Chapter 1: Behind the Velvet Curtain
Elain had never bought anything like this in her life. Even when she was mortal, she wouldn’t have dreamed there’d be enough eternities to work up the nerve to walk into that pretty shop across the Sidra. The one with lots of lacy little things.
But there she was among the delicate unmentionables.
The two shop ladies sensed her shy unease the moment she plucked up the courage to make the small bell on the door trill as she walked in.
“Is there something we can help you find?” the younger shop girl asked in a near whisper.
The eye of someone who seems to look away every time he catches my stare, she thought.
“I’m ... looking for something that might, um, encourage the affection of a certain male,” Elain said, immediately cursing herself for being silly enough to seek out the shop and utter those words.
“Of course, lady. Although your male is probably more taken with you than you know,” the older shop owner said with a quiet, knowing smile. “What is he like?”
Oh. Elain hadn’t expected that.
“Well … he’s incredibly kind. And brave and clever and good.” She twisted a small knot of her skirts in her hands as she thought. “He’s a male of few words but when he does speak he makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the world, at least to him.
“And he’s extremely handsome,” she quickly finished with a fierce blush. “Does that help?”
“Oh yes, very much, lady,” the younger one said with the same soft smile. “I believe we have just what you’re looking for.”
They showed Elain to the curtained-off chamber and offered her a cup of tea that settled her nerves as she began to undress. A slender arm slipped what appeared to be scraps of blush-colored lace on a hanger behind the velvet curtain.
Elain’s heart raced as she took in the delicate fabric — or lack thereof. It had a fitted bodice with boning covered in a sheer floral lace, and sweet little bows where the straps met the barely there cups. When she slipped it on, she found the soft pink perfectly matched the bloom on her cheeks.
The older fae lightly rapped on the entrance and asked if any adjustments could be made. Elain granted her access, and a smile crept on her face as the female tightened and loosened straps to make a perfectly exquisite fit.
“I’m not sure he’ll be patient enough to take it all in, but you should admire the back, as well,” the shop owner said, guiding Elain to slowly twirl around.
Elain gasped at the low-cut back with a corset of ribbons and she felt, well, quite cheeky with the lack of lace covering her derrière. Thank the Mother she hadn’t mastered winnowing yet and frequently walked up and down the hills of Velaris.
“While you are hoping to please your male, how does it make you feel?”
“Beautiful,” Elain breathed. She’d expected to look in the mirror and feel terrified. But she felt ... strong. Confident. And a word she’d never considered herself under her full-length skirts — desirable.
“Then our work here is done. The rest is up to you,” the owner said with a wink. “We’ll wrap this up while you get dressed.”
Elain warmly thanked the females as she paid and scooped up the package. They had carefully nestled her purchase (or rather, investment) in tissue paper, and placed it in their signature lavender box with a lovely bow. A present ready to have its wrapping torn off, just like she hoped to be.
That got her mind racing. About Azriel.
They had grown close in the year after the war, both finding comfort in one another as they healed. Some days were quiet mornings in the garden or wordless strolls in companionable silence along the shore. They spent unhurried afternoons laying in the grass, watching the sky turn pink with dusk. She would pull closer and put her head on his chest when the chill of evening started to set in. Other times they’d stay up late talking or he’d treat her to his wicked sense of humor and she’d fall into fits of giggles. And on occasion, she’d get a glimpse of his heartbreakingly beautiful smile when he broke into a true grin at something she said. Or when he told her stories of the antics he, Cassian and Rhys had gotten into over the centuries. But then there were times they unburdened themselves with dark secrets and whispered fears, knowing they could trust the other to bear their deepest truths.
Azriel had a way of knowing exactly what she needed, never pressuring her or making her feel like her progress was too slow. He held her hand when she slipped under the pull of her visions and guided her through those disturbing spells to see more clearly each time they occurred. It was with his gentle care that she began to blossom into her new life. She was still Elain — soft and kind, with a love for nurturing. But she was also growing into a strong female like her sisters, surer of her own abilities every day.
