She cried out his name as he placed his hands on her hips, pulling her flush against him. Collapsing on top of him, she kissed his jaw as he thrust up, filling her.
“Eleri,” he moaned before kissing her, his arms going around her.
Her hands cupped his face as she kissed him over and over. Since the night before, it felt like she could not get enough of him. Though they had slept after the first time, she woke up to him kissing the back of her neck at some point in the night. She rolled over and quickly found herself with Conri hovering over her. When they finally did get out of bed, they contemplated staying another day. It was tempting, but they both knew they needed to keep moving to join the others.
As they walked, she stayed close to his side. Every time he touched her or brushed against her, a new wave of desire would flow through her. She thought that perhaps finally having him would cool her need, but all it had done was make her want him more. They did not travel as far as they should that day, stopping several times to kiss, tempted to find some hidden place to do more. They set up their shelter much too early, but neither could wait any longer. They ate a hurried supper in tension before Eleri threw herself into his arms.
Conri rolled her over gently, keeping his arms around her. She lay against his chest, pulling up the top of her dress, before making sure her skirt covered her to keep her warm. Conri let go of her for one moment and reached for his cloak. He threw it over them before pulling her close once again.
“I’m afraid it will be very late when we finally reach my aunt’s house tomorrow,” said Eleri as Conri kissed her cheek. “We will have to leave early and try not to stop so much tomorrow.”
“It will not be easy,” said Conri before he kissed the spot just below her ear. “You are much too tempting.”
She laughed a little. “It is hard to keep away from you as well. Some small part of me believes this is wrong, but it is easily quieted, especially when you are so attentive.”
“No part of this is wrong, my love. If you even think so a little, I might need to try again to convince you a bit later in the evening.”
She groaned.”Don’t tempt me, Conri. We must get some rest. Our priority must be to get you to my father’s house to unite with the others. We have to work quickly to save our land.”
Conri sighed. “I know you are right, but the thought of sharing you with others does not sound very appealing. I am scared of what it will mean.”
She raised a bit to look down at him. “I thought we weren’t thinking of the future. I believe you said you wanted to live in the present and enjoy what we have while we can.”
He leaned up and kissed her. “I did say it, and I meant it. I plan to enjoy as much of you as I can. If these few blissful days are all I ever have, it will be enough. Still, I cannot help but hope for more.” He laughed. “I live in such a state of ecstasy, expectation, and dread that I hardly know what to think.”
She grew serious as she moved her hand to his cheek. “I do love you, Conri. I promise to think hard over sharing a future with you. So much of me wants to say yes to you forever.”
“I wish you would listen to that part of you. I know it is hard to let others go, but I cannot deny I want you to choose me. I can blubber on about only wanting you to be happy, and that would be true, but I really do think I can make you happy. I can’t imagine feeling so bonded to anyone as I do you.”
She lay back against his chest as his arms went around her. Before Eleri fell asleep, she thought perhaps she should feel guilt or regret, but all she felt was contentment and peace. She let the subtle rise and fall of Conri’s chest lull her to sleep where her dreams were sweet, and her sleep was deep.
“I hope we are getting close,” said Conri as they walked uphill along a rocky path while the sun set to the left of them.
“We are,” said Eleri as she stopped to step up on a large rock. Conri gave her his hand, and he pulled her up. “I usually don’t come this way, but I think we might come upon the house at any time.”
“Is this the place your mother grew up?” asked Conri as he kept a hold of her hand.
“No. She spent some time here, but she was born in her parent’s estate on the east side of the Red Forest. There is a large community there of magic users, and her father was their unofficial leader. My aunt travels there periodically to see to the place and speak with those who live around it.” Eleri let go of Conri’s hand and adjusted her skirt. “My aunt prefers it out here when she feels like being settled for a while. It has long been in my family as a place to come and live in nature. Many spells and potions have been created there. You can almost feel the magic in the walls.”
Conri smiled at her. “I look very forward to seeing it, though I am afraid I will not like the sleeping arrangements. I don’t know how I shall be able to fall asleep without you in my arms.”
She laughed. “I don’t think you will be as disappointed as you think. My aunt is what many would call a free spirit. She will not hover or us or demand propriety. If I wish you in my bed, then that is where you shall be.”
Conri grabbed her hand and pulled her to him. “What can I do to ensure I gain an invitation then?” He leaned forward and kissed her lips before moving along her jaw.
“Endeavor to please me, and I think you will find you are where you wish to be tonight.”
“I don’t think that will be a problem,” he said quietly before kissing just below her ear. “There is nothing I enjoy more in this land than pleasing you.”
