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.