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How adept he was at erasing all traces of emotion from his face, even from his eyes. What had he endured that he could mask his feelings with such little effort?


He held her inquisitive stare, almost as if he challenged her to see through him. “I told you what to expect before we began any of this.” Mouth flat, grim, he poured the crushed length of silk out of his fist and onto her nude torso. “This is the way it is with me. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.”


Cold words. No doubt meant to freeze her into silence as he pivoted away from her on the bed. His defensive walls had gone up, blocking her out. That is, if he’d ever been inclined to let her inside in the first place.


His bare feet hit the floor and when he went to stand up, Jordana tossed the sash aside and drew up onto her knees behind him. “That’s not what I meant. The bondage … it doesn’t matter to me. Your need to be the one in control doesn’t matter.”


She took a fortifying breath and crept closer to him, very much aware that of the two of them, only he seemed frozen and silent now. Jordana edged up behind his broad back, with its masterpiece of dermaglyphs adorning the flawless canvas of his skin.


She lifted her hand, but drew it back, unwilling to dare that much.


Not when she could feel the caged power radiating off him. A menace so dark it nearly stole her voice.


“Nathan,” she whispered carefully. “Why is it that you can’t bear to be touched?”


The answering silence seemed to stretch on forever. He sat on the edge of the bed, unmoving. Jordana wasn’t even sure he was breathing.


She’d overstepped. She realized that now. They had shared something incredible tonight—something intimate and real to her, at least—and now she’d ruined it by pushing him to open up a part of himself that wasn’t hers to examine.


“I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I shouldn’t pry—”


“Would you want to touch the bloodied edge of a blade?” He spoke without turning to face her, his deep voice even, utterly devoid of emotion. “Or willingly put your hand in the jaws of a fighting dog?”


He slowly pivoted then, his stormcloud gaze flat and unblinking. “I’m not the kind of man you should want to get close to. I don’t function the way you expect me to. A weapon doesn’t require touch or comfort. And if you reach out to a creature bred and trained to kill, it’s liable to be your last mistake.”


Jordana swallowed, a keen ache opening up in the center of her chest for what Nathan must have endured as a young man—as a mere child—while he was part of the Hunter program.


She’d heard little more than rumors about the secret breeding labs that had been disrupted by the Order some twenty years ago. There were whispers of neglect and brutality, of terrible abuses suffered on the Gen One boys who’d been created to serve as the private army of one diabolical Breed madman.


Boys like Nathan who, according to Carys, had been removed from his mother as an infant and spent the first thirteen years of his life under those unthinkable conditions.


Jordana’s heart broke for that infant, for that tragic little boy.


And for the detached, battle-hardened man who sat before her now. The beautiful, deadly Breed male who had shown her such unexpected tenderness tonight and who had awakened her to a passion that still stirred, potent and alive, within her.


“You’re not a blade or an animal, Nathan. Whatever awful things you were forced to do in your past don’t define who you are today.” She inched closer, braved the smallest caress of his stern jaw. “Nathan, you are not what they tried to make you.”


This time, he didn’t remove her hand from where it rested lightly against him. But he stared at her with a calmness that chilled. “Yes, Jordana, I am. Don’t try to imagine I can ever be like the other men you know.”


“I don’t.” She gave a small shake of her head. “I wouldn’t want that.”


She’d proven that to herself in recent days, if not to Nathan. All her life, she’d known the warmth of a loving home and the safe embrace of family and friends. She’d had no shortage of admirers, no lack of even the smallest thing she’d ever wanted or required.


And yet she would give all of that up right now, trade her past with his, if it would remove the hauntedness from Nathan’s stormy eyes.


Oh, she was in trouble here.


She was falling fast, one foot over the edge of that steep, storm-swept cliff she felt teetering beneath her whenever Nathan was near.


Tonight, she’d given him her virginity. If she wasn’t careful, he would own her heart as well.


