She jumped on his back, caught him by the throat in the crook of her arm, and then rolled him, split her legs around his ass, and clamped down with all her strength. Peyton grunted and strained, thrashing around as he tried to pivot over on top of her or get free of her hold on his airway. Squeezing, squeezing…she started to sweat, the burn in her arms, shoulders, and thighs making it feel as if her bones were on fire.

Every time he shifted one way, she threw a leg out. And then when he went the other way, she switched to her opposite side. Then she grabbed on to her own wrist and pulled, pulled…

Peyton started to slow.

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Slower.

Sloppier.

And then he put out his arm and slapped his palm once…twice…

On the third clap, she released everything and flopped onto her own back. She was breathing so hard she saw stars, her lungs like a pair of twin volcanoes in her chest—

She started to giggle. And she let the girly sound go because, fuck it, she had just made a male nearly twice her size tap the fuck out.

Peyton rolled over and retched a couple of times, his head hanging loose, his arms bowed out.

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And then he, too, was on his back and laughing.

As they looked at each other across the blue mats, they laughed even harder.

It wasn’t until Novo sat up that she realized—oh…right. Everyone in the class had stopped what they were doing and was staring over at them.

They had been spending the days together at his house ever since the night of the bridal shower—and the subversive part of her loved sneaking up the staff stairs and avoiding his father and the servants: She liked the idea of fucking Peyton under the roof of a male who would never, ever approve of a scrub like her.

And there had been another bene, one that was perhaps expected. Courtesy of the bridal shower/bachelorette fiasco, she’d been kicked out of the wedding/mating party, her job title and duties revoked by her sister. Which was just fine. She was, however, still on the guest list.

Guess she’d have to see how long that lasted. And also whether she decided to go at all.

Lying next to Peyton during the days, she had begun to wonder why she had to attend an event like Sophy and Oskar’s mating at all. Sure, it was family, blah, blah, blah. But she wasn’t treated like family. She was an embarrassment to her parents for not being feminine enough and a cudgel for her sister to use to feel better about herself.

Who needed that?

In fact, the more she thought about it, the more she wondered why blood relatives were given such importance in people’s lives. The genetic lottery, which no one volunteered to play, spit you out wherever it did, without regard to compatibility, and yet somehow you were supposed to imbue that accident of procreation with all kinds of emotional weight and significance—simply because your parents managed to help you stay alive until you could get the fuck out of their house.

So actually, no, she didn’t think she was going.

And suddenly, she didn’t really care that the entire trainee class and two professors were now on to the fact that she and Peyton were studying anatomy together.

“High five,” she said to him as she put out her palm. “You’ll get me next time.”

As he slapped her hand with his own, he shrugged. “And even if I don’t, I’ll always enjoy the ride.”

The saucy wink was totally him. And so was the way he jumped to his feet and helped her up.

He was always a gentlemale. Even at his raunchy finest, he never quite shed that aristocratic upbringing—and somehow, it didn’t really bug her anymore.

It was just another side to him.

“Let’s call it a night,” Rhage announced. “Hit the showers. Bus is leaving in twenty. Tomorrow, we’re in the weight room for the first half. Then target shooting and a refresher on poisons for the second.”

There was all kinds of chatter on the way to the locker rooms, the males paring off first before she and Paradise went into their facilities and headed for their individual shower cubicles. Peeling off sweaty clothes felt liberating, and then there was the release of her braid. Pure heaven.

Hot water. YAY. Except…

“Hey,” she said over the din of rushing water, “can I borrow some of your shampoo? I’m out and forgot to bring more.”

As she leaned through her curtain, Paradise looked around her own. “I thought you always hated the smell of mine.”

Novo shrugged. “It’s not so bad.”

“Well, of course. Anything I have is yours.”

“Thanks.”

With efficiency, that shampoo bottle was passed between them, and Novo was back under the spray and lathering up.

“Do you need this back?” she asked.

“Nope. I’m conditioning? I’ll pass that underneath the curtain.”

“You’re the best.”

“So…” There was a pause next door. “Looks like you and Peyton are getting along.”

As Novo arched into the spray and started the ten-minute-long process of getting her hair clean of suds, her gut tightened.

“I saw him smiling at you back there,” Paradise prompted over the rushes of water.

Was she jealous? Novo wondered. God, let’s not get weird here.

“He’s a pretty chill guy,” she murmured.

In the changing part of the stall, the conditioner slid into view, and Novo picked it up even though she wasn’t quite ready. She was still rinsing when the other female turned her water off, and by the time Novo emerged in her towel, Paradise was dressed and at the mirrors by the sink, a pink hair dryer going.

Heading around the stand of lockers, Novo dried off and threw on a fresh set of leathers and a muscle shirt. She was just starting to comb out her hair in preparation for braiding when Paradise put her head around the corner.

“Okay, I’m dying over here.”

Novo popped her brows. “Really? ’Cuz your coloring looks fine and you don’t seem to be in respiratory distress.”

“What’s going on with you two?”

“Why don’t you ask him?”

“I could do that. I could.”

As the other female just stood there, looking like a page out of Vogue with her patrician blond beauty and her elegant, expensive, I’m-rich-just-like-him clothes, Novo started to braid things up. And as she went down the lengths, she studied the other female. There wasn’t any anger or possessiveness going on. Just a wide-open, slightly surprised curiosity.

Novo didn’t say anything until it was rubber-band time at the ends. “You really are just friends with him, aren’t you.”

Paradise nodded. “Only ever just friends.” The female smiled. “He’s a good male, though. And I love the way he looks at you. It’s what I’ve always hoped he’d find.”

“We’re not together or anything. I mean. You know. Not like in a relationship or anything.”

Shit, she sounded defensive. Then again, she could never have imagined having this kind of conversation—for a whole crap load of reasons.

Paradise smiled. “Sometimes relationships sneak up on you. Feelings and emotions can be like ninjas, all stealth and—”

“Deadly. They’re deadly.”

Paradise frowned. “No, I was going to say they come out of nowhere.”

“Well…look, I don’t have much to say on this.”

“I’m sorry.” Paradise’s perfectly arched eyebrows tilted in at the corners in worry. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. It’s none of my business.”

“Nah, it’s cool. We’re cool.”

As the female seemed to be honestly relieved, Novo had a wholly unexpected urge to hug her—but she stomped that down real quick.

Was she melting or something? What the hell?

“I’ll see you on the bus,” Paradise said as she shouldered her duffel. “And I won’t say anything to anyone, not even Craeg.”

“It’s okay.” And interestingly, that was the truth. “I don’t have anything to hide—because there’s nothing emotional going on.”

After Paradise left the locker room, she took a moment to be astounded. Ordinarily, a conversation like that would have rattled her. Not anymore. Or…at least not tonight.

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