Rogue Page 12

My father turned from his prodigal son to face his life’s true challenge—me. “I’l admit I’ve considered muzzling Ryan, but this time his interruption raises a good point.” He strolled across the floor toward me, smoothing down the front of a pressed white dress shirt as he walked. In spite of the heat and the grimy, unairconditioned basement, my father looked unruffled and flawlessly well pressed, as usual.

“And that point would be…?” I left my question hanging as I accepted the hand Ethan offered. He hauled me up with no visible effort, then smacked me on the back. I glared at him, irritated to realize that though I was soaked with perspiration, he had yet to break a sweat. It didn’t seem fair that he was both older and stronger. Okay, he wasn’t really that much stronger than I was, but he definitely had more endurance, in spite of our father’s best efforts to stretch mine to its limits.

My father stopped with the tips of his polished dress shoes touching the edge of the mat. “Yes, Ryan is arguably worth less to the Pride than the money it costs to feed him—”

At that, my incarcerated brother growled deep in his throat, but another glance from the Alpha shut him up. Ryan might have been vocal in his dissatisfaction over his meager accommodations, but he wasn’t about to make his situation any worse. He was wise in matters of self-preservation, if in nothing else.

“—however, his interruption is typical of the kinds of distractions you’ll face in a real fight.” My father adjusted his silver wire-rimmed glasses and stared hard at me through the lenses. A lecture was coming. I could feel it. “You can hardly expect a confused, out-of-control werecat to oblige you with silence just so you can concentrate on putting him out of his misery, can you?”

I frowned, unhappy to hear that we’d dropped any pretense of these lessons being about self-defense. I was hired muscle for now, whether I liked it or not. Sighing, I repositioned the wide shoulder straps of a black sports bra I no longer completely filled out. “No, but—”

He held up one thick, worn hand to silence me. “You have to practice as if every fight is real, as if the danger is not only to you, but to those under your protection. You owe it to the rest of the Pride to give everything you have. All the time. You can’t win a real fight if you’re easily distracted.”

Grinding my teeth together, I fought the urge to remind my father that I’d been out in the real world, that for the past three months, I’d been chasing down interlopers, hand-delivering warnings, and patrolling the territory boundaries. I’d been supervised, of course, but not two days earlier, I’d apprehended Dan Painter on my own. I wanted to say that and more, but I didn’t, because I knew how he’d answer. He’d ask why, if I was capable of more, was I not showing it now. I didn’t have an answer for him. So I kept my mouth shut.

That was one lesson I’d learned well over the summer. And since it was apparently the only thing I’d learned, I nodded curtly, sending my ponytail into a harsh bob behind me.

“Try it again.” With that, my father backed into a dark corner of the basement, his clothes fading into the shadows as the darkness seemed to consume him, but for the shine in his bright green eyes.

I took a deep, calming breath, ready for round four. Or was it round five? I couldn’t remember, but it didn’t matter, because Ethan was already coming at me again.

This time I was prepared.

I squatted, feet and knees spread, so that my center of balance was closer to the ground and my stance more stable. Ethan loped toward me, impossibly nimble. He lunged the last few feet. I bounded to my left and out of his path. He skidded past me. I whirled around to keep him in sight.

Ethan spun in midstep, showing off a lithe feline grace and flexibility.

He landed on his knees facing me. His hand shot toward my leg. I darted out of reach and kicked out with my right foot. My sneaker connected with his jaw. His head snapped back.

He growled as I backpedaled, and both his depth and volume put Ryan’s puny attempt to shame.

Ethan rubbed his jaw. I smiled sweetly. Fresh sweat glistened on his back in the light of the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. He dropped to all fours, fingers splayed on the mat. His back arched. My smile vanished.

He was going to pounce.

I barely saw him move. Beads of perspiration hit the mat. Ethan’s sweatpants were a black blur as he flew toward me. I dropped to the pad, rolling onto my back. I tucked my elbows in at my sides and pressed my knees into my chest. Feet flexed, I pointed the soles of my shoes at the ceiling. Ethan landed exactly where he’d aimed: on me. His weight crushed my legs into my torso. Air burst from my lungs. Fingers scrambled for a handful of my hair. Grunting, I shoved my legs away from my body.

Ethan flew backward across the basement, stil several feet off the floor when he passed the edge of the mat. He twisted in midair, like a house cat fal ing from a fence post. His scuffed sneakers hit the ground.

His hands followed almost instantly. Ethan hissed in pain as his momentum drove him forward, skinning his palms on the rough concrete. He jumped graceful y to his feet, his back to me, shoulders hunched. When he turned to face me he was smiling.

“Damn, Faythe!” he cried, rubbing two angry red shoeprints on his bare chest. “Where’d you learn that?”

Standing, I opened my mouth to answer, but my first syllable ended in a string of vowels as something crashed into my left shoulder, driving me to the mat. I landed on my right side, pinned by something hard and heavy. Air whooshed from my lungs for the second time in as many minutes. With the first of my recovered breaths, I took in the scent of my new attacker, even as I recognized his laugh.

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