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Chapter 42

We began our trek back to the homestead of James and Annie, the place that had become our hub and our safe haven. Jon threw his cloak about my shoulders, holding my hand tight, as we wound our way through the night. We stayed clear of the road, hearing the shouts of guards and the baying of hounds. Jon had known of Bjorn’s undercover work, something him and Thaniel had devised months ago and decided to put into motion once Viktor’s father had died. They had sensed that enemies on all sides were closing in around us and taken the proactive approach. I supposed a silly woman like myself didn’t deserve to know of these things.

No one spoke, though I felt they had overheard our tumultuous conversation. My head ached, feeling as though it would split in two. Every time I tried to think on something other than the news of my mother, my brain would lead me right back to her. I was angry, mostly. At her, at my father, at Jon. I knew I could forgive him, but that didn’t mean the heat that rushed into my blood when I thought of his betrayal didn’t exist. It was there, pulsating, making me feel as though I was drowning. How many other things had Jon set in motion without telling me? How many of his people were turned spy? And when would it all come crashing down?

“Charles!” Mel yelled, causing all of us to stop and turn. Charles had fallen, Thaniel catching him before he hit the ground. Jon rushed us over to where he lay, not letting go of my hand for a moment.

“He’s burnin’ up.” Thaniel said. In the icy moonlight, I could still see how flushed his face was. His eyes rolled open, his mouth muttering nonsense.

“Was he poisoned?” Mel asked, her voice betraying her by showing her worry.

“No,” Jon said, feeling his wrist for a pulse. “He’s been tortured, and now fled. I can only imagine what Viktor did.” He said quietly. The sudden urge to protect my husband overcame me, and, despite my anger, I squeezed his hand. Viktor had indeed only told me part of what Jon had endured; whatever else had happened was enough to pull me up short, to cause me to reign in my hatred for a moment.

“We must keep movin’.” Thaniel urged, bending down and reaching for Charles’ bruised wrists. He dipped down, hefting an unconscious Charles up across his shoulders. The going was much slower, Jon and Thaniel taking turns, carrying the man who had risked his life for us.

We made it to the homestead by noon the next day, Bear sprinting from the fields to greet us. I slipped away, wanting nothing more than to be alone, to mourn the past that I had thought belonged exclusively to me. It seemed nothing in this world was truly mine to keep. The late afternoon found me by the river, on the rock where Jon and I had made love during a time that felt so distant now. I felt as though I didn’t even know myself anymore; the one thing I’d always been sure of had been stripped from me in a matter of mere minutes.

I stared down at the deep, slow-moving pool of water. The day was the hottest it had been yet, the promise of summer tangible. I remembered what it felt like to drown, how sure I had been that I would die in peace that day. It was almost a relief, to not have control, to surrender it to the will of some unknown god. I remembered the day Jon had told me he’d teach me to swim, how I’d felt so unsure of his feelings for me. Now I knew without any doubt how he loved me, but was I any better off?

Before I knew what I was doing, I had stripped off my boots, stockings, skirts. I kicked aside my shift, standing at the edge of the smooth, sloping rock, the sun warm on my bare chest. I untied my hair, letting it flow in the breeze. I wouldn’t let myself drown anymore. It was up to me, me alone to learn to swim. I knew I had the strength within me to do it. I braced myself and leapt out, free-falling before I hit the icy water. I was shocked, my body immediately responding to the cold. I knew to hold my breath, knew I could open my eyes. I kicked my legs rhythmically, as I’d seen Jon do. I moved my arms, felt myself rising. My face broke the surface as I gasped for air. There was a loud splash beside me, disrupting my calm, causing me to sink due to my lack of concentration.

I felt familiar, sturdy arms about me, pulling me up. We reached the surface, and I turned my wrath onto him.

“I was fine without you!” I yelled, pushing against his bare chest, the double meaning of my words shocking, even to me.

“Aye, ye have always been fine without me, princess. But ye need to realize that we are stronger together than apart,” he said, cradling me, swimming us to a more shallow spot. I wanted nothing more than to throttle his beautiful neck, to make him suffer for what he’d done.

Jon stood, the water still crashing and swirling at his chest. Although we were surrounded by the silky, freezing water, the heat of our bodies was enough to keep me warm. He held me as he had the night of our wedding as he’d carried me to our tent. My fingers were locked behind his thick neck. I stared into his black eyes, the water dripping off his alabaster skin, his midnight hair. He smirked, snorting softly, the corner of his mouth just slipping up enough to make my stomach flip.

“Ye hate me so.” He said. Goosebumps erupted across my skin.

“I love you more than life itself, Jon, but I really don’t like you at the moment.” I said, squirming, trying to be free of his grasp. He only held on tighter.

“Ye want me to suffer, to hurt, to ache for ye. I see it, plain as day in yer eyes.” His face held no trace of emotion anymore.

“I don’t know what I want anymore.” I growled, digging my nails into his shoulder, gripping him hard. “I want you, so bad, but I want you to leave at the same time.” I shook my head, exhausted beyond belief.

“I need to make this right.” He said quietly.

“How can you possibly do that, when I don’t even know how I feel?” I questioned. He dropped me for a moment, my body suspended in the water, before he gripped the backs of my thighs, wrapping my legs around him. I blushed, putting my hands on his sturdy chest and pushing away. It was a feeble attempt against his steady strength.

“Ye fought for me once, do ye remember?” He asked, his lips close to mine, his other hand roaming up my back. “On the ship, ye demanded to stay wi’ me.”

I shook my head, trying to clear my jumbled thoughts. I felt him, eager, wanting to claim me once more. Everything snapped into place in an instant. Jon was mine, as much as I was his. And it was my turn to show him that.

“You’ll never lie to me again, no matter the severity of the secret. We tell each other the truth, or be damned.” I growled, gripping a fistful of his hair, staring into his eyes. A flash of fright flitted in those dark pupils.

“Aye, princess,” he said, stumbling back, out of the water and onto the sandy bank. He collapsed, pulling me down on top of him. He groaned as we became one, both of us too eager to wait any longer. The hatred, the bitterness, the anger, every ill emotion I had towards him came pouring out of my heart as I ground my hips against his. He gripped me, his hands roaming up to meet my breasts, to tangle into my drenched hair.

“You…will not…be in command of me,” I panted, glaring down at him. “I am…not some…fragile woman.” I reached down and behind us, gripping his manhood. His eyes widened in fear at my audacity. He nodded repetitively.

“Aye, yer mine, and I am completely yours,” he breathed, flipping us over in one swift movement. He pinned my wrists above my head. I growled with anger, which only spurred him on. I gained freedom of one hand, reaching up and wrapping it about his throat. It was quite pitiful, how my small hand could do no real damage, but I felt better all the same. I trembled at my release, feeling his as well. He collapsed onto me, both of us breathing as though we’d just sprinted from Borthwick. He brushed a few stray hairs from my cheek, a small smile hinting at his lips.

“Do ye still hate me?” He asked.

“Yes,” I whispered, though we both knew I could never truly hate him, or him me.

“Well, I suppose I’ll have to try harder to fix that.” He said, the sly look I knew all too well coming into his eyes. He gripped my hips and flipped me over, bending to whisper in my ear, his torso flesh hot across my bare back.

“Because I love you.”

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