A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire by Jennifer L. Armentrout Book Review

A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire

by Jennifer L Armentrout

Published by Blue Box Press

Book 2 in the Blood and Ash Series

A Betrayal…

Everything Poppy has ever believed in is a lie, including the man she was falling in love with. Thrust among those who see her as a symbol of a monstrous kingdom, she barely knows who she is without the veil of the Maiden. But what she does know is that nothing is as dangerous to her as him. The Dark One. The Prince of Atlantia. He wants her to fight him, and that’s one order she’s more than happy to obey. He may have taken her, but he will never have her.

A Choice...

Casteel Da’Neer is known by many names and many faces. His lies are as seductive as his touch. His truths as sensual as his bite. Poppy knows better than to trust him. He needs her alive, healthy, and whole to achieve his goals. But he’s the only way for her to get what she wants—to find her brother Ian and see for herself if he has become a soulless Ascended. Working with Casteel instead of against him presents its own risks. He still tempts her with every breath, offering up all she’s ever wanted. Casteel has plans for her. Ones that could expose her to unimaginable pleasure and unfathomable pain. Plans that will force her to look beyond everything she thought she knew about herself—about him. Plans that could bind their lives together in unexpected ways that neither kingdom is prepared for. And she’s far too reckless, too hungry, to resist the temptation.

A Secret…

But unrest has grown in Atlantia as they await the return of their Prince. Whispers of war have become stronger, and Poppy is at the very heart of it all. The King wants to use her to send a message. The Descenters want her dead. The wolven are growing more unpredictable. And as her abilities to feel pain and emotion begin to grow and strengthen, the Atlantians start to fear her. Dark secrets are at play, ones steeped in the blood-drenched sins of two kingdoms that would do anything to keep the truth hidden. But when the earth begins to shake, and the skies start to bleed, it may already be too late.


Steamy High Fantasy Exciting

Violence Romance Emotional

New Adult HOT

Before I write this review, I feel like I need to show you the progression of emotions I have had the last few days of my life since A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire showed up on my Kindle.

I may or may not have walked into a door while reading.

I laughed

I got all kinds of happy and thrilled and excited

Um, THIS. ^^^^^^^

My utter shock at the end

for the next book

A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire by Jennifer L. Armentrout is the second book in her Blood and Ash Series, and starts off essentially where we left off in From Blood and Ash, with Poppy in the hands of Casteel/Hawke, struggling with the heartbreak from Hawke's betrayal, and trying to figure out what the truth is.

This. Fucking. Book. There is NO WORDS. None. I remember her admitting (I believe on her facebook page, where she is very active with her fans), that she was not sure if she could write a good high-fantasy, and she didn't know if she would ever publish it. In all truth, she should never doubt herself. All of her books are amazing. What we have here, though, is a masterpiece. Much like From Blood and Ash, A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire has an amazing story-line, constantly ramping up the action, and the relationships between everyone grow organically. Personalities are kept consistent, and best of all, the book is thrilling and unpredictable. We get so many questions answered that developed from From Blood and Ash, and, very much like Poppy, I have so many more questions for the next book.

I finished this book 24 hours ago, and I still feel like I'm in the middle of a book hangover. Just. Wow. I have been very devoted to LUX being my favorite series to date, but I think it's been bumped down to the number 2 slot. This series blows my mind.

Trying to talk about my thoughts on characters, will be a little difficult to not spoil ... so if you have already read the book, feel free to highlight the hidden text to read. If you haven't read it yet, first of all, do it now. Second of all, don't highlight the text. The surprise is half the fun.

I frigging love Poppy. I love her unyielding strength and courage. I love her passion and fiery temper. I love how aware of herself and her feelings she is. She doesn't deny the conflicting feelings she has, she just fights from letting those emotions take over. She's intelligent and funny. She refuses to be the victim, and shows an astounding amount of empathy for even those who don't trust her. She understands. She is the perfect heroine. ---------> Did anyone predict that ending? Holy fuck. I was not expecting that. I was expecting her to have a stronger bloodline, sure ... but I was not expecting that at all. I was thinking she might have been part Wolven, considering her connection with them, but I like this. This is better. I'm expecting some insane drama resulting from the reveal though. Her mother-in-law doesn't seem to be happy. <-------- I don't just love Poppy though. I also am head over heels with the dark one himself, Casteel. It's no secret on this little blog of mine that I have a thing for the anti-hero. The bad boy. Casteel/Hawke has earned his nickname, for sure. Doesn't mean I can't love the guy. -------> Sure, he kidnaps her ... but very quickly, it's her choice to stay with him. To work with him to get both of their brothers back. He gives her freedom to make her own choices, even when he is unhappy with them. He respects her, physically and emotionally. He answers her questions with no judgement, and is honest with her. <-------- He is kinda perfect himself. And Poppy and Casteel together? Um .... ------->Holy fucking hell. It's hot. I love when you can feel the tension and chemistry between two characters, and it blows me away in this book. The banter, the passionate fighting, the sex, and all the things they do before they get to that point again? The last chapters of the book are just epic. Poppy and Casteel finally being real, not "pretending," and getting married. Yes. I am all for it. The fact they get married in this book, with two more to go ... shit is going down. I know it. <-------. Perfection. Utter perfection.

We can't forget about the side characters in this book. Kieran. I'm kinda obsessed with Kieran. He adds a level of humor to everything with his personality, but obviously also takes his role as protector very seriously. Casteel and Kieran together is always fun, but -------->Poppy and Kieran? I love! There were plenty of hints in the book that a possible threesome might happen at some point, and while I usually wouldn't mind that level of smut, I just don't see it. Kieran doesn't show any interest in Poppy like that. They very much seem like a big brother enduring his curious and talkative little sister. There is a level of respect and caring that they have for one another. Plus, does anyone really think Cas is going to be okay with Poppy having sex with anyone but him? If they are heartmates (which I think they are), he won't be able to endure that. And Poppy, wouldn't either. Cas can't even feed from someone else because of his love for Poppy. Forget about sex. <--------. We get to meet some of Kieran's family, and I'm totally in love with them too. It's obvious Kieran gets his sense of humor from his father (Jasper), and I love how fierce his baby sister (Vonetta) is. ------->

I honestly was thinking that she would be bonded with Poppy at some point, but considering what we find out in the end, Poppy doesn't really need a bonded wolven, as technically, all wolven are bound to protect her. <------- And now Alistir, a newcomer to the series. When I read the first three chapters after they were released a month early, I was feeling like this guy was bad news. Then -------> after Poppy and him have their first conversation, I was thinking that Poppy might actually get a father figure back in her life. But by the end of the book, I was right back to thinking this asshole is shady. It's obvious he was behind the stoning attack. He wants the crown. He obviously pushed his daughter into a relationship with Cas to get his bloodline onto the throne, and when that didn't work, he tried to push his niece to marry Cas. Shady, shady, shady. When all is revealed, I wonder if Cas will kill him himself, or if he will let Poppy do the honors after that stoning attack.<--------.

God there is so much I can say about this book. SO FREAKING MUCH. It's been a while since I have been so emotionally attached to a book/series. A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire was just ... perfect. Masterful. You need to read this book. This series if you haven't read From Blood and Ash yet. And a special treat in this book: at the end, you get a link to read the red pearl scene (From Blood and Ash) from Hawke's perspective, and it's pretty amazing.

Favorite Moments

  1. Cas killing Landell for his insults and threat to Poppy and

  2. Casteel and Poppy's fight after her escape

  3. Casteel comforting Poppy after a nightmare

  4. Kieran explaining to Poppy that Casteel can smell her "arousal" to her mortification

  5. Casteel and Poppy's bargain

  6. All of Poppy's questions and Kieran's annoyance with them

  7. Casteel announcing who he was to Lord Chaney

  8. The. Pantry.

  9. Poppy and Casteel's "disagreement" while riding the house, ending with Poppy elbowing Casteel in the stomach

  10. Poppy's shock at Kieran's nakedness

  11. Kieran explaining to Poppy that he thinks Poppy and Casteel are heartmates

  12. The Joining talk with Alastir, and Casteel's reaction to it.

  13. The. Freaking. Feeding. Holy gods.

  14. Casteel teaching Poppy how to ride a horse

  15. Poppy healing Beckett

  16. THE CAVE

  17. Poppy addressing the people who are fearful and disgusted by her at dinner

  18. Casteel and Poppy's conversation

  19. Da dum da dum ... and what comes after <3

  20. Kieran nudging Poppy's hand with the wedding band in his Wolven form

  21. The carriage scene.

  22. Reaching Atlantia and THAT ENDING

Where to Buy


Paperback (Amazon Canada)


Google Play Books

Apple Books

Favorite Quotes

Casteel: "Which part confuses you?"

Poppy: "It's the part where you think I would actually marry you."

Across from me, I heard the choked sound of someone trying to conceal laughter. I flicked a look at the handsome face of a tawny-brown-skinned, pale-blue-eyed wolven - a creature able to take the form of a wolf as easily as they could assume the form of a mortal.

Casteel: "I don't think that you will. I know.”

Poppy: “Maybe I wasn’t clear, so I will try to be more explicit now. I don’t know why you’d think, in a million years, that I’d marry you. Is that clear enough?”

Casteel: “Crystal. But we shall see, won’t we?”

Elijah: “As I just said, I’m with Casteel. Always, and no matter what he chooses. And if he chooses her, then we all do.”

Landell: “Are we supposed to believe that she is worthy of being our Princess when she flat-out denies you in front of your people while reeking of the Ascended? When she refuses to choose you?”

Casteel: “What matters is that I choose her. And that is all that matters.”

Landell: “You do this, and it will be the downfall of our kingdom. I will not choose that scarred-face bitch.”

I flinched.

