He didn’t answer for a long moment. “This would have happened eventually, even if you weren’t a descendant of the gods. Malik wouldn’t be ready to lead, and we would have had to make a choice. At the end of the day, I want what is best for Atlantia,” he said, and I remembered then how Kieran had described him as a young boy. How many would’ve mistaken him for the heir and not his brother. I heard it then, the seriousness in his tone. I’d heard it moments earlier when he’d called me out on my denials. “But I also want what is best for you.”
My gaze lifted to him.
“We know what we both need to do. I need to free my brother. You need to see Ian. The Queen and King of Solis must be stopped,” he told me. “But after that? If you want to claim the Crown, I will support you. I will be right beside you. Together, we will learn to rule Atlantia,” he said, and my stomach dipped. “If not, just tell me what you want to do, where you want to go. I will be right beside you.”
“Where I want to go?” I asked, confused.
“If you decide you do not want to take the throne, we cannot stay here.”
“Why not?” I pitched forward again.
“Because you usurp the throne, Poppy. No other Queen could rule with you in Atlantia. The wolven will treat you as the Queen even if you do not sit on that throne. Some Atlantians will treat you the same. Others would follow who wears the crown, whether that is my mother or someone else. It would create a division, one we haven’t seen since the deities themselves ruled. I can’t do that to Atlantia,” he said.
“I don’t want that to happen.” My heart started thumping heavily as I gripped the edge of the table. “But this is your home.”
“You told me that I was your home. That works both ways,” he reminded me. “You are mine. What matters is that we’re together and happy.”
His words warmed me, but he would be leaving because I chose not to take the Crown. I pressed against the back of the chair, suddenly understanding what he was saying. “If I wasn’t a descendant of a god, and Malik wasn’t ready to rule, what would you have done if I said I didn’t want to rule?”
“Then we wouldn’t,” he answered. There had been no hesitation.
“But then what happens to the Crown? Do your parents continue to rule?”
“They would until the Crown was challenged.”
“And what happens if the Crown is challenged?”
“Several things, Poppy. None that you need to worry about—”
“Actually, I think I do.” I sensed his concern then, heavy and thick. “You’re holding back because you don’t want me to worry.”
“You shouldn’t read my emotions,” he countered. “It’s rude.”
“Casteel,” I growled. “We are talking about the potential of you and me becoming King and Queen, and I cannot be Queen when my husband hides things from me because he’s afraid I’ll be overwhelmed.
“I wouldn’t say I was hiding things—” He closed his mouth when he saw the look on my face.
“You know what that says to me? That you don’t think I can handle being Queen,” I told him.
“That’s not at all what I’m saying.” He leaned forward, placing his hands on the table. “It’s not my intention to keep you in the dark. Some of what I didn’t share was because I didn’t have all the information, and I—” He shoved a hand through his hair. “I’m not used to sharing these kinds of things with anyone but Kieran. And I know that’s not an excuse. I’m not saying that it is. To be honest, you’ve handled everything thrown your way better than most people would. It’s not that I truly fear you’ll freak out. It’s just that I don’t want you to be overwhelmed. But you’re right. If taking the Crown is something you choose, I can’t hold things back.
Sensing his contrition, I nodded.
He shifted back in his seat. “If we didn’t take the throne, my parents could concede, but they would only do that if they felt the one who’d issued the challenge was fit to rule—and they could only do that if one challenged the throne at a time. If there’s more than one, then the Elders weigh in. There could be trials where the challengers would have to prove themselves.”
“Like the heartmate trials?” I asked.
“I imagine. I don’t know for sure. It has never…gotten to that point before.”
Another wave of disbelief swept through me. “And you’d be willing to walk away? To possibly let what has never happened before occur?”
“Yes,” he said, again without even a moment of hesitation. “I do not want to be party to forcing you into yet another role you did not ask for nor desire. I will not replace the veil you loathed with a crown you hate. If you do not want to take the Crown, I will support you,” he swore, and the intensity in his words captured me. The irrevocable oath he was making. “And if you decide you want to take what is yours, claim the throne, I will set this entire kingdom on fire and watch it burn if that ensures that the crown sits on your head.”
I jolted. “You love your people—”
“But I love you more.” Flecks of gold burned brightly in his eyes, churning restlessly. “Do not underestimate what I would or would not do to ensure your happiness. I think you know this by now. There is nothing that I wouldn’t do, Poppy. Nothing.”
I did. Gods, he’d already done the unthinkable by Ascending me, but he’d been prepared for me to become a vampry. He would’ve fought anyone and everyone who came near him to keep me alive, even if I became a monster. I didn’t doubt him now.
“This is about you, about what you’re comfortable with and what you want,” he continued. “No one is going to force this choice on you. It will be your call, and then we will deal with whatever may or may not happen. Together.”
A soft tremble worked its way through me. I didn’t doubt what he said. I didn’t underestimate him. I was at a loss for what to say as I stared at him in silence, utterly overwhelmed. That kind of devotion? His promise? It was…it was life-altering.
And maybe the truth was that I wasn’t worthy of him.
I rose and walked around the table to where he sat without really understanding what I was doing. He tilted his head back, watching me silently. I didn’t let myself think about what I was doing or if it was normal or acceptable. I just did what I wanted, what felt right to me. My senses were open to him, and I felt a rush of warmth and sweetness as I sat in his lap. His arms immediately wound around me, and he held me tightly as I wiggled as close to him as I could get, tucking my head under his chin.
I closed my eyes. “I hope this chair doesn’t collapse on us.”
Casteel chuckled as he dragged a hand over my hair. “I’ll break your fall if it does.”
“Stop being sweet.”
“I was just pointing out that I would, indeed, break your fall if the chair broke as it would be me who hit the floor first,” he said, brushing my hair back from the side of my face. “And you’re the one being sweet right now.” His arms tightened around me and then relaxed only slightly. “I like it.”