Authors: T. S. Joyce
“You?” she guessed. She wished he would finish his thoughts so she could understand him.
“No. I hurt other people.” His eyes tightened, and he looked away as though he was about to leave, so she wrapped her arms around his waist before she could change her mind. Damon stood frozen under her hug. Not a muscle twitched, not a joint moved. His hands hovered out to his sides, but she didn’t care. Clara pressed her cheek against his chest. Yes, he was warm. Warmer than bears. Her cheek heated on that side, like a blush, but to the point she would have to pull away soon. That felt tragic, separating.
Wait, what was she doing? She wasn’t supposed to be doing this. Hugging Damon wasn’t going to help her leave any easier. But his body relaxed under her, and his hands slid up her back. One stayed pressed against her spine, while the other traveled up and up until Damon gripped the back of her neck. So warm. So safe. A shiver traveled up her back and landed in her shoulders. Here headache was back. Not painful, but pulsing in the middle of her head, reminding her that she could be incapacitated at any moment.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, forcing herself to ease away. “I don’t know why I did that. I’m not usually a hugger.”
“Nor am I.” Damon’s head was cocked, and he stared at her as if he was a scientist studying something he couldn’t understand. “Would you like to stay here for a while, or do you want to go back to my house?”
“You would stay here if I wanted to?”
Damon dipped his chin once.
“Mason said the Gray Backs work for you.”
“A shifter like me can’t afford to have friends, Ms. Sutterfield, but if I did, the Gray Backs would be some of them. I don’t mind spending more time here if that is what you desire.”
“Desire, huh? So do dragons give wishes like genies?”
A slow smile spread across his face, and his eyes sparked. “What kind of wish do you need granted?”
for you to shotgun a beer with me.”
Both of his dark eyebrows jacked up this time. “Shotgun a beer?”
“Yeah, you know. Poke a hole in the bottom of a beer can, pop the top, and chug it like the super un-boring dragon you are. I can rub you like a genie if you want,” she teased, waggling her eyebrows.
Damon’s eyes narrowed in the soft glow of the firelight. “Minx.”
“Creed,” Damon called at normal volume over his shoulder. “Do you have cans of beer, and can you teach me the art of shotgunning?”
The Gray Backs went dead quiet for an instant before their chatter picked up at double volume.
“Hell yes,” Creed crowed.
Damon stepped out of her path and gestured toward the fire, palm up as he bowed. “After you.”
Okay, so Clara hadn’t really thought he would say yes. She was teasing, thinking an immortal would’ve lost their sense of adventure along the eons, but Damon was apparently up for playing. He’d shocked her to her bones, and damn, it had been a long time since someone had surprised her.
The Gray Backs, as it turned out, were all down to shotgun beers, and so they gathered around the fire pit, Bud Lights in hand, as Creed explained the technical side to poking a hole in the bottom. This was Willa, Georgia, and Aviana’s first shotgun, too, so Damon was in good company. Clara watched him relax and laugh with the Gray Backs as he prepared his beer, and in that moment, everything faded away. The background became blurry and dull while Damon drew up into focus. His muscular shoulders pressed against the crisp white material of his shirt, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed and prepared to pop the top of his beverage.
“One!” Willa said with the happiest grin on her face.
From the way the Gray Backs acted, Damon didn’t cut loose with them often.
Clara jammed her finger under the top of her can. Her breath halted as Damon turned that demon-black gaze on her and mouthed,
Are you ready?
Heart-stopping smile. Heart. Stopping.
With a giggle, she popped the top of her drink and chugged her beer from the hole near the bottom. She spilled everywhere, but most of it got into her. She leaned over, cracking up as she wiped her mouth. Damon didn’t spill a drop. Of course, he was good at shotgunning. She’d bet he was good at everything he tried.
He took her empty can like a true gentleman and disposed of it, then returned with a proud smile. He nodded his head magnanimously and drew her hand to his lips, then murmured, “Wish granted.” Lifting a hungry gaze to hers, he whispered, “And you didn’t even have to rub me.”
