I refused to back down, meeting him halfway. “I came to find you!”
“Some emergency couldn’t keep?”
No. Maybe. Yes! “What is this place?”
“It was a sanctuary. Since mine has been spoiled.” He scowled at the wolf, and Cyclops trotted off, tail between his legs.
“Spoiled?” I cried. Was he so fed up with me that he wanted me to move out?
Ignoring me, he turned away, heading back under the dish.
I struggled to keep up with his long-legged strides as he went deeper into the framework. “Do you want me to leave the castle?” I had to yell as the worsening storm pounded the metal above us.
He twisted around, stabbing his fingers through his soaked hair. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Then what?” I felt as if I were needling a bear. The storm only ramped up the tension between us.
“I can’t sit there and listen to that woman poison your mind! And if I say or do anything, I’ll only be proving her mad accusations.”
“You assume I’m letting her poison me?”
“If she doesn’t, your chronicles will.”
“I’ve read them. I’ve remembered so much more about you. And here I am.”
“Why did you come?” His damp chest grew still. He was holding his breath!
My gaze darted. How to say this? “You . . . you’re not safe out here with no one to watch your back!”
His fists clenched, the muscles in his arms bulging. “Get back on your goddamned horse and leave—me—in—peace.”
What sounded like an explosion boomed above us. I jumped and glanced to one side as more gigantic hail plummeted from the sky. Facing him again, I promised, “I’m not going anywhere without you, Aric.”
“Because I love you.”
His hand shot out. His fingers made a loose cage around my throat. “Never say that to me again!”
I swallowed, knew he could feel the movement against his grip. I whispered, “I love you.”
With his other hand, he punched the metal, sending vibrations through the structure. “I told you something died in me the day you chose him! Let it lie.”
I shook my head. “I can bring it back to life.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Why would you?”
“Centuries ago, you told me that you were born for me, and I for you. You told me you’d convince me of that one day. You have.” Through his caring. And his patience and generosity. His selfless protection.
“Damn you, Empress!” He was wavering. He moved his hand from my throat to my nape. So steady in battle, his hand now shook.
My missions had changed once more: destroy Richter, and make Aric happy. Time was running out for both. Which meant I would force my mind from the past. From the other half of my heart. “We don’t have time for this.”
“For not being together.”
He dropped his hand, seeming to steel himself against me. “And still your interest arises only because of our circumstances.”
I’d told him my feelings; I’d put myself out there. I’d never expected this much hostility. “I came here—despite all the things going on in my head—to offer you my future. And you’re refusing to meet me even a tenth of the way? That’s the reality of our ‘circumstances.’”
He was seething with something that looked a lot like . . . hate. “If Deveaux were here, you would choose him.”
“Still punishing me for my choice?” But then his eyes gave away a flicker of another emotion. Insight from my dreams and our past hit me, and for once, clarity sparked in my messed-up head. “That’s not the main issue, is it? You could get past that. No, you’re pushing me away . . . out of fear.”
“At this moment, you’re afraid something will tear us apart yet again. You’d rather have the ongoing dream of a future than risk having your hope crushed once more.”
In a rare glimpse of vulnerability, he said, “Each time, right before you struck, I . . . believed. In the last game, the end of hope nearly destroyed me. Those first moments after your death, when I comprehended I would spend a dozen more lifetimes alone . . .” His expression grew stark. “I could not survive it again.”
“And I couldn’t survive losing you.” I pressed my fingertips to my temples. “Maybe we shouldn’t be together. Part of me still fears I’d be risking your life—because of the game or the gods or whatever—just by loving you.”
“I don’t believe that. But say it was true. I’d accept any risk to myself if I knew I would be your husband in truth. Understand me: if I could trade seven hundred years as the victor for seven months as your husband, I would make the bargain in an instant.” He moved a step closer, gazing down at me. “I would trade those centuries for seven days. Seven hours.”
“Aric . . .” I sidled closer, inhaling his heady scent. “What are we going to do?”
“I can’t vow that you’ll never lose me, and no vow of yours will alleviate my dread.” Nothing could convince him that we’d actually—after two thousand years—sleep together.
“Then maybe we should make a promise about tonight,” I said. “We either consummate our relationship now—or never. If we don’t move forward, our worst fears will be realized in a way.”
“Tonight?” His voice had roughened.
I nodded up at him, aching to touch him. To trace those runes and make him quake. “Tonight.” Lightning crackled overhead, and the hail grew louder. “Before you decide, I need you to know something.” I placed my palms on his warm chest. His heart was racing beneath my fingertips. “Aside from everything else . . . I want you.”