The door crashed open.
Only one creature had the ability to enter my home without my permission, and it had been more than one hundred years since she last had.
Sunlight shrouded Nikaya as though she’d brought it with her to venture into the dark. “You wouldn’t marry me.”
The quill fell from between my fingers, clattering to the desk.
She was here. After all this time, she was here.
I was tempted to have Nadine bite me to be sure that this was real. Feeling my shock, the locking of my every limb, she uncoiled from my upper arm and moved to join her mate at my shoulders, watching the doorway.
Words evaded me. Everything I’d always imagined I’d say free-falling into nothing and replaced with, “It’s lovely to see you too, darling.” The attempt at a nonchalant purr failed. But the queen of Sinshell cared nothing for my snide venom—immune after having it forced upon her many times.
Unless, of course, it had been too long.
She willed the door closed. It slammed, my sanctuary shuddering with the force. Still immune, then. “You saw him coming. That’s why you would never sell me my fate.” Each word was silk sliding over my skin, laced with an edge sharp enough to puncture. “You knew,” she seethed.
Shock decided to strangle my voice. “Nikaya—”
“No,” she hissed. “I asked you to marry me countless fucking times. Each and every time, you said no, and I thought…” She stopped when her breath caught, swallowing.
“You thought what?” I couldn’t help but prod. “That I could never tie myself to one soul? That I couldn’t commit to you?”
Nikaya said nothing. She didn’t seem to breathe, standing before the door as though she couldn’t bring herself to sink any deeper inside my lair. It should have crushed me, and it very nearly did, even after all this time, that she carried those false thoughts with her.
“You thought that because I made it so,” I said, softer now. “Because you had to.” Surely, she had to have known that by now. I was still here after all, despite my countless attempts to leave.
Her cold expression didn’t waver, her hands still at her sides, but her gold and blue gown shifted. The sky-blue bodice was tight enough to push her tits out if she didn’t grasp control of her heaving breaths.
Oh, yes. She knew.
“Why?” she finally rasped.
“Nikki, let’s not play.” Her eyes flashed with warning, and I sighed. “Fine. I’m selfish. Isn’t that what you said the last time we spoke? Oh, that’s right.” I leaned back in the chair, forcing my lips to curl as I dragged a nail across my teeth. “I seem to recall you saying that I’m nothing but a selfish witch who cares only for herself.”
I hummed. “And all because I said no to the golden princess yet again.” Her chest had stopped moving as though she’d truly stopped breathing. “I said no merely so I could fuck whomever I pleased.” I feigned uncertainty. “Correct?”
We both knew it was. I’d lived with those parting words imprinted behind my eyelids to stare at each night.
Breath left her in a rush, those high cheeks stained with a flood of color. “This isn’t what I came here for.”
She may as well have poured iced water over me. “Oh, I see.” I licked my lips, swallowing quickly and averting my eyes to the desk as a low laugh left me. “So the conversation you didn’t mean to start after more than a hundred fucking years, a conversation I never even asked for, now has to end because you remembered it’s not what you came here for? But of course, you are the queen, darling.”
“Silver, if you’d have just warned me.”
I met her eyes again, unable to look away for too long. She was here.
Fuck whatever she said, her reasons for being here. She was here, and I couldn’t not look. I’d seen her, of course, I had. We lived in the same city. But never this close. Never close enough to know if she saw me too. To look at her, scent her, hear her—a balm and a burn.
It was my turn to say, “Why?” I crossed my legs, her eyes never straying from mine, her shoulders pulled back, ever the queen she’d always been. A queen who’d taken a wrong turn and wound up in the den of her venomous past. “So you could leave me sooner? As we’ve both stated”—I gestured to myself—“selfish witch.”
She gave me that look, the one that reeked of annoyance yet endless patience, and awaited my temper. I withheld a vicious collection of curses, and released a weighted exhale instead. “I just… I didn’t think it would matter.”
“You knew how I felt,” she said with an envious amount of calm, her jaw unlocking.
I had. I’d known, yet I’d also known better. “Exactly. So there was little point in both of us being heartbroken before he showed up to make you feel all better.”
Her abrupt laughter was winter sunshine, crisp and startling in the way it evoked memories to arrive and flood.
Her breathy laughter filling my mouth, vibrating over my chest, drowning at the apex of my thighs with a sigh so loaded I’d nearly ruptured at the first teasing swipe of her tongue…
“That’s what you thought?” My snakes began to writhe as Nikaya sobered and cursed. “That in wanting him, I would no longer want you?”
I blinked, erasing the heated fog of the past for this cold, still shocking present. “Mating bonds are powerful things,” I muttered. “Not that I’d know.” We both knew a creature such as myself, neither faerie nor human, would never encounter a bond of the soul.
Yet I’d never had the heart to tell her that I had. That if what I felt couldn’t compete, wasn’t just as powerful, then perhaps I’d been handed a lifelong curse.
