The Boss (Fire’s Edge #1) – Chapter 1 Excerpt
Finn Conleth had never experienced wonder, but this moment, looking down at the sweet, gentle human woman the fates had deigned to grant him as a mate, must’ve been it.
Fear niggled at the back of his mind, but he pushed it away. This woman was a rare and precious thing. Fewer were discovered each year, especially for his clan. And not every attempt worked, resulting in deaths of potential mates.
Finn told himself to remain confident. The Council had matched him and Phoebe. He’d chosen her, and she’d chosen him in return.
It had to be right. It was supposed to be right.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
She gave an eager nod, and her wide blue eyes gazed back at him with total trust. He’d known her only a few days, but he was sure she’d fit in with his Blue Clan back home.
Slowly, purposefully, he stoked the fire within his body—the inferno every dragon shifter carried inside themselves, even in human form—then stilled. The sound of his swirling fire, similar to the heaving of a forge’s bellows, broke the cadence of their breathing.
She blinked up at him and smiled. “Finn?”
What are you waiting for? A mating was a huge deal, but he was acting like a nervous virgin. Pushing through his hesitation, Finn placed his mouth over hers and released his flame into her body, starting the process that would turn her into the dragon shifter she was meant to be, and bond her to him for the rest of their extra-long lives.
Those blue eyes widened, and Finn breathed a sigh of relief. There. Only death could separate them now.
She opened her mouth, but instead of sighing with happiness, Phoebe tipped her head back in a silent scream as her body arched off the bed, lifting him with the force of the spasm.
Panic gripped him so hard, pain ripped through his muscles.
She took a shuddering breath and this time her scream forced its way out of her, piercing the air with such agony his insides withered. Down her throat, he could see hateful blue flames consuming her from the inside out. Eating her body alive.
No, no, no. This can’t be happening.
The familiar, rich scent of fire turned sour as her flesh charred from the intense heat. On the outside, her skin turned black, then started to glow eerie red through ragged cracks—like lava with a dry and broken crust over the top of the red-orange liquid magma flowing below.
“No.” Finn’s voice broke over the word as he pulled her into his arms, rocking her.
Her soft skin became hard and rough against him. He couldn’t stop this. He couldn’t protect her from his. All he could do was hold her until the end. Helpless. Useless.
“I’m here. I’m here. Don’t be scared.” Gods, how could he tell her that? She was dying. Because of him. Could she even hear him?
In his arms, she stilled. Her eyes, now ash black, stared back at him.
“I’m sorry,” Finn whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
As her spirit left her body, a part of Finn’s soul burned with her. The strangest sensation—like something tugged a part of his essence out of him him—overtook him, and he grew colder, harder with each passing moment.
The glow inside his false mate dissipated, leaving only a charred body that slowly disintegrated, turning to cinders on the bed. Not even an ember remained of the woman he’d believed was his.
How could he have been so wrong?
Numbness consumed him as he curled up in the bed. Pain would come, he knew, but right now, he welcomed the nothing. Only one word echoed through his mind.
As he lay in her ashes, Finn made himself a vow. He would never try to mate again. He would never risk more of his soul or another woman’s life to this excruciating, unbearable death.
He’d rather cut out his heart and feed it to the fire himself.
“Not good enough. Get your asses up here.” Finn barked his displeasure through the telepathic link that enabled his men to hear his orders while in dragon form.
He beat his massive blue wings to hover in the air as he watched his team of shifters run through the training exercise he’d set up. The dragons below him, a rainbow of colors against the greens and golds of the Sierra Nevada mountainside, circled the flaming oil drums, but they pulled up on his command.
His team was the best for a damn good reason. And they were about to be reminded why.
Rivin and Keighan, the team’s two white dragons, snapped and dueled playfully as they made their way to Finn.
Finn shook his head and sent his Beta, Levi, a mental message. “Take care of Heckle and Jeckle, will you?”
“My pleasure, boss.”
Despite him dwarfing them in size, the white dragons were too distracted to notice Levi’s giant body closing in until it was too late. He buzzed overhead and smacked both on the head with a downbeat of his wings.
“Hey!” came twin protests.
Levi snorted a laugh as he flew away, his dark gold scales reflecting the morning rays of light.
Aidan, blending in with the sky around them, flew past the drama without paying the white dragons any attention. Finn had to give the rookie credit. The young blue dragon was smart not to get dragged into Rivin and Keighan’s shenanigans, which was more than he could say for some of the more senior members of the team.