She shuddered a bit, feeling the effect his kisses and words had on her. She let herself enjoy his attentions for a moment before playfully pushing him away. “We will never make it to our destination if you do not desist.” He gave her a pouting look that only added to his good looks. Hooking her arm with his, she smiled up at him. “Do not worry, my prince. After we arrive and settle in, I shall allow you ample opportunity to prove your statement.”
He made a noise between a growl and a laugh before they walked on. They went up two more hills before Conri stopped suddenly on top of the second one. “Is that the house?”
Eleri looked down into the valley before her. Tucked in between two hills was the familiar two-story cottage where her aunt often lived. It was made of dark wood with a thatched roof. Even so close to winter, bright flowers grew on the roof’s edge and along the bottom of the windows. Much of the home was covered in ivy that was dark green. Smoke was coming from the chimney, and she could see light coming from many of the first-floor windows.
“That is it,” confirmed Eleri. She grabbed Conri’s hand. “Let’s hurry. It is getting cold, and I am starving.”
They hurried down the hill together, Eleri practically skipping as she went. It seemed silly to laugh and run with all that was happening in the land, but it had been so long since she had felt free and happy. She was never miserable, and she knew much of her life was better than most. Still, for much of her life, she felt as though she lived with a dark cloud over her head that only let in sunshine periodically.
During her times with Caerwyn, the clouds shifted at times, and she could bask in the sun’s warmth. Then he would leave, and the clouds would gather again. She would travel the kingdom with her father and experience rays of sunshine, but then the lingering grief of her mother’s death would hit them both, and she would feel as though she was in darkness.
It was almost as if Conri willed the clouds away. She had forgotten how young she really was. She still had her worries and cares with him, but they were not as heavy as before. She didn’t know what happened to them, but they were so light, she finally felt as though she could handle them. She did worry if she could be a good First Advisor and live up to her family name. She stressed over what her future would look like. She feared she would hurt Conri and Caerwyn no matter what she did. All those feelings were still there, but the past few days, they didn’t seem as life-ending as before. She knew she would face hard times, but now she believed she could make it through them. There was a way forward.
They came to the front of the house, and Eleri let go of Conri’s hand. She knocked on the door and stepped back. It was only a few moments before the door opened, and a plump, pretty middle-aged woman wearing a dark dress and cream-colored shaw answered the door.
“I thought it was you when I looked out the window, but I didn’t know if it was possible,” said the woman. She curtsied. “Lady Eleri, It has been too long.”
Eleri walked forward, “Oh Grace, none of this Lady Eleri and proper manners.” She took the woman’s hands. “I am so happy to see you.”
The lady smiled, and she wrapped Eleri into a hug. “What are you doing out here, and who have you brought with you?”
“It is a long story,” said Eleri as she pulled back. “Is my aunt inside?”
Grace shook her head. “She has been gone a few weeks to check on the estate. There have been some reports of trouble.”
“When do you expect her back?”
The woman shrugged. “I don’t know. I have been forwarding her messages, and she has had two or three from your father.”
“I am sure she has,” said Eleri as the woman moved aside to let Eleri and Conri enter.
Once they took off their cloaks and moved on to the warm parlor, Grace looked at Eleri and Conri expectantly. “Now, can I be introduced to the young man?”
Eleri hesitated. “I will introduce you, Grace, but you must keep calm about this. We do not need anyone who might come near knowing this man is in residence.”
Grace eyed Conri. “You haven’t brought a criminal into this house, have you, Eleri?”
Conri chucked. “Worse, “ he mumbled.
Eleri shook her head with a smile. “Grace, allow me to introduce you to Prine Conri Gildan of the Great Gray Golden wolves. He is the son of our previous king and soon to be our one true ruler.”
Conri gave a deep bow as Grace’s mouth fell slightly open, and her eyes went wide. “You aren’t serious, Eleri,” she whispered.
“Is it so hard to believe I would be in the company of the prince?” asked Eleri. “I am his First Advisor.”
“But where is his guard? Where is the Bright One? What are you doing out here in the forest by yourselves, dressed as some poor villagers?”
“We will be happy to tell you all,” said Conri. “But is there a way we could do it over supper?”
Grace nodded. “Of course, your highness. I always have some food available. Come into the kitchen with me, and we can eat at the small table there.” She started walking before she stopped and turned. “Unless you would prefer something grander.”
“The kitchen will be fine, Grace,” said Eleri. “I am sure our prince agrees.”
“I have eaten in a kitchen before, mam,” said Conri. “I have fond memories of sitting with the cook as she made me sweets.”
Grace smiled. “Then come on. Tell me your story, and get some food. Then we will see about baths for both of you. I can get Gregory and Millie to work on some water for you. I know there is a dress or two for you here somewhere Eleri, and you can wear one of Efa’s nightgowns. I know she will not mind.” She turned to Conri before opening the door to the kitchen. “You might be more of a challenge to dress, but I can come up with something.”
