“Oh for God’s sake.” Fred groaned as we walked out of the locker room into the NorCal University fencing club’s training area. The fluorescent lights gleamed on his bald spot as he shook his head. “I was hoping that asshole wouldn’t be back.”
I looked around. “Who?”
But a split second later, I knew the answer.
The crowd was light today as it often was in the afternoons, but every piste was occupied by sparring pairs. Most were in decent form, including a sizable portion of the novices. The footwork was solid, even if the blade work was a little clumsy. Pairs moved back and forth as one person gained the advantage, then the other, then the first again. Blades clanged and clicked and scraped.
And on the second to last piste there was one of those juggernaut assholes who frustrated the novices and irritated the advanced. His technique centered around aggression and nothing else. With no finesse and no real control, he drove his opponent to the end of the piste until she was rocking back on her heels to avoid his foil.
I rolled my eyes. “Another one of those.”
“Mmhmm,” Fred grumbled as he pulled on his glove. “Seems like we get one or two every year. That one came in last week, and now he’s back. Oh joy, oh joy.”
I gave a quiet sniff of amusement. As we watched, the cocky prick scored the winning point against his opponent, knocking her back a step. They both lowered their foils, and she tucked hers beneath her arm so she could take off her mask and gingerly rub her shoulder. He also took off his mask. His fair skin was flush, dark hair damp enough to curl around the edges. I suspected he was in his mid-twenties or so, and even if he wasn’t a good fencer, he obviously kept himself fit. Maybe a weightlifter? A basketball player? Too lean for football, too built for a runner.
And entirely too young for you, Budnikov.
They were both oblivious to me, fortunately.
Ending their bout, they shook hands. Well, at least someone had taught him that much. His sweaty, beaming face was as smug as it was handsome, though, which dampened the sportsmanship of the moment. His scowling opponent muttered something to a friend as she left the piste.
I hated fencers like him. They weren’t even fencers—just brutes with foils. Like so many jackasses before him, this kid had won by virtue of being so violently aggressive that his opponent couldn’t retaliate.
The woman tossed her blonde hair as she and a friend strode toward the locker room. Her features were taut and her eyes narrow, irritation radiating from her as palpably as arrogance radiated off her opponent. Understandably so, too—she was probably a competent fencer, but she’d been too busy defending herself to get a thrust in edgewise. A win for him in the end, but abysmal form.
Abysmal form that wouldn’t hold up against a seasoned fencer.
“You know.” I adjusted my mask under my arm. “I think he needs to spar with someone who’s more on his level.”
Fred looked at me and grinned. “You gonna show him who’s boss, eh?” He slapped my shoulder. “Go get him.”
I chuckled and headed for the piste.
The idiot was challenging another fencer—someone his own size who was wisely uninterested after watching the last bout.
“Looking for someone to spar with?” I asked.
He turned toward me and grinned, brown eyes still gleaming from his victory. “Bring it, old man.”
I raised my eyebrows. Old man? I probably had twenty years on him, but… “All right. You’re on.” We’d see who the old man was after I’d cleaned the floor with his arrogant hide.
Las Palmas Fencing Club, my non-collegiate team, was much too quiet on the weekends for my taste, and my own university’s club was lacking in members and equipment, so while I worked at prodding for more funding and exposure, I fenced here sometimes with friends from the faculty. Usually, it was an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, especially if some of the humanities professors showed up. While I tried to maintain a certain level of decorum, I wasn’t above some good-natured science-versus-humanities trash-talking.
Once in a while, though, we had these boys show up to lord their “talent” over the less experienced members. Usually all it took was a skilled opponent or two giving them a lesson in humility, and they’d either leave or pull themselves together.
Your turn, kid.
We stood on the piste and put on our masks. He gave a half-assed salute, which I expected. I refused to do the same, and gave a proper one—touching my hilt to my mask, then making a downward sweep with the blade. The whipping sound of the weapon slicing through the air made him jump. Good.
I sized him up as we faced off. He was slightly taller than me, so probably hovering just above six foot, but he was a fraction of an inch narrower in the shoulders. If this were wrestling, we’d have been evenly matched. In fact, he’d probably have had an edge since he was at least twenty years younger than me, and although I kept myself in peak physical condition, there was something to be said for the stamina of youth.
