“Will you help me or not?” he demanded.
Cornelia lifted her chin, haughty despite her circumstances. “I will not.”
“Oh, I’ll help a human. Any but yours,” she added.
Koldo tried to calm his raging nerves. A thousand times these past few weeks, he could have killed this woman. But he’d never even bruised her.
As a child, he’d only ever wanted her love. Offered freely. And when it was clear he wouldn’t be getting that, offered through bribes. Yet time and time again she had rejected and denied him.
In that moment, peering into her defiant, hate-filled face, his restraint vanished. His control finally snapped. He’d had enough.
For once, she would know the pain he’d experienced at her hands. For once, she would understand the depths of betrayal. For once, she would fear the things Koldo could do to her.
“Let’s see if I can change your mind, shall we?” He withdrew a razor from the air pocket at his side and flashed into the center of the cage—the only way in or out. “I look like my father, even though I despise him. I think it’s only fair that you look like him, too, since you’re clearly still in love with him.”
Her eyes widened, and she backed away from him, as far as she could possibly get. “You wouldn’t dare,” she cried. “My hair has only just begun to grow back.”
Her words merely proved how little she knew about him. “Just like you wouldn’t dare to take my wings?”
She leaned toward the left, then darted to the right, trying to avoid him as he closed in. “You disobeyed me. You had to be disciplined.”
“Not that way.” Koldo flashed to just in front of her and latched on to her upper arms. It was their first contact since he’d carried her out of the depths of hell and brought her here. She was thinner, practically skin and bones, reminding him of Laila. Laila, the very image of Nicola. But that didn’t soften him, either, and wouldn’t stop him. In fact, it made him far angrier.
“Your only goal was to make me suffer,” he said, shaking her. “Why?”
He shouldn’t have asked. He regretted the question immediately, and knew it revealed the hurt he’d never been able to shed.
“I couldn’t allow you to turn out like him,” she said, and all the fight vanished from her. She peered up at him with more of that hatred. “I should have known it was a useless cause.”
I’m nothing like my father! “So you despised him.”
“Yes! All right? Yes. I could tell you he tricked me. I could tell you it was a moment of weakness. What do you want to hear?”
His grip tightened as he gave her another shake. “The truth.”
Utterly calm, she said, “You were a mistake. That’s the truth.”
With her words, she ripped a scab off his heart, and the wound bled into his soul. “You’re right,” he said, wishing he were emotionless. Instead, he was so torn up inside he wasn’t sure he would ever be able to put himself back together. “I was a mistake. And now I’ll show you why.”
He pushed her face-first into the ground, held her down with a knee in the center of her back and, while she screamed and tried to fight her way free, removed every strand of her hair, until he scraped her scalp clean.
The sound of a woman screaming, the sight of her struggling, caused so many terrible memories to rise. But even when he closed his eyes and shook head, the images wouldn’t leave him.
He’d never stopped being the man his father had made him, he realized. And he never would.
“SENT ONES, CO CO. Sent Ones,” Laila whispered as Nicola tucked her into bed.
“I know, sweetheart. But we don’t have to fear them, and Koldo assured me they won’t be able to hurt us.” And now, having witnessed what happened in the park, her confience in Team Good was untouchable.
“How did I not know they were out there? Why could I not see them?”
“I...I...I’m not sure I can deal with this.”
Nicola remembered when they were little girls and Laila had tucked her into bed after she’d seen her first monster. How gentle and patient and kind her twin had been. “You’ve always been the strong one. You’ll find a way.”
A soft, humorless laugh left a sense of sadness behind. “You always thought that. You always thought I was strong. But, Co Co, it was you. Always you.” Laila stuffed her ears with the buds from the iPod Nicola had given her for their last birthday. She’d scrimped and saved for months to afford such a little piece of technology.
Sighing, Nicola kissed her sister on the cheek and left her to her rest. Not knowing what else to do, she explored Koldo’s home. Awe continually struck her, and she felt as though she had entered a fairy tale rather than a third-world country. The house itself was built of pine, and smelled rich and clean, but the furniture was what really stunned her.
