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Returning to the Hawk’s Keep felt like returning to a different world. Danica had barely set foot on the courtyard, Zane holding her to help her gently from her horse, before her mother descended. Beneath the worry and relief, Danica caught the sharp look her mother cast her and Zane’s joined hands. But Nacola Shardae said nothing.

It was late. The pace they kept had been slow. Betsy gave her permission to travel, but after less than an hour atop her mare Danica had felt the irritating dig of pain in her side. Zane had ridden beside her, Andreios at her other side. Danica had ignored the careful watch both kept on her. Cool, fresh air had filled her lungs and sunlight had warmed her skin and she had already felt herself recovering.

There was no ignoring the slight tremble of her legs as she dismounted, however, or the paleness her mother commented on. Both would pass quickly, but Danica found herself happy for the excuse to head to her room. Meeting with the court could wait until tomorrow.

Her mother walked with them until the fourth floor, filling them in with the various going-ons in the court since Danica’s absence. At the staircase to the fifth, Nacola hesitated. She tucked back a lock of Danica’s hair the wind had blown loose, her expression as soft as Danica had ever seen it. Then her mother was bidding her good night, offered Zane a somewhat more curt goodbye, and she and Zane continued up the steps.

Danica could feel her mother’s eyes following her. She became aware then of Zane’s hand at the small of her back where he had kept it throughout their climb. Danica did not pretend she remained near him for support. He was her alistair. There was no scandal here.

She did pretend that the reason she threaded her fingers through his in a gentle tug toward her door was only because she had grown accustomed to his presence.

When the door shut behind them, Danica felt the first flutter of nerves. He had been in her room before—stolen into it, in fact—and they had been sharing her room and bed in the palace. But the weight of anticipation hit her suddenly and she found herself unable to look at him.

To buy herself time, Danica strode toward the mirror. The time of retreating comfortably behind her reserve had been left behind. Instead, she tried to distract herself from the nervous pinch in her belly by removing each piece of jewelry but for the hawk pendant—something she would not take off until it was time to pass it on to the next Tuuli Thea—and the signet ring she wore on her left hand since her marriage. When she reached for the pins in her hair, Zane was behind her.

“Let me?”

Meeting his eyes in the mirror, Danica brought her hands down. He removed the pins with care, releasing the coils of her hair, fingers combing through it gently. Danica closed her eyes, sighing in contentment. It was nice, the feeling of being taken care of. She felt him press a kiss to her shoulder, and tilted her head. A finger lightly traced a line down her neck before being replaced by a softer kiss.

Turning her head, she caught his mouth with hers. Zane kissed her slowly, deeply. Rising, she turned her body to his. Her fingers threaded through his black hair as she pressed herself closer. He held her to him tightly, erasing every bit of space between them.

They had grown more comfortable. More than once, Danica had woken to the sweet sensation of kisses pressed against her cheek and temple. If before it had been difficult for her to imagine a pair bond with a cobra, now she could not visualize anything but life with Zane. She found herself reaching for him, happiest when he held her, sleeping peacefully lulled by the sound of his heartbeat.

They had grown bolder too. Soft touches and chaste kisses were no longer enough. He wanted her as much as she did him. She could see the temptation in his eyes, the conflict of what they both wanted against the need to wait.

But aside from an occasional, dull ache in her side, her injury had healed. And she was tired of waiting.

Zane kissed her along the line of her jaw. Danica’s fingers found the hem of his shirt. She felt more than heard his inhale when the pads of her fingers ghosted over his cool skin. Her hands slid along his sides, lifting the shirt as they did. Zane stepped back from her. She almost protested, but the complaint died in her mouth as he whipped the black shirt over his head. Taking her by the hands, he pulled her close again.

Zane kissed first one of her palms and laid it at his neck, then the other. His own hands slid down the length of her dress to come to rest on her hips. A smile tugged at his lips, his eyes searching hers. Danica felt herself smiling in return.

“What?”

Zane’s smile only grew.

“Nothing,” he said, his red eyes bright. “I’m just happy.”

She kissed him sweetly, then, stepping closer to him. His arms came around her. Danica could feel her heart beating in her chest as she took another step forward, and another, leading him backwards.

They sank onto the bed, Zane pulling her down after him.

Beneath her, Zane tilted her face up to trail kisses down her neck and across her collarbone. Tipping her head to the side, Danica swept her hair over one shoulder. She felt him dot kisses over her shoulder, his fingers toying with then slipping under the gown. This was further yet than they had come before, and it was not nearly enough. His skin felt warmer to her fingers, almost as warm as hers.

Feeling daring, Danica sat up. She reached behind her to the tie at the back of her neck. With it loose, she gripped the back of her gown. The fabric slid upward with ease. The air felt cold to her overheated skin. When she held the dress in both hands, the nerves hit her again. Danica felt her cheeks color when she realized Zane was staring at her as if she were something new, something wondrous.

She pressed the gown a little tighter to her chest. Beneath her, Zane sat up. She shivered when he ran his hands up her arms. His fingers skimmed up her neck, tilted her chin up.

“Don’t hide,” he whispered against her skin so softly she might have thought she imagined it. He kissed her then, so tenderly she found herself melting into it. His hands stroked her arms, her sides, her back. His fingers idly traced the line of her spine up almost to the feathers at her nape. He brushed her hair away from her face and shoulders, fingers combing through the golden tresses. Slowly, the tension receded until she could bring her arms down. The dress slipped through her fingers and off the bed.

