Leander keeps one arm firmly around my waist as we hurtle down the road. The buildings eventually thin out, giving way to fields of unfamiliar crops and rows upon rows of flowers. Heat reflects from the blades of grass and hard dirt beneath the horses’ hooves. Everything is too warm, too beautiful. I let Leander hold me closer, his chest a comfortable wall at my back. The miles fly away under the horses’ steady gait. Deeper into the countryside we roam, the sun finally beginning to fade into a dusky twilight. I wonder again and again if this is just part of the odd dream that I must be having as I lie in the twin bed of my dorm room. But the jostling of the horse, the ache in my butt from the hard saddle, and the frequent kisses on the crown of my head from Leander tell me it’s all real.
“Is she okay?” I peek over at Lenetia.
“She’s awake.” Gareth frowns. “She’s been telling stories that would make a siren blush.”
“You love them.” Lenetia winks at me, though her face is pale. How long had she been in the dungeon when I landed there?
The horses slow somewhat as we crest a hill far outside the city that sparkles like a mirage. A deep wood sprouts up before us, the huge trees dappling the greenery beneath them with emerald light. It’s a forest from a fairy story, but does that mean there’s a wolf or worse inside?
Leander and Gareth kick off a long conversation as my eyelids finally begin to droop, the adrenaline of our escape wearing off. Leander rubs his thumb along my side in a circle. Round and round he’s been going for a few moments, the touch soft and sweet. I inhale his winter snow and roaring fires and relax against him as his voice rumbles in that oddly beautiful tongue. I’m in a strange land with an even stranger man—fae—who’s staked a claim on me.
We resume a gentler pace, heading for the forest.
“We’ll make camp in the Greenvelde Wood for the night,” Gareth says. “Then we’ll ride at dawn. It will be three weeks before we reach the border of the winter realm. Then another three to reach the High Mountain, our home.”
“Six weeks?” I clamp my eyes shut when the bridge of my nose begins to sting. “I have classes, and an exam, and my mom will eventually start looking for me and—” My breath catches in my chest as my voice rises. “And I don’t belong here.”
Leander wraps both arms around me and pulls me tight to him, his lips in my hair as he speaks low, foreign words. A tear slips down my cheek. I don’t know how he sees it, but he does, because he wipes it away.
The horses move forward again, carrying me toward the darkening forest and an uncertain fate.
Claim her, claim her, claim her, CLAIM HER. My blood thrums insistently as I settle down on my bedroll and pat the furs beside me.
Taylor has spent the past hour fretting over the other changeling, seeing to her wound, and going over a few basic fae words. I’ve been grilling Gareth for more phrases from the changeling language. More of it’s coming back to me, but I’m far from proficient.
I peer into the shadowy woods. Tiny fairies fly between the trees, chasing each other and stopping only to give us curious glances. They are far fairer than their winter realm brethren, but seem to be imbued with the same amount of mischief. We’ve already discovered some of our apples and briarberries are missing. We still managed a decent meal, though Taylor seemed unsure as I served her only the finest items from our provisions.
Gareth had laughed. “She says she can feed herself just fine.”
I’d kept on, ensuring she ate until she was full, and then tried to give her a little more. My mate would be well cared for, spoiled even. I smile at the thought and pat the furs again as Taylor rises from her spot next to the fire.
“Sleep,” I say in her language.
She points to Lenetia and says something to the effect that she’d prefer to sleep with the other changeling. A growl vibrates under my ribs.
Lenetia shoos Taylor away. “No way I’m getting between a fae and his mate. I like my head attached, thank you very much.” She says it again in English for Taylor’s benefit, then turns her back to us.
Taylor bites her lip and looks down at me, her eyes tracing my chest. I’m still wearing my tunic, even though I prefer to sleep nude. I don’t want to frighten her.
Gareth creeps around the edge of our camp, his steps silent to anyone else. My glamour camouflages our location, but it will dissipate if I fall asleep. Though, with my mate beside me, I don’t see how I can slumber.
She edges closer and babbles in the changeling language while still pointing at Lenetia. Her nerves are adorable.
“Sleep,” I tell her again, then hold my hands up, palms out. “Only sleep.” I want far more than just a night of rest with her. I’d happily claim her in front of Gareth and the changeling, such is the nature of my need for her. But she’s far too skittish for an open display.
