I yanked the covers over my chin. “You can’t make me.”
“I’m so glad you said that.”
He grabbed the blankets and yanked them right off the mattress. Hoshi shot up above the bed, hissing softly, then faded out of sight. Damn it. She should’ve stayed to defend me!
Drawing my legs up against the rush of cold air, I curled into a defensive ball—but it was no use. Ignoring the fact I was wearing an oversized t-shirt from Ezra’s dresser and no pants, Aaron dragged me to the edge of the bed, got a good hold of my waist, and tossed me over his shoulder.
“Aaron!” I shrieked, flailing. “Put me down!”
“Hold on tight.” Laughing, he strode out of the room. I desperately clutched the back of his shirt and cursed him with every bad word I knew. He laughed again as he trotted down the stairs. “Look on the bright side, Tori. We were nice enough to let you sleep in an extra two hours.”
“I haven’t agreed to this! You can’t manhandle me like a child!”
He went down the basement stairs with terrifying speed. “If you’d done any training before this, maybe you’d know how to stop me.”
I snarled as he tilted me off his shoulder. My bare feet hit the mats that covered the floor, and I shoved angrily away from him. My borrowed t-shirt was caught around my hips, displaying my purple undies to the whole room, and I jerked the hem down.
Their basement was one big fitness gym, with three treadmills, more cardio machines, and weight equipment on one side. Exercise mats covered the other side. Kai’s footsteps thudded against a humming treadmill at a fast jog, his face shining with perspiration. Ezra hung from the pull-up bar, slowly drawing himself up with one arm until his opposite shoulder touched the bar, then lowering himself just as slowly.
My eyes popped at the sight of his bare arms, taut muscles flexing with each one-handed pull-up. He switched hands and pulled himself up with the other arm.
Aaron waved a hand in front of my face, startling me out of my daze. “Get changed. We’ll take it easy today, promise.”
“Change into what?”
He jerked his thumb at the bathroom door.
I folded my arms. “What if I refuse?”
“Do you really want to find out?”
I considered that. Snarling under my breath, I stomped into the bathroom and slammed the door. It featured the most modern décor in the entire house—a granite counter, double sinks, built-in shelves for towels and spare clothes, and a massive shower with more jets than a car wash.
Stacked on the counter were some of my clothes from the assortment I never took home, including a sports bra. When had I left that here? My running shoes sat on the floor, and I noted that someone had given them a cursory cleaning for indoor use. I used the toilet first, drank some water from the tap, then got dressed in a summer tank top and yoga shorts.
My hair was sagging out of the ponytail I’d worn to bed, and I reused my hair tie to tame it into a bun. I loitered for another two minutes, then abandoned my refuge. Last thing I needed was Aaron bursting in here too.
When I came out, Ezra was off the pull-up bar and drying his face with a towel. Spotting me, he grinned. “You look like all the puppies in the world just died. It won’t be that bad.”
“I think it’ll be exactly that bad.”
Kai, walking on the treadmill now instead of running, switched it off and unclipped the safety line from his shirt. “Over here, Tori. Warm up first.”
I groaned and stepped onto the wide belt. As he clipped the safety stop majiggy onto the hem of my tank top, I peeked at the display blinking with stats from his run. Distance: 5.5 km.
He made sure I was ready, then hit a preset button. The track started moving and I broke into a slow amble that accelerated to a fast walk, then a sluggish jog. My calves were burning within a minute.
“How long do I have to do this?” I panted.
“Long enough to warm up.” With a brief smile, he joined the other two, who were doing stretches on the mats.
Lungs on fire and legs hurting, I settled into what should’ve been an easy jog but felt more like death in motion. Luckily, I had plenty to keep me occupied—like the sinfully hot mages going through a routine of stretches and flexibility exercises. All three of them could do the splits. Who knew?
Watching them was fascinating, and I found myself running a detailed mental comparison. Aaron and Ezra were similar in build and almost the same height. Aaron was slightly taller, while Ezra was a shade broader in the shoulders. Kai was a couple of inches shorter and slimmer, but all three packed a comparable amount of muscle. Not body-builder bulges, but lean, hard, athletic figures.
