Black Wings & Stolen Things: Chapter 36

RIONACH

“Hey!” I charge into the kitchen where Anneli and Mathis are talking by the massive marble island. In synchronized movements, both of their spines snap straight and their heads whip in my direction. They must have been in a really deep conversation because based on their matching wide-eyed stares, it appears I scared the crap out of both of them. “Why is that guy—Yates or whatever his name is—putting Cerberus in a travel crate?”

Anneli, looking as model-esque as ever in her dark blue outfit and gold jewelry, steps away from Emeric’s man and goes back to whatever she’s cooking on the stove.

Mathis rubs the back of his neck as he comes around the kitchen island. He’s dressed in the black tactical cargo pants and formfitting pullover that all Emeric’s security wear. The only time I’ve seen him out of this uniform was two nights ago at Holloway’s event. Mathis is probably in his forties, and the way he holds himself and wears his dark hair screams military.

“There was an incident last night at one of the shipping ports we use. I suggested we bring the dog in to help our team there guard the shipments the boss keeps in the container yard.”

“You suggested it?” I cross my arms and pin the man standing before me with a glare.

He at least has the decency to appear uneasy as he nods his head. “That’s what we’ve always done before when we’ve run into issues like this.”

“Did Emeric sign off on this?”

“Yes?” he answers. “This is what the dog is trained to do, after all.”

No,” I snap at him and once again catch him off guard. “He’s not going. Get my dog out of that fucking cage.”

His eyes nearly bug out of his skull. “The boss⁠—”

Already spinning away on the balls of my slipper-covered feet, I cut him off, “I don’t care what the boss said.” I storm down the hallway in the direction of Emeric’s office. He’s been working in there most of the morning. “Cerberus is staying here.”

Never could I imagine talking to one of Brayden’s guys like this. It feels good. They would have gone running to him or Mom so fast if I’d quote, unquote, “disrespected” them like this. My relationship with Brayden was never like that. I never had to walk on eggshells around him. He was the one person on my father’s staff I could actually talk to.

Ma’am…”

“Don’t call me ma’am! I’m, like, twenty years younger than you,” I shout back over my shoulder.

I woke up this morning feeling like shit. The second and third days of my cycle always hit me the hardest, but the cramps I’ve had all morning have me wanting to crawl into the fetal position at the bottom of the shower. My head has also been pounding. The over-the-counter pain medication I took over two hours ago hasn’t done jack shit in helping relieve either ailment.

It is not my morning. I don’t feel well, I’m hormonal, and now they’re trying to take my damn dog?

Hell no.

I don’t bother knocking when I reach the closed office door. Pushing inside, I find Emeric standing before the floor-to-ceiling windows behind his massive dark wood desk. His phone is pressed to his ear, but before I have a chance to close the door, he ends the call with whoever he’s talking to.

“Rionach just walked in,” he tells them, attentive eyes raking over me from head to toe in slow passes as he does. “I have to go. Call Nova if you have any issues.”

I step behind one of the modern chairs placed in front of the desk and place my hands on the leather back of it. “You didn’t have to hang up. I could have waited.”

“You’re my wife. You don’t wait. If you want my attention, it’s all yours.” How long have I waited for someone to tell me that? Warmth washes over my body and momentarily eases the dull cramping in my lower abdomen. Stormy eyes zero in on my face and a frown pulls on his mouth. “You aren’t feeling well, are you, love?”

I ignore his question and focus my energy on the reason I came in here in the first place. “Yates put Cerberus in a crate and is planning on taking him to the docks or somewhere.”

It’s obvious he wasn’t expecting my reasoning for coming in here to be this.

“I’m aware.”

“Well, that’s not happening,” I huff. “He’s staying here.”

Emeric’s eyebrows nearly crash into his hairline. “Is that so?”

“Yes. Now go tell your goons to let my dog out of that crate.”

Your dog?” This time a smile joins his quizzical expression.

“Stop responding to me with questions, Banes!” I growl.

He presses his palms into the shiny surface of his desk and leans his weight forward. “Cerberus was trained to do tasks like this. It’s his job.”