Yet with Azriel’s lack of pressure also came doubts. Did he not cross the line into something more because he wasn’t interested in anything other than friendship? But there were times she felt so sure there was an undeniable connection between them. Suspended moments when comfortable silences had become heavy with tension. When her breath would hitch at a private glance, or her heart would flutter when he gave a smile he saved only for her.
She couldn’t take much more of the longing she felt whenever he was near — or whenever they were apart. So while the prospect of risking their friendship was terrifying, endless lifetimes of never fully having him was too much to bear. She prayed to the gods he only needed encouragement.
Knowing Feyre had no such issues, Elain had told her about all the times her hand brushed Azriel's and the glances she’d given him through her lashes. Her younger sister gently laughed, and wrote something on a small piece of paper and slipped it into Elain’s hand. “Despite being the Spymaster, I don’t think those clues are quite enough to convince Az of your feelings, dear one.” When Elain had finally looked at the paper that night in bed, she brushed her fingertips over the address of the pretty shop across the Sidra written in elegant script. And thought of him.
Azriel. She’d sometimes whisper his name in private just to try it out on her tongue, curious what his would feel like on her skin. To wonder how it would be to say intimately, like a lover’s murmur. Azriel. To imagine what it would sound like moaned from her lips, or in ecstasy screaming—
“—AZRIEL!” she shrieked, colliding with his solid frame as she exited the shop.
She’d been so lost in her reverie it seemed that she conjured him into being but at the most inopportune time.
“Ellie! Are you okay?” he asked. “Gods, I’m so sorry — I was completely distracted.”
Elain barely heard his words as she stared in mortification at the lavender box that had slipped from her grip — and now lay at their feet for Azriel, the Mother and the entire city of Velaris to see.
He was still gripping her shoulders to catch her fall, as his eyes followed her wide-eyed gaze to the package between them.
“Oh, is this yours?” he asked as he reached down to scoop it up.
Elain could see the realization forming in his eyes as he registered the color of the box and stole a glance at the shop windows, full of pretty lacy things. In that moment of seeing color rush to the tips of his rounded ears, she wished the Cauldron would swallow her again right on the spot and never spit her back out.
As only Cassian could so elegantly express: Mother’s. Tits.
Azriel put a hand on the back of his neck and softly bit his lower lip in what Elain interpreted as embarrassment. They stared at each other, frozen on the spot.
Yes, she’d walked into that store with every intention of him eventually seeing the contents of that box (and the entirety of her underneath) on full display. But having him piece together her plan before she had steeled herself with a healthy amount of faerie wine was quite a different story.
Azriel had gone totally still, even his enormous wings tucked tight to his body not moving an inch. Elain finally snapped out of her horrified daze. “I have to go!” she practically yelled in a strangled voice, snatching the box out of his hand and turning on her heel. She didn’t offer a goodbye as she made her escape up the street and rounded the first corner, hoping there was a suitable place to curl up and die. She frantically wondered if she had enough saved for a one-way voyage to the continent to start a new life under a different name.
But curiosity got the best of her, and she peeked back around the corner. Azriel was still glued to the spot, as if stuck in place.
She regretted an easy lie hadn’t sprung to her lips — a smooth cover-up about running an errand for Feyre. It would have been a believable story given the remains of lacy scraps that made their way into the rubbish bin each month thanks to her and Rhys’s activities in the bedroom. She made a mental note to pick up new earplugs.
Elain turned to trudge up those blasted hills on her way home to the town house, and chided herself for overthinking the whole thing. Letting out a frustrated sigh, she doubted Azriel would even give their encounter a second thought.
Chapter 2: Always the Quiet Ones
Azriel couldn’t stop thinking about that box. The lavender box with the bow that could only mean one thing. His mouth went dry at the thought.
At first he’d been completely shocked and charmed at the idea of Elain making such a purchase, a small smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. That smile faded with a flush of heat as he imagined her disappearing behind the velvet curtain.
But then another thought quickly took root. Who was Elain buying that alluring piece of lace for? Feyre had told him and his brothers a female never buys that sort of undergarment unless she fully intends for it to be seen. Azriel knew Elain was at times reserved, but did that mean she also had secrets?
