The Rogue King (Inferno Rising #1) | Chapter 1

PROLOGUE

The scent of raw meat, tinged with a putrid rotting, curled around Serefina, filling her nostrils and awakening a memory she would have sooner forgotten.

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At least he’d waited to confront her until after closing, when she was the last person left in the place. Her hands shook even as they slowed in the mundane task of clearing one of the handful of linoleum-topped tables in the small, rural Kansas diner where she worked. Where she pretended to be just another human and not who and what she truly was.

A prize sought by every creature. Legend held that the man who captured a phoenix would be blessed. Unable to put a foot wrong. Every choice the right one. Every action leading to more blessings. Except that legend had it wrong. The man had to capture the phoenix’s heart.

The man who’d come for her would never have her heart. She knew who stood directly behind her, bringing that nasty smell inside with him where the rancid fumes mingled with the grease that hung heavy in the air.

Pytheios.

The Rotting King of the Red Dragon Clan. The man who had once deluded himself into thinking he could mate Serefina and take her parents’ throne. But she’d chosen another, a different clan’s king, and for her sins, Pytheios had found a loophole in a phoenix’s power and murdered him.

Zilant. Her destined mate, and her one true love.

So she’d run.

Disappeared.

Pytheios had hunted her ever since, needing her at his side to give credence to his reign, to make him the High King. Thankfully, he had no idea of the secret she’d taken with her that fateful night all those centuries ago when she’d escaped, pregnant and terrified. And so alone. A secret concealed not ten miles from here. A secret she’d guard with her life.

Pytheios would never find her daughters.

“You didn’t think you could remain hidden forever, did you?” Pytheios’s charred voice rumbled behind her. Smug bastard.

The skin on the back of Serefina’s neck crawled at his mere presence. She didn’t question how he’d finally tracked her down. Five centuries of hiding from him were five more than she’d expected to get.

Now her daughters must find their own way without her there to guide them. Protect them. Teach them. Please let me have prepared them enough.

Serefina didn’t bother trying to figure out how to save herself from the attack she knew was coming. Before Pytheios had killed them, her parents had been living proof that the dragon king who mated the phoenix would become the High King and rule wisely and well, leading to an era of prosperity. The Red Clan had ruled over all dragon shifters during her parents’ reign. The five other dragon kings would have no choice but to bow down to Pytheios if he brought her back as his mated prize.

But he wasn’t destined to be her mate. Her fire would consume him, as it would any dragon other than Zilant, whether she liked it or not. Zilant’s brand hadn’t yet appeared on her neck, but all that meant was that she hadn’t died with her mate. No other man could ever have her.

Pytheios might try anyway, or at the very least take her. Imprison her. Use her.

So yes. There was no doubt in her mind; today was the last day of her life. But could she save the fire inside her, and the magic that came with it, to perform one last desperate act to protect her daughters before the final blow came?

Acrid bile burned her throat as it rose from the pit of her stomach. She forced it down. Now was not the time to allow fear into her heart. Fear could wait for those last precious seconds of life, when she’d fought until she could no longer move, when she’d done everything she could. Maybe not even then.

Not fear for herself. Fear for the four precious women she’d be leaving behind.

If not for them, death would be a welcome relief. Then she could finally join Zilant in the afterlife where he waited for her.

Serefina closed her eyes, reaching for the power that had lain dormant inside her for too many years, stoking an inferno, the flames licking her insides with a pleasant warmth she’d almost forgotten.

“Turn around,” the monster behind her commanded. “Now.”

Frustration lined the edges of Pytheios’s words, and she smiled. Even now, she could defy him. She took some small consolation from the thought.

Slowly, as if careful not to spook a wild animal, she pivoted. And blinked. The years had not been kind to her enemy. When she’d seen him last, his body had already started rotting, having passed into that age when an unmated dragon’s body broke down, becoming susceptible to disease, deterioration, or insanity. Sometimes all of the above. For Pytheios, disease had taken his body in the form of skin decay.

The flesh hung from his bones as though gravity had dragged at him so long, the tissue lost elasticity. His eyes were sunken into his head, the reddish-brown irises, the hallmark of a red dragon, now milky and faded with age. Even the king’s brand, the symbol of Pytheios’s house, appeared faded where it marked the flesh on his hand between his thumb and forefinger.

How was he still alive?

Despite his now-decrepit appearance, she knew she’d never overpower him physically. She’d be willing to bet he no longer did his own fighting, though, and likely hadn’t in a while, which might make him slower, easier to surprise.

Serefina lifted her chin, ready to buy herself time. “You look like shit.”

His lips pulled back in what she guessed was supposed to be a smile. “How very…American. You are as lovely as ever.” He sniffed the air. “And you smell like ambrosia.”

Again, she had to hold down the bile threatening to spew from her. Serefina focused the fire inside her, the gathering power undulating under her skin. If she wasn’t visibly glowing yet, she would be any second. She directed a small amount of energy into a single thought that she sent to her daughters.

The time has come.

