I didn’t care that Clara was down the hall absorbed in my bronze creations. I didn’t care that the stress of the day had stolen the edges of my vision or that my body felt like an overstretched rubber band.
I didn’t fucking care.
“I can’t do this anymore.” I launched myself at her, shoving her against the opposite wall. My heart exploded as my mouth crashed hard on hers.
It wasn’t sweet. It wasn’t planned. It was angry and violent, and everything that I needed.
My hands captured her cheeks, holding her firmly in place. My lips moved against hers, hungry and demanding.
She gasped in shock, then moaned in anger, trying to bite me as I pierced the seam of her lips and plunged a hungry tongue deep into her mouth.
I fucking kissed her like I wanted to so many times before. I kissed her with everything that I was and hoped to be.
Her body went taut, vibrating against mine. My brain sparked and overloaded with too much sensation, but for once I was able to keep it together. I flattened her against the wall, squashing her breasts against me, loving the rapid thud thud of her heart against my ribs.
“Fucking kiss me,” I growled against her mouth. I wanted to tear her clothes off and take her against the wall. I wanted to sink deep inside her hot dark warmth and prove to her I could give her what she wanted.
It took a never-ending moment, but suddenly the tension in Zel’s body switched to writhing passion. Her tongue flashed out to battle with mine.
We didn’t kiss. We fought. We poured everything we couldn’t say into one timeless action.
I groaned, threading my fingers through her hair, capturing the back of her scalp. I pulled her harder against me.
“I want you to touch me. I want you to break me. I’m yours, Hazel. Fuck.”
She swallowed my invitation, kissing me harder, bruising my lips with hers. Our teeth clashed and my skin erupted, needing her fingers on me.
But her arms stayed locked by her sides.
She moaned as I left the realm of sanity and poured every apology, every regret, I had into her mouth and down her throat and into her fucking heart. I wanted her to know that she owned me. I needed her to know she’d helped me—more than she knew. More than anyone.
I owed her everything; I couldn’t let her leave. It was the one thing I wouldn’t do. I would gladly go to hell for kidnapping and holding her prisoner, but she’d given me a cure not in herself, but in her perfect, amazing, life-altering daughter.
Clapping entered my thoughts, followed by a feminine giggle. I crashed to earth and swore under my breath.
Shit. Hardly appropriate for child’s eyes.
I broke away, sucking in huge gusts of air, discreetly rearranging my trousers. Clara stood there looking like she’d watched a prince claim his fucking queen. My heart lurched thinking how close to the truth that was. My family tree was royal. My blood supposedly blue.
That made Obsidian my kingdom and Zel my subject to do as I pleased. And what I pleased was to take her behind closed doors and hand myself over to whatever medicine and therapy she had in mind.
“Aww, I knew you liked my mother. She gives the best kisses, but not like that. Those were icky.” She rolled her eyes. “You’re hopeless. You don’t know how to hug or kiss.”
Zel swallowed a surprised cough, quickly straightening her shirt. She unobtrusively wiped her red swollen lips, removing traces of my kiss. “You’re right, Clara. He has a lot to learn.” She shot me a glance, and I couldn’t fight the smile hijacking my lips.
“I saw the polar bear. It was awesome. But I want a sheep.” Clara radiated happiness and I risked everything by placing a tentative hand on her bony shoulder.
Calming my rapid heartbeat, I smiled. “I’ll get started on it tonight. Your mother and I came to a deal. You’ll stay for a few nights and then go home. Is that okay?”
Her smile fell a little. “I guess.” Looking at her mother, she added, “But if I’m good maybe I can stay longer?”
Zel made a humph noise, not moving from her place squished against the wall. Clara moved toward her mother, and leaned her head against her waist. Zel wrapped an around Clara’s head, holding her close. She moved slowly almost as if her body was too heavy, too sensitive to bear. I could relate completely. Every part of me felt as if I had a billion needles dancing on my flesh—both pleasure and pain, intoxicating and distracting.
Clara suddenly grew shy and whispered to Zel, “I’m hungry. Can I have chicken nuggets? I went to the hospital today, and you normally let me have them for being brave.”
Hospital? What the fuck?
My gaze bored a hole into Zel, but she refused to make eye contact. Ducking to Clara’s level, she pressed her lips against her ear and said something I couldn’t hear.
My stomach rolled, searching for any sign of why such a vital little girl would’ve been at the hospital.
Zel finally stood and met my livid gaze. “She had her annual inoculations, that’s all. But she’s right, I do let her have chicken nuggets when she’s been. Do you think we can rustle some up for her?”
I had no idea what was stocked in the kitchen, but I would buy a hundred damn nuggets if that’s what Clara wanted.
Before I turned chef for the first time in my life, I had to know. I’d announced it to Clara, but Zel hadn’t agreed yet. “You’re staying?”
Zel pursed her lips. “Will you keep your distance?”
“Okay. One night.”
I wanted to argue for more, but I had twenty-four hours to plead and cajole. Right now, I had to do the most domestic thing of my life, and I couldn’t fucking wait.
I’d probably burn them. We’d most likely end up ordering in, but I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather do.
Smiling at Clara, I said, “Let’s go see what I have in the fridge. I’m sure they’ll be something delicious in there.”
