When you had everything in the world, it never dawned on you that there were chances to miss. Opportunities that were only temporary. Dreams that could not be fulfilled.
As Peyton, son of Peythone, hid his eyes behind blue lenses, he stared across the training center’s break room. Paradise, blooded daugh- ter of the King’s First Adviser, Abalone, was sitting one-eighty on a not- fancy chair, her legs dangling over one arm as her back rested against the other. Her blond head was down, her eyes reviewing notes on IEDs.
Improvised Explosive Devices.
Knowing what was on those pages—the promise of death, the real- ity of the war with the Lessening Society, the danger she had put her- self in by joining the Black Dagger Brotherhood’s training program for soldiers—made him want to take the notes away and rewind time. He wanted to return to their old lives, before she had come here to learn how to fight . . . and before he had learned she was so much more than an aristocratic female with a stellar bloodline and classic beauty.
Without the war, though, he doubted they would have ever grown close.
That terrible night when the Lessening Society had attacked the houses of the glymera, slaughtering whole families and legions of ser- vants, had been the catalyst for the two of them to get tight. He had always been a hard partyer, running with a fast crowd of rich, world-is- my-oyster males who frequented human clubs during the night and stayed home smoking up all day long. But after the attacks? Both of their families had decamped to safe houses outside of Caldwell, and he and Paradise had fallen into the habit of calling each other when they couldn’t sleep.
Which had been most of the time.
They had spent hours on the phone, talking about nothing and everything, from the serious to the stoopid to the silly.
He had told her things that he had never shared with anybody: He’d admitted to her he was scared and that he felt alone and worried about the future. Had said out loud, for the first time, that he thought he had a drug problem. Had worried about whether or not he could cut it in the real world away from the club scene.
And she had been there for him.
She was the first female friend he had ever had. Yeah, sure, he had fucked raft loads of the opposite sex, but with Paradise, it hadn’t been about getting laid.
Although he wanted her. Of course he did. She was incredibly—
As Paradise spoke up, he snapped to attention. Then looked around. The break room was empty except for the two of them, everybody else either in the weight room, the locker rooms, or loitering out in the hall as they waited to leave for the day.
So, yeah, she was talking to him. Looking at him, too.
“G’head.” Her eyes were very direct. “Why don’t you say it finally.” He didn’t know how to respond to that. And when the silence stretched out between them, he felt like he’d done a line of blow, his heart turning his rib cage into a mosh pit, his palms getting sweaty, his
lids going venetian blind from the blinking.
Paradise straightened in the chair, shifting her long legs around and crossing them primly at the knee. It was a reflexive move, something that came from her lineage and her aristocratic upbringing: Every fe- male of her station sat properly. It was just what one did, no matter where one was or what one was wearing.
Crate & Barrel or Louis XIV. Lycra or Lanvin. Standards, darling. He imagined her in a gown, dripping in her dead mahmen’s jewels, under a ballroom’s crystal chandelier, her hair up high, her perfect face
radiant, her body . . . moving against his own.
“Where’s your man,” he said in a rough voice—one that he hoped she blamed on his weed habit.
The smile that hit her face made him feel old and ugly-wasted, even though they were the same age and he was sober.
“He’s just getting changed.”
“Big plans for the night?”
Yeah, right. That blush told him exactly what they were going to do—and how much she was looking forward to it.
Popping his sunnies up, he rubbed his eyes. It was hard to believe he was never going to know what that was like . . . having her under him as he rode her, her naked body his to explore, her thighs spread wide so he could—
“And don’t change the subject.” She sat forward in that chair. “Come on. Say it. The truth will set you free, right?”
As the compressor behind the soda machine kicked on, he glanced over at the food service counter, where meals and snacks were offered when they were logging classroom and gym time. Even though the Brothers were letting the trainees out into the field for proper engage- ment with the enemy, there was still a lot of theory and hand-to-hand and weapons work that was done on a regular basis on-site.
At least two to three nights a week, he ate here—
Wow. Check it. He was trying to distract himself.
Peyton swung his stare back to her. God, she was so beautiful, so blond, with those big blue eyes . . . and those lips. Soft, naturally pink. Her body had gotten a little less curvy, a little more muscular, since she had started working out so much, and the power was a turn-on.
“You know,” she murmured, “there was a time we didn’t keep any- thing from each other.”
Not really, he thought. He had always kept his attraction to her on the DL.
“People change.” He stretched and cracked his back. “Relation- ships, too.”
“What’s the point.” He shook his head. “Nothing good can come from—”
“Come on, Peyton. I can feel you staring at me in class, out in the field. It’s so damned obvious. And listen . . . I know where you’re com- ing from. I’m not naive.”
The tension in her was obvious, her shoulders tight, her mouth thinning out. And hey, what do you know, he hated the position he was putting them in, too. If he could stop it, he would, but feelings were like wild animals. They did what they wanted and to hell with what they trampled or bit or kicked in the process.
