There were a million scenarios in which I’d imagined Adam crashing back into my life.
Riding in like a knight in shining armor. Throwing rocks at my shack in the middle of the night. Randomly bumping into me on the street. To name just a few.
But I never once imagined he’d emerge from the ashes of my dead pet sloth.
“Do you have any idea how fucking long I’ve been trying to die?” he asked me.
Of course I didn’t. How could I have possibly known that he was the same suicidal sloth that took baths with knives, fell headfirst out of trees, and drank cleaning supplies for fun?
But for some reason, I said none of those things. Instead, the first words that came out of my mouth were, “You shit on me!”
“Are you kidding me right now, Sweets?” Adam, or I guess Asher, argued in a heated tone. “Way back when you first arrived at Blackwood Palace? When you were ogling my brothers right in front of me? It was a sloth-like instinct.”
“It was a shitty instinct.”
I glanced from face to handsome face, trying to find the family resemblance, and pretty much failing. Cal was tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and built like a mountain. Dan was slightly shorter than the others but still at least a whole head taller than me, with pale green eyes, light brown hair, and a near-constant cheeky smirk. Ben was richly tanned with dark brown hair, chocolatey brown eyes, and a sweet demeanor. Rob was burly and brooding, with black hair and dark stubble, stormy gray eyes, and tattoos covering most of his delicious body.
And then there was...Asher. Probably the leanest of the brothers, but still packing some stunning abs and biceps. His hair was light brown, like Dan's, but featherier. His eyes were a rich amber color, and his overall disposition was playful. Or at least, it used to be.
In fact, none of the brothers really looked related in the slightest, except for the fact that they were all freaking gorgeous. Maybe that sneaky servant was right; maybe they were immaculately conceived by the gods themselves?
Cal pulled the shirt off his back and handed it to Asher, who immediately covered the front of his nakedness. A shame, really. Though it was nice to have the Sky Prince shirtless too.
“What’s shitty," Asher emphasized, "was watching my girl drool over my brothers.”
“She’s not your girl anymore,” Rob spoke up, turning the conversation in a deadly direction. My stomach flip-flopped as I glanced between them. “She’s bonded to us, and we’re all committed to each other.”
Asher narrowed his amber eyes. “I heard. You said, and I quote, ‘This bond is between Alexis and us Storms.’ But the last time I checked, I was a Storm too.”
“You’re also an ex-boyfriend,” Rob argued, crossing his burly, tattooed arms, “which was strictly forbidden.”
"Technically, I never broke up with her. So, I was never really an ex. I was just... gone for a while, even though I never really left."
Rob shrugged. “It still counts.”
“It does not,” Ash argued.
“You really want to keep your own brother out of the group?” Asher demanded, staring at each of their faces in turn. “The Storm King damn near kills me, and when I return, you want to act like I’m not even welcome?”
Ben sighed and shook his head. “Fuck this.”
He wrapped Ash in a fierce hug, latching on to him like he was scared he’d disappear again. I couldn't blame him; I feared the exact same thing.
"Why didn’t you come back?" Ben asked, pleaded, as he clung to his brother. He'd told me once that Asher was his best friend and that he'd taken Ash's death the hardest. I could now see that was absolutely true.
"She wouldn’t let me die!" he protested.
"You know why I couldn't come back," Ash said, his voice sounding raw and devastated rather than angry. "Our father tried to kill me, Ben. If I'd have come back, he would have made damn sure he succeeded the next time. It was safer to just... disappear."
He turned my way, and his amber eyes practically melted me.
"Then I found Alexis, and for the first time in my life, I thought I had a chance at genuine happiness. I fell in love with her—I'm sure you guys know how easy that is—and I wanted to stay with her always. I even had a ring picked out and was going to ask her to marry me."
My breath hitched, and my chin quivered. Emotions that I'd suppressed for years suddenly rose to the surface, killing me from the inside out.
