By Rowan Speedwell
Outrunning a winter storm in the north, Captain Faran of the King's Guard leads his men and a young mage named Meric to shelter at Bitterwood Manor, the ancestral home of the Daenes. Faran and his troops have been searching for weeks for a mysterious, lion-like beast that reportedly haunts the uncharted northern woods. For Meric, finding that prophesied cat is a matter of life and death.
Though Faran is deeply focused on their mission, the enigmatic Joss Daene, Lord of Bitterwood, fascinates him. Strong and proud, Joss is everything Faran wants in a lover. More, if he were honest. But Joss belongs to Bitterwood, and Faran to his duty.
Together they will need to brave the oldest, darkest part of the Bitterwood in the coldest, deepest snows of winter to find the legendary cat. But time is running out—for Meric, for the kingdom, and for Faran and Joss’s fledgling love.
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Faran could feel his heart pounding; he was drenched with sweat and gasping for breath. He lay still a long while, listening to Joss’s breathing and the wind outside.
Finally Joss raised his head and looked at him, his eyes shadowed. “Are you all right?” he asked in a low voice.
Faran laughed. “Fine. You?”
“Better. I should keep you around for stressful moments.”
“I’m better at causing them than relieving them,” Faran said.
“I don’t think so.” Joss eased away from him then, and padded over to the hearth, his shirt in hand. He dipped it into the water warming in the pot and brought it back, washing Faran’s chest and belly and groin with a tenderness that belied the violence and urgency of their encounter. When Joss was done, Faran took the shirt from him and folded it over to a clean spot, and did the same for him. He nodded his thanks and tossed the shirt on the floor, then crawled back under the blankets beside Faran.
To his surprise, Joss eased over and rested his head on Faran’s shoulder. Faran slipped an arm beneath to curve over his. Joss looked up at him with a wry smile. “It’s been a long time since I’ve slept with a lover,” he said quietly. “The boys’ mother was the last, and she’s been dead ten years.”
“Too long,” Faran agreed.
“Do you mind?”
“No. It’s rather nice. I can’t say as I ever remember sleeping with a lover—or having one, for that matter, for more than a night or two. The military life isn’t conducive to even temporary commitments.”
Faran hesitated, then said, “Do you wish to sleep with me? What about the boys?”
“Eissa and Eidar, or Eissa and Meric?” Joss’s tone was dry. “The former won’t care, and the latter . . . Let’s just say I don’t think they’ll mind sharing a bed instead.”
“You don’t think they . . .”
“Oh, I’m relatively sure they . . .” Joss quipped. “Eissa’s been walking around with a grin on his face, and your Meric looks more at ease than he’s been since you got here. Still too thin, though, despite Senna’s best efforts. Rested, but not well. Why is that?”
Faran sighed. “It’s a tale long in the telling. But we need to find that mage, and that beast. It’s all tied up with that.”
“Well, then. Nothing to be done for it.”
The door banged open and Eissa bounced in, then froze. “Um . . .”
“Come in and close the door,” Joss told him, “there’s a draft.”
Meric, following at a more sedate pace, obeyed, and sat on the edge of the bed opposite. “Interesting,” he said. “I had wondered when you two would stop circling each other like a pair of shindy-birds.”
“Meric!” Eissa yelped. “That’s my father!”
“I would hope so, seeing as how he’s in your father’s bed.” Meric gave him a look, then drew back the blankets on the other bed. “I take it our sleeping arrangements have changed?”
“They have,” Faran said, “but that doesn’t mean we want to be kept up all night with your caterwauling.”
“I do not caterwaul,” Meric said austerely. “And may I say what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Kindly keep yourselves quiet. I need my sleep.”
“Go to bed, Eissa,” Joss said kindly. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
“Very well.” He turned his uncertain look on Meric, who only nodded.
Faran bit back a snort of amusement. If nothing else, that unspoken conversation was evidence that the two boys had indeed been indulging in, at the very least, the sort of activity he and Joss had.
He wished them joy in it and settled himself for sleep.
About Rowan Speedwell:
An unrepentant biblioholic, Rowan Speedwell spends half her time pretending to be a law librarian, half her time pretending to be a database manager, half her time pretending to be a fifteenth-century Aragonese noblewoman, half her time . . . wait a minute . . . Hmm. Well, one thing she doesn’t pretend to be is good at math. She is good at pretending, though.
In her copious spare time (hah) she does needlework, calligraphy and illumination, and makes jewelry. She has a master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago, is a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, and lives in a Chicago suburb with the obligatory Writer’s Cat and way too many books.
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