Later that evening, Gabe and I retired to the living room for some downtime. Just after dinner, Laura had insisted we leave the dishes to her, and James made his excuses, leaving the two of us alone, which was both nerve-wracking and exciting. I couldn’t deny that I didn’t appreciate the very unsubtle matchmaking efforts made by the others. But I was still worried that with everything going on in my life, even thinking about pursuing anything with Gabe was counterproductive, regardless of how attracted I was to him.
It did give me time to confirm one of my suspicions though.
We’d sat, side by side on the couch, both turned towards the large TV that flicked from channel to channel, as Gabe used the remote to find something for us to watch.
“Whose room am I sleeping in?” My super casual tone did nothing to fool him and his lips quirked in a small smile, though his attention stayed firmly what he was doing.
“Oh.” I’d let the information circle in my brain, processing it. “So, where are you sleeping?”
This time I got a quick glance before his gaze flicked back to the reality show on screen and his smile widened, just a bit.
“Guest room.” Bastard, he was deliberately keeping his answers short to annoy me, I just knew it.
“Okay.” More thinking from me as I stared blankly at the TV. “You know, you can have it back, right? I don’t want to kick you out of your own room.”
His smile became a grin and he continued clicking on the remote. “Nah, it’s all good. I’m all set up now anyway.” Another sideways glance in my direction. “Besides, I like you in my room, feels like you belong there.”
“As long as you’re sure,” I’d said, completely ignoring the last comment, not wanting to focus too much on what he meant. Yeah, I was being deliberately obtuse, I acknowledged that. But I had to prioritize my energy and focus on one goal; finding the monsters who’d hurt me and making them pay. So vengeance first; weird preternatural bonding stuff later.
At seven the next morning, Laura knocked on my door and entered with an armful of clothes. Since I’d been awake for about an hour, I wasn’t too upset by the intrusion. The night before I’d spotted a book on the nightstand, something Gabe must’ve been reading before my arrival. Since I’d woken early and it felt intrusive to go wandering through the house by myself, I’d picked up the book and started reading. Several pages later, I threw it down and heaved a sigh, figuring staring at the ceiling was better than trying to wade through the plot setup of a hardcore fantasy novel.
“Come in,” I called in response to the soft knock, and Laura stuck her head around the door, a smile on her face.
“I come bearing gifts, sort of. Is it okay to come in?”
“Please. I’m just lying here staring into space. Any distraction is welcome.”
Laura came into the room, placing the clothes on the end of the bed and sitting down. Her gaze went to the discarded novel and she chuckled.
“Couldn’t get into it?” she asked, her head nodding towards the book on the bed.
“Umm, no, I don’t think it’s my style.” Listen to me being all diplomatic.
Laura gave me a look filled with sympathetic understanding. “Yeah, Gabe’s really into the fantasy plotlines. Don’t get me wrong, even with my life, I don’t mind a little fantasy, sci-fi or paranormal. Hell, some of that stuff is just plain hilarious with how wrong it is. Other stuff is interesting because sometimes a really good author can make it seem so plausible. But my brain needs some kind of basis, in reality, to use as a launching pad, otherwise, I just can’t follow it.”
I felt relief flow through me that I hadn’t offended her. “Oh, thank god! I thought it was me and my faulty brain, but I swear I kept having to go back and reread pages because I’d forgotten who was who and how they worked into the storyline.”
Laura nodded sagely. “Don’t worry, it’s not you. I’ll show you the library after breakfast and later you can go and grab a book that’s more to your taste if you like. Or there’s always TV.”
“No, that’s okay, a new book would be great. Something light and funny would be awesome actually. You know, something as far away from my current situation as possible.”
“I’ve got the perfect one for you. It’s a complete fluff piece about a woman who has to choose between two gorgeous guys, who just happen to be celebrities and totally into her. It’s light on plot and long on fun.”
“Sounds perfect. Are these for me?” I pointed to the pile of fabric on the bed, noting that there seemed to be a lot of black spandex.
“Yup. Gabe told me you were going to start training this morning. Since he mentioned self-defense, I thought perhaps fitted, stretchy and comfortable should be the call of the day. I’m not sure what your shoe size is, but I have some spare joggers, I haven’t worn them yet, so we can try them out and if they fit, they’re yours. And we’ll try and organize a trip to the mall later today if we can work it into the schedule, so you can have some stuff of your own.”
