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He kept going. He knew he had to push through before her sympathy froze him up. “The beatings were easy enough to handle. Even the torture. Eventually you find a place to park your mind and you can separate yourself from what’s being done to you. That was the lesson our handlers were trying to demonstrate. Except, when nothing seems to break you, it creates a temptation in some people to find something that will. They get creative. They get fucking sadistic.”


She swallowed hard, staring at him as though bracing for a physical blow herself. “Oh, Nathan.”


“They used clubs and chains,” he recalled, still able to feel the crush of his flesh and bones when the strikes landed on him. “When that didn’t make me beg for mercy, they used blades, sunlight, sometimes they used fire. They could’ve used any weapon on me and I would have endured it. It was only physical pain. My body healed as good as new every time, thanks to the Gen One DNA they bred into each of us.”


He exhaled a tense breath, recalling the countless hours and days he spent huddled and shivering on the floor of his cell, enduring the anguish of broken bones and savage injuries that would have killed a Breed with less hardy genetics.


But death hadn’t been the goal of the Hunter program. Dragos had been trying to create perfect killing machines. Soulless weapons to command at his whim. He wanted only the strongest.


Only the merciless.


“After some time, my handlers decided to test me in other ways. They started teaching me new lessons. Inflicting wounds that would leave scars on my mind, ones that no DNA could heal.”


Jordana let out a soft, ragged sigh. “Nathan, don’t. You don’t have to tell me any more.”


“I do.” He bit off the words. “You’re the last person I want to tell any of this to, but you’re also the only one … ever. And you need to know, Jordana. Before you touch me and tell me you love me, before you let me promise you a future I’m not even sure I can deliver, you need to understand who I am. You need to know all of it.”


As he continued, she held his stare, her light blue eyes unwavering.


“Instead of limiting the torture to me alone, one day they brought me into a cell with another Hunter. He was younger than me, and our handlers informed me this was his first training session. I could see he was afraid, even though he tried to hide it. I thought they would start abusing both of us. They spared him, only made him watch all the things they did to me. And their creativity that day was especially brutal.” Nathan blew out a harsh breath. “I didn’t realize the other Hunter’s lesson would come later. We both would learn something different that day.”


Jordana reached out for his hand. It took all his will to accept the kindness, to wrap his fingers around hers even as he relived the horror of what was done to him that day in the cell and the even worse lesson that followed.


“They left me on the floor in a pool of my own blood and vomit. I didn’t realize the other Hunter was still in the cell until sometime later, when I felt his hands under me, helping me up. He moved me out of the puddle of filth, then used his shirt to clean the worst of it off my face. Neither one of us realized that our handlers were watching the whole time. Waiting for just this kind of failure. Eager to make both of us pay for it.”


Jordana drew in a breath, her fingers squeezing his tighter. “Oh, no …”


It had been a long time since Nathan had thought about the young male whose compassion had cost him his life. He wasn’t the last.


“I should’ve known what they would do. It was the same game my handlers played in the beginning. They’d beat me, brutalize me, then come back around after a while to offer a hand up or some other small consideration. If I accepted, there was always more pain. And much worse than any that came before.”


He looked at Jordana, saw moisture gathering in her eyes. “After that incident, they brought more Hunters into the cell with me to observe my training. If my untrained comrades touched me afterward or showed me kindness or pity at any time, my handlers would torture and kill them. If I warned my comrades not to do those things, then my handlers made me mete out the torture and the killings instead.”


Jordana covered her mouth with her free hand, mutely shaking her head. One of the tears that had been welling now spilled over her and rolled down her cheek.


“Finally, all of the training stopped,” he said. “They deemed me ready, and sent me to live with the Minion assigned to watch over me while I awaited my first kill order from Dragos.”


Jordana exhaled softly, her brows lowered over her tender gaze. “My God, Nathan. How long did this training go on?”