Maybe he already did.


The realization washed over her, left her speechless as she stared into his impenetrable gaze.


Nathan didn’t permit the silence to linger. Nor her touch either.


He pulled away. “It’s late. I should go.” He started to get up, then scowled and uttered a low curse. “Fuck … you’re bleeding.”


Jordana glanced down at the sheet beneath her. A faint pink stain wet the pristine white cotton where she’d lain with Nathan. Embarrassment flooded her face with heat. “Oh … no, it’s nothing.”


“Like hell it is.” He grunted, his brow furrowing deeper. “Dammit, I didn’t want to hurt you.”


Awkwardly, she shook her head. “You didn’t. It was just a little blood, and I’m not hurt. I’ve actually never felt better in my life.”


“Christ, Jordana.” He snarled under his breath. “You deserved someone who would’ve been more gentle with you. You still deserve that.” Another curse boiled out of him, but with less venom now. He held out his hand to her. “Come with me.”


Jordana slipped her fingers into his grasp, not that he had intended to wait for her agreement, of course. That dominating side of him was in full control of the situation—and her—before she could even utter a syllable.


He hauled her up from the bed. In the adjacent bathroom suite, the shower turned on with a sharp hiss, obeying his mental command.


Led by the hand, Jordana followed after him. As her bare feet padded softly on the hardwood a pace behind his long-legged strides, she tried not to gape at the lusciousness of his naked body. Six and a half feet of muscle and gorgeous, glyph-adorned skin, all of it moving in catlike fluidity as he prowled across the room with her in tow.


Her blood warmed in her veins, and that molten pool in the center of her began to simmer all over again.


God, she really had it bad for this man.


Nathan brought her into the steam-filled bathroom, his fingers yet clamped around hers. When he opened the tall glass door of the shower, she half expected him to toss her inside and order her to attend herself.


Instead, he led her inside, bringing her under the hot spray with him.


He didn’t speak, didn’t explain. Nor did Jordana need his words. Not when his hands were tender as he began to wash her, handling her with utmost care and gentle attention.


She needed nothing more than this.


This moment.


This man.


Jordana closed her eyes as Nathan’s cleansing touch eventually turned sensual and his mouth found hers through the steam of their surroundings.


Heaven help her, she was on unsteady ground here.


She was stepping off that ledge tonight, falling too fast.


Falling too hard for a lethal, untouchable Breed male who’d promised her nothing.


She knew this, the same way she understood that if reality waited for her at the bottom of this mad leap, it was certain to break her.


17


AS THE NIGHT CREPT PERILOUSLY CLOSE TO DAWN, NATHAN REALIZED he had never been further outside of his element.


When he’d shown up at Jordana’s apartment, he hadn’t intended a full-scale seduction.


Nor had he intended to use their time in the shower together as a prelude to still another round of mind-blowing, incredible sex.


He sure as hell had not intended to find himself seated in a chair in her bedroom sometime afterward, watching over her as she slept curled up like a kitten in a nest of fluffy sheets and coverlets.


When he’d crawled out of her bed to get dressed so he could head back to the command center, he told himself it was only reasonable for him to stay awhile to ensure she was safe for the night. Once she was comfortable and resting, he would go back where he belonged.


That was hours ago now.


Night was ending soon, and if his own free will wouldn’t drag him away from her, the coming daybreak would.


Damn, how had he allowed himself to get so entangled with this woman?


When had she slipped through his defenses to become something more than a sexual itch he needed to scratch?


How did he imagine this whole thing would continue—worse, how would it ultimately end—when he had nothing to offer a woman like Jordana?


It hadn’t been empty flattery when he told her she deserved something more, someone better, than him. It had been a warning. One of many he’d issued that didn’t seem to sway her. His dark look or growled threat had always been enough to cower man and Breed alike, but not her.