My chin lifts and my arms clamp around my middle when my uterus twinges again. Goddammit. “Well, I only want his job to be guarding us from now on. Here. At home. Go find another dog, because this one is staying here with me.”

My husband chuckles at this. “It doesn’t work that way. I can’t just go find another dog and have him trained with a snap of my fingers.”

“You have hundreds of millions of dollars. Go buy one. Hell, I’m pretty sure I can find the spare change needed to get you a brand-new fully trained scary guard dog in your fancy couch cushions alone.” When he just stands there staring at me like I’m speaking another language, I sigh and admit, “Okay, so clearly, I’ve gotten a little attached and the idea of him being sent away is breaking my heart. What if he gets hurt? Please just let him stay here.”

Emeric regards me for a long moment before his head tilts. “Okay, he can stay.”

“He can?”

His grin reappears as he rounds the desk to stand at my back. His arms engulf my upper body, and he pulls me back against his warm, safe chest. “I don’t think you realize how wrapped around your finger you have me, princess.”

Biting my lip to keep my own smile at bay, I softly say, “Thank you.”

I lose my battle when he presses his lips to the top of my head.

“If it’s within my capabilities to do so, I will always give you what you want.” Taking hold of the fabric of my oversized hoodie, he forces me to turn around so he can see my face. With how icky I feel, I didn’t bother putting on real clothes today. Or makeup. Stretchy leggings and this hoodie were the best I was going to do. “You don’t feel well.” This time it’s not a question. “How can I help?”

I sigh and shake off his concern. “It’s fine. I’m just thriving in the joys of being born with a uterus.”

Something flutters in my chest when he slides his palm over my abdomen and rests it over my lower stomach. The act isn’t the slightest bit provocative, and yet, it’s intimate in a way I haven’t felt between us before. Our conversation from the other night where he admitted to wanting to put his baby in me hasn’t been far from my mind since, but with his hand placed where it is, his words surge to the forefront of my thoughts. It’s going to happen one day, princess. Sooner or later, my seed will take root in your womb, and you will bring our baby into this world.

Delicate shudders racking over the entirety of my body have him examining me closer. “Are you okay?” His free hand slides up my spine to collar the back of my neck. Another wave of goosebumps erupts across my skin.

“Yeah, I told you I’m fine,” I assure him again, mouth feeling suddenly dry. “Just crampy but that’s not anything new. I think I’m going to ask Anneli where a heating pad is and maybe go hang out in the theater room for a bit. I know you’re working, so I should probably stop distract—Emeric!” My arms loop around his neck out of pure instinct when he suddenly scoops me off the ground and into his arms. “What are you doing?”

“We can do better than a heating pad.”


I RELAX further into the scalding water of the bathtub and into his chest. When he brought me into our bathroom and started to fill the deep soaker tub up with water, I didn’t think he’d be joining me in it. Not that I’m complaining. It wasn’t until he slid his strong and very naked body in behind me that I began to consider myself a bathtub person. Until that moment, I had been strictly a shower person. Chilling in my own bathwater never appealed to me, but if Emeric plans on making this a regular thing, I think I can get on board with it.

He was also right about this being better than a heating pad. Sitting between his legs with my knees pulled up toward my chest, I’m starting to feel better already.

Collecting some of the bubbles that surround us with my hand, I say, “You didn’t have to do this. I know you have work that needs to be done, and I’m sure your people are wondering where you’ve disappeared to.” Men like Emeric Banes don’t take time out of their schedules to take bubble baths, and yet, here we are.

He lazily drags a soapy washcloth from the nape of my exposed neck down to my light pink painted fingernails and then back up again. “There will always be work that needs my attention, just like there will always be people who need something from me.” Dunking the cloth back into the hot water to warm it up, he repeats the process on my other arm. “But you and your needs will always come first. You don’t feel well, and I want to help. That’s what’s important right now.”

How can this be the same man who locked me in a cage, and chased me through the woods until he caught me and pinned my body to the ground?

People have no clue that this side of Emeric exists, and I want to fiercely protect it from their prying eyes and greedy hands. This version of him is for me and me alone.

“This is already helping,” I tell him as I close my eyes and drop my head against his shoulder. “I’m starting to feel a little better.”