A lot of things to be said about it, I noted as I gave him a subtle down-up glance. He was much too young, but had we been a few years closer together—
I shook the thought away. I was here to fence. To put him in a much-needed place of understanding that precision and discipline overrode youth and brute strength.
His stance was all right—his feet were more or less in the correct position, though he held his blade higher than I would have suggested and bent his elbow too much. His shoulders were straight, though he hunched forward just slightly. Preemptive aggression, which was no surprise from a fencer like him. The match hadn’t even begun and he was already poised to attack. I was honestly surprised he wasn’t bouncing on the balls of his feet like a boxer before the bell.
I watched him, subtly adjusting my grip on my foil.
Oh, my arrogant boy. Fencers like you are a dime a dozen.
Fred stood beside the piste. “En garde. Prêts. Allez.”
Instantly, the kid went on the offensive, advancing rapidly and thrusting his blade at me just before he lunged. If there was one thing that didn’t intimidate me, though, it was an opponent coming at me like a fucking bull. Especially when I knew he had little if any control over his blade.
I stood my ground and casually parried, redirecting his foil to go past my shoulder. Inertia kept him moving, and before he could recover, I riposted without even bothering to move my feet, thrusting at him with my own foil and letting him run right into the tip.
He hit it hard enough to bow my blade, and gave a satisfying grunt.
“One point.” Fred didn’t bother hiding his equally satisfying smirk.
The kid rubbed the spot where the foil had hit him, but his head was turned enough for his mask’s mesh to obscure any scowl or glare he might’ve worn. No matter. I’d made my point, as it were.
We took our positions again. Now I could see him, and he locked eyes with me, his fierce determination palpable from here.
“En garde,” Fred called out. “Prêts. Allez.”
Predictably, he came at me again. I humored him, and retreated. Most likely thinking he had the upper hand, he attacked even more aggressively. I planted my feet, redirected his foil to the empty space above my shoulder, and scored my second point in his gut.
He swore, but only loud enough for me and perhaps Fred to hear.
All around us, people clapped, and a few chuckled. There were no shoes squeaking on mats or blades clanking against blades, so I could only assume everyone had stopped to watch.
Fine by me.
“How many points?” I asked my opponent as I tugged at my glove. “First to five?”
“Sure. Yeah. First to five.”
The third point was another easy one. He attacked, and in a heartbeat, he was wearing the point of my foil just above his hip.
He was angry now, and it showed. The tension in his shoulders was visible through his jacket, as was the way they rose and fell with heavy, frustrated breathing. Even with his thick glove on, it was plain to see how tightly he was gripping his foil. I supposed now wasn’t the time to point out that if his hand was getting tired, there was a very simple solution.
“Allez.” Fred had barely given the command, and my flustered opponent was coming toward me. This kid probably had no idea how predictable he was. Like any novice, he attacked with his blade, not his feet, and all I had to do was wait for his center of gravity to shift before I retaliated.
He came forward, blade already extended. I planted my feet and parried hard, using my blade to shove his aside, which sent his flying out of his hand while he stumbled to avoid crashing into me. Before his weapon had hit the floor, my own jabbed his pectoral. He grunted, though I couldn’t tell if it was pain or frustration. Likely both, given how hard he and the blade had collided. As it was, the impact reverberated up my arm and into my shoulder.
Like before, I’d barely moved. All I’d had to do was deflect his aggressive attempts and casually let him hit my weapon.
“Damn it,” he grumbled, and rubbed the spot as he stooped to pick up his foil.
While he wasn’t looking, I grumbled a curse and rubbed my right hip. We’d barely moved our feet, but just assuming my stance had been enough to make some muscles protest. Maybe in my twenties I’d been able to do this without warming up, but that practice didn’t entirely agree with forty-five. I’d need to stretch properly before I sparred with anyone else.
“Misha’s next point wins.” Fred chuckled. “You might want to try scoring, kid.”
My opponent shot him a glare that was visible even through the mesh, and I suppressed a grin behind my own mask. I felt a bit sorry for him now. He’d have some bruises tomorrow, I guessed, but his pride had probably taken more of a beating than anything. Which had been my intent, of course—nothing brought a cocky son of a bitch down a peg like being beaten by someone who knew how to play the game. Humiliation wasn’t my idea of fun, but I’d been a fencer like him in my younger days. This was the kind of wakeup he needed to either go find another sport or pull his head out of his ass and learn to fence properly.
