"Let's see," Kylie said, not skipping a beat. "Let's begin with the fact that you started a fight in front of my whole school with my stepdad."

John squared his shoulders, almost defensively. "He's the one who hit me."

"After you insulted me and charged at him. And you also stuck your tongue down my mama's throat in front of all the students and their parents. Would you like me to continue? I think I could come up with more really quick."

Anger filled his eyes, but he seemed to rein it in. "You don't hold back, do you?"

She sent him her swallowed-a-mosquito smile. "That was holding back."

"You are such a joy to speak with," he said. "However, the problem is that your mom really likes me and I her. I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that it would be helpful if we could get along."

Kylie leaned in. "I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that you haven't known my mom long enough to be saying this to me."

Kylie could swear his eyes brightened. A nonhuman kind of bright. She tightened her brows to check his pattern.

What was this man?

His human pattern appeared clearly. Not that he couldn't still be a chameleon, but ...

Anger filled his gray eyes. "This could end up hurting your mom." His words came out so cold, so ...

threatening that Kylie's protective instinct buzzed.

"What do you mean?" She curled her hands into fists.

He glanced away as if to calm himself. When he looked back his eyes were normal. "Just that problems between us would hurt your mom."

She stared him right in the eyes. And God help her, but she sensed he was lying, that his words had been a threat. She tried to calm the buzzing in her veins down, but it continued. Over John's shoulder she saw her mom step out of the restroom.

She leaned across the table and whispered to John, "If anyone dares hurt my mom, they will die regretting it."

Right then, Kylie knew two things: she did have the ability to become a holy warrior. Because if John laid one finger on her mom, she could, and would, kill him with no regrets. And secondly, she simply couldn't die, not right now. Not if it meant leaving her mom with this asshole.

"Is everything okay?" Her mom stepped up to the table, obviously picking up on the tension.

Kylie waited to see how John decided to play this.

"It's fine," John said. "We were just talking." He stood up. "I guess it's time to go." They started walking, but the fear for her mom built higher with each step. Kylie couldn't let her mom leave with this man-not without a warning.She reached for her mom's arm. "There's someone I want you to meet."

John turned.

"Can you give us a minute?" Kylie sent John a look that dared him to intervene.

He hesitated but then said, "I'll wait by the car."

Kylie watched him walk out, wishing he'd keep walking right out of her mother's life.

Her mom looked around. "Who do you want me to meet?"

"Mom, I know you're not going to like what I have to say, but John scares me. I'm worried about your safety."

"Scares you?" her mom asked. "I don't understand. What has he done?"

"I don't trust him. He gives me the creeps. And I'm a good judge of character."

Hurt flashed in her mom's eyes. "So am I, young lady. Sorry you don't like him, but I do."

The hurt in her mom's eyes vibrated in Kylie's chest. "I just want you to be careful and not let this thing move too fast."

Her mom scowled. "This is because you want me and your dad to get back together."

"First," Kylie said, now feeling annoyed, "Tom's my stepdad. Second, yes, I did want you to get back together, but this isn't about that."

"It has to be, young lady, because John is the sweetest man I know." She leaned in and kissed Kylie's cheek. "Now, please accept the fact that your stepdad and I are not getting back together." She left. Kylie stayed, fearing what she might say to John if she had to face him again at the car.

"Are you okay?" The masculine voice came near her ear.

Kylie's first thought was that it was Derek. He always knew when she was in emotional trauma. But she quickly recognized the deep, sexy voice. The voice of the person whom for the last week she'd tried to beat to smithereens with a wooden sword.

She turned around. "Yes." Then her pent-up anger crowded her chest and she knew what would help.

"Do you want to go practice?"

"Now?" Lucas asked.

"I need to burn off some aggression."

"On me?" He half smiled.

"Not ... Do you want to practice or not?" she snapped, in no mood for humor. Face it, someone had sent her a sword to learn to fight-and if they expected her to fight, then they obviously meant for her to stay alive. And she planned to stay alive to protect her mom from creeps like John.

Yup, staying alive sounded like a good idea.

"Sure." His blue eyes filled with concern. "Let me tell Burnett." His gaze didn't move from her face.

"What happened?"

"I don't want to talk," she said. "I want to fight."

Thirty minutes later, Kylie had already broken one sword without Lucas having said anything about loving her, how beautiful she was, or about them making out in the grass.

He made her go through some stretching exercises, insisting he could see the tension rolling off of her.

It wasn't rolling off of her, it was rolling around inside of her. Fear for her mom's safety chopped away ather sanity, fear for Lucas and what would happen to him if the pack completely turned against him ate at her peace of mind.

"You still don't want to talk?" he asked as their swords banged against each other.

Yes, but I just don't know what to say. "No," she lied, changing her stance and managing to get her sword past his, and then tapped the tip against his chest.

