The Golden Tiger

Drew Clark, ex-Marine and martial arts master, is the new instructor at the Golden Tiger dojang. Intense and aloof, she hides dark secrets and unhealed wounds beneath her warrior’s exterior. Sean Gray is the young psychologist and senior student who threatens to bring down the barriers Drew has erected around her heart. Battle hardened and world weary, Drew discovers that Sean wields a weapon she has no defense against—tenderness. Together, two women who have accepted loneliness as a way of life learn that love is worth fighting for and a battle they cannot afford to lose.


Sean knelt in the center of the room with her eyes closed, hands resting gently on her thighs, waiting for the test board to convene. The other students knelt along the sides of the polished wood floor, their voices hushed in an effort not to disturb her concentration. It was one of the hottest nights of the already oppressively hot summer, and despite the window fans, the air was still and heavy.

Sean’s dark hair was held back by a white silk head band tied about her forehead, and sweat already dampened the wavy tendrils just above her collar. Her uniform was immaculately pressed, the jacket tied over the white canvas pants with the red belt that denoted her rank. As the senior student in the class, she was about to test for the black stripes which would signify her first step toward the rank of chodan, or first degree black belt. It had taken her four years of mental and physical determination to reach this point. Every student in the room looked to her as an example, knowing that eventually they would reach the same moment of truth.

Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, Sean was aware of their presence. She welcomed their support, but she thought only of her breath flowing in and out, holding only that in her awareness, clearing all other images from her mind. Her face was composed, reflecting physical and mental calm. Clear, emerald eyes were a stark contrast to her dark hair and honey rich complexion. Her features were finely formed, but not fragile. There was strength in her face, and a peacefulness. What would happen here in the next hour was beyond her control; there was no longer time for nerves or self-doubts. What she was called upon to do, she would do.

“Face the door!” a student called as the black belted test board gathered at the door to the dojang.

“Chariot! Attention!” came the command, and each student snapped to attention with their hands at their sides, their feet together.

“Kung Ye! Bow!” As one, the class bowed to their teachers.

The black belts, led by their chief instructor, Master Janet Cho, bowed in return and moved to stand in front of the long table where the test forms were piled. Each woman was dressed in a formal white uniform, the arms and legs of the crisp cotton bearing strips of black to indicate their level of dan, or black belt.

The class faced them, hands clasped behind their backs, their feet shoulder-width apart, their eyes fixed forward. The room was completely silent except for the faint humming of the fans.

“Tonight is a special night for all of you,” the small Korean woman in the center of the room began. She was a first generation American-Korean and spoke with the cadence of her ancestors, her tone gentle but commanding. “Tonight Sean begins a year of work and study that will culminate in her testing for black belt. Much will be expected of her this next year, for it will be a year of transition. As she moves forward, she must necessarily move away from all of you. She must learn to teach by her example the responsibility of the rank she seeks, and part of that responsibility will be to guide you on your own path. Sometimes that requires criticism, criticism that comes from a place of caring but still a difficult gift to give. She can no longer be your friend she must become your teacher. You will gain much more than you imagine you are losing, because all of you have helped her reach this point. Without you she could not have practiced as hard nor had the support she needed to overcome her own obstacles. Each of you should be proud of yourselves.”

The woman met each face in the class as she spoke, and ten strong women gazed back at her.

“Tonight is also a special night for me. Each time one of my students begins this journey, I am reminded of why I do this work. Your gains are a gift to me for which I thank you. I am especially honored tonight to have with me on the test board Master Drew Clark, who was one of my first students. After attaining her black belt, Master Clark left Philadelphia for the armed forces training school in Virginia, where she has taught martial arts for ten years. We are pleased to have her back in Philadelphia, and back in the Golden Tiger Kwan. Please face Master Clark and welcome her to your school.”

