Claiming The Prize
______________ Arena in Philadelphia, PA, thrummed with excitement. Drago Zadrovec walked the path to the octagon staring straight ahead, his black eyes fixed ahead on the looming cage where destiny awaited. AMMAO fans cheered as gloves, head, and body were checked before the thin coating of petroleum jelly was rubbed over his face. He heard the questions and instructions relayed, heard his own responses, but the flood of adrenaline through his veins removed him from the situation. Entering the caged ring to the announcer's introduction, Drago heard only Guy Antolini and The Friar reaffirming the strategic fight plan.
His had been a simple entrance, being new to the organization. The lights blacked out momentarily before blazing anew as the heavy metal music blared, signaling Harrison's appearance. Time passed in slow motion as Matt Harrison entered the cage. The men were called to the center, receiving last minute instructions from the referee. Harrison, bouncing on his toes, lurched forward, his face contorted in pre-fight aggression, but Drago remained still, his eyes locked on his opponent. Touching gloves, each man retreated to his corner.
"Gentlemen, let's fight!" came the command.
Gloves up, Drago Zadrovec moved forward.
In the second row, Grace sat between Ike and St. Clair. Her stomach turned over and her muscles tensed at the familiar sign as the referee's arm dropped, commencing the first of three rounds. The next thirty seconds were torturous, as Drago and Harrison circled, feeling one another out. Grace's experience in the gym would take over, she knew, once the first punches were thrown, and instinct would push worry away.
Harrison hunted, his right arm poised to follow heavily after the jab he worked to set up. Drago evaded and circled counter-clockwise, then reversed. Unleashing a flurry, Matt Harrison slammed his fist into Drago's face. Grace flinched, and then her own adrenaline rush kicked in, and she willed Drago to counter. He did. As he took the punishment of Harrison's onslaught, Drago's training and athleticism took over. His mind knew only these aims, punish and defeat. He heard Guy's voice.
"Unleash your hands, Drago. Let your legs go!"
The sheer brutality of Drago's first strike was audible in the collective gasp of the crowd. Harrison staggered slightly as he retreated. Drago stalked him, offering no quarter, and kicked Harrison's lead leg. It buckled. Pressing ahead, Drago ate another jab, but landed a punishing liver kick followed by his own jab and upper cut. Harrison lunged in for a takedown, grasping for a leg, but Drago sprawled on top of him, throwing in an underhook and tossing his opponent across the mat. Like a predator closing in on its prey, the Slovak pounced, grabbing Harrison's head and slamming his knee into the exposed brow. A scramble ensued, and Harrison managed to regain his feet. Blood streamed down his face from the wide gash the knee had opened on his forehead. He swung wildly, hoping to connect, to halt the damaging punches, but Drago eluded his fists while continuing to rain down devastating blows. Harrison never saw the left leg kick that dropped him to the canvas. The power of Drago's kick was felt by every spectator in the arena. As Matt Harrison crumpled to the mat, Drago dropped over him, slamming his fists into Harrison's head ferociously until the referee covered the battered man's body with his own. Drago jumped to his feet, turned, and walked to his corner. His job was done.
~Nadja Notariani - Excerpt from my novel, "Claiming The Prize", 05 April, 2011
The shadows of the alter lengthened, marking the passage of time. Rousing from daydreams, Grace gathered herself, slipping from the pew. In the stillness, Drago occupied the back row. He had come in search of her, and finding her in the sanctuary had left her undisturbed in thought.
A smile of surprise showed on her face as she closed the gap between them
"Your father told me I may find you here."
"Anto let you out of the gym?" she jested. "Maybe my father is getting soft!" Her lighthearted words took effort.
The grin on Drago's face hinted at boyish charm before it faded. He stood and they fell in step together toward the offices.
"You said you were looking for me....." It was half statement and half a question.
Drago didn't answer. Holding the door open, thick July air pressed upon them the instant they stepped through its berth. Along the outdoor walkway, salmon and white hued impatient blossoms topped their deep green stems, encouraging passers by to follow the circuitous path to the parking lot. Intersecting paths offered a longer stroll, and each path converged in a central garden. A rather small fountain and pond marked the center of the modest garden, and curved limestone benches edged the water feature on the four compass points. Large urns rested beside each, atop knee high pedestals, each filled with pink geraniums. Tall well shaped hedges grew up behind, creating the illusion of a secret garden. The sounds of summer buzzed in the background as the bubbling fountain water trickled into the pond beneath.
"I have not come merely to share your company for the afternoon. There is something I wish to speak to you."
Grace's throat went dry as she instinctively knew that whatever Drago said next would bring her the answers to her heart's questions, and the prospect that, with a word, her hopes may be dashed left her unsure of her desire to hear. At least in ignorance she could dream.
Drago took her hands in his, guiding them to a simple park bench under the shady canopy of a towering oak.
"We leave tomorrow," he stated,"and we may not have much opportunity to be alone until we return."
"Yes, I know," she acknowledged.
"I am happy you will be there, Grace," he paused long enough for her to raise her eyes and regard him expectantly, "But I will be happier if you are wearing this."
Between his thick fingers on a platinum band, a princess diamond perched, the gleaming square surrounded by petal shaped sapphires.
Voice heavy with emotion, Drago uttered the words that Grace Antolini had dared hope to hear.
"I love you, Grace. Will you become my wife?"
Grace would never forget this moment in time. Dappled sunlight sifted down through the gently fluttering leaves; the soft, warm air currents brushing loose wisps of hair over her skin as she drank in the masculinity of her love's countenance. The proud forehead, strong nose, and firmly set jaw were outward physical manifestations of the strength, integrity, and wisdom housed within his soul. His eyes, still, deep pools, promised calm and peace amid life's storms. His form, powerful and lean, offered the security of protection. Drago, out of his deep respect for others, commanded respect in return. With love's eye exposing the man before her, Grace loved him as he was. Tears welled in her dark eyes as she accepted him. "I will."
Taking her hand gently, he slipped the heavy ring onto her finger and pulled her into his arms.
"Milujemta, moj milovany," he whispered against her hair.
Without translation, Grace understood.
"I love you also, Drago."
~Nadja Notariani, Excerpt from "Claiming The Prize" , 25, March, 2011