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Motes of dust danced in the beams of light filtering through the grubby windowpanes. The room was narrow but long, and the dusky sunlight did little to lift the shadows. The silence crawled across Nikki’s skin like a live thing, yet she knew she was not alone.
She flexed her fingers, trying to ease the tension that had sweat running down her forehead, and swept her gaze from left to right.
They were here, somewhere. Four of them, hidden among the dust and the shadows and the wooden boxes. Two vampires and two shapeshifters. All she had to do was reach the far end of the room unscathed. Easy—except for the fact that the others were allowed weapons and she was not.
She glanced quickly at the ceiling. The monitors were on, and undoubtedly those watching in the next room were growing impatient. She’d been standing in the doorway for a good five minutes. But Michael had told her not to rush, and it was a suggestion she was following to the letter. If she didn’t pass this test, she’d have to undergo yet another month of physical training, and that was something she definitely didn’t want. She and Michael were supposed to get married in thirty-five days, and she hadn’t even gone shopping for a wedding dress yet.
She wiped the sweat from her eyes and scanned the shadows again. After three months of intensive training—training that was both physical and psychic—she was fitter than she’d ever been in her life. However, in some ways, she was no closer to understanding or controlling her most recent gifts than she had been three months ago.
But she wasn’t about to admit it. And how much the trainers suspected about her lack of control was anyone’s guess, though she had a feeling Michael might have told them. They’d been concentrating more on her psychic talents of late.
Worry about one thing at a time, she told herself sternly. Jake, her best friend and former boss, had passed this same test four days ago. Surely she could do the same.
Only she didn’t like the feeling in the room. Someone in the shadows was not what he or she pretended to be.
She flexed her fingers again and wondered if all the knocks she’d taken over the last few months had finally made her crazy. How could anyone in this room not be what they pretended to be? Here in the heart of the Damask Circle’s Washington training center, there were no secrets. Except, perhaps, where Seline was hiding. And why she was in hiding.
If Michael knew the answers to those questions, he certainly wasn’t telling her.
Which wasn’t really a surprise. He couldn’t be expected to break three centuries of habit in a matter of months—even though that’s exactly what she’d expected of him for a while.
She glanced at the monitors again. Was he in the control room, watching her? He’d said he wouldn’t be, because he couldn’t watch someone beating her up without wanting to intervene. And even if he was watching, she couldn’t reach out to him with her mind, because this room was a psychic “dead-zone.” She couldn’t even use her gifts to protect herself if something went wrong.
She bit her lip, trying to ignore the cold sensation creeping across her skin. It was nothing more than nerves. Nothing more than the knowledge that she’d failed this test once already and couldn’t afford to do so again. Not with all the wedding deadlines looming.
She took a deep breath and released it slowly. There was no delaying the inevitable. If she didn’t move soon, they’d fail her anyway.
She stepped to the right, keeping her back to the wall as she inched along. In the wasteland of boxes and shadows ahead, something stirred. Air brushed past her cheek, rich with the scent of the sea.
Delphine, the dolphin shifter. The one who had caused her to fail the last time, simply because she’d never expected a shifter in human form to be as slippery and strong as her animal counterpart.
A mistake she would not be making a second time.
She reached the corner and stepped into the shadow of a large box. The scent of the sea grew closer, though she could hear nothing in the thick silence. Nothing other than the rapid pounding of her own heart, anyway.
She peeped around the corner of the box and felt, rather than saw, the strike of air. She twisted out of the way, barely avoiding the hand that punched only inches from her nose. Air stirred a second time, heralding the approach of another blow. She dropped, sweeping her foot forward, hooking Delphine’s leg and knocking her off her feet. Before Del could rise, Nikki lunged at her, smacking her hand against the other woman’s chest.
“Bang, you’re dead.”
The smoky blonde’s green eyes twinkled in the hazy light. “Good. Now I can sneak out the door before they lock it and get that cup of coffee I’ve been craving.”