They knew what those words meant. They knew what they had to do. Since the day of their birth—a day of joy devoured by a despair so deep she’d hardly been able to push her babies out of her body—Serefina had been preparing them for this eventuality.

Pytheios, still so arrogant he hadn’t yet restrained her, continued his demands. “Time to give me what you denied me more than five hundred years ago.”

“My duty was to Zilant, my destined mate,” she spat. “You will never be my king.”

Pytheios’s neck worked as though he was swallowing back his rage, the column of his throat moving like a serpent was trapped inside. “I no longer need your submission or your body.”

An icy shard of terror pierced her heart at the words and the sneer curling his lip. What did he mean?

“I’ll take your power and your life.”

Take her power? Could he? She’d never heard of such a thing, but his threat lent urgency to her next steps.

“I’ll die before I give you an ounce of my power,” she snarled. Fisting her hands, Serefina threw her arms wide. Her skin came alive with dancing flames, and her vision changed to one alight in a reddish glow.

Before she could use her strongest gift—the ability to transport her body anywhere with a single thought—Pytheios leaped forward and wrapped his hands around her throat. He squeezed hard enough to cut off oxygen, but not enough to kill. As a dragon, her fire didn’t harm him…couldn’t harm him unless he tried to force her to mate.

Serefina wouldn’t risk teleporting him with her. She needed to reach her daughters ahead of him—alone. But she’d learned a few tricks in the centuries she’d been hiding. In a simultaneous move, she brought her hands up to strike at the back of his thumbs, dislodging his grip from her neck, while at the same time kneeing him hard in the balls.

Pytheios dropped to the ground, clutching his groin, and she sprinted for the door. She didn’t make it more than three steps before he reached out and snagged her by the ankle. Serefina went down hard, slamming her head into a tabletop as she fell. Ears ringing, she turned on her attacker like a feral animal. She kicked him in the face, not that she’d ever damage a dragon’s harder bone structure, but the move surprised him into releasing her.

Serefina scrambled to her feet and rushed outside into the gravel parking lot. In the struggle with Pytheios, she’d lost her fire. She closed her eyes, gathering the necessary force from deep inside. She had seconds at best.

As her enemy’s bellow of frustration sounded from inside the diner, the fire ignited, pouring out of her skin. With another small burst of power and a whisper of resolve, she disappeared.

But not before the long blade of a hurled knife pierced through skin and bone, lodging in her spine with a sickening thud. Agony screamed through her body, even as her legs went horrifyingly numb.

Serefina accepted the pain, let it fuel the fury whipping the blaze inside her, and pictured the small clearing behind the unassuming house where she’d kept her family for the last twenty years. The image formed clearly in her mind—rickety white siding that needed replacing, dirt-covered screens, and the field with its tall, dry grass almost silver in the light of the full moon. Her daughters would be gathering out there now. Waiting for her. Probably terrified.

Using more energy than she’d wanted to expend, she accessed her gift of teleportation and pulled her body from the diner parking lot through the silent darkness of empty space, to appear in that familiar field in less than a heartbeat.

She hit the ground hard, crumpling to her knees, which no longer functioned. The knife had done its job, severing nerves and removing control over her own body. No matter. She could do what she had to do from the ground.

“Mother!” Her daughter Kasia’s voice pierced the sweltering night air.

Serefina raised her head to find all four of her daughters gathered about twenty feet away, their faces pale and stricken.

There wasn’t enough time.

The house where they lived was located only ten miles from the diner. Pytheios would eventually see the fire she was about to unleash, and not be far behind. She had only a few minutes to complete her task, if that.

Serefina focused on her children—grown women now, each as different from the other as the moon from the sun, all a reflection of both their darkly exotic mother, born of the red dragon king and a phoenix, and their blond-haired, pale-blue-eyed white dragon king father.

A cry of agony burst from her lips as she forced the crackling energy inside her to manifest. All around her, the grass burned, tinder to her flames, catching quickly. Her body began to shift, long, gloriously soft feathers bursting from her arms for the first time in her life. It was a bittersweet sight—the one time a phoenix ever turned into the bird was when she passed her powers to her daughter—or daughters, in Serefina’s case—either in death or by choice.

She couldn’t send her babies away without a final message, so she spared another precious ounce of her energy. “I love you all, and I am so proud of you. You are women worthy of our phoenix legacy, but don’t let history control you. Find your own way in this world.”

A colossal roar reverberated across the land behind her. Her daughters ducked, covering their ears. Pytheios, in his true form, lured by the flames, was coming for her.

No time.

She ignored the anguish wracking her body, focusing on what she had to do with all her might. Her last act as a mother was the most important thing she’d ever do on this earth.

Picturing each of the four separate locations she’d predetermined ages ago, Serefina directed her gaze to the youngest of her quadruplets.

Tears streamed down Angelika’s heart-shaped face. Her pale blond hair whipped in the wind. “I love you,” her sweet daughter mouthed. And then, she was gone. Forced to another place, a safer place, by her mother’s will alone.

