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Cowboy News & A Four-Chapter Excerpt!

First, super exciting news!! Yesterday I FINISHED the next Wyoming Rebels book! WHOOHOO! So excited! All I need to do is go over it for a final edit, and then off to beta readers, and then it will be in your hands! It’s AWESOME! I love it so much. I can’t wait to tell you more about it…soon! I will let you know as soon as I have a release date, but it won’t be too far away!

And on the paranormal side, it’s been an amazing release week for Curse of the Dragon! Already forty-three reviews on Goodreads with a 4.74 average rating! YAY!!! For those of you are still undecided, I am offering a four-chapter sneak peek at Curse of the Dragon! Check it out below and see if you like it! 
  
CHAPTER ONE
 
Theresa Nichols was going to starve to death and no one cared, which was a surprisingly depressing discovery. The starving to death was the part that was surprising. As a dragon, she made it a high priority to eat frequently and expansively. So, the fact she’d lost more than one hundred and fifty pounds in a week was unexpected.
 
The fact no one cared that she was starving to death, on the other hand, was not so startling. There were pretty much only about four people in the world who currently knew she existed, and only one of them was her bestie, so it wasn’t completelysurprising that she’d been abandoned while on Guardian duty. Surprising? No. Annoying?
 
Hell yes.
 
In fact, she didn’t know which was ticking her off more, the fact that she hadn’t had her no-carb pretzel fix in a week, or the fact that her math-geek assistant Guardian, Quincy LaValle, had apparently forgotten her yet again.
 
As interim Guardian of the Goblet of Eternal Youth (aka Mona), and as a dragon in a not-so-open-minded New York City, Theresa was basically under house arrest. Even though Mona was in disguise masquerading as an espresso machine, Theresa still couldn’t abandon her to go get food. She wasn’t even allowed to order delivery because it was a big no-no to have strangers parading up to the door when the Goblet of Eternal Youth was hiding out. You never knew if the skinny little delivery boy might be packing a sword in his stay-hot-pizza-bag. Plus, how was she supposed to explain her appearance when she answered the door? No, you’re not really seeing an emaciated eleven-foot dragon with gold eyes and blue-green scales. It’s the scent from the pizza causing your hallucinations.
 
Yeah, right. 
 
Because of her lockdown situation, Quincy was being paid by the Council to make sure she didn’t die from lack of food, but apparently even a cash influx into his bank account wasn’t enough to get her need to eat onto his list of activities-that-need-to-be-done-no-matter-what.
 
As if worried that she’d forgotten she was starving to death, her stomach growled and a sharp pain ground through her gut. Was that pain one of the early signs of death-by-starvation? Because she was kind of hoping she was being melodramatic, not actuallystarving to death. 
 
Granted, she was immortal, so she couldn’t actually diefrom starvation, but that was a small comfort, right? Because an emaciated dragon who was so weak all she could do was slither along the hardwood floors of her prison-like condo sobbing in despair was not exactly a great thing for the world, or, more importantly, for herself.
 
She’d been stuck behind closed doors for two hundred years, ever since she’d drank from the Goblet of Eternal Youth and gotten permanently stuck in dragon form. Quite frankly, it was getting old. Especially when she was withering away, alone and forgotten and starving to death.
 
 
Since she’d been put under Quincy’s neglectful care, she’d lost 161 pounds, and that was about 161 pounds too many. Completely unacceptable! She was a dragon, dammit, and dragons had needs! Food, violence, destruction, incineration. None of which she was allowed to indulge in while at Quincy’s house, where she was currently staying. Heaven forbid she burn anything up or turn his neighbors into crispy critters. 
 
Being hungry made it much harder to resist her other basic dragon needs, like the aforementioned violence, destruction, incineration, and a great love of glittery, shiny treasures. 
 
She groaned and leaned her head against the fridge, staring into its empty insides as she tried to will away her insatiable craving to blow up his kitchen. Keep it together, Theresa. You can handle this. 
 
She let out a deep breath that was a little too smoky for comfort, then pulled out her phone and punched his name on her favorites list, which really should be renamed “People Who Irritate Her” list. 
 
Again, Quincy’s voicemail came on. He didn’t even have his phone on! 
 
