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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 16

“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 nodded.

“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.”


Oh, gods.

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.

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.”

 He could…he could drink from there? “I don’t have an issue with any of those things.”

He made that rough, needy sound again. “Your body has been through a lot, Poppy, and in a very short period of time. You may feel fine. You might even be, but less than two days ago, you barely had a drop of blood left in you. I’m not going to risk feeding from you. Not today. So, one of us needs to be the responsible party.”

A throaty laugh left me. “You’re the responsible one?”

“Obviously.” He skimmed a finger through the dampness gathering at my center, stroking the fire already flaming to life in my veins.

“I don’t think you know what being responsible means.”

“You might be right.” Casteel kissed me, tugging at my lower lip. “So, you need to be the responsible one.”

“I don’t want to.”

He chuckled against my mouth and then kissed me again, slipping his hand out from between my thighs. “Shower,” he reminded me—or himself.

The level of disappointment I felt when he took my hand was quite shameful, especially when he turned, and the hard length of him brushed my thigh. Another wanton pulse rolled through me as he led me into the stall. He stepped into the shower and turned to me, water wetting his hair, coursing over his shoulders, and droplets—warm droplets—sprinkling my outstretched arm. His heated gaze was so intense it was like a physical caress as it swept over me.

My body trembled as I stood there, letting him look his fill. It wasn’t exactly easy. I fought the urge to shield myself as he held onto my hand. It wasn’t that I was uncomfortable around him or ashamed of the numerous imperfections. No matter how much I trained with weapons and my body, my waist would never be narrow, nor would my hips ever be slender like the Ladies in Wait in Solis.

I liked cheese and bacon and chocolate-covered everything too much for that.

I wasn’t embarrassed by my scars, either. Not when he looked at me like he did now, as if I could very well be a deity or a goddess. Not when those scars, like his, were proof of the life I’d lived and the things I’d survived.

It was just this…openness was new to me. I’d spent the better part of my life clothed from chin to floor, and more than half of my face covered. I knew how to hide. I was only now learning how to be seen. I fought that urge, feeling a little giddy with pride and awareness, and with each second, I grew more comfortable.

“You’re beautiful.” Casteel’s voice was like a balmy summer night. “And you’re mine.”

I was, completely.

And that didn’t make my skin feel itchy, or my tongue burn with words of denial. It wasn’t a statement of dominance or control. I knew exactly what those two things were. This was simply the truth. I was his.

And he was mine.

Casteel tugged me forward, and I went. Water fell over me, and I squeaked at the sensation of the spray pattering over my skin. “Did you forget you were in a shower?” he asked, letting go of my hand.

“I think so.” I turned my palms up, watching the water form shallow puddles. It bordered on almost too hot, just like I liked it. Tipping my head back, I gasped as the water fell over my face and through my hair. It was like a heated rain shower. I turned in a slow circle, thrilled by how the water felt against my skin, even the raw and achy parts.

 Opening my eyes, I glanced over at him. He was smiling—a real one. A rare one, both dimples on display. “Do I look foolish?”

“You look perfect.”

I grinned as I moved under the next pipe, where the water fell heavier. It plastered the hair to my face, and I laughed. Shoving the strands back, I saw him grab one of the bottles from the shelf near the faucets. The liquid was clear and smelled of lemons and pine.

As I played in the water, moving between what Casteel explained were showerheads, he bathed himself. When he was finished, he came up behind me, more of that enticingly scented soap in hand.

“Close your eyes,” he ordered.

I obeyed, enjoying the feeling of his fingers against my scalp as he worked the soap into a lather. “I could get used to this,” I whispered.

“So could I.” He moved closer, and I felt the heated brand of him against my lower back. “Tip your head back and keep your eyes closed.”

I did as he requested. His lips touched mine, and I smiled. He then gathered my hair, rinsing the soap out. It was so much easier in a shower. All I had to do was stand there.

 I may just move into the shower and never leave.