The students again snapped to attention and faced the tall blond woman who stood on Janet Chos left side. Where Master Cho was small and compact, this woman was tall and lean, her features angular and chiseled. Her bearing was intensely serious, military, and she radiated physical power. There was a tension about her that was reminiscent of a great jungle cat, coiled and ready to spring. Her deep blue eyes never wavered as she also smartly brought her hands to her sides. The class bowed and she returned their bow.

“Thank you,” she said, her voice deep and firm.

At that, Master Cho, Master Clark and Sabum Roma seated themselves behind the table, and the class returned to kneel along the side of the room. Only Sean remained standing.

“Chun be! Ready position!” Master Cho commanded, and Sean brought her fists and outstretched arms in front of her, into the ready position. The test had begun.

“Step into a straddle stance, left punch out,” Master Cho directed. “Hut!”

Sean sank into a low stance, feet widespread, thighs low and parallel to the floor. As she punched her left fist out, her breath exploded from her in an audible kiyap!

“Waist level punches! Hut!”

For ten minutes by the clock, Sean alternately punched her left and right fists forward, holding the deep and perhaps most difficult karate stance without moving. Her quadriceps trembled slightly with the effort, but she ignored the discomfort, concentrating on keeping each punch centered on the solar plexus of her imaginary opponent.

“Koman! Halt!” her teacher instructed, and Sean stepped back into her ready stance, awaiting the next command.

“Right back stance, knife hand block! Hut!”

What followed was twenty minutes of foot and hand techniques; kicks, blocks, strikes and combinations all designed to test her stamina and form. Sean moved purposefully from one position to the next, back straight, knees bent, in the deep linear stances which typified Tae Kwon Do. Sweat soaked her uniform and ran in rivulets down her cheeks, dripping from the well-formed angles of her jaw.

Next, she moved into self-defense drills with several of the higher ranking students as her opponents, countering punches and kicks with blocks, strikes and kicks of her own.

Forty minutes had elapsed before Master Cho called a halt.

“30 seconds for a water break, then everyone get your sparring gear on.”

Sean gulped down half the bottle of sports ade she had packed and quickly strapped on her foot and hand protectors, slipped her mouth guard in, and pulled her head gear on.

“You will spar each student in the class, beginning with the white belts.”

Each match lasted two minutes, during which time the two opponents attempted to “score” a hit by kicking or punching her opponent anywhere above the belt. Head contact for the lower ranks was not allowed. Sean was careful with the lower ranking students, especially the white and gold belt women, keeping them at bay with long-legged kicks and then moving in quickly for a light punch to the chest or abdomen. With the blue and green belt intermediate students, she allowed herself more power, forcing them to counter to avoid her lightning fast hands.

When she had sparred with the ninth student, an aggressive young college student who was only a year behind Sean in training, she had had to use all her concentration to avoid the quick kicks of her agile younger opponent. She felt every one of her thirty-five years as her arms and legs began to tremble with the sustained exertion.

When the match finally ended, both students stood at attention, waiting for the command to rest.

Drew Clark leaned over and murmured something to Master Cho, who nodded her head affirmatively after a moment’s consideration. “You will finish your test with a match against Master Clark,” Master Cho announced. “Black belt rules!”

Several of the students cast sidelong glances at each other in surprise. Black belt rules meant head contact was allowed, and Master Clark was a fourth dan a very experienced fighter. Anticipation swelled in the ranks, along with apprehension.

For the briefest instant, surprise flickered across Sean’s elegant features. Then she bowed deeply, replying, “Yes, ma’am!”

Drew Clark pulled sparring gloves on her hands after slipping her feet into the foam foot covers that protected her opponent from the full force of the kicks. She slipped a mouth guard in but left her head gear in her gym bag. She walked purposefully to the center of the room and faced Sean. She was a head taller than Sean, who was tall at five-eight.

Sean faced her squarely and looked into a face that stared back at her without a flicker of emotion.

“Bow to your partners,” Cho called.

Each woman bent sharply at the waist, returning again to lock eyes. Sean’s green eyes were clear and calm.

“Free-spar ready positions!”