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When a woman investigates a murder at an outdoor fair, she meets a man who can shift into a dragon. She's about to learn just how dangerous his world is—and how hot their attraction burns.
You Flirt With Fire…
For Aoife Dakar, seeing is believing—and she's seen some extraordinary things. It's too bad no one else believes that she witnessed a supernatural murder at an outdoor fair. Returning to the scene for proof, Aoife encounters a wise-cracking demon dog—and a gloriously naked man who can shift into a dragon and kiss like a god. Now thrust into a fantastical world that's both exhilarating and terrifying, Aoife is about to learn just how hot a dragon's fire burns.
When You Date a Dragon
Kostya has no time for a human woman with endless questions, no matter how gorgeous or tempting she is. He must break the curse that has splintered the dragon clans before more of his kind die. But his powerful attraction to Aoife runs much deeper than the physical—and there may be more to her than even his sharp dragon eyes can see. To survive the coming battle for the fate of his race, he needs a mate of true heart and soul . . .
Table of Contents
A Preview of Dragon Storm
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Two years ago
Arvidsjaur Center for the Bewildered
Entrance interview conducted by Dr. Kara Barlind
Dr. Barlind's note: The following is the interview held at the admission of Patient A upon the demand of her family members. Clear signs of schizophrenia were demonstrated, and a reluctance by Patient A to admit that her story more resembled a fantastical movie than real life. She expressed a great desire to tell her story, however, which was encouraged and which we hope will facilitate recovery.
Dr. Barlind: Good afternoon, Miss A. How are you feeling?
Patient A: I've been better, and my name is Aoife, not Miss A. It's Irish, and pronounced EE-fuh.
Dr. Barlind: My apologies. Aoife. Some patients choose to be anonymous in our reports, but I will make a note of your preference. Would you like to tell us what happened that made your brother and sister decide you needed our care?
Patient A (shuddering): I'd rather not think about it, but I suppose if anyone is going to do anything about it, then I'll have to tell you what happened last night. It was last night, wasn't it?
Patient exhibited signs of distress and was reassured that the triggering event had occurred the past evening.
Patient A: Okay, good. I thought I'd lost some time there, too, which, let me tell you, isn't as freaky as it sounds. Where should I start?
Dr. Barlind: Wherever you are comfortable beginning.
Patient A: I guess it all started with the date. I had no idea that anything… weird… was going to happen. I mean, Terrin looked perfectly normal. He certainly didn't seem like the type of man who could die and resurrect himself at will.
Patient A shuddered again and rubbed her eyes as if wishing to remove mental images, but ceased before self-harming.
Dr. Barlind: Why don't you start with your date with this man, then.
Patient A: Yeah. The date. It started all right. Nothing fantastic, but pleasant enough…
"Isn't the band great?"
A dense wall of throbbing bass surrounded us, thickening the night air and making me feel unusually… needy. In a sexual way.
"What?" My date shouted the word at me. He had to in order to be heard over the noise of the Swedish band that was playing.
I eyed him. I'd only known Terrin for a few days, having bumped into him while attending the traveling circus known as GothFaire. We'd both been in line to have our palms read and had struck up a conversation, ending up with me meeting him for the concert that was now under way.
"I said the band was great. You like it, don't you?" I yelled, almost into his ear. We were bobbing along with the dense crowd of people, not exactly dancing but moving in time with the music, as if the steady, pounding drumbeat triggered a primal need to move. I was a bit worried about whether Terrin was enjoying himself, not because he looked old—he appeared to be around my age, in his midthirties—but because he gave off a vibe that I couldn't help but classify as "accountant." He was the personification of the word nice—everything about him was mildly pleasant: his brown eyes were innocuous, his voice had absolutely no accent, his brown hair was cut short but not super short, and his face was indistinguishable from a thousand other men. He looked like a perfectly respectable, ordinary, white-bread kind of guy.
Whereas I was anything but white-bread. At least, ethnically speaking.
"It's quite effective, isn't it?" he answered at the same volume as my question.
"Effective?" I bellowed back.
"The glamour, I mean. Even back here, at the fringe of the crowd, it's very potent."
I stared at him. What the hell was he talking about? Maybe I'd made a mistake agreeing to a date, but I had figured that a public location like the GothFaire was safe enough. I must have misheard. "I've never heard the band before, and my family has lived in this area since I was a little kid, but they're good. Different. The music makes me feel…" I stopped, not only because my throat was starting to hurt from shouting everything, but also because I hesitated to admit the odd feeling that had come over me.
