Wednesday after the Funhouse found Neve where she’d never expected to be.
“I think this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done,” Valorie said, setting down her wine glass.
“I feel like we’re going to get in trouble,” Caroline said, “for doing something so…”
“Normal?” Neve poured herself another glass of red then settled cross-legged on one of the cushions in Kitty’s tent, which was the largest tent that wasn’t the big top and somewhere the men weren’t likely to interrupt during the week. “I wasn’t the one who came up with the idea.”
“Still, an Arcanium book club. Is this even allowed?” Caroline asked.
“Maybe if we discuss books while tied up in shibari bondage?” Maya offered.
“I’m tied up enough. I don’t need that here.” The Spider had refused a wine glass, opting instead for the flask she’d brought in. The woman knew what she wanted.
“Me too.” With hands rather than rope, which meant Neve didn’t have to worry about rope burns, but sometimes her wrists still bruised a little, depending on how hard she struggled when guests passed by.
After the Funhouse event, the golems had provided coffee and breakfast for the road, and once in the vehicles, the cast could sleep a little while longer, but they’d still had to stumble out of the caravan and get themselves done up for the circus opening in an hour. Neve hadn’t had a good chance to breathe, away from things touching her, until Monday. With the promise that there wasn’t another Funhouse event for another three weeks, she’d take all the no-contact time that she could, even though the hands in the haunted funhouse had aroused her all over again. It was curiously relieving not to act on her desire for a few days, despite the distraction, and to have something like this to do instead.
“It’s a good idea.” Kitty had brought her knitting, which made the set-up even stranger. “I’m surprised we never came up with it before. It’s been thirty-five years since I’ve been in school. I used to read a new book every two days.”
“It hasn’t been so long for me,” Caroline said. “But it was nice to read something that I hadn’t before. And have the time to read it, you know?”
“It’s been about twenty for me. I don’t remember the last library card I had,” Valorie said.
Neve shrugged. “Anything to knock some books off my reading list. Thanks, everyone, for agreeing to it. We get so much physical stimulation around here. Yes, that kind, but also all the physical demands like contortion, tumbling, climbing… It’s been really nice to engage in some intellectual stimulation for a change.”
“Boredom is one of the biggest problems in Arcanium that no one ever talks about,” Kitty said. “We’re so concerned about the interpersonal interactions, setting boundaries and keeping ourselves and each other safe. But even when everything is as it should be, we can only fuck each other so much. Intellectual stimulation has been nicer than expected. Is it strange I thought of the world in the book as the weird one, where they don’t have to think about human-demon peace talks or circus politics? And is it bad that I laughed at some of these characters thinking they’re outsiders?”
“I think everyone feels like that,” Neve said. “Perfectly normal people feel like that, because everyone has at least one thing that isn’t ‘normal’. The Internet made finding other people with the same weirdness easier. But people are so quick to call you out if you’re even the slightest bit not normal.”
“Normal is overrated,” Joanne said.
“Normal doesn’t exist,” Kitty pointed out, literally using the pointy ends of her knitting needles for emphasis. “It’s entirely relative, and no one fits all the criteria of any normal, which makes the fact that people enforce it even more frustrating. If normal means average, a lot of terrible things are normal. If normal is simply the measuring stick, it’s a pretty narrow stick, and no one needs it rapping their knuckles every five minutes.”
“Weird is overrated, too.” The Spider, like the twins, took up a lot of room, so they got their own chairs. She stared at her flask, which Neve was pretty sure had been emptied. “Normal is Stepford. Weird is Arcanium.”
Since no one else asked, Neve did. “What’s wrong with Arcanium?” She could think of plenty of answers to the question, but she couldn’t know which the Spider would pick.
“Arcanium isn’t the worst that weird has to offer,” Kitty said quietly. “It could be so much worse, Elizabeth.”
