*   *   *

The next morning was one of my regularly scheduled lessons with Keane, which meant I had to get up indecently early and couldn’t have any breakfast until afterward. Not unless I wanted to risk it coming back up while we sparred. If my teacher were anyone but Keane, I’d have expected him to give me the day off on the day before I left for Faerie, but I knew better.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, examining the new high-backed tank top I’d ordered from an athletic catalog. In the catalog, it had looked like the top might give me enough coverage to hide the Erlking’s mark on the back of my shoulder. It covered part of the mark, but not all of it. I sighed regretfully, then headed to the bedroom to pull a T-shirt on over the tank. It was easier to fight without the loose, comfortable T-shirt giving Keane something to grab on to, but I didn’t have a choice.

I opened my bedroom door to find that Keane had already arrived. He’d pushed the furniture in my sitting room to the walls and was rolling out the practice mats. I admired the view for a moment, because even if I didn’t like him that way, there was no denying he was a treat to look at. He had a typically beautiful Fae face, but his hair—dyed jet black, with a lock perpetually hanging in his eyes—along with the earrings in his left ear, the Celtic armband tattoo, and a wardrobe that seemed to consist entirely of black, gave him a bad-boy edge. What could be sexier than a Fae bad boy?

“You’re late,” he said to me without looking up.

“Good morning to you, too,” I responded, approaching him warily. Keane didn’t believe in giving me a warning before he attacked—he said my enemies wouldn’t do it, so he wouldn’t do it—and that meant my lesson could start at any moment, even when it looked like he was thoroughly engaged in something else. I watched his body language carefully, searching for any sign that he was about to leap into motion.

“We’ve had this discussion before,” he said as he finished arranging the mats. “I expect you to show up on time every time.”

I rolled my eyes at the rebuke. And, of course, that was when he attacked.

Despite his high-handed, annoying, and often painful training techniques, Keane was a great teacher. Not that I’d ever admit it to his face. Even though I’d let my guard down, I reacted fast enough not to take his punch in the face. My arm jerked upward like it had a will of its own, blocking the punch.

In a real fight, that block might have saved my life, because a blow that hard to my head might knock me out and would certainly at least knock me down. And in a real fight, I’d be thanking my lucky stars right now as I ran like hell to get away from whoever had attacked me.

But this wasn’t a real fight, so my reaction—very mature, I know—was to yell “Ow!” loud enough to burst a few eardrums. I knew in theory that Keane pulled his punches when we sparred, but it still hurt like hell when he made contact, even when I managed to block.

“Don’t be such a baby,” Keane said, even as he kicked out in an attempt to knock my legs out from under me.

This was the reason I hated him so much when we were sparring.

I jumped backward, avoiding Keane’s kick, and after that there was no time for complaining. Even if I’d had enough air in my lungs to make a complaint.

I knew I was getting better, knew that if I was fighting someone who wasn’t any good, I’d probably be able to get away, but I would never, ever come close to Keane’s skill level. Being the son of a Knight, he’d been taught how to fight from an early age. He’d even started to go through training to be a Knight himself, but he wasn’t Knight material. Not because he couldn’t fight well enough—I’m sure if he’d had the whole training, he’d be ridiculously good—but because he was too much of a rebel to accept the lifestyle.

The upshot of all this is that I almost never succeed in landing a blow, and despite knowing all the right moves, I could rarely escape one of his holds unless he let me. Frustration and I have become good friends. And like any friend who’s a bad influence, frustration sometimes made me do things that were, in retrospect, stupid.

Like trying to tackle my self-defense instructor.

There isn’t a single instance I can think of in which tackling your attacker is a good self-defense move. If you have enough distance to try to tackle your attacker, you have enough distance to run like hell and maybe get away. But since doing the “correct” moves never seemed to work, every once in a while I couldn’t stop myself from trying to catch Keane by surprise.

The problem is, even if I catch him by surprise, he’s bigger, quicker, stronger, and far more experienced than I am.

My tackle surprised him enough to take him down. Unfortunately, he twisted like a cat in midair, and somehow I ended up on the bottom when we landed. The landing knocked all the wind out of me, and while I was lying there trying to breathe, he landed a light blow to my face, demonstrating just how bad a position I’d gotten myself into. Not that I didn’t already know.

Escaping one of Keane’s holds when we were both on our feet was hard enough, but escaping him when we were on the floor with him on top was impossible unless he purposely gave me an opening. As soon as I managed to drag in a full breath, he gave me one of those openings, and I went for it.

Just because he left me an opening didn’t mean he was making things easy for me, so I had to work like crazy to get free. At the last moment, just as I was trying to triumphantly jump to my feet after slipping his hold, his hand closed on the back of my T-shirt.