Serefina’s core trembled, her power depleting exponentially, but she pushed through, focusing next on Meira. More angular and serious, with her bouncy strawberry-blond curls at odds with her personality, she held her body rigidly, dark eyes closed as though unable to watch her mother’s last moments. Another burst of power, another push, and Meira was gone.

Her strength faltering, breath coming in panting bursts, Serefina felt smaller now, lighter, as her bones became hollow. Most of her had completed the shift, but she didn’t care about that. She refused to succumb to the dark spots dancing before her eyes.

Skylar came next. Her midnight hair, so like Serefina’s own, hung in a long braid over her shoulder. Even from here, those glacial blue eyes, her father’s eyes, so filled with defiance, pierced Serefina’s heart. Again, she focused her resolve and her waning control, and Skylar disappeared.

Flames poured off Serefina’s body, raising her dark curls around her head and eating up every inch of the land around her. The one tree in their yard exploded with a thunderous clash of sound and light as it ignited. Divergent with the blaze, a deep cold ached in Serefina’s bones, spreading insidiously through her body from within.

Did she have enough fire left in her? Enough for one final act?

Kasia stood before her, calm and steady. Dark red hair waved around her, lit with gold from the flames that crept nearer and nearer to her, but not yet licking at her feet.

Serefina looked closer. Was that fire in her child’s eyes? Was the power of the phoenix already passing from mother to child? Serefina knew she had mere moments until her body would be consumed by her own flames. She had to get Kasia away before that happened, or Pytheios would take her.

The blistering flames around her swayed and danced as a draft of wind pushed down from above, and the shadow of a massive beast high overhead loomed.

Pytheios.

Had he seen all four of her daughters? A crimson claw reached for Kasia, who dove for the ground. Her brave girl didn’t even scream, instead looking to her mother, waiting for the deliverance she trusted would come.

Serefina reached out to Kasia, her hand now a wing of deep red and gold feathers, and shoved every last ounce of the raging storm inside her at her daughter, and, with iron will forged in fire and pain, she sent her child far away from the monster above her, to a safer place.

Finally, she could let go. Let death consume her, sending her home. To rest. To peace. To Zilant.

The furious roar of the dragon was the last thing Serefina heard as her body disintegrated to ash, starting at the tips of her wings and working toward her center, the fine powder drifting away in the wind.

 

CHAPTER 1

Brand pulled his 1970 Plymouth Hemi Cuda into the empty parking lot and rolled into the space nearest the frosted glass door sporting a tiny sign. Medical Services.

Right place. The fact that it appeared deserted didn’t faze him, not for this kind of facility. With a flick of the key, he cut off the deep rumble of the souped-up classic car’s engine but didn’t get out immediately.

“Why the hell am I here?” he muttered under his breath.

The fifth place he’d been sent in the last year looking for gods knew what. He’d just come from the latest dead end with the Huracan Hotshot Crew in California. The Blood King was searching for a woman. That’s all Brand had pieced together at this point, though suspicion had started to itch at him.

He pulled out the satellite phone he carried with him when working for the king and punched in the private number he never stored in the device’s memory, just his own. Immediately a low male voice answered.

“Have you met her?” came the immediate question. No intro or greeting necessary. The man on the other end already knew who he was and why he was calling.

“No. I’m parked outside.” And this is a colossal waste of my fucking time.

He’d traveled halfway around the world on a goose chase for something that didn’t exist. Brand kept that last bit to himself. Ladon Ormar wouldn’t appreciate having his obsessive quest questioned again. Not that he’d rip Brand’s insides out next time they crossed paths or anything, but Brand needed the other dragon to stay on his side. Serving as a mercenary for Ladon, the Blood King of the Blue Dragon Clan, doing every job no one else would take, was all for a purpose—survival and revenge.

Ladon was a major key to a plan centuries in the making—one that involved killing Uther, the King of the Gold Clan. Something that had turned out to be a lot tougher than Brand had ever expected, so Brand had no intention of pissing off his only ally.

“Call me when you’ve seen her.”

Click.

Brand stared at his cell and held back his irritation with effort. Looked like Ladon had zero intention of letting this fixation go.

Fine. He’d get this over with, get paid regardless, and move on to trying to figure out how to get to Uther before he died of old age.

Brand swung himself out of the car and stalked into the facility.

And immediately froze.

Smoke. The noticeable scent of it hung heavy in the halls of the private medical clinic tucked discreetly into a series of warehouses in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The campfire aroma had a sweet undercurrent, sort of chocolaty, and was strong enough to mask the antiseptic smell that inundated most medical facilities.

Brand stopped inside the doors and studied the flavor of the odor, letting it wash over his senses of smell and taste, trying to identify the source. Only a handful of creatures dealt in fire. A dragon shifter himself, he should be able to easily identify this one.

The fact that he couldn’t pinpoint a species landed on the “pay attention” scale of his give-a-shit-o-meter.

That small suspicion that had been creeping up on him grew deeper roots.

Brand controlled his reaction, determined to give no outward sign of his tension. He’d trained himself long ago to never respond so others could see. Reaction was weakness that could be exploited, and weakness for a rogue dragon meant certain death.

