It was very easy to creep yourself out at the hospital at night.
Everything in a hospital was industrialized. There was a veneer of warmth in patient spaces—warm lights, nice murals, wood paneling—but underneath that, in the guts of the hospital, things were usually poorly lit and dusty. Hallways full of empty beds with restraints still attached to them. Baby incubators with broken lamps. Pipes that knocked and wheels that creaked.
And that was before you got to any of the people dying.
Because she didn’t know how many people had died in this house—it was so old, she was absolutely positive that multiple people had—Andi did what she always did to make herself feel better. She threw all the lights on.
They sputtered to life like the wiring was old, but they brightened the room a little—enough to keep her spirits up, for now.
And after that, it was time for nursing. A full assessment. Just like she was at work, that’s all she had to pretend.
She walked over to the patient’s bed. Normally she’d have started off by trying to wake him. Even though he was unconscious, he looked strong. That, and the uncompromising way with which Austin’d restrained him—barely any slack on either wrist—made her second-guess herself. Instead, she just lifted up his eyelids to make sure his pupils moved.
After that, airway—he was breathing on his own, albeit with an oxygen mask—and circulation—all of his IVs were good, plus his rate on the monitor was normal. Last but not least, a quick head to toe. She lifted up the sheets. It wouldn’t do to wait eight hours to find out he had a pool of blood growing underneath him, hidden by the linens.
She was surprised to find him naked underneath. He was ridiculously well-muscled. Half of his torso was covered by a large bandage, and what wasn’t was covered in even more tattoos, just like his arms. They were old…formal…and strange. Like words written in a language she not only couldn’t understand, but had never seen before, and she considered herself pretty damn worldly. Or at least she’d watched a lot of National Geographic.
They were almost like…hieroglyphs? But not quite.
Andi ignored the tattoos and went back to frowning at the dressing, mad at herself for not assessing her patient before Austin’d left. It went from his hip to his shoulder, and it was too big to be from surgery. How would they have performed surgery here? Surely, they weren’t that old/rich/crazy. It had pink drainage on it. She put on gloves to touch it and found it saturated.
Which meant it wasn’t doing him any good and needed to be changed.
Andi looked around the room. This wasn’t civil war times; surely, she wasn’t going to use a half-stuffed pillow. Austin had brought the crash cart in from somewhere. Maybe there was a medical supply room down the hall?
“Be good,” she commanded her patient and trotted down the way she thought Austin had gone.
What Mr. No-Name hadn’t mentioned about the house was that it was very nearly a labyrinth.
Though, now that she thought about it, Mr. No-Name-With-a-Fancy-Watch was probably a Blackwood himself. Maybe a distant cousin or something. She had once read a book about a rich family who hired lesser relatives to keep their secrets. Maybe that’s how the Blackwoods rolled.
She went through rooms that didn’t make sense—one filled with wrapping paper. Did Mr. Blackwood really send so many gifts?—a bedroom, a mudroom—even though it didn’t connect outdoors—a kitchenette, a game room, a tiki bar, a closet with enough furs in it to lead to Narnia. She counted rights on her right hand and lefts on her left hand and was able to make it back, but she hadn’t found anything useful. Not even a bathroom. Or a coffeepot.
When she returned, there was a sterile chest vest in its package, sitting on the patient.
The first thing Andi did was to check the patient’s restraints. Because if this was his idea of a “fun game,” then she would strangle him until he really needed that oxygen mask. But he was just like she’d left him; he hadn’t moved. Who the hell had brought her that?
“Hello?” she asked, not sure what would be worse—if no one answered her or if someone did. “Is anyone else here?”
She thought she heard an echo of her own voice but wasn’t sure.
“Okay,” she announced, stepping closer to him. “If someone is taping this to punk me later, let me just say preemptively that you’re an asshole.”
She yanked back the sheet dramatically, hoping to trigger something. When nothing happened—same hot patient, same slow bleed—she pulled on fresh gloves.
The patient’s chest was hairless, which was good because she was ripping an awful lot of tape off of him. Apparently, Austin had never heard of abdominal binders—or maybe this dude appreciated the free wax. She snorted to herself as the last of the tape came free, and the soggy dressing slid off, revealing the wound underneath.
There was no way a “fall” had done that to him—not unless the stairs here grew claws and teeth. The end of the chest tube was expertly taped to his rib cage, like a sleeping snake, but underneath it was jagged rakes of red. It looked like he’d been clawed, but she couldn’t begin to guess what’d done it. She held out her own hand for comparison and couldn’t have done that to him even if she were Wolverine and her fingers fully spread. And then there was a…bite mark? Coming down over one shoulder? No wonder his lung had popped.
She glanced back up at his face. Had his head gotten hit, too, in his fight with whatever the hell this had been? Or had he just freaked the fuck out and gone catatonic? Because if something big enough to do this decided to pretend she was a cat toy, that’s what she would do.
She frowned at his wound for a thoughtful moment, then expertly wrapped him up, making sure to pull the sheet up to his neck, exactly how she’d found him.
“I don’t know what you got into, but I hope it doesn’t get into me.”
Then she walked away from the bed and sat on one of the library’s leather couches.
The downside of not having her own phone meant not having her ebook app for reading. She scrounged a few of the old books left on the library’s shelves. Management at the hospital never got that you had to do something to pass the time at night—that some nights you weren’t getting paid to work, so much as getting paid to just stay up and be there in case there was work to be done. She opened up The Count of Monte Cristo and started reading.
Hours passed. At work, she’d nap on break, but there were no real “breaks” here to speak of, plus she sure as hell wasn’t sleeping. She checked on the patient regularly, tried to pretend medical supplies hadn’t just appeared when she needed them, and that there was a way falling down stairs could do that to a man.
Halfway through her book, she had a thought.
What if…the patient here really was Mr. Blackwood and they were torturing him so they’d get his fortune?
She looked from her book to her patient. No, she was just getting ideas from her book. It was almost five a.m. That was when everybody started feeling loopy. Humans just weren’t meant to be up this late.
But what if… Whatever other crazy idea she was going to have evaporated when she heard a child’s voice.
“Help me,” it pleaded.
Andi jumped up and whirled, feeling her heart race in the silence.
Had she heard that? She had to have. She’d been up late plenty, and she’d never hallucinated before. And yet, just as she was about to talk herself out of it, she heard the voice again.
“Please, help me,” it begged her from farther away.
Mr. No-Name hadn’t mentioned anyone else in the house.
But for a house this big, it would be normal to have more staff, right? The staff was beneath attention and mention. But maybe Blackwood senior or junior or third cousin once removed was into Bad Things, and this was the only chance whoever needed help would have to escape to safety?
“Oh my God, can you hear me?” the voice sobbed in a desperate panic. “Please be real. Please…and come find me!” the voice cried.
Andi took one look behind herself at the patient—safely sleeping just the way he had all night long—and then went racing after the voice.
She tore through the strange house, following the voice as sometimes it sounded far away—sometimes closer—always pleading. If whoever was calling her felt safe enough to ask for help, they must really be alone.
“I’m coming!” she shouted. She finally felt like she was on the trail. The voice became louder, the calls more frequent, summoning her to a bedroom outfitted like a dungeon. The walls were lined in green velvet wallpaper with ornate patterns burned out against it, and black leather furniture-like objects were arranged tastefully—almost like art—if Andi hadn’t known what they were for.
She ran through it at top speed into the next room and found herself in a room almost exactly like the basement of her first home when she was growing up. Orange shag carpet, tan wood paneled walls, with a green felt regulation pool table sitting in the center of it. Same dingy light overhead, the same scent of cigarette smoke lingering in the air.
“Are you kidding me?” she whispered as she stopped in her tracks. The balls were racked and ready to play. All she was missing was Danny, her partner in crime. Pool was their father’s favorite hobby. They played it with him incessantly any time he visited, hoping that someday they’d be good enough to make him stay. Whenever he left, she and Danny would play against each other for hours, practicing for the next time. They’d win his love someday, they knew it….
“Help me!” begged the voice. It sounded like it was just one room away now. She ran for the door like her chalk-dusted memories were chasing her—so quickly she couldn’t stop herself and wound up falling.
Into a pond.
Andi bobbed up for air, gasping, surrounded by lily pads as wide as dinner plates and peals of laughter.
“Stop that!” she shouted, looking up to see who was laughing and finding only another high ceiling with a star-like chandelier. The laughter didn’t stop.
Someone was having a very elaborate joke at her expense.
She felt herself turning beet red and swatted at the hip high water, then felt her ankles sink. Somehow, the bottom of this koi pond—inside the house—was mud. She panicked and kicked her shoes off, losing them to the murky depths in her rush to swim to the pond’s side and clamber back out the way she’d come. She was totally sodden, and now she didn’t have any shoes. “Fuck you,” she told her unknown assailant. “And fuck this.”
The laughter stopped. There was a rustling behind her, and a chill went up her spine—the cat appeared. Grimalkin walked over and meowed at her with cross-eyed disapproval, before sitting on his haunches to lick a paw judgmentally.
