“Just a kiss?” Excitement thrummed through my veins as I tugged my gaze from the TV screen to Clay Armstrong. It took a moment for my wonky vision to focus and piece Clay’s face together. Just a few months older than me, he was beyond cute, with light brown hair that was always flopping over his forehead and just begging for my fingers to run through it. Then again, I’d never seen an unattractive Warden even though I didn’t have it in me to do the mental gymnastics to figure out how they looked like a human and then like a Warden. Clay sat beside me on the couch in his parents’ living room. We were alone, and I wasn’t quite sure what life choices I’d made to end up with me sitting here beside him, our thighs touching. Like all Wardens, he was so incredibly bigger than me, even though I was five foot eight and not what one would normally consider a short girl. Clay had always been friendlier toward me than most of the Wardens, flirty even, and I liked it— he gave me the kind of attention that I saw between others but never had been on the receiving end of until now. No one in the Warden community besides my friend Jada, and of course Misha, paid much attention to me, and neither of them wanted to kiss me. But Clay was always nice, complimenting me even when I knew I looked like a hot mess, and for the past couple of weeks, he’d sought me out a lot. I liked it. And there wasn’t a damn thing wrong with that. So, when he’d approached me at the Pit, which was just a really large fire pit where younger Wardens gathered at night to hang out, and asked if I wanted to come back to his place to watch a movie, I didn’t have to be asked twice. Now Clay wanted to kiss me. And I wanted to be kissed.
“Trinity?” he said, and I flinched when I saw that his fingers were suddenly close to my face. He caught a piece of hair that had fallen against my cheek and tucked it behind my ear. His hand lingered. “You’re doing it again.” “Doing what?” “Disappearing on me,” he said. I had, and I did that a lot. “Where’d you go?” I smiled. “Nowhere. I’m here.” Those Warden eyes, a bright sky blue, peered into mine.
“Good.” My smile grew. “Just a kiss?” he repeated. The excitement went up a notch and I exhaled slowly. “Just a kiss.” He smiled as he leaned in, tilting his head so our mouths lined up. Mine parted in anticipation. I’d been kissed before. Once. Well, I’d done the kissing.
I’d kissed Misha when I was sixteen, and he’d kissed me back, but then it became really weird because he was like a brother to me, and neither of us were about that kind of life. Plus, things weren’t supposed to be like that between Misha and me, because of what he was. Because of what I was. Clay’s lips touched mine, and they were warm and…dry. Surprise flickered through me. I thought they’d be, I don’t know, wetter. But it was…nice, especially when the pressure of the kiss increased and his lips parted mine, and then it was more. His mouth moved against mine, and I kissed him back. I didn’t want to stop him when the hand along the nape of my neck slid down my back, to my hip. That felt nice, too, and when he eased me down, I went with it, placing my hands on his shoulders as he hovered over me, using his arm to support his weight so he didn’t crush me.
Wardens’ body temperatures ran high—higher than humans, higher than mine—but he seemed hotter, like he was about to burn up. And I…I felt sort of…lukewarm. We kissed and kissed, and those kisses weren’t dry anymore, and I liked the way his lower body had settled over mine, how it moved against mine, a mysterious rhythm that felt like it should be, could be, more—if I wanted that. And that was…nice. Nice like when he’d held my hand on the way to his place. So was the candle he’d lit that smelled like watermelon and lemonade—there was something romantic about that, and about the way his hand opened and closed on my hip. I felt warm and pleasant, not rip my clothes off and let’s get it on kind of excited, but this was… It was really nice. Then his hand was under my shirt and up, over my breast. Hold up. I reached down and grabbed his hand as I pulled away, separating his mouth from mine.
“Whoa.” “What?” His eyes were still closed, his hand was still on my breast and his hips were still moving. “I said just a kiss,” I reminded him, tugging on his hand. “That’s more than a kiss.” “You’re not having a good time?” Was I? I had been, key word being had. “Not anymore.” I had no idea what it was about not anymore that somehow translated into kiss me again, but that’s what Clay did. He pressed his mouth to mine, and that pressure was no longer nice. It was almost bruising. Irritation flared to life like a lit match.
Tightening my hand on his arm, I pulled it out from under my shirt. I pushed on his chest, breaking the kiss. I glared up at him. “Get off.” “I was trying to,” he grumbled, lifting up, but that was not remotely fast enough for me after that gross comment. I pushed—pushed hard. Clay toppled off me and to the side, into nothing but open space. He landed on the floor, his weight rattling the TV and causing the flames on the candle to flicker. “What the Hell?” Clay demanded, sitting up. He looked thunderstruck that I was capable of doing what I’d just done.