“It took me longer than some others to conform, to submit.” He paused, considering. “I guess I was about seven when I left the labs for good.”


She gasped. “You were just a child—a little boy.”


“I never recall a time when I felt I was anything other than what they made me: a Hunter. A killer. A weapon at Dragos’s disposal.”


“You never tried to escape?”


He grunted. “There was no escape. I had a collar that made any disobedience punishable by death. Every Hunter had one. The ultraviolet collars were locked onto us from the time we could walk. Venture too far, defy an order, attempt to escape …” He shook his head. “I saw more than one Hunter ash himself when his collar detonated. Some deliberately.”


Understanding filled her horrified gaze. “So, if you refused to do anything your handlers demanded …” At his grave nod, Jordana briefly closed her eyes. “They trained you to fear tenderness. You learned to hate anyone’s touch. They taught you that.”


“They taught me that control was the only way to survive,” he said. “I learned to dominate every situation thrown at me. Or die.”


“You’re free now,” she pointed out. “You don’t have to let your past keep you in the prison they made for you, Nathan.”


Slowly, but without waiting for his permission or approval, she leaned toward him and placed her mouth at the base of his throat, where the cold weight of the UV collar once chafed his skin. He braced himself as her warm lips closed on him.


Unrushed, impossibly sweet, she kissed a trail around either side of his neck. Tender empathy for what he’d been through, or undeserving absolution for all he’d done, he didn’t know.


Nor did he know how he could ever be worthy of the affection—the love—Jordana gave him so openly. She had changed him. His old methods for coping, for surviving, were obliterated from the moment she first stepped into his life.


She’d captivated him with a kiss.


She’d challenged him, gentled him.


Now she owned him.


Nathan growled in pleasure as her mouth completed its slow circuit of his neck, her tongue following the lines of the dermaglyphs she found there. His blood was thrumming through his veins, breath coming harder as arousal ignited like a wildfire within him. He tilted his head back on a low, shuddering moan as her kiss traveled lower, down across his bare chest.


“I wish I were a better man for you,” he murmured, taking her face gently in his hands and tipping her gaze up to his. He was so hungry for her, his voice was gravel, thick with desire. And tight with love for this woman. “I wish I could promise you a peaceful, normal life … a tranquil future. I can’t give you those things, Jordana.”


“No, you can’t.” She smiled and reached up to caress his face, her fingers tracing lightly over the furrow now creased in his brow. “But I don’t want those things. I want you. I want the storm I see in your eyes when you look at me. I want the high cliff and the breathless leap into the dark, which is how I feel when I’m with you. All I want is you, Nathan. I love you.”


His heart swelled in his chest. She knew everything now, his ugliest sins and pitiful, ignoble past. And she still wanted him.


She still loved him.


Swamped with emotion and need, he took her mouth in a fierce claiming. His fangs surged out of his gums. Amber light exploded behind his eyelids as his irises transformed.


Jordana wrapped her arms around him as he drew her up onto his lap on the edge of the large tub, their mouths still joined and hungry for each other.


On a low moan, Nathan pulled his head back and looked at her. “You’re mine.”


“Yes.” She stroked his cheek, and he nuzzled deeper into her touch. She watched him, her smile softening. “And you’re mine.”


Nathan nodded. “Always.”


“Then take me,” she told him. “There’s one more leap I’m ready to make with you.”


His veins responded before he could find his voice. Kicking as though lit with a jolt of electricity, his pulse hammered, more than eager to seal the bond that would make Jordana his woman forever.


His eternal mate.


With his eyes locked on hers, Nathan brought his wrist to his mouth and bit into his flesh.


“Drink,” he said, the word dry as sandpaper as he watched her lick her lips.


Jordana leaned forward and fastened her mouth over the punctures.


At first she was tentative, careful with her suckling. She moaned as the first swallow moved down her throat. Both her hands came up to hold on to his arm as she drew another, deeper pull from his vein.


