Tempt the Dragon
by AC Arthur
Book 3 in the Legion Series
Aiken and Mel never thought they would see each other again.
Fate, and a brewing war with a vampire army, had other plans.
After the love of his life walked away, powerful half-human, half-dragon Aiken French isn’t about to risk his emotions on a woman ever again. It doesn’t matter that his Drakon beast wholeheartedly disagrees, or that his powers of telekinesis are suffering as a result. He can’t live through that kind of heartbreak again. But with a long-buried vampire stirring, he might not have a choice.
Bounty hunter Mel Kane never wanted a pre-ordained future–she would be in control of her life, not some Drakon beast that supposedly selects her mate for her. She had to leave, even if it just about killed her. But if she’s going to decide her own future, she’ll need to stay alive long enough to see it, which means trusting Aiken with her life, even though she couldn’t trust him with her heart.
With war on the horizon, Aiken and Mel must track down the rogue vampire behind it all. Temptation leads them back into each other’s arms, but even fate isn’t a sure thing when faced with a legion of the undead determined to kill them all.
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Tempt the Dragon
Book 3 in the Legion Series
Tempt the Dragon
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Eighty Years Ago
“I got your back.” Truer words had never been spoken to her and Mel would go to her grave believing that.
However, she wasn’t planning for her life to end tonight.
When Aiken used his telekinetic power to push the dumpster in front of the feline shifter to keep it from exiting the other side of the alley, she ran up behind it, jumping into the air to kick it in the back. The force of her kick sent the shifter stumbling a few feet forward. It made a ferocious sound and dropped to its knees before changing from the hundred-and-ninety-pound man they’d followed from the train station to a big-ass white lion!
“Shit!” she yelled, when after a few shell-shocked seconds the large beast turned and charged her. Her hand went immediately to the waistband of her jeans to grab her gun, but she’d dropped that when she was chasing the guy on the street and he’d knocked over a bunch of trash cans to stop her. She’d had to jump over each trash can to keep herself upright and when he got hip to that and picked one up, tossing it at her, she’d instinctively reached up to catch it, instead of ducking like Aiken had done. The gun had fallen from her hand in the process.
But she hadn’t stopped then and she wasn’t going to stop now, regardless of the tendrils of fear slipping down her spine. She reached down to grab her backup gun from her ankle holster, a second before the lion knocked her flat on her ass. Its heavy paws were on her chest, pressing the last breaths out of her, just before its face came closer to hers, long and sharp teeth just inches from her cheek.
The next roar she heard was Aiken’s. She knew because it not only shook the dumpster and the buildings around them, but the ground beneath her trembled, as well. When her next breath came without restriction, she saw the whir of white fur seconds after Aiken lifted the animal and tossed it all the way down to the end of the alley. The force of a four-hundred-pound lion in motion exploded into the dumpster, sending the beast and the dumpster careening to a stop, just inches before slamming into a brick wall.
The lion immediately jumped up, running toward them once more. Aiken grabbed her wrist, pulling her up to her feet and then pushing her behind him.
“What are you doing? I’ve got my gun.” Which she did have in hand now, thanks to the seconds it had taken him to remove the lion from her lungs and toss it down the alley.
“You’re gonna need more than that,” he shouted and before she could ask what he was talking about more white lions appeared. Shit was about to get real.
Where they’d come from, she had no clue, but Mel raised her arms and aimed her gun dead center between one of their eyes. She barely got off the first shot before they all charged. Forcing calm over fear, she stood close to Aiken, ready to do whatever was necessary to catch their target, just as they always did. They’d been partners for just about a year and a half now and worked seamlessly together. There was no doubt in her mind that tonight would be any different.
She froze. Her finger stuck on the trigger of her gun, arms still extended as the lions grew closer.
“Shift! Now, Mel! Now!”
