I always loved escaping into books but I confess real world anxieties have made it really hard for me to focus on any book lately. So I've been diving into stories in other media like webcomics and dramas in other languages. They use familiar tropes (i.e. enemies-to-lovers, fake engagement, etc) but because they are different media the way in which the story is told changes.
Here are some of my recent distractions (which I HIGHLY recommend as a much more worthwhile way to spend your time rather than doomscrolling).
MY DEAR COLD-BLOODED KING
A F-R-E-E romance webcomic, secret identities, hot princes, and assassins in a feudal-based fantasy Japan. I literally stayed up until 3AM one night to binge read this comic and ended up joining the artist's Patreon.
Another F-R-E-E webcomic. Hades and Persephone retold. Greek gods with modern day trappings. Totally addictive.Enter your text here...
I know, lots of people are not into watching tv with subtitles, but trust me when I tell you that K-dramas are well worth it.
These shows are totally addictive, so much so that when I was asked by OSRBC Romance Readers Group (a general romance readers Facebook group with more than 8k members) if I wanted to moderate an OSRBC side group for lovers of Asian Dramas, I said yes. Romance readers and Asian dramas are such a natural niche - in the first day we had more than 100 readers join! So if you want to learn more (and fill your Facebook feed with pictures of gorgeous men) join us here: OSRBC: Asian Dramas.
What's the appeal? Here's a quote from an article about what appeal these dramas have, particularly for romance fans.
"K-Dramas push the envelope hard on the feisty-oddball girl character...female characters in K-Dramas have the space to be eccentric and even morally unsound (occasional kleptomania or blackmail are fine).
While male leads have to be paragons of virtue who are dapper dressers and also happen to look good in the shower, the female lead character is often a hot mess. She can complain about her unwashed, itchy scalp while on a date or be told that she needs to bathe as her clothes "smell of kimchi".
Women probably feel more seen in this universe for the complicated, angry, disobedient, funny, ambitious, feisty, acerbic and normal people that we can be in real life. A part of the reason for this space afforded to women characters could that about 90% of Korean scriptwriters and series writers are women. Compare this to the barely 27% of women’s presence in American film and TV, and you will see why Joan MacDonald, an American writer, feels that these shows "pay tribute to the female gaze" and the "female perspective."
-Anita Vachharajani, Crash-landing on the world: Why Korean dramas are as addictive as an unending stack of potato chips
These are the shows I have been watching and rewatching:
CRASH LANDING ON YOU - Netflix - (16 episodes) Enemies-to-lovers, opposites attract, fish out of water, fake relationship, protector, band of brothers, found family
South Korean female CEO accidentally paraglides into N. Korea. She falls on top of a N. Korean soldier. Since N. Korea and S. Korea are still technically at war, if she's caught there, she risks being sent to prison and possibly tortured and he spends half the series trying to safely return her home. Awesome hilarious cast of secondary characters. This was apparently the #3 series in all of Global Netflix in March of this year (FOR GOOD REASON!)
This is basically Tony Stark / Pepper Potts without Ironman. Long suffering secretary to genius CEO resigns, making him realize he can't live without her. Awkwardly proposes marriage to her, she says hell no (nicely with a smile, because this is S. Korea after all) he realizes he really does love her and he spends the rest of the series trying to woo her. Another great cast of secondary characters.
DESCENDANTS OF THE SUN - Viki.com (free with commercials), note that the version of this on Amazon Prime is the Vietnamese remake; romance melodrama in a disaster zone. Strong heroine doctor meets cocky special forces soldier, discover that despite their attraction, have very different philosophies about the value and sanctity of life. This also has amazing side character, including an amazing bromance between the hero and his second, with awesome conversations like this:
Hero: Ow, I think I hurt something. Maybe my appendix. I think I need to see that doctor over there.
Sgt Dae: The pretty doctor, of course.
Hero: No, it really hurts!
Sgt Dae: The appendix is on the other side.
Hero: ::quickly switches to the other side:: Yes! It really hurts!
Sgt Dae: You were right the first time, it's on the other side.
I did NOT fall for a hot mysterious billionaire who is actually a dragon.
Nope. Not at all. Not in the least.
Night nurse Andi Ngo is back to her mundanely real life - finding her stupid brother who went on the lam the moment she bailed him from jail.
But she can’t forget her date with the Damian Blackwood, not because he’s cut like her hottest dream, not because he’s a billionaire, and not even because he’s secretly a dragon.
For just a few delicious moments, Damian didn’t just make her feel like she mattered, like he actually cared, like she could be his…
No, better not to think those thoughts.
But when dangerous magic threatens her patients, Andi doesn’t know who else to turn to.
One may walk free from a dragon once, but twice?
Andi’s only mortal after all…
This is part 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.
READ THE FIRST CHAPTER BELOW!
The car that came to pick Andi up was black like Damian’s, but it wasn’t a Pagani or being driven by a dragon.
Andi sat in the back of the Uber and looked at her phone with that I’m expected somewhere, don’t kidnap me pretense that solo women keep up, although in her case it wasn’t entirely true. She’d snuck out that night after getting a call from her brother who’d been missing for three weeks. No one knew where she was—not even her roommate. She was okay with that; she’d worried Sammy enough lately.
Her driver cleared his throat politely, glancing back at her in the rearview. “Nothing personal,” he said, “but I do downtown runs a lot. You either have too much clothing on for this place…or not nearly enough.”
He wasn’t wrong. The Lynx was a nightclub with a reputation, which was exactly why Andi was going there. She gave him a tight smile and hugged herself with Damian’s leather jacket. She was only wearing it because she hadn’t had time to get her own coat cleaned, or so she told herself, and it had nothing at all to do with the fact that it still smelled like him. “I’m good, thanks.”
The driver let her off right in front of the building. Last call was four, and it was about twenty till. She knew from her old life hustling with Danny that now would be ripe with opportunity if she were still interested in playing games—the same kind of stuff that’d gotten her brother into trouble in the first place. But she’d stopped, gone to nursing school, and become legitimate. Her brother? He’d skipped out on his bail bond, then out on her.
Until about an hour ago with his strange phone call, asking for help on a bad connection, which’d brought her here. She bit her lips and watched the entrance to the club. Well-dressed drunken people stumbled out, casting arms up like the streetlights were too bright for them.
But then she saw him. Damian. She remembered his touch on her skin and the way he’d…. Her heart flew into her throat, and her stomach knotted. She could handle herself; she could handle this…him. This didn’t have to be awkward.
In fact, maybe she could….
He turned, and it was definitely not Damian.
Her heart fell and her stomach didn’t relax and the weirdness she was feeling? Most assuredly not disappointment.
It was exhaustion from last night’s shift, was all. It was fatigue from trying to come to her brother’s rescue yet again. She’d vowed on the steps of the courthouse, after realizing she was stuck with a ten-thousand-dollar bond, to be done with Danny’s shit permanently. And yet, here she was, all because he’d called her “Andi-bear.” How long had it been since he’d said that? When they were sixteen?
She could remember it now, her going off on her first date, and him threatening to hurt the guy if he hurt her—out loud in their living room when he’d picked her up, it’d been humiliating—and making his “Andi-bear” promise to tell him afterward if anything needed breaking. It’d been fucked up. Later on that night, after absolutely nothing had happened, no matter how much she’d wanted it to, she’d screamed at him to never call her that again.
Because of all that—and so much more—she was tired now. Which was surely why she was taking a moment and watching the back of the man who was not Damian with a queasy sinking feeling until the crowd blocked her view.
Andi inhaled and shook herself free of her past. She walked up to the door, the heels of her low boots clicking the pavement, and went straight up to the bouncer. “Hey, is Julian here? If he is, can you tell him I need to speak to him? Tell him it’s Andi—Danny’s sister.” The man was shaped like a gorilla, and his thick brow rose in disbelief, but then he shrugged and called it into the walkie on his collar. Someone responded in his ear, and he reached over to open the door.
