The Cursed King (Inferno Rising #4) – Chapter 1 Excerpt
Nor shall this peace sleep with her; but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir
As great in admiration as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one,
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness,
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise, as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix’d.
~Shakespeare, Henry VIII
Three months ago…
Angelika Amon stuck to the perimeter of the large training room in the mountain stronghold of Ben Nevis in Scotland, headed for the smaller, human-sized door that led to the platform outside. Jedd would kill her if he knew she was planning to go out there at all, let alone without him.
Then again, he was supposed to be her bodyguard.
The night her mother died, she had sent each of her daughters to different protectors— Kasia to their faithful hellhound Maul in Alaska, Meira to gargoyles in some still unknown place, Skylar to a rogue dragon shifter in South America, and Angelika to a pack of wolf shifters in the Pyrenees. The same pack that was with her now, living inside a dragon shifter mountain just to give her a cover story. If she hadn’t believed in miracles before, that would have convinced her.
Jedd, one of the best fighters of the pack, was her best friend more than bodyguard these days. She hated to worry him. Even so, she had to get out. Alone. The cave walls felt as though they were closing in on her.
Not claustrophobia. Not exactly. Worries piled so high she couldn’t see her way around them.
The Kings’ War had set dragon shifters on opposite sides. The Black, Blue, and Gold Clans had risen up against the corrupt regime in place for five hundred years: the Red, Green, and White Clans that supported Pytheios, the no-longer-rotting King of the Red Clan. The same king who’d murdered both of Angelika’s parents as well as her grandparents and many others in power in order to secure the Red throne for himself and declare himself High King. A position that had always been held by the king mated to the phoenix.
Only he hadn’t had a phoenix.
She and her sisters had been in hiding with their mother—the best-kept secret in history for five centuries—thought to be extinct.
Now their mother was dead, her sisters were outed, and Angelika was the only one still a secret, hiding in plain sight while her world fell apart around her.
Kasia and her mate, Brand, were barely holding on to the Gold Clan he ruled. Skylar and Ladon ruled the Blue Clan here. They were fine by comparison but losing their allies in rapid succession. Meira was supposed to have mated the King of the Black Clan, but that had gone sideways in a hurry. She was out there right now, running from one danger to the next in search of her missing king.
And Angelika…well, she hadn’t inherited any of her mother’s phoenix powers or the ability to shift like her dragon father, so she’d been rendered obsolete in this war. No one seemed to know what to do with her.
Worse, Pytheios claimed to have found another phoenix, which was impossible. Four was already unheard of. There had only ever been one at a time.
What else could go wrong?
She needed to get out. Fresh air and a moment to herself would center her just so she could keep going.
She had taken precautions, at least. White-blond hair bundled under a black beanie—check. All black clothing, like a badass black dragon—check. One of Jedd’s jackets, making her person smell even more of wolf and less like the phoenix she technically wasn’t—check, check, check.
See. Precautions appropriately taken.
As usual, a shifter was guarding the massive dragonsteel door that shut the mountain off from the outside world—open during the day, it remained sealed shut at night. Ignoring the grumpy face, she gave him a cheerful wave where he sat inside a glassed-in control room. Except the door didn’t click. She turned back to face him, eyebrows raised, then flashed a thumbs-up, gestured at the door, and another thumbs-up. Rolling his eyes, the guard reluctantly pressed whatever combination of buttons needed to be pressed to automatically unlock the smaller, human-sized door leading outside to the flattened ledge used as a landing pad.
Outside, she paused and closed her eyes and breathed, letting the tension drain away as she stood under the clear, open sky.
“It is not good for you to be out here unaccompanied.”
Angelika stiffened, her eyes shooting open. She knew that voice, though only from afar. Like dark silk or smooth bourbon, low and even. Measured. From a man impossible to overlook. Turning her head, she found Airk Azdajah standing at the precipice, the white dragon shifter’s toes practically hanging over the edge to the canyon below.