His voice rang louder than the lions’ roar in that alley, sending an undeniable vibration through her body. Still, she didn’t move. She knew what he was asking and she wouldn’t do it. He knew why, dammit he knew, and yet he’d still made the command. It was hard to tell what part of that scenario pissed her off more. There was a blur of motion then and a blast of hot air as Aiken did what he’d instructed her to do. The toned body of the man, her partner and her lover, shifted into the larger-than-life body of a dragon.
Those lions had no idea what hit them.
Mel didn’t need him to speak to know that he was angry. The emotion, thick and heated, filled the room and threatened to smother her. Yet, she didn’t walk away. It wouldn’t do any good, this conversation needed to happen. They’d put it off for too long.
“You’re a Drakon, Mel. A dragon shifter born on the Far Realm and relocated here to the Human Realm at a young age. You have powers, just like the rest of the Drakon, in addition to being a killer. Your power, passed down by your clan, is that of a chameleon, and you can change your body to match any surface or thing in order to protect yourself in battle.” Aiken ran his hand down the back of his head, his lips spreading into a thin line.
Droplets of water still beaded over his face and ran down his neck, over his shoulders and chest. An ivory towel was wrapped around his waist. Another time, she would’ve pulled the towel away to stare at his amazing physique. Perfect biceps, sculpted abs, muscled thighs, and in-between…but not tonight. Not after what had just happened.
“You could’ve been killed.” Those words were spoken more quietly than the others, but held the same deadly tinge. “I know you’re a skilled Collector. You’re smart and cunning and, I…I just don’t know what I would’ve done if you’d been killed.”
“I wasn’t.” She hated the thread of fear she also heard in his tone and despised the part of herself that felt weak with the need to assuage him.
He stared at her. “You could’ve been.”
“And the world could stop spinning. The craziness of preternatural beings could not be invading the Human Realm. My parents could still be alive.” She huffed. “There’s a lot of could-haves in this world, Aiken.”
His eyes were still the deepest brown striped with bright orange. They were his Drakon eyes, not the ones he wore as a human working alongside her—his girlfriend—as a Collector.
“My only concern is you.”
Her heart pounded, her mind clouding as the love so evident in his gaze combined with the intensity of her feelings for him. Yet, despite the bond they’d built, both professional and personal, she knew what he’d want to discuss next. That knowledge caused immense pain and disappointment to spread like wildfire throughout her body. She inhaled deeply and released the breath slowly. “We lost the target.”
He nodded, a look of conquest and satisfaction pouring over his face. “I killed those rogue feline shifters. The realms are better off without them, so I’m not about to feel regret for what’s done.”
“We won’t get the bounty. And the leader of the shifters won’t get to punish them for their treason against their race. That’s what our job’s all about, catching the bad guy and getting paid to do it.”
He closed the distance between them, clamping his hands tightly on her shoulders and giving her a little shake. “Our job is to stay alive to work the next target. The plan had to be changed, and as your trainer and senior Collector, I changed it. I also gave you a directive that you disobeyed.”
There were no lies in what he’d just said. Aiken was her trainer, he’d taught her everything she knew about being a Collector. He’d patiently showed her how to balance brute strength with intellect to achieve their goals and had never, not once, played the “I’m your boss” card. Until now. But this was no longer about the job. They’d surpassed that point the moment his eyes had switched to Drakon. Anger radiated from his body in thick waves of heat that attempted to speak to another part of her, a part she detested.
“You don’t control me and neither does that beast buried inside.” It was a defiant statement, one she made with pride.
“That beast is a part of you.”
How many times had he said this to her and how many times had she denied it? Apparently, not enough. “It’s not a part I claim, and you know that.”
Still, he looked at her imploringly, asking her to do something she knew she never could. “You can’t continue to hide. You have to be who you are.”
“And what if I don’t, Aiken? What happens if I continue to deny what you believe I should be? Huh? Can you tell me that?” Because she’d been doing just fine living in denial—as he liked to believe—for plenty of years before he came along.