Hall and Drake looked to be arguing. Again.
The pale green dragon spat a hissing stream of lime-green tinted fire at the larger dark red dragon flying off to his left. For his part, Drake evaded the flame with practiced ease and answered by performing a flip maneuver that swung his spiked tail dangerously close to Hall’s head. A warning shot.
With Kanta, the other green dragon on the team, back at headquarters instead of running interference between the two shifters, Hall was going to get himself thumped. Served him right, though. When would he learn not to pick a fight with the biggest badass of the bunch? Before joining the Huracán Enforcers, Drake had been part of his king’s personal guard. And Pytheios, Rotting King of the Red Clan, only chose the deadliest warriors for that job.
Titus came last. Black as an oil slick in the sky, a feature that made him damn near impossible to track at night, he quietly inserted himself in the group, ready for orders.
“That was a pathetic run,” Finn snapped.
Immediately all squabbling and goofing around ceased, and each dragon hovered in the sky at attention, only their wings in motion, keeping them aloft.
“You should’ve put those drums out on the first pass. And Hall, I could see you outside the smoke again.”
Drake shot Hall a clear “I told you the fuck so” look, but Hall at least knew better than to break ranks when Finn was addressing them.
Training to handle wildland fires started by dragons—one of his team’s primary tasks—was a daily task, keeping them sharp. The entire point when they dealt with fires in dragon form was getting in and out unseen by humans, allowing them to pull the fire into a swirling vortex and absorb the flames into themselves before the situation escalated into an all-out disaster. Shifting into human form to battle a blaze was a last resort, but necessary if one of the human crews got too close.
They’d train on that next.
For now, they needed to work on being fucking invisible, even in daylight. Especially in daylight. The scales on their bellies reflected whatever was above them, helping them hide when flying at altitude, but he and his team worked close to the ground. They needed to do better.
It was easier for white and blue dragons who could camouflage in the sky and clouds. Somewhat easier for Titus who could hide in the darker smoke, and for Levi and Drake who could blend with the reds and golds of the flames. Harder for Kanta and Hall, being green. But really, since Kanta’s forest green color at least blended with the tall pine trees they often dealt with, Hall had it the hardest. There was no way to make lime-green blend with anything.
“Run it again. This time, I want the fire out on the first pass, and I don’t want to see any of you do it.”
Finn tucked his wings in close to his body and arrowed toward the earth, slowing only slightly to level out just above the ground. He blew a torrent of blue-tipped flames over the barrels, bringing the blaze back to full force, then angled his wings to shoot back into the sky where he joined the team.
His team went to work. Finn watched closely. If he couldn’t see them with the sharp vision all dragon shifters possessed, humans would never notice them. That was the point.
“Boss?” Kanta’s scratchy voice, like he’d inhaled too much smoke every day for years, broke into his head.
“Can it wait?” Finn asked, still focused on the team below him.
“No, boss. We have a heat signature.”
“Barely a blip on the screen, but it’s growing fast.”
Kanta was manning their war room, which was filled with specialized equipment that monitored their territory, the Western half of North America, for any sign of dragon fire. Their mission was to put out the flames, punish the dragons responsible, and hide the evidence.
Basically, they were the dragon version of enforcers. Police, judges, jury, and sometimes executioners, all rolled into one.
Sounded easy on paper.
In reality, keeping peace among dragon shifters felt like trying to herd geese with a helicopter.
North America was one of several colonies over which the six clans of Europe and Asia—Blue, Red, Gold, Black, White, and Green—shared control. Unlike back home, the dragons in the colonies lived in mixed groups. Distance from their kings, sometimes-contradictory orders, and loyalties split between clan and the colony in which they now lived resulted in a shit show. Conflicts and rebellions were a constant.
And where there were conflicts and rebellions, there was fire.
“Where?” he asked Kanta.
“Close. Really close. Apple Hill area just west of here. A winery. Looks like one of the structures, but still too small to tell.”
Fuck. A dragon dared to set a fire that close to their headquarters? Worse, that area was populated. A structure fire put him in an awkward fucking position. Human crews that handled those types of fires would be sure to show. Finn needed to get his team in and out fast before the humans got involved.
“Right. We’re on it. I’m sending Hall back to you.”
Finn called to the men below him. “Boys. Put out those drums, we have a real fire to deal with. Hall, back with Kanta at headquarters. Everyone else, pick up your packs. Follow me.”
