Authors: Serena Gilley
A Forbidden Realm Novel
New York Boston
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Dedicated to the hottest, most magical group of writers I know. Thank you, my Sorry Wenches, for all the hours of support, brainstorming, and creative dragon taming.
icolai Stefanya Vladik paced the length of the boardroom and wished in his very core there was a window in this damn place. It was not in his nature to be cooped up in these constructions, human boxes made of plastic and wood, substances that would wither and melt into a wisp of smoke at the very least hint of fire. It was a tenuous way to exist. No wonder humans were so short lived—they spent so much of their time in these fragile spaces.
It was a damned shame that Nicolai had so little opportunity to get back to his own familiar lair. He’d been here, on this jobsite, for months now. Several years before that he’d begun acting as one of them, studying, scheming, and manipulating them in this role he’d created. It was all to keep the humans in their place. To make very certain they never found what they searched for so diligently.
He’d done it all for the good of his kind, for the future of his clan. He was a warrior, after all, and this was his battle. It had been waging so long, however, that every now and then he worried he’d forgotten who he was. He feared he’d become too comfortable in this flimsy form.
one of those times. Today he itched to abandon it all. Clothing, technology, shallow entertainments…all of them were so frail, so meaningless. If he feared anything today, it was that he would discard the trappings of this human existence and give in to his nature. He longed for the heat of his lair.
For a year this team had been studying the thermal activities of the area, and Nic risked more than personal exposure if he abandoned his human form. Day after day, month after month, though, it was becoming harder to maintain. He craved…well, he craved something he could not have.
He needed to get his mind back on his work. This meeting today with a dozen so-called experts in their fields was a waste. None of these “learned” humans really knew anything. Of course he ought to be glad for that, but he was tired of the isolation and routine this situation required. He was exhausted from denying his needs.
And he did have needs. It was always this way if he let himself go too long without. He would have to do what must be done if he wanted to continue in his role.
The question, of course, was how. Even as the meeting droned on, as the men around him talked about projects and statistics and governmental regulations, he could wonder only how he would tend to his needs. This site inspection, after all, was scheduled to go on for another two weeks. In the middle of nowhere. Nic didn’t dare leave at this critical time, but he also couldn’t figure how to manage his problem.
He needed a woman. Badly. By the Fires, he thought he could almost smell one, feel her very real presence just beyond his carefully calm exterior. His skin tingled on alert. It was as if the air in the building crackled with the hot essence of woman. She smelled like heat and flesh and the promise of passion. Damn, but his situation must be worse than he’d thought; he knew only men had been assigned to this remote project site.
If he didn’t sink himself into warm female flesh soon, he was likely to explode. And this was not just the wishful thinking of the usual frustrated human male. No, this was serious. If Nic thought he might be about to explode, everyone here had good reason to worry. Once his control was lost and he shed this human facade, the truth would be known. He would have to silence them all to keep his secret safe. Nic wasn’t just any sex-crazed mortal man, after all.
Nicolai Vladik was a full-fledged dragon.
* * *
She was a woman and there was no way to hide it. Lianne McGowan didn’t generally notice when she was the only female on a given project, or in a department, or perhaps even the only one assigned to any particular building. She was oddly aware, however, that as of her arrival at this jobsite today, she was the only female for a good hundred miles. Or more, maybe.
Iceland, as it turned out, was overflowing with volcanoes and geothermal hot spots. Not so much civilization. And certainly not privileged American women sent out to the frozen wastelands to represent their daddies’ interests around a bunch of men with letters after their names.
She was getting used to making her way in a man’s world, though. It meant she had to convey the point right away that she was confident in her role here and wasn’t going to let anyone push her around. Also she wasn’t going to let any of them think she wasn’t just as tough and as determined as they were. Geo-Diagnostics had sent her here with one goal: the project had been lagging and she was supposed to get these guys back on the ball. The higher-ups needed to see some results if they were going to keep the investors happy.
Lianne was here to get those results. It was as simple as that. Her father had been grooming her for this job and she knew how to do it. Twelve men or a hundred men weren’t going to distract her. She was ready for whatever attitude problems or temper tantrums they were going to throw at her. This little modular building on the side of the volcano they were studying wouldn’t know what hit it.
She didn’t bother to knock but pushed the boardroom door open and stood there for a minute, letting the group inside figure out that something in their little world had just changed. It gave her a minute to look them over, too. First impressions were important on both sides.
A few of the guys she recognized, having worked with them at other sites before. Mr. Casper she knew from way back, and Mr. Blanchard sitting at the head of the table with his usual smug expression made her want to roll her eyes. The other men looked like every geologist, engineer, and technical geek she’d gotten used to working with. No surprises here. Except…one guy was pacing at the back of the room.
