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Especially when the main aim of that training was to make me something I'd once vowed never to become–a guardian for the Directorate of Other Races.
Becoming a guardian might have been inevitable, and I might have accepted it on some levels, but that didn't mean I had to be happy about the whole process.
Guardians were far more than just the specialized cops most humans thought them to be–they were judge, jury, and executioners. None of this legal crap the human cops were forced to put up with. Of course, the people in front of a guardian's metaphoric bullet were generally out-of-control psychos who totally deserved to die, but stalking the night with the aim of ending their undead lives still wasn't something that had reached my "to-do" list.
Even if my wolf soul sometimes hungered to hunt more than I might wish to acknowledge.
But if there was one thing worse than going through all the training that was involved in becoming a guardian, then it was training with my brother. I couldn't con him. Couldn't flirt or flash a bit of flesh to make him forget his train of thought. Couldn't moan that I'd had enough and that I couldn't go on, because he wasn't just my brother, but my twin.
He knew exactly what I could and couldn't do, because he could feel it. We mightn't share the telepathy of twins, but we knew when the other was hurting or in trouble.
And right now, Rhoan was fully aware of the fact that I was trying to pike. And he knew why.
I had a hot date with an even hotter werewolf.
In precisely one hour.
If I left now, I could get home and clean up before Kellen–the hot date in question–came by to pick me up. Any later, and he'd see me as the beaten-up scruff I usually was these days.
"Isn't Liander cooking you a roast this evening?" I said, casually waving the wooden baton I'd been given but had yet to use. Mainly because I didn't want to hit my brother.
He, however, didn't have the same problem, and the bruises littering my body proved it.
But then, he didn't really want me to be doing this. Didn't want me on the mission drawing inexorably closer.
"Yes." He continued to circle me, his pace as casual as his expression. I wasn't fooled. Couldn't be, when I could feel the tension in his body almost as well as I could feel it in mine. "But he has no intention of putting it on until I phone and tell him I'm on my way to his place."
"It's his birthday. You should be there to celebrate it with him rather than putting me through the wringer."
He shifted suddenly, stepping forward, the baton a pale blur as he lashed out at me. I ignored the step and the blow, holding still as the breeze of the baton's passing caressed the fingers of my left hand. He was only playing, and we both knew it.
I wouldn't even see his real move.
He grinned. "I'll be there as soon as this is over. And he did invite you along, remember."
"And spoil the private party you have planned?" My voice was dry. "I don't think so. Besides, I'd rather party with Kellen."
"Meaning Quinn is still out of the picture?"
"Not entirely." I shifted a little, keeping him in sight as he continued to circle. The padded green mats that covered the Directorate's sublevel training arena squeaked in protest under my bare feet.
"Your sweat is causing that," he commented. "But there's not nearly enough of it."
"Jesus, Rhoan, have a heart. I haven't seen Kellen for nearly a week. I want to play with him, not you."
He raised an eyebrow, a devilish glint in his silver eyes. "You get me on the mat, and I'll let you go."
"It's not you I want on the mat!"
"If you don't fight me, they'll make you fight Gautier. And I don't think either of us wants that."
"And if I do fight you, and do manage to bring you down, they're going to make me fight him, anyway." Which pretty much sucked. I wasn't overly fond of vampires at the best of times, but some of them–like Quinn, who was in Sydney tending to his airline business, and Jack, my boss, and the man in charge of the whole guardian division–were decent people. Gautier was just a murdering freak. He might be a guardian, and he might not have done anything wrong just yet, but he was one of the bad guys. He was also a clone made for one specific purpose–to take over the Directorate. He hadn't made his move yet, but I had an odd premonition that he would, and soon.
Rhoan made another feint. This time the baton skimmed my knuckles, stinging but not breaking skin. I resisted the urge to shake the pain away and shifted my stance a little, readying for the real attack.
"So, what's happening between you and Quinn?"
Nothing had happened, and that was the whole problem. After making such a song and dance about me upholding my end of the deal we'd made, he'd basically played absent lover for the last few months. I blew out a frustrated breath, lifting the sweaty strands of hair from my forehead. "Can't we have this discussion after I play with Kellen?"
"No," he said, and blurred so fast that he literally disappeared from normal sight. And while I could have tracked his heat signature with the infrared of my vampire vision, I didn't actually need to, because my hearing and nose were wolf-sharp. Not only could I hear his light steps on the vinyl mats as he circled around me, but I could track the breeze of his spicy, leathery scent.
Both were now approaching from behind.
I dove out of the way, twisting around even as I hit the mat, and lashed out with a foot. The blow connected hard and low against the back of his leg, and he grunted, his form reappearing as he stumbled and fought to remain standing.
I scrambled upright, and lunged toward him. I wasn't fast enough by half. He scooted well out of reach and shook his head. "You're not taking this seriously, Riley."
"Yes, I am." Just not as seriously as he'd like me to. Not this evening, anyway.
"Are you that desperate to fight Gautier?"
"No, but I am that desperate to see Kellen." Sexual frustration wasn't a good thing for anyone, but it was particularly bad for a werewolf. Sex was an ingrained part of our culture–we needed it as much as a vampire needed blood. And this goddamn training had been taking up so much of my free time that I hadn't even been able to get down to the Blue Moon for some action.
I blew out another breath, and tried to think calm thoughts. As much as I didn't want to hurt my brother, if that was the only way out of here, then I might have to try.
But if I did succeed in beating him, then Jack might take that as a sign I was ready for the big one. And part of me feared that–feared that no matter what Jack said, my brother was right when he said that I shouldn't be doing this. That I was never going to be ready for it, no matter how much training I got.
That I'd screw it all up, and put everyone's life in danger.
