Heat flooded her cheeks, the warmth spreading all the way down her neck and to her breasts. Even though she couldn’t see it, she could feel the flush along her skin. She opened her mouth, then snapped it shut before hurrying past him and out to the stone steps. His comment woke her up faster than coffee ever could have. After the way he’d played her body yesterday afternoon, she’d been starkly reminded of the intimate way they’d once known each other and the way he, and only he, had ever made her feel. If he kept saying stuff like that, it was going to make it that much harder for her to keep a level head around him. “So, what do you have planned so freaking early that we couldn’t wait a couple hours to start?” she asked as he shut and locked the door behind them.
Coming to stand next to her, she could feel his energy wrapping around her, potent and strong. “You’ll find out when we get to the ranch.”
When he started jogging, she let out a little yelp and jerked into action. “Hey.” Her legs were long, so she didn’t have any trouble keeping stride, but . . . he couldn’t mean they were running all the way to the ranch, could he? “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like?” The thumping of his sneakers hitting the pavement of December’s street sounded in tune with Kat’s own stride.
“But it’s over ten miles.” She knew she sounded a little whiny at the moment, but she hadn’t even had a cup of coffee. This just wasn’t right.
Jayce didn’t respond, so she didn’t say anything else. Just gritted her teeth and kept pace. She’d been in good shape before she’d been turned into a shifter, and since her transformation she found she was a lot faster, even in her human form, and she had a heck of a lot more endurance. Running ten miles wouldn’t take her as long or drain as much energy as when she’d been human, but still, at five in the morning, it was so wrong.
Half an hour into their run—not jog—she stole a peek at Jayce. The man hadn’t broken a sweat. Even if it was so cold out she could see her breath curling in front of her like white smoke, she still had a sheen of sweat dotting her forehead and her lower back was damp with perspiration. Yet Jayce looked as if he was out taking a Sunday stroll.
She growled low in her throat, which earned her a surprised glance from him. “What?”
“I know you’re getting some kind of perverse pleasure by dragging me out here, making me sweat.”
The piercing look in his gray eyes nearly made her stumble. “Making you sweat has always brought me pleasure.”
Now she did trip over her feet. Not because of what he said, but the way he said it. Like he was remembering the way she tasted. She caught herself and kept her mouth shut the rest of the run.
When they arrived at the ranch, a few people were milling about, most of them headed toward Ana and Connor’s house, where the pack would hang out just to socialize. She started to head that way after they jumped the main gate, but Jayce cocked his head toward the barn. “This way.”
What? “I want coffee.”
“You’re a cruel, cruel man,” she said quietly, but couldn’t resist nudging him with her hip as she spoke. It was stupid to let her guard down around him, but sometimes it was so hard not to. They’d been more than lovers once; they’d been friends. When she’d left him, losing that easy friendship had been devastating.
“I’d forgotten how much you hated mornings.” There was a quiet note of laughter in his voice.
When they entered the barn, she froze for a split second. Erin was already there, a wooden sparring stick the size of a long dagger in her hand. A pop of unwarranted jealousy detonated inside Kat, but she thrust it into that mental box where she kept all her nightmares. The image of Jayce on top of the petite redhead was something Kat wouldn’t be erasing anytime soon. Even though it hadn’t been a sexual thing, it still made her claws ache to be unleashed. To slice and strike in violent slashes. Even now her canines throbbed to the point that she had to take a couple of deep breaths and physically restrain herself from lashing out.
“I can’t believe you let him drag you out here so early,” Erin said to her. Her expression was friendly and her voice light.
Kat had worked with Erin before at December’s bookstore and she genuinely liked her. Mentally shaking herself, she shoved away her petty jealousy and forced herself to smile. “He refused me any sustenance too.”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.” Shaking her head, Erin bent down and grabbed a bottle of water from a cooler and tossed one to her. As Kat started to open it, she watched in surprise as the redhead rushed at Jayce.
Without missing a beat he dodged what would have been a vicious blow to his chest and rolled to the dusty ground, picking up a matching sparring rod. The sleeves of his sweater were pushed up to his forearms and she couldn’t help but watch the way his muscles flexed.
She wanted to rake her teeth over those hard lines and tendons, then follow up with soft, wet kisses, teasing and licking his skin. Heat rushed between her legs at the thought and she wanted to curse herself. Erin and Jayce were so focused on their mock fight they didn’t seem to notice.
