The odd feeling of resentment straightened her spine and left her feeling robbed. If he was going to come, she wanted to be the one making it happen.
“If you don’t stop staring, I’m never going to fit into my jeans,” he told her.
Lexi clamped her eyes shut and hurried back into the bathroom to brush her hair. When she came out, Zach was dressed, sitting on the edge of the bed, pulling his heavy boots onto his feet.
“I thought we could go out and try a few things, see how you handle my power,” he said.
“There’s something I need to tell you first.” Her voice shook with apprehension and Zach’s eyes shot to her face, narrowing in concern.
“You can tell me anything you want, honey. No need to be afraid.” He patted the bed next to him, but Lexi knew if she got that close, she’d lose her nerve.
She started to pace, keeping out of arm’s reach. “You already know I was raised not to trust you, right?”
“And that I truly believed you were the bad guys.”
“Which is why you kept running away.”
“Right,” she said.
“I understand, honey. I’m not holding it against you. You can relax.”
Maybe he wasn’t holding her upbringing against her, but how was he going to feel about her plan to blow him up? “I’m not alone, Zach. A lot of people out there think you all are the bad guys.”
“You mean the Defenders.”
She nodded. “My mom was in pretty tight with them.”
Zach shrugged, drawing her eyes to the impressive width of his shoulders. The urge to run her fingers over his smooth skin and the muscles lying beneath made her mouth water, but that was just tough. She had to get through this.
“I wouldn’t exactly say I was tight with them, too. I thought they were mean and kind of corny, but near the end, right before you found me . . .”
Zach stood and took a step toward her. Lexi held up her hands, telling him to stay back.
His green eyes narrowed. “Toward the end, what, Lexi?”
Lexi, not honey. That didn’t bode well.
“I was desperate. I had no money. I couldn’t find work. Getting fake social security numbers has gotten so much harder recently, and I didn’t have the kind of cash to fork over for a new identity.”
“You should have called me,” said Zach. “I hate the idea you suffered like that.”
She gave him a sheepish grin. “Yeah, well, you were kinda the reason I felt the need for that new identity in the first place. I was pretty sure you’d be able to track me down.”
“I tried. You weren’t easy to find.”
They were getting off track. “Anyway, I was desperate, so I went looking for these guys that my mom used to stay with when things got bad.”
“The Defenders,” guessed Zach.
“Yeah. They took me in like I was one of their own. Their leader, Hector Morrow, even remembered me from when I was a kid.” And she remembered him, too.
“I’m glad you had a place to go.”
“You’re not going to be glad when you hear the rest.”
Zach took another step toward her, this time ignoring her desire for him to keep his distance. He covered her shoulders with his palms, and ran his hands down her arms. The touch of his skin on hers made her head spin, and wrapped her in a cocoon of comfort.
Man, she was going to miss that. No way was he going to be touching her like that when he heard the truth.
“As long as you’re safe, I’ll be fine. Finish your story.”
“It’s not a story. It’s an explanation. I want you to understand why I did what I did.”
“Not yet. Let me finish.”
Zach nodded and Lexi pulled in a fortifying breath. “The Defenders gave me a job at that bar. They gave me a place to sleep. They fed me. They promised me they wouldn’t let you find me.”
His jaw bunched then, and an angry glow brightened his eyes. “None of them would have stopped me. You know that, right?”
Lexi swallowed a sudden burst of nervousness. “I’m glad it didn’t come down to that, to be honest. These men aren’t bad guys.”
“It wouldn’t have mattered if they were saints if they’d tried to stop me from finding you.”
“Well, they didn’t get the chance. Instead, we . . . came up with a plan.”
Zach’s fingers tightened around her arms slightly and his voice hardened. “What kind of plan?”
Lexi couldn’t look him in the eye. She was too ashamed of what she’d done. “It’s ugly, Zach.”
“Just. Tell. Me.”
Time to suck it up.
Lexi thrust her chin out, straightened her shoulders and looked him right in the eye. “The Defenders have been trying to find your home for a long time. When they knew you were looking for me, they said I’d make great bait. I agreed.”
“So you did want me to find you. I knew it,” said Zach.
“Yes. That’s why I called Helen. I was sure she was brainwashed. I knew she’d tell you where I was.”
“So, that night you called and sounded so scared?”
“It was a trick. I knew you’d come if you thought I was in trouble, though, at the time, I thought it was because you wanted the pleasure of killing me yourself.”
His jaw bulged with anger; his throat worked as if he was trying to choke down her words. A vein in his temple throbbed.
