“It took me a year to build up the courage,” she murmured against his mouth, lips curved and fingers laced behind his neck.
“Your determination,” he said, pushing up the softness of her pullover to place his hands on the silken warmth of her abdomen, “has never been anything less than steely.” She’d caught him as he bent over her wrist to affix the dancer charm to her bracelet. He’d been so startled at the shockingly intimate contact, he hadn’t broken away, and the taste of Sahara had entered his bloodstream, a brand he’d wear for the rest of his life.
Color had painted her cheeks in the aftermath. “Sixteen and twenty-two isn’t a significant gap.” It had been a mutinous statement. “Five more years and I’ll be twenty-one, and a legal adult with full rights. We can file a conception and fertilization contract, and once we have a child, we can agree to joint parenting and live—”
“Yes,” he’d said, interrupting the rush of words because she had no need to convince him to accept a trust of which he would never be deserving, but that he intended to take and protect to his last breath.
A dawning smile. “We’ll have a home,” she’d whispered, “where I can kiss you as often as I like.”
But that had been their first, their only kiss. Two days later, Sahara had screamed until her voice broke, her blood slick on her brutalized skin.
“I’m sorry,” he said, the memory one he’d carry to his grave, “that I’m not the man you remember.
Too many things happened while you were gone.” If she’d been with him through that time, the bright light in the nightmare, he might have battled to retain some sliver of his “humanity.” But they had stolen her from him, stolen the only being in the universe about whom he cared, and in so doing, they’d changed the course of the world.
Sahara’s fingers tightened on his arm. “You’re mine.” Simple, quiet words that were a punch to the chest. “I will fight for you, today, tomorrow, and all the tomorrows to come.”
In the intensity of the silence that followed as they simply held on to one another, as if to mitigate a separation that had scarred them both, he saw her eyes close, her breathing even. She’d fallen asleep in his arms. The first time she’d done that, she’d been eleven years old, their relationship a friendship that had become integral to his sanity.
Tired from her dance lessons, she’d leaned against him as they sat in front of the stump, and the next thing he knew, she was fast asleep. No one had ever shown him such trust. He hadn’t dared move for the entire time he was able to spend with her, waking her with the gentlest of telepathic hails when it was time for him to go.
He could still remember the smudgy blue of her eyes when she’d wakened, the way she’d accepted his presence without surprise or fear. As if that was his place. With her. Rubbing at her eyes, she’d said, “Will you come tomorrow?”
He’d always said yes to her, to the girl who had given him a sense of belonging, a sense of home.
As she’d grown and realized where he went when he left her, what was done to him, those eyes had turned bruised. But never had she turned away from him, no matter how broken he was when he came to her.
“I’ll tell,” she’d said at twelve, her face set. “He’s hurting you even if you won’t say how, and I won’t be quiet about it anymore!”
“You can’t. There’s no evidence.” Santano had made certain of that. And should a J-Psy be called in to check Kaleb’s memories—“I’ll have a fatal accident before he allows anyone close enough to examine me.”
Tears of rage, face red. “I hate that monster! I hate him.”
In the end, her loyalty and love for him had cost her everything. “I’m sorry,” he said again, touching his fingers to the tiny scar on her cheekbone. “No one will ever again cause you harm.” He’d already executed three of the guards who had helped to imprison and torture her.
All had hidden like the rats they were when they understood they were being hunted, but Kaleb was patient. He’d find each and every one. And he’d break their minds before he broke their necks.
* * *
THREE days later, Sahara waved good-bye to her father on the comm and watched him turn away to get to work. He’d been discharged a day earlier and was already in the clinic office, looking over patient files in direct violation of the orders given him by his own medic. There was no doubt where she’d inherited her will—a will Kaleb had teased to a shattering point the previous night.
After he’d sat distractingly shirtless beside her as she viewed one of his research videos. Every so often, he’d looked up from his datapad to point out a technical aspect of what the na**d people on- screen were doing, his voice cool and expression clinical. She’d lasted exactly seventeen minutes before pouncing on him.
Blushing at how very unclinical he’d been with her, she turned off the comm and headed down the rope ladder to meet Faith and Mercy for a shopping trip to San Francisco. It was time for her to explore her new life, and the idea of doing it with friends was sweetly wonderful. Both her cousin and the witty, kind DarkRiver sentinel had become an important part of her life, and she intended to nurture that relationship, come what may.
“I need to think about what I’m going to do,” she said to them in the SUV, turning slightly to involve Faith in the discussion. Her cousin had insisted Sahara take the front passenger seat when Mercy picked them up, since the scenery would be new to her. “With my life, I mean.”