TRACE DIDN’T USE his brain as he spoke to Bessina. He’d spoken the truth, and was unsure if he expected her to fall into his arms or continue to run. There was nothing special about how he felt, right? Men felt this way for women all around the world. But what good could he bring her? What would he be doing to her life by bringing her on the run? Yes, he could protect her and her aunt, but at what cost to their freedom?

From the moment of his conception, his life had been laid out in front of him, and an average human life that would span a few decades wasn’t something he’d been granted. His human mother and vampire father had created a killing machine for the Nation, able to circumvent the things that killed most vampires.

The fear in Bessina’s eyes gave way to curiosity and Trace’s knees nearly buckled. Could she want him as well? Even after she’d learned what and who he was?

He cleared his throat. “Let’s get back in the car.” He released Bessina, but kept hold of one of her small, warm hands. Gently, he pulled her forward, leading her back to the car.

She stilled and Trace turned around. He thought he’d convinced her to stay with him. Maybe she had changed her mind.

“Wait.” She placed her fingers on his top lip and softly pulled it up. “Show me.”

He pulled back, taking her hands in his as she tried to pull his lips again. “Bessina . . . ” He sighed and fumbled with her hands, trying not to hurt her as he pulled them away and held them steady at her sides. “I don’t think that’s—”

She moved her hand out of his and rested it on his shoulder, leaned in on her tiptoes, and placed a soft kiss on his lips. To steady herself, she placed her other hand on his chest and deepened the kiss. Her warm tongue deftly moved past his lips, causing Trace to shudder.

He wanted more; he wanted everything. And as he wrapped a hand around the nape of her neck to pull her closer, she pulled away, leaving him cold and bereft in the wake of her absence.

“Show me,” she said. This time, her voice was a husky rasp.

He let his fangs descend. Anything, if it meant she’d place those lips against his once more.

Her fingers found their way to his lips. “Does it hurt?”

He frowned. Was he so starved for attention, a kiss and a light touch was enough to throw him over the edge?

“Oh, it does? I’m sorry.”

His frown must have confused her. He’d rectify that now. She needn’t pity him. He was a killer—a man unworthy of her pity. “No, the hunger hurts more, but is easily assuaged.”

As she stood in front of him, with her finger gently tracing his fangs, he thought of nothing other than holding her—not sleeping with her, or biting her—just holding her and never leaving her. Trace could taste the natural salt on her skin, he could feel the pulse at the tip of each fingertip, and he could smell the blood traveling below her skin.

As she traced his lips, scorching them with her touch, he closed his eyes. He allowed his hands to move to her waist and pull her close. Bessina’s scent enveloped him, her taste still lingered on his tongue and his body reacted to each sensation as if he were a prepubescent teen experiencing touch for the first time.

Bessina leaned into him again, and her breath danced across his lips. With a restraint he didn’t know he possessed, Trace stopped his hips from thrusting against her.

Their lips met, sending shocks throughout his system once again. Heat bloomed from his chest to his groin. He needed more; more of her heat, more of her taste, and the freedom he sensed within her.

Bessina wrapped her arms around his neck, urging him to give in to his need. Rutting against her like a damn animal, an urgent need burst in his belly. He was walking on a knife’s edge, and he didn’t care. He groaned in pleasure. Bessina, seemingly unwilling to release his lips, swallowed his moans and rocked herself along his leg.

Tasting and touching Bessina without fear or reservation, he slipped his hands beneath her shirt and slid them down the back of her pants. Squeezing handfuls of her round bottom, he lifted her slightly and held her against his erection for better friction.

She moaned and shuddered from the sheer force of his touch. As he deepened the kiss, his fangs gently scraped her tongue. At the taste of blood, Trace’s body roared into action. Without thought, he wrapped his lips around her tongue and sucked. Complete and utter bliss. Blood raced throughout him, as if it were molten lava rushing through his veins.

He wanted to lay her on the ground, explore her body, then sink his teeth deep into her veins as he thrust inside her. But then reason assaulted him. How could he debase her in that way? Would he throw her to the asphalt and fuck her? Steal her blood? These thoughts sobered him and with shaking hands, he set her down and forced himself to move away from her.

Bessina, flushed and displeased, moved forward reaching for him.

“No!” he shouted, his voice brash and laced with need. Bessina placed her hand over her mouth at his harshness. “Shit.” Anger flared in his gut. So careless, and so close to taking her in the middle of the street like an animal. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to take your blood without permission.”

The forgiveness in her voice nearly did him in. “It’s okay.” She reached for him.

He pulled away again. “No, it’s not, Bessina. I bit you.”

She laughed and he scowled. “No, you didn’t. You nicked me and it felt good.”