She had been the very distraction on his mind when they’d collided. Elain consumed his every thought, and he’d lost more bouts in the ring with Cassian and Rhys lately than he cared to admit. Azriel had foolishly hoped Elain was starting to feel the same way about him — that there was something more between them than just companionship. But he never wanted to push her, giving her time to adjust to her new life and a gift she never asked for. To grieve the fiancé who chose to reject her when every other choice had been stolen from her.
Realizing he’d been rooted to the spot well past his run-in with Elain, Azriel was pulled out of his stupor when he noticed the two shop ladies smiling at him through the window. He gave a quick, embarrassed nod and continued on his way to his apartment to change into training clothes.
As he walked, Azriel mulled things over. He knew he wasn’t worthy of someone like Elain, that he could never expect to be loved as much as he could offer in return. He'd spent far too long pining for someone he knew deep in his heart would never return his affection. But still it was different with Elain. She saw — and accepted — parts of him he thought were too broken and scarred for anyone to fully know. She was helping to make him whole for the first time in his long life. And because of that, he truly thought he could be okay with whatever pieces of herself Elain was willing to give him.
That was until he saw that box.
Was there someone else? Elain was a mated female. Could it be for Lucien? Azriel had been trying to give her space, but fear roiled in his gut that if he wasn’t already too late, he soon might be. He had to tell her how he felt.
As much as he begrudged it, he needed a second opinion before making a move. Azriel rubbed his temple and sighed.
. . .
The two Illyrians were dripping sweat as they sparred in the courtyard atop the House of Wind, their tattoos on full display under the hot afternoon sun.
“I ran into Elain today,” Azriel said, panting as they took a break to re-tape their hands. “We actually bumped into each other as she was rushing out of a shop.”
“And what was our little fawn doing in quite such a hurry?” Cassian asked.
Azriel paused. “She was, uh, coming out of the Velvet Violet. And she,” Azriel cleared his throat. “... had purchased something.”
“Oh?” Cassian asked. “Ohhhh,” the implication dawning in his twinkling eyes. “Well, well, well, it would appear our seer wants someone to see her in not much more than a bit of ribbon and lace.”
“Don’t be an ass,” Azriel said, shoving him as Cassian laughed. “But ... what do you think it means?”
“Brother,” Cassian drawled, slapping Azriel on the shoulder. “You are either about to be in for a world of hurt … or a fuck load of pleasure,” he said, his usual shit-eating grin plastered on his face. “And my money’s always on you.”
Azriel cringed at the language in reference to Elain, but admitted the general's assurance fanned the tiny flame of hope he was harboring.
“You know she’s totally crazy about you though, right?” Cassian asked as they resumed their training. “We’ve all seen the way she looks at you. It’s the same way you look at her.” Cassian ducked from Azriel’s swing. “And if that’s supposed to be some big secret, you may actually be a gods-awful spy.”
Azriel gave him a noncommittal huff, but his mouth curled into a small, satisfied smile.
“And with what I know about Nesta in bed and what Rhys says about Feyre, you can thank the Cauldron she’s an Archeron sister,” Cassian said, causing Azriel to pause. “It’s always the quiet ones,” he added almost wistfully.
Azriel made him pay for that comment in the ring.
. . .
That night Azriel laid in bed, turning everything over in his head. Unable to sleep and knowing dawn would break soon, he padded barefoot onto the balcony of his apartment hoping the cool air would help clear his head. A soft breeze from the sea rustled his low-slung sleep pants and swept across his bare chest.
Azriel leaned forward, resting his forearms on the edge. He tried to carefully weigh his decision, assessing the risk as he did every situation. What were the liabilities, what were the costs? What could be the ultimate reward? Azriel never allowed his shadows to report on Elain’s comings and goings, only having them keep her company when he was away. But in that moment, he wished he’d had them gather much-needed intel on where her affections might lie.