His grip on her shoulders lessened, but he kept his hands on her, the touch a steadying force between them. “I’ve never known of a Drakon who completely denied their heritage. Who kept their dragon half locked away indefinitely. But based on what I know of the beast itself, there’ll come a time when it takes charge, when it will break free whether you want it to or not and if it happens by force, there’s no telling how much damage could be done to those around it.”
Fear circled in the center of her chest, but she wouldn’t let it win. She hadn’t when her parents left her and she wouldn’t now.
“I know you feel it, Mel.” He moved a hand up to cup the back of her neck. “You feel it inside you, reaching out, trying to claim its mate.”
Again, no lies were spoken. She had felt something easing just beneath her skin. In the hundred and ninety years she’d been alive, she’d never felt this inside her before. Or if she had, ignorance had been her bliss and she’d chalked it up as indigestion or some other ailment. She’d known her parents were preternatural, knew they’d come from the Far Realm where there were others like them, but all she’d learned of this Drakon legend had only come to her through Aiken. The guy who’d waltzed into her life just about two years ago, and who was now insisting that she change everything she thought she was.
“No!” She pulled away from him, stumbling back but still keeping eye contact. “I choose, Aiken. I choose who and what I am, not you and not any damned animal.”
He blinked fast at her words and his eyes switched back to their solid brown color. “What about me, Mel? Are you choosing me?”
The next question she wanted to scream was, why did whether she chose to be a Drakon matter to whether she loved him and wanted to be with him? Because she did want him, for the first time in her life there was someone that she liked being with, someone she’d been able to share her thoughts and dreams with. But now, she knew exactly what he was asking her. He’d asked her weeks ago and she’d wished every single night since then that he’d forget the question.
The time they’d been together had been wonderful, romantic and adventurous with them traveling all over the realm in search of their targets. Then, one day, six months into their two year relationship, that movement beneath her skin had done something odd. It had reached for Aiken, or something like that, because he’d felt it, too, and from that point on, he’d begun telling her about the Drakon.
During the next year and a half, they’d been extremely busy with work as an insurgence of preternaturals had arrived on the Human Realm. They’d been at their best during that time, her life had been more enjoyable than she’d ever imagined, working alongside someone so fearless and strong, intelligent and funny. He was everything to her, until he’d asked her to be what he was, to change the life that she’d made for herself to accommodate the legend only he believed. Why couldn’t they just stay the way they were? A part of her had known that wasn’t going to happen. Aiken wouldn’t forget something he wanted, and he wouldn’t settle for less. He wasn’t built that way.
“I’m choosing me.” Her voice sounded so small and frail. She hated it. Clearing her throat, she squared her shoulders and tilted her chin. “I’m choosing to live my life, my way. As a human.” Just to be clear, so there were no misunderstandings from here on out. “Wherever I was born or to whichever family on this realm or another, it doesn’t matter. I’m Melody Kane, a Collector.” Clasping her hands together because her fingers dared to shake at this moment, she continued to stare into eyes she loved with every fiber of her being. “Can you love her, Aiken? Can you be content with loving her?”
For a split second he looked wounded, like that one word and its implications somehow worried him. It was a silly thought, she knew, because Aiken was always talking about the two of them being in love and all he thought that meant.
“It’s not who I am,” he said with a shake of his head. “I’m a Drakon. We select our mates. I selected you.”
“And I choose to love you, Aiken. Why can’t that be enough?”
“Choosing to love me is not selecting me to be your mate, Mel, and you know it. Claiming who you are, being what you were born to be, and selecting one who is doing the same, that’s what’s ahead of us, not a life of denial.”
She would never be a Drakon. That race, her parents, they’d all rejected her when she was four years old. They never came for her. Even after her parents died, no Drakon came to save her, to bring her back to that place she was supposed to consider her home. Nobody bothered to show up to teach her about this so-called heritage, to give her the tools she’d need to be this thing that lived and breathed inside of her. They’d just left her here among the humans, so that’s where she was going to stay. Even if it meant ripping her heart out, because that’s what it felt like. That’s what she knew was going to happen the moment she said the words.