I’d actually flinched, cheeks burning as if I’d been slapped across the face. I lifted my fingers, touching the uneven skin of my cheek before I realized what I was doing.

Landell: “I’ll see her head before I stand by and allow this.”

Seconds, mere heartbeats passed from when those words left Landell’s mouth, and the frenzied stir of air as it lifted wisps of hair at my temples.

Casteel’s chair was empty.

A shout, and then something heavy clanged off a dish. A chair toppled, and Landell … he was no longer standing by the table. His plate was no longer empty. A narrow dagger lay there, one designed for throwing. My wide eyes followed the blur that was Casteel as he pinned Landell to the wall, his forearm pressed into the wolven’s throat.

Casteel: “I just want you to know that I’m not even particularly upset about you questioning what I intend to do. How you’ve spoken to me doesn’t bother me. I’m not insecure enough to care about the opinions of little men. If that had been all, I would’ve overlooked it. If you had stopped after the first time you referenced her, I would’ve let you walk out of here with just your overinflated sense of self-worth. But then you insulted her. You made her flinch, and then you threatened her. I will not forget that.”

Landell: “I –“

Casteel: “And I will not be able to forgive you.”

Casteel jerked his arm back, throwing something to the floor. It landed with a fleshy smack.

My lips slowly parted as I realized what the lumpy, red mass was. Oh, my gods. A heart. It was an actual heart.

Casteel: “There is no side of you that is not as beautiful as the other half. Not a single inch isn’t stunning. That was true the first time I said it to you, and it is still the truth today and tomorrow.”

Alastir: “Penellaphe? Named after the Goddess of Wisdom, Loyalty, and Duty?”

I nodded

Alastir: “A fitting name for the Maiden, I imagine.”

Casteel: “You wouldn’t think that if you knew her.”

Poppy: “If you say I smell like Casteel again, I will punch you in the face. Hard.”

Kieran: “You do smell like him, but that’s not it. You smell of death.”

Kieran: “You push him like you have no fear, even after all you’ve seen?”

Poppy: “Should I fear him?”

Kieran: “He has done things some might find unforgivable. Things that would haunt your sleep and leave you with nightmares long after you wake. He may hate being called the Dark One, but he has earned that name. But he’s the one thing in all the kingdoms that you, and only you, never have to fear.”

Poppy: “Dammit. I’m not going back to the keep. You will have to force me, and I will not make it easy for you. I will fight you.”

Casteel: “If you’re looking for a fight … You’ll fight me, Princess.”

Casteel: "I suppose I will need to add lock picking to the ever-growing list of attributes. But what a very un-Maiden-like talent to have. Then again, I shouldn't be that surprised. You have many un-Maiden-like talents, don't you?"

Poppy: "Are you done talking yet? Or are you too afraid that I might actually beat you, so you won't shut up?"

Casteel: "I like hearing myself talk."

Poppy: "I'm sure you do."

Casteel: "Are you ready?"

Poppy: "Are you?"

Casteel: "Always."

Casteel: "No one, and I mean no one, speaks of you like that. Threatens you and lives."

Casteel: "This reminds me of the stables. You were just as violent then as you are now."

His weight and the heat of his body against my back and the iciness of the snow at my front was a shock to my senses, stunning me.

Casteel: "Most wouldn't find that such an attractive quality. But ..."

His mouth brushing my jaw, followed by the graze of his sharp teeth, sending an illicit thrill through me.

Casteel: "I'm not most people."

Poppy: "Most people aren't as insane as you."

Casteel: "That's not a very nice thing to say."

He scraped harder with his sharp teeth, just below where he'd bitten me before, and I gasped as my body jerked.

Casteel: "And the truth is, you like my brand of insanity."

Poppy: "I don't like anything about you."

He laughed as his lips skimmed the side of my throat

Casteel: "I love how you lie."

Poppy: "I'm not lying."

Casteel: "Hmm?"

His lips hovered over the spot where my pulse fluttered wildly.

Casteel: "Your penchant for violence isn't anything to be ashamed of. Not with me. Haven't I told you it turns me on?"

Poppy: "One too many times."

I said, pushing off the ground against Casteel. I felt him against me for a brief moment, felt the proof of his words. The tight throbbing response to the knowledge made me question my sanity.

Casteel hadn't expected the move, and he slipped to the side - or maybe he was just humoring me. Probably the latter. Either way, I scrambled to my knees and turned on him, throwing a wild punch.

Casteel caught my hand.

Casteel: "Then I guess it would be repetitive of me to tell you how much you're turning me on now?"

Poppy: "That and how incredibly disturbing it is."

He smiled up at me, his eyes twin golden flames.

Casteel: "I do so prefer hand-to-hand combat with you."

he said, catching my other wrist when I swung my fist down.

Casteel: "I like how close it brings us, Princess."

I shrieked my frustration - my irritation - at him. At myself.

Poppy: "There is something so wrong with you!"

Casteel: "Probably, but you know what? That's the part you like the most."

Casteel: "If I'd known those marks were bites, I would've realized what you were right away."

Poppy: "Yeah, well ... Would that have changed anything?"

Casteel: "No, Poppy. You being mortal or half-Atlantian wouldn't have changed what was already happening."

Poppy: "I'll try to escape again."

Casteel: "I figured as much."

Poppy: "I'm not going to stop fighting you."

Casteel: "I wouldn't want you to."

He looked up, one eyebrow raised.

Kieran: "What took you two so long? I was actually beginning to wonder if she beat you."

Casteel: "You seem real concerned sitting there."

Kieran grinned

Kieran: I was beside myself with worry."

Casteel snorted.

A curse hissed through his teeth as his fingers closed around the blade. Blood trickled between his fingers, and I didn't feel even a kernel of guilt as he stared at his hand. Well, perhaps there was a tiny bit of remorse - no larger than the size of a gnat, though. He hadn't done anything at the exact moment in time to truly earn a knife being thrown at his face, but I was sure he would be more than deserving in a few minutes.

Casteel: "You're so incredibly violent."

Poppy: "Only around you."

His lips curled into a half-grin, revealing the dimple in his right cheek.

Casteel: "Now, you know that's not true at all. But you know what is true?"

Poppy: "What? What's true?"

He smiled then, a real one.

Casteel: "It still turns me on, Princess."

Poppy: "You lie."

Casteel: "Why would I lie about something like that?"

Poppy: "Because you're a liar?"

Casteel: "Poppy, you wound me. In my heart. Again."

Poppy: "Don't whine. You'll heal. Again. Unfortunately."

He chuckled.

Casteel: "There's a lot we need to talk about, Poppy."

Poppy: "There is. But talking doesn't require you to be shirtless."

Casteel: "Talking doesn't require any clothes at all. I can promise you that some of the most interesting conversations take place with no clothes to speak of."

Casteel: "I am Hawke. And I am Casteel. I'm not two separate people, no matter how badly you want to believe that."

Casteel: "Come now, Poppy, I know deep down that you must be excited. Not everyone gets to become an actual Princess."

Poppy: "I am not remotely -"

I snapped my mouth shut, realizing he was actually teasing me.

Casteel: "It's considered a great honor in Atlantia to be welcomed into the bosom of the noble, ruling family. I think my mother is going to like you."

I shot to my feet.

Poppy: "We are not getting married!"

Slamming the knife down, it scored deep into the wood of the table by the bed, the handle vibrating from the impact.

Casteel: "On second though, my mother is definitely going to like you."

Poppy: "Why? Because I didn't throw it at your face this time?"

Casteel: "She'll most likely be amused that you have done exactly that."

Casteel: "You are so incredibly beautiful when you're angry."

Casteel: "I'm not leaving you alone."

Poppy: "I'm not going to try to escape! I promise."

Casteel: "I hope you don't think I'm foolish enough to trust your vow. SO, either it's me in here, or it's Kieran. Would you rather it be him? If so, I will summon him for you. But just so you know, he often slips into his wolven form and has a habit of kicking in his sleep."

My lips slowly parted.

Poppy: "What? Wait. I don't need an explanation of that. I don't want Kieran."

A hint of a smile was pure wickedness.

Casteel: "You want me."

Poppy: "That is not what I said. You can sleep on the floor."

Casteel: "Just so you know, if you want my lips on any piece of you, I'm more than willing to appease you."

My mouth dropped open

Casteel: "And my willingness to comply extends to my hands, my fingers, and my cock -"

Poppy: "Oh my Gods. You don't have to worry about that. I will never request you ... your services."

Casteel: "Services? That sounds so dirty."

Poppy: "You and I are never going to do anything like what we did before."

Casteel: "Never?"

Poppy: "Never."

Casteel: "Would you say it would be ... impossible?"

Poppy: "Yes. It's definitely impossible."

Hawke smiled

Hawke: "But didn't you just say nothing was impossible?"

I stared down at him, at an absolute loss for words.

Poppy: "I want to stab you in the heart right now."

Casteel: "I'm sure you do."

Poppy: "Why did you tell me? Why did you have to tell me that Hawke was your middle name?"

Casteel: "Because you needed to know that not everything was a lie."

Casteel: "If I had known that Lord Mazeen joined him, he would've been staked to that wall right alongside the Duke."

Poppy: "I'm glad you didn't. If you had, I wouldn't have gotten to see the look on his face when I sliced off his hand and then his head."

Casteel stared at me, the corners of his lips curving up.

Casteel: "So incredibly violent, my Princess."

Delano: "I thought ... I thought I heard you calling my name. Screaming for help. It must've been the wind."

Poppy: "Or your guilty conscience."

Delano: "Probably the wind."

Poppy: "What are you doing in here?"

Kieran: "Other than wondering exactly what choices I made in my life that led me to this exact moment?"

Kieran started to block me once more, and I'd had it with the ridiculousness.

Poppy: "He can see me standing behind you. You're a giant oaf, but not that giant of an oaf."

Alistir: "He does seem quite taken with you."

