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. Things had become inexplicably complicated.
"You are enough," I promised him, taking his hands in mine. "All five of you, in and of yourselves, are enough... for any woman. But for me, I need all of you. To me, you're five pieces of one soul. I can't have one of you and not the rest—not even you, the one who inadvertently started it all."
He swallowed hard and released my hands. "Are you breaking up with me?"
I grasped his hands again and stepped in closer. "Adam—I mean, Asher—no. I don't want to lose you. All I'm saying is that, in order for us to be together again, you're going to have to join the group. It's not just you and me against the world. It's us. It's our group against the world, against the Storm King. And I want you to be a part of that, which means, I need you to convince the guys that you're here to stay. That you're back for good. That our dynamic is even stronger with you around, rather than hostile and fragile. That we're perfect as a team, rather than a misplaced bunch of lovers."
He licked his lips and sighed, glancing away as he pondered my words. "I spent the past six years of my life trying to get back in your arms, Sweets. And now that I'm finally here, it's going to take a hell of a lot more than this to drive me away. I'll do it. I'll reintegrate myself. I'll pull my own weight and do whatever it takes. I swear it."
My heart freaking leapt up into my throat and did a dance of joy. As I smiled, Ash leaned in, his lips mere inches from mine.
"Would it be okay if I kissed you?"
No. I knew the guys would be furious. It would make them jealous. But this was Ash we were talking about. My long-lost love. Their brother. He belonged with us, whether they wanted to admit it or not.
"One kiss," I told him. "After that, we have to wait and see what the group decides."
He bit his lip, drawing my gaze, making me long for the days when we kissed each other freely, whenever we wanted, without question or consequence.
Then his mouth was on mine—gentle, cautious, full of love and longing, but careful and constrained. My lips parted on instinct, and his tongue slowly slipped inside, brushing mine with a sweetness that was almost maddening. As our lips moved against each other, the force behind the kiss intensified.
Memories flooded my mind, taking me back to the time when we were caught in the rain. When he'd called me beautiful and we’d kissed in the barn while it poured outside. When we’d laid a blanket down in the hay and touched each other for the first time.
The same passion and affection from that day radiated through me now, filling me with the same fire I used to feel. That's when I knew I needed to back the hell up.
I gasped, breaking our kiss quickly and retreating a few steps.
His smile stoked a slow-burning smolder that lit my freaking soul on fire.
"We still have it, don't we?" It didn't sound like a question. And really, it didn't need to be. If he felt even half of what I was feeling—and he did, I could literally sense his emotions—then fuck yeah, we still had it.
"You need to get back in with your brothers," I said in response. "I don't want that to be our last kiss."
I spun on my heel, intending to hurry inside before I changed my mind and jumped him right there in the garden, but something made me pause. With all the conflicting emotions churning inside me, I wished beyond anything that I could talk to my stupid sloth again.
"Damn you, Speedy! Where are you when I need to talk?" I grumbled.
He chuckled. "I'm right here, babe. What do you want to talk about?"
I glowered at him over my shoulder but couldn't stop the smile that immediately followed. "You know damn well." I headed for the door, but he called out to me before I could take another step.
“I have to shift back into an animal or someone might see me. I'm going to pick a bird this time, I think. Can I hang out on your shoulder for a while?"
I smiled and shook my head. "Come on, then."
"Oh, and I might need you to kill me so that I can turn back into myself. Can you handle that?"
What the fuck kind of a question was that? I’d watched him die in sloth form less than an hour ago, and now he wanted me to kill him in bird form?
I took a shaky breath. "Why would you ever ask me to do that?”
Wait. Did he just say “so I can turn back into myself”?
I cocked my head in thought. “Is the price of your magic... death?”
Ben and I had chatted about the Shifter Prince a lot, but I couldn’t recall if we’d touched on that particular subject or not. It wasn’t ringing any bells, and yet it still felt... right.
“Yes, ma’am,” Asher said with a handsome grin. “I can’t shift out of animal form until the creature dies, hence my years as a suicidal sloth.”
Oh hell. I scrunched my face up and rubbed it with both hands. What a fucking disaster this whole thing was.
I nodded. “Now that I know who you are and how your magic works, I suppose I could try, if I have to, I guess."
He grinned. "I love you, Sweets."
Before I could reply—not that I necessarily would have, considering that was dangerous territory—he spiraled into a swirling cyclone of magical gold dust. When the dust settled, all that was left was a little brown bird with a white belly and a single black spot near the throat. He flitted over to me and perched on my shoulder.
I raised a brow at him. "I'm still calling you Speedy, okay?"
He chirped, and I had no idea if it was a protest or not.
"Good. I'm glad we're in agreement."
Now that he was back to being my pet and not my old boyfriend, I was more than willing to open up and talk.
"You know how fucked up this whole situation is?" I asked, as we went inside to find Cal and the others. "I thought Adam had run off and left me behind for years. Turns out, he'd been with me this entire time. I'd been talking to him about his own brothers. I mean, no wonder he was pissed at me."
Was I talking to Asher the bird as if he wasn’t Asher the man? Yes. Did I give any shits? No. If this was how we were going to survive our relationship for the time being, then that’s just how it had to be.
"I should probably tell him that I'm sorry, huh, Speedy?" The little bird chirped once more, and I went ahead and presumed to know what the hell he was saying. "Yeah, I think he'll forgive me, too."
I’m pretty sure I saw the bird's black eyes roll.
Laughing, I knocked on Cal's door. He opened it a millisecond later, as if he was already on course to open it before I arrived.
"Oh, hey, Peach. How was your chat with...?" His blue eyes found the bird on my shoulder, and then he glanced back at me. "I take it this is him?"
I nodded. "We don't know who we can trust at the castle. That servant guy, Frederick, already ratted me out to the king. Who knows who else is listening?"
As I said the words, I glanced discreetly down the hall.
Cal sighed. "Good point. You ready for the, uh, wine tasting?"
I grinned. Way to be super inconspicuous, Cal.
"As I'll ever be, I suppose."
He nodded, shooting one last glance at the bird on my shoulder. “Behave yourself, Ash.”
“Call him Speedy,” I cut in. “It’s easier and much less obvious.”
“Okay...” He raised both brows a bit sarcastically. “Behave yourself, Speedy. No actions that would prove you’re anything other than a common, everyday bird. And certainly no dying and turning into a man right before the king and queen’s eyes. You’re supposed to be long dead. Let’s make sure we keep it that way.”
The bird rattled off a string of tweets that I assumed was Ash telling Cal off.
“Speedy!” I scolded him playfully. “Language!”
He turned to me then and directed his aggressive tweets my way.
“Okay, fine! I’m not one to talk. I cuss like a sailor.” Then we both turned back to Cal, and I continued my half-assed translation. “I think what Speedy is trying to say is: he might be a birdbrain, but he’s not stupid. He won’t do any of that stuff. Right, Speedy?”
The bird’s beady black eyes rolled again, but he let out one final curt tweet.
“See?” I asked Cal, who’s eyes were wide as he took in the crazy scene.
“Yeah... let’s just gather up the guys and get to it.”
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