“I choose me, Aiken.” Shaking her head and daring the tears to fall in front of him. “I’m always going to choose me.”
When she walked away, Aiken didn’t follow or even call after her. Pain and an unfamiliar white-hot heat seared through her chest, burning any and everything there, leaving nothing but a blistering cold in its wake.
He wasn’t alone.
The temperature in the room had kicked up at least two hundred degrees and Aiken’s chest tightened, the beast within on high alert. There was no fear or distress, only a building anticipation that pressed against his human skin with unnatural force. Evil filled this space, its putrid stench lingering in every corner, clogging the air until another, less seasoned preternatural, might succumb to its command. Aiken wasn’t that one.
In his peripheral, Aiken glimpsed the vamp approaching, a tall one with gangly arms and lethal fangs bared. The metallic gold glow of the creature’s eyes zeroed in on him just before it snarled in a way that announced it was about to pounce. It ran at its full speed, which translated to in the blink of the human eye. Luckily for Aiken, he was seeing through his Drakon eyes and when he settled them on the spear another vamp had thrown at him just moments before, an effortless use of his telekinetic power sent it flying through the air. It landed in the chest of the oncoming vamp with a sickening thud. The vamp was stopped in its tracks, dropping to the floor in a pile of dusky gray ash.
Normally there would’ve been a feeling of triumph here. He wasn’t the cold-blooded killer of the Legion dragons—that was Mag. Aiken’s focus was normally on getting the job done in as quick and clean a way possible so he could return to more enjoyable tasks such as online shopping or playing pool. Tonight, however, his mood had shifted, yet the man tried valiantly to keep a firm grip on the goal of this mission.
Floorboards squeaked as he moved, the electricity in the townhouse flickering on and off. He didn’t know if that was because the vamps hadn’t paid their electricity bill or if there was something even more sinister at play. He’d bet money on the latter.
Aiken’s shoulders tensed as an eerie tugging started in his gut. The beast was stirring in a slow and methodical way, as if it were sensing something that the human had missed. The two worked well together, especially on assignments like this, where their stealth, wit and combined power were required. There’d only been one time the man plus beast duo had failed, but he wasn’t going back to that time. Not ever again. Except, wait, the tugging in his stomach grew stronger, urging him to move in the opposite direction. It had come upon him so quick and intense that for a few seconds he couldn’t move or think past the sensation. Unfortunately, now was neither the time, nor was this the place to stand still and contemplate what might just be a case of tonight’s dinner disagreeing with him.
Focusing and compartmentalizing were old friends but, in this moment, it took more effort than usual to bring them to the forefront. He needed to move fast to get this job done. His beast’s protest came instantly, with scratching at his insides like nails on sandpaper. It wanted something different. What exactly, he didn’t know. Addressing the distraction with his beast wasn’t an option, as two more vamps were moving fast down a set of stairs, coming up quickly behind him. This time Aiken chose to go hand-to-hand, landing a punch to the first one’s jaw, following it with more hits to its gut before his beast begrudgingly joined the party by adding its force to the punch that sent the vamp flying into a wall. By that time, the next vamp was landing a blow to his lower back. He barely bristled at the contact but spun around, slapping his fingers against the vamp’s neck. With a tight hold on the creature’s throat, Aiken lifted it off its feet and walked it back to a different wall, which cracked upon the forceful contact.
“You can die tonight, or you can talk.” He adjusted his tone from the easygoing one he usually used. Fanged murderers weren’t inclined to be persuaded by his more charming side. “It’s your choice asshole.”
Golden eyes stared back at him and incisors that looked pretty damn sharp were bared and ready to sink into his skin at first opportunity, but fear clogged its lungs and kept it from telling Aiken what he wanted to know.
