Authors: Tiffany Snow
She laughed lightly. “Don’t be ridiculous.” I could hear the slight trace of her Irish accent. “I’m just better than you are.”
He rolled his eyes at this, then spotted me. “Perfect timing,” he called out.
Branna turned to see who Kade was talking to, and I could almost feel the temperature drop ten degrees when she saw me.
“What’s she doing here?” Her voice held none of the warmth from when she’d teased Kade. It seemed she was no fonder of me now than she had been in Chicago.
Kade gave her a sharp glance. “She’s here to train.”
He climbed out of the ring and made his way over to Danny and me. Branna remained where she was.
“Make sure you lock up when you’re done,” Danny said, glancing at his watch. “I’m meeting a buddy, so I’m outta here.”
“Will do,” Kade replied. He turned to me as Danny left.
I tried and failed to not ogle his bare chest, carved in planes of muscle and glistening with sweat. Kade wasn’t a huge guy, but the lean sinew of his body was honed to perfection.
“So how’d your date go last night?” The question seemed innocuous on the surface, but the sarcasm in his voice gave it a whole other meaning.
I shifted uneasily. Blane’s and my relationship was a touchy subject with Kade, ever since he’d seen me fall apart after witnessing Blane and Kandi together.
“Blane had to cancel,” I said.
Kade lifted a single eyebrow in silent question.
I shrugged. “He said he had to leave town for a few days,” I explained, frowning. “Didn’t he tell you?” Blane and Kade kept rough tabs on each other, from what I knew of their relationship.
“I’m not his keeper,” Kade said, then abruptly changed the subject. “Today I want you to train with Branna.”
“What? You must be joking,” I stammered in surprise. “I’ve been training with Danny. Why Branna?”
“She’s closer to your size and a woman. She has a better understanding of how to train you than Danny does, though he’s been great at showing you the basics.”
Before I could protest further, he took me by the arm, leading me over to the ring, where Branna still stood, glaring at us.
“You didn’t tell me I’d be having to train the bartender,” Branna said, her voice rife with condescension, ignoring me completely as she glared at Kade.
“You get paid no matter what,” Kade said indifferently, handing me into the ring.
I reluctantly took off my shoes, eyeing Branna’s malicious gaze.
“You don’t have to turn her into a ninja, just show her some moves, defense techniques. Danny’s been working with her, but you’re going to be able to show her things he can’t.”
The ringing of a cell phone preempted anything Branna might have said, and Kade dug into a duffel bag stowed
alongside the wall. “I have to take this,” he said as he glanced at the number. “Be right back.”
He walked to the back, where Danny’s office was. When he was out of sight, I returned my attention to Branna.
For a moment, neither of us spoke. I could again appreciate how beautiful she was, even with her lip curled in distaste. Black hair, green eyes, and near-porcelain skin had a dramatic effect. She was small but curvaceous, and I envied the narrowness of her waist. Kade was correct, she and I were about the same height. But that’s where the similarities ended.
“Danny’s been training you,” she stated rather than asked.
I nodded. “A bit.” Which was a nice way of saying I ended up on the mat a fraction less often than I would have a month ago.
“Well, then,” she replied with a smile I wasn’t sure I liked. “Let’s see what you’ve got, shall we?” Her accent made the words sound innocent, but the gleam in her eyes said otherwise.
All kinds of alarm bells were going off inside my head as I watched her assume a fighting stance. I desperately wanted to get out of the ring, but I didn’t know how to do so without looking like a coward. Her disdain and contempt made me angry, and I wished I had the skills to put her in her place. Unfortunately, I could see how this was going to go. I grimly hoped none of my bones would be broken before Kade reappeared.
Branna moved and I watched her warily, caution making me keep my distance. We circled slowly, each observing the other for a sign, whether of weakness or opportunity I couldn’t say. When she did come at me, I was unprepared,
taking a blow to my stomach. My legs were swept out from under me and I hit the mat hard.
Branna’s tinkling laugh made my hands curl into fists as I coughed, trying to get my breath back. My stomach burned from her hit, but I gamely got back to my feet. Branna looked simply delighted now. Gone was the irritation at having this chore handed to her by Kade. I guessed the prospect of kicking my ass was an agreeable one to her.
