“When are we gonna learn how to kick some real ass?”
I took in the blond woman with flushed cheeks and eyes bright with excitement. Oh crap.
“Yeah,” a small chorus of other women sang out.
“We want to kick some ass!” another woman shouted.
We were standing in the dining room of Deja Brew, the coffee shop where I worked most weekdays. It was early December, and in a nod to the season, Christmas lights and tinsel garland were strung around the windows. Eight stockings were taped to the counter, each bearing the name of an employee. I, my boss Petra, and co-worker Chrissy had transformed the dining room into a dojo of sorts so we could offer our first-ever women’s self-defense class. The coffee shop was still open, but the customers only had two-top tables to sit at in front of the windows overlooking Main Street. Tony, the high school junior who worked weeknights and weekends, was gaping at us like we were an invading army of Huns. As aggressive as this group of twelve women was, I wondered if he wasn’t half right.
“Well,” I said hesitantly.
“I want to break some boards,” another woman said. “When do we start that?”
I waved off her question. “This isn’t a martial arts class. It’s a self-defense class. If you want to learn martial arts, you should go to Ken’s Tae Kwon Do down the street. In fact, I plan to join myself.”
There was some grumbling from the crowd.
I did plan to join, but not in the foreseeable future. My salary at the coffee shop was barely above minimum wage, so I had no budget for incidentals. This class wasn’t helping my financial situation since Petra had convinced me to offer it for free as a community service. Chrissy, who wasn’t required to be here, had grumbled over the fact that she wasn’t getting paid. In fact, she’d told me to stand up to Petra and insist that I needed the money, which wasn’t a lie. Beyond my thirty or so hours a week at the coffee shop, my only source of income came from occasionally driving for Uber. I wasn’t exactly raking in money, particularly since so few people in Cockamamie, Tennessee’s population of twenty thousand used rideshare apps. While I never would have gotten rich off my salary as a middle-school librarian in Nashville, it had definitely paid better than this.
Still, I’d gone along with Petra’s plan willingly enough. My life had been shaped by my mother’s murder, and I knew better than anyone that learning self-defense was a necessary life skill for women. Hell, it had saved my life—twice—just a month ago. Besides, most residents of Cockamamie weren’t flush with cash, which meant half the woman in this room might not have come had we charged. If I could keep one woman safe, then it was worth it, and Petra had put up with a lot from me over the past three months that I’d worked here. I owed her.
Now I needed to convince these women to take this class seriously. “If an attacker is swinging a board at you, your first thought shouldn’t be how to break it. It should be how to dodge it. What we are going to teach you is how to protect yourself by getting away. But sometimes you have to inflict some pain to do that, which means you will learn how to flip people over your head.”
Most of the dozen women in the group let out a cheer, while a few looked more reserved. One, a young woman with black hair who appeared to be in her mid-twenties, stood at the outer edge of the group, looking downright scared.
“But you won’t be flipping anyone tonight,” I added. Which seemed self-explanatory since there weren’t any mats on the wooden floor.
A few women booed, but they’d signed up for a three-night course, and this was the first night. Honestly, I was surprised so many women had signed up—even if it was free—particularly since we were starting the first week of December. Of course, the news reports of how I’d fought off my attackers last month—not to mention the videos showing me and a Cockamamie police detective demonstrating self-defense moves at a women’s club meeting—were still fresh in their minds. Especially since I’d pretty much kicked Detective Noah Langley’s ass.
They might not be taking this seriously, but I definitely was, and the responsibility was starting to make me nervous.
Petra stood behind me. She had a habit of reading people’s emotions, so it didn’t surprise me when she said, just loudly enough for me and Chrissy to hear, “You’re doing great, Maddie.”
I swung my head to get Chrissy’s reaction, and she stared at me for a moment before turning to face the women. “Look, y’all. Do you think Maddie learned how to kick Detective Langley’s ass in one session? I mean, really?”
A grumbling acquiescence rippled through the crowd.
“This is my first class, so y’all are my guinea pigs,” I said with a warm smile. “You’re helping me figure out how to teach the basics.”
