The world hasn’t changed. It’s still the same. My fears, my duties still stand in complement and contrast to his own. Yet, somehow, the world seems like it’s shifted, if only slightly. Like something finally clicked into place.
“I should thank you as well. Last night was exceptional.” I finally reach for the steaming mug and bring it to my lips. I know half of the herbs in the infusion by scent alone, and confirm them and identify the rest by taste. “This is good,” I interrupt whatever Eldas was about to say next. “Did you make this blend?”
“I wish I could take credit for it.” He smiles as well and any initial awkwardness following our first night together evaporates like dew. “But, alas, I cannot, and you would likely call me out for lying the moment I tried.”
I grin. “Maybe you’ve been keeping a secret green thumb and affinity for plants from me this whole time. You kept cooking from me, after all.”
“If I had such an affinity, you think I would keep it a secret when it might endear you to me?” He chuckles. “No, this is the last of some of Alice’s blend.”
“Ah.” I stare at the tan liquid in the mug. Mint, lime rind, dried strawberry, and camellia sinensis withered under a hot sun, all dance across my tongue. “It tastes like summer.”
“Her favorite time to drink it,” he affirms. “You two would’ve gotten along.”
“It would’ve been nice to meet her.” I take another sip. The flavor has become somewhat sad and full of yearning. “I would’ve had so many questions.”
“Perhaps you could ask me?” Eldas runs one of his very dexterous fingers across the rim of his mug. I shift, my seat suddenly much less comfortable as the motion elicits memories of our night together.
“At this point, they would mostly be questions about my magic.”
“I see.” He pauses. “At this point?”
I take another long sip so I don’t have to answer right away. I have to choose my next words carefully. “At first, I may have asked how any queen put up with this situation. How no one else was as adamant about finding a…solution.”
“A way out, you mean.” The words are easy enough, but there’s a cool edge to his tone. One that I now easily interpret as hurt. He sees me as yet another person running away from him, condemning him to seclusion. His eyes fall to the journal on the table, almost accusing it for trying to take me away.
“A way to strengthen Midscape,” I insist. That’s what my mission is about now. Ensuring the safety of Midscape. Doing so is the best way to help everyone here and, moreover, it’ll be the only way to know if what I’m feeling for Eldas is real. Or if all of these deep and complex emotions are just born of proximity and the appearance of necessity.
Love is choice, I told Luke, what seems like forever ago, and I have never found it to be truer. I cannot be certain of what I feel for Eldas if I don’t choose him freely.
“But you don’t have those questions any longer?” He glances over at me through long, dark lashes.
“No, I don’t.” I wave an arm toward the grounds. “This alone is paradise. And the conservatory back at the castle is a welcome balm that would suffice between trips out here.”
“I see.” Do I hear disappointment in his tone?
“Moreover…” The second I speak, Eldas looks at me with intent. I shouldn’t have said anything. Hope has brightened his face more than the sun—more than the magic flush that coated my skin last night as we made love. “I can understand how some queens found companionship in their kings.”
I make the attempt at giving him a coquettish smile and emphasize the word “companionship.” Not love. I can’t say it just yet. What would happen if I’m successful and then return home to find I can’t leave again once I’m surrounded by my shop and patients? What if the Fade strips away these feelings from me the moment I emerge back in the Natural World? What if I do truly care for him but I can’t leave my shop again?
He would be crushed. And that is a fall I will not even risk setting him up for. Let him think this is casual enjoyment. I’m past the point of being able to guard my heart. I’m helpless for the fallout. But him? Maybe I can still spare him.
Of course, all this assumes that he feels anything for me in return. Just because he wasn’t with Rinni doesn’t mean he’s never been with a woman. His skill in bed makes it difficult for me to imagine that last night was his first time. Though…having never been with a man before, I don’t exactly have a large list of comparisons for skill.
I banish the thoughts from my mind. I refuse to imagine him being with another woman and I can’t imagine that these feelings that threatened to burn me alive last night are one-sided. For now, we’ll dangerously ignore all of those unknowns like we ignore our time together here dwindling. That’s safer for both our hearts.
