Friday, February 8, 2019

The Crown Prince's Perspective

 WARNING: SPOILERS FOR BOOK 1!!

In anticipation for Viperous, book 3 of The Marked Mage Chronicles, I'm giving readers a little taste of the Crown Prince's perspective, in the form of a re-telling. 

[This takes place in Insidious, from the time Kat ignites her Pride rune up until the end of the make-out session between Kat and Blaine in the weightlifting room, told from the Crown Prince's perspective.]


Disclaimer: Contains strong language and suggestive content.

***
I am a dead man.
The thought keeps replaying in my head, again, and again, and again, and again.
Kat is going to murder me.
Steam fogs the mirror, and I’m glad, running a towel through my damp hair. I don’t have to face my reflection just yet. The walls in this joint are soundproof, so the entire suite should be my sanctuary, but Raelynd, along with all his cronies, keep coming in and out of here like it’s a fucking train station. The only time everyone will leave me alone is when I’m in the bathroom, so I sit on the marble countertop, my legs dangling off the front, the surface still cool despite the humid air from the shower.
God, I can’t wait to get out of here. Between the 1920s-styled furniture and the fact that everything in this fucking place is either red or black, I feel like Cruella De Vil could stroll in at any moment. It’s not that I don’t like The Hideaway, but after being cooped up this long, I’ve got some serious cabin fever here. With no other objective, I forfeit my restraint and scroll through image after image on my phone.
Kat hasn’t posted anything on social media since she moved to Maine. Any of the recent pictures of her are from other users’ accounts, all group shots of fellow classmates or publicity stills from the latest gala. And every last image makes a spot inside my chest ache. Sure, Kat’s smiling, but anyone paying a lick of attention can see that her jaw is always slightly clenched, a painful effort to keep the manufactured smile in place.
These pictures don’t do her justice.
It doesn’t matter who she is posing with. Family, friends, her now-ex-boyfriend (even when they were “happy” together). They all look the same. Every last image contains that strained smile, and her eyes always look like she’s silently pleading to the photographer for help, as if someone is holding a gun to her back.
That’s what this town does to people.
Mystic Harbor weaponized social media. Nobody posts anything around here without purpose. Every picture, every post, every sentence, every word has twenty layers of subtext, all meant to kiss ass with the right people and diss sworn enemies. Everybody is more concerned about documenting their proof that they’re at #TheBestPartyEver than they are with actually enjoying said party.
That’s what I love about Kat. Before moving to town, Kat posted to social media regularly. She spent four years living abroad at some private school in England, and based on the pictures she posted from her time there, it’s clear the girl has no problem making fun of herself. Half of Kat’s posts were self-deprecating, mainly with photos of her and her friends making goofy faces at the camera. The rest were pictures of her travels, her favorite places clearly being London and Edinburgh. And every image captures a brilliant, legitimate smile.
The moment Kat moved to Mystic Harbor, she stopped posting, because she’s not interested in playing “the game.” The only recent photos that I see her sporting a real smile are the ones when she’s with Caroline Harper, better known by her nickname, Carly. The two are best friends, and I can see why. She’s one of only two people I know Kat is comfortable being around. Nathan Reynolds, her ex’s father, used to be one of them, but I highly doubt he still is. Kat’s been doing everything humanly possible to keep her distance from him since she learned he was a Reaper, leaving only Carly and me on that very limited list of people she trusts.
I know, I know. It sounds pretentious. But honestly, it’s not. Kat is easy to read, so long as you’re paying attention. Anytime someone touches her for more than a brief instance, her body instinctively recoils. When someone puts their hand on Kat’s back, she arches forward, trying to minimize the contact. When someone hugs her, she goes as rigid as a lead pipe.
The townsfolk in good old Mystic Harbor are the human equivalent of black mold. They all hide behind pleasant veneers, encouraging you to stay, to trust in them, to feel comfortable. You breathe in their lies and their false praises and their machinations, and only when it’s too late do you realize what they are. Toxic. These people you confided in, turned to for help, are nothing more than two-faced sycophants, readily willing to throw you to the wolves so long as it serves themselves best.
But my darling Kat caught on quickly. She treats these parasites with the wariness they deserve, like their very touch will taint her. One look at Kat, and you can tell the simplest contact makes her skin crawl. Unless it’s from Carly or me.
While she silently tries to wriggle her way out of anyone else’s hold, she welcomes my embrace. When I put my arm around her, she nestles herself against me. When I put my hand on her back, she leans into it. When she smiles at me, her entire face lights up.
And I have proof.
I search through my phone for the video in question.
The sound of waves greets me before the image on the screen comes into focus, and I can hear Kat laugh. It’s nighttime, but between the moon and the bioluminescent blue glow of the ocean, I can see her clearly.
Devil’s Bay has been my favorite place to escape to since I was little. I’d never taken anyone else there, until that night. The very first night we met. The fantastical glow of the water as it crashes against the rocks is the exact color of an ignited rune. The air always crackles with an unseen energy, the static clinging all around you. I’ve always felt it, but that night—
It was something else entirely. 
The image on my phone shows Kat just as she gives a playful shriek, burying her face into my chest, purposely turning her head from view of the camera.
“Oh, don’t be shy,” I tease, switching the phone to my other hand. The moment she sees the phone again, she pushes away, still laughing.
“As you said, it’s illegal for us to even be out here. I don’t need you having proof of me committing a felony,” Kat chuckles, moving every which way. She’s trying to avoid the camera from focusing well enough so that I can’t get a clear picture of her.
She didn’t know I’d actually been filming the entire time.
The skirts of her dress whip about her legs in the ocean breeze. Her feet are bare (as she had hurled her shoes into the water moments before), and the upper half of her body is concealed beneath the dark blazer I’d wrapped around her shoulders.  
One step from me easily eats up two of hers, and in half a dozen paces, I’ve caught up, capturing her with my free hand. She’s enmeshed in my hold as I pull her up against me, and fuck me, she’s gorgeous. The phone isn’t centered anymore, my attention focused only on her. All the screen shows is the ground, the waves stretching out closer to us as if trying to reach our feet. Even so, I can still see Kat clear as day in my mind. The way she bites her lower lip, the way she gazes up at me with those gorgeous two-toned eyes, the way her body melds into mine.
“I’d never let anything happen to you,” I can hear myself say softly over the crashing waves.
She laughs again. “Promise?”
“Promise.”
I can almost feel her fingers running through the back of my hair again.
And just as I savor the sensation, the screen shows the same blinding light I remember all too well.
“Hey, you!” a distant voice barks.
A patrol officer.
But he’s too far away.
I grab Kat’s hand, and the video footage jostles furiously as we take off running. Still, she’s laughing.
The screen freezes as the video ends, and any relief I found in watching the recording is gone as that singular thought still plays over and over in my head.
She’s going to murder me.
Kat is going to murder me.