Gripping her phone in her claw, she growled into the phone. “Quincy! It’s Theresa again. I haven’t eaten in two days and I’m starving. I know youdon’t care about me or the Goblet, but your brother’s now the Assistant Guardian, in case you forgot. He’ll kick your butt if he comes home from his honeymoon to find that Mona has been stolen because you let the Interim Guardian die of starvation while you were obsessing about some stupid math equation that no one but you cares about. And the Council will skewer you if you screw up Guardianship. Literally.” She paused to take a breath, forcing herself not to shudder at the thought of the Council, who was the ruthless governing body in charge of the Guardian and the Goblet. Guardians who screwed up were seriously toast, even Interim Guardians. “And if you don’t get home with food in thirty minutes, I’m burning down your house.” She slammed down the phone and glared at the espresso machine. “Mona! This is all your fault.”
 
The espresso machine said nothing. 
 
Of course it wouldn’t. In two hundred years, Mona had never even hinted at an apology for turning Theresa permanently into dragon form. Yeah, yeah, so Theresa was the one who’d actually drank from the Goblet of Eternal Youth, which was currently masquerading as an espresso machine, but wasn’t it the Goblet’s duty to warn her that a sip while in dragon form would make her stay a dragon forever? 
 
Apparently not.
 
Theresa yanked open the freezer and stared at the empty contents. She supposed she could eat some more ice cubes. She’d at least be hydrated when she died of starvation. Bonus.
 
Or maybe she could eat some chairs. Nothing wrong with fiber, right?
 
Now that Justine, her best friend, roomie, and personal servant for the last two hundred years, was off on her honeymoon, it was all too apparent what kind of a life Theresa had: none. 
 
No job.
 
No social life.
 
No friends.
 
And most importantly, no way to get food.
 
She was completely and entirely alone. A nothing. Disempowered. None of which was how a dragon was supposed to be. They were highly social creatures. Badass. Top of the food chain. Striking fear into the hearts of all. Of course, she was the last remaining dragon still alive, so that was something, right?
 
But still, the last two days had made her grimly aware that her life had turned sucky somewhere in the last two hundred years, without her even noticing that it had happened. 
 
Dammit! She slammed her tail against the fridge, too hungry to bother checking to see if she’d left a dent. 
 
She stalked over to the window of Quincy’s house and stared at the darkened Connecticut suburb. If she was in her own Upper East Side condo, she could probably get the doorman, Xavier, to get her some food, but no, their condo was still in shambles after Justine and Derek had gotten a little trigger happy with Becca’s machine guns when being attacked by an army of half-naked men. 
 
Becca.
 
For a moment, she considered calling Becca, Satan’s favorite Rivka and right-hand bad ass, but finally dismissed it. The Rivka had more important things to do than bring carry-out to a dragon, and Theresa had too much pride to beg.
 
She closed her eyes and dug her claws into the windowsill. You are not hungry. You are not lonely. You are a goddess. The shattering of the wood jerked her back to the present, and she jerked her claws away from the window. Even the house wasn’t built for helping a dragon through the throes of misery.
 
There was only one thing that would help her now. One man. If Zeke wasn’t online, heaven help her and the neighborhood she was hiding out in.
 
She grabbed her computer to message Zeke Siccardi, the only man she’d had cybersex with in the last six months. Six months of monogamy for Theresa Nichols, former Queen of the I-Love-Men Club. Astounding, wasn’t it? Just proved how good a cyber-lover Zeke was. For him to satisfy a dragon that was completely deprived of all other outlets was quite the feat. Thank God for Zeke. 
 
“Zeke? You there?” she typed.
 
His reply was instant. “Yep.”
 
Tension eased from her body at his immediate response and she smiled, imagining what his voice must sound like. Deep. Manly. He probably had thick whiskers that would make a woman tremble with longing. Zeke was definitely a bad ass. She could sense the undercurrent of violence in him. She loved bad boys. What dragon wouldn’t? It wasn’t as if she could date a pansy who couldn’t deal with a girl who liked to burn things up and ate six pizzas for an afternoon snack. “I bought a new piece of lingerie off the Internet yesterday. Want me to describe it?”
 
Silence.
 
She frowned at his hesitation, and an anxiety spark shot out of her nose and sizzled on the keyboard. “Zeke? Don’t leave me hanging. Not tonight.”
 
He finally typed an answer. “Listen, I think we should meet.”
 
