This scene is the same as the Spicy Bonus Scene but with a fade to black rather than the spicy scene. You do not have to read the Spicy Bonus Scene if you read this one.

As Corvin held me, I stared up into his stunning eyes. They were like gems with flecks of black and charcoal, juniper and pine, moss and basil amid a sea of emerald green. Now that his skin was a deep tan, flawless and smooth, the green was all the more striking. Especially when he smiled and that smile made the corners of his eyes crinkle.

I bit the inside of my lip. “We should…see about that camp,” I said again, my heart hammering. Night would be upon us in a matter of hours. We needed shelter and food. It would be cold tonight. But all I wanted was to remain in his arms.

“Is something keeping you from it?” He dipped his head forward, tracing his nose over my cheek.

A giggle rose to my lips before I could stop it. Salt’s bane, I sounded like I was ready for my first flower dance at the Festival of the Maiden.

That grin of his turned into a crooked slash of white. “You seem preoccupied, clever girl. Did you change your mind about setting up the camp first?”

“No, no…we need to be smart about this.” I lifted my chin and then pushed away from him abruptly. My balance wavered, and I grabbed for a handhold, reaching toward a branch.

Corvin had his arms around me in a blink, twining them round my waist and hauling me back against his muscular chest. “Yes, very smart,” he murmured, his voice husky and his mouth against my ear.

My skin prickled with goosebumps at the heat of his breath. “You—you should…”

“Yes?” His teeth nipped at the sensitive skin of my neck and just along the shell of my ear. “Faster now, clever girl, or I’m going to take matters into my own hands.” He squeezed me a little tighter as he nuzzled me to make his point.

Damn him! It was so hard to think when he was doing that. “Corvin!” I snapped, the last syllable breathier than the first.

“Yes?” He grunted as he pulled my body tighter against his, making it impossible for me to ignore his hardness. With his face buried in my hair, he started tracing circles on my stomach. “What’s wrong, darling? Can’t focus?”

Well, now it was becoming a matter of principle. Huffing, I forced myself to pull free and turned to glare at him. “We have to be serious.”

“Do we?” He leaned against the tree, grinning at me, eyes half shaded. “I don’t see why.”

“We…” Why did we? Aside from the fact I was now self conscious. I shook my head at him and slid away. “We need to be practical. Shelter and food. Then—then we can focus on other things.” Heat flared through me as I stepped back and tried to calm my racing heart.

“What other things, darling?” He tilted his head, smirking. “What’s got you all breathless?”

I pursed my lips, then strode toward the ledge with the staircase. “First, we’re going to get our bearings.”

“We’re at Gryphon’s Crossing. It’s at least five days’ journey by ship to reach the nearest harbor. Seven days more likely.” He rubbed his fingernails on his tunic and studied them. “Or were we looking for something else?”

Salt’s bane, what had I gotten myself into? I hauled myself up onto the stone ledge, not even sure what I was doing. Except I did know. Some little voice in the back of my mind wanted to know what he was going to do in response to my refusing him for now. It was practical and reasonable to focus on shelter and food, but was he going to be practical?

“You know what though?” He called out.

I turned to see he had already reached the ledge and was now peering up at me through his heavy lashes. An impish smirk tugged at his mouth as he tapped his fingers on the grey-white stone. “I’ve realized something important.”

“Oh?” I folded my arms. “What have you realized?”

“Something very important and very serious.” He caught hold of my ankle with one hand, then traced a line up my ankle to my calf.

I startled, lifting my foot. Grinning, he held me fast. “Every time I touched you before, I was so afraid of hurting you.” His fingertip teased a circle along my calf.

Heat flared in my cheeks. “Your claws were sharp,” I admitted.

“And now I don’t have claws unless I want them.” His gaze roved over me, the hunger unabashedly present. “I am fully in control.”

“Are you?” I twisted my leg free and then backed up, giving him a teasing smile. “That look in your eye is rather wild. And I’m not convinced that this is serious. Not as serious as tending to our necessities.” My heart skipped faster. He was so stunning, every inch of him luring me in.

