Cassini stared at me with hurt in her eyes. “Are you leaving?”
I stepped toward her and heard the elevator doors open behind me. “Yes.”
“And you weren’t going to tell me?” She crossed her arms over her chest, her eyes bright with fire.
Heath stepped inside then hit the button. “I’ll wait for you downstairs…” The doors shut.
I kept my eyes on her. “You were asleep.”
“You could have woken me.” She shifted her weight to one hip, her attitude vicious.
“I hoped I would be back before you even woke up.”
“And what if I woke up and you weren’t here?”
“You would have called me—that’s what a phone is for.” I didn’t appreciate being questioned like this. I didn’t appreciate her entitlement. I came and went as I pleased, and I didn’t owe her anything.
“Don’t be an asshole.”
“Don’t expect anything out of me.”
The flames in her eyes continued to rise higher and higher. “Where are you going?”
“The same place I always go.” Anytime I left in the middle of the night, I was heading to the Underground. It was my home away from home. It was where my men gathered and we plotted our next scheme.
“Don’t you think it’s a little soon for you to be leaving?”
“It’s eleven. It’s later than normal.”
“I meant leaving me.” She tightened her arms across her chest. “I’m not ready to be alone right now.”
Her neediness aroused me, but it also pissed me off at the same time. “I have work to do, Cassini. I can’t stay here with you.”
“You’re the Skull King. You can do whatever you want.”
“And as the Skull King, I never abuse my power. I’m the leader of my men, and I’ve earned their respect and trust. I’m not going to turn my back on them just because you want me to protect you like a fucking guard dog.”
The fire in her eyes died away, replaced by a painful expression.
“You’re my prisoner, Cassini. Let’s not forget that.” I turned to the elevator and hit the button.
“Then why do you call me your woman?” she demanded. “Why do you call me baby?”
I stared at her, my expression stoic.
“You could have at least told me you were leaving.”
“I don’t owe you anything. Stop acting like I’m your boyfriend, and remember that I’m your captor. I’m your master. I come and go as I please. The only thing I’m required to do is make sure you have food and water.”
That made her snap. She stormed toward me and smacked her hand across my face.
I allowed her to do it because I knew I deserved it.
“You’re two different people.” Her voice was surprisingly quiet for how tense the moment was. “When you’re cold and ruthless, you’re the Skull King. You treat me like a dog and make me feel insignificant. But when you’re Balto, you’re my protector, my lover, and my friend. You treat me with respect and make me feel safe. You call me baby as you make love to me. You promise that you’ll protect me from all the terrible things in the world. You’re always going back and forth, and I’m sick of it. Who are you? You can’t be both. You can only be one or the other. So, which is it?”
I stared into her eyes, seeing the disappointment as well as the fury. I never realized the truth of her words until I was forced to confront them. I did have two identities. Before I met her, I was only the Skull King. I was only the killer, the conqueror, and the nightmare. But when it was just the two of us hidden away from the outside world, I was soft, kind, and gentle. I wrapped my arms around her and protected her. I turned into a man and forgot I was a monster. She softened me, made me weak. I didn’t realize how far I’d fallen, how much this woman had changed me for the worse. Slowly, she’d corrupted me. Slowly, she’d turned me from a king into a man. I hunted down her ex and made him suffer because she had sunk her claws into me so deeply. She had a dangerous hold on me—and I had to shake it. “The Skull King. That’s who I am.”
I sat on my throne and overlooked the men as they drank at their tables. I’d just finished a meeting with Brutus and Thomas, and we went over the taxes we’d collected for the month. Everyone paid in full—including the Cardello brothers.
But I hadn’t really been paying attention because my thoughts were back at the compound, back to the moment when I walked away from Cassini. She made me realize how weak I’d become, how far I’d fallen. I was a strong man who refused to let anyone penetrate these walls, but she snuck by.
I shouldn’t have let my guard down.