“One more death,” she whispered, her eyes huge and dark. “It hurts you.”

“No,” he said. “I don’t allow it to.” Even as he spoke, he realized that the numbness that had protected him for so long was cracked in multiple places, shattered by this raw, powerful thing he felt for Ivy.

Her gaze searched his, her shoulders stiff. “Are you angry at me for it?”

The question was so unexpected that he couldn’t work out what had prompted her to ask it. “No.” Nothing could ever make him turn away from Ivy. “Do you sense anger?”

Ivy’s gentle fingers traced his lips before she dropped her hand to his chest. “Yes. Deep and violent and so contained it’s a gathering storm.” She tugged him closer with her grip on his T-shirt. “And if the anger isn’t directed at me, then it must be directed inward.”

Vasic wasn’t ready to talk about the violence inside him, might never be ready. But one thing he had to say, one choice he had to give her. “I shouldn’t touch you with blood on my hands.”

Lifting one of those hands with both of hers, she brought it to her cheek, turned her face into it. Her eyes were wet when her lashes lifted. “That blood is there because you protected me.” A sweet, tender kiss pressed to his palm.

It stabbed him to the core. “Ivy.” He fought not to close the final inches between them, to take the gift of her. “I’ve done terrible things,” he told her, showing her the dark, hidden places in his soul. “I’ve ended the lives of innocents and erased the murders of others. I’m no knight.”

Ivy’s tears wet his palm. “You’re mine,” she said huskily, pressing two fingers to his lips when he would’ve spoken. “You were forced into a certain shape by those who wanted to take advantage of your strength.” Her eyes glittered with unhidden fury as she continued to speak. “You were drugged, and then you were betrayed by a leader you thought you could trust. The instant you understood the truth, you began to do everything in your power to effect change.”

“None of that excuses my actions.” Vasic would carry the weight of each drop of blood forever.

“No.” Ivy rose on tiptoe to cup his face in both hands. “But now, now you have a choice, Vasic. A real choice. What you do now is what matters.” Each word was honed in stone, her resolve absolute. “Don’t you give those who wanted to break you the satisfaction of allowing the past to hold you back.”

Shuddering, he braced himself with his palms on either side of her head. “I can’t pretend the past twenty-five years didn’t exist.”

“I’m not asking you to.” Ivy’s hands continued to hold him with near-unbearable tenderness. “Those years will always be part of your history, but they don’t have to dictate the shape of your present or your future . . . our future.”

The words she spoke, the things she said, they made him want to believe he could be a better man, could find redemption. Further cracks in the numbness, the rage he’d contained for so long beginning to boil over. He thrust it back down. Not yet. He didn’t have that freedom yet, couldn’t afford to be compromised by a storm that could alter the bedrock of how he dealt with the world.

“Vasic.” Soft breath, Ivy’s lips on his throat.

Fingers tightening into fists, he stood in place, his head bowed slightly and his arms trapping her. Instead of fighting to escape, she kissed his throat again, licked out with her tongue to taste him. It made every muscle in his body go tight, the tattered vestiges of the psychological brainwashing he’d survived attempting to overlay the pleasure with pain, but he didn’t move.

“Vasic,” she whispered again, her kiss damp this time, the sensation going straight to his rock-hard erection. “My Vasic.”

No one had ever claimed him so completely. Enslaved, he wanted to bend his mouth to her skin, lick her up as she was doing him. But this . . . being adored by her, it was an addiction that kept him in place. “Stop,” he forced himself to say, when he wanted the opposite. “I’m on watch. I can’t be distracted.” And he hadn’t yet worked out how to control his teleporting when she put her hands on him.

A last, lingering kiss. “Good night.”

“Good night.”

Her lips curved. “You have to let me out.”

He didn’t move. “Don’t go,” he said, and it was the first time since his father had abandoned him that he’d asked anyone to stay with him.

Ivy’s smile lit up the room. “Why don’t I make us some coffee, and you can teach me how to keep watch like an Arrow?”

Shifting one hand down to the thin strap of her top, he tugged it, only his nail brushing her skin. “Did you get this in the township by the orchard?” It was delicate and lacy and not the least bit sensible.

“I ordered it from a catalogue,” she whispered, as if confessing a secret. “I have a very bad habit of buying impractical items simply for the sensual pleasure of it.” Nuzzling him, she said, “My favorite texture is that of your hand against my skin.”

He closed his fingers around her nape, squeezed in a silent reprimand that had her laughing, the sound a quiet intimacy as she slid her arms around his waist and pressed a kiss to his chest. It was a perfect moment, one he wished he could encapsulate and live in forever. But time, he thought, his eyes landing on the gauntlet, continued its relentless march forward. It wouldn’t stop for a disintegrating PsyNet, nor would it halt for an Arrow who had finally found a beautiful reason to live.

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