“You make me feel wild.” He traced his finger along the stone to my foot and over my toes.

“Corvin.” I blushed in spite of myself. “Listen—we don’t have shelter yet. We need to build a fire. We need to get food. We really should be practical.”

“Yes. And do you know what else is needed?” He cocked his head, his smile a crooked, hungry slash.
“What?” I asked, forcing myself to roll my eyes even as butterflies fluttered in my stomach.

Before I drew another breath, he lunged up onto the ledge and caged me with his arms.

Oh, he was quick. Why did that turn me on so much? Somehow he stopped a hairsbreadth from my face and his grin faded though his eyes sparked. “I need to claim my mate. This is the very serious practical thing that must be tended to first. More important than anything else.”

I lifted my chin, though my heart was thundering so fast he could probably hear it. “Well, as I recall, you claimed me with your words. And I returned the favor. Isn’t that all there is to it?” I blinked at him innocently, my breaths shuddering.

“Careful, darling,” he growled. “They say shifter fae are little more than wild beasts, and do you know what happens if you tease a beast too much?”

Everything inside me tensed like a bowstring. I stared up at him, my breaths shaking with anticipation. “The last two times you had me in this position, you didn’t really do all that much with it. I think I’m fine.”

His fingers flattened against the stone as he fixed his gaze on me. “All the more reason to make the most of now.”

Before I could respond, his mouth captured mine in a searing kiss—hungry, primal, possessive, and I knew he was going to do exactly what he promised.

Contentment spread throughout my body along with the deepest sensation of relaxation I had felt in ages. My fingers trailed down from Corvin’s head to his shoulders as I lay beside him, basking in the after glow of our coupling.

An impish grin twisted at his mouth as he lifted his head. “You all right?” he asked.

I nodded, the heat still in my cheeks and along my chest. “Yes. You?”

“I’ve never been happier.” He shifted off me and rolled onto his side, pulling me close.

I tucked myself against him, drawing in deep breaths of the rich cool air. Autumn had never been so beautiful.

For several moments, we lay there, gazing out through the forest. As the wind rustled the leaf covered branches, a few of the yellow and orange leaves broke free and drifted to the ground. The stronghold of summer’s greenery hadn’t yet fully passed from this place, but a few gaps had emerged. Through them, I glimpsed the brilliant blue of the autumnal sky and the darker indigo of the sea. The salty taste of the air had a colder tang here, the air so much cooler than during the heavier doldrums.

To the north, a river flowed, the waters chuckling low and soft enough it was easy to miss until there was nothing but birdsong and our own breaths to fill our thoughts. Grey-striped wrens and brown-capped sparrows hopped about on the branches. A cormorant croaked in the distance, and something large called out in a low, clacking voice.

As we lay there, he traced lazy circles along my shoulder and side. I shivered, curling just a little closer. But already my mind drifted. “We really should work on a camp,” I murmured, the words heavy as I tilted my head back to look at him.

He huffed at me. “If I had my way, this moment would never end.”

“Except soon it will. And we have had enough time cold, haven’t we?” Sighing, I pressed myself away and stood. My dress lay on the ground, my undergarments and leggings hanging on thorny brushweed halfway down the ledge. His clothes had fallen all the way to the forest floor. I patted his knee. “Come on. We can cuddle later.”

“Always so practical, clever girl,” he grumbled. As I stood, he swiped at my backside and grinned. “I’ll catch you again soon and ravish you more.”

I spread my arms and bowed as if we were in a formal court. “As long as we have our camp and food and warmth for the night, ravish me as you will.”

He erupted with rich laughter as he sat up. His hair covered half of one eye. “Oh, careful, darling. Because I will.”

“I suppose we’ll see.” I grinned. “But first, I’m washing off.”

Corvin’s impishness did not diminish as he followed me, and I did little to dissuade it. We washed up in the river, splashing one another in the cold waters and making all kinds of threats for the night. But once we were cleaned up and damp, we dressed once again. A sort of giddiness had settled over me to be here with him. There were so many possibilities for the future ahead of us.

