The Enforcer (Fire’s Edge #3) – Chapter 1 Excerpt

PROLOGUE

TheEnforcer-500Fire raged below Drake in glowing streaks across the greens and tans of the California countryside, black smoke billowing into the blue skies. The heat couldn’t reach him here where he hovered, a useless observer thanks to daylight hours. Damn his blood-red scales that made it impossible to not be discovered when closer to the ground. At least the scales on his underside reflected the sky above him, allowing him to camouflage this high up. As every dragon shifter could do.

From this vantage point, he could see the human hotshot crews scrambling to gouge a perimeter in the earth around the wildland fire. Using various tools, men cut away trees and shrubs and grasses, anything that could be used as fuel, encircling the fire and trying to contain it. Above them, their planes buzzed by at lower altitudes than where Drake had positioned himself. A few dropped smoke jumpers, but mostly the purpose was to dump water and fire suppressants over the blaze in strategic swaths.

Drake’s team of enforcers were there, too. Upholding the laws of the kings and clans was only part of the Huracán team’s job here in the colonies. Hiding evidence of dragon-shifter-caused fires, like this one, was just as important. Maybe more so.

They worked in the center of the inferno, a spot chosen strategically, where humans couldn’t sight them. From there, they labored steadily, pulling the towering flames into their bodies, absorbing them through their scales, as only enforcers had been specially trained to do.

Papá.” The piercing cry of a woman reached his ears, even this high, thanks to the honed senses of a dragon shifter.

Drake zeroed in on the source of that cry, his enhanced vision catching on the small movement of several humans near what appeared to be a property with several structures. A ranch most likely.

Several humans appeared to be running around randomly, chasing smaller animals and trying to herd them into the back of a truck.

Idiots. Did they not realize the danger they were facing? Couldn’t they see the billowing smoke rising above the trees and growing closer? Hear the crackle of oncoming flame?

Leave the damn animals, he silently urged.

Assessing their location and closeness of the blaze, he knew they were already too late. The direction of the wind and how fast the fire was eating its way across the earth, already converging on the one road he could locate anywhere near the homestead, spelled doom for all in its path. Cold dread settled in his stomach, not setting well with the irritation flaring at their obvious stupidity.

These humans wouldn’t make it out alive. Not in time.

“Boss, I’m seeing a home in trouble.” Drake used the telepathic link all shifters could access when in their animal form to relay the information to his Alpha who was working on the ground, opening that magical channel so all the team could hear as well.

“Are humans involved?” Finn asked.

“Five that I can see, and the fire’s closing in fast. They have no escape route.”

“Who’s closest?”

Drake shifted his gaze to where his team worked, then gave a frustrated grunt. “Me. If any one of you comes off the line right now, we go back to square one. The winds are too high.”

“You know what to do.” Which meant Drake should save them, then wipe their memories. “And don’t get seen.”

“Yes, boss.”

Drake tipped his wings, setting his body into a spiraling dive, then angled his neck to focus on his location.

Fuck.

The fire was getting closer, moving even faster than he’d thought. If he didn’t haul ass, he wasn’t going to get to them in time.

He pulled out of the spiral and pinned his wings back, against his body, stretching out, long and lean to cut down on wind resistance.

At the same time, he did his best to keep his belly facing toward the fire, and the multitude of humans working it. Saving one bunch of humans while getting caught by another group would be a rookie mistake. One he didn’t intend to make. Though, at the speed he was moving, the scales on his belly would likely be rippling with color, unable to keep up with the transition.

He homed in on the family below him. The humans had given up chasing down the small animals.

Goats. They’re risking their short lives for fucking goats?

Maybe he should let the fire have them. Cull the herd of stupidity, so to speak. Despite the thought, something inside him urged him forward. Besides, he was under orders.

The five on the ground could see the flames now.

“Cami!” an older man shouted, urgency and fear giving the words an angry burr, like a swarm of bees whose hive had been knocked down. He was obviously yelling at the woman who was still going after two of the animals not yet rounded up. After one last raw look, the sorrow in her expression scraping along Drake’s nerves, she gave up and switched directions, sprinting for a large pickup truck where the others waited.