“As much as I try to ignore it”—she pushed her hair over her shoulder—“and as much as I’m sure you want to feel differently, it is what it is. I think we need to talk about it so we can clear the air, you know? Before it starts to affect us or the others out in the field.”
“I don’t think it’s resolvable.” Not unless you want to go on a two- hundred and seventy-five-pound diet and lose your mate. “And I don’t think it matters.”
“I disagree.” She threw up her hands. “Oh, come on. We’ve been through so much together. There’s nothing you and I can’t handle. Remember those hours on the phone? Talk to me.”
As Peyton wondered why in the hell he hadn’t brought a bong with him, he got to his feet and played trailblazer with the dorm furniture that had been arranged with the care and precision of a game of mar- bles: The various seats, couches, and tables were willy-nilly’d all over the place, the result of different study groups and some questionable betting over push-ups, sit-ups, and arm wrestling having fucked the arrangement.
When he finally stopped, he turned around. And they both spoke at the same time.
“Fine, I’m in love with you—”
“I know you still don’t approve of me—”
In another burst of synchronization, they shut up together.
“What did you say?” she breathed.
Gun. He needed a gun. So he could shoot himself in the foot in fact, as opposed to just in the hypothetical.
The door to the break room swung open and her male, Craeg, strode in like he
owned the place. Big, heavily muscled, and one of the best fighters in the trainee class, he was the kind of guy who could use a rusty nail for a toothpick as he sutured up his own wounds in the middle of a burning warehouse with two lessers coming at him and a scared golden retriever puppy under his arm.
Craeg stopped and looked back and forth between them. “Am I interrupting something?”
Novo barely made it to the industrial-sized metal trash bin in time. As she bent in half and threw up, nothing but water made an appearance, and when the heaving passed, she rolled off the rim and let herself fall to the mats. Easing back against the cold concrete wall, she waited for the world to stop spinning around her.
Sweat fell like tears down her face, and her throat was on fire— although that was less about the vomiting than the sawing inhales she had been taking as she deadlifted. And don’t get her started on her lungs. She felt as though she had been trying to find oxygen in the middle of billowing hot smoke.
Clank. Clank. Clank . . .
When she was able to, she lifted her head and focused. Across the weight room, a massive male was doing leg presses in a slow, controlled fashion, his forearms bulging from where he was gripping the pegs by his hips, his thigh muscles carved in stone, veins popping out every- where.
He was staring at her. But not in a creepy way.
More like in an okay-is-it-time-to-call-a-doctor manner.
“I’m all right,” she said, looking away from him. Although with his headphones on, it wasn’t like he could hear her.
I’mallright. I’mallright. NoreallyI’mallright—
Leaning to the side, she snagged a fresh white towel from a stack on one of the benches and mopped up. The Black Dagger Brotherhood’s training center was a case of state of the art, best of the best, professional grade all the way: From this iron dungeon of self-inflicted pain to the firing range, the classrooms, the Olympic pool, the gym, and then the medical clinic, PT facility, and surgery suites, no expense had been spared, and upkeep was just as meticulous and costly.
With a final clank, the male sat forward and did a pass of his own face. He had dark brown hair that had recently been cut, the sides so tight they were nearly shaved, the top left long and loose. His eyes were some kind of brown, and he had an all-American kind of look—well, except for the fangs, which were straight-up Bram Stoker, and the fact that he was not any more human or American than she was. The white muscle shirt he had on was stressed the fuck out trying to stretch over his enormous pecs, and his dark, hairless skin was just the same, taut nearly to the point of structural failure across his six-pack and lats.
He had no tattoos. No false airs. Unfancy clothes. And he rarely spoke—if he did open his mouth, it was always logistical, like, what machine was she going to use next, or was this her towel? He was unfailingly polite, distant as a horizon, and seemingly unaware she was a female.
In short, this stranger was her new best friend. Even though she didn’t know his name.
And they did spend a lot of time together. At the end of every in- house night for the trainees, the two of them were here alone, the Brothers working out during the day, the other trainees already exhausted from whatever they had been doing in class.
Novo always had juice left in the tank, though.
Fuck 5-hour Energy or Xenadrine. Personal demons were waaaaay better for getting your ass in gear.
Oh, and then there was the other reason she preferred to vom into a Hefty bag rather than hang with the others while they waited for their bus to take them down the mountain.
Novo jerked her head up. The male was standing over her, and when she frowned, he pointed to her hands.
Lifting one of her palms, she saw that, yup, she certainly was leaking. She had forgotten her gloves, and the bar that she had been holding the five hundred pounds with had cut into her.
“What’s your name?” she asked as she pressed the towel into the raw spots.
Man, that stung.
When he didn’t answer, she looked up again. And it was at that point that he placed his hand over his sternum and bowed.
“I am Ruhn.”
“You don’t have to do that.” She folded the terrycloth in half and re-wiped her brow. “The bow thing. I’m not a member of the glymera.”
“You are a female.”