“You’re not selfish,” she said between her teeth, “but you are a fucking fool.”
Steel infused my spine, and I straightened. “Is that so?” I half laughed. I’d nearly forgotten how much I enjoyed seeing her riled—the way her anger would melt those eyes into a gold so deep, they came close to matching the honeyed strands of her long hair. “Do tell how it could have all worked out perfectly then.”
Said hair was pulled back into a tight bun at the nape of her slender neck, a style I’d often seen her wear whenever I’d caught brief sightings of her. I longed to slide my fingers over her scalp and tear all that hair free of its rigid confines, watch it spill around her marble cheeks and those silken shoulders, over her ample chest…
“It wouldn’t have, and you can say that you did, but we will never truly know that for certain.” She ripped me from my imaginings with brutal reality. “All these years, I’d thought you were fine and that you’d moved on time and time again.”
“Well,” I hemmed, unapologetic as I purred, “I have. Numerous times indeed.”
She didn’t so much as flinch. “He was my mate.”
“And I’m truly sorry for your loss.” I meant every burning word. I might not have lost Nikaya to the next life, but I’d lost her all the same.
There was nothing more excruciating than loving what you could not have.
Ignoring me, seemingly, she said again, “He was my mate. I wanted him, of course, I did, but that doesn’t mean I ever stopped wanting you.”
My lungs squeezed, all air lost. I couldn’t do this. Her. Here. Standing in the doorway to my safe place, the only place that gave me refuge from her—from them—from all of it. “Didn’t you need something, Nikaya?”
“Yes,” she said, not missing a beat, as though losing her husband and mate had given her such courage—the knowledge that no time should be wasted. My snakes had not given me her timeline, they knew better. But we all knew time was the enemy, especially grieving immortals.
“Yes,” she said again, and finally, her feet moved. As though floating, she came closer, stopping right before the desk.
So close. Too close. Not close enough.
“What I need, what I’ve needed for over a hundred fucking years, is my best friend.”
Acid infiltrated my bones, every part of me weakening. “I’m not doing this—”
“You left me,” she said, her voice brittle. “You left me thinking the worst, and you just left me.”
Anger sparked, my snakes hissing. I reached up, smoothing my trembling fingers over Nadine’s head. “You were not alone.” Not like me, I didn’t say.
She faltered, mouth closing until her tongue slipped out to wet her lips. As though she could hear what I didn’t say. “No.” Another cool laugh. “No, I had my mate, the one you knew would arrive. The one you refused to forewarn me about in all our years together. Instead, you waited. You waited just to tell me no one last time days before my wedding, and then you fucked a human.”
My stomach curdled at the memory. I refused to let it show, and forced a small smile. “He claimed he was a magician, and you needed to be mad.”
Her hands slammed on the desk, and she bent forward, her glare inescapable. “I needed my insane friend.”
“To warn you? Please—”
“To just be my fucking friend, Silver. I…” she straightened, and I wanted to snatch her wrist, urge her to come back. “I was terrified.”
“So was I, though not for reasons you knew.” Her lips parted as she frowned down at me. I cleared my throat. “You didn’t come here for this. Your daughter is in Vordane.”
“Not for much longer.”
I grinned, recognizing the encroaching storm in her smooth words. “You’ve got yourself a plan?”
“Your snakes didn’t tell you?” Her tone was mocking, eyes flicking to them briefly.
“Opal’s fate is locked, as good as sealed.”
Nikaya couldn’t keep from grimacing. “I don’t care.”
My smile deepened. She never had—that was why I’d had to care for the both of us. “Your family has done enough meddling. All those attempts to turn the tide, yet it still rolls in.”
Unperturbed, though she’d already lost so much, she said, “Will you help me or not?”
It was disconcerting, to say the least. Not only that she was here but that she was so enmeshed in her grief and hatred she would risk all she had left. Of course, I’d help her. It was painfully clear she would doom herself regardless, but if I was there, perhaps I could lessen the blow.
There was no way I could allow her to face the vengeance sworn king alone. To walk out that door alone and into a fate I hadn’t dared to glimpse.
Against that very door. Hands in her hair, hers at my cheek and waist, holding tight—bruising. My tongue sliding between the seam of her lips, slowly, unhurried yet desperate as they parted and her head tilted. Her thigh around my waist as I’d pressed her into the door, her nightgown sliding up, up, up until I could squeeze my hand between us to find her bare of undergarments and wanting…
Neville’s tongue flicked at my ear, and I willed my eyes away from the door, the heat in my veins to cool, and sank back into the chair.
Nikaya still watched me, waiting with that unending patience, determination exposing the faint lines upon her beautiful face. She was desperate enough to seek out her past. Indeed, she had no one else, but staring up at her, I realized it was more.
