“Hospitality is a big deal among fae.” Beth takes on a conciliatory tone with Taylor. “When Gareth said that stuff about the snobby high fae treating them better, that’s pretty much as if he smacked the Vundi across the face with his glove.”
“Oh.” Taylor hovers around the entry to the hallway where I am, as if keeping me in her view. My chest expands a bit, but I keep up my search. I must know these chambers are safe before I can let her wander.
“That tradition is why they went all welcome wagon on us?”
“Welcome wagon?” Beth asks. “You and your weird human sayings. But, yes. Now they have to play nice or have their honor besmirched forever.” She adds an echo effect on the last word.
“Forever?” Taylor laughs lightly. “Seems sort of harsh.”
“Turn away or mistreat a guest—that stuff sticks with fae. You’ll see. And they live a long time and have memories that only fade a little. They can pretty much recall anything. When they sleep, they can access memories.”
“I had no idea. That explains how Leander’s English improved so quickly overnight.”
“Yes.” Beth prattles on as I finish my sweep.
Once satisfied that the rooms are safe, I return to the common area with a tantalizing bit of information for my mate.
“Taylor.” I can’t keep the purr off the ‘r’ of her name. Not when I’m about to give her this gift.
Her breath quickens as she turns toward me. “Safe?”
“Safe.” I pull her into my arms and lean down until my lips are grazing her rounded ear.
She clutches my biceps in surprise, and then that sweet scent of hers perfumes the air and pulls my feral side to the fore. “What—”
“There’s a bath. Hot water. Fine soaps.”
Her tiny nails dig into my arms. “Are you shitting me right now? Because if you are, I might kill you.”
“No, I’m not … shitting … you. But—”
“But?” She pulls back and peers into my eyes.
I smile, knowing full well my fangs have lengthened. “It’s too dangerous for you to bathe alone.”
She swallows hard, her pupils growing as she stares up at me. “Beth can—”
“No way.” Beth leans back on the divan and closes her eyes. “I’m waiting right here until there’s food.”
“She can’t protect you.” I pull her down the hall and usher her into the bathing room. “I can.”
She walks to the ivory tub and runs her fingers through the water I’ve already poured from the fire-heated bucket above. “Oh my god.” Her tone is decadent, and I want to indulge her so much that it’s frequently on her tongue. “You can guard the door, and—”
“No, little one.” I reach behind me and pull my tunic over my head and drop it to the cool stone floor. “Not this time. I won’t risk you.”
She gawks. “What are you doing?”
I can’t help but grin when her eyes widen as she stares at my chest and abs.
I stalk to her and I admit, blow a hint of cold around her. Running my fingers along the water, I say, “So warm. It’ll go cold soon enough, and it’ll take hours for more water to heat.”
“You’re a bad man.” She eyes the water.
“Fae, little one. I’m a bad fae.” I kiss her crown.
“You really won’t leave?”
“Last time I left you alone in a bathing room …” I stop. I don’t want her to re-live Tyrios’s attack.
When she shivers, I pull her into my arms. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
“It’s okay. I mean, you’re right.”
“Yes.” She lets out a long breath and says the words I need to hear. “You can stay.”
I take a deep breath. Having Leander in the room with me won’t be so bad. He can face the wall or something while I bathe. Besides, he’s already seen me naked. Not a big deal. Fabric hits the stone floor, and I turn to find Leander climbing into the tub.
He settles down, then runs his fingers along the surface. “Come, little one, before the water goes cold.”
I slap one hand to my face. “I said you could stay. I didn’t say you could take a bath with me!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I’m bathing with you.” He leans back and spreads his knees against the sides of the tub. “Why waste the hot water? Besides, I can get you perfectly clean.”
“I can get myself perfectly clean.” I cross my arms.
I kick up my chin.
“Little one, please.”
“I already told you this body is yours.” He sounds almost hurt. “Do you think I’d use it to harm you?”
He stills. “Do you find me … unpleasant?”
“No!” I sigh. “Not at all.”