"But then one of the magical prisoners found a way to escape the palace,” Ash continued, “and I heard the guards were about to be passing through Blackleaf in pursuit of him. I knew I couldn't risk being seen, so I wracked my brain for something, anything, that I could turn into that would allow me to live long enough to avoid the king but short enough that I could return to human form as quickly as possible. A sloth seemed like a great idea—slow, defenseless, prey to just about anything. But then Alexis found me and..."
"You are the kindest girl ever, Sweets, you know that?" Ash asked me, shaking his head. "But I wished every single day that you'd been just a bit more of a bitch and let that damn sloth die an ugly, gory death a long time ago."
I laughed as a tear slid down my face.
There were so many things I wanted to say to him. So many touches and kisses I wanted to share. But I had no idea if that would ever be possible again.
I swallowed hard and turned to the remaining four guys. "What do you think about adding him to the group?"
Agony and confliction wrecked their gorgeous features. They looked torn in so many different directions—happy, angry, dubious, and uncertain all at once.
Cal shook his head. "I think we should give it some time. Test the group dynamic with him back in it and see how natural it feels."
"I vote no," Rob grumbled, glaring at his brother. "It's been too long, and if he comes back now, there will only be jealousy and resentment.”
“Well, I vote yes,” Ben countered, patting Asher on the back.
Dan sighed. "I need time to think too. I love my brother, but Rob's right. It's been a while. We need to make sure the dynamic is still the same. We made a commitment, a very serious commitment forged in blood and magic, and we can't disregard that so easily."
Ash’s gaze dropped to the ground, and he nodded. "Fair enough."
"Regardless as to whether or not you let him in the group," I said, staring at him as he focused on the ground, "can I have a few moments with him?"
They did not look all that happy, especially Rob, but they reluctantly obliged.
"You have an hour until our meeting with the King and Queen of Timberlune," Cal said, shooting me a knowing look.
My spirits lifted. "Bria was able to get us an audience?"
"Oh, thank the gods," I muttered, putting a hand over my heart. Something was finally... Actually, no, I wasn't even going to jinx it by saying “going right.”
"Come on, guys," Cal said, gathering up his brothers and ushering them toward the castle.
“This is fucking bullshit,” Rob spat, glaring at Ash before turning and leading the way.
Ben sighed heavily behind him. “Give it a rest, would you?”
Dan scoffed, his muscles clenching as he crossed his arms. “Well, I don’t exactly like it either.”
“You’ll get over it—both of you,” Cal said dryly, bringing up the rear.
Ash rolled his eyes and stood there silently, fists balled, jaw tensed, as their grumbling faded into the distance.
Then it was only him and me.
We said nothing for a long while, didn't even look each other in the eyes, but eventually the silence ate me alive.
"You have no idea how much I've missed you." The truth and the weight of those words practically crushed me.
His fingers relaxed then, and a sad smile crept onto his face. "I do, Sweets. I’ve felt that same pain every single day I was stuck as a sloth. But I was never really gone."
Heat burned in the back of my throat as tears started forming once more. "I'm so sorry," I said, allowing the scalding drops to fall. "I wish I would have known. I would have changed everything."
He took a step closer, hesitating as he waited to see what I would do, but I did him one better and bridged the rest of the gap myself. As I nestled into his warm chest, breathing in his familiar spicy scent, I couldn't help but feel complete.
He took a deep breath, and when he spoke, his voice was raw with emotion. "If I hadn’t been stuck as a sloth, you never would have become magical in the first place. You never would have met my brothers or the king. You never would have suffered... or made that stupid blood bond."
I bit my lip and nodded. "I suppose you're right. And... if that's the case, then I suppose everything happened for a reason."
He pulled away from our embrace and looked me in the eye, his amber gaze filled with confusion and disbelief. "You wouldn't change the events that led us here? You wouldn't exchange the bond you made with them in order to live a peaceful life with me back in Blackleaf? Am I no longer enough?"
It broke my heart to have this conversation with him. It wasn’t what I'd always dreamed it would be. I still loved him, that was for damn sure, but he wasn't the only one I loved anymore