“Plus, you’re getting it for free,” Chrissy stated firmly behind me. “Don’t forget that.”
“And a five-dollar Deja Brew gift card,” Petra quickly added.
“Yeah,” Chrissy said with a sneer. “You’re basically getting paid to learn how to kick someone’s ass.”
A few heads bobbed, and almost everyone’s faces brightened. The dark-haired woman in the back still looked scared.
“Okay!” I said brightly. “So tonight, we’re going to practice fending off someone who tries to grab you from the front. Tomorrow, we’ll work on attacks from behind—which will involve flipping people over your back—”
Cheers broke out. These women were vicious.
“—and Wednesday, we’ll practice what we’ve learned before trying something new.”
I demonstrated how to break the grip of someone who grabs your arm, then had everyone pair off and practice on each other. There were a lot of giggles and halfhearted attempts while I walked around and gave tips and suggested adjustments to their stances. They all seemed to pick up on it fairly quickly. I instructed the mock attacker to reach across the attackee’s body, then taught them how to get out of that as well. Once they had that move down, I had them switch it up, so the attackee didn’t know how the mock attacker would reach for them and needed to figure out how to break free on the fly.
“You want this to be instinct, y’all,” I said. “And remember, once you get free—”
“You run like hell,” Chrissy said, her eyes dark and menacing. “You can get even later.”
I stared at her for one long second, then said, “After you get free, you call the police.”
Chrissy shrugged. “Or you can do that.” But the way she said it suggested it was the chicken shit way out.
At the end of the hour, I thanked everyone for coming and reminded them we’d be meeting tomorrow night at the same time.
As they grabbed their coats and purses to leave, the dark-haired nervous woman hung back, wringing her hands in front of her. “Excuse me,” she said in barely a whisper. “Miss Maddie?”
Something about her made me want to wrap her up in a hug. The other women were here for entertainment. I sensed she was here for very real reasons.
“It’s just Maddie,” I said. “No miss. What’s your name?” Petra had planned to get nametags, but we’d run out of time, and I’d forgotten to ask everyone to introduce themselves.
“Amy,” she said.
“How can I help you, Amy?”
Her gaze shifted to the women who were leaving, then Petra and Chrissy, who were starting to move the tables and chairs back to their usual places. “Are you going to teach us how to get out of a chokehold? You know…like you did with that police officer in the video? The one where you were on your back?”
Noah and I had demonstrated how to break free if an attacker had gotten you onto your back and was strangling you. Amy’s turtleneck sweater made me wonder if she was asking for a reason other than curiosity.
“I hadn’t planned on it,” I said. “There’s not enough time in this class, and that maneuver’s a little advanced, I think.” I held her gaze, worried that I’d scare her off, but I needed to ask anyway. “Are you okay?”
Her eyes flew wide, but I could see fear in their depths. “Of course. Sorry I asked.” She turned to snatch up her heavy sweater and purse.
“Amy,” I said, following her but keeping my voice low. “I can teach you privately.”
She turned back at that, and the hopefulness in her gaze formed a thick lump in my throat. This woman was in danger, and she was desperate for help. Maybe I could do some real good here.
“I wouldn’t want to be any trouble,” she said, but eagerly enough that I knew she’d do it if I agreed.
“It’s no trouble at all,” I said. “What’s your schedule like? When are you free?”
“Tomorrow morning? I don’t have to be at work until three.” She looked worried. “But if that’s too soon…”
I shook my head. “Nope. Not too soon at all. I just so happen to be off tomorrow.” Technically true, but I’d hoped to get in a few Uber rides. Dropping a passenger off to his murder a month ago had made me less eager to give rides, but when a girl was in need of money and had limited sources of income, she did what she had to do. Well, everything short of moonlighting at Glitter Palace, a new strip club outside of town. Besides, the can of pepper spray I kept next to me in the car made me feel a little safer.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Positively sure,” I said. “But I’m not sure where we can practice, so let’s meet here at, say, nine or ten? I should have a place figured out by then, and we can head there.”
