“Was my father’s,” he said, picking up where he’d left off. “He was hardly ever here, though. He left before dawn and spent the day in the fields or at the harbor. Sometimes, when he could, he’d go hunting. He liked to keep moving. I guess it’s one way we’re alike.
“At supper, he talked with the tribe. He was careful, always, to give equal time to everyone. I liked that he did that. . . . It was something Vale never did. Afterward, he’d come home with us, and he wasn’t Jodan the Blood Lord anymore. He was ours. He’d listen to us, and read to us, and we’d wrestle and play around. ” His lips pulled up in a crooked smile. “He was huge. Tall as I am, but strong as an ox. Even with the three of us trying, we could never bring him down. ” His smile faded. “But then there were other times … the times he’d show up here with a bottle. ” He tipped his head. “You know some of this already. ”
Aria nodded. She could hardly breathe. Perry’s father had blamed him for his mother’s death during childbirth. Perry had only spoken of it once to her, with tears in his eyes. Now she stood in the very house where he’d been beaten for something that wasn’t his fault.
“On those nights, usually he’d be yelling within the first hour. It got worse from there. Vale hid in the loft. Liv crawled under the table. I bore it. And that was how it went. Everyone knew, but no one did anything. When I was broken and blue, they accepted it. I accepted it. I told myself there was no better way. We needed him as Blood Lord. And he was the only parent we had. Without him, we wouldn’t have had anything. ”
She knew too well how that felt. Every day since her mother had died, she’d struggled with the idea that she didn’t have anything.
Perry shook his head. “Maybe this won’t make sense, but I feel like the Aether’s the same way. We think we need this … this land. This house. This room. . . . But it’s not the right way to live. We lost acres last night to fires, and a man I’ve known my entire life almost died. I almost did. ”
She closed the space between them in a shot and took his hands, holding on as tight as she could. As tight as she would have if she’d been at the jetty. He let out a slow breath, staring into her eyes, his grip just as tight as hers.
“We lose and lose, but we’re still here. Shaking in place, afraid of doing something. I’m tired of settling for this because I don’t know if something better exists. It has to. What point is there otherwise? I can do something about it now. And I will. ”
He blinked, the intensity in his eyes vanishing as he shifted back to the present. He laughed at himself. “That was a lot. Anyway …” He lifted an eyebrow. “You’re pretty quiet. ”
She wrapped her arms around his waist, hugging him. “Because there isn’t a word for how perfect that was. ”
Perry tucked her closer, his shoulders molding around her. They clung to each other, his chest solid and warm against hers. After a moment, he bent by her ear and whispered, “Was it champ?”
It was a word from her world, and she could tell he was smiling.
“Very. It was very champ. ” She drew back and stared into his eyes. As much as he kept to himself, he cared so deeply for others. He was a force. He was good. “You amaze me. ”
“I don’t know why. You’re getting Talon back. And you’re helping your people. It’s no different from what I’m doing. ”
“It’s different. Hess is—”
He shook his head. “You’d be doing all the same things even if he weren’t blackmailing you. Maybe you’re not sure about that, but I am. ” His hand brushed past her cheek and slid into her hair. “We’re the same, Aria. ”
“That’s the best thing anyone’s ever said to me. ”
He smiled and leaned down, kissing her softly, tenderly. She knew she should step away. This was a risk, but she didn’t care about anything except him just then. She wove her arms around his neck and parted his lips with hers, stealing a taste of him. Tenderness could wait for another time.
Perry went still for an instant; then he cinched her close, momentum sending them thudding into the door behind him. He sank against it, bringing himself closer to her height, kissing her with a sudden urgency. With a hunger that she matched. His lips moved to her neck and trailed up to her ear, and the world fell away. She gasped and dug her fingers into his shoulders, pulling him closer—
She remembered, and her hands relaxed. “Which shoulder was it, Perry?”
A grin spread over his lips. “Right now I have no idea. ”
His eyes were heavy with desire, but she saw something else. A gleam that made her suspicious.
“What?” she asked.
His hands slid to her hips. “You’re incredible. ”
“That’s not what you were thinking. ”
“Was so. I always think that. ” He leaned in, twisting a strand of her hair around his finger as he kissed her bottom lip. “But I was also wondering what you were doing around Butter today. ”
Aria laughed. That was attractive. She smelled like horse. “Do you ever miss anything?”
Perry smiled. “You, all the time. ”