Not that leaving now would help them. However, it did get them all in one place, which helped Drake.

The heat of the fire cranked up a notch or ten, driving his actions. Drake pushed his body harder, faster, ignoring the warning tingle spreading from his right arm and down his spine. Shit.

I’m not even a thousand yet. Without a mate to arrest the process, dragons started aging more rapidly when they hit the millennium mark. Apparently he’d gotten lucky enough to get the early onset version of that crap.

Fortunately, despite the disease eating away at him from the inside, his body hadn’t given up on him yet and he couldn’t let up, or these people would die.

The truck took off, taillights swerving back and forth in the smoke as it fishtailed, tires kicking up the rough gravel of the track leading from the buildings to the road.

They’re not going to make it.

The fire was on top of their truck, cutting off their escape route, licking at the sides like a predator toying with its food. The chemical smell of melting tires filled Drake’s nostrils even as the terrified screams of the humans inside the truck pinged against the insides of his ears.

Almost there.

But he had to slow down or he’d crush the truck and end the humans he was trying to save with the impact. He threw his wings out wide, except his right arm was slower to move, as though he had no command over the limb. The imbalance tossed him into a sharp turn, but he managed to force that wing out and steady himself, then tilted his body back, catching the scorching wind with his wings as the ground rushed up at him.

The tiny sound of a bleat reached his ears, and he zeroed in on the sound. A baby goat standing at the edge of the fire. The animal the woman must’ve been trying to save.

In a split second Drake argued with himself—save the goat and then the humans or leave the goat for the fire. His practical side lost the argument.

The goat was in his path. Dammit.

He dipped on his way past, trees closing in on him, grabbing at the tips of his wings as he forced his way through, and snatched the little creature in one taloned claw, barely able to hold such a small thing given his own size. In the same instant, he realized that the animal was bleating at what must have been its mother. A charred body lay on the ground already consumed by the flames, the stench of death and burnt fur filling Drake’s nostrils.

Drake held on to the wriggling animal and went for the truck next. Except the move to grab the goat had slowed his speed almost too much. Stupid ass mistake. What if saving the animal had just killed those humans?

The flames were all around them now, having hopped the gravel road to the trees bordering the other side. He’d have to come down on top of them.

Drake flared his wings, managed to drop the small goat in the bed of the truck beside a wire pen of more goats that took up most of the back, then reached out with his hind claws and grasped the truck by the sides of the bed before slamming down over the top, covering them all—truck, humans, and goats—with his body.

“What the hell is that?” the woman’s voice demanded over the terrified shouts of the others in the car.

Es un arbol,” someone yelled. A younger man, by the sound. As long as he’d lived in this country, and with many Spanish speaking rulers in this area over those years, Drake understood the language well.

“No. It’s not a tree,” he could hear the woman answer in English. “It’s…something else.”

So much for not being seen.

The truck’s tires spun, making it difficult to keep his grip, as whoever was behind the wheel hit the gas. At the same time, the driver lay on the horn, the sound blaring through Drake. He winced, even as he had to admit to being impressed. Most humans would be screaming, like the others with her, or passed out in fright, regardless of whether they realized what they were dealing with or not.

Drake tightened his grip—not the easiest thing on metal that slid against the razor tips of his talons—and concentrated on backing the flames off so he could fly them out of there. First, he dragged at the fire, drawing the flames into him through his scales, careful to protect the more vulnerable membranes of his wings, folding them in close to his body. After a second, the flames nearest him reduced in size and backed away, almost like a small creature cowering away in fear.

As the roar of the blaze around him diminished with the retreat of the fire, the sound of a truck door opening and closing reached him. He managed to get his wing out of the way in time before the person caught part of it in the door.

“Get off us,” that same woman yelled.

A small, swift point of pressure on one of the scales covering his left ribs followed by an expletive told him she’d actually tried to kick him.

That had to hurt. Her, not him. His scales were like a living armor. She had spunk, that was for sure. Or was pretty damn stupid. Granted, she was underneath him, but any intelligent person would not attack a dragon.

“I’m trying to help you.” He shot the thought to her, and only her, telepathically.

