Metal tinkled, and from the corner of my eye I saw a rope swing out from behind scaffolding. Nobody came into view.
“Shut up, you bastard.” I saw more steps leading up to another platform, this one higher, but no outlet that I could see. I couldn’t chance going all the way up there to find a door. Besides, that wall probably signified the end of the gym. I’d have to cut across at some point.
Maybe I could lure him over to this side while I cut across the other?
He can move at superhuman speeds, you dumb shit. That won’t work.
My inner dialogue was not very kind when faced with stupid ideas.
Feet pounded on a hard surface before the sound abruptly ceased. I looked around wildly.
The course looked clear. Nothing moved in my line of sight.
A hard thump sounded, followed by two more.
I paused where I was, breath coming quickly and heart pounding in my ears. That sound had been in front of me, in the middle of the two paths. But where?
I stalked to the side, near a large obstacle, my feet edging toward the side of the walkway. I scanned all I could from my position leaning over the sparkling water. Nothing. No large bodies and no sound. He was waiting for me to go by.
So maybe I had to go across instead.
This is stupid.
Yes, it is, inner asshole. But I have no other choice.
Each obstacle looked harder to navigate than the one before it, but finally I found something that looked like some sort of balance exercise. A collection of round balls dotted an expanse of water. Going lengthwise would be a true challenge. Going across would only require courage and surefootedness.
Amendment: this is really stupid.
I annoyed even myself at times.
Gritting my teeth, I prepared to tempt fate and cut across. But suddenly an idea clicked on the light bulb above my head.
I turned back the way I’d come. There had to be a door at the end. Why else would there be a viewing platform on this side?
Much better idea.
I took a moment to turn off the ringer on my phone before I jogged as slowly as I could while remaining silent. A light squeak behind me sounded like shoes on a slippery surface. Then pounding, like someone trying to get out of an obstacle.
I put on a burst of speed, no longer trying for quiet, just trying to get out of there before he could clear the obstacle. I passed the stairs to the viewing area I’d been on, not even sparing them a glance. All my focus was on getting to that theoretical door at the end.
A shape swung from God knew where and dropped twenty feet directly in front of me. Kieran bent with the impact, and straightened slowly, his eyes shimmering with lust and malice.
“Fuck. Fuck, fuck. Oh fuck.” I pivoted on a dime and was jumping before I’d thought it through.
I grabbed a blue rope midair, my momentum swinging me over the water. But there was nothing on the other side to grab. I swung back, chancing a jaw-clenching glance behind me.
He stalked up the walkway slowly, that devilish smile lingering on his handsome face.
“Crap, crap, fuck, crap,” I muttered, looking around wildly. The rope was losing its swing. Soon I’d be hanging over the water. I needed to jump. But to what?
“There aren’t many people who can sneak up on me, Alexis,” he said, his voice thick with eager anticipation. “Those who get caught trying…are punished. How should I punish you? It is in my power to do so. You’re on magical soil now. You’re in my house, and you must play by my rules.”
“Fuckety crap.” I tried for more swing, but my hands were losing their grip and the rope wasn’t complying. I strained to the side, reaching for one of the pegs in a sideboard with a bunch of holes, barely wrapping my fingers around it. The wood came out of the hole, and I swung the other way. “What the…”
“I’m almost disappointed I caught you. You were angry, weren’t you, hearing my plans? A girl like you would rebel against something like that. I wonder what you would’ve done to retaliate. I can’t say I don’t deserve it, but I can’t say I’m sorry, either.”
I braced myself to launch off the rope.
“No!” he shouted, his teasing tone gone in an instant. “You’ll hurt—”
One of my hands gave out before I had the momentum right. I hardly flew forward at all, but my body somersaulted. I smacked the water with the side of my face, my mouth open to scream, and my hands and legs spread out like a frog.
Bone-chilling water assaulted my mouth and pushed up into my nose. Cold rushed up over my head and body. My buoyancy slowed me and I paddled wildly up to the surface, already shaking from the plunge in temperature.
