The Traitor (Fire’s Edge #5) | Chapter 1 Excerpt

The Traitor (Fire’s Edge #5) – Chapter 1 Excerpt


A rough hand shook Hadyn Reece awake. In an instant she was alert, eyes connecting with those of her adopted father, Chaghan.

“They’ve come. We need to move fast,” he whispered. Hardly a sound. Which meant he was worried that whoever was out there was a shifter whose enhanced hearing might pick up the words.

Fear spiked through her heart like a dragonsteel harpoon, but she’d been preparing for this most of her life. Using that adrenaline, she was up and following him down the hall to the kitchen. Rancid fumes—sharp and acidic—hit her nose and she put a hand to cover her face. What was that smell?

They rounded the corner to find Qara, her adopted mother, waiting, salt-and-pepper hair hastily braided rather than up in her usually elegant chignon, already holding the secret door open—the one that led down to a secret safe room below the house, built into the bedrock of the mountain they lived at the base of.

Hadyn stumbled to a halt. That’s what the smell had been. Gasoline. All over the house.

“No,” she whispered, not forgetting those outside.

She knew what that room meant, what the gas meant. Her parents were hiding her, but not themselves. She’d protested when they’d come up with this idea originally.

“It’s the best way. They’ve come for us.” Chaghan urged her forward with a hand at her back. “They won’t know about you.”

She whirled on him. “I’m not leaving you.”

He stopped and took her by the shoulders, the craggy skin around his eyes creasing in concern. “We can’t lose another child.”

His eyes took on an eerie glow, an even brighter green—the color of his clan. His and Qara’s. Hadyn’s, too, if she had been turned.

Hadyn felt the blood drain from her face, leaving her slightly woozy, both at the words and the expression in his eyes. They’d lost their son to dragon shifters who’d hunted him down as a rogue. That was almost fifteen years ago now, but they grieved his loss every single day. She couldn’t put them through that again.

With a swallow and a nod, she hugged Chaghan fast, then moved to hug Qara.

“We love you,” her mother whispered in her hair. “So much.”

“I love you, too. Always.”

She climbed down the ladder that dropped her into a room that wasn’t more than six by six foot. It was stocked with a small cot, food for one to last a few weeks, and monitors not yet turned on, black screens staring at her.

She waited until the blackness engulfed her as Qara closed the door with a soft thud. Then, feeling along the wall, she hit the switch that turned everything on—the lights, the air intake, and the video feeds from cameras placed all over the house and mountain, inside and out.

She watched as Chaghan, easiest to spot with his white hair, doused the room in some kind of flammable fluid, then inhaled and blew a stream of green-tipped fire from his mouth, igniting the blaze. He would burn down everything, including all evidence of her. Especially that. That’d been the plan, should they be discovered.

Quickly, smoke and flame filled all the feeds from cameras located in the house. Chaghan and Qara made a run for it, shooting out a back door and into the woods, and Hadyn had to move from screen to screen to track their superhuman speeds. Despite being June, where they lived in Alaska was still blanketed in snow, but even that didn’t slow them down.

Out of nowhere a black blur tackled Chaghan to the ground. Hadyn didn’t make a sound as she watched Qara launch herself at whoever or whatever had attacked them. But more came. The fight was over quickly, and, her heart turning to lead and dropping to the souls of her feet, horror filled her at the sight of her wonderful, loving parents on their knees, hands bound.

They’d taken her in the day dragon shifters had killed her parents along with their son. They’d raised her, loved her, nurtured her, and taught her to survive in a world most humans had no idea existed. One with the most incredible creatures.

A world deadly to frail humans like her.

“Tineen,” Chaghan snarled. “I should have known the Alaz enforcers would be the ones to come for us.” Then he turned his head to glare at another man. “And Roan, of course.”

He didn’t identify the other three, but he didn’t need to. That had been for her, so she knew exactly who’d come for them.

Rocking slightly, arms wrapped around her stomach, she waited for the final killing blow to come. After all, Chaghan and Qara were rogue dragon shifters. They’d abandoned their loyalty to their king and clan and gone off on their own. Rogues were supposed to be killed when captured. An instant death sentence.

