I open the back door and bend over to take my black Nike sports duffel from the back seat. At that moment, my cell rings. I don’t even have to glance at the screen to know who is calling since I’ve chosen a special melody for that number.
She must have fucked up something again.
“Yes,” I answer curtly and swing the bag over my shoulder. I slam the door and press the alarm to lock the car.
She always does it: Pauses every time before she pronounces my last name incorrectly, irritatingly dividing it into syllables. Now it sounded like Papa-do-pilus. Yesterday I was Pa-pu-dupu-lis. I don’t even remember what nonsense she said before that. Okay, I get it, there aren’t many Greeks in these parts, but this is ridiculous.
“Papadopoulos,” I correct her, on the verge of losing my patience. Only four weeks have passed and everyone would have thought that is enough time for my new assistant to memorize my damn last name. But, nope, not Sofia.
“I’m sorry,” she says timidly, “Mister...Papadupulis.”
Well, fuck me. She just can’t get it right, not even accidentally.
“I have just spoken to Mr. Velivasaki,” she says, all important. I must give her credit for getting Velivasaki’s last name right at the first attempt, which annoys me a little since I am the one who gives Sofia her paycheck, not my biggest competitor. “He requested to reschedule the meeting for Wednesday at eleven o’clock.”
I stop in my tracks. ”Requested?”
“Actually, he demanded.” Her voice is merely a whisper.
Although I’m about to step into the club and she is in my office at the other end of town, I can describe how she looks right now because I already know how Sofia reacts in such situations ‒ she looked down and hid her face behind her curtain of curly black hair, then pulled her head into her shoulders and simply sank in the office chair. And she must be red as a beet.
“He demanded,” I repeat flatly. My voice is like ice. Old fart! I stare into space and thoughtfully rub my short, neat beard. “Sofia, call him and tell him that the meeting will take place when I said it would ‒ Friday at ten.”
“Yes, sir,” she says hesitantly. “But what...” She trails off and clears her throat. “What if he insists?”
“Then remind him who I am.”
I can’t believe she asked me that. And how did she even pass the tests?
I built my business from scratch, all by myself. For years I have fought for my place in the cruel world of marketing and I have no intention of blowing that because of nepotism. I employ only professionals who know how to do their fucking job. And I don’t understand how this inept woman managed to become my personal assistant.
I have to call Vida.
“Tell him,” I say, “that Kosta Papadopoulos said Friday.”
Standing in front of Damala, I call Vida.
For me, Damala isn’t just the club where I have boxing classes, but a lot more. This special place is my second home, and its owner Gus is my best friend, my brother. We aren’t brothers by blood, but by everything that I personally consider important ‒ loyalty, commitment, honor.
While waiting for Vida to answer, I see the newest member of Damala approaching me.
What is this guy’s name? Darko, Damir... I have no idea, but I’m sure his name starts with a D.
I nod my head in greeting and keep my eyes on him longer than is considered “friendly”. I don’t like the guy and I don’t hide it. He’s huge, almost six-three, with too much muscle, and his brown hair is always slicked and tied in a bun. At the very beginning, I noticed the cool look in his bright green eyes and hard expression on his face ‒ somewhat challenging, as if he is always looking for a fight. That guy is trouble.
“Oh hello, Kosta,” Vida answers. “Did you find the file we talked about this morning?”
I smile ‒ something I rarely do ‒ but she always makes me smile. I am immensely fond of this lively, tough seventy-year-old woman who has always opted to see the best in me. It’s been like that from our first encounter, and our introduction wasn’t smooth since at the time I was a fifteen-year-old, furious at the whole world and always ready for a fight.
But I didn’t fool her. Vida is the first person in my shitty life who saw me, saw what I really am behind those dark confrontational layers and took me under her wing; she sent me to Damala and told Gus to help her make a man out of me. And there’s no fucking around with Vida.