“I told you I wasn’t enjoying this.” I swung my legs off the couch and stood. “And you didn’t stop.” Clay stared up at me, blinking slowly in shock. It was like he didn’t even hear me. “You pushed me off you.” “Yeah, I did, because you’re gross.” I stepped over his legs and stalked past the window, heading for the door. He powered to his feet. “You didn’t seem to think it was gross when you were begging me to kiss you.
” “What? Okay. Fake news right there,” I snapped. “I didn’t beg you. You asked me if you could kiss me and I said just a kiss. Don’t rewrite what just happened.” “Whatever. You know what, I wasn’t even into it.” Rolling my eyes, I turned back to the door. “Sure felt like you were.” “Only because you’re the only female here that won’t expect me to mate with her.
” Mating in Warden terms didn’t mean hooking up. It meant getting married and having a metric crap ton of little Warden babies, and I was beyond insulted at this point. Not just because that was superwrong of him to say, but it also struck close to home. There was no one here for me, no relationship that could ever be considered serious. Wardens didn’t mix with humans. They didn’t even mix with my kind. “I’m sure I’m not the only female here that doesn’t want to mate with you, you jackass.” Clay moved with the speed of a Warden. One moment he was beside the couch and the next he was in front of me. “You don’t need to be a—” “Choose your words wisely, buddy.
” Irritation was quickly turning into anger, and I tried to calm down, because…bad things happened when I got angry. And those bad things usually involved blood. A muscle thrummed along his jaw and his chest rose with a deep breath before his handsome face smoothed out. “You know, let’s start over.” His hand moved outside my central vision and landed on my shoulder. I jumped, startled by the unexpected contact. Wrong move on his part, because I did not like to be startled. I caught his arm. “Can you let me know how much it hurts when you hit the ground?” “What?” Clay’s mouth hung open slightly. “Because you’re about to hit it really hard.
” I twisted his arm, and there was a brief second when I saw the shock flash across his face. He was a Warden in training, preparing to be the warrior the world knew the Wardens as, and he didn’t understand how I’d gained the upper hand so quickly. And then he wasn’t thinking anything. I spun him around and leaned back on my right leg. I kicked out with my left, not holding a damn thing back as my foot connected perfectly with the center of his back. Incredibly proud of myself, I waited for him to eat the floor. Except that wasn’t what happened. Clay flew across the room and hit the window. Glass cracked and gave way and then out the window he went, into the yard. I heard him hit the ground.
Sounded like a minor earthquake. “Whoops,” I whispered, pressing my hands to my cheeks. I stood there for, like, half a minute and then I sprang forward, hurrying to the front door. “Oh, no, no, no.” Luckily the porch light was on and it was bright enough to see where Clay was. He’d landed in a rosebush. “Oh, dear.” I went down the steps as Clay rolled out of the bush, onto his side, groaning. He seemed alive. That was a good sign.
“What in the holy Hell?” I jumped at the sound and looked up, recognizing the voice first. Misha. He came out of the shadows, stopping under the glow from the porch light. Too far away from me to see him clearly, but I didn’t need to see his expression to know he had that look on his face, a mixture of disappointment and disbelief. Misha turned from where Clay lay on the ground, to me, to the window and then back to me. “Do I even want to know?” There wasn’t a single part of me that was surprised to see Misha. I’d known it was only a matter of time before he figured out I’d snuck away from the Pit and ended up here. We were raised together, receiving the same training as soon as we both could walk upright, and he’d been there for my first scraped knee when I’d tried and failed to keep up with him—which he’d laughed at me for—and he’d been there the first time my life came crashing down around me. Misha had grown from an adorable, freckle-faced, redheaded dork to quite the cutie. I’d had a crush on him for about two hours when I was sixteen, which was when I’d kissed him.
I’d had a lot of short-lived crushes. But Misha was more than my sidekick or my best friend in the whole world. He was my Protector, bonded to me since I was a little girl, and that bond was intense. Like, if I died, he died, kind of intense, but if he died first, the bond would be severed and then another Warden would take his place. I’d always thought that was unfair, but the bond wasn’t completely one-sided. What was in me, what I was, fueled him, and his Warden powers often made up for the human part of me. In a way, we were two sides of the same coin, and I had violated some kind of heavenly rule when I’d kissed him. According to my father, Protectors and their charges were never supposed to engage in naughty, fun times. Supposedly this had to do with the bond, but I had no idea what that really meant. Like what could it actually do to the bond? I’d asked my father, but he’d looked down his nose at me like I’d asked him to explain how babies were made.
None of that meant I was any less annoyed at the moment. “I have it under control.” I gestured toward Clay, moaning on the ground. I could see tiny dark spots on his face. Thorns? God, I hoped so. “Obviously.” “You did that?” Misha stared at me. “Yeah?” I crossed my arms as Clay began to pick himself up. “And I don’t feel remotely bad about it. He didn’t understand what ‘just a kiss’ meant.