The next few minutes were a blur of pain and sweat. Branna toyed with me like a cat with a mouse, and I knew I was going to be sporting black-and-blue marks all over later. I kept a tight grip on my temper, though I was furious. Branna was a bully.
I was on all fours, sweat dripping down my nose onto the vinyl, wondering how much more my body could take, when I decided I’d had enough.
“I don’t think Kade’s going to appreciate your training methods,” I wheezed, painfully sitting back on my haunches.
“Then he should have thought of that before,” Branna replied haughtily. Not even her hair was mussed from the tight braid. I hadn’t been able to lay a finger on her.
“Does he know you’re in love with him?” I asked. “Because you don’t strike me as his type.”
Branna’s eyes narrowed.
“I hear he likes blondes.” I smiled.
At that, she came at me as I’d known she would, but this time I was prepared. Still on my knees, my hands shot out to catch her calf as she kicked out at me. I gave it a hard twist and yank. She grunted in pain as she hit the mat. I launched myself to my feet, sure I was going to pay for that, and I wasn’t wrong. Her rage at being bested, even if only
fleetingly, was scary. In seconds, I was facedown on the mat with blood dripping from my nose, and this time, Branna was giving me no time to recover, yanking me by my hair until I was on my knees.
“Branna! What the fuck is going on?”
The pressure on my hair suddenly eased and I collapsed back down on the mat, groaning. Kade had finally returned, and if I hadn’t been so relieved to hear his voice, I would have gladly killed him for leaving me alone with the Terminator.
“I told you to train her, not kill her!”
“It’s not my fault your little protégé can’t hold her own in a fight,” Branna defended herself.
The vinyl felt blessedly cool against my cheek, and I wouldn’t have moved for quite a while if Kade hadn’t gently turned me onto my back. As I blinked blearily up at him, the look of dismay on his face as he surveyed me was replaced by cold anger.
“Jesus Christ!” he exploded, the anger in his voice making me jump. “Why do you always have to make it personal, Branna?” Kade asked in disgust. “I needed you to do a job, not release your inner bitch.”
I thought that Branna’s “bitch” wasn’t so much “inner.”
“If you don’t like the way I do things, then you shouldn’t have called me,” Branna shot back, though I noticed that her fair skin had turned a shade of crimson at Kade’s words.
“Get out,” Kade said.
He returned his attention to me and helped me sit up. The pain in my stomach made me catch my breath. I gritted my teeth, not wanting to give Branna the satisfaction of hearing me make a sound.
“Fine,” Branna bit out, grabbing her bag from along the wall. “But do your own damn training from now on.”
“No shit,” Kade replied, barely glancing her way as she slammed out the door.
“I don’t like her very much,” I managed to say while using the hem of my T-shirt to swipe at the blood accumulating beneath my nose.
“At the moment, neither do I,” he said. “Can you stand?”
I nodded and tried to rise, but Kade had to help me. I maintained a tight grip on his shoulder as his arm curved around my waist. The strength in his muscles and the feel of his skin beneath my fingers distracted me from my aches and pains.
He helped me to a bench and I gratefully sat, resting my head against the wall and releasing a sigh. Kade got up, returning a few moments later with a wet cloth.
“I’m sorry, princess,” he said quietly as he gently wiped the blood from my face. “I wouldn’t have left you alone with her if I’d known she would do that to you.”
I didn’t mind the nickname Kade had coined for me. Though it had begun as something disparaging, it had turned into a type of endearment. He’d begun using it after watching me do a karaoke performance of my beloved pop princess Britney Spears. I wasn’t good at a lot of things, but I could do a dead-on Britney impression.
“It’s all right,” I dismissed his apology. “It wasn’t your fault.” I left unsaid, “That Branna’s such a bitch.”
“Come on,” he said, getting to his feet. “I know what’ll help.”
I stood slowly, wincing, and followed him to the back. I glanced around curiously at lockers and shower stalls lining
the walls. Kade pushed his way through another door, which he held open for me.
As I stepped inside a small wood-paneled room, I was immediately assailed by humidity and the smell of chlorine. A bubbling hot tub sat in the middle of the room.
“Get in,” Kade said, nodding toward the tub. “It’ll help with the ache.”
I glanced down at my attire uncertainly. I hadn’t brought an extra change of clothing.
