And now that she knew what his back looked like under his robe, she found him more than beautiful; she found him breathtaking. Running parallel to both sides of his spine was scar tissue about twelve inches long and four inches thick. At one point in his life, he’d had wings. Something or someone—a demon?—had cut them out. Now, crimson ink branched from both scars, forming glorious wings. The design was so amazingly detailed, each individual feather accounted for. And the muscles underneath those tattoos...sweet mercy.

How could a man who looked as fierce as he did be so kind? Or were the man and the Sent One intertwined? Could there not be one without the other?

And what about the smoldering fire in his eyes? Did it spring from a place of danger? Or desire?

He finished stocking her cabinets and leaned against the half wall between her kitchen and living room. He folded his arms over his chest and nodded. “So you do know how to relax.”

Har-har. “If you want to pamper me, I’m going to let you pamper me.”

“Actually, I want to question you. Why do you work so hard?”

What he was really asking: Why do you work so hard, yet live in such squalor? “Medical bills” was all she said.

He opened his mouth, closed it, then pushed out a heavy breath. “I want to pay your bills,” he said hesitantly, probably expecting her to fly off the couch and attack him for daring to suggest such a thing.

As if such a kind proposition would offend her. “I wasn’t hinting or anything like that,” she said with a smile. “And wait a second. You have money?”

“A lot of money. Sent Ones are rewarded for our work. And I would like nothing more than to do this.”

“I’d planned to pay your bills one way or another. This way, I can take the past-due notices stacked in the basket you’ve labeled Doom with your knowledge rather than stealing them and perhaps earning myself a punishment.”

To have such a huge financial weight lifted from her shoulders...to no longer live in fear of losing her house, having her utilities turned off, to be able to afford real Hostess Twinkies rather than a dry knockoff...

“Oh, Koldo.” She leaped from the couch and threw herself against him. At first, he was stiff. After a few seconds, however, he softened and wrapped his arms around her. “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I accept. You’re welcome, by the way,” she teased in an effort to mask her trembling chin. “I mean, I’m such a giver, unwilling to allow you to be punished.”

He snorted, and it was such a gorgeous sound. “This pleases you, then? Makes you happy.”

“It does.” Her heart thundered in her chest in a boom, boom, boom rhythm. “I know I should feel guilty, too, like I’m using you for your money or something, but I just can’t summon the emotion.”

He stiffened all over again, saying, “If you feel a shred of guilt, I will rescind my offer.”

“You heard the part about being unable to summon the emotion, right? And you’re loaded, aren’t you? That’s what ‘a lot’ means, right?”

“Yes, I’m loaded,” he said, the stiffness leaving him.

Of course he was. A dreamy sigh left her. “You have to be the sexiest male I’ve ever met.” Beauty, brains and megabucks.

Her words echoed in her mind, and she almost groaned. No. No, no, no. She hadn’t just said that aloud. She couldn’t have said that aloud. “I mean, you have to be the sweetest man I’ve ever met.”

He peered down at her, silent.

“You consider me sexy?” he finally asked.

She had. She really had said it aloud. Heat filled her cheeks. To hide, she buried her face in the hollow of his neck. “What would you do if I said yes?” He might have touched her today, might have held her close, but she hadn’t forgotten what he’d said. I don’t want you in that way.

“I would tell you...that you have had a very eventful evening, and that you will have to wait until tomorrow.” His voice was gruff. “I would show you my reaction then.”

And just what, exactly, would he show her?

Her heart fluttered as he set her away from him and strode to her kitchen table, where the Basket of Doom waited. He lifted it high—and it disappeared.

She blinked, saying, “Uh, what just happened?”

“I placed the items inside a pocket of air.”

She closed the distance between them and reached up, trying to feel the spot where the basket had last been seen, but she was too short. Even when she jumped. And jumped again.

His lips twitched at the corners. “Is there a problem?”

“Very well. Allow me.” Koldo wrapped his big hands around her waist.