A hole of shocked silence only lasted a few seconds, then she kicked him again. “Like hell.”

Who was this woman? Idiotic time to be impressed.

He ignored her and returned his focus to the fire. As the flames moved back, he followed, crawling off the truck, creating a wide swath of scorched earth around them, smoke rising from the ashes in curling dark gray tendrils. Once he was satisfied that he could let up and the fire couldn’t get to them, he crawled back.

The humans in the truck stared at him with pale faces, their screams silenced by a fear that stole their voices.

“Cami. Get back in the truck.” The same man who’d yelled at her earlier was yelling again, desperately trying to open his own door, but the metal on that side had melted, welding it shut.

The woman, however, planted herself between him and them. “I won’t let you hurt my family.”

“I don’t have time for this shit.”

He unfurled his wings, and her eyes grew wide, then with one strong down stroke, he lifted into the air. He snatched her up with a front talon, and she went berserk in his grasp, fighting him like a wild animal not ready to give up an ounce of its life.

He held on to her as he landed on the truck, grasping it as best he could with his three remaining claws, the metal screeching a terrible protest as his sharp talons found purchase.

With forceful beats of his wings, he lifted them all into the air. The humans cries of alarm mixed with the frantic bleating of the goats in the crate in the back. But nothing came close to the woman still thrashing in his grasp, still fighting for all she was worth.

“Stop that.” He squeezed enough to make it a warning. “I’m trying to save your damn life.”

“Yeah, right. You probably started the fire and are taking us away to eat us.” If anything, she fought harder.

“Keep that up, and I’ll drop you,” he warned. He let her hear, by the tone of his voice, that he wouldn’t care either way.

Except something pinched in the region of his heart. As though a small string were bound to that organ, lassoed around it, and that statement had given the string a sharp tug. Almost like a warning.

Finally, he got them far enough away that he judged he could safely leave them alone. On a road no less, though their truck, with its melted tires and one working door would be worthless. At least they could be found or make their way to civilization from here.

He set down as gently as he could, the truck rocking violently and the suspension squealing and groaning with the impact regardless. With another downstroke of his wings, he released and lifted himself in the air, gliding farther away to land and release the crazy woman as well.

Immediately she ran to the truck to check on what was apparently her family. As soon as she could see they were safe, she spun to face him, eyeing him warily.

And Drake finally paid attention. Dark hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, streaks of ash across her face and clothes, and a scowl set to rival his own. But also, the smoothest terra-cotta skin and the softest, deepest brown eyes—eyes that practically begged him to not hurt them, even as they sparked with defiance.

“Are you going to eat us now?” she demanded, tipping her chin up at a rebellious angle. Courage in a teacup of a woman.

Drake snorted, which was about the closest he got to a laugh.

Then he started his shift. What he needed to do next required him to be human.

Mirage-like waves surrounded his body, obscuring the lines and blurring the details as he made the change. Scales and spikes receded to be replaced by skin, and clothes, and hair—the beast hiding beneath the more civilized countenance of a man.

Drake kept his focus on the woman as he changed, almost relishing how her gaze widened in shock, the way she took a step back only to stiffen and force herself to step forward again, not blinking or looking away.

Strength gazed back at him through a veil of fear. Suddenly Drake was gripped by a powerful urge to take both her strength and her fear as though she’d offered them up as gifts, and swallow her up, and sink into her all at the same time.

What would that no-nonsense voice, raspy from smoke inhalation, sound like on a moan of pleasure? Sweet and pure and heady. He hadn’t had a human lover in years.

Rejection shot through him at the thought. He was dying. No way could he drag this innocent creature into that mess. What the hell is wrong with me?

He finished his shift and walked toward her slowly, needing not to spook her, needing to get close.

“What are you?” she asked through lips pinched white, her hands trembling. He still caught a hint of fascination in those soft eyes.

“Does it matter?”

The creak of the one good truck door opening, hindered slightly by the dents he’d put in the sides, heralded the rest of her family getting out of the side not melted. Her father, he’d hazard a guess based on shared physical features, particularly the eyes, though his skin was darker hued, rougher, like he’d spent a lot of time in the sun. Three other men of varying ages followed, but still family perhaps. They stumbled out, staring at him with open trepidation.

