Everyone turned to Gunner, who stood there with his nonchalant face and infuriatingly unreadable sea-blue eyes. He didn’t look at me, though. He looked at Maddox. “She has a name, you know,” he said calmly. “Not just ‘Arabella’s sister’. She’s more than that.”
Something passed between Danger, Gunner and Maddox. I was not sure what it was, but they looked at each other, testing each other, as if to see who would break fast. Break from what... I had no idea. But from Henry’s and Jez’s faces, I guessed something bad was going on. Henry looked concerned, and Jez bit her lip, her blue eyes moving from Gunner, to Maddox, to Gunner again, and then to Danger.
I decided to act oblivious to the tension, even though it made me have unnerving goosebumps. “Who’s Willow?” I asked, not bothering or caring about the sudden gazes I got from everyone. “And why did you say I’m like her, Maddox? Is that because of what I said? That you won’t hurt me? Do you want me to take that back, because I can, you know.” I couldn’t help the sarcasm out of my voice.
“It’s none of your concern,” said Gunner, whose eyes were averted again to Maddox and Danger.
I let out a snort. “That’s what you said yesterday, and you still told me everything I needed to know. What is it, some habit of yours? Tell me to get my nose out of your business only to make me stick it there again next time you bless me with your presence?”
“Shut up,” Maddox gritted out, gray eyes blazing.
“Why?” I demanded. “I’m only saying what’s on my mind. At least I’m being honest and real. And what do you guys do? Death-glaring at each other to see who averts his eyes first? Very mature of you so-called ‘grown-ups’.”
“I said,” Maddox stepped closer again to me. “Shut the fuck up.”
“Maybe you’re the one who needs to be shut up, Maddie,” I mocked, and a silence, even tenser than before, fell on the room.
Maddox stilled, and I found myself stilling right with him. He looked at me, like a predator looking at its prey, and I gulped. Danger warned me not to call him Maddie because it made him feel girly. And yet here I did just that, when he was furious enough as it was.
Great. It was such a great day. And now I worsened it. I should just go and kill myself to save me all these troubles.
Maddox stood toe-to-toe with me, looking down from his sublime height at my small, slim figure, and raised his hand. I thought, for the most terrifying second in my life, that he was about to smack my dead and I’d already gone and shut my eyes tight. But then a soft, warm hand cupped my cheek.
Shocked, I opened my eyes at once and saw Maddox, this big, bad, mad Maddox, holding my cheek with a big and kind hand that covered almost half my face, and looking softly at me, as if I were his sweet daughter or something like that. I wasn’t the only stunned one; I was so physically aware to Gunner all the time, that when he tensed I felt it, and if I had to bet, I would’ve bet that everyone else looked quiet astonished at the display of weird affection.
“You’re just like her. Willow,” he added, to clarify. “You don’t really look alike, but you have her determined look. It’s so identical to hers.” He started caressing my cheeks like petting a dog.
“Who is this Willow?” I asked, finding my voice.
“As Gunner says, it doesn’t matter,” Maddox dropped his hand from my face and stepped back, away from me. He then looked at Gunner. “I want her trained. Guns, knives, martial arts. I want her to know self-defense in its finest. Understood?” His voice was full of authority with no room to question.
But Gunner did. He looked at Henry, and when Henry nodded, he got the OK he needed. “Will do.”
“But what about school?” Jez asked, looking relieved that the drama was over. I could relate.
“She will keep going to school,” Maddox said, turning to Jez. “But her other free time will be used to learn how to take care of herself.” He then turned to me. “Rae, you’re now part of this family, of this mansion. I won’t let you get hurt.” He seemed so... paternal, that it kind-of made me feel a little weird.
It took me a moment to respond to all that. “I know martial arts, sorta,” I looked away. “I took self-defense classes.”
“Not good enough,” Maddox said. “Besides, it’s not open for discussion. It will be done. Gunner, I appoint you as her martial-arts trainer. Jez, teach her how to use a knife. Danger, you’re her guns teacher. Make time in your schedule if you don’t have. I want this girl trained.”
Now that it all had sunk in, I folded my hands and looked at him with disbelief. “You cannot possibly expect me to join your family, right?” I said, suddenly fearful. “You can’t do this. I have a grandmother, a family of my own. I don’t need to be a-adopted or anything - “
Suddenly a ringtone cut my speech. It was Henry’s phone, and after a few moments he walked toward me. “Speaking of your grandmother,” he said, “she’s on the phone. I’d let you talk, and you may keep this conversation later.”