Clara’s breath froze in her throat. The naughty man wasn’t as cold as she’d supposed. He knew how to tease her back. And as he dropped her hand and turned to say something low to Creed, who was clapping him on the back, Clara blinked slowly and had to focus on staying upright. Her legs had turned to noodles when he had brushed his lips across her knuckles. It was an old fashioned kiss, yes, but a kiss just the same, and now her stomach dipped as if she were falling.
But for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out if it was good to fall for a man like Damon Daye, or epically bad.
A smile lingered on Damon’s lips as he looked out the window of the Towncar. It was dark outside, but his night vision was impeccable. Every branch and every pine needle, every set of reflective animal eyes and every blade of wild grass was as crisp and clear as it would be in the daytime.
Turning his head slightly, he snuck a glance at Clara, but she was watching him, too. Busted. Her answering smile turned shy, and she dropped her gaze to the hem of her shirt, which she was fiddling with.
Mason suddenly had nothing to say and, sure as anything, Damon was going to deal with him tomorrow, but right now, he had this tiny tangle of giddiness in his gut. Shotgunning a beer. Truly? Damon shook his head and tried to get a grip on the stupid smile tugging at his lips. What was the woman doing to him? Daring him to step out of his comfort zone with that beautiful challenge in her dancing green eyes, and like a lovesick adolescent, he’d risen to the dare just to see that smile on her full lips. Hers was a smile he would fell entire mountains for.
She was nothing like Feyadine.
Feyadine had been shy and had trouble speaking her mind, while this wild creature could look him directly in the eyes and tell him exactly what she was thinking. And her hair. Red like his flames and curled into little corkscrews. Feyadine’s had been a darker auburn, and she’d kept hers pulled tightly back in pins, as was the style at the time. Her eyes were also gray instead of the clear mossy green of Clara’s. And if those differences weren’t enough, the second Clara opened her mouth, there was no mistaking her with Feyadine.
And yet Damon had that same kind of pulse-pounding, dick-hardening response he’d had to Feyadine all those centuries ago. This was all confusing, and though he’d never admit it aloud, terrifying.
It would be best for everyone when she left in the morning.
The thought of losing her before he got to know more about her made his dragon unfurl uncomfortably in his middle. A single click cracked inside his chest. A warning from his firestarter that he needed to settle down or this car would go up in flames, and its inhabitants along with it. And as much as Damon wanted to pretend Mason and Clara meant nothing to him, he’d been trying to change since his mistakes with Diem. When he’d hurt his daughter, his son-in-law, Bruiser, had given him a verbal beat-down that opened his eyes to so much. And from that day forward, he’d begun to
for the people who worked in his mountains.
Feeling and caring were agony for a shifter like him because like all the rest, his friends would age, wither, and die. And he would bury them one by one and break all over again. Weak. He was weak to let mortals affect him, and yet he couldn’t tame his attachment to them. Not anymore.
“Can I tell you something and you forget it in the morning?” Clara asked so low he almost missed it.
He nodded once, curiosity piqued.
“I like your smile. You seem like a man who doesn’t give it often, and I felt special tonight that you gave it to me.”
Damon inhaled deeply. Fuck.
“I’m not a good man to get attached to, Ms. Sutterfield.” God he hated uttering her surname. He had to distance himself, but really he wanted to put his mouth around her real name. Clara. Beautiful, wild, strong Clara. Dangerous Clara.
Her face fell, and she looked out her window, hiding those vivid eyes from him. Pain slashed through his middle. He would have to hurt her a lot more if she didn’t stop knocking on the stony walls of his heart. The game she played could kill everything he’d built.
“Do you know what the tattoo on your shoulder blade symbolizes?” Of course, she did. It was the perfect replica of the Blackwing’s crest, down to the most minute detail and line work. She’d researched her lineage.
“No. It’s just a picture I get in my head.” She was still hiding her gaze, staring at the passing evergreens as they bumped and bounced up the dirt road toward his home.
Damon frowned. “Where have you seen it before?” Perhaps there were scrolls from her genealogy that she’d found.