Her father slowly stepped up beside her, trying to pull her back behind him. “Whatever he is, he saved our lives,” he said in Spanish.

Mexican descent based on the accent, more drawn out at the ends of the words. Words that were a sharp contrast to the man’s actions as he tried to protect his daughter.

“He saved Clover,” the youngest of the three other men pointed out.

Clover? Oh, the damn goat.

With the woman safely shielded by his body, the father stepped forward. “What is your name?” he asked in English.

Then he held out a hand to Drake who stared at it as if the appendage might suddenly turn into a snake and bite him. Humans weren’t supposed to act like this. Most either froze in fear, or like a rabbit caught in a snare, they fell into hysteria, or they ran. The exact wrong thing to do around a predator.

Still, he shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. He needed to wipe all their memories of his existence, and he needed to be close to do it, and he needed to touch skin.

“Drake.” He wasn’t sure why he bothered answering when he was going to pull the memory from their minds anyway. Grasping the man by the hand, Drake leaned forward, staring into his eyes intently.

All humans tended to respond like prey this close to dragons, going into a sort of trance. Deliberately, Drake lit the fire inside himself, red flames taking over his eyes. The man stared, pupils swallowing his irises as they dilated, relaxing into the thrall. Holding that gaze, Drake pushed his heat through his hands and into the man’s mind. Such a small amount of time to delete from a person’s memory took only seconds. When he released him, the man blinked and remained in that trance.

“I would also like to thank you.” The oldest of the other men also held out a hand.

Papá?” the woman questioned as Drake grasped the next man by the hand, repeating the process. Then moved to the next man who stepped forward. This was too easy.

“What did you do to him?” She turned as he finished. Then took a closer look at the older man beside her father. “Tio?

Ah, her uncle. The third man, closer to her age, a cousin perhaps or brother, seeming oblivious to her rising concern, also offered a hand.

“Wait.” She stepped between them. “What did you do to them?”

For once, Drake didn’t want to stay silent, almost as though compelled to give her the truth she’d earned with her determined management of her own fear. “Taking away the memory of me. Do you really want to remember?”

She stared at him, short breaths puffing through her lush dusky lips, generous breasts pushing against the material of what used to be a white tank top, now filthy with ash. “That’s all?”

“That’s all. Then I’ll leave.”

After a long, searching stare, she stepped to the side and nodded at the young man, more a teenage boy.

“Are you sure?” the boy asked.

“Go ahead, Leo.” She canted her head at Drake who held out a hand.

Hesitantly, the boy took it and Drake did the same to him as he’d done to the others. He needed to move faster. The effect on her father would wear off soon, and he’d be forced to repeat the process. He held out a hand to her.

With a deep breath, she placed her own in his, the slight tremble to it acting like a kick in the balls. He hated that she’d had to be afraid. Which was a ridiculous reaction. Even more ridiculous, heat surged and spread up his arm from that small contact, soothing the tingling nerves still jarring him from earlier.

“What’s your name?” he asked. Again, the words escaped his control, dragged from his lips as though compelled.

“Camilla,” she murmured, not looking away, her hand tiny in his. “Cami.”

“Cami,” he murmured.

“Drake,” she whispered back, and his gut clenched at the sound of his name on her lips. Familiar and yet strange at the same time.

What is wrong with you? Get this done and leave.

Instantly, he ignited the flames in his eyes, and her shoulders dropped, her body relaxing. Then Cami blinked, pulled back slightly, though she didn’t break the contact. “What if I don’t want to forget you?” she asked.

Everything inside him froze. He pushed through the strange sensation through sheer will.

“You don’t have a choice.” Humans knowing about dragon shifters was against their laws. The very laws that, as an enforcer, he was sworn to uphold.

Drake tugged her closer, and she stepped almost willingly into him, trust having replaced the panicked fear in her eyes. But a trust that wasn’t entirely real, entirely hers. The look struck and wrapped around his heart like a fist and squeezed hard.

With a reluctance that manifested as an ache under his breastbone, Drake allowed his eyes to blaze fully, then pushed his heat through the physical connection, through her skin, and into her mind, using the magic contained in his fire to steal that time from her.