His shirt hung open, lopsided with a couple buttons missing and a tie frayed. The sleeves clung to his damp body, and his soft fluffy black hair was loose and disheveled but adorable. He glanced at me sidelong, his lips curled in a sly smirk. “You’re practically glowing. Why might that be, clever girl?”

“Who knows?” I flipped my long auburn hair and fluffed it with my fingers, combing out the tangles as I started back to the clearing with the staircase and the portal. “I suppose you’ll have to figure it out. But now we really do have to get focused on making camp.”

The staircase in the air must have been here for centuries. Perhaps millennium. People had once lived here, using a nearby cave for some of their needs. But it didn’t seem as if anyone had lived here for at least a century or two.

At least that was my best guess based on the paintings on the walls. A cave-in had rendered most of the cave’s opening passage unusable. We could have sheltered in that opening if necessary. But there were other remnants of buildings nearby, almost invisible upon first glance as they were largely overgrown with ivies and brush as well as the saplings that had taken over.

Corvin and I explored them, considering each one as a place to shelter for the night and make our plans for the upcoming days. Enough leaves had fallen to make a thin, crunchy layer around some of the trees. Tagger dashed in front of us, spooking rabbits and squirrels and even the odd snake as he plunged into the corridors and jumped in anything remotely resembling a pile of leaves. It was shocking how much noise the little guy could make. I could only imagine the chaos when autumn was in full swing and the ground entirely covered by crunchy leaves.

Even now, it was almost impossible to hear over that ruckus, but that didn’t bother me after Corvin said he couldn’t smell any predators.

I kept stealing looks at him.

It was so odd to see him without his stripes. Each time my heart clenched, my lungs tightening.

More than once he caught me looking and winked or whistled at me. If we hadn’t agreed to stay focused until we got shelter and food sorted for the night, I’d have stolen a kiss and teased him more. And from the way he looked at me, I suspected he had his own plans simmering.

Farther back and nestled between two birch trees and a scarlet maple, we found a structure that was mostly intact. The door creaked when we pushed it open, and it smelled like old wood, damp leaves, wood ash, and wet leather. It may have once been a trading post based on the long series of counters and equally long shelves behind it. No stools or chairs that hadn’t been broken though. A broad hearth at the far end of the room held the source of the ash scent as well as a large black cauldron and a great iron hook. Other random items had been left scattered about ranging from broken jars to cracked pottery to splintered handles. Some of the floorboards squeaked and bent as we walked over them, but this place was more than perfect for at least one night. Maybe more.

Anticipation built in the air around us. I already loved Corvin, but his eagerness and willingness to not only help in preparations for the night but to see what needed to be done and do it made it all the better. One look at all the rubble and dead leaves inside the old trading post and he turned into the raven dragon form once more and swept it out with his massive wings.

At least most of it. An old stiff rag broom that had somehow survived would let me clean out the rest and deal with the cobwebs.

Thanks to Tagger, I discovered an old well with a heavy stone covering just outside. The rope and bucket beneath had been treated, and both were still usable.

Quite the gentleman when he chose to be, Corvin insisted on disposing of the bodies. Tagger followed along, chirping and squeaking. Probably providing extensive commentary.

I gathered up wood and started a fire on a flat stretch of stone. There was plenty of dry wood scattered throughout, even at the edges of the forest. Tagger brought me some branches before disappearing with Corvin to gather more food.

It was surprisingly peaceful and gentle out here. Easy to get lost in my thoughts. To contemplate what life might be like if we weren’t always on the move. To have a home where we could just…exist.

The old me would have insisted we hit the road immediately and start for the harbor to meet up with Mama as soon as possible.

The new me recognized that Mama had her path and I had mine. I didn’t have to rush to the harbor. I didn’t have to rush anywhere. Corvin and I could just exist.

It had been a long time since I smiled this much while doing homey chores like sweeping. Even if bits of the broom fell off with the task.

Rapid footsteps sounded outside. Corvin burst through the door. “There are real apple trees here!” he shouted. “Look at them!” He ran in front of me, arms loaded with bright-red fruit. The grin on his face was so contagious I found myself smiling too. “They’re apples, yes? Real ones right off the tree.”