“Only a little?” His breath tickles my earlobe and makes shivers dance down my spine. “I can make you feel a lot better.” He idly drags the washcloth across my chest, grazing my nipples as he does. Tauntingly slow, his attention gradually drops lower beneath the line of bubbles and hot water. My abdomen muscles flutter when the soft fabric circles my navel before he once again goes lower. His free hand slides over the outside of my thigh until he reaches my bent knee. “Open for me, love,” he instructs into my ear as his hand hooks around the back of my knee, and his gentle tugging encourages me to spread my thighs for him. “That’s it. Just like that.”

Between my legs, the washcloth drags over my bare pussy in barely-there grazes. Emeric repeats this act twice more. The third pass of the fabric is done with more purpose and with a firmer touch. Caught off guard by the sensation of the terry cloth dragging over my clit, I can’t stop the sharp inhale of breath between my lips.

Something I learned the other night when Emeric sat me on the counter and put his mouth on me was that I’m a hell of a lot more sensitive when I’m on my period. My responsiveness had only spurred him on, and he devoured me until I was a weeping mess. The mortification I’d first felt when he dropped to his knees turned foggy as I succumbed to the gratification he forced out of me.

Emeric isn’t remotely bothered by the fact that I’m bleeding, and I force myself to remember that when my shame creeps to the forefront of my brain. I feel better about it now since we’re sitting in the bathtub than I do when we’re outside of it. Something about knowing the water is washing away most of the crimson evidence puts my conflicted mind at ease.

When the washcloth is replaced by his palm and fingers, I choke on another moan.

“How’s this?” His lips skim across the damp skin of my neck and shoulder. “Do you feel better with my fingers playing with your swollen clit?”

“Yes,” I breathe.

“Good,” he praises. “I hate seeing you in pain.”

The water sloshes around us when my hips violently buck against his hand. Thick digits slide into my pussy and the heel of his palm applies pressure against my aching bundle of nerves. He works me at an unhurried pace, taking his time to caress the tips of his fingers against the hidden spot inside of me that makes my toes curl and my ability to think go by the wayside.

I grind in rhythm with his fingers as the ball of buzzing heat grows and expands in my core. He hums in approval when my arm lifts up and my fingers stroke the slightly longer hair that curls around the nape of his neck. I appreciate that he wears his hair long enough that I’m really able to sink my fingers into it, and I love when the black strands fall forward to frame his forehead and temples. The messy, boyish look when that happens humanizes him.

Head turned to him as far as the vertebrae in my neck will allow, I graze my lips along his stubbly jaw. “Kiss me.” My request is nearly lost in the soft moan he solicits out from me. “Please.”

Emeric doesn’t have to be told twice. His mouth seals over mine and I nearly whimper with how good it feels. He’s enacted all kinds of pleasure on me, but something about the simplicity of a kiss has my insides warming further. He licks along the seam of my lips, demanding entry, and I don’t deprive him.

His tongue thrusts into my mouth in tandem with his fingers in my pussy. Emeric doesn’t let up once or doesn’t allow me to pull away so I can catch my breath as it transitions into ragged pants against his mouth.

When the building ecstasy peaks and then implodes, the waves of pleasure rolling through me, he consumes the cry that spills from my throat.

My brain is still a malfunctioning, gooey mess when he tears his mouth away and pulls himself up from where he sits. He moves so quickly that the water sloshes over the sides of the tub. He doesn’t seem concerned about the mess in the least as he lifts me up by under my arms with just as much vigor.

Not bothering to reach for a nearby towel, Emeric steps out of the tub and turns to grab me. With ease, he lifts me out and into his arms. With me wrapped around his naked torso like a damn koala, he carries our dripping wet bodies out of the bathroom and into the bedroom.

“Wait, what about the sheets⁠—”

He places me on my back atop of the neatly made king-sized bed. “I don’t give a fuck about the sheets,” he all but growls as his hands wrap around my ankles and he yanks me until my ass it at the very edge of the mattress. Holding the place where the backs of my thighs meet my calves, he spreads me open for him by forcing my knees up toward my chest “All I care about is burying myself in you.” Not seeming to want to waste any time, the thick crown of his dick prods at my entrance. “I want to watch your sweet-as-sin cunt swallow every inch of my fat cock.”