Nathan was rock hard now, every muscle in his body rigid, all of his senses trained on the erotic suction of her mouth. He groaned a curse, his spine arching as if she were sucking his cock at the same time.


With his free hand, he petted her head as she drank more of him. His fevered gaze latched on to the pulse point throbbing frantically in the side of her delicate neck. He could hear her heart beating. Could practically feel the rapid tick of her carotid echoing in his own veins.


Jordana owned him, with or without the blood bond, but he couldn’t wait another second to make her his completely.


He smoothed his palm over the graceful column of her neck. Jordana whimpered as he stroked her, then she angled her head to give him clearer access.


It was all the temptation he could take.


On a hungered snarl, Nathan lowered his mouth onto her pale skin. The points of his fangs sank in deep, then a rush of hot, intoxicating blood flowed over his tongue.


Ah, Christ.


She tasted like heaven. Citrus and elusive, exotic spices and purest, otherworldly light.


The first hot gush of her blood roared into him, nearly making his cock explode. Like liquid lightning, her blood coursed into his body, into his cells, into his soul.


He could feel her light envelop him, engulfing him from the inside. Heat flowed up the arteries in his neck, his limbs, every fiber of him infused, nourished—completed—by the heady power of Jordana’s Atlantean blood.


Emotion erupted inside him, so intense it rocked him. It was overwhelming, a total flood of pleasure and sensation … of naked, boundless love.


Jordana felt it too.


He knew, because their emotions were now twined together through their bond.


She drew away from his wrist on a sigh, her face aglow with desire and something so much deeper.


“Make love to me.” A soft but undeniable command. One he was desperate to obey. “Now, Nathan. I need to feel you inside me now.”


He didn’t know if he answered or not. He wasn’t even sure he was capable of speech, for the intensity of his feelings for this woman.


His woman.


His mate.


Pausing only long enough to seal their bite wounds with quick sweeps of his tongue, he lifted her up into his arms.


She was on fire as he brought her out to the waiting bed in the other room. Every cell inside her was enflamed, enlivened. Supercharged with light and unearthly energy.


But running undercurrent of all that was a raw, dark power that was Nathan.


She’d felt his strength pour into her as she drank from him. The first taste had been a shock, a revelation. The second had been pure bliss. Heady, intoxicating.


And as she’d taken more and more, Jordana understood that her bond to him would be an addiction unlike any other.


She would always crave him, even without the connection of his blood joined with hers. But now she hungered for him in a new, deeper way.


A wild, demanding way that knew no patience. No mercy.


She couldn’t tear her clothes off fast enough as he set her down on the bed. The linen tunic and loose pants were gone in an instant, cast aside on her throaty growl of need.


Jordana reached to unfasten Nathan’s black fatigues and only then did she hesitate.


Because the blade wound that had pierced his torso was no longer bleeding. Not even a little.


“My God,” she whispered. “Nathan, look.”


He glanced down, and as they both watched in astonishment, his skin knitted back together. In seconds, nothing of the injury remained.


He uttered a quiet laugh and when he looked back at her, there was wonder in his stormy, amber-soaked eyes.


And love.


So much love, it drowned her. Swept her into a tide of emotion so swift and strong, she could barely breathe.


She could feel Nathan’s love for her in her veins, in her marrow. In every thrumming fiber of her being.


No more doubt, no more hiding for either of them. They were entwined as one now.


This would be their bond forever.


“Forever,” he growled fiercely, as though he understood the depth of her feeling.


As though he felt it as surely, as completely, as she did.


He quickly stripped out of his pants and boots, then prowled back up to her on the bed. Heat rolled off his naked body as he took up a position between her spread thighs.


He kissed every inch of her, then tongued her sex until she was trembling and gasping beneath him. His eyes were blazing as he crawled back up to loom over her. His lips were slick with her hot juices, his fangs enormous behind the pleased, seductive curve of his smile.

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