Copyright © 2012 Moira Rogers
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
For the first time in five years, Diana wasn’t the most dangerous person around.
She ducked a blow that would have connected with her jaw and growled as she plowed into Hunter’s midsection. He barely even flinched, his only reaction a low grunt. His fist swung around a second time, headed for her unprotected side.
She was faster, and she’d obviously have to use that to her advantage if she ever hoped to hold her own in a fight with another bloodhound. She spun away, narrowly escaping the blow, and danced back, panting.
This time he didn’t follow. Instead he braced his hands on his knees and watched her, eyes narrowed. “You’re a quick bastard, aren’t you? Suppose you’ve been doing this longer than I have, though.”
She eyed his muscled arms and shoulders and snorted out a laugh. “Being fast is the only way I can stay on my feet, you big ox.”
A rough laugh grated out of him. “Good. Keep being fast. My woman’ll give me the cold shoulder for a week if I land one of these punches on your smart mouth.”
Yes, Ophelia seemed to appreciate and respect the innate differences between men and women. “Just remind her I’m no lady. She’ll forgive you.”
“Not likely. Plenty of women here who aren’t exactly ladies, and I doubt she’d look kindly on me hitting any of them.”
Not even a woman who turned into a beast with the full moon. “Wilder won’t look kindly on us shirking our training because we’re afraid to bust a few lips and noses.”
“Oh, I’m not afraid to.” If anything, his eyes gleamed as he straightened. “Ophelia might be confused, but I’m sure as hell not. All these new instincts I’ve got are telling me one thing, plain and simple—you’re a bloodhound.”
She could sense it about him too, an overriding feeling that he was competition, another predator she had to best when it came to the inevitable hunt. “Then that’s what matters.”
“Mmm.” Without warning he spun again, one huge hand slamming toward her gut.
Too late to avoid it, so she took the punch and met it with one of her own, striking his jaw with her fist as the breath whooshed out of her lungs.
Boots scuffed on the dirt as the world spun around her—Wilder, identified by scent and even feel before he spoke. “That’s enough for today. Go wash up for supper, both of you.”
Sometimes, she felt like a child instead of a grown woman, but it was Wilder’s job to train them all, keep them alive. So she nodded and slapped Hunter on the back as she passed him. “Next time, I’m whooping your ass.”
Hunter grunted and rubbed his jaw. “Don’t let her knock you upside the head. She packs a wallop for a little thing.”
Diana took the porch steps two at time before turning to grin at him. “I’m not a little thing, remember? I’m a bloodhound.”
Inside the house was dark and cool, the electric lamps unlit in the waning sunlight. She felt her way down the hall, turned the corner and bumped into a wide chest. “Sorry—”
Large, careful hands caught her elbows. “Are you all right?”
“Nate.” A shiver raced up her spine. Awareness, different from the other hounds, but not quite like the vampires she’d fought and killed, either. “I’m just a little out of breath, that’s all.”
His mouth tugged down into a frown. “Hunter hit you.”
He must have been watching. “And I hit Hunter. It’s part of our training.”
If anything, his frown deepened. “He’s twice your size. At least.”
“I held my own.” She flexed her aching hand. “Got in a few good licks.”
“I suppose you did.” Nate took a step back, though his presence still filled the narrow hallway. “You don’t feel the same as them, you know.”
She’d seen photographs of him before, distinguished and silver-haired, nothing like the man who stood before her now. Everything about him was dark—his hair, his eyes, and especially the glower that clouded his face.
Even his words.
Diana shook herself. “You don’t feel the same as the others, either. But that’s not quite what you mean, is it?”
“No,” he acknowledged, and a hint of a smile broke through. “You’ll have to forgive me, Diana. I’ve never let manners get in the way of an intellectual puzzle.”
“Is that what I am?”
“Aren’t we both?”
She shrugged. “I really haven’t given it much thought.” In his case, perhaps she should have. He was at least part vampire, and she’d been created to fight them, kill them if necessary.
“Whereas I do nothing but think. I’m told it renders my conversation tedious at times, but I’m simply grateful I’ve regained the ability to think at all.”
“Tedious? Hmm.” It was the last word she’d have used to describe him, though she was honest enough to admit perhaps that had more to do with how much she enjoyed looking at him than anything else. “We’ll have to talk more, and I’ll let you know.”
He watched her as if he suspected she was joking. “I should think the hours you’ve been forced to spend with me thus far would have been trial enough. I almost feel guilty asking if you could find some time tomorrow to help me with the journals.”
Diana brushed aside the stab of pain that accompanied the mention of her mentor’s diaries. “Who better to help you make heads or tails of Doc’s research?”
Nate’s hand settled on her shoulder. “I’d understand if you found it too painful. Most of it I could work out on my own, given enough time.”
Was she so transparent? “I’m fine. Really, I’d be glad to help.”
“If you’re sure.” He squeezed her shoulder before letting his hand fall away. “I owe you a debt as it is. If you hadn’t helped me untangle some of his later entries, Satira and I wouldn’t have found the key to synthesizing the blood substitute.”
“I was glad to help.” But she’d said that already. Something about his proximity tied her tongue, left her silly and stammering, and she took a step back. Away. “I should get cleaned up. If I sit down at Caroline’s table like this, she’s liable to dump a pitcher of water over my head.”
His lips twitched into a half smile. “I believe Hunter and Ophelia are joining us for supper tonight as well, and we all know Ophelia has ideas about appropriate attire.”
The woman was serious about dressing for meals, and Diana sighed. She had precious few garments left that suited, and she resolved to do something about that very soon. Surely she could find a happy medium between menswear and lace and ribbons. “Then I’d better change as well.”
Nate cleared her path to the stairs. “I’ll see you at dinner, A—” He bit off the name with an embarrassed cough. “Diana.”
April. A word so foreign she barely recognized it as a name any longer, much less the one she’d possessed before her transformation. Did he think of her that way, as a weak and traumatized human, an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence of reading about her in Doc’s journals?
It could not stand. “Diana,” she said firmly as she brushed past him. “My name is Diana.”