There isn’t enough sugarcoating in the world to make this situation sound any better than it really is.
The steam has dissipated enough from the mirror, so when I glance in it, a stranger is looking back at me. The sight only makes the point register harder.
I run the towel through my hair, still unable to get past the color. I’m blonde.
Fucking blonde.
When you’ve spent eighteen years of your life with the same hair color, the familiarity of it all becomes oddly comforting. Blue eyes, black hair. They’re the staples of my appearance, the things I naturally anticipate seeing when I look in the mirror.
Sure, this bleached-blonde asshole still has my eyes, but that single change to my hair makes my reflection seem somehow foreign to me. It wasn’t like I had a choice in the matter either. Apparently, when everyone believes you to be dead, it can “upset” people if they happen to see you walking around town. Go figure. And with my recent (though limited) excursions back up to Mystic Harbor, the Boss thought it rather necessary I make a few changes to my appearance, just to be safe. The idea that a new hair color would make any difference seemed ridiculous at the time, because it’s not like such a thing changes your face, but staring back at myself, I now know Raelynd had a point.
Ever since my cousin dyed it for me yesterday, I keep doing double-takes at myself any time I pass a reflective surface. Lila said it gave me a “Ryan Gosling circa The Place Beyond the Pines vibe.” Right about now, knowing how furious Kat will be with me, I feel more like Jared Leto in Fight Club, just before Edward Norton beats the ever-living shit out of him, because I have a feeling that’s exactly what Kat will do to me the moment I tell her the truth. She’s going to pummel my face, bash my teeth in, and make me eat them before she leaves me on the floor in a bloody heap.
There’s no good way to spin this.
A very, very stupid part of me initially thought there was, as if this whole debacle was like some sappy romance movie. You know the story. A beautiful young woman meets a handsome stranger with a mysterious past, they fall in love, she learns he’s secretly a prince to some tiny European country no one’s ever heard of (where the residents all conveniently speak with English accents, hah!), she’s pissed at him for lying to her, yada-yada, he makes a grand romantic gesture, and all’s well.
Only problem: I’m not Hugh Grant, or Jude Law, or even British! I’m the Crown Prince of the fucking Underworld, so there’s nothing “charming” or “whimsical” about any of this. Not to mention the other elephant in the room: I’m not dead! There’s no coming back from that. I don’t care how charismatic you are. I’ve seen Friends, and things didn’t turn out so well for Ross when he pretended to be dead, now did it? No. Because it fucks with people’s heads. When a girl cries at your goddamn funeral, it’s not like you can just pop back into her life and happily announce that you’ve returned from the grave.
Yep, Kat is going to murder me.
And my brother is loving every fucking minute of this.
When I exit the bathroom, draping the towel from my still-wet hair around my shoulders, he’s lounging on a nearby settee of the suite’s living room, like he owns the fucking place. “Ready to hit the road there, Romeo?”
“Excuse me?”
“I told Raelynd about your little sweetie igniting her Pride rune. And seeing as how that makes it five-out-of-seven in the sins count, she’s only got one more to commit before you’re allowed to swoop in, sweep her off her feet, and bridal-carry her to bed. The Boss wants you on standby, so you can seal the deal when the time comes. The faster, the better,” says Val. “You’re heading up to Haven Crest Manor as soon as you’re ready to leave, so get your ass packed.”
At long last, some good news.
Apart from my occasional jailbreak, I’ve spent the past two weeks trapped in the backrooms of The Hideaway. Sure, the suite Raelynd set me up in is nice (really nice, if I’m being honest), but a decked-out prison cell is still a prison cell. All I want is to go to Kat, even if I’m only able to watch her from a distance. Yes, I know I sound like a stalker, but with the likes of Reynolds and Blackburn sniffing around, you can never be too careful. Adam’s father is aching to put a bullet in her, and Blackburn—
Well, let’s just say he wants to put in something very different.
Seriously, what an asshole. For as long as I’ve known Kat, Reese Blackburn has treated her like shit. So why were the two of them cozying up with each other at that restaurant? She must have felt something towards the guy, because I felt the rune flare up on her hand. Even if she didn’t do anything intimate with him, there still had to be some level of attraction there.
I’m not going to lie and say it doesn’t hurt that she already seems to be moving on, especially so soon after my “death.” And with Reese Blackburn no less. I mean, honestly, what the fuck?
Adam Reynolds, I can understand. They have history. But Reese?
My train of thought is interrupted yet again by my brother who for some unknown reason won’t take a hint and just shut the fuck up. He’s having too much fun, like a deranged ten-year-old watching an ant fry under a magnifying glass.
It doesn’t need to be said who the ant is.
Kat will murder me, and Val knows it.
“So,” he says, drawing the word out for far too long, “how exactly do you plan on handling this, you know, when you see your precious little sweetie again?”
I don’t spare him a glance as I head to the bedroom and collect my luggage. I didn’t bother to unpack anything, for this very reason. “I’m going to tell her the truth.”
Val laughs.
And laughs.
And laughs.
The fucker is laughing so hard, he’s crying.
Good to know his tear ducts still work at least. Even with his emotions turned off, he apparently never lost his sense of humor.
I glare at him, waiting for the inevitable explanation on his end, but he takes another look at me and enters into a new bout of hysterics.
“What?” I demand.
He pinches the bridge of his nose, as if it’ll help subdue his laugh. It doesn’t. I can barely make out his next words amid his breathy chuckles. “Good luck with that.”
“Again, what?
It takes another minute for him to relax enough that he’s actually coherent. “You’ll be lucky to get within five feet of her without attacking the poor girl.”
Attack? “I’d never hurt Kat.”
“That’s not what I mean.” He gives me a pointed look, like he’s annoyed, but that shit-eating grin says otherwise. “Her performance in the Great Rite is meant to prove or disprove she’s your mate. And so far, she’s performed each of the seven deadly sins in the exact same order as you did, which is a damn good sign. Only problem here is, she’s saving the best sin for last. The moment she performs an act of greed, she’s gonna be like a dog in heat. Your curse is lust for a reason. As soon as you catch the scent of your mate, you’re gonna maul her. Hell, past princes could barely contain themselves, even the ones not bestowed with your title. Give them their mate, and they turn into animals.”
Please tell me he’s fucking kidding.
I wait and wait and wait for him to laugh, or roll his eyes, or scowl, or do something to tell me that he’s just screwing with me, but that shit-eating grin isn’t budging, and his eyes flash with the worse expression known to mankind: triumph. Because he knows he’s right. He knows I’m fucked.
Thanks for the heads-up, Raelynd.
You’d think your boss would mention such a thing, gee I don’t know, right at the fucking start! Shouldn’t that be like Mate 101? Why am I only hearing about this now? And from Val of all people? He doesn’t have a mate, has never had a mate, has never gone through the Great Rite, and yet he knows everything I don’t (but should). I’m the odd man out, and panic is seizing my lungs and my heart and my head, making it feel like a fucking Steinway just fell on top of me.
