“You can’t be with another man,” he growled. “Not ever again. For any reason.”

Despite the too-fast rhythm of her heart, the rest of the panic faded, both old and new. “I don’t want to be with another man,” she admitted.

He nodded with conviction. “You belong with me. Only ever me.” Again, he sounded as though he was making a vow.

They had to be a couple.

“Do you understand the kind of girl you’re getting?” She flattened her hands on his chest, the heat of him seeping through his shirt and brushing against her skin. “I’m just me, and I come with a few challenges.”

He smiled, pleased. “I know that. What I don’t know is how to be in a relationship, but I’m going to learn. Along the way, I’m bound to make mistakes. You’ll simply tell me when I mess up, and I’ll fix it. Agreed?”

He said no more. He simply pressed his lips into hers.

It wasn’t the brutal kiss she expected from so determined a man, or the sweet and tender kiss they’d first shared. It was heat and electricity, need and want and obsession. Addiction and desire. A taking and a giving. An unwavering claim.

She moaned at the pleasure of it, and he lifted his head. He peered into her eyes, searching.

Back in he went, kissing...kissing so deeply, surrounding her with the fever-heat of his skin. She could hardly believe this was happening. It was surreal. It was wondrous. He belonged to her—and there was no one here to stop him prematurely. They were alone.

He cupped her cheeks, his palms searing brands as he angled her however he desired. His pupils were blown, his lips red, swollen and moist. “You’ll tell me if that changes?”

“Yes. But don’t be surprised if I’m embarrassed by it.”

“I told you. I never want you embarrassed with me. What happens happens, and we’ll deal with it. We’re in this together.”

He’d taken the words from her mind—words of hope, now confirmed. I’m more than melting. I’m falling for him. Hard.

Back in he went, taking, giving. Her hands slid along his spine, her nails scraping over the fabric of his shirt.

“Under the clothing,” he rasped. “I want your skin on mine.”

A low growl rumbled from him as she obeyed, reaching under the hem of his shirt. Her fingertips stroked over his hard-won strength, and she marveled all over again. He was velvet over iron, perfection over perfection, and he smelled so good, all that sunshine reminding her of summer. Summer reminded her of blooming flowers and blooming flowers reminded her of colors, so many colors, and life, such vibrant life.

Life. Yes. That’s what Koldo was. Around him, she was stronger, happier...freer. Like the flowers, she bloomed. He’d become the peace she’d never had.

“More,” he said, and released her long enough to rip the garment over his head.

She reached for him. He grabbed her by the waist and lifted her off her feet. She wound her legs around his waist, and white lightning zinged through her veins.

“Did I tell you that you’re mine?” he demanded.

A thrill stole through her. “You did. And you’re mine.” He was a gift, created with her every secret desire in mind, and she wanted so badly to be perfect for him. To be everything he needed. She had to remain aware, couldn’t allow the infirmity to win. Not this time, and embarrassment had nothing to do with it. Only Koldo mattered.

His hands glided up, up, and kneaded her softly, then more tightly, wringing another moan out of her.

Their breath mingled, short panting rasps. He kissed the corner of her mouth, along the side of her jaw, sometimes nibbling. Lower still, he licked at her neck, at her hammering pulse, her collarbone. Always he treated her as if he couldn’t get enough of her, as if he wanted to taste every inch of her at once.

“But it’s not enough,” he said, coming back up to kiss her mouth.

She wrenched away with a moan. “I thought you just said—”

He pulled the top of her dress down, revealing more and more skin to explore. The protest died as he pressed her against the wall. He hadn’t been insulting her. He’d been demanding more of her.

More she would happily give.

He slid his magnificent hands down...down, until finally reaching the bottom of her dress. He raised the hem higher and higher, until the material pooled around her waist. Cool air brushed against her, and sensation after carnal sensation shot through her.

He dragged his fingertips back down her thigh, eliciting one shiver after another. Then...he dragged those fingertips back up, leaving a trail of fire in his wake, and oh, this was...this was...so good, too good, too much after the stress of the evening, and...the fog formed in her head, just like before.

