Curling a hand against my stomach, I turned back to Casteel. Our gazes met and held as he shifted onto one knee, placing his right hand over his heart and his left on the ground.
The gesture…I recognized it. It was a variation of what the wolven had done when I arrived in Saion’s Cove. But I’d seen it before, I realized. The Priests and Priestesses would do it when they first entered the Temples in Solis, acknowledging that they were in the presence of the gods.
You are a goddess.
My heart tripped over itself as I stared at Casteel. I wasn’t a…
I couldn’t even force my brain to finish that thought because I had no idea what I was. No one did. And as my gaze fell to where the little girl was still held tightly by her mother and now her father, as well, I…I couldn’t disregard that possibility, even as impossible as it seemed.
“Momma.” The girl’s voice drew my gaze. She had wrapped her arms around her mother’s neck as her father held them, kissing the top of his daughter’s head and then the mother’s. “I was dreaming.”
“You were?” The mother’s eyes were squeezed shut, but tears streaked her cheeks.
“There was a lady, Momma.” The little girl snuggled closer to her mother. “She had…” Her words were muffled, but what she said next was clear. “She said I-I always had the power in me…”
You always had the power in you…
Those words were oddly familiar. It felt like I had heard them before, but I couldn’t place them or remember who’d spoken them.
Casteel rose, and in a daze, I watched him walk toward me, his steps full of fluid grace. If someone said he was a god, I wouldn’t question it for a second.
He stopped in front of me, and my chaotic senses fixed on him. The breath I took was full of spice and smoke, warming my blood. “Poppy,” he said, his tone full of heat. His thumb slid over the scar on my cheek. “Your eyes are as bright as the moon.”
I blinked. “Are they still that way?”
His grin spread, and one dimple hinted at making an appearance. “Yes.”
I didn’t know what was said to the others, but I did know that he spoke to them with the calm confidence of someone who’d spent their entire life in a place of authority. All I was aware of was him steering me around people, past the man who’d been in such a panic but now just rested on his knees, staring up at me as his lips moved, forming words over and over. Thank you.
The wolven were once again beside us as we left the garden. The people on the cobblestone sidewalk and in the street were still there. They had risen and stood as if transfixed, and they all seemed to share the same bubbling, sparking emotion. Excitement and awe as they watched Casteel and I—watched me.
Instead of taking me to where Setti waited, Casteel looked at Kieran. He didn’t speak, and again, I was amazed at how they seemed to communicate or know each other so well that words weren’t necessary.
They weren’t now because a slow grin ticked across Kieran’s face as he said, “We’ll wait for you here.”
“Thank you,” Casteel replied, his hand firmly wrapped around mine, and then he said nothing as he turned me around and started walking.
I followed, my shock from what had just happened giving way to curiosity as he led me a few yards down the street, Casteel seemingly unaware of the wide-eyed stares, the murmurs, and the hasty bows. I wasn’t all that aware of it, either, unable to feel much past the thickening, spicy taste in my mouth, and the tension growing low in the pit of my stomach.
He led me under a sand-colored archway and into a narrow alley that smelled of apples and was lined with urns overflowing with leafy ferns. Gauzy curtains danced from the open windows above as he led me farther into the passageway. The soft melody of music drifted out from above us, the deeper in we went. He made a sharp right, and through another archway was a small courtyard. Wooden beams stretched across from building to building. Baskets of trailing flowers dangled, the array of colors creating a canopy that only allowed thin fragments of sunlight through. Vine-covered trellises created a privacy hedge around hundreds and hundreds of delicate white-petaled flowers.
“This garden is beautiful,” I said, starting toward one of the fragile white blossoms.
“I really don’t give a fuck about the garden.” Casteel stopped me, pulling me into a shadow-heavy alcove.
My eyes widened, but before I could respond, he turned, pressing me back against the stone wall. In the dim lights, his eyes were a luminous, churning honey color. “You know, don’t you?” Casteel folded his hand behind my head as he leaned into me. Against my stomach, I could feel the hard, thick length of him as he brushed his lips across my temple. “What you did back there?”
Soaking up his lush, piney scent and his warmth, I let my eyes drift shut as I clutched his sides, swords and all. “I healed her.”
He kissed my cheek, right along the scar, and then drew back. His eyes met mine, and I swore a fine tremor coursed through his body. “You know that’s not what you did,” he said. “You brought that girl back to life.”
The breath I took seized in my throat as I opened my eyes. “That’s not possible.”
“It shouldn’t be,” he agreed, sliding a hand over my bare arm and then across my chest. A curl low in my stomach made itself known as his palm grazed my breast. “Not for a mortal. Not for an Atlantian, or even a deity.” His hand slipped over my hip and then my thigh. I could feel the heat of his palm through the dress as he skimmed past the wolven dagger. “Only a god can do that—only one god.”
“Nyktos.” I bit down on my lip as his fingers gathered the material of the gown in a fist. “I’m not Nyktos.”
“No shit,” he said against my mouth.
“Your language is inappropriate,” I told him.
He laughed darkly. “You going to deny what you did?”
“No,” I whispered, my heart skipping. “I don’t understand how, and I don’t know if her soul had truly entered the Vale, but she…”
“She was gone.” He nipped at my lower lip, drawing a gasp from me. “And you brought her back because you tried. Because you refused to give up. You did that, Poppy. And because of you, those parents won’t be mourning their child tonight. They’ll be watching her fall asleep.”
“I…I just did what I could,” I told him. “That’s all—”
The sheer intensity of the way he claimed my lips cut off my words. That low curl in my stomach intensified as he tilted his head, deepening the kiss.
Balmy air curled its way around my legs as he drew the skirt of my gown up. Shock at his intentions warred with the elicit pulse of pleasure. “We’re in public.”
“Not really.” The tips of his fangs grazed the underside of my jaw, and every muscle in my body seemed to clench. Up and up it went until his fingers skimmed the curve of my ass. “This is a private garden.”
“There are people around—” A breathy moan escaped me as the skirt rose above the dagger. “Somewhere.”
“No one is even remotely close enough to us,” he said, slipping his hand out from behind my head. “The wolven made sure of that.”