“That’s why it’s hell.” The Spider picked up her book and turned it around in her hands. They were pretty much finished talking about it anyway. “It sucks you in, makes you complacent. You’re okay with some of the people. You can live with it. There’s room for love. But you still can’t leave. And it could be worse? That’s true of literally anything. Well, I’m sitting in fire ants, but it could be worse, I could be dunked alive in an acid bath. And here’s the thing… If it can be worse, who’s to say it won’t be someday? As much as things around here stay the same, Bell gets bored just like us, doesn’t he? And we all serve at the pleasure of Bell Madoc. What happens when Bell’s pleasure changes?”
“And on that note…” Neve swallowed down the rest of her wine, grimacing reflexively.
“I’ll toast to that,” Maya said. She drank the rest of her wine as well. Kitty gave her an odd look.
“Hear, hear,” Joanne and Jane said together, raising their glasses.
The Spider, her work there done, labored to her feet. “That’s enough from me. Same time next week? Valorie brings the wine, I’ll bring the harsh dose of reality?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Neve said.
The Spider stopped at the door. “In case you couldn’t tell, Neve, your boyfriend’s outside, and I think he’s here for you. Proximity’s a bitch, so I’m going to go get this handled. Goodnight.”
“Really?” Neve leaned forward to try to see through the open flap, but he wasn’t in her line of sight.
“You mean you couldn’t feel that?” Caroline asked. “It’s like the temperature went up ten degrees ever since he arrived.”
“I always have those temperature fluctuations. If he’s not deliberately emanating, this is how it is all the time.”
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry,” Caroline said, only half-joking.
Joanne and Jane shifted uncomfortably on their ottoman. There wasn’t any other way for them to shift, but despite their jokes in Kitty’s tent after Neve’s first night with Mikhail, both twins appeared troubled that the subject of humor was right outside the tent.
After a moment, Neve remembered that Lord Mikhail was supposed to have been obsessed with them at one point. Joking meant that he wasn’t anymore, but their expressions made Neve wonder whether they’d ever completely move on or whether moving on was just a coping mechanism in a contained environment.
Neve rested her wine glass on the vanity, for lack of anywhere near her to put it. “I’ll go take care of it.”
“Is that what they’re calling it these days?” Valorie said.
“Actually, yes, sometimes?” Maya said.
Neve followed the Spider out of the tent. Elizabeth headed right toward the midway, her walk steady—either she could hold her liquor and a flask wasn’t enough to render her tipsy or four legs were better than two when the earth decided to move.
Mikhail stood to the left, leaning against the big top canvas, which was as thick and taut as a wall.
Neve raised her eyebrows in surprise.
Ever since Bell had promised her more comfortable things to wear while ensconced in the circus and out of sight of anyone on the outside, she’d happily schlubbed around in her new collection of sweatpants, leggings, customized sports bras, cotton shirts and oversized jackets. House clothes, things that were intended for comfort rather than sexiness. She was wearing a T-shirt dress, oversized sweatshirt jacket and leggings—hardly the stuff romance was made of—and happy for it.
Lord Mikhail wore the same suit from the Funhouse event but with a tucked white shirt underneath. His hair had been tied back, exposing lines on his face that Neve swore hadn’t been there before. And his hair—which had always been black and wild, gleaming as though moussed—was liberally shot through with dark gray and silver that also salted the hair on his face.
“What prompted this?” He was even wearing shoes. She hadn’t known the circus strongman had shoes.
“Do you like it?”
“I cannot control every aspect of how I look in this form, but I can alter some of my features and I can dress like a gentleman.” He stepped forward, almost shy, and spread his arms to present himself.
“Congratulations?” He looked like he could punch someone’s head off and make wise investments at the same time. It was a good look, but it was such a far cry from the leather daddy he usually played, or even the upscale hired gun ensemble he’d sported at the Funhouse event. And the gray hair…
“Isn’t this what you want?” he asked.
“What I want? Why would you think I wanted these things? They look wonderful, Mikhail, don’t get me wrong. But why did you feel the need to change what didn’t need changing?”
“Because you will not allow me to have you except in the direst of circumstances, but you gave yourself in an instant to the wealthy man.”
