He rubbed his jaw against my hair, his hands spanning my back, and as he began to work at my tight muscles, my tears stopped, my body stilled, my breathing deepened. Even an illusion of him could take me down to ground zero. I wondered how he’d survived his childhood and come out so bloody strong.
Careful, he said in my mind. We’re linked right now. You might see things you’d rather not.
“You know my pain. Show me yours. I want to know.”
It wasn’t pretty.
“As if my life has been.”
Exhaling gustily, he dropped his forehead to mine in our illusory embrace, raised his hands to my temples.
We’d been standing in his office at Chester’s, years ago, when he’d shown me that, like me, he’d been caged as a child, horribly abused, kept in a pit in the ground that was dark and damp and cold.
Suddenly, I was there. Trapped. The smell of damp soil and my own waste. Never let out.
Unless he hurt me so bad he had to take me out for his “doctors” to heal me so he could do it again. It was the only time I saw the sun. I lived for the times he almost killed me. I began to pray for them. I wanted to see sunshine that badly. To feel it on my battered skin, to soak it into my broken bones, to walk “up there” with the others. Sunshine became synonymous with life.
He wasn’t just giving me words in my head, he was somehow translating every nuance of the child’s desperation, the hope, the hate, the pain. I was in that horrid, smelly, small pit with that horrid steel door above me, fitted so tightly not one ounce of light trickled in. I was cold. I was lost. I was an animal. Everyone else got to live. But not me.
I shuddered from the intensity of it. I was…oh! Like me, he’d gone into his brain. There’d been no place else to go. The boy had created lavish worlds in his head, lived in them. Had replayed every detail of the wonderful loving life he’d once had, milking it for what he needed to continue trying to survive.
Why doesn’t she come for me? Why doesn’t she save me? An anguished scream. The crack of breaking bone.
He’d not had the blessing of my TV, my infrequent mother, my glimpses beyond tightly drawn curtains when she’d walked out and slammed the door, gusting the drapes from the wall, of the world beyond, of OUTSIDE. Just endless, eternal darkness. No stimulation. Incessant solitary confinement.
How the bloody hell had he not gone mad?
I held onto my family in my mind. My mother was a beautiful woman, coveted far and wide. Barrons was her first husband’s son. When he died, two wealthy, powerful suitors vied for her hand. She chose my father and was quickly pregnant with me. I had an incredible childhood. My parents adored us. No harm touched me. If it had tried, my older brother would have beaten it senseless. But it was a lawless, barbaric time and my father was killed in battle. Her other suitor came again, determined to possess her this time. She’d never liked him, always feared him, called in friends to stand her ground with her, begging for time. He agreed to leave only if she permitted him to take her youngest son until she joined him. He said it was to foster me. We all knew I was his hostage.
I saw the man then, dark and savage, from long ago, and realized Ryodan was translating things into words I could understand because people had been so much more primitive then. Wealth didn’t mean a fine home. It meant a vast tribe, furs, and fire.
She never came for me because she died. Barrons says she passed peacefully in her sleep of a broken heart, that losing both her husband and son was more than she could bear. I know better. A woman unprotected by a man back then was prey. I suspect those same friends that stood with her that day descended later and killed her, seizing our lands, and Barrons barely escaped alive. He swore he would get me back. And he did. But that’s a tale for another time, Dani. Our time may be short.
I drifted for a moment, linked to him, feeling him with all my senses. I’d never experienced intimacy like this before, so much more than our bodies touching, our minds mingling. I could taste the flavor of him: Danger, ruthlessness, savagery, fearlessness. And ferocious, unwavering commitment and loyalty. He was an animal first, pure, loyal, and territorial as a wolf.
Family was everything to Ryodan. He’d followed Barrons around his entire existence, determined to stay together. The Nine had become his family, too. He’d patiently reclaimed them each time they wandered off, moved them all over the globe for eons, following Barrons as he searched for a way to free the son I hadn’t known he’d had.
He showed me Barrons’s son then, the cage in which he (and Ryodan!) had been imprisoned. He shared the final scene with me as well: the way the tormented child had finally been laid to rest.
My eyes flew open in shock, shattering the illusion of our embrace, and I glared at him across the distance that separated us, which now seemed far too near for my comfort. I backpedaled hastily away. “Are you kidding me?” I cried. “I’m turning into the one thing that can kill you?”
He shrugged, a faint smile playing at his lips. “I always said I wanted an equal, Dani. Looks like I got one.”
I stared at him in horror. “If my bare skin touches you and I blow you up, will you die permanently?”
He shrugged again. “I have no idea. I can, however, touch a Hunter just fine.” He flashed me a wolfish grin. “At least then I’ll get to ride you, woman, in one sense of the bloody word.”
“Don’t joke at a time like this,” I hissed.
Silver ice glittered in his eyes. “For fuck’s sake, Dani, unbox your sense of humor. It’s one of the many things I missed most about you. Speaking of which, any time now, you can start telling me what you missed most about me. From what I understand, if you turn into a Hunter, you’ll be immortal. That’s a plus. I don’t brood. That’s Barrons’s gig. Never yours and mine.”
He had a point. There were worse fates. Shazam would probably like me even more as a Hunter. Ryodan and I could crack each other up for all eternity. A dragon, a beast, and a Hel-Cat, carving out our own unique way of life together.
Still, any man would eventually tire of loving a dragon.
“I’m not any man,” he said quietly, as he moved to a chest of drawers and withdrew a long wooden box. “What did I tell you so long ago? Adaptability is survivability. There are ways. I didn’t want you out in the streets tonight because there’s something else I want you to do. Come.”
He turned and walked to a table near the fire, where he removed items from the box. Inks. Needles. A complicated design etched on a piece of parchment. As I joined him, maintaining a cautious distance between us, he said, “While I can create illusion in your mind that feels real, you can’t do it for me unless we complete the brand. Then the illusion will be real for both of us. Specifically,” he went on, in case I was missing the point, “sex will be indistinguishable from reality. Fuck the uncertain future. Tattoo me, Dani. Let me be a beast in love with a dragon. We can still have it all.”
I stood there, doing something utterly alien to me, thinking about everything that could go wrong. Love did that to you. Messed with your brain, made you think about things you’d never think about otherwise.
I shook my head hard, scattering those thoughts. I don’t invite trouble. I invite the next grand adventure, and with Ryodan it was certain to be as incredible as it was unpredictable. And if we could create a convincing illusion of intimacy? It had felt exquisitely real to me with all my senses fiercely engaged. I’d known years ago that part of the reason I chose Dancer was because of how deeply Ryodan rattled me. Dancer had been easy laughter and a normal future. Ryodan was endless challenge and a future that was impossible to imagine. The future was here. I’d never had a normal life. Why would I expect a normal future?
An unexpected exhilaration filled me. I wasn’t losing him, we were just changing, becoming the next thing. We were good at that, he and I. It was our strength. It occurred to me that adaptability was more than survivability; it was the foundation of love. We were all changing, every day, and those relationships that endured were the ones that rode the waves together, grew and allowed each other to evolve. Encouraged it, even when it was frightening. Adaptability in relationships was the polar opposite of a cage. It was necessary commitment wed to necessary freedom.
He dropped backward in a chair and stripped off his shirt, his back rippling sleek and beautiful in the firelight, and said in a low, sexy voice, “Come on, Stardust, brand your man. I’ve been waiting a long fucking time for this.”
Your man. I liked that. Holy hell, did I like that. Ryodan Killian St. James had just called himself my man.
“Unless you’re afraid to commit yourself to a beast like me,” he goaded.