Honor at Stake – Chapter One
Chapter One: Love at First Bite
Amanda Colt looked across the college classroom and hesitated. Something was off. Something in the room felt extremely threatening.
Amanda thought she might have found what it was when she saw him. Blond hair, blue eyes, looked nice enough—5’9” and well-built—though more like a dancer or a gymnast than a weightlifter. There was nothing effeminate about him, however. Quite the opposite.
Amanda slid into the only remaining chair, which the law of Murphy dictated had to be right next to this guy. He sat in the front row, in the corner nearest the windows, not the door—two good reasons why the other students would avoid the seat next to him.
Maybe she wasn’t the only one who sensed something off.
The annoying thing was that she couldn’t tell what was off about him. He didn’t look unpleasant, smell strange, or make any weird noises. In fact, Amanda noted as she took the seat, he didn’t do much of anything. His things were all laid out in proper order in front of him, his book was open and ready for notes, and he held a silver pen in his hand. Other than that, he was simply still. His focus was tight on the notebook, and his pen hovered over the page, waiting for a lecture to start.
“You might want to take a picture,” he said, voice deep and resonant, but just loud enough for her to hear. “It would certainly last longer.”
Amanda blinked, then shook herself. “I am sorry,” she said, her light Russian accent coming out like a kitten’s meow.
He looked up, and she saw how dark his eyes were. Only because of her exceptional eyesight could she tell his eyes were blue. His face was almost locked with an eternal smirk of amusement. It occurred to her that he smiled when she came into the room, and when she sat down, and the smile hadn’t ever flickered.
This man took her in with one sweep of his eyes, and then kept his face locked on hers. She was about as intimidating as a chipmunk, which was unusual enough for New York, but as sexy as the one that got away—you know, that one—only better looking. She was average height with long, red-gold hair that brushed the small of her back in a golden waterfall. Her eyes were a warm, liquid Frangelico brown and her skin Siberia pale. Her outfit today was casual, but form-fitting. Tight jeans and a sweater that should have covered her thoroughly, but they both somehow managed to be quite snug.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m sure that I’m not half as bothered by stares are you are.”
Amanda felt a smile tug at her lips, but ignored it. She did not have the fabled “beauty of a supermodel,” mainly because she was above a size zero.
“I am used to it,” she answered.
“I’ll take your word for it,” he answered, his stare as unwavering as his smile. She realized what was wrong with him. He was utterly controlled. “Can’t imagine being stared at often.”
“Why not?” she asked. “You aren’t ugly.”
He arched a brow. “Nor am I Leonardo DiCaprio pretty,” he said dryly. “Trust me when I say that I am not in the top ten male models for the year, or for the neighborhood.”
“Neither am I. I am too fat.”
He blinked, possibly for the first time since she laid eyes on him, and went over his scan of her body once more, not leering but reassessing. When he met her eyes again, he said, “If that is your idea of fishing for compliments, you need better bait.”
She nodded, allowing a small smile to slip in. “Good response.” She glanced at the whiteboard with Fencing in big black letters. She was in the correct room. “You are joining the fencing team?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” he replied. He glanced over his shoulder, out the window. The day had been heavily cloudy since dawn, and had only gotten worse. “At least the day’s almost over.”
“For me, it is just beginning,” she answered.
He looked back at her and cocked his head. “Truly?” He broke eye contact with her, the gaze moving to her hands and her cheek, and even her neck—going for exposed skin, she realized. “Night classes all the way, is it?”
“Yes.” She raised her white hand. “Am I that obvious?”
She held her hand out towards him. “I am Amanda Colt.”
“Have any relatives in Pennsylvania?” he asked jokingly. He took it firmly in his. “Marco Catalano.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
He nodded. “Likewise.”
* * *
Marco and Amanda walked out of the building and onto the campus plaza. The great lawn of the campus was bracketed on three sides by buildings. Its southern end was butted up against one of the numerous parking lots on campus. They decided to cut across the middle.
As they passed by the large cross in the middle of the lawn, it seemed that Marco kept Amanda between him and the cross.
“So,” she asked, “what is a Physician Assistant?”
“The Marines of the medical profession,” he replied. His smile was still frozen on eternal amusement, as though ignorance of his profession was more joke than offense. “We learn nearly everything that a doctor does in two years, rather than four of med school. We’re writing prescriptions after we graduate with a master’s degree, and, on average, making six figures within six years.”
She furrowed her pretty brow. “Really? Why have I never heard of them?”
“Because it’s something created by the Vietnam war, and most doctor shows on television have yet to catch up to it.”
Amanda frowned at the two items linked together. “Do you think everyone gets their information from television, or just me?”
Marco sighed, but the expression didn’t waver. “The dissemination of information is linked heavily to popular culture. Vietnam wasn’t popular. The one major show that tried to deal with it was China Beach in the 1980s, and their history was frighteningly bad at times. Physician Assistants were a way of dealing with combat nurses who had learned more practical medicine in the field than major trauma centers.”
