With every second that passed, one fact had become stunningly clear. Koldo should have gathered Nicola in his arms and staked a real claim. Another kiss. Only longer. Deeper.

She belongs to me.

And it was time he proved it.

A moment passed. He nodded. Yes, it was indeed time he proved it. Poor Nicola.

He was half-Nefas. He was dangerous. He was disgusting. He was evil. Already his past had risen up to threaten her. He had no wings. He’d never been with a woman, wasn’t sure how to please her in that way and wasn’t sure how he would feel afterward.

She’d had so little joy in her too-short life. Everything she’d ever loved had been stolen from her. If Koldo kept her, romantically speaking, she would be no better off. His time would be divided between her, his mother, his father and ultimately his duties. And what would happen to Nicola if ever he fell from the skies?

Still, that hadn’t stopped him from spreading his essentia all over her little body today, marking her and warning all other males away.

Now there was a radiant, golden sheen to her skin.

Koldo could see it, and he knew Axel could see it. But not Dex. And yet, the human had felt the heat of it when he’d dared to reach out and touch what belonged to Koldo. An action that had nearly gotten him killed. Koldo had snarled and launched forward, determined to remove the human’s head from his body—and would have, if Axel hadn’t tackled him to the ground.

She deserved better than Dex. Better than Koldo. But...she wasn’t going to get it, and that was that. She was getting Koldo. All the other details could be worked out later.

Blood might stain his hands, but he would only ever treat her with tenderness. And she wasn’t like Cornelia and Nox; he’d already realized that. She would never treat him with hatred and cruelty.

She’d made him laugh while he was at his worst. He loved having her in his arms. He loved having her in his lap. He loved talking to her, teaching her, listening to her wit and her observations, simply breathing her in. He loved tasting her, and now wanted all of her.

Why try to find another woman, an imitation, when he had the real thing already? Nicola was the most beautiful creature he’d ever beheld, and he wanted...everything from her. He wanted to hold her. He wanted to see her with her hair flowing down her back. He wanted to hear more stories about her childhood. He wanted to avenge the wrongs done to her.

And he would have those things—and more.

One day you’ll want a woman, Nox had said in one of his “teaching” moments. You’ll do anything to have her.

At the time, he’d scoffed. Now? He realized the truth of those words.

But once you have her, you’ll be done with her. Your curiosity will be assuaged, the obsession will fade, and you can turn your eye to the next conquest.

Is that what happened with my mother? Koldo had asked. You wanted, you had, and you no longer desired.

Nox had belted out a deep, rumbling chuckle. Exactly. But oh, I did enjoy her in the meantime.

Maybe Koldo would lose interest in Nicola, too, but maybe he wouldn’t. His father’s word wasn’t exactly trustworthy, though Koldo had seen evidence to support his claim. Thane, Bjorn and Xerxes certainly seemed to think females were disposable.

But that didn’t matter. Koldo would fight the attraction no longer. He wouldn’t worry about what could go wrong, what Nicola might want or what might happen in the future. He’d told her not to fret about her illness or anything else, that it would only harm her, and now he was going to take his own advice.

He just had to figure out how to proceed.

“You look like you’re ready to have the redhead for dinner,” Axel said, as though reading his thoughts. “Just reveal yourself, flash her home and do your business. That way we can get back to tracking the Nefas.”

“And if she fights me in public?”

“There’s only a 49 percent chance she’ll actually win, so you should be safe.”

“Can you not be serious?”

“When it comes to math, I’m always serious. Just do something or leave,” Axel said, buffing his nails. “I’m bored. Bad things happen when I’m bored.”

“The Nefas trail went cold,” he reminded the warrior. “All we can do is ask around, and try to find their nest. And if that fails, all we can do is wait for their next attack. You have nothing better to do.”

He looked at Nicola, who was now picking at her food, watching her sister. Before Dex had raced away, she’d peered at the pasta with a hunger Koldo had wanted directed at him.

He looked at Laila, who had pushed her food away without taking a single bite and propped her elbows on the table. While Blaine shoveled in his pork chop and told her another story about his former lover, she dabbed at her watery eyes, sympathetic to his pain.

