“Then why did I have to yell for you to watch your back? What if I hadn’t been here to warn you?”

“It was your fault I got distracted.” Mirceo’s gaze roamed over him. “I was entranced by my male. Your fighting style is different than it used to be.”

“Happened over time. What of it?”

“You were also more aggressive—because your instincts were screaming for you to protect me.”

_______

Damn him for being right. Fear for Mirceo had rocked him. When that hidden Forbearer had appeared behind him . . .

“But you’ll grow accustomed to those instincts with time, and we’ll continue being a phenomenal team.” Mirceo gestured at the carnage. “Look around us, demon. We could have a good run at this.”

“At what?”

“Life together. And all that.” Eyes lively, he said, “Let’s spend the rest of eternity fighting and fucking.”

“Did it ever occur to you that I might want more from life than that? I’ve long yearned for offspring. If I accept you as mine, I’ll be relinquishing that hope forever.”

Mirceo blinked at him.

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“Self-centered leech! You never even considered that aspect?”

“I’m thirty; I consider very little in general.” At Cas’s disgusted look, Mirceo rolled his eyes. “Some of us aren’t abruptly five centuries older.”

“You know I want a family of my own. I talked of it often enough. A line to come after me? Ringing a bell? This was only weeks ago for you!”

“I just thought you’d . . . get over that idea. Together we’d find other interests.”

“Amazing. Other bloody interests? Fucking and fighting?”

With a mulish look, the vampire said, “Maybe.”

“You consider no one besides yourself! How did I ever become friends with you? You’re nothing but a selfish player with no thoughts of the future. . . .” He trailed off as Mirceo spat repeatedly. “Are you even listening to me?”

“I accidentally tasted another’s blood. It’s foul!”

Cas gave a mocking laugh. “You’re getting spoiled on mine. Which will hurt you all the more when I deprive you of it.”

Mirceo scrubbed a palm over his mouth. “You would withhold it—when depriving me of lifeblood deprives you of pleasure?”

Cas had no argument for that; ceding blood was . . . ecstasy. The healing puncture wounds in his neck felt empty—as if his skin ached to be pierced once more. To be filled. “If I’d never experienced bloodtaking, then I wouldn’t know about its effect. But you forced your bite on me!”

“I admit that wasn’t my best moment.” Mirceo shoved his long hair off his face. “I was in the grip of my blooding.”

Again, Cas marveled at the timing. He’d never heard of a male so young finding his mate. “You drank from my flesh—will you dream of my past?” As a starving little guttersnipe named Beggar.

Back then, he’d had just enough pride to be blistered by shame hour after hour.

Cas remembered a vow he’d made to himself as a seven-year-old pup: One day, when I never have to wear rags or beg anymore, I’ll give myself a new name, a proud name.

He had. He’d succeeded and kept that promise. But he could never erase what came before. . . .

The bite of snow against his bare feet. The hovel he’d called home. The unrelenting hunger. The cruelty of others: If you want this feast, Beggar, you have to eat it with a little spice.

Would Mirceo see Cas as a pup, sobbing on his hands and knees?

“I probably will,” Mirceo said. “Since I tapped right into one of your firm, warm veins.”

“You had no right!” Inhaling for calm, he said, “I thought the great Dacians didn’t drink from the flesh.”

“We didn’t, until we installed Lothaire as king. He’s very . . . progressive. Our entire kingdom’s changing dramatically.”

“How many others have you drunk besides me?” Cas grew nauseated at the idea of Mirceo sinking those fangs into someone else.

“No one. I will drink from my mate alone.”

“Ah, for your mate, you’ll keep your fangs in your mouth. But would you keep your dick in your pants?”

He squared his shoulders. “Yes.”

“How long would that last before you got bored and strayed? You always have. You dreaded the mere prospect of being faithful to your mate.”

“If I’d suspected I would have a mate like you, I would’ve rushed headlong.”

Silver-tongued vampire. “In our first conversation, you described monogamy as an intolerable hardship. Remember when you likened it to stalking a boar that had already been felled?” He pinned Mirceo’s gaze. “You forget—I know you.”

“Is that the reason for your hesitation with me? Or is it because I’m male?”

Cas pinched the bridge of his nose. “You’d like it to be that simplistic, wouldn’t you? Then you could assign all the blame to me, instead of having to look at your own failings. Have you ever considered that the problem lies with you specifically? Maybe I don’t object to the fact that you have a cock. Maybe I object to the fact that your cock has you.”

Mirceo scowled. “What the hell does that mean?”

“I’m an older demon, set in my ways, but I can evolve. If my dream mate came in this physical package”—he waved at Mirceo from head to toe—“I would happily embrace my destiny. But you’re not my dream. You never will be. The sooner you realize that, the more pain you’ll spare yourself.”