Neve didn’t think she was capable of blinking so many times per minute, but she still wasn’t sure all this was actually happening and not from something Valorie had slipped in the wine. “And you think the reason I gave him a hand job instead of you is because he was older and wore a suit? I also let Lennon take me in twelve different ways when he was full-on Lovecraft, but I don’t see you turning into a wriggling monster with copious mucosal secretions.”
Mikhail lowered his arms in frustration. “But if it is not those things, then tell me what I should be for you and I will become that man.”
“You don’t get it, do you? You don’t mean to be this awkward. You really don’t get it.” Her ambivalence about Lord Mikhail suddenly became clear. “You don’t understand why I’m not falling into your arms, why you don’t get to have me whenever you want, because I’m capable of withstanding you, even though it’s difficult. You don’t understand why thinking that all you need to do is tick off some boxes so I’ll want to have sex with you is reductive, insulting and one of the chronic systemic diseases in the dating scene. Which is why I was so glad I was out of it.”
Neve scoffed, running her fingers through her hair and shaking her head. She was smiling, but more from a lack of adequate expression for her bewilderment. “You really don’t understand these things, and I think I know why.”
Mikhail glowered, but he hadn’t stormed away. “Enlighten me.”
“I’ve been on the receiving end of your seduction, so I know as well as anyone how flawless it is. But that’s all you’ve ever had to do—turn on the charm and get your way. After that, everyone dies. You know how to seduce a woman, but you’ve never had to figure out what to do afterward or what to do with a woman who doesn’t want to be with you all the time.”
“I know what I want, and I know what I need,” Mikhail said. “If it’s a matter of pleasure, you know I can fulfill you. Why do you hesitate?” Annoyance drew his eyebrows together, the furrow between them comically pronounced. “Why do you laugh?”
She tried to stop giggling, but every time she looked at him in costume as a mature, wealthy patron, it kept getting funnier and funnier.
Absurd. That’s what this is.
Still shaking her head, she went around Kitty’s tent and into Oddity Row. If he was making the other women uncomfortable, she wanted to lead him away. As she’d hoped, Mikhail followed, likely confused about why she’d laughed, why she’d left or both. In any other place in the world, she might have been wary about turning her back on a man of Mikhail’s size and strength when his intentions were so clear. Strange to have Arcanium be safe in that regard when it wasn’t in so many others.
“It was not my purpose to amuse you,” he said.
“I know. It was your purpose to sweep me up and fuck me for the sole reason that you want it and I want it, and I’m the only one available right now.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. I thought you were a practical woman. What could be more practical than yielding?” When she stopped walking away, he cupped her elbows and rested his cheek against her hair. “What is the purpose of fighting what you desire, Neve? There is no reason.”
She briefly savored the immediate electricity of contact, her nerves seeming to sway her closer to him. Then she continued toward the food court, Mikhail on her heels. “Just because the reason is emotional doesn’t mean the reason is invalid, especially when attraction is composed of many elements—one of which can be mutual respect, for instance.”
“I respect you. I wouldn’t pursue you as I do if I didn’t respect you,” Mikhail said.
“And the fact that I’m one of two people you can have nonfatal sex with in Arcanium, that’s what respect means to you? Not killing me? That’s not something you decided. That’s something that was done to me that you can take advantage of. Lady Sasha is your equal, Mikhail. I’m just a piece of ass to you. A piece of meat.”
“Now it is my turn to laugh at you.” He didn’t. He didn’t even look like he wanted to. “You keep expecting me to be human, but I’m not. You are a piece of meat to me. That doesn’t mean I do not respect you or desire to please you.”
“So you can have sex with your meat,” Neve said.
“It’s what I am!” It was the first time he’d ever raised his voice, and she put one of the food court tables between them by reflex. He stopped short at her reaction and held his hands up to calm her like she was a spooked horse in his barn. “It’s what I am,” he said more gently.
“It’s not what you are. Do you see Lady Sasha losing her mind?”
“Succubi don’t have to work as hard, and in Arcanium, she has much more meat available. She will never be as desperate as I. Her food source is secure. You like science, yes? That’s what Bell tells me. Do you need an ecology lesson from an alternative species?” He gestured to the picnic table, a surrogate student desk.