“Well, thanks for the history lesson. I can see why you would go into that field. Fencing, though…”
Marco gave a short laugh through his nose. “I could say the same of you. You deal with blades before?”
She almost laughed. “Oh yes, more than once. You?”
“High school, when they let us play with swords.”
“Ah, good. It should be interesting.”
Marco hefted his briefcase a little higher. “I’m headed to Brooklyn. I’d offer to give you a lift, but obviously you’re just starting your classes for the day.”
“My family needs the car off the street during daylight hours. My father walks to work, my mother takes the train, and I’m the last man standing. Hence, the car. You?”
“I live in the city.” She looked around the campus, and considered skipping her classes and leaving with him. She had her books and syllabi from online, and little was going to happen on the first day. Despite his occasionally disturbing directness, she found him interesting.
“Nice,” he said. “Rich family?”
“You could say that.”
“In which case, I won’t say it too loudly.” As he stopped near the parking lot, he nodded to her. “Again, it was a pleasure making your acquaintance, Ms. Colt.”
“The same for me, Marco.”
He gave a deep, old fashioned bow, then turned and walked away.
Maybe he worries people because he seems like he’s out of time and place, she thought.
* * *
Amanda Colt walked into her apartment, and looked around the quiet flat. There was little in terms of color. The furnishings were basicThe only part of her life that wasn’t frugal was the location, and anything in Manhattan was expensive.
She slipped into the chair at her computer, warmed it up, and typed in a simple name.
Marco Catalano, Brooklyn…
She found nothing.
It was like he didn’t exist. How is that possible? In an age when even cats have Facebook pages, how can Marco not have even a single mention online? Where is he from? The Dark Ages?
* * *
Marco Catalano appeared to have one goal in mind.
To cut Amanda Colt’s head off.
The student went after her with frequent attacks. She parried and attacked immediately, but his weapon was almost always there, waiting for her. It was practically magical.
However, Amanda’s major asset was speed. Marco was quick. She was quicker.
Her next attack was a thrust. He twisted his body to deflect it past him, and lunged forward. She pulled back in time, bringing her sword down on his, nearly sending it into the floor. One flip of his wrist used that momentum to arc the sword around towards him, then overhead, for her face. Her sword came up to meet his, but he pulled back until the sword slid off, then thrust for her collar.
Amanda’s blade came down, sweeping his away. She didn’t give him time to pull his sword back to first position. She lunged for his center mass. His sword stayed with hers as he retreated, gliding along its length, deflecting the thrust as it came at him. She withdrew, but his sword stayed with hers like glue. The tip went over, down and around her blade like a snake before he flicked his wrist in a flourishing disarm.
“That’s enough,” the instructor said.
He pulled back for a thrust that would skewer her, but she grabbed her own sword in mid-flight and used it to parry him. The swords crashed, came down, around, and back up, starting in first position.
“That’s enough, thank you,” the instructor bellowed this time.
Marco pulled back, then gave a quick salute with the sword. She returned it, and they both withdrew to the same side of the gym, letting the next two fencers have time on the floor.
Amanda took off her face mask, her long hair tumbling down her back. “That was impressive.”
Marco put his mask in the crook of his arm. His smile was still there. “It’s easy when you have a computer-like mind.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I fence like I play chess. I try to think several moves ahead.”
“You cannot account for everything.”
“Usually, I can,” he answered, slipping his gloves off. He paused in the middle of removing the second glove. “Well, there are always surprises. When you suddenly sped up, you almost had me a few times before I could compensate. If you had just gone that fast at the start, I’m sure I would have been in trouble. Especially when you caught your sword as it was flying. That was a nice touch.”
She blushed a little, slightly mortified that he noticed that. “No one else saw it.”
“That’s because they’ve gotten used to not seeing anything that we do when fencing. It’s like they’re just waiting for us to get a draw.”
“Then why don’t they just let us fight other students?”
Marco arched a brow. She assumed that was a sign of greater amusement, but it was hard to tell. “This semester is, what, a month old? In that time, we were both upgraded from beginners, to advanced, to dueling with the instructor. It’s the only way to run the class and get everyone to practice. If they make us duel the others, we’ll essentially be teaching them. If they start making us instructors, I will probably quit. I came here to practice, not sit, watch, and correct.”
Amanda nodded. “I agree. Though, let us face it, we are not exactly fencing.”
He cocked his head, saying nothing.
She smiled and elaborated. “Have you seen professional fencing? It is boring.”
“True, but then, I like to practice as though someone is actually trying to kill me.” He stared at her for a moment, like he tried to read her mind. “Would you like to hang out at some point this weekend?”
He glanced at his watch. “Odd, I would have thought you had classes right now.”
“I do, but I know what they’ve been teaching lately.”
Marco’s smile expanded a moment, then snapped back to the standard smirk. “Heh. Funny, I have the same aversion to core classes—required for the University, yet utterly useless.”
She cocked her head, her long red hair falling over one shoulder. “I thought that your degree made every course necessary?”
“Yeah, but they’re still rather basic.”