He finished, allowing the fire in his eyes to bank. He should let go of her, shift and fly away. For some strange reason, he couldn’t. Didn’t want to.

Could she be a mate? Only one type of female could call to a male dragon shifter that way.

Drake stepped into her, dipping his head until his nose was at the crook of her neck, though not quite touching, and inhaled her sweet scent. Winter fresh air, a floral undernote, and the scent of smoke still clinging to her from the fire.

Ambrosia.

But no smoky scent coming directly from her that would indicate she was a dormant dragon mate, and the fear from what she’d just gone through damn well should’ve sparked her dragon sign. But there was no shifting of her eyes or a small part of her body. No sparks flying from her person. Nothing.

Drake forced himself to step back, allowed his gaze to linger on her face for a second longer, then turned, shifted, and left without another glance.

She was human.

Besides, even if she was a mate, she wouldn’t be his. He’d already seen his mark on another woman’s neck, glowing in the heat of dragon fire. Not that she turned out to be his, either. However, the odds of another this soon were so slim they were laughable. Absurd.

And you’re already dying, asshole. It’s too late for a mate to save you, anyway.

 

CHAPTER 1

The sour scent of burning rubber followed Cami like an annoying drunk at a bar, clinging to her clothes and the hairs in her nose. The bottoms of her solid work boots were melting from the heat still left in the ground from the fire as she tromped through the still slightly smoldering remains of what had been gorgeous towering pines and canopied black oak trees on their land.

Land the Carrillos had owned for generations. All the way back to the time of the Ranchos, when the Spanish and then the Mexican authorities had given land grants to private individuals, later honored by the U.S. after the Mexican–American War.

Land where they’d made good lives for themselves. Lives they’d almost lost. The wildfire had almost taken her and several family members out. She still had no clue how they’d managed to get away.

The last thing she recalled was running to the truck as the flames had closed in on them. She’d had to resist touching her skin to make sure she wasn’t melting under the horrible heat. Next thing she knew, she was standing on a road far enough away to only be able to see the smoke rising into the blue of the sky, their truck looking a hell of a lot worse behind them, without a clue as to how they’d gotten there.

When they were finally allowed home, they discovered that the fire had ravaged their land, taken their barns, and burned all but the original house to the ground. In a weird twist of fate, it sat, almost untouched, on a circle of green grass, as though the flames had broken around it, like rapids around a boulder. At least they still had it, though her two uncles and their families had moved in with her parents and her, making for a tight squeeze. Luckily, her two younger sisters were off at college.

The entire situation sucked, but no use wishing to undo something that couldn’t be undone. All they could do was rebuild and move forward.

As if everything that had happened wasn’t enough, Cami had a personal problem to add to the heaping pile of shit already surrounding her. One she didn’t dare put a voice to or share with her family.

If they found out, that made it real. Cami didn’t want this to be real.

On the pretense that she was tired of shoveling the ashes of the barn away, she’d taken the only four-wheeler to survive the fire. She’d told her dad that she was going to see if she could find any more surviving goats or at least their carcasses so they’d be accounted for.

Her family had lucked the hell out as far as the goats were concerned. The fire hadn’t reached the range where most of the herd had been grazing. Only the late mothers with their doelings almost ready to be weaned, who’d been held in a barn close to the house, had been in danger. They’d managed to get all but Clover’s mother out safely in the back of their truck. However, those damn flames had taken down several fence lines and the rest of the goats had gotten out, now wandering the hills willy-nilly. Probably burning their little hooves like she was her boots.

But that wasn’t why she’d come out here alone.

She’d driven as far out as she could, stopped the four-wheeler, and got off. Then unbuttoned her shirt and stared down at the skin just above the valley of her breasts. A shot of dread worse than anything she’d experienced the day of the fire jolted through her with the force of an earthquake, trembling the very foundations her life was built on and leaving her shaken. As shaken as the first time she’d seen this a week ago. Maybe worse.

