Hold Me (Twist Me #3) by Anna Zaires

Part I: The Return

Chapter 1

Julian

A gasping cry wakes me up, dragging me out of restless sleep. My uninjured eye flies open on a rush of adrenaline, and I jackknife to a sitting position, the sudden movement causing my cracked ribs to scream in protest. The cast on my left arm bangs into the heart-rate monitor next to the bed, and the wave of agony is so intense that the room spins around me in a sickening swirl. My pulse is pounding, and it takes a moment to realize what woke me.

Nora.

She must be in the grip of another nightmare.

My body, coiled for combat, relaxes slightly. There’s no danger, nobody coming after us right now. I’m lying next to Nora in my luxurious hospital bed, and we’re both safe, the clinic in Switzerland as secure as Lucas can make it.

The pain in my ribs and arm is better now, more tolerable. Moving more carefully, I place my right hand on Nora’s shoulder and try to gently shake her awake. She’s turned away from me, facing in the opposite direction, so I can’t see her face to check if she’s crying. Her skin, however, is cold and damp from sweat. She must’ve been having the nightmare for a while. She’s also shivering.

“Wake up, baby,” I murmur, stroking her slender arm. I can see the light filtering through the blinds on the window, and I know it must be morning. “It’s just a dream. Wake up, my pet . . .”

She stiffens under my touch, and I know she’s not fully awake, the nightmare still holding her captive. Her breathing is coming in audible, gasping bursts, and I can feel the tremors running through her body. Her distress claws at me, hurting me worse than any injury, and the knowledge that I’m again responsible for this—that I failed to keep her safe—makes my insides burn with acidic fury.

Fury at myself and at Peter Sokolov—the man who allowed Nora to risk her life to rescue me.

Before my cursed trip to Tajikistan, she had been slowly getting over Beth’s death, her nightmares becoming less frequent as the months wore on. Now, however, the bad dreams are back—and Nora is worse off than before, judging by the panic attack she had during sex yesterday.

I want to kill Peter for this—and I might, if he ever crosses my path again. The Russian saved my life, but he endangered Nora’s in the process, and that’s not something I will ever forgive. And his fucking list of names? Forget it. There is no way I’m going to reward him for betraying me like this, no matter what Nora promised him.

“Come on, baby, wake up,” I urge her again, using my right arm to lower myself back down on the bed. My ribs ache at the movement, but less fiercely this time. I carefully shift closer to Nora, pressing my body against hers from the back. “You’re okay. It’s all over, I promise.”

She draws in a deep, hiccuping breath, and I feel the tension within her easing as she realizes where she is. “Julian?” she whispers, turning around to face me, and I see that she’s been crying after all, her cheeks coated with moisture from her tears.

“Yes. You’re safe now. Everything is fine.” I reach over with my right hand and trail my fingers over her jaw, marveling at the fragile beauty of her facial structure. My hand looks huge and rough against her delicate face, my nails ragged and bruised from the needles Majid used on me. The contrast between us is glaring—though Nora is not entirely unscathed either. The purity of her golden skin is marred by a bruise on the left side of her face, where those Al-Quadar motherfuckers hit her to knock her out.

If they weren’t already dead, I would’ve ripped them apart with my bare hands for hurting her.

“What did you dream about?” I ask softly. “Was it Beth?”

“No.” She shakes her head, and I see that her breathing is beginning to return to normal. Her voice, however, still holds echoes of horror as she says hoarsely, “It was you this time. Majid was cutting out your eyes, and I couldn’t stop him.”

I try not to react, but it’s impossible. Her words hurl me back to that cold, windowless room, to the nauseating sensations I’ve been trying to forget for the past several days. My head begins to throb with remembered agony, my half-healed eye socket burning with emptiness once again. I feel blood and other fluids dripping down my face, and my stomach heaves at the recollection. I’m no stranger to pain, or even to torture—my father believed that his son should be able to withstand anything—but losing my eye had been by far the most excruciating experience of my life.

Physically, at least.

Emotionally, Nora’s appearance in that room probably holds that honor.

It takes all of my willpower to wrench my thoughts back to the present, away from the mind-numbing terror of seeing her dragged in by Majid’s men.

“You did stop him, Nora.” It kills me to admit this, but if it weren’t for her bravery, I would probably be decomposing in some dumpster in Tajikistan. “You came for me, and you saved me.”

I still have trouble believing that she did that—that she voluntarily placed herself in the hands of psychotic terrorists to save my life. She didn’t do it out of some naïve conviction that they wouldn’t harm her. No, my pet knew exactly what they were capable of, and she still had the courage to act.

I owe my life to the girl I abducted, and I don’t quite know how to deal with that.

“Why did you do it?” I ask, stroking the edge of her lower lip with my thumb. Deep down, I know, but I want to hear her admit it.

She gazes at me, her eyes filled with shadows from her dream. “Because I can’t survive without you,” she says quietly. “You know that, Julian. You wanted me to love you, and I do. I love you so much I would walk through hell for you.”