The idea continued to grow in its appeal as Casteel left my side briefly, returning with a soapy square. Foam followed the soft sponge as he dragged it over my arms, chest, stomach, and then to my lower back. He was careful with the small cuts the stones had left behind, and the tenderness of his care tugged at my heart. My chest swelled with all the love I felt for him and it grew achy, heavy even as the sponge seemed to vanish, replaced by the roughened glide of Casteel’s soapy palms.

My eyes drifted shut once more, and my mind wandered to pure, sinful places as his hands took the same path the sponge had minutes before. I thought about what he’d said he would do with his fangs and…his cock. My blood heated as the fire roared to life inside me once more. Could he do that here, under the shower? That seemed quite slippery, but if anyone could do it, it would be Casteel.

He glided his hands over my breasts. My head fell back against his chest as they lingered there. I bit down on my lip as one of his hands coasted over my belly. My skin tightened as pleasure curled low. His fingers on the hardened peak of my breast wrung a gasp from me as his other hand made its way below my navel. My body reacted without thought, widening the space between my thighs.

“Enjoying your shower?” His voice was thick with smoke.

He knew exactly how much I was enjoying it, and the knowledge that he could scent my arousal enflamed me instead of embarrassing me. I nodded anyway. “Are you being responsible?”

“Of course.” His hand slipped between my thighs. “Just being thorough,” he said, swirling his thumb across the bundle of nerves there.

I gasped, rising on tiptoe. The ache twisted deeply as my lips parted. I moaned as my hips lifted to meet his hand.

He kissed my shoulder as he eased his hands away. My eyes snapped open, and I started to turn toward him. “I’m not finished,” he said before I could speak. “Your legs still need to be cleaned.”

My brows rose. “Seriously?”

His eyes were like pools of warm honey. “Very serious.”

I couldn’t care less about my legs. “Casteel—”

“I would never forgive myself if you didn’t find your first shower to be as effective as a bath,” he said, and I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “But you should sit. You’re looking a little…flushed.”

“I wonder why.”

He chuckled deeply, and I briefly considered hitting him but decided against it even though he truly deserved it for teasing me like this. I let him take me to the bench and sat, sucking in a soft breath of surprise as I realized a faint mist of water fell over the space.

Casteel added more soap to his hands and lowered himself to his knees before me. “Comfortable?”

I glanced down between his legs as I nodded. He wasn’t even remotely unaffected by this.

“Good. Your comfort is my utmost concern.” Water clung to his lashes as he curled one hand around an ankle. He grinned, his gaze rising to mine as he lifted my leg. My breath snagged as he placed my foot on his shoulder. The position left me…oh, gods, it left me utterly exposed to him.

A shaky breath left me as I watched him shift his gaze to my very center. A hint of fang appeared behind his parted lips, and everything inside me twisted most deliciously. My palms flattened against the smooth bench as he drew his soapy hands up my calf and then my thigh. I held my breath as his fingers reached the crease between my hip and thigh. He dragged his hand along the inside of my leg, his knuckles brushing my most sensitive area. Air punched out of my lungs.

Casteel’s hand stopped there as he met my gaze. “Still comfortable?”

“Yes,” I whispered.

That sensually cruel smile of his appeared, and tension gathered sweetly in my body. He dragged his hand back down as the mist of water continued wetting my skin. When he finished, he placed my foot back on the floor and then lifted my other leg. Cooler air rushed against my heated flesh. He did the same as before, sliding the soap between my toes, over the pad of my foot, and then up and up my leg. I tensed, nearly straining in anticipation, my heart pounding as his knuckles once more grazed my core. Drawing his hand back down the length of my leg, he wiped away the soap and bent his head, kissing the jagged scar on the inside of my knee.

Hooking his arm around my calf, Casteel didn’t put my foot down on the floor. He moved in closer, the width of his shoulders widening my legs.

My heart stuttered as my eyes widened. A wave of taut shivers cascaded through me. Not even that morning he’d woken from the nightmare and had been close to bloodlust had I been this exposed to him. A flutter moved from my chest to my stomach.