“So?” When he seemed honestly confused, she felt like a bitch. “Anyway, I’m Novo. And I’d shake your hand, but yeah.”
As she flashed him what he had pointed out was injured, he cleared his throat. “It is nice to meet you.”
His accent was like hers, without the haughty, long vowels of the aristocracy, and she instantly liked him even more. As her father had always said, rich people could afford to talk slow ’cuz they didn’t have to work for a living.
Which made that group of entitled lightweights really hard to respect or take seriously.
“Are you joining the program?” she asked.
“The training program?”
“No. I am just here to work out.”
He offered her a smile—as if that encompassed his entire life story as well as all his plans for the future—and then he went over to the chin-up bar. The reps he did were unbelievable. Fast, but controlled, over and over again, until she lost count. And still he kept at it.
When he finally stopped, he was breathing deeply, but hardly taxed.
“So why don’t you?”
“What?” he said with surprise. Like maybe he had forgotten she was still sitting there.
“The training program. Why don’t you join us?”
He shook his head sharply. “I’m not a fighter.”
“You should be. You’re really strong.”
“I am just used to manual labor. That is where it comes from.” He paused. “You’re in the program?”
“Oh, yeah. And I like it. I like to win and I like to inflict pain on others. Particularly slayers.” As his eyes popped, she rolled her eyes. “Yes, females can be like that. We don’t need permission to be aggressive or strong. Or to kill.”
When he turned away, re-gripped the chin-up bar, and resumed his workout, she cursed at herself.
“Sorry,” she muttered. “That wasn’t directed at you.”
“Is there someone else here?” he said between reps.
“No.” She got to her feet and gave her head a shake. “Like I said, sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Up. And down. “But . . .” Up. And down. “. . . why
aren’t you . . .” Up. And down. “. . . with them?”
“The other trainees?” She looked at the clock on the wall. “They’re happy to chill before the bus comes. I hate loitering around. Time to go, actually. See ya.”
She was just at the door when he spoke up. “You shouldn’t do that.”
Novo glanced over her shoulder. “Excuse me?”
Ruhn nodded to the trash bin. “You throw up a lot when you exer- cise. It’s not healthy. You push too hard.”
“You don’t know me.”
“I don’t have to.”
She opened her mouth to tell him to keep his God complex to himself, but he just turned away and resumed those chin-ups of his.
Oh, right, she thought. Fucking fine. Why don’t I just go watch Tasty vids on BuzzFeed and take selfies in yoga poses.
With her temper surging, she so wanted to pick a fight with him. Even though she was tired to the point of butt-hurt, and he might have a point about the barfies, fuck that. Live and let live, you know?
Or, live and let self-destruct.
But whatever. No reason to argue with a stranger about something she had no intention of doing any differently.
Out in the corridor, the air was cooler—or maybe that was just a case of perception, the long concrete-walled chute to the parking area making it seem like there was a whole lot more air available for the taking. Forcing herself to walk forward, she headed to the locker room she and Paradise used as the only two females in the program. And the second she pushed her way in, she closed her eyes and considered going home sweaty and disgusting.
That goddamn fragrance.
Paradise’s shampoo was like spray paint on the walls, carpeting on the floor, ceiling fans whirling at a thousand miles an hour, strobe lights and a disco ball: In the cramped room, it took up every square inch of space.
What was worse? It wasn’t like the female was hateful or incompe- tent or a Barbie doll that could be written off as Taylor Swift in a Nir- vana world. Paradise had been the one who’d lasted the longest during that hellish orientation, and she was a crackerjack in the field, with shockingly fast reflexes and a dead-on shot that had to be seen to be believed.
But there was another thing she was good at.
And even though Novo had no right to care and no reason to no- tice and zero fucks to give, it was sublimely annoying to watch Peyton sneak those looks and linger in those doorways and pull those double takes whenever the female laughed.
The only thing that was even more irritating? That the shit was on Novo’s radar at all.
Peyton, son of Peythone, was nothing she was interested in. After all, some things, like not volunteering for a major limb amputation, were self-evident.
Plus hello, personal history.
Not with him specifically. But still.
So the fact that she’d even noticed the guy’s addiction to that other female was enough to make Novo want to beat her own ass.
As she turned to head for the shower stalls, she caught sight of herself in a full-length mirror—a fixture she was very sure wasn’t in the males’ locker room.
Which was really just so damned sexist—
Her thoughts dropped the mic on that familiar rant as her reflec- tion registered. Her eyes had become hollow pits, and her stomach, left bare between her sports bra and her leggings, was concave, and her legs were swollen with muscle except for the tight bony knots of her knee- caps.
No hips, no tits, no female identifiers . . . even her long hair was bolted in a braid that hung as if in retreat down the powerful fans on either side of her spine.
Novo nodded at herself in approval.
She wouldn’t want things any other way.
Paradise could keep the chick shit and all the sidelong stares in the world. Far better to be strong as opposed to sensual. The latter got you admired . .
The former kept you safe.