The strength of his grip wrung a startled gasp from her, though he was nothing but gentle as he lifted her off her feet. She palpated the air. “There’s nothing solid,” she said, amazed.

“The pocket is a small doorway between the spirit realm and the natural.” Slowly he set her back down.

“One for your world, and one for mine.”

“That’s so cool.” She turned, intending to return to the couch.

He reached out and cupped the back of her neck, forcing her to stay. No, doing more than that. Tugging her deeper into the hard line of his body. Heat rolled through her, and she gave another gasp.

“Don’t be afraid. Am I strong enough to force myself on you? Yes. Will I? No.” His gaze pierced all the way to her soul. “I’ll never hurt you, Nicola.”

“I know,” she said, and shivered. He was so intense. She flattened her palms on his chest, on the softness of his robe, the hardness of his muscles.

“I told myself I wouldn’t do this while the memory of what happened today is so fresh. But then I got my hands on you.” He leaned down, coming closer and closer, his lips soon a whisper away from hers. “Now I have a desire to replace the bad with the good. It’s a desire I no longer want to resist.”

Can’t quite catch my breath. “I like...the way you think.”

“Then we should start over. Do you find me sexy?”

Just like that, his pupils expanded, black consuming gold. “Very well. My reaction.” He lowered his head and pressed his mouth against hers, the contact soft at first, noninvasive, and yet still her head spun. Then he lifted his head and peered into her eyes. Whatever he saw must have encouraged him because he once again lowered. This time, his tongue flicked out, tasting her, and he moaned. Eager for more, she opened for him.

He swooped in, angling his head, hesitantly rolling his tongue against hers. At the moment of contact, a cascade of heat melted her bones, and she sank into him, her body suddenly smashed against his.

The force of the kiss increased, quickened.

This was... This was...

“Good,” he rasped, and she wasn’t sure whether he was asking a question or commanding her to like it.

“Perfect.” But perfect hardly seemed adequate.

Magnificent. Heady. Exquisite. No, they weren’t good enough, either.

Her tongue met his, thrust for thrust, her fingers sliding through his beard, locking behind his neck, kneading of their own accord.

The horror of the day faded. Mr. Ritter ceased to exist. There was only this moment and Koldo. He’d been right. She’d needed something good to wipe away the bad.

“Am I hurting you?” he asked, and there was something in his tone. Something she’d never heard before. Vulnerability, perhaps.

He lifted his head. Lines of tension branched from his eyes and mouth, and a bead of sweat rolled down his temple. “My blood is heating, practically in flames already.”

“Very.” Was he...unsure of his performance? Was that the problem?

Back down he went, not just kissing her but consuming her. His big hands roved over her back, up and down, up and down, then rode the ridges of her spine. As strong as he was, he managed to keep the touches light.

“Nicola,” Laila called, her voice cutting through the tension.

Koldo jolted, then set her away from him, looked away from her and rolled his shoulders, as if he had wings he wanted to flare.

“I’ll be back,” he said tightly.

Wait. What? No! “Where are you going?”

He ignored her, saying, “I’m commanding you to take the day off tomorrow. To rest.”

“No. No buts. There will be no arguments. Remember?”

He was using their bargain against her, she realized. So, what else could she say, but, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll remain calm, be at peace and sow joy.” Her voice was trembling. “And thank you. For everything.”

He nodded, but the action was stiff. “Do us both a favor and guard your thoughts, your words.”

“Good.” He nodded again, glanced at her lips, stepped toward her—took another step and vanished.

What am I going to do with that man? “Coming, La La.”

She raced into the bedroom on unsteady legs, only to grind to a halt, everything else suddenly forgotten. The sight that greeted her brought a fresh round of tears to her eyes. Her beautiful sister was here, home, and totally lucid. She was sitting up, with blond hair tangled around her delicate shoulders. Her color was healthier than before and bright, her gray eyes sparkling.

Nicola had never thought to have this again.

“Who’s here? Because, whoever he is, I like his voice. Very rough, very intense,” Laila said, rubbing the sleep from her eyes before wiggling her brows. “Very hubba hubba.”