As that question got answered, Peyton thought back to his talk with Mary…and then he looked at Novo.
The training program wasn’t the only thing he didn’t want to give up on. It was a good guess that Novo was going to try to pull back from him. He had seen her in her healing state and she was going to want to separate herself from that by keeping her distance from him. But he wanted to be with her again—to lie with her on some bed, somewhere, her head on his chest, his arm around her as she slept.
“Okay, so let’s break for tonight,” Phury announced. “This class has been working pretty much straight through since you started, and now’s a good opportunity for everyone to regroup in their heads and hit it fresh on Saturday.”
It wasn’t until after people started to disperse that Peyton realized he’d been in an enclosed space with Paradise and hadn’t given her any thought at all.
In the back of his head, notions of being proud of himself warred with the idea that maybe he’d just traded one addiction in a female form for another. Now he was all about Novo.
And yet the shit with her felt very, very different.
As he wide-stepped it down to the floor, he was not surprised to find his head was fucking pounding, and he loitered on the periphery as the Brothers walked out and the trainees went with them—with Novo in that chair in the middle of the pack. Like she might be using the others as a shield.
“The bus is leaving in ten minutes,” Rhage called out. “We’re going to beat the shit out of you first thing midnight Saturday, so sleep well, children!”
Out in the corridor, Peyton glanced to the office and wondered if he could find her address in a file or something—but that was a no-go. For one, it was automatic dismissal under the whole privacy deal. For another, it put him squarely in stalker territory.
Which he was so not.
As he trailed behind her.
Wondering how to get her alone.
Yeah, he was sooo far away from emergency-order-of-protection territory.
Besides, she was not being discharged tonight. No way.
In the end, he let her be, hanging back as her surgeon returned her to her room. And God, as that door eased shut behind her, it seemed impossible that they had spent hours together, him naked, her as soft as he had ever seen her.
Peyton was all the way down at the end of the corridor, about to go through the steel door to the bus, when he realized he’d left his tuxedo shoved into one of the lockers. Whatever. He had two more at home.
As he pushed his way into the parking garage, he decided to—
Craeg was standing by the bus. Like he had been waiting.
On the approach, Peyton did a quick review of the male’s stance. Weight was down in the legs. Hands were curled into fists by his sides. Jaw was locked and loaded.
Shit. Really? They were seriously going to do this?
Standing beside her male, Paradise was urgent. “Craeg. Come on. Get on the bus.” And then she put herself in front of the guy. “Craeg. Don’t be stupid.”
Peyton was the one who addressed her. “Give us a minute, Paradise.”
“Don’t you fucking tell her what to do.” Craeg’s pecs swelled as he took in a deep inhale. “She is none of your fucking business.”
The female reached out and touched her male’s shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get on the bus.”
“No,” Craeg said without looking at her. “Gimme a minute.”
Paradise glanced back and forth between them, as if she were hoping one of them would come to his senses. But nope.
“Fine, get yourselves kicked out,” she snapped. “You’re a pair of hotheaded animals.”
After she disappeared onto the transport, Peyton closed the distance and said in a low voice, “Do it.”
“Do what,” Craeg growled.
Peyton flashed his palms…then deliberately linked them behind his back and spoke in the Old Language. “I hereby offer you a rythe. I do so in recognition of my disrespect and disregard of your status as a bonded male unto the female Paradise, with whom you have been mated. It is not my intention to justify this behavior in any fashion, and I wish to make up for my lapse in judgment according to the Old Ways.”
Craeg’s face became remote, his anger banking.
Switching back to English, Peyton said, “Take the free shot and let’s put this behind us. I’m not aggressing on your female. I recognize she is yours and you are hers. I had a knee-jerk reaction that came from a friendship situation, not a romantic one, and I’m willing to swear on that shit. But in the meantime, come on, man, just do it.”
There was a period of silence, only the low hum of the bus’s diesel engine filling the quiet. Dimly, Peyton was aware that Axe and Boone had crowded into the open door of the bus, the two trainees staring over.
Boone looked worried. Axe was smiling like he was filming this for Barstool Sports’ Insta account.
“So be it,” Craeg said.
Peyton didn’t bother to brace himself. He just stood there and let that huge fist come flying at his face.
The impact was like a bomb going off on his cheek, and he spun like a top, doing a Three Stooges three-sixty on one foot as the crack echoed around all the layers of the parking area’s concrete floors.
Bag. Of. Sand.
He went down—or maybe the ground came up to him—like a deadweight, his bones bouncing all tiddlywinks in the bag of his flesh. It took a minute or so before his breath came back to him, and even after it did, he just lay there, because the cold happened to be right under where he’d been hit.
A pair of combat boots came into his line of vision, and he had the random thought that they looked awfully stable, the kind of thing that built you a solid foundation on which to stand. And throw righties at assholes.
“Do you need a doctor?” Craeg asked.
“KBgfaod jkfdoo lkd.”
Peyton tried to swallow, and in doing so, he tasted the copper milkshake of blood. But none of his teeth seemed loose.
“One more time?”
“Okay. I am. Help me up.”
“That’s better.” A huge palm came from above as if the Creator Himself were resurrecting him. “I gotchu.”
Peyton grabbed on to what was offered and found himself hoisted up off the asphalt like he was a sunken ship being brought back to the surface of the ocean. And you want to talk about waves? His head went on a wobble that translated all the way through him to his ankles.
Craeg’s steadying grip on his biceps was the only thing that kept him on his feet.
“Did that feel good?” Peyton mumbled. Then he pointed to his own chest. “Not hating. Swear.”
“Yeah, actually it did.” Craeg put his arm around Peyton’s shoulders. “It felt real good.”
They mounted the shallow steps that took them up onto the bus, and oh, man, Paradise was pissed—and clearly not prepared to be quiet about it.
“You two are such goddamn good friends,” she said as she crossed her arms over her chest, “you can sit together.” She put her palm up to Craeg. “Don’t even speak to me.”
“If you need somewhere to stay,” Peyton said with his new lisp, “I have plenty of space.”
“May take you up on it,” Craeg muttered as they slid into a seat side by side like two twelve-year-olds who were in trouble at school.
As Peyton slumped and started to slide off into the aisle, Craeg propped him up.
“You know,” the guy remarked, “I kinda feel like I’m your car seat, buddy.”
“This whole soldier thing doesn’t work? I think you’d make an excellent boxer. Serious.”
“Thanks, man. That means a lot. You still up for helping with Paradise’s birthday? And by that, I mean do everything that’s supposed to be classy?”
Boy, whoever thought up the rythe thing got it right. With one non-sucker punch, the air was cleared and they were done with it.
Well, except for Paradise.
Craeg was going to be sleeping on the couch for a lot of days, that much was for sure.