Poppy: "I think he's far more taken with himself."

A loud laugh burst from the elemental.

Emil: "I think I can now be counted as one of those taken with you."

My cheeks flushed

Kieran: "I would advice against saying that in front of Casteel."

Kieran had finally, after about ten years, finishing cutting up his food.

Poppy: "May I have that? If you're done, that is? I'm not sure, but the last piece is a little thicker than the rest of the pieces."

Slowly, he looked over at me

Kieran: "Would you like me to cut your food for you?"

Poppy: "Would you like me to knock you off this bench?"

He chuckled deeply

Kieran: "Cas is right. You are incredibly violent."

Poppy: "No, I'm not."

I pointed my fork at him

Poppy: "I'm just not a child. I don't need someone else cutting my meat."

Kieran: "Uh-huh."

Kieran: "No matter how hard you try with that knife you just swiped, you will not be able to kill Cas with it."

My head swung in his direction.

Poppy: "I'm not planning to kill him with it."

Kieran: "I would hope not. It would probably only further endear you to him."

Poppy: "I'm going to ignore that incredibly disturbing possibility."

Casteel: "I'm curious. What are you two discussing that has Poppy looking as if she's five seconds away from crawling under the table?"

Poppy: "Nothing."

Kieran: "I was just telling her about how you have heightened physical senses. Like your ability to see better than her, and scent her arousal -"

Poppy: "Oh, my gods!"

I spun on the bench, swinging at Kieran, but he easily avoided my fist.

Kieran: "I'm sorry. I meant desire. She doesn't like the word arousal."

Casteel: "Careful, Kieran."

Casteel murmured, catching my hand before I could swing at Kieran once more. Casteel: "She'll be threatening to stab you next."

Casteel: "You're beautiful when you're quiet and somber, but when you laugh? You rival the sunrise over the Skotos Mountains."

Casteel: "Atlantia rose from blood and ash. We are no longer a fallen kingdom. Not by any sense of the word. We haven't been for a very long time. We are a kingdom of fire."

Poppy: "You ... you don't like this, do you? The situation I'm in - that we're in."

A muscle flexed in his jaw once more, but he said nothing.

Poppy: "That's why you aren't just hauling me straight to the capital right now, demanding the exchange. That would be quicker. It would be easier -"

Casteel: "there would be nothing easy about giving you to them."

Poppy: "I can hate that I'm nothing more than a pawn to you and still understand why I am."

Casteel: "You're not just a pawn to me, Poppy."

Poppy: "I will not pretend to be the docile fiancee without an audience."

Casteel: "Understandable. But if you want to pretend to be just that in private -"

Poppy: "Not going to happen."

Something glimmered in his golden eyes

Casteel: "I think you will find that I can be impossible charming."

I glared at him.

Casteel: "Remember what you said about impossibilities?"

I did.

Poppy: "But this is truly impossible."

Casteel: "I guess we will see."

Poppy: "I guess we will."

Casteel: "I feel like this is a trick, and you're two seconds from trying to plunge that knife into my heart again."

I coughed out a dry laugh.

Poppy: "What good would that do? You'd only be annoyed, and the knife is not nearly sharp enough to sever your head or pierce your incredibly thick skull."

He smirked

Casteel: "But it would give you great satisfaction."

I considered that.

It would.

Casteel: "I knew it."

Kieran: "How's it feel to be on the verge of becoming a real Princess?"

Poppy: "He told you already?"

Kieran: "Of course, he did. I probably knew his plans had changed before he did."

My eyes narrowed

Poppy: "I'm willing to bet his plans had changed when he realized I was part Atlantian."

He smiled, and his expression his a wealth of mysteries

Kieran: "His plans changed well before that. But like I said,, he hadn't quite realized that."

Kieran: "I can't wait to see how you two are going to pull this off."

Poppy: "What does that mean?"

Kieran: "Not a minute has gone by since we left the Blood Forest that you aren't threatening Casteel's life."

Poppy: "That's' an exaggeration. There's definitely been ... several minutes have gone by."

Kieran: "Casteel will announce you as his fiancee. It will be wise to behave appropriately."

Poppy: "Do you think I'm going to scream in Casteel's face and run off instead."

A hint of a smile appeared.

Kieran: "I wouldn't be surprised."

Poppy: "I wouldn't confuse submission for distraction, and I wouldn't mistake obedience for stupidity when it's apparent that you know very little about the people of Solis."

Alastir: "It's admirable."

Poppy: "What is?"

Alastir: "Your utter lack of fear when speaking to me - talking to any of us - when you know what we are, what we are capable of."

Poppy: "I'm not foolish enough to not feel fear when I know that any of you could kill me before I even have a chance to take my last breath. But fearing what you're capable of doesn't mean I fear you."

Casteel leaned in, his voice in my ear.

Casteel: "Still so incredibly brave."

Casteel: "Someone did take her. Obviously."

Alastir: "Ah, yes, you did take her. But do you really intend to keep her?"

Casteel: "I wouldn't be marrying her if I didn't plan on keeping her."

Casteel: "Penellaphe intrigued me from the first moment I spoke to her."

Alastir: "I can see why. She's utterly unique, and most likely not what one would expect from the Maiden."

Casteel: "She is unique and brave, intelligent and beautiful. And completely unexpected. But she is not the Maiden, Alastir. And if you refer to her as the Maiden one more time, we are going to have a problem. Understand?"

Casteel: "She may only be half-Atlantian and raised in Solis, but my people will accept her because I accept her."

Casteel: "Just so you know, Penellaphe doesn't need protection. She is more than capable of handling things herself. But that is my future you are walking away with. Guard her well. Your life depends on it."

Poppy: "I think if I tried to hug Kieran, he'd pass out."

Alastir: "Most likely."

My eyes narrowed

Poppy: "There is no one else in this room. The doors are closed, and the deal we made didn't include sitting in your lap."

Casteel: "I know. But I really enjoy it."

Muscles curled low in my stomach, and I really didn't care for how my body responded to his heated stare, and the glimpse of those fangs. It answered with a heady flush that I could only hope wasn't as visible as it felt. It also called forth a sharp, intense throbbing that settled in an area that made me wat to squeeze my legs together. And I really hated the knowledge that he knew exactly how I responded to him. I let go of his wrist.

Poppy: "I don't care if you enjoy it."

Casteel: "Lies. You enjoyed it, too."

Poppy: "But do you know what I enjoyed more?"

I leaned in, seeing the surprise flare in his eyes that quickly gave way to heat.

The lazy, half-hooded gaze returned.

Casteel: "I have a few ideas."

Poppy: "I enjoyed throwing the knife at you and making you bleed."

I said, jerking my head back from his touch. This time when I stood, he didn't stop me.

Casteel laughed

Casteel: "That was one of my ideas."

Kieran: "You two are more convincing now than you were during the whole time with Alastir."

Casteel: "Thank you."

Poppy: "For what?"

Casteel: "For choosing me."

Kieran: "Please don't die. Casteel would be most displeased."

Kieran: "Perfect timing. Your fiancee has questions."

Casteel: "Perhaps I have answers. And, yes, before you ask, you're free to do as you please."

Kieran: "Thank the gods."

Poppy: "Or one of my parents was ... was an empath warrior. Did they have a certain eye color? Because I don't have gold or hazel eyes?"

Casteel: "No. Yours are the color of an Atlantian spring - of dew-kissed leaves."

It sounded right. It felt like a final puzzle piece being found. It felt right. The corners of my lips tipped up, and I smiled.

Casteel: "Beautiful."

Casteel: "I am born of the first kingdom. Created from the blood and ash of all those who fell before me. I have risen to take back what is mine. I'm who you call the Dark One. Yes, I have the Maiden, and I'm not giving her back."

Casteel: "You don't understand. The people here don't know you. They don't -"

Poppy: "Trust me? Like me? I already knew that, Casteel. I don't need either of those things. That's not why I want to use my abilities."

Casteel: "Then you should get changed. I'll get jealous if anyone else sees how pretty your legs are."

Casteel: "To be honest, I had more pressing concerns."

I arched a brow

Poppy: "Really? What is more pressing than an omen sent by the gods?"

Casteel: "You waking up uninjured was more pressing than a vague, rather unhelpful message from the gods."

Older woman: "You are a second daughter. Not a Maiden, but Chosen nonetheless."

Poppy: "Did you just pull me into a pantry?"

Casteel: "I did."

Casteel's chin dipped as he stepped into me.

I stepped back, bumping into a shelf. Jars rattled. He was so tall, I had to crane my neck all the way back to meet his gaze.

Poppy: "Why?"

Casteel: "I wanted a moment alone."

He placed his hands on the cupboard above my head.

Casteel: "With you."

Senses hyperaware, I watched him lean in as a confusing tremor of anticipation coiled its way down my spine.

Poppy: "And you needed this moment alone in a pantry?"

He turned his head slightly, lining up his mouth with mine.

Casteel: "I just needed."

Tiny shivers hit every part of me. I opened my mouth to tell him that whatever he needed didn't involve him and me in a pantry, but nothing came out. No protests. No warnings. I simply stared up at him, waiting and ... wanting.

His forehead dropped to mine.

Casteel: "There is one more thing I need. Something that I've needed for days. Weeks. Months. Maybe forever."

The bridge of his nose brushed mine.

Casteel: "But I know you won't allow it. Not like this."

Poppy: "What ... what have you needed for so long?"

Casteel: "You."

Poppy: "I thought you were going to kiss me."

Casteel: "Isn't that what I'm doing?"

I shook my head.

Poppy: "That's not what you can do."

He chuckled against my lips.

Casteel: "You're right. It's not."

Then he truly kissed me.

