Michael remained in the ICU when Manda visited him the next day. He still had not woken up, and the doctor had told her that Michael almost didn't make it last night. At hearing that, Manda found that she couldn't bear thinking of what her life would be if Michael were gone. Still, it was that thought that made her resolve to carry out one final task.
She stayed with him for a while before she left, and headed straight to the recreational center. She had promised Roque that she would watch the final match between him and Buddy.
It felt strange to pass the registration counter and not seeing Mr. Charon behind it. Taking his place was Mrs. Robinson. The woman gave Manda a brief smile before the latter entered the hall. The deafening silence from the crowd when she took an empty seat told her the match had started. Roque and Buddy were sitting at a table in the middle of the hall. A large screen on the wall showed the close-up of the game. Manda noticed Diane was sitting in the front row of the audience, watching the game intently.
Try as she might to concentrate on the game, the exhaustion from last night was taking its toll on her. She didn't return to bed until three in the morning, and woke up at eight just to visit Michael at the hospital and watch the game. Not to mention that her jaw was still swollen, and bruises were already forming on one side of her face. She felt decidedly awful that morning. It didn't take long before she found herself nodding on and off during the game.
By the time she was fully awake, the game was over. She couldn't believe she had slept through the whole game. The crowd was buzzing with excitement, as they sidled along the bench, heading out of the hall. Manda glanced at the large screen, where it displayed the moves the players had made. It was a checkmate. And Roque had won!
Jumping up from her seat, Manda impatiently followed the line down toward the door, but made a detour to the center of the hall when she caught sight of Roque and Diane, talking to some fans who were offering their congratulations. Buddy was nowhere to be found though, which was just as well.
When Manda finally reached them, Roque grinned at her when he saw her.
"Hi, Manda. I didn't think you'd make it," he told her.
"Congratulation," she said, smiling back.
"Thanks," he replied.
Manda watched in amusement when a group of giggling girls came to him, asking for his autograph. Looking embarrassed by the attention, Roque returned with a shy thank you before signing his name.
"Will you be at the dinner tonight?" he asked her once the girls had gone away. "Mr. Jefferson will be hosting the prize-giving ceremony."
Manda hesitated. "I don't know, Roque... I-I guess we'll see," she added when she saw the disappointed look on his face. She couldn't be in the party mood, especially when Michael was still in the hospital.
"The reason I ask is because I want to split half of my prize money with you. I heard you need to settle your father's medical bills," Roque told her.
"Roque! I can't take your money," she declined in shock. "You need that money for your tuition fees."
"Not all of it." He smiled. "It's not a big deal. You deserve it as much since you were disqualified for reasons beyond your control."
"Even if I weren't disqualified, I'm still a bad chess player. It doesn't feel right to take something that you've worked so hard on."
"But I insist, Manda."
She hesitated. "Are you really, really, really sure?"
"Really. Or else I won't stop hounding you until you agree."
"Michael would kill me if he hears this. He'd been offering to help me pay for those bills."
"Why didn't you accept it?" A puzzled frown appeared on Roque's face.
She shrugged. "Like I've said to you, it doesn't feel right."
"Well, it doesn't feel right for me if I take all the money, knowing that you really need it more than I do," he told her.
Manda didn't know what to say. "Thank you," was the only thing she could tell him.
"Hey, it's not a problem," he said with an easy-going grin.
She hugged him. "You're such a great friend. I don't know if I should deserve a friend like you."
"Aww, Manda. Enough of this," Roque said lightly, squeezing her shoulders.
She stepped back, and smiled at him. "I'll see you later."
"Hey." A girl came over toward Roque, giving Manda an envious glance.
Manda recognized her as one of the fans who had asked Roque's autograph earlier.
The girl pouted at Roque. "How come I don't get a hug?"
Manda took a big gulp when Michael's father answered the door. She certainly didn't expect him to be here when Mrs. Mackenzie had called Manda and invited her to the Mackenzie mansion. It had been five days since Michael was brought to the hospital. Now that he had regained consciousness and seemed to look better, he was given permission by the doctor to be released from the hospital with condition that he had a lot of rest and no strenuous activities. And besides, visiting Michael wasn't the only thing that was on her agenda.