Trace shook his head in disbelief. He knew better than this, so why was he being so reckless? Not only was he making mistakes that could cost Bessina her life, but he was bringing emotions into play that he wasn’t sure he or she could handle. He shouldn’t have kissed her, nor should he have tasted her blood. They had enough complications. He didn’t need to be lusting after her blood as well as her touch.

No, this wasn’t happening. They needed to leave—now. “Get in the car. Seriously, we’ve been out here too long.” Though he winced at his sharp tone, he didn’t amend it. He needed to pull her from the fantasy she had most assuredly created in her mind.

Holding out his hand to a lust-hazed Bessina, he motioned for her to come. And perhaps still fuzzy from the kiss, she walked beside him back to his car.

Settled inside, he watched as she adjusted the A/C and buckled herself in. She looked over at him. “That kiss—”

“No.” He shook his head. “We cannot afford distractions, Bessina.” He gripped the steering wheel to keep his hands busy. He craved to touch her again, to savor the flavor of her lips and feel her warm skin against his.

She scoffed. “Trace, I am not proposing to you. I just wanted to say that I enjoyed the kiss.” He glanced over at her and watched as a flush heated her face. “I’ve never really enjoyed a kiss before.”

Shocked he stuttered. “What do you mean?” Had no man ever kissed her with passion? How could this be?

“I don’t really want to talk about this.”

He grit his teeth in annoyance, yet allowed her her privacy. But something she’d said had sparked an idea. Some humans were allowed to know of their kind. And even though she’d been joking when she said I’m not proposing to you, it was actually a good idea. Vampires were allowed one human spouse in their lifetime.

He looked to Bessina. “I’m going to call my boss and see if I can strike a deal.”

Concern laced her voice, dwarfing the lust that was there before. “You think that will work?”

“In my line of work, there are only certain humans who are allowed to know about our existence. Lawyers, doctors, diplomats—”

She frowned wrapping her arms around herself, pulling her feet up and placing them under her sweet little ass. “And I bet ‘college student’ didn’t make the list.”

 “Well, people can be added, but there’s a process, paperwork, and guidelines.”

He didn’t miss the flash of excitement in her eyes as she turned to him and asked, “Well?”

He shifted gears as he sped down the empty street. “Shit, never mind. We can’t do that. I can think of something else.” There was no damn way he could do this to her. She was too young and had so much to live for. There was no way he could end that by tying her to him for eternity, but deep inside Trace knew there was no other way.

As effective as he was as a Watcher, Rhys dwarfed him in manpower and financial means. He would come after Bessina for an eternity and still not break the bank. Plus, he’d have the Nation on his side. Trace had indeed broken the law when he hadn’t ended Bessina’s life, as well as when he’s killed Derek. Rhys had plenty ammunition against him and could rightfully turn him in. And that was one bull’s-eye Trace didn’t want on his back, nor Bessina’s.

She interrupted his thoughts. “Tell me. If it can save me, and get you your job back, or whatever it is you want, then we should at least entertain the idea.” Bessina’s stomach growled loudly.

Trace glanced in the rearview mirror only to see the darkened road behind them. At least they weren’t being followed. “You’re hungry. We can—”

“No,” her voice held a fierceness that shut him up. “Tell me. This is my life we’re talking about.”

“What are you willing to sacrifice to stay alive, Bessina?” From the corner of his eye, he watched as she pensively gazed out of the window. He hadn’t meant to be so harsh. It was the idea that he would have to tie this innocent soul to him for eternity that pissed him off.

He removed a hand from the steering wheel and placed it on her knee. “I could marry you.” There. It was out there.

What he wasn’t expecting, was laughter. He glanced at her face, lit by the ambient illumination of the streetlights. She looked utterly radiant. Smooth, warm brown skin, sweet lush lips, and eyes that held a brilliance he was sure dwarfed all others. Her head fell back, allowing brown and copper curls to fall around her face, and she let loose an adorable snort.

Trace smiled. Could he have all this beauty to himself? Could he care for her, keep her safe, and satisfied for eternity? The better question would be, would she let him?

Finally, her laughter died down and she placed a hand over his on her knee. Trace frowned as he spoke. “What the hell is so funny?” He glanced over at her again.

Wide eyed, she observed him until realization hit. “You’re kidding, right?” Her grin fell when she saw his expression.

“No, I’m not. Bessina, this is your best hope. It’s either that, or I hide you and your aunt. Rhys will send his men after you, but I can still keep you safe that way. Most likely, you will always be on the run, never in the same place for more than a few months and you could never place down roots. It’d be a hell of a life, but you’d live.” Trace had the money and the resources to do so, but over time, Rhys could end up finding them.

Trace squeezed her knee and continued. “I’m not saying you have to do it.” He hated the idea of forcing her to stay with him. “I’m saying it’s an option that doesn’t include running forever. Either way, it’s up to you.” He wanted to give her more than just one option, even if neither seemed desirable.