He claimed my lips as if he were staking a claim to my very soul. The possibility that he was already well on his way to doing so should've served as a dire warning, but I was far too immersed, far too gone at the feel of him, lost in how demanding his lips were. He tugged on my lower lip with his fangs, urging my lips to part. Gasping, I yielded to him. The kiss deepened, and his tongue slid over mine. I let out a little breathless moan against his mouth. The taste of him, his smell ... all of him invaded me, scalding me.

Poppy: "Were you injured?"

Casteel: "Would you fret with worry if I was?"

The corners of my lips turned down. No? Yes?

Poppy: "Not particularly."

Casteel: "Ouch. You wound me yet again."

Kieran: "He's not wounded. At least, not physically. Emotionally, I believe you left him shredded."

I rolled my eyes

Poppy: "Then why ask if he's okay if he's not hurt?"

Casteel: "He's a worrywart. Constantly fearing that I've been injured or that I've overexerted myself. Wanting to know if I've gotten eight hours of rest and eaten three square meals a day."

Kieran: "Yeah, that's exactly it."

Casteel; "Retribution is yours, if you want it. And if not, I will be your blade, the thing that ends his miserable existence. It's your choice."

Poppy: "He doesn't speak now?"

Kieran: "I tore out his tongue."

Both Casteel and I looked at him.

Kieran: "What?"

The wolven shrugged

Kieran: "He annoyed me."

Casteel: "Well. Okay, then."

Kieran: "Is there something you wanted to discuss? Or is there something you want to ask? I'm sure there is something you'd like to ask."

I frowned at the wolven

Poppy: "There's nothing I want to ask."

Kieran: "Then why are you sighing every five minutes?"

Poppy: "I'm not sighing every five minutes. Actually, there is something I want to ask."

His expression turned bland.

Poppy: "This bond you have with Casteel. What does it actually entail? Like are you able to know his thoughts? If something were to happen to him, does it happen to you?"

Kieran: "I shouldn't be surprised by how incredibly random that was, but I am."

Poppy: "You're welcome."

Gently, he pried my fingers from the dagger

Casteel: "I'm just putting this down. It's still within reach in case you want to stab me."

Poppy: "I don't want to stab you."

Casteel: "That would be a first."

I hiccuped a shaky laugh.

Casteel: "Try to remember you said that later when I'm sure I'll give you a reason to stab me."

Casteel: "Let me be enough, at least for tonight."

Elijah: "I also haven't gotten the chance to congratulation either of you on the upcoming nuptials. To be honest, every day I half-expected to find the Prince sliced up in all the ways a man fears."

I blinked slowly.

Casteel chuckled deeply.

Casteel: "You're not the only one. I expected to be picking up pieces of myself."

He glanced down at me, his lips slightly parted.

Casteel: "But I was once told that the best relationships are the ones where passions run high."

My brows started to pucker.

Kieran: "I wonder who told you that."

Elijah: "It was me."

Elijah laughed as he clapped his hand on Kieran's shoulder, causing the wolven to stumble.

Elijah: "Told him that if a woman fights with that kind of passion and makes you work that hard to earn even a smile, then that's the kind of woman you want by your side in and out of the bedchamber."

My mouth opened, but I truly had nothing to say.

Elijah: "Keep our Prince in line and do so vigilantly. I expect to hear many stories that involve you throwing down with him."

Casteel: "You really don't need to encourage her."

Poppy : "By the way, I'm not yours. I don't belong to anyone but myself. Nothing changes that."

Casteel: "What if I just wanted a piece of you? A tiny piece that belong to me? I can think of a few I would love to have, Princess."

My cheeks warmed

Poppy: "I bet you can."

His laugh was rough and deep.

Casteel: "Tell me what piece of you I can have. It can be any piece of your choosing. Whatever it is, I'll take it."

His chin grazed my cheek.

Casteel: "It will be my most prized possession."

I didn't offer Casteel a piece of me as we rode forward, joining the others. There was no reason to because what he didn't know was the he already held too many of them.

Poppy: "I'm hoping that hawk returns, and instead of snatching up poor helpless animals and children, it grabs you."

Poppy: "I don't know how I'm supposed to behave in a way that will convince others that we're ... together."

Casteel: "You just need to be yourself, Poppy."

Poppy: "Being myself would likely mean arguing with you constantly -"

Casteel: "And threatening to stab me. I know."

Poppy: "How is me threatening to stab you going to convince anyone that this engagement is real?"

Casteel: "I'll admit, that would lead the average person to believe there were no fond feelings between us, but no one would believe that I would choose a submissive Maiden over my brother. They'd expect me to fall for someone as fiery as she is kind, brave ... even to a fault. Someone who pushes back. They'd expect someone like you, to be honest."

Casteel: "I would say what we have is a very intimate agreement. So, no."

Poppy: "What we have is simply an impersonal agreement and nothing more."

Casteel: "Impersonal? Is that so?"

His hand drifted lower, over the flap of buttons on my pants.

My breath hitched.

Poppy: "Yes."

Casteel: "Truly?"

Poppy: "Yes."

Casteel: "Interesting. It didn't seem impersonal last night."

he murmured, and then caught the lobe of my ear between his teeth. I gasped, my eyes wide as the little nip set fire to my blood. Slowly freeing the sensitive flesh, he chuckled as his lips touched the space behind my ear, and then I felt the indecent thrill of his sharp teeth dragging over the skin of my throat.

For a moment, all thoughts scattered. My boiling blood roared in my ears, through my body, tightening my breasts and settling between my legs, where his fingers ventured dangerously close. They made those tiny circles that tugged at the seam of my pants, rubbing it against my very center. My back arched without thought, and a hidden, reckless part of me wished I could will those fingers lower -

Casteel: "And now? Sure doesn't feel impersonal."

I reacted without though, slamming my elbow into his stomach. Casteel grunted out a curse.

Delano: "Please don't fight atop the horse. None of us wish to watch Setti trample either of you."

Kieran: "Speak for yourself."

Casteel straightened behind me

Casteel: "Don't worry. Neither of us will fall. It was just a love lap."

Naill: "That did not look like a love tap."

Casteel: "That's because it was a very passionate one."

Poppy: "You're about to get a love tap to your face."

Casteel spun suddenly, shielding my body with his. He jerked and growled out a sharp curse, and I knew he'd taken another arrow.

Casteel: "This is getting extremely annoying."

he snarled, thrusting me behind a tree. He tossed the quiver of arrows I hadn't seen him grab toward me.

Casteel: "Don't get shot. That will be even more annoying."

Casteel: "I don't know why any of you think this is your lucky day. It's really not. Not when my cloak has been ruined. And I really liked it. It was warm, and now it has gods-damn holes in it. How will that keep me warm?"

Poppy: "You're naked!"

Kieran: "I am."

And he was.

Like completely naked, and I saw way too much tawny-hued skin. Way too much. I quickly spun around, my wide eyes clashing with Casteel's.

Casteel: "You should see your face right now. It looks like you've been sunbathing."

Poppy: "Because he's naked. Like, super naked."

Casteel: "What do you think happens when he shifts forms?"

Poppy: "The last time his pants actually stayed on!"

Casteel: "And sometimes they don't."

Casteel shrugged.

Kieran: "Those pants were looser, I suppose. There's no need to be embarrassed. It's only skin."

What I saw was not only skin.

poppy: "He has to be cold!"

Kieran: "Wolven body temperatures run higher than normal. I'm just a little chilled. As I'm sure you noticed."

Casteel smirked.

Casteel: "I doubt she knows what you're referencing."

I inhaled deeply through my nose and exhaled slowly.

Poppy: "I know exactly what he's referencing, thank you very much."

Casteel: "How do you know that? If you know what that means, then someone has been very naughty."

Kieran: "You took out the mouthy one?"

I nodded as Casteel cursed when the arrow he'd been pulling on most likely got stuck on something important. Like an organ.

Kieran: "With your dagger?"

Poppy: "That and my sparkling personality."

The wolven snorted.

Kieran: "It was probably the latter that did him in."

Delano: "I heard one of them talk about how they wanted to make a cloak out of my fur. My fur should be reserved for something far more luxurious than a cloak. I bit him extra hard for that."

Kieran: "Maybe you can tell him to rise. The longer he continues to kneel, the larger your ego will grow."

Naill: "Don't know if that's possible."

She turned the diamond in her hand, light catching on its irregular dips and peaks.

Queen Ileana: "Without them they would just be common and ordinary, like all the other smoothly cut diamonds you can find anywhere you look. Beauty, my sweet child, is often broken and barbed, and always unexpected."

Kieran: "You plan to use that?"

Poppy: "Why does everyone think I'm going to stab them when I pick up anything that's not blunt?"

Kieran: "Well, you do have a habit of doing exactly that."

I started to argue but quickly realized that, unfortunately, he had a point.

Poppy: "Only when it's deserved. And it's not my fault that some of you deserve to be stabbed. Repeatedly."

Kieran: "The way Casteel is with you - the teasing and trying to get a rise out of you - isn't how he is with most."

Poppy: "So it's an act?"

Kieran: "No, Casteel is just more ... alive when he's with you."

Poppy: "He doesn't care for me."

Kieran: "If it helps you to believe that, then by all means, continue. But that doesn't make it true."

I glared at him,

Poppy: "And just because you spout vague statements doesn't make whatever you're saying true either."

Kieran: "He gave you his blood when you didn't need it, just so you wouldn't be in pain when you woke -"

Poppy: "And so I didn't delay in leaving New Haven!"

Kieran: "Funny how we weren't planning to leave the moment you woke anyway. Which you're conveniently forgetting."

I clamped my mouth shut.

Kieran: "Even if that were the case, which it isn't, if he didn't care, he wouldn't have been concerned over you being uncomfortable during our travels, would he? And if he didn't care, he would've used a hundred different compulsions at this point, no matter how temporary, to keep you better controlled, something that would make all our lives easier."

My eyes narrowed.

