“Are we on someone's estate?" I whispered, although it was hardly worth trying to keep quiet with all the underbrush crunching under my boots.
"Asterion's," Jude said.
"Oh!" I looked around, following the lead of Jude's hand. "It's so wild. I can't see a house anywhere."
"It has a charmed boundary as well, to keep any humans from wandering in. He lets weres and other monsters use it," Jude said. "Hunter helped me arrange it for us."
My cheeks were starting to hurt from all the smiling. "When did the pair of you find all this time to plot together?"
"Yesterday, while you were resting with Nireas," Jude said, smiling over his shoulder.
"And tromping through the woods is the best you could come up with?" I didn't mean it, and Jude didn't take me seriously. I was practically jogging to keep up with him, my boots already muddy and my new light skirt possibly ruined. But I was beaming, my face almost constantly tipped up to breathe in the fresh air, to feel the sun dappling over my cheeks through the branches.
"Here we are."
My eyes were shut, trusting Jude as my guide, and sunlight stroked over my relaxed features as he spoke. I blinked into the glare of the rays, lowering my chin. We were standing at the edge of a good-sized clearing, a stream running through the woods on the other side of the grass. There was a red wool blanket spread out just in front of us, and another picnic basket from Hunter.
Jude released my hand, and kicked his shoes off and shed his jacket. His wings were hazy at his back, just barely visible as they blended into his own shadow cast on the grass. He sat down on the blanket, his bare feet oddly arousing, a strangely intimate sight. I watched, mesmerized by his beauty, as he rolled his shirtsleeves up his forearms and leaned back, ankles crossed.
"Are you coming?" he asked, lips an enticing curve as he waited, all long limbs and elegant features.
I sat down on the red blanket, and Jude helped with my boots before I could even ask. "Tell me your plan," I said.
Jude set my boots carefully to the side of the blanket, and my eyes grew wide as he reached for my feet again. His eyes held mine as his hands stroked up my leg, over my knee and all the way to my thigh, helping himself to the tie of my garter.
"I assumed London might not be a very comfortable place for a wood nymph," he said.
"But I'm not—"
"You are. Part of you is. And I don't think an eager appetite for sex is your only inheritance. How do you feel here?"
I licked my lips, thoughts bouncing between Jude's slowly exploring fingertips as he drew my stocking down my leg. If I'd known this was his plan, I wouldn't have bothered with them.
"Comfortable," I said. Jude nodded, encouraging me to go on. "Um…relaxed, like I can breathe more deeply."
The stocking was off, twisted and folded in his hands. I wiggled my other foot, and Jude smiled as he repeated the slow and soothing process on my other leg. I spread my knees apart, my skirt still hiding the view, but his smile only twitched. He knew what I was up to.
I moved one hand off the blanket, into the grass, and closed my eyes again. In my head, I could picture our surroundings perfectly, the presence of the trees as tangible in my heart as they were visible to the eye. There were more varieties here, like at Kew Gardens, and new songs to listen to.
"I can hear them," I murmured.
"Wood nymphs live in their trees," Jude said.
I opened one eye to look at him. "Mmm, but then where would I put you and the others?"
Jude just smiled calmly back. On this thigh, his hands took different paths, one drawing my stocking down and the other continuing a tiptoeing path up the inside of my leg. "Lie back," he said.
I hummed and fell eagerly back on the blanket, spreading my knees a little farther again.
"Can you speak to them?" Jude asked.
I snorted. "Hello, trees."
He pinched the inside of my thigh, high near my center, and I squealed. "Don't be a brat," Jude said.
I sighed and shifted on my back, wiggling to get more comfortable. "I don't know how."
"I didn't know how to stretch my wings until you drew me up on stage. Didn't know I could pull shadows around me until Ronan suggested it while we were tracking together," Jude said. "I thought my only gift from my father was being able to catch a lie, but I'd never had the chance to search for others. Just close your eyes and feel the woods around you."
I closed my eyes as Jude pulled his hands out from under my skirt. I floated in place for a moment, aware of the strength of the trees, of their energy branching up overhead and burrowing down in the ground, but not knowing how to bridge the gap from here on the blanket. I thought of the flower pot in my home, the way it had cracked during the fight with my attacker and the roots that had been stretched out in my direction.
Hello, trees, I thought, but I knew immediately it hadn't reached them.
"You're overthinking it," Jude said.
"How can you tell?"
"Because you're frowning."
"Well, I'm concentrating."
"First you tell me to focus and then you tell me to—Oh!" I arched as Jude's touch reappeared, directly on my sex. It was a simple, gentle stroke over my lips, up and around my clit and back down, and then as quickly as it had arrived, it vanished. I moaned, hips lifting and bucking, chasing the touch, trying to draw it back.
And all around us, leaves rustled.
"That's a start," Jude said, and he was grinning as my eyes flew open and I pushed up on my elbows, staring between him and the trees.
"Was it a breeze?" I asked.
"You tell me," he said.
I pursed my lips and tipped my head. "You'd better repeat the experiment."
Jude leaned over me, lips hovering just out of reach even as I craned my neck, and his hand petted up one thigh and down the other, making up for all the torment I'd given him earlier.
"Jude," I pleaded.