My first encounter with Gus couldn’t be called friendly, not even civilized. I was unwarrantedly rude and not even slightly bothered about being a kid while he was in his late twenties. I didn’t realize that this man with dark hair and dark eyes ‒ a former professional boxer, who just started as a coach and entrepreneur ‒ would become my best friend and teach me everything about boxing and life.
A day hasn’t passed without me thanking God for crossing our paths eighteen years ago because I would have surely gone astray. The two of them were my backbone when I needed it most and they replaced what I never had ‒ family, home, and a safe haven.
“Hello, Vida. Yes, I found it, but I’m not calling because of the file.”
“Is everything all right?”
My dear Vida, always caring.
“Yes,” I reply and then remember why I called her. “Well, not exactly.”
“What happened, honey?”
“Vida, where did you find Sofia? And how did she, for God’s sake, manage to pass the tests?”
“Vida.” I am surprised and a little angry. “What have you done?”
“Kosta, I’ve been looking for a replacement for a long time since I can’t be your secretary forever. But whoever I bring, you’re not satisfied.” She huffs indignantly. “It’s impossible that none of the six assistants were to your liking.”
I shrug. “I have high standards.”
“Honey, high standards are a hassle, but they are achievable. Your problem is something completely different.”
“If you think it’s a bad thing to consider you irreplaceable, then I agree with you and admit that I suffer from this rare, incurable Vida-disease.”
I hear her hoarse aging laugh. “You’ve always been a flattering jerk.”
“Come on, tell me how we ended up with Sofia.”
Vida sighs with resignation. “She’s my neighbor and... I prepared her for the interview and the tests.”
“What?” I love Vida, but this is unacceptable. She knows how much effort, time and sweat I invested in my company. She was by my side from the beginning, she is my right hand, and ‒ besides Gus ‒ the only person I trust.
“Kosta, the girl lives alone. She was unemployed for a long time and I watched her go to a million job interviews, but no one wanted to give that poor child a chance. Today everyone wants experience.” She snorts angrily. “But nobody is born experienced. Holy cow, a person has to start from somewhere.”
Finally, I understand...
Vida lived her whole life like that ‒ she doesn’t turn a blind eye to the misfortune of others, but reacts and helps, without expecting anything in return.
“Will you give her a chance, for my sake?”
Of course, I’ll help her, not only because of Vida but because of myself. I know how it is to be alone, when everyone turns their back on you and nobody in the world wants to give you one fucking chance. “Don’t worry about her. How are you? How are you feeling?”
It’s been five weeks since she hurt her knee and although she is resting and recovering well, I’m still concerned about her.
She laughs hoarsely, just the way I like it. “Same as this morning, honey.”
I push open the heavy metal-glass door and enter the club. It is swarming with people at this hour. I check my e-mails on my phone. There are several unread messages in my inbox. I’m engrossed in reading my business correspondence and not paying attention to anyone. I don’t ignore people intentionally or because I think I’m better than anybody else, on the contrary. The thing is, others seldom catch my eye. That’s why people think that I’m cold, aloof, and uninterested. Which isn’t far from the truth. I am a loner and live like one. People don’t inspire a desire for any deeper conversations, so I keep them where I want to ‒ in those shallow ″Hi, what gives″ waters.
Then her laughter rings in my ears and I immediately raise my head. I push my phone in my jeans pocket, without any interest in finding out what is in the e-mail that Sofia described as Urgent/Important in the subject.
Who fucking cares? I know I don’t. Not when she is standing just a few steps away. It is always like that with that girl ‒ I see her, hear her, or just feel her presence, and instantly emerge from my cocoon. My supreme male attitude ‒ there is no woman I can’t charm out of her panties ‒ disappears into thin air and I turn into an insecure teenager who is keen, but has no idea how to approach her. She makes me nervous and awkward, but still, every part of my being is pulled toward her. I’m a moth, and she’s my light ‒ bright, warm, and irresistible.
She has her back turned to me. Her forearms are leaning on the counter while she is chatting with Danica, the club administrator. She isn’t aware of my presence, and that suits me because I can satisfy my hunger and feast my eyes on her perfect figure.
