She shivered as she said, “You have to guess what very polite, very mannerly thing I did to pay the little wench back.”

“You, hard-core punk that you are, called her a very naughty name.”

“Nope. I punched her in the face and broke her nose. No one calls my twin sister a freakazoid Frankenstein and gets away with it. Let that be a lesson to you. You might want to write that down and circle it.”

He barked out a laugh. A very rough, very hoarse laugh, leading her to believe he hadn’t laughed in years. If ever. And she had been the one to bring him to that point, pushing him past his upset, drawing him out of miry darkness and into light. And oh, he was beautiful like this.

So badly she wanted to rise up, crawl into his lap and kiss him. Just press her lips into his, taste him, relearn him and offer comfort in another way. But after their fight...

“I’ll give you a question instead.” And probably sound needy, but she didn’t care. “Do Sent Ones date?” Obviously they kissed, but...

His brow furrowed, as if the change of subject confused him. “Some do.”

Oh. The very disappointment she’d denied crashed through her. “Never?”

“Never.” He looked at her, really looked at her, his golden gaze boring deep. His arms lowered to his sides. His hands gripped the fabric of the chair, as if he had to force himself to be still.

To keep from punching another hole in the wall—or from doing something else?

“If I told you I had tortured another Sent One,” he said, “would you think I was a monster?”

Yeah. He had. And he’d felt the action, whatever it was, had been deserved. Wasn’t that what he’d said a moment ago? But still he regretted it, whether he realized it or not.

“What I’ve learned over the years is that people shouldn’t be defined by a single mistake. Everyone messes up,” she said. “You have to forgive yourself and move on.”

He ran his tongue over his teeth. “What makes you think this was my first mistake?”

“You can. It’s not a feeling, but a choice—and then acting on that choice. And I know I’m supposed to be the one seeking joy, but it’s clear you need it, too. I think your unwillingness to let go of this, whatever this is, is as much a toxin as what the demons cause.”

Well, wisdom hadn’t worked. She would try humor again. “I mean, seriously. All the best therapists on TV say that focusing on the past causes stagnation. And diarrhea.”

He barked out another laugh, then quickly sobered. “Did you ever do anything to hurt—” He pressed his lips together.

He cleared his throat. “Where’s your sister?”

Nice dodge. But as upset as he was, she allowed it. “Sleeping in her room.” Nicola stood, held out her hand. “I know what’ll make you feel better. We’ll go to the kitchen and I’ll fix the most mediocre meal you’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting, since my specialties are cereal and microwave dinners. Meanwhile, you can give me another lecture.”

“I don’t lecture. I teach.” He placed his hand in hers, his calloused palm causing goose bumps to rise. He paused for a moment, never allowing her to help him up. Then, he shook his head as if he’d just made a decision and tugged her down.

Yelping, she tumbled into his lap and her ponytail slapped him in the face. She put her hands on his big, strong shoulders for balance—and lost her breath as he meshed his lips into hers.

Oh, sweet mercy. Just like last time, her bones instantly melted. It didn’t matter that he was too rough at first, then too soft; he branded her, claimed her, delighted her. And his taste, oh, his taste. It was decadence, pure and simple, like the summer and the winter, the spring and the fall, every season, every day, carrying her straight into eternity.

She wrapped her arms around him, holding him close. He groaned, and then...then, he figured out exactly how he wanted to kiss her, and the pressure evened out. He tilted his head, deepening the contact. Taking, giving. Demanding, beseeching. Owning.

It became more than a kiss, and on some level, it scared her. He was giving her something precious. And she was giving him something precious right back. But she didn’t know what that thing was—her trust? A piece of her heart?—and wasn’t sure she wanted to know.

What would happen if she fell for him? If she gave him everything?

Would he welcome her softer feelings? Or run from them?

