Chapter Twenty Eight
“You don’t look awful.” The look of utter shock on Kat’s face made him grin despite himself. She leaned against the door frame, eyeing him curiously.
“It’s that much of a surprise?” Adam feigned hurt, hunching his shoulders and shortening his stride as he walked toward her.
“No. That’s not. That’s not what I meant!” Kat straightened up, dropping her arms to her sides. “It’s just, you’re usually more awful-looking when you come back. Kind of like a corpse, actually,” she said all in a rush.
Like a corpse? Adam frowned. He’d thought he’d been doing a better job of hiding the toll these jobs were taking on him. But apparently not.
Kat misread his expression. “I didn’t mean you look like a dead corpse! Just…” She trailed off as she realized her mistake.
“Just an alive one?”
“No!” Kat’s cheeks reddened and she crossed her arms with a huff. “Never mind, I give up.” She looked up at him, still a little shorter even with the black heeled boots she wore. “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad.”
Adam reached out and grabbed her around the waist, towing her toward him. “I know, Clumsy-Kat.” How long had it been since he’d last called her that? Adam had first used the nickname as a way to rile Kat up when she’d begun training in the ridiculous shoes she insisted on wearing. She’d fallen as often as she breathed for a few weeks there.
Adam had thought she was insane for letting her vanity overcome her common sense and had resorted to needling her every chance he got after first reasoning and then pleading had had no sway. But Kat had won in the end. She’d stuck with it, pigheaded as always and had come away with almost unnatural balance, reminiscent of the animal that was her namesake. But even now, years later, the nickname still had the power to get her riled.
“I’m not clumsy!” Kat hissed, true to form.
Adam pretended to be confused. “Is there a different way of describing the way you were stumbling all over your words like that?”
Kat let out a shriek of frustration and lunged at him.
They slammed into the wall and Adam winced as his head made contact with the wooden panelling. Kat’s fingers dug into his shoulders and she grinned viciously when he winced. “Take it back!” she demanded.
Adam grabbed a fistful of her hair and tugged. “Kat, get off me!”
“Apologize!” Kat pressed her nails in further.
Adam cursed. “Get off!” He wedged his free hand between them and shoved hard.
“Children, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Adam jumped guiltily, feeling oddly like a child again, and turned his head to the side. Ali stood at the end of the hallway, glaring frostily at them.
“Adam, I’ve been waiting for you. Kat, seeing as you’re so in need of a spar, time for some drills.” Ali jerked his head to the side. “Go. Now.”
Kat glanced between the two of them for a moment, hesitating.
“I’m not going to bite him, Kat. Go.” Ali made a shooing motion with his hands.
She went. Adam watched her slim figure as it retreated, her unbound hair swaying gently in time with her steps.
Adam turned to his stepfather and any amusement he’d been feeling evaporated.
“Come on, let’s get this over with.” Ali turned around and started to lead the way to his office.
What would happen if Adam refused? If he dug in his heels and announced that he wasn’t going and Ali would simply have to live without having a play by play of Adam’s depravity.
He already knew the answer to that question. His stepfather would drag him in anyway and would suddenly find himself fascinated by every detail of the entire trip.
Adam would be forced to recount every minute that he’d been gone over and over again until his stepfather was satisfied that he’d learned his lesson and was aware of just how much worse his reports could be if Ali chose to make them that way.
“Is there anything else?” Ali asked, eons later.
Adam cleared his throat, hoarse from all the talking. He shook his head and reached for the glass in front of him. “Nothing.”
Ali put his hands together and thought for a moment.
Adam waited, wondering if it would be sufficient or if he’d be forced to go into even more gruesome detail. He braced himself for the latter, grateful that he hadn’t been able to stomach eating for the past day and a half. His stomach was still churning but at least he knew that there was nothing left to bring up.
It seemed Ali was satisfied, however. “You did well,” he said simply. “Better than I would have expected.”
Adam didn’t thank him.
He was given a quick once-over. “You have a month of downtime, barring any real problems.”
Adam didn’t realize he’d spoken aloud until Ali nodded at him, the older man’s mouth curving up in amusement. “You’ve earned it. Now get out of here, your face is making everyone feel bad.”
Adam was all too happy to do as he was told. A month of downtime was ridiculously generous but he wasn’t going to keep questioning it. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?
Later, Adam would recall this moment and remember the answer he’d been given by one of his trainers when he’d once repeated the expression in their presence.
To check for explosives. In our line of work, anything nice is suspicious. Never assume another person’s generosity. For most of us, it doesn’t exist any more. Suspicion is what will keep you alive and one step ahead. Be too trusting and you’ve signed your own death certificate.
If only he’d remembered those words that day instead of just accepting the unexpected break and not even bothering to wonder at the reasoning behind it.
Things would have been completely different, had he just stopped for a moment and thought.