“I know what you said, and I’m not bringing up what I look like for you to shower me with compliments. It’s just…” Gods, I wished I hadn’t said anything. I shook my head. “Never mind. Forget I said that.”
“I can’t. I won’t.”
“Great,” I muttered.
“You’re just used to assholes like the Duke,” he said, and what sounded like a low growl rumbled from him. “He may be an Ascended, but he’s worthless.”
My heart dropped. “You shouldn’t say things like that, Hawke. You—”
“I’m not afraid to speak the truth. He may be powerful, but he’s just a weak man, who proves his strength by attempting to humiliate those more powerful than he is. Someone like you, with your strength? It makes him feel incompetent—which he is. And your scars? They are a testament to your fortitude. They are proof of what you survived. They are evidence of why you are here when so many twice your age wouldn’t be. They’re not ugly. Far from it. They’re beautiful, Poppy.”
“That’s the third time you’ve called me that,” I said.
“Fourth,” he corrected, and I blinked. “We’re friends, aren’t we? Only your friends and your brother call you that, and you may be the Maiden, and I’m a Royal Guard, but all things considered, I would hope that you and I are friends.”
“We are.” And we were.
His hand flattened against my cheek, and a sigh shuddered through him. “And I’m not…I’m not being a good friend or guard right now. I’m not…” His hand slid, and his fingers curled around the nape of my neck for a few seconds before he slipped his hand away. “I really should get you back to your room. It’s getting late.”
I exhaled raggedly. “It is.”
He was going to take me back—to that room where I was the Maiden, the Chosen. Back to where I wasn’t Poppy but a shadow of a person who wasn’t allowed to experience, need, live, or want. I would no longer be who he saw.
“Hawke?” I whispered, my heart crashing like thunder. “Kiss me. Please.”
Hawke had gone so still against me that I wasn’t sure if he even took a breath. My request had shocked him—shocked me.
I think I might’ve stopped breathing.
“Gods,” he breathed, and one hand returned to my cheek. “You don’t have to ask me twice, Princess, and you never have to beg.”
Before I had a chance to respond, his lips brushed over mine. I gasped at the soft contact, and I swore I could feel his lips curve against mine in a smile. I wished I could see it because it seemed like a full grin, the kind that lifted both sides of his mouth and made both dimples appear, but then he moved his mouth along mine, painstakingly slow as if he were mapping out the curve of my lips with his. I held completely still, my heart feeling like a trapped butterfly as he retraced the path he’d just made. Tiny shivers hit every part of my body. I trembled as my hands curled into the front of his tunic, no doubt wrinkling the fine material.
This touch was barely a kiss, but gods, the gentleness, the sweetness of it shook me, rattled me to the core.
Then Hawke tilted his head, increasing the pressure, deepening the kiss. Suddenly, everything changed. This kiss—its rawness—left me breathless. Resulted in both of us gasping when we parted, our chests rising and falling quickly. I couldn’t see his eyes in the dark, but I could feel his penetrating stare.
I wasn’t thinking about what I was in those seconds. I wasn’t thinking about what was forbidden and what was right. I wasn’t thinking at all, truth be told, and I didn’t know who moved first. Hawke? Me? Both of us at the very same moment? Our lips touched again, and this time, there was no hesitation. There was just want, so much of it, and a hundred other powerful, forbidden things that pounded through me. His lips scorched mine, heated my blood, and set fire to my senses. His hands moved to my shoulders, sliding down my arms. Hawke shuddered, and a sound emerged from the back of his throat, sort of like a half-growl, half-moan. It sent little shivers of pleasure and panic darting through me as he parted my lips. The hunger behind our kiss should’ve scared me—and maybe it did a little because it felt like too much and not nearly enough all at the same time. I moaned as his hands drifted down my sides. It felt like my body was sparking, igniting—
He gripped my waist, lifting me and settling me again so my knees fell to either side of his hips with me pressed against him. His breeches and my gown served as no real barrier. I could feel him, and I shuddered as a sharp, pulsing ache throbbed through me. His answering moan, another deep, rough sound, shattered whatever hesitancy I had. I placed my hands on his chest, marveling at the way his body jerked as I slid them up over his shoulders and then around his neck. I did then what I wished I’d done at the Red Pearl. I sank my fingers into his hair, and the strands were as soft as I’d thought they would be. No other part of him felt that way. He was all hard heat against me.
