Too often, my thoughts wander to Delantis’s death. It has weighed on me each moment as we trudge along, the horses following behind. Even more than that, Vanara haunts me—the way she looked when the darkness crawled up her arm. I wince when I remember it. The darkness that came from me. Leander has given me so much comfort, but I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that something is wrong with me, and taking a life has made it even worse.
“We can camp here for a bit,” Para says as we enter a medium-sized cave covered with glowing crystals overhead. “We’re making excellent time. I didn’t intend to reach this crystal cavern so soon. After this point, we should be able to ride the horses. The ceilings are much higher.”
“Are you all right?” Leander keeps a steady hold on my hand. He’s offered to carry me about a dozen times, but I’m fine. At least I am, physically speaking.
“It’ll be nice to have a rest.” I squeeze his fingers.
He drops a kiss on my hair and strides to Kyrin, unloading our supplies with unnatural speed. Before I’ve even had time to stretch, he’s got a fur pallet set up for me.
Beth plops down on it and pats the spot next to her.
Leander frowns, but doesn’t order her away. “I’ll be back, little one.” He gives Beth a hard look. “And you will be gone so I can attend to my mate.”
“If ‘attend to’ means ‘mate with,’ I’m all for it.” She gives him a thumbs up.
I snicker despite myself. I must be tired.
He stalks off to Gareth, who’s unloading Sabre.
“Why do I always miss the good stuff?” She kicks her feet out and lies back. “Come on. Tell me what happened. Begin at the beginning.”
I lie next to her and close my eyes. Somehow, telling her about the council, the crops, Delantis, and Vanara lifts a weight from me. I suppose her exclamations of “you’re so smart” and “Delantis knew you were special” and “that bitch Vanara got what was coming to her” helped a bit. I hold back on the details about the blackness that destroyed Vanara, the way it seemed to come from somewhere inside me.
“What am I?”
“Huh?” She turns to look at me.
“Didn’t mean to say that out loud.” I sigh and snuggle deeper into the fur. Leander arranged it so I don’t even feel the stone floor beneath us.
“I know what you are.”
My eyes pop open. “What?”
“A cock block.”
I snort. “Not this again.”
“I want to see the mating.” She sighs dreamily. “Is that so wrong?”
“It kind of is, yes.”
“I bet it’ll be like, pretty much the most amazing sex ever.”
“How many men have you been with?” I blurt.
She arches a brow. “We’re going to have that conversation, are we?”
“I just.” I shrug. “You know.” I shrug again. “You don’t have to tell me.”
“Are we talking the males I slept with on purpose or the ones who …” She tries to keep her tone light, but I sense the pain beneath it. She’s such a deep river of history and layers. Maybe I’ll never get to know all of her, but it won’t stop me from trying.
I take her hand. “I’m sorry,” I whisper.
“Eh, it was a long time ago. Besides, I was more prone to getting beatings than anything else.”
My throat constricts. “I know what that’s like.”
“I had a stepfather.” My skin crawls just talking about him. “He was kind at first. Or, at least I thought he was. But then he changed. And he would …”
“Bastard.” She says it so low it verges on a Leander-growl.
“He was good at it. He knew where to hit me where it hurt but didn’t leave many marks. He’d just, I don’t know, get mad about traffic or a sports game or maybe his coffee wasn’t quite right. He would somehow work it around to being something I did, and he’d hit me. My mother never believed me when I told her. Or maybe she did.” That’s the part that draws a tear from me. Knowing that my mother likely did believe me but wanted Steve more than she wanted me. I blow out a long breath. “I’ve never told anyone about all that.”
“Sometimes, you can only tell someone who knows the pain the same way you do.” She closes her eyes but doesn’t let go of my hand.
“Where is this man now?” Leander’s lethal voice is right next to my ear, and I jump.
“Fae hearing is a bitch.” Beth sits up and glares at him. “Not to mention that you need a bell or something. Damn.”
He cups my face in his hands gently, his soft touch at odds with the murder in his midnight eyes. “Where is your father? I swear on the throne atop the High Mountain that I will find him and make him pay for—”
“He’s dead. I mean, my father died when I was really little. Steve was my stepfather.” I press my palms to his hands. “He died in a barfight when I was in high school.”