“I can take care of myself,” she said. Knee-jerk response. Everyone seemed determined that she was in need of protection.
“You did not even know I was out here until I spoke.”
Unlike most shifters, whose speech changed slowly over time, the same way humans’ did, this dragon still spoke more…formally. She liked it. It made him sound old-fashioned, or chivalrous, even, which was why she smiled a little.
He shook his head in obvious disgust. “Return to the mountain, little wolf.”
Angelika ignored the imperious order. Besides, she was curious. “For someone still struggling to shift, you’re taking an awfully big risk, standing there.”
Though she’d spoken the words with kindness, Airk’s shoulders drew back, his spine going steel-rod straight.
Before he could snap back, she crossed the distance between them. “What are you doing? Trying to force your dragon to emerge? Isn’t that dangerous?”
He turned ice blue eyes on her, quietly intense in a way no man she’d met before came close to. That was saying something, given the natures of shifters, whether wolf and dragon. Probably Airk’s way was a holdover from centuries kept in captivity with few to talk to. The thought of him alone and caged like that made her heart ache.
She expected him to dismiss her again—that or dismiss the danger. Instead, his expression eased. “I am less concerned with falling to my death than I am with releasing a feral dragon.”
He had never released the animal within, according to Skylar, who knew him best, though that wasn’t by much. Not long ago, her sister had been captured by Pytheios and locked in the Red Clan’s prison in Everest…with Airk. He was the one who’d helped Skylar escape, or, more accurately, they’d helped each other.
“Then what are you doing out here?” she asked.
Airk looked down into the deep ravine below before he raised his gaze to the stars, the cool light of the waning moon illuminating his face and setting his white hair aglow. His lips twitched as though a smile was beyond him, unused, stiff and almost shaky. “After centuries inside a mountain…”
He left off the rest, but she caught his meaning.
“I don’t blame you.” Without thinking, Angelika reached over and took his hand, giving it a squeeze.
His fingers twitched in her grasp, and he stared at their clasped hands. “You dare to touch me?”
The question came out not angry or offended but almost…bewildered. She got it. She’d seen how all the dragons in this mountain avoided Airk.
She shrugged. “I’m a hugger.”
He cocked his head and studied her, seeming to be as confused by the words as by her simple action of reaching out. “Most are afraid of me. Or disgusted.”
“They don’t know you.”
He slipped his hand out of hers. “You do not know me.”
Angelika sighed as he stepped back, putting more space between them. “I would offer to be friends, but I don’t think hanging out with a wolf shifter will help you integrate into dragon society any better.”
“This is true.”
Disappointment shot through her, but that was nothing new in Angelika’s world. As always, she shook it off. She had sort of been hoping he would ignore that truth and want to be friends. Because the fact was, she found this man fascinating. Gorgeous. Distant. Lonely.
And she was drawn to him in a way she’d never felt drawn to another.
He gestured to the door she’d come out. “Allow me to escort you to your chambers.”
As much as she would like to stay out here with him, even if they simply sat in silence, she could tell by the tightness in his jaw that Airk would prefer things this way.
Maybe next time he’d be inclined to linger.
Together, they walked through the human-sized tunnels, which were rarely accessed in the daytime and abandoned at night. The wolf pack had been given suites that had clearly not been used in years and were a good distance into the mountain and up.
About halfway there, Angelika couldn’t help herself. “Tell me, Airk Azdajah, what do you want?”
Hands clasped behind his back, he leveled her with a look. “You have much to say.”
Angelika almost laughed at the irritation that flickered in his eyes. Clearly, he was ready to hand her off to the wolves. “I mean, for a long time, I’m guessing you’ve only had two goals in mind. Survival and escape.”
After a second, he gave a jerking nod.
“Well then…now that you’ve accomplished both, what is next for you?”
“You had to have pictured in your mind what you would do once you got out, right?”
Wariness stared back at her from a harshly beautiful face. “Why do you ask me this?”