Chaghan and Qara had survived without capture more than thirty years this way only by being smart.

Their son had gotten himself caught because he’d tangled with a bear shifter by sheer chance. One who’d reported his presence to the local dragon enforcers. He’d been staying at her human parents’ house the night they’d come for him. Which is why Chaghan and Qara hadn’t been killed that night, too.

But Chaghan had always said they would be caught eventually.

The first flash of memory came softly. An image—combat boots a foot from her face as she hid under her bed.

Oh gods, not now.

She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to hold the torrent at bay. Because she knew what came next. More memories followed by an almighty panic attack, only ever triggered by hiding. Even a game of hide and seek for fun used to bring these on. Years of counselling had only slowed the frequency. But once they started…

Maybe Chaghan had hoped for one to come on, so she wouldn’t have to see.

Her lungs tightened more as, instead of the images on the screens, all she could see was the night she’d lost her family. Her heart rate shot up, her breathing turning forced and rapid, the sound of it almost like scraping in her ears. She reached out for the image of her dragon parents on the screen, trying so hard not to give in to this, but the black dots consuming her vision coalesced and darkness took her under.


It might be early summer in Alaska, where Hadyn had lived last, but as far as the Andes mountains in the southern hemisphere were concerned, winter was just starting her reign.

And I’m stuck on the side of a mountain like a chump.

Hadyn banked that thought for later, needing every ounce of her focus. Aconcagua happened to be the tallest mountain in South America. Of course. Because that was her kind of luck.

She had made sure to wear her high-altitude, cold-weather clothing for this trek. Climbing mountains almost all her life—a skill developed at the insistence of her adopted parents—she was well aware of the risk she’d taken by attempting this now. Winter on this mountain, with its haphazard weather, plummeting temperatures, and tearing winds, was definitely the off season when the weather wasn’t worth the risk.

But she didn’t have time to wait.

Her dragon father had told her to come here if she needed help.

Did you know what I’d have to do to get up this ice-covered rock, Dad?

Hadyn was in full confidence of her abilities, but skill alone didn’t keep you alive in a place like this. She hung off the side of the mountain, the steel claws of her crampons finding purchase in the ice and snow. Dug in nice and tight, she leaned back against her harness and the system of ropes and carabiners she’d secured in the rock face. She shook out her arms to regain feeling as she mapped out her route in her head.

Four days she’d been up here with not a sign of whom or what she was searching for. Alone.

A gust of wind threatened to pick her right up off the side of the mountain, so she hunkered in close to the rock, waiting it out.

“This sucks,” she muttered, the sound muffled by the thick gaiter pulled up to her goggles and crusting over with ice formed from her breath.

The first night, she’d managed to find a flat rock the size of a double bed to sleep on. The second night, she’d dug out an eighteen-inch-wide ledge from the ice. But last night had been the grimmest yet.

A tiny outcropping, with barely enough space to sit, her feet resting in a cat’s cradle of rope while her back leaned against the vertical granite wall, her safety harness clipped into steel pegs just outside her sleeping bag. Otherwise, if she’d fallen out of her makeshift bed, she would’ve plummeted around six thousand feet.

She’d been doing this a long time. She used the best equipment and triple and quadruple checked everything, which left little room for fear. But it hadn’t been fun. She’d hoped to be inside the damn mountain by now, but she was starting to doubt if anyone was at home.

Only Chaghan had said this was where she needed to be. She considered dragon shifters coming in daylight to haul her rogue dragon parents away to be an almighty shit show of a problem, and so she’d made her way here. She needed help, dammit!

Was she too late? Or maybe the rogue dragon shifter she was searching for had also been attacked?

She frowned, her gaze landing on a piece of rock that didn’t quite fit in with the landscape. With a gasp, she removed her goggles to peer closer.

Sure enough, she was staring at video equipment cleverly disguised as rock. Finally. A sign that they’d been here. Surveillance for the dragons who lived inside this mountain. She’d spent four days scaling the rock and ice trying to find either this or the entrance.

“Come on,” she whispered. Were they watching her now?

The camera did nothing. Not a whir, not a blinking red light. Just a black lens, as cold as a dead fisheye.