Dead center of her chest, a spot—not a lump because her skin still lay flat—but an imperfect circle that glowed from the inside, from underneath like she was being lit up. Streaming from the spot, the blood pulsing through her veins showed in stark relief against the reddish-gold brightness underneath, almost with the look of scales. It had grown from a small pinpoint to the size of a walnut. In days.

Cami swallowed back the sour sting of bile and shook her head, though no one was there to see. “This isn’t real,” she whispered to herself in a fierce voice. “Wake the hell up.”

This had to be a hallucination. She’d inhaled toxic fumes during the evacuation and that combined with the danger she’d faced was manifesting itself as some kind of freaky PTSD attack.

Except hallucinations don’t start fires.

Like she’d done this morning when she’d shot sparks from her person. This time, she’d been getting dressed and the second she’d removed her pajama top she’d seen the growing area of glowing skin. She’d freaked out and sparks had flown off her. After a squawk that she’d quickly swallowed, not wanting to alert her large, often overly involved, family, she’d had to stomp out the small fire that started on her bedding.

“It’s real enough,” a deep, masculine voice sounded in front of her.

Cami jerked her head up with a gasp to find a tall man with broad shoulders and bottomless black eyes that seemed to bore through her skin standing in front of her like a sentinel of doom.

With a gasp, she backed up, at the same time pulling a pistol from the holster at her hip.

She’d learned a long time ago to travel their land armed, especially when she was alone. One tense moment staring down a rather large mountain lion had been all it took to start that habit.

With a practiced motion, she flicked off the safety and cocked the gun, finger off the trigger, but aiming it directly at him. “You are trespassing on private property.”

A breeze toyed with her still open shirt, and she barely kept from wrinkling her nose at the disadvantage being semi-undressed put her at. Instead, she stared him down.

Was he a hunter? The black combat-style pants and black T-shirt didn’t suggest that. Heart still jammed tightly in her throat, cutting off oxygen, she took stock. Black hair to go with the black eyes, cut short, almost military style. He was a big man, six foot three or four at least, and the muscles straining his T-shirt across his chest and at the sleeves suggested he was also in damn good shape. No way could she outrun him or fight him off.

She didn’t want to kill him, though. She didn’t need to add any new nightmares to the ones she already had. Ones that included red glowing eyes and the feeling of flying.

The stranger crossed his arms, muscles bunching. “I’m here to help you, Camilla.”

Her heart made a mad dash to escape up her mouth. He knew her name. Was he a stalker? She rarely posted anything on social media. How had he found her way out here anyway?

He took a step forward and she jerked back a step. “Stay away from me,” she snapped, putting as much authority in her voice as she could, happy to see her hand remained steady.

The man held up his hands in a conciliating gesture that did nothing to calm her. The man in black, she silently dubbed him, even as her more rational mind was metaphorically smacking her forehead for having the thought.

“This isn’t what you think,” he said.

“I think you need to leave—”

He stepped closer again, and the spike of terror and adrenaline sent her heart into overdrive. Suddenly, as had happened this morning, sparks flew from her body, like a spitting, hissing firecracker on the Fourth of July. Embers shot from her, landing on a nearby bush that hadn’t entirely turned to charred remains of itself, and the thing went up in flames faster than a rattler could strike.

“Oh my God!” Cami jumped back, though she still managed to keep her gun trained on the man across from her.

Instead of reacting like a normal person, he coolly stepped closer to the flames.

“Don’t—” she started to shout but cut the word off with a squeak.

The flames reached for him, like a child reaching for a parent, but instead absorbed into his skin, like he was pulling it into himself. The heat radiating to her reduced with each draw, the fire growing smaller and smaller. In mere seconds, the tiny blaze had been extinguished, the only remaining evidence the smoke lifting lazily into the sky.

Cami stared from the bush to the man and back. “What—”

She stopped and shook her head with zero idea what words to even use at this point.

Those obsidian eyes, eyes she’d thought hard and bottomless, almost seemed to soften. “There’s a reason you are glowing and sparking.”

She’d lowered the gun a bit, shock dropping her arm, but the sound of his voice snapped her out of it, and she jerked it back up to train it on him. “What reason?” she demanded.

He actually had the temerity to raise a single eyebrow at her weapon, and Cami glared back at him, suddenly tempted to show him that she had no problem using it and was a damn fine shot.

