“Because I’m better than your other date?”

“Immensely.” She toyed with the end of his beard. “I wish I could ask you about a last date.”

“I don’t need experience to tell you that. Simple observation proves you are the only one for me.”

“And just what have you observed?” At least her tone was lighter now.

“Over the centuries I’ve heard many a woman tell her friends that a man has to accept her just as she is or he doesn’t deserve her. But if she’s a lying, cheating gossipmonger, cruel to those around her, often angry, often hateful, of course he cannot accept her. He’s better off without her.”

A choking little laugh left her. “That’s a good point, but the same is true for men.”

“So...how do you know I’m none of those things?”

Was she serious? “I’ve watched you interact with your sister, always placing her needs above your own. You’ve spent time with Axel, but haven’t killed him—a feat for anyone. And the way you are with me...kind, caring, sweet, thoughtful, helpful, considerate, compassionate, loving—”

She gave another laugh, saying, “Basically, all of those words mean the same thing.”

“So you want me, huh?” she asked huskily.

“Good, because you’ve got me. All of me.” She lifted her head, met his gaze directly. “I quit my job, and you’re now my official keeper.”

He liked that, too.

“Well, then, I had better start keeping you properly.” He cupped her cheeks and angled her head back, his hands heating up. A shiver rocked her as he pressed a soft kiss into her lips.

He kept the pressure light, relearning her, reacquainting himself with her sweetness, going slowly, trying to fortify himself against the burning flood of desire rushing through him.

This was Nicola. Every moment had to be perfect.

But then she moaned, a heady, titillating sound, and her hands returned to his beard, and he lost the battle of gentleness versus need—not that he’d fought all that staunchly. He kicked the sheet away from him and rolled, half pinning her slight weight to the mattress. Her legs parted, allowing him to sink against her. Hardness to softness. Need to need.

He reached up, tore the elastic from her hair and watched as strawberry curls tumbled over the pillow, spilling around her. All he could do was stare at her. He’d wanted to see her like this for so long, and now, here she was, far more beautiful than he ever could have imagined.

“You are...” There was only one word that fit. “Mine. You’re mine.” With the claim ringing in his ears, he fed her another kiss.

She met his intensity all the way. Her hands explored his chest, his shoulders, his back, her nails scraping. “Sorry. Sorry,” she gasped out. “You’re hurt, and I—”

She kissed the length of his neck. “’Kay.”

“Do you have a special attachment to your shirt?”

He ripped the material down the middle, revealing a white lace bra and soft, flat belly of the most luscious cream. A smattering of freckles dotted her skin.

He’d always hated freckles. These? He thought he...loved. On Nicola, they were a road map he longed to follow, to lick his way from one to another.

He did just that, baring her to his view. And oh, the newest flood of desire to wash through him nearly undid him. His muscles shook. His bones vibrated. His soul shouted, Yes. Yes, this is the woman I was created to enjoy. The one who would lift him up, never tear him down.

He could only drink her in, every one of his senses humming a lullaby he’d never heard. The intoxicating song surrounded him, caressed him, owned him. He was lured, not to a place of slumber but to a place of shattering change.

He would never be the same.

The cinnamon and vanilla that was so much a part of Nicola clung to him, embedding in his pores. She branded him with her very own essentia—he was hers. A half to a whole.

Those stormy eyes watched him, glassed with a hunger-charged yearning. Light trickled over her, complementing pleasure-flushed skin.

“I’m sorry.” Then, “No. I’m not sorry. I like doing it.”

He couldn’t hold in his next words. “I want to be with you, Nicola.”

He moved the back of his hand along the length of her neck, soft, light. “I’ll be careful.”

She shook her head, all that fiery hair dancing over the pillow. “I don’t want careful.”

“But that’s what you’ll get.” And he would make sure she liked it. Whatever he had to do.

He explored her, and every new point of contact sent him deeper and deeper into a pool of need, until he was drowning, desperate. But he knew, in the depths of his core, that his every action was a declaration of his feelings for her. She was someone of value. She was someone worth saving. She was the woman he wanted at his side. Everything he’d needed, nothing he’d known.

He stripped her of the rest of her clothes, marveling at every new revelation of this woman who had so captivated him, and spread his essentia all over her, leaving no inch untouched, causing all that flushed skin to glow so much more brightly.

She looked him over, saying, “Flawless,” before closing her eyes and moaning. “Essentia?”

“A powder my body produces just for you.” The tension inside him expanded...and he no longer wanted, he realized—he needed. Every muscle he possessed was clenching on bone. His blood was molten in his veins.

But then she was gasping, writhing atop the mattress, and he was gasping out word after word of approval and praise, a deluge he’d kept trapped inside far too long. They clutched at each other and they kneaded at each other and he could feel the fast beat of her heart as they kissed each other desperately. A beat that was faster and faster with every moment that passed, as if she neared the edge of a ledge.

“Koldo,” she said on a moan.

Such a heady entreaty. Nearly more than he could bear. “Yes?”

“I need, too.” But his concern for her well-being suddenly overshadowed everything else. He wouldn’t take her, no matter what she said and no matter what he felt. Not until she was ready for him.

No matter how desperate he was, her health was more important, and nothing would change that. Because he didn’t want to take from her, he realized. He wanted to share with her. And it would be difficult to stay this course, he knew. All his life, he’d been denied the things so many others took for granted. Acceptance, softness. Affection. He finally had them. And now he had to wait for them, when they were so freely offered?

“Yes. Today. Now. We already said so.”

Her hands tightened on him, her nails digging into his back. “I can take it. I can!”

Maybe. Maybe not. But he couldn’t. The thought of hurting her, even in so small a way, destroyed him. If ever he gave her reason to look back and think of him with disappointment, regret or anger, he would willingly fall on his own sword.

Never beg, he wanted to say. But he liked it too much to stop her from doing it again.

“I’ll help you with these feelings.” Somehow. Someway. Though he lacked experience, he touched her here, there, seemingly everywhere at once, but it was never enough, not for him, yet she began crying out, gasping so hard, straining against him, begging, begging, begging for more.

The pressure inside him increased. It reminded him of the times he’d gone to his cave and exploded, the rage too much for his body to contain. But this wasn’t rage. This was raw, animal hunger. She was just so exquisite to watch, her eyes closed, her lashes casting spiky shadows over her cheeks, her lips red and plump, her scent intensifying, the fragrance of her honey eclipsing all that cinnamon and vanilla, and his mouth watered, and his insides...his insides...shattered.

And then she was shouting his name. And he was roaring at an exquisite agony that consumed him, utterly stunned, gasping, sweating, perhaps even babbling.

“What happened? That was... I can’t describe... I’ve never... What we just did... Did you feel that... How could...” The realization left a film of embarrassment and a desire to flee, but he remained in place.

He collapsed on the mattress. He was shaking, and...smiling despite his emotions. “Did you experience what I experienced?” Finally. A coherent sentence.

“Yes, and I didn’t pass out,” she said with a smile of her own.

“Neither did I.” He hadn’t lost control, hadn’t taken what he shouldn’t. Had stayed the course and taken another step on the path to claiming her. He had given her pleasure, and had, apparently, taken his own.

Soon, he told himself. Very soon, he would take the next step—take her fully. And they would fall off the ledge together.