He grits his teeth. “I would kill him again.”
“I don’t think that’s a thing.” I press my forehead to his. “But I appreciate the offer.”
His gaze turns heated, and he leans into me until his lips brush mine. My heart jumps, leaps, and falls. But he catches me. He always does.
“You know I will murder any enemy you have. Send them to the Spires with a smile on my face.” He kisses me slowly, his tongue worshipping mine with slow strokes as one of his hands trails through my hair. “Any command from your lips is one I will follow until the Ancestors call me home.”
Why does his murder talk turn me on? I fear this whole “darkness inside me” thing is starting to make sense.
I shake my head. “I don’t want anyone dead.”
“Tell me what you want.” The feral fae is in control, Leander’s fangs long and his pupils blown. “I will give you an empire, a crown, every jewel you desire. You have but to ask.” He kisses me again, pulling me down into the bottomless depth of desire.
I need him in ways that I can’t comprehend, and that scares me.
I pull back and take a breath, my gaze straying to Para and Gareth, both of whom pretend to be inspecting the crystals along the ceiling. “They’re watching us.”
“So?” He moves closer until I fall back on the fur. “Let them.” His mouth claims mine again, one possessive hand sliding down to my waist.
My worries disappear, my thoughts vanish. He fills my entire world, my heart and mind. I wrap my arms around his neck as he moves on top of me.
“Leander!” I gasp when his hard length presses against my thigh, but he prevents any discussion with another wicked sweep of his tongue.
“When I claim you, little one, you will squeal with pleasure.” His feral fae growls as he palms my bottom.
“Oh my god.” I grip his hair as he pulls me against him, his thigh pressing between my legs and heightening every sensation.
“Let me claim you.” He licks my throat, his fangs tickling along my skin. “I can scent your desire, taste it.”
“Yessss,” Beth’s hiss sounds next to me.
My eyes open. “No.” I shake my head and push his chest. “Not happening.”
Beth groans. “You can’t be serious right now.”
“For once, I agree with Beth.” He stares down at me, desire writ large across his handsome face.
“I’m serious.” I sigh and roll out from beneath him, then elbow Beth.
Leander collapses face-first into the furs, and I have no doubt he and his feral are having it out inside his skull.
“Changeling, come away from there.” Gareth shoots Beth a scowl as he yanks provisions from one of the packs. “We need a meal.”
“Oh, and I’m the food preparer? Your little changeling slave to boss around?” She stands and practically bounces over to him, always happy to squabble.
Para stares at them as if she believes they might truly come to blows. I suppose it will take a while for her to get used to us.
Leander groans a little.
I pat him on the back. It’s as awkward as it sounds. “Sorry. I just need …” More time? More nerve? Less of an audience?
“I will wait for you, little one.” He turns to look at me. “I will wait as long as necessary.” He leans closer, his lips at my ear. “But I must tell you, the longer it takes, the more desperate I will be for you when I claim you.”
I shiver, and not from the chilly underground air. “I should, um. I should… Gotta go do a thing.” Climbing quickly to my feet, I hurry away.
He groans as I walk over to Para.
“Hi.” I stuff my hands into my dress pockets. “I love it when dresses have pockets, don’t you?”
“What imbecile would make a dress without pockets?” She raises one eyebrow.
“Right?” I cough and relax as the sexual tension eases.
“So, how did you learn how to use that whip?” I point to the leather looped at her hip.
“It’s a tradition for the female Vundi. The whip is the first weapon we’re taught.”
“Do you think you could teach me?”
She finally focuses on my eyes. “You’d want to learn the ways of the Vundi?”
“Sure. I don’t have anything against the Vundi. I mean, other than Vanara trying to kill me and …” My words fade away as I remember her death, the darkness that seemed to devour her.
“It’s not your fault,” she says quietly. “Vanara was beholden to a power beyond her control, and she acted foolishly.”
“The king beyond the mountain?”
“Do you know why he wants me or who he is?”
“All I know is that he is a great evil, one that will spread if the winter and summer realms don’t ally to stop him.” Her voice is backed with iron, but also resonates with a sadness I don’t understand.