"Michael, I'm coming over in ten minutes. I've got something to show you." Manda Rider's voice filtered through the receiver.
"Are you going to tell me what it is?"
"Later," she replied and hung up the phone.
As he placed back the receiver to its cradle, Michael Mackenzie found himself anticipating her arrival. Smiling to himself, he sat back in his upholstered leather chair, admiring his organized office. He had taken an hour to arrange his files and notes into neat piles inside the filing cabinet. His desk was dusted clean, revealing reflections on the varnished wooden surface. Pens, pencils, and markers were grouped together in a coffee mug. A computer was perched on the left side of his desk, with its monitor turning at such an angle so that he could easily see from his sitting position. Finally. He was at peace. No students, no teaching workload this summer.
A knock on the door made him stifling his groan. That couldn't be Manda. It was not even ten minutes. Who would come at this time of year to the campus to see him? It couldn't be one of those extra-prepared students, who needed tutoring on the next semester's courses. Could it? Or those giggling female students who just wanted to flirt with him. He cringed at the latter thought. The insistent knock on the door grew louder, forcing him to snap out of his thoughts.
Muttering under his breath, he marched toward the door, which wasn't far away. His office was small, which was typical for a teaching assistant, but he was content with it. And it gave him privacy.
He answered the door.
"Yes?" he asked, making his voice sounded stern and authoritative. He had learned to do that ever since some students found him to be a little lenient than the rest of the teaching assistants.
"You don't have to give me that kind of tone," Manda Rider admonished, standing at the doorway with a frown on her face. Aside from that, he couldn't help noticing her smoky blue eyes danced with merriment. He could have looked into those eyes forever, but a part of him grew wary. Lately, he'd seen that look whenever she had something in her mind. Something crazy and preposterous.
"That was fast," he commented on her arrival. He let her in and closed the door behind her. Without waiting for her to speak, he pulled her closer and kissed her cheek, which flushed immediately by the touch.
"Michael!" she protested lightly. "Someone might see us."
"As far as I can see, we're the only one alone in here," he told her with a teasing smile.
"You're a teaching assistant now. Not a student anymore," she reminded him, slipping away from his embrace.
"Not really. I'm also a grad student," he corrected with a grin.
"I can't understand why you still wanted to continue studying. I'll be glad to come out of this alive."
"Cheer up. You'll be a senior after this summer break. It won't be long before you finished college."
"Yeah, like another year." She rolled her eyes to the ceiling. "I still don't know what I want to do for my thesis next semester."
"What do you have in mind?" he asked. He knew so far she had been pursuing forensic science in her junior year, but it was mostly following her gut feeling.
She gave a heavy sigh and shrugged. "I don't know..." She sank down on one of the chairs in front of his desk. He sat on the other chair next to her. "I still don't know what I want to do with my life."
"You'll figure it out sooner or later," he assured her. His hand instinctively went to his pocket, fingering a small velvet box that had been virtually burning a hole in his pocket since last week. He had been meaning to ask her to marry him, but every time he faced her, he went tongue-tied and broke out cold sweat. He'd never thought proposing for marriage could be so challenging.
"You didn't come all the way here to talk about your major, did you?" he asked, changing the subject and stood from his seat.
At the reminder of that, her eyes lit up. "Michael, you're not going to believe it! I've found another way to pay those medical bills."
He groaned. He should have known it would have something to do with that. Manda's father had woken up from his coma more than a month ago, and the bills amounted to twenty thousand dollars. Her father's insurance couldn't cover much, and there were more to be paid. Michael wished Manda hadn't been so stubborn not to let him pay the bills. So far, she had presented him with numerous schemes and crazy ideas to get fast money. A few weeks ago, she had competed in a local karate championship with the first prize of five thousand dollars. Unfortunately, Manda had gotten third place, and won a thousand dollars. It wasn't that, which had worried him. Once the match was over, he was left tending all her scrapes, and bruises and broken bones, chastising her for thinking of this crazy idea in the first place.
But did she listen? Nooo. Not too long after she had recuperated from her injuries, she had dragged him to join another contest -- a scavenger hunt contest, which was organized by her hometown, Apple Point. The first prize was ten thousand dollars.
It had been a roller coaster ride for him. He'd wished he hadn't agreed, but he couldn't say no when she had pleaded and coaxed, as her beautiful eyes regarded him with open fondness. Like a brainwashed human, he went along with her idea. Only they didn't win the contest at all. Another group had stolen their points, and resorted to dirty tricks to win the game. And he and Manda had no way to prove it. They had reported it to the contest panels, but the leader of the cheating group, with his innocent looks, had managed to convince the panels that he and Manda had lost their points due to carelessness, thus the blame went to them instead. It broke his heart to see Manda's expression after all the energy they had put into the contest, only to be disqualified at the end.