Instead, he walked up to the receptionist, a woman who gave a low growl deep in her throat. Polar bear shifter. He’d expected no less at this clinic. From what he understood after checking this place out, Dr. Oppenheim dealt only with special cases. Supernatural medical needs. Having reinforcement in the front office in the form of a large predator shifter was only smart.

The polar bear wouldn’t have been able to help the growl or the way her canines elongated in her mouth. Predators didn’t like it when more dangerous predators showed up. Dragons were as dangerous as anything supernatural got, and they didn’t play nice with others.

Strike that. They didn’t play. Period.

Brand ignored the growled warning. He’d already sized her up in one glance. This woman was an alpha and unmated, which could make her dangerous. Good thing he didn’t care.

He whipped out the credentials he used in situations like these. “My name is Brand Astarot. I’m a private investigator.”

The lie about his job tripped easily off his tongue. He’d been using the P.I. cover for his own purposes for a long time. It tended to open doors faster, or at least give him a reason to be in unusual locations and circumstances. “Dr. Oppenheim should be expecting me.”

The bear shifter took a moment to force her teeth back to human size. “My apologies, Mr. Astarot,” she murmured. “We don’t get much traffic during daylight hours.”

Not completely at ease, she eyed his form, taking in his six-foot-five, muscled frame, the breadth of his shoulders, her gaze finally dropping to his right hand.

Every dragon shifter sported a brand signifying the clan and king he owed allegiance to—Blue, Gold, Red, White, Green, or Black. Even in the Americas, supernaturals knew to check.

Brand had no such mark on his hand. Which left only one option—he was a rogue dragon, abandoned or exiled by his people, or one who’d deliberately left his clan.

A rogue who hadn’t already been hunted down and killed by his own kind tended to be batshit crazy and unpredictable with it. Crazy wasn’t his style.

Yet.

But the receptionist didn’t know that, and the general perception was a tool he relied on to stay alive.

“We don’t get many dragons in here, either,” she finally said.

Reading between the lines, and knowing his extremely secretive people, he doubted this clinic got any. Dragons had their own healers. “I understand.”

She nodded, then picked up the phone. “Dr. Oppenheim? A private investigator named Mr. Astarot has arrived. Shall I have him go on back?”

After a long silence, a calm voice answered. “I’ve been expecting him. However, our patient is about to supernova again.”

Supernova?

Dr. Oppenheim continued. “I guess if he’s investigating her, he’d better see what he’s dealing with.”

Even the shifter grimaced. She hit the button to hang up and pointed at a set of double doors to her right. “Through there. End of the hall.”

Brand paused at the doors. “What does supernova mean in this context?”

She grimaced again. “Let’s just say we’re lucky we have a fireproof room, or we would’ve burned down twice in the last month.”

Fire. The same symptom he’d been tracking all over the damn planet. Brand couldn’t see Ladon bothering with any of the lesser fire creatures, and he was too smart to mess with a hellhound. He’d initially assumed Ladon was searching for a dragon mate. A queen would stop the aging process for the king, as well as help solidify his claim to the throne. As a new king, Ladon could use all the support he could get.

But no. The scent mingling in the smoke wasn’t dragon. This was something…different. And if his suspicions were right, something impossible.

Adrenaline-fueled curiosity mixed with a certain amount of dread as Brand made his way down the long corridor. About the length of a football field, the walls were painted white, matching the white tile floors, all illuminated by overhead lights that gave off a low buzz that aggravated his sensitive hearing and cast a bluish hue over everything.

He passed several doors with various labels. Normal ones like exam rooms and surgery. A few not-so-normal ones. He held in a sneer as he passed a room geared toward newly made werewolves—no windows, dragonsteel bars that he’d bet were electrified, magically warded, or both. Not that a dragon’s first time shifting was any easier, but they had their own facilities for that.

He reached the end of the hall just as a woman with dark gray hair tipped in neon green stepped out of a room. She wore a white lab coat, so, he figured this had to be the doctor.

“Mr. Astarot?” She held out her hand, which he grasped as he nodded. “I’m Dr. Oppenheim. Mariska has been under my care for the last five weeks or so.”

Mariska? Sounded Russian. A good place to hide if she was what he suspected.

Brand tucked a spurt of uneasiness behind a poker face that never lost him a game. “All I’ve been told is to come see this woman.”

“We didn’t want to discuss particulars over the phone, in case someone was…listening in.”

Brand narrowed his eyes, taking in the slightly too eager light in the doctor’s eyes. His experience dealing with liars and manipulators lit up a warning with big red lights. He’d bet his hefty fee for this job that this Oppenheim person knew what her patient was already.

Did that mean Ladon knew, too? “Can you give me the particulars now?”

Her green-tipped hair swayed as she nodded. “She’s almost at the end of another bout. I think you should witness the worst of her symptoms. Then we can talk.”

At that, Dr. Oppenheim turned and hit a button beside the door. The entire wall was instantly rendered see-through, like glass, and Brand got his first view of the reason he was here. Sort of.

