A young age? He’d been a grown man by the time he had finally cut ties with his past, not a child. He frowned, unsure what to say. Not quite certain where she was going.
“I’ve heard a bit about your background from the other fighters, from things I’ve picked up here and there. You know, how you grew up on the streets here in Boston, all alone. Doing whatever you had to in order to survive. It couldn’t have been easy for you.”
Rune felt himself nodding absently. He’d told a lot of different stories about his past over the years, some of them more or less true. But leave it to him to get tangled up in one of those tales with a woman gifted with photographic memory.
“I never expected life to be easy,” he murmured, and that much was the truth.
As he spoke, the group of guys from before circled back and began to approach the table.
The one in the lead awkwardly cleared his throat. Rune ordinarily might have scattered them with a glower, but given the uncomfortable path of his conversation with Carys now, he was actually grateful for the interruption.
When he glanced their way, the three young men gave him eager looks. “Excuse us, uh . . . We just wanted to say, uh, really great match between you and Jagger the other night.”
Another nodded enthusiastically. “You were awesome, man.”
Rune smiled blandly and murmured his thanks, but they weren’t leaving. “We know you’re kinda busy here, but, uh . . . could we maybe get a picture with you real quick?”
Carys grinned over the rim of her wine glass as Rune nodded and waited for the men to crowd in with him and snap the photo. He made sure to turn his head at the last moment, a subtle dodge of the camera’s eye.
Or not so subtle.
Carys’s knowing stare held his gaze as the fans finally moved on. “You don’t like the attention, do you?”
He grunted. In fact, he hated the attention. “I didn’t get into fighting for the fame. Not for the money either.”
“Then why did you?”
A dozen different answers rushed to the tip of his tongue, every one of them a lie. Shit he’d casually tossed out to deflect interest or get rid of anyone who started digging around in his past.
But Carys wasn’t just anyone. He hadn’t set out to deceive her, no more than he wanted to now.
“First time I ever took a real punch, I was eight years old. My mother had died that spring. I didn’t take it well. Not long after, my father started bringing me to the pit. To toughen me up, he’d said. To teach me how to be a man.”
Just speaking the words brought the memories back in vivid clarity. The cold stone of the old circular fighting pit. The soft dirt floor beneath his small, bare feet.
The sudden, unexpected crash of an adult Breed male’s fist connecting with his child-sized jaw.
He could still smell his own blood, then the sharp, pungent stench of his own vomit as the pain had rocketed through him and turned his stomach inside out. He could hear his father’s laughter above him, followed by the stern command for him to get up on his feet and take the next blow like a man, not a whimpering little girl.
“I learned quickly under the old man’s training. Pain didn’t frighten me. My gift made me impervious to it. In the beginning, that’s how I withstood it. After a while, I didn’t need to rely on that ability. Injury could slow me down, but it didn’t stop me. I became fearless, relentless. Merciless. By the time I was ten, I was handing my adult Breed cousins and uncles their asses in the pit. That’s about when my father decided to make things interesting. He started bringing in opponents from outside to fight me in the pit. A few of them came willingly. Stupidly. Others weren’t so willing. My father’s message to me before each match was plain enough: Fight to the death. He didn’t care who came out on top.”
Carys had stopped eating now. She’d stopped moving at all, her gaze riveted on him with a look hovering somewhere between horror and heartbreak. “Rune . . . my God.”
“I fought to stay alive,” he said, pushing on, before her softness made him retreat behind the lies and remoteness that had long been his shield. “I got brutally good. Lethally good. I survived. Then, eventually, I left. And I never looked back.”
Her brows knit, pain swimming in her gaze. “Wasn’t there anyone who was there for you during all that time?”
“To do what? Save me?”
“Yes. Or, I don’t know,” she murmured. “To show you some kindness. To give you some kind of hope, or . . .”
He shrugged, about to deny there was. But the unbidden image of an impish face framed in pale blond hair sprang into his mind, refusing to let him erase her with a lie. A face that still haunted his memories more than he cared to admit. “There was a little girl. My father and his second mate adopted her many years after my mother had died. She was . . . sweet. She was the only innocent thing in that place.”
“What was her name?”
“Kitty.” He shook his head on a low curse. “She didn’t know about the pit. And I’d have killed anyone who brought her down there to see that, to see the monster I had become.”
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know,” he said, and it was hard to keep the regret from his voice. “I left in the middle of the night. I didn’t tell her I was going, or that I would never be back.”
He didn’t want to be forced to explain it to her. Or shatter her innocence by letting her see the monster he’d become. So, he’d simply gone.
“I regret the way I abandoned her like that,” he murmured quietly. “She deserved better. She must’ve hated me for abandoning her the way I did. For a long time afterward, I wondered if I should’ve gone back for her, or taken her with me. Not that I could’ve provided a better life for a child. Hell, in those early years, I hardly provided for myself. But maybe I should’ve tried.”
Carys was studying him in silence now. She reached out to lace her slender fingers through his larger ones, then drew his hand to her and pressed her lips gently against his knuckles. A kiss to each one, whether to heal or absolve him, he wasn’t sure.
He didn’t tell her how those early years in his father’s fighting pit had nearly devoured every scrap of his humanity. He didn’t tell her how he’d hardened himself to the violence, until it became just another facet of his life. Just another condition of his existence.
He didn’t tell her how he struggled, even to this day, to imagine being anything but what his father had conditioned him so ruthlessly to become.
He didn’t have to tell Carys any of that. Her tender gaze said she could see it all without the words.
Rune stroked the pad of his thumb over her soft skin. He intended to keep his voice low, private, in the middle of the crowded restaurant. But when he spoke his words came out clipped, almost strangled. “My past is behind me, Carys. I don’t talk about it. Not to anyone. Not until you. I can’t change what I’ve done or who I am. There’s blood on my hands that won’t ever wash clean.”
She nodded faintly, blinking hard. “It’s okay, Rune. I understand.”
No, she didn’t. Not fully. And for now, that was how he preferred it. He’d already seen the sympathy in her eyes tonight. He didn’t think he could bear to see her pity.