She swung her gaze to him, and he could see it now. Honesty pooling deep in her eyes. “I told you I see it in my head. I get these headaches, and then I get these flashes of…something.” Her voice dipped to a wisp of breath. “Teeth and fire and wings.”
A seer then. A true seer, not the untalented psychic she fancied herself. Clara was housing great power to draw on images that far past.
“What do you see?”
“I-I can’t say.”
“Can’t or won’t?” Why wouldn’t she tell him? What was she hiding?
“Can’t. I don’t understand the images. They’re just these insane pictures that make no sense. Like a mash-up. A collage of unrelated instances that don’t tell any story. I’m going mad.” Clara gasped. “I didn’t mean to say that last part.”
“Explain it now.”
“Do you always get what you want? A simple please would get you a long way.”
“Yes, I always get what I want. And please, explain it now.”
When Clara narrowed her eyes to dangerous-looking slits, chills blasted up his arms. Little mortal hellion. She would’ve made an intimidating adversary in the dragon wars.
“My grandma went crazy with what she called the sight. Dreams and headaches and visions of awful things. She was stark raving mad by the time she passed. Clawing at the walls of a padded room and screaming about monsters that had eaten each other up. I’m the same as her. I’ll have the same fate. I already feel myself slipping into these visions. They feel so real I think I have some kind of connection to a different dimension or something. That’s how it starts, you know? Thinking your hallucinations are real. I even bought into my own hype so much that I sank all of my savings into a crappy store in a shopping center where I read palms and tarot cards. I even have a crystal ball. Pretty lame, huh?”
“Mmm,” he said noncommittally. If she didn’t know her own power, he wasn’t going to enlighten her on how dangerous she could be.
His response had been wrong because Clara’s shoulders slumped, and she leaned against the door, far away from him. Before he could change his mind, he asked, “Why did you hug me?”
“Because it felt right.” Her answer was quick and honest.
“Because you feel safe. Stupid, right? More proof I’m broken and so are my instincts. You’re a dragon, and yet I haven’t felt so comfortable since…”
“Since what? Finish it. Please.”
“Since my crew.” When she looked at him, her eyes were filled with such sadness, he had to look away. He’d read her file and knew the bare bones of what she’d been through. She’d been an alpha once.
Damon wanted to hold her hand. He wanted to touch her. Kiss her until she forgot all about the sadness. He knew about losing someone. He knew all about insides being ripped up. He couldn’t do anything to save the people he had loved over the centuries. With just a despairing look at him, she’d reminded him how heavy the burden of loneliness could be. Dangerous Clara. Clenching his hands against the urge to pull her against his side, he did the only thing he knew how. He pushed her away. “You’re right, Ms. Sutterfield. Your instincts are broken.”
Clara sat there stunned. The smile had faded from Damon’s face, and his eyes glinted dangerously in the dark. His expression had morphed into the stoic mask where she couldn’t tell if he liked or loathed her. It was the face he wore the most, and she hated it.
When Mason pulled the car to a stop in front of Damon’s house, the dragon dropped his gaze and shoved out of the car. “Mason,” he barked out, “see her to her room.” And then he disappeared inside.
Numbly, Clara followed the now quiet driver through the front doors. She followed him down the cold marble hallway that seemed to stretch for miles. She followed him past statues and fountains, past winding staircases and what looked like an old-fashioned ballroom. Sconces and chandeliers and wooden doors stretched to three times her height, and it all combined to give her a single feeling—frigid emptiness. Damon had decorated this place without any warmth at all.
Perhaps it was he who was broken.
Mason adjusted the strap of her duffle bag on his shoulder and shoved open a heavy wooden door that had been painted a cream color. The paint was worn and chipped, and it looked as if it had been taken from some ancient castle. Inside, the guestroom was bigger than her entire apartment in Florida. There was white wainscoting along the walls, and intricate crown molding around every window and along the entirety of the ceiling. Above the wainscoting was wallpaper in a mauve floral print that should’ve felt outdated and dull, but paired with the four poster bed with the gauze curtains, the room looked quite elegant and comfortable. There was a sitting area, and a set of French doors were open to a sprawling balcony that overlooked the waterfall she’d seen earlier.