Grace listened to their story as they ate, Conri letting Eleri tell most of it. By the time supper was over, Grace’s eyes looked like they would pop out of her head, and she had barely touched her stew.
“That is quite something,” said Grace. “Your poor father must be out of his mind with worry. I do hope The Bright One and the others are safe as well. The poor Havens were driven out of their home. Too much of that has been happening in this land.”
“I know,” said Conri. “I hope Lord and Lady Havens are safe somewhere at this point. All they have done is keep me safe my whole life, and now they have paid the price.”
Eleri took Conri’s hand and squeezed it. “I am sure Caerwyn is taking care of them. Lady Farrow is a shrewd but kind lady. Aella is there as well.”
Conri let out a loud breath. “I hope that spoiled, thoughtless niece of theirs feels some shame in what she has done. She caused the Havens to lose their home, and because of her, you could be a captive of Lord Fellen as we speak if Bren had not killed you first.”
“Do not think of it, Conri. You must not be so hard on poor Aella. She did not mean for any of this to happen,” said Eleri.
“Maybe not, but she has too long thought she can have whatever she wants.”
“Sounds like someone I know,” said Eleri quietly with a small laugh. “You will have to forgive her in time. I know you care about her.”
“Perhaps I should show you to some rooms.” Grace stood up. “There has been plenty of time to draw water and charm it for you, even with the time it takes poor Millie. She is just learning, you know. Your aunt found her in some village a few months ago and brought her here to help her learn how to control her magic. She is a sweet girl but not a quick learner.”
Eleri looked at Conri, who still looked agitated. “I believe we will take our baths and go on to bed if you don’t mind, Grace. We have been on the road for weeks now, and to have a bed in a safe place will help us sleep more soundly than we had in a while.”
“I don’t mind at all, Eleri. Go rest, and sleep as late as you want. Hopefully, your aunt will return soon. I do not like her being gone so long, but even if she doesn’t come back, we can think of something together.” Grace walked over and took two candles out of a cabinet. She placed them in holders and lit them with a touch before handing them to Conri and Eleri. “You know the way, dear. The prince is in the room across from your usual one.”
Eleri leaned down and kissed Grace’s cheek. “Thank you, Grace. I am very happy to see you. I can’t tell you how much you have cheered me with your thoughtfulness.”
“It is nothing, Eleri. You know that I love you as though you were my own niece. Now, go on and clean up. You look like you have slept too little as of late.”
“Thank you very much, mam,” said Conri with a bow. “The stew was wonderful, and I already feel very at home in this charming cottage.”
“You are very gallant, my prince. Sleep well, and if you need anything, do not hesitate to ask.”
“Is Grace related to you, Eleri?” asked Conri as they walked up the stairs together.
“Not precisely, but I have known her my whole life. She is very much like my other aunt.”
“So, is she your aunt’s housekeeper?”
Eleri chucked. “No, not at all, though she does run the household. She is much better at domestic things than my aunt.”
“Is she a friend of your aunts?” asked Conri.
“You could say that. She is very special to Aunt Efa,” said Eleri giving Conri a pointed look as they came to the second floor.
“Oh,” said Conri looking as though he understood what she was saying. “They are, you mean…”
“It’s not something awful, you know,” said Eleri defensively. “I know many in the land would think it is unnatural, but they are as much in love and bonded as any married couple as I have met, more so, really.”
“You do not need to defend them to me, Eleri. I may be a tad naïve, but I have heard of such things. Grace seems like a lovely woman, and I am looking forward to meeting your aunt. They must miss each other while they are apart.”
“I am sure they do, but they understand each other very well. Grace knows my aunt needs to wander the land, and my aunt understands Grace likes the stability of home.”
Conri nodded as they stopped in the middle of the hall. Eleri nodded towards the door to her right. “That room is yours. You can bathe and change in there.”
Conri looked at the door before turning to Eleri. “And after I am clean and ready for bed?”
She smiled slightly. “I don’t think that bed has been restuffed in a while, so you might find it a tad uncomfortable. The bed in my room is much softer. I think you might prefer to share with me if you want a decent night’s sleep.”
He grabbed her around her waist with his free hand and pulled her against him. “I would very much prefer to stay in your bed, but I am not sure how much sleep I plan to get.”
She leaned up and kissed him as she ran her hand up her chest. “Go clean quickly,” she said breathlessly. “I find myself very ready to lie down.”
He kissed her one more time before letting her go and entering his room. Eleri turned to go to her room when she saw someone out of the corner of her eye. Grace stood at the end of the hallway with one of her eyebrows raised. Eleri looked at her and gave a small shrug before opening the door walking in to take her bath.