I am royally fucked, and not in the good way.
“I like to think I have a bit more self-control than that.” It’s all I can muster up to say, and thank Christ my voice comes out flat. I sound more annoyed by him rather than terrified by the information he’s just dropped on me.
Now I know why so many princes end up mateless. Sure, they have “spouses” or “partners,” but it isn’t the same. Kat is going to hate me, and I’m an asshole, and I may very well vomit.
Like salt in an open wound, my arm aches as a low vibration builds. But the rune’s activation isn’t from me. And since all I have on is a pair of sweats, Val can see the faint light glowing on my arm.
Greed.
Kat just broke the sixth seal.
Val drums his hands on his legs, practically giddy, before springing up from his seat. “Well, well, well. Looks like you’re up.”
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuuuuuuck—
“What’re you waiting for?” My brother reaches into one of my bags and tosses out a shirt and a pair of pants at me. “Get dressed, dumbass. Or don’t. Whatever you think is easiest.”
He casts me another shit-eating grin as he closes the bag and grabs every last piece of luggage. Before I can so much as move, Val’s already out the door, no doubt ready to tattle to the boss.
Fuck.
Me.

***
I’ve been on the road for maybe twenty minutes, and my heart is racing, and the car feels too small, and the uneasiness coiling around in my stomach makes me feel like I digested a fucking cobra as every cell in my body is screaming!
It’s crying out at me like I’m racing against an invisible clock, against a deadline that doesn’t exist. As much as I’m dreading having to face the music here, I can’t shake this dreaded sense of urgency. And the feeling only gets worse. With every passing second, this nameless anxiety suffocates me from within. My foot slams down on the accelerator, speed limits be damned. A whole two minutes pass before my foot switches pedals. Tires squeal, and I make no effort to brace myself from the force as the car shrieks to a stop on the empty stretch of road.
My hand is vibrating, and the rune atop it glows, faintly at first, but its intensity grows and grows and grows, and I’m not breathing.
Lust.
Kat just broke the final seal—
And it wasn’t with me.
My grip on the steering wheel tightens to the point that I may very well tear it off.
The only way she could ignite it to this degree is if she’s on the verge of having sex, and fuck me, the rune only gets brighter. My hand is shaking, and it’s not just from the vibrations.
My mate.
Someone has his hands on my mate, doing God only knows what to her, and I don’t need to be a fucking detective to figure out who. I read the report Maddox handed me earlier. Kat’s ex, Adam, is working at his father’s bar tonight. And since she was turned into a Changeling, Kat has been trying to avoid that asshole like the plague, leaving only one other possibility.
Reese Blackburn.
What the fuck is she thinking?
How could she trust him?
Maybe she has brain damage…
What if I didn’t heal her well enough after the car accident and it caused some residual effect? Anything less than that, anything less than Kat being properly concussed, I can’t wrap my head around it. Even if the guy underwent a complete personality transplant, that wouldn’t explain why Kat is buying into any of Reese’s bullshit. If anything, his behavior should be raising red flags left and right. And my mate doesn’t suffer fools gladly. So why isn’t she suspicious of him?
Could he have done something to her? Hexed her?
That magnetic pull centered in my chest jerks me forward so hard I wince. The mating bond is going ballistic, thrashing against my insides, desperate to reach her, to stop whatever is happening from reaching its inevitable conclusion. The only thing preventing me from prying Blackburn off my mate and beating his face into a fucking pulp is distance.
Without thinking, I hit the gas pedal again, as if I actually have a prayer of getting to them in time. Unless Blackburn’s idea of foreplay takes well over an hour, I’m fucked. But I don’t stop.
I could cry from sheer relief as the rune abruptly peters out not ten seconds later.
She didn’t go through with it.
I wait, and wait, and wait for it to reenact, but it doesn’t. Whatever Kat was just doing with Blackburn has stopped for the time being. I want to scream and holler and do a fucking victory dance, but I don’t want to jinx it. My luck is rotten enough as it is, and I don’t want to give that bitch, better known as Karma, the opportunity to stick it to me.
My phone inevitably rings, and sure enough, it’s Val.
“You didn’t sprout wings or learn how to teleport by any chance, did you?” he says by way of greeting. “Because I just got a very, very curious call from Maddox, from a landline no less, telling me about a certain blood moon suddenly appearing, not to mention freakish power outages. And seeing as how that shouldn’t be possible unless you’re currently getting down and dirty with your mate—”
“If I was with her right now, why the fuck would I stop to talk to you?” I look up at where the moon should be positioned, but the cloud coverage is too thick to see it. “And what does a blood moon have to do with anything?”
I can practically feel Val’s eyes roll through the phone. “The Great Rite,” he over-enunciates. “You know, that little thing that triggers an unholy amount of energy, causes Hellhounds to lose their shit—”
My blood’s boiling from panic and rage, but his sentence turns it to ice. “What?”
Again, why am I only hearing about this NOW?!
I’m about to lose my shit, and Val must sense it, because he sounds annoyed when he asks, “If you knew this ahead of time, would you have gone through with the plan?”
Is he fucking serious?
When I don’t answer, he just sighs. “My point exactly.”
Since being turned into a Hellhound a few weeks back, Daniel has been keeping to his usual agenda, as to not draw any unnecessary attention. And if that’s the case tonight—
He’s with all our friends.
I don’t bother waiting for Val to finish whatever he’s saying, hanging up and dialing Daniel’s cell. He’s not answering. The gas pedal is damn near touching the ground as I floor it down the abandoned country roads. I know the rules. I’m not supposed to have contact with anybody from my past, seeing as how I’m “dead,” but fuck it.
I dial Mark McDowell, praying he’ll answer. Nothing.
Same with Carly, Eric, Kelsey, and Vanessa.
What did Val say? Maddox called from a ‘landline’? If the Great Rite fucked with electrical equipment, it didn’t seem too outlandish that it could do the same with cell service. Hell, I’ve witnessed such things on a smaller scale, so it seems plausible. And it’s the only reassurance I can cling to in this moment, because if Daniel wolfs out on anyone—
My cell rings.
Thank Christ.
It’s him (Daniel, not Jesus).
“Y’ello,” he answers way too enthusiastically.
“Where are you?”
“Oh, the usual. Just hangin’ out, decorating the old gym for Homecoming.” His voice is eerily chipper, setting off every alarm in my head, but I can hear Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” playing in the background, along with a feminine laugh. Could it be Carly?
I try pressing him for information, but the asshole is being vague, at best, and half his words are eaten away with wave after wave of static. If by some miracle he hasn’t felt the surge of energy from the Great Rite enacting, I can hopefully avoid a bloodbath. “I don’t care what you’re doing. You need to find Kat. Now,” I demand. “And by no means is she to be harmed. I’m on my way.”
“On your way?” He laughs, no doubt at my expense. “Oooooh, that sucks.”