“I wish I could join you,” Nikki muttered, stepping back so the other woman could rise.
Del slapped a hand on Nikki’s shoulder. “You’ll do fine. Stop worrying.”
“Thanks,” Nikki said, wishing she could believe the shifter. But that sense of wrongness was increasing, and with it the certainty that the person behind it had an agenda that had nothing to do with today’s test.
She went back to the wall and inched along until she came to another box. This one was short enough to peer over, so she did. The darkness beyond leapt at her.
She yelped and jumped back. The shadows dissolved, becoming a vampire. She clenched her fist and struck at him. He caught the blow in his hand, crushing her fingers just enough to hurt. She pivoted, twisting her arm painfully as she lashed out with a foot. He ducked the blow easily, so she dropped to her knees, using his grip on her fist against him, and pulled him off the box. He landed on his back at her feet, and she pressed her free hand against his chest.
“Dead, dead, dead,” she muttered.
He raised her fist to his mouth and kissed her fingers. “Very well done.”
She rose and scanned the hazy room. Two more to go, and she was a third of the way down the room. It had been almost too easy so far. Maybe Michael had threatened the participants.
Yeah, right. As if he really wanted her to pass this test so she could start going on missions with him. They might have reached a compromise when it came to the Circle and his missions, but that didn’t mean he was all that happy about it. Still, he was keeping his end of the bargain, so she should do the same. And if she didn’t pass this damn test, it was back to training and goodbye wedding until she did pass.
Her gaze rose to the ceiling again. The second shifter was up there somewhere. She couldn’t say why she was so sure—her psychic gifts were not supposed to be working in this room at all. Frowning, she glanced at the box to her right and tried to shift it with kinetic power. Nothing at all. Not even a tingle.
She took a deep breath and crept forward again. The room seemed to be getting hotter, and sweat trickled down her spine. Had the air-conditioning gone off, or was it simply fear that warmed her?
Dust stirred the air, and a sneeze tickled her nose. She swiped at it, sniffing, and in that moment sensed movement.
Sweeping down fast.
She dropped to her stomach and felt claws rake along her back, tearing her sweater but not her flesh. She twisted, kicking upward at the rising hawk. She clipped a wing, and the bird squawked—a cry that was almost indignant.
It swooped around and arrowed in again. She scrambled to her feet and dove over the box, feeling the scrape of claws down her jeans. She hit the floor, rolled to her feet, and tore off her sweater. Twisting it quickly, she flicked one end at the hawk as it turned for another strike. It hit the bird in the chest, knocking it into the side of a tall box.
A golden haze crackled across the hawk’s body, and by the time it hit the floor, it was a man with golden hair and rich blue eyes. A man she knew—Jon Barnett. And he held two halves of a quarterstaff.
Things were about to get tough.
She glanced around, but there was nothing in this room that could be used as a weapon. Which was entirely the point.
He leapt at her, his wooden staffs little more than a blur. She backed away, dodging and weaving, but there was no way she could avoid every blow. Yet for all his speed, the blows were little more than taps. Had it been anyone other than Jon, she would have killer bruises tomorrow.
Her back hit a box. She cursed and dropped, sweeping with a foot. He jumped her leg, then smacked it with one of the staffs. She cursed again and dove at him, tackling him at knee height and knocking him to the ground. Before he could move, she scrambled up his body and punched his chest.
“Trust a shorty to tackle someone at knee height,” he muttered, blue eyes diamond bright in the dusky light.
“Blame Maddie. She’s the one who told me that if all else fails, tackle them.” Nikki grinned. “You’re just lucky I didn’t grab you where she told me to.”
“My wife told you to grab me?”
“Yep. Said she didn’t mind, as long as I didn’t bruise you too much.”
“Charming.” He smacked her leg. “You’d better get going.”
She nodded and rose. But her smile faded as her gaze swept the remainder of the room.
One vampire stood between her and the end of the room—and the end of this test.
And that was the one who felt so wrong.