She jerked upright in Quincy’s micro-fiber recliner, slamming the footrest back to the floor with an ominous thud. “I can’t meet you!” She scowled as a wave of longing washed over her, smashing her claws onto the keyboard as she typed her response. “I’m still in isolation at the FBI containment center, remember? They haven’t figured out how to keep my contagious disease from infecting everyone who comes within ten feet of me.” She felt a little guilty about the lie, but it wasn’t as if she could tell him she was a dragon. Besides, being locked in an FBI containment facility was sort of dramatic and cool, and way better than her real life. 
 
“I think you’re avoiding me.”
 
She grinned at his perceptiveness, imagining his brows furrowed in aggravation as he typed. “Tell that to the dude with the machine gun guarding my door.”
 
“Give me his number and I’ll call him up.”
 
Some of her amusement trickled away at his continued pressure. “He won’t get close enough to talk to me. Afraid I’ll infect him.”
 
“Isn’t that convenient?”
 
Her tail twitched at his thinly veiled sarcasm, and she accidentally dropped a puff of ash on Quincy’s hand-woven carpet from India. She’d been fending off Zeke’s requests to meet for months, but something felt different tonight. Or maybe her perception of reality was being distorted by the fact that her stomach was beginning to eat her brain. “No, it’s not convenient. I’d love to meet you in person and engage in some real flesh-to-flesh activities.” Understatement of the year. Cybersex was better than nothing, but it was no substitute for having a man wrapped around her. She’d even had Justine buy her some of the aftershave Zeke said he wore, and she sprayed it around whenever they had cybersex. The woodsy, masculine scent was nearly enough to give her an orgasm on its own, let alone when Zeke was working his magic with the keyboard.
 
And when she couldn’t sleep, she sprayed it on her pillow and pretended he was there, hugging her pillow to her chest. Not that she’d admit that to anyone. Dragons didn’t need nighttime comfort, and she was no exception. She was just sexually deprived and she loved to bask in the scent of the man of her fantasies. And if she liked it when he talked about his favorite movies and places he’d like to take her on their first date, it was only because she was so desperately lonely for any kind of a real life, even if it was vicariously through Zeke. Not because she likedhim or anything. Because that would be incredibly stupid, given her permanently scaly state. 
 
“Seriously, T, I don’t care about your infectious disease. I can buy a biohazard suit anywhere on the Internet. We need to meet.”
 
Theresa’s heart started to pound and her hind claws curled into the floor. Zeke was her one contact with the outside world. He was the one person besides her bestie who would notice if she died. Their wild and daring cybersex and late-night gossip sessions were her only outlet that kept her sane, since violence, gorging on food, and incineration weren’t viable options.
 
She took a deep breath and tried to focus. She had to reel him in before he ruined everything, before he demanded what she couldn’t give. “What’s the point in meeting if you’re wearing a biohazard suit? We wouldn’t be able to have sex.”
 
His reply was quick, as if he’d anticipated her answer. “I want to know what you look like.”
 
She scowled. She was an eleven-foot winged dragon with bluish/green scales and golden eyes. Would that do it for him? Doubted it. “Sorry. No pictures, remember?” It had been so long since she’d been in human form, she wasn’t sure she’d even recognize herself. 
 
Silence. 
 
At his hesitation, Theresa shoved the computer off her lap and jumped to her feet, pacing past the beautiful ash coffee table that Quincy had specifically forbidden her to burn up. Heat roiled through her, struggled to escape. A spark slipped out of her nose and landed on the hardwood floors. Crap! She stomped it out, then spun back to her computer when she heard it beep. She was afraid to read Zeke’s reply. 
 
After a moment, she lifted her chin, straightened her tail, and marched back over to read what he’d written.
 
“I think maybe it’s time to change the rules.”
 
She growled at the screen as her heart starting hammering in panic. There could be no rule-changing! Face-to-face meetings couldn’t happen. Ever
 
“T? You still there? I’m serious. Things need to change. I can’t keep this up.”
 
Can’t keep it up? What did he mean by that? Was he going to dump her if she wouldn’t meet him in person?
 
Fear tore through her, quickly followed by anger. How dare he ruin the only decent thing in her life by demanding something she couldn’t give? Didn’t he have any grasp of how badly she burned to meet him? To say yes? To turn the cold, impersonal world of sexting into actual, physical contact? She wouldn’t let him ruin what they had. Not tonight. She couldn’t handle it right now. “The scientists are here to run more tests on me. Gotta run.” She hesitated, then added her usual sign off. “Love your body.”
 
Then she disconnected before he could reply. 
 
She slammed the lid closed on her laptop and stomped across the room, ignoring the pictures rattling on the walls as she tried to find anger instead of panic at the thought of losing Zeke.
 