“Excuse me?”
“Come on, man. It doesn’t take a genius to know what’s going on. Your pretty little mate checked off the last sin on her list, and seeing as how you’re clearly not with her at the moment—”
“Just. Find. Her,” I growl.
And all too smoothly he says, “Oh, I have it on good authority she’ll be coming to me.”
Before I can say another word, the call cuts out.
Fuck!

***
I should be relieved to see the Welcome to Mystic Harbor sign come into view, but I’m too panicked, too angry, and about two seconds away from ramming the minivan in front of me off the road. I’ve been stuck behind this asshole for twenty fucking minutes, and his driving is getting worse with every mile we go. He’s not paying any attention to the road, too wrapped up in his phone conversation to realize that other people actually exist outside of his car, even as I lay on my horn for the billionth time. His cell is pressed to his ear, and he’s driving fifteen miles under the speed limit. But I can’t pass the fucker, because his car keeps drifting over the lines, rumbling right down the middle of the street.
To make matters worse, Kat’s runes had been going on-and-off for over a half hour straight, until abruptly stopping. Daniel’s done something to her. I can feel it. The only thing keeping me together is the police scanner in the car as a voice issues an APB over the radio. It’s for Reese Blackburn! Had that been what stopped him and Kat earlier? Was he arrested? If he was, then there must be a God, because the idea of that asshole locked up and sent as far away from Kat as possible has put a smile on my face.
At long last, I reach the school. There aren’t any vehicles in the front lot, so I head to the back of the building, immediately seeing a slew of cars, one of which is a pickup truck whose body is marred with more rust than paint.
Blackburn’s.
Before I even reach an available parking space, Daniel waltzes out from behind a white cargo van, flagging me down. I pull up into the closest spot and shut off the engine before meeting him.
The side of Daniel’s face bears an angry patch of burnt skin, and still, he is looking way too happy.
“Got a present for ya’, Boss.” He saunters over to the back of the van.
The door’s already open, and there inside lays Reese fucking Blackburn.
His shoulder looks like a shark’s chew toy, his wrist is mangled, and he has a welt on the side of his forehead. He’s unconscious, but still breathing.
“We knocked him out after we nabbed your girl.” Daniel pulls out a switchblade, beaming from ear and ear, offering me the handle. “Would you like to do the honors?”
Yes.
“No,” I say. “Dump him outside the police station, alive. They’ll know what to do with him.”
Daniel frowns. “Going soft on us?”
I slam the van’s dual doors shut. “I’m already in the doghouse with the Missus as it is. I don’t think homicide will be winning me any brownie points,” I say. “Blackburn’s a person of interest in a murder, so it’s not like he’ll be getting in our way.”
I wait for Daniel to leave, but he doesn’t. Instead, he’s giving instructions to two assholes I’ve never met before and telling them to do what I just ordered of him.
Daniel reads the look on my face and holds up his hands like I might shoot him.
I’m seriously thinking about it.
“Your brother said not to leave you alone.”
“You don’t work for my brother,” I have to point out.
“No, but we all work for Raelynd, and he’s the one who handed the order down to Val, who gave it to me.” Daniel motions for me to follow him just as the van takes off down the road.
I am going to murder my brother.
I need to talk to Kat. I need to try to explain myself, and I can’t do it with an audience.
We’re closer to the gym, but Daniel makes a point to bypass it, leading us to the front of the building instead.
I’m almost expecting Daniel to start belting out a show tune as he prances through the entrance and up the main staircase like he’s Gene fucking Kelly. Meanwhile, heat gathers deep inside my chest, only a flicker at first, but the sensation just keeps growing with every step I take, bringing me closer to Kat (and closer to vomiting).
Everything I need to say can’t be said, not with Daniel here. Worse yet, there’s more and more guards standing at attention as we finally make it to the third floor. They don’t say anything. They just nod.
And fuck me. They’re too close.
The hallway’s pin-drop quiet, and though a Hellhound’s hearing isn’t as acute as it is when they’re in wolf-form, we will still likely be in earshot of them all.
Run.
Run, you idiot!
If that didn’t mean leaving Kat alone with the likes of Daniel, I’d honestly do it. But I’ve built up a carefully constructed reputation, and I need to keep my men inline.
Sad thing about reputations: they can be destroyed in a moment. And having these guys overhear the confession of some lovesick sap with a bleeding heart would do exactly that.
Our kind has a history of living fast and dying young, but that won’t be me. That won’t be us. I’m the asshole you don’t mess with. And if you don’t mess with me, then you don’t mess with my mate.
It’s that simple.
Daniel strolls over to the door on our left, the hinges creaking as he pushes it open.
The old weightlifting room.
“Aww, look who’s awake,” he announces, sauntering inside.
Yep, it’s official.
I’m fucked.
The moment I head in after him, I can see a girl standing beneath one of the pull-up bars, her hands cuffed to a metal rod above her head, but—
That can’t be Kat. Her mother had freaked out when she wore Blackburn’s jacket to the country club. No way in Hell would Kat ever dare leave the house dressed like that. In the low overhead lights, I can still see the leather getup. Next to her, resting on a fold-up chair, is a vintage jacket, the shoulders and arms decked out with metal spikes—the same spikes of which line the tops of her heeled shoes.
Christ, those things could take out an eye.
Likely my eye, if things go as badly as I suspect.
Even with the heat surging to life in my chest with every slow step I take, I can’t bring myself to admit it. That can’t be her… Please, please don’t let it be her.
My gaze roams up from the girl’s feet. Hell, even her pants are leather, and they hug her curves to perfection. I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve stared at my mate’s body more than “a little,” and…this girl looks like her. A lot. There’s a black sack covering her head, so I can’t see her face, but the Sex Pistols top she’s wearing doesn’t have sleeves, and this girl’s arms are bare. No runes.
Only—
Her hair.
Even with that sack over her head, long tendrils of pale blonde hair still fall down her back and over her shoulders.
No.
No.
No.
No!
I look at Daniel, and I want to wring his neck.
My mate, chained and shackled.
Daniel just rolls his eyes. “Oh, lighten up. Where else was I gonna put her?”
Unfortunately, he has a point.
“Besides, she’s perfectly fine. Arent’cha, Kat Nip?” He continues his little prance over to her, dragging a finger under her chin. She immediately kicks out her legs, daring to strike him. If he were human, she would have. His reflexes spare him by millimeters as he cowers back with a laugh.
“Screw you!”
There’s no mistaking that voice.
It’s her.
I look back up at the bare left arm chained above her head. The runes may not be visible, but I can still sense the magnetism pulsing from her. She’s likely using the same tattoo-concealer other Mages like to wear as to not draw attention to themselves in public.
“Such poor manners,” Daniel croons, “especially when I come bearing a gift for you.”
“Unless it’s a gun for me to shoot you in the face with, I’m not interested,” she snarls.