Whatever the answers, they scared her, too. All she knew was that every point of contact reminded her that she’d never experienced anything like this—and probably never would again. How could she? He was the light in the darkness. The harbor in the storm. The hope she needed in the middle of the war.

There was no other man like him. He was one of a kind. And she wanted him to find as much pleasure with her as she was finding with him. She wanted to be what he needed.

To delight him, and not disappoint him.

His hands roamed the contours of her back...then lower. He caressed and he kneaded and...and...she was consumed, shaking, needy. Gasping, desperate. And he was...shaking, too, she realized, as affected as she was, his fingers rough, a little desperate, and the knowledge shattered her.

“Koldo.” Frantic, she tunneled her fingers under the collar of his robe. The fabric ripped away with a simple touch, granting her skin-to-skin contact, the sizzle of his flesh heating her up. And when his muscles jumped underneath her touch, as if seeking closer contact, the heat got worse—and a thousand times better. He was so soft, so hard, so...exactly what she’d always craved without ever knowing she craved it.

“More,” she demanded, the word escaping of its own volition. She continued to rip at his robe, finally baring the full breadth of his chest.

Bronzed and toned, stacked with muscle and sinew, chiseled by the hand of a master artist. His chest... That stomach rippled with iron bars... That perfectly dipped navel. A scar here, a scar there, but still, nothing about him was flawed. He’d been honed on a battlefield, every mark a badge of strength.

She kissed his neck, and his head fell against the back of the couch, allowing her better access to him. She kissed his shoulder, his collarbone, reckless in her bid to show him just how deeply she accepted him, whatever he’d done, whatever the future held. His grip tightened on her hips, and she lifted to once again fit their lips together. He moaned into her mouth, and took over, dominating her in the most amazing way. And she was...she was...

Struggling to breathe, she realized, trying to suck in a single gasp of oxygen but failing. Her mind fogged.

“I’m...okay...will be...” No, no, no. Not this. Not now. She would ruin the moment—maybe even his feelings for her.

He tugged his robe together, the material somehow repairing itself. He cupped her face in his big hands. “Inhale slow and easy, all right? Now exhale just as slow, just as easy.” His thumbs traced her cheeks, his skin so hot she could have been pressed against the sun. “That’s the way. In. Out. Yes. Good girl.”

A minute passed. Then two, three, before she finally regained her composure. And then she kind of wished she hadn’t.

She had ruined the moment, she realized. Worse, she’d revealed the depths of her weakness and proven just how worthless she was in the relationship department.

A strong man like Koldo had to despise people like her.

“I’m tired,” she muttered. “I should go to bed.”

His gaze locked with hers, unwavering. “You’re upset. Why?”

“I can’t. Are you angry about something I did?”

“No.” She couldn’t let him think that.

“Just let this go. Please.”

“Look, I—” Wanted to leave the room and his penetrating stare. Wanted to leave and hide and forget this had ever happened.

But she wouldn’t be able to forget, would she? This was burned into her mind—and every cell in her body.

“Knock, knock, is home anyone?” Laila asked, stumbling past the door and into the room, the scent of alcohol accompanying her. She giggled when she spotted them, wavered on her feet. “Uh-oh. Did I something interrupt? Wait. That came out wrong. I something interrupted.” A nod. Another giggle. “Much better.”

Nicola climbed off Koldo and stood, nearly toppling over herself. Stupid legs. “I thought you were asleep,” she said, happy for the reprieve. Only, she jolted backward.

Koldo pushed to his feet, the beads in his beard clanging together.

The monkeys squeaked out a protest and darted from the room.

“I’ll pretend I know what’s going on,” Laila said with a stern tone ruined by a goofy expression.

Why hadn’t she seen the demons? Her eyes had been opened—she should be able to see them now. Right?

“I was in the kitchen and found this.” Grinning, Laila raised a bottle of vodka.

“In the hands of one of your friends. And a good thing he brought it, because I almost died of a heart attack when I spotted him and needed a little something to calm me down.”