One day, his words are going to make me contentiously combust into flames, and I already know I will relish in that fire.

Whatever retort is on my tongue is replaced by a heady moan when he pushes forward and stretches my muscles with the first addictive inch. Teasing me, he thrusts shallowly, but still refuses to feed me any more of his length. When I writhe and plead for more beneath him, he ignores me and placates me with gentle shushing sounds.

“Emeric…” I mewl, hands reaching for his sculpted and tanned chest. The only body hair he has is the neat strip from his navel down to the impressive part of him I’m currently desperate for. “Please—ah!”

In one fluid and strong movement, he pulls completely from my deprived pussy before he surges forward. The swift invasion has my back bowing and my muscles stretching to the point of delicious pain around him. He doesn’t grant me time to adjust before he rears back again and drives forward with just as much force. With each deep punishing stroke, he picks up speed until he’s pounding into me like a man starved.

I gladly and selfishly take everything Emeric gives me, and while he does, I unabashedly beg him for more. He complies, the pad of his finger pressing tight circles to my clit. I feel myself become more aroused—wetter—for him when he does.

Eyes alive with lightning collide with mine. “You take my cock so good, princess.” I whimper in desperation when he steals his hand away from my clit, and his fingers drag downward to a place that’s never been touched. I nearly fly off the bed when his thumb applies pressure against the tight ring of muscle there. “One day, I’m going to take your ass too and you’re going to be such a good girl while I do. Just like your cunt and throat, I’m going to mark my claim here as well.”

My favorite kind of fear floods my system with adrenaline at the thought of him fucking that forbidden place. Emeric was blessed in many ways, the size of his dick being one of them. There are days when he feels like too much for my pussy, I can’t even begin to imagine the burning stretch of him entering my ass. The very thought terrifies me as much as it invigorates me.

The way his thumb is increasing pressure nearly has my eyes rolling back in my head. “I’m close,” I pant my warning. “Oh fuck, I need to come.”

The hand still holding my leg up presses the limb higher, which allows his thrusts to go deeper. Something I didn’t know was possible. “Come on, love, let go. I want to feel you milk every drop from my cock.”

Seconds later, I’m taken out by the violent force of my orgasm. My body shakes and quivers both under and around him. My muscles clamp down on his swelling length and hold tight until he follows my lead and delves over the edge of blissfulness.

My shouted name coming from his lips sends another wave of pleasure ricocheting through my nervous system. I don’t think I’ve ever liked my name more than I do hearing it rip out of his throat.

He grips both of my hips, his fingers digging into the soft flesh there as he rides out the rest of his release. Emeric keeps going until he curses and the weight of his upper body collapses atop of me. Breathing heavily in my ear, he snakes his arms around me, and I do the same to him. We hold each other tight and get lost in our little cocoon. My fingers trail over where I know the dark wings are tattooed on his upper back.

His body turns into a piece of solid stone around mine when I graze the burn scar that the inked feathers conceal.

“Rionach…” My name is a low warning mumbled directly into my ear.

I turn my head so I can pepper the side of his face with soft, reassuring kisses. “It’s okay.” The pad of my finger traces the raised skin and the painful evidence of what happened to him as a child. “It’s okay. He won’t ever be able to hurt you again. Real or imagined, I’ll make sure of it. I’ll keep his ghost at bay.”

His hold tightens around me, but he relaxes into my gentle touch. I trace the lines of the Koslov family’s crest and with each pass, I hope I’m healing some of the pain he’s carried for over two decades. I’ll never be able to erase the mark from his skin, but maybe I can help him heal from the memory this burn symbolizes.

We stay like this, entwined in each other, with Emeric’s semi-hard dick still inside of me, until the water-soaked sheets below me turn cold and goosebumps start to erupt across my skin as I shiver from the change in temperature.

“Emeric,” I whisper. “I’m cold. We need to get up so we can change the sheets. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to sleep in damp sheets later tonight.” And there’s no way there isn’t blood on them now too. Thank God they’re black.

