Authors: Marcus Pelegrimas
Death came to Bob like a long-belated gift.
The creature glared at him, kicked Bob’s ample gut, and spat out a single, snuffing breath. “Now I’ll have to get another one.”
Six days later
The baton in Paige’s hand had been carved from about a foot and a half of wood, but carried the wallop of a lead pipe. Cole was all too familiar with that fact since he’d been on the receiving end of far too many wallops. He had spent the last few months training in several different aspects of hand-to-hand combat, which was basically an excuse for Paige to kick his ass once or twice after breakfast and possibly again before dinner. Although the workouts trimmed a good deal of the fat he’d collected over his last thirty-some-odd years, he collected an ever-changing pattern of bruises on his body and face.
The weapon in Cole’s hands was a short spear carved from a bowed piece of wood. One end was sharpened down to a point and the other was split into two smaller points that resembled a forked tongue. Although the weapon was only slightly thicker than a broomstick, a varnish made from shapeshifter blood, vampire saliva, and God knows what else kept it from breaking or even chipping no matter how many times it was struck. Not only did the varnish petrify the wood, it also bonded the weapon to the person who wielded it. The connection between Skinners and their weapon was made by thorns crafted into the weapon’s
grip, which were treated with another paste that healed the wounds they made. They still hurt like hell.
Cole was told he’d get used to the pain. So far, no such luck.
Paige’s baton cracked against the side of his leg. Before he could reposition his spear to one of the defensive stances he’d been taught, Cole was struck on his other knee by a second baton. Pain raced up and down through his lower body. He almost fell over, but managed to keep his balance. The short brunette wielding the batons wasn’t impressed.
Usually, Paige wore sweats or some other, fairly standard workout clothes. Today her hair was pulled back as always, but he could see that the heat in their converted practice space must have been getting to her because she wore tight runner shorts and a baggy T-shirt over a sports bra. “You need to focus, Cole,” she warned.
The moment he lifted his eyes from her sweaty curves, he caught a baton squarely upon the tenderized nerve running down the side of his leg. “Mother—”
Paige snapped her baton straight forward to deliver a quick, stabbing blow to his midsection. Not only did it cut one profanity short, but it took away the breath required to put together another one.
“We’re going to that Blood Parlor uptown tonight,” she said as she circled him. “You need to get your shit together.”
“I’m trying, but you keep
“You let your guard down.”
Gritting his teeth in a vain attempt to keep from looking like a complete pansy, Cole replied, “You pulled out the advanced moves. I haven’t seen that one yet.”
“It’s called thinking on your feet. Most anyone or anything you fight won’t follow a script, you know.”
“I know, Paige, but I—”
He was cut short by another crack from the baton. The simple weapon spun around Paige’s hand like a propeller, switched direction at the last second, and then knocked against the back of his left hand. Both of her weapons also had thorns protruding from the handles, but the easy smile on her face didn’t register the first sign of any discomfort.
“Damn it, I’ve got to use that hand!” Cole whined.
“That’s what I’m trying to get you to do.”
“I mean I’ve got to type with it, not use it as a freaking pin cushion!”
“A pin cushion, huh?” she scoffed. “You’d have to be better at sewing than fighting, so maybe you could knit a nice set of fang cozies for the next Nymar that steps out of line.”
Cole tightened his grip around the middle of his spear and circled to the left. They were in the cellar of an old restaurant that must have served a hell of a lot of ham. The smell of it filled the windowless space so much that the cinder blocks in the walls could have been sliced up to make a passable sandwich. He and Paige had plenty of room to maneuver as long as neither of them tried to jump. His skull sported more than a few bumps after knocking against the low ceiling, which paled in comparison to the damage done to his ego when he’d gotten the forked end of his spear wedged in a beam while attempting an overhand swing.
Paige flipped her baton upward to connect with the lower edge of Cole’s weapon. Just as the forked spear started to come away from his hands, she brought the baton around in a tight semicircle to crack on top of it. Cole snarled as the thorns in the weapon’s handle came out of his palm a bit and were savagely driven back in again.
