“Who?” The warmth in his dark eyes turns steely. “Who said such things to you?”

My mother. Steve. I try to banish the thought of him.

“What was that?”


“I could feel your fear.” He tilts my chin up so I have to meet his direct gaze. “Why are you scared?”

“I don’t want to talk about this.” I try to turn around, but he doesn’t let me go.

“Did someone hurt you?” His face turns stony. “Tell me who hurt you. I will find them, and I will make them pay.”

I reach up and run my thumb down his cheek. “You really would do that, wouldn’t you? For me?”

“I would do anything for you.” He says it with such clarity, as if it’s as simple as ‘water is wet’.

“Someone did hurt me—”

“I will—” I press a finger to his lips.

“But he’s dead. And I don’t want to talk about him while I’m naked in the tub with you, okay?”

He opens his mouth to retort, but then snaps it shut. “I will respect your wishes, but one day soon you must tell me what happened to you. Why you went hungry, who hurt you—I want to know everything.”

I know what promises mean here, how unbreakable they are, but I make one all the same. “I swear I’ll tell you everything one day.”

“I’ll hold you to that, little one.” He gently turns me back around and rinses my hair, his touches immeasurably kind. Working up another lather, he runs his wide palms along my neck and then lower down my back. He kneads as he goes, and what little tension still resides inside me spills out into the clear, warm water.

“That feels so good.”

His low purr is instant.

“You’re like a cat. Why do you purr?”

“Not a cat.” He runs his thumbs in circles along my lower back. “It’s a high fae trait. A reminder of a time when we were more animal than anything else. Mostly, it’s a signal between mates.”

“A signal for what?” I realize the answer right as the question disappears into the air.

His low, sensual laugh surrounds me. “I think you know.”

“Yes.” I decide that maybe talking is a bad idea, especially when I’m tired and saying foolish things. Not because his touch is making me have filthy thoughts. Not because his purr is vibrating in all the right places. Not because, despite the impossibility of the situation, I want him.

He lathers up the soap once more and holds his hands in front of me. “May I? Not funny business, little one. Just getting you clean.”

Not funny business? He’s asking for what, second base? If that’s not funny business, then I don’t know what is. But would it be so bad to feel his touch all over me? He’s already worked wonders on my back.

I bite my lip and relax my shoulders. “Go ahead.”

“Are you certain?”

I know what he’s asking. “Yes.”

The purr increases as he soaps my shoulders, down to my collar bones, past my necklace, and then lower to the swells of my breasts. He goes agonizingly slow, sweeping his fingers back and forth across the tops of my breasts, the soap bubbles fanning out on top of the water. I can’t seem to focus on anything but his touch, the way the pads of his fingers are callused, the way he makes my breaths hitch and my core tighten with each pass. Can anticipation kill a person?

When his fingers finally brush my hard nipples, I moan. And when he cups my breasts in his palms and rubs the stiff peaks with his thumbs? I combust.

I dig my nails into his thighs and turn my head. “Leander.” I put everything I’m feeling into that one word, and he answers it like a prayer.

His mouth crashes into mine, taking, demanding. I part my lips, relishing the sweep of his tongue against mine as he keeps one hand at my breast while the other skirts down my stomach. I can’t think, can only feel, my desire like a flame burning too bright.

When his fingers delve lower, I allow him to spread my thighs apart.

“How you please me, little one,” he growls against my lips, then claims me in another fierce kiss.

I jolt when his fingertip presses against my most sensitive spot. With another little stroke, he has me melting for him. He twists my nipple as his fingers play beneath the water, and I let my legs fall open all the way, giving him access to the parts of me no one has ever touched before.

Our kiss deepens, his tongue caressing mine as my body tightens, my mind spins around the central contact of his hands on me. I’ve never done this with another person, and his fingers on me are so much more than anything I’ve done by myself. My entire consciousness folds in on itself, everything focused on the rising tide inside me, the heat that unfurls and turns every part of me molten.

My release comes from everywhere and nowhere all at once. My thighs shake, and I moan as I fall beneath waves of pleasure, my entire being swallowed up by the perfect bliss Leander has drawn from me so easily. Stars burst in my vision as I grip his arms and moan into his mouth.