I could feel a blush cross my face as embarrassment coursed through me. God, I hated being such a burden. Laura noticed my discomfort and hurried to comfort me.
“No, no! Not like that! I don’t mind sharing my stuff, it’s kind of nice to help. I was just thinking that you might like to have something that belongs to you, you know, not a hand-me-down? I didn’t mean to embarrass you.”
Shaking my head, I picked at the blanket in my lap as I tried to explain. “No, it’s not just that. You’ve been awesome, Laura, and generous to a fault. It’s just, I have no way of paying for those new clothes, or even paying you guys back for all the help you’ve given me. I hate being so helpless and dependent. And I know, you’re all happy to do it, willing to give me the shirt off your back, modern-day saints and all that. But having to rely on someone else for every single thing you need to survive, no matter how willingly given, is pretty galling.”
Laura gave an understanding nod.
“Don’t worry. If it makes you feel better, we’ll start a tab and organize a payment plan. You know, something along the lines of a lifetime of indentured servitude, along with your firstborn child. We can hammer out the details later. For now, you need to get up, get dressed and enjoy a full and balanced breakfast so you can go beat up James for me.” Patting my knee and giving me a sunny smile, Laura left so I could get changed.
An hour later I found myself in a workout area underneath the house. The room consisted of four cement walls painted a simple white. The room was sparse and spartan, without being cold. Fluorescent lights overhead made up for the fact that there were no windows, illuminating a timber floor covered in padded mats. The limited decor indicated the space was meant for serious hand to hand training. Nothing worse than completing a perfect body throw and knocking over a pot plant, am I right?
I had a moment of panic entering the room with no windows and only one exit. Overcome with a sense of claustrophobia, I experienced a flashback to that dingy cement box I’d been kept in.
Before I could stop the memories, I was there. The frigid cold seeping into my bones, only welcomed because the heat would’ve made the stench of my body and excrement unbearable. Near constant darkness eroded my sanity, but the light was worse because the light brought the monster. Other than the occasional torture and violation, I had no interaction with another person. Dehumanized, treated as less than garbage and I fought the weight of self-doubt and worthlessness they had given me every damn day, because I would not let them win.
Making a conscious effort, I fought free from the memory trying to drag me down. I was safe, things were different This room, spacious and airy, even without the windows, bore no real resemblance to the hell box I’d been kept in, so I pushed through my fear and walked in to meet James in the middle of the floor for some stretching and warm-up exercises.
Thirty minutes later, James clapped his hands, facing me with a professional demeanor I wasn’t used to from him.
“Okay, now we’re warmed up, the first thing I’m gonna do is find out what kind of fighting skills you might have. I know you don’t consciously remember anything, but fighting is about muscle memory, so you might know more than you think,” said James as he stood facing me. Without any further warning, his hand snapped out at incredible speed and smacked me on my shoulder.
Rocking back at the force, it hadn’t been a hard hit, but it hadn’t been a gentle love tap either, I looked down at my arm where he’d hit me. Raising my head again, I looked him dead in the eyes.
“Ow? That’s it, that’s your reaction? Jeez, something tells me we’ve got a lot of work to do here,” he muttered.
“Hey,” I said with wounded dignity, “I wasn’t ready.”
“Yeah, see, that’s the thing with most attacks. People aren’t going to come up and say ‘Hey random stranger, I’m going to hit you now, just to let you know. Are you ready for it or do you need a moment to prepare?’ Kind of defeats the purpose.”
“You do know there are other forms of communication that don’t include sarcasm, right?”
James snorted. “Really? You want to throw that rock, living in that glass house?”
Since I couldn’t disagree with his point, I instead stuck my nose in the air and said “Touché.”
“Okay, so I think it’s safe to say that whatever you may have been in your past life, a highly trained, ninja assassin probably wasn’t your day job. Or your night job,” mused James.
“Well, I probably wouldn’t have been very good at it if I was, since I was captured and all.” This conversation was getting waaaay off track, but it was delaying the beating up portion of the program, so I was willing to allow it.
“That’s a valid point. Alright, I think we should probably just start with the basics then. We’re going to start by working on some grappling first, then we’re going to build up those puny girl muscles with some boxing, kill two birds with one stone, so to speak.” When I raised my eyebrow in question, he elaborated. “Cardio and fighting. Regardless of all the flashy but effective martial arts moves out there, it’s hard to go past a plain, old-fashioned punch in the head.”