“Didn’t like that, did you?” she mused. “Tighten your grip and keep your guard up.”
“Then you should have blocked that.”
No matter how cute she looked, he still wanted to smack the shit out of her sometimes. Staring at her intently, Cole struggled to come up with something to say. The blood was flowing too quickly through his entire body for him to arrive at anything better than a few nasty standbys. Since he was hurting enough already, he kept them to himself.
He took a breath and tightened his grip until the thorns dug into his palms. When Paige swung her baton toward his head, he moved to block but didn’t commit to the parry until it got to him. Sure enough, she pulled back at the last second to try and convert her attack into a chopping blow aimed at
his lower body. He was able to drop his guard and deflect the baton with a definitive crack.
“Good,” she said.
Cole smiled and nodded. “Good? Freaking excellent is what that was.”
Smiling as she only did while in the middle of a fight, Paige twirled both weapons before feinting with one and swinging the other at his ribs. Although she managed to land one glancing blow, the other was knocked away by Cole’s spear. After that, she had to use both batons to defend against a flurry of incoming attacks. Paige blocked one after another before backing off. Although Cole hadn’t come close to besting her in their sparring session, the gleam of sweat on her skin told him he was at least making her work for a change. In his first few weeks of training, he’d only dreamed of getting her to work up a sweat. He actually still dreamed of it.
As if sensing the mildly pornographic thoughts drifting through his mind, she narrowed her brown eyes and shifted into a sideways stance. That was supposed to present a smaller target to an opponent, but it also brought Paige’s taut yet shapely curves to Cole’s attention. “Now that,” she said with a little smile, “was freaking excellent.”
“Don’t sound so surprised. You’ve been making a lot of progress.”
Cole spun his spear in a few quick circles that sliced through the air while passing on either side of his body before ending up in the exact spot where it started. The flashy move was one of the few he’d actually practiced outside of their sparring sessions, and his palms were so slick with blood that he forgot about the thorns for a moment.
Paige let her eyes wander up and down along Cole’s body before nodding approvingly. “Don’t try to distract me. We need to finish up. I’m about to bake in this cellar, though.” With that, she set her batons down and pulled her T-shirt over her head. Once the sweaty garment was off, she tossed
it aside and rolled her head around to work the kinks from her neck.
Every line of Paige’s upper body was accentuated by the sweat glistening upon her skin. Her shorts clung to her hips and backside in just the right way, and her sports bra didn’t leave much to the imagination.
“You ready?” she asked.
Paige bent at the waist to pick up her batons, and Cole took full advantage of the moment to watch how her tight body shifted through the motions. Every movement caused the muscles in her legs or stomach to tense and relax.
Her first few swings were almost playful. She smirked when he batted them away and even looked impressed when he came close to landing an answering blow of his own. Then the batons flew at him a little faster. Cole ducked under some of the swings and blocked one or two, but caught a couple taps along the shoulders and sides.
“Sorry,” she said. “Did that hurt?”
He tried to ignore the throbbing in the same two ribs that she insisted on hitting every damn time and replied, “Nah.”
“Good. Here comes some more.”
Now, Paige hopped from side to side while shifting from vertical chopping strikes to a horizontal swing that used both batons like a giant pair of wooden scissors. Cole impressed himself by wedging his spear in between her weapons to stop them before they hit him on either side of his head.
“God, you’re really getting good at that,” she sighed.
The tone in her voice was something he’d been dying to hear. A bead of sweat rolled along the side of her neck and slipped between her breasts. When she caught him glancing down to follow the shimmering trail, Paige parted her lips just enough to lick them. “How about we bump it up a notch?”
“That would be just fine by me.”
She circled him in slow, sauntering steps. It was a specific movement that Cole had always cherished for the way it got her hips and shoulders moving in perfect synchronic
ity. She didn’t walk like that very often and it never seemed like something she was doing on purpose. Now, those movements were accentuated to dangerous levels and, for one of the few times he could remember, she was sauntering toward him rather than away.