“Ten would be best. Thank you, Maddie. Thank you.” The relief in her voice made me want to whisk her off and call the police because it was obvious she didn’t feel safe.
“You don’t have to go home tonight,” I said, lowering my voice. “If you’re in danger—”
Her eyes shuttered. “I never said I was in danger,” she stated, sounding slightly panicked.
“No, of course not,” I soothed. “I’m just saying if you ever feel like you are in danger and you don’t feel comfortable calling the police, you can always call me. Do you want to program my name and number into your phone? In fact, I can just text you where to meet tomorrow once I get it figured out. Then we can skip meeting here and get straight to work.”
Her gaze dropped to her feet. “I didn’t bring my phone. I don’t always have it with me.”
That was weird. Was she purposefully avoiding giving me her number? But I recognized that she needed to be in control of this situation and getting my number but not giving out hers was her way of maintaining it. “That’s okay,” I said. “Why don’t I give you one of my Uber business cards? It has my cell phone number on it, and you’ll have it in case something comes up. Just give me a second.”
I hurried to the breakroom in the back to grab the card from my bag. I was scared to death Amy would run off while I was gone. Frankly, I was surprised she was still in the seating area when I came back, albeit closer to the exit and wearing her winter jacket with her purse strap slung over her shoulder. The Christmas lights in the window glowed behind her, making her appear even paler. She looked like she was about to bolt at any second.
“Here you go,” I said cheerfully, handing her the card. “You can call me if you need to change the time, or if you need anything at all, okay?”
Taking the card, she looked it over, then stuffed it into the pocket of her coat, keeping her gaze down. “Thank you, Maddie.”
“Of course. I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said, trying to sound breezy even though I wanted to snatch her up and make her tell me what was going on.
She bolted out the doors into the cold night, and I watched her through the windows. Should I follow her and make sure she was okay? Should I call Noah and tell him about my concerns?
No, you are not calling Noah Langley.
You’d think a month would be long enough for my heart to accept that Noah Langley wanted nothing to do with me. He’d made that perfectly clear after I’d been kidnapped and shot at for the second time in a matter of days. Sure, he’d seemed concerned about my welfare, but he’d turned right around and ghosted me. We’d shared some intimate moments, even sleeping in the same bed, when he’d stayed overnight to protect me, so his behavior had hurt. A lot. And no, we hadn’t slept together. We hadn’t even kissed, but we’d shared a deep connection that was both chemistry and something else, like two lost souls who understood each other. But he’d run scared as soon as he knew I was safe.
It was for the best. I wanted a family someday, and he’d told me that he’d broken up with his last girlfriend because she wanted marriage, and he didn’t. In my thirty-four years, I’d learned that if a guy tells you something, you believe it. You don’t fool yourself into thinking you can change them. I’d learned that lesson the hard way with my last boyfriend, Steve.
So why did my heart ache for Noah?
Didn’t matter. I would not be calling Noah Langley. Besides, what would I tell him anyway? That a woman showed up at my class wearing a turtleneck and asked if I was going to teach her how to get out of a chokehold? I didn’t know anything about her other than that her name was Amy.
Then a thought hit me. I could find out her full name, email address, and phone number from the sign-up form Petra had posted.
“Petra,” I said, whipping around to face her. “Can I look through the roster for tonight’s class?”
Confusion crossed her face. “Sure. Why?”
“I want to find out more about the woman who stayed after class was over.”
She walked over to the counter and pulled out a folded piece of paper from underneath the register. “Here you go,” she said as she handed it to me.
Opening the paper as I took it, I quickly scanned the list. The first thing I noticed was that fifteen people had signed up for class, but only twelve had shown, which was actually a decent turnout, considering they hadn’t been required to pay anything to reserve a spot. But the second thing I noticed was that there was no one named Amy on the list.
“Petra, Chrissy,” I said. “Did either of you recognize that woman who stayed after to talk to me?”
They both shook their heads. “Never seen her before,” Chrissy said.
I stared at the door, my stomach flip-flopping. I was going to have to wait until tomorrow morning to find out more about her, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t be worrying.
Turned out, I had good reason to be concerned.