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“No.”

He nodded slowly. “You know we’re going to talk about it anyway, right?”

The question forced a smile across my lips. “I assumed.”

Heath rubbed his hands together, his fingers callused from gripping the metal bars of the weights. “What changed your mind?”

“I don’t know.”

He gave me a hard stare.

“I forced myself to give her back…but I didn’t really want to do it. I wanted to prove to myself that nothing had changed, that this woman hadn’t softened me. I never wanted to be one of those men who allowed a woman to corrupt them, to change their priorities and affect their decisions. But here I am…changing everything for a single person.” I broke eye contact and stared down at my hands, ashamed of who I was. This wasn’t the kind of man I wanted to be. This wasn’t the kind of ruler I’d worked to become. “I want to go back to who I was. It was a different woman every night, whether it was a whore or a stranger. All I lived for were money, power, and sex. And now…everything is complicated.”

“Because you love this woman.”

I kept my eyes on the ground, my heart pounding against my chest with more force than it had a second ago. “I never said anything about love.”

“But that’s what it is. It was obvious when you went after Evan. Cassini got no pleasure out of that, only you did. That was entirely selfish, because you wanted to punish the man who hurt the woman you love.”

I finally lifted my eyes to meet his, my gaze impassive and fearless.

“Money used to be the most important thing to you. But now she’s more valuable than that diamond. You don’t even care about the diamond anymore. It’s not worth losing this woman who made you committed the first time you slept with her. She’s cast a spell on you, and there’s nothing you can do to counteract it.”

“Don’t say this bullshit to Cassini. Don’t want her to think it’s true.”

“Balto.” He gave me a pitying look. “She already knows it’s true.”

I wished I’d been cold enough to give her back. I missed the man I used to be, a man incapable of feeling anything. I threw my own brother in prison for six months because that was how heartless I was. But this woman made me feel things.

“A man wouldn’t have made such a sacrifice for any other reason.”

I’d laid my cards on the table—and now she saw my hand.

“And what’s the big deal if she knows? She must feel the same way. Why else would she wait up for you every night? Why else would she get jealous of other women? Why would she risk her neck by having an affair with you?”

It didn’t matter how she felt. Our feelings could never be reciprocated to each other. “Nothing will ever come of it.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s no future for us.”

Heath raised an eyebrow. “You don’t think you can kill Lucian?”

“That’s not why.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“I’m the Skull King—that’s the problem.”

He still stared at me blankly.

“It’s a life sentence. It’s a responsibility. I will sit on the throne until I’m killed in the line of duty or challenged by combat. It’s a life of crime, violence, and unpredictability. Cassini doesn’t belong in my world. She wants a husband and a family. I will never be a husband, and I will never father children.”

“You’re thinking too far ahead…”

“I’m being pragmatic. She’s not what I want, and I’m not what she wants.”

“If that’s true, why save her?”

I saved her because I cared about her. But I also saved her for another reason entirely. “Because she deserves a better life. A life that has nothing to do with Evan, Lucian, or me. She’s a bird that’s been locked in a cage for too long—and I want to set her free.”

2

Cassini

Balto was gone when I woke up.

I slept alone that night because he asked for space. After he decided to keep me, I thought we would roll around on the sheets and have amazing make-up sex. I thought it would be an act of catharsis, of relief that we finally understood where we stand.

But he pushed me away all over again.

I knew he spoke to Lucian on the phone because I had my ear pressed to my bedroom door.

She’s worth more than all the diamonds in the world—but you already knew that.

Balto defended me from Lucian and was willing to fight to keep me. He would kill Lucian and finally exterminate my demons. One day, I would wake up and know that Lucian was no longer breathing.

Instead of coming to my bed, he went to his own.

And now the silent treatment continued.

I sat at the dining table with my bowl of cereal in front of me. I considered calling Case to tell him what happened, but since Balto could walk in the door at any moment, I decided not to.


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