“Why?” I met his gaze.

“Because you’re my Acquisition. Because I have to win.”

“So you’d do anything it takes to win, to be Sovereign?”

“To win? Yes.” His face hardened, becoming the cruel mask I knew so well. “I will do everything in my power to win.”

“Then why are you here? Why even come speak to me until it’s time for my yuletide whipping?”

“Renee told you?” He shook his head and anger flashed in his tired eyes.

“Yes. She told me I have a very busy holiday schedule over the next few months.”

“What else did she tell you?”

“Nothing. You’ve got her well trained.”

He ran a hand through his dark hair. “Not me.”

“Then who?”

He took a step toward me. I matched it, stepping backward.

A shadow crossed his face—pain? Then it was gone and he fisted his hands at his sides, hell in his eyes.

“Look, Stella, this is something that neither of us can avoid. I’m doing what I have to do. That’s all you need to know about it. Once your year is up, you can leave and never look back. Until that time, I need you to do as I ask and just accept it. No more questions. No more trying to run.”

“I’m not running.”

“Keep it that way.” He took another step toward me, menacing.

I held my ground. He could hurt me, but I wouldn’t give him the benefit of my fear. I stared into him, past the blue and deeper, watching as they turned from anger to heat. The air in the room shifted, like an electrical current hummed between us.

All the concern that he’d walked in with was gone. He looked…hungry, as if the moon had emerged from behind a cloud and revealed him to be some sort of ravenous wolf.

His gaze travelled my face, my body. When heat erupted along my skin as if he’d touched me, I knew I was damned. To want the touch of the devil was nothing short of a mortal sin.

I struck him, my open palm whipping across his face with a satisfying slap. He didn’t retaliate, just tilted his head to the side until his neck popped in the most unnerving fashion. What had been fire in his eyes was now a raging inferno.

He advanced, only inches from me now. I pulled my hand back to strike him again, but he caught it, squeezing my wrist painfully. I tilted my chin up, meeting his vicious encroachment with defiance. He wouldn’t frighten me out of this space. It was mine. I didn’t care if the entire place was covered in fucking vines, I would slash and burn them until I’d cleared an area for me, my paint, my books, and my own bit of freedom.

Quick as an adder, he put his free hand to my face. I didn’t flinch, though I expected him to strike me. The heat in his gaze spoke of something explosive—violence or desire, maybe a heady mix of both. When his palm touched my skin, my eyes closed involuntarily.

“So soft.” His voice was tinged with wonder.

I was down the rabbit hole, everything topsy-turvy and wrong, because his touch—god, his touch. It was like I’d been starving for it this entire time but didn’t know it. When I opened my eyes, he leaned down, his lips teasing mine with the bare millimeters of distance. He was a gorgeous villain, a predator dressed up as a man.

I raised my unrestrained hand to hit him again, but he caught it, too, and wrenched both of them behind my back. He pressed me into his chest, caging me with his body. I could feel the blaze emanating from him, the desire like a heat wave. Could he feel mine? His gaze held me fast, furious and possessive. He looked at me like I was his. Not because of a contract, not because of the Acquisition, but because the intensity of his desire made it so. He would have what he wanted. His gaze flicked down to my mouth and he dipped his head lower, his breath grazing my lips.

I burned to destroy him, to leave him in flames as I walked away from the ashes. But first … just a kiss. I pushed up on my tip toes.

Our lips met.

I was lost.

He wasn’t gentle. I knew he wouldn’t be. I still wanted him. His lips were soft and firm, taking everything and demanding more. His tongue probed against my lips. When he pulled my hair back, I arched into him and opened my mouth. His tongue was a wicked explorer, caressing mine and tasting me in a way no one ever had.

He groaned and wrapped an arm around me, crushing me against him. His scent was in my nose, floating in my lungs like a whirlwind, putting me even further under his spell. My nipples rubbed against him, the tips hard and wanting. They ached for his touch, his mouth. I had never known the sheer need that welled up inside me, the wetness between my thighs, the desperate feeling of wanting more and still more.

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