He’d only get himself killed, and she didn’t want that. “Well, I release you from your debt. How’s that?”
He shook his head. “I’m your new constant companion, Tinker Bell. It’ll be better for both of us if you get used to the idea.”
Kane…with her every second…
A blessing and a curse, just like her strength-stealing ability. “Either kill me, get me out of the forest, or get lost. Those are your three choices.”
“I’ll get you out of the forest,” he said, standing, circling her with all the predatory intent of a ravenous beast, “and while I’m doing it, you’ll tell me how many people I need to kill to make you feel like your life is worth saving.”
She wrapped her arms around her middle lest she be tempted to reach out again. “Too many.”
“So the problem is people.” He stopped in front of her.
“Yes, but did you hear me? There are too many of them.”
“Too many is my specialty.” Hesitant, he held out his hand to help her up.
More contact? Freely offered this time?
She licked her lips and stretched out her hand.
He recoiled, as though startled, even though he’d been the instigator, and his arm dropped to his side. He made a fist, a dark, frightening need springing to life in his eyes. But…a need for what?
Trembling, she labored to her feet under her own steam. Which, to be honest, wasn’t much. Her adrenaline must have crashed. Her knees knocked together, struggling to hold her up.
“I’m sorry,” Kane said, his voice low and quiet, yet somehow far more undisciplined than she knew him to be. “I should have helped you.”
Clearly, he hadn’t gotten over his aversion to touch. Especially hers. “Yes, well, I’m not going with you, and I don’t want my problems murdered. An attempt would only create more problems.”
“I’m afraid your days of making your own decisions are over. I’ve got problems of my own, and I can’t see to them until I’ve seen to yours.”
She backed away from him.
He shook his head. “Don’t you dare run, Tinker Bell. I’m strong enough to chase, and I don’t think you’ll like the results.”
Her stupid body tingled, a clear disagreement. Did he wield some strange ability she’d never before encountered?
Stop thinking and move! She faked a pass to the right. He followed, and she darted to the left. Then, she ran at full steam.
He slammed into her, knocking her down. He wasn’t even winded when he said, “Consider this your final warning,” his warm breath caressing the back of her neck.
Oh my…. His weight was as heavy as before, pressing her into the ground, but this time, because she knew the culprit, she didn’t feel threatened. She felt…achy, her nerve endings sizzling with undeniable awareness.
“Let me go. I’ll hurt you if you don’t.”
He stood, dragging her with him. He held on tightly, surprising her, his arms steel bands she couldn’t break—didn’t want to break. But he was still shaking, as if touching her was somehow more painful to him than he’d claimed her nearness was. It shouldn’t be. Not yet.
“Kane,” she said. “I’m serious. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Sweetheart,” he replied, practically breaking her heart with the sudden thread of gentle kindness in his tone, “this is for your own good. I promise.”
No, it wasn’t. He simply didn’t understand. She tugged off one of her gloves. Her hands were her only weapons; he would hate her for what she was about to do to him, would never again come near her, but he’d left her with no other option. “Last chance.”
“I told you. I’m not letting you go.” He hefted her over his shoulder and trudged forward, shouldering his way through tree limbs determined to slap him. “I’m saving you.”
“You can’t save me.” Fighting wave after wave of guilt, Josephina reached out and gripped his forearm. “Please don’t make me do this.”
“And just what is it you think you’re doing, hmm?”
Leaving you helpless. Tears welled in her eyes. No other choice. She tightened her grip on him. Instantly, her pores became tiny vacuums, sucking the strength out of him and into her.
He stilled, gasping. “What are you doing, Tinker Bell? Stop that.”
“I’m sorry.” Warmth flooded her; warmth and the fizz of energy…so much energy, lighting her up. No, not lighting, she realized a second later, but darkening. Then, utter blackness gobbled up the light, cloaking her, sending her tumbling straight into a spiraling pit of despair.
Kane set her on her feet.
A terrible scream cut its way through her throat. Her knees buckled, but he was no longer able to hold her up. She slammed into the ground, contact finally severed. What was happening? What was wrong with her? And the screams—hers, and someone else’s, someone sinister—argh! Growing louder and louder.
And yet, through it all, a single whisper managed to claim her attention. I hate you. Hate you so much. Want to kill you. Will kill you. Soon, soon, so very soon.
I don’t understand, she thought, panicked.
You deserve pain, and I’ll make sure you get it if you go near him again. He’s mine. Mine. I won’t share him with you. Never you.
Nearing hysteria, she drew on every reservoir of strength she possessed, lumbered to her knees and crawled forward, away from Kane. Yes, she had to escape Kane. All of this had come from him. Belonged to him. The more distance, the better. Please.
Rocks sliced at her palms and knees, but she didn’t care. In the distance, she heard the snap of breaking wood. The whoosh of air. Something hard slammed into her, knocking her feet out from under her and planting her face first in the dirt.
When the daze cleared, she realized the culprit wasn’t Kane this time, but a tree.
She fought her way free, tears streaming down her cheeks, and continued her journey forward.
“Josephina,” Kane called. “Tinker Bell…what did…you do? To me?” His voice was weak, rasping.
A spark of light dashed across her small line of vision, followed by another. Soon, colors formed, taking shape. Bushes, tree roots and trunks, piles of leaves, a coyote stalking past—only to stop and bare its teeth, as if preparing to attack her. But another tree fell, slamming against her and scaring the animal away.
Hate you. Hate you, hate you, hate you.
Pain momentarily stunned her, her abused back threatening to shatter.