I snorted. “Hardly. I’ll brand your ass.”
He laughed. “Spine. It’s more effective there. But finish it and you can do whatever you want with my ass. Just remember, turnabout’s fair play.”
I arched a brow. “You might regret that.” I was a lust-driven, uninhibited woman.
“With you, no holds barred. Show me what you’ve got, Babe,” he teased.
I’d have teased back but a sudden concern struck me. “What about my blood?” He’d had to mix ours to complete my tattoo. If my blood had changed, would it hurt him?
“Not necessary. I tasted yours years ago.”
Knowing the way his mind worked, he’d taken it just in case he needed it for one of his many linchpin theories.
“Gloves are on the table by the bed,” he tossed over his shoulder.
As I gloved up, I admired his wide shoulders, heavily muscled, tattooed back, tight, powerful ass and legs. He’d unbuttoned his pants, dropping them around his hips. God, he was so beautiful.
At least in illusion, I was going to get to touch every inch of him soon. Let go of all that raging, caged passion I’d been holding back for so long. I couldn’t wait to explore what this bond was going to do for us.
He said softly, “Intimacy on a level you can’t even begin to imagine. You should know going in, I’ll never remove mine. You do this, there’s no turning back. We’ll know each other like humans never can. You’ll be able to feel me constantly. Good, bad, and ugly, it’s all there. Still want to tattoo me, Dani?”
I wouldn’t miss this adventure with him for anything in the world.
The best is yet to come
I WORKED ALL NIGHT ON Ryodan’s tattoo, racing the clock, worried that—given how unpredictable my life is—something might happen to keep me from finishing the brand before I became whatever I was becoming. I doubted a Hunter’s massive talons were capable of the dexterity necessary to painstakingly ink the delicate, many-layered spell into his skin.
We talked nonstop, making each other laugh, sharing stories of outlandish adventures we’d had, subtly one-upping each other and laughing at ourselves for doing it. Ryodan is as self-aware as I am. Okay, maybe a little more. Thing is, we love the game we play, the way we provoke each other, we thrive on it. And that was a trait I couldn’t wait to explore in bed with him. People say opposites attract and that’s true, they do—combustively, and short-term. I think it’s those with like minds and hearts that succeed long-term.
Late that morning, as I inked the final lines of the tattoo, I inhaled sharply. I felt an instant, subtle yet pervasive connection to him that I couldn’t begin to put into words, an omnipresent awareness of him on a cellular level. “Is this what you’ve always felt since you tattooed me?”
“To a degree. Now that we both wear the brand, it’s stronger,” he said, turning around in the chair to face me. “You’re feeling a connection to my essential energy, for lack of a better phrase.”
His “essential energy” was comprised of a staggering amount of raw sexuality and tightly leashed hunger. For everything: more life, more sex, more toys, more adventure. He was one thousand percent exhilarated to be alive. All the time. Like me.
“You’re on the surface. You’ll always feel me now. Think of it as a bridge between us. We can stay on our own sides as we are, or we can move across it, entering each other to various degrees. Respect is paramount. If you resist my presence at any time, I’ll back off. You’re entitled to your secrets. You choose what to let me see. This kind of intimate connection can be beautiful or terrible. Never take, only ask, never force, only offer, respect boundaries.”
Always, I vowed silently. Such access was a privilege, not to be taken for granted or exploited. I expanded my senses and, as he allowed me to delve deeper, I gasped again.
He was all around me, a great big sexy Ryodan blanket rubbing up against my mind. It felt as if I was slipping deeper inside him, not perceiving him in words, but tasting him with an unnamed sense. Discovering his nuances. There were no lies or deceptions here; it was open, raw, only what it was; good, bad, and ugly. No wonder he’d said we were going to know each other more intimately than people ever could!
