“When you met me, you thought I was a mortal guard who’d sworn an oath to protect you. But then you learned I was an Atlantian and that I was the Prince,” he countered. “Did any of that change how you saw me?”
At first it had, but… “No. It didn’t.”
“Then why is it so hard for you to believe that it changes nothing for me? You are still Poppy.” He touched my cheek. “No matter how much more you change, you are still her in your heart.”
I glanced back at the mirror, seeing a familiar face that was also unfamiliar in the smallest ways. I felt like myself in my heart…and I hoped that didn’t change.
“Come,” Casteel repeated, taking my hand. “Let me look at you.”
“I told you, I’m okay.”
He led me away from the mirror and back into the bedchamber. “And I told you to stop saying that when I know you aren’t.”
“I don’t even feel those bruises you mentioned,” I said as he placed me by the side of the bed.
His ocher gaze flicked to mine. “I know there are wounds that aren’t visible to the eye, and I wish you would stop trying to hide them from me.”
I snapped my mouth shut.
“I think there is a lot we need to talk about. He reached for the hem of my tunic, lifting it. “But there’s something really important we need to talk about before we discuss anything else.” He motioned for me to lift my arms, and I did so. Air flowed over my bare arms as I watched him toss the top aside. The plain slip I wore was so much thinner and better suited for the climate, but its tiny straps and the near-sheer, cinched bodice hid very little.
He drew a finger along the strap as he eyed it, slipping it under the flimsy material. “These silly, tiny straps…” The tips of his fangs dragged across his lower lip.
“Is that what you want to talk about?” My skin tingled as he ran his finger along the bodice of the slip, over the swell of my flesh. The peaks of my breasts tightened and hardened as his gaze returned to mine.
“I think these straps are very important and extremely distracting, but they’re not what we need to discuss,” he replied. “Sit, Poppy. I know you’re exhausted.”
I glanced down at my dusty pants. “I’ll dirty the bed if I sit.”
“Then you’ll have to take the pants off.”
My brows lifted. “Are you trying to get me naked?”
“Poppy,” he purred, brushing several strands of hair over my shoulder. “When am I not trying to get you naked?”
I laughed softly. “Good point.” I reached for the flap of the breeches, knowing he was teasing and enjoying it—and relieved that I could still enjoy it despite everything that had happened. I undid the buttons.
“Boots,” he reminded me. “Here. Hold onto my shoulders.”
Casteel knelt before me, and the sight of him—the breadth of his shoulders, the hair that had dried in a mess of waves and loose curls, toppling over his forehead, and the thick fringe of dark lashes nearly undid me. He was beautiful. He was brave. He was intelligent. He was kind and accepting. He was ferocious.
And he was mine.
Hands trembling slightly, I placed them on his shoulders. He made quick work of tugging off the boots as I steadied myself. The pants came next, and then I was standing before him in nothing but a slip that reached my thighs.
Casteel remained where he was, his gaze traveling over the length of my legs. His stare lingered, not on the old scars from the night of the Craven attack, but rather on the dull blue patches of skin, bruised now from the gods only knew what. His gaze roamed over me—my arms, the skin above my breasts, my face.
His eyes were like iced-over chips of amber when they met mine. “If any of those who inflicted one second of pain on you still breathed, I would tear them apart, limb from limb. I pray that the death you dealt them was slow and painful.”
“It wasn’t slow for most.” An image surfaced of them clutching their heads and screaming as their bodies contorted. “But it was painful for all.”
“Good.” His gaze held mine. “Don’t spend a second on guilt or pity. None of them—and especially not Alastir—deserve that.”
“I promise you if anyone else was involved in this, they will be found, and they will pay. The same goes for anyone else who seeks to threaten you. No matter who.”
He meant those words, and instinct told me that no one was excluded. Not even his parents.
“And I promise the same to you. I will allow no one to harm you,” I swore, the center of my chest thrumming.
“I know.” Casteel took my hands and pulled me down so I was sitting on the edge of the soft bed. A long moment passed. “I’m your husband, right?” he asked, remaining crouched.
My brows lifted at the unexpected question. “Yes?”
“Now, I don’t know a whole lot about being a husband,” he said as he placed my hands in my lap, and I really had no idea where he was going with this. “Do you know what’s carved into our rings? It’s in old Atlantian,” he told me when I shook my head. “Both say the same thing. Always and forever. That is us.”
“Yes,” I whispered, my throat tightening. “It is.”
“Obviously, I don’t have experience in the whole marriage department, but be that as it may, you’re my wife. That means we don’t pretend anymore, correct? That, always and forever, we are real with one another.”
“Yes.” I nodded.
“Not about anything. Not even when you don’t want me to worry. I know you’re strong and so resilient it’s fucking unbelievable, but you don’t have to always be strong with me. It’s okay to not be okay when you’re with me,” he said, and my breath caught. “It’s my duty as your husband to make sure you feel safe enough to be real. You don’t have to pretend that you’re okay with everything that has happened, Poppy.”
His words wrecked me. Tears scorched my throat and rushed to my eyes. I did the only mature thing possible. I smacked my hands over my face.
“Poppy,” Casteel whispered, folding his fingers around my wrists. “That sounded like it hurt.”
“It did.” My voice was muffled. “I don’t want to cry.”
“Does smacking yourself in the face help with that?”
“No.” I laughed, shoulders trembling as tears dampened my lashes.
“I didn’t mean to make you cry.” He tugged a little on my arms.
My hands stayed over my face. “Then don’t say incredibly sweet and supportive things.”
“Would you rather I say something mean and unsupportive?”
“Poppy.” He drew my name out, pulling my hands away from my face. He gave me a lopsided grin, one that made him seem so incredibly young. “It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be vulnerable. This was possibly the worst homecoming ever. This last week sucked, and not in a fun way.”
I laughed again, and it ended in a sob. I didn’t stop the onslaught of emotion this time. I broke, and just like Casteel had promised, he was there to catch those pieces, holding them together and keeping them safe until I could piece myself back together. Somehow, I ended up on the floor with him, in his lap, my arms and legs wrapped tightly around him.