With a huff, she pulled her gaiter down and her helmet off, making sure to secure it and the goggles. She couldn’t afford to lose either, but she needed whoever was watching to see her. Really see her.

“Rune Abaddon,” she said, speaking directly at it. She spoke slowly and deliberately. Likely anyone monitoring the camera couldn’t hear her, only see her. “I’m looking for Rune Abaddon. I need his help.”


Impatience dragged at her. Four days meant she was exhausted, hungry, dead on her feet, and frozen to the marrow of her bones.

She repeated herself.

Still nothing.

She gave them ten more minutes, repeating herself every few. Still nothing.

Right. Hadyn had never been one to sit around waiting for things to happen. She’d find a place to camp out here on the side of the mountain one more night. Give anyone inside enough time to discover her there—no doubt hundreds of cameras dotted the mountainside. If no one came out by then, she’d leave in the morning and go with Plan B.

Not that she had a Plan B. Yet.

It looked as though she’d have all night to figure it out.

With a growl of frustration over so much wasted time first getting to Argentina and then scaling her way up this mountain, she put her goggles and helmet back on, then started hauling up the pack of specialized gear dangling from another rope anchored to her waist. She glanced over her shoulder, noting the position of the sun. Maybe she’d left it a little late. Hopefully, she could be set up before darkness overtook her. The idea of another night freezing her ass off strapped to the side of this monolith did not appeal.

What she wouldn’t give for a hot bath and better food than the freeze-dried crud she’d been consuming.

She’d hooked the pack with her gear into a newly set carabiner and was reaching for the heavy-duty zip when a shadow passed overhead, stilling her hand. Everything inside her quietened as well.

Dragon shifter. No doubt in her mind.

Instinct had her ducking as wind buffeted her, sending snow and ice to pelt her mercilessly. Good thing she’d put those goggles back on. “Watch it,” she snapped.

“You’re on my mountain, little girl,” a sinfully deep voice curled through her mind.

Despite the challenging words, this dragon had taken the courtesy to lower the volume so that the telepathic communication didn’t send splinters of pain through her head. The wind stopped suddenly, as though obeying his will, and the unmistakable sound of razor-sharp talons finding purchase in the rock above her screeched, followed by a few rocks tumbling down over her.

“Seriously?” Hadyn raised her head, intending to glare at him, then blinked.

Black dragon. So black, his onyx scales gleamed like a river of silk in the dying light of day, not reflecting the pinks and purples of the sky, more like swallowing the color into a black hole of nothingness. Wicked spikes rose to a crest at the back of his skull, but those down his back were laid flat.


She’d been raised around these creatures. She shouldn’t be impressed. Hadyn had no doubt she was staring at a fighter. Dragon shifters tended to be lean and muscled, and black dragons were supposed to be the leanest of the bunch. This one was bigger than she’d anticipated. Not as long and elegant as her green dragon shifter adopted parents, not as burly as the gold dragon who’d been one of the men to take them away.

No, raw power surrounded him, his scales rippling slightly with each small move to remain balanced while clutching the side of the mountain. A quiet menace stared at her from pitch-black eyes. No flames, though, his emotions in severe check.

Not that he had anything to fear from her.

Black dragons were supposed to be stealthy sons of bitches. The fact that he’d warned her of his presence with that flash of shadow told her all she needed to know about this one. He wouldn’t hurt her. Not unless she presented as a direct threat.

Relief at finding him brought a tired smile to her lips. “Rune Abaddon, I presume?”

“Who’s asking?”

Cagey SOB, huh? “Do you mind if we take this conversation inside the mountain?”


Okay… “My name is Hadyn Reece. My father is Chaghan Buqa. He told me that if I was ever in trouble, I should seek you out here.”

Zero reaction in those dark eyes. “Father?”

She had a fair idea what he was asking. No doubt he’d already scented the fact that she was not a dragon shifter. Yet. Ever, actually. The man who’d been her fated mate had been killed when she was too young to appreciate what that meant.

“Adopted father,” she corrected. “He and Qara raised me after my own parents were killed by dragon fire.”

His pause of reaction to that was long enough that she almost started explaining again. “And what trouble sent you to my door?”