“Do you believe this?” she asked him, gesturing to herself and her surroundings. Grimalkin started purring loudly in response, which sounded a bit like laughing.
“Get it together, Andi.” She pressed the heels of both hands to her eyes until she saw flashes and composed herself.
This night was cancelled. The second she got her money she was leaving this crazy place.
She stomped back the way she’d come, racing through the green-walled dungeon and found herself back in the room with the patient three doors later. Andi stood in the doorway and blinked at the impossibility of it all.
“No way!” But he was still alive, at least. She glanced over the numbers on his monitor—all within healthy ranges—then realized she could hear herself dripping on the hardwood floor. She scurried over to where the bed was, but she wasn’t sure dripping on a rug was any better. She remembered one of the rooms she’d been in earlier and dared to find the coat closet again.
Hiding inside of it, she took all her wet clothes off and pulled on a fur—huge, black, and fluffy.
She didn’t even care if she got the fur dirty. At this point, Mr. Blackwater, or whoever the hell was laughing, deserved it. She just wanted to go home.
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“What’d Grim say?” Austin asked Damian on their way to the garage.
“That she’s too small to be of any use.” In reality, Grimalkin had asked if Andi had brought him any cheese, the bluer, the better—because the house was out. Luckily, Damian was the only one who could understand the hugely powerful multidimensional guardian he’d been assigned at birth, so no one else knew how easily a gift of cheese would distract him.
“For once, the cat and I agree. If my brother wakes up –”
“I know,” Damian said, shutting down further conversation. If Zach woke up while they were gone—a big if—then hopefully he and the nurse could have an intelligent conversation, after which she’d take off his restraints. He’d be confused about what had happened, but he’d be smart enough to realize she was an outsider.
He got into the armored SUV, waiting with some of the rest of his crew. It was just him and the guys tonight. Max was driving, Jamison had his eyes on his electronics, and he sat close to Austin who was busy wiping down the barrel of something black and shiny.
He sank back into his seat, thinking about the nurse.
She smelled good, his dragon commented.
Shush, he told his dragon—but it was right.
Oil, plastics, but more overwhelmingly, the aroma of iron, surrounded him. Humans had so much iron in their blood; it was a wonder to him that they weren’t magnetic. Living in human society, he had gotten used to the metallic scent, but for some reason, tonight it seemed more pungent than usual.
It was all because of her.
When she had gotten into the car, the gaseous stink of the bus she had been on and the medicinal chemical scents that were a hallmark of her occupation clung to her coat. Those were expected.
But underlying all that was her own subtle scent, undetectable to most humans, and yet abruptly mouthwatering all the same.
Apples and caramel, yes, that’s what it reminded him of—and saltwater.
He swiped through his emails, opening the unread files Mills had sent over. Top of her class in community college and then nursing school. But she’d suffered student loans, a staggeringly high amount of debt owed to a hospital which looked like medical bills for a relative before it got wiped—presumably by that relative’s death—and a brother who apparently couldn’t resist taking rides in cop cars. Which made her perfect for his purposes: hungry enough to be looking for cash, smart enough to keep Zach alive, and hopefully, smart enough to not ask many more questions.There was always the Forgetting Fire if she got too curious. He reached the end of her background check and found she lived in a gentrifying part of town in an apartment above a Greek bakery. That explained her scent. Her apartment probably smelled entirely of baked goods.
Mystery solved, Damian put the phone back into his pocket. But his mind went right back to her. Andi. What an odd name for a girl. He had the strangest urge to say it out loud, irrationally, to see if the sound tasted as good as she smelled. And that interesting streak of blue that he’d glimpsed a flash of before she’d wound her dark hair up—something about the act of her hiding it made him want to unwind and expose it again, to possibly feel the wrap of it around his hand.
“Why’d you warn her about the house?” Austin asked Damian, distracting him from his thoughts.
“Because Grimalkin doesn’t like strangers.”
“He doesn’t like anyone,” Austin countered.
“He’s keeping an eye on Zach, isn’t he?” Max said from the driver’s seat, defending Damian’s guardian’s integrity. Damian knew his cat and his old weapons master got along—they had to; they were the only two things that’d come from the Realms with him, albeit at different times. The battle armor Max had on made the whiteness of his skin around it even more shocking, and Damian knew if he had his hat off, all his hair would be ghostly pale. He’d had an albino’s pale eyes, too, before he’d lost them in a fight with another bear-shifter. Mills had replaced them with something magical hidden by goggles, turning him into the perfect bearer of Damian’s Forgetting Fire, since its powers no longer seemed to work on him. And whatever kind of eyes he had now, he could snipe an Unearthly creature down at eight hundred yards.
“Grimalkin’s probably hoping that he’ll die,” Austin said darkly.
Max broke into a toothy grin. “Nah, if Grimalkin wanted either of you dead, you’d be dead already, puppy.”
Austin snorted at him. “Better to be a wolf who’s a fighter than a bear who’s a chimney sweep,” Austin muttered, before addressing Damian again. “Was she sensitive enough for the perimeter to bother her?”
Austin grunted. “How’d she do?”
“Admirably, considering she didn’t know she was being magically attacked.” There were several concentric security rings around his mansion, some magical, some not. He’d both seen and tasted her panic as they’d driven over one of them—the one Austin had been supposed to turn off. He’d seen other men throw themselves out of moving cars in fear and not know why to crawl crying back downhill. While she’d been scared, Andi hadn’t run. Another interesting point.
“Do you think she bought it?” Austin asked, pretending to put a driver’s hat on.
Damian knew he meant the subterfuge of him pretending to be a driver in his own employ. He’d wanted to meet the person taking care of Zach, to get a feel for her—he hadn’t expected for him to wind up being so intrigued.
“Doesn’t matter,” he answered. “Either she doesn’t figure it out, fine; or she does, and the fire will make her forget.”
“Why bother? No one would believe her. She’d just be another internet crackpot,” Jamison said while staring intently at the computer on his lap, as immersed in it as Austin was his weapons. He was very dark-skinned and lean in opposition to Max’s bright whiteness and Austin’s bulk, and between the hardware on his lap and the hardware of his arm that they’d replaced with tech, the man was practically half-computer.
“You mean, like you?” Austin said, goading the younger man.
“Don’t make me change your Netflix password,” Jamison snarked, then waved his hand for silence. “We’re approaching the source of the signal. Slow down, Max.”
Max grunted an acknowledgement. He was driving what Damian called “the tour bus.” It was a heavily armored SUV, fortified with metal shielding, bulletproof glass, blast-resistant undercarriage, and, more importantly, personally warded by the most powerful witch on this side of the Pacific. Damian knew where they were by scent—the saltwater, gas, and oil fumes could only be from the familiar miasma of the docks—and they were here because somewhere nearby there was an Unearthly creature they needed to kill.
A few days ago, a gate had opened in Damian’s domain. Gates were random rifts or tears between this world and other Realms, occurring when and where Earth and other Realms overlapped, allowing Unearthly things through for as long as the passage remained open. They could be as small as an atom, leaking a slow trickle of matter through that didn’t belong—making exposed non-magical humans think they saw Bigfoot, UFOs, or ghosts—or they could burst open like lanced boils, letting creatures that Ought Not Be through, flying, crawling, or oozing out to wreak havoc on whomever was unlucky enough to encounter them. Damian and his crew’s job was to kill the monsters, seal the gates, and wipe the minds of any human left alive.
They’d easily closed the most recent gate fifty miles outside of town, but not before three sizable creatures had made it through. The one they’d decided was the most dangerous, that needed to be put down instantly, had been an insectoid creature the size of a bus with bulletproof chitin and webbing that had been tougher to cut than steel cables. It’d been impervious to fire, too—at least human fire. Which was why Damian had had to let himself go.
They’d corralled the monster in a low canyon, but it’d slithered up a wall and over the defensive line Damian had created for the men, cutting him off from them. Zach abandoned his post, ran to help, and gotten grabbed. He’d screamed—and Damian could still hear those screams, agonized and terrified, now—and Damian had changed in an instant. From the human that he pretended to be, to the dragon that he was.
Massive. Mindless. Monstrous.
His dragon ended the creature in moments, reveling in the freedom and destruction, flipping the thing over to claw through its underbelly. Afterward, Damian had struggled to regain control. It hadn’t been easy.
“How much farther?” asked Max through gritted teeth.
Damian could feel the preparatory intensity of his crew as they waited quietly for Jamison’s next instruction. Between Zach’s injury and losing Michael last year.… Just because they were good at what they did didn’t mean it was safe.
“Almost there. We’ve gotta pass it to triangulate it. Just keep going,” Jamison said, oblivious to everything but the data he was harvesting on his screen.
Damian had told Jamison and Mills to prioritize creating technology to predict when gates were opening, so they could preemptively seal them before the Unearthly came through. They were gaining ground, but until they managed to perfect it, members of his team would always be in danger—and so would Damian. Because every time he shifted, his dragon came closer to claiming—and keeping—control.
“Stop,” Jamison said, closing his metal hand into a fist.
