I put a hand on her arm, her brown skin smooth and warm. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. Just ready to get out of the caves.” She pulls the whip free from her hip and hands it to me. “Would you like to learn?”
“Please.” I take it and flail it around a bit. “I am the new Indiana Jones.”
“No.” She grabs my wrist. “You’ll end up without an eye doing it that way.”
“Oh.” Maybe I was a tad premature on that Indiana Jones declaration.
“Here.” She stands behind me and holds my wrist, and we’re suddenly in a romcom montage, but in this one she’s teaching me how to kill a man with a leather rope. “Like this.”
She guides my hand, and we flick out the lasso’s tip and take off a chunk of a mushroom on the cavern wall.
“Okay, that’s fun.”
“Let’s go again.” I can hear the smile in her voice.
Leander looks on from his spot on the furs, pride in his eyes as I learn the basics.
Eventually, Para seems assured I won’t put my eye out and lets me do a few strikes on my own. I manage to smack a mushroom, but don’t do any damage.
“Good work for your first lesson.” She takes the lasso and fastens it to her hip. “You learn fast.”
“Thanks for teaching me.” I have a newfound appreciation for the strength of her forearm. Mine is on fire.
“Get some rest. We’ll get going soon.” She smiles, but I can still sense that sadness in her. Is it because she had to leave Cenet?
“Come, little one,” Leander calls to me and pats the furs. “You’ve done well.”
I return to him and collapse. “I need to start lifting.”
“Weights. You know, get pumped.” I try to make a muscle with my bicep.
“I’ve been offering to pump you for weeks.” He darts in and kisses me, his tongue seeking at the seam of my mouth.
I crinkle my lips. “That was a terrible pun.”
He laughs, then rolls to his side and pulls me into his arms. “Rest your weary mind and delectable body.”
“My mind is pretty weary,” I admit and close my eyes.
“I know. I’ve been listening to your churning thoughts for the past few hours.”
The blood leeches from my face. “Oh my god. You can hear my thoughts?”
He laughs low in his throat. “Of course not. But I can feel the pressure of them, of your worries. We agreed I would carry them, so let them go.” He pulls the fur over us. “Now get a little sleep. Beth will wake us when it’s time to eat.”
I snuggle closer, already well aware of my favorite sleeping spot against his warm body.
Right as I doze off, I feel him stroke my hair and the breath of winter at my neck. “Soon, little one.”
When we emerge from the tunnels, I flinch against the sun and the pervasive heat. So different from the cool, dark caverns that run beneath the plains like spider webs. I mark the entry though it’s disguised just as well as the other entrance. All the same, I’ll be able to find it again if I ever have need of it.
The plains stretch out behind us, two dust devils dancing along the road. Kyrin surges ahead, happy to be out of the depths of Arin.
The high walls of Timeroon beckon, and beyond, I can see the white peaks of the winter mountains. The border is finally within my reach, the cold bite of winter calling to me. My joy is dimmed by the thoughts that weigh heavily on Taylor’s mind. Perhaps I was foolish to think she’d lend me her cares so that I could shoulder them for her.
I pull her hat from my pack and snug it down on her head. Maybe I can’t protect her from her thoughts, but at least I can shield her from the sun.
“Thanks.” She gives me a smile, the one I’ve come to crave.
“Of course.” I kiss the side of her neck. When her pulse quickens, I pull away, lest I tempt the feral.
“I thought I missed the heat.” Beth shades her eyes with her hand. “I was wrong. Ugh.”
“Always complaining.” Gareth digs around in the pack behind him and yanks out her hat. “Here.”
“Thanks, lover.” She takes it.
“I am not your lover.” He sounds angry. But I can sense the frustration beneath it. I’ve known him for too long. The tension between he and the changeling is the sort that could rival the heat wafting from the Spires. When they finally come together, I fear an explosion.
“Better stow that grin, king of winter,” Taylor whispers. “Gareth will blow a gasket.”
“You’re quite the diplomat.” I nip at her neck and squeeze her waist.
“When I need to be.” She grips my knee with her small hand. “Now stop the funny business before you wind up the feral.”