“Right this way.”
“Thanks,” she said, stepping inside.
The music was overwhelming, trying to pound a pulse into the last partiers of the night. Luckily, the places she’d gone with Danny to play poker and pool had been quieter because if she’d hustled here, she’d be deaf. She hovered by the door, arms crossed, trying to look like she didn’t belong so that Julian would find her more quickly.
“Hey!” A lean man in his thirties with dark curly hair and brown eyes appeared in the thinning crowd with a drink in each hand. His shirt was sharp and shiny, just like his shoes. Andi knew he was a ‘promoter’—whatever the hell that was—and that he also sometimes helped Danny sell his boosted aftermarket car parts. “Andi!” he shouted, barely audible over the noise in the club. “Good to see you again! Drink?” he offered, pushing one on her.
Andi didn’t trust him, and she didn’t trust her drink to not be roofied. “Thanks!” She pretended to be happy, taking it anyhow. “Can we talk?”
“Of course!” he said, gently taking her elbow with his free hand, directing her around the dance floor to the back.
They went into an office, and he closed the door, which cut out all the treble, leaving just the bass as it reverberated like a drum in its frame. He sat down backward in an office chair, letting it splay his legs, while she sat down on a short couch that she was sure had seen its share of effluvia. She held her hands around her drink, careful not to touch it.
“Did you rethink my awesome idea?”
Andi squinted. “Which one was that?” Julian and Danny were full of ideas, and none of them were good.
“About diverting some meds from the hospital to me,” he said, making a gimmie-gimmie gesture with his fingers.
She laughed nervously. “Yeah, no, I need my license. One of us has to be straight now, to keep the other out of jail.”
“I heard about that,” Julian said and tsked. “He left you holding the bag?”
“Pretty much.” Andi gave him a tight grin and got to the point. “Do you know where he is?”
As good as Andi was at reading faces, Julian’s gave nothing away. “If you did know, would you tell me?” she asked, and he laughed.
“If I did know—which I don’t—I’d tell him you were concerned, and he needed to get in touch.” He patted his own chest. “I got a sister, too, you know. I sympathize.”
Andi set her drink on the floor and brought her phone out to show him. “Do you recognize this number? He called me from it and said things were bad.”
Julian took the phone and squinted at it. “Not off the top of my head; hang on.” He set his drink down and pulled his own phone out, typing in some numbers, before double-checking hers. “Ooh.”
“What?” She leaned over.
He flipped his phone around to show her the S in his contacts list. It was full of people’s names with charming extra appellations, like ‘Shiny Jamil,’ ‘Slutty Sarahi,’ and ‘Stupidfucker Joe.’ But his finger was pointing at one in particular, with the same number that matched Andi’s: Stay The Fuck Away Argento.
“I take it that’s not really his last name?” Andi asked as Julian put his phone away.
“Maybe it is in Italian; I dunno. But if Danny’s with him, just give up.”
Julian shook his head. “I ain’t saying. I don’t want to wind you up into making bad choices.”
“But, if Danny’s in danger…if he told me so, himself….” she pressed.
He frowned deeply and lifted his cocktail for a long swig before speaking again. “He’s a dangerous dude. Always wears a lot of silver—including guns. You don’t want any of him. Trust me.”
“How about you just tell me everything you know, and let me be the judge of that?”
“How about no?” Julian rolled his eyes. “I mean, come on. You can’t just barge in here like you own the place and ask for favors.” He slid one foot out and carefully nudged her cocktail closer. “I mean, I require some foreplay first. Have a drink, at least.”
Andi glanced down at the glass, more determined than ever not to touch it. “I don’t have time for this, Julian. Just tell me where he is.”
“What good would that do? The cops aren’t going after him…not for Danny.”
Andi knew the police in her town had no love for her brother. “Fine. I’ll tell a bounty hunter. There’s a warrant out for him, right?”
“Because you know so many of those types,” Julian said, leaning back, letting his eyes rove up and down her body. She huddled back into her coat. “A priss like you? Trying to figure out where to find him? No way.” He stood and shook his head slowly, making a show of how much he couldn’t help her, and she was acutely aware of how he was blocking the door. “Now if you could promise me a vial of Fentanyl or two…or a sheet of oxy—”
“Fuck, no.” She almost spit. Shit like this was why she’d had to stop ‘playing games’ with Danny. Gambling for tuition was one thing, but now that she had her license, she wasn’t ever going to risk it again.
“Oh, no offense,” Julian said with a smirk, waving his hands back and forth in dismissal. “I mean, he’s only your brother and all. Although, if he’s on Argento’s shit list, that’s gonna be past tense real soon.”
She stood, trying to take up more space, and used her best disappointed-in-everything-going-on-here voice, the one that sometimes got through to drunkards and psychos at work. “And to think, Danny used to talk so highly of you. He made you sound like the shit. Like you were his family—not me. Why do you think he never ratted you out in any of his dumbass schemes? And now—when it would cost you nothing to be even vaguely helpful—you can’t be bothered?”
Julian stared at her coldly. “He always said you could be an annoying bitch, you know that?”
She swallowed but held her ground. If Danny didn’t want to hear her opinions on his activities, then he should have kept his goddamned mouth shut.
“Fine,” Julian huffed, appraising her again. “What do you got? Your phone is old; I don’t need that shit.” Andi blinked as he went on. “And…you’re cute, but a bad lay. I can tell.”
“Does negging women ever actually work?” Andi asked him.
“You tell me,” he said with a leer. “You feeling anything?”
“Yeah, no. Look…other than drugs…what do you want?” She had ten thousand dollars in an envelope at home right now, courtesy of Damian, but if she acted like cash was an option, Julian would shake her down to the last buck.
He sucked on his upper lip, then jerked his chin at her. “That’s a pretty dope leather coat.”
Andi froze. It’s just a fucking coat, she told herself. Just dead animal skin sewn together to keep someone warm. It’s not even yours. And Damian is not yours. He never will be, and besides, that’s what you wanted, remember?
“All right,” she said, sliding out of Damian’s coat, taking everything of hers out of the pockets and shoving them into her jeans. Julian took it from her and put it on. It was too big for him, but that didn’t stop him from smoothing the leather with his hands. When he was done appraising it, he nodded.
“Argento is down by the docks. He’s in the shipping business, which is another reason you should stay away from him; you cross him, they won’t find your body in the Bay. He’ll just ship your dead ass to China.”
“Charming. And you can’t be any more specific?”
Julian broadly shook his head. “Not even if you brought me Dilaudid.”
Andi frowned. Some information was better than none, but the docks were huge. Even if her brother was in danger, it wasn’t an area she could tackle solo tonight. But she had to do something. She wove around Julian, off to figure out what that was.
“Hey!” he shouted as she reached the door. The bass outside had turned impossibly loud, all the better to shake the last patrons of the night into the street. “I look good in it, no?” he asked. She knew by mostly reading his lips.
“No,” she said, flipping him off with both hands before walking out.
Other club patrons kept her company on the sidewalk as she waited for her ride. As much as she wanted to, she didn’t keep her phone out. Just because her two gens old iPhone wasn’t sexy enough for Julian didn’t mean there weren’t other people who’d be interested in swiping it, and all the people stumbling out of the club looked like easy marks to her. So, she waited until she was buckled into the back of her Uber to pull it out and hopped into her “recents” category.
After Danny had gone missing following the hearing, she’d texted their Uncle Lee, who she knew had both money and connections. She’d never pressed to find out from what or with whom because her mother had told her that was rude, but now she wished she had. Because Uncle Lee had promised her he’d handle things, but what had he been doing all this time? And why hadn’t she asked him what was happening sooner?
She supposed a part of her was just tired of dealing with Danny’s shit and had been perfectly happy passing it off.
Andi scrolled through her contacts for the umpteenth time, trying to figure out who else she could call. She stopped at the name BLACKWOOD, and her finger hovered. It probably wasn’t even Damian’s real number, but some work number—or a burner. She should just delete it. It’d be better for everyone involved.
