I led him on a short walk back through the village to a very humble cottage, indistinguishable from those around it. I peered around to ensure no one was watching and that no neighbors were close by to spot me yet again sneaking into a place where I very much did not belong.
Once I was satisfied that the road around us was clear, I rested my face against the window glass. Although I could not see inside, the cottage looked dark, which meant there was no fire, no candles…and no Lord Lombard.
I turned to the man I’d dragged here, an apology on my lips. I had no idea what I’d find inside this time. I only hoped there was nothing that would embarrass me or reveal more of my family’s secrets. “Syndrian, I…” I looked up at the man beside me, drawing a deep breath to slow my skittish heartbeat.
He lowered his dark brows and hovered a hand at my back. “Is it locked?” he asked. “I’ll have no trouble picking our way in.”
“Really?” My anxiety gave way to humor as I realized he was offering to break into my father’s cottage. “You do have a little larceny in you.”
Syndrian’s shoulders relaxed, and he laughed.
“At times, more than a bit.” He lowered his head and tried to see past me, squinting at the dark windows. Strips of light-colored fabric obscured the glass from the inside, so he shook his head. “Can’t tell if the place is occupied.” He looked at me, a slightly puzzled-looking frown marring his face. “How do you know of this place?” he asked. “Is it safe?”
I sighed. “There’s no fire, which means my father is not here. It’s his place, and he’d not hesitate to throw me into the river if he knew I’d dared to visit.” I shoved open the door, which was, as I’d expected, unlocked. “But sometimes, the risk is indeed worth the reward. Come inside.”
With a last look over my shoulder to make certain we hadn’t been seen, I hurried past and held the door open for Syndrian. He ducked his head and stared past me as if searching for threats in the shadowy corners, then followed me inside. I left the door open to inspect the place with the little daylight that remained. I huffed a sigh of relief at the scene before us.
A simple hay mattress was neatly covered by a coarse wool blanket. Empty wooden buckets and clean-looking mugs were stacked on the well-swept hearth, and the iron grate used to keep back the fire leaned against the crude stones. A few logs were stacked near the small fireplace, identical to those built into other cottages in this part of the shire. The small table beside the fireplace was likewise barren, and two chairs, hard and unadorned, were tucked neatly under the table. There was no dust on the furniture, which meant my father’s village maid had visited recently.
As soon as I closed the door behind us, the cottage was engulfed in darkness. Dim rays of daylight strained through the linen fabric covering the windows, making it difficult to see much beyond Syndrian’s intense blue stare.
“What happened?” We were scarcely past the door when he reached for my cloak and shoved the hood away from my face. He looked over my hair again, raw worry visible in his expression despite the lack of light. He reached for my face and cupped my chin. “Are you hurt, Pali? Are you in danger?”
“I am…I’m quite a bit better now,” I admitted. “I’ve been… I…” Standing before him, the urgency of finding him—of investigating his brother’s connection to the goblins and my escape plan—disappeared, lost like a vivid dream upon waking. I closed my eyes, trying to locate the focus that had driven me to the village, but all I could think about was him. This man, this cutler.
I opened my eyes and breathed in the almond-oil scent of him. “I…I’m…” I stammered again, unable to piece together even a single word of explanation.
“By the gods, what would drive you to seek me out this way? In the middle of the day at the guild shop, no less?” His shoulders relaxed and he seemed a bit less concerned that I was unwell. His distress gave way to chuckles. “Tongues’ll be wagging for weeks over this.”
“Was that your father?” I asked, curious about the man.
He nodded. “Aye. You may’ve noticed we’re not exactly close.”
“I can relate to that,” I said softly. “I’m sorry, though. Do you get on any better with your mother?”
Syndrian slid his hand from my chin to his. He stroked his stubble and sighed. The cottage was cool, the rasp of our breaths as we spoke puffing in light mists between us. The heat of him drew me like the sun’s pull on a flower. I wanted to unfurl my layers and bask in the rays of his beauty, of his sensual power. Even in the dark, his eyes, his hair, his kindness seemed to give off their own sort of light.
“Did you drag me from the shop and set my father’s guild on fire with rumors just to query my relationship with my parents?” There was a tease in his voice, but I noticed he avoided answering the question.
“No, I…” Suddenly, whatever I’d wanted when I took off in such a rush to find him no longer mattered. He was here, with me. And he’d come when I sought him, followed me even into a dank cabin in the corner of a village without a moment’s hesitation. “Have I brought trouble upon you?” I asked, suddenly painfully aware I’d made yet another impulsive decision. “I regret if I acted rashly, and—”
His hands circled my waist, and I weakened. My lips parted, and a delicious, familiar heat flooded my body.
“I am yours to seek,” he whispered. “No matter what trouble follows. No matter what you might desire.”
His words unlocked a storm of sensation in my chest. Desperate longing, shyness, curiosity—everything inside me was a spilled mess, and I hardly knew how to sort the pieces.
“What I desire…” I echoed, knowing before my body even moved what my soul sought. “I want that kiss.” My whisper was rough and uncertain as I reached to cup his face. “Please.” I cradled Syndrian’s rough cheeks, my palms scraping the delicious prickles of his scruff.
“That’s what you want?” He leaned forward, accepting my invitation…almost. His lips parted, sweet breaths feathering the loose hairs on my face. “You’re intended for someone else, Pali Lombard,” he reminded me.
I nodded, my pulse thundering in my chest. My knees threatened to give out, and I steadied myself by leaning back against the solid door behind me. “For now,” I said. “Unless I find a way out.”
He shook his head. “I told you. There is no escaping them. Once the Otleich family has you…” He leaned forward and teased the tip of my nose with his. His fingertips explored my chin, his lips hovering so close that the slightest lift of my toes would bring us together. “You belong to them.”
“I belong to no one.” The pout underlying my voice made me feel so young, so needy, but I had no shame. My limbs were liquid, my vision was a blur, and everything inside me was desperate to taste him. To feel those plush lips and the rough stubble of his chin against me. My nipples pebbled, and I arched my back, trying to close the very tiny distance between us. “No,” I said, correcting myself. “That is not true. I belong to one. Just one.”
He leaned his hips closer in response, his hard belly pinning me in place. Our breathing was paired. The only sounds in the dark, abandoned cottage were my shredded attempts to control my panting and his sensual snarl.