* * *
KALEB saw the torment in Sahara’s expression and knew that whatever Tatiana had ordered done to her during the years she’d spent in captivity, it hadn’t destroyed her conscience. It was not unexpected. That had always been the difference that kept them on opposite sides of the line that separated dark from light, good from evil—his ability to feel empathy, feel anything, had been eradicated before it could ever take root, with a single, limited exception.
“I,” he murmured, “can never permit her freedom. She would find a way to harm you.”
Sahara’s eyes were haunted when they met his. “Am I so important to you?”
“Yes,” he said. “You’re everything.” The entire reason for his existence.
A single tear trailed down Sahara’s cheek. “Why can’t I remember you?”
“You’re not strong enough yet.” For the horror, the pain, the realization of the betrayal that had splattered blood around a cheap hotel room when she’d been a girl on the brink of womanhood.
Stroking her fingers along his jaw, she said, “Come back, Kaleb,” and stepped closer, moving her hands to his lapels to push the unbuttoned suit jacket off his shoulders. “Walk out of the dark.”
He could crack the earth’s crust for her if she wanted, cause the Ring of Fire to ignite and the world to tremble, but he could not give her this one thing she asked. The darkness was inside him now, part of the very cells of his body, as indelible as the life that had shaped him.
She heard his silence but didn’t put distance between them, didn’t cry. Instead, she brushed away the remnants of her earlier tears and, undoing the silk of his tie, slid it out from around his neck to drop it to the floor with his jacket. When her fingers began to work on the buttons of his shirt, he removed his cuff links and threw them on a nearby table.
The clinking sound as they landed had her lashes rising, the incredible midnight blue of her eyes drenched with emotion. But she held her words still, lowering her gaze to pull his shirt out from his pants and finish unbuttoning it. He stood motionless, each flicker of contact a shock to his senses, but it was a pain he craved—until her, he had believed himself immune to the need for skin-to-skin contact, contact that defined intimacy for the humans and changelings.
Now he knew his need was more vicious than theirs could ever be.
Shrugging off his shirt at the push of her fingers, he hissed out a breath when she wrapped her arms around his waist to lay her cheek against his chest. When she would’ve pulled back, he put a hand to the back of her head and said, “No. I’ve disabled the dissonance.”
Thanks to Santano’s ego and arrogance, Kaleb, a deadly dual cardinal, had never been fully indoctrinated with the programming that dealt out painful punishment for any hint of emotion.
Designed not only to bolster the individual’s Silence, but to suppress any response that might trigger a catastrophic lack of psychic control, the brutality of the punishment was tied to the intensity of the breach. Given the experiences Kaleb had undergone as a boy, the resulting dissonance would’ve killed him. So Santano had leashed his abilities through the application of another kind of pain.
Now the only restraint on his abilities was the one he’d put in place.
Assessing the risks, he spread his fingers in the heavy silk of Sahara’s hair, wrapping his other arm around her shoulders to hold her to him. Her breath was soft over his skin, her body thin but no longer so fragile as to be easily breakable, her warmth a reminder that she was alive and with him.
It wasn’t enough, the bond between them nascent at best. She might wear his bracelet, but she remained wary, her eyes watchful—he needed her committed to him before she remembered the ugly truth that connected them.
Tugging back her head with the hand he had in her hair, he wrapped his other one gently around her throat and, looking into her eyes, leaned down to brush his lips across her own. It was a calculated act, his every sense concentrated on Sahara, on judging her responses in order to offer the correct feedback.
“Kaleb.” A gasp, her fingernails biting into the flesh of his back.
* * *
SAHARA ached deep inside, and it wasn’t an ache that had in any way abated since she’d walked out of the labyrinth. No, it had only grown deeper, day by day. Today, she’d touched Kaleb in a last- ditch attempt to bring him back from the dark place where he’d gone, but now that his skin brushed against her own, she hungered for more. This, in spite of the fact that the darkness remained in his gaze, the inhuman intelligence of him watching her with eyes of obsidian.
It was madness to permit this to continue, to make herself ever more vulnerable to a man she might never understand, but reason had long slipped out of her grasp. Pressing her hand to his cheek, she closed her eyes and parted her lips under his in an instinctive invitation that he accepted without hesitation, one hand gentle at her throat, the other tight in her hair as the taste of him—hot, male, inexorably dark—infiltrated her every sense.
The caress felt raw, unpracticed, but no less addicting for it. The realization that he’d done this act with no other, that it was as new a pleasure to him as it was to her, was he**in in her bloodstream, a shocking punch of sensation, the world a study in passionate red. Stretching her body upward, her weight balanced on her toes, she kissed him with a wild desperation that lacked any sense of finesse.
It didn’t matter.
Kaleb took what she gave and demanded more, until her heart ricocheted in a hard drumbeat against her ribs and air was something she gasped in between indulging in the heated recklessness of the kiss. A kiss that had her pressed between the cool glass of the window and the hard ridges of Kaleb’s body, one of his hands still at her throat.