A peace offering. An olive branch. I should have ignored it, snapped and shredded it, but after all these years, I’d learned that ignoring love wouldn’t erase it.
That stare softened marginally, those copper eyes steady on mine.
No, ignoring her existence had resulted in no change at all. Unless I counted the ice chipping away, shard by sharp shard, from my heart with every second she stared at me like that—like she couldn’t remove her eyes. Not because she feared my hesitancy but because she feared I’d disappear again.
“What do you need?”
She said with utter seriousness, “Let’s start with a cage for a beast, and please, I beg of you, to have it ready and waiting before it weds my daughter in two days’ time.”
I blinked, then laughed when I realized she was indeed serious. “Stars, I’ve missed you.”
Again, her gaze moved to the snakes perched upon my shoulders. “Nadine and Neville?”
“They’re still pissed off.”
My long-lost queen laughed, her head tilted back with the force of it. It was rusted from evident disuse of late, a little wet with her barely veiled emotions, but it was the same.
Exactly as I’d dreamed—exactly as I’d imagined it would sound when she returned to me.
Twenty-five years later….
“A picnic?” Merelda slid the basket across the counter, her brow raised. “With our king.”
I rummaged through the contents, bread, fruit, cheese, and Dade’s dried meats and sugar daisies, then closed it. “Yep.”
“Dade,” she said as if she needed further confirmation. “Heading out for a picnic.”
“Yes, I’m taking him down to the river.” I wasn’t sure why she was so perplexed. Perhaps she was unaware of all the times I’d dragged him to the river before, not for a picnic, but just merely to walk and to see the gardens, the crawling greenery along the banks.
It was then also likely she was unaware that once a month, I took him to have tea with the elves, and every other full moon, we went swimming in the creek in the woods. Though, we were often naked with the latter, so I hoped she hadn’t any knowledge of that particular outing.
I didn’t bother informing her, content to let her believe we spent all our time running the kingdom and having sex in our rooms.
Merelda’s eyes pressed upon me, burning with curiosity. I ignored her. “Thank you.”
“My queen,” she called when I’d reached the stairs. I peered over my shoulder, and she smiled in a truly terrifying yet beautiful way. A rarity, so I smiled back until she said, “Congratulations,” and returned to her scones.
I forced my gaping mouth closed and clambered up the stairs, hurrying down the hall when I heard Dade and Fang talking near the grand staircase.
Fang bowed and offered a flash of his teeth. “Good day to you, my queen.”
I narrowed my eyes at him, the gleam in his and his tone arousing suspicion. “And to you,” I said back, my tone dry.
He chuckled and disappeared around the stairs, presumably heading to the back of the Keep.
“What is wrong with him?”
Dade was eyeing the basket in my hands. “What is right with him should be the question,” he murmured, and I snorted as he stole the basket from me. “Sausage?”
“Among other things.” I took his hand, interlocking our fingers. “Ready?”
“Always.” Then his face scrunched adorably. “Just us?”
I withheld the urge to trap his lips with mine. “Yes, no elves today, though I’m sure Beshal will be offended if we do not visit soon.”
His shoulders sagged with relief. “I’m sure she’s fine.”
I hauled him outside before someone came looking for either of us, the moss and ivy cloaking the fountain glistening under the overcast sky. We rounded it, the cobblestone from the circular drive melding into the pathway to the slow-sloping hills that unfolded to the river. We weren’t even halfway there, the Keep growing too small at our backs, when anxiety decided to set in.
I tried to hide my fidgeting fingers in my lavender gown, clenching the material, knowing the one Dade held was clammy but unwilling to release him to wipe it clean. He would know something was wrong, if he didn’t already.
I steered us toward the grassy riverbank when Dade tugged at my hand. “This way,” he said, leading us to the privacy of a willow tree.
Beneath the dazzling, shimmering curtain, he set the basket down by a patch of wildflowers, and we took a seat beside it. I busied myself with selecting fruits to snack on, Dade stealing a cluster of grapes and chewing slowly as he watched me set out the meats on a small plate.
He cursed, and my hands instantly jumped, sending the food to the grass. “I cannot do this anymore.”
My stomach sank and soured. “What do you mean?”
Gesturing to the basket, the field of wildflowers, and the river below, he said, “This. You’re so on edge it’s eating at my fucking skin.” I scowled, and he grinned, then tossed the grapes to the grass and pulled me onto his lap. “You do realize you’ve brought me out here to tell me something I already know, of course?”
Embarrassment crept into my cheeks, raced down my neck to bloom over my chest. Dade’s eyes followed, heating, then shot to mine as he swept my hair over my shoulders so he could trace the red over my skin. “So beautiful.”
“That stars-damned nose,” I muttered, and tore at the stem of a wildflower beside me while he chuckled. “When?” I demanded more than asked. “When did you know?”