“Fuck you.” It was hard for that to come with the force it probably intended with Aiken’s hand crushing the vamp’s windpipe.
The wicked grin spread quick and felt just as natural as the enhanced strength flowing through his veins. “Wrong answer.” He squeezed harder until he heard the unmistakable crack of bone. Dropping his hand, he backed up seconds before the inevitable spray of ash filled the air.
Footsteps sounded above him. More vamps, of course, but Aiken was sure the Lord who’d been leading this meeting was long gone by now. That was the vampire they’d needed to capture and get answers from. He was the only one who could stop the vicious killings now plaguing the city and the ominous fate looming over the realms. Aiken gritted his teeth when his gaze was drawn toward a window at the farthest end of the hallway in front of him, his ire at the missed opportunity reaching a boiling point. Vampire Lords were the only ones of their kind who could turn into bats and fly out the window. Of course, Drakon could fly too, but a hundred-foot-tall, two-hundred-eighty-ton dragon would demolish this townhouse and a good portion of the block in the financial district where it was located. His current boss had a rule about them shifting, causing damage and freaking out the humans when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. That meant, he couldn’t shift, but he could threaten each vamp left in this place with sudden death if they didn’t tell him what he wanted to know.
Noting he hadn’t seen his partner since they’d entered the house, he contemplated what his next move would be. He and Ziva had decided to split up. She was covering the basement and first floors and he had the second and third floors. Their intel from investigating the vampires for the past weeks hadn’t been as fruitful as expected. No leads until earlier this evening, when Ziva had come banging on the door to his suite demanding he meet her in the truck pronto. He’d done as she requested because stopping the vamps was a primary objective to the Legion, and because the rendezvous he’d had planned for later tonight had canceled. This house was supposed to be packed tonight, with vamps meeting to discuss a big move they’d be taking in Burgess. Enes, the vampire who was helping the Drakon for reasons that still weren’t clear to Aiken, had told Ziva about the meeting.
Tingling fingertips reminded him that something else besides the current altercation with the vamps was at play here and Aiken looked down to see his claws extended a few inches from his nailbed. With a flick of his hands he pulled them back, frowning at his beast’s insistence that there was something more here, something he was apparently missing while busying himself with the mission. It didn’t matter that he’d tried to ignore every sensation that had felt off tonight, the beast could be as belligerent and insubordinate as Aiken when provoked and the immediate scratch and stretch that made Aiken feel as if his insides were being shredded had him cursing. Despite movement he could hear coming from the floor above, Aiken let the beast lead, moving in the opposite direction of the stairs that would take him up to the third floor. Instead he walked back the way he’d just come, his boots crunching over the ash of the vamp he’d just killed. The sickly sulfuric stench their remnants left behind circled in the air. Energy gathered between his shoulder blades and he continued down the long hallway of the hundred-year-old townhouse. The walls were covered with thick velvet-like paper in a shade that resembled the color of blood. Cherry oak wainscoting lined the lower half of the walls, and his booted steps echoed over natural hardwood floors.
The beast stopped pushing the moment he stepped up to a window at the farthest end of the hall. Aiken was entertaining this for a moment or two, nothing more. His beast could kiss his ass after that. It was somewhere around one or one thirty in the morning and he should be upstairs killing whatever vamps were up there to make their point clear. If none of them were going to talk, then they were all going to die. There was no room for negotiation.
The beast was rising now, filling every crevice of the human body with its thoughts and emotions. It was the latter that concerned Aiken the most. His beast didn’t have emotions, or at least it hadn’t in a very long time. It had been almost eighty years since he’d felt the fire that seemed to melt his human bones, settling in a pool of churning heat that bubbled throughout his body. The human struggled to keep his thoughts separate from the beast’s because to align with it, this time, wasn’t something Aiken thought he wanted. It wasn’t something he thought he could do, not again.
