusted his weapons. “You really think I’m just soothing my ego?”
“Yep,” Cory said without a second’s hesitation.
James snorted a laugh and shrugged. “Maybe.”
Before the sun had even finished its descent, Cory was already dressed to the teeth and walking out of the hotel to catch his cab. James wished him luck and turned to throw on a clean T-shirt, his mind awash with thoughts of the girl he and Cory had seen at the hotel bar every night since they had arrived in Langford on Thursday. She had sat alone each evening and he had tried, over and over, to gather the courage to go say something to her. Well, tonight was going to be the night and that was that! James was a single guy in a strange city thousands of miles from home. Who was to keep him from stepping out on a limb? And if she rejected him, then he would fly home and it wouldn’t even matter in the long run.
He spent the rest of his time in the room ramping up his courage and playing out the interactions in his head. It was going to be just like the cuts they had practiced all weekend; relax and step forward. Nothing to it.
When the elevator deposited him in the hotel lobby, he felt his tension return at the thought of going into the bar alone. That girl would think he was a drunk if she saw him sitting there by himself, right? He took a deep breath, silenced his doubts, and walked over to the bar entrance, where a colorful sign above the door read The Drunken Squirrel.
The pretty redheaded bartender smiled at him as he entered, recognizing him from the three nights before. He returned the gesture and took a seat on one of the upraised stools.
“What will you be having?” she asked.
“Any wheat ale will be fine,” he told her. She nodded and moved over to the tap, pouring him one of the local brews. James glanced around the bar in an attempt to find the girl he had come to see, but she was nowhere to be found. He sighed and accepted the beer as the bartender handed it to him.
Two beers later, he was checking the time on his phone as he heard the front door to the bar open. He glanced up in the mirror-wall behind the bar to see who was entering and nearly choked on his ale when he saw her. She glanced around, tucking a few locks of her short brown hair behind her ear as she tried to find a place to sit, then finally settled on an empty table near the bar. As she took a seat, her eyes rose to the mirror, meeting James’s gaze for a brief moment before she looked away. He dropped his eyes to his drink, wishing he hadn’t been staring like an idiot. He vowed to himself to avoid looking in her direction unless followed by getting up and walking over there.
Just as he was breaking his vow for the fourth or fifth time, the bartender surprised him by setting a shot glass full of some clear liquid in front of him, hard enough to splash a little over the side. “This one is on me if you go talk to her.”
James panicked and put on his best confused expression. “Talk to who?” The woman shot him a cynical look and he sighed. “Do you know what she usually drinks?”
“Cosmo,” the woman said, her lips curving into a mischievous smile.
“Yeah give me one of those…”
The bartender whipped up a cosmopolitan, her auburn hair swaying as she reached around behind the bar for the respective ingredients, then handed it over with a wink. James swallowed a lump in his throat and stood to approach the girl’s table, trying to muster up a fraction of that courage he had felt on the drive back to the hotel. However, it seemed his gumption had chosen to take the night off.
When he was halfway there, the girl raised her eyes to meet his. He very nearly turned away then and there, opting to run from the bar at full sprint and take his beer and cosmo straight to the airport. This was a mistake.
“Hi,” James said, the most suave and clever thing he could think of to say to a woman.
“Hi,” she replied with a warm smile. Now that he was finally standing this close, he could see that her eyes were the most beautiful shade of brown. He stood there for a long moment after she had spoken, smiling like an idiot. She glanced at the bartender with a questioning shrug, then back to James. “Um,” she said uncertainly, “is that for me or do you just love fruity drinks?”
“Oh. I love drinks that… I mean, I… Fruity drinks are for women so… You’re a woman.” She raised her brow at him and tried to stifle a smile. “Here,” he said, handing her the drink as the bartender snorted a laugh. James felt the heat rising in his cheeks again.
“Thank you,” the girl said, “Did Lindsey send you over here?”
“Who?” he asked, crooking an eyebrow.
The girl gestured with her head toward the bartender as she took a sip from the cosmopolitan. “Lindsey,” she repeated, “our lovely bartender.”
“Yeah, she told me to come over. But I wanted to already,” he said with a nod that was meant as confidence, but felt more like a stork bobbing for fish. Man, he was fumbling through this. She would turn him down any second.
“You can sit down if you want,” she said, taking another sip of her drink.