She tried not to take offense at the suspicion in that question. “Because I get the impression that you’re…floundering a bit. I know what that’s like.”
Boy did she ever. Running her entire life, never feeling as though she had roots, no matter how long they’d spent in any one location. Now she was the only sister with no powers. She’d hadn’t figured out how, exactly, but she wasn’t going to let that stand in the way of her being part of taking Pytheios down.
“Floundering.” Airk stopped and frowned, mouthing the word as if tasting it. Then he scowled so harshly, a lesser person might’ve backed off. He reminded her of a wild thing in pain, bunching its muscles to lash out, even if it meant striking the person who had come to help.
He jerked his gaze to her, mouth open as if to tell her off, then paused, seeming to search her expression. Such guardedness. If she thought he would have let her, Angelika would’ve hugged him, penetrating that icy outer shell with the warmth of kindness. He was a dragon shifter, damn it. Ice shouldn’t be part of his makeup.
Slowly, he closed his mouth. “If you were me, what would you do?”
She didn’t even have to think about it. “I would find a way to kill the monster who did that to me.”
After a beat of shock, Airk’s gaze intensified, and his presence filled the space around them, power and purpose clotting the air.
Alpha. The word whispered through her mind.
Not that she should be surprised. His father had been her own father’s Beta once upon a time. Airk had more claim to the throne of the White Clan than anyone except her and her sisters. A king destined by the fates. A king that, maybe, might have been destined for her.
If things had been different.
Her body heated at the thought.
“I shall consider your words,” he said.
Then he waved her to continue on. Again, they walked side by side in silence. Only this time, the vibes that continued to pulse from him filled the space, surrounding her, penetrating her. Angelika practically wanted to crawl out of her skin. But to do what? Help him? Hug him? Fuck him?
Oh, Gods, do not think about fucking the hot, lonely, dangerous dragon shifter.
Finally, they reached her door, and she paused. “This is me.”
He gazed at her, unspeaking.
Not wanting to close a door between them yet, she looked back. “Do you think you’ll ever try to shift?”
He gave an almost negligent shrug, though she got the impression that he cared about this a thousand times more than he wanted to let on. “The bonds with loved ones that I would need to tether me to my humanity died with my parents the same day you lost your father.”
Airk had been there. A child witnessing Pytheios’s coup by murder. Part of her wanted to ask him for those memories. A part she didn’t indulge.
Angelika just nodded. “I guess you’d better make friends faster, then.”
Airk ducked his head, but not before she caught a hint of smile that fairly knocked the breath from her lungs. The man was attractive in a harsh sort of way, but when he smiled… Oh. My.
“Perhaps I have made one tonight.”
Angelika stilled. Well, knock me over with a feather.
Given the course of their conversation, she’d been under the impression that he would rather get rid of her than consider her a friend.
“I would like that.” She swallowed because the truth of those words struck her harder than expected. “But I suggest you start with dragon shifter friends.” Because, for all he knew, she was a wolf shifter.
Gaze trained on her face, he gave a sharp nod. “Allies.”
“Friends,” she corrected. “Particularly the kings mated to the phoenixes.”
That sounded odd to say, since those phoenixes were her sisters and those kings her brothers-by-blood. But no one else was supposed to know that.
“I will consider your suggestion.” He clasped his hands behind his back, as though he had to contain himself, then pivoted on his heel and walked away without another word.
“I hope you’ll try it eventually,” she called after his retreating form. “Shifting, I mean. A dragon in captivity is a true shame.”
Airk paused and glanced over his shoulder. “Perhaps one day. Though not even your sister can see what lies ahead for me.”
As he disappeared around the corner, Angelika gasped, the meaning of his words sinking in. Kasia had inherited their mother’s ability to see the future. And he’d called Kasia her sister.
He knows who I am.
That realization triggered a landslide of another one. One that might let her contribute to this war.