A hand grabbed my arm, and I struck out, catching Kieran’s stomach with my foot. He only tightened his grip. It wasn’t the reaction I’d been going for.
I crested the surface and gulped for air. Water sloshed into my mouth, antagonizing a cough already in progress. I sputtered hoarsely. The primal fear of drowning clawed at me, and I struggled to get away from him. To swim and keep from going under.
“I have you.” He yanked me, turning me as he did so.
He trapped my back to his chest before two sure strokes moved us to the side of the pool. I might as well have been a baby for how easily he pulled me from the water, laid me out along the side, and knelt over me.
I heaved, coughing up water and gasping for air. I couldn’t have run if I’d wanted to, not that it would’ve done any good. Horrible cold shook every inch of my body. My teeth chattered uncontrollably.
“Why…so c-cold,” I stammered before taking another moment to cough up a lung. I hugged my arms around my middle. “F-feels…like…i-ice.”
“C’mon. Let’s warm you up.” For the second time that day, he scooped me up and hugged me to his chest. Before I knew it, he was running with me, so fast that everything beside us blurred. “I keep it that cold as a punishment to the guys for falling in. They have extra…protection against…certain elements, so it needs to be cold enough to ice over. My magic keeps it from actually icing over.” I could tell he was choosing his words carefully, probably so as not to give away secrets. He apparently thought I gave two rats or knew anyone with friends they could tell. “I had other things on my mind when you were dangling above the surface. Without…protection, the temperature of the water will give most mammals hypothermia.”
“Probably…n-not. W-wasn’t in…for long.”
He lowered me onto a blue exercise mat still within the private obstacle course area, next to a bundle of sweatshirt. Without ceremony, he hooked two thumbs in the waistband of his sweats and slid them down his legs. Black boxer briefs hugged his powerful thighs and put a very large bulge on display.
I probably should’ve asked what he thought he was doing, or done more than slap at his hands as he went to lift my shirt over my head, but for one solid moment, I could do nothing but stare at the size of that bulge.
It wasn’t one of my finest moments. I blamed the deathly cold cocooning my thoughts.
“S-stop.” I slapped his hands from the bottom of my soaked shirt, hanging limply off me like a pliable ice cube. He’d already removed my cross-body purse and lowered it to the ground. There went any receipts I needed. “Wh-what are…you do-doing?”
“You need to get out of these wet clothes, Alexis. You can keep your underwear if you want, but the pants and shirt have to go.” He captured both of my wrists in one of his large hands before lifting them over my head and grabbing my shirt with the other hand.
I probably would’ve struggled if I weren’t so damn cold.
The sopping, freezing fabric on my face made me feel like I was being dunked again. It hadn’t warmed up in the least. Definitely magically treated.
It fell to the side in a wet glop.
My lacy bra with more holes than lace and very little support gave him an absolute eyeful, but if he noticed for more than a moment, he didn’t show it.
“Here.” He snatched his sweatshirt up off the ground and pulled it around my shoulders. “Tuck in.”
I didn’t need to be told twice. I pushed my hands through the armholes and wrapped all that material around my torso. His smell permeated my senses. Clean cotton, masculine spice, and crisp ocean. I closed my eyes and breathed it in while swimming in the sweatshirt’s warmth.
Which was why I was late to the party when he unbuttoned my jeans and slid them down my wet thighs.
“Are those…poop emojis on your underwear? Is that a warning?” he asked.
“Oh my…” I bent in mortification and pulled down the sweatshirt, covering what I could. “They were free, okay? I wouldn’t have worn them if I’d thought they’d be seen.”
He chuckled darkly. “And to think, if I hadn’t chased you into the water, I never would’ve seen what you wear on a day-to-day basis. Step out.”
Still bending with the sweatshirt pulled to cover what I could, I braced a hand on his hard shoulder and jerkily lifted my legs out of the jeans.
“Here.” He ran to the wall, a blur of movement, and extracted sweats from a basket beside a rack of weights. Back in a moment, he bent and opened up the leg holes for me to step into them. “You’ll probably have to hold them up. They’re made to fit me.”