As Paige raised her right arm, she twirled her baton in a slow circle that quickly picked up speed. She took a quick swing at him, which he blocked fairly easily. The swing didn’t end after striking Cole’s spear. Instead, Paige’s weapon bounced off his spear and immediately rapped him on the side of the neck.
“Hey, that hur—”
Before Cole could air his full complaint, he was put on the defensive again. She came at him quickly and landed a quick flurry of tapping hits against his ribs on both sides. He swatted away the flying batons before attempting to respond in kind. He landed a pretty good shot on Paige’s left side, only to have his spear trapped when she dropped that arm down and locked it in place.
Paige cocked back her right arm like a scorpion getting ready to sting, so Cole ripped his spear out of her grasp and held it so the forked end was aimed at her throat.
Paige abruptly dropped her playful smile and looked at Cole in a way that hit him like a cold slap in the face. For the first time since he’d met her, he saw fear in her eyes.
“Are you really trying to hurt me?” she whispered. “I thought we’d just have some fun before…you know.”
“Really?” Cole lowered his spear and reached out to stroke her cheek. “I would never—”
As Paige snapped her wrist, she tightened her grip upon her baton to crack it against Cole’s forearm. Before the pain could work its way up to his shoulder, the baton let out a creaking sound as it shifted to form a sharpened stake at one end and a thin, curved blade at the other. She slid her other arm along the bottom of his to lock it in place by cranking his elbow in the wrong direction.
Cole’s upper body stretched back and a pained yelp wedged in his throat as she lifted her newly sharpened baton over his chest. Blood dripped from where that weapon’s
thorns dug into her palm and, using a technique that Cole hadn’t quite perfected, she willed the treated wood to stretch out just enough to touch his throat.
“If…this is because I stepped out of line…” Cole wheezed.
“This,” Paige snapped, “is because you were thinking with the short stick.”
“When you get into a fight, all you need to think about is winning. I’ve seen you hold back every now and then while we’re sparring. I’ve also seen you hold back when we’re dealing with some creature out in the world that happens to be a female with a properly rounded ass.”
Cole tried to look offended but couldn’t really pull it off.
“You want to get sweaty the fun way?” Paige asked. “Do a search for cheerleaders on your computer. You want to get stabbed, shot, sliced open, or ripped apart? Drop your guard because some girlie girl batted her eyelashes and politely asked you to.”
“So…this isn’t your version of foreplay?”
Paige’s lock on his arm tightened just enough to force a squeal out of him.
“Just kidding,” he quickly said. “I get it. You made your point.”
Slowly, she loosened her grip before finally allowing Cole to exhale. “You remember that Blood Parlor I mentioned? It’s being run by Steph and Ace. Remember her?”
“Steph’s kind of hard to forget.”
“Well, she plays up that whole sexy vampire act for a reason. If you’re going to do anything against the Nymar or anything else that’s out there, you can’t be suckered by such simple bullshit. We’re headed into some rough times, Cole. I need to make sure you’re with me.”
“If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t be here.” Rubbing his shoulder, Cole added, “Believe me, it’s too late to turn back now.”
“That’s right. A few shapeshifters have already tracked you down, and every Nymar in Chicago knows who you are. We can’t kill them all, but we need to keep them in line.
They’ve got enough supernatural tricks up their sleeves, so don’t make things easier for them.”
“This is different.”
“Yeah,” Cole fumbled. “You’re…well…you. I’ve handled myself pretty well in spots where someone tried to distract me.”
“Like when we raided that club where the Nymar were feeding on college kids over on Lawrence Avenue?”
“You’re never going to let that go,” he grumbled. “Some blonde made me look away for a second, and I still managed to back you up when you shot your mouth off.”
“Barely. And that blonde wasn’t even very hot. All she had to do was flash you some fake boobs to get you to do exactly what she wanted.”
“All right, you caught me. I’m a guy who looks at women when they expose themselves. I also happen to blink before hitting them in the face. And, every now and then, I may pause for a second when a
hot blonde opens her robe and touches herself in some
interesting ways. File a lawsuit.”
“You’re not just some guy, Cole. And we’re not just some people who carry sticks. We’re doing a dangerous job and can’t afford to act like everyone else.”