“Yes, those are real apples.” I crossed over to him and caught a few before they fell. As I placed them on the counter, my mouth watered already. Ideas for a tasty fish and apple dinner filled my mind already.
Tagger pattered in, holding an apple in his paws. He set his mouth against the red skin, then crinkling his nose. He pulled back and continued to consider the apple as if uncertain about its value.

“There were other fruit trees farther in too. Green, long, and round things.” Corvin finished depositing his treasures onto the countertop. “We’ll feast tonight!”

Long, round, and green? I wasn’t sure what that might be. I’d barely finished sweeping up the last remnants before he returned with his arms full of pears. “Behold the bounty!” he shouted.

Tagger followed with considerably less enthusiasm. He tossed his pear on the counter and then shuffled about, sniffing at the wood planks and then pouncing on a beetle that tried to scurry beneath the floorboards.

“What can you make with these?” Corvin asked. “Show me. I’ll help you. We can boil them.”

“No,” I laughed. “I mean, yes, you can help me. And I’ll show you. But we aren’t going to boil the pears.” They smelled sweet with just a hint of a floral scent, mixing with the crispness of the apples. “We could eat these plain for dessert actually.” Especially if I couldn’t find any baking dishes.

“Then plain it will be.” Light danced in his eyes, and he darted out again.

I scoured out the old iron cauldron and then filled it with water before joining them in the foraging. Corvin and Tagger moved to fishing and searching the river while I foraged. This forest was blessed in many respects. Within a short span of time, I managed to find fall onions with slender green stalks, dozens of button and bubble mushrooms as well as morels, wild squash, curly dock leaves, sheep sorrel, chives, and sumac. Tagger and Corvin brought back red trout, rough oysters, and a few other fish I couldn’t identify. Corvin was right. We were going to have a feast tonight.

Corvin sharpened the dagger, cleaned it, and then cleaned the fish. Tagger assisted him, mostly by eating the fish heads. He even sampled one of the mushrooms and tentatively nibbled a bit of apple once I cut him off a piece. His confused chirps suggested he wasn’t entirely certain what to make of it, but he returned to the counter top to snatch an oyster and bang it loudly against the surface.

Soon the old trading post was full of scents far more like home than I’d ever hoped to experience.
Together we prepared a rustic fish stew, made all the better with the fresh air and company. Corvin stole kisses and plucked at my arms. Twice he pinned me to the counter, and each time Tagger chittered his displeasure until he received another fish or one of the oyster shells to play with.

“You’re going to have to get used to this, Tagger,” Corvin said with a dry smile the second time. “I plan on kissing her lots.”

Tagger gnawed on the fish head, then tilted his head as he chirped. His long whiskers twitched. Clearly he was unimpressed.

“He was sweet enough to leave us be while we…handled the…very important necessary matter.” I resumed chopping the wild squash in uneven slices with the dagger. “I think he just wants to make sure he gets his fish. And that we don’t forget about him.” I gave him a little scratch on the head.

Tagger responded by flopping onto his side and nearly pushing the cutting board, squash, and dagger off in his request for belly rubs.

“Tagger!” I narrowly caught the dagger and board, but a few rounds of squash rolled onto the floor.

“Come on, trouble.” Corvin scooped Tagger up. “Let’s go see if we can find anything else to help. I saw some smuggler marks on the trees a ways back. I bet they’ve got a hold somewhere nearby.”

“Hurry back, boys,” I said, planning to be done with as much of the chopping as possible before they returned.

I didn’t have my special spoon for stirring, but I’d uncovered an old ladle. Perfectly suitable for the task. Strong enough to serve as a weapon if I needed it too.

As the sunset turned deep gold and burnt orange, Corvin returned, triumphant, dragging his prizes. Just as he had with the wrecks in the sea, he retained his knack for finding oddities and useful items. He and Corvin did in fact uncover an old smuggler’s hold behind the trading post, dragging up chests filled with old supplies. The wheat and grain had molded, and a few bottles of wine and rum had cracked and drained. But one held blankets. Thick blue wool blankets that smelled like cedar. He carried them in and made us up a wonderful nesting bed on the floor, humming and singing some old shanty similar to the one the dwarves sang.