By the time the treadmill slowed back to a walk, I was wheezing and sweating and trying not to throw up. Someone shoot me now, please.
“Good job, Tori!” Aaron called, bent backward in a weird thigh stretch. “You made it!”
“Yeah,” I panted. “I’m … in … great … shape. Can’t you … tell?”
They allowed me three minutes to catch my breath, then Aaron reached into a bin and pulled out padded rectangles. He tossed two to Ezra, who slipped them onto his hands, and carried the other two to the mats’ center.
“Shoes off, then over here, Tori.” He pointed to the spot in front of him.
Toeing off my runners, I minced onto the squashy mats but was immediately distracted by Kai taking on a fighting stance, facing Ezra. The aeromage held up the two pads, which shielded his hands and forearms.
“Ready.” Kai breathed once, then unleashed two rapid punches and a kick into the blockers. The strikes smacked loudly, pushing Ezra’s arms back. I could hear the power in each blow.
I stopped in front of Aaron. “I can’t do that.”
Reassuring steadiness had replaced his mischievous smirk. “We’ll start from scratch. I know you took a year of taekwondo as a teenager, but I’d rather cover everything.”
“Let’s see your fighting stance.”
Feeling self-conscious, I slid my right foot backward and put my hands up by my chin.
“Good.” He walked around me, pushing lightly against my shoulder to make sure I was balanced.
At the other end of the mats, Kai was pummeling Ezra’s pads at top speed.
“Tuck in your elbows more. There you go.” Aaron returned to face me. “Now, fists.”
I curled my fingers down, thumbs tucked outside them.
“Excellent.” He slid on one blocker pad and held it up. “Okay. Left jab. Give it all you’ve got.”
Bouncing on the balls of my feet, I threw a mean punch into the pad.
“Perfect. Now, right cross.”
I flung my right fist across my body and into the pad.
“Not bad, but you aren’t moving your hips.”
Adopting the same stance, he demonstrated how the cross traveled from his back heel to his hip to his shoulder, adding more power to the strike. We practiced that a few dozen times. Several paces away, Ezra and Kai had switched, with Ezra hammering the pads that Kai held.
“All right,” Aaron said. “You’ll be smaller and lighter than most of your opponents, so you need to generate as much power as possible. Standing in one spot and punching them isn’t ideal. You need to move.”
He glanced at the other two as Ezra slammed a roundhouse kick into both pads. Kai slid backward from the force.
“Ezra,” Aaron called. “Demonstrate a pounce.”
Ezra stepped backward, putting Kai out of his reach. He fell into his fighting stance, then jumped forward and delivered a seamless one-two strike on the pads before bouncing back to his starting spot.
“In and out.” Aaron turned back to me. “You stay out of range and only get in close when you’re ready to strike.”
“Okay,” I agreed uncertainly.
Aaron walked me through the steps, making sure I was pushing off my back foot. It took about ten minutes for me to coordinate the various movements into something that resembled what Ezra had done.
“Great!” Aaron complimented. “Now repeat that until you collapse.”
My eyes widened.
Gulping, I sprang at him and struck the pads, then sprang back. And again. And again.
Yes, he made me repeat it until my legs were trembling and on the verge of ruin. Finally, he slid the pads off and sent me to the treadmill for a cool-down walk. Breathing heavily, I watched the guys pull more gear from the bins. They donned padded sleeves that covered their arms from knuckles to elbows, leg protectors that covered their feet, shins, and knees, and padded vests.
When they pulled on open-faced headgear like boxers wore, I got nervous.
Aaron and Kai faced off, Ezra refereeing with a stopwatch in hand. He called the start—and the two guys charged each other. They slammed together, grappling, then Kai broke free and jammed three lightning-fast punches into Aaron’s padded chest. Aaron blocked the last one, caught Kai’s arm, and threw him over his shoulder.
Kai landed on his feet, dropped into a crouch, and swept his leg into Aaron’s ankles. Aaron hit the mats and rolled away from Kai’s swift kick.
They sparred with sober intensity, landing punches and kicks that sounded horrific despite the padded gear protecting them. Twice they went down grappling but Kai couldn’t lock Aaron into a hold.