Kieran: "He wouldn't be marrying you, risking the ire of not just his entire kingdom but also his parents, who you will soon discover are not two people you want to anger just so you have a chance to make it through this alive, free from the Ascended and from him. If that is what you choose. But more importantly, he would've stuck to the plan he spent years cultivating, and we would've already been halfway to Carsodonia to exchange you for his brother. Yet, here we are. And the only reason why any of that changed is because once he got to know you, he started to care for you."

I wanted Kieran to take back those words because they did things to my heart, and even worse, dangerous things to my mind.

Poppy: "You're annoying."

Kieran: "The truth often is. But you want to know an even more annoying truth?"

Poppy: "Not really."

Kieran: Too bad, because you need to hear this. He cares for you just like you care for him despite the lies and the betrayal. That's why, even when you were the Maiden, you shared your secrets with him and allowed him things you would've never permitted anyone else. That's why you didn't use that dagger strapped to your thigh this morning, even though you knew how to use it against an Atlantian. That's why, even now, you are concerned about him. And just so you know, the only reason I didn't end your life the second I learned that you stabbed him in the heart is because he care for you. Is that less vague enough for you, Penellaphe?"

Poppy: "The night before I learned who he really was, I had already decided that I could no longer be the Maiden. It wasn't just because of him. Maybe how I felt about him was the start of me realizing that I could never live in the skin of the Maiden, but I wanted to stay with him. Even though I thought he was a Royal Guard and would have to basically go into hiding with me, I wanted to be with him - to stay with him somehow. Because he made me feel ... He made me feel like I was alive."

I swallowed hard.

Poppy: "I did care for him. I cared for him a lot."

Kieran: "He was Casteel then just like he's Hawke now. And you know that. You just aren't ready to accept it."

I briefly squeezed my eyes shut.

Kieran: "Cas told me once that he felt as if he already knew you after speaking with you just a few times."

Poppy: "I asked him about that."

Kieran: "This is my surprised face."

Kieran murmured, and when I looked at him, his expression was the same as always. Bored with a hint of amusement.

Poppy: "He told me he believed it was the Atlantian blood in him, recognizing mine."

Kieran: "And you felt the same?"

I nodded.

Poppy: "Is that a possibility?"

Kieran: "Possibly. But I don't think that's the case. I think it's something deeper than that. Something intangible, far rarer and stronger than bloodlines and even the gods. Something powerful enough that it has ushered in great change in the past."

Tensing, I had a feeling I didn't want to know what he thought. That whatever it was would be even more earth-shattering than what he'd already shared. It'd be words given life that I wouldn't be able to control.

Kieran: "I think you're heartmates."

Kieran: "You've been quieter than expected."

Poppy: "I've been thinking."

Kieran: "Great."

Poppy: "Can I ask you something?"

Kieran: "I have a feeling if I said no, it wouldn't stop you."

Poppy: "I'm going to do it."

Kieran: "I'm half-afraid to ask what it is you're going to do."

Folding my arms across my chest, I rolled my eyes.

Poppy: "I'm going to offer myself up ... for dinner basically. To Casteel."

Kieran: "As dinner?"

Poppy: "Basically."

I peeked at Kieran, and I could tell he was trying not to laugh.

Kieran: "Only part of me is surprised, but I'm relieved. He needs you."

Alastir: "This is going to be an incredibly awkward conversation."

I started to grin.

Poppy: "Now, I'm really interested."

Alastir: "And you will likely change your tune fairly quickly."

I wanted to know about who he used to be before he lost Shea, lost his brother. And I wanted to know all of that because I ... I cared about him. Because I'd never stopped falling.


I was in so much trouble.

Casteel: "That's an incredibly random question."

Poppy: "I'm beginning to realize I'm an incredibly random person."

Casteel: "Forcing a warrior to don a veil of submission was never going to last."

Poppy: "I don't know about the warrior part -"

Casteel: "I do. From the moment you stayed instead of walking out of that room at the Red Pearl, I knew you had a warrior's strength and bravery."

Poppy: "He told me about the Joining."

Casteel's head swung toward mine so fast, I was surprised he didn't crack his neck.

Casteel: "He did what?"

Poppy: "Do I really need to repeat that?"

Casteel: "What did he tell you?"

Poppy: "He told me what it is. That it's a blood exchange that often turns into something, um, more intimate."

Casteel: "Good gods, he did not."

Poppy: "He did."

Casteel: "I ..."

Casteel suddenly broke out into deep, thunderous laughter. The kind that was so loud and hard, it sounded like it hurt.

My wide gaze shot to him.

Casteel: "I'm sorry. It's just that I would've paid good money to see him try to explain that to you."

I narrowed my eyes

Poppy: "Would you have?"

Casteel: "Hell, yes, I would've. Oh, gods. Let me guess? He said it was crude and disgusting?"

Poppy: "Yeah. Pretty much."

Casteel: "Gods, what an old alarmist."

He laughed again, shoulders shaking.

Casteel: "I wish I could've seen your face."

Poppy: "Well, since I learned about it from him, I wished I could've punched you in your face."

Casteel: "I bet you did."

Casteel: "Wait. Do you even know what could happen during that ritual that would make it so very crude -"

Poppy: "I know what could happen."

Casteel: "Is it because of that diary?"

Poppy: "Shut up."

Casteel: "Did you bookmark the chapters detailing how Willa spent afternoons entertaining not one but two suitors, one in the front and the other -?"

Poppy: "You seem to know a lot about that book."

Casteel: "I love that fucking book."

Poppy: "I felt your hunger, Casteel, and I don't need to do this. I stopped doing things I didn't want to do the moment I took off the damn veil. I want to help you. Because as stupid as this may make me, and only the gods know why, I care about you! So, yeah, I don't want to have my throat ripped open, and I also don't want to know that you're suffering for no reason."

His cheek grazed mine as he eased my head back and to the side.

Casteel: "There will only be a heartbeat of pain."

His breath was warm on my throat, his voice ragged.

Casteel: "I swear."

Casteel: "Poppy ..."

There was a wealth of need in that one word, in my name. I trembled. Then his eyes opened again, and they were nearly luminous.

Casteel: "You've already given so much of yourself, done so much for me."

His mouth lowered, and the anticipation swelled. He stopped mere inches from my mouth as his hand curved around my hip.

Casteel: "Let me do this for you. Let me take away the ache."

Poppy: "But what about your ache?"

A fine tremor coursed through him.

Casteel: "This isn't about me."

His hand drifted over my stomach, to where my skin was bared at the left hip.

Casteel: "Let me thank you the only way I can right now. Let me show you my gratitude."

Casteel: "Then we must seal the deal. And do you know Atlantians seal a deal? They do so with a kiss."

Poppy: "Really? That sounds incredibly problematic."

Casteel: "Perhaps."

Poppy: "And it also sounds like a lie."

Casteel nodded

Casteel: "It is."

There was no silencing the laugh. It burst from me. And Casteel - he moved so unbelievably fast. His head dipped, and his mouth was on mine before the laugh even faded. The shock of his lips against mine sent a jolt through me. The kiss was ... it was as intoxicating as his bite, as everything about him was. And when his fingers sifted through my h air, guiding my head back, t here were no protests to be found. The kiss deepened, and the touch of his fangs, his tongue on mine, sent a hot, tight shudder through me.

Casteel: "Sorry. I know I should've asked first, but your laugh ... It undoes me, Poppy."

Kieran: "Dear gods, you have her on her own horse? Soon, she'll be running one of us over instead of stabbing us."

Casteel: "You want to dismount on your own?"

I nodded, rising and drawing one leg up and over the saddle. I lowered myself to the ground, nowhere near as gracefully, but I did it.

Kieran applauded.

Kieran: "Good job."

Poppy: "Shut up."

Kieran: "I hope you're not embarrassed about this morning."

Poppy: "I'm not embarrassed."

Kieran: "You're not? You won't look at me."

Poppy: "I was just looking at you a few moments ago."

Kieran: "Only because you wanted to do violent and terrible things to me."

I smiled because that was true.

Kieran: "You look like you want to do that now."

Brows raised, I looked at him.

Poppy: "Happy? I'm looking at you now."

A half-grin appeared

Kieran: "Yes, but your face is as red as a tomato."

Poppy: "Whatever."

Kieran: And you still look like you want to murder me."

I sighed.

Kieran laughed, not even bothering to move out of the way when I punched his arm

Kieran: "Ouch. That was actually hard."

Casteel: "Do I even want to know why you just hit Kieran?"

Kieran's eyes lit up as he opened his mouth -

Poppy: "No."

I jumped in, shooting Kieran a look that promised death if he spoke as Casteel came to stand beside me.

Poppy: "You do not."

Grinning, Kieran backed up.

Kieran: "When has she ever needed a reason to be violent?"

Casteel: "Good point. I guess I should be grateful that she didn't stab you."

Vonetta: "Why are you standing there so quiet?"

Casteel: "I am not interrupting you. The last time I did, you knocked me on my ass."

Vonetta: "That is not why I knocked you on your ass. I don't exactly remember why I did it, but I'm sure it was because you did something to deserve it."

Vonetta: "Apparently, we're not as special as Casteel."

Casteel: "You should've already known that."

She shot him a look

Vonetta: "You saying something like that was probably why I knocked you on your ass the last time."

I laughed.

Poppy: "I like her."

Casteel: "Of course, you do."

Casteel sighed as he placed his hand on my back. But when I looked up at him, he had that look to him again. Like he'd lost his breath. .

Vonetta: "Our poor mother spent many moons attempting to teach me how to bake bread. I'd rather sharpen a sword than knead yeast. Of course, Mom excels equally at both."

Kieran: "As do I."

Kieran grinned, and his sister rolled her eyes.

Casteel: "Sounds like you and Poppy have that in common. She also has a fondness for sharp, deadly objects."

Poppy: "I do."