Terrin might be giving off the vibe of being just an ordinary guy, but I wasn't about to risk saying something that could have very bad consequences.
"Horny?" he asked, still bopping along to the music.
My eyes widened. Could he tell that I was suddenly possessed with a desire to kiss him? To touch him? To feel his skin on mine… Desperately, I shoved down those thoughts. Terrin may very well be a nice guy, but that didn't mean I should be thinking about him touching me, and vice versa. "Er…"
"That's all right," he yelled, putting an arm around me and pulling me against his body. He smiled, his eyes not expressing anything but friendly interest. Trust me, they seemed to say. I'm a clean accountant. "There's no reason to be embarrassed. It's not as if you could resist the urge."
I leaned into him for a moment, breathing in the smell of soap, shampoo, and nice man. My inner hussy swooned at the feel of him and the clean smell that surrounded him, but my brain pointed out that there was nothing so special about him that warranted his last comment.
"Um… yeah." With more strength than I thought possible, I pushed away from him. He didn't look offended, thankfully. He just gave me a bland smile and took my hand.
We listened to the band until the song ended, at which point he suggested that we see the rest of the Faire.
"I've seen most of it already," I told him when we left the big tent. It was located at one end of the U-shaped arrangement of vendor and attraction booths that constituted GothFaire proper. I pointed to the sign that hung off the entrance of the tent. "I saw the main magic act earlier today, and herregud was it amazing. Have you seen the magician? It's a father-and-son act, and they do this trick with eggs that gave me goose bumps."
"Herregud?" Terrin's brows pulled together in a little puzzled frown.
"Sorry, it's a Swedish colloquialism. It's kind of on par with holy cats, or oh my God, or something like that."
"I thought you were American?" Terrin asked, his hand still holding mine as we strolled down the main aisle of the Faire. There were a few people out still, visiting the various booths to have their fortunes told, palms read, or any of the other fun faux-creepy things that the Faire people offered up.
"I am. Mom is from Ireland, and my dad is from Senegal. He met my mom while he was in New York City studying to be an architect. She was playing the harp in Central Park; he stopped to watch her and said he fell in love with her right on the spot." I stopped talking, wondering why on earth I was telling him so much about my family.
"How did you end up here?" he asked, waving a hand around that I took to mean Sweden, rather than the GothFaire itself.
"Dad got a job with Ikea. And, no, I don't know how to put furniture together. I'm all thumbs when it comes to things like that."
He held up my hand and pretended to admire it. "Your fingers look perfectly fine to me. So, what would you like to do? We've already had our palms read. Have you been to the personal time-travel advisor? I'm told she's very good."
I looked at the booth he pointed to. "Not really my thing. I'm perfectly content with the here and now."
"Ah. A traditionalist? Let's see… piercings?"
We both looked at the body-piercing booth, then looked at each other.
"No piercings," Terrin said with a pinched look about his mouth.
I laughed. "Yeah, I'm not into pain or stabbing bits of things through body parts. It was all I could do to get my ears pierced when I was sixteen."
Terrin stopped in front of a red-and-black-painted booth. "Hmm. There's to be a demonology demonstration in half an hour. That might be interesting."
"Eh, demons," I said, making a little face at the booth and moving forward. "I can take 'em or leave 'em."
"Really?" He looked mildly surprised. "You have depths, my dear, positively unplumbed depths."
"Yeah, we Irish-Senegalese Americans living in Sweden are often deep. What's that?" I pointed to a sign with a camera. We stopped in front of the booth in question so I could read the text. "What's a soul photograph?"
"I assume it's a euphemism for an aura photo, but I could be mistaken."
"Oh, I think I read about those somewhere. A picture together might be fun, don't you think?" I swung our hands and gave him a winning smile, then suddenly worried that he might think I believed in auras. "Not that they're real."
He handed over some money to the bored teenager who was manning the front of the booth and held up two fingers to indicate we wanted a photo together. "I'm a bit surprised that you want a photo, then."
"Oh boy, did I just put my foot in my mouth?" I gazed at him in consternation. He didn't look offended or angry, but then, I wasn't sure someone with his calm, unemotional personality type got upset about things. "You believe auras are real, don't you?"
"It's difficult to dismiss something that you've seen, yes." He held aside a long black curtain so I could enter the tent. Ahead of us stood an old-fashioned camera on a tripod, the kind with huge bellows and large square glass plates, just like something out of a silent movie. A woman was seated on a low bench having her photo taken. The photographer, a bald little man with a fringe of carroty red hair and an elaborately curled mustache, was behind the camera, telling her to think happy thoughts.
