Monday morning found Deven standing before one of the mirrored walls in her newest school. The school wasn’t quite ready to open for business yet, but she was pleased at the progress that had been accomplished in the past week. The build out was done and the walls were all painted. Mirrors had been attached to the walls running the full length of the room on both sides. The new carpet had been laid over the weekend, and the air in the school was permeated with the carpet aroma. The locker rooms were completed, as was her office, the school lobby and the storage room. Large windows separated the lobby and her office from the main classroom and the smaller room used for introductory lessons and special instruction.
Parents could watch their children from the lobby. In fact, Deven promoted parental participation – the irony of which was somehow lost on her. The window in her office provided her with a clear view of what was happening in the school at all times.
Her new office furniture was due to be delivered at any moment, and she had brought in a new computer this morning. All she needed now was a desk to set it up on. The security company had arrived a short time ago and was in the process of wiring the school. The handrails still needed to be installed on one wall, and she figured she might as well start on those while she waited for the furniture to arrive.
Deven expected the school to be ready to open its doors officially next week. She wouldn’t require full time instructors at this location right away, so she needed to sit down and work up a schedule that would rotate instructors in from her other schools to this location. Eventually she would have to hire someone to serve as head instructor. She could get around that if she promoted one of her instructors to take Jay’s place and moved him to the new school.
The tall martial artist was proud of what she had accomplished in the past five years. The martial arts still remained a decidedly male world. For a woman to have reached the level of success she had, was relatively unheard of in this boys club. There were some that resented her accomplishments, and others that embraced her membership.
All recognized her talent, and few failed to seek to capitalize on her name. Her picture seemed to show up all over the tournament brochures, and people, even those that disliked her personally, had a tendency to drop her name around the tournament circuit.
Deven had been fortunate that her father had possessed a firm understanding of the workings of money management. He had taken all her tournament winnings and advertisement fees over the years, and invested them shrewdly. Before their falling out, he had sat with her and explained exactly what he was doing and why. By the time Deven was ready to open her first school, she had more than enough personal capital to float the business until it turned a profit on it’s own. All of her schools were doing well and each location was now capable of supporting itself as well as providing her a healthy return on her investment.
It had been difficult at first. Many people entered the school expecting to see a man or at least an Asian in charge. Some potential customers turned around and walked out immediately when they learned that she was the owner. The last stage of her pregnancy hadn’t helped either, but by then Jay was a full time presence to help her. Those who stayed were not disappointed in the training they received either for themselves or their children.
Deven quickly developed a strategy to market the school and get potential students in the door. She enlisted Jay as her head instructor. His presence tended to placate the more narrow-minded customers. She then took full advantage of her reputation in the martial arts world to market her school - a move that her critics had considered egotistical, but the result had been worth the criticism.
The lobbies of her schools displayed pictures, plaques, trophies and videos touting Deven’s accomplishments, of which there were many. Brochures and advertisements listed the levels of black belt she had obtained in various martial arts and championship titles. She was quick to include Jay’s credentials as well.
As her student body grew, word of mouth became her best advertising. She worked hard to give her students the best training, and was always proud of each accomplishment they made. She was tough and strict, but her schools produced some strong competitors – a point that irritated some on the tournament circuit. Watching the looks of disbelief and disappointment cross the other coaches faces as her students did well, always brought a wolfish grin to Deven’s face.
Though she had earned black belts in more than one martial art, her school curriculum and teachings were based on the American Tae Kwon Do system created by Grand Master Jhoon Rhee. From that base, she had incorporated other skills learned throughout her training. Her curriculum was designed to provide each student with a well-rounded knowledge of the martial arts.
Deven finished attaching the handrails to the wall and sat on the floor while she waited for the installation of the alarm system to be completed, and for the furniture to arrive. She hated waiting on others. As she sat there in the silent school, her mind began to wander over the previous weekend.
She had been able to get out of going to the Preston’s on Sunday by pleading too much work to do at the new school, and issuing a promise to meet up with them later in the week. But Saturday’s obligation could not be cancelled. As always when it came to her son, she was left with a painful conflict between her heart and her head. A battle of emotion and intellect that began the day she learned she was pregnant and usually manifested itself into a splitting headache.
Deven had arrived at Laura’s on time. She had contemplated riding the Harley, but decided it was not worth the grief she would receive from either Laura or their mother or both. Instead she drove her respectable Pathfinder.
Before she had shut the engine off, the battle within stormed past her defenses. How pathetic Deven! What kind of mother has to sit in silent preparation to visit her own son? Deven released a long sigh, and concentrated on stilling her turbulent thoughts. She didn’t want nor need another headache. He's happy. He's healthy. He is a beautiful energetic four and half year old, and he's away from you. What more could anyone want?