“I won’t look,” Kade snorted, then smirked. “I’ve seen it before anyway.”
I blushed at the reminder. Kade had seen me naked before, that was true. He’d helped save me from being turned into a cinder when my car had been blown up. The damage to my clothes had been irreparable, and he’d taken care of that, though I’d been unconscious at the time.
I still hesitated and Kade heaved a long-suffering sigh. “I’ll be back in fifteen.”
He left the room and I could no longer resist the allure of steaming water. Stripping down to my plain white cotton underwear and bra, I eased into the water. It was blissful, and I could feel the coiled tension in my muscles loosening up. Sinking down to my neck, I rested my head against the side and closed my eyes. It felt heavenly.
I had nearly fallen asleep, so I was surprised when the door opened and Kade stepped back inside. I groggily lifted my head. He’d changed into jeans and pulled on a T-shirt. I briefly mourned the loss of the view of his naked chest.
“Time’s up, princess,” he said, holding out a towel for me. He turned away to shut off the hot tub, then left the room again.
I stripped off my wet bra and underwear, pulling my T-shirt and shorts on over my bare skin. It felt weird, but I was only going home. Holding my dripping clothes, I emerged from the room to find Kade by the doors, staring out at the darkening streets. When he heard me approach, he turned, taking in my appearance, including the small bundle I held.
“You going to be all right?” he asked.
I shrugged. “A few bruises. Nothing I can’t handle.”
He gave a short nod.
When he said nothing further, I smiled nervously. “Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Let’s grab some dinner,” he suggested. “I’m starving.”
I blanched. “I can’t go somewhere like this,” I protested. “I’m not wearing any—” I abruptly cut off, my face heating.
Kade looked briefly pained. “Wear this,” he said, digging inside his duffel bag and tossing me a hoodie. “And don’t remind me about what you’re not wearing.”
I shrugged into the hoodie and zipped it up. It smelled of Kade. Whereas Blane always wore cologne, Kade rarely used the stuff. The aroma drifting from the cotton was a mix of leather, spice, and warm musk—nothing that could be captured in a bottle, and all uniquely Kade.
“I’ll drive,” he said, and I didn’t argue as I followed him out the door.
The Mercedes was an expensive car, and I enjoyed riding in it. I surreptitiously watched Kade’s hand deftly handle the gearshift. If I allowed myself to think about it, I could almost imagine I was Kade’s girlfriend rather than his employee. Sitting in his car, wearing his clothes—it was not an altogether unwelcome notion. I knew that few, if any, women had been allowed this close to Kade.
The image of Blane abruptly intruded, and guilt hit me hard. I shouldn’t be thinking about these things. It was classless and tacky to entertain thoughts of Kade like that when I was dating Blane. The sexual tension between Kade and me was thick enough to cut with a knife, but that didn’t mean I had to act on it.
I deliberately looked away, turning to stare unseeing out the window.
A few minutes later, Kade stopped the car. We were parked on the street near a building marked simply Tavern. I raised my eyebrows in silent question at Kade.
“What?” he asked innocently. “They’ve got great burgers.”
I followed him inside. It was a busy Saturday night, and the tables, booths, and barstools were full of people. Kade slipped into the crowd and I grabbed a fistful of his shirt hem so I wouldn’t lose him. Reaching behind his back, he unfastened my hand from the cloth and laced my fingers through his. A warm sensation flowed through my veins at the gesture and the feel of his thumb brushing across the top of my hand.
A moment later, we slid into an empty booth in a far corner. I sat with my back to the room while Kade’s was to the wall.
A waitress whose nametag proclaimed her to be Cindy handed us menus. Kade ordered a beer and so did I.
I began perusing the menu, waiting. I didn’t have to wait long.
“What did you see?”
It was the standard question Kade had begun asking. This was my observation lesson, and I’d been practicing. I put down my menu and looked at him as I answered.
“There are two exits, the front and the one at the rear past the bathrooms. Five waitresses and two bartenders, plus two cooks. They must have trouble relatively often, because the phone number for the cops was taped to the wall near the phone. A possible problem tonight will be the five men at the bar arguing over the basketball game—IU versus Purdue. IU is winning in the second half, but the Purdue fans appear drunker.”
The corner of Kade’s mouth twitched in approval, and the warm feeling from earlier spread.