Her thumb hovered over the delete button just for a second, then scrolled past it with a sigh back down to Uncle Lee and started typing out a text.
Hey Uncle, I’m sorry it’s late, she lied, but Danny just called me from a strange number and said he was in trouble before we got cut off. I know you just got back to town, and the last thing you need is to clean up another Danny mess, but I don’t know what to do! He said something about the docks and some guy named Argento? She kept lying because she might as well give him all the information she had. Again, super sorry! Thanks for letting me reschedule last week’s dinner. Look forward to seeing you tonight. Love you!
“Hey,” her driver said, startling her. It was the first thing he’d said all ride. “You’re not going to be sick, are you?” He started swerving to the side of the road.
“Sorry. You just looked sick there for a bit.” He shrugged in the rearview as he pulled them back into traffic. “It’s a hazard of picking people up from clubs.” “Oh, no, I’m fine.” He wasn’t wrong, though, Andi thought while staring out the window. She did feel sick about things—just not like that.
don't want to forget about DRAGON DESTINED?
I don’t normally leave notes like this. Being what I am, I tend to get…possessive.
When adrenaline and magic are mixed together, understandings that seem solid in the dark of night, fade away in the light of the day.
There is a car, a driver, and full payment for last night’s work downstairs, waiting to take you wherever you want to go. Get in it, and I won’t trouble you again.
Or—you can stay.
Andi, my life isn’t normal, and once you learn the truth about the monstrous things that underpin the world you cannot ignore them. If you decide to stay, any future will be dangerous and uncertain—but we would figure it out together.
It would be far better for you to go and forget these last few days. If I were more of a man I would insist on it, because it would keep you safe.
But the dragon in me cannot let you go, and so I leave it to you to choose.
Andi walked back to the bed with the note, spotting her phone on the bedside table where Damian must’ve left it for her. Now even he was telling her she might be cursed. Great. She snorted.
But that was the thing about curses, she thought, folding up the note. Once you knew they existed it was already too late, you were cursed either way – to either live in danger, or live regretting what you might’ve missed to play it safe.
And after this morning, Andi didn’t need to look in a mirror to know what kind of woman she was.
She picked her phone up and quickly dialed a familiar number. “Hey Maria? This is Andi. Sorry, I’m calling in sick today.”
Then she put her phone down and crawled back into bed, to wait for her dragon and whatever was to come.
This is the last piece of a Instagram Collage Puzzle about the story. Come follow Kara on Instagram for more and see how the picture developed!
Wait, where's Chapter 11? Well there were some quite explicit sexy times that not appropriate for all jurisdictions or those under the age of 18, so I can't put that on this blog. But if you want to read them, you can sign up for my mailing list and get it mailed to you! (Note: You can still continue reading the non-sexy times part of the story below)
Chapter Twelve (partial)
“Oh my God,” she whispered, collapsing by his side.
“Yes, that,” he agreed, wrapping an arm around her and pulling her with him to the sand.
Andi lay beside him breathing for a long few minutes. Her eyes were closed, but he knew from her breathing that she wasn’t asleep, only thinking. “Is it always like that?” she eventually asked him.
Damian looked down at her, his dragon’s imperative echoing in his mind. To mate her. Even though she was human.
It doesn’t matter. She is ours, his dragon promised.
He reached over to stroke a strand of hair away from her cheek. “There’s only one way to find out.”
Andi woke up sometime in the early evening deliciously exhausted, ecstatically happy—then she realized she was alone in bed.
An empty bed, after last night? Where was Damian? She listened for the sound of a shower and then realized he could be back swimming in the pool for all she knew.
If he was though—she could go join him. Or maybe not—it was a miracle she hadn’t drowned yesterday, with all the things they did. Andi laughed to herself, her heart thrilling at the thought of spending another night with the stranger who’d swept her off her feet. She felt herself grinning at the ceiling like an idiot and not caring. Everything that had happened was real. All of it.
And dragons were real. Just like Grand Auntie Kim had promised.
There are dragons in this world, my dear. Real dragons. Beware. To know a dragon is to be cursed forever.
Had the stories she had told Andi actually been true? Even if they were true, would it matter? Andi immediately she knew the answer. She got out of bed.
“Damian?” She listened carefully, for any response, and not hearing one, she called again. “Damian?”
Was he making her breakfast? Or dinner? She glanced at the windows—Damian had pulled heavy curtains closed to block the light for them, but she knew outside the sun was dropping down.
She stood up and wrapped a sheet around herself, and knew she’d feel like a Grecian goddess for as long as she didn’t look in any of the many mirrors at her sex-tangled hair.
“Damian?” she called again, walking towards the door. And as a note came into focus, pinned on it with a dagger, her heart started racing again.
This is the eleventh piece of a Instagram Collage Puzzle about the story. Come follow Kara on Instagram for more and see how the picture develops!
There’d been a moment where he could’ve had the strength to walk away, despite his dragon’s urgings. He was hard underneath the water, but she didn’t need to know that, and he could’ve pretended not to hear her and swam into shore regardless. But—
It’s been too long, his dragon grumbled. It was wrong. It hadn’t been that long since the last time he’d slept with someone—but it’d been for-fucking-ever since fucking had meant something.
Sorry folks, but to follow the laws in various places, I can't post this super explicitly delicious scene. However, if you would like to read it and verify that you are over 18, you can sign up for my newsletter below, and it will be sent you ASAP. Or check back tomorrow to read the rest of the story without the sexy scene!
DO NOT LET ANYTHING HAPPEN TO HER! his dragon shouted at him, as though there was a chance in hell he might.
Shut it! he shouted back at it. He scooped her up as she shrieked, racing her back into the house and through the halls. How much Unearthly blood had touched her? How long had it been in contact with her skin? The closest earthly comparison was like phenol—an acid that numbed you as it burned—incredibly dangerous, and one of the many reasons all his men had magical protections.
“Damian!” She was pounding her fist on his chest, and he was entirely ignoring her until they reached the room with his dragon’s bathing pond. He threw her far out into the water and then leapt into it himself to swim after her.
She bobbed back up, spitting water—and spitting mad. “What the fuck!”
“The blood is dangerous. You have no idea.” He hauled her up to inspect her side.
“I’m half-naked!” she shouted at him.
“So? I’m all naked.” He reached for her to inspect where the blood had brushed her skin. It had already erupted into a bright red welt. He dunked her back into the water, chest-height, and started swirling water quickly past it with a hand. She stood in the water on her tiptoes, panting angrily, water flowing over her breasts with each sweep of his hands, nipples pebbling in the pond’s chill. Shit. “Grim, heat the pond!” he commanded.
“Do you want to explain what the fuck is happening to me right now?” She moved to cross her arms, to hide herself from him, but he caught her wrist just in time. He couldn’t risk her getting burned elsewhere.
“I’m sorry. I know this is strange, but some Unearthly blood is acidic. Or poisonous. Depending on the monster.”
Will she be all right? His dragon rushed forward inside him as if to see for himself.
STOP THAT, Damian commanded. Since when had his dragon ever given a fuck about a human?
Andi slowly lowered her head down to look at her side. “Don’t,” he warned her.
“I’m a nurse, okay? Let me see.” She pushed his hands away and held her arm up, while holding her breast out of the way, rocking forward out of the water to look. Watching her touch herself, even for clinical reasons, did dark things to him. Damian wished the water was opaquer. “It doesn’t look that bad,” she went on.
“We caught it in time. But you’ll need to stay in here for a while until it’s all diluted—just in case.”
She carefully crossed her arms high on her chest, fully covering herself from him. “Fine.”
Had he been looking that greedily? If so, who was to blame? The remnants of the succubus’s sting, his dragon, or him? All three? His dragon was roiling inside, beside himself with proprietary concern. He could still feel the surges of inappropriate lust—surely just his succubus-caused hangover from being attacked last night—and he’d be lying if he said she wasn’t beautiful now. The perfection of her breasts, curve of her neck, the way her hair flowed –after her kissing him earlier, it was all too easy to imagine them entwined together, his lips on her neck, her breasts pressed against him, his cock seated deep.
