After three hundred years, Princess Maia is done with dryads.
Imprisoned by the wood folk for a crime she didn’t commit, Princess Maiasora Silvercloak wants her life back. If she finds the Key to the Twelve Realms and returns it to the dryads by the summer solstice, she’s free. Too bad she has no clue where to look. And the dryads’ solution might kill her.
Master Assassin Quinn Tarlen wants safe passage across the dryads’ forest after his last contract put him in the crossfire. The dryads offer him a deal: Escort a princess on her quest to find a magical artifact and he’ll be released. One catch: she’s the daughter of the king who killed his brother.
Spell-bound together, they must scour the world for the pieces of this artifact without getting killed or killing each other. Falling in love isn’t part of the plan as they race against time to secure the Key before the deadline. But nothing’s ever simple when magic is involved and death isn’t the worst outcome if they fail to find the Key.
Maia woke slowly, warm for the first time in decades. She rested against something soft, warm…and breathing? Maia opened her eyes and tried to take in her surroundings. Rough rock walls flickered in the fitful light of a fire no more than three feet from her. Pale light peeked through needle covered branches over an opening to her right. The only part of her feeling the chill was her butt and legs against the stone floor.
She glanced down at herself and found a pair of arms wrapped around hers, clad in leather and padded cotton. She followed the arms up to their source, twisting her head around until she damn near kissed the stubbled jaw of the man holding her. Wait, Quinn’s holding me? Why? It didn’t make sense. The man hated her. Why by all the saints was he holding her, keeping her warm?
As much as she enjoyed the heat, being this close to him made her nervous. She suspected he could kill her long before she could get away. She took a deep breath as she settled her mind, and inhaled his scent. Sandalwood and warm leather. Those were the scents she recognized and wondered how he managed to smell so good after hiking all that way through the snow. She knew she didn’t smell that good.
She raised her gaze back to his face and found his glacial green eyes locked on hers. From no more than six inches away. The intense look made her throat dry out and her belly flutter.
“Hello.” He said nothing and this close, she couldn’t read his expression. “I didn’t mean to watch you. I hope it doesn’t bother you, as close as we are.”
“Being watched doesn’t bother me, princess.” His low voice rumbled through her back and she ignored the pleasure it brought.
She thought he would say more, but he sealed his lips together and just stared at her. She wanted to ask him why. Why it didn’t bother him. Why he held her after she’d collapsed in the snow. Why he’d made the effort to rescue her. Because he’s bound to you magically, remember?
That was a less than satisfying answer. But what had she expected? That he might actually like or tolerate her? She mentally snorted. Not bloody likely.
“Thank you for keeping me warm. I appreciate it.” She returned her gaze to the smoldering fire. “Is there more wood? We should build the fire up.”
He sighed and shifted to move, but she settled back against him to hold him still and he paused.
“I’ll get it. I just asked if there was more. I didn’t mean you had to do it.” She gathered her strength, reluctant to stray from his warmth.
He grunted behind her, and it didn’t sound friendly. “A princess doing work for herself and others? Who’d have thought?”
And there’s the sarcastic jackass. She didn’t bother to reply as she rolled herself onto her hands and knees out of his arms. The cool air hit her and she immediately missed the warmth of his body, but she didn’t miss sitting close to him. Whyever did I think he’d be nice to me? Maybe because she’d woken up in his arms, cozy and comfortable. Fool.
She pushed aside her disappointment and focused on the task at hand. He’d made the cave fairly snug while she was out. He’d stacked the gear on the far side of the fire with the food bags hanging from jutting cracks in the rock wall. The firewood sat in a neat pile near the door, far enough away from the flames to keep from igniting, but close enough to dry out. Because of his efforts, their space remained warmer than outside.
Maia crawled over to the pile of wood and selected the driest sticks she could find before returning to the fire. She’d watched many of her father’s servants blow on the coals to encourage the flames to return while feeding the dry wood into them. She added the wood to the fire and blew on the embers, gratified when the flames licked over its surface. I did it. Encouraging a fire was a small thing, but satisfaction swirled in her chest and she sat up with a smile.
“I’m surprised you knew how to do that, princess.”
And there went her satisfaction. She stuffed her irritation down deep and shrugged.
“Not all of us are damsels without skills, Mr. Tarlen.”
Maia rolled her eyes before she crawled over to her pack to look for food. If he wanted to be a master at something, she wouldn’t argue. His ego wasn’t her concern. She dug through her pack, carefully setting aside the clothes and minimal toiletries. But her food was missing. It had to be here somewhere. She’d only gotten into the pack once.
“Where are my provisions?”
He said nothing until she looked at him with raised eyebrows. He smirked and tilted is head toward the far wall. She followed his gaze and remembered the bags of their food hanging from rocky hooks in the wall.
“Nice.” She climbed to her feet in an attempt to move to them, but dizziness assailed her and she swayed. “Oh goodness—”
Her head swam and the world shifted. Where the hell did up go? She lost her balance and fell, hoping the impact wouldn’t be too hard.
“Whoa, princess. I’ve got you.”
Somehow, she didn’t land on something hard and unforgiving. What am I talking about? Master Tarlen is totally hard and unforgiving. But he’d managed to move so fast and so quietly, she didn’t hit the floor. Her head still twirled like a ribbon dancer, even while her body remained steady in his grip.
“You need food and water and rest. You lie down and I’ll get it for you.”
“Why?” Why was he being helpful and kind? It didn’t make any sense.
“Because if you weaken and die, I’ll weaken and die.”