As Mariko hunted through the underbrush—searching for a creamy white stalk and a smooth brown cap—another plant caught her attention from the cliff above. Tiny, vivid purple blossoms, suspended from their stems like bells.
Mariko remembered her tutor mentioning it once.
The plant was poisonous. When prepared properly, a tea brewed from its petals could slow a person’s heart to the point of death.
Her lips pursing in contemplation, Mariko set down her basket of mushrooms and circled the base of the cliff. When she turned the corner and glanced up, she discovered a large gathering of deep purple blossoms, suspended right above the hot springs. The foxglove had apparently burst to life after the rain, many of them still mere buds awaiting their moment to open.
I should collect the flowers. Save them for when I might have an opportunity to use them.
Again Mariko recalled her tutor’s teachings. Foxglove had more than one purpose. She briefly recollected watching her tutor experiment with the stem and seeds of the plant. He’d reduced them to a paste. Then touched the paste with the end of a lighted stick. It had flashed hot and bright—causing Kenshin’s face to startle and Mariko’s eyes to widen—before burning white and disappearing in a smokeless flame.
That day, their tutor had warned Mariko and Kenshin about the many perils of foxglove.
A plant that could kill in several different ways.
Mariko scanned the cliffs for a time, putting together a plan.
She huffed loudly. There was nothing to be done for it. If Mariko wished to collect the foxglove, she would have to scale the cliffs. She wiped her damp hands on her rain-soaked kosode—an exercise in futility—and reached for the nearest handhold to her right.
The surface of the stone was slick. As soon as she braced one foot along a ledge to heave herself up, her foot slid off. With a sigh, Mariko removed her sandals and split-toed socks, knowing her bare feet would offer better traction.
She began working her way up the cliff face to the particular outcropping littered with the most flowers. The bell-like purple blossoms trembled beneath another smattering of soft rain. Below her, steam rose from the hot springs, curling into her face and obscuring her vision. Once Mariko had made her way far enough upward, she began moving sideways, hand over hand, foot over foot.
Soon she found herself stuck a mere body’s length from the outcropping of flowers. She reached above and could not find a suitable handhold. Then she reached to one side and her fingers—damp with rainwater—slid from their perch.
Mildly alarmed at her predicament, she toed her way to the opposite side, seeking purchase.
With a screeching cry, Mariko plummeted through the air.
Into the steaming waters of the hot springs.
The instant she landed, all the air was knocked from her chest. Reflexively, Mariko gasped.
And swallowed a mouthful of hot water before passing out.
With a bemused expression, Ōkami had watched Sanada Takeo begin his climb up the mountain face.
Why was the idiot climbing upward when there were plenty of mushrooms to be had on the forest floor? It was only when Ōkami saw Takeo reach for the purple blossoms that he even began to understand.
That little fool hoped to poison someone with foxglove.
Ōkami crossed his arms.
Someone? The fool’s intended victim was likely Ōkami himself. Not that Ōkami blamed him. Were he in a similar situation, Ōkami would draw the same conclusion. At the moment, Sanada Takeo would be hard-pressed to find a bigger threat than he, even in a camp full of murderers and thieves. After all, no one else save Ōkami harbored such suspicions against the Black Clan’s newest recruit. Nor did they make the effort to spy on him.
Ōkami snorted to himself as he continued watching Sanada Takeo struggle to find a foothold. As though anyone would not recognize foxglove the instant the little shit tried to bring it into camp! Yoshi would smell the green-scented blossoms from a league away.
When Takeo began to slip, Ōkami was not the least bit surprised.
A fool’s errand often resulted in a fool’s fate.
He’d wait for the boy to fall, then take him to task. Takeo had climbed high, but it was not high enough for it to kill him. Ōkami watched, unmoved, as the boy struggled. Lost all footing. Predictably fell.
It was the sound of Takeo’s scream that tore Ōkami from his silent amusement.
It sliced through him.
The sound of Sanada Takeo’s scream.
Ōkami was already racing from behind the tree when the boy plunged into the hot springs.
And failed to surface.
Mariko coughed loudly. Wretchedly.
Warm water spilled from her mouth as she was turned onto her side. Her vision blurred, then focused.
Ōkami hovered above her, his eyes wide.
Mariko stared up at him. Their chests heaved in unison. Water dripped from Ōkami’s unbound hair into her face. He was gaping down at her, incredulous.
One of his hands rested on the center of Mariko’s chest.
Her kosode had been ripped open, the muslin bindings across her breasts bared for all the world to see.
An array of emotions passed across Ōkami’s face. Shock. Anger. Bewilderment.
Mariko had never thought she’d see so many naked feelings cross his finely chiseled face. The dark centers of his eyes had grown. Now they glistened through the swirling steam like black ice on a mountaintop.
He knows I’m a girl.
“You . . . saved me,” Mariko sputtered lamely, trying in vain to keep him from speaking. Keep him from saying anything that might cause her trouble of any kind. Even she knew how ridiculous the words sounded as she said them. How obvious.
“You . . . liar.” A mirthless smile began to take shape on Ōkami’s mouth. A smile savage in its beauty. A smile that clearly tried to mask the emotions of only a moment before.
His hand still had not left her chest. It stayed there, solid and steady. Unmoving.
Before Mariko could think—before Ōkami’s cold smile could fully form—she grasped him by the neck and pulled him toward her.
Her lips crashed into his. Warm water sluiced across her skin.
He tasted like rain and fresh mint.
And—for a breath of time—Mariko’s mind was silenced. In that single moment, there was nothing to consider. Nothing to contend with.
Nothing but a stolen kiss beneath a stormy sky.
Ōkami pulled away. “What the hell are you doing?” His words were an outraged rasp. He looked defiant.
But Mariko knew better.
Before his mind had spoken, the Wolf had kissed her back.
“I want you to stop talking,” Mariko said. Only honesty would do at a time like this. “Don’t you want to stop talking?” She tried to speak over the ragged pounding of her pulse. “Or perhaps not. Tell me—right now—what do you want, Asano Tsuneoki?”
He stared down at her. Though the color of his eyes nearly matched their centers, Mariko watched the lines between them blur. Another flurry of emotions passed across Ōkami’s face. Confusion. Trepidation. Uncertainty.
But Mariko did not miss that first thought. That first emotion.
“Do you feel ridiculous now?” she whispered.
Mariko was met with a trace of humor and a silent challenge.
She responded by stealing another kiss.
Ōkami’s hand still rested between them, his long, strong fingers pressed against her skin. And when that hand slid to her neck—when he fitted himself to her and closed his eyes, settling into the kiss—Mariko did not want to let go. Ever.
It was a mistake. All of it. For as long as she’d known him, Mariko had despised the very idea of this boy.
But the truth of him?
The truth was not quite as simple. It was a silent entreaty. A wordless plea.
Ōkami rolled onto his back, positioning her above him. He braced her chin in one hand, his lips traveling down her neck. To her bared shoulder. Back up to her ear.
The rain battered down around her. Her heart slammed against her chest. Mariko finally closed her eyes, no longer caring about anything else but the feel of him. His hands at her back. His kisses across her skin. The stars could fall—the moon could crash from the heavens—and Mariko would not care.
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