She found herself fascinated by his chest. By each cut muscle. By the way the hair spread over his skin. So unique to a man’s body. These shapes, the hair, the hardness of the muscle.
She looked down farther. At the well-defined abs, the line of hair that disappeared beneath the waistband of his shorts. And she nearly choked.
She’d never been this close to a man. Not for this long. She’d fought them off before, but this was different.
She looked back up at his face, breathing even harder now. Her limbs tingling a bit. From the lack of oxygen, she was certain. Since she was breathing hard. And there was certainly no other explanation.
He leaned forward and bit her neck. It wasn’t painful, the sensation of his teeth scraping against her skin. It was something else entirely. Something that made her flail, stumble and fall backward onto the mat.
“I say we call it even, little viper,” he said, looking down at her.
Rage filled her and she popped back to her feet. “Of course you’d say that because I won. That was…not a move I recognize.”
“You didn’t say no biting.”
“One shouldn’t have to say that!”
“Apparently one did,” he said, breathing out hard, the muscles in his stomach rippling.
“I demand a rematch.”
“Later,” he said, “when I can breathe again. You are a fierce opponent. And considering I do have a major size advantage, I cannot overlook the fact that, were we the same size, you would have destroyed me.”
“I very nearly destroyed you as it is,” she hissed.
“Don’t sound so dry. I could have ended you.”
“But you will not,” he said. “Not now.”
“You don’t think?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Because I can offer you life. Ending me means ending yourself, too.”
Her throat tightened, her palms slick. “I was prepared for that.”
“I understand,” he said, his tone grave. “But I think now that you’ve been given another opportunity you might see things differently?”
She looked down, hating that the war inside her was transparent to him. Hating that he could see her weakness. That he could see she wanted. That his poisoned apple was indeed shiny and tempting.
A future. One with power. One where she wasn’t starving, or freezing or afraid.
One where she lived.
Yes, she was starting to want that. But what it came with…that she wasn’t sure of. But the cost would be her honor. The cost would be letting her enemy into her bed.
If it’s for the greater good?
That was hard. She’d never much thought of the greater good. Only her own. That was what survival mode did to a person.
But this served the greater good and her personal good.
Weakness. Are you certain this isn’t just weakness?
It very likely was. But then, she was tired of being strong. At least in this way. Tired of having to be so strong she didn’t care for anything but living to the next sunrise, but living long enough so her life could end in Khadra when she’d ended Khadra’s ruler.
Perhaps, in the end, that was the weakness. To aspire to nothing more than revenge, because wanting anything more had always seemed impossible. Too far out of her reach.
She shoved that thought aside.
“Perhaps,” she said. “You have to admit, life is a very enticing reward.”
“It is,” he said. “I was personally prepared to beg for it sixteen years ago.”
She blinked. “Were you?”
“It turned out I didn’t have to,” he said. “I simply hid…and I was able to escape.”
She nodded slowly. “That’s what I did.”
“You were a child.”
“You were young.”
“I did my best to atone,” he said. “Though, in the end it was too late.”
“You couldn’t have saved them. If your father wasn’t strong enough to save them, a boy of fifteen with no fighting skills certainly couldn’t have.”
It was nothing more than the truth, and she wasn’t sure why she was speaking it. Wasn’t sure exactly why she wasn’t letting him marinate in his guilt. Only that, from a purely logical standpoint, he was wrong. Because, had he not hidden, as she and her mother had done, he would not have lived.
She took a sharp breath and continued. “It would have done your country no good to have you killed that day.”
The left corner of his mouth lifted. “Perhaps not. But it would have saved you a trip.”
IT WAS TIME for him to announce his impending marriage. And Ferran could only hope his viper bride cooperated with him.