 Well, wouldn’t that be fine and dandy if he ditched her? Not only would she starve to death, but she would die alone and sexually frustrated if Zeke bailed on her.
 
Forget it. That was taking it too far. A girl had to have limits.
 
She smashed her hip into the kitchen door and shoved it open, ignoring the trickle of sparks that dropped on the tile. Quincy would just have to get over a few burn marks. He’d be lucky if she didn’t burn down his house by accident. 
 
She stomped into the kitchen, set her claws on her hips, and glared at the espresso machine. “I refuse to starve any longer, which means I need to go out and get food.”
 
Mona didn’t respond.
 
“I’m going out. Illegally, yep. But I’m doing it anyway. And since I’m much too good of a Guardian to leave you unattended, you’re coming with me.” She picked up the espresso machine and tried to tuck it under her arm. Not comfortable, especially for a dragon who wasn’t exactly in top-flying shape due to being under house arrest for the last few centuries. She frowned at Mona. “I don’t suppose you could turn into something smaller and easier to carry?”
 
The espresso machine didn’t even flicker.
 
“What if I take you on a flying tour of the New York City skyline so you can see this city that you’ve been living in for the last five years?”
 
Mona immediately shape-shifted into an edible ankle bracelet. 
 
Hot damn. “I guess you’re feeling as desperate as I am to get out of here, huh?” She patted the bracelet. “That’s my girl. Maybe we can be friends after all.” At least there was something in this world that was more hard-up than she was. 


 
 
 
 
 
 
CHAPTER TWO
 
 
Forty-five minutes later, Theresa was perched on the roof of the Vic’s Pretzels that was a few blocks from the Park Avenue condo she used to live in, before it got decimated by bullets.
 
She was wearing her favorite come-hither outfit: a black leather mini skirt, her “edible anklet,” a black lace bra under a transparent white top, the topaz earrings she’d bought during their brief stay in the Amazon (so what if dragons don’t have ears? The scales located on the side of her head worked just fine) and she’d even put a new diamond stud into the piercing at the end of her tail.
 
She might not have any breasts or even a waist to do the outfit justice, and her blue scales weren’t exactly sexy, but one should never underestimate the effect that sexy clothes can have on a woman’s mood. Or a dragon’s.
 
She took a deep breath and inhaled the amazing scent of Vic’s fresh dough rising, letting it soak into her lungs. Vic’s No-Carb Pretzels were her reason for living, definitely worth taking a forbidden trip out into the night air.
 
The sounds of the humans working the ovens drifted up to her, and she took a moment to sort out their scents. There were at least three of them, two male and one female. She’d guess there was one person manning the kitchens and two customers getting their late-night pretzel fix. Unfortunately, incinerating all of them was out. Someone would notice three piles of human ash.
 
She growled, realizing that food would have to suffice to appease her needs. If she could get them outside for a few minutes, she could grab a stack of pretzels and get out of there before anyone saw her. 
 
She eyed the roof and found what she was looking for. Didn’t anyone have the foresight to protect their vents from dragons anymore? She glided over to the vent (yes, she might weigh several tons but that didn’t mean she had to stop practicing her double-jointed-hips walk that had brought men to their knees two hundred years ago) and pressed her face up to it. “Hope you all are wearing your gas masks.”
 
Wasn’t this going to be fun? She hadn’t tortured humans in forever.
 
She grinned, rolled some smoke around her in chest for a moment, then expelled a huge black cloud into the vent. 
 
Then for kicks, she did it again.
 
The sound of coughing and the scent of human alarm drifted up to her, and Theresa flopped down on her belly and let the sensations wash over her. It wasn’t actualdestruction, but it soaked into her pores and eased the desperation off her dragon needs.
 
It took less than three minutes for the humans to vacate the premises. Once they were hacking away on the sidewalk out front, she sat up, shook off the soothing effects of the assault, and glided down to the back door on her glorious wings. 
 
She tried the door, but it was locked. Yay! An excuse to use her dragon strength! She grinned with delight and yanked it free, along with the doorframe. She gazed fondly at the door frame for a moment, basking in the joy at having destroyed it. With a happy sigh, she tossed the still-locked unit into the alley and scooted inside the kitchen of Vic’s Pretzels.
 
Three feet inside the door, she was hit by the intense aroma of baking dough and melted butter.
 