“Oh, I beg to differ.” He reaches up, tugging on the top of the sack covering her head. It resists at first, but eventually, it lifts.
Heaven help me.
She’s gorgeous.
That good-girl debutante persona, the girl hiding behind cardigans and black credit cards, is gone. Red paints those perfect lips, and the dark makeup around her eyes only enhances the two-toned color of her irises. I’ve never seen her look like this before.
She winces for a moment, unable to use her bound-up hands to shield her eyes as they adjust to the light. Kat takes a quick survey of the room, no doubt settling on her reflection across the way. The long, thin room is mostly empty now, save for some boxes and leftover gym equipment, but the continuous section of full-length mirrors still lines the opposing wall. She doesn’t look the least bit surprised by her surroundings. Her eyes narrow in frustration, and she even gives her wrists another futile yank, as if it’ll make any difference.
It doesn’t.
But any anger she has vanishes…the moment her eyes land on me.
Kat’s shoulders go slack, those gorgeous eyes go wide, and I’m pretty sure the handcuffs are the only things keeping her upright, because her knees look like they might give out. She just keeps blinking, as if I must be a figment of her imagination.
Shell-shocked, Kat’s emotions somehow alert her subconscious to throw up her defenses, because it’s like an invisible barrier has slammed down right in front of me, blocking out any chance I have of hearing her thoughts. Plus, I’m not close enough to use clairsentience so that I can at least determine which emotions she’s feeling, and I’m not taking a chance getting closer, because I’m terrified Val may be right. One scent of her, and I might lose it. But God knows I need to learn what’s going on in that beautiful brain of hers.
She does one better.
She says my name.
It takes everything in me not to go to her, and hold her in my arms, and promise her that it’s all going to be okay, because the shock of everything has made her forget herself. Every emotion is written across her exquisite face, because of all things, she smiles, even if only slightly.
She’s happy to see me.                      
But the longer she takes in the image of me, the wider her eyes grow and the more frantic her breathing becomes, almost to the point of hysteria.
Shit.
Between my recently-dyed hair and the different clothes, not to mention the fact I’m supposed to be dead, I know the sight of me is a lot to take in. But the gears in her head are turning to all the worst (and accurate) conclusions. I can already tell.
Say something!
Anything!
All I can manage is, “Hey, Kit Kat.” Something about the pet name always makes me smile, and even now, I can’t fight it back to anything less than a grin.
Her chest is damn-near heaving, and I can see the hands locked above her head are shaking ever so slightly. I want to say something else, but she turns from me, looking instead to Daniel.
“What the hell is this?” she demands.
He doesn’t miss a beat, gesturing towards me like I’m a luxury car being presented at an auto show. “Your present, of course,” he croons. “Don’t you like it?”
Her mouth opens, but she shuts it just as quickly.
Come on, Kat. Say it. You do like it. This, right here, is exactly what you wished for out on that balcony. It’s what enacted your Envy rune back at the country club. I heard your thoughts: ‘More than anything, I wanted to go back to a time before I’d inadvertently killed the nicest guy I’d met in this godforsaken town.’
I’m here.
I’m alive.
Please, just say it.
Say you missed me.
But I’m not an idiot. She won’t say that. Not in front of Daniel, and not while she still has no idea what’s going on.
I need to help her along, perhaps prod her a little in the right direction. “You seem surprised, and reasonably so, but I thought for sure you’d be happy to see me again,” I say, my voice surprisingly smooth.
“How is this possible? You… I mean, the police reports… You were decapitated,” she stutters.
Daniel shoots me a grin, and fuck me, it’s like having the barrel of a gun aimed at my head, because I have no choice but to play along. I need to play the role of the dutiful asshole. I have no other choice but to smile back.
“We have what you’d call, ‘friends in low places,’” Daniel says.
“Not to mention a few members of the police force in our pockets to fudge some facts,” I add. “With the way death is treated around here, it’s best to convince everyone that you won’t be coming back, especially with the likes of Reynolds snooping around. And nothing sounds more absolute than beheading.”
Come on, Kat. Take the bait. Give me a chance to explain this. Really explain this.
“Where’s Reese?” she growls instead. “What did you do to him?”
Are you fucking kidding me?
Blackburn?!
She just learned I’m not dead, and that’s the first thought she has? What the hell can she possibly see in this guy? He’s a fucking tool!
It takes everything in me not to roll my eyes, and I’m seriously beginning to regret my decision not to kill him back in the van.
Instead, I cast her what I can only hope to be a smile. I feel more like I might be snarling. “We took care of him.”
Why the hell did I just say that? ‘Took care of him’? What am I, in a Scorsese film?!
By the look on Kat’s face, she apparently thinks my so-called “return from the grave” has turned me into a 40’s mobster, because the unbridled horror scribed over every inch of her face makes it clear that she thinks I hacked Blackburn up into tiny bits and fed him to Daniel.
I want to drive my head into the fucking wall.
But the idiot next to me evidently finds this whole thing to be hysterical, because Daniel just snickers and grins and laughs some more, only letting Kat’s imagination drum up even worse scenarios.
At last, he sighs. “Relax, Kitty Kat. Not like that. The Boss thought it would be in poor taste to start your new union together by offing your previous beau. Even if it is Blackburn.” He pauses, tilting his head as his eyes linger down her frame. “You really do have lousy taste in men, don’t you?”
I have to get him out of this room. Daniel is relishing in her fear, and I know what I have to do, but I also know that it requires scaring her even more.
So I click my tongue, forcing my voice into a casual drawl. To my surprise, it comes out fairly convincing as I croon, “Now, now. No reason to be mean. I’m on that list too, remember.”
“I, for one, have to admit. I’m quite impressed with you,” Daniel says, crooking a finger at Kat. “I mean, I always knew you had tenacity, but this?”
Thank God my hands are already shoved in the pockets of my jacket, because the way his eyes keep roaming over my mate, I can’t control the fury boiling up in me as my fingers curl into fists. I’m about to drive one of them into his face, seeing him reach out his hand for her again. But Kat beats me to it, snapping her teeth at his fingers with such wildness that it causes Daniel to jump back with a laugh.
Good girl.
“That’s the spirit,” Daniel applauds her. “I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure what the Boss saw in you at first, but I stand corrected. Quite the little fighter you are. You just might make a fine, ferocious princess after all.”
Her body shudders in response, and I suddenly feel my stomach in my throat.
“Who did this to you?” Kat demands, finally looking back at me.
“Did what?”
“Dyed your hair,” she mocks. “What’d you think? Who turned you?”
Turned?
At last, the truth dawns on me.
I smile, albeit a bit forced. “I have what you might call a…preexisting condition.”
“Meaning what?”
She really doesn’t understand what’s going on here.
I can’t fight back my grin anymore at the revelation.
I still stand a chance of correcting this.
“You’re a smart girl, Kat,” I say. “Figure it out.”
She looks a bit confused at first, but I know when reality has finally settled in, because her face falls. “No.”
