When Ōkami broke away, his breath spilled from his lips in jagged slivers.

“Don’t stop,” she said without thinking.

His response was a wicked smile. Wordlessly, Ōkami rolled again, pinning her beneath his mouth, covering her with his body. He slid lower. Watched her face as he blew a cool stream of air across her bare stomach. A thread of molten amber raced down her spine.

When Mariko trembled—sparks dancing across her skin—Ōkami laughed softly.

Then he kissed her again, and it was a controlled fire on her tongue. The type that threatened to burn into a crashing, thrashing ache. The type of kiss—the type of boy—Mariko had thought to avoid at all cost. The unpredictable type. The dangerous type.

Her hands slid inside his soaked kosode to his chest. To feel the rise and fall of smooth muscle beneath her fingertips.

“Who are you?” Ōkami demanded in her ear.

Fitting how the Wolf could speak in such a cold and exacting voice. Yet kiss as he did.

With such abandon.

Mariko knew Ōkami heard each beat of her heart. Felt each of them as she did.

“I’ll tell you if you tell me,” she said, her words as bated as his.

“You’ll lie.”

She nodded. “Then we can both be liars.” Mariko waited for Ōkami to decide. For him to make the decision to fight back. Or leave the truth alone.

For now.

With a blistering look, Ōkami yanked her topknot free of its bindings. Then he kissed her beneath the chin, so softly, so gently, that it made her gasp. Made him laugh again under his breath. Made her realize that nothing was in her control.

That everything was in her control.

She tangled her fingers in his hair as their lips met. As their kiss deepened. In that moment, Mariko wanted to believe Ōkami would not tell.

At least for now.

They lay beside each other in silence, staring up at the newly uncovered stars.

Close enough to touch but fathoms apart.

Her heart had only just ceased pounding. Her breath had only just settled. All that passed between them were lingering traces of feeling.

Nothing of substance.

Ōkami was stretched out beside Mariko, offering half a smile to no one. As though he was both amused and at war with himself all at once.

“Ōkami—”

“What is your name?” he asked pointedly. “Your real name.”

Mariko thought for an instant. Trust was not an option. Not when so much still depended on maintaining secrecy. “Chiyo.”

He inhaled, the sound laced with irritation. “You’re lying. Again.”

“I am not lying, I—”

Ōkami turned toward her, his eyes locking on hers. “Don’t draw a line. Unless you wish for me to cross it.”

“Well then, don’t cross it.” Mariko’s voice was even, though her pulse skipped.

“You know me well enough to know that is not an option.”

An uncomfortable silence stretched between them.

Mariko did know him well enough to know that. Yet she still knew nothing about him. And she wished she could ask him something of note. But—as usual—the Wolf had made it impossible, using only a few simple words. And it only made her want to draw that line and push him past it.

But it was far too risky. Not when he held her secret in his grasp. And not when she’d foolishly entrusted him with a piece of her heart, if only for a moment.

As if in reminder of that fact, Mariko’s chest hollowed. She had to redeem herself for such reckless behavior. Behavior so unlike her. These stolen kisses beside these hot springs would have lasting value if she could learn something that served her greater cause. After all—even if Ōkami brought out a wild, uncontrolled part of herself Mariko had not even known existed before—he was still a member of the Black Clan.

Engender trust.

Strike when they least expect it.

“What should we do about . . . this?” she asked in a simple tone. Detached. Much like his typical demeanor. A tone that did not match the sentiments swirling within. One she hoped would prod him to reveal something—anything—of value.

Ōkami looked back toward the night sky. “Ichi-go, ichi-e.”

Mariko took a deep breath. “For this time only.”

He nodded.

“I don’t believe that’s the intended meaning behind it,” she said flatly.

“It’s the meaning I give it. Each breath exists for that one moment only. We live for that one moment only.”

She paused. “Is that how you wish to live your life? From moment to moment, without a care for the past or for the future?”

“It’s how I live my life now.”

“Is that why you choose to follow, instead of to lead?” Here was a chance for her to learn about Ōkami’s past. Perhaps even about the source of his powers.

“I have no interest in leading.”

“You are a warrior gifted with unique abilities. Does that not give you a certain responsibility?”

“I do not have the gift—or the willingness—to inspire. In battle, my only responsibility is to be the sword. The axe. The fist.”

Though Mariko tried to harness the sentiment, disappointment settled across her features.

Ōkami glanced her way. “Don’t have expectations of me. Don’t look at me and think you should be seeing something else.”

“I’ve never looked at you and expected anything.”

“Liar. You see me. Just as I see you.”

“You see nothing,” Mariko grumbled.

“I see you,” he said softly. “Exactly as you are.”

The air between them filled with all that remained unsaid. All that should be said.

Yet wasn’t.

Worry spiked through Mariko’s core, its point all too sharp. “What if—”

“Don’t.” Ōkami stood without making a sound. “Don’t ask me questions to which you don’t want the answers.”

Mariko watched as he tied his black kosode shut.

“I’ll keep your secret for now,” he said.

“Why would you do that?” She had to ask. Though she cursed herself for uttering the words.

“Because if I don’t, there are many who will not hesitate to kill you.”

It wasn’t a real answer, yet Mariko knew it was foolish to press beyond this.

Ōkami continued. “But I won’t call you Chiyo, because that is not your name. And if you ever betray us, I will not stop Ranmaru from exacting his revenge.” He paused. “I am not a hero. Don’t forget it for a moment. I will not save you again.”

Mariko sat up abruptly, her features defiant. “I don’t want you to be a hero. And I don’t need anyone to save me.”

“Good.” Ōkami walked away, his steps almost halting. Not nearly as graceful as Mariko had come to expect.

As she watched him fade into the darkness, Mariko found she did not know how to feel. She wasn’t sure if she’d kissed Ōkami to keep him silent. Or if she’d kissed him because there was nothing else to be done. Nothing else to do but succumb. All those times she’d hated him. All those times her heart had jolted in his presence.

Did she truly despise him?

Or did she desire him?

Mariko lay beneath the stars for a time. Then came to a decision.

She did not truly care about Ōkami. She was merely using him. Mariko was here on a mission. Here to discover why the Black Clan had tried to kill her. To discover who wanted her dead. And nothing—not even a boy who could kiss her senseless, could kiss her mind into silence—would ever change that.

For this time only.

Ōkami was right.

Tomorrow she would forget this had ever happened.

A LESSON TO BE LEARNED

It had been a long time since Ōkami had outright lied to his best friend.

He’d had no occasion to deceive the leader of the Black Clan. Not in many years.

Ōkami owed him too much to lie to his face. Owed him far too much to ever hide behind the ease of a lie. It wasn’t that Ōkami was averse to lying. He lied quite frequently. And with relish.

Often he lied about things that did not matter, merely for the sake of practicing the skill. After all, when one lived a lie, it became important to continue honing the art of deception whenever possible.

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