James blinked in surprise and felt the tension release from his shoulders as he smiled and sat down, taking a long swig of his beer to allow him time to cover his shock. Relax and step forward. “I’m James,” he said, setting his mug on the table.
“And I’m Charlotte,” she said sweetly.
“Well…” he said, smiling at the girl’s open, friendly attitude, “I’m going to call you Charlie.”
“Are you now?” Charlotte asked with an arch of her brow and a light giggle, “Well then I’ll call you Jamesy.”
“Oh, that’s fine with me,” James laughed. “So, do you live in Langford?”
“Actually, I’m just visiting Lindsey for a few weeks,” she said, then added, “She’s my cousin.”
James smiled. “Awesome. Having fun so far?”
“Sure, if being stuck with her at work every night is your idea of fun,” she said with a sweet smile toward the bartender.
James chuckled as Lindsey scowled over in confusion, apparently not having heard. As he looked back at Charlotte, he noticed she had been watching him. He smiled at her. He wasn’t sure what it was, but something about this girl put him at ease. It wasn’t as if he was usually a shy person—not really—but, even still, he had never felt this relaxed while speaking to a woman.
James and Charlie ended up talking for hours and going through several drinks, until they noticed the bar staff putting the chairs up on the tables and he glanced down at his phone. “Wow, it’s almost 2:30,” he said and she looked down at her phone, her brow climbing.
“You are very entertaining, Mr. Jamesy,” she said as she slid her phone into her purse.
“It’s only because I’m a huge nerd,” he laughed.
“True, but I’m a huger nerd.”
“I believe you mean ‘more huger’.”
“Oh yes, my bad,” she laughed.
James thought back to their conversation—comics, superhero movies, fantasy novels, video games—and nodded, “But yes, I agree. You are the queen of the nerds.”
“The queen?” she asked with a quirk of her brow. “That’s the best you can do?”
“Fine,” he said, forming a mock bow from his seat. “You are the empress of nerds.”
“That’s better. Are you going to be my loyal knight, then?” she asked with a giggle.
“But of course, my empress,” James said, “In fact, if you come up to my room, I’ll show you my sword.”
Her smile faded. “I’m sorry?”
“No!” he nearly shouted, “No, no, no… Like I actually have a sword with me. For a martial arts thing.”
Charlotte’s eyes narrowed. “Hmm. Tell you what. I’m going to get my cousin to drive me home.”
James nodded slowly, Way to blow it.
“But,” she continued, “I will have to come get my car tomorrow anyway; so why don’t you and I have some lunch?”
“I like lunch!” he said, a little more enthusiastically than he probably should have.
“Well, good,” she said, bending down to write her number on a bar napkin, “Shoot me a text with your number and I’ll text you tomorrow with the details.”
Charlotte handed James the napkin and he looked up at her with a smile. “That sounds perfect.”
She smiled at him again before her cousin came up and linked arms with her, escorting her out toward the parking garage. He stood for several seconds staring at the bar napkin with a smile before he glanced once more toward the garage, then turned and headed up to his room.
When he came through the door, he found Cory lying on one of the two beds occupying the small space, playing on his phone. James stopped in the doorway, his brow climbing. “You’re home early. I didn’t expect to see you until tomorrow.”
Cory laughed, “I didn’t expect you would either. But in an unexpected turn of events, I got to meet little miss blondie’s boyfriend this evening.”
“Whoa, what?” James asked, closing the door and crossing over to his bed.
“In her apartment,” Cory continued.
“Oh dude,” James laughed. “Did you have to fight your way out of there?”
“Oh no,” Cory said with a smirk, “I was able to talk my way out of it. Barely.”
“The nonviolent option,” James said with an appreciative nod as he plopped down on his own bed, “Ewan Sensei will be proud.”
“Well, he had just caught his girlfriend with a charming, handsome devil of a man. I didn’t want to add injury to insult.” He tossed his phone to the side and looked over at James. “How did your strikeout go?”
James pulled the napkin from his pocket and waved it around like a victory flag.
Cory sat up a little in surprise. “No shit. Look at you go.”
“We have lunch tomorrow.”
“Well, I will be a good friend and drag you over there tomorrow if you start to puss out,” Cory said with a tired smile. “I need to meet this chick anyway; give you my blessing.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, brother.”
Cory smiled and held out his fist. “Through thick and thin.”
“Through thick and thin,” James said, reaching over and bumping fists with his friend.