” Misha pivoted back to Clay. “Is that so?” “Totally so,” I said. Growling low under his breath, Misha stalked toward Clay, who had finally risen to his knees. He was about to get some help standing. Gripping him by the back of his shirt, Misha lifted Clay off the ground and turned him around so that he was facing Misha. When he let go, the shorter Warden stumbled back a step. “Did she tell you no and you didn’t listen?” Misha demanded. Clay lifted his head. “She didn’t mean it—” Moving as quick as lightning, Misha cocked back his arm and planted his fist right in the center of Clay’s dumb face. Down the boy went for the second time tonight.
I smirked. “Just like I didn’t mean to do that?” Misha said, crouching down. “When someone says no, they mean it.” “Holy shit,” Clay whined, covering half his face with his hand. “I think you broke my nose.” “I don’t care.” “Jesus.” Clay started to stand but fell back on his ass. “You need to apologize to Trinity,” Misha ordered. “Whatever, man.
” Clay struggled to his feet, his voice muffled as he turned to me. “I’m sorry, Trinity.” I lifted my hand and extended a middle finger. Misha wasn’t done with him. “You don’t speak to her again. You don’t even look at her or breathe in her general direction. If you do, I’ll put you through the window again and do a whole lot worse.” Clay lowered his hand and I could see dark blood running down his face. “You didn’t put me through a—” “You obviously don’t get it,” Misha growled. “I did knock you through a window, and I’ll do worse next time.
Understand me?” “Yeah.” Clay wiped his hand along his mouth. “I understand.” “Then get the Hell out of my face.” Clay bolted back inside and slammed the door behind him. “You need to get back to the house.” Misha’s voice was gruff as he took my hand and led me through the yard, into the shadows. I let him lead the way, because once we were outside the lights, I couldn’t see crap. “Thierry needs to know about this,” I said once we hit the sidewalk that led all the way back to the main house. “Oh, Hell, yeah, I’m telling Thierry.
He needs to know and something more than an epic beatdown needs to be handed to Clay.” “Agreed.” A huge part of me wanted to go back and kick Clay through another window, but I’d let Thierry handle it from here even though that was going to lead to a very embarrassing conversation with the man who was like a second father to me. But Thierry was the one in the position to do more. He was the boss here, and not just a clan leader but a Duke, overseeing all the other clans and the many outposts in the Mid-Atlantic and Ohio Valley. He was ultimately responsible for training all the new warriors and ensuring that the community remained safe and relatively hidden. He could make sure that Clay learned to never, ever do that again. Misha stopped once we were far enough from Clay’s house. “We need to talk.” I sighed.
“I really don’t want to be lectured right now. I know you mean well, but—” “How did you knock him out of a window?” he asked, cutting me off. A frown pulled at my lips as I stared up at Misha’s shadowy face. “I pushed him and then I… Well, I kicked him.” Letting go of my hand, he placed his own on my shoulders. “How did you manage to kick him out the window, Trin?” “Well, you see, I lifted my leg, like I’ve been trained—” “That’s not what I meant, you little smart-ass.” Misha cut me off. “You’re getting stronger. Way stronger.” A shiver curled down my spine and danced over my skin.
I was getting stronger, but I imagined that with each passing year, that would continue to happen for the both of us until… Until what? For some reason I’d always thought that when I turned eighteen, something would change, but my birthday passed over a month ago, and we were still here, secreted away and well hidden, just waiting for the time when I was summoned by my father to fight. I wasn’t living. Neither was Misha. The all-too-familiar feeling of discontent started to settle over me like a too-heavy blanket, but I pushed it aside. Now wasn’t the time to think about any of that, because the truth was, I’d been getting stronger for a while now. Faster, too, but I’d been able to hold back when I trained with Misha. I’d just lost my cool tonight. Could’ve been way worse, though. “I didn’t mean to kick him through a window exactly, but I’m glad I did,” I said, lowering my gaze to the dark sweater I wore. “He did seem…freaked out by how strong I was.
” “Of course he did, Trin, because nearly everyone here thinks you’re just a human.” But I wasn’t. I wasn’t part-Warden, either, and they were like real-life superheroes, hunting down the bad guys, if superheroes were, well, gargoyles. Until a little over ten years ago, the beastly looking statues perched on churches and buildings throughout the world were seen only as architectural wonders, but then they went public, exposing to the world that many of those statues were actually living, breathing creatures. After an initial period of shock, people realized Wardens were just another species, and they accepted them. Well, most humans did. There were fanatics like the Church of God’s Children who believed Wardens were a sign of the end times or something lame, but most people were okay with Wardens, and while the Wardens did sometimes help law enforcement if they happened upon a human committing crimes, Wardens were mostly gunning for bigger baddies. Demons.