Trying to warm me, his big hands slide up and down my arms. “Do you feel better now?”

I take stock of my body. Just like the other night, a couple orgasms have seemed to have momentarily relieved the cramping in my lower stomach. “Yeah, I do.”

Rising onto his forearms, he looks down at me and says, “Good,” before pressing a chaste kiss to my lips. I gasp beneath my breath when he pulls himself free of my body and tendrils of pleasure trickle through me.

I’m about to follow suit and sit up, but his hand pressing to my lower stomach stops me. Confused by what he wants, I look down my body at Emeric and find his gaze fixated on my no doubt swollen pussy.

Self-consciously, I attempt to bring my knees together, but his other hand stops me.

“I’m sorry, we both have blood on us now.” My cheeks turn hot when I say this. “We probably need to shower…” I trail off when his fingers swipe through my overly sensitive pussy lips. “What are⁠—”

“Watching my cum drip out of you is like viewing an exquisite piece of art, but I think I like the idea of it being stuffed inside of you more.” Fingers coated in a mixture of our releases and blood slip into my slightly tender channel. He gathers more of his spilled cum and pushes it inside of me. “We can’t let a single drop go to waste.”

My body feels hot—too hot—when I realize what he’s doing. With his hand gone from my stomach, I manage to pull myself up into a sitting position. “Are you still trying to get me pregnant?”

He doesn’t answer me. Instead, his turbulent storm-like gaze locks with mine as he brings the two fingers he’d just had inside of me up to his mouth. Such conflicting emotions rage in my body when he wraps his lips around the digits. In my head, I’m horrified. Up until a second ago, my pussy was spent, but now it’s waking back up and a dull throb drums between my thighs. The throbbing only intensifies when that smirk of his grows on his handsome-as-hell face.

My mouth gapes open at the same time Emeric captures my face between his two hands. I can’t be sure if I’m frozen in place because I’m so utterly surprised by what he’s just done, or if I’m too morbidly curious about what comes next to pull away from him when he tilts my head back and brings our faces close together.

All I can manage to do as he spits the combination of our cum and my blood between my lips is take a shallow breath. The sinister look of approval shining back at me when I swallow down what he’s offered me nearly has me falling to my knees for him.

“We taste good together, princess,” he murmurs before sealing his lips over mine. We lick and sip from each other’s mouths until we’re both breathless. With my face still held between his hands, he breaks away and presses his forehead to mine. “To answer your earlier question, yes, I am.”

My foggy brain needs a minute to understand what he’s saying. He’s trying to get me pregnant. In the past, I viewed being knocked up as another way my future husband was going to use me for his gain. That thought always turned my stomach and broke my heart a little bit. It turned me off the very idea of having children because I knew with what my future looked like, I didn’t wish to subject my babies to that. They didn’t deserve that life, just like I didn’t.

My feelings toward the whole situation have been shifting since Emeric brought it up two nights ago. It’s been heavy on my mind, and it has awoken a need in me I’m finding hard to ignore. It’s a need I never thought I was going to have, but I still don’t know if I can knowingly bring a child into this world. Even if it’s half of the man I’ve fallen hard for.

Swallowing down a steadying breath, I tell my husband, “You can keep trying, but you’re going to have a very hard time achieving that goal.”

Dark brows pull together. “And why’s that?”

I struggle to meet his gaze. “I have an IUD…”

My spine stiffens and my muscles lock in place as I brace for his reaction. In my parents’ eyes, I was put on this earth for one reason only. To get married and birth the next generation of our bloodline. If they knew I had elected to prevent my body from doing the one thing it was destined to do, I would be feeling my mother’s palm against my cheek for the second time in my life.

Emeric has admitted he’s actively been trying to put his baby in me and unbeknownst to him, I’ve been sabotaging those advances. For all I know, he’s going to be just as upset as my parents would be.

“Do you?” His head tilts and I can’t decipher the emotion that’s settled in his gaze as he leisurely examines me. A long, drawn-out sigh escapes between his lips and he backs a step away.

I nod. “I do.”