The vehicle downshifted, and the men hurried to finish arming themselves as Damian thought of everything he’d given up to get this far, everything he’d put his men through—all the Unearthly they’d faced, losing Michael, and now, nearly losing Zach.
“Whoa,” said Austin, looking at him askance, and Damian realized he was exhaling smoke. “Let’s keep it together this time, ‘kay?”
Damian narrowed his eyes at him. “Zach almost died.”
“I know,” said Austin with a dispassionate look on his face. “He’s my brother. But that doesn’t change things.”
Damian held his gaze, fighting the urge to let his eyes flare with magic.
The very same thing that gave him purpose, which made him a member of this team, was also the very thing that put them all at risk.
His own Unearthly heritage.
Of all of them, Austin was the one who never forgot what Damian was. And when he finally turned, becoming draconic without hope of turning back, Damian knew without a doubt that Austin would be the one to put him down.
“Which one’s here tonight?” Max twisted around to look back now that they were parked. “The lady or the tiger?” They’d all seen the other two creatures they’d passed over in favor of killing the bus-bug thing.
“Hang on.” Jamison’s magical equipment wasn’t anywhere near as sensitive as Damian was at this range. He closed his eyes and reached out with his senses. The all too familiar red magic bloomed in his mind, shaping itself into a vision of the source. He felt the fiery warmth that all creatures from the Unearthly side had—and more—longing, desire, and urges that made his heart beat faster and his heat sink low.
“The lady,” said Damian
Everyone groaned. It wasn’t that they couldn’t take down a succubus. They were pretty frequent Unearthly escapees—it was just the aftereffects that made things difficult.
“It had to be a fucking succubus,” said Max with a groan. “They’re creepy as hell, once you get down to the real monster underneath.”
“Agreed,” Austin said, then turned to Damian. “What’s this one look like?”
He concentrated on the spark again.
“In the other Realm, it has white wings, along with the tentacles,” he said finally. “Here, it’s got big breasts and blonde hair—a cross between a Christmas angel and a porn star.”
Austin cursed, but reached for the net gun before stepping out.
They were indeed, as Damian had predicted, on the docks. Which was a strange place for a succubus to be working, unless there was some sort of pleasure cruise—an emphasis on pleasure—nearby. But Max had his goggles on, scanning nearby buildings. “Over there,” he said and pointed. Once he had, Damian could feel it too, without any technological or magical enhancements.
Somewhere, in one of these buildings, was a bass-heavy beat.
An illegal warehouse party at the docks attracting a succubus? Sounded about right. “Spheres, Jamison?”
“Catch.” The other man reached into a belt holster and retrieved marble-sized magical objects to toss to each of them. Damian caught his and felt a layer of magic envelope him as they walked down the alley. It wasn’t there to protect him, so much as to protect other people from him—and the crew. No one wanted to see their group of overly muscled and beweaponed men walking down the street, so the sphere showed them whatever they wanted to see instead—men without guns, puppies, lost balloons. Damian didn’t question the sphere’s judgment, he just knew that they worked.
“The only thing is…” Austin began, as they got closer to the sound.
“We’ll still need a victim to lure it away,” Damian said, finishing his statement. He unholstered his gun to hand it over to Jamison.
“How come only you get to talk to the pretty ladies?” Jamison teased.
“Because I’m immune to their charms. And if this one is as bad as it feels, it has very nasty knives.” He handed his sphere over, too, leaving the safety of its magic behind. The others were all in tactical gear, but he’d kept on the suit he’d worn to pick up Andi. He didn’t need gear when there was a sixty-foot, fire-breathing reptile inside him longing to get out and fuck shit up.
Max cracked the knuckles on one hand. “Where do you want us?”
Damian scanned the building. Two huge men were bouncing in front of a door that was practically vibrating with the bass from the building behind it. The building itself only had small windows up at the top, strobing red and gold with the lights from inside, which meant external visibility was shit, but he had a feeling he’d be able to lure the thing out.
“Southeast exit’s best,” Jamison said, looking at schematics on a tablet. “The other buildings there form a natural cage.”
“Done,” Max said, jogging to the warehouse’s far side. Jamison saluted Damian with his metallic arm and ran off in the other direction—which left him and Austin alone.
“Try not to have too much fun before the hurty bits,” Austin said with a smirk, then went to head around back. Damian counted to twenty to give them all time, then headed toward the door with his most wicked smile.
Getting in was the easy part—a hundred-dollar bill did that—but he stood out once inside, very different from all the riotous dancers. He was GQ, and they were all sweaty, high, and half-dressed—a wild throng of humanity.
More like prey, grumbled the creature inside him.
He ignored it and made sure the southeast exit was feasible. It was at the end of a hallway and not blocked by pallets or locked with chains.
“Southeast is a go. Going silent now,” he replied, taking out his earpiece before walking toward a makeshift bar created out of pallets and storage boxes. He didn’t blame the succubus for coming here; he would’ve liked to’ve done so himself, as a human. To just be able to let everything go—and to know that everything would still be safe and okay.
He didn’t have that liberty.
Damian closed his eyes, pulsing the powers inside him out to search for her like radar. Once, twice, three times and the beast would feel him, but it didn’t matter, he had her—in the middle of the dance floor. A group of men and women circled her, thinking they were enjoying themselves. He knew if he let his gaze go draconic, he’d see her true form—wings tucked back as her waist-high tendrils spun out to spike everyone nearby. Everyone she speared would think they were in love—with her, with here, with life, it wouldn’t matter—and if she wasn’t stopped, she’d drain them of energy until they became her mindless slaves.
He ordered a shot of whiskey and downed it at the bar before heading to the dance floor. This wasn’t the place to sip. If he was going to get her to follow him outside, he needed to seem fully human, and every human here was drinking. The group of people around her had grown from five to ten; he needed to act quickly, but he hesitated intentionally, like he was unsure, and made sure to catch her eye on a spin.
She had hair like the sun, and it swirled around her like her tendrils would have if he’d allowed himself to see them. He stood at the edge of the dance floor, looking rich and cruel and disapproving—not taking his eyes off of her—daring her to come to him.
She was like a cobra dancing with a snake charmer, doing everything in her power to lure him closer into tendril range. But that wouldn’t do. He needed her alone, so he watched her studiously, letting her know he was interested, but not content to be amongst the commoners.
One by one, dancers seemed to come out of their reverie and stumble to the edges of the dance floor as she released them, not knowing how close they’d come to losing their lives. He had to fight not to smile. This wasn’t his first time with a succubus; they were all alike—completely certain in their abilities to torment humans and completely unable to ignore a challenge.
She was close now, still dancing, but just for him. She was wearing next to nothing, the thigh-high slits of her skirt showing off her legs as she moved, as she kept moving hypnotically, coming closer. He could smell the addictively sexy pheromone she emitted and almost wished it worked on him because it was hard to stay still knowing that once she came a few steps closer she would strike.
She smiled winningly and the first tendril hit—straight through his heart. The dragon half of him bellowed and rose and fought, and he had to wall it off as quickly as he could. Calm down. Now!
He did his best impersonation of a struck human for her. “You,” he whispered, his voice low.
“You-you’re different.” Her voice was a purr with an inhuman thrum underneath.
She struck another tendril through him, and instead of screaming, he had to pretend to be enamored. “I want you.” In real life, he would never be that abrupt, but bewitched humans had no common sense.
“That’s good,” she purred. “I want you too.” She reached her hand up and touched his face. “I’ll tell you a secret. I want everyone here.”
He smiled at her, pretending to be innocent, trying to ignore the way he could feel the spears of her magic slide in and out of him, sucking at his essence. Her hand trailed down his chest and seemed certain to go lower.
“Me first?” he offered.
Kill her! the dragon in him growled.
SHUT UP! he commanded.
“Oh, yes. You first,” she agreed, letting her hand sink to his waistband. He reached for her and dragged her close, kissing her hard, before she could feel that he wasn’t—that he was the only thing not turned on by her within thirty feet.
“I need you,” he said, coming up for air like a desperate man. The things she was doing to his brain and inside of him—a migraine blossomed, and it was hard to stay clearheaded—and his dragon howled. “Outside?”
She smiled at him, and with his dragon this close, it looked like all her teeth were fangs. “Yes,” she agreed, and together they stumbled toward the southeast exit.
Damian wasn’t sure what shape his crew’s attack would take, as he made out with the creature down the hallway toward the southeast door. He ignored the pain, trying to concentrate on the feel of its breasts against him and not letting it lock him in against a wall.
Then they reached the door, and he shoved her outside, blocking the door with his own body. He didn’t want the succubus running back into the crowd as they shot her with warded guns. No one would get hurt, but the chaos they’d cause could create a stampede.
Every single thing they fought with was warded—right down to the bullets. Which meant they wouldn’t hurt normal humans—just Unearthly things.
Which also meant he was in harm’s way.
“Move!” Austin shouted at him. The succubus took in her surroundings—the blinding phosphorescent lamps his crew had set up, the guns that were trained on her.