I felt furious that they all dictated my life now. When I could speak to Gran. Whether I went to school or not. Learning martial arts and gun shooting.
I wanted them out of my life and my mind.
Taking a deep breath, I took the phone from Henry and said, “Gran?”
“You’re going to speak to me in Gaelic,” she replied in a low voice. “Okay?”
“Sure,” I muttered in Gaelic, gaining everyone’s attention. Granny you’re a smart one, I thought fondly. “What’s up?”
“Tell me how’s everything going there,” she talked to me in Gaelic, too.
“Everything’s chaotic,” I said, feeling suddenly teary. “It’s like they want to make me their puppet. Now came Henry Preston’s son and heir, Maddox, and frightened the shit out of me and now he forces me to learn martial arts, how to shoot a gun and how to use a knife. I think he wants to employ me as one of them, and I don’t want to. Besides they told me so many things I can’t just process in a matter of mere days and they expect me to use some superpowers to get through all this.” I took a breath of my Gaelic rumbling and had the slight satisfaction to see everyone’s dumbfounded and lost faces at the choice of my language. No one here understood Gaelic, thank God.
Gunner’s indication for being surprised was the most satisfying, because he was almost always so collected and unsurprised. But now his eyes widened a little and he looked quiet stunned. I would cherish this look forever.
“Oh, honey, I understand,” Gran choked, and I knew she wanted to cry but didn’t so to not upset me. “You have no idea how much I understand.”
“I love you,” I said, lowering my gaze to the floor. “And I want to be with you again. I don’t want to like those people, Granny. And I think I’m on the way there. Besides, they won’t let me out of the house, not even to walk Flanny. You know they appointed an animal-loving servant to take her for walks? It’s like stealing our bonding time!”
“Sweetie, I wish I could anything to lessen the burden,” Gran whispered. “I’m so sorry you have to go through this.”
“There’s nothing you can do about it,” I said bitterly, and then sighed. I didn’t want to upset my grandmother, so I decided to be sneaky. “You know, they’re all looking at me now like I’m an oddball they can’t fathom. I think I’m going to speak in Gaelic more often, if that would shut them all the fuck up.”
Gran didn’t scold me for cussing – she’d probably guessed I needed it. So she just laughed, a little shakily. “Do that, sweetheart, and give them hell.”
I found myself grinning a little. “I thought you told me to be obedient.”
“Obedience doesn’t mean you can’t give them hell,” Gran pointed out wisely.
Now I chuckled. “Gran, you’re the best.”
“Oh, darling, I think that’s you,” she said. “Now, call me whenever you want. Stupid Preston wouldn’t take me away entirely from my own granddaughter.” She sounded fiercely protective. Just as I liked her.
Grinning, I said, “Sure, ma’am. Love you.”
“Love you too, hon.”
Then the line went dead, the grin dropped off my face. I gave Henry back the phone, and he just looked at me as if he saw me for the first time. Like everyone else. “You know Gaelic,” Henry said, and it was not a question.
“Yeah,” I said as if it wasn’t a big deal.
“That’s awesome,” Danger said, grinning like an enthusiastic child. “Can you teach me? It sounded so cool!”
“Not now, Dange,” Maddox stopped him, and looked at me. “Now I see how much we need you, more than before even. You’re going to join us in one way or another, Rae O’Reilly. Be prepared for that. Now you’re all dismissed until dinner.” He turned to Danger, Gunner and Jezebel. “Tomorrow, I want you all to start the training. Did I make myself clear?”
“Yes sir,” Jez and Danger said dryly while Gunner just murmured something that sounded like an agreement.
And minutes later, I found myself in my room, with no way to tell the Prestons what I thought about their stupid ways.
I wished I could just snark at all of them.
The next day, I woke to the sound of knocking. Someone was trying to rip the door off its place, so before he or she could do so, I reached it with wobbly legs and opened it.
My breath caught and I froze, my skin covering with goosebumps. I raised my eyes slowly and saw greenish-blue ones looking back at me with an arched brow. I wasn’t ready to see him so early – and besides, it was still dark outside. So why was he here?
He probably saw the question in my eyes because he said, “I’m here because you have to start your training.”
“Training?” I drawled, the word barely out of my mouth when I realized what he was saying. “Oh. Now?” I checked the watch that was hung on the wall. “It’s fucking five in the fucking morning!” I chastised, looking back at Gunner. “I don’t do training in ungodly hours!”