She immediately fell flat on her face, her muscles completely giving out as her olfactory senses overwhelmed her. Holy mother of pearl.She groaned and rolled onto her back, drinking in the heavenly odors. Cinnamon. Fresh bread. Melted frosting for the dessert pretzels. Her claws curved against her chest and she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply as euphoria slackened her muscles, slowed her heart rate. She would never move again. Just lie here forever.
 
A distant clang caught her attention, and she shook her head, trying to clear it. This wasn’t a safe environment. She shouldn’t be sprawled on the floor. She tried to uncurl her claws, but she was too relaxed, too overcome by lassitude.
 
Come on, Theresa. Block your olfactory receptors. It was basic dragon survival techniques. She knew that, but it had been so long since she’d had to engage her defenses that she had no idea how to do it anymore. She’d gone soft.
 
Which felt okay, right now, actually. She didn’t want to block the smells wafting through the kitchen. It just felt too good to lie there, letting the amazing scents settle deep inside her. The freshly cooked bread smelled so divine. She didn’t want to block it out. She just wanted to lie here and drink it in. 
 
No. The centuries-old survival instinct pressed at her, penetrating the scent-induced lassitude. She had to get up. Now. Get up, Theresa. You have to. 
 
She held her breath, then rolled over, landing with a thud on her belly. 
 
Progress. Good.
 
Somehow, she managed to stagger to her feet, still holding her breath. Starting to suffocate. Need to inhale.She closed her eyes and concentrated on shutting down her scent receptors, taking a careful breath though her mouth. She got a whiff of hot pretzel and almost went down again. 
 
Shit. 
 
She slapped her claws to her face, pinching her nostrils shut. Two hundred years of being locked in a condo with no threats to worry about had obviously eroded all her dragon defenses, not that she’d even been a model dragon, even as a kid when she’d still been living among dragons. She’d clearly gotten sloppy, and if there’d been real danger, she’d be dead now. 
 
With the odors blocked, her head began to clear, and she surveyed her surroundings. She was in the kitchen. Tile floors, racks and racks of pretzel ingredients, huge metal ovens, racks of cooling pretzels, pretzel shaped potholders hanging on neat little hooks shaped like more pretzels. 
 
Her stomach rumbled, and her mouth began to water. 
 
Surely having food in her belly would help her control her nose, wouldn’t it? 
 
She lurched toward the racks of cooling pretzels, took a deep inhale through her mouth, then released her nose to grab a tray of pretzels. She dumped a rack of no-carb delights down her throat. Then another. Then another. She couldn’t afford to take time to savor them. She needed to eat and run before she collapsed again. 
 
She lost her focus and caught a whiff of fresh pretzels. Dizziness hit her, so she lunged for a couple pot holders and wedged them in her nostrils. Better? She tested her breathing. Yes, better.
 
She turned back to the pretzels and tossed six more down her throat, the intense ache in her belly barely beginning to ease. She’d already eaten eighteen huge pretzels and she was still starving? Damn. No wonder she couldn’t handle the smells right now. 
 
It occurred to her that this was what it must have been like when the dragon slayers had hit her village when she was a child, back when the Dragon Cleansing of 1788 wiped out the dragon population. In a typical attack, a slayer would disorient a dragon with his incredibly powerful scent, and then come charging in to gain the advantage before the dragon could recover. In the Dragon Cleansing, all the slayers had joined together and attacked at once. She shuddered at the thought of being hit with all that olfactory stimulation.
 
No wonder the entire village had been wiped out in one afternoon. 
 
Of course, she was being knocked out by bread, which wasn’t all that impressive. Any halfway decent dragon learned how to shut down their scent receptors before they were two years old. It was the first line of defense against the slayers. 
 
Well, guess what? She wasn’t a half-way decent dragon apparently. She’d almost been knocked out by pretzel dough. Imagine what a single dragon slayer’s scent would do to her? She was too pathetic.
 
“Holy shit! What the fuck is that?”
 
Theresa dropped the tray and spun around. A guy in a chef’s hat staring at her from the doorway, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide. 
 
Was this him? The man who made the pretzels that had gotten her through so many lonely nights? She immediately bowed low, kneeling before him. “You must be the pretzel chef. I adore your pretzels, and I am honored to meet you.” 
 
He made a strangled sound and began backing away from her. 
 
Theresa snapped her head up, her warm and fuzzy feeling dissipating when she saw the look of horror and abject terror on his face. Dammit. Hadn’t he heard her appreciation? Just because she was gigantic and fanged didn’t mean she was a beast! 
 