“Whaaat?” Her voice rose with an unholy pitch. “No—I did not escape the depths of—”
A sniped shot—Max, from a nearby building, Damian knew—came through her neck, blowing out her throat. He could almost hear the bear-shifter saying, “Don’t care,” as he silenced her. Damian threw her forward with all his might, felt the tendrils releasing for a second as they moved with her, and then they grabbed on harder. He sank to his knees as she drained his strength, and with wide eyes, he watched her heal.
Unearthly things were stronger than Earthly ones, yes, but they didn’t heal like that. Maybe Max had only grazed her? But then why was his shirt streaked with so much blood?
His thoughts took only half a second, and then he heard Jamison call his name. “Damian! Catch!”
Jamison was throwing his weapon to him, and the succubus batted it down with a now-visible wing. It didn’t matter, though. Austin was advancing—pumping rounds into her—and Max was still sniping her from afar, and slowly, the human shell of what she appeared to be was blasted away until only the monster of what she was shone underneath the phosphorescent lights. Their weapons pushed her back out of striking range and then Damian was free. She sank to her knees, her tendrils writhing desperately around her, searching for fresh victims.
“No,” she whispered as she realized she was dying. An iridescent purple eye swung in an overlarge socket to spot him. “You and I…we are the same. I felt it in you. Why do you align yourself with them when you could have flown with me?”
Damian didn’t have an answer for her; he just stood and picked up his gun. This needed to be over. He squeezed off a round into her head as the tendrils that had pierced him snaked weakly by his ankles.
“I will crawl into you and eat your soul,” she threatened, from a mouth that spontaneously appeared on her neck as Jamison brought a lamp closer.
“Pity for you, I don’t have one,” Damian said and fired the shot that finally ended her.
This is the first piece of a Instagram Collage Puzzle about the story. Come follow Kara on Instagram for more and see how the picture develops!
Finding a good co-writer who gets you, gets your style and understands the way you work is a tough thing. It's sort of like dating in a way. Sometimes you come across people who you should jive with, but then it turns out that things don't work out because you don't have chemistry.
Cassie Alexander and I have known each other for awhile, and so we didn't want to screw up a friendship. So before we decided to make this a series, Cassie and I originally decided to test the waters of co-writing by writing a short story together, that eventually became DRAGON CALLED.
We had so much fun writing it together that we decided to write an entire series and release them quickly together (because yes, the endings are cliffhangery, and personally, I hate waiting a long time for the next book). And so yes, in addition to DRAGON CALLED being released in May, we will also have DRAGON DESTINED and DRAGON FATED also released in May!
If you're interested in reading the short story that inspired the novel, I'm going to be serializing it here on the blog. The beginning is mostly the same as a novel, but at some point it detours into something a little different with a Happy-For-Now ending.
If you like it, I HIGHLY recommend checking out DRAGON CALLED 🙂
While waiting for the bus, Andrea Ngo—Andi—had plenty of time to consider that answering an Overnight Help Wanted ad online may not have been the world’s best idea. But it wasn’t like her student loans were going to pay themselves; she was already working nights at the county hospital—and then there was the whole thing with her idiot brother’s bail. Danny had gotten into stupid situations before, but she never thought he’d run out on her, miss his court date, and leave her stuck with a ten-thousand-dollar bail bond.
So, what was another shift or two? Who needed sleep anyhow? Sleep was definitely overrated. She took a pair of thick black plastic framed glasses out of her coat pocket and put them on. She had perfect vision, but she knew from experience glasses on Asian girls made people think she was either super smart or super sheltered—both of which had worked in her favor before.
The bus came, picked her up, and deposited her as far as it would go across town, at the bus stop outside the Briars Country Club. Its ominously-thorned, wrought iron gate made her glad she knew when her last tetanus shot was. She pulled out her phone to text the mysterious number that said she’d gotten the job in the first place.
I’m here, she texted. Five minutes early, no less. She took off her glasses, which turned out to be quite dirty from underuse and fogged them with her breath to wipe them down. She’d never been this close to the BCC before—there was never any point when she was most definitely not, nor would ever be, a member.
But working at her glasses stopped her from staring at her phone. The person who’d given her the number when she’d gotten the job had claimed to be Damian Blackwood’s secretary. Andi found that hard to believe. What on earth would Damian Blackwood need a private nurse for one night for? Or—perhaps the better questions—for whom?
She’d talked to an ambulance transport nurse once who’d gotten paid for an entire day to follow around a Saudi prince in his rig. So she might be getting paid just to watch someone breathe, barring an assassination attempt, which sounded lucrative and exciting.
But she’d never get to tell anyone about it—not even her roommate Sammy—because they’d made her sign a nondisclosure agreement. And then the text that had told her when to be here had made it clear that this assignment was “no questions asked.”
Which would be hard because questions were like, her thing. Had to be. Because secrets could kill you—asking questions saved lives.
Andi ran an aggressive thumbnail over the left glasses lens, trying to scrape off a streak, and found a scratch too deep to ignore. She should’ve tried these on at home and brought one of her other half-dozen pairs. She sighed and pocketed them, returning to her phone to check the time.
And now they—whoever they were—were late.
Maybe this was all just an elaborate hoax. She crossed her arms in the dark, turning her back on the gates and the mansions behind them. She hated thinking like that because she knew the slightly paranoid anxiety that made her an excellent nurse was a double-edged sword when it came to life-coping skills.
But it’d stopped her from getting into the Subaru STI that Danny’d “borrowed” from a friend the last time she’d seen him—which stopped her from getting her prints in his freshly stolen car.
Andi checked the time again then jumped as the heavy gates behind her began to fold in on themselves, thorns disappearing like at the end of Sleeping Beauty. An all-black car—in a make she didn’t recognize—pulled up. But she realized it was for her as it parked and a driver in a suit emerged.
He was…breathtaking. A Caucasian man with black hair, strong nose and chin, full lips, and piercing light brown eyes that appeared almost golden. The crisp black suit made him look sharp, but he didn’t need it—which led to thinking about what he might look like without it, which was not appropriate right now, but Andi couldn’t help herself. He was injuriously handsome—the kind of hot you’d do a double take for and wind up getting hit by an oncoming bus you hadn’t noticed—and hot enough that there was no way he didn’t know it. She more than knew his type, and she steeled herself to give him no response.
“Miss Ngo?” he asked as he opened the passenger door for her.
“Just Andi,” she corrected him, getting into the back seat and scooting over. He took a moment to stare at her, and she felt a low-hipped thump of desire, which she concealed with a tight smile.
“Of course,” he agreed, giving her a slight nod and a much warmer smile as he closed her door. He took the driver’s seat again and looped the black car around to pull back behind the gates of the Briars like a tide.
She had no idea what kind of car she was in, but she had a feeling that Danny would lust for it. The interior leather felt buttery, and the drive was certainly a lot smoother than the city bus.
Too bad the whole “having a driver” thing made her uncomfortable. Admittedly, she couldn’t drive, so she really did need one, but her last boyfriend hadn’t even opened her door for her on their first date. And Josh had definitely not looked like that.
Andi-girl, you need to have fun and get out more. She could hear Eumie gently chastising her in her head, and right after that, her roommate Sammy, adding, And you need to get laid.
She was willing to admit that both those things might be true—but nothing like that would happen tonight.
“So, we’re going to Blackwood’s estate?” she asked the driver, trying to make innocent conversation as the car rose in the hills. She glanced up at the rearview—waiting for him to respond—and realized the defiant blue streak in her black hair was showing. Shit, shit, shit – she hadn’t gotten into nurse mode yet, but it was time. Her hands reached up and wound her hair into a practiced bun that hid the color.
“We are indeed,” said the driver, not taking his eyes off the road.
“Do you know who I’ll be taking care of?”
This made him look back at her in the rear view, brow lifted in bemusement. “Someone who needs your help—clearly.”
Andi groaned on the inside. “That’s a little vague.”
“Would you prefer to hear that I’m not at liberty to say?” His tone was clearly teasing.
“No, not really.” Andi rolled her eyes. Once again, hot did not equal charming. “So, what’s he like?”
“Who?” the driver asked, overly oblivious.
“You know who; come on,” she said, leaning forward in the car to talk to him between the front seats. “Damian.”
She’d googled him, obviously, but that hadn’t told her much. The Blackwoods were old money, rode over on the Mayflower-style: stocks, yachts, islands. But it seemed like no one had taken a picture of the man since he turned thirty—twenty years ago.
“And what makes you think he’d be involved with the hiring of temporary staff?” the driver asked, twisting to smirk back at her.
So much for blue-collar solidarity. Andi sank back into her seat and loosened her scarf. “Right. So, is there anything you can tell me about this gig? Or do you just do as he says, ‘no questions asked’?” she said in a tone of voice that mocked the text she’d gotten.
“Hmmmm. Asking too many questions of the Blackwoods is generally a bad policy,” he said in a cautionary tone. “Or of anyone, really.”
“Too bad that’s like half my job,” Andi muttered beneath her breath, then more loudly said, “No questions, huh? Sounds like a great person to work for.”
The car took a swooping right turn. “Just do what you’re told, and you’ll be fine.”