The taste of him was addictive. He was proud, strong, had often been a king during his life, determined, fiercely focused on the things he cared about and ferociously protective of them. But he was right, he was beast first, human second. I wouldn’t have believed that until this moment, so flawlessly had Ryodan perfected his man’s skin. His beast was savage, primitive, its law utterly self-serving, an endless roar inside that said: I’M KING OF THIS MOTHERFUCKING JUNGLE. EVERYTHING IS MINE. I WANT IT ALL, ALL THE TIME. His beast was ancient, ruthless, voracious, craved everything sensual and immediately gratifying, and it had absolutely no—
Careful…you sure you want to know that? Soft laughter rolled in my mind.
“No conscience,” I said, stunned. “Good grief, your beast has absolutely no morals, scruples, or ethics. Nothing even close.”
“Only those rules I make and enforce on it. It’s an eternal battle. I usually win.” He flashed me a feral, fierce smile. “But there are times, such as war, when I get to set the beast free.”
He loved those times. Felt undivided in his own skin for a rare time. Yet always hungered for a return to the man and his world, those he’d chosen as his family.
“Dani, I feel the Hunter in you,” he said quietly.
“It’s beautiful.” One more time, his silver gaze didn’t say. That’s all you’ve got.
And I didn’t say, Then I’ll never use it again.
And he didn’t say, Thank you for that.
Because we both knew I’d use it the next time it was needed. Just like we both knew he would devolve into a lawless monster the next time the opportunity presented itself.
We were what we were, and nothing could change that.
Love doesn’t build cages. It builds stairways to the stars.
“Close your eyes,” I said softly, ready to test just how intimate we could be. When he did, I focused on the connection between us, locking everything in the room down on my mental grid, re-creating us in a private space in my mind as I closed my own eyes.
“Christ, you’re a natural,” he said roughly. “I’m here with you.”
Because of the way I’d taught myself to use my brain, it was second nature to re-create reality in my mind. In the illusion, I stalked hungrily toward him, straddled his lap and slid my arms around his neck, staring down at him. Sexy, brilliant, pain in the ass man, and all mine. Bloody hell, he hadn’t lied, I could feel every inch of his body, indistinguishable from reality.
“I feel it, too, now that we’re both branded,” he said roughly. “Before I couldn’t.” His hands slid up my waist, stopping at the curve of my breasts, thumbs drifting up to graze my nipples. I sucked in a shallow breath, jerking from the erotic contact. “Christ, you’re incredible.”
It was so convincing, I wondered if it would be possible to forget which version of events was true. In the real world, he was still sitting in a chair alone while I was standing several feet away. I tested my ability to move back and forth between the reality and the illusion, stunned to find it indistinguishable. Mind-boggling.
“Get your ass back here. Practice technique later,” he growled. “Fucking kiss me, woman.”
I meant to kiss him with an explosion of raw, long-repressed lust, but when I raised my hands to his face they met his skin with reverence. I thought I’d lost the ability to touch him, to feel the rasp of his beard against my palm, slide my fingers into his hair. This was an unexpected gift. I lowered my mouth to his and brushed lightly, teasing, nipping, savoring the tension coiled in his body, knowing he wanted it hard, savage, and I’d get to that in just a moment but, bloody hell, teasing this man sexually was something I’d hungered—
My phone alert sounded.
“Ignore it,” he growled.
I couldn’t. I had to at least look. If our world was peaceful, I could shut it off. But it wasn’t and it might be important so I shifted back to reality with a groan, tugged my phone from my pocket and glanced at it.
Is your last name O’Malley?
It was from Roisin. I winced. With all that had been happening in my life, I’d not circled back to check on her.
I need to talk to you. There’s something you need to know.
I’ll call you
No. I need to see you
I sighed gustily at the same moment Ryodan did and glanced at him, startled. “You can see her text?”
“No. I picked up only that someone wanted you and you’d made up your mind to go, when a split second ago there was nothing but sex on your mind. Whatever it is,” he said darkly, “let’s get it done.”
“This is certainly going to make things easier. You can tell when—”
“Your stubborn kicks in,” he growled. “Yes. We’ll both know when it’s pointless to argue.”