So this was Rune Abaddon.

Rather than smirk at his inadvertent revelation, she kept going. “They were taken. The Alaz team of enforcers finally tracked them down. They’re being held for execution as rogue dragons.”

The black dragon’s tail flicked, like the crack of a whip. A single swish, but also the first sign of reaction he’d made. She wasn’t sure, though, what emotion drove that small tell. Anger? Shock? Disbelief?

“Let’s speak inside,” he said.

Hadyn gave a sharp nod. “Give me a second to pack up and disconnect. Can you catch me midair?”

That got a reaction from him. The dragon’s head jerked back as though she’d slapped him. “You would trust me?”

She shrugged. “Easiest and fastest way to get us both off this face.”

Granted, she was also hiding a beating of nerves in her belly at the thought. She’d been around dragons all her life and had done this maneuver a hundred times with her father and mother. Part of the rigorous training Chaghan and Qara had put her through. Survival skills, they’d insisted she learn. Only, her dad wouldn’t have sent her here if she couldn’t trust Rune. She had to start doing that now, or saving her parents was a goal that would go up in smoke.

“I’m not sure if you are very brave or very foolish.”

Hadyn snorted an unamused laugh and started the process of packing up. “A bit of both, I imagine.”

Luckily, she hadn’t unpacked her gear yet, so it didn’t take her nearly as long to be ready. Ropes pulled up and sorted, she hung by the last carabiner, ready to unhook and jump. “I’m ready.”

Without a word, Rune launched himself backward. Instead of trying to hover there, difficult so close to the rock where his wings wouldn’t have a full range of motion, he flipped backward in an impressive maneuver that shot him farther away from the rock face, dropping him rapidly, but then used that momentum to shoot him straight back up to hover just above where she hung.

Go,” he said.

Please let him catch me, she sent the thought out to whoever might be listening. The fates. The gods. A guardian angel or twenty.

The adrenaline junkie in her reveled in the quiet beat that happened as she suspended midair before she started to drop. Picking up speed, wind whistled in her ears, pulling at the gaiter keeping her head, neck and ears warm in these temperatures as she positioned her body like a skydiver—belly to the earth, legs and arms spread and slightly bent at the knees and elbows. Even with all her gear, this was the most stable way to fall until he caught her.

Except the mountainside blurred, flashing past her, and she was still falling. “Anytime you’re ready,” she shouted, knowing the wind would snatch the words away, but his finely tuned shifter hearing would catch them all the same.

The fear didn’t bubble up in her until another few seconds had gone by and the base of the mountain started rushing up at her. The shadow she waited for wasn’t showing up.

“Rune?” she shouted.

A dragon claw curled around her, scooping her up. She was vigilant to avoid the tips of his talons, which could slice her to ribbons at a touch. Although she’d been ready to flow with a more abrupt change of speed and direction, he surprised her by slowing their descent gradually so as not to jerk her upward. Then, with three strokes of his wings, he shot them upward and around. Hadyn tried to keep track of where on the mountain they were relative to where she’d been climbing and searching. He took them clear around the other side from where she’d been. Then she spotted it—the shadow of a cave entrance.

Was that where they were headed? She probably would have turned to a dead lump of ice before finding it on her own.

Of course, that was the idea. Keep humans from discovering dragon existence. The fire breathers had gotten good at it. Not that they needed to worry about humans up here at this time of year.

Rather than slow down on approach, Rune shot directly at that shadow full speed. Fast enough that Hadyn couldn’t help wrapping an arm around one scaled digit, bracing for impact. But he maneuvered the crags and crevices of the mountainside with the skill of long practice. Suddenly they were inside a hangar big enough to handle a 747. He flared his wings, bringing them to an abrupt stop. Even then, though, he allowed the claw he held her in to swing forward slightly, as though cushioning her from the impact.

With zero sound—an impressive feat—he dropped to his three free feet, then slowly lowered her to the ground. Once she was upright and clear of him, Hadyn backed away, dragging her gear with her.

Then turned to catch his shift. She’d always loved watching her parents do this, finding the process fascinating. Shifters sort of shimmered in mirage-like waves as they changed from animal to human or vice versa. Everything they were in one form absorbed into the new form, clothes and all.