Then she realized he was almost around the corner. “Hey! Where are you going?” She couldn’t allow him to report a dragon sighting.
 
He yelped and dove out of sight.
 
She sighed and stood back up. She was going to have to kill him, wasn’t she? It was on him if she had to burn him up. She’d offered thanks. He was the one turning this into a sideshow…
 
Oh…wait…she was going to have to burn him up! This was fun! She’d totally forgotten that was supposed to be fun! An added bonus for the evening. She always slept well for at least a week after she got to incinerate someone.
 
Then her tail sagged. But who would make the pretzels she adored if she killed him? 
 
Crud. What was she supposed to do? Protect herself or the pretzels?
 
Dammit. Exposing herself meant exposing Mona. Her Guardian duty was most important. She hadto kill him. She stomped toward the door he’d vanished through. How unfair that she finally got to kill someone and it was a pretzel chef. The remorse was going to gnaw at her for weeks. 
 
Theresa followed his trail, taking a moment to peek around the corner into the front of the store, noting the two customers had apparently decided to head home.
 
Lucky for them.
 
Satisfied they were alone, she stepped into what looked like a supply room and saw the chef hunched behind a stack of boxes to her right. She whacked the boxes aside with her tail, and he leapt to his feet. His face was stark white and terror was cascading off him.
 
“I’m really sorry I have to do this,” she said. “But I promise to visit you in the Afterlife with pretzels, okay?” She closed her eyes so she didn’t have to watch, then opened her mouth, but before she could expel even a trickle of ash, she heard a loud explosion and a searing pain ripped through her left shoulder. “Hey!” She snapped her eyes open just in time to see the bastard aim his gun at her face. 
 
Theresa threw her arm across her face as he shot again, and the bullet ripped through her right front claw, sending pain spiraling up her shoulder. 
 
“Get out of here, you freak!” he screamed. “I’ll kill you before I’ll let an ugly monster take me alive!” He shot again, and the bullet tore through her tail, nearly taking out her new tail ring. 
 
Ugly monster? Are you serious?” How dare he insult her like that? She was wearing her sexiest outfit! Was even that not enough to overcome the scales and lack of any remotely female attribute? She was already sensitive enough about her bald, round, and scaly appearance without having some idiot scream insults at her. 
 
“Your mother won’t have to look at your disgusting face again after I get through with you!” the chef shouted.
 
Her mother?Now that was going too far. “I loved my mother!” She lunged for him, and he shot her in the neck as he dove over a box of yeast and crawled behind an ice machine. She yelped in pain as blood gushed down her neck, and rage roared through her. “Enough!” She kicked the ice machine out of the way, reared back, and exploded fire at him.
 
But all that came out of her was a hack and a small puff of white smoke.
 
He yelped and scooted across the floor as she frowned and tried again. 
 
She got nothing but a harmless wisp. What the hell? Where was her fire?
 
She flung a metal storage rack out of her way and slammed her tail against the chef’s gut, pinning him against the wall as a faint memory trickled into her mind. Wasn’t there something in the annals about how dragons should always protect their necks in battle? That an injury to her neck could impair her fire ability? 
 
Maybe she should have gone to class more often instead of running around the village causing trouble with the other delinquent dragons when she was little. Had she realized she was going to be orphaned and thrust into non-dragon society so soon with no dragon mentors to teach her, she would definitely have paid more attention to the lessons she was supposed to be learning. 
 
The chef whimpered and tried to get his gun free of her tail, to no avail. She pressed harder, and her frustration eased. She could still kick his heinie with her superior dragon strength. She smiled and leaned her face up against his. “Insult my mama, will you? We are going to have some fun tonight…”
 
Something twitched around her ankle, and she looked around just as Mona shifted from the anklet back into the espresso machine, and then dropped to the floor beside her foot.
 
Oh, no! She’d forgotten about Mona! The ultimate failure in Guardianship would be to let something happen to the Goblet of Eternal Youth. Each moment she stayed endangered Mona and put her closer to being at the brutal mercy of the Council.
 
She might be a failure as a woman and as a dragon, but God help her, she would notfail at being a Guardian. She had no time to play with the chef. They’d been seen. It was time to go.
 
She flung the chef aside, grabbed Mona, and spun around, bolting for the door. She lurched into wobbly flight as soon as her wings were clear. 
 
