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I shot to my feet. “Let me make one thing clear. I don’t know if you realize this or not, Casteel, but I’m not duty-bound to obey a single thing you say.” Casteel stiffened. “And maybe you should actually look at me when you try to order me to do things,” I tacked on. He turned to me, his head cocked.

“I’m looking at you now.”

“But are you listening?”

“Oh, man,” Delano murmured under his breath as the rest of the room went dead silent. “Someone is getting stabbed again.” Someone, I think it was Jasper, snorted.

“Oh, I’m listening,” Casteel replied. “Maybe you should try that. Along with this thing called common sense.”

“Definitely getting stabbed,” Kieran confirmed. I stepped around the table, aware that Delano appeared to be sinking into his chair.

“Are you serious?”

“Are you armed?” Casteel asked with a smirk. “You are, aren’t you?”

“I’m so confused by what is happening here,” Nova whispered with a slight frown.

“Apparently, she already stabbed him once,” Jasper informed the Guardian. “In the heart.” Nova looked at me.

“And she cut me earlier tonight. Threw a knife right at my face another time,” Casteel ticked off his fingers. “Then this one time, in the woods, she—”

“No one wants to hear about how many times I’ve made you bleed,” I snapped.

“I do,” Jasper remarked.

Emil raised his hand. “So do I.”

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"Only on once condition," I said.

"You have a condition now?"

I nodded, my heart thundering. "I don't want to pretend," I whispered. "Im Poppy and you're Casteel, and this is real."

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“It’s not weak.” Casteel came forward, but he didn’t stand there. He didn’t sit beside me. He lowered himself to his knees in front of me. “Your heart, Poppy? It is a gift I do not deserve.” He placed his hands on my knees as he lifted his gaze to mine. “But it is one I will protect until my dying breath. I don’t know what that means.” He stopped, curling his fingers into the leggings, into my skin. “Okay. Fuck. I do know what that means. It’s why I’m in awe of everything you say or do—everything you are. It’s why you’re the first thing I think about when I wake and the last thought I have when I fall asleep, replacing everything else. It’s why when I’m with you, I can be quiet. I can just be. You know what that means.” He took one of my hands and pressed it to his chest—his heart. “Tell me what that means. Please.” Please.

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"J'accepte ta condition."

Sa fossette se creusa sur sa joue droite. "Marché conclu ?

- Oui.

- Alors, il faut conclure la transaction, me dit-il. Tu sais comment font les Atlantiens ? Avec un baiser.

- Vraiment ? demandai-je, sceptique. Ce n'est pas très pratique, non ?

- Peut-être.

- Et ça m'a tout l'air d'être un mensonge."

Casteel hocha la tête. "Parce que c'en est un."

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We were only pretending... But this felt so very real.

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"De quoi parlez-vous, tous les deux, pour que Poppy ait l'air à deux doigts de se cacher sous la table ?

- De rien, répondis-je

- Je lui parlais du fait que tes cinq sens sont surdéveloppés, lança Kieran en même temps. Du fait, que tu vois mieux qu'elle et que tu peux sentir son excitation sex...

- Oh mes dieux !" m'écriai-je en me retournant et en lui lançant mon poing à la figure. Il évitai aisément mon attaque.

"Je suis désolé". Il n'en avait pas l'air du tout. "Je voulais dire désir. Elle n'aime pas le mot "excitation".

- Fais attention, Kieran, murmura Casteel en m'attrapant la main avant que je puisse de nouveau tenter de frapper son subordonné. Elle va finir par menacer de te poignarder. "

Le Lycan sourit à pleines dents. "Je suis à peu près sûr que c'est déjà fait.

- Je te déteste, annonçai-je. Je vous déteste tous les deux."

Casteel ricana. "Tu mens"

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“She stabbed me in the heart with a bloodstone dagger,” Casteel finished instead.

The old woman blinked while Jasper gave a sudden bark of laughter. “I’m sorry,” he said. “But damn…are you for real?”

“It’s true,” Kieran confirmed. “She thought it would kill him.”

Emil started to grin but one look from Casteel stopped that in its tracks.

Shifting in the suddenly uncomfortable chair,

I wondered how in the world that piece of knowledge helped anything. “I was a little angry.”

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“Do you feel that?” he asked. “What does it feel like?”

“Like…it reminds me of chocolate and berries.” I blinked back tears. “Berries—strawberries? I’ve felt that from Vikter—from Ian and my parents. But I’ve never felt it like this—like it’s more decadent somehow.”

And I thought I knew what it was. It was the emotion behind the long looks and the seeking touches. The feeling behind the way his arm always tightened around me when we rode together and why he was always messing with my hair. It was the emotion that drove him to draw that line he wouldn’t cross with me. It was why he wouldn’t use compulsion, and it was what allowed him to want to protect me but demanded that he allow me to protect myself. It was how when he was with me, he didn’t think of his kingdom, his brother, or the time he’d been a captive. And it was one of many things forbidden to me as the Maiden. It was love.

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I placed my hand against my chest. “It still terrifies me because I have never felt this way about anyone, and I know…I know it has nothing to do with you being my first or there being, well, limited options in my life. 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.” I shook my head as I curled my fingers around the collar of my tunic. “I don’t understand any of this. Like how do I want to stab you and kiss you at the same time? [...]"

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“By the way, I’m not yours,” I told him. “I don’t belong to anyone but myself. Nothing changes that.”

“What if I just wanted a piece of you?” He shifted the reins to his other hand. “A tiny piece that belonged to me? I can think of a few I would love to have, Princess.” My cheeks warmed.

“I bet you can.” His laugh was rough and deep. “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.

“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 that he already held too many of them.

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