“No. You don’t get to do this. You can’t just come back into my life after crushing me. I don’t know why you had to leave, but I’m out, Malik. I’ll let you say your piece, but I already made up my mind.” Tears filled her eyes and she blinked them away. “I had to do that because of the baby and I can’t just change it because you’re back. It’s not fair to me, and it’s damn sure not fair to our child.”
He shook his head. “I had to go, Eliana.”
“You told me that it meant nothing to you. That I meant nothing to you.”
He winced, remembering the words he’d been forced to say when he’d forced her out of his place. “It was the only way I could think of to shut you out of my life. I had to go. I know you don’t understand, and I know I hurt you more than I can bear, but I hurt myself, too.”
She flipped him off. “Boo hoo. You hurt yourself? Well, screw you.”
He took her hand and kissed her middle finger. When she let out a growl of her own, he let her hand fall. “My kind, the lions, cannot mate with humans. It’s not only forbidden, but the mating mark doesn’t work. It’s not prejudice, it’s actually impossible. So when I started to fall in love with you—” She opened her mouth to speak, and he put his fingers over her lips. “Let me finish. When I started to fall in love with you, I knew I had to leave because it would hurt us more in the end. Or, at least, that’s what I thought. I didn’t know you had a chance to shift into something paranormal. I didn’t know we had a chance.”
She shook her head, this time letting a tear fall down her cheek. He brushed it away with his thumb and tried to catch his breath.
He wouldn’t grovel, wouldn’t fall to his knees and beg forgiveness. He was the son of the Leo, the King of all lions. He would, one day soon, be the Leo and reign over his people. He couldn’t fall for her more than he already had, but he could hope she could see how he felt.
Because if she didn’t, he wasn’t sure what he would do next.
Eliana couldn’t quite believe what he was saying. And yet, she knew he wasn’t saying everything she needed to hear. There were a few key things missing from his speech, and she wasn’t sure she could forgive him without those words.
In fact, he hadn’t asked for forgiveness at all.
He was just so…male.
A male lion, at that.
The king of the freaking jungle was an asshole.
“You know none of that matters, right?” she said, her voice cracking. “Because there’s no tug or anything like the other girls had.” Amara hadn’t felt it, but that had been a siren curse and Eliana had a feeling that wouldn’t happen twice. “I can’t be your mate because I didn’t shift into my paranormal self the first time we had sex. That’s how things work for the lightning-struck. That’s how it’s always worked. I’m not your mate.”
And it hurt more than she could bear that she’d been forced to say that, been forced to come to that conclusion long before he’d returned to her life.
“You’ll be the father of this baby because I’m not so callous as to push you away from him or her, but you’ll never be mine.” She swallowed hard. “You can’t be.”
Malik cupped her face and shook his head. “That might be how the other paranormals and lightning-struck work. But that’s not how lions work.”
“What do you mean?” She remembered now that he’d said something like that when he’d walked into Dante’s Circle, but her mind had gone in so many directions since then that she’d forgotten. “How do lions mate?”
“We choose,” he said simply.
His thumb caressed her cheekbone, and it took all within her not to turn into his palm and nuzzle him.
“As lions, we don’t give in to fate like the others. There isn’t some magical connection that sparks between a lion and his mate. That comes after. The lion within chooses a mate, and the human half almost always agrees. We choose a mate. Meaning, the bond doesn’t come from sex alone, and you wouldn’t have shifted into your paranormal self because there wasn’t a bond yet. And before you ask, I didn’t let the bond happen—though my lion wanted you—because I thought you were human. I didn’t know it could happen at all.”
She let out a shaky breath and her knees went weak. If she weren’t forty-seven months pregnant, she might not have almost fallen as she had, but with little squirt doing somersaults the same way her heart was, she couldn’t keep her body up.
Malik caught her easily and lifted her into his arms. Alarm spread over his face as he carried her to the couch. His muscles didn’t even look strained from carrying her weight, and she had to give it to the gods who had developed lion shifters. Because, damn.