“Can’t argue with that,” I said.
And so began a new kind of torture. For all his wise-ass quips and sarcasm, James was a hard taskmaster with no mercy. While he never pushed me beyond what I was physically capable off, he also didn’t hold back and definitely worked me close to a few of my limits. By the end of the day, I felt like a limp piece of overcooked spaghetti. My body shook with fatigue, my muscles screamed at the abuse they’d been put through. If someone had lobbed a brick at my head, I had serious doubts I’d have been able to put my hands up to try and save my face, my arms were so sore from the sparring we’d finished with.
Gabe entered the dojo to find me moaning on the floor, a limp, quivering mass of flesh that could do nothing other than whimper. Rather than coming over all protective, as he’d done in the past when I’d suffered, he threw an amused glance over to James in the corner, stowing away the training gear.
“Do I need to ask how it went?”
James turned at Gabe’s voice and grinned at his friend. Wandering over to join him, they both stood above me, looking down at my prone form, showing absolutely no sympathy.
“Well, it wasn’t too bad,” replied James in a considering tone. “Of course, we took it easy today, because she probably still needs a bit of time to get back up to full strength. But a healthy dinner tonight, lots of protein, I feel confident we can really pick up the training tomorrow.”
A sound like a sob escaped my throat and Gabe bent his knees to crouch down beside me.
“Sweetie, you look like you’ve been ridden hard and put away wet. Come on, I’ll help you up and you can go take a nice long shower, maybe even a bath with some salts for those muscles. You’ll feel much better.”
I grunted in response. Not so elegant, but I’m confident I got my message across.
James smirked where he stood near my feet. “Come on, it’s not that bad. Trust me, you’ll feel fine in the morning.”
Exerting effort, I eloquently extended the middle finger on my right hand. I even managed to lift it an inch or two off the ground, to really punctuate my point. Then came the thud as my muscles gave out and my hand fell back to the floor. God, I was tired. Maybe I should just take a nap right here. Didn’t seem like anyone else was going to use the space, so it wasn’t like I’d be in the way.
Before I could suggest it, Gabe reached over and grabbed both my hands. “Come on,” he said, pulling me up with ease. The movement brought a groan from me and a smirk from Gabe. “Can you walk? Or do I need to toss you over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes?”
Stupid, smug, condescending jerk. His indifference to my pain was infuriating and I wanted nothing more than to reach up and wipe that superior look off his face. Unfortunately, considering my muscles seemed to be pulling off a good imitation of wet paper, I doubted I’d be able to reach that high.
Gathering my tattered dignity together, I pushed away from Gabe with a glare and limped slowly towards the door, fantasies of the hot bath I would have once I made it upstairs giving me the strength I needed. I ignored the chuckles from the men as they watched my uneven gait, pitifully grateful that they lingered in the training room to talk, so they wouldn’t see me literally drag my ass up the stairs.
Thankfully I didn’t encounter anyone on my walk through the house and managed to make it to the bathroom and into the bath without any further humiliation.
Despite how wretched I felt physically, it had been a good day. I finally felt like I was taking a constructive step towards my goal. Granted, considering the level I’d started on, it would take me years to get to that ninja assassin stage we’d joked about earlier, but I didn’t really need to get that far, did I? I just needed to learn to work with the unique weapons I’d been handed, no pun intended.
During our lesson earlier in the day, James had explained just how unusual my ability was.
“The most dangerous part of a wolf is its mouth. We hunt in packs, use our numbers and the sheer strength of our jaws to bring down our prey. We don’t use our claws as weapons, not really. A wolf doesn’t have the range of movement in its front legs to really effectively strike and cause enough damage. Here, hold out your hand, palm down, like this.” James held his arm out, the palm of his hand facing the floor to demonstrate and I did the same. “Good, now turn your palm up.” With a twist of my wrist, my palm was now facing the ceiling. “Right, wolves can’t do that. Also, canid claws aren’t retractable, so the fact your claws seem to slip in and out of your fingers is…” he trailed off, trying to find the word.
“Weird?” I supplied in a flat tone.