Finn angled toward the ground and scooped up the gear he would need if he had to handle this in human form. Given the location and type of fire, that possibility was high. The others did the same.
He filled them in on the way.
“We’ll use the smoke to drop in, and then circle around, shift, and pretend to come from the parking lot.” Any humans on the scene would most likely be too panicked to notice that the firefighters who arrived did so on foot. They’d be too happy to have help. “I doubt we’ll have long before the structure guys get there. This one is going to be a huge pain in the ass.”
So much easier to eliminate the flames when they didn’t have prying eyes watching their every move.
“Boss,” Kanta’s voice came through, projecting to all of them now. “The fire appears to be coming from a barn, or similar structure, on the grounds.”
Shit. If a human life was taken by this fire, that would make their jobs a thousand times harder.
“You heard the man, boys,” Finn said. “Move your asses.”
The distinctive crackling of flames pulled Delaney out of a dark abyss of unconsciousness into a nightmare. With a slow blink, she tried to focus through stinging, watering eyes. Wooden beams overhead came into view, even as black smoke slunk along like a predator in the dark and crept into her lungs.
She blinked again and turned her head. Sure enough, angry, weirdly black-tipped fire licked at the back of the barn in which she lay. Flames slithered up the wood walls to the roof high overhead like a thousand snakes, hissing and spitting as her body warmed from the heat.
Oh, God, not again.
In her panic, Delaney made the mistake of gasping in a breath. Pain burst in her lungs, and she jerked upright, heaving and coughing as the heavy, heated smoke singed her from the inside.
Way too many experiences with fire kicked in and Delaney forced lethargic limbs to function. She pushed to her knees and looked around, orienting herself. A vague light pierced the dark haze, like peering down a train tunnel.
The door. Crawl dummy.
Sayings she’d heard all her life—in grade school or on TV, and meant more for children—scrolled through her head like a ticker tape parade: Don’t delay, get out of fire’s way. Small fire will be tall soon. Never hide, get outside. Stay low and crawl like a baby.
Why hasn’t the damn sprinkler system gone off? The barn had been converted into a modern winery storage facility. Surely there was some sort of fire suppression system in place.
A frantic mewling caught her attention over the sizzling of the flames. Was that an animal? Arm over her mouth and nose to try to filter the smoke, and eyes watering like a son of a bitch, Delaney paused and searched for the source.
There, ten feet away. The damn cat that hung around this place. Probably feral.
Moving faster, Delaney crawled her way over to the animal that had frozen in fear behind a stack of empty wine barrels. At least he didn’t run from her.
She wrapped her arm under the animal’s belly, then yelped as the thing went bat shit crazy. It clawed and bit her like she was the most dangerous thing in its world.
“I’m trying to save you.” The words came out husky, strained. Immediately a hacking cough racked her body.
Teeth clenched and determined not to let go, no matter how much the cat bit and scratched, Delaney crawled with one hand while trying to hold the flailing animal away from her face with the other. She grunted as its claws sank deeper.
Her lungs did not thank her for inhaling that much smoke.
Finally, she managed to get to the barn doors, tumbling out on limbs weak with relief when they opened at her push. The brightness of the day had her squinting. Once she cleared the building, she stumbled to her feet, shaky from her near miss, and ran across the gravel drive to the winery tasting room, still holding the damn cat. She scared the shit out of the smattering of customers when she burst inside, if one lady’s scream was any indication.
“The barn’s on fire. Call 9-1-1,” she wheezed at her new boss and friend, Sera, who was serving behind the bar.
She stumbled past the counters to shove the cat into the closest back office, locking it in, and then dashed back outside. Plumes of smoke seeped out the door she’d left open, but the flames were still hiding inside.
Oh God, I have to fix this.
Delaney had thought she’d be safe here. She’d thought the fires that plagued her in Vermont wouldn’t follow her across the country.
She’d been horribly wrong.
She ran to the water faucet that stuck out of the ground about twenty feet from the barn. A long hose lay coiled beside it, already attached. With a twist, she turned the water on full force and dragged the hose toward the barn.
I can’t let Sera’s wine burn.
That reason, more than her own safety, drove her actions.