Then something moved. A ripple in the wallpaper caught his attention but he didn’t turn to stare at it openly. Instead he slid his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket, clenching his fingers into tight fists. Sucking in air, letting his nostrils flare so that every scent in this place filled his lungs, he let the breath out in measured puffs, his eyes blinking slowly.
It couldn’t be.
He knew that scent. Nobody smelled that way. Not in all the places he’d been, on any of the realms. This scent belonged to one person. It encompassed and draped, covered and ensconced. He took another breath, just to be sure. The beast didn’t need a second take and was already edging the human body in the direction it wanted to go.
There was movement to his right, the wallpaper again. Silver flecks were embedded in the floral imprint on the crimson velvet. It glistened with the next wave in the otherwise flat surface. Aiken let his head drop, watching the portion of the lower panel pucker until a long cylinder bump inched in the opposite direction from where he stood.
Instinct alone had him reaching out to the wall. There was a gasp and then a curse before she lashed out, swinging first and deciding where her punches would land last. One contacted with his jaw, another landed on his shoulder before he let his hands slide up her torso to grab her wrists, still wrapped in camouflage. Until it melted away, like water disappearing from a glass. Starting at the top of her head, the wine color of the wallpaper drained away until shoulder-length auburn hair styled in springy curls was visible. Her face was turned away from him as the form she’d taken totally dissipated and only the woman was standing in front of him. The chameleon.
“Mel.” Her name tumbled from his lips with a mix of shock and relief seconds before she yanked her wrists from his grasp, his beast bristling at the lost connection. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Minding my business.” Her tone was the same—irritated, snappish, layered with a pain she’d never admit. He knew he couldn’t forget it, had never even tried.
“Are you on a job?” She’d already pushed past him and was running down the hall, her long legs covering the distance, plump ass swaying in the tight-fitting jeans she wore. He swallowed and went after her. Something he hadn’t bothered to do eighty years ago.
This had to be a job and she was undoubtedly still part of the Collectors, the group of bounty hunters hired to retrieve preternatural beings for a price. That’s the only reason she would be here. Pride would never have allowed her to come in search of him.
Aiken caught up with her just as she hit the top of the stairs and a group of seven vamps came at them. Locking gazes momentarily the years they hadn’t worked as partners seemed to slip away as they mentally set a plan of attack before going in separate directions. Aiken punched one, turned and hit another. He kicked back at one, grabbed another by the collar and tossed it down the stairs. A quick glimpse down the hall and he could see Mel handling herself with the same vicious efficiency. One blow she landed sent a vamp flying straight through a window. Another one was right behind her and for a split second Aiken thought about running to help her, but he didn’t. Memory served him correctly and he grinned when she ducked down, pulled a knife from the side of her boot and turned in just enough time to sink it into the vamp’s stomach.
Without turning his body completely Aiken swung an arm around, grabbing the vamp that had been running toward him by its neck, and slammed it to the floor. Applying just enough force so its glowing eyes began to bulge he asked, “You wanna tell me what tonight’s meeting was about?”
The vamp grabbed at Aiken’s arm, using all its strength to try and push it away, but Aiken was ten times stronger and expended little effort to keep the creature down. “One more chance. Who called this meeting and for what?”
“Suck my di—” He never finished that statement. Aiken partially opened his mouth and shot one lethal line of fire straight into the vamp’s face.
The stink was sickening as the fire burned off its flesh before making its way through the rest of the body. By then, Aiken had stood and stepped away from the lost cause. Mel’s intense gaze pinned him where he stood and for endless seconds they only stared at each other.
“Oh great, you struck out too.” Ziva’s voice penetrated the silence. “Nobody wants to talk tonight. Who’s she?”
Aiken could feel Ziva’s heat signature. She was a volatile Drakon, so she was always on a low simmer. Whereas Mel’s signature barely registered.
He lifted a hand warning Ziva to stay back. “I’ve got this. Just head to the truck.”