Manda glanced uneasily at the dark scowl marring Mr. Mackenzie's handsome face. She still couldn't understand what Michael's father had against her. But she had a notion that he believed she was seeing Michael because of his wealth.
"What do you want?" Mr. Mackenzie growled.
"I invited her," Mrs. Mackenzie cut in before Manda could reply. She sidled up next to her husband and smiled warmly at her.
"You invited her?" he exclaimed, glaring at his wife.
Manda cringed inwardly.
Mrs. Mackenzie seemed oblivious to her husband's fury as she pulled the door wider to let her in. Manda's knees seemed to be shaking when she took a tentative step into the foyer, as if expecting something to jump at her.
"Come inside, Manda. Michael is resting in his room," she told her, her blue eyes twinkling in merriment. She seemed to be enjoying the moment, but Manda couldn't join her enthusiasm. And she certainly could tell Mr. Mackenzie didn't find the situation joyful, either.
"You're not letting her into Michael's room, Jenny," Mr. Mackenzie boomed, pointing at Manda in an accusing fashion.
"Oh, hush," she told her husband simply. "You know they are seeing each other."
"That is precisely what I mean."
"And you should be grateful that she saved Michael's life," his wife went on.
"Bloody nonsense! It's because of her that he got hurt."
"Umm... about that, Mr. Mackenzie," Manda began with a slight tremor in her voice, "I just wanted to say-"
"You are in no position to date my son," he cut her off harshly.
"You are being unreasonable, Max," his wife chided. "Why can't you give her a chance?"
The muscles in his jaw clenched, but he didn't say a word. Manda couldn't help noticing he looked exactly like Michael when he was angry.
"Go ahead, Manda. You know the way to Michael's room," Mrs. Mackenzie told her gently.
"KNOW THE WAY?" her husband bellowed.
"That's exactly what I said," Mrs. Mackenzie told him firmly. "You and I are going to have a serious discussion."
Manda quickly left the foyer until their voices faded out. She went up the stairs and soon she was knocking on Michael's door.
"Come in," came a muffled reply from inside.
Manda took a deep breath and turned the knob. Michael was sitting on his bed, reading a scientific journal. He put away the journal when he saw her entering the room. His face had returned to its original bronze hue, and he seemed to be recovering in complete health.
"Manda, what are you doing here? My dad's at home," he told her, but he gave her a warm smile.
"Your mom invited me to come here," she explained.
His eyebrows rose. "My mom?"
She nodded. "Your dad isn't thrilled to see me. They're still arguing when I left them."
"I can imagine," he replied with a wry smile. He patted on an empty spot next to him. "Come and sit, Manda, and tell me what I have missed."
She perched next to him at the edge of the bed, and told him everything that had happened on the case.
"That was great thinking when you discovered Crawford's identity," he said when she had finished.
"It was nothing... I'm still confused. How did you figure out the chess moves for that chess board? Did you use that Sicilian Dragon thingy?"
"The Fischer Trap," he told her simply. "I almost tried the Sicilian Dragon, but then I thought that was Lyndi's favorite. Before Mr. Charon died, he said that he had hidden something in the trap. It struck me as odd the way he'd said it. It might mean nothing, but I remembered him saying that his favorite move was the Fischer Trap. So, it was really... umm, just an educated guess on my part."
"Well, I'm just glad you were there to figure it out," she told him. "I was running out of ideas to stall them."
"Speaking of chess," Michael began, "what happened to the final match? Who won?"
"It was Roque. Isn't it great?" She brightened up at the subject, and told him about the final match, and Roque's offer.
"It's about time," Michael remarked dryly. "I was beginning to wonder if you're already planning any more schemes to get more money."
"Well... I have this idea-"
"It's a joke! I'm pretty happy that Buddy didn't get the first prize from the match."
"But he gets the second prize," he pointed out.