Carefully, she moved closer to the building. Her aching eyes and fuzzy vision didn’t help, but she kept going. She inched inside until she glimpsed flame, then she aimed her hose at the spot and sprayed, using her thumb to focus the water. The fire appeared to laugh at her pitiful effort like a crazed, caged animal. Flames receded in fizzling, smoldering protest before lunging for her with renewed vigor.
I’m not even making a dent.
Delaney stepped forward, not giving up, dousing more of the blaze.
A snap of sound was the only warning she had before the beams above her crumbled. With a scream, Delaney jumped, feet scrambling as she tripped and fell backwards. Luckily the beam didn’t land on her, but it lay so close, heat singed her skin. Grabbing the hose, she crawled back to her feet and turned the spray on the beam.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” a deep male voice thundered in her ear a second before a strong arm banded around her waist.
Delaney found herself hoisted over a shoulder, the air punching from her lungs with a whoosh as her middle connected with a broad shoulder, and she was bodily carried from the burning structure.
She didn’t struggle.
She also didn’t think to let go of the hose.
Her rescuer stumbled over the line and jerked to a halt.
“Damn,” the same deep voice swore and he yanked the hose from her hands.
Realization sank in that she’d been dousing the firefighter who’d “rescued” her, and a completely inappropriate giggle escaped her.
He took off again, not letting her go, jostling her none too gently as he ran across the gravel drive to plonk her on a boulder beside the main winery building. Delaney lifted her gaze up, way up, over his green flame-resistant pants, yellow long-sleeved shirt, and white helmet. A firefighter, but not any kind she’d dealt with before, not based on the clothing. He pinned her to the rock she sat on with the bluest eyes she’d ever seen.
Anger and frustration pulled his brows down in an intimidating glower. “Are you hurt?” he asked. Yelled more like, his voice a harsh growl.
Delaney blinked at him again, shock taking over and slowing her brain way down—like molasses in the winter.
When she didn’t answer, his severe expression softened. “Are you hurt?” he repeated, no less urgently, but more gently.
Pull yourself together. Delaney shook her head.
“Is anyone else in there?”
“No.” At least, she assumed the cat she’d saved was the only creature in there. “It’s for wine. State of the art with temperature control.” No way should fires be happening in the building.
He nodded. “I’ve got this now. Don’t go back in there. Wait here for the paramedics.” He straightened and anything soft about him disappeared behind granite determination. “Aidan?” he called out to someone she couldn’t see. “Take care of her.”
The flicker of annoyance that her rescuer was leaving her, dumping her on someone else, was completely ridiculous. He had a job to do.
A serious-looking individual stepped up, took off his helmet, and gave her a nod. “Ma’am.”
She blinked up at him. As tall as her rescuer, the younger man had dark Middle Eastern good looks, which made his light blue eyes that much more striking.
Jeez, two sexy firefighters with amazing eyes. What are the odds?
Only, unlike the zing of awareness still tingling through her thanks to firefighter number one, nothing happened with this guy. And the fact that she reacted to her rescuer at all irritated the hell out of her. She shoved that thought away and searched for something, anything, else to focus on. “I need to get the cat out of the office.”
The guy named Aidan frowned and he cleared his throat. “Sorry. The cat?”
Delaney pushed to her feet, determined now. “I don’t want it messing up Sera’s office.”
Aidan glanced over her head.
She half turned to see where he was looking only to find her firefighter had stopped to watch their interaction. He gave a small nod then turned away. She spied a word stenciled on the side of his helmet: Boss. She’d been rescued by the guy in charge? Or was that a nickname because he was bossy?
She flicked a glance at Aidan. Probably a bit of both.
The boss and several other similarly dressed men—though most of them wore yellow helmets instead of white, and one wore red—assembled off to the side. The firefighters had gotten here fast, faster than she’d expected given where the winery was situated on the gentle western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
“Um. Don’t you need a fire truck?” she asked Aidan.
He shook his head. “No ma’am. We’re a hotshot crew, not structure. But we were close by and saw the smoke, figured we could help until the Placerville boys can get their asses out here.” He cringed. “Excuse me. Get out here.”
Oh. That explained her not recognizing the uniform. She’d heard of hotshot crews—teams of firefighters whose sole purpose was to fight the massive wildland fires that regularly devastated entire forests, especially here out west.
She turned her gaze back to the boss who barked out orders, total confidence radiating from those broad shoulders and the calm set of his expression.
These guys had it.
Relief surged through her followed immediately by the prick of tears that had nothing to do with the smoke.
Why does this keep happening to me?