Dex came around the far corner, his jacket hanging over his arm. His plain white shirt bore a few splatters of red, and there was a damp spot on the left side of his pants. He was sullen as he reclaimed his seat.

“Well, maybe there’s something I can do to help.” Nibbling on her lower lip, Nicola grabbed her water glass, drew in a deep breath and poured half the contents into her lap.

Dex’s jaw dropped as she gasped and grinned—and Koldo hated that another male was seeing her so relaxed, so happy, and that she was striving so diligently to entertain, to please.

“Now we both look like we peed our pants,” she said.

A bark of laughter boomed from the male.

Laughter that should have been Koldo’s.

“Okay, I might have to fight you for her,” Axel said. “That was seriously cool.”

Koldo flashed to outside the restaurant, mentally commanded his robe to become a black shirt and black pants, and marched back inside, this time in the natural realm, where everyone could see him.

The hostesses spied him, and could only gape. Several groups were waiting for a table, and they gave him a wide berth. Gasps sounded. Murmurs arose. He didn’t bother speaking to any of the humans, and marched straight to Nicola’s table. Conversations ceased. He could imagine Axel laughing, but thankfully couldn’t see or hear him.

Dex spotted him, and his fork paused midair. His eyes widened. “You!”

Blaine caught sight of him and straightened in his seat with a snap.

“What—” Laila began, only to look up and groan. “Oh, no.”

Nicola glanced up, and performed a double take. “Koldo. What are you doing here?”

Koldo peered down at the table’s occupants. He should have thought this through a little more, he realized. He had no idea what to say. “Nicola,” he began.

“Yes?” She tossed her napkin on the table and stood. The bottom half of her dress was soaked, water droplets trickling down her bare legs.

He towered over her, and that should have dissuaded him. He could hurt her without ever realizing it, and could damage her badly enough to kill her. But their eyes met, and his blood heated, and he knew he couldn’t go another night without having her in his arms.

“Your sister has had her fun, yes?”

“Uh, not really,” Nicola said, looking at Laila’s tear-streaked face. “If anything, she’s sadder than ever. Sorry, Blaine, but it’s true.”

“That can be fixed.” To Axel, who he still couldn’t see, he commanded, “Take care of the sister. Make her happy.” He took Nicola’s hand and tugged her toward the exit.

“Koldo,” she gasped, though she offered no resistance. “Seriously. What’s going on? Has something happened?”

In the background, he thought he heard someone ask if she wanted the police notified.

He tossed her a glance over his shoulder. “You’re mine. And I’m keeping you.”

THE MOMENT THEY CLEARED the doors, the night air enveloping them, Koldo wrapped Nicola in his arms and peered down at her. The rest of the world faded from her awareness. He was all that she saw as her mind churned with possibilities and problems. He was keeping her? They were innocent words, yet his tone had been intense, as if he was making a life-altering vow in front of a judge.

Was he trying to say they were an official couple now?

“What’s going on?” she asked, really liking the thought. Except...

What if she wasn’t enough for him? What if her heart never recovered, and she could never satisfy him physically?

Threads of yesterday’s panic returned, weaving into new threads of fear, forming a noose around her neck and squeezing. Come on, girl. You hopped off this road already. Don’t jump back on.

“I know, but...” But? No buts!

A sizzling pause as he searched her face. “Breathe.”

In. Out. Innn. Ouuut. There. Getting better, evening out. Whatever happened to her, they would get through it together. She knew that. Could count on that—on him.

“Of you, then. But I can fix that.” He looked at her with the same intensity she heard in his voice, and with such heat. “Close your eyes.”

He did. He flashed her. She blinked, and found herself standing in her bedroom in Panama. He released her...only to back her against the nearest wall.

“Well, I have to apologize to Dex.”

“You can. Tomorrow. You can mail him a card.” He braced his hands at her temples, his heady scent wrapping around her as certainly as his arms had done. She breathed in deeply, her heartbeat careening out of control.