Page 20 of To Defy a Sheikh

“I see. You’d do it while I slept then.”

“Honor,” she repeated.

“Clearly. Shall we go to the center of the mats?”

He gestured to the blue-floored open room and turned away from her again, walking to the center of the mats.

She followed and took her position across from him, her hands up, ready to strike or block. “Are you ready?” she asked.

“When you are.”

“Are you giving me the handicap because I’m a woman?”

“No, I’m giving you the handicap because you’re tiny and I must outweigh you by a hundred pounds.”

“I’ll make you regret it,” she said.

She faked a punch and he blocked high. She used the opportunity to score a point with a side kick to his midsection and a follow-up palm strike to his chin. She wasn’t hitting with full force, because she honored the fact that this was for points, not for blood.

He blocked her next hit, gripping her arm and holding it out, miming a blow that would have broken her bones at the elbow if he’d followed through.

One for him, two for her. Her mental score sheet had her in the lead, and she was happy with that, but unhappy that, in reality, that would have been a disabling hit. Points aside, had it been a real battle, she would have crumpled to the ground screaming.

They hit gridlock, throwing hits, blocking them, then one of them would slip a blow through.

He was using a mixed fighting style, while she was true to her discipline. Her training was more refined, but his was deadly.

She was faster.

Only a few minutes in, she had him breathing hard, sweat running down the center of his chest, between hard pectoral muscles. She watched a droplet roll over his abs, and she was rewarded with a swipe of the back of his hand across her face.

She let out a feral growl and turned, treating him to a spinning back kick that connected with the side of his cheek. It wasn’t as pulled as she’d meant it to be, and his head jerked to the side, a red mark the lingering evidence of the contact.

He growled in return, gripping her forearm and flipping her over his back. She hit the soft mat and rolled backward, coming to her feet behind him and treating him to a sweep kick under his feet so that he kissed the mat just as she’d done.

He got to his feet more slowly than she had, and she was facing him when he came up, her breathing coming sharp and fast now. She hadn’t fought anyone this hard in a long time. Maybe ever. Sparring in the studio had never been quite this intense. There had never been so much on the line.

She wasn’t sure exactly what was happening here. Only that it seemed essential she show him who she was. That she was strong. That she wasn’t someone he could simply manipulate and domesticate. That no matter that she was, for now, going with his plan, he should never take for granted that she was tame.

It was a warning to him. A reminder to herself. She might have put on some beautiful dresses this week; she might have been impressed with the changes he’d made in the city. She might enjoy the soft bed she had now.

But she could not forget. She was not a princess anymore. Life had hardened her into more. She was a warrior first. And she could never forget that.

She prepared to strike again, and he reached out, his hands lightning fast, his fists curled around her forearms, pushing her arms above her head.

She roared and pulled her hands down, twisting them as she did, but he was expecting it. She’d done this to him once before, and she wasn’t able to break through his hold. She pulled her kiai from deep inside her, her voice filling the gym. The sound startled him enough that she was able to pull one hand free, and she used it to land another palm strike against his cheek.

He twisted her captured arm behind her back and propelled her forward so that she hit the thankfully padded wall.

She was pinned.

She twisted, scraped her foot along his instep—somewhat ineffectively since she was barefoot. But she was able to use his surprise again to free herself and reverse the positions. His back was to the wall, his arms in her hold. But that wasn’t what kept him still, and she well knew it.

It was her knee. Poised between his thighs, ready to be lifted and to connect hard with a very delicate part of his anatomy.

“I would keep still if I were you,” she said.

“We’re sparring,” he said, his chest rising and falling hard with each breath. “You’re not supposed to do full contact hits.”

“But I could,” she said, smiling.

He leaned forward, angling his head and she stopped breathing for a moment. He was making eye contact with her, and it made something in her feel tight and strange. She looked down, her vision following a drop of sweat again, this time as it rolled from his neck, down his chest.

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