Hawke’s arms moved around me, pulling me so tightly against him that there was barely any space between us. He kissed me again, kept kissing me, and I knew this was more than a kiss. It went beyond that, beyond how he felt and how he made me feel.
His words had touched the deepest part of me, and it was thrilling. I felt alive, like I was finally waking up.
And I never wanted it to stop.
Not with the rush of sensations flowing through me. I knew in the back of my mind that I’d lost control of my gift. My shields were wide open, and there was no way to tell if what I felt belonged to him or me or both of us.
Instinct took over, guiding my body—my hips to push and roll—and he shuddered again, catching my bottom lip between his. He grabbed fistfuls of the skirt of my gown, lifting until his hands touched my calves. A tremor went through me like lightning.
“Remember,” he said against my lips as his palms glided up to the curve of my knees. “Anything you don’t like, say the word, and I’ll stop.”
I nodded, seeking his mouth in the darkness. When I found him, I wondered how I’d made it this long without kissing him again.
I wondered how I could go on without doing it more.
That thought threatened to dampen the heat, but his hands were moving again, skimming over my skin and sending a rush of heated blood to every part of my body. I shifted forward until our hips were melded together. I moved. We moved. And I thought I whispered his name before I kissed him again, slipping my tongue between his lips, against his teeth—
Hawke jerked his head back, panting as he rested his forehead against mine. “Poppy,” he said in a way that made my name sound like both a prayer and a curse.
“Yes?” My fingers opened and closed around the silky softness of his hair.
“That was the fifth time I’ve said your name, in case you’re still keeping track.”
I grinned. “I am.”
“Good.” He slipped his hands out from under my gown, and one of them found its way to my cheek. He traced the edge of my mask, surprising me yet again with his sight. “I don’t think I was being honest a few moments ago.”
“About what?” I loosened my grip on his hair, lowering my hands to his shoulders.
“About stopping,” he admitted quietly, drawing his fingers down my cheek and over my jaw. “I would stop, but I don’t think you would stop me.”
“I’m not exactly understanding what you’re saying.” I let my eyes close. Despite being confused by his words and the fact that we weren’t kissing, I liked the intimacy of how close we were, how his head rested against mine.
He drew the tips of his fingers down the side of my neck. “Do you want me to be blunt?”
“I always want you to be honest.”
My senses were still open. I knew that because I felt a foreign sensation coming through the connection, but it was too brief for me to figure out what it was.
And then he kissed my temple, and I thought about the odd, ashy feeling that had coated my throat. “I was seconds from taking you to the ground and becoming a very, very bad guard.”
Air caught in my throat as a pulse of warm heat went straight through me. I didn’t know a lot, but I knew enough to know what he meant. “Really?”
“Really,” he answered seriously.
I should’ve felt relief that he’d stopped, and I did. But I also didn’t. What I felt was a confusing mess. But I knew one thing for sure.
“I don’t think I would’ve stopped you,” I whispered. I would’ve let him take me to the ground, and I would’ve welcomed what he did, consequences be damned.
Hawke’s body shook as he moaned. “You’re not helping.”
“I’m a bad Maiden.”
“No.” He kissed my other temple. “You’re a perfectly normal girl. What is expected of you is what’s bad.” He paused. “And, yes, you’re also a very bad Maiden.”
Instead of being offended—because there was no way, even if I didn’t count tonight, that I could deny that—I laughed and was rewarded by his arm coming back around me. Hawke pulled me back to his body, sliding his hand to my nape. I settled my cheek against his shoulder as his grip briefly tightened, and then his fingers moved, working the muscles of my neck. I wasn’t sure how long we stayed there like that, quiet and hidden away under the willow, but I did know that it was far past the point where my blood had cooled, and my heart had slowed. I didn’t move then, and neither did Hawke. I thought that maybe…maybe being held like this, so close and so tight, felt just as good as the kissing and the touching.
Perhaps even better, but in a different way.
But it was getting late, and unsurprisingly, Hawke was the responsible one. He kissed the crown of my head, causing my heart to squeeze in a way that was so sweet, it was almost painful.
“I need to get you back, Princess.”
“I know.” But still, I held onto him.