“Don’t be lazy,” Gunner’s voice was still as nonchalant as they came, but I could swear I saw a glint of amusement in his eyes, and it made my stomach fill with flutter. I don’t think I’d seen him amused ever since my first night here in the mansion, when I stood in the balcony with him, and we talked.
Also, since then I hadn’t felt the knowingness and yearning I felt then. I couldn’t figure out where it came from, because I was sure I hadn’t seen him before that day at the promenade. Yet I still felt as if I found my long-lost love or something.
And now, when Gunner smirked a little, leaning on the door frame, wearing black jeans, black farm-like boots and black shirt with black jacket, with this tiny hint of amusement in his eyes, I felt my face coloring red, and that said knowingness filling me again.
That was when I realized that I only wore a shirt, with my legs all exposed. My blush deepened, and I stepped back, just in time to see him realizing the same, and those luminous sea-like eyes checking my body out. Really checking me out, for probably the first time. I felt his gaze on my legs, than on my abdomen, my nonexistent breasts (okay maybe not entirely nonexistent, seeing as I still wore bras – in the size of A-cup, but whatever) and then came back to my face. His façade didn’t show any farther interest in me, and my disappointment – and my crushed hoped and my humiliation – only felt stronger when he said in the flattest of voices, “Change into sweatpants and tank top. You won’t need any sneakers; you can come with your slippers. I’ll be waiting outside.” He then turned around and stepped back, closing the door after him.
Still a bit distraught about him actually checking out someone like me, like he was aware of me in that way or something, I dressed in my favorite black sweats and a white tank top with white bra underneath, and then put on my slippers. I pulled my mess of curly red hair into a low, loose ponytail and then walked out.
Gunner didn’t say a word. He checked me briefly to see that I did what he ordered me to do, and then we walked side by side in a really uncomfortable silence. But I didn’t dare breaking it, so I’d just let it be.
The gym was in the first floor and that was where we headed. When we arrived, he walked me to a room with a punching bag in the middle. I realized that every room in the gym had a lot of windows so it had let you feel relaxed and free, unlike most gyms.
“This is what you’re going to do firstly,” Gunner said, pointing at the punching bag. “You’re going to show me what you’ve got. Understood?”
Feeling tired and not very cooperative, I mocked a salute and said tiredly, “Yes, sir.”
He didn’t show any annoyance at the act, but his eyes blazed a little, and I had the satisfaction to know I was getting to him, even though he tried to hide it as much as he could.
A small victory is better than no victory.
Without saying anything else, I gathered myself and remembered the self-defense lessons I’d taken. I’d never really needed to use any of what I’d learned, but never say never. Besides, with my current situation, I couldn’t know for sure if the need wouldn’t be arose.
So I took a deep breath and started a session of kicks and punches that I remembered. I was out of training so my muscles protested against what I was doing, and it hurt every time I round-kicked the bag, but I still kept going. I wanted to impress Gunner for a reason I wanted locked in my mind, and through all the session, I felt his gaze on me, checking for mistakes and noting my lack of practice. When I finished, I was sweating and breathing heavily. I turned to look at him, waiting for his opinion.
He looked thoughtful, and after a few moments of silence he said, “I see you have the basics, but you’re slacking, so we need to work on it until you know the movements perfectly.”
And that’s what we did for two ungodly hours. I kicked and punched the bag under his orders, and he told me how to fix some things in my posture or kicks. Through all this, he did not touch me like he had two days ago, in the lounge. Maybe he had felt the same uncontrollable attraction to me like I did to him? Yeah, right. I was getting way too confident in myself and I shouldn’t be.
Guys like Gunner don’t like girls like me. They like babes with boobs to die for and an ass to slap during sex. They don’t like shrimps like me, with no meat on my bones. Okay, so I wasn’t anorectically thin, but my slimness, joined with my shortened height, made me look like a twelve-year-old.
God, now I was wallowing in self-pity. Such a great woman I would make.
Eventually the training session ended. Gunner didn’t touch me throughout it, not even to show me how to do something right. I wondered about it more than I should have, and my most reasonable conclusion about that act was that I disgusted him. It was way more realistic than “enticing” him.
And when I finished my shower and got dressed to school, I was mildly relieved that he wasn’t driving me to school today, but Ryder did, like always.
I didn’t know how long I could survive Gunner and him being.... him. It was exhausting – literally – dealing with him and his over-nonchalance or indifference, and then trying to understand his expressions and suspicious glints in his eyes or reading into his words.
And for the first time ever since I’d met Gunner, I wished he would just leave me alone.