He pulled me closer until I could feel him hard and throbbing against me. A low hum rumbled up his throat, coated my lips, his hand leaving my hip to crawl up my back into my hair. “The moment I spilled myself inside you.”
Clasping his cheeks, I reared back, disbelief sharpening my words. “You did not.”
Another chuckle, deeper, swathed in desire. “Swan, when you agreed to quit the tonic, I knew it would happen immediately.”
I narrowed my eyes, then gasped and squeezed his cheeks. “That is but a fable.” That males, crimson wolf males to be precise, could will conception with their desire for it upon releasing their seed inside a female.
His raised brow and the situation in my womb said it was not. “You mean to tell me that you knew I was with child,” I stated, feigning offense, “for weeks now, and you did not say a word?”
He hadn’t been acting differently. He was always prone to watching my every move, seeking me out when mere hours had passed, and forcing me to eat when I’d gotten distracted.
I felt my eyes widen when I recalled the sudden lack of wine in the Keep and the tender way he’d been making love to me. So gentle, so sweet—not abnormal, yet he’d refused to take me over my desk, on any surface other than our bed. “You’re a rotten sneak, savage.”
“I know,” he said, eyes glittering in the sun. “I know, but can you blame me? I didn’t want to rob you of the treat of anticipation as you waited to see if you’d bleed, nor did I want to say anything too soon in case it did not stick.”
I smiled. “You should’ve known they would be as stubborn as their father.”
He gifted me with another grin at that, then it fell, and my own widened so hard it hurt. “They?”
I laid my forehead upon his, murmuring, “The healer says we carry twins.”
As though the sun was slowly creeping out from behind a cloud, his mouth curved into a smile so magnificently breathtaking, I could only stare. “I did not know that.”
I burst into a fit of laughter, howling into his neck as he shook beneath me with his own.
When I’d told him not long after the war that I wished to wait to start a family, he had accepted it with nothing but understanding. “You are young.”
“We are both still so young,” I’d said, to which he’d just smiled as though he didn’t care a thing for age if it meant it would cause us happiness.
And it would. As difficult as parenthood would be, I was sure that it would only bring us more unexpected joy.
After years of carrying the notion that my sole purpose in this life had been to produce an heir for my family, I had needed time, a lot of it, to rid myself of the anxiety that accompanied thoughts of pregnancy. Besides that, there were many wrongs that needed to turn into rights, and though my king had said he wished for more time to keep me all to himself anyway, as the years sped by, I knew. I could feel the primal call inside him to procreate and create an heir.
But he waited. He waited, and now we would have two.
“Two boys,” I said. “I’ll bet.”
He shook his head and pressed a hand against my stomach, that smile never leaving his eyes. “Two girls.”
“Can you scent that, too?” I asked pointedly.
He bit his lip. “No, and I care not what they might be, just that they will be.”
My heart sputtered, and my mouth dried while his fingers rubbed and his eyes lingered upon mine. “My king,” I said, softer now. “I love you.”
As always, his entire expression morphed into one I’d never tire of seeing—unbridled awe. The type of slow-sweeping amazement that never ceased to remind me of who he’d been and what he’d become.
A ruler of the heart—especially mine.
I kissed him. I couldn’t not whenever he looked at me like that. He tugged at my dress until his hands were touching my bare backside, squeezing as his tongue tangled with mine.
“Thank you,” he rasped, sounding choked, his arm banding around my waist. “Thank you for this gift.”
“I should be thanking you,” I shot back, and he smiled, kissing me, drugging me so delicately. “You will make a brilliant father.”
“I hope so.” His cautious tone made me still over him, and I snagged his hooded eyes. “It’s just… well, I haven’t much to draw from, do I?” He frowned then as if this had just occurred to him.
“Savage,” I said, a smile in my voice that made his brows crease further. I placed my hand over his heart. “You draw from here.”
He swallowed, the sound thick, then nodded while releasing a shaken breath.
“I’m terrified,” I admitted. “Overjoyed but quietly terrified.”
Dade’s head tilted as though he didn’t believe me. “You will, without a doubt, be nothing but perfect, and I will be there every step of the way.” A squeeze of my hip, the solid muscle in that arm flexing against my lower back. “We are partners. We do this together.”
I captured his chin, kissed him, and whispered, “That is why I feel more joy than fear.” For my husband, my best friend, my enemy, and my mate would never let us down.
The steel I felt enter his spine, his entire body, and the return of the arrogance in those eyes only reinforced my beliefs.
Indeed, my savage king had made mistakes that would haunt our continent and his newfound heart forever, but those mistakes had brought him to me. And in coming together, we had taught one another lessons that would not only continue to reshape this continent for the better but also our souls.
And so I kissed my king, urged him as deep as he could delve inside my body, and thanked the stars for the delivery of our fate—for the impossible curse that had unfolded into an unstoppable blessing.