Lexi was running out of time to finish her confession. She had to get it all out so he could be good and angry all at once. She wasn’t sure she’d have the guts to face him like this again. “So, I called. You came, just like we planned. I was supposed to get you in my car and lead them here, but then my car stalled out.”
A look of deadly suspicion crossed his face. She was sure this was the look the Synestryn saw right before he cut them down. “Why your car?”
“Because that’s where the explosives are. I have a trunkful of C- 4 and the Defenders taught me how to use it.” She refused to flinch. “I was sent here to blow this place up, along with everyone in it.”
Lexi had been planning on killing him.
Shock didn’t even begin to cover what he was feeling right now. Betrayal came closer, but not nearly close enough. His body shook with anger and a hurt so deep he didn’t know he had any nerve endings there until now. Years of suffering had not prepared him for a blow like this.
Lexi, the woman he was meant to spend his life with, to love and defend, had planned to kill him.
And everyone else here—all those innocent souls he was sworn to protect.
Zach couldn’t wrap his head around it. Maybe he never would be able to, but there’d be time to try later; right now, he had to deal with this crisis and make sure no one got hurt. Including Lexi.
The Theronai were not going to take her treachery lightly.
“Is there any risk of that shit going off?” he demanded.
“No. It’s safe. I have to hook everything up to the C- 4 before there’s a threat.”
“Are you sure?”
“I wouldn’t be standing around here if I wasn’t. There are kids around. I’d never risk harming them. You believe that, don’t you?”
He had no choice but to believe her for now—until he had time to check for himself.
“You used me,” he choked out, barely able to form the words. The pain of her betrayal ran deep—deeper than he would have thought possible considering their short time together.
“I did use you. I don’t expect you to forgive me, but I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“And now that you do? Now that you know how fucked up this plan of yours was?”
Her dark eyes held steady, begging him to believe her. To trust her. “I’m sorry. Really, Zach, I would never hurt the people here. You know that, right?”
He wanted to believe her, but the lives of too many people were at stake. “There’s only one way I can know for sure, Lexi.”
“How? I want to fix this. I really do. That’s why I’m spilling my guts here.” She looked sincere. She held his gaze and didn’t squirm when he glared back at her. It looked like she wasn’t trying to lie.
Still, the fact that she had lied made her suspect. Zach knew only one way to prove her innocence. “You’re going to let me in your head. You’re going to let me see your thoughts.”
“No, Zach. That’s too creepy. Too intrusive.”
“Too fucking bad. You’ve made this mess by lying, and that’s the only way to clear it up. I’m going to have to tell Joseph what you’ve done. I can’t possibly vouch for you if you aren’t willing to let me do this.”
“There’s got to be another way.”
Lexi backed away, hitting the wall behind her. “I’m a private person.”
Zach followed her, watching her for any signs she might try to flee. “Not anymore. We’re doing this, Lexi. One way or another. I have a vow to these people to uphold.”
“What about your vow to me?”
“I’d give my life to protect you, even as angry as I am, but what I’m going to do to you in no way violates that.” And he was going to do it. Even if he had to force her. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but it would be a hell of a lot gentler than what Joseph might be forced into doing to get the truth out of her. He might call in one of the Sanguinar, and Zach wasn’t going to let one of them tromp through her mind.
“I don’t want it.”
“I don’t care. This is serious.”
“So am I,” she said, lifting her chin.
Fuck. He knew damn well that if she fought him on this, he might end up hurting her. Still, it had to be done. He had to be sure, without a doubt, that there was nothing else she was hiding from him. Too many lives were at stake if he was wrong.
“This is the only way I can protect you, Lexi. If we don’t do this, someone else will, and they won’t be as careful with you as I will.”
She stared at him for a long moment. Her pupils had tightened down to frightened dots of black. All the color had faded from her cheeks, leaving behind the gray pallor of fear.
Zach couldn’t stand to see her like this. He had a job to do, and he’d do it, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t make this as easy on her as possible. No one else knew yet. He still had the time to take it slow. Go easy.
He smoothed her baby- fine hair away from her forehead. It was still damp from their shower and clung to his fingers, tying them together. “I need you to let me do this. If you make me use force, it’s going to hurt.”
Her head fell back against the wall and he saw her throat work nervously. “Yeah. Okay. I got myself into this. I’ll take my punishment like a big girl.”
“It’s not a punishment.” Though that might well still be headed her way.
“Sure feels like one.”
“Just close your eyes and relax. I’ll do the rest.”
Lexi did as Zach told her and tried not to get sick on his feet.