Clara beamed and bounced away from Zel. “Oh, goodie. And then I want a story.”
No amount of sunlight could make me feel as happy as I did in that moment. Life seemed suddenly bearable—more than bearable: joyous.
I motioned for Zel to walk beside me, wishing for the day when I could hold her hand and not battle the urge to destroy her.
Zel nodded and fell into step with me. “I don’t think Fox’s stories are quite suitable for your ears, Clara. How about we head to the library and pick up a few?”
Clara turned around, wrinkling her nose. “I don’t want stories from the library. I want real stories.” She danced on the spot, twisting her sweater. “Oh, and mummy. His name isn’t Fox. It’s Roan.”
That was two days ago.
Forty-eight hours that were heaven and hell—perpetual amounts of stress and agony. My nerves were shot, flashbacks of Vasily crept up on me in the worst moments, and I found myself exhausted when I crawled into bed at daybreak.
But I wouldn’t change a thing.
Self-harm came in the form of battling my conditioning every time Clara came near, and I grew to understand my triggers better; understand what made me snap and revert to Ghost, and what allowed me to stay sane.
On the first night, after burning a tray of chicken nuggets, I finally got the hang of how to use the oven and had the best meal of my life. Sitting around a kitchen table I’d never sat at, using skills I’d never had to learn, I indulged in normalcy.
Staring at Zel and Clara while eating such a simple meal, I cursed my handlers once again for stealing my life. For giving me a world shut off from love, laughter, and gentleness. Not once had we ever been allowed to form attachments. Our cells were apart, our meals eaten separately. Our only purpose to rest like a stowed weapon until a new contract came through. A new enemy to kill or vendetta to fulfill on behalf of obscenely wealthy men and women.
It’d been worse than a prison sentence, and I felt as if the bars were finally disappearing—I’d found a way to weld myself free, and I would never allow anyone to steal so much from me again.
Zel kept her distance. That first night, I gave her the room next to mine—fully aware she would need her own space with Clara. I didn’t push for another kiss, or time alone to talk. I was content to just have them in my home. I may be obsessed with Clara, but I knew I had to tread lightly. To not let on just how fucked-up I was, and how much I needed her.
Every second in Clara’s presence lifted the black cloud from around my heart, and I found my lips twitching and stomach clenching in a brand new emotion of happiness. It filled me with sunshine and for the first time since they stole me, I didn’t fear the darkness inside my soul. I had something other than death surrounding me. I had life.
Clara didn’t go to school the next day. Instead, Zel allowed her to explore my home while I slept till midday. I found them in the greenhouse when I woke and trailed after mother and daughter, drinking in their magic.
I’d wanted Zel the moment I’d set eyes on her in Obsidian, but it was nothing, nothing, compared to the ever burning passion I now smouldered with. Every time she laughed at a quip from Clara, or tossed her dark hair over her shoulder, I inched closer to falling.
I didn’t know if she’d accept me, or if she’d leave in a few days and that would be the end of it, but she owned me more than anyone. More than my handlers, more than my own self-worth, I belonged completely and utterly to her.
I did the right thing—the only correct thing in my life by keeping my hands off her. I didn’t know how I managed. My cock had a mind of its own, and my eyes weren’t content unless she was centrefold, but I refused to hurt her again. I meant what I said when I agreed to never going near her if that was what she wished.
I ignored my thoughts of taking her and hoarded the sweet, unsullied companionship Zel and Clara gave me.
The next time I took her—if there was a next time—I wanted to give her everything. I wanted to make love to her. I wanted to learn the difference. I wanted her to know I belonged to her.
Every now and again, Clara would cough and tears would fill her little eyes. Zel would administer an asthma inhaler and the coughs would dissipate. Whenever I asked why Clara was coughing, Zel would snap and tell me it was only asthma—nothing to worry myself about.
But I did worry. A lot. Something wasn’t right. Her lies stank, drenched in grief, and the sharp tingle of fear never left my skin.
Seeing the love Zel had for her daughter almost brought me to my fucking knees. I’d give anything to have her look at me that way.
Her sorrow tainted everything she did, though. She thought I didn’t notice; she thought Clara didn’t notice. But we did. Often Clara would catch my eye over Zel’s shoulder mid-hug, her little eyebrow raised in question.
Zel carried sadness inside, heavy and aching, and she never uttered a word about it.
When Zel and Clara went to bed, I oversaw Obsidian. Once the last fighter left at five a.m., I headed to my basement and worked on Clara’s request.
The second night was spent out on the lawn under the summer sun. Complete with Nutella sandwiches and chocolate dipped marshmallows. Zel had rolled her eyes at how easily swayed I was by the whims of an eight-year-old. She didn’t know taking orders was in my DNA. She also didn’t know I’d fought my handlers all my life and enjoyed finally obeying such simple, innocent requests from someone so tiny.
I would kill for her without question. I would protect her with my life.
When dinner was over and Zel announced it was Clara’s bedtime, she’d pouted and moaned and only settled once I’d dragged three bronze statues into her bedroom—slowly building a menagerie of metal wildlife.
I indulged her. I adored her.
I’d never been so consumed by one person. Every time I watched her liveliness, my heart would break for Vasily and all the children like me who’d been killed because we weren’t cold-hearted enough for the warped game of our handlers.