“Koldo,” she tried to say, but his name was nothing more than a breath. He kissed her again, stealing what little she had left, and all the while those decadent fingers continued to give her the softest of caresses, taking her body to heights it wasn’t ready to reach.

Suddenly, something patted at her cheek. Something cold swiped over her brow.

Frowning, Nicola tugged herself from the darkness and blinked open her eyes. Koldo loomed over her, and she—she was lying on the bed, her head resting on a plush, soft pillow. Her dress was in place, smoothed down her legs.

Oh, no. “It happened again, didn’t it?”

“Yes. You passed out.” His self-castigation was palpable. “I carried you to bed.”

Even though she’d come to the realization that he would want her anyway, despite something like this, embarrassment still heated her cheeks, just as she’d suspected. “I’m so sorry, Koldo.”

“Don’t be. I pushed you for too much, too fast.” His shirt once again covered his magnificent chest, and that was, perhaps, the greatest tragedy right now. “Next time, I’ll go slower.”

“Next time,” she said, and wanted to purr with satisfaction.

He frowned. “You don’t want a next time?”

More than anything. “What makes you think that I don’t? Unless you don’t want me to want a next time,” she added in a rush. “Are you trying to hint that you want to go back to being just friends?”

He flattened his hand against her jawline, his thumb caressing her cheek. “Did you hit your head? Of course I don’t want to just be your friend. And you should know me well enough to know I’ve never hinted at anything.”

So true. She smiled at him. “Could you be any sweeter?”

His lips twitched at the corners. “First, I don’t care if you pass out every time we do this. You are worth any effort. Second, I make you happy. Therefore, I’m aiding your healing.”

Not just happy, she thought. Delirious.

“Do you wish to remain just friends?” he asked, and this time his tone was so sharp it could have cut her. His expression, however, was tortured. “I’m not a man willing to buy your affections, but perhaps I could do other things. Is there something you want that I haven’t given you?”

Her heart lurched. “No,” she admitted. “I don’t want to be just friends. And you’ve given me everything.” He was the man she’d thought about all evening. The man she’d wanted to be with. The man she’d craved.

He relaxed, nodded and moved his touch to her neck, where her pulse hammered wildly. “I like the kisses we share.”

“I like the taste of you, the feel of you.”

“I want the toxin out of you.” His tone was layered with determination. “Forever.”

Her, too. More than ever. And they had to change the subject before she pushed for too much too fast. “Say something to distract me. Please.”

He peered at her for a long while before nodding, decided. Rolling to his side, he said, “The first time I saw you wasn’t in the elevator.”

“No. The day before I was sent to the hospital to help a human male, and I stumbled into your sister’s room. The Most High showed me that she was in the condition she was in because she’d entertained a demon of fear for so long, the demon was able to worm its way inside her body. He showed me because He wanted me to help her. Her, yes, but also you I think. You were in danger of succumbing the same way.”

Nicola rested against him, finding comfort, companionship and acceptance, all wrapped into one tantalizing position, despite the topic. Or maybe because of it. Knowledge was power. “I was entertaining a demon? I mean, I know I had the toxin, but I just thought... I don’t know what I thought.”

“There were two of them hanging around you.”

A gasp lodged in her throat. “But I never knew. Never saw them.”

“If I have my way, you never will.” He draped his arm over her neck in a gentle choke hold—gentle, but a choke hold nonetheless. He was as new to this kind of thing as she was, and she was suddenly fighting a smile.

“Tell me something about you,” she said. “Something you’ve never told anyone else.”

A long pause. He gulped. “When I was a child, I lived in constant fear. My mother hated me, and my father...abused me.”

“Oh, Koldo. I’m so sorry.” Had his father caused the scars?

“I never knew what horrors I would have to face next, only that I would, in fact, have to face them.”

No wonder he was so fierce, so standoffish—so vulnerable and unsure. He had built a shell around himself, desperate to protect a fragile heart that had been trampled by the people who should have loved him most. People who instead had rejected him with their abuse.