Without a word, he turns his back to me, and I feel my heart squeeze in my chest. Oh, this is bad. He doesn’t say anything else as he opens the bedside drawer on his side of the bed. There’s about a hundred possibilities for what he could be grabbing from inside there, and I would wager it’s something to punish me with for inadvertently deceiving him. The chances of it being something like that are so high, it’s basically guaranteed.

His fingers close around the object before I can get a good look at what it is. Returning to stand before me, he motions for me to give him my hand. Reluctantly and with shaky movements, I do as I’m told.

Emeric places a glass specimen jar with a blue lid in the middle of my offered palm. I’m beyond confused what he’s showing me until l do a double take at the object inside the glass jar. The reality of what is happening slams into me like a hurricane and with it comes every emotion under the sun. They twist and turn, wreaking havoc on my insides while all I can do is stare at what he’s handed me.

“You had an IUD,” he explains to me with a casualness that makes my head spin. He sounds like he’s telling someone what the weather forecast will be for the next forty-eight hours, and not this. “As of last night, you are no longer on any form of birth control.”

The container starts to shake in my hand as a mixture of hurt and betrayal crawls up my throat like a venomous spider.

“Are you keeping secrets from me, dear wife?” That’s what he said two nights ago. Is that when he figured it out?

“H… how?” I don’t like how weak my voice sounds to my own ears. “What did you do?”

“You were smart going to the free clinic on the other side of town. It took us a minute to find the record of your doctor’s appointment. Which, I suppose, is a good thing because I can’t imagine your family would have been supportive had they found out.”

The way he’s being so cavalier about what he’s done only makes my anger boil harder. “When did you… You took it out last night?” It makes sense now why I woke up feeling like I did. The cramping that happens after getting an IUD removed is similar to how you feel when it’s first inserted. I just thought it was my cycle. And the headache that was pounding in my skull… “Did you drug me?”

He inclines his head. “I heard how it could be uncomfortable to have them placed and removed, and I didn’t want you to feel any pain.”

“Don’t!” I fly off the bed and my free hand shoves at the center of his chest. He stumbles back half a step and that’s how I know I surprised him. Good. “Don’t you dare make it sound like you did me a favor. Can you even hear yourself right now? You made a decision about my body and then sedated me so you could do what you wanted. You basically drugged me and then operated on me! Do you know how incredibly violating that is?”

“The doctor didn’t see anything; I wouldn’t let him that close to you. He talked me through how to safely remove it.”

This does make me feel marginally better, but just barely.

I glare at him and move back a couple feet so I can pace at the end of the bed. I’m struggling to reconcile all the things I’m feeling right now.

“Am I supposed to thank you for not allowing another man to see my cervix?” My fury begins to boil over and without thinking it through, I hurl the glass container at his head. He ducks at the very last minute and the jar ends up crashing into the wall many feet behind him. Glass explodes when it makes contact. Shards shower down on the hardwood floors. “How dare you,” I choke out, my throat feeling tight.

Emeric returns to his full height and looks between me and the mess I just made. As if he’s tired of my theatrics, he just sighs and takes a step toward me. I mirror him by taking a step back. Keeping distance between us right now is important to me. “I told you I wanted to have babies with you, and I warned you it was going to happen sooner or later. You having a secret IUD was preventing that from happening.”

I throw my hands up in exasperation. “This isn’t about me having babies with you, Emeric. This is about how you violated me and my body when you decided to remove my IUD without asking me first. I was already coming around to the idea of having your babies all on my own.”

His gray eyes narrow and his jaw switches. “You were?”

It’s my turn to sigh. Head tilted back and my arms crossed tightly in front of my still naked body, I take a moment to collect myself before I return my attention to my husband. “I need to take a shower.” Between my thighs is sticky with blood and cum. When he makes a move toward the bathroom door, I throw my hand up. “Alone. I need to be alone.”

“Why?”

This man can be so fucking frustrating.

“Because right now, I’m so pissed at you, I’m struggling to remember that I like you—that I care about you.” The truth hurts him. I can see it in the way his eyes dim, and his arms fall to his sides. “I just need time to be alone so I can remember.”

He doesn’t stop me when I walk past him into the bathroom, and he doesn’t follow.