We moved to a couple of chairs that had been placed to form a makeshift waiting area.
"You've really seen an aura?" I asked Terrin in a low voice.
He nodded. "In photographs, yes. I don't have the ability to see them with the naked eye, unfortunately."
"Oh." I relaxed, feeling much better. I tried to pick out judicious words. "I read an article on a skeptical website that talked about how people make those, you know. Evidently there are some things you can do before the film is developed to make pretty halo effects appear around people's heads and whatnot, and of course, digital images are super easy to mess with."
His eyebrows lifted slightly, just enough that told me he was disconcerted by the fact that I was dissing his aura photos. I hurried to try to smooth things over—there was no need to ruin the evening by being a big ole party-pooping skeptic. "Lots of people are taken in by them. Even experts! And I suppose they don't really do any harm, do they? It's just a picture, after all."
"It is that." He was silent for a moment, still watching me with those eyes that expressed mild interest. "I find it curious that you desired to visit the GothFaire since you don't particularly believe in things like auras."
"Are you kidding?" I gave a jaded laugh that I tried to nip in the bud before it got away from me. "We're not exactly in the hotbed of fascinating life here in northern Sweden. The nearest big city is hours away by train, and there isn't a whole lot that's interesting to do or see except rivers and snow and fishing and that sort of thing, and most of the year it's too freaking cold to do anything but huddle around the fireplace with a stack of books and a bottle of brandy. When Rowan—he's my brother—told me that a fair was coming this far north, I leaped at the chance to see it. I've been here every one of their three days."
"Ah. I see the attraction of the fair, then."
The photographer waved us forward, took the slip that Terrin had been given, and told us to arrange ourselves on the bench in whatever manner we liked.
We sat somewhat stiffly side by side while the photographer fussed with extracting a plate and inserting another.
"It's not that I don't appreciate other people's beliefs and such," I told Terrin. "It takes all kinds to make the world go, and I'm certainly not going to bash someone if they really believe that such things as demons existed, or time travel, or auras. I mean, it's really kind of a suspension of disbelief, isn't it? Like when you're watching a movie, and people suddenly burst into song with a full orchestra that isn't there. You just go with the flow and believe it in order to have fun."
The photographer told us to angle ourselves slightly toward each other, then to turn and look at the camera.
"That seems to be a sensible attitude to have," Terrin agreed.
"Hold that for seven seconds," the photographer said, and disappeared under the black cape that hung off the camera.
"But you think I'm wrong?" I asked without moving my lips from the smile I'd presented to the camera.
"Not so much wrong as perhaps imperceptive."
There was a click from the camera, and the photographer emerged. He got out another large, glass square plate and swapped it into the camera. I turned my head to look at Terrin. "Imperceptive? So you believe that all the stuff here, at the GothFaire, is real?"
"Yes." He didn't look at all disconcerted by admitting that. His face held the same placid, pleasant expression as it had all evening.
"Hold the pose, please."
We held our pose. I waited until the photographer emerged a second time from the depths of the camera cape and rose when he told us that the photos would be ready in fifteen minutes. We exited the booth just as an older couple entered.
"So, you believe in that?" I asked, pointing at the booth next to us.
"Scrying? Of course. Have you ever had someone scry for you? It's fascinating, truly fascinating."
"I didn't even know what it was until the first day here, and then I had to ask the lady who does it."
"It's a shame the booth is closed, or I'd treat you to a session." We strolled along the one long arm of the Faire. I noticed that Terrin didn't take my hand again and damned myself for questioning him about his beliefs.
And yet… dammit, I was trying to decide if I wanted to pursue a relationship with him, and in order to do that, I had to know if we were going to be compatible. Which is why I nodded to the booth across the broad center aisle and asked, "That doesn't strike you as just a wee bit too Harry Potter?"
"The spells and charms booth, you mean?" He gave it due consideration. "I see where you might think so, but I blame popular culture for that more than the woman who runs that stall selling tangible forms of magic."
"Uh… yeah." I had many other things to say but kept them behind my teeth.
"The proof is all around you, my dear, if only you choose to see it. For instance…" He gestured toward something behind me. I turned to see a tall man with shoulder-length black hair striding across the open space of the center aisle, obviously heading for the parking area. Next to him was another man, also dark-haired, who kept glancing around as if he was looking for someone. "Dragons."
I stopped admiring the way the first man filled out his black jeans and turned back to Terrin with an obvious gawk plastered all over my face. "What about them?"
