I was still trembling when he rose above me, tearing at his breeches. His…his cock was just as hard as the one I’d read about, just as proud and…glistening with a bead of liquid.
“Poppy?” he breathed as his lips danced over my jaw, down my throat.
The sound he made nearly sent me over the edge all over again. “I just want you to know one thing.” His mouth hovered over my wildly beating pulse before he eased me onto my back. He gripped my hips, tugging me to the edge of the desk. My feet slipped free of the arms of the chair. I curled my legs around his waist as his lips skated down my throat, over my chest, and to the aching tip of a breast. “I’m still in complete control.”
He thrust into me at the same moment his fangs pierced my skin. Twin bursts of fiery pain lanced my breast, stunning me for a brief second, and then my entire body spasmed at the deep, staggering pull of his mouth. He devoured, and he fucked, just as he’d said he wanted to. Heat flowed through my body, igniting a fire that couldn’t be controlled. He drank from me as his body moved in and out of me, and when he lifted his head from the tingling skin of my breast and bit into his wrist, I didn’t look away from the bright red liquid welling on his skin.
“Just in case you need it,” he rasped, lips smeared crimson with my blood, with his.
I didn’t think about it. Maybe later I would wonder why it felt so natural to sit up and close my mouth over the wound, and what that could signify for later, but I was beyond thinking.
I drew his blood into me, struck first by the citrus-in-the-snow scent and then the luscious, dark taste of him. My mouth and then throat tingled as he filled me, thick and warm. I drank as images of pine and snow-draped limbs flashed, and the feel of the cold snow against my skin surfaced. I knew he was thinking about us in the woods. I let myself fall into that memory, into the taste of him and the power that was his blood. I didn’t know how he moved us to the bed, but we were suddenly there, and his mouth was on mine, and our combined taste was in me. Casteel moved slowly, tenderly, and this…this was different than what we had done on that desk. In this moment, I felt bonded to him. It was more than just sex, more than two bodies enjoying each other. It was us, living and loving one another.
Casteel and I lay there, our skin cooling in the breeze coming in from the opening of the small cabin window as the ship gently rocked on the waters of the Stroud Sea. His chest was pressed to my back as he traced idle circles down my arm, and I toyed with his other hand. He’d shucked off his clothing at some point, and the soft fur of the blanket lay pooled at our feet. There would’ve been a time when I would’ve balked at the idea of being so exposed, but not with Casteel. Never with him.
“You’re worthy,” I said, just because I wanted him to know that. I lifted his hand, kissing the backs of his knuckles.
He pressed his lips to the back of my shoulder. “And you’re being sweet.”
“I’m being real,” I told him. His hand stilled on my arm, and he fell quiet. I looked over my shoulder at him. Several emotions rolled through him. The sweet and spicy flavor of what he felt for me, but also the tangy-bitterness of agony that stole my breath. “What?” I shifted onto my back, my gaze searching his. “What is wrong?”
“Nothing.” His throat worked on a swallow.
“Don’t.” I rose onto my elbow so we were face-to-face. “Don’t tell me nothing. I can feel that it is something.”
His lashes swept down, shielding his eyes, but I saw the dark shadows there. Ghosts. “Hiding one’s innermost feelings isn’t exactly easy around you.”
“I know. I would say I’m sorry.”
“But you’re not?” One side of his lips tipped up.
“Yes, and no. I don’t like to pry when I know it’s not wanted.” I spoke into the breath between our lips. “Talk to me, Cas.”
“Cas.” He shuddered, and then his lashes lifted. “Do you know why I love hearing you say that?” He swallowed again as he touched my cheek with the tips of his fingers. A long moment passed. “When I was held by the Ascended, there were times I feared I would forget my name—forget who I was. I did, actually—when I was starved. When I was used. I was a thing. Not a person. Not even an animal. A thing.”
I bit down on the inside of my lip as my heart twisted. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t dare move or breathe too heavily. I didn’t want to do anything that would make him stop talking.
“Even after I was freed, I sometimes felt that way. That I was nothing more than this thing without a name or autonomy,” he admitted hoarsely. “It would just…creep up on me, and I’d have to remind myself that I wasn’t. Sometimes, that didn’t work, and it was always Kieran and Netta or Delano—Naill, or even Emil—who would snap me out of it. As would my parents. They didn’t even know. None of them did, other than maybe Kieran.” His fingers trailed down my arm, to where my hand rested on his hip, above the brand of the Royal Crest. “It was just someone saying, ‘Cas.’ Or my mother calling me Hawke that reminded me I wasn’t a thing.”
Tears of pain and anger filled my eyes. I wanted to hug him. I wanted to launch myself from the ship and swim to the shore to find the Queen and King and kill them right now. But I held myself still.
“That I was a person,” he whispered. “That I wasn’t that thing in the cage or that thing that couldn’t control anything around me—not even what was done to me or how my body was used. Hearing them just say ‘Cas’ pulled me out of that hellscape.” His fingers slid all the way up my arm to cup my cheek. He tilted my head back. “When you call me Cas, it reminds me that I’m real.”
“Cas,” I whispered, blinking back tears.
“Don’t,” he pleaded softly. “Don’t cry.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just that I want…” Gods, there was so much I wanted for him. I wanted him to never have experienced any of that, but I couldn’t undo the past. “I want you to know that you are always Cas. You were never a thing, and you aren’t one now.” I rose, easing him onto his back. The buttery light of the gas lamp flowed over the striking lines of his face. “You are Casteel Hawkethrone Da’Neer. A son. A brother. A friend. A husband.” I leaned over him, and there was no mistaking the deepening of the color of his eyes as his gaze dropped to my breasts. Clasping his cheek, I guided his gaze back to mine. “You are a King. My King. And you will always be my everything, but never will you be a thing.”
Casteel moved fast, pinning my back to the bed with the warm weight of his body. “I love you.”
And I showed him that I loved him, with my words, my lips, my hands, and then my body, over and over until the beautiful amber eyes were clear of any and all shadows.
I had been…thoroughly and repeatedly distracted from the constant sway of the ship throughout the journey to Oak Ambler, but I hadn’t gained my sea legs by the time the sea gave way to land, and the burnt-red stone of Castle Redrock loomed over the city and the village just outside the Rise. The bright, late-morning sun shone overhead as Casteel and I made our way back into the cabin. It would be safer for us to move about during the day. We had arrived two days before we were expected, which meant that Vonetta and the group should be arriving at the same time, or perhaps a little earlier.