“I don’t want perfect,” she said, her voice low and husky. “I want perfect for me.”
Was he perfect for her? Were they perfect for each other? The man who’d once pretended to be an angel and the woman who’d once been an actual devil. Or did she belong with some nameless, faceless male who wouldn’t disrupt her life?
Whoever he is, kill him, Jealousy demanded. Rip off his limbs, so he can never touch her. Cut out his tongue, so he can never kiss her. Neuter him!
Leila must have sensed the spike of violence. She plucked her nails free of his pecs and stepped back, severing contract.
Calm. Steady. “Still afraid of me? If I didn’t hurt you after you tried to murder me with a humble pie, I’ll never hurt you.” He would offer the reminder as many times as necessary.
For a moment, amusement replaced trepidation in her eyes. But she sobered as quickly as before, and said, “I know you won’t hurt me. At least, I think I know. Logically. But your demons…sometimes I’m not sure I can trust what you make me feel.”
His heart leaped. “What do I make you feel, hmm?”
A beat of silence. “Desire,” she finally admitted. “Sexual desire.”
A thousand emotions hit him at once. At the forefront? Utter satisfaction unlike anything he’d ever known. “Give me time, sugar. I’ll prove your feelings are genuine.” Or he would die trying.
He would tempt and tease her until she ached without his touch. Until she craved him like a drug.
The way she once craved Aeron.
Galen curled his hands into fists. Hate Jealousy!
“Then,” he continued, “when you want more of what I’m offering, you have only to tell me, and I’ll give you more.” So much more. He might give her everything. Despite the complications, despite the dangers.
The thought left him uneasy at first; it was so different than what he’d allowed himself to want, or expect. But it stretched and reclined inside his head, getting comfortable. He’d never offered “everything” to anyone. Spirit, heart, and body. Past, present, future. All that he was, all that he would be. All that he owned. Too many times his hopes and dreams had crashed and burned. If he placed those hopes and dreams in Leila’s hands, and she abandoned him, he might not ever recover.
Bottom line, she was a flight risk.
Take what you want and abandon ship. Get in, get out. At least he would leave her better off than he’d found her. Another first for him.
“Why are you willing to give me time?” she asked. “Why do you continue to want me? Why haven’t I scared you off?”
“I don’t understand the question. Why wouldn’t I want you? You are smart. You taught yourself how to read and write. Yes, I know about that. You are wily. A survivor. You are beautiful, luscious, every inch of you tailor-made for me. You are ballsy.”
She withered, her shoulders rolling in. “No, I used to be ballsy. Now I’m just a weak link.”
“You were hurt in the worst possible way, your spirit broken. But you are putting the pieces back together, and that makes you my hero.”
Tears welled, and her chin trembled. For the second time, she stepped closer to him. When she rested her forehead against his sternum, he enfolded her soft, sexy body in his arms.
“You are unlike anyone else I’ve ever known,” he continued. “The perfect combination of charm, vulnerability, and hard-on inducing temper. When we’re done with our lessons, you’ll be able to dissuade anyone who makes you feel threatened, even me.” He kissed her brow. “Do you have any experience with self-defense?”
“Tons. I grew up in hell, home to liars, thieves, murderers, and—” She winced, and he didn’t have to wonder what she’d planned to say. Rapists. “If you didn’t protect your stuff, you lost it.”
“We’ll consider this a refresher course, then. Are you ready?”
A beat of silence, then a nod.
He wasn’t sure she was, but he was going to train her, anyway. “Let’s say a man grabs your throat with both hands to choke you out. What do you do?”
“Do I have a blade, or am I weaponless?”
“Then I twist off his nuts and run.”
Ouch. “What if you can’t reach his testicles?”
“I jab my fingers into his eye sockets, rip out his eyeballs, and run.”
All right. Her past experience featured a lot of groin play and running. Noted. “Let’s start with a forward-facing grab. I’m going to place my hands at your throat. All right?”
Though pale, she acquiesced once again. So he did as promised, settling his fingers on the vulnerable column of her neck. Gentle, so gentle. Immediately her pulse jumped, and her breathing changed. He despised the flash of fear in her eyes.
“First, you must subdue your panic.” For a long while, he remained as still as a statue, letting her grow accustomed to the heat of his skin and the weight of his touch.
Only when the tension faded from her expression did he trace his thumbs around and around her pulse. “Good. Now, move one leg back and drop your body weight as much as possible while bending your knees.” When she’d complied, he said, “Bring one arm over my arms and rotate.”
“Like this?” She executed a perfect rotation, forcing him to loosen his grip.
“Just like that.” Excellent. “Next you’ll use the same arm to elbow me anywhere you can reach. Don’t worry about aim. Just throw your elbow as many times as necessary until you are freed.”
When she executed the move flawlessly, Galen breathed a sigh of relief. She had learned dirty street fighting in hell, the skills had just been buried underneath a mountain of fear. Today, the mountain came down.
For hours, they worked on hand-to-hand combat, and varied the weapons they utilized, everything from daggers to semi-automatics. He showed her every underhanded trick he knew while purposely maneuvering her into compromising positions, drawing her fears to the surface, one after the other.
Whenever she whimpered, he felt as if his guts had been ripped out. Still he pressed on. And so did she. Results had never been so critical. Cruel to be kind.
The first time he took her to the floor, she froze, petrified. The second time, she erupted in a panic, and she swung a fist blindly, nailing him in the eye, nearly breaking his nose.
“I’m so sorry,” she said between panting breaths.
“Enough. Let’s rest. I need a break.”
“Not yet.” Giving up now would only add fuel to the fire of her fear.
“So we’ve played enough for one day.”
“Played?” he echoed, voice hollow. They were fighting for her life. For their lives.
“Yes. Played. Humans say winning or losing isn’t important, only how you play the game. Well, I’m playing badly, and I want a chance to recharge.”
“That is a ridiculous idiotism.”
“Do you mean idiom?”
“No, I mean idiotism. You are to play to win, always, without exception. You give the game your all, and you never ever back down. An opponent will never let you take a time out.”
She inhaled sharply, exhaled heavily, and nodded. “All right. We will continue.”
He gently chucked her under the chin, almost bursting with pride. Look how far she’d come. “Give me your best, not just what’s good enough. And never hesitate to use your venomous bite. You might be punched, but the perpetrator won’t be able to remain on his feet for long.”
The third time he took her to the floor, she was just as terrified as before. But he kept going, kept taking her down, and soon anger took hold—anger directed at them both.
“I’m going to pulverize your liver,” she bellowed, shaking a fist in his direction.
He masked a grin. “Please. Try.”
By the twenty-fourth time, she was fighting back, purposely swinging at him whenever she landed. If she failed to make contact, she tried to bite him, just as he’d instructed. The little vixen would have succeeded, too, had Galen not secured her hands over her head, limiting her range of motion.
He knew the exact moment she realized his muscular weight pinned her to the floor and every move she made caused their bodies to rub together, nearly driving him mad with pleasure. She stilled, little gasping breaths escaping her. Spurred by fear?
“Want me to get off?” he asked, and he wasn’t sure which meaning he ascribed to the question. Cruel to be kind, remember? Though he disgusted himself, he pasted a leer on his face. “Make me get off. Unless you’re too weak? Yeah, I bet that’s it. You’re at my mercy. Mercy I’ve never had.” Shut up! Enough! You’re pushing too hard.