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Chapter 8

Everywhere Vander turned, he found evidence of the girl’s presence. Half closed grain barrels in the barn—the pitchfork never to be found in its intended place—her clothes hanging on the clothesline—sewing materials and books discarded on any available surface in the house. It was inescapable. She was inescapable. Vander couldn’t move about his home without catching sight or scent of her.

He couldn’t stand it.

Vander couldn’t stomach the thought of spending more time with her than was strictly necessary. She exhausted him with her sharp tongue. The endless string of snide comments and insinuations she used to bait him with. He’d figured out what she was up to with little trouble; she was trying to goad him into shifting. To make him reveal what lay beneath his skin to satisfy her curiosity.

How would she react, Vander wondered, if he were to let his True Form tear itself from its cage of human flesh? Would she cower before him? Or would she see it as a victory? Tempting though it may be, Vander thought it best not to find out. Not with the current of raw animal instinct that flowed just beneath the shining surface of his scales.

Determined as Vander was to maintain his resolve, Mia did not make it easy for him. Perhaps if she put the same amount of thought into her training as she did into the tirade of quips and nonsense that spewed from her lips—undiminished no matter how many times he beat her down—she might actually stand a chance.

Mia wasn’t weak, or slow as he repeatedly told her. In truth, she was far from it. Power laced her blood. Her bones and muscles. It made her strong, it made her fast, and it did so without any effort on her part. Gifts made hollow without the hours of physical work it took to hone them. A condition Vander was uncomfortably familiar with.

The potential was there, Vander saw it even though he sometimes wished he didn’t. Orden had laid an excellent foundation of footwork and strategy. It shone through in their sparring every now and again, but not enough. She spent too much time thinking. Too much time planning her next move and not giving her body the freedom to move as it had been trained to do. And she was fair. Too fair. Not once had she attempted to take a dirty swipe at him, not even when he purposely left himself open to it. Vander had no such qualms.

He battered her incessantly, exploiting every weakness in case it wasn’t already clear to her that she was woefully inept. It was an outlet for the frustration threatening to choke him in its grasp. A channel for his fear and anger. Vander took little pleasure in covering her small frame in bruises. Bruises he was forced to look at every day since she wouldn’t heal them. Couldn’t more likely.

And still she appeared in the clearing every morning. Hair pulled back from her sharp, sun kissed face, in a braid already falling apart after a run around the alfalfa field. Clothes sticking to her lithe body with sweat and the oppressive, wet heat of the Grower’s Season. Still she pushed herself through whatever torturous exercises he conjured to snuff out the challenge in her eyes. She would not be cowed, not for a single moment. Yet Vander had the strangest suspicion that some small part of her was holding back.

Vander knew that behind that insufferable mask of hers, behind the infuriating comments, a deep well of temper lay hidden. Untapped. He had seen it for himself in the initial days of her training with Orden, when he’d watched from some hidden place. And again shortly after she had fallen out of the tree and into his arms. A temper that had curdled Vander’s stomach with the words she’d snarled at Orden, and had knocked Vander on his ass. It was there, burning in those brown eyes every time she looked at him. Eyes like soil after heavy rain.

Unleashing that temper may be the key to turning her into a real warrior. Or it might serve only to give Vander the satisfaction of seeing her lose control. Either way, it might prove interesting.

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