His relationship with Elain had grown to mean everything to him. While he loved the Inner Circle like family, he’d been vulnerable to Elain in a way he’d never been with anyone else. The desire to know her as more than a friend was a deep ache, but he was also aware he could lose her entirely if he ruined his one chance.
Hadn’t there been countless meaningful glances and affectionate touches? Weren’t there enough shared moments, confessions and private laughs that had connected them on a deeper level? She’d been bare and intimate with him in ways that had Azriel yearning for others.
His thoughts turned once again to that lavender box. A ticking bomb in his mind that seemed to taunt him: now-or-never, now-or-never.
Shaking him from his thoughts, Azriel felt a brush against his mind.
Am I interrupting anything? his High Lord asked. Or anyone? he purred.
Azriel gave a long-suffering sigh. What is it, Rhys?
Ooh, I’ll take that as a 'no,' he said, clicking his tongue in mock disapproval. Lucien just arrived with urgent news from Autumn.
Azriel stiffened at the name.
It would seem Beron is up to something and I need my spymaster to find out what. How soon can you be there?
Azriel silently cursed that a conversation with Elain would have to wait. That this would cost him precious time he didn’t seem to have. Within the hour, Azriel said, knowing the sooner he left the sooner he could return. Against his better judgement, he couldn’t help but add, Is Lucien staying in Velaris?
For a time; he said he has some personal business to attend. Why do you ask? the High Lord asked with a casual air.
Just keeping tabs, Azriel replied in a partial truth. He suppressed the feeling of dread at what — or who — that personal business might involve.
Rhys paused. I know you have your reasons for not tracking Lucien. And everyone but you seems to know the actual reason.
Azriel raked a hand through his hair, tussled from hours of tossing and turning. Is this going somewhere, Rhys? he asked, anxious to depart.
What I’m trying to say, brother, is we all see how perfect you and a certain seer are for one another and want you both to be happy. So stop dicking around already.
With that, Azriel closed the shields to his mind but allowed himself a small smile and thought, Prick.
Azriel knew he should go inside and prepare for his mission but first wanted to send a message to Elain. That he’d been called away for a short while and would be back as soon as he could. Azriel debated whether it should include anything else, but decided against it. He needed to tell her in person.
Before he could change his mind, Azriel took a deep breath, closed his eyes and sent his shadows out into the pre-dawn light.
Chapter 3: How Long I've Waited
The mission to Autumn took longer than Azriel had hoped, nearly a week. Wanting to get back to Velaris as quickly as possible, he traveled through the shadows and straight to the town house despite the late hour. Azriel tried to convince himself it was to give Rhys a full report in person ... and not because of the middle Archeron living under his roof.
Rhys was in his study expecting Azriel, and the two embraced as brothers before sitting across each other at the clawed mahogany desk as High Lord and spymaster. Azriel gave his typical report — comprehensive yet in as few words as needed.
“So we live in peace another day,” Rhys said with a relieved sigh as he stood. “I plan to embrace that news to the fullest and retire to the bed of a beautiful female.” His violet eyes had a wicked gleam. “I suggest you do the same.”
Azriel gave Rhys his usual unreadable expression and watched as his brother slipped his hands into his pockets and strolled to his shared bedroom with Feyre. The door clicked shut and Azriel released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
He leaned forward in his chair and pulled a small box out of the inside pocket of his leather jacket. He turned it over in his fingers, trying to focus on what was inside and not his marred hands.
He’d seen it months ago on a mission to Dawn, and it instantly reminded Azriel of her. The rose gold necklace with a delicate flower charm, a bright blue jewel in its center. When Azriel had asked the shop owner what the flower was, she told him it was a morning glory — that they represented hope and new beginnings. The owner had led Azriel outside and gestured to the scaling flowers that framed the doorway in a riot of color. Hundreds of morning glories in cobalt blue, the exact shade of his Siphons.
With each turn of the box in his hands, it seemed to grow heavier. How could such a small gesture hold so much weight? Azriel wasn’t sure which would be worse: for Elain to understand and not accept the gift — or his love. Or for her to think it was merely a token of their friendship — not even considering they could be more. He’d never given a female jewelry, but he’d also never wanted someone as much as Elain. Would he one day give her a ring?