Yessssss, his dragon purred.
Damian quickly swallowed and splashed his face, trying to get his head clear. She would have to forget all this—he should not, could not get attached. It would only make it hurt more later.
Pain is fine, his dragon disagreed.
No one asked you, he told it.
Andi watched him splash himself beside her, totally in his element. Less than three minutes ago, she’d been flirting with a dragon, and now she was half-naked in the water with one. Oh, and also burned by acid from monster-blood—because that was a thing that could happen. And to think they never covered that in nursing school.
Damian dunked himself then resurfaced, snapping water out of his hair with a quick shake, before he looked at her again. She could tell by the way he was trying to look at her eyes and not down at all that he was trying very, very hard to grant her some privacy—and she was trying to do the same. Only the way his shoulders breeched the water and how she could see his biceps every time he moved his arms was pretty damn distracting—as was the rest of him. His wide chest narrowed down to abs that were as rippled as the water they both stood in—the expression on his face, dark and brooding like a storm. He was almost too hot to be real—which made sense because he was a dragon. A dragon. An actual, real, honest-to-God, wings-and-all dragon.
She let herself drop into the water, letting it surround her so that she could think. Then she made the mistake of opening her eyes and found herself at Damian’s waist height—and the view below was not any less distracting than the view above. She sprang out of the water, back to her feet again.
If she slept with him—an “if” that was getting smaller all the time, turning the corner into a “when”—chances were, she would have a very good time.
“Are you okay?” He leaned closer, his voice full of concern. She had a feeling he was asking about more than the burn.
“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be? I just almost died two or three times, plus met a dragon. One that I kissed for some strange reason, earlier in the night.” She laughed nervously and rose up on her tiptoes, the seam of his jeans riding uncomfortably-comfortable between her legs.
He grunted. “About that…that wasn’t you.”
“Tell me about it.”
“No…literally. You weren’t thinking right. You were under a spell.”
Of course, she was, Andi thought with a titter. That made as much sense as anything else. She covered her breasts with her elbows and splashed her face with water to buy herself time to just calm down and think, because if she didn’t, she was going to have a panic attack. She released a breath and gathered herself before addressing him again. “So, what now?”
“Now—we wait. To make sure there’s no way you’ve been burned. And then after that,” Damian closed his eyes and shook his head. “I can’t claim to know. There’s a room in my house that has Forgetting Fire in it and I should take you there to erase all your memories.”
Her heart jumped into her throat and trembled there. “You’re kidding—right?”
“I’ve done it before to others,” he said to her and shrugged, not without kindness. “You don’t really know me Andi. And—you shouldn’t. Look how much danger you’ve already been in at my side. I never should’ve hired you, muchless let this morning happen. But,” he said slowly, looking over at her as if daring himself to do so. “I’d rather not do that to you.”
“Well I definitely don’t want that, so it’s settled.” He snorted softly as she went on. “So you’re going to tell me everything, right?” That was the least he could do after making her live through last night.
His eyes widened. “Not if I can help it.” He looked away from her, a lock of dark wet hair falling into his face. “Andi, no one can know what we are. Or what we do. Which is why when you leave here, you can’t talk to anyone—and you can never come back.”
She watched him set his shoulders like he must’ve done a million times before, ready to take on a burden that no one else even knew he carried. “Isn’t that…lonely?” she asked.
“You have no idea.” Damian gave her an infinitely sad smile, then angled his head down again. “May I?” Andi frowned, but bounced up on her toes so that he could lean down and see the underside of her breast. “Good. The swelling’s gone now. It’ll only leave a small mark, if anything.” He put a hand out to touch her, then stopped himself—and she found herself wishing he wouldn’t have. It’d been so long since someone had looked at her the way he did, with the hunger in his eyes. She could watch him denying it, pretending to be normal, as he said, “Come on, let’s go to shore.”
She uncrossed her arms and began sweeping herself in the water, thinking hard. When was the last time she’d ever met anyone like him? Would she ever get the chance to, again? “I…don’t think so.”
His brow furrowed in confusion. “You’re safe with me, Andi. I swear I won’t make you forget your memories of being here.”
She shook her head and laughed. “I honestly don’t think you could, I don’t care how much magic you used,” she said, pushing herself into deeper water as she slowly made up her mind.
“You’re lucky we won’t be testing that then.” He surged after her, his golden eyes watching her, as he hovered in the water not that far away. Andi remembered the way he’d been staring at her earlier in the night—and it was having the same effect on her now, it stole her breath away. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked as she took another sweep backwards and he matched it.
She looked at him, and around the room they were in, and thought back on every crazy thing that’d already happened with him. The thought of forgetting any of it was impossible—and the thought of leaving it behind her was almost just as bad. She watched his strong arms break the water to hold himself up and remembered what they’d felt like, holding her—and what she’d felt while kissing him. Even if it was a spell that made her do it—once she done it—there was something there. Something she didn’t want to give up on so quickly.
“You said if I leave I can’t come back. So what if…I don’t want to go just yet?” she asked while holding herself aloft, her breasts bobbing in the waves her arms created.
He paused in swimming and she watched him sink. “Andi,” he said, making her name a whisper as his eyes narrowed in concern, “you don’t know me.”
“I know,” she agreed. “But…what if I know enough?”
A long moment passed between them like a current of electricity—and then he swam for her.
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Damian heard the klaxons halfway through his shower and was tempted to blow them off. Trust Austin to run a drill after the longest night they’d had in a while.
But if they weren’t a drill, it meant a perimeter breach. What on earth—or off it—could penetrate their barriers?
The shimmer-tiger. Damian hit the shower off and stalked into his bedroom without thinking. Shimmer-tigers were nasty affairs. They weren’t fast, but they were sneaky, and their ability to teleport—albeit slowly—gave them an advantage over what other Unearthly creatures lacked.
It would be foolhardy for a shimmer-tiger to come after him directly. But he had plenty of humans and semi-humans in his employ, plus—he heard the sound of a violent crash and a distant, high-pitched scream.
“Open this window, now,” he commanded, and Grimalkin obeyed, whipping the shutter up. He could see the roundabout, three stories down, where a steaming van had crushed his fountain, and Andi was curled up, surrounded by the materializing tiger on three sides. For once, both he and his dragon agreed—he punched the window’s glass out, throwing himself through it as a man, knowing he would land as his dragon.
In her time as a nurse, Andi had watched a lot of patients die, and she’d learned there were three types of death:
The easy, quiet kind that struck in the night, and you knew no better before you went.
The kind that came up and walloped you—massive heart attack, massive pulmonary embolism, burst aortic aneurysm—that killed you so fast you hardly had time to be afraid.
But to her mind, the worst was the in-between kind. The strangle-some kind. Where you were aware of what was happening—when you couldn’t get enough air, or when the chemo stopped working—and there was absolutely nothing you nor science could do about it.
And that’s what it felt like was happening now.
That…that…that…thing was coming after her, and it didn’t matter what she did or where she went, it wasn’t going to stop, and she knew with every fiber of her being that whenever it did catch up with her, it wasn’t going to just kill her. No, she could tell by the insane grin on its face that it was going to hurt…
Glass broke from somewhere far above, and it felt like it was the sound of her sanity giving way. It rained down, and she heard it land on stone and water, and then something cast a shadow over her like a low-flying plane. She threw her arm up to protect herself and then gasped as a dragon landed.
If she hadn’t spent the night in the carnival house, if she hadn’t pulled the stinger out of Damian’s side, and if she hadn’t been under attack by that thing, she would’ve thought she’d broken her mind. But as it was, she struggled up to standing and shouted.
Her cries for help only enraged his dragon further. It bellowed in anger the second its paws touched the earth, and the dragon’s thoughts raced through Damian’s mind.