"You are getting good." He stared down at the sword pointing at his heart.

She pulled back to let him get his footing. In a few seconds, they were back to sparring when she felt the cold wash over her.

Too good. The student is besting the teacher. You need a new teacher.

Kylie glanced at the ghost standing there with her sword. Who else can teach me?

Me, of course. But no pansy stuff fighting with wooden swords. You must learn to fight with a real weapon.

Kylie's heart raced, remembering her main fear. Am I going to die?

The ghost sighed. That is up to you.

How sad was it that she preferred to take the word of a murdering spirit than that of her father? But the fact remained that she wanted to live.

"You ready?" Lucas asked.

Kylie faced him. "One second." She looked back to the spirit. Do you know my father?

Her question left her lips at the same time the spirit vanished.

Facing Lucas again, Kylie held up her sword and the sparring resumed.

"Do I need to teach him a lesson?" Lucas asked as his sword clashed again hers.

"Who?" she asked.

"Your mom's boyfriend." Lucas blocked her sword.

"No, I need to stop him," she said. If she didn't die first.

Then she felt a fire burn in her belly. She wasn't going to die. She was going to fight and win. And Lucas had to do the same, she realized.

"You're getting gutsy," Lucas said, but suddenly she lost her focus and his sword got around her and tapped her shoulder.

Kylie looked at the sword's point. "That wasn't a death blow. You can't count that as a win."

"No, but you'd be bleeding so badly that you wouldn't last much longer."

"Fine. Count it." She stepped back and prepared to start again.

This time she was more careful, blocking him blow for blow. Sweat poured down her brow. Her muscles ached, her heart ached. She opened her mouth to say something about his new moves. But something completely different came out.

"You should have told me about Monique," she said, not realizing what she meant to say. The sound of wood being slammed together filled the air like thunder. "If I had known..." What would she have done?

Was there any chance in hell that she would have said it was okay? Probably not, but perhaps she wouldn't have felt so betrayed. Maybe she wouldn't have lumped him together with all the other betrayals of her past.

"You wouldn't have accepted it," he finished for her. It was the truth. He started those fancy foot moves around her again. "And you would have been right not to accept it. It was a bad judgment call on my part.""Bad for us, yes. But maybe it was the right call for you," she said. "You have too much to lose, Lucas."

"I have you to lose!" Their swords slammed together; the loud noise crackled in the air.

They backed away from each other. "I told you that we're over. Find Monique, tell her you'll marry her."

"I am not marrying her. I never planned to."

"Then go back to your original plan, say you'll do it, get on the Council, and then back out."

"No. It was a bad plan then and it would be a bad plan now."

She breathed in and caught the air in her lungs. "Everyone blames me for ruining your dreams," she said. And someday you will, too-if I live. And that was what hurt the most right now. Not dying. But the fact that forgiving him seemed easy compared to accepting that he would one day resent her. Resent the choice he'd made.

He lifted his sword to start sparring again. She went along with it because just looking at him hurt too much.

He started talking as he moved. "Anyone who blames you is a fool. I was the one who chose not to sign the betrothal agreement. Not you." The swords hit again.

"Your sister believes it. Even your grandmother believes it. I saw it in her eyes today when she started to come over to talk to me."

"My sister is stupid. I love my grandmother," he said, and the sound of his sword slicing through air sent a chill down Kylie's back. "But that doesn't make her right. She follows a lot of the beliefs of the elders."

"Your pack is turning away from you. I saw that." Her throat tightened again. "You can't lose them, Lucas. You've told me a thousand times how important they are to you."

"But you are more important to me," he said. "I can't lose you."

"You've already lost me!" she seethed, and blocked his sword again. She couldn't let him do this. She couldn't let him sacrifice everything he had wanted. She couldn't watch him grow to hate her someday.

He pulled back. She expected him to come to the left, but he came to the right, and she failed to block him. He placed his sword right over her heart.

This one was a death blow.

"No." He purposely tapped his sword to her chest. "Your heart belongs to me. Don't ever forget that."

She stumbled back, anger vibrating through her. Anger, not so much at him, but at knowing how much he could lose. She slung the sword down and turned around and stared at the water, her throat knotting, her vision becoming blurry.

He came up behind her-not touching her, as if he knew she wouldn't allow it.

Instead, he stood so close his words brushed against her cheek and sent shivers of regret down her spine. "I became blinded by what I thought I needed to do. I was wrong. I was stupid. But not for one minute did I ever stop loving you. And that's why I deserve to be forgiven."

Just like that, she felt the tight emotion in her chest lessen. He was forgiven. But as she'd known for a while, forgiving him wasn't the biggest issue. A tear slipped from her lashes. She moved a few feet away.

"I'm finished," she said. "I want to go back to the cabin."