"Yeah." She sighed in disappointment. "Anyway, I went to the prize giving ceremony with my Dad. And get this, Dad found out that Buddy Dempster was the mayor's nephew."
"Nephew?" Michael was startled. "How did your father figure out all this?"
"Did you know why my Dad was investigating Ms. Summers? Chief Ramirez asked him to. Yeah, I know. I'm shocked as you are. Anyway, Dad found out Ms. Summers' ex-husband was Mr. Dempster," she told him. "But he died a few years ago from an accident."
"Wow," he said. "That explains why the committee had given Buddy a special treatment. He should have been disqualified because of his relation to the mayor."
"I know. And it's still not fair," she told him.
"At least, everything turns out all right."
Manda hesitated. "Not everything... My Dad is suspended three months from the FBI. The mayor found out we've been investigating the murder, and - and since the assistant director of the New York field office is her friend, well... you can guess how it went."
"That's not right," Michael said with a disapproval frown.
"It's my fault. She had warned me what she was going to do." She let out her breath in frustration.
"Well, she was wrong to threaten you in the first place. It makes me wonder if she had something to hide herself. But what about your father? What was his reaction to this?"
"He didn't seem to care about that. Actually, I'm really worried about him. He had taken off for a couple of days now. He left me a note saying that he's going to search for Uncle Connor, and that he isn't sure when he'll be back."
"Your uncle is still missing?" His face grew pensive.
She nodded, and swallowed hard. "I know it might be nothing, b-but I have a bad feeling about this. I don't like it at all."
He took her hand, and squeezed it. "I'm sorry. I wish I could say something to make things better."
"Oh, sheesh! I'm such a dense. Here I am talking about my problems, while I never thought of asking how you're doing."
"That's okay. I don't like to talk about it that much. But since you're asking, I'm pretty good. It only hurts when I laugh," he said, massaging the injured spot on his abdomen. "There's going to be some scars - but I can't guarantee it's not permanent."
"Oh, Michael. The only thing I care is that you're still alive." She leaned closer and gave an affectionate kiss on his cheek.
She glanced up at him, surprised to see his blue eyes were staring at her. Swallowing hard, her hand trembled when she reached into her pocket.
"Umm... Michael, I know this isn't a good time," she began nervously, "but there's something I've got to ask you."
"What is it?" He looked at her apprehensively at her change of tone.
She pulled out the small velvet box and opened it for him. She winced when she saw her hand was visibly shaking.
"Manda -" He stared at her in puzzlement. "How did you..."
"Your mother told me everything."
"Everything?" he croaked. His face turned red in embarrassment.
"Manda, I can explain-"
"You don't need to. I understand why you had to do it," she assured him.
"I blew it," he said, raking a hand through his dark hair in frustration. "Now, I can't ask you to marry me."
"But I can."
"My Dad made me - What?" He stopped talking, taken aback at what he had just heard.
She bit her lower lip, her heart racing in a mix of nervousness and exhilaration. She couldn't believe she was going to do this.
"Michael," she began slowly, "w-will you marry me?"
She swallowed hard when he just stared at her. Why didn't he say anything? Had she done something wrong? Or had he suddenly changed his mind?
Then he threw his head back and laughed. He was laughing at her! Feeling her face flushed in humiliation, she turned away from him, as tears sprang up in her eyes.
"Oww! That hurts." He clutched his midsection, wincing in agony. "Manda, don't go away." He grabbed her hand. "I wasn't laughing at you. I was laughing at myself. I just... Never in my life could I imagine myself being proposed by a girl. It's kind of funny for me."
Before she realized what was going on, he pulled her closer until their lips melted together.
"Wha-What's that for?" she stammered breathlessly when he released her moment later.
He smiled devilishly at her. "Haven't you figured out my answer by now?"
I hope everything is explained. I'm still going to continue with MR7. I don't have a plot for that, yet. So, it might take a while to post it. Anyway, I'd like to thank Silver-Dragon5, Penning Fantasy, Elly Alma, Nyviay, la-locita321, ausaims, and Amanda Brainard for reviewing my story. Thanks a bunch!