Maybe it was being apart from her for a week or maybe it was Rhys’s words, but Azriel decided it couldn’t wait another day. He had to tell Elain how he felt. He needed to know if she missed him a fraction of how much he’d missed her. If she returned even a fragment of his affection.
With his catlike tread, he walked to the door at the opposite end of the hall and lightly knocked. There was no light peeking from underneath — had she already fallen asleep? Azriel wondered if his pounding heart would wake her. He knew he should go, but he had to see her — even if it was just for the comfort of seeing her in a peaceful slumber.
He knocked once more and slowly opened the bedroom door. Mother, don't let it be Nesta’s, he prayed silently.
Elain’s fragrance of rose water and honeysuckle immediately met him. The room was dark, but he could see by the light of the open window she wasn’t there — her bed was neatly made and his heart sank.
She wasn’t in her bed because she’d sought out someone else’s. He was too late.
Azriel felt like the wind had been knocked out of him, her scent making it all the harder to breathe. He tried to swallow as panic rose in his throat — for the first time in centuries his eyes felt the sting of tears threatening to break. He’d lost her. She’d already given herself to someone else.
As he turned to leave, a breeze from the open window rustled something that caught his eye. Hanging from the top of her full-length mirror was a dried flower crown. He froze at the memory — recalling the way her smooth hands had guided his as she showed him how to braid the stems together. He’d been self-conscious, both as an ancient Illyrian warrior and because of his mottled scars. But the gentle female would hear none of his protestations, and Azriel realized that day he’d do anything she asked with that sweet smile. He was completely and irrevocably under her spell. He assumed she’d tossed away his clumsy attempt, but there it was — the flower crown he’d made for her of blush-colored roses from her garden.
He brushed his fingertips along Truth-Teller as if to remind himself of that truth — he would do anything for her, even if that meant letting her go.
Feyre had made peace with Lucien, and he supposed the lordling was a decent male. Azriel knew he himself didn’t deserve Elain, but no one did. At least Lucien was her Cauldron-blessed mate — her supposed equal, although such a position couldn’t exist.
Still, he felt utterly hollowed by the prospect of lifetimes more of loneliness. He wasn’t sure there was enough ice left in his veins to numb his heart again after it had thawed in the warmth of Elain’s light.
Azriel went to her window to launch himself into the night sky, hoping the burning of his wings would dull the pain of his breaking heart. He would ask Rhys for a new assignment in the morning — one that would take him far away and give him distance to mourn the future he’d foolishly dared to hope for. But until then, Azriel planned to drown himself in dark liquor before his own shadows could.
. . .
Elain heard the thundering boom of wings before she saw him. She’d been waiting on Azriel’s balcony looking out at the sea, watching for his return.
When Azriel had signaled to Rhys his mission was complete and he was headed back to Velaris, the High Lord told his High Lady. Who then mentioned it to Elain with a sparkle in her gray eyes and an offer to winnow Elain anywhere she might need go. When they'd appeared on the large terrace, Elain kissed Feyre on the cheek in thanks before her younger sister disappeared into the darkness. The seer tried not to pace as she anticipated seeing him.
He landed and without breaking his stride started to lumber towards the door, a hard look on his face she’d never seen. Elain worried it wasn’t a good time, but she’d missed him too much to not at least welcome him home.
“Azriel,” she said tentatively, as she lowered the hood on her cloak so he could see it was her.
He turned around and stared at her in shock, the hard expression melting into a sort of disbelief.
“I hope you don’t mind I’m here,” she said quickly. “I heard you were coming back from Autumn and I wanted to see you. Well, I needed to see you, actually.”
Azriel kept his distance but took a small step forward. “Is something wrong?” he asked, his voice full of concern.
“No, no, nothing like that. It’s just that there’s something I’ve been needing to tell you. And with you being away this past week, it’s given me a lot of time to consider.” Elain looked down, her long lashes brushing her cheeks. “I don’t think I can go on with our friendship the way it is,” she said softly.