She studied him a moment, this time trying to read his mind. She came up blank. “Do you realize that you seem, hmm, different?”
He stopped and stared at her a moment, and then laughed. He laughed so loudly that the two fencers on the mat both stopped and stared at them. He kept laughing so long everyone wondered how he failed to run out of breath.
“That’s a good one,” he said at last. “Where would you like to start?”
“With the two of you,” the club moderator shouted, “outside!”
* * *
Marco, dressed now in a full suit and tie, and Amanda, dressed in her usual sweater and jeans, looked like an odd couple as they emerged from the basement level gym where the fencing club had been banished to after an incident involving a rapier and the car of the University President.
“Shall we stay to the left, in the shade of the trees?” he asked.
“Why? Are you allergic to the sun?”
Marco’s smile of amusement turned into a smirk, even though not a single muscle in his face moved. “I’m actually assuming that your white, Russian skin is sensitive. Otherwise, you wouldn’t bother with all that suntan lotion.”
“You do not exactly tan either, for someone who is Italian.”
“You mean ’Catalano’? The family is from northern Italy, and close to Switzerland, and especially close to Celtic raiders who popped in and out of the area a lot, back in the old days.”
“That’s interesting. That old, hmm?”
“Sure, that’s why I’m a freak.”
She touched his arm lightly, a fleeting motion of comfort. “I didn’t say you are a freak.”
He sighed, looked at her, and gave her a sad smile. “You didn’t, but I have been hearing that on and off for, well, a very long time. I might as well be a local vampire.”
“I thought that they were all the rage nowadays.”
Marco scoffed. “Mainly because no one ever thinks about it.”
“That would be odd, considering that there seems to be a hundred variations on the theme.”
“Yes, but nothing coherent,” he objected. “Forget the mythologies; at least they have a lot of commonalities, but the modern stuff…feh.”
Amanda stopped and sat on a bench at the edge of the great lawn, staying just in the shade. Marco took two steps past her before he noticed. She motioned to the seat next to her. “So, tell me your thoughts.”
“Why? It’s just vampires.”
She patted the bench. “I want to see how your mind works.”
“Slowly, and with WD-40.” He chuckled, and sat. “Well, vampires…on the one end, you have the original mythology. Even in the Middle East, with the Ghul–their name for a vampire, singular–they were a type of undead, possibly demon spawn. They survived by drinking blood, and had the ability to shape-shift. They also hung out in cemeteries. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? When you get to the European version, they could be repelled by crosses and sunlight and stakes, that sort of thing. Those stories, at least partially, take into account the existence of Free Will.”
He leaned back against the bench, his arms spreading out along the back. “Think about it. Almost every traditional vampire in fiction is evil, automatically and with little in the way of reservation. Turn a good human being into a vampire, and they’re automatically not much better than your average rabid dog. In the original novel, aside from Dracula and his three girlfriends in the basement, there was only one other vampire. That was Lucy, girlfriend of Mina Harker. As a new vampire, she could have been easily controlled, or feral, or what have you. Now, the original Vlad the Impaler, who inspired the fictional Dracula, was not a nice fellow. Take that how you want.
“When you get into more recent novels, everything becomes a mishmash, usually with bad metaphysics. Laurell K. Hamilton is one of the worst offenders—practically everything she does is conditional. You know, vampires are dead during the day, unless it’s a powerful vampire, which depends on a whole bunch of factors I’m not even totally certain of.” He paused, then smiled. “Sorry, I over think sometimes. Hence the freak portion.”
“I still do not agree,” Amanda said, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. “You are intense, but not freakish.”
“I’m a freak who reads too many books. I don’t sleep with everything that has a skirt, especially since I go to school near Greenwich Village. I live in Brooklyn and don’t sound like Tony Danza. I can go on forever.”
She patted his shoulder. “Don’t worry. Those things do not make you freakish.”
Marco looked at her hand on his shoulder for a long moment. For a long moment, Amanda wondered if she had done something culturally objectionable, and then he rolled his eyes. “And don’t worry, I’ll be happy to be your friend.”
He reached up and gave her hand a squeeze, gently lifting it from his shoulder. In a voice more dry, cynical, and sarcastic as usual, he drolled, “I’m certain you heard me quite clearly. You do not strike me as deaf.”
Amanda said nothing for a moment. She realized she was staring at Marco again, more than she had at any other person. He was also the first man in a very long time to get close to her and not try to get into her pants. Most women in her position almost seemed inclined to take that lack of interest as a challenge. As though, if he didn’t want her, she must make him want her.
In many ways, she was glad she wasn’t most women. In the long run, his attitude was probably for the best anyway.
“I’ll take it,” she said. She leaned over, kissed him on the cheek, and looked out over the sky. There was little sun left. “Sundown. Do we have to get you home before you turn into a pumpkin?”
“No, my parents trust me, the poor fools,” he said cheerfully. “Why do you ask?”
“I wanted to know how much time you have.”
Marco smiled, leaned in, and said, in a conspiratorial whisper, “I have all the time in the world.”