“Are you…are you still being thorough?” I asked, my voice husky.

“Yes. I think I missed a spot.” He kissed the space above the old scar. “I think I see many more spaces I missed. And you know me, I’m a perfectionist. I also wouldn’t want those spots to feel left out. Do you?”

“No.” My heart pounded so much that I wondered if he could see it, but when I looked down, all I saw was the turgid peaks of my breasts between soaked strands of coppery hair. I lost a bit more breath as I took in the sight of myself—my shoulders back against the tile, my breasts thrust out, and my legs open wide for Casteel. My eyes remained open as my head fell back against the wall. I watched him as his wet hair teased my skin.

“How about here?” He kissed the inside of my thigh as his palm ran up the back of my leg. “Or here?” His lips found one of those ragged scars on the insides of my thighs. He shifted his head as he brushed his lips over the pulsing flesh between my legs. I jerked. “Yeah, I think this spot is especially dirty and lonely.”

I moved beyond words as his head bowed. The wet slide of his tongue over me dragged a throaty moan from me. My eyes fluttered shut and reopened only halfway when he said, “I need to pay extra special attention to this area.” He made another pass with his tongue, this time swirling it around the tight bud of nerves. “It may take me a while.”

I trembled as his tongue flicked the skin and then slipped inside me. A dizzying burst of pleasure shocked my senses. He tilted his head again, and his lick was deep and slow and wonderfully indecent. My hips tilted up, matching his strokes—his teasing, shallow strokes. What he was doing was decadent and not anything I had ever imagined when thinking about bathing.

I would never be able to think of anything else when I was near water now.

My hips twitched as I felt a long finger replace his tongue, trailing lightly over the swollen flesh then slipping inside me a fraction with each sweep. My body was becoming an inferno.

“Cas,” I breathed, shuddering as I teetered closer and closer to the precipice.

He halted, looking up at me with eyes that were now luminous. “You should hold onto the bench.”

With shaking hands, I gripped the edge of the seat.

One side of his lips curved up. “Good girl.”

He dipped his head, his breath hot against me. A heartbeat passed. I felt his lips and then the erotic graze of a fang—

I cried out as the sharp, brief sting sent a shockwave through my entire body. A knotted whirl of burning pleasure shot down my legs and up my spine. My eyes were wide-open, but I swore I saw bursts of white light. Then his mouth closed over the throbbing bundle of nerves as his finger thrust inside me. He sucked deep and hard, coaxing not only my arousal but the thin bit of blood I knew he’d also drawn. My entire body reared off the bench, my grip slipping—

He placed his other hand on my stomach, pressing me back down to the seat. He feasted from me as his finger pumped in and out. He consumed me, and I was lost—willingly lost in the raw sensations flooding me, devoured by the groan he unleashed against my flesh. I squirmed against him in senseless desperation. The feel of him was too much, and yet, it wasn’t enough. The pleasure bordered on pain wrapped in beauty. It was exhilarating and frightening as the intense heat coiled deeper and tighter inside me.

“Cas,” I moaned again, not even recognizing my voice as his hand left my stomach. Tipping forward on the edge of the bench, I gained leverage with my other foot. My chin dropped as my hips lifted from the tile and rolled against his finger, against his mouth. The sight of me churning against him became branded in my mind. The sight of the muscles in his upper arm flexing and tensing as his hand moved between his legs was imprinted on my skin. His lashes swept up, and his gaze locked with mine as his arm made quick and jerky, hard movements and pushed me over the edge. I came apart, screaming his name as he gave a hoarse shout against my skin. I shattered, over and over, breaking into pleasure-wrapped shards. The release was devastating and glorious in its intensity, coming in on endless waves that left me boneless against the tile. When he eased his finger out of me, tiny bursts of pleasure still sparked through me.

His lips curled into a smile against my swollen flesh. “Honeydew.”

Casteel wrapped a towel around me. Before I could take one step, he lifted me into his arms.