“The business I want with you isn’t funny at all, little one. It’s serious.” I smooth my hand up her stomach, stopping just beneath her breasts. When the memory of how she came for me in the tub surges inside me, a low growl rips from me.
“And there it is.” She sighs and threads her fingers with mine. “You’re going to get us in trouble.”
I pull her hips closer so she can feel exactly how much trouble she’s in for.
The goosebumps along her skin and the sweet scent from between her thighs tell me her walls are falling. Soon, she will be mine. Marked and mated.
“Taylor, don’t be a horny horny hippo,” she says under her breath.
“Horny hippo?” I slide my index finger along the bottom curve of her breast. “Is that a beast from your world?”
“You weren’t supposed to hear that.” She shakes her head.
Teasing her is fast becoming one of my favorite pastimes. “I want to hear more about these hippos and what the horns—”
“What form is your feral fae?” She chirps the question, her cheeks pink.
I let her get away with the subject change. “I’ve never seen it manifest, so I don’t know.”
“But you can feel it inside you?”
“It’s never been so close to the surface before. It grows stronger as I age. Our bond also feeds it, gives it power.”
“Because of the link between us. Two bonded mates are a power unto themselves.”
“But we aren’t bonded.”
Not yet. “Let’s revisit this in a few—” Movement in the red landscape has me jumping from Kyrin and drawing my sword.
Gareth hits the ground only a moment after I do. “Show yourself!”
Para’s whip lights with orange flames as she slides from her mount and crouches low, melding with the landscape. She’s almost invisible, the subtle pattern on her crimson dress creating a perfect camouflage. We could be surrounded with Vundi warriors and not know it. The thought doesn’t sit well with me, but I focus on the slight mound of scrabbly plants ahead of me.
It moves, and I raise my sword, ice crackling through my veins.
“Cenet?” Para stands, and the fire along her whip dims.
The Vundi male loosens the kerchief hiding his face and steps forward.
“What are you doing here?” She hurries to him and stows her whip.
“I wanted to make sure you emerged.” He glances up at Gareth and me. “I’m here for Para and to ensure the treaty stands.”
“You need to leave.” Gareth loosens his stance but doesn’t sheathe his blade.
“Cenet is a friend and ally.” Para turns to Taylor.
“Is he your mate?” Taylor asks.
Beth snorts. “Oh, my Ancestors, Taylor, you can’t just go around asking people if they’re mates.”
Taylor’s brows draw together, then she laughs. “That was a very ‘Mean Girls’ moment.”
“What?” Beth cocks her head to the side.
“It’s a movie. And, oh my god, I really hope we get to watch it together some day.”
“One of those moving painting things? I’m all for it. Does it have sex in it? Can you touch the people while they are inside the painting or do you—”
Gareth pointedly clears his throat, his glare unmistakable. “Cenet, we appreciate your care, but we cannot take another Vundi to the winter realm.”
“I have no plans to enter the winter realm.” He glances at Para. “Only to say my goodbyes in Timeroon.”
“It’s settled then.” Taylor motions Cenet forward. “If Para vouches for you, then you’re all right with me. Para?”
She nods. “He is a true friend.”
“Then I’m cool with it.” Taylor smiles. “He can accompany us into town.”
I climb up behind her. Gareth turns his scowl on us.
“You heard your queen. She’s ‘cool’ with it.” I guide Kyrin toward the road and the stone walls of Timeroon and keep one eye firmly on our newest companion.
The doors of the city are wide open, weary travelers covered in crimson dirt arriving while others venture forth into the plains. Soldiers stand on either side of the high, metal portico, but they don’t seem particularly invested in the goings on. Instead, they chat amongst themselves and talk to the pretty fae who often pass by. Even so, one of them stands at attention as we approach, his gaze fixed firmly on Leander.
“Captain Tavaran.” Leander nods in his direction.
“You’re back sooner than I expected.” He glances at me, then stares. “And with more cargo.”
Leander’s grip on the reins tightens, and I get the feeling he’s debating whether to flay the fae captain.
“Hi. I’m Taylor,” I blurt.
“Well met.” His silver eyes don’t stray from me.
Leander’s knuckles turn white.
I look to Gareth with a silent “help me.”
He takes the hint. “Tavaran, good to see you manning the gate.”