What had he been thinking? I will not lose you. Ever. I love you, Princess. He hadn’t been thinking. He’d simply been…feeling.
Suddenly, it was like a chest in my mind unlocked, and the lid was thrown off. Emotions poured into me—nearly nineteen years-worth of them that went beyond what had happened in the Temple, the memories and beliefs, experiences and feelings. Nightmares came, too, heavy with desperation and hopelessness. But so did dreams full of such wonder and possibility. Dreams bursting with need and want and love.
I sat back so quickly I lost my balance. An arm dropped to my waist, stopping me before I toppled out of his lap. Through the messy strands of my hair, I saw him, really saw him.
Dark, disheveled hair tumbled across his forehead. Tension bracketed the corners of his mouth, and shadows smudged the skin under his eyes, but they were a bright topaz as they held mine. Neither of us moved or spoke as we stared at one another. I had no idea what he was thinking, and I barely knew my thoughts in that moment. So much had happened, so many things I didn’t understand. Namely, how I was in here after I had Ascended. After he’d done the unthinkable to save me. I remembered the panic in his father’s voice as he pleaded with him not to do it—not to repeat history. But he’d risked—gods, he’d risked everything. And I was alive because of him. I was here because of him. But none of this made sense.
The Ascended were uncontrollable after being turned, dangerous for mortals, let alone an elemental Atlantian. It could take them years to control their thirst, but more unbelievable was that I could still feel all those heady and exhilarating and terrifying emotions within me. I could feel love, and I didn’t think any Ascended was capable of feeling such a miracle. I didn’t understand. Maybe this was some sort of dream? Perhaps I had passed and was in the Vale, an eternity of paradise awaiting me. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know if that was the case.
I lifted my trembling hand and pressed my fingers to the warm skin of his cheek. “Casteel.”
Casteel shuddered as he whispered, “Poppy.”
“Is this real?” I asked.
The golden flecks in his eyes churned fiercely. “There’s nothing more real than right now.”
I don’t know who moved first. Me. Him. Both of us at the same time? It didn’t matter. Our mouths met, and there was nothing gentle about the way we came together. He grasped the back of my head, his hand fisting in my hair. I held onto him, my fingers digging into the skin of his shoulders. It was a wrecking sort of kiss, demanding and raw. We claimed each other. Our lips mashed together. Our teeth clashed. Our arms wrapped fiercely around one another, and the kiss, the way we held each other, became something else entirely. His hands slid down my sides to my hips as he pulled me against him, where I felt him hardening against me once more.
“I need you,” he groaned against my lips. “I need you, Poppy.”
“You have me,” I told him, echoing the words I’d said to him once before. Now, they felt like an unbreakable vow. “Always.”
“Always,” he repeated.
Lifting me from his lap, he stood and then turned, placing me on the center of what I realized was a fairly narrow bed. I got a brief glimpse of the dark walls and fractured sunlight seeping through the cracked boards of a door in the room, but then all I saw was him.
Gods, he…he had saved me, believing he’d committed the forbidden act of Ascension. He’d taken that risk, understanding that I would become a vampry. His father hadn’t been able to stop him. Neither had the gods. No one could because he wouldn’t let me go. He refused to lose me.
Because he loved me.
And now he climbed over me, his attention feral and possessive. Every muscle in my body tensed. My leg curled as he slid his hand up my thigh, the rough skin of his palm creating delicious friction. I couldn’t look away from the vivid burn of his eyes. I was absolutely transfixed by them—by him. Slipping an arm under my waist, he flipped me onto my belly. Surprise flickered through me. I started to rise, but the heat of his body against my back pressed me down to the rough blanket. Casteel rained kisses down my spine, over my hips, and then to the swell of my rear, eliciting a shiver from me.
“If you ever tell me to kiss your ass,” he said, “remember that I already have.”
A throaty laugh parted my lips, the sound and act surprising. “I don’t think I’ll forget that.”
“Good.” He lifted me to my knees, using his thigh to urge my legs farther apart. My fingers dug into the coarse material as a tremble of anticipation rolled through me. “I’m not going to last very long,” he warned. “But neither will you.”
I couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe with him curling his arm around my waist as his other hand clamped down on my hip. He didn’t move. My pulse thrummed.
“Cas—” His name ended in a sharp cry as he thrust into me.
He pulled me back against him as he plunged into me, over and over, his pace wickedly savage. Pulling my back flush to his chest, he ground his hips against my rear as his hand left my hip and folded over the base of my throat. He pressed his lips to my damp temple. “I love you.”
I broke apart, shattering into a thousand tiny pieces as my release crashed through me with such force that a growl rumbled from his chest. His arms tightened around me. One more deep thrust, and he came, shouting my name. Panting and slick with a fine sheen of sweat, he brought us both to the bed. The blanket scratched my skin, but I was sated, boneless, and so damn relieved to be alive that I couldn’t actually worry about the irritation of the material. I didn’t know how long we stayed where we were, me on my belly, and Casteel lying half on me, but the sensation of his weight enthralled me, as did his wildly beating heart against my back.
Sometime later, I once more ended up seated in his embrace, cradled against him. We were at the head of the narrow bed now. I didn’t remember how we’d even gotten there, but he held me as he dragged a trembling hand over my head and through my hair. We stayed that way for so long—hours, it seemed.
“How are you feeling?” Casteel asked, his voice rough. “Does anything hurt?”
I gave a small shake of my head. “Not really.” There were aches, but they were nothing. “I…I don’t understand. I was dying.” Lifting my head, I looked down at my chest as I scooped the tangled strands of my hair to the side. I saw shiny, pink skin in the shape of a rough circle between my breasts. The bolt had gone through me. “And you…you took my blood until I felt my heart fail and then gave me yours.”
“I did.” He pressed his fingers just below the barely noticeable injury, and a wave of awareness skittered through me. “I couldn’t let you go. I wouldn’t.”
My gaze flew to his, but he was staring at the wound, his brow furrowed. “But I’m not in bloodlust—well, I was. I was so hungry. I’ve never felt that hungry before.” I swallowed hard, wanting to forget what that had felt like. Wanting to forget that Casteel had experienced that over and over for decades. How had he found himself? I was in awe of him, and I was in love with him.