Still, the incident didn't stop her from involving into another scheme. She was like a whirlwind to him. He would never know where she would go next. The next thing he knew, she was involved in a modeling contest. "A modeling contest!" he had exploded to her, but she had quickly explained that it wasn't like a typical pageant where the models would display evening dresses or bathing suits, but it was for a romance book cover, and the first place winner would get fifteen thousand dollars, and a one-year contract to work as a cover model for one of the publishing houses. He couldn't remember the last time he had lost his temper, and vehemently disapproved her from taking part in the contest. It wasn't that she wasn't beautiful enough, even though it was one of the reasons, but there was no way he would let her being in a male model's arms, wearing dresses that looked they would fall apart at any moment. He'd seen those types of books in bookstores, and it made him cringe every time he thought of Manda being on one of the covers. Secretly, he was glad she didn't make it on the first round of the contest. At least, it eased his mind a lot, until now. He dreaded to find out what she was going to say next.
Someone was shaking his arm, startling him out of his thoughts. When he looked down at Manda's annoyed expression, he couldn't remember how long he had been standing in front of the window all this time.
"Hey, haven't you heard of what I said?" she asked in an irritated tone.
"Umm, kind of," he replied, grimacing inwardly. "What kind of contest you have now?"
"You haven't been listening to what I said!" She folded her arms and glared at him. It fascinated him to see how her eyes would turn gray one second, and blue the next. This was one of the reasons he loved to tease her.
"I'm listening now," he said, tucking a strand of her shoulder-length black hair behind her ear. He wished she hadn't cut her hair this short, but still, it looked great on her.
She shoved a leaflet to his chest.
"A chess tournament?" He couldn't help letting out his breath in relief. At least, this was something he could handle. The paper announced the tournament would be held in Apple Point, and it was only eligible for amateurs.
"Well?" she prompted.
"Well, what? I think it's great. Go for it." He handed her the paper.
She rolled her eyes to the ceiling and took the paper from him. "Michael, didn't you read? The first prize is fifty thousand bucks. That's more than enough to cover my dad's medical bills. The second prize is thirty thousand, and the third prize is twenty thousand. Don't you see? If I win this, I wouldn't have to look for another contest. This could be it."
"This is too good to be true. Is this really for amateurs?" He snatched the paper back from her and looked closely. The organizers were from the Apple Point Chess Association, and Jefferson Enterprise. He had heard of Jefferson Enterprise. It was one of the successful businesses in north east of America. Its main office was in Apple Point, and the owner Gary Jefferson used to be the mayor of Apple Point.
"Yes, but there's only one problem." She bit her lower lip anxiously.
"I can't play chess. Well, I know one or two things, but that's it."
"Then let me take part." He had won chess games a few times in high school, and he had beaten the computer most of the times when he played on his PC.
"That's the problem. You're not an amateur. And you're too old to enter it."
"Twenty-six isn't that old," he couldn't help saying huffily.
"No, the contestants have to be between eighteen and twenty-one years old. And since I've just turned twenty-one two months ago, that makes me as the eligible contestant."
"That's absurd! I never like this kind of rules. You don't need age limit to play chess," he told her. "I've seen a chess tournament where a ten-year-old boy defeated a fifty-year-old guy."
"But Michael, I can't let this go. I've signed up a week ago, and you have to teach me how to play chess. The tournament starts next week," she said in a rush.
"Are you saying I have to prepare you in a week before that? I don't know if that's possible. These things need patience, and strategic thinking."
"Michael!" She stomped her feet.
"Hey, don't be so upset," he assured her, pulling her closer into his embrace. "I will do my best to turn you into a winner."
She smiled when she heard this. He kissed the top of her head. "Now, let's go start with your crash course. We have a lot of work to do."
"Don't you have work to do today?"
He glanced at the empty space on his desk. "It can wait. Besides, I've no tutoring this summer, my supervisor is on leave, and just for you, I'm taking a couple of weeks off. I'd rather spend my time in your company than the office."
She blushed, but didn't say anything. He shut off his computer, before both of them left his office.
"Where's your dad?" Michael asked once they entered her house.
"Oh, he's having his physical therapy at the hospital," she replied, tossing the house keys on a telephone desk.
Then she went through a stack of letters she had just pulled out from the mailbox. An envelope bearing the Jefferson Enterprise logo caught her eye. Without wasting time, she sliced the top of the envelope with a letter opener that she had taken from the top of the desk, and pulled out the contents from the envelope.
"What's that?" Michael asked, leaning over her shoulder.
She skimmed through the letter, her heart beating fast as she went through the contents. Except for the cover letter, the rest of the papers were in tiny print.
"I've got accepted in the competition," she exclaimed, unable to hide her joy.
Michael's dark brows furrowed with a dubious expression. "You need to be screened for this competition?"