Neve complied, sitting down and spreading her fingers on the wooden top. “Your class, professor.”
“Almost every creature of this planet is created with three primary needs—food, shelter and proliferation. One might argue that food is more important than the other two, which are often sacrificed in pursuit of it. Incubi and succubi, as demons go, are hybrids with much in common with humans. We’re born of fire, but we can also be born from a human womb. Some of the demons here in Arcanium are fortunate. Not all demons need food or shelter or need to procreate. But Sasha and I, though immortal, are driven to feed, driven to spread, and driven to protect ourselves, just like human beings. Where we differ is that the sex drive and the drive to consume are one and the same.”
Neve opened her mouth, but Mikhail raised a finger to signal that he wasn’t finished. He sat down on the edge of the table and met her gaze. “You are part of a comfortable world, little girl—or you were. But even in this comfortable world, you are still driven by these needs, although you have shifted how they are achieved. Your ancestors spent most of their energy and waking hours hunting and foraging. This eventually transitioned into subsistence agriculture, then bulk agriculture. Once a small handful of people became responsible for keeping the rest fed, the others no longer needed to pursue the source of sustenance as stringently and could take on other tasks in return. A system of barter for goods and services was eventually replaced with a currency stand-in that drives commerce today. All the work your people do, at its most fundamental level, is for the purpose of affording food, shelter and sex. It is a single-minded pursuit cluttered with frivolous distractions to pretend you are no longer so primitive. If I seem single-mindedly bent on sex, Neve, it is because I am. I want to feed, little girl. I need to feed. Just tell me what you want, what you need in return, and I will give it to you.”
He was right. It was a fully pragmatic way of approaching relationships—biology and transaction. And he wasn’t wrong, as far as Neve could tell. He just wasn’t all the way right.
“Say ‘subsistence’ again,” Neve said.
It was Mikhail’s turn to blink.
“You’re a lot more eloquent when you’re trying to convince me to have sex with you. This part you’re really good at. You should teach more often, sir. ‘Pursue the source of sustenance as stringently’? You really are trying to get me into bed.”
Mikhail narrowed his eyes in suspicion. “You’re laughing at me again.”
“I’m not laughing at you. I’m amused at myself.” Neve climbed up to sit on the tabletop, putting herself more level with him. “That kind of single-minded pursuit of sustenance, as you call it, makes sense in scarcity, but the reason other things have taken the limelight is because our food sources are no longer so scarce, if you have the money for it. In addition, your food source in Arcanium is managed by Bell, creating false scarcity, and in your case, a false sense of imminent starvation. The fact is, one of the main reasons I haven’t been humping everything in sight upon arriving in Arcanium—although getting used to it was hell—is because I know it won’t kill me. If you’ve been doing this as long as you have, how on Earth have you not learned to manage the cravings that you know will be satisfied and won’t kill you if they’re not satisfied now?”
“A human’s sex drive isn’t the same―”
She held up her finger to interrupt him. “How long can you hold your breath?”
He stared at her, although he kept whatever thoughts passed through his mind a mystery. But he understood what she was really asking. “Indefinitely,” he muttered.
“If I were to touch you now, would you hold it, or would you use that contact to get what you want?” Neve hovered her hand a few inches above his, close to the bared skin of his wrist. Cufflinks glinted at the buttonholes. She had to credit his attention to detail.
He raised his fingers in response, interlocking them with hers. For a moment, lust she hadn’t felt since that all-nighter shot through her, as dangerous as a jolt of electricity. It stole the breath from her lungs and made her wonder, underneath that lust, whether this was it, whether she’d have to cut him off entirely, like an Arcanium restraining order. Then, after sucking all the air from her lungs, he pulled everything—or most of it—back, the way he’d done at the Funhouse. He panted briefly, closing his eyes from the effort. When he opened them again, they were black, glinting red, but touching him was only a little different from touching someone else she was attracted to.