The flame of hope that had once again flickered at her presence was doused by those words. Azriel tried to prepare himself for the blow that was sure to come. He willed his features into a mask of impassivity yet his eyes stung with hurt.
“Elain, I understand if you don’t—”
“I love you,” she said, cutting him off. Her graceful hands were balled into fists at her side to help steel herself.
The air between them stopped moving, and he could only stare at her — certain the words he’d heard were some sort of trick of his mind.
“I'm in love with you, Az,” she said again with more confidence. “With my entire mortal heart and every fiber of my Made body ... I love you.”
Azriel cleared the distance between them in two strides, took her face in his hands and kissed her. It was like nothing she’d ever experienced. The sparks they’d felt so long between them erupted into shooting stars behind her eyes. Her mouth opened to his, and she was lightheaded with wanting.
He pulled back, breathing heavily, and met her gaze. “El, I love you more than life itself. Because before you, it held no meaning.”
A tear rolled down her cheek and he wiped it away with his thumb, her face still in his hands. “You have no idea how long I’ve waited for you,” he said quietly, resting his forehead against hers.
She put her hands on his chest and kissed him, this time softly. His hands moved down to her waist to pull her tight against him. This kiss was slow as they took their time to savor the taste and feel of each other. Elain lightly tugged his bottom lip with her teeth. That perfect bottom lip she’d imagined doing just that to countless times before. She could feel the thrumming in his chest through her palms.
“I have something for you,” she said. She undid the clasp at the top of her cloak and let it fall from her shoulders, catching at her bent elbows. Seeing the look on Azriel’s face gave her the courage to straighten her arms. The cloak slid the rest of the way down, revealing her slender frame in the sheer lace bodysuit.
Elain took a step back so he could take all of her in. Moonlight shone over every curve. In the stillness she could hear the waves crashing like her heart.
She swept her long hair forward as she turned, giving Azriel a view of her from the back. She heard his sharp intake of breath and glanced over her shoulder in invitation.
He came up behind Elain and pressed against her. His hands started at her thighs and slowly worked their way up, reveling in the feel of her smooth skin. They moved over her exposed backside and continued to climb upwards, grazing the plains of her taught stomach. She could feel his rough scars, yet his movements were graceful and sensual, each exploration causing her to shift harder into him.
Azriel buried his face in the crook of Elain’s neck, alternating between dragging his tongue and teeth across her skin. Every nerve in her body responded, and she titled her head back to give him access.
When his hands reached her breasts, a moan escaped her lips and she could feel his answering hardness from behind. Elain’s small, voluptuous breasts were more sublime than Azriel could have imagined — not that he’d admit he’d attempted on numerous occasions.
“Gods, you’re perfect,” he murmured into her hair, the first words he could manage since her cloak crumpled to the ground.
Elain turned in his arms and pressed her lips into his. “Az, I want you,” she said between breathless kisses.
She began to undress him, removing his jacket and expertly unclasping the buckles of his leathers with deft fingers. As she pulled his shirt off, she caught Azriel’s amused surprise and said, “What else was there to think about on all those quiet afternoons?”
He tipped his head back and laughed, realizing the doe-eyed gardener wasn’t quite so innocent as everyone assumed. He scooped her into his arms, the soft lace caressing his chest as her body nestled perfectly against his. “I love you, El,” he whispered in her ear and carried her inside.
Chapter 4: Pillow Talk
It was the sound of the sea that pulled Elain from her deep sleep. She wasn’t used to hearing the gentle rhythm of the tide, yet it flowed in through the open window. Still between dreams and waking, she breathed in the scent of the salt air mingled with ... midnight chilled mist and cedar. So lovely, she thought.
A soft breeze caressed the skin of her exposed shoulder. Elain normally slept in a nightgown, yet she realized she wasn’t cold. In fact, she felt warm and utterly safe, almost like she was in a cocoon of the softest leather.
Her eyes flew open.
Morning light was just beginning to flood the room and revealed Elain was nestled in the embrace of a huge, taloned wing. She felt a pleasant flush ripple through her as she grasped whose arms — and wings — she was in. This is real, she mused. After so many months of dreaming.