The black dragon before her appeared to reduce in size, the massive spikes around his head and down his back sort of folding back into his body, wings becoming arms, and scales turned to bronze, burnished skin. Finally, a man stood before her, shadowed in the unlit room of the cave, darkness already finding its way in here where sunlight couldn’t reach as easily. Everything she could make out was in shades of black, like a bad guy in an old western movie, black hair, black eyes, black combat pants and a long-sleeved, collarless shirt. Arms loose at his sides.

Deceptively so, she sensed.

No clan mark. All dragons sported two tattoos, which appeared at birth. The one on the back of the neck was the symbol of a dragon’s family. The one on the back of the hand, between the thumb and forefinger, was the mark of the house of their king, visible proof of allegiance and belonging to their clan. To be missing his marked him as a rogue dragon.

Rogues were considered dangerous and subversive by the leaders of dragon shifters. In fact, even Chaghan and Qara were wary of others. Most who hadn’t been hunted down and killed were psychopaths, according to them. Creatures to be avoided as much as the shifters still loyal to the clans.

Hadyn was looking at maybe the most legendary of all rogues. Why did her parents trust him?

“You said the Alaz team took your parents?” His voice slid out of the dark, sending unaccustomed shivers across her skin that had nothing to do with the winter chill.

Most dragon males had gloriously deep voices. Her own father had a bass to him that could either soothe you to sleep or scare you straight. But this was…

Not what she’d come here for.


“I don’t believe you.”

She blinked. Of all the scenarios she’d imagined as she’d made her way here, this was not it. “Excuse me?”

“About your parents. You’re lying to me.”


Rune studied the woman across from him. He stayed in the shadows deliberately, keeping his distance.

The grainy image distorted by ice and rock and weathering hadn’t done her justice. Even now, awareness tightened in his belly as he took in a gamine face made more piquant by the short cut of her dark hair. Like a human-sized pixie had magically poofed into his domain. He practically expected to see a trail of glitter in her wake. Large peridot-colored eyes gazed back at him, light green and shockingly vibrant against lightly tanned and freckled skin, putting him in mind of new leaves in the spring.

Hadyn… The name suited her. It meant little fire, and she had to be a firecracker to come chasing him up here alone.

Her reaction to him was anything but normal. Most humans couldn’t stare down a dragon shifter, that little built-in voice of instinct screaming at them of danger. Predator. She didn’t break eye contact at all. He knew Chaghan and Qara, but what he knew of them involved a son, not a daughter, and certainly not a human one.

This could be a trap.

Others had tried to lure him out with a dragon mate before. Using human women to appeal to his supposed sense of honor or protectiveness. He still had a scar from the first time that happened, and it took a hell of a lot to scar a dragon, given how quickly his kind healed.

Only this one came to you alone, risking her life on the mountain.

He ignored the voice in his head…and the smaller one in his pants that was still half-hard with interest. She wasn’t off to a great start. The lie about her supposed dragon shifter parents. The suspect timing, showing up here at the same time he had.

This mountain had been abandoned months ago.

He’d risked returning by himself to shut it all down and destroy any remaining evidence of his dealings. Hopefully, the important stuff that he’d taken care to hide hadn’t been discovered.

His old mentor’s voice echoed in his mind. “Never leave evidence where prying eyes can see,” he’d say.

Deep had been talking about keeping humans from discovering their kind. Would he be proud of the way Rune had used that advice lately?

Probably not. They hadn’t talked since Rune had abandoned his team and gone rogue.

He and the people he’d collected to help him since that day hadn’t had time to do a thorough scrub of this place when they’d had to abandon it this spring. The man now the new King of the Black Clan and his phoenix had shown up out of nowhere, bringing the people chasing them down on Rune’s head. He’d had to scatter his team and send the mates he’d been protecting away.

No surprise that, once he returned, he hadn’t had to tunnel his way in through what had been collapsed corridors and entrances when he’d left. Rubble left by intruders breaking through the defenses of what had been his hiding place for a solid decade.

