And I stopped pretending.
Because I wasn’t okay.
I wasn’t okay with what had happened, with what it could signal and what it meant when I didn’t even know what I was now. Nor was I okay with learning that my parents had been betrayed by someone they trusted—that they’d truly been attempting to escape Solis with Ian and me but never made it, risking their lives for me—for us. That betrayal hurt, and the pain throbbed intensely. All those things I tried not to think about crashed into me, and who…who would be okay?
Seconds turned into minutes, and those minutes stacked on top of one another. My tears dampened Casteel’s chest. I hadn’t even cried like this when I lost Vikter. That had been a harsher explosion of emotion, but Casteel…he had been there for that, too. And as he held me to him, his cheek pressed against the top of my head, his hands smoothing up and down my back, I didn’t worry about being seen as weak. I didn’t fear that I’d be reprimanded for showing emotion as he gently rocked us back and forth. I hadn’t even allowed myself to do this with Vikter, and I knew he wouldn’t have judged me. He would’ve let me cry it out and then told me to deal with it. And, sometimes, that was what I needed. This wasn’t one of those times, and not since my parents had died and Ian had left for Carsodonia had I felt safe enough to be this vulnerable.
And I knew why I could be like this with Casteel. It was further proof of what I felt so deeply when I opened my senses to him now. I was drowning in the taste of chocolate-dipped strawberries.
Love and acceptance.
I didn’t know how long we stayed like that, but it felt like a small eternity by the time the tears stopped flowing. My eyes ached a little, but I felt lighter.
Casteel turned his head, pressing a kiss to my cheek. “You up for taking your first-ever shower? Afterwards, we’ll get some food in us, and eventually—unfortunately—find you some clothing. Then we’ll talk about everything else.”
At first, my brain got snagged on the whole shower part and then got hung up on the everything else section. Everything else was meeting with his parents, the whole Queen business, and…well, everything else.
“Or we can get some food in us first. It’s up to you,” he said. “What would you like?”
“I think I would like a shower, Cas.” I gasped as he nipped my finger.
His eyes opened, shining like citrine jewels. “Sorry. Hearing you say that just…does things to me.”
Having a relatively good idea of what those things were, warmth slid into my veins. My gaze crept over his shoulder, and excitement bubbled to life. “It’s going to feel weird bathing while standing.”
“You’re going to love it.” Casteel rose then, easily bringing me with him. His strength was always a shock, one I wasn’t sure I’d ever get used to.
I followed him into the bathroom. Only the faintest light seeped in through the window above the bench. Casteel turned the knob on a lamp over the vanity, and a soft, golden glow stretched across the tiled floor. I watched him place two thick towels on a small stool between the tub and shower stall. I hadn’t even noticed that before.
Casteel shucked off his clothing with an utter lack of self-consciousness that was fascinating and enviable. I couldn’t take my eyes off him as he walked into the sunken stall and began fiddling with the faucets on the wall.
Water spilled out of the multiple pipes overhead, resulting in a heavy shower. I should’ve focused on whatever sorcery made that possible, but I was mesmerized by him—by the dusting of dark hair on his calves, the breadth of his shoulders and chest, and the lean, coiled muscles of his stomach. His body was proof of a day rarely spent idle. He enthralled me, everything from the delineated lines of his chest, the wickedness of the length of him, to the life he’d lived that played out across his bronzed skin in a smattering of pale scars.
His body was…gods, it was a masterpiece of perfection and flaws. Not even the Royal Crest brand—the circle with the arrow piercing the middle—on his right upper thigh detracted from the raw beauty of him.
“When you look at me like that, every good intention I had of letting you enjoy your first shower disappears with each passing second,” he said, water sluicing over his shoulders as he crossed under the rain shower. “And is replaced by very inappropriate intentions.”
Heat flushed my veins as I toyed with the hem of my slip. My gaze dipped below the tight muscles of his abdominals, lower than his navel. He’d hardened, the skin there a deeper hue. A curling motion was sharp and sudden in the pit of my stomach and then between my thighs.
His chest rose sharply. “I think you’re interested in those inappropriate intentions.”
“And what if I am?”
“I would find it very hard not to cave to them.” His eyes brightened. “And that would be a problem.”
My pulse was a heady thrum. “I’m not sure how that could be problematic.”
“The problem? If I get inside of you right now, I don’t think I can control myself.” He stopped in front of me and dipped his head. His lips brushed the shell of my ear as he slipped a finger under the strap of the slip. “I’d have you up against that wall, my cock and fangs so deep inside you that neither of us would know where one began and the other ended.”
An intense, aching pulse washed through me in tight waves. The memory of the scrape of his fangs against my skin, the bite, and the brief pain that gave way to pleasure took center stage in my mind. “I still don’t see how that is a problem.”
A deep, rough sound came from the back of his throat. “That’s because you haven’t seen me lose control.”
“You were in control in that carriage? After the battle at Spessa’s End?”
“Yes.” His head tilted, and my entire body jerked at the feeling of a sharp fang against the side of my neck.
That tantalizing ache settled between my legs and throbbed. “What about that morning when you woke hungry and—?” I gasped as his tongue soothed the area his fang had teased.
“And I had my mouth between your thighs, and the taste of you coursing down my throat?”
I shuddered, my eyes drifting shut. “Yes. T-that morning. You weren’t in control then.”
“You reached me, Poppy.” His fingers slipped under both straps of my slip, and he drew it down slowly, over the tingling tips of my breasts. “I didn’t lose control then.”
“And after…after I fed from you?” I asked, finding it difficult to swallow. “In the hunting cabin?”
“I was still in control, Poppy.”
Air hitched in my throat. If he truly hadn’t lost control any of those times, I wasn’t sure I could imagine what it would be like if he did. As the slip gathered at my waist and then fell to the floor, I found myself shamefully wanting to know.
“I would lose control now.” His fingers skated down the curve of my shoulder and over the swell of my breast. The touch was featherlight, but my back arched. He brushed his lips over my cheek as his thumb moved in maddening circles over a tingling nipple. “My mouth would be all over you. I’d drink from your throat. I’d drink from here,” he whispered against my lips as he folded his hand around my breast, kneading the flesh. I gasped as I felt his other hand slip between my thighs. “I’d definitely drink from here.”