“Afraid so,” I admit.                   
“But you can’t be. I know your parents,” she exclaims. “Our moms play tennis together for crying out loud!”
“Being a ‘mom’ doesn’t necessarily make a woman a mother, if you catch my drift.” Truer words haven’t been spoken.
“Adopted?”
“As I suspect you’re already familiar with.” Kat didn’t exactly go out of her way to hide her recent discovery, leaving her blood test results from the hospital on her bedroom desk. I have a feeling she wanted one of her parents to see it. I mean, a mother and a father both with O-blood types, and a daughter with B? Anyone with two brain cells to rub together could figure out this anomaly. And yet, her snooping mother hadn’t given the documents a second glance this morning. Is she really that dense, or is she just as self-absorbed as my own mom to not notice her daughter’s torment? My fists clench tighter, but I press on. “And to think, my folks were so happy at first, having an adorable bundle of joy that never cried. It wasn’t until a bit later that they realized the wiring upstairs just wasn’t quite right,” I say, tapping the side of my head for good measure.
“But…how? You guys aren’t exactly what you’d call upstanding citizens.” Of all things, it sounds like she might laugh. “You’re more like gremlins on crack.”
“Years of practice on my part. Clinically, I’m what you’d call a sociopath,” I say, the lie rolling off my tongue. “See, demonic entities such as myself still feel emotion. Our range just isn’t very expansive. And the pesky ones we can just turn off.”
I make my way closer to her, and holy fuck—
The scent hits me like a freight train, so rich and sweet there’s nothing I can think of that could compare. One inhale and I know I’m damned. Because that’s all it takes to wash away any semblance of sense in my head.
The closer I get, she cowers back until her spine meets the wall.
I bite back my frustration, fixing my iniquitous mask in place.
“Awww, what’s the matter, pumpkin?” I croon, brushing my fingers down the curve of her jaw.
She writhes away, her entire body shuddering in response to my touch. That simple act feels like a knife to the gut.
She’s not supposed to be afraid of me. I’m not going to hurt her. She should know that…
And still, I have to play the role of an asshole.
“Don’t be like that. I don’t bite,” I say, forcing an unwarranted smile onto my face. “Well, not hard anyway. Not when I mean to play nice.”
The sight evidently repulses her, because she can’t even look at me, turning her focus once again to Daniel.
“Slippery little thing she is. Thanks, man,” he says.
It’s only then that I realize he’s on the phone. “Dare I ask?”
He shoots the two of us an award-winning smile as he tucks his cell back into his jacket. “Hate to walk out on this precious little reunion, but the boys think they spotted my girl. And I’m positively dying to sink my teeth into her.”
“Your girlfriend, or more presumably your ex,” I correct, “is hardly the priority here.”
“Why?” he laughs. “Are you kids in need of a chaperone?”
I’m torn between keeping him here or letting him go. On the one hand, if he stays, it could protect Carly. But letting him go would allow me to finally be alone with Kat. The latter sounds selfish, I know. But I also know where Daniel’s head is. Regardless of whether or not he stays here, his goons will nab Carly anyway. And anything he tries to pull with her, he now must run it by me. She’ll be safe, for the time being. “I can manage just fine,” I say.
“Well, then it’s settled,” he clucks. “That is, unless you prefer me to stay and watch.”
Kat’s horrified expression only worsens at the mention.
I cut him my most brutal glare, causing Daniel to throw up his hands in surrender. His whistling fills the hallway as he strolls out the door, and the melody is none other than “Singing in the Rain.” What an asshole.
Even after his footfalls can’t be heard anymore, Kat still won’t look at me. I wait, and wait, and when it’s clear she won’t do so on her own, I reach up and cup her face, turning it so she’ll face me. “You really are a sight for sore eyes.” And she is. I could devour her right here, and that delicious scent engulfing me promises she’ll taste as good as she looks.
It’s only then that I realize it. Even this close, I can’t smell her emotions. The effect of the Rite has drowned out anything else, leaving me with only that single, intoxicating scent.
Kat just stares up at me, not blinking and barely breathing. Her back keeps digging against the wall, like she’ll be able to break through it if only she presses hard enough. She looks even more freaked out by Daniel’s absence, evidently believing that I’m the real threat here. I need to convince her otherwise… But how?
I look up at the handcuffs trapping her wrists above her head and try not to growl, instead offering her an apology.
“What do all of you want with me?” she demands, her eyes unforgiving.
“Right now?” I am a man, possessed. It’s as if a stranger has taken control of my body, because any rationality I have is evaporating at the sight of her, at the scent of her. My hand runs softly through the strand of hair hanging in her face, taking care to tuck it behind her ear. The simple gesture has her breath hitching in an uneven rhythm, her eyes widening. Whatever she was expecting me to do, I know that wasn’t it.
Her scent is wrapping around me, invading my senses, and all I want to do right now is claim her. I want to sink my teeth into her flesh and let that euphoric high arrest us both. The thought has my fangs teasing at the roof of my mouth, silently pleading to come out. But I can’t do it. Not yet. Not until she accepts the bond. Because if I bite her now, while she’s scared, she’ll fight the transformation. The demonic virus itself isn’t painful. And when it’s linked with the bite from your mate, the sensation is the next best thing to sex (or so I hear). But that’s only if you accept the bond. If you don’t, if you choose to fight the transformation, the virus takes to your body like sulfuric acid, searing you from the inside out.
I have to force my eyes shut, feeling the energy stirring behind them, no doubt turning my eyes red. I’m at a catch-twenty-two, because the only thing I can do to calm myself down—to will my fangs and eyes back into submission—is to control my breathing. But every deep inhale floods my lungs with that delicious fragrance, and the mere smell of it has me wanting to fist my hands into the back of her hair, pin her to the wall, and have her right here, audience be damned. And that primal magic in me has taken captive of my brain and body, because I admit it. I admit what I crave. “Right now, I want you.”
I rest my forehead against hers, relishing in the simple feeling of her breath grazing my mouth. What I would give to taste those lips. And I know a small part of her is thinking the same thing about me. I can feel the soft tingle, nearly imperceptible, on her left hand. Her Lust rune. And as quickly as the sensation comes, it’s overwhelmed again by another set of runes. Panic. And Shame. She doesn’t want to be feeling what’s inherent to her, too mortified by the prospect of craving a monster. And the realization has the ache in my chest spreading, cutting into my lungs until I can barely breathe.
“Don’t be afraid.” I whisper the words against her lips, feeling that resolve slipping away with every word of my plea, the runes on her arm fading out.
When I open my eyes, I see her staring back at me as if I’m a puzzle she can’t solve. All it takes is that one moment, that one look, for me to understand. She was expecting me to attack her—really attack her. And now, she can’t rationalize what she’s seeing, can’t comprehend why I’m holding her rather than hurting her, can’t understand that I’d rather kiss her than kill her.
