His mother. His mother had escaped, was here, was determined to kill him while he was too vulnerable to fight back.

Growling from the depths of his being, he lashed out, hitting the knife and the arm that held it. A feminine moan of pain filled his ears.

A moan he recognized. Not his mother’s.

He tried to sit up, the gentle hands suddenly replaced by strong calloused ones, applying more pressure to push him down.

“He didn’t mean to hurt me,” the woman said.

Had she been speaking to him? Or was someone else in the room?

Of course someone else was in the room. The hands that restrained him belonged to a male. He recalled his father’s threats against Nicola....

Koldo fought against the one keeping him in place. He managed to get his fingers wrapped around hard steel bands—arms? He tossed with all of his strength. There was a crash, a cloud of plaster in the air.

Another voice he recognized. Not his father. But it wasn’t Nicola, so he didn’t care. Koldo wanted to get to her, and would do anything to succeed. He punched and punched and punched, until finally the male stopped trying to subdue him and started fighting back. But Koldo quickly got hold of something soft—feathers—and ripped.

A soft weight landed on Koldo. He reached up to dislodge it, but caught Nicola’s sweet scent.

“Calm down,” she said, fingers brushing over his jawline. “You have to calm down now. All right?”

“You’re safe. I’m safe. We’re at your home in Panama.”

Trusting her, he relaxed against the mattress, wound his arms around her and held her close, breathing her in, savoring the scent of cinnamon and vanilla.

“I have a bald patch now,” one of the males said. Axel. “Do you know how bad that sucks?”

“I have a broken spine,” the other growled. Malcolm.

“Like you’ve really got it worse. You might never walk again, but at least you look pretty.”

“I think you’re about to get a dagger in your gut.”

Footsteps. Two sets, receding from the room. Malcolm must not have lost the ability to walk, after all.

Unable to deny her anything, he sank back into the darkness.

SHARDS OF LIGHT penetrated his consciousness. Koldo was glad, even though the light was accompanied by pain. He was used to pain. But the moment he worked his way to full consciousness, where Nicola’s voice soothed and delighted, he was tugged back into the waiting darkness.

How much time passed, he wasn’t sure.

The light tried again, lifting him up, higher and higher.

“Argh! How can that be?”

“—and all of these Sent Ones have been showing up to check on you. I’ve been cooking for them, and I’m getting better.” A soft chuckle caressed his ears. “There’s never a crumb left, and I...”

The volume was cranked down before she could finish, the darkness returning.

No! No, he wanted to hear her words...everything she had to say....

The next time the light made an appearance, he heard, “I’m learning the most interesting things about you. You used to have hair, but then, one day, fairly recently, in fact, you didn’t. You used to not talk very much at all. Magnus said the words had to be yanked out of you with pliers, but now you talk more than is wise. Their words, not mine. Elandra says you’re fond of shopping for bras and panties. I’m pretty sure she was joking.”

He gritted his teeth and, with an internal roar, tore the rope binding him to all that darkness.

Unlike the first time, there was no haze. He saw Nicola sitting beside him, her features smooth rather than bathed in worry as she looked down, her hair caught up and gleaming, her clothes neat and tidy. And she utterly took his breath away.

He smacked his lips together, tasting mint. She must have brushed his teeth for him. Though his arm was weak, shaky, he managed to reach up and pinch the ends of her hair. She gasped in surprise and met his gaze. He lost his breath all over again. Those eyes...a summer storm, heat rising, steaming up the flower gardens.

“You’re awake.” She leaned over him to flatten her palm against his brow. “And your fever is gone.”

The position pressed her body against his, delighting him. Then she settled back into place, ending the contact, annoying him.

“How long have I been out?” he asked, a rough quality to his voice. He took stock. He was naked, a sheet draped over his middle.

Once again, he’d lost three days to his father. He remembered...fighting the Nefas and the demons, winning when the Sent Ones arrived, but not being able to flash away. Had the ability returned? He wanted to try, but didn’t want to leave Nicola. More than that, he knew it would be better to wait until he was stronger. If he failed right now, just because he was weak and hadn’t fully fought off the poison, he would waste precious time and energy fretting.

“Oh, and before I forget, Axel told me to tell you he’s been taking care of your dirty little secret in the backyard.”

His mother, he realized, his tension increasing.

“I wanted to stay as close to your side as possible and haven’t yet investigated the yard—which I totally plan to do, I won’t lie about that. So you might as well fess up and tell me what your dirty little secret is,” she said.

He’d wanted her to know. Just...not right now. He’d tell her when he was stronger. “Nothing that concerns you,” he croaked.

“You don’t trust me?” A wealth of hurt in her tone.

“I trust you more than I’ve ever trusted another, but one has nothing to do with the other.” To distract her, he said, “What have you been doing all this time?”

A moment passed. She sighed and said, “I’ve been taking care of you, entertaining your friends. Staying calm, happy. And guess what? Deep down, I knew you would heal. Just like me! I’ve been getting stronger, too. Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Wonderful,” he parroted. If she was better...

She set his hand back at his side, reached toward the nightstand and lifted a cup of water. “You talked in your sleep, you know.”

A gleam of sadness in her eyes as she quietly said, “About a mother who ripped out your wings and a father who tossed you into a pit of snakes. You’d told me they were awful to you, but I hadn’t imagined how bad.” She placed the straw at his lips. “Drink.”

He obeyed. He didn’t know what else to do. His stomach twisted, nearly rejecting the cool, sweet liquid trickling down his throat. Perhaps now was the time to tell her about his mother, after all.

“Why don’t I tell you something about my past?” she suggested. “That way, we’ll be even.”

Perhaps not. He nodded, intrigued, hungry for more information about her. Any information.

“Well...several years ago, my mother, father and little brother were killed by a drunk driver.”

He’d known that, but hearing the pain in her smoke-and-dreams voice affected him deeply.

“Robby wasn’t supposed to be with them that day. He was supposed to stay with me and Laila.” Guilt joined the pain. “But she wanted to go out with friends, and I wanted to tag along to make sure she didn’t get sick, so we convinced our parents to take him on their dinner date.”

“You couldn’t have known.” But she blamed herself, he thought, and it was a heavy burden to carry. One he wished he could lift from her shoulders. But he couldn’t. Only she could. And if she didn’t, if she failed, the weight would eventually crush her.

“That’s just it. I did. Deep down, like with you, I had a feeling. I knew I should keep him with me. And I think Laila knew it, too. That’s why she’s like she is, so determined to live in the now and not look back. She doesn’t want to remember our part in Robby’s death.”

“I know. For years we tried to pretend he never existed. It was easier, I think. But it was also a disservice to him, and he deserves better. I know that now.”

That might be why Koldo had found no record of Robby in the heavenly archives. What you denied down here, you lost up there.

“You must forgive yourself. Isn’t that what you told me?” Koldo reached up, the actions easier now, his strength returning bit by bit, and cupped the back of her neck. He applied pressure, tugging her toward him, but for the first time in their relationship, she resisted.

“I know you didn’t marry that girl,” she said. “Axel told me. But you told tattoo guy you’d have her, and you never lie.”

Was she jealous? He kind of hoped so. He actually liked the idea. “You’re right about my words. I said I would have her. He assumed the one I was talking about was Sirena—but I was talking about you.”

Did he? No. No, he couldn’t. He was tainted, he reminded himself. “Having a woman isn’t the same as marrying one.”

“Oh,” she said, her shoulders drooping.

He pulled her the rest of the way against him. She settled atop his chest, her head finding the hollow of his neck, just the way she liked. “You’re disappointed?” Why? And why was he happy about her reaction? Did he want her to want more from him?