"Those two men," Terrin said, gesturing again toward the two men in black. "They are dragons. Black dragons, I'd say, although they could be ouroboros. I'm afraid I'm not terribly up-to-date on the happenings within the weyr since it was destroyed."
"And a weyr is…?"
"The collective group of dragon septs."
"Of course it is. So, you're saying—" I stopped, shook my head, then pointed at the two men in question as they disappeared behind the booths. "You're saying those two guys—those two perfectly normal-looking guys—are dragons? The big-scaly-wings-and-tail-and-eats-medieval-virgins dragons?"
"I'm sure the virgin sacrifices stopped a long time ago," he said gently. "But to answer your question, yes, they are dragons."
"They looked like men," I couldn't help but point out.
"If you had the choice of appearing in dragon form or that of a human, which would you choose?"
He had me there. "Point taken."
"So you see? There is more to be seen than what's on the surface. The same can be said for auras."
"Oh, come on," I said, unable to keep the words from escaping my mouth. It was pretty clear to me that he wasn't going to be boyfriend material. He had the right to believe what he wanted, of course, but I could see that there would be countless arguments and debates about the differences in our respective points of view. Opposites may attract, but that didn't mean they could live together in harmony.
His eyes twinkled at me, positively twinkled at me when he dug into his jeans' pocket before holding out his hand, palm up. Lying on it was a gold and beigey-white object. "Still don't believe me, hmm? Perhaps I can change that. Would you like to see some magic, Aoife? Real magic?"
I looked from the ring that lay on his hand and back to his eyes. The latter were still full of amusement. "You have a magic ring."
Disbelief fairly dripped off the words.
"I do. In fact, I have no doubt that it is this very ring that has drawn the pair of dragons to the area. You may touch it if you like. It won't harm you—since it was remade, it has developed what, for lack of better words, might be described as a mind of its own. It cannot be used if it does not wish the user to do so and thus far has shown affinity with very few people. Its original creator was one, and the woman who re-formed it is another, but she has no wish to use it and turned it over to me for safekeeping. I've been trying to find out if it is simply inactive or choosy about who it reacts to."
I took the ring, of course. I like jewelry, and it looked old and worn, and I wanted to get a good close look at it, but I really didn't expect anything magical to happen the second I touched it.
And nothing did.
"I guess I won't be joining those two special people," I said, running my fingers around the outside of the ring. It appeared to be made of ivory, or something like that, with the outer edges bound in gold. There was nothing inscribed on it, and no design scratched into the ivory, but it still felt nice in my hand. "Wouldn't the person who created it want it back?"
"The originator?" A fleeting expression of amusement passed over Terrin's face. "I'm quite sure he would give much to have it in his possession again, but that would not be at all wise."
"Oh?" I slid the ring onto my finger and admired it. "He's not a giant orange eyeball, is he?"
"Nothing so dramatic to look at," Terrin said with a little laugh, glancing over my shoulder when, behind me, someone gave a little screech. It was impossible to tell if it was just some kids being kids or someone who just discovered what a Prince Albert was. Given that the piercing tent was down that way, I thought nothing of it. "But nonetheless, extremely dangerous."
"So why do those two men who you think are dragons want it if it's so bad?"
"The ring is not bad in itself; it's the user who dictates whether it is used for good or evil. And all the dragons, not just those of the black sept, have sought the ring since the weyr was destroyed. But that is a long story, too long to tell you now."
"Uh-huh." I held out my hand and looked at it. "Since I didn't disappear when I put the ring on, I don't quite see what's magical about it."
He chuckled. "It's not a Tolkien sort of ring. Its magic is… unique. That is, it's unique to whoever wields it and whatever the ring wishes to be used for."
I looked at the ring, half expecting a wee pair of eyes to look back at me. "Wow, that's… weird."
"As I said, it is unique."
"It's pretty, though. I just hope," I said, starting to pull the ring off, "this isn't one of those bad kinds of ivory, like from an elephant or something. I'm a firm believer in karma, and I don't want to think what sort of horrible thing will happen to me because I admired a dead elephant ring."
"Ivory? Oh no, it's horn." That twinkle was back for a moment. "Unicorn horn, as a matter of fact, and I can assure you that the unicorn in question donated her horn for the purpose of reinforcing it."
"Riiight," I drawled, and removed the ring. I was just about to hand it back to him when a blood-chilling scream ripped high into the night air, so loud we could hear it clearly over the throb of music.
