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I didn’t want to release my grip on his waist. His skin felt so perfect. The moment was perfect. I wanted to press my lips to his, and feel the heat of his body against me—but I couldn’t. That would never happen. That could never be. Lorren’s warning pressed into the front of my mind, shifting my mood rapidly. I didn’t want Collin to feel what Lorren had said to me. I didn’t want him to know. I could feel the beat of Collin’s heart, as his body pressed into me. His breath on my neck was jagged and warm.

Pressing my eyes closed, I savored the sensation before I slid my hands off his waist. They fell to my side, resisting the intense urge to run them through Collin’s hair and pull his lips down on top of mine. It was getting so warm, and my mind was clouding. I couldn’t tell him what Lorren did to me. I couldn’t tell him that the kiss would steal my soul—and his—but we had to stop. Collin seemed to sense that the moment was over. He pressed a kiss to my cheek before he moved away. I sucked in a deep breath, as I felt him move across my body, every tight muscle in his chest sliding across me slowly until he was laying on the bed next to me. He tucked his hands behind his head and stared at the ceiling with a smile on his face.

Turning to him, I laughed, “Tease.”

His gaze darted to the corner of his eyes, where he saw me, smirked, and let out a little laugh. Releasing one hand from behind his head, he took my hand in his and we both laid there for a moment, neither of us willing to move. I turned my head back toward him. His profile was regal perfection. The beauty of the slant of his nose and the angles of his cheeks were amplified by the golden sunlight that washed across his face. The entire bed was drenched in sunlight. It streamed in from the cold glass window panes, which were etched with vines of frost.

Collin turned and looked at me. His eyes had a flicker of bright blue within their depths again. I stared, unable to look away, afraid that the familiarity between us, the feeling of oneness, might slip away again.

Clearing my throat, I asked softly, “What happened to us?”

His gaze steeled. The bond was fleeting, like a snowflake pressing against the warmth of bare skin. In the past, laying there with him, and feeling his fingers intertwined with mine, would have been enough to open the floodgates of the bond. Everything would pour between us without a word. But, the faintness of the bond made my brow crease and the pit of my stomach feel like it was filled with glass.

Collin shrugged, looking away. “You. You did this.” His fingers touched the thin white line that extended up my neck. The scar the Demon Princess inflicted would be gone in a few hours, but right then, there was still a welt. I stopped breathing as he traced the welt with his pointer, gently feeling my skin move beneath his hand. His bottom lip pushed into the top suddenly. I sucked in a breath as Collin sat up and snaked his hands around my back, lifting me off the bed. His palm pressed into me, as he pulled me up off the mattress. His eyes locked with mine as his fingers moved along my back, feeling the curve of my body and the many ridged scars that failed to heal. I could barely breathe, barely move. Collin’s gaze tore into mine, searching through my mind, looking for the memory of who did this to me. But he didn’t find it. There was no face. No memory.

I sat up, and his hands fell away. Collin shifted on the bed next to me, watching. I reached for the back of my shirt, and lifted it to expose my skin. I gazed into the mirror behind me. My eyes slid over too many ridges and welts to count. Many were still bright red. Some were so thick that Collin’s hand was not wide enough to cover them. My mouth hung open. My skin didn’t heal. It should have been white like the scar at my neck that was fading, but it wasn’t. None of them were. A maze of scars ran across my back covering every inch of me. I pressed my lips together, not comprehending their existence.

His voice shattered the silence, “This. This is what happened to us. This is what destroyed the bond.” He gestured toward my back. His eyes pierced me and I wanted to weep, but there was no moisture in my eyes. He pressed his lips together, and shifted his eyes to my back. “Was it worth it? Did you want to be rid of me so badly?”

My eyes were wide, “No! It wasn’t like that. I didn’t know… ”

Collin wouldn’t let me look away from him. His eyes contained so much grief that I couldn’t stand it. A moment passed before he spoke again. He reached for a loose curl and tucked it behind my ear. The back of his palm grazed my cheek as he withdrew his hand. “You could have heard me before. You would have heard how much you mean to me. There was no question,” he shook his head, “But you didn’t believe me, and you did this. I can’t fathom it. I can’t understand why you would do this. You’re so close to losing every feeling you have. And it was all to push me away? It was to end your connection with me?”

“No, Collin. It wasn’t like that. I didn’t mean to… ” Rubbing my hands over my face, I pushed back my hair and looked down at the bed sheets. Tiny creases formed folds in the smooth white cotton. “I had to. It wasn’t optional.” Swallowing hard, I turned my head upward and looked at the ornate ceiling. Dark stained wooden beams ran the length of the room.

“Everything is optional,” he retorted. He didn’t look at me while he spoke. “You did this. You chose this. I told you. ” He could no longer speak. His throat released choked words, “I told you… How I felt. I told you the blood wouldn’t harm you. I never wanted to push you away.”

“I never wanted you to leave. Collin, I don’t want to lose you.”

“That’s not what it looks like.” He shook his head, refusing to look at me. He pushed his hair away from his face and turned away from me, hanging his leg over the side of the bed, ready to stand.

