Tried & True Excerpt
HE WAS on his own.
Dex breathed in deeply through his nose, then let the breath out slowly through his mouth. He steadied his heart, his pulse, his breathing. His body answered to him, not the other way around. It was three against one, though there was only the one he had to worry about. He had to stay on his guard with that one.
“You’re going down.”
Dex opened his eyes, his focus on the huge tiger Therian before him. His dear delusional friend had no idea what he was getting himself into. Seb would be the one going down, but first…. Dex curled his lip up on one side as he moved his gaze to Hudson. The good doctor would be the first down but the last man standing. Dex would make sure of it. His most challenging target, however, slowly circled Dex. He could feel his mate’s eyes burning over every inch of him.
Sloane came back into view, the predator inside him looking out at Dex through molten amber eyes, his pupils dilated. His Felid was awake, ready to hunt, and Dex was his prey, or so Sloane believed. Sloane flexed his fingers, the knuckles stretching the blue wraps around his hands. The black racerback tank accentuated his broad muscular shoulders, and Dex allowed his gaze to travel down the thick biceps to his deliciously corded forearms. The tank was snug against his expansive chest, down to his torso and tapered waist. The loose black yoga pants rested low on his hips, and his feet were bare.
“Holy shit, your eyes.”
Dex ignored Seb and kept his gaze on Sloane and the smug smile now on his face. He knew the change in Dex’s eye color was his doing. Didn’t matter. It wouldn’t change what was going to happen. His mate was going down.
“You boys going to stand around all day?” Dex balled his hands into fists at his sides, the orange wraps shifting against his skin.
As expected, Seb charged first. Dex ducked beneath his right hook, spun, and slammed his hands into Seb’s back, sending him reeling forward. Dex lashed out, grabbed Hudson’s arm, and kicked his leg out from under him. He used his weight to flip Hudson over his shoulder and throw him onto the mat. Seb lunged at him, but Dex was quicker. Much quicker. He dropped and rolled out of the way, then popped up behind Seb and kicked at the back of his bad knee.
Seb roared, and Dex smiled.
That’s it, big guy. Get pissed. But don’t get sloppy.
Seb snarled as he pushed through the pain and came after Dex, his Felid half shining through his green eyes. Dex ducked and dodged. He slapped Seb’s fists away from him. Movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention, and Dex brought both fists down against Seb’s arms, then came up with a fierce uppercut and a kick to the abdomen that sent Seb rolling across the mat. Then Dex spun and ducked under Hudson’s right hook, landing a punch against Hudson’s ribs that left him gasping for breath. Dex pulled Hudson’s leg out from under him and brought both fists down against Hudson’s back, slamming him down hard into the mat, knocking the wind out of him. Hudson inhaled sharply as he writhed in pain. A low growl rose through him, and when he tried to get up, Dex put his foot on Hudson’s back and pushed down.
“You’re not even trying,” Dex growled.
“Dex,” Seb warned.
Dex stepped back and motioned for Seb to advance. “I’m not going to baby him, Seb. You want him to be prepared? You want him to survive out there? Then he has to learn.” Dex moved his gaze to Sloane, who was circling him, a barely there smile on his face.
I haven’t forgotten about you, baby. Your turn will come.
Hudson was still on the mat, his forehead pressed against it.
“Get up, Hudson,” Dex demanded. “Get your ass up off that mat right now.”
Seb and Hudson might have been sworn in and were officially TIN, but they were behind in their training. Sparks arranged for them to start their TIN Operative Training Program as soon as Dex and Sloane returned from their honeymoon. Since their recruitment, Seb and Hudson had been doing the same TIN Associate Training Program Dex and Sloane had been doing for months. The two had a hell of a lot to catch up on, and Dex felt for them; he did. Especially Hudson. As a medical examiner, Hudson had never been put through the training as a THIRDS Defense agent, so he had the most to learn. Making him the most vulnerable. Not to mention the most hesitant. Hudson was a wolf Therian, and although he could be as fierce as any Felid, he was soft-hearted and tended to be a nurturer. Hudson was a logical thinker, which was great, but his new role with TIN required instinct and action.
