“Not true,” I told him.
“I wish that was the case. Gods, I do. I need to leave.” He rose and backed up, his stare lingering. I didn’t think he wanted to leave at all. He took a deep breath. “Goodnight, Poppy.”
I watched him start for the door, his name on the tip of my tongue. I didn’t want him to leave. I didn’t want to spend tonight alone. I didn’t want him to believe that he wasn’t deserving.
What I wanted was to live.
What I wanted was him.
He stopped but didn’t turn.
My heart was racing once more. “Will you…will you stay with me tonight?”
Hawke didn’t respond, and I wasn’t sure if he’d even taken a breath, reminding me of the night of the Rite with us under the willow. That memory didn’t bring with it the sharp stab of pain.
Then he spoke. “I want nothing more than that, but I don’t think you realize what will happen if I stay.”
I felt a little dizzy. “What would happen?”
He turned then, his stare piercing. “There is no way I could be in that bed with you and not be all over you in ten seconds flat. We wouldn’t even make it to the bed before that happened. I know my limitations. I know that I’m not a good enough man to remember my duty and yours or that I’m so incredibly unworthy of you it should be a sin. Even knowing that, there is no way I wouldn’t strip that robe from you and do exactly what I told you I’d do when we were in the forest.”
Heat swept through me as I stared at him. “I know.”
He sucked in a sharp breath. “Do you?”
Hawke took a step away from the door. “I’m not just going to hold you. I won’t stop at kissing you. My fingers won’t be the only thing inside you. My need for you is far too great, Poppy. If I stay, you will not walk out this door the Maiden.”
I shivered at the bluntness of his words. They weren’t a shock, but his need was. I didn’t see myself as someone who could be the object of something so fierce. I’d never been allowed to.
“I know,” I repeated.
He took one more step toward me. “Do you truly, Poppy?”
And it was strange to know myself and be so certain when I’d spent so long not knowing myself—never really being allowed to discover who I was, what I might like or dislike, what I’d want or need. But I knew now.
I had known the moment I asked him to stay. I knew what the consequences could be. I knew what I was, and what was expected of me, and I knew I could no longer be that. It wasn’t what I wanted in life. It had never been my choice.
But this…this I wanted.
Hawke was who I wanted.
This was my choice.
I was reclaiming my life, and it had started long before him. When I demanded to be taught how to fight, and when I made Vikter include me when he went out to help the cursed. Those were significant steps, but there had been smaller ones along the way. In a way, they were even more important. I’d been changing, evolving just like the gift I was forbidden to wield but remained determined to use. It was in every adventure and risk I took. It was in my desire to experience what I’d been told was not for me.
That was why I’d initially stayed in the room at the Red Pearl with Hawke.
It was the way I’d met the Duke’s stare and smiled at him when I’d been unveiled.
It was when I’d spoke to Loren for the first time, and when I went out to the Rise. My evolution kept me quiet as the Duke delivered his lessons, and when I sliced Lord Mazeen’s arm and hand and head from his body, I’d been cutting through the chains I never chose to wear. I just hadn’t realized it then. There were so many little steps over the years and especially in recent weeks. I didn’t know when it had finally happened, but I knew one thing for certain.
Hawke wasn’t the catalyst.
He was the reward.
I lifted my surprisingly steady hands to the sash. I didn’t look away as I undid the knot. The robe parted and then slipped over my shoulders. I let it puddle at my feet.
Hawke didn’t look away for one second. He didn’t even blink as he stared at me, his eyes locked to mine. Slowly, his gaze traveled the length of my body. I knew there was enough light for him to see everything. All the dips and swells, the shadowy, hidden areas, and all the scars. The jagged tears on my arms and across my stomach, and the ones on my legs that looked like wounds from sharp nails but were proof that I had been chosen by the gods.
Because those marks on my legs weren’t from claws but from fangs that had ripped into my skin. I’d been bitten that night.
But I was not cursed.
Hawke wouldn’t see the truth in those scars. Two of those who knew were now gone, and only the Queen and King, the Duchess, and my brother knew now. For the first time in my life, I wanted to tell someone the truth behind them. I wanted to tell Hawke.
But now was not the time for that.
Not when his gaze was slowly tracking back to mine. Not when he was looking at me as if he were soaking in every inch of me. I couldn’t help but shiver when his eyes finally met mine.