The strong arms around her tightened, and the evening before came rushing back in flashes of ripped lace, sweat-slicked bodies and breathless pleadings. She glanced around the bedroom, trying to find a place they hadn't been together. Elain would have to thank Feyre for the tip about fae male stamina. Indeed.
As gently as she could, Elain turned to face the still-sleeping male who held her.
Azriel’s face was more relaxed than she’d ever seen it, and the beauty took her breath away. He’d told her before of his trouble sleeping given the demands of his occupation and horrors of his past, sharing some of his darkest moments that would haunt him at night. But here he was, completely at peace and more boyish than she’d ever seen the shadowsinger — whose shadows were nowhere in sight.
The sight made Elain’s heart feel like it would burst. She smiled and curled into him, relishing the feel of his rising and falling chest beneath her. And with a contented sigh, she fell back asleep.
. . .
Late morning sunshine streamed through the windows. Azriel felt truly rested and couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept this late.
Cassian would have his ass for missing training. His first time in centuries, likely ever.
He breathed deeply and was hit with the fragrance of rose water and honeysuckle. Glancing down, he saw a tumble of honeyed golden hair and a slender arm draped across his chest.
Azriel ran the previous night back in his mind, still not quite believing he’d gone from thinking he’d lost Elain completely to her now sleeping in his arms.
His thoughts wandered back those moments in between, from when her cloak hit the ground. Their first time was gentle, and he’d worshipped her body in the way it was meant to be praised. He’d taken his time and savored every stroke and caress, learning each curve and reaction to his touch. He’d never heard anything more beautiful than the sounds she made in response. While Azriel had gone to bed with other females over the centuries, he’d never once made love. Until her.
Despite her reserved nature, Elain had no inhibitions with him. She’d opened herself completely to his lead, trusting Azriel to explore desires she didn’t even know were lying dormant — waiting for his touch to awaken. She’d turned ravenous and begged him over and over to take her over the edge. Azriel felt heat blooming in his core at the memory of leaving her for a moment to get them something to eat from the kitchen, only to turn around and find her in the doorway. He’d taken her on the counter ... and several other places on the way back to the bedroom, the food forgotten for another sort of hunger.
The seer stirred in his arms, and he stroked her impossibly soft hair. What had he ever done to deserve such a gift?
Elain looked up at him with her caramel-colored eyes, giving him one of the smiles that had gradually melted his hardened heart. “I’ve never seen your hair so tussled,” she said, reaching up to push a lock of midnight hair from his forehead with her elegant fingers.
He barked a small laugh. “You had something to do with it,” he said, smiling himself.
“I definitely did,” she responded with pride. Elain shifted to fully face him and propped herself up against his chest. She began to trace the whorls of ink across his collarbone. “Az, when did you know? About me, I mean?” she asked.
“Aside from the fact that I’ve been completely charmed by you since seeing you clutch that fork on the day we first met?” He kissed her crinkling nose. “And that I’ve always admired your quiet strength that could take down a king? To embrace a life you didn’t chose and a gift you didn’t ask for.”
His hazel eyes held hers, and she was struck that he meant every word. This Illyrian warrior truly believed she was strong.
“But the first time I realized I loved you, you weren’t even with me. I was away on a mission to the continent, and everything reminded me of you. Gods, I missed you more than I was ready to admit — although Cass tried his best to get me to crack,” he said, the skin around his eyes crinkling as he smiled. “And one night, there was a sunset that was so beautiful it made my heart ache because you weren’t there to share it with me. You’re all I think about, Ellie,” he said as he tucked a curl behind her pointed ear.
Her heart stuttered, and she leaned forward to brush his lips with hers. They shared a gentle kiss, and she twined her fingers through his hair at the back of his neck.
“You were actually the distraction on my mind when I ran into you outside the shop across the Sidra,” he said with a wry smile.
Elain gave a playful moan and tucked her face into the crook of his neck, covering her face. “Mother, the Velvet Violet,” she said, laughing. “I was so mortified that day! I was sure you knew what was in that box.”