Dex wouldn’t go easy on them because they were his friends. His family. In fact, it was precisely for that reason he couldn’t go easy on them. Shit was about to get real, and he needed those he cared about to be prepared. If he had to be the one to push, to break them and help put them back together, then so be it.
Hudson glared at him and sat back on his heels.
Dex marched over, grabbed his arm, and hauled him to his feet. He thrust a finger in Hudson’s face. “I said get your ass up.”
Hudson’s wolf Therian growled at him, his steel-blue eyes intense. Good. Hudson had a temper buried deep down behind all that sweetness and timidity, and Dex knew just how to expose it.
Dex took a step back, his attention moving between Seb and Hudson. The two exchanged glances, and Dex grinned. Now we’re talking.
The pair came at him at the same time, and Hudson even managed to land a hit, punching Dex across his jaw. Finally, they were getting somewhere. Dex maneuvered around Seb, making sure none of Seb’s punches landed. If they did, he wasn’t too worried. Not that he wanted to get punched in the face by a tiger Therian, but where it once might have broken his jaw, now he could take the hit and bounce back.
“Why do you keep trying to punch me?” Dex asked Seb.
Seb spun with a snarl. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the fact you’re underestimating me, seeing me as a Human, as someone smaller and weaker than you that you can overpower. Your punching me is not going to knock me out.”
“I never said you were weaker,” Seb replied, his eyes narrowing.
“No, you’re just treating me like I am.” Dex motioned to Sloane. “Would you attack Sloane the same way?”
Seb frowned, puzzled. “Well, no, obviously.”
“Why? Because he’s bigger? Stronger? A jaguar Therian?” Dex shook his head. “Never underestimate your opponent.” Seb took a step forward, and Dex put a hand up to stop him. “Stay there. Both of you. Observe.” Dex turned to Sloane and took his position. “How about showing them how it’s done?”
Sloane ducked his head, his amber eyes almost black as he met Dex’s gaze. “My pleasure.”
Dex readied himself. This was going to hurt oh so good. He’d done it before. Several times. Dex grinned wickedly. Sloane wouldn’t attack first. He never did. His Felid half wanted to stalk, to catch Dex unawares, which was why Dex wouldn’t give him the opportunity. He took off in a run toward Sloane. Sloane was heavier, bulkier, and weighed a fuckton more than Dex, which worked to Dex’s advantage.
Whatever Dex did, Sloane would do his damn best to keep his feet on the mat. The floor was not where he wanted to be. Which was why it was exactly where Dex had to get him. The bigger the Therian, the harder they fell. Sloane took his stance—left leg forward, right leg back, knees slightly bent as he anchored himself. He held up his fists, ready to strike. Dex picked up speed, grabbed Sloane’s shoulder, flung himself up in a flying scissor kick, and wrapped his legs around Sloane’s neck, using the force of his momentum to bring Sloane down, flipping him over onto the mat. Dex kept his legs wrapped around Sloane’s neck. This was where Dex would have gouged out the dude’s eyes, but he wasn’t about to do that to his beloved, so instead, he tightened his hold and smacked Sloane in the face.
With a feral growl, Sloane rolled with Dex still on him so Dex had his back to the mat. He thrust his hands down against Dex’s groin and jerked backward, but Dex only squeezed his legs around Sloane’s neck. He grabbed Sloane’s thumb and bent it back, forcing Sloane’s arm—and more importantly his elbow—away from Dex’s groin area. Had this been a real scenario, Dex would have won by now. Sloane twisted and threw his weight against Dex, thrusting his elbow back and hitting Dex in the balls.