“Yes, of course,” she clipped. Good help didn’t gossip—and that was all she’d be. She wasn’t getting paid to be curious. The driver swung left without turning on his turn signal, and she swayed with the car.
The road rose as it curved, zigging and zagging up the side of a hill. She twisted to look behind her and caught a view of the city below, all lit up like a rippled sheet of gold. It was so unexpectedly beautiful she gasped—and then it felt like she’d been stabbed. In her chest. Right below her heart. She pressed a hand beneath her breast, trying to figure out what was wrong with her and if she should confide it to this strange man, but then the pain was combined with the strange impression that she should run back down to the city lights below where she knew that she’d be safe—from what, though?—as prickling terror rushed over her entire body like ice cold water.
“Are you all right?” the driver asked, glancing back at her in the rearview, his voice serious for the first time since she’d met him.
“Yes,” she said defiantly, even though she still felt like she was being stabbed—by fear itself. Her heart was hammering so fast, like the time she’d been chased by the cops because of her dumb brother or the time she’d been mugged—but she’d never felt such an intense urge to run-run-run.
She double-blinked and forced herself to breathe, looking out the window at the city’s golden streetlight tapestry. It swept out like wings to encompass the hills on both sides, and from somewhere in the depths of her childhood memories, her Auntie Kim’s voice burbled up: There are dragons in this world.
“Miss Ngo?” There was a note of concern in the driver’s voice that hadn’t been there earlier.
Why on earth did she think about Grand Auntie Kim? It had been years since she’d seen the old woman who had taken care of her as a child during the summer, who’d told her and Danny stories of dragons after their dad had walked out on them and their mother had had to work. Andi inhaled deeply and shook her head. Whatever this is, you are bigger than it. You have handled worse. You’re going to be fine.
Or, said a darker part of her mind, you’re having a heart attack at a freakishly young age, and in about three seconds, you should ask Mr. Handsome here to call 911.
“Andi?” the driver pressed.
“Do you know CPR?” Andi asked, half-joking, half-not—then the sense of terror lifted just as fast as it’d come on. “Oh my God,” she whispered to herself, sinking back into the car’s luxury leather interior. “Okay. Never mind. I’m fine. Honest.”
His eyes narrowed at her in the rearview. A flash of anger? That was on him, not her.
“Don’t worry,” he growled, suddenly a much darker man. “You’re allowed to be here.”
What an odd turn of phrase.
She would’ve asked him why he’d said it quite like that, but she was too happy to not feel like she was dying anymore. The car swung around again, and the pavement turned to cobblestones as they pulled through a final gate.
The driver slowed and parked in the roundabout, right in front of the mansion’s huge church-like doors, and she quickly got out to breathe fresh air before he could come around and release her. She leaned against the car and looked up.
Compared to any place Andi’d ever lived—or ever seen—the house was utterly ridiculous. It wasn’t a house so much as a castle, and it had the kind of turrets that you expected to see archers peeking out from—although, in this day and age, and with Blackwood-level money, machine guns seemed more apt. Stained glass windows dotted the upper floors, some glowing with light, while ivy grew aggressively up the lower ones, crawling out of a garden that could best be described as feral. A huge circular fountain behind her had a dragon head on top of it shooting out water instead of smoke.
The driver walked around her and opened up the front door, and light beamed from somewhere inside as he gestured for her. “Ready?”
Andi forced a lightness she didn’t feel into her voice and expression, plastering on a smile so sweet it was giving her cavities. “As I’ll ever be!”
Swallowing for strength, she walked behind him indoors. They were together in a vast entryway that had three sets of stairs, wide ones arching toward the right and left wings of the house, and an odd spiral staircase that shot straight up. Her eyes followed it to a circular door in the ceiling, two floors up. A belfry? Some kind of service hatch? Her guesses were interrupted by the driver reaching for her, and she stepped back quickly without thinking. “I-I didn’t catch your name?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said.
She stared at his open hand and then looked to him. The corners of his lips were turned upward, teasing her, and it felt like her heart stopped beating for a moment. Dammit. Was he taunting or flirting with her? Was he so hot he just assumed he’d get his way? Or was he so used to hanging out with rich people he thought he was one, just like when clerks were rude to you for no reason in fancy stores?
He cleared his throat and lifted his hand slightly. “Would you like me to take your coat, or do you prefer to wear it while nursing?”
She had a sudden urge to meet him late at night in a pool hall and see how much she could take him for, but she took off her coat and handed it over. “You’re assuming I’ll get the job.”
He shrugged. “I’m assuming you’re competent. But I’ve been wrong before.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Mr. It-Doesn’t-Matter,” she said. Why wouldn’t he give her his name? Her roommate Sammy was convinced that answering an ‘Overnight Help Wanted’ ad online was Andi’s beginning of a true-life crime show on Investigation Discovery—and maybe she was right. Maybe Mr. No-Name was a felon or something? Something he’d have in common with Danny if she couldn’t talk her Uncle Lee into getting her brother an expensive lawyer. She squinted at the driver. His reluctance to tell her his name only made her want to know more.
He resisted her dig. “And your phone?” he asked. She handed it over, much more reluctantly. “You did sign an NDA,” he reminded her, as he put it in his pocket.
“But what if there’s an emergency?”
“We’ll give you a spare.”
A spare phone wasn’t the same thing as her phone, but she tried to shake it off.
He glanced at his watch, and his expression became serious. “If you’ll follow me,” he said, and then started walking without looking back to make sure she did so. She almost had to trot after him. He was so much taller than she was—at least six-three to her five-nothing—and he was apparently in a hurry. Then again, maybe she was relieving someone else—another hired hand—who needed to leave quickly.
At least chasing after him let her see his ass. His suit was particularly well cut around him, not leaving much to the imagination—not when your imagination was as good as hers. He surprised her by stopping and turning back around, as though he’d known she was looking. She stopped, too, like they were playing a game of red-light green-light.
“Coming?” he asked, waving her up.
“I’m trying to, sheesh,” she said, striding forward, almost out of breath.
“Come a little faster, then,” he encouraged her. His eyes narrowed briefly, and she knew he knew exactly what he’d said to her as he turned back around. She wasn’t sure if she should be irritated or ever-so-slightly pleased—her brain said the first, while her body said the latter.
Shut up, body. Andi always ended up falling for the broken, temperamental types. There was something alluring about trying to fix things—and people. But she knew better now, after several exes, and tried to get all of that out at work, where people actually did need fixing.
They practically raced through a living room, appointed with a mix of plush couches in old and modern styles, statuary of all kinds, two fireplaces on either end big enough to roast a bear in, and vases filled with flowers almost halfway to the cavernous ceiling. Past that was a dining room with a table elaborately set, too many chandeliers to count, and a long hall with many locked doors. She could tell they were locked because they were bolted from the outside—some with more than one bolt and the locks were exaggerated, even comical—like they were meant for the outside of pirate chests. She couldn’t help herself; she stopped in front of the last locked door and inhaled, a question on her lips.
“Mmm, mmm,” he said with a closed mouth, mockingly as if she were a naughty child, then he had the nerve to turn and wink at her. “No questions, remember?”
Andi’s jaw clenched. She was so going to find out his name. But he started walking again without waiting for her—until they reached a final door.
“You’re late,” said a voice from inside the room. Damian himself? She straightened her shoulders and walked in.
No. The man who’d spoken was far too young to be Damian. While Mr. No-Name was so attractive as to almost be otherworldly, this new man was the pride of the Midwest, a golden boy through and through. Hair the color of rust, lightly tanned skin, and a build that said he could pick a girl—or several—up.
“Sorry. Someone didn’t open the gates.” Mr. No-Name’s voice was almost acidic, and Andi realized that this is who he’d been mad at in the car, not her. But why? All the gates she’d seen had opened.
It didn’t really matter though, because just past the homecoming king, Andi could finally see why she’d been brought here.
She could tell the room had once been a library, even though the shelves were mostly clear, and the only thing remaining to hint at its prior function were leather couches pushed to the side and the scent of old books. Now though, the place where the couches had surely been was occupied by a man in a hospital bed, surrounded by the accoutrements of the sick and infirm—oxygen tanks, monitors, IV pumps on IV poles, a chest tube, a feeding pump spinning like a spindle, and, impossibly out of place for her nursing experience thus far, a small Siamese cat lay curled at the end of the bed.
“I was a little busy,” the other man defended himself, gesturing at the bedridden man. Apparently, no one was concerned about the cat.
Mr. No-Name opened his mouth to say something, and Andi cut him off. “Well, I’m here now.” She walked up to the bed, blinking in the dim light. She thought she recognized him, from grainy newspaper photos. “Is this…Mr. Blackwood?” It looked like him. A little.
Mr. No-Name came to stand beside her. “It doesn’t matter who he is. Can you keep him alive for eight hours?”
She tilted her head to look up at him. “Maybe—if you tell me what’s wrong with him, first.” What she could see of him was covered in splotchy bruises. There was an oxygen mask on his face, and Andi belatedly realized his tightly-restrained arms were both insanely muscled and covered in tattoos.