“Actually I was going to say a tactical advantage. No one has ever heard of anyone who can do what you do, Emma, and most pack members aren’t going to believe it till they see it. We can change at will, all you need to do is learn to control it and once you do, you’ll have a formidable weapon.”
Thinking about his words, I raised my hand from the water. It looked ordinary, not something that would sprout freaking claws on command. Well, maybe not on command. Not yet anyway. But I should be able to, at least according to James. I should have enough control to call those wicked sharp talons whenever I wanted them. Wait, were they even talons? I’d only really seen them the once, just before I passed out in the kitchen.
I struggled to remember exactly what happened when I’d last felt that burning, stinging sensation when my hands had shifted. Visually, it had looked as though my nails had lengthened, darkened and curved, but it had felt more, I don’t know, sturdy, than that. It wasn’t just that I’d grown my fingernails, that implies something flimsy that could easily break. It was as if they’d grown thicker, stronger, fuller, an extension of my fingertips themselves, rather than just nails.
Studying my hand, I tried to lose myself in the memory of the sensations, wanting to replicate the results without the emotional catalyst. Closing my eyes tight to block out the light, I focused on the feeling in my fingertips, willing myself to feel the tingling just under the skin, almost like pins and needles, along with the slight burning sting. There. Was that it? Had I felt a shift?
Quickly opening my eyes, I was disappointed to see my normal hand staring back at me.
Damnit! Letting my hand fall back into the water with a splash, I fought down the frustration rising in me. The tingles were probably just pins and needles from holding my arm up too long. Considering how exhausted I’d been what I’d run the bath, it was amazing I’d even been able to lift my hand at all. But apparently, the hot water had done wonders for my aching muscles.
It was so tempting to just give in, to wallow in the moment of floating in the warm bath water, the steam wafting the fragrance of the bath salts up past my face. No, I didn’t have that luxury. There was so much to learn, I had so far to go. I didn’t have time for self-indulgence. With determination, I raised my hand from the water again, studying the chipped and ragged nails, willing the change to happen.
A knock on the door interrupted my concentration and I caught myself before I let out a growl.
“You still alive in there, Em? Or have you drowned to avoid another session with James tomorrow?” Gabe’s voice was slightly muffled by the closed bathroom door, but his amusement came through loud and clear.
“You’re hilarious, Goliath,” I muttered, his chuckle indicating he’d heard me despite my low voice. Stupid wolf hearing.
“Yup, I’m a regular comedian. Anyway, Laura sent me to get you, dinner’s nearly ready. We’re having steaks. She wanted me to ask how you think you might like yours. Still bleeding or charcoal?”
Eew. Neither one of those sounded appealing. “Does it have to be either/or?”
“Medium it is,” came Gabe’s response and then there was silence. Straining my ears, I stayed perfectly still, listening for sounds to indicate he’d moved away from the door. When a minute passed and the silence continued, I let myself relax slightly. Maybe he had left the bedroom and I just hadn’t heard. Then he spoke and I tensed again for different reasons.
“You need a hand in there, Em?” The suggestive tone in his voice left little doubt to exactly what kind of hand he offered, and sadly my inner nympho shuddered in response to the blatant invitation.
“No,” I croaked, then cleared my throat and tried again with a little more authority. “No, I’m good. Thanks.”
“I’m sure you are,” his amused voice, deep and intimate, caused another sensual shiver and his footsteps faded as he left the bedroom. God, the man was potent. I had to fan myself, my face heated and flushed and it sure as hell wasn’t from the bath water.
Dragging my bruised and weary self out of the water, I grabbed a towel and once again avoided my reflection. Though there were basically no marks left on my body to show for the time I’d been incarcerated, it was still just too weird to look into the polished surface and see a stranger looking back. After drying off, I went back into the bedroom to find that the clothes fairy, a.k.a Laura had visited while I’d been in the bath. The clothing I’d worn the day before had been washed and dried and waited for me on the bed. Grateful for an alternative to my sweaty workout gear, I quickly dressed.
Dinner turned out to be a casual affair with just Gabe, myself and Laura. Laura had informed me in a waspish tone that James had other plans, which I took to mean he had a date or something that involved someone of the opposite sex. Gabe was right, there were definitely sparks between his sister and best friend. I had to admit, I was kind of curious as to why they hadn’t acted on them.