“Then why can’t we bathe together?”
“Because that’s private time. Private stuff.” I wave my hand in front of me in a way I then realize looks ridiculous. “I’ve never been naked with a man, and I don’t think—”
“That pleases me more than I can say.” He stands and steps from the tub, his arms out toward me.
I look. I. Look. And it is large. Are they all this large? And hard. Oh my god. Desire snakes through me like a poison, and I can’t look away.
He takes me in his arms. “I assumed you were coveted on earth. Men likely fell all over themselves for you.” His grip tenses, a growl in his throat. “But none of them were worthy of one such as you. You are a queen, no matter where you are.”
He clearly hasn’t realized it, but I’m no great beauty. Next to the golden Cecile, I was practically invisible. I rest my forehead against his damp chest. “Why do you say such nice things?”
“I say only the truth. And if you wish to bathe alone, I will respect your choice.” That last part comes through gritted teeth. “But I can’t leave you alone. I fear too much. Fear never lived inside me as it does now.”
“You were never afraid?” I can’t begin to fathom living a life without fear—fear of others, fear of failure, fear of the unknown. My list goes on and on.
“For my people, my soldiers, and my friends, yes. But for me? No. Now that I have you. Now that you are my heart, I am afraid all the time.”
“You don’t have to be afraid for me.”
“I can’t stop. Because if I were ever to lose you …” He buries his face in my hair. “I couldn’t survive it.”
Did I say I wanted to go home? To return to my college dorm room with the Hot Pockets and the bitch roommate? Because right now, I don’t want any of that. I want the fae standing in front of me. The one who’s baring everything, inside and out.
I step back, though the haunted look in his eyes almost breaks me. “Get in the tub.”
His face brightens, his eyebrows rising. “Do you mean—”
“Get in before I change my mind. And no funny business!”
He smiles, and my sweet stars, I can’t seem to feel my toes. Does he have a clue how gorgeous he is?
With preternatural quickness, he settles in the tub, his thick arms lying along the sides.
I fiddle with the hem of my shirt. “Don’t look, okay?”
The smile dims a bit, but he turns his head as requested. I strip down quickly and climb into the tub. The water is amazing, so warm that it almost burns. I moan as I sink down, and he pulls me so my back rests against his chest. But there’s something else lurking beneath the water.
“Um, your uh, you’ve got a … It’s kind of pressing against my … Never mind.” I turn crimson and not just from the heat.
“My apologies, little one.” He doesn’t sound the least bit apologetic. “I can control many things, but that is beyond even my magical abilities.”
A thought rebels against me, careening around my mind and whispering, “Imagine how good that would feel inside you.” I bite my lip and reach for one of the blue soaps next to the tub.
“I said I would clean you, my mate.” He grabs it with his big paws and begins to lather it up between them. “Relax. Ease your mind. I agreed there would be no amusing business, and I meant it.”
“Yes, like I said.” He scoops water into my hair with one hand.
I sigh and close my eyes. When he begins to massage the soap into my strands, I let myself go, resting against him as he meticulously rubs my scalp, washing away the worries of the road and our most recent life-or-death skirmish.
“I keep thinking about when I first saw you.” His voice rumbles through the water.
“When I was terrified?”
“You were, yes. But magnificent all the same.”
“That’s a new one. I don’t think anyone has ever called me ‘magnificent.’”
“Why did you surround yourself with fools on earth?”
I laugh. “I think you are overestimating me just a bit.”
Strong hands grab me and turn me around until Leander and I are face to face. His is stern, but there is a softness to his eyes. I’ve never seen him bestow that look on anyone else but me.
“You are far more remarkable than you give yourself credit for. Beautiful, strong, intelligent, an alchemist, no less. You are a queen. I knew it from the moment I saw you. I felt it.”
My voice sticks in my throat, and all I can manage is a soft “oh.”
“Why do you feel less than you are?”
I shrug, feeling exposed in every way possible. “I guess I just… I’m not special.”
“Who told you that?”
“I don’t know.” I do know. “People, you know?”