EMERIC GIVES me twenty or so minutes alone before he pushes open the bathroom door. I think he was waiting for me to be done with my shower—a shower I spent a majority of the time just standing under the stream of water—before he came in. From the looks of it, he took a shower of his own in one of the other bathrooms and is now dressed in a pair of well-worn jeans that hang low on his hips. Wordlessly, he stands at the glass door of the massive walk-in shower with a fresh towel in his hand. Just as he’d done before, he wraps the warm, fluffy towel around my body the second I step foot outside.

Once the towel is secure around my chest, he grabs another one and carefully helps squeeze the water from my drenched waist-length strands.

My heart constricts at this gentle gesture because I know what he’s doing. In his own way, he’s trying to make amends for upsetting me.

Emeric Banes isn’t the type of man who says things like “I’m sorry” or admits when he’s wrong. It’s not in his nature to do so. I told him last night I wouldn’t ask him to change and that I’ve grown fond of all his jagged pieces, but that doesn’t mean some pieces aren’t easier to love than others.

I allow him to lead me to the vanity and I sit down on the stool in front of it when he silently instructs me to do so. Emeric pays attention to things I wouldn’t think he’d notice, like my coffee order and my haircare routine. Without any assistance, he brushes out the knots in my hair from the shower before he applies each of the leave-in products I use before blow-drying. He shocks me further by gathering the strands and weaving them into a long braid down my back.

He breaks the silence first. “I’m not going to apologize.”

“I know you’re not.”

In the mirror’s reflection in front of us, I watch his head nod once.

Gnawing on my bottom lip, I watch him a moment longer before saying, “I got it when I turned eighteen.”

“I know. I saw the date on the paperwork.” He meets my gaze in the mirror. “What made you decide to get one in the first place? Mob princesses are usually kept on tight leashes and don’t have a lot of opportunities to have sex.”

The memories already starting to bubble up in the back of my mind make my stomach churn. “You’re right, we don’t. It was preached to me from an age that was far too young to be talking about things like sex and future marriages that I needed to remain pure for my husband. The older I got, the more resentful I became about the whole thing. I resented what my life was going to look like, and I hated that my virginity was just another thing used to determine my value. My worth as a human and a future bride to some random man.”

Talking about this brings me back to being that angry teenager who felt trapped in a life she didn’t want. I was still resonating with that girl up until recently. Now, I wish I could go back and tell her that we’d find our freedom in the least likely of places and she just needed to be patient.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to choose who I got married to, but I thought I should be able to pick who I allowed inside my body. When I got to attend NYU, I decided to use that sliver of freedom to my advantage. I knew it was reckless and that one day, it would bite me in the ass, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to live a little before I was sold off to whatever man my parents would pick for me. I had four years of freedom before me and a campus full of strangers at my disposal. I went to the clinic and got an IUD the week before school started because what I was planning on doing was already dangerous, I didn’t need to add the risk of an accidental pregnancy.”

Admitting to my husband that I originally got an IUD because I wanted to sleep around during college is not something I saw coming, but I guess I should have. Nothing stays hidden from Emeric for long.

“I met a boy on the first day of orientation. He was nice. A little dorky with a crooked smile. We went to a dorm party, and I ended up letting him finger me in some random closet. He was clumsy and didn’t know what he was doing. I left him in that closet not long after. Two days later, I met Isaac during our shared first period math class. He was charming. Confident. He wanted to be a district attorney, which I found funny since he would be fighting on the opposite side of the law as my family. We talked on and off for a week before we decided to get a hotel room. We both had roommates and as stuck-up as it sounds, I didn’t want to lose my virginity on a crappy twin-sized mattress. The whole thing was awkward and comically fast, but I was happy. I was happy because I chose Isaac. It was my decision to sleep with him. He had just gotten up to throw the condom away when the door flew open, and my dad and brother showed up. Turns out my dad had been paying my roommate to spy on me and she told them where I was and what I was doing. Isaac never stood a chance. Tiernan had him in his grasp before Isaac knew what was happening. My father yanked me completely naked out of bed and made me watch as Tiernan slammed Isaac’s head into the bathroom mirror until the glass shattered. Isaac was out cold after three blows and on his stomach on the bathroom floor, but Tiernan kept going and my dad didn’t stop him. My brother slammed Isaac’s face into the tile until he was unrecognizable and dead.”