It was a room fit for a queen, and Clara was definitely trailing trailer-park dirt all over the pristine dark wood floors.
Surprised by the contrast to the sterile white corridors, she murmured, “This room is so different than the rest of the house.”
Mason nodded and smiled, then pointed to a room off the main and said, “The bathroom is through there. Sleep as late as you like.” He hovered at the doorway where he’d set her bag down as if he wanted to say more, but turned abruptly instead and closed the door behind him, leaving her alone in the enormous room.
The shower was roughly the size of her bedroom at home, and when she finally figured out how to turn on the hot tap, water fell like rain from the ceiling. She washed the travel dirt from her skin and towel dried her hair, then readied for bed in a daze. Her mind circled around Damon, from the contract to him breaking the glass in his office, from his agonized roar to the Grayland Mobile Park, and then back—always back—to that stunning dimple-smile he’d given over and over again tonight. He was the most interesting, yet confounding man she’d ever met. And even more terrifying than her interest in a cold man was the bone-deep desire that unfurled in her belly anytime he was around. She was giving him the power to hurt her, and for what? She hadn’t known him long enough to care about what made him tick.
Clara closed the terrace doors, turned off the lights, and buried herself under the plush covers of the bed. With a frown, she looked over at the wall beside her. What if he was there on the other side? She didn’t know for sure, but she could almost sense him, almost picture him, restless in his own bed, as she was in hers.
She scooted to the side of the bed she imagined was closest to him and relaxed. It was there that she drifted off, as close to the cold dragon as she would ever sleep.
Pain, sharp and bright.
Clara squeezed her eyes closed, then opened them again as the ache in her head subsided. Where was she? She looked down at her hands, clasped tightly in her lap. Her crossed legs were covered with green silk that shone in the candlelight. She wore a dress, but none like she’d ever seen. It was full in the skirts and tight from her waist up. Her sleeves were nothing more than lace caps right at the tips of her collar bones. Her headache was probably because her hair was pulled too tight in the pins that were jabbing into her head. Baffled, she looked around. The room was dark, and the walls made of stone. It was dark, like a cave, and old-fashioned lanterns hung from the walls on rusty pegs. Above was a large, circular chandelier, but instead of lightbulbs, it housed hundreds of lit candles, dripping wax onto the large table beneath. And around that table stood tall, broad-shouldered men, talking low. They spoke in a language she shouldn’t understand, but did, and all of the men, warriors if their dress and manners were anything to go by, deferred to one man who stood closest to her, leaning over a set of maps. Arms locked and triceps bulging against the thin cotton cloth of his shirt.
“Amir, you know my answer already,” the man said, his voice pitched low and gravelly. “Marcus has urged a war for more than a century now, and we’ve always been able to avoid it. We’ll do it again.”
A Nordic-looking man slammed his open palm onto the table then gestured to her. “But if what the seer says is true, we’ll all burn in our beds if we don’t defend ourselves.”
“Even so,” the leader said in a more patient voice. “Even if she says the truth, we can’t risk our entire species by engaging with him. If the Blackwings get their war, half of the world could burn, and we would annihilate each other. There would be nothing left to protect, and our way of life would be through. We would be nothing but ash and dust. We move our females and offspring into hiding and try to negotiate.”
“You can’t put off the war forever,” the Nordic man said, his voice shaking in anger.
“If any of us want to live, I have to.”
Seven men filed out of the room, murmuring their discontent, while the dark-haired man in the middle stood still with his back to her. Muttering a curse, he sagged against his locked arms on the table and shook his head.
She loved him. She didn’t want him to hurt like this. She needed to touch him and reassure him everything would work out, just as it had for centuries. She stood and padded toward him, then reached her pale hand out to touch his shoulder. “My love?”
Clara gasped and sat up, then hunched into herself and grabbed her head to keep it from exploding. Tears streamed from the corners of her eyes, and she gripped her hair in desperation to find relief. Slamming her face into the pillow, she bit the material and screamed into it, her hoarse voice agonized and muffled.