This home was his home! And everything in it was his!
Damian struggled to disconnect that thought from the dragon’s mind; the girl was not part of the package—even if they were saving her. Damian knew he wasn’t safe, and shit like this was why!
The tiger! Damian redirected, and the dragon growled.
Of course, the tiger. The dragon batted his concerns aside. He’d landed inside the circle it’d been creating of itself, trying to funnel her toward its face-bits, only she’d been smart enough not to run. He wove his head to look at her.
Stay here, he tried to emote, but with his dragon’s face on, all snout and teeth, who the hell knew what she saw, or what she thought of him? Her eyes were wide, and she was terrified; he could smell it, but who wouldn’t be?
Not me, Damian’s dragon reminded him.
No, of course not, Damian groaned.
Never me. The dragon whirled, using his own Unearthly ability to hone in on the tiger’s most solid part. Because I like killing.
The dragon pounced at this, using a massive paw to press half the tiger down, snapping its teeth through a portion of the rest of it. The problem with fighting a shimmer-tiger was the teleportation. If his dragon didn’t kill enough of it, quickly, it’d vaporize itself, heal, and reform. So his dragon shook its head, feeling things snap and tear deliciously, clawing at the piece it’d bitten into until it was sure it’d rendered enough of the tiger’s flesh useless that it could never regain its form.
At the end of it, he was spattered in acidic violet-colored blood—it streaked against his golden scales, and he resisted the urge to clean himself with his tongue.
See? the dragon rumbled, satisfied with itself. It whipped its head back and roared, a sound of ultimate triumph, arching its back and flexing its wings. My home, it insisted.
Yes, Damian agreed.
And now—my woman. The dragon’s head snaked back to Andi with alacrity.
That…that is a dragon.
Her mind could barely name it; it felt so unreal. A lifetime of watching movies, reading books, playing video games, had somehow never prepared her to see the real thing. Had she hit her head when the van hit the fountain? Was this one more crazy thing here? Or was her mind cracking in two?
It was golden, massive, winged, and glorious—and it acted as if it could understand her. When it looked at her, Andi thought it was trying to communicate something, and for the first time that morning, she’d felt safe. But then it leapt onto the other beast, pressing it down with massive paws and slaughtered it in front of her. That was the only word that would work for what it did. She watched it snap its teeth through a chunk of the thing that hunted her and shake its head like a dog with a toy—between that and the keening sounds the other thing made as it died, she knew this moment would haunt her nightmares forever. Violet blood rained over the grounds as the feline demon was literally torn to meat in front of her.
But it was a dragon.
And when it was done, the dragon whipped its head back and roared, a sound of pure triumph, arching its back and flexing huge sail-like wings, until they blocked out the sun.
And then it turned to look at her.
Andi’s heart had already been beating fast, but now it was as if she had shot herself with epinephrine.
The dragon folded its wings, lowering itself slowly as if trying not to scare her. And those eyes—those familiar eyes—they were massive now, but still the same.
Damian was a dragon.
A real, honest-to-God dragon.
There are dragons in this world, my dear. Real dragons. Beware. To know a dragon is to be cursed forever.
But Grand Auntie Kim never explained how, exactly. And in the stories she’d told her, things weren’t clear either. In some, the dragons were savage and ruthless; in others, noble protectors and guardians, but as she wracked her brain for childhood memories, she couldn’t remember a way to tell one kind from the other. The only thing that echoed was Auntie Kim’s warning about avoiding being cursed.
Why had I never bothered to ask her?
Because I didn’t ever dare think they were real.
Yet Andi couldn’t stop herself from moving toward the dragon, her hand outstretched.
She knew she would probably regret this later—but wouldn’t she regret it just as much if she didn’t? Which was worse? What ifs or never should haves?
She stopped mere inches away from him.
No! No, no, no! Damian shouted at the beast and fought to regain control from the inside. The dragon wrestled him.
Mine, it growled.
No. She is her own. Damian redoubled his efforts, pushing the dragon back and down.
For now, it conceded, and then abruptly went away, leaving Damian pushing against nothing but himself inside his dragon form. Able for the first time to see the outside world with his own eyes, he found Andi.
Staring at him.
She knew what he was.
And still, she walked slowly toward him, with a look on her face that wasn’t the horror, disgust, or fear he had expected.
It was awe.
She would turn and run at any moment, and he would have to chase her down, change back to human, and somehow convince her to go back to the house where he could expose her to the Forgetting Fire as quickly as possible.
But something in him wanted her to see this beastly part of him, the part he kept hidden deep inside. He folded his wings and lowered himself to all fours, in an attempt to make himself smaller and less threatening.
Step by slow step, she approached him, watching him as carefully as he was watching her. With his extended senses, he could hear the rapid beating of her heart, smell that sinfully sweet scent of near panic and wariness.
She stopped inches away from him.
Run, he thought, run for your own good.
He lowered his head to her, intending to show her his teeth, which were the size of short swords.
And to his surprise, she reached out and touched him.
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.
She turned back toward him and smiled too, then quickly looked away—feeling her face getting red. She’d seen a lot of naked men; it was a hazard of her job, but he wasn’t a patient, and…she tugged at the too long cuffs of the shirt she was wearing.
“So, what happened to your injury?” she asked.
He put his hand to his ribs where she’d pulled out the stinger. “I heal quickly.”
“Uh-huh.” She made every effort to keep her gaze high. “Any more monsters coming that I need to worry about?”
“Not to my knowledge.” He kept looking at her strangely—like he thought she was the unreal one.
Andi folded her arms carefully. “Okay, then, look, are you going to tell me what’s going on? Or are you going to pretend this isn’t happening and tell me I’m going crazy?”
He squinted his golden eyes at her. “No. You’re not going crazy,” he said, tilting his head. “Aren’t I…scary?”
The bubble of nervous expectation around her popped, and Andi laughed out loud. “If you have to ask, you’re probably not.” She gave up and let herself look at him, at his fucking perfect naked body. “At least, not right now.”
He cracked a smile. “Yes, well, about that,” he said, lowering his hands to cover himself politely, and then the smile fell from his face as he took a fast step toward her. “What’s that?”
Andi blinked at his abrupt shift in tone. “What’s what?”
He grabbed her arm and held it out. There was a spot of violet on the white shirt she was wearing, right under her left breast.
“Did it touch you?” He didn’t unbutton it—he just grabbed both sides of it and ripped it off her.
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Andi was swung over Austin’s shoulder and started hitting his back with closed fists. “Hey! What the fuck!”
Austin ignored her and started to run toward the garage. He swiped a keypad with his hand—she watched him do it through his armpit, and then ran with her inside, knocking the air out of her lungs with his broad shoulder. “Get your hands off of me!” She grabbed hold of his belt and used it to brace herself, trying to slide forward. He completely ignored these efforts and any impropriety, hitching her back up by her crotch.
“HEY!” she shouted, twisting to try to knee him in the head.
“It’s for your own safety,” he explained, grabbing hold of her waist again. She thought he was about to set her down, but no, he held her under his arm. Her hair swirled, blocking her vision, but then she heard a latch open, and he threw her into a tiny space with shelves and a metal plated floor.
Andi got to her knees and inhaled because she was an excellent curser in three languages and she was about to tell Austin off, but the look of fear on his face stopped her cold.
“Keep quiet. You’ll be safe in here,” Austin said and shut the door. She heard it lock, heard him leave, and knew she was alone in the dark.
Andi felt around the edges of the space she was in. Judging by the curve of the ceiling and the way she was barely able to stand up all the way inside, she thought she was in a van.
“Fucking asshole serial killer,” she muttered to herself. Sammy’s fears were right.
She patted her pockets. Her phone must’ve fallen out of her pocket on the way here—same for her envelope of money. All this trouble, all for nothing, and now… She moved her way up to sit on what seemed like a bench.
