For a moment I wasn’t sure if he was going to magic up another glass of water to douse me with, or yell at me to give him ten for daring to challenge his authority. He drew in a breath and met my eyes. ‘You are right. I apologise for jumping to conclusions and for throwing water over you. It was ungentlemanly of me and unprofessional.’
My mouth almost fell open. As impressive as my speech had been at this time of the morning, it was obvious I’d never have made it to the stupid gym. And the last thing I’d expected Winter to do was apologise. ‘Well, then,’ I blustered. ‘That’s settled.’
He nodded once. ‘How did you know?’ he asked.
‘About my military background.’
I coughed. I really didn’t want him to know I’d been checking up on him. ‘It was a guess. You look the type.’
He watched me. ‘I never enlisted but my father is an officer. I grew up surrounded by the army and sometimes I forget how different civilian life can be.’
I sniffed. ‘I get it.’
‘Tell me again if I overstep the mark.’
This was going much better than I expected. I snapped out a sloppy salute. ‘Yes, sir!’
Winter’s eyes glittered and he leant towards me. ‘Oh, but Ivy?’
‘This doesn’t make me a soft touch. Our job is vital and I won’t let anything compromise the security of the Order or of this country. You will train and you will work and you won’t necessarily enjoy either.’
I registered the sincerity of his gaze. He truly loved his job and I felt uncomfortably that he very much had my measure. He’d realised that the stick approach wasn’t going to work. His proffered carrot, however, was laced with tempered steel. Despite backing down, Raphael Winter was no pushover.
‘Gotcha.’ I thought of Eve’s burglars – not to mention Harold who was probably getting hungry by now. I should probably check on them all. I grinned at Winter. ‘Give me fifteen minutes and then I’ll meet you downstairs.’
If I’d thought that other people believed this was too early to be out and about, I’d forgotten about the zeal of the Order members. Even though Winter and I arrived barely after dawn, the gym was still half full. Judging by the sweat on some of the faces around us, there were witches here who’d been working out for hours.
‘Treadmill,’ Winter barked. ‘We’ll start with a comfortable jog to warm you up.’
Horror settled in my bones. Since when was a jog ever comfortable? A slow stroll perhaps, preferably in broad sunshine with an ice-cream in my hand. Before I could begin to suggest we started more sedately, he shoved me onto a machine and started jabbing the buttons. ‘Hey!’ I protested. ‘That’s too fast!’
‘It’s barely a walk.’
He glared. ‘Continue complaining and I’ll increase the speed.’
I gritted my teeth. ‘I don’t see,’ I said, already beginning to pant, ‘how jogging is going to make me a better witch.’
‘How will you run down a suspect if you can’t run?’ Winter retorted.
The last thing I planned on doing was running anywhere. ‘I’ll zap him between the ears to stop him.’
‘A good Order witch never relies on magic alone,’ he chided.
I’d have reminded him that I wasn’t a good Order witch but it was impossible to talk. I found it difficult to believe that people did this kind of thing for fun. It didn’t help that, every minute or so, Winter increased the speed. In the mirror opposite I saw my face growing redder and redder. I was fairly certain I was about to have an aneurysm when he gave me a break and stopped the treadmill.
‘Thank the heavens,’ I wheezed. ‘Can I take a shower now?’
There was a glint of amusement in his eyes. ‘We’ve not even finished the warm-up yet.’
‘I hate you.’
He smiled. ‘You must have come here when you were a Neophyte.’
I like to think I had more sense. ‘I was busy,’ I said shortly, as he directed me to some terrifying contraption with heavy weights attached to its back.
‘Cheating?’ he asked mildly.
I grunted. ‘Amongst other things.’ I felt Winter’s cool eyes on me and changed the subject. ‘What does this do? It looks like some ancient torture device.’
‘It will help your upper arm strength. You’ll love it.’
Somehow I doubted that.
Winter adjusted the weight and corrected my posture. ‘We’ll start with ten reps,’ he told me.
I began to lift. Ten? I’d be lucky to manage two. ‘I need water,’ I told him.
He flicked me a frustrated look. ‘You didn’t bring a water bottle?’
‘I didn’t have time.’
He sighed, as if all this were a great imposition. He should put himself in my shoes. ‘Fine,’ he said. ‘Wait here.’
‘Where else am I going to go?’ He threw me a narrow look and I smiled sunnily. ‘Thank you, Adeptus Exemptus Winter. You’re the best.’
‘Don’t push it,’ he growled.
I smirked. As soon as he turned away, I got to work. I reached back, focusing on the weights. This was a series of runes I’d used on many occasions. I hated lugging customers’ bags in and out of the taxi, especially when they had heavy suitcases. Some people expected it; some demanded it because they enjoyed watching a girl heave their stuff around. There was a simple way around it. By the time Winter returned with a cup of water, I was all set to go.
I took the cup from him, drained it and smacked my lips. ‘Thanks!’
‘You’re welcome,’ he murmured. His eyes were suspicious. I’d have to give an Oscar-worthy performance.
‘Ten reps?’ I asked. ‘You don’t think maybe we should start with less?’
‘Make it twelve.’
He shrugged. ‘Every time you complain, I’m going to add more.’
‘Well, that sucks,’ I muttered. At least I’d deflected his attention from the weights.
‘Be careful with your breathing,’ Winter instructed.
‘Mm’kay,’ I heaved, trying to look as if I were really struggling.
‘Those weights aren’t that heavy. You’re not that weak.’
He was right; the weights weren’t heavy at all. ‘Says the man with muscles that Popeye would envy,’ I muttered. I had to be careful not to overdo the straining or he’d get suspicious.
‘Keep up remarks like that,’ Winter told me, ‘and all you’ll get for lunch is boiled spinach. I got these muscles by working for them. You can do the same.’
Yeah, yeah. I glared; I also shut up. With the facial expression of someone in pain, I lifted ten times, clenching my jaw and holding my breath to make sure my cheeks stayed red. It might have looked as if I were giving it everything I’d got but it felt like I was lifting air. Ha! Take that, Mr Smarty Pants.
I couldn’t cheat on every exercise. Some of the strange contortions he made me do were impossible to fake and sometimes he didn’t look away long enough for me to cast a spell. All in all, though, it was a successful venture. Winter wasn’t stupid; if he’d checked closely enough, he’d have worked out what I was up to. His trouble was that it didn’t occur to him that I’d try fake my way through getting fit.
I was lucky our binding would last only three months. I doubted Winter would fall for my tricks for long. But then, for all I knew I couldn’t trust him any more than he could trust me. He may have had something to do with Bell End and his partner breaking into Eve’s flat. They were all in the Order, after all.
Despite managing to fudge my way through most of the exercises, I was still exhausted by the end of them. My whole body was in agony.
Winter scratched his chin and cast a critical eye across my bedraggled and sweaty appearance. ‘I was going to move onto sparring,’ he said. ‘But I think that’s probably enough for today.’
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