The words pricked her pride. Once, she might’ve snapped at him, but she was no longer that impetuous girl, hiding her mental fragmentation behind a mask of rebellion. Instead, she considered things from his point of view: a young, untried soldier going into an operation that required the utmost subtlety. If she’d been in charge, she’d have asked the same questions. “Yes, to both,” she said. “Judd didn’t know until I told him this afternoon, but I did an op very similar to this in a training situation.”
He stroked his hand up her back to curve around her nape, hot and strong, a shock to her system. “How old were you?”
“Fifteen,” she said over the wild rush of sensation. “Ming gave me a very simple brief—to get in and out of one of his installations. To pass, I had to set a number of charges in different locations and escape undetected.” When Hawke remained silent, she asked, “Don’t you want to know if I succeeded?”
He moved his thumb on her skin. “You wouldn’t have remained Ming’s protégée if you hadn’t.”
“Yes.” Goose bumps on her flesh that had nothing to do with the temperature. “But I did make one error—I escaped even Ming’s detection.”
Rising without warning, Hawke took a seat behind her, pulling her into the circle of his arms, the bracket of his thighs. “Okay?” An intimate question against the sensitive curve of her ear.
“Yes.” Except for the fact her heart was about to beat right out of her chest.
“The student showed up the teacher,” he said, returning to their discussion of Ming. “That’s when you knew you didn’t have much time left.”
Unable to resist, she curled one of her hands around the corded strength of his forearm, playing her fingers over the vein that ran so strong under the heat of his skin. “The rehab order came only a few months later. All orders are officially from the entire Council, but the Councilors act as individuals most of the time. Ming’s signature was on ours. If he ever finds out I’m alive, he’ll do everything he can to get rid of me.”
“I don’t know.” Muscle and tendon flexed under her touch as he tugged her closer. “According to our intel, Ming has taken a couple of hits in the past few months. He might decide he’s better off with you by his side.”
“I’d kill him,” Sienna said with cold precision. “The instant I had him in my sights, I’d burn him up and watch him die. And I’d make it slow, so he’d hurt for a long time.”
Hawke didn’t tell her that wasn’t a good thought, that revenge would eat her alive. Instead, he nuzzled at her neck, and said, “I’d rather you focus your energy on helping the pack.”
She angled her head to the side in shameless invitation, her hand moving up to close over his bicep. “I’d do anything for SnowDancer.” For you.
“Tell me about your designation.” Kisses along the line of her throat.
Her toes curled. “What do you want to know?”
“Why X?” The kiss of teeth.
Instead of pulling away, she gripped his arm tight. “Some people say it’s from the Latin word exardesco, which means ‘to blaze up.’ ” The words came out husky. “I think ‘rage’ is also another way it can be defined.”
He raised his head, and it was then that she realized what it was she was saying, what it betrayed. No wonder he didn’t want to touch her. Ice in her veins, she straightened and finished the story, because that was the only thing she could do. “It’s said we were once called the burning ones, so the Latin roots would make sense. But I’ve always thought it was because of what we leave behind when we go supernova: nothing.”
Hawke snarled at the self-condemnation in that last word. “Would you call me a monster, Sienna?”
She tried to jerk up and out of his hold. “Of course not.”
He wouldn’t release her. “Yet I’ve killed.”
“In defense of your pack,” she said, her hand gripping his forearm again, her touch satisfying a bone-deep need. “That’s different.”
He regretted none of the blood he’d spilled in defense of those who were his own, but—“It leaves a mark on the soul nonetheless.”
“When I was younger,” she said in a voice so quiet it was near soundless, “my hold on the cold fire erratic at best, Ming would put those he wanted executed in a room with me, and then he’d use every psychic method he had to push me over. It was his way of teaching me control.” A jagged breath. “He made sure they were conscious. The screams . . . I hear them in my sleep, over and over, and over again.”
Hawke clenched his jaw to keep his claws inside his body, knowing that wasn’t what she needed. “That’s on him, baby. Not you. Never you.”
Sienna dipped her head, her hair sliding forward to obscure her face. “People think that after the first kill, it becomes easier. It never does.”
“No.” It struck him then that this wasn’t a conversation he should have been able to have with a nineteen-year-old woman. Yet that made it no less real, made her scars no less deep.
Dipping his head to push back her hair and kiss the throbbing pulse in her neck, he said, “Turn around,” his voice rough with the raw fury of his emotions.
A shiver as she twisted around to face him on her knees. His jacket slipped off, but he put it back around her shoulders, finding a primal satisfaction both in keeping her warm and in having her covered in his scent. “Enough talk of death,” he murmured, sliding his hand under the cool silk of her hair to cup her nape—driven by the wild need to do everything he could to wipe the sadness from her. “Let’s live.” He dropped his eyes to her mouth.