“Bullshit! If she’s a vamp and you’re gonna get answers, then I want to hear them too.” It was never easy giving Ziva directives. No matter who it was in their clan, her natural instinct was to always push back.
“I said I got this, Ziva. Now, get to the truck.” He was in command of this mission, no matter what Ziva thought or even if she just didn’t give a damn, which was usually the case. Still, he knew his words were biting, just one more indication that this night wasn’t going as planned.
For a few muted seconds Ziva appeared surprised at his stinging tone, then her anger showed via the string of lively curse words she tossed at him, before her beast made a rumbling sound and she turned away. “Keep your communicator on to record it. We all know your memory’s not worth crap.”
He ignored her, focusing his attention on Mel once more. She looked phenomenal in those jeans, black combat boots, what appeared to be a sports bra and a denim jacket. This was the woman he thought he’d never see again, the one who’d broken his heart and walked away eighty years ago. She was the one who’d gotten away and the one whose memory still haunted him in the darkness of night. And she was the only woman he’d ever loved, the one his beast had selected.
“It’s been a long time, Melody.” He was giving her that look. The one that used to have her tearing her clothes off in seconds.
“Don’t call me that and don’t look at me that way.” She took a step closer to him only because she needed to get control of this situation. It was imperative that she prove she could handle being in this space with him at this moment. “You made me lose him. You, of all people, know that time is money.”
“What’s the bounty?” His calm demeanor still infuriated her. They’d just killed seven vampires and who knows how many more downstairs and he was standing there talking like they’d just met up by chance on the street.
She had no idea why he was here, nor did she care. He obviously had his job and she had hers. More importantly, at this moment, she had to get a grip, to still that incessant churning in the pit of her stomach that hadn’t stopped since the last time she’d seen him. “I knew my target was here and then you barged in and I lost him.”
“How much, Mel? What’s the price for you to bring him in?” He wasn’t asking for a name or what the vampire had done that caused someone to put a bounty on his head. Why did his persistence come off in such a cooler, more focused way than hers? That had always been a question that plagued and irritated her to no end.
From the day she’d started with the Collectors and later had been paired with Aiken as her trainer, she’d noticed their differences. No matter how many times he’d tried to tell her they were the same because of the type of beast that loomed inside of them.
“One million.” Stalling was pointless and would only prolong how much time she’d need to spend in his company. And lying to him had never been an option.
Mel saw the moment realization hit the russet brown tone of his eyes. The orange that formed a striped pattern when his beast was on full alert had slipped away after the other Drakon left. He’d wanted to look at her with his human eyes, the way he often did. She couldn’t allow herself to be affected by any of this because none of it mattered anymore.
“Look, I’ve got to get out there and track him again. This client wants a fast turnaround.” It took a moment before she could convince her feet and legs it was time for them to move.
He stepped in her path as soon as she did. Like a part of her knew he would.
She sighed. “Three days.”
“You have to find a vampire in three days to claim a million-dollar bounty. It has to be a Lord and since you’re here tonight, I’m guessing it’s the same one we’re looking for.”
“If you get out of my way, I’ll find him again.” And maybe, just maybe, she’d be able to convince her human self that what the beast inside her wanted was still inconsequential. She didn’t have to give in, she couldn’t give in. Losing herself was not an option.
“I know you’ll find him, but the next time we’ll be with you. Come on, we’re going to the Office.” He turned away from her, walking in that confident and sexy as hell way he always did. It never occurred to him that she wouldn’t follow or wouldn’t go along with whatever he was planning. That’s because he didn’t know how much she’d changed in eighty years.
A gust of cold air slapped her in the face the moment she stepped outside. January in Burgess definitely packed an arctic blast. She pulled the lapels of her jacket close around her at the same time Aiken looked over his shoulder.
“Still fighting it,” he said with a shake of his head.
