“I didn’t have a whole bottle to myself, that’s how.” He traced a finger down the groove of my spine.
I rose onto my elbows, surveying the present he’d laid out. It was rectangular and almost flat—only an inch or two thick. “I was hoping you’d forget.”
Rhys smirked. “Of course you were.”
Yawning, I dragged myself into a kneeling position, stretching my arms high above my head before I pulled the gift to me. “I thought we were opening presents tonight with the others.”
“It’s your birthday,” he drawled. “The rules don’t apply to you.”
I rolled my eyes at that, even as I smiled a bit. Easing away the wrapping, I pulled out a stunning notebook bound in black, supple leather, so soft it was almost like velvet. On the front, stamped in simple silver letters, were my initials.
Opening the floppy front cover, it revealed page after page of beautiful, thick paper. All blank.
“A sketchbook,” he said. “Just for you.”
“It’s beautiful.” It was. Simple, yet exquisitely made. I would have picked it for myself, had such a luxury not seemed excessive.
I leaned down to kiss him, a brush of our mouths. From the corner of my eye, I saw another item appear on my pillow.
I pulled back to see a second present waiting, the large box wrapped in amethyst paper. “More?”
Rhys waved a lazy hand, pure Illyrian arrogance. “Did you think a sketchbook would suffice for my High Lady?”
My face heating, I opened the second present. A sky-blue scarf of softest wool lay folded inside.
“So you can stop stealing Mor’s,” he said, winking.
I grinned, wrapping the scarf around myself. Every inch of skin it touched felt like a decadence.
“Thank you,” I said, stroking the fine material. “The color is beautiful.”
“Mmmm.” Another wave of his hand, and a third present appeared.
“This is getting excessive.”
Rhys only arched a brow, and I chuckled as I opened the third gift. “A new satchel for my painting supplies,” I breathed, running my hands over the fine leather as I admired all the various pockets and straps. A set of pencils and charcoals already lay within. The front had also been monogrammed with my initials—along with a tiny Night Court insignia. “Thank you,” I said again.
Rhysand’s smile deepened. “I had a feeling jewels wouldn’t be high on your list of desired gifts.”
It was true. Beautiful as they were, I had little interest in them. And had plenty already. “This is exactly what I would have asked for.”
“Had you not been hoping that your own mate would forget your birthday.”
I snorted. “Had I not been hoping for that.” I kissed him again, and when I made to pull away, he slid a hand behind my head and kept me there.
He kissed me deeply, lazily—as if he’d be content to do nothing but that all day. I might have considered it.
But I managed to extract myself, and crossed my legs as I settled back on the bed and reached for my new sketchbook and satchel of supplies. “I want to draw you,” I said. “As my birthday present to me.”
His smile was positively feline.
I added, flipping open my sketchbook and turning to the first page, “You said once that nude would be best.”
Rhys’s eyes glowed, and a whisper of his power through the room had the curtains parting, flooding the space with midmorning sunshine. Showing every glorious naked inch of him sprawled across the bed, illuminating the faint reds and golds of his wings. “Do your worst, Cursebreaker.”
My very blood sparking, I pulled out a piece of charcoal and began.
It was nearly eleven by the time we emerged from our room. I’d filled pages and pages of my sketchbook with him—drawings of his wings, his eyes, his Illyrian tattoos. And enough of his naked, beautiful body that I knew I’d never share this sketchbook with anyone but him. Rhys had indeed hummed his approval when he’d leafed through my work, smirking at the accuracy of my drawings regarding certain areas of his body.
The town house was still silent as we descended the stairs, my mate opting for Illyrian leathers—for whatever strange reason. If Solstice morning included one of Cassian’s grueling training sessions, I’d gladly stay behind and start eating the feast I could already smell cooking in the kitchen down the hall.
Entering the dining room to find breakfast waiting, but none of our companions present, Rhys helped me into my usual seat midway down the table, then slid into the chair beside me.
“I’m assuming Mor’s still asleep upstairs.” I plopped a chocolate pastry onto my plate, then another onto his.