"Breathe, Deven," she whispered. Want? How about his mother? How about more than just the token crumb once in awhile? The antagonistic voice in her head sounded remarkably like her mother.
The pain behind her eyes had gone up a notch and the ever-present kernel of anger in her belly began to glow. She removed the bottle of ibuprofen from her glove box and quickly swallowed four of the small pills.
It was getting harder and harder to visit Tiernan. When he’d been smaller it had been simple. Now he was growing into a thinking and feeling person. A person she was finding harder to…to what? Ignore? Pretend didn’t really exist?
Deven allowed herself a few moments to still her thoughts and give the ibuprofen a chance to start working its way into her blood stream. She was grateful that no one interrupted her. The last thing she needed was for Laura or her mother to rebuke her.
Slowly exiting her truck, Deven wished that Tiernan would come to her so she could avoid any confrontations with the adults in the area. When she reached the halfway point to the house, the front door slowly opened revealing her son. He stood there looking at her while slowly shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He didn’t say a word and the awkwardness of the moment seemed to take solid form between them.
He'd never in the past acted so reserved, and Deven found herself at a loss. She spent a great deal of time around children so this should be a piece of cake, right? Yes, but they aren't yours are they chided her mother's voice in her head.
"Hi, Tiernan. How are you doing?" she asked.
"I'm okay." He regarded her shyly. "We made some pictures in school. I made one for you." His small hand slowly extended toward her, and Deven could see he held a colorful picture of an animal. He made no move to get closer as if he were afraid to come out of the house. Deven closed the distance between them and slowly took the picture for his hand. She stood quietly and studied it for a few seconds.
"Do you know what it is?" Tiernan asked in a small hopeful voice.
She looked down at her son. Looked into his eyes – eyes that were like her own. “It’s a horse - a very nice horse. Thank you.” The boy’s serious countenance was fractured by a smile that rivaled the glow of the midday sun. Good guess Deven, she thought.
Deven responded with a smile of her own, and reached out for his hand. “What do you say we go get something to eat?” He stepped forward, and placed his small hand in hers.
Lunch had progressed without the previous discomfort. Once they had reached the restaurant, Tiernan was once again the animated child that Deven had expected. He spoke of school and how much he liked his teacher. He told her about his life with Laura and his cousins. He had used every opportunity he could to touch her.
He was bright and had a surprisingly quick sense of humor. He really was growing into himself she realized. He was no longer just a little child. He was becoming a person in his own right, and she was at a loss as to how to deal with this transition. He’d been shy and awkward at first, but overall, he appeared to be a well-adjusted child. “As if you would know what well adjusted is?” she chided herself.
She had actually enjoyed her visit with Tiernan, or enjoyed it until reality set in. Laura was waiting for her return and wasted no time informing her of how difficult it was for Tiernan to not have his mother a constant in his life.
The conversation had grown heated and Deven had left without telling Tiernan good bye. Surprisingly, she found that she regretted leaving so abruptly – that she had left without telling Tiernan that she had…. what? Enjoyed his company? Enjoyed seeing him smile?
Deven shook her head. This train of thought was getting her nowhere. She had been over and over this for four years. Nothing had changed her opinion of what was best for her son, and she was not it. She was not the kind of person to be parent. Laura was so much more adept at that kind of thing. She was too quick to anger, and her patience was terribly lacking. And nurturing? Not a word one would ever associate with Deven.
The arrival of the new furniture saved her from delving further into an issue she considered resolved in the best possible way for everyone involved.
The first part of the week had for the most part been productive though somewhat stressful for the tall martial artist. She had been shifting her attention back and forth between the finishing touches to the new school and the day-to-day tasks of her overall business. Several of her students would transfer from their current school locations to the new school, as it was closer to their homes or an easier commute. The paperwork for the transfers was simple but tedious.
It was also that time of month when those students eligible to test for promotion to the next belt levels were identified. This required reviewing each student’s attendance record and determining if they had satisfactorily completed the required curriculum for their current belt level. In addition to completing the required curriculum for their belt level, each candidate was expected to have exhibited the appropriate self-discipline within the school.
Minor students were required to present confirmation from their parent or guardian that they had incorporated self-discipline satisfactorily outside of the school. Deven had been known to strip a student of their rank if she became aware that the student had abused his or her martial arts training. Minor students were required to maintain passing grades in their regular schoolwork as well. Report cards when issued were reviewed and verified.
The stress of the week had begun with her visit to Laura’s on Saturday and seemed to flow forward into the workweek. Monday afternoon’s weekly staff meeting of all of Deven’s instructors and administrative staff further escalated the building tension. She had arrived at the main school that afternoon expecting each instructor to have a completed list of test candidates. Unfortunately, that had not been the case.
