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“Ouch?” I palm my butt as Leander darts past me. “Do you really have to spank me with that thing?”

He twirls a short sword in his wrist. “I’ll happily do it with my hand, if you like. Perhaps put you over my knee when you underperform?”

My stomach clenches at the image he puts in my head, and a low growl rips from him.

“Careful, little one.” His bare arms flex under the hot sun.

“You be careful!” I rush him and stab forward with the obsidian blade.

He dodges with ease and smacks my ass again with the broadside of his sword. “You’re getting a little better.”

“I’m not.” I huff and realize maybe I should’ve utilized my free gym membership at the student rec a little more. “But I will.”

“That’s the spirit.” Beth raises a skin of water in toast before drinking.

“Maybe you should try? Practice with me?” I raise my sword. “Maybe it wouldn’t be like shooting fish in a barrel the way it is for Leander.”

“You have the oddest expressions.” Beth takes another gulp.

My mouth waters.

“Focus.” Leander grabs my throat.

I drop my sword and try to pry his wrist away.

His palm tightens. “Never drop your weapon. Never. You’re a changeling in a world full of creatures that are stronger and faster. I’ve been at a tiny fraction of my usual speed with you. Don’t let it fool you.”

I reach out to smack his bare chest, but to my embarrassed horror, I can’t even reach him when he holds his arm out straight.

He smirks as I swing again and hit only air.

“Asshole!” I scratch his wrist, drawing blood.

When his pupils blow, I know I’ve screwed up.

“I’m sorry,” I squeak.

He yanks me to him, and I’m crushed in his arms as he pulls me up to his height.

“Gareth!” Beth yells.

“My mate seeks my blood.” His fangs lengthen.

“Leander, you’re doing the feral thing again.” My voice trembles.

“I will give you all you desire, little one.” His voice is low and gravelly, and I can feel his erection pressing against my thigh.

My breath quickens, and I can’t seem to focus on anything except his lips. “I didn’t mean to—”

He stops me with a kiss, his lips rough and demanding. That wire that seems to run between us tightens, and I open my mouth, letting him in, giving in to the pleasures of his mouth. I’ve never been kissed like this, never felt such a fever in my soul from the simple touch of another’s mouth on mine. How does his tongue manage to stroke mine until I’m keening and wrapping my arms around his neck? One of his hands strays to my ass and squeezes, while the other holds me steady with firm pressure on my back. I should stop this, tell him to put me down. I don’t. Instead, I wrap my legs around him and sigh as his low purr rumbles between us.

“My lord?” Gareth stands a few paces away.

“Mine,” he grits out before returning to our kiss.

“She drew blood,” Beth says amusedly.

“Damn.” Gareth steps closer, and Leander’s purr turns to a growl.

“Taylor, when a mate draws blood, it’s a… well, it’s—”

“An aphrodisiac,” Beth calls. “You may as well have licked the point of his ear or stuck your hand down his pants.”

Leander kisses down to my neck, his tongue dancing over the sensitive skin as goose bumps rise along my arms and back.

“I can take you here under the sun. Give you so much pleasure. Spend hours with my mouth between your legs, even longer with my cock deep inside you until you beg me for release.” He squeezes my ass, and my core heats, growing wet as his words set off sparks in my imagination.

“This is what I came for,” Beth crows.

“Stop that, changeling.” Gareth steps closer. “My lord. Leander. This is not the time or the place. We’re in enemy territory.”

“I can protect my mate.” He pulls the neck of my tunic down and kisses along my collarbones.

I know I should protest, should tell him to let me go. I can’t. Those words don’t come to my lips. None do. I can’t think when he’s touching me like this.

“We are exposed,” Gareth hisses. “Think of your mate’s safety!”

“He-he’s right.” It takes more effort than it should for me to force those words out.

“Taylor.” Leander runs his fangs lightly along my throat. “I want to pleasure you, to give you everything you deserve.”

“We can’t.” I shake my head, trying to snap out of it. “Gareth’s right. We need to focus on getting to the High Mountain.”

“We can do both,” Leander whispers. “I can focus on tasting you every night, while still making good time to the winter realm.”

“No.” I push away from him and glance around. Do I want my first time to be in an inhospitable red landscape with two witnesses? No, thanks. “This isn’t right.”