“You’re so damn beautiful,” he whispered, his voice thick. “And so damn unexpected.”
Then he moved in that way that always made it hard to believe he wasn’t an Ascended. In a heartbeat, I was in his arms, and his mouth was on mine. There was nothing slow and sweet about the way he kissed me. It was like being devoured, and I wanted that. I kissed him back, holding onto him tightly, and just when I felt the touch of his tongue against mine, he pulled away.
Things became a blur then. His tunic came off with my help, and then his boots, and his breeches. I trembled at the first sight of him.
All sun-kissed skin and long, lean muscles. His chest and stomach were defined by years of training, and there was no mistaking the power and strength of his body. There was also no mistaking how his life had left its imprint behind in the form of faint nicks and longer scars on his flesh. He was a fighter like I was, and now I truly saw what I’d been too nervous to notice before. His body was also a record of everything he’d survived, and the deeper, redder scar just below his hip on his upper thigh was proof that he likely had his own nightmares. It looked like a brand of some sort, as if something hot and painful had been pressed into his skin.
“The scar on your thigh,” I asked. “When did you get it?”
“Many years ago, when I was dumb enough to get caught,” he answered.
It was so weird how he sometimes talked as if he’d lived dozens of years longer than I was sure he had. I knew that, for some, a year could feel like a lifetime. My gaze strayed, and my eyes widened.
I bit down on my lip, knowing I probably shouldn’t stare. It seemed indecent to do so, but I wanted to.
“You keep looking at me like that, and this will be over before it starts.”
Cheeks heating, I dragged my gaze away. “I…you’re perfect.”
His expression tightened. “No, I’m not. You deserve someone who is, but I’m too much of a bastard to allow that.”
I shook my head, unsure how he couldn’t see that he was deserving. “I disagree with everything you just said.”
“Shocker,” he said, and then he curled his arm around me.
In a heartbeat, I was on the bed, and he was above me, the rough hair of his legs abrasive against mine in the most surprising, pleasant way. But the feel of him against my hip caused a nervous swallow, and also brought a reminder of a very real consequence that could come from this.
“Protected?” His thoughts obviously following the same path as mine. “I take the monthly aid.”
He was talking about the herb that rendered both males and females temporarily infertile. It could be drunk or chewed, and I heard that it tasted like sour milk.
“I assume you’re not,” he added.
“Wouldn’t that be a scandal?” he said, skimming his hand along my arm.
“It would.” I grinned. “But this…”
Those eyes met mine. “This changes everything.”
It really did.
And I was ready for that.
Hawke kissed me, and I wasn’t thinking of anything beyond how his lips had an almost drugging effect. We kissed until my heart was pounding, and my skin hummed with the pleasure of it. Then, only when I felt breathless, did he begin to explore.
His fingers trailed over every inch of exposed skin, and when his hand moved between my thighs, I cried out, quickly discovering that what he’d done with his fingers in the forest, over my breeches, was absolutely nothing compared to his skin against mine.
He worked his way down, using his mouth and then his tongue to follow the path his hands had blazed. He stayed in particularly sensitive areas, wringing sounds from me that made me briefly wonder just how thick the walls were, and then he lingered over the scars on my stomach, kissing them, worshipping them until I was sure that he didn’t find them disturbing or ugly in any way.
But then he moved lower still, past my navel.
My heart stopped as I felt his breath against where I ached so fiercely. I opened my eyes to find him settled between my legs, his golden gaze locking onto mine.
“Hawke,” I whispered.
One side of his lips curled up in a wicked, smoky half-grin. “Remember that first page of Miss Willa’s diary?”
“Yes.” I would never forget that first page.
Then, his gaze remaining on mine, he lowered his mouth.
My back bowed at the first touch of his lips, and my fingers dug into the sheets at the glide of his tongue. I thought my heart might stop, that maybe it already had. The riot of sensations he conjured up seemed unfathomable until that moment. It was almost too much, and I couldn’t hold still. I lifted my hips, and his rumbling growl of approval was nearly as good as what he was doing.
My head fell back against the mattress, and I was aware that I was writhing, squirming, and there was no sense of rhythm behind my movements. But that sharp tightening deep inside me was coiling and twisting, and then it all unraveled, stunning me with its intensity. I might’ve said his name. I might’ve actually screamed something incoherent. I didn’t know, and it took what felt like a small eternity before I could even open my eyes.