A woman huddled on the floor in the middle of the room with her back to him, naked, her body consumed by angry red flames that sparked at the tips.

“We had to remove all the furniture, because when she goes, she melts everything but the walls, which are magically warded to withstand even dragon fire.” The doctor sent him a significant glance, which meant she knew what he was, though he had yet to identify her species. Some kind of healer, possibly a minor deity or demigod with the ability?

Suddenly, the woman on the other side of the glass clutched her stomach and moaned, low and long. An answering pain radiated through Brand’s body.

What the fuck?

He swallowed back a groan. “Is she hurt?”

The doctor flicked him another glance. “You could say that. She experiences episodes that start with a loss of vision, followed by discomfort, which builds to what she describes as a full-body migraine at the height of the fire.”

Brand nodded, even as his thoughts spun.

No dragon or any other fire creature he knew of suffered when they loosed their fire or shifted. And why the hell had her moan affected him, the painful burn spreading deep into his bones?

Brand breathed in, steadying himself. He possessed a massive level of self-control thanks to the power of kings that flowed through his blood. He was the only one left from his bloodline, but the authority of his ancestors still filled his veins. He sought that control now, having to reach for it, struggle to find it.

As he watched, the fire pouring off Mariska’s body grew, crawling over the floor and up the walls almost as though it were alive. She crumpled to the ground, curling into a ball. At the same time, a series of keening sounds burst from her.

His control slipped another notch as pain pulsed through him, stronger than before. On the edge of something sharper, but not quite there. Brand slammed his hand on the wall and leaned into the pain. In the same instant, instinct dragged at him. He needed to be in that room to… Fucking hell. He didn’t know what. Help her? Instinct screamed at him to help her.

“Mr. Astarot?” Dr. Oppenheim’s concerned tones barely penetrated the haze that had taken over his body. Brand couldn’t tear his gaze from the woman separated from him by a wall.

She trembled now, body visibly tensing and releasing. Low moans tumbled from her lips and slid down his spine like electric shocks.

“Why does it take so long?” he groaned around his own escalating situation.

“We don’t know.” The doctor put a hand on his arm. “But I’m more concerned about you right now.”

Instinct chose that instant to take over every cell of his body. He needed to be in that room. Now. He shook the doctor off.

“Step back,” he growled, his voice already dark and smoky, even though he wasn’t shifting.

“Wait!” Dr. Oppenheim yelled.

But she was too late. Brand burst into the room and ran at the woman sprawled in the middle of the floor. He dropped to his knees in front of her. “Let me help you.”

She jerked back. Her eyes, blazing with flame to the point he couldn’t see their color, darted around as if she were searching for him in the dark. Right, she couldn’t see. Her mouth dropped open, but he couldn’t tell if it was from fear of him or from panting through what looked like waves of razor-edged agony. He knew the feeling.

“I know I can help you.” He had no idea how he knew, but he did. “Will you let me try?”

She sucked in, a sharp hiss, her face contorting. Then she nodded, wincing as if even that small movement was unbearable.

Urgency moved him around behind her where he dropped to his knees, banding an arm around her waist and pulling her up and against him, his thighs bracketing hers. The softness of her bare skin registered in his fogged mind, and the edge of his own pain dulled.

Interesting…

Flames licked at his body, the heat intensifying. Thankfully, his control of fire kept her from burning off his clothes. Maybe he could try to contain her fire? He sensed her need for more touch, needing it, too, but didn’t want to take advantage.

“I’ve got you,” he whispered in her ear.

He ran a hand down her arm, and she sighed, seeming to ease, if only a fraction, at his touch.

Then she clenched as another pulse shot through her—he knew because an answering pulse shot through him—and she dropped her head back against his shoulder. A scream that pierced his heart poured from her lips, and the fire burst around them before he could get a handle on it, the reverberation of the explosion ringing in his ears, the power behind it shaking him.

Then, before he could process what was happening, the flames sucked back into her body, a river of angry color disappearing into her skin, like water down a drain, swirling around them both, until all that was left were the two of them in a room gone deadly quiet.

The pain in his body evaporated, leaving behind only a dull ache. Meanwhile, her skin glowed, like a white-hot poker just removed from the kiln.

What the hell just happened?

He glanced down into her face and registered how the woman in his arms was beautiful in a way that snatched the breath from his lungs—long red hair spilled over his arm. Delicate features, exotically slanted eyes, eminently kissable mouth. She reminded him of a tiny bird. One who needed protecting from the world. Who might snap if he held her too tight.

And glowing, like an angel.

“Fuck me,” Brand spat. Mariska—and he doubted that was her real name—was a phoenix. A creature destined to mate a dragon king, making him the High King of the dragon clans, and, according to legend, bringing peace to their kind.

Total crap in his opinion, and not Brand’s primary concern.

This was why Ladon had sent him, because he knew Brand was the only dragon who’d bring her back to him. Because Brand needed Ladon more than he’d need a phoenix. Being a rogue no longer scared him—he knew how to survive that way indefinitely—but he did need the power of a clan behind him in order to take out Uther. He’d waited centuries to kill the King of the Gold Clan.