Rhys sliced into the leek-and-ham quiche and set a chunk on my plate. “She drank even more than you, so I’m guessing we won’t see her until sundown.”
I snorted, and held out my cup to receive the tea he now offered, steam curling from the pot’s spout.
But two massive figures filled the archway of the dining room, and Rhys paused.
Azriel and Cassian, having crept up on cat-soft feet, were also wearing their Illyrian leathers.
And from their shit-eating grins, I knew this would not end well.
They moved before Rhys could, and only a flare of his power kept the teapot from falling onto the table before they hauled him out of his seat. And aimed right for the front door.
I only bit into my pastry. “Please bring him back in one piece.”
“We’ll take good care of him,” Cassian promised, wicked humor in his eyes.
Even Azriel was still grinning as he said, “If he can keep up.”
I lifted a brow, and just as they vanished out the front door, still dragging Rhys along, my mate said to me, “Tradition.”
As if that was an explanation.
And then they were gone, off to the Mother knew where.
But at least neither of the Illyrians had remembered my birthday—thank the Cauldron.
So with Mor asleep and Elain likely in the kitchen helping to prepare that delicious food whose aroma now filled the house, I indulged in a rare, quiet meal. Helped myself to the pastry I’d put on Rhys’s plate, along with his portion of the quiche. And another after that.
With little to do beyond resting until the festivities began the hour before sundown, I settled in at the desk in our bedroom to do some paperwork.
Very festive, Rhys purred down the bond.
I could practically see his smirk.
And where, exactly, are you?
Don’t worry about it.
I scowled at the eye on my palm, though I knew Rhys no longer used it. That makes it sound like I should be worried.
A dark laugh. Cassian says you can pummel him when we get home.
Which will be when?
A too-long pause. Before dinner?
I chuckled. I really don’t want to know, do I?
You really don’t.
Still smiling, I let the thread between us drop, and sighed at the papers staring up at me. Bills and letters and budgets …
I lifted a brow at the last, hauling a leather-bound tome toward me. A list of household expenses—just for Rhys and me. A drop of water compared with the wealth contained across his various assets. Our assets. Pulling out a piece of paper, I began counting the expenses so far, working through a tangle of mathematics.
The money was there—if I wanted to use it. To buy that st
udio. There was money in the “miscellaneous purchases” funds to do it.
Yes, I could buy that studio in a heartbeat with the fortune now in my name. But using that money so lavishly, even for a studio that wouldn’t be just for me …
I shut the ledger, sliding my calculations into the pages, and rose. Paperwork could wait. Decisions like that could wait. Solstice, Rhys had told me, was for family. And since he was currently spending it with his brothers, I supposed I should find at least one of my sisters.
Elain met me halfway to the kitchen, bearing a tray of jam tarts toward the table in the dining room. Where an assortment of baked goods had already begun to take form, tiered cakes and iced cookies. Sugar-frosted buns and caramel-drizzled fruit pies. “Those look pretty,” I told her by way of greeting, nodding toward the heart-shaped cookies on her tray. All of it looked pretty.
Elain smiled, her braid swishing with each step toward the growing mound of food. “They taste as good as they look.” She set down the tray and wiped her flour-coated hands on the apron she wore over her dusty-pink gown. Even in the middle of winter, she was a bloom of color and sunshine.
She handed me one of the tarts, sugar sparkling. I bit in without hesitation and let out a hum of pleasure. Elain beamed.
I surveyed the food she was assembling and asked between bites, “How long have you been working on this?”
A one-shouldered shrug. “Since dawn.” She added, “Nuala and Cerridwen were up hours earlier.”
I’d seen the Solstice bonus Rhys had given each of them. It was more than most families made in a year. They deserved every damned copper mark.
Especially for what they’d done for my sister. The companionship, the purpose, the small sense of normalcy in that kitchen. She’d bought them those cozy, fuzzy blankets from the weaver, one raspberry pink and the other lilac.
Elain surveyed me in turn as I finished off the tart and reached for another. “Have you had any word from her?”
I knew who she meant. Just as I opened my mouth to tell her no, a knock thudded on the front door.