I tried to scream, but my father had clamped his hand over my mouth to keep me quiet. Watching Isaac die was my punishment and the guilt of putting that innocent boy in harm’s way for purely selfish reasons is something that will never fade. I will carry that weight until the day I die.

Emeric’s eyes flash and I don’t have to ask to know he’s imagining doing the same thing to Tiernan tomorrow night when his three days of torture are up.

“Word spread that I’d whored myself out, and my prospective husband pool dried up into a puddle. That’s why at twenty-four, I wasn’t married yet.” That’s what my mother was the most upset about. The loss of increasing her social status by having her daughter be married to a high-society gentleman. She had been sobbing for the perspective life she lost when her palm struck my left cheek. “But apparently Bogdan Koslov wasn’t turned off by my lack of virtue and, well, you know the rest.”

“Yeah, I do,” he grinds out as he nudges me with his hand. “Come one, let’s get you dressed.”

He waits for me in our bedroom while I dress into my second pair of sweats today. While I was in the shower, he had changed the sheets on the massive four-poster bed. The black silk has been replaced with a dark red that makes me think of the bed inside of the cage below Tartarus. He sits on the edge of the mattress with his elbows resting on his knees.

“You didn’t fuck anyone else for six years until you met me?” he asks when I climb to sit on my side of the bed. This forces him to shift on the bed so his back isn’t to me.

“Can you blame me?” I counter. “The one and only man whose dick went anywhere near me ended up with his brains splattered on the bathroom floor of a three-star hotel.”

A flash of anger crosses his face as he settles against the headboard. “If you weren’t sleeping with anyone else for all those years, and you knew the next man who was going to fuck you would be whatever husband you ended up with, why did you keep the IUD?”

“Because I decided I was no longer willing to bring a life into this corrupt-as-hell world just because it was expected of me when I became someone’s wife.”

Emeric pins me with a stare that makes my knees shake and has me second-guessing why I’m not letting him impregnate me right here and now. “You’re not someone’s wife. You’re mine and I want to put my baby in you. You said you were coming around to the idea.”

My suddenly very empty uterus twinges at the blunt honesty of his words.

Down, girl, remember we’re mad at him.

“I don’t want my babies to be raised like we were. I want them to be loved and protected. Cherished. And most importantly, I want them to enter this world knowing they were created because they were wanted, and not because the next generation of Banes needed to be born or because you decided you needed an heir.” Of its own accord, my hand moves to lie over my lower stomach. Emeric’s eyes lock on this like a predator, and my breath catches in my throat when his much larger, tanned hand rests over my pale one.

My chest constricts to the point of pain.

“I’m already prepared to burn down this entire fucking city for you if I have to. You don’t think I’d protect our children just as fiercely? You don’t think I’d cherish them as much as I cherish you? If that’s the case, I have failed at showing you how important you are to me.” His fingers entwine with mine and hold tight. “And I don’t want children with you because I need an heir.”

“You don’t?”

“Before he retired and left to do whatever the fuck he’s doing these days in the world of academia, Astor was the rightful next head of this family. Just because he abdicated the throne so he can play with textbooks and co-eds doesn’t mean Callan loses his birthright.”

I’ve never heard of a family’s hierarchy working this way. Leadership is always passed down to the oldest son of the current head of the family. “If Callan is your heir, what role will you be expecting your child to play in this empire you’ve built for your family?”

“Whatever role they want.” His tone is surprisingly gentle. With his free hand, he brushes a couple strands of loose hair behind my ear. “I won’t force my child to become like me. As you already said, I don’t want them to be raised like we were. They deserve better than the hands we were dealt, and I know we can give them that.”

Unable to stand it any longer, I roll over onto my side and bring myself closer to his bare chest. My lips are a hairsbreadth away from his as I whisper, “I’m still really fucking pissed at you, and I will be finding a creative way to make you pay because what you did is not okay.”

“It’s okay, princess, I can take it.”

And then he kisses me.

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