Giving this phoenix to Ladon would open that door.

The woman in his arms stirred, eyelids fluttering open to reveal eyes so pale blue they reminded him of blues found deep in glacier ice. Eyes like a white dragon. Hypnotic.

“You,” she croaked.

The lingering dull ache disappeared as an unaccustomed stomach-clenching sensation of trepidation sank to the bottom of his gut. “You know me?”

She gave a trembling smile. “That was a damn idiotic thing to do, you ass. I could’ve killed you.”

Then she went limp in his arms.

***

He’s real.

Kasia’s first thought as she pulled herself out of a deep and dreamless sleep was for the man… The man she’d seen in almost every vision she experienced when she went up in flames. A year of seeing his face with more and more frequency. A year of not knowing his name or who he was. A year of hiding and waiting in total isolation since her mother sacrificed her life.

Now she’d finally met him.

While in the midst of what she could only describe as an almighty full-body migraine, blind and incapacitated with pain…and naked as a newborn. That had to have made quite an impression.

The sensation that came with her visions, that seemed to be tied to them, like a physical manifestation of the intense power being released inside her, was something she couldn’t control, or stop, or even ignore. Almost like unlocking the visions in her head required peeling back her physical self to let the magic loose. No sight, to clear the way for her mind’s eye, followed by the anguish of being stripped raw, turned her body into an open gateway.

You’d think the fire would be enough, but apparently not.

He’d held her through it all, his surprisingly gentle touch both soothing her pain and bringing her to the end of her tussle with fire much faster than she could’ve done on her own.

Leaving me lying naked in his arms.

The heat of a rare blush crept up her chest and neck and into her face. Then, as the lethargy of exhaustion receded more, realization struck hard. No way should he have been able to survive her fire. Who the hell, or more specifically what the hell, was he? And could she trust him? Or did she need to run?

“How are you feeling?” The deep tones of a smooth male voice washed over her. He had an accent she couldn’t quite place—not quite American, not quite British.

A small part of her mind hummed in appreciation. She liked his voice, which reminded her of bottomless pools of water in a cave. Dark. Sinfully beautiful. Her visions were silent, so until today, she’d never heard him speak.

Stop stalling, she told herself sternly. Face the man.

After all, he’d done a bang-up job helping her through that vision, though how was a mystery.

Kasia stifled a miserably embarrassed groan. Slowly, she forced open her eyes, noting the darkened sky outside the window. How long had she been out? Obviously, they’d moved her to her usual room while she was unconscious. Dressed her, too, thankfully. A hospital gown, but that was better than naked, which was how she always ended up.

Finally, she moved her gaze to the man seated in the chair beside her bed. Despite seeing images of him, she still had to swallow around a suddenly dry throat at the man in the flesh. His face was all hard angles with surprisingly sensual lips that kept him off the edge of too hard. In combination with dark-blond hair that brushed his collar, and an unusual golden-eyed gaze pinned on her now, he gave off a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude that couldn’t be missed.

He wore what she’d come to think of as his standard uniform—jeans, black T-shirt, probably those steel-toed boots he wore in every vision. An aura of control practically rolled off him, clotting the air and swamping her senses. Of their own accord, her eyes dropped to the tattoo on his arm, the pine trees around his wrist in clearer detail here than in her visions. If her body wasn’t still wrung out, she’d be tingling all over by now.

He stared back steadily, as if waiting for her to make the first move.

Kasia grabbed the remote for her hospital bed and raised the head so she could address him more upright. Anything to lessen the disadvantage she was already starting with where he was concerned.

“Who are you?” she asked, keeping her gaze steady on his, trying to project a calm she was far from feeling. As always, her voice came out scratchy following the fire, and she swallowed around her sore throat.

He raised his eyebrows. “You tell me. You recognized me in there.”

Kasia shrugged. “I don’t know. Not really.”

“But you know me.” Not a question, and a tone that indicated zero tolerance for stalling.

She sighed. “Yes. Sort of.” She quickly considered how much to tell him. “I have visions.”

His brows scrunched over his eyes. “Visions? The doctor didn’t mention anything like that.”

She flicked a glance at the door. “Probably because I didn’t tell her. When the pain comes and I light on fire, I see things. Glimpses, mostly. Nothing makes sense, and I can’t hear.”

That intent stare narrowed, hardened. “And you’ve seen me in these visions?”

She fought back a shiver. Guess he didn’t like that little fact. Too late now. “Yes.”

He thought about that, and she waited him out. Eventually, he crossed his arms, the muscles stretching the limits of his T-shirt and drawing her gaze again to the tattoo on his arm. Curiosity peaked. Maybe now she’d get to see the rest of it? She’d wondered…

“My name is Brand Astarot.”

Brand. Uncompromising. The name suited him.

His frown deepened. “Dr. Oppenheim thought I might be able to help you figure out who and what you are.”

Why did she get the impression that he wasn’t comfortable with that statement, like a suit that didn’t fit him quite right? Was he lying about why he was here? If he was, why?