Trying to keep her erratic emotions under control, she finished the bottle of water, then leaned against one of the empty stable doors to watch the workout. Erin was smaller and leaner than Jayce, but she was quick. Impressively so.
Kat knew he suspected the other woman was an enforcer so he was going to be training her also, but Kat had assumed that she and Jayce would have more time alone together. She should be grateful for the third party keeping them apart. As she started to retie her ponytail so it would be tighter, Jayce turned and threw his sparring rod in her direction.
Instinctively she ducked. It hit the stable door behind her with a loud clatter. As she narrowed her gaze at him, he took a few steps toward her. “Lesson three. Always be ready for an attack.”
Jayce and all his rules and lessons. So far he’d given her two rules and now three lessons. She doubted he’d actually quiz her, but she was memorizing them all just in case.
Before she could respond, he continued. “You should have caught it.”
She started to argue but then remembered his stupid first rule that she had to listen to him during training. It might annoy her, but she wanted to learn to defend herself in any situation. Without comment she picked up the rod, finding it heavier than she’d imagined. She held it in her hand, lifted her eyebrows, and waited for him to tell her what he wanted next.
His eyes narrowed slightly, exactly like they had yesterday. It was as if he expected her to argue with him. For that reason alone, she found herself wanting to do just that.
He tipped his head in Erin’s direction. “We’re going to come at you from both sides,” he said as he bent to pick up another rod that he threw to her. This time she caught it. He continued. “You’re going to try to block our blows.”
Kat glanced at Erin. Her expression was no longer friendly, but completely in battle mode. From the few moments she’d seen Jayce and Erin sparring, it was obvious the woman had trained with a blade. Even if Kat hadn’t seen them strapped to the woman’s thighs before, she would have known from today alone that she was skilled.
Swallowing back her nervousness at having to fight two attackers at once—even in a training situation—she braced herself as Erin launched herself at her.
As the nimble female flew through the air, rod in hand, Kat brought one of hers up to meet it. The force of the blow almost knocked her off her feet, but she dodged out of the way—only to be faced with an attack from Jayce.
She managed to block her thighs with one of her rods, but his slammed across her knuckles. Biting back the jarring pain, she managed to hold on to her weapon. No matter what happened today, she planned to keep the two defenses she had in her grasp. Jayce hadn’t actually said it out loud, but she knew that was part of her lesson too. Holding on to her weapons.
Two hours later she was tired and sweaty, her knuckles were bruised, bloodied, and very raw, but she felt good about herself. She hadn’t been able to block all of the blows—only about seventy percent—but in the course of the session her confidence had shot up a hundred percent. The hits had hurt, but she found she could now compartmentalize pain in a way she hadn’t been able to when she’d been human. Her wolf took her pain and made it something sharp and deadly inside her. It felt like all the pain she’d experienced today was being honed into a weapon she could use against her opponents.
“Grab some water,” Jayce finally said as he pulled his phone from his pocket.
Because of her ultrasensitive hearing she’d heard it buzzing earlier. Kat waited until Erin put her own sparring rods down to set hers aside, then headed for the cooler of water. Her stomach rumbled loud enough for even humans to hear if they’d been around.
Erin shot her a concerned look. “Have you eaten this morning?”
Before she could answer, Jayce strode up. “I’ve got to check on something. I’ll be back in a few hours,” he said to Kat. Then he focused on Erin. “Take her for a five-mile run and then you’re finished for this morning.”
Not for the day, but the morning. Kat inwardly winced, guessing he had more in store for her later, but five more miles wasn’t too bad. Her adrenaline was pumping overtime.
“She needs to eat,” Erin said.
“Soldiers don’t always get to eat.” There was no compromise in his voice.
Erin’s gray eyes seemed to almost darken. “She’s not a fucking soldier and this isn’t—”
Kat appreciated the other woman’s concern but she didn’t need her help. “I’m fine. If I’m about to pass out I’ll let you know. Now can we go so I can get some food afterward?”
Jayce gave her a look she couldn’t describe, but it was gone so quick she couldn’t begin to guess what it had been. Erin mumbled something under her breath about Jayce being a jerk, but nodded at Kat and headed out of the barn. Without looking at Jayce, she fell in line with Erin as they took off across one of the fields. They started running along a horse trail. The terrain was rougher than a paved road but good for her reflexes. Her stomach might be screaming at her for food, but she didn’t care. She was going to train as hard as it took to get to where she wanted to be. A little hunger never killed anyone. If anything, her hunger for Jayce was a whole lot worse than some physical discomfort.