By the time the stew was finished, night had fallen. We ate the savory fish stew out of chipped bowls made of coarse red pottery, and we sipped dry red wine that was more bitter than sweet right out of the green bottle. Apples and pears served as our dessert at the end, the perfect compliment to our autumn celebration.

Finishing off his third pear, Corvin grinned. He chucked the core into the fire, then tilted his head to peer out at the window. “I’ve never had one of those, you know,” he said, gesturing toward it.

“A window? Or a pear?” I raised an eyebrow.

He shrugged, then smiled. “Both.” He allowed the silence to build between us for a few more moments. His expression grew more somber. “I know you’ll want to find your mother. That should be easy enough given where we are and where she is. Even if it takes Baider the full ten days to reach them. Chances are good we could meet up near Silver Fire Harbor.”

I smiled, guessing where he was going with this. “Probably. We could even remain here and let them come to us. She’s probably working on something to get through the portal now. And she and the captain both needed the portal.”

“To find your sister.” His brow furrowed.

This time I nodded. But I had sometimes wondered if there were other reasons. My mother’s and Captain Hosvir’s relationship was something she refused to speak about, and even now, it made me wonder.

“Well, from there, we’ll have to talk about what happens next. Family matters. All of that.” He lifted his shoulders. “And if you want to keep looking for your sister, we can. I’ll support you in what you choose…so long as I can go with you, of course. But, while I know that you need closure with your mother and perhaps to conclude a few matters, I would rather focus on our life together. Sooner rather than later.” His brow furrowed as if he were concerned about my response.

Maybe it was the calm after all we had endured, but his words did not wound me or trigger a sharp response. They were true. “Yes. There are things I want to say to Mama. More than what I could manage at the portal. And—I would like to say goodbye to Erryn in some way. I need closure.” I ducked my head, tears pricking my eyes. My sister’s face remained emblazoned in my memory. Releasing a tight breath, I blinked the tears away. “But from there…well, my life is with you. And Tagger.” I tilted my head, smiling as I glanced at the little otter who had fallen into a deep sleep beside the fire, his new favorite rock tucked beneath his paws.

Corvin smiled, though his brow furrowed. He spoke slower now as if choosing his words with care. “Good. Um…I’m not the best at this, but there’s something else I need to say. I know you don’t want me to speak ill of your mother, and I am grateful that she was willing to share the knowledge so that we could come here. But I—I suppose what I needed to say is that your grief mattered as well. And you endured through it. Faithfully. And you deserved to be loved in a way that you could see. Even though I believe your mother loves you in her own way, I still don’t like how you were treated. Especially not when I think about it. And it is difficult because I know that without that, I would never have met you.” He shook his head, huffing. “I’m sorry. It’s all very complicated.”

A bittersweet smile tugged at my mouth more as the flames made the shadows dance around us. “Family is complicated. I shouldn’t have snapped at you in the cave. It’s…I do get sharp when it’s about my family. But my family isn’t the only one that matters. What about yours?” I placed my hand over his, feeling far calmer now as I leaned against him. “You could use some answers. Maybe we can find them.”

“I don’t know that that’s possible. Knowing that my family didn’t abandon me because of my stripes…” Gently, he traced a line along my cheek to my neck. “Maybe we’ll find more. I have a whole lifetime of things to unlearn and discover. But really, clever girl, all I want is a life with you. And when we finally find a place to settle down and make our forever home, I want it to have a place for fire and windows.”

I rested my head on his shoulder, my hand reaching out to grasp his. “And blankets.”

“Yes! Blankets. Lots and lots of blankets.” He kissed me on the nose, then nuzzled me. “Maybe even a window in the roof so we could watch the stars while we fall asleep in each other’s arms.” He gave a firm nod, his voice brightening. “Yes. A giant window in the roof. And a nice big round soft bed for us right below it. We’ll cocoon ourselves in great big blankets and watch the night sky change until the stars disappear with the sun’s arrival.”