His gaze lasered in on her, with an intensity that somehow penetrated the fog of fear and bravado she was swimming in, as though he willed her to hear his words. “You’re meant to be a dragon shifter.”

All Cami heard was blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, dragon, blah.

A hysterical laugh escaped her like a prisoner making a break for it. Maybe she’d taken her hallucinations to a whole new level. Or she was asleep, and this was just a bad dream. That had to be it.

She slapped herself hard with her free hand. Nothing happened.

The man in front of her sighed. “Why do they always need proof?” he muttered.

They? They who? Had he forced his kind of crazy on other poor women?

“Stand back,” he said. His body started to waver and sort of shimmer. Not like glitter. More like looking to the horizon and seeing the wavy, silvery image of water when you knew none existed there.

But then his body started to change. Cami blinked, then blinked again harder, because she didn’t quite believe her eyes. His body grew, and bones shifted, and skin disappeared behind scales so black they seemed like a lake of ink. Wicked spikes sprouted from his spine and his arms turned to wings folded in close to his side.

Turned out fear had a taste. It tasted metallic, a lot like blood.

Cami scrambled back, giving him space, and stumbled over a fallen tree, landing on her ass. The gun in her hand went off with a bang and she watched in seventies TV slow motion horror as the bullet shot out only to hit the monster in the chest and ricochet away.

The massive…I can’t believe I’m thinking the word dragon…creature gave her a cockeyed look almost as though to say, “Seriously?”

“Um…sorry about that.” I’m apologizing to a dragon that I just shot. Plus, that bullet had done nothing to him. Not even a dent as far as she could tell.

An inappropriate wave of pure fascination overtook her, burying the fear, even if for only a second. A dragon with superman-strength body armor in the form of scales was standing in front of her.

“Do you believe me now?” His voice echoed inside her head, as if coming from inside her and outside her at the same time. However, his mouth didn’t move.

A telepathic dragon. Right. Because how else would dragons communicate?

Cami closed her eyes to try to put a stop to thoughts that were starting to garner a frenetic edge to them, buzzing in her head.

“Please don’t faint or something.”

That had her snapping her eyes open to glare at him. “I don’t faint.” Deliberately, she picked herself up off the ground, brushing ash and leaves from her backside.

“That’s good to hear,” his voice rumbled inside her head.

Right. Get it together. At least he hasn’t eaten you yet.

The strangest sensation of déjà vu chose that moment to strike, and Cami paused in her motion, waiting to see if she could remember what came next. Only nothing came to her, and the odd awareness faded.

With a deep breath she lifted her head and faced the… Shit, dragon just sounded so weird in her head… Faced the dragon head on.

He lowered his Jurassic Park head, T-Rex teeth lined up in jagged visible rows, to within a foot of where she stood, regarding her with a single, unblinking eye.

Curiosity swamped her like a flooding river breaking its banks. Without thinking it through, she reached out and put a hand on a single scale—satin and steel under her palm, and almost soothingly warm. For some inexplicable reason, her heart settled—a trapped bird coming to roost on its perch. Like she’d been here before. Like this wasn’t new or a dream or a hallucination. This was real and…

She jerked her hand back as the word “home” ping-ponged around inside her mind. What am I thinking? I have a home. And a family.

People she needed to protect. Maybe from him. “What do you want with me?”

“To help you.”

“Help me? With what?”

He took a deep breath, his massive chest rising and falling with the action, and warm, smoky breath fanned across her in a gust. “There’s no easy way to put this. I am a dragon shifter. And you are destined to become a dragon shifter’s mate and become a dragon yourself.”

Cami frowned, trying to take that all in, but her mind landed on one word. “A mate? What time are you from? The dark ages?”

He ignored that comment. “Until you mate, the fires you set off will only escalate and get worse.”

Get worse? She glanced at the glowing spot. This got worse? Okay, that was bad. Her family had already lost too much to fire. Assuming she believed him— Of course she believed him. He was standing in front of her as a living, breathing, forty-foot dragon and only seconds ago, she’d spontaneously combusted a bush. Wait…

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Do dragons cause wildfires?”