“Just sleep?” She eyes the soft furs.
She sighs, the fatigue evident in her movements. Keeping an eye on me, she sinks down beside me and lies on her back. The swell of her breasts makes my mouth water, and the moonlight shows her hardening nipples in sharp relief. Does she have any idea what she’s doing to me? I have to shift my hips to hide my stiff cock.
“Just sleep,” she repeats and looks at me, one eyebrow raised.
“Yes.” I reach over and pull her to me.
She yelps and says something.
Lenetia pipes up from her spot by the fire with words like “mate” and “bond” and some other things I can’t understand.
“Shh.” I lie on my side so Taylor can rest her head on my arm.
She turns her head and peers at my shoulder. “The wound?”
“Heal fast.” I say as best I can in her tongue. I intend to access my memories of the changeling language while I dream.
She says something like “not possible” and a few more things I can’t catch, then she glances at the orbs floating through the forest, the fairies at play under the moonlight. She repeats “not possible” and sighs.
“Possible.” I take her hand and press it to where the wound was. “Real.”
Her skin is so warm against mine, and I can’t imagine how good it will feel to have her hands all over me.
She swallows hard and crosses her arms over her stomach. Her small body is perfect next to mine, though I can’t believe the ancestors have gifted me with such a fragile mate. Not fae, not from the winter realm—she’s not one I would have ever thought was meant for me. But just being close to her calms every bit of the raging winter wind that has always swirled inside me.
She clears her throat, her eyes still wide open.
“You can’t sleep like this. You must relax.” I run my hand over hers. The cursedly warm air prevents me from soothing her beneath luxuriant furs, but all that will change soon. Soon, she will be moaning for me as I taste her sweet honey and take my time with her delicious body.
“She can’t relax with you pawing at her,” Lenetia calls.
Pawing? I would scoff, but I’m too attuned to my mate’s worry. “Tell her she’s safe with me. Tell her I’d never harm her or take anything from her without her consent.”
The changeling grumbles but translates. The words seem to calm my mate, the tension falling away from her.
She looks up at me, her stunning eyes sparkling. My heart beats for her, if only she could hear its song. Her tongue darts out and wets her lips. My blood howls through my veins, calling her name. The sweet scent rises from between her legs, and her breaths come a little faster. She feels the same need, the desire to be one with me, she’s just too scared to give in to it.
I settle next to her and whisper. “When I claim you as mine, you will come more exquisitely than you ever have in your life, little one.”
A shiver courses through her, as if she understands my words.
I hide my smile in her fragrant hair and hold her as she eventually drifts into a peaceful sleep.
Leander cradles me all night, and I wake from dreams of crisp snow and icy lakes under a stunning blue sky. He was in them, too, but I push those memories aside.
His dark eyes meet mine, a hint of a smile on his angular face. “Sleep wet?” he asks.
“Um, what?” I scoot away, mortification turning my insides to lava. Was I so obvious? How could he tell what I’d been dreaming about? Oh my god. I press my thighs together. Can he smell me again?
“Well,” Lenetia calls as she stirs a pot over the fire. “You meant ‘sleep well.’”
“Well.” His smile grows. “Sleep well?”
I run my hand across my forehead. Sheesh. “Yes. You?”
“Well.” His hungry gaze strays down my body before catching my eyes again.
I swallow audibly and scramble up from the furs. My muscles ache from the night on the ground, and I try to stretch away the soreness as I walk to Lenetia. Leander rises and folds up the bedroll.
“You really let me down.” Lenetia stirs what looks like a bubbling stew that smells of vegetables and herbs.
My mouth waters. “Let you down?”
“I thought I was going to see some hot mating fuckery last night. All I saw was awkwardness and then sleeping.”
My cheeks turn about twenty shades of crimson. “I’m not mating.”
“You will be.” She scoops a ladle full of the stew into a wooden bowl and hands it to me. “You’ll be riding that king over there like he’s one of those stallions in no time.”
Leander walks past, a satisfied smile on his face, and straps the bedroll to his horse, Kyrin. I’m beginning to suspect he understands more English than he’s been letting on.
I lower my voice. “I’m not having sex with him, okay? I’m just trying to get back home.”
She snorts, the dirt along her cheeks cracking a little as she laughs. “Sure.”