I can’t assure her through my words, knowing far too many ears are listening in on us, so I tell her the only way I can. And I punctuate my point with every placement of my mouth, pressing it into the side of her neck.
She takes a sharp inhale, the breath caught in a gasp as I work my lips and tongue softly against the length of her shoulder and neck. And Heaven help me, the rune on her hand is flaring up, because I can feel it prickling again across my own skin in response to hers. She’s terrified and confused, and still, her body reacts to mine. Her grip tightens on the handcuffs above her head, because I can hear the metal chain constrict as I nip at the bottom of her ear with my teeth, my fangs thankfully nowhere in sight.
“Just give in,” I breathe.
“Why? So I can become a monster…?” The bitterness—the hurt—in her voice hits like a sucker punch to the gut, and she delivers the final blow with two short words. “…like you?”
Monster.
That’s truly what she thinks of me.
And maybe she’s right.
But it doesn’t change anything. “Either way, you’re going to become one of us,” I say, because the only other option is that her father or Mr. Reynolds will kill her. And that is not happening. “The only question here is if you’re willing to embrace it.”
“I’d rather you kill me.”
That whole “Sticks and Stones” nonsense really is that. Nonsense. Because words can hurt. It feels like she just jammed a knife into my chest and won’t stop twisting the fucking handle. I bury my face into her shoulder, muffling my groan, immediately regretting the decision, because all I can smell is her. All I can see is her. And she hates me.
“Don’t say that,” I damn-near whimper. Not after everything I’ve done. “Besides, you didn’t seem to enjoy it too much the last time. I’ve never seen someone fight so hard to stay alive. And then you were so defiant against me. Almost wasn’t able to bring you back.”
At this, a part of me wants to laugh. Because she is my mate, through and through. The moment I managed to revive her heartbeat following the car crash, her body tried pushing away my influence, so determined to prove that she didn’t need my help in the healing process. After spending her entire life reliant on no one other than herself, even her subconscious was trained to refuse someone else’s assistance. And I’d done the very same thing with my brother when he resurrected me after Donovan’s attack. Val had struggled for hours trying to heal me completely, and I didn’t have the luxury of time when it came to Kat. With ambulances on the way to the crash, I managed to heal her as best as I could, ensuring at least her most severe injuries were mended, but I had to finish up the rest of my work after she’d been brought to the hospital. Even then, her subconscious wouldn’t allow me to heal her completely. She truly is as stubborn as me.
I’m not sure what I’ve just said to alarm her so much, but something about it sends tension into every inch of her body, because she goes as stiff as a board.
“What did you say?” she mutters, her voice quivering ever so slightly.
Her eyes are wide, petrified, looking at me again like I might bite her. And any words of assurance I want to offer her have apparently gone on vacation, because my mind is a blank canvass, mocking me and my drug-addled brain. That’s what it feels like even being near her. Every thread of control inside me is fraying, the frenzy of the mating bond taking over. That primal instinct begs me to claim her in every way possible.
I try to ease back from her, but that carnal need won’t allow it. Not completely. I brush my nose along her jaw line, at last kissing her chin. “Which part?”
“You…” She’s breathless. “You’re my Maker?”
I don’t fight back my smile, nearly laughing. “Well, of course. Who did you think it was?”
I follow her gaze, seeing her eyeing my left hand, as if she’s only just noticing it now, and—
Holy shit.
She is.
She didn’t know!
Kat’s studying the designs on my hand, and I can’t help but roll up my sleeve, revealing the rest of our shared artwork. Each rune is an exact match to hers, and I want so badly to see it, to see the designs inked onto her skin.
My heart threatens to explode in my chest, watching her eyes travel down to the tattooed band wrapped around my left ring finger.
“Sitri.”
It’s the last thing I ever expected to hear, and the sound of my given name coming from her lips is Heaven to my ears. I have no idea how she knows that, and in this moment, I don’t care. If anything, I want to hear it again. And again. “Someone’s been doing their homework.” My voice is teasing, practically egging her on.
But she shakes her head, suddenly confused. “No.”
No what?”
“You can’t be him. You’re from here.”
“No, I was raised here,” I clarify. “My parentage on the other hand… Well, let’s just say it’s unconventional.” Understatement of the fucking century.
“That was you, stalking me?”
‘Stalking’ is a bit harsh, seeing as how I was just making sure some Reaper asshole wasn’t going to put a bullet in her, but what the hell. “I had to keep an eye out on my girl.”
“You tried attacking me with a tire iron!”  
“I was trying to keep you safe.” I’m not sure how or when, but my lips are back on her neck and they have a mind of their own, drowning out my train of thought as I try to explain myself. Hell, with her scent engulfing me, I’m not even listening to my own words. I could be telling her I’m a fucking Pok√©mon for all I know, and I’d have no idea.
 “How did you even know I’d be there on the road, or at the school, or in the restaurant?”
“Tu es meus verum coniunx.”
“What?”
It takes me a moment to realize the slip-up. “I’ll always know,” I correct. “So long as you’re near, I’ll always be able to sense you.”
“Why me?” she demands, and God if she only knew—
“Why not?”
My fingers pull softly at the hem of her shirt, my knuckles brushing the bare skin of her stomach. I expect her to tense under my touch, to pull away, but her back arches slightly, and I’m not even sure if she’s aware she’s doing it. Her body responds to me the way it used to, with trust.
I’m still the same guy you met at that dinner party, I want to tell her. I’m the same guy who spent every night that following week sneaking out of my house to see you. I’m the same guy who walked with you on the beach and through the empty downtown. I’m the same guy who accepted your dare to jump into the village’s fountain (to which I picked you up and carried you in with me). I’m the same guy who promised you that we would escape this fucking town.
But I can’t say that.
So I settle for the next best thing.
“You said it yourself,” I remind her, “how much you despise this place, this way of life. The parties, the exhibition, the pretension. No more. We can start over.”
She doesn’t look convinced. “If it really was you who brought me back to life, then why didn’t you change me right there? Why wait till now?”
“You saw what happened to the others. Making both transitions at the same time isn’t too kind on the mind.” Not to mention, you’re my mate, and I’m not that much of an asshole to hit you with everything all at once. But I digress. “Sure, it still brings about loyal followers, but as you said, they can be a bit too rambunctious for their own good. It’s best to take things a little more slowly. Like us.”
Kat looks like she might cry, suddenly recoiling at my touch as I take hold of her waist, and it’s the last thing I want. I pull her back to face me, not giving two shits whether Raelynd’s cronies outside can hear us or not. I’m an idiot. This is all my fault. I’m so, so sorry. I’m prepared to say it all. I’m prepared to fall to my knees and beg her to forgive me—
But a sudden jolt of emotions blasts through the disarray running through her mind, the multitude of scents hitting me so hard I nearly stumble back. Kat’s looking up at me, eyes wide and startled, as if she’s had an epiphany.
