“Of course not,” I told him. “Besides, like you said, you didn’t need my help.”
I think Ethan heard the falseness of my tone, but he didn’t challenge me on it, which was a good thing. I didn’t want to waste this precious time we had together with arguing.
I shifted in the saddle, trying to find a more comfortable position. My arms were still locked around Ethan’s waist, and I could feel him holding his breath.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“Nope. Not a thing,” he replied, his voice a little breathy. “But if you don’t hold still, things could get a little embarrassing.”
I froze, thinking about how my fidgeting caused me to rub against him. The moment I thought of it, I forgot all about the discomfort of the saddle, my mind focusing on the fact that my breasts were smooshed up against his back and his butt was cradled between my legs. My cheeks heated with embarrassment, even as the tingle of awareness spread throughout my body and made me want to rub up against him harder. I wondered if he was even now thinking about our venture to second base the night I’d snuck out of my safe house to see him. I knew I was, my mind conveniently editing out the strain we’d both been under at the time and the anger and desperation that had tainted the encounter.
Maybe accepting Ethan’s offer to ride double with him had been a bad idea.
“Sorry,” I said, willing myself to be still.
“No worries,” he said, his voice still strained and breathy. “This is kind of fun.” He turned to wink at me, as if he were perfectly satisfied with a little playful flirtation. As if he weren’t used to getting girls into bed, and my enforced chastity were no big deal.
Not that any of that mattered right now. Even if I were a total slut, we wouldn’t be doing anything more than flirting, in full view of dozens of people. But the tingly feeling of excitement from being close to him never failed to rouse my worries and concerns. I was desperately addicted to Ethan, and the fear of losing him could be debilitating at times, no matter how logically my rational mind explained that we had no future together.
“Maybe I should ride in the wagon after all?” I suggested tentatively.
“No way,” Ethan said with gratifying speed. “I’m not missing out on my chance to have you so close to me.” He sighed, and some of the tension eased out of him. “Besides, we won’t be riding all that long today.”
“We won’t?” From what my dad had told me, the Sunne Palace was at least a couple hundred miles from the Avalon border. I didn’t know how much ground we were covering at our plodding speed, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a couple hundred miles yet.
“No. Finn showed Keane and me a map of our route last night. We’re going to take a shortcut through some standing stones.”
“Huh?” I said intelligently.
“Standing stones. Like Stonehenge, only with real magic. There are tons of them in Faerie. They can be tricky to use, but if you’ve got the skill, you can travel from one set to another in the blink of an eye.”
“Tricky to use? What exactly does that mean?”
“Each set of standing stones is naturally connected to another, and they’re active in the moonlight. So if you don’t mind traveling at night, and if you want to go where the stones will naturally take you, using them is a piece of cake. But if you want to travel in the daytime, or if you want to control which set of stones you travel to, it takes some serious magic. And screwing up the spell could be the last mistake you ever make, if you know what I mean.”
I liked the idea of taking a shortcut—the sooner we got to the Sunne Palace, the sooner I’d be able to go home—but the way Ethan was describing it made it sound like a really bad idea to play with standing stones.
“Don’t worry,” he said, no doubt sensing my tension. “Prince Henry wouldn’t risk using standing stones if he thought there was any chance a hair on his head might be ruffled. And once we go through them, we’ll have only a few more hours to ride. We should be sleeping in luxury at the Sunne Palace tonight.”
Sleeping in luxury sure sounded nice, but an uneasy voice in the back of my head told me the standing stones would not turn out to be such a great idea after all.
* * *
I was right, only not for the reasons I thought.
We’d been traveling for about two hours, and I was pretty sure riding double on Ethan’s horse had already crippled me for life, when the caravan came to a sudden and unexpected halt. It was too soon for a lunch break, so I hoped that meant we’d reached the standing stones, even though the idea of passing through them made me decidedly nervous. I leaned to the side for a better view, but there were too many riders between me and the front to see why we’d stopped. At least there weren’t any shouts of alarm.
“Are we there yet?” I murmured, and Ethan laughed.
“Don’t know,” he said. “Let’s go see.”
We were still in hilly terrain, and Ethan guided his horse off the road and up the side of the hill that bounded it. We were pretty far toward the back, but the extra height allowed us to see why we had stopped. In the distance, at the crest of a flat-topped hill, were the standing stones: about ten big slabs of gray rock arranged in a circle, making it look like the hill was wearing a crown. But that wasn’t why we’d stopped. The road we were on forked, one branch leading right up to the standing stones, the other leading around the hill and off into the distance. The road that led to the standing stones was blocked by what looked like a big hedge. The hedge was about six feet high, and wide enough to span the entire road.