Authors: C.L. Stockton
“You also claimed ignorance before making contact with a known colleague of your father’s. Forgive me if I don’t believe you.”
“My father told me to go to Lisbon. I went.”
“People do not accidentally seek out spies.” He shot me a narrow eyed glare. “Tell me why you went to the bakery, and do not tell me to buy bread.”
Before I gave into the urge to strangle him, I took a deep breath and asked, “Tell me about the letter and I will tell you about the bakery.”
Stopping, I put my hands on my hips and glared. “Does anyone like you?”
Having halted a few feet away to figure out why I’d stopped, he smiled. “More than you might think.”
Hmph. The only ones who liked him were probably females who wished he’d marry them. As for the rest of the population, they probably found him arrogant and worthless. I should find him arrogant and worthless and not dwell on the blonde highlights picked out by the sun in his hair.
If only he weren’t so handsome. What wasn’t hidden by the beard spoke of male beauty: high cheekbones, straight nose, and sensuous mouth. Not that I really knew about sensuousness, but his lips tempted me in a way I’d never before experienced.
“Do you mean to stand there all day?”
“I would advise against it.” He resumed walking. The reins dangled loosely from his left hand, his strides unhurried. For all intents and purposes, he was simply out for a stroll on a lovely summer morning. “We have quite a bit of ground to cover before we rest.”
“Then why are we walking?”
“Because Brutus needs a rest more than I.”
“You could have napped this afternoon instead of following me.”
“If I had done that,” he pointed out, “You would not be here now.”
“You don’t know that.” I started walking, quickening my stride until I was once again walking besides him.
“You are much safer with me than on your own.” He reached for my elbow, only I swung it out of reach and glared at him. The last thing I needed was for him to start touching me more than strictly necessary. “Stop giving me such a suspicious look. My interest in you is purely academic.”
I allowed his comments to pass. I had more important things to figure out then what he meant by academic. “Why are we going to Mantle?”
“Because it’s not Lisbon.”
“Thank you for that conclusive answer, Colton. You have the most appalling manners.”
He refused to be drawn. “At times.”
“I promise to say something nice about you if you tell me why we’re going,” I cajoled, desperate for a solid answer.
That startled a laugh out of him. “Sweetheart, the nicest thing you can say about me is probably the nastiest I will ever hear.”
“Please don’t call me sweetheart.” He was lucky I said please.
“You don’t mean it.”
“Who says I don’t mean it?”
I glared for the third time in as many minutes. “If you must call me something, my name is Cadrian.” Not willing to allow him to distract me, I again asked, “What’s in Mantle?”
“A good night‘s rest.”
“I don’t want to rest. I want to go home.”
“Considering reaching your home depends on me, you could be a bit nicer.”
“My father gave me enough money to purchase passage to Bolien. If you take me to Currington, I can catch a ship home.”
“Until we’ve sorted everything out, you are not leaving my side. Leaving the country is out of the question.” His jaw firmed.
“My actions are no concern of yours.” Colton’s fascination with me was actually a little flattering. Of course, it would be much more pleasing if he felt anything more than an academic interest in me (What did that mean?). Though what I wanted him to feel for me was still hazy in my mind.
I didn’t intend to clarify that anytime soon.
Maybe not ever.
“Currington is at least a day and a half from where we are going. I have neither the time nor the inclination to escort you anywhere other than our current destination. No. No more arguments. Accept it gracefully.” He held up a hand to stop my protests.
I had two options here. I could do as he said, accept it gracefully and docilely follow wherever he might lead, enjoying the view with every step. Or I could throw a temper tantrum the likes of which he’d never seen.
Temper tantrums had never been my style, but I had the feeling this one would make me feel a bit better. Would it even affect matters here? With my luck, Colton would gag me and I’d be worse off than I already was.
“Fine. Move if you want me to mount first.” Though his jaw wasn’t gaping, I had the feeling he was very surprised I’d give in so easily.
Obediently, he stepped aside, though he retained his grip on the reins. Too bad. Images of leaving Colton in a cloud of dust danced through my mind.
Again, I hiked up my skirts and received a helpful hand up into the saddle. By tucking my skirts between my legs, I was able to keep my legs covered from the knee up. There was nothing I could do about my bare calves. They were already sore and chafed.
This was definitely an improvement over riding behind him. Instead of holding on for dear life, I was able to lean back and allow his arms to keep me on the horse. It was a strange sensation to ride with a man’s arms around me. His elbows rested on the top curve of my hips, the hands holding the reins rested upon my thighs.
I searched my memory for the last time I’d been held against such a firmly muscled male body. While dancing, I had the occasion to brush against my partner’s body, or when I’d slipped around men while maneuvering through a crowded room, but never before had those touches affected me so personally. Heat flushed my cheeks as his hand idly stroked across the top of my thigh.
To distract myself from wondering where else his hand would go, I blurted out, “Where do you live? Is it far from here?” I threaded a lock of Brutus’s mane between my fingers.
“My family lives in Crutten.” Crutten was Goran’s capital and I had a vague idea where that was. It was certainly much further south than Sal de Mar, located almost in the middle of the country. I hadn’t ever been to the capital, not overly interested in the workings of my adopted country.
“Do you have brothers or sisters?” I was only seeing his suspicious, surly and rude side. He must have another if he had a family and friends.
“I have a younger brother a couple years older than you. He finished academy last year and is now studying law.” Colton seemed to lose interest in the subject, falling silent as we continued.