“I can make it right.” His lips feather across my jaw, and I want to give in so badly I start to tremble.

“Please, let me down.” I bite my lip to stop the quiver.

He growls low and long as he eases me down his body, making sure I feel every hard inch of him. When my feet hit the ground, my mind clears somewhat, and I back away. He matches each step, refusing to allow any distance between us.

Gareth advances. “Leander, how about we get the horses ready? It’s time for us to go.”

Leander whirls on him. “I am your king! We do what I say, when I say it. Unless you intend to challenge me? You come between me and my mate. Do you dare try to stake your claim on her?”

“No.” Gareth looks hurt, his brows drawing together. “I would never do such a thing. You know that. My loyalty is—and always has been—to you. I know you’re struggling right now, but this isn’t you.”

“Leander.” I put my hand on his back. “Gareth is your friend, not a rival. Stop this, okay? I don’t like it when you act this way.”

He turns to me and blinks, his pupils shrinking and his face falling. “I-I’m sorry, Taylor. I never want to disappoint you.”

“I know it’s the feral thing. And you can’t help it. But maybe try and be a little less suspicious? Poor Gareth has never been anything but kind to me, and in case you haven’t noticed, it’s pretty clear that he’d follow you to hell—err, the Spires—and back again if you asked him to.”

Taking my hand, he kisses the back with a tenderness that I’ve grown to enjoy. “Please forgive me.”

“I’m fine. Talk to Gareth.” I jerk my chin toward him.

“The horses,” Gareth offers with a grateful glance my way.

“Of course.” Leander kisses my crown and strides off, the two of them talking low. After a while, Beth and I hear them laughing, and I sag with relief as we pack up the bedrolls.

“I thought this was it.” She frowns. “I thought I was going to experience a mating and replay it in my mind whenever I got alone time.”

“That’s kind of disturbing.” I try not to laugh. It would only encourage her. Okay, so I laugh a little.

“You’re almost there, Taylor. That time was even closer than the last. When you give in—” She sighs dramatically. “It’s going to be a night to remember.”

“You have some real issues, you know th—”

“Shh!” She holds a hand out toward me.

I freeze and mouth “what?”

She taps her ear, and then I hear it—a low whistle off in the distance. Could it be a bird? Come to think of it, I haven’t seen a single speck in the sky since we’ve been in this odd red world.

Leander pounds up on Kyrin and jumps down. He doesn’t even need to say anything. We’re in danger. Again.

Beth flies into action, wrapping up camp as Leander leads me to Kyrin and lifts me with ease. With a few quick movements, he loads our supplies and climbs up behind me.

“What’s going on?” I hold on tight as we take off toward the road, Gareth and Beth at our backs.

“The Vundi.”

“They’re coming?” I peer across the empty crimson expanse.

Leander spurs Kyrin into a run. “They’re already here.”

11

Leander

They’ve been tracking us for days, ever since we emerged from the Greenvelde. But they did the same when we arrived from the winter realm, and never approached us. This time, though, is different.

Movement to my left catches my eye but disappears just as quickly. The Vundi have mastered this land, melding into the red ground as if they are part of it. I can sense them all around, hiding in plain sight.

“Ahead,” Gareth calls.

I snap my eyes forward. An entire contingent of Vundi appear on the road, seeping into view like blood from the dirt. Taylor tenses, but keeps her head up. With one arm I lift her and pivot her around my body so she rides behind me. Her arms go around my waist, and she presses her forehead into my back. I want to tell her she’s safe, but I don’t take my eyes off the Vundi or utter a word.

A leader emerges, her red scarf covering most of the tan skin of her face and leaving only her silver eyes visible.

I ease Kyrin to a stop a few yards away. Gareth is close behind, ready to shed blood if need be.

“Odd for winter realm fae to grace the Red Plains with their presence, don’t you think?” The leader keeps one hand on the hilt of a curved blade at her hip. A whip is looped on the belt that cinches her red dress close to her body.

“Only passing through.” I let one blast of coolness pulse from me, coating the air around me with tiny shards of ice.

“See, that’s a problem.” She’s smiling beneath her scarf, laugh lines appearing beside her eyes. “Because there’s a price for anyone travelling in my land.”

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