Not that Rhoan had actually said that last one. But as the time to infiltrate Deshon Starr's crime cartel drew nearer, it was in my thoughts more and more.
"It's a stupid rule, and you know it," I said eventually. "Fighting Gautier doesn't prove anything."
"He is the best at what he does. Fighting him makes guardians ready for what they may face out there."
"Difference is, I don't want to become a full-time guardian."
"You have no choice now, Riley."
I knew that, but that didn't mean I still couldn't rail against the prospect, even if my protests were only empty words. Hell, if Jack came up to me today and offered me the chance to walk away from becoming a guardian, I wouldn't, because there was no way in hell I'd walk away from the chance of making Deshon Starr pay. Not only because of what he'd done to me, but what he'd done to Misha, and to Kade's partner, and all those countless men and women still locked in breeding cells somewhere.
Not to mention all the things given life in his labs–abominations nature would never have created, creatures born for two purposes only. To kill as ordered, and to die as ordered.
A chill ran across my skin. I'd only come across a few of those creatures, but I had a bad, bad feeling that before this month was out, I'd see a whole lot more than I ever wanted to.
I licked my lips, and tried to concentrate on Rhoan. If I had to get him down on the mat to get out of here, then I would. I wanted, needed, to grab a little bit more of a normal life before the crap set in again.
Because it was coming. I could feel it.
A shadow flickered across one of the windows lining the wall to the right of Rhoan. Given it was nearly six, it was probably just a guardian getting himself ready for the evening's hunt. This arena was on sublevel 5, right next to the guardian sleeping quarters. Which, amusingly, did contain coffins. Some vamps just loved living up to human expectations, even if they weren't actually necessary.
Not that any humans ever came down here. That would be like leading a lamb into the midst of a hungry den of lions. To say it would get ugly very quickly would be an understatement. Guardians might be paid to protect humans, but they sure as hell weren't above snacking on the occasional one, either.
The shadow slipped past another window, and this time, Rhoan's gaze flickered in that direction. Only briefly, but that half-second gave me an idea.
I twisted, spinning and lashing out with one bare foot. My heel skimmed his stomach, forcing him backward. His baton arced around, his blow barely avoiding my shin, then he followed the impetus of the movement so that he was spinning and kicking in one smooth motion. His heel whistled mere inches from my nose, and probably would have connected if I hadn't leaned back.
He nodded approvingly. "Now, that's a little more like it."
I grunted, shifting my stance and throwing the baton from one hand to the other. The slap of wood against flesh echoed in the silence surrounding us, and tension ran across his shoulders. I held his gaze, then caught the baton left-handed and started to hit out. Only to pull the blow up short and let my gaze go beyond him.
Rhoan turned around, and, in that moment, I dropped and kicked his legs out from underneath him. He hit the mat with a loud splat, his surprised expression dissolving quickly into a bark of laughter.
"The oldest trick in the book, and I fell for it."
I grinned. "Old tricks sometimes have their uses."
"And I guess this means you're free to go." He held up a hand. "Help me up."
"I'm not that stupid, brother."
Amusement twinkled in his silvery eyes as he climbed to his feet. "Worth a try, I guess."
"So I can go?"
"That was the deal." He rose and walked across to the side of the arena to grab the towel he'd draped over the railing earlier. "But you're back here tomorrow morning at six sharp."
I groaned. "That's just plain mean."
He ran the towel across his spiky red hair, and even though I couldn't see his expression, I knew he was grinning. Sometimes my brother could be a real pain in the ass.
"Maybe next time you'll reconsider the option of cheating."
"It's not cheating if it works."
Though his smile still lingered, little of that amusement reached his eyes. He was worried, truly worried, about my part in the mission we'd soon embark on. He didn't want me to do this any more than I'd wanted him to become a guardian. But as he'd said to me all those years ago, some directions in life just had to be accepted.
"You're here to learn defense and offense," he said. "Inane tricks won't save your life."
"If they only save it once, then they're worth trying."
He shook his head. "I can see I'm not going to talk any sense into you until after the sexfest."
"Glad you finally caught the gist of my whole conversation for the last hour." I grinned. "And hey, look on the bright side: Liander's going to be mighty pleased to see you at a normal hour for a change."
He grunted. "Well, if he wasn't so damn clingy, he might see me early more often."
I raised my eyebrows at the annoyance in his tone. "He gives you free rein to be with who you want. I hardly call that clingy."
"I know, but–" He stopped and shrugged. "I don't know if I can give him what he wants. I don't know if I'll ever be able to."
Which was almost exactly what I'd said to Quinn two months ago. It was amazing how our love lives seemed to be following similar lines–although my reasons for saying those words to Quinn were entirely different than my brother's statement. Rhoan actually loved Liander. I couldn't say the same about Quinn. Hell, we barely even knew each other beyond the realms of sex.
And at least Liander had stuck with Rhoan, through good times and bad. Quinn had done a runner yet again, despite his declared intention of not letting me go until we'd fully explored this thing between us.
How he intended to do that from Sydney was anyone's guess. Maybe he'd simply decided I was just too much trouble and it was better to walk away. Though given we were sharing some mighty erotic dreams, I doubted walking away was a real option for either of us right now.
I touched a hand to my brother's arm, and squeezed lightly. "Liander loves you. And he'll wait for you."
Rhoan's gaze met mine. "I'm not sure I'm worth such devotion."
I raised my eyebrows. "I'm that devoted."
He flicked my cheek lightly. "Yeah, but you're my twin and my pack-mate. You have to be."
"True." I studied him for a moment, then said softly, "Just because our pack didn't love us doesn't mean we're unworthy of love."
How many times had he said that to me over the years? And yet now, when the crunch came for him, he wasn't truly ready to believe it himself.
From the Paperback edition.