I grasped one shoulder. “I can walk.”

“I know.” He carried me into the shadow-filled bedchamber.

“This is not necessary.”

“Everything that has to do with you is necessary.” Casteel deposited me on the bed, and within a heartbeat, he had me stretched out on my side and was seated beside me. He was fully and unabashedly naked while I was still wrapped in the fluffy towel. “So, how did you enjoy your first shower?”

My cheeks warmed as I grinned. “It was very…life-changing.”

“Agreed.” One side of his lips curved up as he reached over, tucking a strand of my wet hair back from my face. “Hungry?”

I nodded, smothering a yawn.

“I’ll see what I can wrangle up for us.” He leaned over me, capturing my lips. The kiss was soft and languid and wrapped my heart in warmth and light.

He withdrew, rising from the bed, and I watched him through half-open eyes as he walked to the oak wardrobe. He pulled on a pair of black breeches. As he made his way back to me, he unsheathed the wolven dagger. “The wolven are outside right now, patrolling.”

My brows rose. “They are?” When he nodded, a sleepy frown pulled at my lips. “Why can’t I feel them, and you can?”

“Because I’m special,” he replied with a smirk.

I rolled my eyes.

He chuckled. “I can’t feel them. I can hear them. Still makes me special,” he added, and I sighed.

I thought about what I’d thought had happened with Kieran and Delano. “Do you think that Primal bond thing means that I can feel them in a different way?”

“I think you mean Primal notam.”


“But what do you mean feel them in a different way?”

“I don’t know.” I gave a half-shrug. “A couple of times since I woke up in the cabin, I thought I heard Delano and Kieran in my mind.”

One eyebrow rose. “What?”

“Yeah, I heard their voices in my head.” I sighed. “When I was in the Skotos, having that dream? I heard Delano answer something in that nightmare, and I heard him say that I was their…Liessa,” I told him. “And then I swore I heard Kieran’s voice when we waited outside the Temple of Saion. I didn’t get a chance to ask either of them, but with Delano I also felt more than his emotions when I focused on him in the mountains. I felt, like…I don’t know how to explain it, but it was like his unique imprint. His mark. I’ve never felt that before. I know it sounds unreal—”

“I don’t think it sounds unreal,” Casteel said, his brows knitting. “I think anything is possible. We should definitely ask Kieran if he heard you or if he even knows if it’s possible. I know it wasn’t for us when we were bonded.”

Pressing my lips together, I nodded.

Casteel stared down at me for a moment. “You’re utterly unique, Poppy. You know that, right?”

I gave another lazy, one-shouldered shrug.

A faint smile appeared and then disappeared. “You’re safe here,” he told me as he placed the dagger beside my hand. “But just in case, if anyone comes in here, stab first and ask questions later. You should be familiar with that mentality.”

“Why does everyone act like I run around stabbing people?”

Casteel stared back at me and then looked pointedly at his chest.

“Whatever,” I muttered. “You deserved it.”

“I did.” He grinned as he placed a knee on the bed and lowered the upper half of his body over mine. “I’ll be right back.”

“I’ll be here.” I picked up the dagger. “Hopefully, not stabbing anyone.”

The dimple in his right cheek appeared, and he dipped his head, kissing just above my brow and then lower, over the scar. “Princess?”

My lips curved up. What had started as a nickname had become a reality. “Yes?”

His mouth moved over mine. “I love you.”

The smile on my face grew as my heart did a little skip in my chest. “I love you.”

He made that rough, rumbling sound. “I will never get tired of hearing that. Say it over and over, a hundred thousand times, and it will feel like I’m hearing it for the first time.”

I tipped my head up, kissing him. He was slow to leave, but he finally did, and my tired gaze moved to the lattice doors. Night had fallen outside, and I strained to hear what had been so obvious to Casteel. I heard nothing but the low hum of insects and the melody of nightbirds. My grip tightened on the cool bone handle of my dagger.

Casteel didn’t have to worry. If anyone came into this room, I would be ready.


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