The beast jerked, stumbled, dropped to a knee, shuddering violently, then began to turn back into a man, bit by bit, first his hands, then his arms, his shoulders, and finally his face.
I held my breath, refused to say anything, in case it pushed him back into that terrible morphing of forms again. For years I’d wanted to see the great Ryodan lose control. I’d just learned a painful lesson. I never wanted to see it happen again. I’d kill anyone who ever tested his control, protect him. Never let him break. This man was my…bloody hell, my hero and I wanted him to always stay strong and whole.
He knelt, gasping for breath, chest heaving, tatters of clothing hanging on his trembling body.
Then, chin tucked down, he glanced up at me from beneath his brows, eyes still crimson and ground out, “Never. Tell. Me. I. Don’t. Care. You can fling any other insult you want at me, but not that one. Never that one. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you. Everything.”
He lunged to his feet and stalked toward me, naked but for odd bits of clothing here and there. I yanked my gaze to his face, in no mood to torment myself further.
“Don’t touch me!” I stepped hastily back. “And put something on.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he growled. “Suggesting works better at times like these.”
“You tell me what to do all the time and it’s—”
“You never listen.”
“—not like we’ll be having future times like these because—”
“We’ll always be butting heads like this. You’re too goddamn stubborn and so am I.”
“—our time is up, Ryodan. That’s my point and it’s your fault.”
He snarled, “What did I say to you in the cemetery that night?”
“You told me you were leaving,” I snarled back. “And that I couldn’t come.”
He stalked past me, into the bathroom, and came out with a towel wrapped around his waist, dusting part of a sleeve from his arm. “That’s not what I mean and you know it. The thing you boxed. The thing you never once looked at. The final words I said to you.”
“You told me to never come to you,” I said hotly. He was getting too close and he was right, I was angry with myself and had been for a long time.
“After that. Goddamn it, Dani, what did I say right before I left? I know you heard it. I know how acute your hearing is.”
I closed my eyes. He’d said, until the day you’re willing to stay.
“You had my number! If you’d called me, I’d have come. But you didn’t.”
“You didn’t call me either!”
“You wanted my brand. You wanted to know you could never get lost again. That mattered to you. I gave it to you.”
“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“For fuck’s sake, because of that brand, I feel your emotions. I felt them that night in the cemetery. You may not have wanted me to leave but it wasn’t because you wanted me to stay. You wanted me to sit around, waiting endlessly, doing nothing, all for the slight chance Dani O’Malley decided she wanted to see me. I bloody well did that. I sat there four motherfucking months and you never. Once. Came. I came to find you a dozen times but you couldn’t get away from me fast enough. I know exactly what you felt that night in the cemetery, I felt every bit of it. Anger that I was leaving, hurt that I wouldn’t tell you for how long. But more than anything, more intensely than all the rest, you felt relieved. You were bloody fucking relieved to see me go!”
I fisted my hands so hard, my nails bit through the gloves into my icy flesh. “What are you saying? That you went away to punish me?”
He snorted, then laughed, a bitter sound. “Never that. And I assure you, you weren’t the one being punished. I waited four months and what did you do?” He shot me a look so full of scathing fury, I flinched. “You grabbed the nearest man that looked like me and took him to bed.”
I gasped, “How do you know he looked like you?”
He smiled, baring fangs, eyes flashing crimson. “I ate him.”
My brows climbed my forehead. “Before or after you came to the cemetery?”
“Does it fucking matter? Before. Three minutes after you left him that night. And it wasn’t because he almost raped you. The brand you wanted, the spell that kept you from ever being lost, is the mark of my beast. It binds me to you in countless excruciating ways. It mates my beast to you. Do you understand that? Let me spell it out for you: my beast abhors trespassers. My beast thinks you belong to it.” His next words came out accompanied by a savage rattle deep in his chest, “And bloody hell, so do I. Or I wouldn’t have given it to you in the first place.”
I stared at him. “You put that mark on me when I was fourteen.”
“As a way to keep you alive and a promise to the woman you would one day become. It was my best shot at protecting you, keeping your fearless, impulsive ass safe. And if you’d wanted the brand as a woman, I’d have let you brand me with a reciprocal mark. If you’d chosen someone else, I’d have cut it off. But I would have kept you breathing until then.”
I protested, “But you didn’t cut it off when I was with Dancer.”
“He was a short-timer,” he said savagely. “I thought I could survive it.”
I flushed. “Oh, God, you could feel me when I had sex with Dancer! That’s how you knew I shouldn’t vibrate on him. Could you see us?”
“It’s not like that. And I wouldn’t have, if it were. I have no desire to watch you having sex with another man. I spent most of that time trying to block you two out, for fuck’s sake. I felt your passion. I felt his. I felt your heat, your need, and it almost fucking killed me. I was ready. You weren’t. I knew that. When you chose a man that looked like me you couldn’t have sent me a clearer message. Through you, I could feel Dancer’s life force. He was growing weaker every day. Had he lived, had you stayed with him, I’d have removed it. I couldn’t have stood it much longer anyway.”
“Yet you offered to make him like you,” I said, stunned.
“How the fuck do—ah, the letter from Barrons. It was from Dancer. That shit. He wasn’t supposed to tell you.”
“You told me no. Why did you change your mind?”
He shrugged, muscles and tattoos rippling. “I had a moment of temporary insanity, Dani. Fuck, I don’t know. I just wanted to end your pain. Maybe I knew he wouldn’t accept. Don’t paint it honorable. I’m not where you’re concerned.”
Yes, he was. No matter how he wanted to spin it. Because I loved Dancer, despite his own desires, he’d been willing to make him immortal for me. I wanted to thank him. I would thank him. But I wasn’t done yet. He’d vanished then showed up at my door, nearly starved to death, and I wanted to know where he’d been and what had happened to him. No more secrets. We would, at the very least, be friends, by God, I wanted something with this man and friendship demands truth. Besides, I couldn’t stand thinking about him out there, never once calling or texting. That was bullshit. There was no excuse. “Where did you go? Where were you for two years?” I demanded.
“Why were you so relieved to see me go?” he fired back. “There was one emotion I couldn’t get to. You had it too tightly boxed. I’ve never been able to get into your high security vaults.”
That was good to know. I closed my eyes, steeling myself. If I wanted truth from him, I had to be willing to give it myself. But this was what had created the entire mess of my boxes to begin with. Boxes are like lies, they breed like rabbits and hop around out of control. Still, it wasn’t as if there was anything left to lose. Inhaling deeply, I opened my eyes and said, “I’ll tell you, if you tell me.”
I was silent a long moment that spun out into a longer minute. Then two. We were about to do something we’d never done before. Rather than dazzling each other with our strengths, our finest qualities, here and now, in this strange final inning of a game we could no longer play, we were baring our weakness, our faults. Something I’d never done with anyone. The world ferrets out your faults often enough, I see little point in lending a hand.
I said slowly, wanting to bite back every word, “Because duration of grief seems as if it should be equivalent to the depth of love you felt for the person you lost.” I paused a moment, struggling to get the next words out. “And I wanted to come to you shortly after Dancer died.” I’d been ready long before he’d left. And I’d boxed it the moment I felt it. Who does that? Who moves on so quickly? I’d loved Dancer. He’d deserved better than that!