Definitely not Mr. Blackwood then—unless Mr. Blackwood was even more interesting than she’d assumed.
“He fell down the stairs,” said Mr. Midwest entirely unconvincingly. Andi looked over at him to ask for more information and caught him looking over her at Mr. No-Name, his face full of concern. “He’s starting to wake up. I don’t want the first face he sees to be a stranger.”
“Grimalkin’s here,” Mr. No-Name said, with a pointed look at the cat, and then he jerked his head toward the door. “I need you out with me tonight. You know why.” He held up a wrist and tapped on a watch that probably cost as much as the car he’d driven her in.
Drivers definitely didn’t make that kind of money.
Andi stopped herself from making a discomforted sound. She already knew from painful personal experience that rich people played weird games, and if it was more likely she’d get this job by pretending to be dumb, fine. It was only for one night, after all. The sooner she started working, the sooner she could make Danny’s bail, and then maybe all this would make sense—an emphasis on the maybe. “Look—can somebody here just give me a report?”
The man she was replacing dragged his gaze away from Mr. No-Name and started talking to her. At her, really.
She pulled out a pen and paper and wrote everything down, asking appropriate questions at appropriate times, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was being partially shouted at and definitely judged. When he was through, she held up a hand. “Three things.”
“Go,” he allowed her.
“The cat?” She couldn’t help but ask.
The driver answered her. “He’s practically a family member. Presence nonnegotiable. Next?”
“Okay, then.” Weird-ass rich people. Andi shrugged and looked back at the patient. “So, why is he here? Why not a hospital?”
“In the city?” Mr. Midwest was incredulous.
“Yeah. Why not? There’re good hospitals there.”
“Hospitals aren’t safe,” Mr. Midwest stated—like that was a known fact.
Andi bit her lips, hard, to not say anything about his bizarre opinions. “All right, then,” she went on. “Third is, who are you? Medically, I mean.”
“His name’s Austin; he used to be a paramedic,” Mr. No-Name said for the man.
“And in the Marines,” Austin added.
She stuck her hand out, so Austin would have to shake it. “I’m Andi.”
“Ah. An Andi, not Andy,” Austin said, with slightly different emphasis, giving Mr. No-Name a glare.
“It’s not my fault your assumptions were sexist,” Mr. No-Name said, a slight grin flickering at the corner of his mouth. He looked meaningfully at his watch again, and Austin disappeared down a hall. “So. Eight hours?” Mr. No-Name asked her.
From Austin’s report, this patient mostly sounded like a wait-and-see. He was injured and unconscious, but there was no real reason he hadn’t woken up yet—other than possible brain damage. Which, yeah, made this whole level of secrecy, perhaps understandable? If you were the head of a household worth a fortune and someone got injured on your watch, you might need to keep their issues under wraps. She glanced at the patient’s vitals on the monitor, the level of urine in the foley, and the slowly draining chest tube. She could keep almost anyone alive for eight hours—at the hospital. But what would happen here if things went poorly? This situation was bizarre, and even though they were paying her a ton, she still had her license to think of. She glanced up and found Mr. No-Name watching her shamelessly—so shamelessly, she flushed.
Austin reappeared, pushing a crash cart before she could stutter out any words. “You know what to do with this?”
“Of course.” The presence of a crash cart allayed only some of her fears. “But…I’m not a doctor.”
“If he needs a doctor, just call me, and I’ll get one. My number’s preprogrammed.” Mr. No-Name handed her a phone as Austin went on.
“And who should I ask for?” she asked, trying not to sound curious in the least.
Mr. No-Name let out a snort as if to say, nice try. “I’ll know it’s you.”
Austin interrupted. “There’s more oxygen tanks against the wall. Just keep him comfortable until we get back.”
Andi looked between them. None of this made sense—not the cat, not this job, not this house, and definitely not these two extremely handsome, yet extremely odd men. “Where are you going anyhow?”
Mr. No-Name shook his head at her question. “Out. But we’ll return by dawn, and I promise you’ll be on the first bus back to the city. Okay?”
Mr. No-Name’s gaze pressed her, as Austin loomed.
She inhaled—to tell them how insane all this was and back out—but then she reminded herself that the only thing that needed to make sense was the fact that one night here would equal a month of her normal paycheck. She glanced at the patient and did her best to ping out with her inherent nurse-radar, honed by months of taking too many shifts, taking in his color, and the numbers on the screen. He was the most normal thing here, hands down. “Yeah, okay,” she said, deciding. She pulled out the phone she’d been given and waved it at Mr. No-Name. “I’ll call if anything happens; otherwise, I’ll see you in eight.”
“Good,” Mr. No-Name said and smiled at her—fully—for the first time all night. The sensation of his pleased attention on her was almost as bad as whatever had happened to her on the road here. She wanted to run away, but she found she couldn’t. She was struck—pierced—like she was a deer in headlights. He was just too much.
Then the cat leapt off the bed and wound around Mr. No-Name’s legs. He glanced down, and the moment was over. The spotlight had moved on. She sagged, caught herself, and hoped he hadn’t seen it. It didn’t seem like he had as he knelt down to knuckle the cat’s head softly.
The cat meowed at him, repeatedly, as if it had strong opinions, and Mr. No-Name gave it a dour look. “No, she didn’t bring anything for you,” he told the cat, and then looked back to her. “If you hear any sounds in the house, just ignore them. It’s an old house; it creaks a lot.” Austin coughed from the door, and Mr. No-Name headed toward him. Her audience was over. The men left, and the cat followed them.
Andi relaxed, then became embarrassed by how she’d felt. What was she, some kind of schoolgirl? You know better! Whoever she’d been in the moment he’d looked at her—stupidly happy, foolishly hopeful, and just a teensy bit terrified—it wasn’t the real her.
The real Andi was a nurse who knew what to do—every time, all of the time.
She went to the bed, unlooped her stethoscope from her neck, and started to assess her patient.
Did you enjoy reading Chapter 1?
Click here to read the next part: Chapter 2
Enjoying the story so far? Enter the Goodreads Giveaway for your chance to win a copy of the full length novel when it releases!
The answer is yes absolutely! There is SO much more to the world of the Dragon Lovers! Unfortunately there will be even more of a delay than I had originally planned. Because of the closure of schools due to COVID-19, all the hours I had planned to use to work on the book will now be used with caring for the children and homeschooling.
I am grateful for this time I have with my children, and that my family is healthy and safe, but unfortunately, you’ll just have to wait a bit longer!
(Also, you should check out my other dragon books, particularly, my Prince of the Otherworlds series co-written with the AMAZING Cassie Alexander!)
EXCERPT FROM DRAGON CALLED BY KARA LOCKHARTE AND CASSIE ALEXANDER
I should run, she thought, for my own good.
But instead of running, she touched the protruding ridge on the side of the dragon’s face, where a cheekbone would be on a human. His scales were hard and hot but not uncomfortably so.
Suddenly his scales rattled in a shivering reaction. Andi gasped and jumped back and watched as the dragon seemed to melt away.
And then Damian stood there, in human form. The same man she’d seen in his bedroom earlier, only now completely naked, and the rest of him was just as hot as the half she’d already seen. He was perfectly proportioned chiseled perfection, and the memory of his lips on hers and his hands on her body came rushing back with fresh heat. “Why aren’t you afraid?” he asked her.
Andi blinked. “Should I be?”
Damian opened his lips, but no words came out. Instead, he tilted his head, watching her as if he thought she would bolt—running off screaming at any moment. She’d be lying to herself if she didn’t admit that a small part of her wanted to do just precisely that.
Damian was a dragon. But he was also a man.
A very, very good-looking man. And the rest of her wondered if his skin would be as hot to the touch as the scales had if she felt it now.
Thoughts like that will only get me into trouble. Andi made an effort to look around, at the steaming bits of monster flesh scattered around them and the smoking wreck of a van behind her. She should be scared witless, and part of her was, but the same snark she hid fear with at the hospital came out to protect her. “I take it this is just another normal Friday night for you?”
“Saturday morning, technically,” he corrected, slowly smiling.
-from DRAGON CALLED by Kara Lockharte and Cassie Alexander
I’m so excited that I can finally tell you all about this amazing project I’ve been working on for months with a cowriter!
Cassie Alexander is an AMAZING writer who received kudos for her writing from the likes of Charlaine Harris and Sherrilyn Kenyon. I want to also mention that her dayjob is as an ICU nurse so she is a TRUE hero of these times. (If you want to follow her exploits in the ICU and get insight on what’s going on in the hospital during these times, you can follow her on twitter, though warning, she does get political at points, but if I was told I might have to go to work in a bandanna and had to have a separate phone just so dying people could say good-bye to their loved ones, I would be pretty angry too).
We’ve been working on this fabulous slow-burn billionaire dragon shifter paranormal romance series that honestly, I think is some of our best work EVER. And I have to say, I think the cover is pretty hot too!
DRAGON CALLED – a new sexy slow burn paranormal romance from Kara Lockharte and Cassie Alexander!
It’s always a bad idea to fall for a hot mysterious billionaire with a spooky castle.