Terrin was off before I could even process the fact that someone was in serious trouble; mercifully, it wasn't long before my wits returned, and I legged it after him. I thought at first the screaming was coming from the demon tent but quickly realized that the noise came from beyond it, toward the big open field that served as a parking area. Two other people were running in the same direction—a big, blond man who seemed to be made of muscles and a small elderly woman with black-and-white hair. I passed by the latter, but the blond dude was well ahead of me. As I raced around the tent and hit the open area, I stumbled and would have fallen if the elderly woman hadn't caught my arm before I fell.
Ahead of us, lit by a small portable light, were four rows of cars. Terrin stood in front of the first row, facing a tall, thin man who seemed to be wielding some sort of sword. A woman lay prone on the ground between Terrin and the man, and before my brain could process what I was seeing, the thin man with the sword flung his arms upright for a moment, so that the sword glinted dully in the night sky. With a terrible flash, he brought it down, right on Terrin's shoulder, slashing downward through him, almost completely severing his arm. I was left sick and numb with horror, a great yawning pit of terror seeming to open at my feet. I tottered on the edge of it, trying desperately not to faint.
The mangled Terrin fell almost on top of the woman.
The blond man ahead of me leaped on the Terrin-killing man, and for a second, I saw something silver flash between them. Then the sword-man was gone—there one second and gone the next—leaving only a thick curl of black oily smoke that hung heavily in the air before slowly dissipating. I stopped dead where I stood, trying desperately to make some sense of what had happened, my brain shrieking that I had to do something to help Terrin.
The old lady passed me and reached the spot where Terrin lay dead, lightly vaulting over an inky pool of blood that stretched out from his inert form just as the blond man spun around and picked up the immobile woman.
I dropped to my knees, my legs suddenly unable to hold my weight, and watched with disbelieving eyes as the man staggered back toward me carrying the woman, while the old lady trotted beside him, talking rapidly in a heavily accented voice. "Take her to my trailer, Kurt. She isn't harmed, just stunned, although it was foolish of her to try to deal with the demon on her own. It's not as if she's a Guardian…"
Neither of them spared me so much as a glance as they passed by. I stared after them for a second before turning back to look at where the dead and mangled body of my almost-boyfriend lay.
"Hey," I tried to yell, but the word came out a scratchy whisper. I cleared my throat and tried again. "Hey, you can't just leave him. He needs help."
By now the couple was almost back to the center of the Faire and evidently didn't hear me, or didn't care, because they kept walking.
Bile rose in my throat when I looked at what remained of Terrin. I knew I should do something—maybe he wasn't dead. Maybe he was just stunned? Maybe his arm could be put back on.
I retched at the last thought, doubling over and heaving up everything I had eaten before the band started playing. When my stomach settled again, I crawled over to where Terrin sprawled, tentatively reaching out to touch his neck.
He was still warm, but I didn't feel a pulse.
I got to my feet somehow and instinctively stumbled my way back toward the lights and noise of the Faire, back to where there were people other than me who could take charge of the situation and make the nightmare end.
By the time I reached the closest booth—closed now—I was gasping for air. Up and down the aisle all the booths had closed down. Music still pulsated from the big tent, but there wasn't a single person to be seen. A few crows hopped around, pecking at spilled popcorn and other debris, but other than them, there was no living creature to be seen.
With a shaking hand, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the emergency number. "There's a man… a friend… Some guy hacked him down with a sword, then disappeared into a puff of smoke," I told the woman who answered. My throat was so tight that my voice came out like gravel. Sharp, pointy gravel.
"Smoke?" the woman repeated.
"Yeah, black smoke. He was there, and then he wasn't."
"People do not turn into smoke, madam."
"This guy did. Can you please get the police out here?"
"Your location?" the woman asked.
I told her where I was and that the murder took place in the parking lot.
"Are you sure your friend is dead?"
"Yes," I squawked.
"Did anyone else see this alleged attack?"
"Alleged? It wasn't alleged! It happened right in front of me. Look, I realize it sounds odd, but the sword guy attacked my friend and then just went poof! Disappeared! And, yes, there were two other people there who saw it, so would you please send the police out? Who knows where that madman is, and my friend is lying dead on the ground, and he has no pulse and… and…" I broke down, unable to take it anymore.
She assured me that medical help would be sent immediately, as well as police, and asked if I wanted to remain on the line. I told her no and clicked off, although I remained clutching the phone as if it were a lifeline to sanity. I wiped my face (and nose, I'm ashamed to say) on my jacket sleeve, wishing like hell that I could restart the day.
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