If there was anyone who wanted Pytheios dead as much as she did—but was semi-powerless to do anything about that—it was Airk. Maybe combining forces was an idea worth looking at closer. Her sisters had mated for political leverage or protection. Why couldn’t she?
Together, a phoenix and the rightful heir to the throne of the White Clan could be very…strategic.
The fact she’d recently been thinking about him in a very nonstrategic manner wasn’t important.
She almost ran after Airk to toss the offer around but forced herself to wait. Better to think this through and work the pros and cons before she pitched it. Mating wasn’t something to go into lightly. And who even knew if it’d work with a dormant phoenix and a dragon shifter who might go feral at any second?
“Where have you been?”
Jedd’s rasping, rumbling voice made her jump. She spun around to find him standing in the doorway of the room next to hers.
The wolf shifter glowered. “No more going nowhere without me.”
Angelika offered him a conciliatory smile but made no promises…not when she couldn’t keep them. She hated that she couldn’t give him that. “Night, Jedd.”
As she closed the door of her room behind her, she couldn’t resist one last peek down the hall.
Airk was long gone.
Would he even want to mate her?
Motherfucking dragon shifters.
Hampered by the limp body slung over one shoulder like a bag of bones, and dripping into one of his eyes, Airk slipped and slid his way down the ice and rock of a Siberian mountain peak. He picked his way between abandoned “buildings” that made up this particular dragon-shifter colony. Inside him, his dragon was going berserk, a constant roar in his head, clawing to be released so it could fight off their attackers.
The animal side of him was always an unceasing barrage of violence within, trying to get out. But Airk would never release that side of himself. He shut it down. Ignored it, dead focused on getting himself out of this situation.
If he could get to the next entrance and find a mirror, he’d get himself and his passenger both out of here.
His boot-clad feet skidded on loose shale, but he recovered quickly. Instead of burrowing deep into this peak, the dragon shifters who made a home here had gone shallow, using naturally occurring caverns as individual homes, like a village dotting the mountainside. After a week of sneaking around like a damned demented ghost and observing this smaller community, he’d finally shown his face to a woman he’d recognized from childhood. One who he’d remembered was a friend of his mother’s.
She’d run away screaming and brought the whole damn community down on top of him. Not the best result for what was supposed to be a diplomatic mission to convince his fellow White Clan dragon shifters to switch sides in the Kings’ War. How the blue and black kings had convinced him he could be successful at anything that required persuading others to follow him was a fucking mystery. Being around anyone—especially other dragon shifters—only set off the beast inside him more.
Especially when they went for his throat before he’d gotten five words out.
The unmistakable bellow of an enraged dragon above him set small rocks tumbling down the side of the mountain. His own dragon blasted an answering challenge in his head, one so loud pain echoed off the inside of his skull. Airk only held on harder to that empty, emotionless place he’d learned to go to inside him. Emotions were messy and forced mistakes.
Better to shut them off.
He ran faster, gaze darting here and there. One of these homes had to have a mirror. The one he’d planned to use to leave had been shattered before he got to it.
The limp body he carried suddenly twitched, his passenger waking up, then kicked out and upset his balance. Airk’s boot lodged between two rocks as he tipped sideways and came down hard. Pain tore through his calf.
What in the seven hells? Had he landed on a dragon’s tooth? Meanwhile, the woman over his shoulder shoved at his back. “What—”
His dragon snapped his teeth that another dared touch them. In the same instant, a shadow passed overhead, and the woman Airk was attempting to rescue gasped in terror.
The other dragon was too high up to get to them fast. Its first mistake. “If you want to get out of here, stay still,” Airk snarled.
She immediately went motionless against him, and he shot to his feet and took off, now trying to hide a limp and ignore the burn ripping though his flesh with each movement.
The sound of his name was barely a whisper on the wind. His enhanced hearing picked it up, and everything inside him went stock-still with recognition even as he kept moving.
He was immediately slammed with a memory. Angelika Amon standing before him, gorgeous in a figure-hugging gown for her sister Meira’s mating ceremony celebrations. Her frosty white-blue eyes had searched his as she’d asked him a question. “Have you decided what’s next yet?”