I reached for him, wrapping my fingers around his arm. He glanced down at my grip, and back into my face. My jaw hung open as I tried to find the right words and failed, “But it’s the truth.”

He laughed, leaning in toward my face. His lips brushing lightly against mine. My lower lip trembled as he spoke, “The truth. The truth is you make me crazy! The truth is you came here to torment me, sliding your hands over my body only to show me that you’d throw away the bond to be rid of me!”

I grabbed his hands, as his face searched the room, looking anywhere but at me. “No! You don’t understand! It’s not what happened. It wasn’t like that!” When he didn’t turn, I pressed my hands against his cheeks and turned his face toward me.

“Then explain it to me.”

Blinking hard, I opened my mouth to speak, but couldn’t find the words. Collin watched me. After several minutes of silence passed, he looked away. His muscles tensed as he was about to stand. The words I didn’t want to say came tumbling out of my mouth. “I made a blood bargain.”

He flung himself over me in a heartbeat, knocking me back on the bed. Oh God. His eyes! The expression on his face—it was as if I could see his heart shatter into a million tiny pieces and skitter across the floor. I sucked in a breath and tried to look away from his face, but he took my head in his hands and made me look up into his face. Blue eyes burned with rage as he looked down at me, as he bit back a mad scream. “How could you?”

His arms flexed once, hard, and he pushed himself off of me, and shot up. When his feet hit the floor, the muscles in his arms and chest were ripped into tight cords, bulging through his shirt. His hands pressed to his mouth, as he stared at nothing. Horrified. His open hand curled into a fist. He turned, and crossed the room with a speed that made me gasp. Collin drew back his shoulder and released a punch that connected with the wooden bookcase, splintering the ornately carved wood. He rounded on me as shards of wood flew through the air. His shoulders, his muscles, his neck were all so strained that I couldn’t look away. My heart raced in my chest, but no fear slid into my stomach. I didn’t feel the need to run. Collin effonated to the bed, and jumped next to me, catching my shoulders as his weight threw me in the air and throwing me down on the bed. His hands slammed down on either side of my head. Collin held me still with his chest, locking me in place with his arms. “Why? Why? Why would you do such a thing?” he screamed in my face.

For a moment there was nothing but the sound of my breath as he waited for a response. It was a response I couldn’t give. I did it because I had to. I did it because I had no choice. Finally words came to me, “I did it because you can’t protect me from him forever.” Collin’s jaw twitched as it locked tight. My heart roared in my ears. It felt like I was yelling, but my voice came out in a whisper. “There is no way out of the prophecy, Collin. You know that. This won’t end, not until I end it.” He shot away from me, like I was poison. Jumping upright, I crawled off the bed on my knees. His back was to me. Every muscle in his body looked as if it could explode. I didn’t touch him. “Collin, I didn’t want it to affect us. I didn’t know… ”

He rounded on me. Within seconds he was in my face. “But I did. I told you the price was too high. I told you nothing was free. Not when demons are involved. And now you are bound to this demon until he’s done with you… if he doesn’t kill you first! And how are you going to live with this?” He thrust a finger forward, pressing it against the place where the venom laid in my chest.

I shook my head, swatting his finger away, trying to keep him from seeing what Locoicia did. “Collin, it’s not like that. You don’t understand.” My arms reached behind me, as I tried to move away from him, crawling backwards across the bed.

Collin leaned down into my face, roaring. Angry. Afraid. “No! You don’t understand! They don’t play by the rules. They aren’t fair. Anything, and everything they say is covered in lies! Damn it, Ivy!” His hands shot to his hair, where he pulled. He hesitated, his arms shaking. When he turned back to me, Collin’s eyes were wild, burning like the blue flame at the center of a massive fire. Collin reached for me. I didn’t realize what he was doing until it was too late. His fingers grabbed my neckline and pulled hard. The fabric tore like a tissue in his hand. The piece of dark cloth fell away. Shocked, I stood there with my mouth hanging open. My instincts were too slow. My hands hesitated. Before my arms shot up to cover me, his eyes saw it. Smooth skin. No trace of the venom that was killing me.

His lips parted as he looked into my face, as his eyes narrowed to untrusting slits. I cracked my jaw to speak, but he reached for me. His hand shot out, pulling my arms away from my chest. Then his thumb slid along the top of my bra, making my heart leap into my throat. He stared at the patch of soft, white flesh. There was no dark line marring my breast. The sapphire serum appeared to be gone. There was nothing but smooth skin. Twisting out of his reach, I grabbed the remnants of my shirt and clutched them to my chest.

I wanted him to understand, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. He sucked in a sharp breath and dropped his hand. “He healed you.” His words were scarily calm. His eyes were suddenly sucked free of anger. Looking into my face, he asked, “What was the price?” My lips parted, but I couldn’t speak. I leaned away from him. “What was the price!” Turning abruptly, he snapped off one of the posters and hurled it across the room. The massive piece of carved wood slammed into the bookcase, tearing away a chunk of wood as it bounced away, and shattered the mirror. Shards of glass flew through the room, sprinkling across the floor like a can of spilled glitter.

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