His fingers grazed my cheek, catching the strands of my hair and tucking them back over my shoulder. I tensed, but when he didn’t pull me away, I relaxed. He touched me again, gliding his fingers through my hair in soothing, comforting caresses. I liked that. Touch was…it was special to me. It had once been forbidden, but he…he had shattered that rule from the beginning.
“Poppy,” he whispered. Poppy. That was me. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice ragged. “I’m sorry that you woke in this state and I wasn’t here. I think I…I must’ve passed out. I’m so damn sorry. I know what bloodlust feels like. I know that you can lose yourself in it. But you’ll find yourself again. I don’t doubt that for one second. You’re so strong.” His fingers continued moving along my scalp, and my grip on his arm loosened as he spoke. The taste of his blood was everything, and with each swallow, the void in me lessened, and the shadows in my mind cracked even more.
“Gods, I hope you truly understand how strong you are. I’m constantly in awe of you. I’ve been in awe of you since the night in the Red Pearl.”
The ragged breaths evened out. The racing of my heart and pulse started to slow, and behind my eyes, I saw colors—a blue, cloudless sky and warm sunlight. Black waters that shimmered like pools of obsidian, and sandy dirt warm under my feet. Palms joined, and him whispering: “Unworthy.” These images, these thoughts were his as he spoke softly.
“You’re brave, so damn brave. I realized that at the Red Pearl. To be the Maiden, to be raised as you were, and to still want to experience life told me that you were brave. That night on the Rise, when you went up there in that…that damn nightgown?” His chuckle was rough. “You didn’t hide. Not then, and not when you went out to ease the pain of those cursed by the Craven. You’ve chosen things for yourself longer than you realize, Poppy—longer than you give yourself credit for. You always did when it mattered the most, and did so knowing the consequences. Because you’re brave. You were never the Maiden. You were never truly helpless. You were smart, strong, and brave.”
He exhaled heavily. “I don’t think I’ve told you this. I didn’t get the chance yet. When you asked me to kiss you under the willow? Deep down, I knew then that I would give you anything you asked for. I still will. Whatever you want,” he promised roughly, his fingers tangling in my hair. “You can have it. Anything. Everything. You can have it all. I will make sure of it.”
Warmth buzzed through me, erasing the prickly sensation in my skin. I swallowed the rich essence of him and then I took what felt like my first real breath. It didn’t burn or open that empty feeling again. It did something entirely different. The blood…
It was like liquid fire, stroking to life a different kind of need, one I fell headfirst into. I tilted forward, pressing my breasts against his bare chest. The contact left me hungry in a way much different from earlier but just as potent. I shifted in his lap. We both groaned. Instinct took over, my body knowing what I wanted—what I needed—as I drank from his wrist. I rolled my hips against his, shaking at the intense curling sensation deep in my lower stomach.
His blood…gods. My skin tingled now, becoming overly sensitive. The tips of my breasts ached as they brushed against the fine dusting of hair across his chest. I whimpered, pressing down against the hardness straining through thin pants. I wanted…no, I needed him.
“Whatever you want,” he said, his words a vow. “I will give it to you.”
Him. I wanted him.
Keeping his wrist to my mouth, I planted my hand on his chest and pushed—pushed hard. He fell onto his back as I tilted my hips, rubbing against his length. With shocking strength, he lifted both of us just enough to shove his pants down to his thighs with one hand. The feel of him hot and hard against my lower body dragged a thready moan from me.
“Fuck,” he gasped, his large body shaking. And then he moved again, lifting me in one fluid motion and angling my hips. He brought me down onto him, sliding deep inside me. His wrist smothered my cry of surprise as his hips flexed and thrust upward. Toes curling, I pushed down, matching his pace as I curled myself around his arm, drinking deeply.
“She’s taking too much,” the other man said, his voice closer. “You’ve got to stop her.”
Even in my lust-addled mind, even as tension coiled tighter and tighter inside me, I knew the one who moved under me and in me wouldn’t stop me. He’d let me take it all. He’d let me drain him dry. He’d do that because he...
“For fuck’s sake,” the wolven snarled. A heartbeat later, I felt his arm clamp down on my waist as his fingers pressed into the skin under my jaw. He pulled my head back, but I didn’t fight him because this male’s blood was everything to me.
The one under me sat up, curling an arm around my hips, just below the other’s arm. A sharp swirl of tingles rushed through me. He reached around the wolven’s grip, fisting my hair as he pressed his forehead to mine. Under me, he moved his magnificent body at a furious rhythm. My entire body stiffened and then lightning flew through my veins. My muscles clamped down on him, spasming. My cry mixed with his rough shout as his hips pumped furiously, and he followed me into the wild, mindless bliss that wracked my entire body. Slowly, the tension poured out of me, turning my muscles to liquid. I didn’t know how much time passed, but finally, the hand under my jaw eased, and one of the arms slid away from me. My cheek fell to a warm shoulder, and I sat there, eyes closed and breathing shallowly as he held me tightly to his chest, his hand still tangled in my hair at the back of my head. He nodded, and the wolven left. The click of a nearby door signaled his departure, but I remained, sated and relaxed. The heat of the blood coursing through me cooled. His blood…
The nothingness in my mind shattered in an instant. Thoughts flooded me, connecting with memories. They reached into the deepest parts of me, linking with a sense of self. Shock found me first—utter disbelief and anguish over what Alastir had done while we stood at the Chambers of Nyktos and everything that had happened after that.
I’d trusted him.
I…I’d wanted acceptance from the people at the Temple, but they’d called me a Soul Eater. They’d called me a whore. They…they’d called me the Maiden, and I was none of those things. Anger crowded out the horror. A rage that carved itself into every bone in my body. Fury hummed at my very core, striking against the wildness growing inside me. They would pay for what they had done to me. Every single one of them would discover exactly what I was. I would never be struck down like that again. They wouldn’t succeed…
But hadn’t they already?
I could still feel the bolt striking my flesh, tearing through vital parts of me. I’d tasted death. Felt it—the breath I couldn’t take, the heart that no longer beat, and the words I couldn’t speak. I’d been dying, but there had been a different pain, too, a fiery one that had ripped through me. Drink. Keep drinking. That’s it. Keep swallowing. Drink, Poppy, keep drinking for me… The taste of citrus and snow still coated the back of my throat, my lips. Still warmed and filled that gnawing, painful hollowness inside me. I shuddered, and the hand on the back of my head stilled. Oh, gods, they succeeded. He’d…Ascended me.