A wave of dread immediately follows just as the scents peter out, leaving nothing but the sweet aroma of the mating bond in their place. I have no idea what the hell she’s thinking, but I expect her to pull back from me again. Only—
She doesn’t.
The strain in her arms slackens, and I instantly feel the rest of her relax in my hold. Then she leans into me. Her head inclines, her mouth teasing near my own. And fuck me, her hips meet mine, grinding against me as she bites her bottom lip.
Had she felt it? Did her side of the mating bond finally take effect?  Had that been what scared her just now, that she had accepted it? It’s the only thing I can think of to explain such a rapid shift in her emotions, in the way she’s looking at me.
When I don’t say anything, when I just stand there staring at her, she pales, pulling away from me, as if mortified by her own actions.
But she has nothing to be embarrassed about.
My grip on her waist tightens, and I pull her back to face me, my lips claiming hers. Kat freezes, stunned. Fuck… have I misread the situation? How else was a guy supposed to take that? I’m about to pull away when her lips part, inviting me in. A gasp escapes her mouth, but I eat up the sound, only to groan at the feeling of her lips softening against my own.
She’s electric, and tastes even better than I imagined.
Why had it taken us this long to get here?
I’m devouring her, and she’s my “other half” in every way, because her lips, her mouth, her tongue—they’re all just as savage as my own. She’s arching into me, and the only discernible thought in my head is the need to eliminate any distance between us. My hands trace over the contours of her body, and I bite back another moan, feeling her press herself harder against me as I cup her ass.
She lets out a moan of her own, and the sound breaks me.
The next instance, I’m gripping the backs of her thighs, lifting her legs right off the ground as I whisper against her mouth. “You’re so beautiful.”
Warmth and gentle vibrations dance over my left hand, and for a moment, my vision cuts out. We’re no longer in the weightlifting room. Wooden walls surround us as I lay over her on a bed, and all I can pay mind to anymore is the feeling of Kat’s unchained hands clawing into the back of my hair, and scratching into my bare shoulder blades, and ripping the belt off my pants, and sinking her hands inside—
But the images disappear as I blink, finding Kat’s bound hands still locked in place above her head. Whatever I just saw…it had to be a vision.           
Kat’s staring at me, eyes hooded, pupils dilated, and her ragged breathing in sync with my own.
Her response has me hard.
The things I would do to my mate would have her forgetting her own name, let alone Blackburn, and I would go round after round with her, sending her into such throes of ecstasy that anyone within earshot would think I was murdering her from the sound of her screams.
Any and all control is obliterated as I reclaim her mouth, eager to taste her again, her scent filling my world.
Her legs constrict around my waist, thrusting me into her. She grinds her hips against my hard-on, and I’m all about five seconds away from tearing off her clothes and taking her right here.
I’m not a masochist, but Heaven help me, I’m beginning to understand the appeal, because she breaks the kiss, only to take my bottom lip between her teeth—
And she bites.
Not just a nibble either. Not the way I bit her ear. She sinks her teeth into me until the metallic taste of blood hits the tip of my tongue. And just like that, I can’t look at her again.
A tinge of red fills the outside of my vision, and I know my eyes have changed color. I know my fangs are out, relishing in the idea of claiming her, loving her eagerness to bite me, even before she has the fangs to properly do so.
My mouth savors the taste of her skin as I feel her pulse pounding against my lips. I trail kisses down the entirety of her neck, her collarbone, her shoulder, and I ease the hair away from the nape of her neck, cupping her face with my opposing hand. Goose bumps form the instant my mouth makes contact, and her head rocks back at the sensation just as she arches into me, her hips grinding harder.
And I want it.
I want to give her what she wants. I want her hands free and in my hair and leaving claw marks in my back. I want to take her against the wall and on my bed and in the shower and every other fucking surface imaginable. I want her as familiar with every inch of my body as I’ll be with hers. Because I’m not fucking this up. I’m not letting Blackburn or Reynolds or anybody else get in the way of this, because she is mine.
The moment I manage to summon up enough control for my fangs to retract, I set her free. With nothing more than a thought and a flare from my runes, the handcuffs snap open, releasing Kat’s wrists. She nearly shrieks the moment she feels her body drop, and her arms ensnare me around the neck, not letting up even after she realizes I already have a hold of her.
My hands grip her ass, and I can’t fight back my smile as she stares at me again, mystified.
Shit.
Are my eyes still red?
The thought has me suddenly feeling self-conscious, because I don’t want to risk freaking her out—
But her gaze falls to my mouth, studying it like she’s never seen it before. Somehow startled and captivated. And then her lips are on mine again. Not gentle, either. She’s kissing me like she’s deprived of oxygen and my mouth is her only source of air. She’s devouring me, and every stroke of her tongue has me pressing myself harder and harder against her. Kat fists a handful of hair from the back of my head, and I almost expect her to yank on it with the ferocity she exhibits, but her touch softens, practically massaging my scalp. I damn-near groan at the loss as her hand falls away… Only, she’s nowhere close to letting me go. Her fingers stroke the back of my neck, and my cock twitches in response as she delves her hand lower, beneath the collar of my shirt.
Kat breaks the kiss, but her lips still brush my own as a sound caught somewhere between a gasp and a moan escapes her mouth, and fuck me, it’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever heard. Pale blue light floods the room as our Lust runes ignite in unison, the vibrations strong enough it makes my entire fucking hand ache. Her runes may not respond to mine yet, not until she truly accepts me as her mate, but mine right now relish in the stinging pain shooting up into my fingers.
If I really was a threat to Kat, her Omen rune would be going off. But it hasn’t. If she really feared me, her Distress rune would have ignited. But again, it hasn’t. If she really did believe I was some kind of monster, that particular rune on her top of her hand most definitely wouldn’t be the one igniting. And yet it is. She shudders in my hold, digging her fingernails into my upper back, daring to draw blood. And just like that, I’ve reclaimed her lips, consuming another moan from her.
Kat draws her hand back up over my shirt collar, tracing her way between my shoulder blades as she ventures lower, and I can feel her right leg inching higher and higher. Only then does another wave of emotions slam into me, each scent radiating from her in sharp succession.
Dread.
Guilt.
Regret.
And then I see it.
It’s not through my eyes, but hers.
A holster strapped around her ankle—and the knife secured inside it. That very same ankle making its way further and further up my back, nearing her hand.
…No.
Every muscle in my body locks into place, and it’s only then that I hear the nearly imperceptible grunt from somewhere down the hall, followed by a soft thud. The sound itself wouldn’t be cause for alarm, if not for the hot flare from my Omen rune suddenly mixing with the vibrations already coursing throughout my forearm and hand.
Kat stills as well, her eyes wide in horror just as a shadow stretches across the floor, the wall, then us. And it doesn’t take a genius to know who it is. No stranger could elicit such a reaction from my mate.
Adam fucking Reynolds.
Son. Of. A. Bitch.