More funny business, please.

When the last tremor leaves, I’m completely boneless, floating in Leander’s grip.

I don’t protest when he turns me in the water and pulls me to him. His fangs are long, his eyes dark, and his desire hard.

“I must claim you.” His voice is lower, and I realize I’m speaking to the feral side of him. He pulls my hair, arching my back, then runs his fang along my throat. “I will pierce you, mark you so hard that no male will ever doubt whom you belong to.”

I can’t catch my breath, can’t think when he touches me like this. But I know I’m not ready.

“Leander, I can’t—”

“Just let me fill you, little one. I can give you everything you’ve ever wanted.” His voice weaves around me like a spell. “My cock was made for you. I will give it to you again and again. As many times as you want. I want to taste your pleasure on my tongue, devour you like the treat you are.”

“Oh god.” I dig my nails into his shoulders.

“Taylor, my perfect queen.” He runs his hands down my chest and cups both breasts. “I will worship you until the Ancestors call me home.”

I tremble when he feathers kisses along my neck, each touch growing more passionate. I want to give in. To say yes. To give him every part of me. But what will that mean? Being truly mated, will it change things? My mind says yes, even though my body wants to continue down this path, running into Leander’s arms and letting him give me the pleasure he promises with each kiss.

“I can’t.” I force the words past my lips.

He retakes his grip on my hair and bites my throat gently, not enough to break the skin. “I can give you so much.”

“Leander, please.”

“If I don’t claim you, other males will try to take you from me. Don’t you understand?” His growl is full of longing, wild just like the feral fae inside him.

“No one will take me.”

“I will kill any male who tries.” Another growl rips from him. “I must have you, must mark you.” His grip tightens. “It’s the only way to keep you safe.”

My scalp begins to prickle from his rough hold. “Leander, my hair.”

Like lightning, he releases me and jumps from the bath, water sluicing down his body as I grab the sides of the tub to stay upright.


“I can’t.” He clutches his chest, his fangs still long, his eyes wild. “I can’t be in here with you. The feral is too strong. I never want to hurt you. I’m so sorry, little one.”

“I’m okay.” I reach out my hand. “A little hair pulling can be fun, right?”

He doesn’t laugh, his chest heaving with his labored breaths as his magnificent body glistens with water droplets. “I’m sorry.” His tone is anguished as he turns and stalks from the bathing room, leaving me panting in the rapidly cooling water.



“She deserves better.” I cradle my head in my hands.

“You didn’t hurt her, Leander.” Gareth sits next to the dining table, his feet up on a tufted ottoman as he faces the stone entry.

“I shouldn’t have scared her like that. She said no funny business and then I—”

“Funny business?” He scratches his chin.

“You know, mating play.” I scrub a hand down my face. “But her body, the scent of her, the way she felt in my hands.”

“She’s fine, my friend. She and Beth are sleeping peacefully.” He glowers. “After they had a giggling fit or two. I think you can guess what they were talking about.”

I nod. I can hear her breathing. She’s sleeping nearest the door, lying on her right side, her hands folded beneath her cheek. I can smell the soap on her, can almost taste her.

“You kept the feral in check. That’s all that matters.” He grabs a tomato and takes a bite. The provisions the Vundi served would be considered meager in the winter realm, but here I suspect they are worth a small fortune.

Gareth finishes the stunted tomato. “Though we may need a new plan once we reach the border.”

“What do you mean?” I should eat, but I can’t. Not until I apologize more thoroughly to my mate.

“I’ve been thinking about it, and if you haven’t claimed her by the time we enter the winter realm, there may be trouble.”

“Speak plain, Gareth.” I lean back in the rough-hewn chair and rest my head against the stone wall.

“Your power will be back to normal levels. The magic will have more sway over you, and so will the feral. You could lose control. The feral might …” He trails off, but I can hear the unspoken words. He worries the feral could force the mating.

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“I know you wouldn’t, but there’s no reasoning with the feral.”

Just the thought of hurting her like that twists my insides. “It won’t come to that.”