That’s how she’d started it.
Then she’d gone on about how she wanted to help him reach out to the White Clan and maybe turn them away from Pytheios, make them allies of her sister’s clans. How his people needed a new king to lead them to the other side of the war.
He’d been stupid enough to ask how, and then she’d said the words. Words that pierced the usual numb he kept wrapped around himself.
“If we were to mate…”
Hells. Airk had done the only thing he could. It had taken everything in him to do it, but he’d said no, unequivocally, and then he’d walked away.
He’d been avoiding her ever since.
What the fuck was Angelika doing here? And where was she?
He searched the mountainside for a glimpse of her. Was he hearing things now?
At a tiny movement, he jerked his gaze to the right, and he damn near tumbled ass over head at the sight of her—long, white-blond hair tossed in the winds whipping at the mountain, framing her perfectly heart-shaped face.
She stood hunkered down in a doorway, beckoning him like the siren she was with a tiny wave of her hands, no doubt trying to not also attract the attention of the dragon overhead.
Through the emotionless numb where he usually existed, a gut punch of fury swept through him in a scorching wave at her recklessness showing herself here like that, risking her preciously rare phoenix neck.
Airk didn’t have time to argue with her methods right now, though.
Shoving the emotions down deep where they couldn’t touch him, he kept moving. Five more steps and he ran past her through a rotting wooden door disguised to blend with the rock face and into what had once been a home.
“What in the seven hells are you doing here?” he demanded. No emotions, only logic now.
“Helping.” She shot him a patient smile, though it quickly disappeared behind urgency. “Follow me.”
He stared at her back…then did as she asked. They had one minute. Two at most.
Limping hard by now, he picked his way around toppled furniture and over shredded pieces of wood covered in layers of dust and grime. The air smelled dingy. This residence hadn’t been used in a century at least.
He kept close as Angelika rushed to a back room. One that happened to have an intact mirror, though spotted with age and exposure to the elements.
He skidded to a stop in front of it beside her and blinked at the sight of his reflection staring back. Always a shock, after five hundred years in Pytheios’s prison, to see himself. He looked like hell. Even more than usual.
Taking out the guard in the small dungeon in order to rescue the woman he now hefted had left him with a decent gash above his eye, already closing thanks to a shifter’s accelerated healing abilities. His starkly white hair—that he’d shorn short as soon as he’d had a chance after escaping captivity—was spattered with blood. His, he was fairly certain. More blood dripped at a rapid pace onto the stone floor from whatever he’d just done to his leg, pooling under the heel of his boot.
“What are you doing?” the woman over his shoulder asked, starting to squirm again.
“Waiting.” He glanced a question at Angelika, who kept her gaze on the mirror but nodded an affirmation.
The shouts outside were growing louder. Closer.
“What for? They’re coming.” His passenger was starting to panic, nails biting into his back.
Airk started to plan in his head what he’d do if he had to fight.
The unmistakable thud of a dragon landing nearby set his own dragon slashing inside him even more frantically. The creature half of him had never been this uncontrollable inside their prison cell, maybe because, strangely, there Airk had never been under direct threat. He fisted his hands against the raging push to shift, and he waited, the effort tightening his muscles to the point of pain.
He glanced at his watch—a handy invention he’d been introduced to at the time of its making several hundred years ago, while he’d still been held captive in the Red Clan’s high dungeons in Everest. Back when he’d still had hope of escape. He’d had no idea it would take another three hundred years before he would succeed.
His heart thumped with each movement of the second hand, and he found himself urging what came next to happen faster, counting down to the arranged moment the portal was supposed to be opened with each tiny tick. “Four. Three. Two….”
He dropped his hand and looked up as the image in the mirror changed abruptly, with no warning or sound, now no longer showing his reflection. Instead, a couple stood in a cavernous bedroom framed by the tarnished edges of his own mirror.