It took her less than a minute to realize she was too injured to make it all the way home. Didn’t that figure? She couldn’t even rescue Mona competently. 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
CHAPTER THREE
 
 
Moments later, Theresa scrunched her eyes shut a split second before she crashed through the window of Becca Gibbs’ tenth floor apartment. She landed just in time to get a face full of fireball. She yelped. “Hey! Stop shooting me with fireballs! It’s me!”
 
The fire faded to reveal Becca standing in the living doorway wearing a black leather outfit more fitting for a biker prostitute than the CEO of Vic’s pretzels. Given that Becca was also Satan’s favorite Rivka (aka indentured servant forced to do his bidding), however, the outfit might make sense. Becca eyed Theresa. “I knew it was you, Dragon.”
 
Theresa sneezed at the flames still flickering in her nose. “Then why’d you fireball me? And I actually have a name. It’s Theresa.” Had she mentioned how freaking tired she was of the dragon shtick? Seriously. 
 
“I know your name. I choose not to use it.” Becca’s dark hair was loose and wavy around her shoulders, looking like a woman who meant business of the best kind. “And you broke into my apartment in the middle of the night, so that makes you fair game for a fireball.” She was tossing a fireball back and forth, no doubt contemplating whether to shoot it at her. “You know I hate visitors.”
 
“Didn’t you notice I was bleeding?” Theresa cradled Mona against her chest, not bothering to stop her blood from dripping on the pale blue carpet. Becca worked for Satan. How much could a little blood bother her? 
 
“I noticed the bleeding.” 
 
“So, I come to you for aid, and yet you still flamed me?” She took a quick scan of the room. Antiques, floral patterns, and lots of pastels. Not what she would have expected of Becca-the-badass-bitch-from-hell. “I’m highly offended. Hurt. Crushed, in fact.”
 
Becca grinned. “I don’t want to encourage invasions of my privacy. Besides, you’re a dragon. Fire’s your thing. It’s not like a low-level fireball’s going to hurt you. Much.”
 
“Your sympathy is overwhelming. I feel delirious with your love.” And to think Becca was the only person she had in her life to go to in an emergency. Sort of summed up her life nicely. She eyed the Rivka. “Sometimes you’re kind of hostile.”
 
Becca shrugged. “I’m Satan’s right hand. Do you really expect me to be a sweetheart?”
 
“Got me there,” Theresa sighed. Justine would never let her starve or try to burn her up. Then again, Justine would never let her out of the apartment either. Getting shot hadn’t been fun, but being outside…it had almost been worth it. “Just so you know, the only reason I tolerate your crapass attitude is because you do such a good job running Vic’s. If you didn’t, I’d fry you right back to hell.”
 
“You have no chance against me, Dragon.” The glimmer of a real smile curved Becca’s mouth. “But if you’re going to say such nice things about my attitude, I suppose I could let you come in.” She extinguished the fireball in her fist. “You can put Mona in the kitchen. She’ll blend in.”
 
Well, then. That was better. Theresa stepped around an Oriental rug that looked way too nice to bleed on, even if it did belong to Becca. “Thanks.” She followed the Rivka into a surprisingly bright and cheerful kitchen. White painted cabinets, yellow walls, a bouquet of flowers on a very cool old, wooden table. “Do you by any chance have some food? I’m still a bit hungry.”
 
“Plenty. Help yourself.” Becca leaned against the counter and folded her arms over her chest, the action making her leather-clad breasts even more prominent. 
 
Theresa tried not to think of the breasts she’d had before she became a full-time dragon. Instead, she looked around the kitchen. “You want me to just start opening cabinets and grabbing stuff?”
 
Becca sighed. “I suppose that’s a bad thing to say to a dragon, huh?” She walked over to the freezer and pulled out a two-pound hunk of hamburger meat. “Want this?”
 
Theresa’s stomach growled before she could answer, and Becca gave a brisk nod before tossing it in the microwave. 
 
Then…awkward silence while the microwave hummed.
 
Um, hmm. Two centuries of total isolation except for one friend didn’t do a lot for maintaining small talk skills, especially with an anti-social Rivka. Theresa covered the silence by opening a few cabinets in search of cereal. She found it on her third try and took down a couple boxes of whole wheat, organic blah. 
 
Becca cleared her throat. “So, did you get shot? Is that why you’re bleeding?”
 
“Yep.” Teresa found a mixing bowl and dumped the entire box of cereal into it. “I broke into the Vic’s near my old condo and got some dinner. I’ll pay you back for all the pretzels I ate.”
 