“What the hell have I gotten myself into?” She brought her knees up to hug to her chest. Why the klaxon and why the shutters? It’d have been an elaborate ruse if all that had happened just to kidnap her now after she’d been here all night. Same thing for if they didn’t want to pay her—a month of pay was a lot to her, but not to Damian and his eight-hundred-dollar shoes.
She pulled one of them off and beat it against the side of the van.
“Can anyone hear me?” she shouted, then thumped some more. “I’m in here! Let me loose!” She took out all her frustrations on the van’s interior, beating on it like it was a piñata. “Get me the fuck out of here!”
When she was done, she threw herself back on the bench, exhausted and panting, just this side of crying herself to sleep when something thumped back hard enough to make the entire van rock.
“Hello?” she whispered. Why hadn’t she thought about the freaking fist-sized bee stinger before she’d made that much noise?
The van rocked again, as whatever was outside hit it from the other side. Andi bit her lips not to scream and scurried underneath the bench, pressing herself against the wheel well, feeling the pattern on the cold metal floor press against her skin.
She breathed in and out into her coat—half to calm herself, and half to mask her breathing. Whatever was outside… Oh, God…oh, God…oh, God.
But it was gone now. Right?
Andi lay stock still trying to see in the dark, and phantoms came—the kind you get when you rub your eyes too hard. Shimmers of gold with stripes of green—only her eyes weren’t closed. She was filled with a sense of unholy dread as she realized something was materializing inside the van with her.
In the coin toss between dying lying on the ground and dying trying to escape, escape won. She rolled herself out and up and ran for what she thought was the front of the van and searching against the wall there for something—anything to help her—and on her second panicked pass through, she found it—a latch so flat it couldn’t catch on anything. She popped it open so hard she broke a fingernail, but then fluorescent light flooded through. The van was still in the garage. She crawled through the hole—no way it’d been meant for that, probably just a pass through, she was just lucky she was small—and fell into the van’s cab.
The van rocked behind her, and she heard the sound of something slithering. She kicked the pass-through shut and lunged to lock it just in time. A solid thump jarred her.
Whatever was back there was pissed. She whirled in the driver’s seat, looking for something to protect herself with, and caught the glint of keys. In the ignition. Because when you had your own garage inside your own fortress, there was never any reason to take them out. She froze for an instant, trying to remember how it was that people did these things in movies, then twisted the keys wildly. The engine sputtered, and lights came on. She stomped at pedals indiscriminately, and the van threw itself backward. She heard it hit god knew what, but more importantly, whatever was inside the van had fallen backward—hard.
Her panicked hands scrambled over the console, trying to figure out what was what and put the van into D because it had to be for Drive, didn’t it—if R was for reverse? And then she stomped on one pedal. Nothing happened, so she stomped on the other, and the van lurched forward, racing fast.
“Oh, shit!” she shouted, as the entire van ran into the garage door and it rocked forward. She kept her foot on the gas and heard the tires spinning as they tried to crawl up the bent doors.
“Come on!” She shoved herself forward as if her own slight weight would somehow help things as a shimmering began beside her. “Oh…no…come on!” She beat her hands on the steering wheel, and the van revved up a fraction of an inch higher—high enough for the wheels to catch on some mechanism of the door itself, pull itself almost vertical, and then the weight of the van crushed the garage door down and forward like a soda can. The van ran over the remains of the door, bouncing like it was going over craters on the moon, and then headed straight toward the fountain she’d thought was so pretty in the night. She only had time to scream before she crashed into it.
She was flung forward, and the steering wheel knocked the breath out of her. Gasping, she rolled toward the door, her foot still on the gas. The thing shimmering beside her hadn’t stopped. It was growing more solid, and she didn’t want to know what it was. The mere fact that it still existed in daylight meant that it was bad. The klaxons hadn’t stopped alarming; they were louder now that she was outdoors. Andi opened the door and fell—the van had jumped onto the fountain’s wall, leaving a three-foot gap between her and the ground. She landed on her forearm and scraped the shit out of it, shouted in pain, and then crawled away until she could gather herself enough to run—only to find that there was a golden-metallic shimmering ahead of her now.
She crouched, panting. She’d lost one of Damian’s shoes, her elbow was bleeding onto his dress shirt, and there was a thing hunting her—was it real? It had to be. She took off Damian’s other shoe and threw it at the golden glow, only for it to bounce back.
That seemed like an inherently bad sign. “Oh, no.”
More and more of the striped monster—that was the only word she had for it, that had to be what it was—was forming. Too many limbs and three tails; it was like a cross between a tiger and a centipede, and it had an almost human face that wouldn’t stop grinning.
Andi drew in on herself. The thing could move through walls. There was nowhere she could go that it wouldn’t be able to touch her. She was going to die here, and she wouldn’t know what killed her.
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When Damian closed the bathroom door, Grimalkin was waiting for him, sitting primly on the marble counter, tail lashing up and down.
“I put the stinger in your office for you and cleaned up all the blood.”
“And not a moment too soon,” Damian said, leaning back against the closed door. He wondered how long it’d take Andi to vacate the premises. She was right behind the door now, probably not even dressed, putting his clothing over her taut, tight body—that he’d gotten to briefly touch.
Why did you stop her? his dragon asked. Part of being a shifter was experiencing one another’s feelings when paying attention, and when Andi had started kissing him, his dragon had been fully present.
Because it wasn’t real. We stank of succubus.
His dragon pondered this. It felt real to me.
It had, hadn’t it? It’d seemed like the most real of dreams. Waking up to a beautiful girl taking an interest in him, wanting him to take interest back. Everything in him had longed to answer her, and he would have done so, eagerly—thoroughly—if he hadn’t remembered the succubus’s scent.
You should have let her continue, his dragon said.
And not for the first time, Damian realized his dragon wasn’t big on consent. It wasn’t worth getting into with the beast. Especially because his dragon was inside him; it knew how hard he’d been tempted. He thumped his head against the door’s solid wood.And if he kept thinking about it, he’d be as hard as the door behind him. Fucking pheromones.
“…and you told me that you would heal,” Grimalkin said, pointing his tail at Damian for emphasis, and Damian realized he’d lost some of his cat’s words while thinking about Andi. He pushed away from the door and into the here and now.
“I would have. Except for the succubus stinger in the way.”
“That you didn’t know that you were hit with.”
“I’ll admit I didn’t check that closely.”
Grimalkin wove his head back and forth in grand disappointment. “This is why you need a mate. It is easier to clean all the places that need cleaning if you have someone else’s tongue helping you.”
It wasn’t the first time his protector had urged him to find someone—and, unfortunately, Damian knew it would not be the last. “I’m alive, Grim. I mean, come on, a stinger might’ve made me pass out with poison for a little while, but it’s not like it was going to kill me.”
Grimalkin jumped down to the bathroom floor and reached up with both front paws, planting one on each of Damian’s thighs, gently pricking through his slacks with his claws. “If something happens to you,” he began, and Damian leaned down to pay attention as his cat’s eyes went so wide, they were almost all pupil. “Who is going to buy me cheese?”
Damian laughed and gently kneed the cat down. “It is tomorrow, now, isn’t it?” he said, reaching for his belt buckle.
“Very much so. But you can shower first,” Grimalkin allowed him, with a wrinkle of his nose.
The second Damian was gone, Andi tried a door that was not the bathroom, found his closet, and resisted the urge to just hide inside.
What on earth had just happened to her? She’d told Damian she wouldn’t ask questions—of him!—but that didn’t mean that she wouldn’t spend the next three months asking them of herself. What the hell? Green blood? And the entirely inappropriate way that she’d pounced on him? That wasn’t like her at all.
There are dragons in this world, my dear. Real dragons. Beware.
Auntie Kim’s warnings echoed in her mind, and after the night she’d just had, dragons seemed downright sensible, so, sure, why not?
She tamped down her upcoming freak-out and found jeans that were far too long for her, cuffing them up and belting them tight, before rifling through his closet for a shirt. They were all dress shirts, so she picked the nearest one and tied it at her waist—if she’d tucked it in, it’d have gone down to her knees.