Jordana Gates was nowhere near as delicate or conservative as she looked. Nothing like the pampered, fawned-upon Darkhaven female he’d often guessed her to be. Right now, he wished like hell she was.


Instead, he’d found her to be strong, unshakable. There was a roaring warrior inside her, buried deep but clawing to get out. She was unlike any woman he’d ever encountered, with her sharp, curious mind and sensitive artist’s soul. It didn’t help that she also had the face of an angel and the all-too-tempting body of a goddess.


He’d never known a need as consuming as the one he felt for this woman. And if it had been confined to purely physical hunger, that would be bad enough.


No, what Jordana stirred in him was something deeper.


She intrigued him. She confronted him, challenged him.


She gentled him, when his entire existence had been built on violence and cold detachment.


Jordana was, in a word, extraordinary.


Nathan’s veins thrummed in agreement, his blood still running hot for her.


He had no right to be the one she gave herself to for the first time. But looking at her sleep so trustingly under his watch, recalling the fevered way she’d responded to him—the open, accepting way she’d submitted to his every desire and demand—made something possessive and primal churn deep inside him.


For a moment, he let himself imagine what it might be like to be one of the golden, privileged males of her world, not the rough enforcer he was now. Not the assassin whose hands had been stained with death from the time he was a seven-year-old child.


He had never looked back in shame on where he’d come from or on what his past had done to him. But as he considered Jordana and the way he still craved more of her, a cold hollow opened in his chest. Regret for the choices that had been taken from him.


Anger and, dammit, a sudden, fierce longing for the future that had been denied him even before he’d been conceived in Dragos’s lab.


Useless feelings.


Weakness he’d been disciplined never to let manifest.


He’d allowed Jordana more than most tonight. Intimacy he’d never granted anyone. Insight into his bleak beginnings and how they shaped him.


He’d let her past a threshold all her own tonight, but she hadn’t seen everything.


He could never permit that.


There were things no one knew, not even the few of his closest friends and squad members in the Order. Not his tenderhearted Breedmate mother, Corinne, or her devoted warrior mate, a formidable Gen One Breed male who’d been a product of the Hunter program decades before Nathan had been born into it.


Nathan had endured things, done things, that were better left inside him.


Locked away.


Memories best held to the dark, which he managed with the same iron control he employed in every other aspect of his life.


Just thinking on the days and nights—the decade and more—of his enslavement under Dragos’s command and his torture at the hands of the Minion assigned as his keeper made Nathan’s skin go taut.


He could still hear the crack of the lash, the jangle of chains … the sharp, olfactory punch of his own spilled blood and viscera.


Even worse was the recollection of the suffering inflicted on others.


Because of him and, ultimately, by him.


Absently, his fingers grazed his throat in search of the ultraviolet collar that had been every Hunter’s shackle from the time he was old enough to crawl. It wasn’t there, of course. It had been gone since the night his mother and her mate tracked him down and rescued him at the age of thirteen.


Christ.


Twenty years away from his past, yet it still surprised him to reach up and find his neck bare.


And this was what he’d brought into Jordana’s bed, into her life.


If he were a better man, he’d wake her with an apology and hope she could eventually forgive him for taking the gift of her innocence and her trust. No, if he were a better man, he’d have never let her kiss him those few nights ago. A better man would have never let himself crave her the way he did.


Too late.


True to his born-and-bred nature, he’d lived up to the warning he gave Jordana tonight: He pursued. He conquered. And if he were a better man, he’d carry out the rest of his warning and walk out now, never looking back.


Nathan stood up on a low curse, bewildered that his discipline had failed him so badly when it came to Jordana.


The sight of her drew him toward the bed when he tried to command his feet to leave the room. The scent of her pulled a ragged moan out of him, the intoxicating combination of warm skin and soft, sensual woman proving almost too much for him to bear.


Jordana’s bloodscent lingered faintly on the air as well. Nathan’s Breed senses seized upon the elusive fragrance, which called to both the man in him and the beast.

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