Eldas chuckles, ignorant to my countless worries about what the future holds for us. “And tell me, my queen, was I a sufficient companion”—the way he says the word is a bit chilly, but with a joking edge—“to you last night? Because if you found me lacking in any way, that will be something I must immediately remedy.” He licks his wicked smile and it stirs me at my core.
“Well, you know me. I am fastidious in my collection of information on a topic. More data is necessary.”
He lets out a low growl before grabbing my face and crushing his lips against mine. I happily comply as he tugs me onto his lap. My stiff body tries to protest, but I move anyway. My legs straddle either side of him and he grinds against me.
I bite on his lower lip, which elicits a delicious sound. He rises, holding me with both hands, my legs wrapped around his waist. With a sweep of his hand and a burst of his icy magic, the cups vanish from existence. I barely notice as my back hits the small table.
He tugs at the bindings of my robe as my fingers grope at his pants in equal fervor. Why did we even bother dressing? As if we didn’t know this was what we’d end up doing.
As bare as we were last night, Eldas wastes no time. His hips crash into mine again and I let out a cry of delight. I’m filled with a deep ache and satiation at the same time. My body is exhausted, yet eager to move with him—eager for his touch.
Our moans and gasps fill the valley as all shame and hesitation is forgotten and we collectively continue to dream that insatiable dream of all we could be.
Three days too soon, the coach returns.
We packed our bags the night before and, at my insistence, stacked them by the door. Eldas refused to let me help the footman load up. So getting them ready to go was the least I could do.
As the footman begins loading the bags I wander back out through the kitchen, already like the ghost of another forgotten queen—one of many to float through this world, enjoy its pleasures, and then be swept away. I grab my elbows, looking out over the pool, remembering Eldas floating in it the afternoon prior. The sun glistening off his perfect, wet, and deliciously naked body. So delicious looking that I had to take a bite…
“Are you all right?” he asks softly. I didn’t even hear him join me outside this time.
“I wish I didn’t have to leave,” I admit.
His hands settle lightly on my hips. Eldas takes a small step closer and plants a sweet kiss in the crook of my neck.
“Duty calls, for now. But we could come back after seeing my brother.” He pauses, grips me tighter, then adds solemnly, “And after you recharge the throne once more.”
The air is already cooling around us. I am stronger than I have been in weeks, thanks to the natural magic living in this place. Strong enough that I can resist the temptation of coming back here. It was a lovely dream, and like all dreams, I have to wake up. There’s still work to be done and three-thousand-year-old cycles to end. I shake my head.
“By then it’ll be too close to the coronation.” Too close to when I will be cemented into this world and all possibility of choice along with the pursuit of truth will vanish. After the coronation, there can be no return and I will never freely explore the feelings I have for him. “We should go back to Quinnar and continue searching for the way to end the cycle.”
“Time is relentless,” he mutters. I’m forced to agree. I had told myself that my time here was a dream and I enjoyed it like one. Now, the dawn is cruel and I wonder if I will ever find another morning kind.
“Thank you for taking me here, for showing me this, for giving me rest—”
“I did not give you that much rest.” He smirks and I can’t stop myself from kissing off the expression between chuckles.
“Thank you for everything,” I whisper over his lips.
“You seem to have enjoyed yourself.” His voice has a delighted and sultry tone. He knows full well I enjoyed myself all over this place. He was the source of the majority of that enjoyment.
“It was all right.” I grin.
He releases me, aghast. “Just all right?”
“Perhaps you should work harder.” I glance over my shoulder and it’s his turn to claim my coy grin with his mouth. Our kisses are still the hungry sort that has him almost pushing me up against the wall and hiking my skirts. Even when they linger, they’re filled with desire deeper than any emotion I’ve ever known.
“Don’t challenge me,” Eldas growls, biting my lower lip and drawing forth a moan. “Or I may exceed your expectations.”
“Maybe I want that.”
“Oh, I know you want it. But can you handle it?”
Even as I look at him, determined, I shiver with delight. He’s a sensual dream of a man. The footman saves us before we give into baser instincts.
“Your Majesties.” He bows and keeps his eyes on the ground. Eldas takes a half step away from me, but his palm still rests on the small of my back. He’s not afraid to touch me in front of others anymore, a fact that I think I might like. “The coach is ready whenever you are.”