Last but not least, she put on the shoes he’d evidently kicked off on his way in—which were far, far too big on her, like clown shoes almost—and tried to remind herself that it didn’t matter that she wasn’t getting her own shoes back, because with what she was getting paid she could definitely buy new ones.
She caught a blurry glance of herself in one of the many bedroom mirrors on her way out. She looked like she was very ineptly playing dress up. Whatever! She just needed to take a shower at her own place—and crawl into her own bed and forget this unbelievably strange night—and forget him. She glanced back at the closed bathroom door and heard the water turn on. Whatever was going on here, he was at the center of it. He was trouble, for sure.
Incredibly hot trouble.
Andi growled at herself, then picked up her bag of wet clothes left by the bathroom door and stepped out of the room.
“HEY!” she yelled, her voice echoing through the apparently empty corridors. “Is anyone here?”
To her surprise, Austin was waiting for her by the time she got to the lower level, and he seemed surprised to see her. “Damian didn’t take you home?”
“Nope,” she said, as his eyes took her outfit in.
“Damian…took you to bed?” Austin guessed.
Andi rolled her eyes. Not for lack of trying on her part for a bit there. “Also, no, although not that it’d be any of your business if he had.” She wondered what it meant that that’d been Austin’s first guess—did Damian have a revolving door? He was rich and impossibly handsome; of course, he got laid—all the time, probably.
And none of those women had realized he wasn’t human like she had.
“I pulled a weird purple thorn from him. He was bleeding green blood,” she said calmly, watching Austin’s reaction.
Austin looked at her, a mixture of surprise and wariness in his eyes, clearly wondering how much she knew, how much she would ask him to explain.
“Don’t worry. He’s fine. He told me to find you and have you pay me and take me home.” She stopped, and Austin looked at her, clearly waiting for her to ask more questions—questions she desperately wanted to know the answer to!—butshit with her brother had taught her that sometimes it was better not to get involved. “Look, I’m tired and I’d just like my money and a ride to the bus stop.”
Austin hesitated for long enough that she started to get worried, then shook himself and said, “All right. Wait here.”
He returned with her coat and a large envelope. Before he handed it over, though, he glanced down. “Do you know those are eight hundred-dollar shoes?”
Andi stopped herself from gasping in time. “So?” she said instead, defiantly.
“And they’re…men’s shoes.”
“I know. I can mail them back, all right?” She pulled her coat on roughly and found her own phone in its pocket. “I don’t want to talk about what happened to mine. Just take me to the bus already.”
He looked her up and down again. Something about her current situation made him uneasy—but it didn’t stop him from leading her outside.
She did as she was told, waiting on the mansion’s marble stairs as Austin went to retrieve a car. Dawn was rising over the horizon, and from this height, the light spilled over the hills, making the morning breathtaking. A light breeze pushed the scent of roses her way and picked up a lock of her hair to play with.
Out here, it was like last night had never happened—like it wasn’t even real. Like the entire night had been a bad dream—except for the part that hadn’t been.
And her kissing him.
Whatever he was.
She was almost glad she hadn’t asked questions because if Austin had lied to her—which, of course, he would’ve; he’d have to—she’d have started to doubt her own two eyes.
Because that blood had not been human. Maybe that green stuff was what they pumped you with when you were rich enough to get to pay to somehow live forever? She fought not to nervously laugh at herself. She’d be on the bus soon, and she didn’t want to seem crazy with a fist-sized wad of cash inside her pocket.
But where was Austin? Was he ghosting her?
Maybe Damian was…a ghost? And that green stuff had been ectoplasm?
Andi put a hand to her head, feeling the edge of a no-sleep headache approaching, knowing she needed to get to bed soon before she could think about anything else stupid—crazy, impossible—and real.
And then, just like it’d been designed to set off a migraine, a klaxon started wailing from somewhere behind her.
Andi whirled to look back at the house. “What the—” she got out before the lights on the inside of the house went red, and the metal shutters started loudly rolling down outside, cutting through ivy and beginning to cover all the castle’s windows.
“Fuck,” she breathed as a car pulled up behind her.
“More like, oh, shit!” Austin said, getting out.
“No time to explain,” he said, and just as she’d imagined earlier in the night, he picked her up and put her over one shoulder.
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Andi’s clothes were not dry by dawn. She was tired and wet and cranky, and the phone Mr. No-Name had given her said it was six a.m. Someone should be coming to relieve her soon, right?
Then she heard it—the sound of a door slamming from afar.
Was it real? After her experiences earlier tonight, she doubted it. Then she heard another door, somewhere deeper in the house.
If whatever lived in this house wanted to torment her, pretending to be distantly slamming doors was an odd way to do it, which made her think that the sounds were real and that someone had gotten home a little early.
Good, then that person could take her the fuck away from here—after paying her handsomely, of course. Nothing about her patient had changed overnight. She’d done a good job, in spite of everything else.
She put her wet clothes in the bag the dressing supplies had come in so they wouldn’t drip and then decided to hunt down the person who’d slammed the doors.
Andi walked back to the entryway—the path seemed about two rooms shorter, but she wasn’t going to question that right now—and found herself in front of the main door, with the staircases behind her. She turned, and the spiral one up to the ceiling that’d caught her eye earlier was gone now.
Of course, it was.
She swallowed and fought the urge to rub her eyes again.
“Hello? I need to go home now.”
No one answered, not even to laugh. She stood equidistant between the two stairs—they both led to opposite wings of the house. She could waste hours looking for someone here. A splash of emerald green caught her eye—on the stairs to her right. It wasn’t pondwater from her escapade earlier. She’d never made it up to the front of the house; she was sure of it. No, it looked like someone had spilled…cough syrup. And there was a trail of it—heading up.
She was only seventy percent sure she hadn’t seen the trail coming in, but it was enough. She held the fur coat tighter around her waist and followed it up the stairs.
The green stains led her down endless halls, doors that were bolted from the outside, and past judgmental looking statues until they reached a door. Perhaps the second one she’d heard shut earlier? She leaned against the outside of it, and would’ve sworn she heard someone stirring inside. She rapped on it gently. “Hello?”
No one answered. But it, unlike the other doors she’d passed by, wasn’t locked. She twisted the handle and opened it up.
The room inside was huge—palatial even; it could’ve bunked an army. One wall was lined with books—the older, the better, it seemed—with chairs and a bar, and then another wall was just mirrors, which was a little creepy. They were all different shapes, with separate ornate frames, and all their glass was fogged. Who the hell collected this many mirrors, and why? Rich people—with bad taste.
And then, in the middle of the room, near the windows which were letting in light from the oncoming dawn was Mr. No-Name, lying shirtless in the middle of a very large bed. The green stains clearly led up the carpeting directly to him.
No, no, no…enough weirdness for the night. This was not something she would be investigating. Helllllll, no!
But Mr. No-Name’s features were softer now that he was asleep. And he looked…just like the pictures of Damian Blackwood that she’d googled up—the old, grainy ones that were scanned in from old newspapers with no originals. And…also a lot like the younger one with the same name she’d read about too—the asshole cousin with the fancy car and a different girl on his arm every weekend.
None of that explained why he was bleeding green, though.
There are dragons in this world, my dear. Real dragons.
She crept up to the bed’s edge. If only she knew how to drive, then she could just rifle through his clothes for car keys.
“Hello?” she asked again at the foot of the bed, tempted to knee the mattress. “Hey…I want to go home now.”
When he didn’t stir, she leaned in and caught a whiff of something that was the worst stink she’d ever smelled—no small feat considering she was an ICU nurse. Her nose wrinkled, her body recoiled, and then…bliss. Like a good night with girlfriends after drinking a whole bottle of wine, or like the haze you got before an Ambien made you go to sleep. Soft and gentle bliss. She was safe, and she knew she wouldn’t have to worry about anything ever again. Things…everything—her job, this job, her missing brother—finally felt easy.