She found his hands at her throat and eased them down to her chest. The first trace of a thumb against the underside of her breast was electrifying. Danica inhaled sharply.

Zane kissed the hollow of her throat, her chest. Her fingers sank into his hair when his mouth closed around a nipple. And still he touched her. He skimmed her arms from wrist to shoulder. He traced her ribs. His fingers ghosted over her naked back and the pads of them pressed insistently against her hips.

The whisper of her name on his lips raised goosebumps across her skin, and she answered his unasked question by guiding his hand this time to the wetness between her thighs.

When he touched her, a noise caught in Danica’s throat, one she could not recognize as hers, so needy, so wanton the sound. She felt a finger slip inside her. Then another. His thumb circled her. For a moment she was seized by paradoxical forces: craving her husband’s touch even as it threatened to overwhelm her. She clutched at his shoulders as if she were drowning.

“I’ve dreamt you so long,” he confessed. His mouth traced kisses across her jaw and cheek to her ear. “How you would feel. How you would sound.” His fingers resumed their circular movements and she arched her back in response, a groan slipping between her lips.

Zane kissed the hollow behind her ear. His tongue caught a bead of sweat slipping down her neck before his lips pressed to her jaw. “How you would taste.”

He pressed his forehead to hers. “How you would look like in my arms.”

When he kissed her, it was need—need which made his breathing ragged, need which tightened the arm holding her around her back, need which roughened his tone when he whispered, “Look at me, Danica,” and which had her calling “Oh—” when she found herself caught in his scarlet gaze. Rather than the old fear, a slow thrill seized her body. Her hands slipped down his chest and his abdomen, tracing the hard map of his body under his skin. When her questing fingers slipped a little within his waist belt, he closed his eyes with a soft moan.

Danica pressed herself closer. Her lips found his throat. His heart raced almost as quick as hers. She felt him draw in a sharp breath.

“Danica—”

“I want to touch you.” She scarcely recognized herself. For a moment, Danica wondered to whom the voice which spoke belonged to. That wasn’t her almost undone by desire. Then she felt the press of his fingers on her skin and saw the yearning mirrored in his eyes and such petty thoughts fled into the night.

“I want you.” Sitting up straight, Danica pushed his hand away from her, shuddering when she did. “I love you.”

Zane was the one who had to close his eyes, head leaning back as she undid the laces of his pants and struggled to undress him. As soon as he was as naked as she was, she straddled him again, sweeping her hair to the side. It hung like a golden curtain beside them. She kissed his neck, his chest. She felt the muscles in his stomach tense when her hand slipped over them. Slipping a hand behind her neck, Zane draw her mouth back to his just as her hand closed around him. She swallowed the sound of his moan.

Her fingers tripped over his length at first until his hand wrapped around hers and guided her motion. He soon let her go with a whispered encouragement and she continued alone. Danica watched the expressions that crossed his face—pleasure, awe, love—and felt her cheeks color. Zane sweetly cupped her cheek. A playful smirk crossed his face.

“What are you thinking?”

Danica felt her cheeks burn more and saw his smile widen in response. She watched it be replaced by surprise, and hunger, when she answered: “How much I like seeing you like this. Under me.”

She held his gaze, deliberately keeping her expression even as she finished, “At my mercy.”

Zane swore. In the next second, he had pulled her down to him. Danica felt herself getting lost in the kiss, though not enough to miss his lining them up. His fingers curled under her chin and tilted her head up so he could see her. His intense red eyes locked with hers.

A gasp escaped her with the first thrust. Her nails dug into his arms with each subsequent. Strange at first, yet she could feel the heat pooling ever heavier in her belly as she began to match his movement. She moaned when he palmed her breast.

Sitting up, Zane flipped them. A little laugh escaped her quickly becoming another wordless cry. Over her head, his hand found hers. Their fingers laced together. He held her behind the knee as he continued to stroke into her. She clung to him, trembling. He prayed against her throat, “I love you, I love you,” as a slow, shuddering orgasm caught her. He followed shortly after, calling her name in his release.

They kissed lazily as he lifted his weight off her. Danica wrapped a leg around his hip, trapping him. She felt his smile against her neck. Zane nosed her jaw.

“How do you feel?”

Under the humor, she perceived the concern lining the question. She knew he was inquiring about her injury, but it had been the furthest thing from her mind. Danica raised her arms above her head, enjoying the new, strange disjointed feeling of her body.

“I feel boneless.” She hummed quietly. “It’s nice.”

Zane laughed.

“Just nice?” he challenged. There was an amused glint in his red eyes. Danica hummed again.

“I may need to do that again to be sure.”

Laughing a little louder, he kissed her cheek.

“I would love nothing more than to indulge you, but you’re tired. And you had a long ride.” He drew away in order to douse the lights and pull the sheets around them. He came back to her under them, pulling her against his side. He felt as warm as she did and she luxuriated in the feeling of his skin against hers. He kissed her brow. “Sleep, love. We’ll have plenty of time for more later.”

“Forever,” Danica whispered to him, and it struck her: they did have forever. There were risks still, yes. But for the first time in over a millennia, they could love without certainty of tragedy. Forever could be theirs.

Zane must have had the same thought. His arms tightened around her. She felt him lift her hand. He kissed her palm before he curled their joined hands against his beating heart.

“Forever,” he vowed.