I’d never heard him express such empathy, and those emotions were touching coming from him. “Well, I wouldn’t say only terrible things have happened to me…because you certainly aren’t terrible.”
“That’s debatable.” He looked at the ceiling again. “But I don’t want you to think this means anything…that I want something serious. Don’t give your heart to me because I’ll never give it back. I belong to the Skull Kings, and my future is set in stone. This has an expiration date. I don’t know what that date is…but it exists.”
His bluntness was off-putting, and I did my best not to be hurt by what he said. Just hours ago, he said I was his woman and he would fight for me. He said he couldn’t abandon me to a horrible death. But his feelings were still superficial, not deep and complex like I expected.
“I don’t say this to be an asshole. I say this so we’re on the same page.”
I knew he cared about me, but perhaps those feelings couldn’t deepen into something more. “Then why sacrifice so much for me? What’s the point of it all? What do you intend to do with me?”
“I’ll kill Lucian. Then you’ll be free. You’ll have the life you never got to have.”
“So…you’re saving me?”
“And you would do that?” I asked in surprise. “You get nothing out of it. You lost that diamond so I could walk away?”
He turned back to me, his gaze still emotionless. “As the Skull King, it’s my job to issue justice. I’m not just some criminal mastermind who steals from some people and tortures others. I live by a code of ethics. And sending you back to Lucian wouldn’t have been justice. You deserve to be free…and I want to make that happen.”
I stared at him, grateful I’d met him in that secluded bar. If it weren’t for him, my life never would have changed. He broke my chains and gave me the freedom I never would have reclaimed on my own. A part of me hoped that we would have something more, that this wasn’t just a fling. But when I imagined a future with him, the picture was murky. He didn’t want to have a family, and he didn’t want to leave his throne as the ruler of the Skull Kings. He would always be gone in the evenings, always be mixed up with criminals. He would never really belong to me. I would always be second priority.
That was something I couldn’t live with.
So he ended that possibility before we could even consider it.
Balto watched me, his blue eyes studying my expression. “Do you understand me?” There was very limited room for romance with his man. He was an authoritarian most of the time, a man who cared about goals, not emotions.
His hostility dipped slightly.
“And thank you…for everything.” I owed this man my life. I owed this man everything. My heart ached when I accepted the fact that this would end sooner than I wanted, but it was for the best—for both of us. I should be nothing but grateful to this man. Anyone else would have taken the diamond…but he chose me. Evan abandoned me to Lucian after I sacrificed myself, then moved on three months later. He was never a man…not like Balto. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to compensate you for what you did…but if there’s anything I can do for you, I will.”
“You already have.” His hand moved to my hair, and he tucked it behind my shoulder. “You’ve given yourself to me…and that’s all I wanted.”
I walked into the dining room and found Balto eating his breakfast at the dining table. Shirtless and dressed in sweatpants, he cut into his salmon and placed it into his mouth. After he swallowed it, he grabbed his coffee and took a drink, his eyes flicking up to look at me. He greeted me in silence, preferring the sound of nothing to conversation.
By the time I woke up in the morning, he’d already finished his workout and showered. Sometimes he made me feel lazy because he never faltered in his regimen. It didn’t matter how late he was out the night before; he was always up early the next morning. The man didn’t even take naps, unless it was in between sex sessions. “I just got off the phone with Case.”
He set down his mug and stared at me, his blue eyes expectant of what I would say next. His elbows rested on the table, and he watched me with a face so beautiful, it didn’t seem like he could belong to an underground organization like the Skull Kings, let alone sit on the throne.
“He invited me over for dinner tonight at his place.” I couldn’t bring myself to ask for permission because it went against my beliefs. But this man was committed to saving me, so I should abandon my pride. “Would that be okay?”