“I don’t know what to say.”

He didn’t dare look at her again. “Don’t say anything just yet. We’ll get food and a room and settle down for the evening.”

“Wait, how have you been eating?”

He paused, not wanting to freak her out with any more news for the night. “Blood in the trunk.”

“Oh.” She sighed and stared out the window once again.

“Like I was saying, let’s get a room, some food, call your aunt, and then we can discuss everything from there.” He removed his hand, trying to give her space, even though there wasn’t much room in the car.

Trace didn’t want to overwhelm her, but all he needed to do was marry her and get approval with the Nation; then Rhys would have to leave Bessina alone by law.

When she finally spoke, her words were no more than a whisper. “This is crazy.” Disbelief colored her voice. “So, it’d be forever?”

Trace couldn’t stop himself from looking at her. “For me, yes,” he answered honestly. “I can only do this once. This is one of the laws our people made with humans to regulate our population. The Nation will allow me one human wife to know my secret.” Trace pushed a few buttons on the GPS and found a motel only a few miles up the road.

Her eyes narrowed and her face wrinkled in confusion. “What if you choose wrong? And what do you mean ‘regulate your population’?”

He chuckled. “It doesn’t happen often, but there are times when a vamp chooses wrong. The vampire who chose the human bride or groom must petition the Nation to have another go at love. It is not often that the Nation allows this, but that has happened, too. And some humans make the change, or have children, and those are called dhampirs.”

He thought back to Sam and Hope’s odd relationship. Sam had never offered to marry her, and Hope had been in love with him. Trace had heard their conversation moments before their deaths, and that was the reason he hadn’t seen Bessina on the pier that morning. He had been too concerned with where his life was headed, and if he’d turn into Sam—old and worn; a shadow, incapable of returning love.

“Oh, so vamps pick once and it better last forever? Seems odd.”

How would he explain this to her? The Nation’s rules concerning life mates were inflexible, and he only had one shot to get it right if he chose a human. Since female vampires and dhampirs already knew about vampires’ existences, he could marry as many as he liked. But in all of his years as a dhampir, he’d yet to meet one who made him want to settle down.

“Vampires live for eternity, and while not all of us search for a life mate, the ones who do, choose wisely. You get only one human wife, and there are consequences for revealing yourselves to a human who is not a life mate.” Death.

She nodded. “Do a lot of vampires choose human brides?”

“I’ve noticed it happens more times than not.” Trace peeked over at her to gauge her reaction, but she was ready with another question.

“And if you find a female vampire or human who you want to marry while I’m married to you, then what?”

Trace gave her a soft smile. She was unsuccessful in schooling her features, and he could tell she felt genuine concern. “That won’t happen. I told you, I’d keep you safe. I meant it.”

Bessina nodded and turned back to the road. Trace would have given anything to read her mind at that moment, but that power was one he’d never been able to control. The large red blinking light to the motel came into view.

Trace decided he’d call Rhys as soon as Bessina made up her mind, but there was another call he needed to make first. Jax still hadn't gotten a text back to him. His options: hide her and turn himself in, or he’d marry her and protect her.

Bessina was silent as she thought, her pensive gaze stayed locked on the road ahead. She finally asked, “Would I have to change too?” The sound of her voice made him believe that this would be a deal breaker.

Trace pulled into the parking lot. “No.”

“Would you want me to?”

Hell yes. “That’s entirely up to you.” Trace thought for a moment. He wanted to say this right. “Bessina, I know this isn’t ideal, but if you choose the marriage option, over time, we could learn to love each other. I care about you now, and I’d like to see where it could go if you are willing.”

She bit her lip and picked at the bandages on her hands. It sucked that she’d been pulled into this situation, but it was the only other option he could offer her.

“And even if we don’t, I’ll always make sure you’re happy and safe. It’s my fault you’re in this mess, and I’ll do what it takes to get you out of it.”

His confession must have done more good than harm, because her bewilderment was gone. He could see she was actually thinking over his proposal. Watching as she played with the bandages on her hands, he gently took her hand in his and unraveled the bandages. Her hands were red and puffy, but not as bad as they had been.

“May I heal these for you?” He didn’t want to frighten her, but he was going to have to bite himself in order to place his blood on the wounds.

Bessina nodded and he positioned a fingertip under a fang and nipped it. He placed his bleeding fingertip on the wounds on her hands and knees. She watched in wonder as her abrasions and cuts healed. Trace then gently pulled the stitches out as the wounds closed.

“Holy shit,” she murmured, lifting her hands up to get a closer look.

“Yeah, holy shit is right.” He chuckled and stared at the woman who just might become his wife.