Embrace Me at Dawn

Page 13

Anka blinked, stared. Clearly, she’d expected a rude comeback, an argument. He’d disarmed her with his sincerity and honesty. He could see some of the fight leaving her in the way her face softened and her shoulders rounded.

“I don’t fault you for what Mathias did to me. When it happened, neither of us fathomed that he would stoop to that level.”

“I should have. I knew he was attacking families and taking women. I should have realized that he would bring the fight to those who opposed him. I was so absorbed in gearing up for battle that I didn’t realize how vulnerable I’d left you.”

And that fact still pained him as nothing could. He’d been so busy trying to protect magickind that he’d left his own mate alone to fight one of the worst evils their people had ever seen.

“It’s over and done. Leave it.”

She sounded ready to forgive the unforgivable, and he couldn’t. Nor did he understand. Where did her anger come from, if it wasn’t over his failure? “I can’t. I should have seen to your safety before anything else. I should have kept myself together when Mathias broke our bond so I could save you. I failed you, and it eats me alive every day.”

“You had no control over your mental state, any more than I did. Witches lose their memories. Wizards pine, sometimes to insanity. I don’t blame you for that.”

“What do you blame me for, then? Don’t say nothing. I hear it in your voice.”

“Are we going to chat all day or get some bloody work done?”

“Your attempt to avoid the question isn’t going to work. We have quite a bit of training to cover. So the sooner you tell me what I’ve done to anger you, the sooner we can move forward.”

“Who says you have? Why is it about you? Maybe living with Shock, his attitude has rubbed off, and it’s made me a bloody bitch.”

He shook his head. “I know your dirty little secrets, love. And one of them is that you like to please those around you.” When she blanched, he dropped his elbows to his knees and stooped a bit to look directly into her eyes. “It’s all right. Except you don’t always tell the people in your life what you need in return. I won’t let that happen with me again.”

Lucan’s heart pounded furiously, and he wondered if she heard his unspoken message. If she needed a best friend, confidante, or lover, he would fill the role. If she required a firmer hand, well… he would take care of her there, as well. She would get his undying devotion. If anyone left marks on Anka in the future, it wouldn’t be Shock. He’d kill the dodgy fuck first. He wouldn’t push Anka too hard—yet. Despite her appearance and attitude, she was still fragile. She needed his reassurance. But he’d soon test the theory that she also needed so much more. Anything sexual now would have to wait until they established more trust. Otherwise, she would run to Bram, who would put someone else in charge of her training. He must be careful.

For now.

Anka’s face closed up. “What the devil does any of this have to do with teaching me to fight Anarki?”

“You can’t learn from a trainer you don’t trust. And I can’t teach a pupil who won’t open up to me and tell me what’s in her head. This is hard, physical work. Doing things halfway or not telling me what you require from me can get you killed. We have to be a team, rely on one another without question. I won’t tell Bram that you’re ready to fight until I know it’s absolutely true.”

“Fine. I trust that you will not allow me to be hurt in training.”

Her answer was just a breath shy of petulant. Whatever hurt plagued her, she held it tenaciously.

“That’s a start, but there’s a certain mental and emotional trust that comes with placing your life in another warrior’s hands, love.”

“Stop calling me that.”

“Stop telling the trainer how to train.” He raised a disapproving brow at her.

She dropped her gaze to her lap. Her unconscious show of deference was both a confirmation of Thorpe’s words and an affirmation of his own new understanding. He liked it, too, which took him a bit by surprise. Perhaps that made him something of a caveman, but her vulnerability touched him. Her sad air of fragility under the leather and fighting attitude made him vow to do whatever necessary to make her whole. He grabbed the edges of his chair to stop himself from rushing her, covering her pretty red bow mouth, and devouring her.

Drawing in a breath for self-control, he thought through his options. If he had more time on his side, he’d draw her out slowly, making sure she felt cared for and secure every step of the way. But with Morganna on the loose and Mathias plotting who knew what, not to mention Shock digging his meaty fists into her heart, time wasn’t his friend.

“Before we proceed, I think it’s important that we work on building our trust again. I’m going to ask you a question, and it won’t be an easy one to answer. When I’m satisfied that you’ve answered it completely and honestly, I will reward you in return.”

She raised a brow. “Did you sit about playing ‘Truth or Dare’ with the other boys and offer them a lolly, too?”

“One more burst of sarcasm, Anka, and I’ll tack on a five-kilometer run.” He’d rather not threaten her when she seemed so fragile, but she continued to needle him, testing him just enough to make it clear that she sought his attention. “Do you understand?”

“Yes, Lucan.”

God, he loved the way she said that. Her voice was low and angry, but carried a hint of softness that made him even harder.

“Good, love. Either tell me why you’re angry with me—”

“What good will that do? You’re here to train me. I’m here to learn. End of story.”

“Thank you for your summation, but I disagree. We are here to build our trust. That includes honesty, even if it’s brutal. Even if you think I won’t give a shit, I want your sincere answer. If I don’t wish to hear something you have to say, I’ll tell you. Otherwise, you don’t make those decisions for me.”

Her eyes flashed defiantly. “Stop talking to me like a three-year-old, you sodding bastard.”

“Perhaps I am a sodding bastard, but I’m one who’s ready to run five kilometers. Are you? If not, I suggest you answer my question or hear the other, then decide.”