Samael Veles—black hair, black eyes, a bred warrior, and the King of the Black Clan—watched from beside his mate, Meira, his fiery gaze on whatever threat might come through the mirror.
Meira’s strawberry blond curls, so at odds with her more angular face and serious mind, lifted around her head in a halo of black-tipped flames as she used her power to teleport through reflective surfaces to manipulate both sides of the portal she’d created.
“Perfect timing,” Angelika said, except her voice was tight. She clearly knew hell was about to rain down on them and jumped through quickly. Then she turned and faced him, head cocked as though to ask what he was waiting for.
His dragon went eerily still, and the roaring in Airk’s head went dead silent, as if seeing her safe on the other side of the mirror settled them both.
Her scent—sunlight and summer and fresh air, all things he’d missed—wafted toward him.
The beast inside him lunged for Angelika. A patch of skin on his arm shimmered like a desert mirage, white scales showing hazily through. Airk slammed down every mental cage he’d built in his head to contain both his own emotions and the instinct-driven animal inside him.
The woman he carried screamed as men burst into the room in the same instant, and Airk finally forced his legs to move. He threw himself and his female passenger through the gateway opened in the mirror. His injured leg collapsed as soon as he was on the other side, and they both went sprawling across the hard rock floor.
“What happened—” Meira started to gasp.
“Close the mirror!” Angelika shouted and shoved her sister.
Immediately Meira’s fire was doused. The angry expressions of the people coming at them from the other side turned to shock, especially the man closest who’d reached an arm through. Because the “doorway” slammed shut, becoming a mirror again. The man’s arm severed cleanly and dropped to the floor to twitch there like a crushed cockroach.
They all stared at it for a second.
Airk, chest heaving from the effort of escape, and even more from the effort to hold his dragon in check, dropped his head back against the cool stone floor, reminding him incongruously of the slab he’d used as a bed in his prison cell for so long. Only this wasn’t Everest anymore; this was Meira’s bedroom in the black dragon stronghold of Mount Ararat.
He flung an arm over his eyes with a grunt.
“That was a close one,” Angelika murmured.
Even with his eyes closed, he could picture her smile, deliberately casual. Did others catch how forced those smiles had become lately? Or would they only see what she wanted them to?
Still, what the hells had she been thinking, putting herself at risk like that? Had she been afraid for him? She shouldn’t be. He was expendable.
Curling up inside him, his dragon damn near purred at her nearness, even as it snarled at Airk. Airk didn’t trust it not to try for her again, but at least he could shut back down now.
The way he functioned best. The only way.
“How did you know where I would be?” he asked, dropping his arm, gaze on the ceiling.
“Kasia had a vision,” Angelika said simply.
“That did not mean you needed to come in person.” He shouldn’t care that she had, or even be grateful, but he was still getting over the unaccustomed fear that had struck him like a damn thunderbolt the instant he’d heard her voice.
Emotions were dangerous. His control only worked when he could shut everything else down—and control was the only reason he was still alive.
“I take it negotiations to convince those dragon shifters to join our side didn’t go well?” Samael asked, ignoring his jab at Angelika.
He grunted again.
A tiny, thrilled meow sounded a half a second before a runt of a cat jumped on Airk, and he barely stopped himself from growling, especially when Angelika’s muffled chuckle followed. The foolish animal curled up in a ball right in the center of his chest and set to purring.
“Meira.” That was all he said.
The tiny cat—Meira and Samael had rescued her somewhere in the journey that resulted in their mating not that long ago—seemed determined to make him her friend. Much like Angelika that way.
But unlike the cat, Angelika wants a mate.
He shoved the thought down deep where it couldn’t touch him.
“Sorry.” Meira’s voice shook suspiciously as she lifted the animal off him.
Airk dropped his arm to his side and glared at the ceiling.
Clearing her throat, Angelika squatted down not in front of him but before the female he’d saved. “Who is this?”