Danica raises her head. “Oh hi, Kosta.”
I hate that she ruined my moment watching the woman who possessed my mind, who for some time now visits my dreams; beautiful, somewhat wild, erotic dreams, which make me wake up sweaty, agitated, but happy. And hard as a rock.
I frown, nod in greeting, and then blurt the first thing that comes to my mind. “I forgot my towel.”
I’m lying through my teeth. I am very organized and have neatly packed two towels, but I’m buying time ‒ even miserable minutes or just minuscule seconds ‒ and making an excuse to be close to her at least for a short while.
Danica looks at me wistfully and her cheeks turn slightly red. “Can I get you a club towel?”
She always blushes in my presence, which is beginning to irritate me, since she should have realized by now that I’m not interested. But I manage to behave. There is no way I’m going to be harsh or rude because I am all sorts of things, but not a bastard. “Yes, bring me one, please.”
“Right away.” Danica turns awkwardly and disappears into the corridor leading to the storeroom.
I am standing beside her and resting my hand on the counter next to hers. I am watching obsessively, absorbing every little detail ‒ her tiny bones next to my big ones, her pale skin against my olive complexion, and the way my muscular, veined, forearm emphasizes her tenderness and femininity.
She leans toward me and whispers: “I think she fancies you.”
I look at her, confused and a little thrown back since this is the first time she’s spoken to me. And then I swallow a lump of longing as my senses are pervaded with her perfume; gentle and light as a breeze, the perfect combination of lime, cypress, and the Mediterranean. Hmmm, she smells like summer.
I’m mute, just staring at her beautiful, big hazel eyes like a simpleton. My glance travels down her little nose and stops on her full pink lips. “Hmm?”
“Danica,” she says quietly, confidentially. “I think she likes you.”
My heart literally comes to a stop because of her smile ‒ honest, warm, and without a trace of pretense. Where has she been my whole life?
“I know,” I reply. She frowns, probably misinterpreting my words, so I quickly add: “But I don’t fancy her. That’s why I don’t encourage her. I don’t want to get her hopes up.”
She offers me a small smile full of understanding. “I get it. I think that’s very nice. And very rare.” She’s thoughtful for a moment. “Almost knightly.”
“Women should be respected and worshiped.” Dear God, she really is beautiful.
She arches her left eyebrow and looks at me with surprise. “Most men wouldn’t say something like that openly.”
I smile at her. “If a man doesn’t think that or has a problem to say it openly, then he doesn’t deserve a woman.”
Her eyes widen and a deep breath makes her small breasts rise. She looks at me without a word. I wish this magic would last forever. I would give everything for this moment ‒ when she is looking at me with admiration and showing with every gesture how much she likes my words ‒ to stretch into infinity.
I exit the men’s locker room and exhale loudly a couple of times. Then I come to my senses. What is fucking wrong with me? I rub my palms over my face. Why am I so nervous? Why does my untouchable mask slip in her presence? I can persuade anyone into anything I want. Everyone, except her. I’m stripped before her.
I enter the hall and several members turn their heads in my direction. They look at me and smile coyly. A couple of months ago, I probably would have screwed Milena or Suzana, or maybe Jana, but not now, since recently everything about them began r.e.p.e.l.l.i.n.g me ‒ their calculated games, designer yoga pants, mini tops from which their breasts are spilling and make-up (oh, yes, these ladies come to boxing classes with their faces painted).
I nod although I’m not looking at them, but through them, because my eyes are searching only for her. And, boom, she is in the very corner. I smile while looking at her figure ‒ she is wearing a white cotton shirt and gray sweatpants. Everybody else is hanging about, but she is preparing her body for training and warming up. No lipstick, no designer sportswear, no posing.
She is magnificent in her simplicity!
This time she tied her hair in a ponytail. Whenever she moves, her beautiful mane the color of ripe grain resembles whispering stalks swaying under the fingers of the wind. I swallow hard and stand close enough to watch, yet far enough so my presence doesn’t bother her.