"To make sure I'm an amateur -- Look, I even have to sign this agreement that confessed that I'm an amateur, and that I've never participated in a professional chess competition before." She showed him the letter.
While Michael read through the papers, Manda opened the desk drawer, pawing through a jumble of receipts, used envelopes, old bills, and bric-a-brac for a pen. Once she found one, she snatched the papers back from him, and began to sign the agreement.
"Wait a minute --" He stopped her before she could continue.
"What?" She looked at him, slightly annoyed.
"Don't you want to read through this first? There are a lot of papers here." He took the papers back from her.
"Michael, I know your father is a lawyer, but you don't have to tell me the legalities of this. I know what I'm doing," she retorted, snatching the papers back from him and signed the paper before he could stop her. "Besides, Jefferson Enterprise has a good reputation in this town."
"It never hurt to be careful," he countered.
She sighed. Sometimes he was too careful and too patient for her nerve that often drove her crazy. "Come on, let's start with the chess lesson," she said instead, tugging his hand toward the study. She made a mental note to post the agreement letter later in the afternoon.
Her father had converted the basement into a study, and he had equipped the room with air-condition and proper ventilation system. Ever since the fire in the basement a few months ago, the room smelled of a mixture of fresh paint and burnt wood.
Once they reached the bottom of the stairs, she went straight to a large mahogany table, and took out a square wooden box from a drawer. The cover of the wooden box was covered with black and white checkered design. She opened the box and took out the chess pieces, scattering them on the table.
Michael sat opposite of her as he watched her set up the chessboard.
"What?" she asked when she looked up and saw an amused glint in his piercing blue eyes. A lock of dark chocolate hair fell over his forehead.
"Nothing," he returned, the corner of his lips curled up slightly. "Okay, what do you want to be? Black or white?"
"Do they have a difference?"
"Yeah, the color," he said dryly.
She fought an urge to roll her eyes at the ceiling.
"It makes no difference actually," he told her. "The white one starts first in a game."
"Okay, I'll take the white one," she said and began scooping up the white pieces toward her side.
"Now, I think you already know the next step. We arrange these pieces in this little squares," he told her. She watched him positioning expertly the pieces on the black-and-white checkered board. "This one is called the rook." He held up a piece that looked like a castle to her. "Sometimes we called it the castle. The rooks always begin at the corner. This one is the knight, also known as the horse. The knights are next to the rook. The bishops are next to the knights, and finally we have the king and queen. The rest of them are pawns." He looked up at her, frowning. "Don't you need a notebook to jot down, just in case?"
Her face grew hot. "Uh, right." She grabbed a notebook and a pen from one of the drawers and started writing down. "So, we have two rooks, two knights, two bishops, a queen and a king, and umm... eight pawns." She drew little figures of each piece next to the words. Then she sketched the position of each piece on a board. Once she finished, she dropped the notepad and started arranging her chess pieces.
Michael watched her carefully, making her self-conscious.
"Okay, done," she said, inwardly relieved.
"Your king and queen are in the wrong positions." He switched the place of her king and her queen. "White queen begins in a white square, and black queen on the black one."
"Why the queen and not the king? Isn't the king of white should be in the white square?" she asked in confusion.
"Don't ask me why. I suppose the queen is more powerful than the king. That's why the king needs to be protected," he surmised. "The king is the weakest but most important piece in a game."
"So, the pawns are like soldiers who defend the castle," Manda said, "and then there's the knights, who stand next in line with bishops and the queen and the king because the knights are from noble birth, and they are trained in arms and chivalry. Hmm... but I don't see how the bishops can protect the king."
"Manda," he began exasperatedly, "this isn't a story-telling game. The object of the game is to checkmate your opponent's king. This is a strategy game."
She scowled at him. "I know that," she replied huffily, "but it seems kind of fun if there's a story to it."
"Okay, let's start with what you know," he told her. "Do you know how they move?"
"Well... I know one or two things."
She stared at him. "Umm... Now?"
"No, tomorrow morning," he quipped.
"Spare me your sarcasm." She glared at him, and began bringing forward the center pawn two squares forward. He remained silent. "Well?" she asked.
"That's it?" He stared at her incredulously. "What about the others?"
"I said I only know one or... two things, which in this case is only... one." Her voice lowered at the end, suddenly feeling defensive.
He let out his breath in frustration, tunneling his fingers through his hair. "Okay," he said slowly. "Looks like we have a lot of work ahead of us. First, I'll show you how each pieces moves, then I'll show some basic opening strategies. Hopefully by then, we can start practicing some games."
"Sounds good to me."
"Great. Are you ready?"
"Yeah -- Oh, wait." She pulled out a large plastic package from the drawer and pulled it open. "Would you like some chocolate candy?"