“Fuck,” Dex said through gritted teeth, loosening his grip enough for Sloane to force one leg off him and giving Sloane the room he needed to slip out. Dex rolled away just as Sloane came down elbow first, hitting the mat right where Dex had been. That would have hurt like a son of a bitch. Dex pushed through the pain to his boy bits and got to his feet in time to have Sloane slam into him from the side. Dex landed several feet away, his whole left side throbbing from being bodychecked by a two hundred forty pound—probably more like two hundred fifty pounds now—Therian.
All he could do was push through it and get on his feet quickly. When Sloane lunged at him, Dex dug deep. His eyesight sharpened, and he let out a fierce growl as he threw one arm around Sloane’s waist and grabbed at the back of Sloane’s right leg, jerking it forward so he could lift Sloane off his feet and slam him onto the mat where he brought his knee down against Sloane’s stomach, knocking the wind out of him. He was mindful to use just enough force to hurt but not seriously injure his boyfriend. With an arm pressed to Sloane’s neck, his knee ready to do some damage, and a fist over Sloane’s face, Sloane tapped out.
Dex grinned down at him and kissed him before rolling off. Sloane laughed softly as he lay on the mat, his chest rising and falling in rapid breaths. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his wrapped hand. He turned his head to look at Dex.
“Thanks.” Dex got to his feet and held his hands out to Sloane, then helped him up. He turned to Seb and Hudson, who were gaping at him. “Obviously that would have ended a lot sooner had I gouged out his eyes, but I kind of like his eyes,” Dex said, batting his lashes at Sloane. “They’re pretty.”
Sloane chuckled. He shook his head and wiped more sweat from his brow.
Rolling his shoulders, Dex turned back to Seb and Hudson, his expression stern. “Now, let’s try that again.”
“HOLY….” PANT. “Crap.” More panting.
Sloane dropped onto the mat. He was dripping with sweat, and every muscle in his body ached. He wiped his face with the clean towel, then chuckled at Seb, who dropped next to him and lay sprawled on his back.
“I think… my heart… is going to… explode,” Seb said, breathless.
“I warned you, didn’t I? But you didn’t listen. Your exact words were ‘how strong can he really be?’”
Seb turned his head to pout at Sloane, his brows drawn together. “I was wrong, Sloane. So very wrong. I will never doubt your words again.” He sat up with a groan and grabbed one of the rolled-up towels beside him to wipe the sweat off his face. “I can’t believe Dex took me down.”
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
Seb narrowed his eyes at Sloane. “I’m a tiger Therian. Your not-even-two-hundred-pound boyfriend is not supposed to be able to take me down.”
“Except he’s been training his ass off, is no longer Human, and I’m pretty sure he’s still getting stronger.” Every time Sloane sparred with Dex, he noticed an increase in Dex’s strength. It was in minimal increments, but enough for Sloane to see the difference. “It seems to come in little bursts when he gets worked up or pissed off, but when that happens, he’s stronger than I am. If this keeps going, he may even end up stronger than you, or who knows, maybe even Zach. Not even TIN knows what’s going on inside him. The tests are starting to come back inconclusive again.”
“How is that possible?”
Sloane shrugged. “No one knows. TIN’s brought in their top specialists, and every time they run a test for something, whatever they’re looking for, it’s gone, but they know it’s there because they can see it. They did a blood test, and it came back Human, but when they did a different test that wasn’t specifically looking at his blood, it pinged Therian. It’s like his DNA and everything that makes him a hybrid is trying to protect itself by avoiding detection.”
Seb seemed to think about it. “So if someone ran a test to see if he was Therian, they’d get something else?”
Sloane nodded. “Not sure if that’s a good thing or not. My worry is when he’ll need to get treatment. Unless whoever’s treating him knows what he is….”
“Fuck. It’ll be a mess.”
Which scared the living shit out of Sloane. They had Hudson and TIN to provide the best medical attention possible, but what if either wasn’t an option? How the hell did a regular hospital treat a half Human, half Therian? Especially if every test they ran came back screwed-up? Hopefully they’d be able to get to the bottom of it soon. Sloane didn’t like the idea of them not being able to get Dex medical treatment when he needed it.