Someone, or probably many someones, had already broken back in, no doubt looking for him and especially the mates he’d been protecting. But they’d been long gone. Whoever had come later, no one remained in the mountain by the time he’d returned.

Only by coincidence had he been in the ancient war room when this sprite-like woman had shown up, boldly waving at the camera and calling his name.

He’d already scented her on the mountain, but now inhaled long and slow, catching no hint of smoke or other telltale signs of supernatural creatures, still having trouble placing what she was exactly. Not a dragon shifter, as she’d said. Human.

Only humans weren’t supposed to know about dragon shifters, let alone seek them out.

His dragon gave a hum of approval. He liked her moxie. Anyone who dared scale a mountain like this one on her own in early winter, let alone come deliberately searching for a rogue dragon shifter, had to have tons of it.

That, or he was right, and she was the bait for a trap one of the many people after him had laid, hoping he’d come back like he had.

She crossed her arms. “Why don’t you believe me?”

The question was more curious than offended, with not a scrap of worry in her tone. Interesting.

“Because the Alaz team couldn’t have done that.” The biggest hole in her story had stood out like a neon sign saying, You’d be a fool to believe this bullshit.

Rune was not a fool.

Her green eyes narrowed. “Is this some sort of enforcer solidarity thing?”

This little human knew about enforcers? Which meant she was aware of more than just the existence of dragons. How?

“Your information is a bit dated. I haven’t been an enforcer since—”

She waved an impatient hand, cutting him off. “Since you left the Huracán team a decade or two ago. Dad was fuzzy on the timing.”

Hell, she even knew which team he’d been on. Curiouser and curiouser, as Louis Carol would have said. Centuries ago, Rune had been hand selected—actually he’d volunteered, but he tended to keep that to himself—by the King of the Black Clan to take a position on the first enforcer team heading to the so-called “new world.”

Rune tipped his head, forcing his body to remain loose and easy. “What do you know of enforcers?”

Hadyn sighed. “What is this? An inquisition? Are we really going to do this?”

He said nothing.

“I guess we are.” She crossed her arms, not an inch of give in her. “Enforcers are often the best fighters in dragon shifter society.”

Unwanted, unwarranted amusement tugged. A reaction he ignored as she continued.

“They are appointed personally by the kings of each of their clans—blue, green, gold, black, red, and white, before you ask—to uphold dragon shifter laws in the colonies. How am I doing so far?”

The sweetly couched question had a bite to it, and Rune allowed himself a mocking grin. “Top marks. Keep going.”

Beyond a brief squeeze of her lips, she didn’t protest. Merely marched forward with her recitation. “The Huracán team was the first to be placed in the Americas. You were once sworn to keep dragon shifters safe. Safe from discovery by humans. Safe from other shifters and paranormal creatures. Even safe from other dragon shifters, who tend toward volatile natures and light a lot of fires.” She paused to shoot him a glare that clearly said she resented his wasting her time. “Happy?”

Very. He now had a decent idea of the depth of her knowledge thanks to that little speech.

Although, she’d left out bits related to him. Idly, he wondered if she knew. Probably not. Even his old team—men he’d counted as brothers after centuries together—hadn’t believed him, or maybe hadn’t wanted to enough to start pushing back on the Alliance they way he’d insisted they needed to.

Rune had discovered that the very laws they’d all been sworn to uphold were breaking down, harming the most vulnerable of their kind. A discovery without finite proof that had eventually sent him on a…different path.

Her tracking him down here told him she probably knew at least part of his story and not the bad parts about him. Almost all dragon shifters still believed him to be a traitor to their kind. A dangerous, unbalanced, homicidal fucker who stole dragon mates away from the clans where they rightfully belonged. The world had gotten part of that right. He did take the mates. Gladly.

But the reasons why…his old team was finally, only in the last couple of years, starting to learn the truth of that for themselves. To learn it and to believe him now, calling on him for help rather than attacking him. Vindication wasn’t all that sweet, though. Home couldn’t ever feel the same after this.

Forgiveness wasn’t in a dragon shifter’s makeup.

But he’d figure that out later. Right now, he needed to deal with Hadyn.

“Are we done, teacher? Did I earn my A?” she snapped.