“See?” Neve licked her lips and crept her fingers over the veins and tendons of his wrist.
Mikhail swallowed thickly, his hold wavering but staying strong. “Would you have me hold my breath indefinitely, then?”
“Would you?” She pulled her hand away and felt along the sleeve of the jacket, the texture its own seduction over her palm without his added help. “What if I told you that if you did, I wouldn’t mind spending time with you, providing you human company? Everyone who isn’t Lady Sasha avoids you. But if you’re like human beings, surely you also have a drive for company that isn’t just sexual.”
“A sexless relationship. Is that what you seek from me?” Mikhail said. “From an incubus?”
Neve shrugged. “Not necessarily, but why the hell not?”
She’d apparently rendered him speechless.
“You talked about sex drives. Well, most of my life, I didn’t have one,” she said. “My desire for nonsexual interaction with men hasn’t diminished just because my desire for sexual interaction has increased. But turning into a voracious nymphomaniac has made it harder to have nonsexual interaction with men, because once they know they have a good chance, they pursue, and I have to fight not to give in. And I want more than that, damn it!” She hit the table with the flat of her hand, angry out of nowhere—at men in general, at Bell, at Mikhail, at herself. “I want someone—anyone—to look at me and not see the sex they want to have. Is that so much to ask?”
A large strongman flinching was an uncommon image. “I don’t think you want me to answer that question.”
Neve slid down the table a few feet away from him. The distance between them seemed wider than that. “Is that so?”
“There are four levels by which an incubus experiences attraction,” he said quietly. “When a human is attracted to us but not us immediately to them, their attraction incites our own, triggering our magic to intensify the attraction. Two, we can create attraction in cases where neither we nor the subjects are immediately attracted to each other—with the exception of those with an incapacity for attraction.” He nodded to her. “Then there are the people who we find attractive on our own, but they initially do not. Then there are those attracted to us and we to them at the moment of meeting. That connection explodes with tension, as you well know.”
He deliberately stepped around the table closer to her. “Every time I look at you, I want you. I can mask the effects, but I can’t make them disappear. And I feel what other men want from you. With very few exceptions, no, no one can look at you without wondering what it is like to sleep with you. Women’s responses are either more nuanced or come from a place of envy. But you cannot alter how fundamentally attractive you are—across multiple generations, multiple cultures, multiple centuries of trends. You are timelessly sexy, Neve. If you’re looking for nonsexual male companionship, perhaps you should seek out a gay best friend.”
What he said gave her too many feelings, one after the other—contradictory and on completely different sides of the multiplanar spectrum of emotions. Flattery, irritation, a primal sexual heat at being so wanted rather than just needed, despair at the confirmation that she was a perpetual sexual object to strange men even outside the objectifying context of Arcanium, fury, pride, depression, grief, pleasure, nausea, gratitude…
She tried to keep all those emotions out of her voice when she said, “You really think I’m beautiful? You don’t just want everything that breathes and has breasts—and sometimes even those are optional?”
“If I had my way, Neve, no matter what restrained me, I would break through it just to bring you against me and have you in your bed, in mine, in whatever bed is closest—and only a bed, because we could stay there more comfortably all night and all morning like we did. Even though you wanted nothing to do with me when you first saw me on Oddity Row, I saw you and wanted you with a power that you couldn’t have known before Bell got his hands on your wish.”
Still careful, he closed the distance completely. He traced the frame of her face, curling her hair around his finger, then released her with visible effort—still holding back the effect of his magic as well as he could, only a stray wisp brushing her like fragrance passing on the wind. “I called then. You didn’t hear me, but when you called for me from miles away, I followed you. I’ve had many women, and I thought many of them beautiful. You are beautiful, too, Neve, but beautiful in a way that makes it hurt to desire you, to desire a woman who doesn’t want to want me. I don’t understand why or how you resist so stringently.”