Vonetta grinned

Vonetta: "Yet another reason to like you."

Casteel dipped his head, and I felt the bridge of his nose along the side of my neck.

Casteel: "You don't smell like that to me. You smell like honeydew."

Poppy: "It's not funny."

Casteel: "I'm not laughing."

Poppy: "You're trying not to laugh. Don't even deny it."

Casteel laughed then, holding up his hands.

Casteel: "It's just you look ... adorably confused, and no you look adorably violent."

I shook my head at him,

Poppy: "There is something so wrong with you."

Casteel: "He would've lost his legs, Poppy. You prevented that."

Poppy: "Then why do you sound angry with me?"

Casteel: "I'm not."

Poppy: "You sure about that?"

Casteel: "One hundred percent sure."

Poppy: "Are you .... hungry again?"

Casteel: "Not for blood."

Casteel: "If you open your senses to me right now, you'll know exactly what I'm feeling. Do it."

Poppy: "I don't want to."

Casteel: "Why?"

His warm breath danced across my parted lips.

Poppy: "Because I don't want to."

Casteel: "Or is it because you don't want to know that it's taking everything in me not to ruin yet another pair of your pants by ripping them off and fucking you so hard that days from now, you'll still be able to feel the extend of my gratitude."

We stood there for several moments, and at any time, if either of us turned our heads just the slightest, our lips would have met. And I ...

I thought I would be lost.

Or maybe found.

Casteel: "Can I point out that I like how you say, 'our future?'"

Poppy: "In a perfect world, I would've loved to have been courted in a way that didn't involve kidnappings or fleeing the Ascended."

Casteel: "Or being stabbed."

I turned to him.

He winked.

He actually winked at me.

Poppy: "I'd rather marry without actually being able to replay all of their concerns in my head during the ceremony."

Alastir: "I can understand that. I really can, but our King and Queen -"

Casteel: "Will be shocked and probably greatly annoyed that I have married someone they have never laid eyes on, not to mention someone who is only half-Atlantian and was once the Maiden. But as soon as they get to know her, none of that will matter. They will come to love her as fiercely as I do."

My heart stuttered and squeezed as I looked at Casteel, and I knew - I knew he hadn't planned to say that last part, or at least he hadn't meant to say it like that.

Poppy: "I was thinking ... I was thinking that you can be very convincing when you speak to others about how you feel about me."

Casteel: "Is that so?"

Poppy: "Yes."

Casteel: "But not convincing enough."

Casteel: "Look."

Turning my head, there was no stopping the smile that lifted the corners of my lips and spread across my face.

Poppy: "Poppies."

A slight laugh escaped me at the unexpected sight.

Poppy: "I'd never seen so many in one place. It's beautiful."

Casteel: "Yeah."

After a moment, clearing his throat as he shifted behind me.

Casteel: "It is."

Casteel: "So incredibly violent."

Poppy: "Perhaps a little."

What did I want? Him. I wanted his hands on me, washing away all the reasons why I shouldn't. I wanted to feel his skin against mine, crowding out the world around us. I wanted the touch of his lips, chasing away any logical protests before they could form. I wanted his mouth on mine, kissing away the lies his lips once spoke. I wanted his hands on me, soothing away the sting of guilt and the feeling that I was betraying myself. I wanted to feel him inside me so I couldn't feel anything but him. I wanted to be so completely devoured by him that there was no room for the fear that he would become a scare upon my sure-to-be-broken heart. Because ... because what if Kieran was wrong? What if after Casteel accomplished what he wanted, when he fulfilled his end of the bargain, all that remained was lies and betrayals?

I wanted to believe we were heartmates in spite of everything that made that seem impossible.

Casteel: "Did I ever tell you what you taste like?"

His tongue lapped over the sensitive mark.

Poppy: "Honeydew?"

Casteel: "You dirty girl. I'm not talking about that."

He nipped at my jaw, drawing another gasp from me.

Casteel: "I'm talking about your blood, but now you've dragged my mind into unseemly places."

Poppy: "Your mind always resides in unseemly places."

He laughed deeply.

Casteel: "I can't deny that."

Casteel: "If you want, we can pretend again."

His hand slid along my thigh, higher and higher -

The tips of his fingers reached evidence of what I knew he'd already sensed. My hips jerked at the illicit thrill as a breathy moan parted my lips.

He dragged his mouth over mine.

Casteel: "You can pretend. You can pretend that this isn't because you don't have a need of me."

My heart felt like a trapped butterfly as I opened my eyes. His were blazing, a heated honey.

Poppy: "I don't."

The curve of his lips was cruelly sensual.

Casteel: "You can pretend that this -"

He eased a finger inside me, just the tip, but I rose up on my toes. His eyes turned luminous as his gaze drifted over my face and then lower to where my breasts had risen up above the churning water. He lifted his gaze to mine as he pressed his finger in further, and I could feel my inner muscles clenching around him.

Casteel': " - That this has nothing to do with you wanting me."

Poppy: "I don't."

I told him, even as I lifted my hips off the rock, pressing against his hand, against him.

Casteel hissed as my stomach brushed the hot, hard length of him. He pushed my back to the rock, trapping his hand between us as his chest flattened against mine. The skin-to-skin contact, the way he slowly pumped his finger, shorted out my senses.

Casteel: "You can pretend that it's just the sensitive bite on your neck causing you to squirm against my hand. You can pretend that's the reason you wish it was my cock you were grabbing onto so tightly."

His head dipped to mine once more

Casteel: "We can both pretend, and we both can ..."

Poppy: "Can what? Just be Hawke and Poppy?"

For a moment, the hardness etched onto his features slipped and then cracked, revealing the near-desperate need underneath. A need for me. For us.

I was done lying to him and to myself.

Poppy: "Only on one condition."

Casteel: "You have a condition now?"

I nodded, my heart thundering.

Poppy: "I don't want to pretend. I'm Poppy, and you're Casteel, and this is real."

Casteel: "I would love to take my time because there are so may different ways I'd love to be real with you. Lay you out on the rocks and lick every inch of your body. Make you come that way. And then I'd want you on your knees and your mouth around my cock."

Casteel: "I'm going to to need you to hold onto me and not let go, because I'm about to fuck you like I promised."

Casteel: "Gods, you feel ... You feel like all I could ever want."

Poppy: "I'm half afraid to ask."

Kieran: "But you will."

Poppy: "I'm not one of them. I was their Maiden, and even though I suspected the Ascended were hiding things, I fully admit to not opening my eyes to who they truly were until I met Casteel. But I was never one of them. And the next time you want to call me a poisonous viper, at least have the courage to do so while looking me straight in the eye."

Alastir: "I told you, Casteel. I said that you would encounter push back if you proceeded with this."

Casteel: "And what did I tell you when you said that before?"

Alastir: "That this is what you want. That she is what you want."

Casteel: "It's no secret that I planned to use Penellaphe as ransom. I spent those years far from home working to get close to her. I succeeded, and when the time was right, I made my move. I took her. I took her, and I kept her, but not to use her. Somewhere along the way, I no longer saw her as a bargaining chip or a tool for revenge. I saw her for who she was. Who she is - this beautiful, strong, intelligent, endlessly curious and kind woman who was as much a victim of the Ascended as any Atlantians. I fell in love with her, probably long before I even realized I had. My plans changed. What I believed about Malik changed. And this was before I learned what she was. That she is part Atlantian. She is the reason I came home."

Poppy: "When I found out ..."

Casteel: "She stabbed me in the heart with a bloodstone dagger."

Jasper gave a sudden bark of laughter

Jasper: "I'm sorry. But damn ... are you for real?"

Kieran: "It's true. She thought it would kill him."

Poppy: "I was a little angry."

Casteel: "A little?"

I narrowed my eyes

Poppy: "Okay. I was very angry."

Jasper: "You stabbed Casteel? In the heart? With bloodstone. And you thought it would kill him?"

Poppy: "In my defense, I felt bad afterward."

Poppy: "I was the Maiden, nearly groomed my entire life to remain pure and focused only on my Ascension. I was Chosen to be given to the gods, even though I never chose the life. And I don't know what you know of me, but I had no control over where I went, who I spoke to or could speak with. I was veiled, unable to even look someone in the eye if they were allowed to speak with me. I didn't get to choose what I ate, when I left my chambers, or who was allowed to even touch me. Bit he was the first thing I'd ever truly chosen for myself."

My voice cracked slightly as the knot expanded. I took a shallow breath, feeling Casteel's gaze on me, but I refused to look at him. I couldn't because I didn't want to know what he was feeling.

Poppy: "I chose him when I knew him as Hawke. I didn't know what that would mean at the time, other than I wanted to have something that I actually wanted for myself. I'd already begun to question things - the Ascended and if I could be or do what they required of me. I'd already begun to realize that I couldn't live like I was any longer. That the Maiden wasn't me, and I was better and stronger and meant for something other than that. But he ... he was the catalyst in a way. And I chose him. I chose him because he made me feel like I was something other than the Maiden, and he saw me when no one else ever really did. He made me feel alive. He valued me for who I am and didn't try to control me. And then it all seemed like a lie once I realized the truth of who he was and why he was a part of my life."

I could still feel Casteel's stare. I swallowed, but the knot was still there.

Poppy: "So yes, I was very angry, but what I felt for him before remained, and after learning the entire truth about the Ascended and what had happened to him and to his brother, I could understand why he set out to use me. That doesn't mean that it was okay, but I could understand why. I refused his proposal at first, just so you know. Accepting him and ... and allowing myself to feel what I did f or him was a betrayal to those who were lost in all of this, and it felt like a betrayal to myself. But I still chose him despite it all."

Jasper: "If you've chosen her, then how can we not do the same?"

Delano: "Please, no stabbing. All of that makes me anxious."

Poppy: "No promises."

