So, I did.
Casteel made sure I didn’t run out into the late-morning sun when we stepped out onto the small alcove of a porch and saw Kieran waiting between a massive black horse—Setti—and a brown one. Setti neighed softly, shaking his glossy, black mane. Casteel slowed my steps, gradually letting me walk into the sun.
Other than enjoying the feel of it against my face, nothing happened.
I petted Setti for a moment, scratching him behind his ear as I scoured the trees around the cabin. Every so often, I saw a flash of silver or white or black among the low-hanging, gnarled branches. Brown, curled leaves and brighter, greener ones blanketed the woods surrounding the cabin. It was as if an extreme cold snap had come through, shocking the foliage. But we were in the Skotos foothills, and I could see the mist-drenched mountains looming above the trees. Wouldn’t the plant life here be used to the chilly air?
Gripping the saddle as Casteel finished strapping down the saddlebags, I lifted myself onto Setti. Once I’d situated myself, I looked over to find not only Kieran and Casteel staring at me but also a dark-skinned Atlantian. Naill had come around the side of the hunting cabin. The three of them stared as if I had done a backflip onto the horse.
“What?” I asked, touching the mess that was my hair. There had been no comb inside, and I was sure I looked as if I’d been caught in a wind tunnel.
Naill’s brows lifted as he blinked slowly. “That was…impressive.”
My brows knitted. “What was?”
“You just hoisted yourself onto Setti,” Casteel said.
“So?” The corners of my lips turned down.
“You didn’t use the stirrup,” Kieran pointed out as Naill mounted the horse that Kieran stood beside.
“What?” My frown increased. “Are you sure I didn’t?” I must have. There would’ve been no way for me to seat myself on Setti without placing my foot in the stirrup or without aid. The horse was far too tall for me to have done that, nor did I have the kind of upper body strength required for that kind of feat without a nice running start.
And I would’ve probably failed spectacularly.
“You totally didn’t,” Naill confirmed. He stared at me with a bit of wonder that I figured had more to do with the fact that I wasn’t a vampry.
“Here.” Casteel stretched up, wiggling his hands. “Get down here for a moment.”
“I just got myself up here.”
“I know, but this will only take a second.” He wiggled his fingers again. “I want to see something.”
Sighing, I placed my hands in his and let him lift me off Setti, who watched us with an air of curiosity. I really hoped that none of them expected me to seat myself again with all of them watching. “What?”
Casteel dropped my hands and stepped back. “Hit me. Hard. Like you mean it.”
My forehead creased. “Why do you want me to hit you?”
Naill folded his arms over the pommel of the saddle. “That’s a good question.”
“Hit me,” Casteel urged.
“I don’t want to hit you.”
“That would be a first,” he replied, his eyes twinkling in the sunlight.
“I don’t want to hit you right now,” I amended.
Casteel was quiet for a moment and then turned to Kieran and Naill. “Did I ever tell you guys about that time I discovered Poppy perched outside a window, clutching a book to her chest?”
My eyes narrowed as Naill said, “No, but I have a lot of questions.”
“Cas,” I started.
He shot me a slow smile of warning. “She had this book—it’s her favorite. She even brought it with her when we left Masadonia.”
“I did not,” I stated.
“She’s embarrassed about it,” he went on, “because it’s a sex book. And not just any sex book. It’s full of all kinds of dirty and unimaginable—”
I snapped forward, punching him in the stomach.
“Fuck,” Casteel doubled over with a grunt as Naill let out a low whistle. “Gods.”
I crossed my arms. “Happy now?”
“Yeah,” he exhaled raggedly. “I will be once I can breathe again.”
I rolled my eyes.
“Damn.” Casteel looked up at me, his eyes slightly wide. “You are…strong.”
“Told you,” Kieran commented. “I told you she was strong.”
A memory of Kieran telling Casteel that after I’d tried to eat him flashed. My stomach dropped as my arms loosened and fell to my sides. “You think I’ve gotten stronger?”
“Think?” Casteel laughed. “I know. You’ve always been able to hit hard, but that was something else.”
“I actually didn’t hit you as hard as I could,” I said.
He stared at me. “Well, damn.”
“Do not ask me to hit you again. I’m not going to do it,” I told him.
A slow smile crept over his face, and I tasted…lush spice against my tongue. “There is something so wrong with you,” I muttered.
A dimple appeared in his right cheek as I turned away from him. Not even a second later, he was next to me, kissing the corner of my lips. “I like that,” he said, placing his hands on my hips. “A lot.”
Flushing to the roots of my hair, I said nothing as I gripped the saddle. This time, Casteel gave me the boost I may not have needed. He swung up behind me, taking the reins. I honestly didn’t know what to think about the possibility that I was stronger. I didn’t have the headspace for it. So, I added that to the list of things to dwell on later as I turned to Naill. “Thank you.”
He stared at me, his forehead creasing. “For what?”
“For helping Casteel in Irelone. For helping me,” I said.
A grin appeared as he glanced between Casteel and I, shaking his head. “You’re welcome, Penellaphe.”
“You can call me Poppy,” I said, thinking that all who aided were those I could consider friends. It didn’t matter if they had helped because they felt obligated to Casteel or not. It didn’t matter to me.
His grin grew into a striking smile. “You’re welcome, Poppy.”
Feeling my cheeks heat again, I looked around. “Where are Delano and Jasper?” I asked as Casteel steered Setti toward the woods. “And the rest?”
“They’re all around us,” Casteel said, nudging Setti forward.
“They don’t have horses?” I frowned at the top of Kieran’s head. “Where is your horse?”
Kieran shook his head. “The trip through the Skotos will be fast and hard. It takes less energy for us to be in our wolven forms. Plus, we cover much more ground this way.”
Huh. I hadn’t known that. I watched Kieran walk ahead of us. As he neared the trees, he reached down and gripped the hem of his tunic. I realized that he was already barefoot. He pulled the tunic over his head and off. Lean muscles along the length of his back bunched, and his arm tensed as he tossed the shirt aside.
“That seems wasteful,” I muttered, watching the black tunic float for a few moments before it slowly drifted to the ground. His breeches joined it seconds later.
Naill sighed as he moved his horse forward. Shifting sideways on the saddle, he stretched out an arm as he hung low and swiped up the discarded clothing. “I should’ve just left them there so you could return to the kingdom buck-ass naked.”