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She’d spent so much effort dodging every close contact, Joseph hadn’t realized just how much he’d dreamed about touching her until now.
“He knows,” she said. “It was part of the reason he sent me here. He knew that if things went to hell or you betrayed him and I became trapped here, I could always beg for mercy because I was like you. He was certain that you wouldn’t kill me—not when your women are needed so desperately.”
So Joseph had been tricked into agreeing to peace?
He couldn’t go there. Not now. He was still trying to absorb the impact of the woman standing in front of him. “That’s why you wouldn’t let any of the men touch you. You knew that if we did, we might figure out what you are.”
She nodded. “I’d heard the stories. I’m not exactly sure how it all works, but I thought it would be safer if none of you pawed at me.”
“Now I understand why you could guarantee your mystery woman’s cooperation.” He paused as the consequences of her vow began to sink in. “You have to choose one of our men. Immediately.”
She swallowed hard and lowered her head in acceptance. “I know.”
“And you promised to bind yourself to him irrevocably.”
“I know that, too.” She lifted her head and looked at him. The impact of her golden gaze was nearly enough to drive him to his knees.
“I thought you hated us. Why would you willingly tie yourself to a man you hate?”
“Because I love those children. I love my brother. I’d gladly give up my life for any one of them. So I did.”
He didn’t like it that she thought binding herself to one of her own kind was the same thing as giving up her life, but he let it slide. There was too much to do now to worry about how she felt about her promise. She’d made it. Now all there was left was to ensure that she did as she said she would.
“You’re free to go,” he told her, “as soon as you choose your man. I’ll summon everyone who is available back home.”
“No need. I’ve already chosen my mate.”
“Who is he?”
She closed her eyes and tensed up, as if bracing for a hard punch. “You.”
Lyka tried hard not to get sick all over Joseph’s boots. She knew that giving up her life to save her people was the right thing to do. She also knew her path was now set in stone, and that it wasn’t going to be an easy one. But she hadn’t expected her decision to evoke such deep feelings of fear and trapped helplessness.
Her breathing was too hard and fast. Her stomach churned dangerously. She’d backed away from Joseph, putting as much space between them as she could, but all she’d gained was a harsh groan of pain from him. She was still just as trapped and terrified on this side of her suite as she’d been on the other.
“You can’t be serious,” said Joseph. “You hate me. Why the hell would you even consider binding your life to mine?”
“I don’t hate you.”
“Could have fooled me. Every time I came near you, you backed away like I was a demon.”
“I didn’t want you to touch me.”
“And what about the part where you still think of me as your enemy? Your prison guard?”
“Andreas agreed to the peace treaty. I have no choice but to respect it. And once I’ve fulfilled my vow and let you collar me, I’ll be free to come and go as I please. Remember?”
He glowered and stalked toward her. “No Theronai male in his right mind would let his woman run around unprotected.”
“You don’t have a choice. You promised.”
“I didn’t have all the details.”
“That hardly matters. I don’t have them, either. For all I know, I’ve just thrown my life away to find people who’ve already been killed. No one said life is fair.”
“Binding yourself to one of us isn’t throwing your life away. It’s opening doors that you never would have had access to before. It comes with power—vast, nearly inexhaustible power. And, to be honest, I don’t think you’re ready for that kind of responsibility.”
“Are you saying you won’t have me?” she asked.
“I’m saying that you need to stay here long enough for the other single men to come back so you can pick one of them.”
“I don’t want to wait. Eric and the kids may not have that kind of time. I want to leave tonight.”
“That’s too damn bad.” His face was dark red now, and the muscles and tendons along his neck stood out with fury. “You’re not free until you execute your end of the bargain, which means I can damn well keep you here until the other men get home. Maybe that will give you enough time to accept that your life is different now. You can’t go running off whenever you want.”
Fury rose in her, bringing with it a rabid growl. How dare he try to go back on his word? How dare he try to trick her into staying until it was too late?
Lyka was many things, but passive wasn’t one of them. There was no way she was going to stay here and twiddle her thumbs while her people were out there in need. She and Joseph had struck a bargain. She got to pick who she wanted. End of story.
She lurched toward him, letting her animal side speed her reflexes. Before he could stop her, she grabbed the iridescent necklace he wore. She tried to back out of his reach, but he grabbed her before she could make her escape.
His fist closed around her wrist, sending a swarm of warm vibrations up her arm. The hot, tingly feeling swirled through her torso, hardening her nipples as it went. All that heat coalesced low inside her until her abdomen clenched against the force of it.
The slippery surface of the luceria dangled from her fingers. She could feel the warmth of his skin clinging to the supple band. It was heavier than she expected, layered with a mix of golds and greens that reminded her of his eyes.
He stared at it in shock and wonder. “What have you done?”
“I’ve made my decision, just like you promised I could. You can’t go back on your word. You’re mine now, Theronai.”
His grip eased on her wrist. He took the band from her fingers and stared at her with a look she couldn’t translate. It was part surprise, part hunger, part reverence. All she knew was that when he looked at her like that, it did something to her. Softened her.