She didn’t respond, didn’t want to entertain the conversation they’d had too many times to count. Instead, when they came to the bottom of the steps leading away from the house, Aiden turned in one direction to head to his truck and she kept straight, going across the street to where she’d parked her nondescript company-issued car. Before she could run her fingerprint over the computerized lock strip on the door, Aiken was by her side.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting in my car and going to find my target.”
They were in a standoff, like so many times before. Only this time, the seven-inch difference in their height seemed bigger as his six-foot-one-inch frame loomed over her. The heat radiating from his body engulfed her, taking away the chill she hadn’t allowed her beast to assuage.
“We’re after the same guy. Even if you get to him first, we’ll be on your tail, because what we need from him is more important than whatever your client wants with him.” In another time and place everything about this moment would’ve turned her on. That’s the way it’d been between them. The heat she denied herself from her beast was replaced by Aiken’s burning desire for her. A desire that fueled her, pushing her to meet him equally on every level—especially sex.
Mel didn’t want to think about why that was now. She didn’t give a damn about Drakon folklore or pre-destined connections. All she wanted to do was complete this job and collect her fee. Money was her life source now, not Aiken.
“He’s mine. I tracked him once and I’ll track him again. You don’t even know who you’re looking for.”
“You’re right. We don’t know his name, but we know he’s a danger to this realm and possibly all the other realms as well. We know that if we don’t stop him, all the money in the world won’t mean a damn thing.”
“Damn, you’ve gotten pretty melodramatic over the years.” That was the best retort she could manage, considering he’d almost had her ready to ask exactly what he was talking about. But that didn’t matter. Collectors didn’t need those types of details. All she needed to know was that there was a price on his head.
He moved closer, until every breath she took was full of him. She turned her head away as the familiar aroma tickled her nostrils and filtered through her body like a drug she’d been rehabilitated from. Every part of her trembled and it took her a second—more like thirty to forty seconds—until she was strong enough to stare him straight in the eye once more.
“And you’ve grown more reckless. Come with me and I’ll make sure you get your payment. Insist on going at this alone and you’ll lose. You know I play to win, always.” He never lied. Not once in the two years they’d been together had Aiken ever lied to her, about anything. As far as relationships go that might have been considered a terrific feat. In the track record of Mel’s life, it was a miracle.
“This is my livelihood, Aiken. I need this. You don’t.”
He moved and she watched in what felt like a trance as his fingers touched her hair.
“Trust me, Melody. We all need this vampire caught and dealt with as quickly as possible. I wouldn’t ask you to change your hunting plans if that weren’t true.”
The plan was the road map, it was the carefully considered steps that would lead to the payday. That’s what Aiken taught her the first day she started working as a Collector. Any deviation from the plan could delay the payday and give a competitor the advantage, unless the deviation terminated the target as it had on their last hunt together.
“I know what you’re thinking.” His fingers moved easily from her hair to brush along her chin. “Just like that night, this deviation is necessary. It’ll save millions of lives. Trust me.”
Aiken was right about her attempting to leave, he would track her the same way she planned to track her target and if she wasn’t cooperating with him, he’d probably take the target and she’d never get paid. What harm could it do just to go with him? To see what his plan was? As long as she got her money in the end, that was all that mattered. She could walk away from him again, just like she had eighty years ago. She could and she would, there was no doubt about that in her mind.
“Fine. But I’m driving my car.” She swatted his hand away from her face and touched her thumb to the lock, listening for the second it disengaged, and she could open the door.
The sound of his laughter set off a pulse of desire that swirled through her body like a storm. Damn, she hated him and this stupid attraction between them that wouldn’t die.
“Of course, you’re driving your car. Always obstinate, but still sexy as hell in the process. That’s my Mel.”
He walked away before she could correct him, so she yanked the car door shut instead. She wasn’t his “Mel.” Not anymore. And when she pulled off to follow the black truck he’d gotten into, she reminded herself again that her heart wasn’t breaking because of that fact.
end of excerpt
Tempt the Dragon
by AC Arthur
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