“And would we only stare up at the stars?” I asked coyly. “Wouldn’t you get bored? Oh yes. I’m sure we’ll just go chastely to sleep.”

He glanced at me sidelong, his brow arching. “Apparently you are not as clever as I thought.”

I waggled my brows at him. “I know it isn’t the same as having a bed in a house with a window that looks up to the stars, but there is one thing we could do…”


Standing, I picked up two of the old blankets and crooked my finger for him to follow. As his eyebrows lifted, I padded outside.

The coolness of the night had come, stealing away the day’s heat. I missed the warmth of the fire swiftly. But I spread out the blankets and then started to gather wood to make a fire out on the stone in the clearing beneath the stars. Corvin caught on swiftly and helped.

Within minutes, a new fire roared to life, orange sparks catching and spiraling up into the sky before they blinked out. I adjusted the blankets to form the closest approximation to a bed I could. “There—” I started.

He tackled me onto the blankets, raining kisses on my neck and shoulders until he buried his face in my hair. “You still smell like the sea,” he murmured.

“I think it might be sweat rather than the sea,” I laughed.

“On you, it smells divine.”

“You need to raise your standards,” I said, pushing myself up and giving him a teasing scowl.

“How can I raise them beyond this? You ask too much of yourself.” He kissed a line down my neck and then pulled me tight against his hard body. His lips found that sensitive spot behind my ear and then traced to the ticklish portion of the crook of my neck.

Unable to repress the giggle, I shivered in his arms and then pushed away. I couldn’t hide the smile either. “Well…maybe it takes perfection to see perfection.” I twitched my shoulder, my face heating at my own words. I had never expected to be as fortunate or blessed as I felt now. “But if we’re going to talk about perfection, I suggest you roll over and look up.”

He rolled onto his back. A great grin split his face as he put his arm out and drew me against his chest.
I cuddled closer, pulling the blanket up over us both before I turned my own face up to the sky. Tagger hopped up on my hip and then burrowed down so that he was nestled between us.

Hard to believe how dire our situation had been even half a day ago. The brilliant pinpricks of the stars above reminded me of just how small we were in the grand scheme of life. I had never really been all that special. Never intended for anything grand or wondrous. My skills always lay in serving and being invisible. But somehow…somehow ordinary me had wound up here. With a mate. And an otter.

His hand cupped my breast as he tucked his chin over the top of my head. “A lot of dreadful things have happened in my life,” he murmured. As he nuzzled me, his voice grew softer. “But I wouldn’t mind having to endure any of them so long as it meant I got to find you.” He tilted his head to meet my gaze. “I can’t wait for all the adventures we’ll share, clever girl.”

My heart swelled with delight. “Neither can I, you…son of a scallop.”

He laughed and hugged me tighter, shifting our position.

Tagger popped up with an indignant squeak, nipping at us until we broke apart, laughing.

“All right, all right, we’ll behave for now,” Corvin chuckled, giving him a conciliatory scratch under the chin. “But one day when you find a lady otter friend, I’ll make sure to interrupt you.”

Tagger responded with a series of chirps before situating himself on both of us and curling back up into a ball with his tail tucked over his nose.

“You know, I’m going to have to come up with a better nickname for you,” I said.

“Well, Magnificent One could work,” Corvin said, his eyes half shaded. “Or perhaps Greatest Lover To Ever Exist.”

“Hmmmm….” I pretended to contemplate this. “Those have a few too many syllables to be good nicknames.”

“Lover Supreme,” he responded.

I wrinkled my nose at him. “The ego on you!”

“It fits.” He grinned.

I arched my brow at him, then stopped. “No. I know what I’ll call you.”

“Do tell.”

“My shifter love.”

He smirked, but there was a genuine softness in his eyes. “I like it,” he said, rubbing his nose against mine. “No matter my appearance or my form, I’ll always love you.”

“And no matter what you become, I’ll always love you.”

He kissed me gently, his fingers tracing a line along my cheek. We both settled into silence and returned our gaze to the stars, savoring the calm and quiet.

Soon we’d need to return to the safety of the trading post. But for now, there was peace. For now, we were together. And I had never been happier.