The steaks were done to perfection, with crispy baked potatoes and salad, dinner was delicious.
“Laura, that was amazing, thank you.” I was making a habit of practically inhaling the meals Laura made, she was that good.
“You’re welcome,” she smiled, genuinely pleased with the compliment.
“So where did you learn to cook?” I’d all but licked the plate clean, and to tell the truth, I was contemplating even that.
“My mother, mostly. A little from school, you know basic stuff, but mom loved to cook and she tried to pass that love on to her kids,” responded Laura with a fond smile.
Turning to Gabe, where he sat at the head of the table, I arched an eyebrow at him. “Does this mean you too can create culinary masterpieces in the kitchen?”
“Of course,” he said with an offended air, as if he couldn’t believe I’d even had to ask. Seeking confirmation, I turned to Laura.
She shrugged. “It’s a much-debated topic. Gabe’s ability to cook is kind of like bigfoot. Some people have claimed to have seen it and are true believers. The majority of the population, however, are pretty skeptical, because we’ve never seen it personally. So without proof of this famed cooking skill, I’m reserving my judgment.”
“But if you guys learned to cook as kids, wouldn’t you have been there to taste his attempts?” I asked, looking between the two of them.
“Huh, yeah, you’d think so,” said Laura, getting comfortable, settling in to tell the story. “See here’s what makes me doubt my brother. All the time we lived here as kids, he showed no interest in the kitchen for anything other than an exit to the backyard, or as a place to scarf down his food as quickly as possible. You know, so he could get back to whatever nerd-fest he had going at the time.” Looking at her brother, Laura smirked, but he only watched her calmly, refusing to be baited. Not that it stopped her.
“Okay, I’ll set the scene,” she began. “I don’t know if you realize, but Gabe and I are only a year apart in age. Anyway, because of his whole alpha thing, he couldn’t go away to college, he had to go to a local one. I, naturally, jumped at the chance to get as far away from my family as possible, as most teenagers do, and ended up with a scholarship to a university on the other side of the country. Mr. Jealous here,” she jerked her thumb towards her brother, “didn’t like the fact that I had independence and he didn’t, so he moved out as well, but only as far as town. Yet, even though he’d moved out, he apparently played the starving student card and was back here almost every night for dinner.”
I glanced at Gabe, but he only sat there, a relaxed expression on his face, not participating in the conversation.
“Allegedly,” Laura continued, “when I moved away to college, mom joined a few social groups and started going out more. She said she deserved to have a life outside the family, and that as much as she loved my father, with both kids out of the nest, she felt she deserved a social life.”
That seemed reasonable, everyone needs time to focus on themselves every now and then.
Reaching over as she continued, Laura started casually collecting our plates and cutlery. “When mom started going out to her book club and such, there was Dad and Gabe, completely clueless in the kitchen. Mom was less than sympathetic and told them if they wanted to eat, they’d better learn how to cook.”
Chuckling, I could totally imagine Gabe standing in the kitchen with an indignant and clueless look on his face. “So how did he learn then?” I addressed my question to Laura since Gabe showed no interest in volunteering anything.
Laura tossed an amused glance towards Gabe. “The story goes that Gabe and Dad took night classes to learn how to cook.”
Tilting my head to the side, I considered that. “Why didn’t you ask your mother to teach you, Gabe?” I asked, determined to drag him into the conversation.
Finally stirring himself to contribute to the topic, Gabe spoke. “My mother’s opinion was that I’d had the opportunity to learn from her for twenty years and I’d squandered it, so if I wanted to know how to cook, I could go out and take a cooking class at the community college. So I did.”
When he said nothing more, I looked between the two of them. “And?”
“And what?” Gabe asked.
“And if you can cook, why is there so much mystery surrounding this? Are you that bad?”
“Pfft, you can’t taunt me into making you dinner, Em, I’m made of sterner stuff of that. And why dilute the experience by offering it to the masses? This way, I have an air of mystery. Drives the women wild.”
“Really? You mean with that whole nerdy accountant, fantasy-loving geek thing you’ve got going on, you need extra mystique? I’m amazed! Surely you’re fighting them off with a stick as it is,” I managed to say with a straight face.
Gabe merely rolled. “I’m impervious to your taunts, woman.”
Laughter bubbled up in my chest and something told me I could get under his skin if I really tried.
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