And Mr. Blackwood—who’d already been the hottest man she’d ever seen in person—was now utterly irresistible.
Sure, he was bleeding electric green fluids from a gash between his ribs, and she should definitely be concerned about that—said a small and shrinking part of her mind—but why not just take a moment to appreciate the perfection of the rest of him, first? Andi put a knee on the mattress and slowly crawled up on the side opposite the bleeding to get a better look. She hadn’t seen him with his shirt off yet, after all. She hadn’t known the way his strong hands became muscular arms, the kind that could pick a girl up and carry her off without even trying. The way his shoulders framed his torso, and the way the muscles made his chest worth licking, down to a ripple of abs and a fine trail of hair leading down…
She was practically hovering over him now and while—this is out of character for you! Stop it!—howled inside from somewhere far away, the rest of her wanted to know everything about him. How he smelled, how he tasted, how it would feel when she touched him, and how it would feel when he touched her…preferably deep inside.
Would he mind?
She brought her hand up to brush the angular slope of his cheek.
“Hey,” she whispered.
His golden eyes fluttered open, taking her in, and they had an oddly inhuman sheen. “Hmmm?”
“Wake up,” she urged him. “Wake up enough to say yes.”
He blinked. “Yes to—”
She leaned forward and planted her lips on his, swallowing whatever he was going to say next. In an instant, his head tilted to make his mouth fit hers perfectly, letting her tongue push in, and his hands were rising up the inside of the fur coat she’d stolen downstairs. Then he was fiercely kissing her back, his lips urgent against hers, his tongue pressing into her mouth, and although she was the one hovering above him, it felt like she was falling in—into what, she didn’t know—but she never wanted to land. This was what she’d always been looking for, and she hadn’t even known it.
One of his arms circled her waist, pulling her closer to him, and his other hand slid up her ribs to hold her breast and swipe a thumb against her nipple as she melted into him. If need could be made manifest, she felt it pulse from him, and everything in her wanted to answer its call. She shivered and let go, her body asking him for more, ready for anything, when he rose up and pushed her back, roughly.
“What?” Andi wasn’t sure precisely what she’d done wrong when all she wanted to do was make him happy.
“Goddammit,” he said, his voice hoarse, looking at her, clutching his hand to his bleeding side. “Grim, please exchange all the air in this room now and don’t stop till I say so.”
“But I can explain!” she went on, even though she couldn’t, as a sudden breeze sprang up from nowhere.
“No…just…be quiet.” He put a hand out to stop her from talking, and she bit her lips to obey. He was so handsome and magical and smart! How had she ever thought she could ever leave his side?
“Listen, this isn’t you.” He rocked himself over to the side of the bed to stand, and Andi noticed the pool of green he left behind him had gotten larger in the meantime. “Just go outside, find Austin, and tell him to pay you and take you home. I need to go bathe.”
Andi was torn between staying quiet like she’d been told and mentioning the blood, like the nurse-voice inside of her demanded. Her fear of him being hurt quickly won out over her fear of disobedience. “But, are you okay?”
“No,” he growled without looking back at her. “You don’t actually want me, and I have a completely inappropriate hard-on. I am not okay.”
“Because of the green blood?” she guessed, trying harder to help him.
“What’re you…” he said, turning back, seeing the trail of green he’d left behind, looking down at his own hand covered in the stuff. “Shit. Sometimes the scales make it hard to feel things.” She didn’t know what to make of that, or what he said next. “Why aren’t I healing?” He reached for the wound and then gasped, before crumpling to the ground.
Andi watched in horror—was he dying? She’d only just found him!—and ran over to his side.
His blood was definitely green and seeping out of a large gash between his ribs. Fresh air was buffeting against her face now and kneeling on the ground beside him she could feel all her uncertainty return, closely followed by a steamroller of anxiety and a semi-truck of self-doubt.
What-what the hell had just happened? She’d almost jumped him—what the fuck? She knew she needed to get laid, but come on, have some self-respect, girl!
But nurse-mode came and saved her from a spiral of embarrassment and shame. Even if his blood was green—presumably, it needed a heart to pump. She felt for a pulse and watched for chest rise. He was alive, but something was hurting him—she could tell by the excruciated look on his face. She tugged his arm away from his chest to see better, positioning him until she could see the wound—where there was a thorn jutting out.
Or more like a stinger. Of a giant dead bee. And it was still pumping something bad into him.
What the ever-loving fuck? She desperately glanced around. There was a bar set on the bar with tongs for ice. She raced for them and returned.
“I’m pretty sure this is going to hurt,” she warned him, then grabbed the stinger and yanked it out. Poison still dripped from its tip, and suddenly the bar tongs were a lot shorter than she wanted. She threw the thing across the room—tongs and all—and looked back at him.
“Mr. Blackwood?” She shook him gently. He was still breathing evenly. She didn’t think he’d popped a lung—only the tear in his side kept leaking green blood. “Damian?” she prodded, taking a guess that seemed more possibly correct all the time.
He suddenly shook his head, and when he opened his eyes, they were as human as ever. He blinked at her, pushing himself up on his arms. “What’re you still doing here? I thought you were a dream. And…what happened to your own clothes?” His hand reached for his side while staring at her. “Is that…one of my grandmother’s furs?”
Andi clutched the coat defensively, suddenly aware she was wearing something that probably cost more than her monthly rent and not much else. “No. I mean…it may be…but I got lost, and I stumbled and fell into your pool.”
He looked adorably confused. “My…pool?”
“No.” She held up her hand and frowned at him. “You’re leaking green; you don’t get to ask questions. What the hell happened to you…Damian?”
He frowned at the use of his name, clearly surprised that she had figured it out. Score one for me, she thought.
“Did you get attacked by…whatever it was that attacked your friend?”
“Not today.” He glowered at her. “You’ve completed your duties by staying the night. Now go away.” He rolled up and onto his knees, to stand and walk away from her.
“You’re kidding me, right?” she asked, following him. “You dripped a trail of blood all the way to your room.” She pointed down at the ground, only the green stains were gone. They couldn’t have been all in her head. She’d seen them. “Don’t you want a report on your friend, whoever he is?”
“Is he alive?”
“Then it’s fine. I’m fine.”
“Like I haven’t heard that before.” She put her hands on her hips where they wouldn’t be tempted to touch him. “Look, even though somehow you turn me into a walking sexual harassment case, I’m not going to leave you when you’re bleeding. Even if it is green.”
“It was a huge gash! You’re lucky I didn’t call nine-one-one!”
Damian, now that she was sure it was him, took in a breath and released it, then held his arms up so she could inspect him. She walked a quick circle around him—he had abs like fucking whoa—andcouldn’t see the wound anymore.
She bit her lips and scanned the room. He was healed somehow, and there was no longer a pool of green blood on his bed, and she couldn’t see where she’d thrown the stinger or the bar tongs, despite the fact that there was no one else in the room to move them.
“Satisfied?” he asked her.
“Not even vaguely,” she said. She watched her phrase spark a challenge in his eyes, one he just as quickly quenched—his face losing all the softness it’d held when he’d been asleep or injured—returning to its cold and slightly disapproving baseline.
“Go find Austin. He’ll pay you and take you home. Forget all the rest,” he said. She didn’t move a muscle, and he sighed. “Please, for the first time in your life—I’m sure—just do as you’re told.”
Her resolve to get to the bottom of things wavered. She’d already known this place was impossibly strange, but somehow, he was the strangest thing of all. Even without the insta-lust and green blood. There was just something…improbable…about him.
“Fine,” she said with a sigh. She’d spent enough nights trying to convince doctors that things were going bad before lab values proved her right to know that no one wanted to listen to the unbelievable until they had to.
“Thank you,” he said with a slight nod of his head. He turned and started walking toward what was presumably a bathroom. “Grab clothes from my closet and leave the fur behind. It has sentimental value.”
Before she could respond, the door closed behind him.
Check back tomorrow for the next chapter of the story!
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