She continued softly, “His wife answered the door. She was holding their infant daughter. We realized we couldn’t hurt the pair of them the way he had hurt us.”

The dread left him, too, leaving only despair and desperation. He had to make her understand his position. “I assure you. No one will be hurt by what I do to my mother.”

“You will. You’ll have to live with whatever you do, and we both know you can’t do that.”

This time, he had no response.

She laughed without humor. “All along we thought I was the one in need of healing, but it’s you. You’re wounded inside, and those wounds are festering. You’re filled with a toxin of your own making,” she said, and then she walked out of the room.

KOLDO HAD MADE a grievous mistake. He never should have wanted Nicola to learn about his mother. He should have kept the two women separated now and forever. If he had, he could have continued on with his life, just the way it was.

His mother...his to torment, to feed his need for vengeance.

Nicola, his to taste and touch, to feed his yearning for affection.

Now, he had his mother, but not Nicola. She avoided his gaze. Anytime he entered a room, she vacated it.

While he couldn’t fix the problem he’d created, he could certainly burn the reminder of it. Two days after their argument, he moved his mother to the home he kept in South Africa, and torched the cage in Panama. He couldn’t take her back to West India Quay. Sirena, and now Jamila, knew its location.

When he finished, he returned to the cavern above the waterfall.

He’d chained Cornelia to the wall. Her hair was growing back, her scalp covered by stubble. She spit curses at him, and tried to reach for his wings.

“You shouldn’t have spoken to the female.”

“Aw,” she sneered. “Has she wised up and decided you’re too repulsive for her?”

His blood boiled, but he flashed away before doing something he would forever regret. As Nicola had said.

He spent the afternoon with Axel, hunting his father. They found several sets of tracks but each proved to be a dead end, the Nefas nowhere to be seen. As weak as the Sent Ones had left them, they had to be hiding, licking their wounds. But where?

He wanted this war over with, done.

He wanted to concentrate on Nicola. Nicola, whose heart amazed him. She had been dealt the worst, and yet light still shone inside her. He had been dealt the worst, and had allowed darkness to consume him.

She was right. He was wounded. But he had no idea what to do or how to heal himself.

He just knew he had to make things right with his woman.

“Get your head in the game,” Axel muttered.

Koldo blinked into focus—and realized he was about to slam into Charlotte and her girls, who stood atop a cloud, discussing...Nicola.

“—need the redhead to make me another omelet. So good!”

“I know! Think Koldo would let me borrow her for a few years?”

He angled up and over, avoiding contact. Heard a shouted, “Hey!”

As the wind whipped against him, he looked to Axel. “I must go. I’ll see you tomorrow and we’ll continue this.”

“Uh-oh. I recognize that look. Papa Bear’s gonna do some groveling, isn’t he?” The warrior laughed with smirking amusement. “Much as I’d like to see that, I’ve got some people to do. See ya.”

They branched off in opposite directions. Koldo flashed as he flew, traveling from state to state and across an ocean in the blink of an eye, until finally arriving at the ranch.

The sight that greeted him nearly stopped his heart.

A dark cloud surrounded the entire ranch, rather than the white one he’d left behind.

Through the darkness, he saw multiple demons crawling over the walls. And that’s when he knew. His cloud had been pumped full of demon toxin, sickening it. He’d heard of this happening only once, and had thought it a rumor. False.

He palmed his sword of fire and flashed to the top of the cloud, where he hacked through the gloom. The edges curled backward, sizzling, creating an opening. He jumped through and landed on the home’s roof, keeping his wings tucked as close to his sides as possible. He’d never fought with them, and wasn’t trained to do so. But that wouldn’t stop him from fighting now.

The demons scrambled to move away from him, but he turned and swung the sword, turned and swung, slicing one after the other in half. Black blood sprayed in every direction. Bodies thumped against the grass.

Finally the roof was cleansed and he was able to drop into the house. Demons, demons, all around, each one bigger and stronger than the last, and all the more determined to wreak havoc.

Two leaped on him from behind, ripping handfuls of feathers from his wings. Koldo gritted his teeth and released his sword, then pulled the creatures off, broke their necks and threw them down like the garbage they were.

