THE GROUND RUSHED UP to meet my face, but I turned my head just in time to avoid a busted nose. I wheezed as all the air was crushed from my lungs by the impact. Rolling to the side, I barely missed a large boot that stomped the grass where my torso had been.
I got to my feet and backed away toward the house, trying to catch my breath and ignoring the pain in my ribs. Sweat stung my eyes, and the warm sun peeked from a behind a cloud.
I focused on the massive man who rushed me, his arms spread wide and ready to capture me in what I already knew would be a painful bear hug. Ducking under his right arm, I turned, giving him a hard kick in the ass.
He grunted and took a lunging forward step to avoid falling.
“That’s a point for me.” I bounced on the balls of my feet.
“No Krasivaya. I no fall.” Dmitri pointed to the grass and squared up with me again, the tapestry of tattoos on his bare torso rippling as he moved.
“You will.” I grinned and ran at him, jumping at the last moment and landing a vicious elbow to his chest.
He grabbed for me and managed to get one of his bear paws around my ponytail. I landed on my feet and tried to back away, but he whipped my head around and placed his other hand at my throat. He squeezed, attempting to force my submission.
I brought my knee up and slammed my heel down onto his foot with all my strength. He yowled, but didn’t let me go. The air in my lungs was trapped there, and Dimitri made sure I couldn’t get any more oxygen. I struggled—kicking, punching, and clawing. I wouldn’t submit. I’d fight until he choked me out rather than tap out.
Lucius clapped. “All right. She’s had enough.”
Dmitri released me and slapped me hard on the back as I bent over and took in huge gulps of air.
“Sorry, Krasivaya.” Dmitri had made clear ever since we started training that he took no joy in hurting me. All the same, the past two months had left me bruised, strained, and exhausted. But I was better, faster. I could escape him, though I wasn’t able to take him down. Not yet.
“It’s your hair.” Lucius ignored my sputtering and walked up behind me. “You may have actually had a chance this time if he wasn’t able to grab hold of you so easily.” He yanked my ponytail.
I whipped around and threw my leg out, swiping his feet out from under him so he landed on his ass.
“Ow, fuck.” He looked up at me with his light blue eyes, irritation and amusement mixing in the quirk of his lips. “Uncalled for.”
“Good.” Dmitri patted me on the back one more time, his palm slapping on the exposed skin above my sports bra. “But he is correct. Your hair. It is weakness.”
“I’ll tie it up in a bun. Hell, I’ll cut it.” I didn’t care. Winning was more important than my vanity.
“No way.” Lucius got to his feet and brushed the grass off. “Cal loves redheads. It’s an asset. Trust me. Besides, I wouldn’t like it if you cut it.”
“Thanks for your input.” I arched an eyebrow at him.
The sun bore down on the back of my neck like a warm weight. Or maybe the vines tattooed there were growing, getting bigger and thornier every day I spent as an Acquisition. “Your approval of my looks is really key for figuring out how to win this fight.”
He shook his head. “I think I liked you better when you were scared.”
“I think I never liked you.” I crossed my arms over my chest and stared him down.
He smirked. “A woman not liking me? Impossible.” He stepped closer, almost within my reach. “Besides, I think it’s pretty obvious you like me quite a bit.”
Dmitri put his hands on his hips. “Leave her alone.”
“Fuck off, Russian.” Lucius flipped him off without even looking in his direction.
“This isn’t helping.” I brushed past Lucius and walked to the little water cooler set up under the oak tree. Pouring myself a cup, I sank down onto one of the collapsible chairs and replayed the fight over in my mind. Where had I gone wrong, other than my hairstyle?
“I could take you.” Lucius pointed at Dmitri.
“You always say this. You always lose.” Dmitri cracked his knuckles.
“Depends on your definition of losing.”
“You flat on back like good little bitch.”
They circled each other and then tangled, wrestling before separating and doing it again. Like animals butting heads, both too stubborn to back off and call a truce.
It was the same dance the three of us had been doing for the past two months. I trained. Dmitri taught. Lucius played. Sin… I didn’t know what Sin did. After the night of his mother’s revelations, he spent all his time in town, not even visiting on the one weekend when Teddy came home from school.