“Oh I knew,” he said, squeezing her closer, kissing the top of her hair. “But I drove myself crazy wondering who it could be for.”
At that, Elain raised her head with a puzzled expression. “Whoever else could it have been for?” she asked. “Did you think I had,” her voice lowered, “a lover?”
Azriel gave another laugh, one that showed off the dazzling smile that left Elain breathless. “Of course the thought crossed my mind, El,” he confessed. “You’re kind, fierce and devilishly funny. And not to mention the most gorgeous female I’ve ever seen,” his thumb gently brushed her cheek. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you had a line of suitors across Prythian.”
He paused and grew quiet. “You also have a mate who was made for you. How can I come close to that?”
Emotion swirled in Elain's eyes. “You can’t possibly believe that,” she said, making sure he was truly healing her words, locking her fingers in his. “I’ve had every choice taken away from me, but I’ll be damned if the Cauldron tells me who to love. I choose you, Azriel. With all of my heart."
He pulled her in tightly. “I love you, El,” he said, his chin resting on the top of her head. They sat quietly together for some time, listening to the ocean and savoring their closeness. Finally he said, “I have something for you.”
He slipped out of bed and Elain sat up, tucking the sheet up under her arms. She smiled and bit her lip as she admired the view of him leaving the room.
When Azriel returned, he’d managed to find his undershorts (Cauldron, how was it possible to look as good in them as out of them? she wondered) and had a small box in his hand. “What’s this?” she asked.
He raised an eyebrow. “Oh now you know how it feels, wanting to know what’s in the box.” She giggled in response, and he sat on the bed beside her and held out the gift. She could have sworn she saw the shadowsinger’s hand tremble ever so slightly.
Elain lifted the lid of the box to reveal the rose gold necklace with the morning glory charm. Her pink lips formed a surprised little “o,” and her eyes searched his. “This is for me?” She’d once received jewelry from a man, but this delicate, lovely thing was the exact opposite of the cold, iron ring. “It's perfect," she breathed.
Azriel looked down, removing the rose gold chain from the box. It appeared even more delicate against his large, rough hands, which is how Elain looked in his arms.
In a flash of memory from the balcony, he watched as she turned away from him and swept her hair off her long neck. She looked back at him with invitation in her eyes. He leaned forward to slip the necklace on her and locked the tiny clasp, trailing his fingers down the length of her exposed back.
Azriel kissed her bare shoulder and reached his arms around her waist to pull her closer to his chest. He knew he could tell her anything, yet it felt even easier to share his deepest truth with this female in his embrace.
“I’ve never been sure where I belonged,” he started. “My family didn’t want me, and the Illyrians are a harsh people who never accepted my brothers or me." She leaned into him and reached back to stroke his hair. “And I spent far too many years longing after someone I knew would never return my affections because I thought I was protecting myself from being vulnerable to someone who actually would. Someone who could love all of me, even though I didn’t think it possible.”
At that she angled so she could see his face, and he kissed the tip of her ear. “I’ve been in the Court of Dreamers for a long time, but I’m not sure I ever allowed myself to truly hope. To foolishly wish or even dream for something like this.” Azriel lowered his head, as if struggling with the idea this still might not be real — that he'd awake at any moment, or Elain would realize her mistake.
She turned the rest of the way and took his face in her palms, lifting his gaze to meet hers. “Az, we’ve allowed each other to see how broken we are. But we’ve also helped heal each other. It was through showing our imperfections yet still truly seeing each other that I knew. We aren't perfect, but we're perfect together.”
And with Elain's declaration, her stomach made a rumbling pronouncement of its own. She laughed as she nuzzled her nose against his and said, “I suppose we didn't get around to eating last night." She looked up through her lashes. “Would you make me breakfast?”
Azriel reached over to grab his discarded tunic that had been tossed over the back of a chair, and helped her shrug into it. He stood and pulled Elain with him, taking her hand to lead her into the kitchen. “I want to make you breakfast every day for the rest of our long lives, Elain Archeron.”