She didn’t want to want him. To give in to him now would undercut everything she’d just said. But even without the full measure of his magic pulling her under like a riptide, he was wearing too much and so was she. Her mind projected the image he’d given her of him taking her back to her trailer, filling up the small hallway, filling her bed, filling her, or kicking in the door of someone else’s home and throwing her on some random bed just to wrap himself around her and sink into her all night. Or his bed. She’d never visited his trailer, a whole place that would carry his scent deep in its matter, the way everyone’s houses eventually did.
For a moment, she thought she understood what it was like to hunger for sex like a succubus—as physical a craving as for food. She wanted his taste in her mouth.
“Not a sexless relationship.” She coughed, because it had come out in a whisper. “But does every encounter between us have to be about sex? Am I really just going to be the resident Arcanium slut and that’s it? Is that all you can be for me? Is that all I can be for you?”
“What do you mean?”
“When I considered men to date, a bare minimum of what I did with them was sexual. I enjoyed contact for intimacy rather than to satisfy some sexual tension. I married my husband—my ex-husband—because I could talk with him, laugh with him, cry with him, cuddle close to him, stay up all night binge-watching TV shows with him, visit museums and national parks with him. And the entire fucking thing dissolved because I didn’t like sex with him.”
Hate-filled resentment, surprising in its once-again abrupt vehemence, gave her the strength to back away again. “Haven’t you ever wanted anything more than sex from the women you had sex with? You called their deaths a waste. That’s why you came to Arcanium. Even though you’re an incubus with a drive to consume sex, isn’t there more to your life? And if there isn’t, do you want there to be?”
Mikhail lowered himself to the bench of the picnic table, his legs comically angled because of his height. The age smoothed from his face, the gray from his hair, until he was just himself—or whatever counted for himself in this particular form. “Yes.”
Neve inhaled deeply. She’d been unaware that some part of her had been holding her breath. Then she sat next to him. “Bell clearly had the two of us in mind when he made me impervious to whatever makes your feed fatal. But I don’t want to fall into bed with you just because you won’t kill me, okay? I suggest, just as an experiment, that we suspend sex unless we’re both desperate—the point at which Bell would send you out of Arcanium to hunt. You think you’re nothing but a mindless animal, that you’re just made for sex and strength, but I’ve actually really enjoyed talking to you. You’re charming. You can be considerate. You’re not afraid of multiple syllables or evolutionary biology, overly simplistic though it can be. Maybe it sounds radical, but what if we just…dated?”
Mikhail’s expression appeared angry, but the blackness and red glow to his eyes faded until his irises alone were black. “Dated.”
“Dated. Did things that weren’t just sex. You were waiting outside the newly formed Arcanium book club. Kitty knits. Caroline watches shows with her men. Troy draws and tattoos out of his trailer. Besides attacking helpless men and women and practicing choreography with Lady Sasha, what else do you do? I know you don’t pump iron to look like that, and I’ve never seen you jog around the fence line like some people here. Is your entire life truly nothing but the pursuit of your next meal?”
“I, um…” Mikhail appeared completely taken aback by the question. It occurred to her that, like his awkwardness trying to figure out what kind of man she wanted to fuck because he’d never had to put that much energy into making himself desirable, he’d never reached a point with a woman where she’d asked him what he liked to do—standard small talk for a first date, but small talk he rarely had to employ. “I like nature series and documentaries.”
“That explains a lot. Stephen Fry or David Attenborough?”
“Attenborough, although both are calming. I… Are you honestly asking whether I want to just sit and watch nature films with you then not have sex?”
“Yes. The actual person’s version of ‘Netflix and chill,’ because who wants to get it on while watching Breaking Bad? Hemlock Grove, maybe.”
“I don’t know that one.”
“Not a fan of horror, big guy?” She slid a little closer to him until her knee touched his. That was all, but he still appeared completely confused by her signals.
“We live horror here. I see no reason to perpetuate it in my escape.”