Incompetence was not something she tolerated at any time. As a result of not having completed the test lists on time, two of her instructors found themselves face to face with a most displeased Deven – a place few, if any, ever ventured again. In an effort to defuse the tense situation, Jay offered to assist in completing the lists. Deven merely glanced at him while delivering an inconspicuous shake of her head.
"This is a business. As with any business, certain tasks and duties are required to ensure it runs smoothly and by the best possible means. To that end, I rely on you to do as I ask when I ask. If that is simply too difficult for some of you, then perhaps it would be best if you sought employment elsewhere. While I require that you do work as a team, and I do appreciate your offer Mr. Thomas, incompetence cannot and will not be tolerated.”
She narrowed her point of vision on the two instructors that had failed to meet the deadline. Both began to shift uncomfortably in their chairs. “You will have those lists completed by close of business tonight. You will have posted in the lobby of your schools a list of candidates for testing, and you will have the parental evaluation forms ready for each minor candidate.
If you fail to meet this deadline, consider yourselves unemployed. If you are still on my payroll tomorrow morning, you will be granted the privilege of working under my direct supervision at the new school location. Are there any questions?”
The two instructors merely blinked for a couple of seconds before one dared to inquire, “How long will we be at the new school?”
Deven leaned forward in her chair and bestowed a smile that made her minions squirm. “Until I say so.” She sat back in her chair. “Any other unnecessary questions?”
A disjointed chorus of "no ma'am" filtered to her ears. The anger she had been suppressing for the past hour was beginning to rise. I am going to have to work on my staff. Oh yeah, training Deven style. She let the anger rise. It seemed to seep out into the air and hover where her employees could sense it.
Rising to her feet she spoke in a quiet yet clipped tone. “It seems you all have forgotten the proper etiquette associated with rank. I find your martial arts behavior substandard, and I’m thinking a refresher is required. Therefore, I hope you all brought something to work out in. You have one minute to change.”
Not one word was uttered by anyone as they scrambled to the locker rooms to change. They had learned that lesson long ago. When Deven said to so something, one did it without question or comment. The fool that dared to complain paid the price. The punishments ranged anywhere from intense training workouts to sparring Deven to termination.
Despite their fear of the woman, Deven’s staff remained because she was tough but generally fair. She could be a hard taskmaster, but not unnecessarily so. Her staff knew what she expected of them, and as long as they delivered there were no problems. She could teach her instructors a great deal about the martial arts, and she compensated them well. Nonetheless, once her staff was behind the closed doors of the locker room, they released a veritable slew of curses.
Deven spent the next hour and half working her staff hard until each and every one of them was sweating and panting. She herself joined in the workout and to the chagrin of her employees seemed to barely break a sweat.
She ran them through an intense conditioning workout that left muscles burning and trembling with exertion. She followed that with a complete review of the curriculum basics and forms. At no time did she allow more than a thirty-second rest between exercises.
In a clear tone she called out in Korean “charyot”. As one, her staff snapped to attention. She turned to face them. “I ask again. Are there any other unnecessary questions?” A loud unified “no ma’am”, reverberated throughout the school. “Good. Then kyongye.” As a single unit her staff bowed to her as she did to them. “You are dismissed.”She bowed to the classroom, turned, and walked out the door without looking back.
By noon on Wednesday, all potential testers had been identified and informed that they qualified to test for the next belt rank at the end of the month. The next few weeks were going to be incredibly busy for Deven, but she was in no way daunted by it. In fact, she thrived on it. It would never have occurred to her that her rigorous schedule was a means to avoid the tough part of life…that of truly living it.
Deven glanced at her watch. She had promised Kelly she would have lunch with her today as compensation for missing the get together on Sunday. She really didn’t have the time or desire for this, but she didn’t make it a habit to go back on her word – one reason she rarely gave her word.
With a frustrated sigh, Deven grabbed her keys and headed out of the building towards her Pathfinder. Kelly had taken the day off, so Deven headed out of the parking lot towards the Preston’s home. She would have lunch and then get back to the mountain of tasks that awaited her.
Kelly heard the front door open followed almost immediately by Deven’s voiced, “Hello”.
"In the kitchen, Deven." Kelly was putting the finishing touches on their lunch. She knew her friend was under a tight schedule with her new school, and didn't want to add any additional stress by making her wait to eat.
Deven strode into the kitchen. “Hi, Kelly.”
As always, the lawyer was impressed with the striking personage that was Deven Masterson. The pale blue Henley shirt tucked into form fitting jeans enhanced the martial artist’s well-toned physique in all the right places. The most striking feature though were those amazing eyes. “Hi, yourself. You know where the drinks are.”
Deven removed a glass from the cupboard and filled it with ice. From the refrigerator she retrieved a Dr. Pepper. Taking both, she sat on a stool at the kitchen counter. “So what fine cuisine are you fixing for me today?”