He palmed his sword and worked his way down the hall, his wrist in constant motion. Demons dropped like flies. There were more inside Laila’s room, but no sign of the girl herself. There was no sign of human injury, either, though the furniture was overturned, clothes strewn across the floor. If she’d been taken...

A demon spotted him and attacked, diving low, locking on to Koldo’s ankles, tripping him. His balance was off, and he couldn’t catch himself. The sword of fire disappeared as he crashed. He lost his breath, and the rest of the demons attacked, swarming him.

More feathers were pulled. His skin was bitten, scratched. Someone was attempting to chew through his Achilles tendon. Koldo grabbed the two creatures hanging on to his leg, ripped their spines from their throats and tossed them into the far wall. He grabbed two more and did the same, then two more, until he was able to jump up. The rest of the demons fell to the floor. He kicked them, the razor in his boot neatly slicing through intestines.

When he finished, he stomped down the hall. Nicola’s door was shut. He burst inside, wood shards spraying in every direction. In the center he found Lefty and Righty grating their claws against a puff of white fog.

Nicola was inside that fog, kneeling, her body draping Laila’s. She was staring at the tattoos on her arm. Tattoos that had come to life, forming a protective barrier around her.

The girls were here. They were alive. They were safe.

A potent flood of relief sent him marching forward. Lefty spotted him and backed away, dragging Righty with him. The pair picked up speed and careened through the wall, disappearing.

Koldo followed them, determined to end them once and for all, but they proved wily and slipped into the skies, hiding in the clouds.

Resigned, he returned to Nicola’s side and dropped to his knees. He patted, felt the hard shell around her, and knew it was thinning, softening. Finally, nothing was left but air.

The sound of his voice jolted her, and she straightened in a snap. Wide, stormy eyes found him, and a mewl escaped her lips.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

She threw her arms around him and hugged him tight. Her little body was trembling.

Laila remained curled in a ball, her eyes closed, her breathing even. She’d passed out, he realized.

“I convinced Laila to come into my room so that I could read to her. All was well one second, and demons were swarming the next. I don’t think Laila could see them, but she could feel them, and she screamed. They wanted to kill us, not just infect us with more toxin. They wanted you to find our bloody bodies. All I could do was throw myself at Laila, skid us both across the room and look at the tattoos, just like you told me.”

A new flood of relief had him shaking. “You did the exact right thing.”

She sagged against him. “I was so scared.”

“But you cast that fear aside and acted.” He ran his hands over her back, the ridges of her spine. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. Sorry I wanted you to hurt another living being. Sorry I tried to bring you down to my level, my pain. Sorry I left you. Sorry I wasn’t here to help.”

That easily, he thought. Just that easily, and the knowledge caused tears to bead in his eyes. She could have thrown his words in his face. She could have sought some sort of revenge, and he would have deserved it. Yet, she embraced him.

“And I’m sorry I ignored you these past few days,” she said. “I was trying to give you time to work through your problems without any pressure from me, when all I really wanted to do was kiss you. Or strangle you. I wasn’t sure which.”

And now she apologized to him.

He loved this woman, he realized. He loved her with all of his heart, all of his soul.

The knowledge hit him with the force of a jackhammer, leaving a big hole that finally allowed light to flood inside him, revealing thousands of creepy crawlers, evil things he’d stored. The crawlers hissed and scrambled to avoid contact with the brightness and warmth.

But he wasn’t yet worthy of her.

Her heart was pure, unsullied. His was tainted. Her hopes and dreams were so sweet. His had always been dark, violent. She had seen a way past similar urges.

She wanted to travel the world, she’d once told him. Wanted to jump from an airplane, pet an elephant and dance on a skyscraper. And he could give her those things. Right now, that was his one saving grace. A saving grace he would take. He would earn her love—deserve it—one way or another.

And then, when he was worthy, he would wed her in the way of his people and permanently join her life to his, twining their life spans. He couldn’t bear to be without her.

I have to let my mother go.

Every muscle he possessed tensed, and his mind instantly rebelled. No, no. He couldn’t. He couldn’t abandon his need for vengeance. But it was either the vengeance, or Nicola. He couldn’t have both. His mother would always stand between them, a wall he could never hope to breach.