“Fair enough. So, what say you? If you don’t want to get to know the woman you’re having sex with without killing her, you don’t have to. And if you don’t want me to know the incubus haunting me, you can keep yourself a mystery. It’s your decision. But if dating isn’t your scene, then you need to stop creeping on me and doing all kinds of sexual gymnastics to try to get me to sleep with you all the time. We’ll chalk our sexual encounters down to legitimate necessity, each of us taking impersonal advantage of the other then moving on. I don’t know about you, Mikhail, but that doesn’t sound appealing to me. Sounds more like going to the doctor to get vaccinated.”
“But no sex.”
“Your focus on that suggests it’s a sticking point…or a deal-breaker.”
“I’ve so rarely encountered people attracted and attractive to a sex demon who request that they not have sex,” Mikhail said. “If no sex is to be had, would what you ask of me be mere friendship instead?”
Neve patted his thigh. Again, he looked down at his leg as though it were covered with alien lifeforms. “There’s nothing ‘mere’ about good friendship. I have—had—male friends. The difference is in chemistry—a desire for closeness, for contact that doesn’t automatically lead to sex. It’s keeping our clothes on while stripping away the layers to the mind.” She shook her head in amusement. “Many men are presented with this journey and choose a different path. They wouldn’t think any less of you for refusing.”
Mikhail looked out toward the midway, where some glow-in-the-dark features were luminescent from a whole day of recharging. “If I say yes, must I offer you flowers?”
“You may. It’s not my preference, though.”
He scowled, but though his frustration could snap a metal wire and his anger could melt a stop sign, his expression was less dangerous. “Very well. But may I kiss you tonight? I haven’t been able to since that night, and you’ve done many things since then that made me want to kiss you.” He rested his knuckles against her cheek, but though it could have been aggressive, all he managed to portray was tenderness. “Just a kiss, I promise.”
When she licked her lips again, they and her mouth seemed bone dry, despite the fact that she’d been salivating ever since she’d stepped out of Kitty’s tent. “If you break your promise, you break so much more than that promise. Do you understand?”
Lord Mikhail nodded as he leaned in, holding his breath still.
He brought his hand to her neck, almost as though to choke her, and she flinched automatically, but he just smoothed his huge palm up her neck, caressing the length of her throat with his thumb in a gesture both possessive and unbearably intimate.
He stayed gentle, as chaste as a centuries-old incubus could be, his magic simmering under his skin. It tried to reach for her, but he kept it leashed as well as he could as he kissed her, parting his lips to savor hers. All her focus narrowed to that contact. Her nature made it electric enough, the same as it had been for every other man she’d touched, save for a thin extra layer of arousal that threatened to shift inside her—like his cock in her cunt—if he let his control slip even a little.
But other than that, kissing him was like kissing any other man, and it was still honey-sweet and sultry, early autumn instead of midwinter.
When he pulled back, both of them gasped for breath. Neve knew why she had, but Mikhail still appeared surprised by the whole affair.
“Is that how humans kiss when they date?” Mikhail asked.
“I think you’re confusing dating with romance. Sweet romance, anyway. Some like their romance spicy. Some don’t want romance at all.”
“A little bit of all three. I’m going to stop this now.” She retreated back around the table, which was a better barrier than willpower. “Not because we wouldn’t both enjoy the outcome if we stayed here, but because we’ve agreed…or I thought you had. Do you agree, then? There’s no pressure to date, Mikhail. It all seems very weird, even to me. This whole evening has.”
Mikhail crossed his arms, this time in contemplation. “Must I hold my breath indefinitely?”
She shook her head. “I’m looking for a partner, not just a sex partner. I want dating to eventually lead to sex as a natural consequence, not as an immediate given. With my appetites, is that unrealistic?”
“No,” he said quietly. “It’s merely…unprecedented.”
“Dating with sex is unprecedented for me, so we’re both in unfamiliar waters.”
“Beware, little girl. Here there be monsters.” A tentative grin.
“You don’t say.”
“I’m willing to try.” He stepped around the table, but all he did was offer his hand to shake.
Which she did.
As she turned to head back to the caravan, he slapped her ass hard.
When she spun around, shocked, he raised an eyebrow. “A little spicy, no?”
She couldn’t restrain a smile. His tentative grin broadened, caution in his black eyes, but also wonder.