Especially when you find out he’s a dragon.
Night nurse Andi Ngo was desperate for money to bail her idiot brother out of jail. A one time nursing gig seemed like the perfect deal: lots of cash, no questions asked. Even when her employer turns out to be the notorious billionaire Damian Blackwood, Andi is determined to keep quiet and finish the job.
But when Damian saves her life from a monster, there’s no forgetting what she saw — not his insanely superhero physique, not the hungry way he looks at her, like she’s some priceless treasure to be possessed, and definitely not the fact that he’s got another hidden self; he’s an honest-to-god dragon.
Andi knows the dragon shifter’s secret and he’s definitely far from pleased.
After a night of monsters and mayhem, he takes her home in his fancy sports car and….asks her for a date.
The expensive well-tailored suit can’t disguise the fire in his eyes and wildness in his savage smile.
She should say no.
What if she says yes?
Note: This is the first of a slow burn paranormal romance series featuring a hot dragonshifter hero: heck yes, explicit scenes are in here but you’ll have to be patient for the HEA to come.
Keep scrolling for a look at Chapter 1!
Or click here to get it on Amazon (releases May 4, 2020 into Kindle Unlimited!)Continue reading
What’s the easiest and best way to read my books or any other author’s books for FREE, in a safe, non-virus contagious, legal way?
It’s for YOU to send a purchasing request to your local library that they buy those our books.
Requesting that your library purchase my books for their collection
Nowadays, most libraries have email or contact forms on their website that let you make purchasing requests with out even leaving your house!
And in fact, libraries love when you request books to buy because it helps them with their statistics. It shows that people in the community are using their resources (and thus, helping them to avoid budget cuts).
In fact, reader requests are the #1 way for independent authors to get their books into libraries.
It is extremely hard, if not near impossible for most independent authors to get their books into libraries because:
1) Visibility – Indie authors don’t have the budget to tell every library about their works. The cost to advertise in library trade journals is prohibitively expensive. One well known book review publication charges indie authors around $800 for a single review!
2) WHO? libraries aren’t going to spend tax-payer dollars on a books they’re not sure their patrons want by people they’ve never heard of. On the other hand, if a reader requests a book for purchase, it is hard data that shows that SOMEONE in their community wants to read that.
3) Quality control – Let’s be honest; there’s a lot of great things about indie publishing, including the fact that ANYONE can put up a book, but that’s also a minus; that ANYONE can put up a book with no quality checks. This is why social proof and reviews help A LOT. Thanks to readers like you, the first book of my Dragon Lovers series, BETROTHED TO THE DRAGON has more than 100 reviews with a 4 star average on Amazon!
Now, admittedly, sometimes libraries might still say no. Sometimes they don’t have the budget, but more often than not, it’s because the libraries require that books have special cataloging info.
Many indie authors don’t have that cataloging info because it requires getting a cataloging specialist to create that info for each book. How do you know? You can always ask your favorite indie author if they have that info.(Feel free to point them to this blog and tell them to contact me and I’ll be happy to help them out!).
I DO have that cataloging info to make it easier for libraries to buy my books. Its include it right in the first page of the printed copies of all my Dragon Lovers books!
So if you’re interested in reading the Dragon Lovers books for free, please ask your local library to buy copies of my books! (At this time, only print editions of my books are available for Library purchasing, but I’ve also made LARGE PRINT editions available for the visually impaired).
I’ve tried to make it as simple as possible with this sample copy-and-paste form request letter here (link opens a shared google doc).
All you have to do is add your name, library patron or barcode number, the name of your library, and then copy and paste the letter with the book info into an email. Alternatively, you can also make a copy of the google doc file and print it out to take to your local library.
To those who do request that their library purchase my books, THANK YOU, because you are helping to support an author and her family, and helping me show my kids that mom has goals too!
Feel free to tag me on social media when your library gets them. You might just get a special shoutout from me!
Tags: Read Betrothed to the Dragon for Free, Read Belonging to the Dragon for Free, Read Bonded to the Dragon for Free, Read Kara Lockharte Dragon Free
Here are the books of some of the amazing authors I met up with at the 2019 Novelists INC conference! They were all awesomely nice people so of course, I added them to my To-Be-Read pile. Add them to yours!
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According to Amazon exclusivity rules, I can’t leave the serialized version up.
To be honest, I think the fully edited version of this story is a thousand times better than this version.
And it’s longer.
In addition to more random details at various points, there are two additional chapters in the final version (in which Val finds up what’s up with Sophie’s red barn).
And Grant’s reaction to Sophie’s apparent death? It’s completely different from the draft version presented here.
What’s more, in the final chapter we get to visit Grant’s secret place, find out what keeps his nightmares at bay (hint, it may not be what you think), and see Val coming to terms with what she is…in Val’s sort of way.
What’s more, if you sign up for my mailing list at the special link at the back of the Amazon version of BONDED TO THE DRAGON, you’ll automatically get the special BONUS EPILOGUE.
It’s a hot sexy interlude that just didn’t quite fit at the end of BONDED TO THE DRAGON.
So I made it a bonus for newsletter subscribers 🙂
Here’s an exclusive excerpt from the BONUS EPILOGUE!
My mouth tasted like perfumed smoke and incense. My tongue felt big, strange, swollen.
“Val?” said Grant’s voice. “Are you all right?”
“Give me a moment.” My voice sounded strange as if it were underwater. I was slowly getting used to this disorientation of my senses.
It came with what I was: a chaperone or guide to one’s final end (as opposed to the temporary end I had been in when I originally died). Sometimes, I found myself in that place in between, called by a soul who didn’t quite know where to go. I helped them figure out their path. Doing it made me feel good, gave me a purpose. It made me feel right.
The problem was that when I came back from the threshold of death, my senses often were temporarily mixed up. It wasn’t uncommon for me to see smells like chocolate (which looked like red velvet in light oddly enough) or hear bright lights that tinkled like bells.
I opened my eyes, and saw Grant staring at me, as if I were a stranger. This was a little odd. Usually when I came back to myself, he was ready with a cup of tea and even sweets.
My eyes sharpened. Whoah, had the colors on the rug always been so vividly burnt red and blue? I blinked and realized Grant was still looking at me strangely.
“What? What’s wrong?”
He spoke as if to himself. “It is you, Val. Your scent hasn’t changed, and neither has your internal fire within.” He was always referring to the fire or magical something that connected us.
“But… You look different.”
“What?” Sometimes words were hard.
I looked down at myself. And saw —
Don’t worry, you should feel free to unsubscribe after you subscribe to get the Bonus Epilogue. (But there are additional fun sexy side stories for being on my mailing list, AND I’ll be sending out more fun little stories in the coming months!)
But if you just want a free read, click here for a free hot sexy shifter short of mine (requires newsletter sign up).
Or click here to play a game to win a book from one of my author buddies in FB Messenger! (Note: Clicking the link below will AUTOMATICALLY open your FB Messenger).
And according to Amazon exclusivity rules, I can’t leave the serialized version up.
But I am allowed to show you the first chapter! (And this is the FINAL, version!)
Light flared above us. A fireball the size of a bus shot toward me.
I folded my arms. I knew better than to get my hopes up. Life, Part Two, was turning out to be an awful lot like Life, Part One.
The fireball splashed against an invisible bubble barrier, surrounding us with light.
“We’re all going to die!” a woman screamed in panic. “Get back!”
I tried to respond, but my legs wouldn’t move—not out of fear, but because I was still fucking bound to this bitch fairy queen.
Residual memories of cold dark tentacles slithered into my ears, stabbing cold needles of possession into my mind.
I squeezed my eyes shut, determined not to let the stupid fear take me. The Devourer wasn’t in this place, I reminded myself. There was nothing left to be afraid of. I had already died. I had even come to terms with never being able to make things right, being betrayed by the man I’d thought I loved, and you know what? I was okay with all that unfinished business. But Titania, the fucking bitch, had decided that of all the recently deceased human souls in the existence, she wanted mine to be her slave.
A monstrous roar ripped through my thoughts; instinctively, my flesh body tried to cower, needing a place to run and hide, even as I realized that this could be the solution to all my problems.
“… I had nothing to do with it!” Titania said, her voice echoing with magic.
A massive scaled white claw scraped against the protective bubble arcing over us. The black talons broke through the bubble. The resulting blast of air, stinking of smoke, ignited the leaves and trees nearest the break.
A thickly muscled black man, with only a hint of salt and pepper in his hair to betray his age, leaned toward the queen. “You have to get him to stop, Your Majesty.”
Titania gritted her teeth, and for a moment, it looked as if the flowers in her hair had turned into thorns. “What. Does. It. Look. Like. I’m. Doing? None of your human weaponry will work on this one. This is why I needed that thing,” she said, glaring at me, as if I could do something.
He kissed her hand. “Do the right thing, please, Your Majesty.”
The fire tornado outside swirled and coalesced around a pillar of white fire reaching skyward.
Out of the inferno walked a man in a white suit.
