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!
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
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!
BONDED TO THE DRAGON will be coming out next month!
FYI I’ll be releasing the unedited rough cut of the story for FREE as a serial BEFORE the book releases!
But due to Amazon’s rules, the serial will have to be taken down BEFORE the book is published.
So the free serial version of BONDED TO THE DRAGON will only be available for a limited time!
Like my page or sign up for my newsletter to be the first to hear when the serial is up! Remember the serial will only be available for FREE for a few weeks!
|Now with 100% more face-kicking and improved groveling!
(Don’t worry; it still ends Happily Ever After!)
One of the things that always bothered me about WANTED BY THE WEREWOLF PRINCE was that Skye let Ral off the hook a little too easily.
A few other astute readers made similar comments, so finally I decided to re-read and revisit the ending.
And yes, that man DEFINITELY needed to do some more groveling.
So I rewrote the ending and added about another 8 pages 🙂
If you’ve already bought the WANTED BY THE WEREWOLF PRINCE, follow these instructions (links to a 3rd party website that I found by googling and otherwise have no relationship with) on how to update a book in your kindle it should update.
If you read or are reading the book in KU, you should return the book, and then check it out again.
But for some people (like my own account for instance) there IS NO UPDATE button.
For some people who were reading it in Kindle Unlimited, the book updated automatically.
Obviously I have no control over what Amazon algorithm gremlins do.
How do you know if you have the version with the new ending?
Search for “Torian laser” in your book. If you find the words, you have the new ending. If you don’t, try updating your book according to the instructions here.
Failing that, you can also download the revised final chapter at Bookfunnel here (Note, this file is NOT the complete story and ONLY has the revised final chapter).
|Here is an excerpt of the new changes below!|
|“All I want is your forgiveness, Skye.”
I gritted my teeth, trying not to cry because I was so damn furious. “You destroyed my life! I knew who I was and I had a purpose. And now, because of you, I have nothing. No ship, no career, no place, nothing.”
“You expect me to just say, yes, it’s fine and fly on like nothing’s happened?”
He let out a breath and took out a bright blue gem the size of my palm set in a silver medallion and held it out to me. “This –”
I stared at the jewel, at him, as rage tore through me like a Torian laser, obliterating rational thoughts into dust motes. “Do you think you can just buy me with a shiny rock? Or a space ship for that matter?”
He gritted his teeth. “I’m not trying to buy you –“
Was he getting angry at me? How dare he! I shoved his hand away. “Then what the hell is this?” I didn’t even want to hear his reply. I turned, spun, and kicked him in the chest as hard as I could.
Ral flew back, hitting a fancy vase of rainbow-hued spiraling flowers, which fell onto the soft rug with a rather undramatic thud.
I wobbled on my fancy dress shoes and caught my balance.
He sat up, brought a hand to his chest, and rubbed where he’d been hit. “I deserved that.”
-WANTED BY THE WEREWOLF PRINCE, THE FINAL REVISED CHAPTER
A KARA LOCKHARTE STORY SUMMARIZED
*I don’t need a man. Especially that dude over there who’s so jacked and hot it’s a crime. Oh crap he’s looking at me!
*Maybe I do need some help. But not you Mr. / Dr. / Lord / Prince Hotness!
*I am not someone you can just seduce into doing what you want with your arrogance and muscles.
* Ohhhhhh. But still not gonna…ohhh mmph…we’ll see…
*What do you mean people are gonna die if we don’t work together…and screw…a lot…ok I guess.
*Angst angst angst.
*MORE EXPLOSIONS or SCARY MONSTERS or BOTH
*Oh crap, I don’t just like him, I love him. We can’t possibly be together because REASONS.
*Ooo more Sexy times.
*Even worse, he loves me too!
* We’re all going to die!
* OMG we/he saved us / everyone / the world / the universe.
* Hero groveling.
* Yes! Forever Yes!
BELONGING TO THE DRAGON has now been published on Amazon. The rest of the serial has been taken down in accordance with Amazon KDP publishing rules. Sign up to Kara’s mailing list to get alerts when she puts out more free fiction!