The woman—almost a girl, really, and probably no older than nineteen—opened and closed her mouth several times, not even a squeak of sound emerging.
“A human who is showing dragon sign,” Airk answered, carefully pushing himself to sitting, gritting his teeth against the pain in his leg. “They had her trapped in their dungeon. I gathered that she refused to mate the dragon they…assigned her.”
Samael let out a rumble of anger at that. Mates were not supposed to be assigned.
“Look.” The woman he’d saved seemed to have found her voice. “I don’t know who you people are, but—”
“We’re people who won’t hurt you,” Meira assured her, crouching beside Angelika. In that position, her simple dress stretched and pulled, revealing the beginning swell of the baby growing in her womb.
“I know this must be confusing and scary,” the newly crowned Queen of the Black Clan said. “But…we’re here to help.”
The female glanced from her to Airk, who nodded. “I guess anything is better than a dungeon,” she said.
“You know you’re bleeding pretty badly, right?”
Angelika’s question was directed at him, despite the fact he still wasn’t looking at her.
He glanced over, only to collide with blue eyes so pale they were near white, like the deepest part of a glacier, and yet still filled with impossible…warmth. Warmth that was purely her. The death of her parents, her grandparents—all slaughtered at Pytheios’s hands—that alone should have taught her the cruelty of life. Instead, the woman was a creature of silver linings, imbued with the kind of faith in others that would only get her killed.
He just hoped he wasn’t there when it happened.
Just to give himself anywhere else to look, he peeled back the leg of his black pants. They’d suggested he wear a suit to make him appear more official. He’d gone a different way, choosing combat pants with pockets for weapons, food, and other provisions, and a snug-fitting long-sleeved black shirt in a modern material that was soft against his skin.
He grimaced at the deep gash already starting to close up. That fast, he made a decision never to walk into another dragon-shifter community unless he was armed to the teeth and there to kill.
No more diplomatic missions. This was his last failed attempt. Time for a new strategy.
Suddenly Angelika was kneeling beside him, soft hands pressing at the flesh around the wound. Airk gritted his teeth as his entire body responded with a rush of lust that, if he wasn’t already on the ground, would have taken his knees out from under him.
He always reacted like this to her, and that was damn dangerous. Being around her was both heaven and hell.
Meira winced. “That’s a lot of blood.”
“I’ll take him to the infirmary.” Angelika stood and held out a hand to help Airk up. “Let’s go, tough guy.”
He scowled. She was the only person, other than the damn cat, brave enough to get this close. After all, everyone knew his dragon was feral. He could snap at any second.
So damn tempting to reach for her hand. Or her waist. Or—
No. Physical contact would be akin to setting off a spark in the middle of a forest of dead trees. He avoided touching her. Always. Ever since the first night she’d spoken to him. He’d gone so rock hard from her voice alone, her scent, that as soon as he’d made it to his room he’d had to flog his cock to keep his dragon contained. Three times. All to images of Angelika—her mouth on him, hands on him, his dick buried inside her.
Airk levered to his feet, ignoring the frustrated snort of his dragon, careful to keep his weight off his injured leg. “Describe to me the way.”
“These days we say, ‘Show me the way.’ And I’m going with you whether you like it or not.”
His nostrils flared. How did she not get offended? Wasn’t it obvious that he was trying to keep her at a distance? And why did his dragon like her stubbornness so much? If they weren’t careful, the creature would get out and kill her.
When he didn’t speak, she raised her eyebrows, and that was when he caught it.
Disappointment shadowed her eyes.
His irritation took on a whole new direction—at himself.
“Follow me,” she said and didn’t wait for him, leaving the room.
Gritting his teeth, he trailed after her.
Avoiding her had become an exercise in futility. Especially that gentle smile that perpetually hovered about her lips, ready to shine into the darkest corners of a heart. He’d only once been able to rid her of that smile and replace it with an emotion he didn’t want to identify since he’d known her.
The day he’d said no to something he wanted so much he’d ached every day since.