I lose count of how many times I’ve stilled the punching bag. I hit slowly and from memory, without focus, not even looking at the damn thing because all my attention is directed at her while I surreptitiously follow her every movement. She hits the bag clumsily, stops it with both hands, takes a long time straightening it and then swings again.
Yes, like most women, she has somewhat poor coordination and awkward movements, but that is the only similarity between her and the majority. She is persistent, dedicated, and with every move confirms that she carefully follows every Gus’s instruction. This girl is a Spartan ‒ order, work, discipline ‒ and I like that very much.
Suddenly I freeze.
I feel like somebody kicked me in the gut when I see the slick-haired giant approaching her. He leans slightly and says something, smiling. His masculine signals don’t go unnoticed and that pisses me off. My blood is boiling while I carefully watch every calculated move he makes, but I restrain myself. If she accepts his courting, it will break me, but if I see a trace of discomfort on her face... I’ll knock him down.
He stands behind her, puts his giant paw on her gentle forearm, and demonstrates the move. Once, then a second time. He is pointlessly taking too long, smiling stupidly, and standing too fucking close. My jaw is ticking while I reprimand myself for not making a pass at her a long time ago. Just when I think that everything is lost forever ‒ she grimaces, steps aside, and pulls her arm out of his reach. That′s the sign I was waiting for.
In a blink of an eye, I cross the space between us and hear her saying: “Thank you, but I will continue on my own. Gus already showed me all that.”
“Honey,” the giant retorts, ″he might have shown you, but you’re still not doing it right.”
I grind my teeth. “She said NO.”
Both of them look at me, but with a big difference ‒ her expression is grateful, his is annoyed.
He checks me out, but I can see that he doesn’t intend to fight. “Dude, I just wanted to help. Gus asked me.”
“Back off,” I growl. I don’t understand why Gus would ask him such a thing since only coaches work with members in Damala. But I don’t give a fuck about him and his reasons.
“All right, dude, all right.” He smiles lightly and raises his arms in surrender before turning and walking away.
I look at her with concern. “Are you okay?”
I’m overwhelmed by the irresistible desire to caress her face. She blinks and looks at me with surprise. That sobers me up. I stop my hand midair and quickly, a little clumsily, push it in my pocket. I have no right to touch her. None!
“Yes. Thank you.”
“It’s nothing.” I smile. And then I realize ‒ this woman makes me smile, naturally and completely unconsciously.
I don’t knock. I grab the handle, open the door, enter Gus’s office, and slam the door behind me. I look at my best friend angrily.
“Oh, Kosta,” he says relaxedly, “I thought you would come to see me after class. What’s up?”
I frown. “Cut the crap.”
“Whoa! Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed.” He looks at me as an older ‒ reasonable ‒ brother looks at the younger, unreasonable. It irks me when he does that. “Have a seat.”
I snort. I’m so angry that there’s no way I can sit down right now. “Just tell me, is it true that you told the slick-haired giant to work with the members?”
He raises his dark eyebrows. “Slick-haired giant?” Gus narrows his eyes as he always does when leafing through his thoughts. “Ah, you mean Davor. Well, those weren’t exactly my words. I told him to help... her.”
I see red when I realize what he just said. “Her?”
“For heaven’s sake, why? And why her?”
“So you would finally do what you did. I really couldn’t watch you just staring at her and doing nothing anymore.”
My mouth falls open. And then my legs fail me and I fall on a chair, rest my elbows on my knees and stare at the floor. “Is it so obvious?”
“It is for me. But we’ve been friends for years. Bullshit, we are more than friends, we’re brothers.” I raise my head to meet his black eyes. “What’s holding you back?”
“I have no idea. When I’m close to her, I don’t think straight.”
His throaty chuckle echoes through the office. “Well, I’ll be damned! Big Kosta Papadopoulos has finally fallen in love!”
Fallen in love?