By now, I was pretty sure I’d made my point. I was tempted to call it a match and save him the additional blow to the ego, but he took his position.
When the match began, he didn’t move.
A few seconds passed. He was twitchy, adjusting and readjusting his too-tight grip, but he didn’t move.
Finally—I can fence.
I advanced, driving him back a few steps, and when he was off balance, I lunged. A second too late, I realized I’d overextended my lunge enough to make my knee twinge. The heartbeat of distraction gave him enough time to parry my blade.
As I retreated, I gritted my teeth behind my mask. I didn’t dare let myself limp visibly. No way was I giving his “old man” comment any mileage. Ignoring the ache, I retreated, and studied him, wondering if he’d wised up, or if he was just waiting for the opportunity to attack.
I feinted, smacking the toe of my shoe on the piste.
Immediately went on the offensive.
And ran right into my foil.
Tsk, tsk. You almost had me fooled into thinking you were learning.
“Five points to zero,” Fred announced. “The bout goes to Mikhail.”
The kid muttered something as he took off his mask, ruffling his sweaty, dark hair as he did.
Shame about the age and attitude, I thought as I gave him another quick down-up while my eyes were still hidden by my mask, because he is certainly not lacking in appearance.
He wiped some sweat off his brow and, still breathing hard, extended his other hand. “Good match.”
“Likewise.” I took off my mask, tucked it under one arm, and shook his hand. “You’re new to the club, I presume?”
“Yeah.” He avoided my eyes, a new layer of pink growing in his cheeks. “Not quite new to fencing, but maybe newer than I thought.”
I had to give him credit—he wore chastened well. Quite well.
My whole body prickled with goose bumps, but I shook myself. No matter how attractive he was or how much I loved the newfound humility in his gaze, he was much too young for me.
“Well.” I cleared my throat. “A few lessons and some discipline, and you’ll get there.” Maybe an ego check while you’re at it.
“Yeah. Probably.” He lifted his gaze. His eyes flicked toward my jacket, and his eyes widened a little. “Wait, you belong to Las Palmas?”
I glanced down at the faded, embroidered insignia. “I do.”
“They have a team, right? One that competes, like, outside the collegiate league?”
I nodded. There was a hint of East Coast at the edges of his words. Not a heavy accent, but definitely not a local one.
“So, that team.” He shifted a little. “How do I get on it?”
“Get on it?” I chuckled. “By fencing properly.”
His already flushed cheeks darkened even more, but he didn’t speak.
“Some practice will do you well,” I said. “Good luck.”
I turned to go join Fred and the others for the friendly sparring I’d come here for.
“Will you teach me?”
I stopped in my tracks and turned around. “What?”
The cockiness was completely gone from his expression, replaced by something more…childlike? No, that wasn’t it. Genuine? Something different, anyway, as if he wore that newfound humility on his sleeve, and the arrogance had been as much a mask as the protective ones we’d both worn.
“I want to learn to fence. Do it right, I mean.” He swallowed, and again asked, “Will you teach me?”
Dr. Mikhail “Misha” Budnikov takes one look at fellow fencer Ryan O’Connor and instantly knows his type. The undisciplined hothead is all ego with no finesse and even less control. In short, Misha’s pet peeves personified. To put the arrogant kid in check, Misha challenges him to a sparring match, which he predictably wins.
Not so predictably, Ryan asks him to be a mentor and show him how to fence. Startled by the moment of humility, Misha agrees.
What begins as fencing lessons becomes something much hotter, and before they know it, Misha is giving Ryan an entirely different kind of education. Dominance, submission, pain, pleasure—at the hands of an older, experienced man, a whole new world is opening up for Ryan.
As the trust deepens and their bond strengthens, though, Ryan retreats because that sham called love left him jaded long ago. Cynical beyond his years, he’s not letting his guard down, least of all for a thrice-divorced man twice his age.
Now Misha has to find a way to crack through those defenses…or accept defeat and walk away from the submissive who might just be the love of his life.