Kelly smiled at the woman. "We're having grilled chicken salad with a light ranch dressing. On the side, of course."
"I figured I'd get you enlightened eventually. I always knew you were trainable," Deven teased.
Kelly laughed. "Funny. You believe you can train anyone in some respect or another. It is the 'another' that will get you into trouble one of these days."
Deven smirked. She supposed there was an iota of truth to that statement.
"Since it's so nice today, I thought we could eat out on the new patio," Kelly said while she gathered up their lunch dishes and silverware.
"Lead on then." Deven picked up her Dr. Pepper and Kelly's ice tea, and followed her outside.
Over lunch, the two women discussed a broad range of topics. That was one of the things that Deven liked about this woman. She was intelligent and informed on a variety of subjects. The conversation was comfortable and amiable, and eventually drifted to the landscaping work that the Preston’s had contracted for the previous year.
Kelly provided Deven with a lively dissertation on the work that had been done, and how beautiful the results were proving to be as spring continued its metamorphosis from winter. The martial artist conceded she liked the flagstone patio, and then balked when Kelly insisted on giving her a tour. She finally relented, donned her sunglasses and rose dutifully from her chair.
Kelly clasped Deven's hand and led her off the patio onto the lawn. She guided the taller woman around the back yard exploring each flowerbed, each new tree, and the new pond complete with fountain and Koa fish.
Deven had to admit she liked the picturesque space. She found it not only pleasing to the eye, but calming as well. Kelly completed the tour by leading Deven along the side of the house to the front yard. The landscaping in the front of the house was formal with complementing shapes and textures in plant material. She explained to the martial artist how the foundation plants would serve as a solid backdrop for the annuals she planned to add later in the spring.
Kelly looked at her friend expectantly. “So, what do you think?”
"Nice," Deven replied.
"Nice? Nice? That's all you have to say? This is a masterpiece," Kelly retorted.
Deven laughed at the woman’s mock indignation. “Come on, Kel. You know this isn’t my thing.” Looking at her friend’s crest-fallen expression she added, “I do like it though. Especially the patio and fountain.”
Kelly gave Deven a pleased smile. “You know, you should consider getting that tired out landscape of yours redone. Think about it. Your property offers so many possibilities. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little piece of paradise to retreat to at the end of the day?”
"You sound like a sales person. What's in this for you?"
Kelly's expression turned serious. "Nothing. I just like what was done here. It seems like such a small thing, but it has really given Carl and me a place to relax and enjoy the view."
Deven considered the idea. She really wasn’t home much, but it would increase the value of her property. She didn’t know a thing about plants and had no desire to learn. Still, even she had to acknowledge that the plant life in her yard had seen better days. In fact, everything in her yard had seen better days, and the backyard served primarily as a place to hold the pool.
She had spent a fair amount of time and money on the interior of her house, but had ignored the exterior. “Maybe you’re right. Why don’t you give me the name of the company who did your yard and I’ll see what they have to offer. I’m not making any promises though.”
Grabbing Deven's arm, Kelly began tugging her towards the street. "I can do better than that. Follow me and I'll introduce you to the person who designed and installed this masterpiece."
She led the tall woman across the street to her neighbor’s house. Parked in front of the house was a large truck with a logo on the side stating Mackenzie’s Garden Center. The name struck a chord with the martial artist, but she wasn’t sure why. Recognizing one of the members of the crew from the work done at her house the previous year, Kelly called out to him. “Hey, Matt. Where’s Rhian?”
The crewman turned. "Hello, Mrs. Preston. She's around back."
"Thanks," Kelly called over her shoulder as she pulled Deven around the house.
Deven's patience with her friend reached its limit. She wasn't accustomed to being led around. She hadn't been anyone's follower since she was sixteen years old. Reasoning that Kelly had forgotten just whom it was she was towing across the street like a child, she stopped abruptly, pulling the startled lawyer back towards her.
The frustrations and tensions that seemed to plague her lately surge forward. Bringing her face closer to Kelly’s, she growled at the surprised woman, “You jerk my arm one more time, I’m going to pick you up and dump you in that new pond of yours. Understand?”
Kelly nodded her head and took a step backwards. “Sure. Relax, okay? This way.” Deven followed her around the back corner of the house where Kelly quickly located the young landscaper kneeling on the ground reviewing a blueprint with her crew. “Hi, Rhian,” she called out as she continued to lead Deven closer to the younger woman.
Rhian stood and turned just as the two women reached her. “Hello, Kelly.”
"My friend here was just admiring the work you did for us last year and expressed an interest in having her own yard landscaped. Rhian McKenna, this is Deven Masterson. Deven, this is Rhian - a landscaping genius."
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