She reached out with a trembling hand and took one of the sandwiches. Her eyes closed as she bit into the bread, and she chewed slowly, as if relishing the flavors. Then, driven by a need she couldn’t control, she tore into the food with abandon.

“Slow down,” he said. “I don’t want you to get sick.”

She acted as if she hadn’t heard him, devouring every crumb, draining every drop of soda. He could only watch, fascinated. And spectacularly angry. Clearly, she had been starved.

“Where are you staying?” he asked. What he really wanted to know: Who was responsible for this?

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“At least tell me you’re over the age of eighteen.” She looked so young.

“I’m...not, I’m sorry. I’m seventeen.”

Disappointment hit him, and hit him hard.

She flattened her hand over her middle, those ocean blue eyes going wide. A moan of pain escaped her.

He arched a brow. “Too much too fast?”

She leaped to her feet, gasping out, “Help.”

“Bathroom is to the left.”

She raced into the small enclosure, and Torin stayed right on her heels. When she hunched over the toilet, he did something he’d never before done, even though, like now, he always wore gloves. He grabbed her hair and held it back. And just in time as she heaved the contents of her stomach.

When she finished, he released her and stepped back. “Why don’t you take a shower? Everything you need is in this room, even a change of clothes.” He kept a few shirts and sweatpants in here. He kept shirts and sweatpants everywhere, actually, always wanting to be covered, never wanting to risk exposing his skin to another’s touch.

A female had never worn his clothing before, and he kind of liked the idea.

But she’s only seventeen, and you aren’t a cradle robber.

Stupid Cronus, finding him a girl too young to touch.

At least, for now.

She remained slumped on the floor and wouldn’t look up at him.

“You’ll feel better, and then you can try eating again.”

“All right.”

“Do you need my help?”

“No. No,” she reiterated.

Thank the Most High. He wasn’t sure how he would have reacted. “When you’re done, we’ll talk, all right?” He shut the door, sealing her inside.

Several minutes passed before he heard the water switch on. While she showered, he paced, waiting. Thinking. Twenty-four hours, she’d said. That’s how long he had with her. That wasn’t long enough.

He wanted to ask when she would turn eighteen. He wanted to drop to his knees and pray it happened during their time together.

Creepy much?

Surely she would not become a carrier of his disease. Cronus wouldn’t have sent him a carrier. The moment she was an adult, Torin could allow himself to touch her. It didn’t have to be sexual, either. They could hold hands.

To experience the warmth of another’s skin, the softness, the sense of connection, the tactile knowledge that he wasn’t alone...

He moaned at the heady thought.

A long while later, she emerged, a cloud of steam following her. Wet, her hair was dark, almost brown. She’d brushed it, but the strands had decided to curl. With the dirt scrubbed off her face, he could see the purity of her skin. Pale, like porcelain, with a slight tracery of veins. Flawless.

She wore his clothing, the material so loose it bagged on her.

“Thank you,” she said in that whispery voice.

“You’re welcome.”

He watched as she shifted uncomfortably, still not looking at him.

“I know I get twenty-four hours with you,” he said, “but I’d rather not take them consecutively. I’d rather spread them out. One hour a day, for twenty-four days. Would you be okay with that?” He could use the time to earn her trust, to get her talking and relaxed. Happy to see him. And maybe, if his luck was holding, she would want to keep seeing him.

Surprised baby blues landed on him. “But I thought...”


“Never mind.” She bit her bottom lip, nodded. “Conditions allow for it, so, yes, I would prefer to come an hour a day for twenty-four days.”

His knees almost buckled. “Thank you.”

She nodded, saying, “Until tomorrow.” In a blink, she was gone.


JOSEPHINA HURRIEDLY STUFFED her meager possessions in a bag. A wad of cash she’d saved. A change of clothing. Her mother’s locket—one she never wore, too afraid someone would rip it from her neck.

Kane hadn’t left. His wedding was today, and she wasn’t going to stick around to watch. Maybe he’d go through with it. Maybe he wouldn’t. She had a feeling she would wonder for the rest of her life—and cry.

As she tied the bag closed, her stomach clenched. Tears beaded in her eyes, and she sniffed with frustration. Stupid tears! They came so often now. Ever since she’d met Kane.

I shouldn’t have kissed him that last time.

