Dagny looked up when Brand strolled into the kitchen nearly two hours later, shocked that he was up so soon. A smile curved his lips when he met her eyes. He wore only a pair of blue boxer briefs low on his hips, exposing the miles of taut muscle that made up his stomach and chest. Not a trace of injury remained on him.
He stopped next to Dagny and swept her hair back from her shoulder. “I’m glad you’re still here.”
She turned her face up to him. His fingers moved to trace the side of her throat and jaw. The thrill that coursed through her body at his touch made the muscles of her belly twitch.
She could feel the heat radiating off his skin. It took her a few heartbeats to form a thought coherent enough to speak. “How are you so calm?”
“You mean, why am I not thrashing myself against a wall? Your blood, I think.” He smiled down at her before continuing across the kitchen.
After pouring a mug of coffee, he boosted himself onto the counter. He watched her over the rim while he took a sip. As his eyes traveled over her, her cheeks heated. He said, “I like that shirt on you.”
Alice’s soft voice came from across the table, her tone worried. “It’s only been two hours. You were hurt so badly.”
Brand nodded to Alice and swallowed another gulp of coffee. “I’m one hundred percent, thanks to Dagny.”
The surge of pride Dagny felt was irrational, but undeniable. Brand’s eyes slid over to her, his expression amused. The fact that she relaxed so much when he looked at her got on her nerves. The corners of his mouth lifted into a knowing smile.
She grumbled, “Stop reading me.”
“I can’t. I can usually shut it down, but I haven’t been able to since last night. Not where you’re concerned.”
A tremor of concern raced through her; she had no idea how much he could actually feel from her. She closed her mouth as soon as she realized it was hanging open.
He chuckled. “Come here.”
Dagny didn’t move, but her hands clenched into fists as she fought the urge to go to him.
He made a noise in his throat. When he spoke again, his voice was lower, more controlled. “As hot as that makes me, can we save the foreplay for later? This is important.”
After a hesitation long enough to prove she was the one making the choice, she stood and crossed to him.
He cleared his throat before he began. “I want to take you out of his brood.” The flare of his power was dangerously hot, but quickly smothered. “The idea that you’re still linked to him after what he did to you is more than I can take.”
She hesitated, uncertain that her instinct to agree could be trusted. Though she didn’t want to be in Ansvarr’s brood any longer, joining Brand posed its own set of difficulties. She was used to being stronger than most males and she could use that strength to protect herself somewhat from males that wanted to harm her. Brand, much more powerful than her, had no such restrictions.
She studied Brand. He hadn’t done anything to hurt her, and he had protected Alice for a hundred years. “You could do it without asking, couldn’t you?”
His blue gaze didn’t waver from hers. “I could take you from him without your consent, yes.” He let out an explosive breath. “I don’t want to do that to you, though.”
Her throat tightened, and she swallowed to alleviate it. “Tell me why.”
His face softened, his lips curling into a smile. “I want you to come to me willingly, Dagny. Is that what you need to hear?”
She fought against the urge to run into his arms. She felt like an idiot, standing there and not saying anything, but if she opened her mouth, she was going to fall apart. Instead, she nodded.
He leaned toward her, grabbed her wrist, and pulled her into his arms. Holding her against his body, he pressed his nose to her hair and inhaled slowly. Her face rested against his bare shoulder.
He looked behind her toward where Alice sat. Dagny couldn’t tell what passed between them but, after a moment, she heard the other female withdraw from the room with near-silent footsteps. He returned his attention to her and showed his teeth in a feral grin. “Need a little blood.”
Setting his thumb under her chin, he tipped back her head. The action of baring her throat to him was enough to weaken her knees. He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her up to his mouth. He broke the skin at the side of her neck with a quick nip, teeth so sharp she barely felt the nick. The hot moisture of his caressing tongue made her melt in his arms. His lips murmured against her skin in a whisper she couldn’t comprehend but somehow understood.
She felt his Call like a bass note thrumming from deep inside her. Her wolf rushed up to meet him, and she knew that even if he hadn’t asked first, she would have gone to him. She could no more stop her wolf from joining him than she could hold back a wave on the ocean.
The full force of his power roared around her in a torrent. He lifted his head in a motion that seemed too slow. His voice reverberated off the walls. “Your blood is my blood. To the last drop, you are mine.”
The links with Ansvarr’s brood, stretched thin by distance, ripped free. A claustrophobic, mind-numbing sense of possession gripped her, lasted an instant, then eased. She gasped, held against Brand’s chest in a tight grip.
Dagny thought she was shaking, but after a few seconds, she realized it was Brand. She craned her head back to look up at him. She swallowed to clear her throat before she spoke. “What was that?”
His lips twitched. Under closed lids, his eyes moved back and forth for several seconds. “Hold on.”
The words threw open a door inside her head. Impressions from Brand flowed into her in quick succession, like a slideshow. So many strong emotions one after another, she couldn’t keep track of them all.
She fell against his chest, her mind whirling. The emotions faded, and then the links between them settled into something more normal. She could feel his presence, but little else.
He touched her cheek. “Are you okay? Your wolf made that a little difficult.”
She turned her face to him and nodded. “What happened?”
He smiled. “Don’t worry about it.”
Her irritation spiked, then eased when warmth radiated into her. “Why does it feel so different?”
He tilted his head to the side. “I’m stronger than you. You’ve probably only been in a brood with a leader weaker than you.” When she nodded, he said, “They would have tied you off, so you couldn’t wrest control from them. It put you outside the brood, so you never would have known the full linkage.”
“I didn’t know any of that.”
“None of the earls want it advertised that a stronger member could take control. That’s why a stronger male is almost never brought into a brood.”
“That’s not the only reason it feels strange.”
Something about his tone set her on edge. “What else?”
He hesitated, as if trying to find the right words. Panic seized her. Far too many links connected them, and the web of energy seemed to glow. She struggled against them, tugging with her will, but they didn’t move at all.
Brand leaned back, his face impassive. “Why are you so upset?”
“I didn’t want this.”
He grew more distant by the second, his expression darkening. “What exactly do you think this is?”
She wanted to reach out to him, but she suppressed the weak part of her that craved his attention. “I think this is a bond that will allow you to Compel me.”
He pulled farther away from her, a frown creasing his forehead. “You really believe I would do that to you?”
Memories of Ansvarr’s attempts to Compel her crept up from within. Resistance was difficult and caused tendrils of pain to radiate through her skull, but he’d never managed to overcome her wolf. He wasn’t strong enough. She curled her fists and shut the memories out.
What she believed was that brood males were untrustworthy. “I don’t know.”
He reached to touch her face, but she withdrew from him. In a soft voice he said, “You are very powerful and strong-willed, but neither can stop me. What stops me is that I don’t want to Compel you.” He dropped his hand and rubbed it against his thigh.
She examined his face and was struck by the tightness of his mouth and how it contrasted with the gentleness of his eyes. Her instincts screamed for her to believe him, but trusting him that much terrified her. “So what did you do?”
Some of the tension in his muscles eased and the corners of his mouth lifted into a brief smile. “This is a bond that hasn’t been used in a long time. Two can share the leadership of a brood as partners. You stand on equal footing with me.”
The shock of what he’d done left her dumbstruck. Females weren’t allowed to be leaders, and she couldn’t understand why he’d share his brood with her.
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