Her lips pursed with annoyance. Anka might not like this, but she needed it. It was working. This was the most productive conversation they’d engaged in since her disappearance. The woman who’d walked in here ten minutes ago was far stronger-willed than the Anka he’d lived with. This one was fighting…but hurting. If he was clever and firm enough, she would eventually begin to trust and lean on him again. He simply had to keep his wits about him, exercise his patience, and let her work it out in her head, giving her a nudge here and there when she required it.

“What else do you want to know?” She gritted her teeth.

“If you won’t tell me what I’ve done to make you angry, then I want to hear exactly what Mathias did to you.”

Horror flared her amber eyes wide. She shot up, scrambling back, knocking her chair over. It clattered against the hardwood floors. “Absolutely not.”

Lucan couldn’t mistake the trembling in her voice. He longed to take her in his arms and assure her that she could trust him with her story, that nothing she said could make him care less. He must know the details of her trauma eventually. She couldn’t truly begin to heal until she let out the truth.

Frustrated at her reticence, he fixed a gentle but resolved expression on his face. “Anka, I’ve given you a choice. Several, in fact. Pick from two questions, choose a five-kilometer run, or quit. I’ve been more than fair.”

She swallowed, paced around her chair. Lucan nearly bit his tongue at the gentle flare of her hips and the delicate curve of her arse, that thick silken rope of hair hanging to the small of her back, begging him to tug on it and bend her back until her lips trembled just under his. How long had it been since he kissed her, smelled her. Tasted her. A mere three months…and yet, forever. Bloody hell, he’d missed her.

Anka whirled around to face him, her expression sharp and decisive. “All right, then. I’ll run. Let me pop out and get my trainers. I’ll be back—”

“No. You must run now. In those shoes. Or that option is off the table.”

“I can’t, and you bloody well know it.”

“I told you to come prepared to train. If you’re not…” He shrugged and couldn’t help but grin. “The boots look stunning on you, I admit. But I’m fairly certain you thought you’d wear those nasty heels in case we practiced self-defense again and you got to pound your dainty little foot down on mine.” She flushed guiltily, and he broadened his smile. “Sorry, love. If you’re not prepared to run, you’ll have to answer me or quit altogether.”

She thrust her hands on her hips. “When did you become a manipulative arse?”

“Are you resorting to name-calling because I’m determined to train you properly?” He stood and righted her chair, brushing dangerously close to her.

Blast it all, she smelled so achingly familiar. He’d missed that scent, spent entire nights in their closet breathing in her clothes, trying to catch even the faintest whiff of her flowers and musk. Thankfully, today she smelled nothing like Shock. He prayed his baggy jog pants and long T-shirt covered up the erection desperately seeking her attention. Of course he knew she’d had sex since her rape—and wasn’t that a stab in the heart?—but he had no notion how afraid she might be of him. Of real intimacy. Perhaps one reason she asked Shock to hold her down was to force her past her fears so that she could accept energy without thought or guilt. He’d find out for certain soon.

“I’m calling you a manipulative arse because you’re forcing me to tell you things that don’t concern you.”

Her anger didn’t concern him? Her rape didn’t? Oh, she was so very wrong. Everything about her had been his business once and it would be again.

“Sit.” He voiced his demand in soft tones, but put steel behind it.

Anka glared at him for a long, silent minute. She actually contemplated walking out, he could tell. Lucan both wanted and feared it. She would be safer if she quit, but he might never be this close to her again. He waited, watching her small fists clench, her mouth purse mutinously, then she dropped into the chair.

“I’m not quitting.”

The old Anka would have at his first hint of displeasure. This one? Well, if they were going to repair their relationship, it would require honesty and better communication. Besides, seducing the surrender of this strong-willed creature would be a delight. “Which question will you answer, then?”

She drew in a fortifying breath. “I’m angry with you because you’re being a bloody pillock.”

“That’s a five-kilometer run tomorrow, Anka, for sarcasm and lying to me. You came in wearing an attitude like armor. I’m not the enemy. I’m here to help you. If you can’t drop your shields and trust me, we’ll never make it out of these chairs so that you can train. If I’m going to get nothing but attitude from you, we’re done for today.”

Her nose flattened. She bit her lip, and her eyes welled up. A moment later, she shook her head, shaking off the expression. But he’d seen the worry and fear. “All right, then! I’m angry with you because you nearly mated with Sabelle. Are you happy to know it hurts me? Does that give you some sort of thrill?”

He was happy. Not that that he’d caused her pain, of course. The acknowledgement, however unwilling, that she still cared tingled through every last nerve in his body. “I’m sorry if that hurt you. Let me explain.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does. No, don’t look away from me.” He waited for a pregnant moment, until she complied. “I see you readying an argument. Don’t. Just listen,” he insisted. “It. Matters. At the time Sabelle and I discussed mating, I believed you forever beyond my reach. I’d thrown myself entirely into saving magickind to have a damned purpose in life. Sabelle and I would never truly be more than friends, but there are worse things to base a mating on.” He shrugged. “Ultimately, I stopped the proceedings. She was clearly in love with Ice. After the way you and I had been cruelly parted, I refused to wish either of them that sort of pain. And because you were honest with me just now, I will be honest with you.” He grabbed her hand and stared directly into her eyes. “I ultimately couldn’t take Sabelle as my mate because she wasn’t you and my heart refused any other.”

Anka reared back as if he’d punched her in the stomach. She shot to her feet once more and turned away furiously. “You can’t say that. Shock will read my thoughts.”

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