Casteel: "Alastir was right. I do take after my father when it comes to women with sharp objects."

Poppy: "I don't care."

Casteel: "My mother has stabbed my father a time or a dozen over the years. He claims he deserved it each time, and truthfully, he never seemed all that torn up about being stabbed. Probably had something to do with the fact that they'd be holed up in their private chambers for days after a spat."

Poppy: "Glad to know the disturbed apple doesn't fall too far from the crazy tree."

I was in love with him, even though that love had been built on a foundation of lies. I loved him even though there was so much I didn't know about him. I loved him even though I knew I was a willing pawn to him.

And this didn't happen overnight. It shouldn't come as a shock, because I was already in love with him the moment my heart broke when I learned the truth of who he was. I fell in love with him when he was Hawke, and I kept falling once I learned that he was Casteel. And I knew it wasn't because he was my first everything. I knew it wasn't my naivety or lack of experience.

It was because he made me feel seen, and he made me feel alive even when I genuinely wanted to cause physical harm to him. I kept falling when he never once told me not to pick up a sword or bow and instead handed one to me. I fell and fell when I realized that Casteel wore many masks for many reasons. What I felt only grew when I realized that he would, in fact, kill whoever insulted me, no matter how wrong that was. And that love ... it entrenched itself deeply when I realized the kind of strength and will he had within him to survive what he had and to still find the pieces of who he used to be.

Poppy: "Let me go."

Casteel: "I don't know if I should. Someone is likely to be very irritated if you stab me, and I end up bleeding all over the bed."

Poppy: "You could always clean up after yourself."

Casteel: "There's something innately wrong with the idea of being stabbed and then having to clean up my own blood."

Casteel: "Do you remember what happened the last time you held a dagger to my throat?"

His fingertips touched my cheek and slid lower, over my jaw.

Casteel: "I do."

A lick of pleasure followed his fingers.

Poppy: "That was a temporary loss of sanity."

Casteel: "That's my favorite kind."

Poppy: "I don't know what you want from me."

Casteel: "Everything. I want everything."

Casteel: "Do you think I understand any of this, Poppy? None of this was supposed to happen. I had plans. Capture you and use you. Free my brother and, maybe if the gods were good, prevent a war - or at least lessen the bloodshed. That was the plan. And fuck if it didn't go off the rails the moment you walked into the godsdamn Red Pearl. And each time - every damn time - I spoke to you, each time, each time I saw your smile or heard you laugh, and the more I got to know you, the less those plans made sense. And trust me, Poppy, those plans made way more fucking sense than this - than all of this."

The breath I took got stuck as I grew incredibly still.

Casteel: "I'm a Prince. A kingdom of people is counting on me to solve their problems - even ones they're unaware of, but I ... I couldn't do it. I couldn't give you to them, not even for my brother. All because when I'm with you, I don't think about the kingdom full of people counting on me."

Casteel: "This conversation isn't over."

Poppy: "I know. I have a lot of questions."

Casteel: "Of course you do."

Jasper: "I imagine I will still be officiating a wedding."

Poppy: "You don't doubt our intentions?"

Jasper: "Not after meeting you."

Casteel: "You don't need to stay up here, Poppy."

Poppy: "I know, but I want to be here when Delano comes back. Besides, I doubt I'd be able to sleep."

Casteel: "You could try."

Poppy: "So could you."

Casteel: "Even if I wasn't the Prince, I would be up here."

I lifted by gaze to his.

Poppy: "Even if I wasn't about to become a Princess, I would be up here.""

Casteel became so still, I wondered if he breathed. I sensed an acute rush of emotions flow through him, so swift and sudden, I couldn't make out what they were. That could've been my shock, though, because I'd never felt anything like that from him before.

Then he moved, lifting a hand. He hesitated as if to see if I would pull away. When I didn't, he cupped my left cheek.

Poppy: "You ran how many miles? With a wound that most likely punctured a lung. You did more than most could ever think to do."

Delano: "And you healed me with the touch of your fingers."

Poppy: "And that was nowhere near as difficult or as impressive as what you did."

Casteel: "She speaks the truth. And you're the first person to ever impress her. I'm jealous."

I rolled my eyes

Casteel: "If I'm not willing to risk my life for Spessa's End, how dare I ask the people here to do so? That is not what a Prince does - at least not a good one."

Poppy: "I don't know if you realize this or not, Casteel, but I'm not duty-bound to obey a single thing you say. And maybe you should actually look at me when you try to order me to do things."

He turned to me, his head cocked

Casteel: "I'm looking at you now."

Poppy: "But are you listening."

Delano: "Oh, man. Someone is getting stabbed again."

Someone, I think it was Jasper, snorted.

Casteel: "Oh, I'm listening. Maybe you should try that. Along with this thing called common sense."

Kieran: "Definitely getting stabbed."

Poppy: "No one wants to hear about how many times I've made you bleed."

Jasper: "I do."

Emil raised his hand

Emil: "So do I."

Casteel: "Blessed be the gods, someone mark the date and time. She just admitted I was right."

Poppy: "Oh, shut up."

Poppy: "As far as me being a liability? I'm just as good with a sword as I am with a bow, and I'm damn good with a bow. Probably better than most here. I am an asset. And as far as being a distraction to Casteel, that's his weakness. Not mine."

Casteel: "She's not lying. Penellaphe can fight, and her skill with a sword and aim with the arrow are leagues above that of a trained soldier. She is never a liability."

Kieran: "If you get yourself killed, I'm going to be pissed."

Poppy: "Kieran?"

He looked at me

Poppy: "Please ... please try to be careful."

He lifted his brows.

Kieran: "Are you worried about me?"

Crossing my arms, I nodded.

Kieran: "Don't be nice to me. It weirds me out."

Poppy: "Sorry."

Kieran: "You don't sound remotely sorry."

I grinned at him.

Kieran: "Do me a favor. Protect your Prince."

Casteel: "You asked if I have any shame? I do have some. Almost all the shame I've ever felt has to do with you. I hated lying to you, Poppy."

Casteel: "I didn't plan on actually enjoying your company. I didn't plan on coming to look forward to talking to you. And I didn't plan on the guilt that came with my actions. I didn't plan on ... well, I didn't plan on caring about you."

Casteel: "I didn't take you then because I knew the moment I did, you would stop looking at me like ... like I was just Hawke. You would stop opening up to me. Talking to me. Seeing me. You'd hate me. I wasn't ready for that."

He swallowed as his gaze lifted to the bed's canopy.

Casteel: "When I touched you in the Blood Forest, I knew I shouldn't have, but I ... I wanted to be your first. I needed to be your first everything. Kiss. Touch. Pleasure."

His jaw worked as he slowly shook his head.

Casteel: "Kieran ... fuck, I thought he might actually punch me when he realized what I'd done. But her knew and ... The night in New Haven, when I came to your room, I didn't plan that. I wanted it. Gods, did I ever. It was all I could think about it seemed, and damn if that wasn't a fucking difference, but I didn't plan to do that with you when you had no idea who I was."

Poppy: "That's why you didn't want me to call you Hawke that night. I thought it was because that wasn't technically your name."

Casteel: "It's because you didn't know who that named was attached to."

Poppy: "I hated that you weren't honest with me then, but I don't regret it. I never did."

Casteel: "Don't say stuff like that."

Poppy: "Why?"

Casteel: "Because it makes me want to stop you naked and sink so deep in you that neither of us will know where we start and end."

Poppy: "What part did you want to be real?"

Casteel: "All of it."

Casteel: "You don't deserve everything that I've laid at your feet, and you sure as hell don't deserve the fact that I'm still trying to hold onto you. That when it comes time for you to leave, I'm still going to want you. Even when you inevitably do leave, I'll still want you."

Poppy: "It was the truth when I said you were the first thing I'd ever truly chosen for myself. It's also true that I chose you when you were just Hawke, and it's not just because you were the first person to ever really see me. That had something to do with it, of course, but if I wanted to experience pretty words or pleasure, I could've donned the mask once more and went back to the Red Pearl. I ... I wanted you."

Poppy: "I fell for you when you were Hawke, and I kept falling for you when you became Casteel."

Poppy: "It's you. It's me. It's us. What I feel? Like how I want to take your pain away and yet throttle you at the same moment? How your stupid dimples are infuriating, but I look for them every time you smile because I know that's a real smile. I don't know why I look forward to arguing with you, but I do. You're clever, and you are kinder than even you realize - even though I know you have earned the title of the Dark One. You are a puzzle I want to figure out, but at the same time, don't. And when I realized you have so many masks - so many layers, I kept wanting to peel them back, even though I fear it will only hurt more in the end."

Poppy: "Like how do I want to stab you and kiss you at the same time? And I know you said that I deserve to be with someone who didn't kidnap me, or someone I don't want to stab -"

Casteel: "Forget I said that. I have no idea what I was talking about. Maybe I didn't even say that."

My lips twitched

Poppy: "You totally said that."

Casteel: "You're right. I did. Forget it."

He lowered himself to his knees in front me me.

Casteel: "Your heart, Poppy? It is a gift I do not deserve. But it is one I will protect until my dying breath.

Casteel: "Don't cry."

He lifted my hand to his mouth and kissed the center of my palm.

Poppy: "I'm not crying. I'm not sad."

He grinned. The stupid dimple in his right cheek appeared.

Poppy: "I hate that stupid dimple."

Casteel: "You know what I think?"

He kissed the tip of my finger

Poppy: "I don't care."

The dimple in his left cheek appeared.

Casteel: "I think you feel the exact opposite when it comes to my stupid dimples."

Casteel: "Always. Your heart was always safe with me. It always will be. There is nothing I will protect more fiercely or with more devotion Poppy. Trust in that - in what you feel from me. In me."

I nodded

Poppy: "I don't want to pretend anymore."

Casteel: "Neither do I."