Seb stared at him. “Shit, Sloane. What the hell is in that DNA of yours?”
“I don’t know, but as long as it doesn’t hurt him, I’m okay with it. Knowing he can hold his own against whatever he faces out there is good enough for me. Hopefully the rest will get sorted out.”
A slew of British curses met Sloane’s ear, and he cringed.
“Your man does not like to lose.”
Seb’s eyes went slightly wide. “Are you kidding me? Everyone’s always surprised when he kicks their ass at pool, or football, or soccer, thinking that he’s this awkward science nerd, but he is ruthless when it comes to competition, and yeah, he hates losing.” Seb drew his knees up and let his elbows rest on them. “He doesn’t get pissed at his opponent, though. He gets pissed at himself. As if his losing reflects how inadequate he is. A complex gifted to him by his asshole father.”
Sloane turned his attention to Hudson, whose brows were drawn together in concentration as he circled Dex. Both had their shirts plastered to their skin with sweat, and Hudson had smartly worn contacts, even though he hated them. Sloane lost count of how many times Dex had dropped Hudson to the mat. Hudson charged, and Dex spun on his heels, ended up behind Hudson, threw his arms around his waist, picked him up, and slammed him down.
“He’s being a little hard on Hudson, don’t you think?” Seb asked, concern etched on his face.
Dex wasn’t holding back, but he had his reasons. “Hudson means a lot to Dex, and he wants to make sure Hudson’s prepared for whatever we face. If that means he pisses Hudson off, then he’ll do it. Dex might be a joker in a lot of respects, but when it comes to the safety of those he cares about, he’s hard-core.”
“I can see that.”
Even though Sloane felt for Hudson, especially every time he hit the mat, he couldn’t help but admire Dex. His perfect posture, his expertly calculated moves, the way his muscles flexed beneath his clothes. The loose black workout pants accentuated Dex’s perfectly rounded ass, and the sweaty shirt stuck to his skin outlined the delicious curve of his spine and the muscles of his finely sculpted torso. He’d wiped the floor with Sloane, and Sloane couldn’t be prouder.
Seeming to have had enough of being floored, when he next hit the mat, Hudson wrapped his legs tight around Dex, and the two crashed down together, thrashing about as each one tried to get the upper hand. They rolled around, grunting, Hudson’s legs wrapped around Dex’s waist, Dex’s head in a choke hold. Somehow, they ended up with their shirts halfway up their bodies, and Seb cleared his throat.
“I know this is probably inappropriate, but is it me, or is this kinda… porny?”
Sloane tilted his head for a better angle as Hudson arched his back to try to budge Dex, but Dex had managed to get out of the choke hold and had Hudson’s wrists pinned above his head.
“Uh, yeah, definitely porny.” Sloane stood at the same time as Seb. “Maybe we should take a break,” Sloane called out. Dex looked his way, and Hudson twisted his body, flipping the tables on Dex and rolling them over so he was sitting on Dex’s stomach.
“Ha!” Hudson threw his arms up in victory when Seb took hold of his wrist and pulled him up. Hudson smiled at his husband. “Hello, darling.” He put a hand to Seb’s cheek. “Your face is so red. Didn’t you get any rest?”
Seb cleared his throat again. “Um, yeah, just, you know, why don’t we hit the showers, and meet up for something to eat later?”
Before Dex could reply, Sloane spoke up. “Great idea.” He helped Dex to his feet, pretending he hadn’t noticed Dex narrowing his eyes at him. They agreed to meet up later, and Sloane took hold of Dex’s hand and quickly led him out of the training bay.
“Um, Sloane? What’s going on?”
Sloane shook his head. “Nothing. Just going to hit the showers.”
“The locker room is the other way.”
Sloane had no intention of showering anywhere near anyone else.
Sloane led Dex back to his new private training bay, and more importantly, his office with the fully stocked, brand-new shower. As soon as they got into his office, he put the room in privacy mode, turned, and pounced.