The man placed a glowing hand on Titania’s bubble. Electric sparks crackled blue, and the air grew heavy with the scent of ozone and ash. There was an intense pressure as if my ears were going to pop.
Then without further fanfare, sound, or fury, Titania’s shield was gone. There was nothing left to stop him.
What the hell? He wasn’t just wearing white but a formal white suit. Were we being sieged by a wedding party?
It was pristine, as if he had just put it on, rather than having spent the last hour or so launching bolts of acidic fire at Titania’s magic shield. The formal jacket was open, revealing a white shirt underneath that was unbuttoned at the throat. The only bits of color were the strip of black belt at his waist and what looked like spotless black Italian leather shoes.
“He’s not in dragon form. He’s not even wearing his armor,” gasped one of Titania’s flower-covered lady/maidens/whatever the fuck they were.
Though his clothing was far from serious, his shockingly handsome face was flat and emotionless. His shoulders were back, his head held high, his gaze trained in on Titania, with only one thing clear on his mind.
If I were lucky, he really would have a death gaze and kill her for me right there and I’d be free.
No such luck, of course.
He strode across the carefully manicured grass with the stance of a conqueror.
Titania sat on her throne, the expression on her face unimpressed, but the stiffness of her posture betrayed her underlying emotion. I had been eavesdropping as her harem guard reported the dragon’s progress. They had begged her to let them go up against the dragon, but she had forbidden every one of them, choosing instead to rely on her own magic.
And now, we were all likely to die.
The dragon stood beneath Titania on the dais, looking up at her, yet it was clear that he had all the power.
Titania sneered. “How long have you been searching for the Angel of Death? Attempt it, dragon, and you’ll never find him, or your sister, Aurora.”
Rory was his sister?
I realized why Titania had ordered me here. I had been there that night, when Aurora—or Rory, as she insisted, I call her—a visitor to Titania’s court, had been abducted from the library by a winged man.
Of all the people in Titania’s court, only Rory had shown me kindness, had been the only one to tell me what I was to help me adjust to my new situation of being brought back from the dead and enslaved to a fairy queen.
What had happened that night?
I closed my eyes, trying to remember. Heat, smoke, the lack of breath.
Something shattering. A snarl. And then darkness.
A needle shoved its way into my skull.
I opened my eyes and saw Titania glancing at me with her calculating eyes.
Had she planned this?
That fucking bitch.
I touched my head. This time she let me.
Had she been interfering with my memories too?
I turned back to the man in white. Dragonfire was what I needed, Aurora had said, to get what I needed.
An end to this fucking imprisonment disguised as a second life.
And any chance of getting what I wanted would be far better with him than being stuck for eternity in this perfumed bitch’s playland as her slave.
“Dragon!” I said, my voice as loud as I could make it. My words sounded terribly squeaky, not at all like I had intended. Wait, Titania was letting me move? Fuck. This was a part of some plan of hers. It was too late for me to back down now. “I was there the night the Angel of Death came for your sister. I can help you—”
The invisible hand of Titania’s magic clamped over my mouth.
I tried to kick out and scream, but Titania’s magic locked down on my limbs like iron chains.
Sense memories tickled in the back of my mind. Once they would have driven me to despair and more drugs, but now, with the distance of death, my old life was more like a movie I had been forced to watch and remember.
“Let her speak,” the dragon said.
“Do it,” said Titania.
A hard shove made me stumble closer.
“Take me! And I will help you find her!” I yelled, as if the volume of my voice could hide the fact that I was lying. I had no idea how to find her. I just wanted him to blow his dragonfire on me and end my useless existence. I had to think of him as a mark, only he didn’t want sex. He wanted vengeance. I could work with that.
The dragon stared at me with his golden eyes, evaluating, measuring, contemplating.
My chances were slipping.
Desperate words spurted out of me like arterial blood. “Your sister told me I was a vengeance demon, a wronged human resurrected to wreck revenge. If you are hunting the Angel of Death, you need me.”
“That’s enough,” said Titania, chopping at the air. Strong arms yanked me back.
“This spirit is bound to me, dragon,” said Titania. “The time and effort in the making of her was dear.”
“Give her to me, and I will go,” said the dragon.
Titania’s eyes narrowed. An odd pressure filled my ears. Magic surged from her, the scent of flowers intensifying. “You think to take my vengeance from me?”
Something odd stirred inside me. Something I had never felt before, something startlingly alive, and yet…
“Tanya,” said the dark-skinned man, placing his hand on her arm. “Balance. His sister was taken from your protection. You owe him something.”
The strange pressure welled up inside me, with a buzzing prickle I had learned to recognize was magic.
Did I have magic?
It moved again inside me.
It was magic. I had magic.
The whole world went still at that moment.
She took something off her finger and flicked it to the dragon.
I pulled at the magic inside me, trying to take hold of it, use it, make it obey me somehow, but I didn’t have the faintest clue how. It was like discovering newly attached wings that you didn’t even know how to flap.
I struggled with my magic, trying to get to the sliver of metal that was my fate, my future, my freedom.
Titania’s invisible shackles twisted, and in a blink my potential freedom was gone.
No, not again!
The dragon closed a large fist around it in midair, capturing the ring that bound me to life.
Instantly, I was covered with heat, with his scent and fire.
Before I realized it, I could smell the ash in my chest, feel the weight of gravity in my flesh.
Flesh? I was back in the flesh!
“She’s an onryo,” said Titania.
His gaze slid over me, and my skin flushed hot. It must have been the magic because I was used to being looked over like a piece of meat. “She doesn’t look Japanese.”
Titania waved condescendingly and sneered. “It’s a human word for a human thing, I can’t be expected to keep all the different languages of Man straight. The need for vengeance is universal. Beware of what you ask for, dragon. This one has not quite adjusted to her situation.” Titania chuckled, reminding me of the cheerleading bitches in high school who laughed at me behind my back and turned my mother’s country into an epithet with the words “Mexico girl.”
“How do I know that this isn’t one of those double-edged fairy gifts?” asked the dragon.
“This isn’t a gift,” said Titania. “It’s balance.”
I should have been angry. But instead, I was just cold. Life was slavery. Death was the only true escape.
Fire licked and curled around his suit. The air became strangely hard to breathe as a strange pressure filled the air and the scent of burnt things returned. His voice was a frigid contrast to the living inferno his magic promised. “Nothing can balance your failure to protect my sister, a guest you were honor-bound to defend in your domain.”
Titania glanced at the guard holding me.
I was thrown forward until I sprawled before him on my knees.
I saw him glance at me, his expression unchanged before resuming his death gaze at Titania. Wow. He was good-looking even close up. But I knew without a doubt that it was a mask for the monster he truly was.
Something clattered on the stones next to me.
A diamond-tipped golden spear.
“You know what this is.” Titania smiled, a pointed-tooth smile, the kind she rarely revealed in her true form.
The fairy bitch had planned this whole thing. What the fuck? Titania’s voice was as queenly and smug as ever. “The weapon and this spirit will be more than enough balance. Now go! And get off my lands.”
Are you in the UK? Do you have AMAZON PRIME UK?
Amazon PRIME UK Members, get BETROTHED TO THE DRAGON now for FREE!
Amazon UK has just placed the VERY first Dragon Lovers book, into the PRIME reading program! (Sorry US readers, Amazon Prime reading is an invite only and Amazon US hasn’t invited the Dragon Lovers to be a part of US PRIME Reading….yet!) So if you have Amazon PRIME in the UK, you can read BETROTHED TO THE DRAGON for FREE!
You deserve a reading escape because you work hard. Isn’t it about time you indulged yourself with a ripped, hot, bulging new…book? 😍
Crossposted from my guest post over at the Science Fiction Romance Brigade!
In my books, I avoid having my characters say “I Love You.” Why? Because “I love you,” can take on many different meanings and forms. A man can say “I love you,” to his sister (though if you’re my brother, you’re more likely to say something like, “you actually know what you’re talking about for once!”) and then turn around and say the same words to his girlfriend. Most likely (at least in my books!) those words will mean completely different things. Instead, I’d rather have the actions of my characters speak for themselves. In the first Space Shifters novel, WANTED BY THE WEREWOLF PRINCE, when Prince Ral is trying to win back fighter pilot Captain Skye, does he send her flowers? Nope. Candy? Nope. Jewelry. Nope. Instead, he sends her an envelope. With blueprints for the next generation of deep space fighter jets. With her name on them. Because Ral knows fighter pilot Skye, knows precisely how to target her deepest desires. And by sending her those blueprints, he’s saying to her: -I don’t care how much it costs (because honestly deep space fighter jets are pretty damn expensive).-I know who you are, who you truly are.-I’m going to make a place for you in my life. It’s also a challenge. As far as Skye knows, only the Coalition makes those fighter jets. So if foreign Prince Ral has them, does that mean he stole them? It’s a conundrum that Skye’s morality won’t let him get away with. And that’s precisely what Ral’s counting on to bring her back to him. That’s the kind of gesture that says, I KNOW YOU. Which for Ral, means I LOVE YOU. Get Ral & Skye’s Story in Amazon Kindle Unlimited NOW!