"Okay," he said, but he sounded rejected and she felt the same emotion echoing inside her chest.When he went to pick up the swords, she turned to watch him. He looked up. She saw so much in his eyes-hurt, regret, a longing for her to say she forgave him.

But if she gave him that, he would only work harder to convince her to come back to him. And how could she when she knew that someday he would resent her for it?

After a few seconds, he said, "I think you're ready to start practicing with the real swords."

She considered how many times her sword had touched his body accidentally, but then she remembered what the ghost had said. Dying was her choice. And she chose to live.

She needed to be ready-ready to fight for her life.

"Okay," she said, and tried not to let the fear into her voice.

Are you ready?

Kylie had just fallen asleep that night, after fretting for a good hour, when the voice and chill woke her up.

"Ready for what?" she asked, not opening her eyes.

For practice. I told you. You need a better teacher.

"He's a great teacher," she said, defending Lucas before she even realized it.

He's great to look at. And I'll admit he has some skills, but you need more. So wake up.

Kylie pried open one eye and saw the spirit, her face inches away. "You do know that the living need eight hours of sleep?"

That's the rule for humans. Supernaturals can survive on much less. Now get up and let's get started.

"I don't have my sword."

Ahh, but if you get up, you'd see it's already here.

Kylie remembered Holiday saying it wasn't possible. "A ghost can't move objects."

I didn't say I moved it. I said it was here.

"So who's moving it?" Kylie asked.

Don't pretend that you don't know. The same ones who delivered the sword to you. The death angels.

Kylie's breath caught. "So they want me to kill Mario?"

Well, I haven't spoken to them directly. She leaned in. Frankly, they make me very nervous, but as for killing Mario, it would appear that way, now, wouldn't it?

"And you?" Kylie asked. "What do you want? The same thing?"

You know, I've tried to figure that out myself. But every time I get close to the answer, it's as if it moves farther way. Why is that? She sounded genuinely puzzled and vulnerable.

Kylie recalled the ghost grieving over her son. Maybe she wasn't all bad.

Kylie sat up and saw the clock. "It's two in the morning. You really want me to get up?"

I don't think you can fight reclined in your bed. I'd have you gutted before you ever raised your sword.

Okay, the spirit was bad after all. However, her words had Kylie crawling out from under the covers.

She spotted the sword at the end of her bed. And she also spotted Socks, his little feline face barelysticking out of the dust ruffle.

"Okay ... where do we begin?" Kylie picked up her sword.

Put on a white gown. Or something white, the spirit said.

Kylie looked down at her black nightshirt. "Why?"

Don't you want to die in white?

Kylie's heart stopped.

The spirit laughed. You are so easy to tease. Put on white because how else will you know if you're cut and bleeding?

Kylie put the sword back down. "I'm not sure I want to play."

The spirit laughed again. Don't fret. I'm just going to mark up your gown. I can't actually cut you.

Though the latter is a much better teaching tool.

Kylie relented and grabbed a white shirt and pair of boxers. They went into the living room. Kylie's sword glowed a bright yellow.

They had just started to spar when Della shot out of her bedroom, eyes aglow, and looked at Kylie holding up the sword.

"I'm just going to practice a bit," Kylie said.

"In the middle of the freaking night? With a freaking glowing sword?"

Kylie nodded. "You drink blood, I play with glowing swords."

Della wrapped her arms around herself as if cold. "You've got company, don't you?"

Unable to lie, Kylie nodded.

"Oh, hell!" The vamp went back into her room, slamming the door behind her.

That girl had some serious issues.

Kylie frowned. "Not as many as other people I know," Kylie said to herself. "Now, let's do this and get it over with."

The next fifteen minutes were the hardest Kylie had ever fought. She used every technique she'd learned from Lucas, but this woman didn't abide by the normal techniques. She fought dirty. And was proud of it.

Every time the spirit's sword came in contact with Kylie's body, a red mark would appear on her white shirt or boxers. Every time Kylie's sword made contact with the spirit's body, she would show an open wound and blood. Of course, the ghost only had one little scratch on her upper left arm. Not a lot of damage considering Kylie's clothes were covered in red marks.

It only made Kylie feel more vulnerable and less capable of facing a real battle. A battle that Kylie sensed was her destiny. A battle with Mario. A battle she very well might lose.

After a few minutes, the spirit started spouting orders, much like Lucas did. Move this way, hold her sword this way. Move quicker. Never lose sight of her sword.

Kylie finally got the hang of it and actually blocked some of the spirit's blows. But all that stopped when the front door to her cabin cracked open and then was knocked off its hinges.

The wood panel landed with a big clunk on the floor.

Before Kylie got a good look at the cabin's intruder, Della's door hit the floor with the same sharp noise.

The vampire rushed out, her eyes glowing bright green and her fangs fully extended.

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