“They can.”

“On purpose?”

“The fire that destroyed your family’s ranch happened because of a dragon, a couple of them, actually, if that’s what you’re getting at. The one most responsible is dead now.”

Cami frowned again. Not because he’d confirmed her suspicions, but because there had been something in his voice. Something like regret.

Still, he’d been honest with her. Between the beast before her, the glowing like a tiny sun trapped inside her chest, lighting up her veins, and the sparks periodically emanating from her person, she had no choice but to believe him. At least about the dragon thing.

What did that mean for her? For her family?

Oh my God. I have to keep them safe. From me.

“I assume you have suggestions?”

Those wavy, desert-oasis lines crisscrossed his body again, and she witnessed the transformation in reverse order as he shrunk back to a man. A man who still towered over her petite five-foot form, but not by forty feet now, at least.

He gazed down at her, scanning her expression. “What you do next is entirely up to you.”

“I hear a but in there.”

A slashing mouth, pressed tight with lines bracketing it, tipped up at one corner.

“What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Nothing.” He shook his head. “But you’re not the first dragon mate I’ve helped, and each of you reacts…differently.”

Part of her wanted to ask about the others, but right now, she couldn’t handle much more, so she let it go.

He appeared to realize that and went on. “I can offer you sanctuary, help put out any fires you cause, but that means coming with me, staying with me, maybe for a long time until you find your destined mate.”

Uh-huh. Not the answer she’d hoped to hear. “And what’s behind door number two?”

“You stay here. Possibly burn down your home. In addition, other dragons not as…progressive…as I am will come take you away when they discover you. Force you to go through a mating process to find your mate. That might not sound so bad, but if you choose the wrong man, you’ll die when he tries to change you. The leaders of our kind don’t act too concerned about that result lately.”

Death was a way worse answer.

Neither of those options was acceptable in her opinion, but one was especially unacceptable. Cami crossed her arms in a defensive move. “Would they kidnap me?”

The man in front of her lifted a single shoulder in a shrug way too casual for this strange topic of conversation. “It didn’t used to be this way, but the kings are getting power mad.”

Dragon shifters had kings?

She regarded him with serious distaste for a long beat, trying to reconcile why she trusted anything he had to say. Beyond a seriously terrifying display of magical whatnot, she didn’t have any reason to trust him enough to go with him. That would put her in the same category as children who took candy from strangers. “I don’t even know your name.”

“Rune Abaddon.” He held out a hand to shake.

She glanced at it like it might be a poison apple and he dropped it to his side.

Raising his gaze to the sky with an expression that said she was being unreasonable—and she almost looked up to check that more dragons weren’t flying around up there—he put a hand in one pocket and brought out a card with a single phone number on it. That was it. “I’ve helped others like you. If you call this number, you can talk to them. Ask questions.”

“Right. Like I’m going to trust a faceless woman on the other end of a phone.”

His jaw flexed. “I can tell you’re going to be a pain in my ass.”

She warily took the card and stepped back slowly, the same way she’d backed away from that mountain lion once upon a time. “Honestly, I’d rather not see your ass again anytime soon.”

“Suit yourself.” He turned his back to her and walked away. Stalked away, more like. “You can also call that number if you change your mind and need me to come get you.”

He paused at the edge of a tree burned so badly only a black spike of what used to be its trunk remained upright. Turning, he speared her with a hard stare. “Don’t wait too long, though. I’ll only be around another few days. You aren’t the only one who needs my…services.”

With that, he disappeared like a silent wraith, a figment of her imagination. Not even a crunch of toasted forest under his feet. A ghost. Except for the card she held in her hand.

A jumble of emotions—fear, disbelief, and confusion—tangled together like three-day-old spaghetti in a mass that lodged in her stomach.

A rush of heat shot through her, blazing along the trail of her veins as though her blood had lit on fire, the glow following the sensation. It culminated under her breastbone which pulsed with a glowing light. No way would her family miss that if it happened around them. No sooner had that thought occurred to her than a spark shot from her again, this time igniting her jeans.

“Shit.” She beat at the cloth before it could burn her skin.

This can’t be happening.

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