But she’d lost herself in the pleasure and the riotous sensations and the heat and the pressure and the need...everything. The past had fallen away. The desire to die, muted as it had become, had breathed its last. Kane had become her world, and she hadn’t wanted to ever be found.

And he’d wanted to stay with her, too. But...yeah. But: the word that had ruined everything. She’d had a choice. Be with him, risking the wrath of the king, or be without him, protecting him.

Protecting him had seemed more important than her desire—but only by the slightest degree.

One day, Kane might even thank her. Heck, he was already happy without her. He’d left the ball with Synda and though Josephina had looked for him, she hadn’t seen him since. She had no idea what had happened between the pair, but rumors were rampant. Kane had spent the night in her bedroom.

One of the tears spilled over, and she wiped it away with the back of her hand.

Whatever. Alone in the servant’s wing, Josephina tiptoed down the hall and peeked out the window overlooking the driveway. A line of carriages stretched down the road; each contained an Opulen probably bursting with eagerness to reach the royal gate. The wedding was set to begin any minute.

There was no better time for escape. The servants were busy below. The king and queen were distracted. The guards had to watch the grounds to make sure the Phoenix stayed away.

“Seriously?” a voice said from behind her. “You’re actually running from me?”

She spun around and came face-to-face with a very angry Kane. He wasn’t wearing wedding finery. In fact, he looked...slovenly. He wore a wrinkled T-shirt that read Honey Badger Don’t Care, whatever that meant, and his pants were ripped in several places. His eyes were bloodshot, and thick lines of tension branched from his mouth.

“Why aren’t you in the human realm, or better yet, downstairs preparing for your nuptials?” she demanded, hating him, hating herself.

“You’re that eager to marry me off?”

She raised her chin, refusing to reveal the turmoil inside her. “You bedded the princess, didn’t you? I think you’ve got enough eagerness for the both of us.”

His features softened, making him appear boyish and hopeful and so lovely her chest hurt. “Do I detect a note of jealousy, Tink?”

“You certainly don’t! I don’t care what you do or what skank you do it with.”

A lie. She hated lies. What was wrong with her? Since meeting him, she’d become more than a crybaby. She’d become a shrew.

The softness vanished in a blink, and his eyes narrowed. “All right. Yeah. I slept with her. I also slept with a boatload of women before I even reached Séduire. But you know what? Synda was the best I’ve ever had.”

It was like a punch to the gut, a blow so low she wasn’t sure she would ever recover. Humiliation burned in her cheeks, and maybe it was fused with disappointment and fury. How could he! How could he go from Josephina’s kisses to Synda’s bed, and then brag about it?

The fury suddenly overshadowed every other emotion.

“Congratulations,” she said as drily as she was able. “You’re officially like every other man in this realm.” She had saved his life, and he had saved hers. Circumstances hadn’t allowed them to be lovers, but they could have been friends. She’d always wanted to be his friend. Yet he’d just ruined any hope for such an outcome. “I wish you’d stayed away from me. I wish I’d never met you.”

His features didn’t change, not this time, but his voice went low and quiet, dripping with disdain. “Too bad. I didn’t, and you did, and you have no one but yourself to blame. You should have left me in hell.”

“Oh, don’t worry. I’m about to do just that.” She tried to step around him.

He moved with her, blocking her. “You’re not going anywhere. Synda got into trouble last night and she’s earned another punishment.”

Josephina froze. “What did she do?”

“Does it matter?”

It had to do with him, didn’t it?

“You’re to be whipped.”

“No, no, no.” That would mean the king was searching for Josephina. She knew him. Knew he would actually postpone the wedding ceremony to find her, wanting the situation dealt with before placing Synda—and thereby Josephina—into another man’s care. And if he discovered she’d planned an escape... How could Kane be so cavalier about it? Shaking her head, she backed away from him. “How could you do this to me?”

“I didn’t want any of this to happen, Tink.”

“Don’t call me that! You don’t get to call me by a cutesy nickname when you just ruined my only chance for freedom.”

“You want freedom?” His volume increased with every word. “Well, then, I’ll get your freedom. Right now. Then, I’ll be leaving the realm, and so will you. But don’t worry. I won’t be with you, so you won’t have to fear my inability to protect you.” He extended his arm, intending to grab her.