“A plus, actually,” he said.

“Listen, you arrogant ass. There is a lot to discuss and little time. So, are you going to listen or keep fucking around?”

Instead of a snap of irritation, which would have been a normal reaction, he found himself wanting to crowd her. Just to scare her a little. Clearly someone needed to, or she’d get herself in trouble one day tossing attitude like that at any kind of shifter. Especially one who was, for all intents and purposes, a total stranger.

“Dragons are dangerous, love,” he warned in a soft voice. “I suggest you use a little more caution speaking to me.”

After a beat of hesitation, she rolled her eyes. The woman actually rolled her fucking eyes. “You won’t hurt me—”

The last word was hardly out of her mouth and he was across the room, in her face, curling a hand around her neck. Not tight. This was about scaring a little sense into her. He loosed a growl, letting her see his eyes go dragon for a second.

Not that his dragon acted bothered by her. If anything, the damn creature was intently curious about her…and impressed. Like a dog with its ears pricked.

Finally, a flash of nerves showed themselves as her tongue snaked out to wet her bottom lip. His body decided to go all sorts of haywire at the tiny action.

Or maybe at the way she held his gaze unflinchingly. “Hurting unclaimed dragon mates isn’t your style,” she said softly. “Protecting them is.”

An unclaimed mate? Who the fuck was this woman?

If she was what she said, Hadyn should smell of smoke at the very least. He dropped his head to the crook of her neck. Not touching but inhaling deeply.

Mint. Fields of it used to grow near the mountain where he’d been born.

The cool freshness of it surrounded her as though a subtle hint of her personality, all reflected in her eyes. Damned if his cock wasn’t throbbing by this point. A reaction that pissed him off, the burn of irritation settling low in his belly. He was reacting no better than a human boy with no control, no purpose, and no reason.

Rune jerked back, only enough to look into eyes that watched him warily but unflinchingly. Did she have no sense of self-preservation?

“You’re no mate,” he snarled. “And your parents couldn’t have been taken by the Alaz.”

“Why is that?” she demanded.

“Because the entire Alaz team is dead.”

The words dropped between them into a pool of silence, and she stopped breathing, eyes going wide. Then she blew out, harsh and fast. If he hadn’t been holding her, he had the strangest certainty that she would have run a hand through her hair.

“Huh. That explains a lot,” she murmured.

The fuck? How was that her response?

Before he could ask, her gaze snapped back to his, a thousand questions floating in the mesmerizing spring fields of her eyes, throwing his own balance off kilter. Because this wasn’t how a normal person would react to any of this conversation.

At least that’s what he told himself.

“My parents were taken a few days before the spring equinox in Alaska,” she said. “When were the Alaz killed?”

Not too long after that. But that only opened up more holes in her story.

“It’s June, now.”

Her lips twitched. “Yup.” Her irreverent tone clearly said, good for you.

“Then why aren’t they dead?” Rogues were supposed to be executed when found. Not that, as an enforcer, he hadn’t let his fair share slip by. Those who hadn’t been dangerous to their kind, merely subversive.

“You’ll have to ask their jailers,” she said.

He grunted. “Uh-huh. And, assuming they are alive, why did it take you so long to come to me if they were taken that long ago?”

“Because I had to track down their whereabouts first. I saw no point in bringing you in if they were already dead.”

On the backside of a sharp surge of respect for that statement, he hardened his heart. “That’s a nice story, love, but you’re forgetting one thing.”

Finally her hands came up to circle his wrists, though she didn’t try to tug herself free. Her touch chilled his skin, her hands—she’d taken her thick gloves off at some point—like ice, sending a slither of guilt through him.

She might be a liar, but she was human, and easily broken.

“What did I forget?” she asked.

“You’ve already lied to me once about being a mate. Why should I believe you about anything else?”

Her throat worked around a swallow under his palms, the skin silky soft there in sharp contrast to the calloused hands of a climber. He was barely touching her, and he could feel all that, and more. He’d wanted to scare her, not actually harm her, not that he’d admit that to Hadyn.

“My fated mate is dead.” She dropped that bomb of a statement quietly. “He was killed before he could turn me.”

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