“I see.” She eyed him closely. He hadn’t stated what his specific job was in that introduction. Something she found concerning. “Is that all you are?” She’d learned to ask the question lately, though certain species were more sensitive than others at being quizzed about their origin.

Not Brand. His expression didn’t so much as twitch. “I’m a dragon shifter.”

Panic slammed through Kasia so hard she would’ve swayed if she’d been standing. To hide her shaking hands, she clutched the blanket, pulling it up around her as if she were cold.

Damn. Damn. Double damn.

The scent of fire in the room made more sense now. She’d assumed the lingering odor to be her own, a remnant from her fiery vision, but it had a woodsier, earthier undertone to it, not sweet like hers.

Why didn’t I see this coming?

Despite wanting to hyperventilate, she did her best to keep her reaction under wraps, deliberately relaxing back against the pillows like she thought his being a dragon was a good thing, and not the most terrifying answer he could have given her. “Makes sense with the fire, I guess.”

She glanced away, plucking at the front string from her gown as she stalled for time to think, to formulate some kind of plan. She had to figure out how to get him out of here without suspecting anything, then she could disappear.

Kasia cleared her throat. “So how does this work?”

Brand rooted around in a well-used backpack she hadn’t even noticed on the tiled floor beside him. He pulled out a tablet and pushed a button to turn it on. “We start at the beginning, and I decide where we go from there.”

Fan-freaking-tastic. Another round of lies.

She’d already given a false name and a false history. After a year of hiding in a cabin buried in the wilderness of Alaska, not being able to control her fire, she’d come here in a desperate attempt to get help. Horrible idea. It had just landed her with one of the bad guys.

Except her visions told her otherwise. If she went on only what she’d seen in those flashes, Kasia would have trusted Brand without hesitation. The memory of how he felt earlier, arm around her, solid chest pressed against her back, his hands on her, touching her without actually touching her, threatened to take away all her logic and experience, which screamed at her to run fast and far away from this man.

Which version of Brand was real?

Kasia rolled her shoulders. “Didn’t you already get this info from Dr. Oppenheim?”

He lifted his head, intense gaze back on her, making her want to shift in the bed. “Are you going to be difficult?”

Was that…teasing…in those dark-gold eyes of his? Awareness prickled through her until she slammed on the mental and hormonal brakes.

What the hell was she thinking? Brand was as perilous as it came in relation to what she was. She had more important things than inconvenient, unwanted attraction to deal with right now. She needed to focus on escaping. “That depends.”

Her edginess made her snippier than she meant to be, and the barely there twinkle disappeared behind a scowl. “I’m here to help you.”

Kasia scrubbed a hand over her face. “Sorry.” She dropped her hand to her lap. “But what I need is a doctor to help me figure out how to control my visions and everything that comes with them. Unless you have some mysterious magical cure, I don’t see what you can do.”

He leaned back, expression showing he was clearly unimpressed. Immovable. “They can’t help you until they know what you are.”

Shoot.

She’d lied about not knowing what she was in the hopes that the clinic wouldn’t need the info. She couldn’t very well tell them she was a phoenix when her mother was supposed to have been the last, and most believed her dead for centuries. Pytheios had seen her that awful night, though, had tried to scoop her up. So at least he knew of her existence.

Was Brand here on Pytheios’s behalf?

She needed to get him out of there, and fast. Sticking to her original lies was her best bet. “What questions do you have?” she huffed.

Thankfully, he let her rudeness go, and got straight to it. “Your name is Mariska?”

“Umm…yeah.”

He glanced up from the tablet. Despite his blanked-out expression, she got the impression he wanted to shake her. “You really want to start out by lying to me?”

She stared back, unspeaking, mind spinning.

“I’m trying to help you,” he pointed out again.

She pursed her lips, then sighed. “My name is Kasia.”

“Last name?”

“Not important.” Not worth the risk of stating it in case he recognized the name and connected it to her royal bloodline.

“How long has this been going on?”

Kasia, already having answered these questions for every healer and doctor this clinic had brought in, rattled off the dates easily enough. “Everything started September eighteenth of last year. At first the fire was small. Just my hand or my fingertips. With those, the visions were quick, a flash. The longer the flames last, the longer the vision.”

“And the pain?”

“Similar to the fire—smaller vision means less pain,” Like less of her had to clear out of the way. “Though I still lose my sight, like a warning.”

He took notes using a stylus to write on his tablet, making no comments. “When did it start getting worse?”

“About six weeks ago. Luckily, I was at a lake, so I was able to control it with the water.” Burning down her hideaway in the Alaskan wilderness would’ve sucked.

“How’d you end up here?”

Kasia had to tread this one carefully. “My mother told me about this place.”

He glanced up at that. “How did she know?”

“She was a shifter.” Of a sort. Not a total lie.

His eyebrows popped up. “What kind?”

Kasia tipped up her chin. “A bird.” Close enough.

Another penetrating stare landed on her. Kasia tried not to fidget, holding his gaze with effort, feeling like a schoolgirl caught telling tales.