Wow. He was not like the others. He paused in his pacing to stare at her, silver-blue eyes practically throwing sparks against exotic bronze skin. His gaze stalked her, wild and ferocious as a caged animal. No, he wasn’t like the other ones. Not at all.
The smile he gave her wasn’t like the usual patronizing smiles she got, either. His lips curled like he’d been starved for a week and was just handed a plate of lasagna. She’d never really wanted to be lasagna before, but for half a second she was ready to slather on some parmesan cheese and tell the man dinner was served.
The insanity lasted only a heartbeat, though. After a quick draw of breath and some rapid internal scolding, she grabbed control of herself and managed to take her eyes off him. It wasn’t easy, but she knew better than to get carried away by a pretty face and a pair of ungodly wide shoulders. Any man who looked like that most likely knew he looked like that. Which meant he was probably an asshole.
She’d had enough assholes for a lifetime.
“Hello, gentlemen,” she said, enjoying her moment of authority before they all started trying to assert their male dominance. “I’m not sure what you’re up to right now, but I’m here to tell you vacation time is over.”
She heard one of the computer techs mutter her name under his breath. That could be good, or that could be bad.
“For those of you who don’t know me,”
like the steaming-hot asshole with the silver eyes in the back of the room
, “I’m Lianne McGowan. I’ve been sent here to hold your little hands and dig through your procedures to figure out why we’ve got lots and lots of data here, but no usable information. Any questions?”
The men glanced back and forth between each other. She noted a couple of raised eyebrows. One of the computer geeks leaned in to his buddy and whispered something. They both snorted and tried to hide dopey schoolgirl giggles. Idiots.
This was where she either gained them or lost them, right here when these pubescent juveniles tested her. It happened at least once on every site. Sooner or later, they always wanted to see what she was made of.
So, she’d have to show them. They’d better not let her damn freckles or the fact that she wore a bra confuse them into thinking they could push her around. She knew exactly what she was doing and, whether it threatened their collective manhood or not, she was in charge. She nailed the giggling techs with an angry-schoolteacher glare.
“You two have a question?”
They shook their heads frantically. She was not about to let them off so easily.
“It sounded to me like you had a question. Did anyone else happen to hear what these two boys were mumbling about?”
Peer pressure was a wonderful thing. She loved to use it to evoke cooperation whenever possible. The men would band together, united in submissive silence as no one wanted to be the rat who threw the pimple-faced kids under the bus. It would establish her role as leader instantly. Men were so wonderfully predictable at times.
The asshole, however, surprised her. He cleared his throat and stepped forward.
“I believe the first young man wondered if you left your leather whip in your suitcase,” he said. “And the other asked if we ought to call you Lianne, or if you prefer something more formal, like Mistress.”
The horror on the faces of the young techs proved that the asshole had, indeed, heard their whispered conversation. They probably thought they were being clever to insinuate she was some kind of wet-dream dominatrix rather than a business-minded professional. They didn’t look so clever now. One looked like he was almost going to cry, in fact.
The asshole, though…now, he concerned her.
She shifted her glare to him. “And who are you? I don’t recall running across you in the personnel files.”
“I’m a consultant,” he said, and she detected the dark tones of a slight Russian accent. “Nicolai Stefanya Vladik. You can call me Nic.”
“All right, Nic. And since you’re so eager to help us answer the young tech’s question, what do you suppose I like to be called?”
He narrowed his silver eyes and contemplated her. “Here on the job, no doubt you expect to be called Ms. McGowan. In your private time, though, I suspect you prefer something else.”
Yep, he was an asshole. His voice was steady but his eyes were already undressing her; she could feel it. Hopefully he had a good imagination, since that was the closest he was
getting to the goods.
“Well, nobody here is going to find out about that,” she said sweetly. “From this point on, there is no private time, gentlemen. You’re on the job, twenty-four/seven, whether you’re in the office, in the lunchroom, or collapsing into your beds. Got it?”
The men who had worked with her before rolled their eyes and nodded. The others grumbled. The asshole smiled.
“I’m always on the job,” he said. “In the office, in the lunchroom, or…wherever I happen to be applying myself.”
An uninvited little thrill coursed up then down her spine. Damn, but those silver eyes of his…did things to her she really did not need right now. At all. And was that the jagged hint of a dagger-shaped tattoo she saw peeking out from the man’s collar at the broad, bronze nape of his neck? What kind of consultant was this, anyway?
Hell. She flew halfway across the world to this frigid, rocky wasteland for the sake of dear Dad and
is what she was stuck with. It would figure.
Assholes with tattoos just happened to be her weakness. This was going to be a long, frustrating assignment.