Casteel: "Penellaphe Balfour? Will you do me the honor or allowing me to one day become worthy of you? Will you marry me? Today?"

Poppy: "Yes. I will give you the honor of becoming my husband, because you're already worthy of me. I will marry you. Today."

Vonetta: "I here there's going to be a wedding today. One that Kieran is going to be so irritated he's not here for."

Poppy: "I sort of, kind of, wish he was too. Not that I'll ever admit that to him."

Vonetta: "You're about to marry the handsome, albeit annoying as hell, Prince of Atlantia, Penellaphe. And from what I've learned about you from my brother and Casteel, the Ascended have already stolen a lot of joy from you. Don't let them steal this."

Poppy: "I won't."

Hurrying to the bed, I picked up the wolven dagger and secured it around my thigh.

Vonetta: "Planning to stab him during the ceremony?"

Poppy: "Why does everyone act like I'm seconds away from stabbing Casteel?"

Vonetta: "Apparently, you have a habit of it."

Poppy: "I only stabbed him .... a few times."

I turned, fixing the skirt of the gown

Poppy: "The dagger was given to me by someone I care about. He was like a father to me, and in a way, he'll be with me when I do something he never thought I'd be able to do."

Casteel: "You look ... You look beautiful, Poppy. Absolutely ..."

A slow grin spread across his lips. The dimple in his right cheek appeared, and then the left. He dipped his head, his lips brushing against the shell of my ear as he spoke.

Casteel: "Am I seeing things, or is that your dagger strapped to your thigh?"

I grinned.

Poppy: "You're not seeing things."

Casteel: "You're an absolutely stunning, murderous little creature."

Casteel: "The line in your palm is believed to be the one connected to your heart. That is why the imprint is made there."

Poppy: "It's sort of beautiful."

Casteel: "It is."

Poppy: "That's ... that's really sad."

Casteel: "Some say all great love stories are."

Poppy: "Some people are stupid."

Casteel: "It's about us. Just you and me, and the tradition of sharing ourselves with one another."

Poppy: "Oh. Like .... sex?"

He stared at me

Casteel: "I really enjoy the way your mind words, but that's not exactly what I was talking about."

Poppy: "Well. This is awkward."

Casteel: "I really have a thing for you and little ridiculous straps."

He reached out, placing his hands on my ribs. He pulled the material taut against me.

Casteel: "And your breasts, but they are not ridiculous or little. Regardless, I have a thing for them too."

Poppy: "Thank you?"

I started to reach for the clasp of the necklace.

Casteel: "Leave it. And the dagger."

My brows raised

Poppy: "Seriously?"

Casteel: "When will you realize I speak the truth? It turns me on when you're armed with something sharp."

Poppy: "There's something so entirely wrong with you."

Casteel: "But you like what's wrong with me."

Poppy: "There is something wrong with me, too. Because I do."

His fingers trailed along my thigh, the ring around his finger cool against my skin.

Casteel: "There's a vein there, right along your leg, with all these little veins branching off. I'm thinking you'd really like that."

I shuddered

Poppy: "Will you do that now?"

Casteel: "I would, except I'm feeling incredibly archaic right now, and I want the world to see my fresh mark on your throat. And if the whole world saw that mark between your pretty thighs, I'd have to then kill the whole world."

He curled his hand in my hair, tipping my head back,

Casteel: "You have no idea how long I've waited to do this. To be inside you as I take a part of you inside me. To feel you come around my cock while I taste your blood on my tongue. It feels like forever."

Casteel: "It's official. I'm going to have to kill him."

My head whipped in his direction.

Poppy: "What?"

Casteel: "I don't like the way he looks at you."

Confused, I glanced back to where Emil was walking toward the stairwell.

Poppy: "How does he look at me?"

Casteel: "He looks at you like I do."

Poppy: "That's not true. You look at me like ..."

Casteel: "How do I look at you, Princess?"

Poppy: "You look at me like ... Like you want to eat me."

Casteel's eyes narrowed into thin slits as his gaze returned to Emil.

Casteel: "Exactly."

Poppy: "You are ..."

Casteel: "Devilishly handsome? Wickedly clever? Stunningly charismatic?"

Poppy: "That wasn't what I was going for. More like ridiculous."

Casteel: "Endearingly ridiculous."

Casteel: "I got by several names. The Dark One. Bastard. Prince Casteel Da'Neer. Call me whatever you like as long as you know it will be my voice that will be the last sound you hear."

Casteel: "Feisty. I like it."

Poppy: "I'm this close to shooting her in the face with an arrow."

Casteel: "I like that, too."

Quentyn: "You can't go down there! Casteel - I mean, the Prince will -"

Poppy: "Expect little else from me."

Poppy: "You're welcome. For saving your life."

Casteel: "Would this be an inappropriate time to let you know I'm incredibly turned on by you right now?"

Poppy: "Yes. Highly inappropriate."

Casteel: "Well, too bad. I find you highly arousing."

Casteel: "Let's kick some ass."

Poppy: "Let's."

Kieran nudged my hand again, and I opened it, revealing the golden mark and the ring on my finger.

Poppy: "Yeah. You missed it."

His ears perked as he looked over to where Casteel stood.

Casteel: "You missed a lot."

Casteel: "I'm furious, and yet, at the same time, I'm in awe. Because I know you would've done it. You would've killed yourself to save the lives of those who still stood. You would've done it to save me."

Poppy: "You don't sound like you're in awe."

Casteel: "That's because I don't want to be awed by something so incredibly reckless. And that's because I need you. I need to feel your lips on mine."

He planted his hands on the carriage wall, caging me in.

Casteel: "I need to feel your breath in my lungs. I need to feel your life inside me. I just need you. It's an ache. This need. Can I have you? All of you?"

Poppy: "This is so inappropriate."

Casteel: "I don't give a fuck."

Poppy: "You already have me."

Casteel: "I'm distracted. It's not my fault. You're naked."

Poppy: "You can't see anything."

Casteel: "What I can see is enough. So, I'm thoroughly distracted."

Poppy: "You being distracted sounds like your problem and not mine.

Poppy: "I know you wanted to marry me partly because it offered me a level of protection -"

Casteel: "Originally, Poppy. And that was only because I'd convinced myself that was the reason. It wasn't the only reason. Neither was freeing my brother or preventing a war. I wanted you, and I wanted to find a way to try to keep you."

Poppy: "You have me."

Casteel: "I know. And no one, not even my father or my mother, will change that."

Casteel: "Some say patience is a virtue."

Poppy: "Some deserve a punch in the face."

Poppy: "Are we sleeping here? The three of us?"

Kieran: "I was wondering when she was going to notice that."

Poppy: "Is it really necessary that the three of us sleep ... so close?"

Casteel: "Is it necessary for you to make it sound like we'd be doing something other than sleeping?"

When my gaze shot to him, he grinned

Casteel: "I mean, all we're doing is sleeping side by side."

He reclined back on one hand as the dimple appeared in his cheek

Casteel: "Unless you have a different idea. If so, I'm very curious to learn more about it, wife."

I stared at him as the mist seemed to still around us.

Poppy: "Did you forget I'm armed?"

Casteel: "Are you thinking about using it against me?"

In the glow of the fire, both dimples appeared.

Casteel: "If so, this sleeping arrangement may get very uncomfortable for Kieran."

I immediately thought of the Joining, and the humor dancing across Casteel's face was evidence that he knew where my mind had gone.

Kieran: "Or ... interesting."

Poppy: "I'm going to seriously hurt you both."

Casteel: "And I'm so very ... intrigued now."

I opened my mouth -

Kieran: "Please don't."

Poppy: "Don't what?"

Kieran: "Ask where every single god or goddess sleeps, because that will lead to more questions. I just know it will."

I rolled my eyes

Kieran: "You should be asleep like them, Your Highness."

Poppy: "Don't call me that."

Kieran: "Then go to sleep.:

Poppy: "I can't just fall asleep. I'm not like you two."

Casteel: "I can always read to you. I still have a certain diary with me. There is a chapter I'm sure you'll be interested in. Miss Willa has the same sleeping arrangement -"

Poppy: "No. Nope. Not necessary."

Kieran: "I really hope you two don't turn into one of those couples who are constantly whispering sweet nothings at one another."

My brows lifted

Casteel: "Since we've been married, she's already told me to shut up - how many times? I'm pretty sure she's threatened to stab or punch me since then, too."

I did not recall either of those things.

Kieran: "Well. That's good news."

Casteel: "But you're still going to hear me whisper things."

Casteel's lips brushed the healing bite mark

Casteel: "Just extremely dirty things."

Poppy: "Shut up."

Poppy: "Compulsions aside, you can't control everything."

Casteel: "Says who?"

Poppy: "Says me."

Casteel: "Well, you have me there. I can't control you. If I could, I suspect life would be easier, but I don't even want to try, to be honest. You keep things ... intriguing."

Casteel: "You have a beautiful smile. That and your laugh. And you ... you never laughed enough as it was, but when you did ..."

I closed my eyes

Casteel: "When you did, it was like the moment the damn mist finally cleared. Like when the first rays of sun break through the clouds after a heavy storm. Your laugh is as beautiful as your smile, and when I told you it was like hearing something familiar? It wasn't a lie."

Poppy: "His name was Leopold, but my mother called him Leo or ... or Lion."

Casteel: "Lion. I like that. It fits that a Lion would have such a fierce daughter."

Poppy: "I have so many questions."

Kieran: "There is not a single person surprised to hear that."

Casteel: "Just remember that this -"

He picked up my left hand and turned it over

Casteel: " - is real. We're real. No matter what."

I stared down at the dazzling gold swirl on my palm.

Poppy: "No matter what."

Poppy: "I'm not your enemy, but you're quickly becoming mine."

Check out the rest of the Blood & Ash Series, and expect upcoming news for the next installment!

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