“Lying again?” he asked.

Was Brand clairvoyant, or did he already suspect what she was? Phoenix were exceptionally rare and not the only fire creatures out there. Kasia concentrated on keeping her breathing slow and even, despite the way her heart was jumping around inside her chest like a dang jackrabbit, adrenalin and fear dueling within her.

“My mother’s dead.”

God, it hurt saying that truth out loud. Her mother was dead. She and her sisters scattered to the winds, never to see one another again. Kasia was completely alone in the world, her only goal to remain hidden. That was, if she could get this freaking fire thing under control. Her mother may have tried to train them before they came into their powers, but she’d said nothing about explosive fireballs and the sensations that came along with them. Meanwhile, only a year on her own and she’d already walked right into the hands of the enemy. How had her mother hidden them for over five hundred years?

“I’m sorry,” Brand said.

She doubted that.

“Tell me more about the vision you had in the lake. Did you see anything particular?”

Interesting. He was the first to ask that. Would it hurt to tell him?

Kasia plucked at that drawstring again. “I saw caverns. All gray rock. Eyes reflecting in the dark, in the back of the caves. You were standing next to me, and we were talking to another man.”

Brand didn’t move, didn’t glance up, but still seemed to move closer. “What did he look like?”

“Dark hair. Blue eyes. Intense… Oh! And a scar running down the left side of his face.” She shivered. There’d been a chill in that other man’s eyes that struck her to the bone. She got the impression he wasn’t someone you wanted as an enemy. “Similar build to yours, maybe a bit shorter and leaner, and he wore a tailored suit.” She particularly remembered that, as it had seemed an odd choice of fashion for a cave.

Brand stopped writing, but he still didn’t look up. “Got it.” He went back to making his notes. “Other family?”

She glanced away, looking anywhere but at his hand. The one without a brand.

Come to think of it, in every vision, and even now, he wore his hair on the longer side. To cover the mark of his family at the nape of his neck? Regardless, the man was a rogue.

Shit. Much worse than she’d thought.

“What?” she asked when she caught his stare.

“Your family?”

“No. Grandparents on both sides died before I was born.” Pytheios made sure of that. “My parents were only children as far as I know. Both dead. It’s just me left.”

She was proud she didn’t hesitate over that last statement. She may have screwed herself by landing in this situation, but no way would she ever give up her sisters or put them at risk.

“Okay. That doesn’t give me much to go on tracing your family. I’ll need any records you can provide. Birth certificates, pictures, official documents.”

Kasia winced. “That’ll be a bit of a problem.”

“Why?”

“Everything was destroyed in a fire when I was five.” A lie her mother had told the humans whenever they started requiring that kind of proof—be it for travel, driver’s licenses, school records, or whatnot—faking their lives as normal people.

At that Brand put his tablet down to stare at her. “You’re telling me you have no information on your background and family history.”

“Yes. I’m sure that makes your job harder.”

He snorted an unamused laugh. “More like damn near impossible.”

Kasia pretended to be disappointed, drooping back against the bed. Now if she could get him to leave. “Well…thanks for coming anyway, Mr. Astarot.”

“Brand. And I’m not leaving. Not yet, at least.”

She turned her head to look at him. “But you just said—”

“Your situation makes any normal human means of investigating your background pretty useless. However, I happen to have access to several supernatural methods.”

Dammit. “So, there’s hope of finding out what I am?” She continued to play out her role of not knowing until she could get the dragon shifter out of here.

He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and she got the impression he was…amused. “I’m not giving up on you yet.”

Why did it feel as though his words carried a double meaning? She attempted a smile that she hoped appeared appropriately grateful, or whatever. “So, I’ll hang out here, exploding every so often, until you get back?”

Best news she’d had all day. He’d leave, and she could disappear.

“Nope.”

She jerked her gaze to his. “Nope?”

He shook his head. “I’m certain I can contain your fire if or when you…explode…next.”

Was that a secret grin? Better not be.

“So…I’m coming with you?” she asked slowly.

He stood, stuffing his tablet into his backpack. “Get some sleep. We’ll leave in the morning. Better to travel in the daylight.”

Kasia blew out a long, silent breath of relief. Regardless of how short the absence, he’d still leave. She just had to play this out until he did.

Brand stood and slung his backpack over one shoulder. When he made to walk away, she put a hand on his arm, surprised when his muscles bunched under her touch. Even more surprised when her wrung-out body warmed at the contact.

She swallowed. “What time?”

He stared at her hand still gripping his arm. “I’ll be back at six a.m.”

Had his voice roughened?

He pulled away from her grasp then almost seemed to relax, shoulders dropping a hair. The guy appeared to have a serious issue with touching. He glanced at her hospital gown. “You might want to wear something else.”

Never had she been so aware that she was naked beneath the flimsy material. She had to keep herself from glancing down to see if her nipples were visibly beading. “Right.”

That wouldn’t be his problem, because when he came back tomorrow, she’d be a ghost…long gone and far away from there.

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