There were velvet couches and chairs, ornately carved tables. Glass figurines, and bowls filled with diamonds, sapphires, rubies and emeralds as big as her fist. There were tapestries on the wall, and plush carpets on the floor. And that was just the living room!
The kitchen boasted gold-veined marble countertops, copper pots and pans hanging from a sterling silver rack, and a large refrigerator that blended with the cabinet woodwork. Nothing was out of place. Not a speck of dust had settled onto the surface of the hand-carved table.
There were four bedrooms. Laila had claimed the one closest to the kitchen, and Nicola picked the one at the far end of the hall. There was a huge monster-size bed in the center, the rails draped by sheer pink lace. Pink? Lace? In a warrior’s home?
Nicola bit the side of her cheek, fighting a tide of jealousy. The comforter was a lighter shade of pink, but no less brilliant. And this must have been where Koldo had wanted her to stay because the blankets her mother had sewn a few weeks before the car crash were folded and resting at the edge.
A bejeweled ceiling fan whirled slowly overhead. A mural of the heavens had been painted on all four walls, with a bright sun in the right corner, shining upon clouds of every size and shape.
At the left was a large bay window overlooking a thriving grove of orange trees. And behind the lush green leaves and plump pieces of fruit, she could see several mountains and even a volcano blowing thick smoke through the air. There were three breathtaking ponds, with fish that jumped up and cleared the surface.
Nicola stood there, amazed by the beauty, watching as the sun set on the horizon, reds and pinks forming, creating the perfect contrast to the lush greens and blues of the sloping land. Birds sang.
How long would Koldo want her to stay here? She’d thought...hoped...well, it didn’t matter anymore. Koldo hadn’t wanted her to go on the date—a wonderful sign—but she’d gotten so angry she’d insisted. How silly. Especially considering the fact that she’d only accepted the date because he’d disappeared those three days.
Now he was back...but she was stuck.
What was she going to do?
A rustling of clothing behind her had her spinning. Koldo stood a few feet away from the bed, with his head down and his hands clenched. Strands of hair stuck to his face and chest, both dark and light. Dirt streaked his skin. He had bite marks on his hands. His breathing was deep and even, but he was using too much force, as if the hold he had on his calm facade was tenuous.
“What’s wrong?” All thoughts of the dating disaster left her, and she raced over to him. “Were you attacked again?”
Silent, he just sort of fell back into the plush chair behind him.
Worry filled her as she crouched in front of him and rested her palms on his rock-hard thighs. Heat radiated from him, enveloping her, and she shivered for a reason that had nothing to do with temperature.
She’d never seen him like this. So torn up. So tortured.
“Koldo.” What else could she say?
He leaned back, his head thumping against the wooden arch. “I...did something. Something terrible. It was deserved. I should be thrilled with the results, but...but...”
What could he possibly have done to cause this kind of reaction? “Tell me.”
He scrubbed a hand down his face. “And watch hate fall over your features, too?” Like Laila, he laughed without humor. “No.”
The strands of hair floated from him and into the air, twirling to the ground. He likes jokes. Tease him. “You gave someone a mullet, didn’t you?” she asked with a small smile.
He closed his eyes, pushed out a breath and lifted his arms up and back with fierce force, punching a hole in the wall. The sharp boom jolted her.
Such a reaction... Had he actually given someone a mullet? “Koldo—”
“I’m sorry,” he croaked, focusing on her. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
Okay, so maybe not a mullet, but his doom and gloom definitely had something to do with the hair.
“Make me forget,” he pleaded. “Just for a little while. Tell me a story.”
She would do anything to bring him peace. But what could she tell a centuries-old warrior to entertain him? Oh, I know! “One time, a girl in my class called me and Laila freakazoid Frankensteins because of the tubes coming out of our clothing—and I know, I know, it’s a very original name, but I digress. It made Laila cry. Notice that I said Laila. Not me, just so we’re clear. I did not spend twenty minutes in the bathroom, leaning against a very unsanitary toilet, sobbing so hard snot was bubbling from my nose.”
The slightest measure of pain faded from his expression, and he ghosted his hand over the line of her jaw. “What happened next?”