“Are your parents still living?” I wasn’t going to let Colton get away with not at least acquainting me with general details about his life and family. He seemed to know an awful lot about my family while I knew next to nothing about his.
“My mother and father are both still living. Mother likes to garden but my father doesn’t do much of anything. Why so interested in my family all of a sudden?”
“I’m only making conversation.” I didn’t think it was strange to ask about his family. “Why are you so defensive?”
“I am not defensive. I hardly see what bearing my family has on our situation.” Colton nudged Brutus into a canter as the path straightened.
Honestly, the man must have some deep, dark secret to be so uninformative.
My thoughts turned toward my own father. Had they survived? They were last seen heading into the middle of a war. If Colton was to be believed, my father was a spy with very powerful people after him. It wasn’t a stretch to imagine they’d kill Mother and capture Father for questioning.
“I can hear your mind tumbling. Care to share what you’re thinking?” His voice in my ear caused me to give a start, ramming my shoulder into Colton’s neck. Not hard, but enough to surprise him.
I didn’t apologize. “I was planning how best to convince you to take me back to Lisbon.” Maybe my father meant to meet me in Lisbon but we’d missed each other. Not likely, but if I went back to Lisbon, my chances of catching a ride to a port town increased.
After a slight pause, he asked, “What did you decide?” Colton slowed the horse to a walk.
“I could threaten you with bodily harm, but I decided you were stronger and I’d only end up getting hurt.”
Between Brutus’ ears, I noticed the path widening and two distinct sets of wheel tracks became apparent. The trees were sparse and the first of the houses on the outskirts of town appeared.
“Then I thought about engaging in a thumb war with you, but you’d probably cheat.” I had to smile at the thought of Colton unbending enough to play such a game.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’ve been talking with my brother. Next?”
“There’s always seduction.” I allowed my voice to drop suggestively. “But you would enjoy that far too much and I would be no closer to Lisbon afterward.”
“That would certainly depend on how convincing you are before the afterward.” His
arms tightened around my waist and he leaned in to whisper in my ear, “And you would enjoy it as much as I.”
Feeling my cheeks flush, I cursed Colton for being so provocative. The sooner we parted, the better.
“Why Lisbon? I thought Currington was your preferred destination?” His voice betrayed only mild interest.
“I’m worried about my father. He might be in danger.” If my life was in danger because I’d met with my father’s contact that meant my father’s life was in danger, too.
“Ah, but he is aware of the rules. You are not.” Taking a better grip on the reins, he said, “You know as well as I he is not in Lisbon.”
“He might be there now.”
“What if he needs me?” I pressed.
“What possible help would you be?”
“I’d be there.” I elbowed him in the ribs. “Besides, I’d bring you.”
“That is not how it works. You go where I go, not the other way around.” I couldn’t see his face, but his tone was serious.
“That’s hardly fair.”
I heard a chuckle. “It’s not supposed to be.”
Around us, the houses strengthened to a full town, and we joined the other riders on their way through town. I thought briefly of suggesting we stop for lunch, but thought better of it.
After the town faded behind us, I relaxed my posture and prepared myself for a long ride. For all Colton’s faults, and there were many, he made a rather good body pillow. The back of my head was propped against the strong line of his collarbone, and I tucked one of my hands beneath Colton’s, to remove them from my inner thighs.
But that didn’t mean I couldn’t devote myself to little touches designed to annoy him. I stroked the underside of his hands with a finger. I draped my other hand over one of his
arms and spread my palm against the tightly bunched muscles of his thigh. To further irritate him, I twined my ankle around the back of his leg.
The ankle pushed him over the edge.
“Cadrian.” I heard him say through gritted teeth.
“Yes?” I asked as sweetly as possible.
“Please stop touching me.”
I would have widened my eyes innocently if he’d been looking at me. “That is impossible. We are riding two in a saddle.”
“Do not try my patience, sweetheart.” His voice sounded strained.
“I am doing no such thing.” I smothered a laugh, contenting myself with a tiny wiggle of glee. If I’d known teasing Colton would be so entertaining, I’d have done it much sooner.
Switching the reins to his left hand, Colton first removed my hand from his thigh and placed it with its mate. Then he tapped my leg. “Please remove your ankle from my leg.”
“Where am I supposed to put it? Unlike you, I have no stirrup.” Giving one last slow rub down the back of his leg, I realigned my leg along the shape of his own.
“You play a dangerous game. Be sure of the consequences before continuing.” This time his voice was a low growl.
“Take me to Lisbon and I won’t bother you again.” That seemed a fair trade.
“I sincerely doubt that. You have a tendency to burrow beneath my skin.” His voice held a wealth of meaning, only some of which I understood. I annoyed him. What a lovely compliment.
We rode in silence all the way through the next town over. By then, my stomach was making rumbling noises. I refused to ask for lunch, however. Funny. I’d never thought of going on a hunger strike until he took me to Lisbon. It probably wouldn’t work and I didn’t have the willpower to sustain it until it did.
Apparently the man never got hungry. Yet another reason to dislike him. Since I had nothing else to do, I began making a list of all the reasons I hated Colton: He wasn’t human (not needing to sleep or eat), he was too secretive and he was too good looking, which made arguing with him that much harder.
I rolled my eyes. Yes, the man was gorgeous.
Get over it.
I yawned. The few hours of sleep I’d caught last night combined with the emotional drain of my earlier panic. At some point in time, I would have to stop napping during the day. But if I slept, I would be spared the effort of agonizing over what awaited us in Mantle.