Becca lifted a brow. “You got shot robbing a Vic’s?”
 
“Yep. The chef was packing heat.” 
 
“Excellent. I’ll have to get him a raise. I’ll check the schedule and see who was on duty tonight at that store and—”
 
“Hey! Where’s the sympathy? Where’s the love? I got shot!” She scowled at the Rivka. Did no one care that she’d almost died?
 
“You’re immortal,” Becca said dryly. 
 
“Well, he also insulted me repeatedly. And my poor, dead mama.” 
 
Becca grinned. “To be fair, you wererobbing the place.”
 
“I know, but he still hurt my feelings. Not that I care, of course. I’m a dragon and I don’t need the accolades of others.” She shook off the self-pity and held up a gallon of milk. “Is this skim?”
 
“Always.”
 
“Good.” She poured the whole container of milk into the bowl, then grabbed a ladle from above the stove and scooped up some cereal. 
 
“You’re bleeding into your food.”
 
“Am I?” She looked down at her right hand, then wailed in dismay. “He blew up my human fingernail!” 
 
Becca raised her brow. “You had a human fingernail? Since when?”
 
“This is so unfair! I spent two hundred years trying different spells and I finally got a fingernail back and he shot it off!” She threw the spoon down and stared at the tip of her claw where her French manicure used to be. “It was my only sign of humanity and now it’s gone!” She shoved her chair back, flames spewing ungracefully out of her nose. “I’m going to go back there and cut off his most precious part and see how he likes it and—” She suddenly realized her claws were stuck to the table in a suspiciously magical way.
 
She bared her teeth at Becca. “Let me go before I toast you.” 
 
Becca rolled her eyes at the threat, making Theresa want to fry her just to prove she could. “I can’t let you murder one of my chefs. If it was the competition, no problem. Hell, if it was anyone else, I’d go along with you and cap his soul for Satan after you finished the job, but all the rules change when you mess with my day job.”
 
“But he destroyed my fingernail!” Theresa yanked on the table to try to free her front claws and the wood cracked.
 
“Hey!” Becca leapt across the kitchen and slammed her hands down on the table top. “I had to harvest a law school professor’s soul before Satan would give me that table! Don’t break it!”
 
Black smoke curled out of Theresa’s nose. “Then let me go!”
 
“You really want to murder a Vic’s chef? What about the pretzels?”
 
She glared at Becca. “My humanity is more important than pretzels.”
 
“Really?” Becca looked surprised. 
 
“Of course, really! To those of us with a soul, humanity matters.” She blinked hard, growling at the lump that suddenly appeared in her throat. She would not cry. She would not cry.But dammit, the thought of the humanity she’d been searching for so elusively made emotions swell up inside her. 
 
She cleared her throat and shook them off. “Of course, you’re nothing but an extension of Satan, with no personality or life force of your own. You could never understand.” 
 
Becca’s eyes darkened and her fingers curved into the wood, her knuckles turning white. “Is that so?” 
 
Theresa jerked back as the Rivka’s eyes turned red and began to glow. “Are you going to turn into something scary?” Theresa tugged at the table, trying to get her hands free. “Because if you are, I’m outta here.”
 
“No, I’m not.” Becca closed her eyes for a moment and took a breath. When she opened them again, her eyes were back to their regular green color. 
 
The table released Theresa, and she yanked her claws back into her lap. She sagged with relief, and her tail thudded to the floor. “You are one scary chick sometimes, you know that? No wonder you don’t have any friends. Who would dare?”
 
Something flashed in Becca’s eyes. “It’s my choice to be alone.”
 
“Well, then you’re an idiot, because being alone sucks.”
 
“That’s a matter of opinion.” Becca turned away and yanked open a drawer and began rifling through utensils. “You want me to pull the bullets out, or what?”
 
Theresa stared at Becca in surprise. “You’ll help me?” The cold, evil Rivka cared enough to dig the bullets out? That was so unexpected, and so…nice. Almost like a friend. 
 
“Of course.” Becca retrieved a pair of needle nose pliers from the drawer. “Derek would be disappointed in me if I let you heal with the bullets under your scales.”
 
Theresa stiffened. Derek. Of course. How silly of her to actually hope that the gesture might have been an indication of some sort of friendship between them. She gave a bored sniff and picked up her ladle again. “Suit yourself. Extract away.”
 
They didn’t exchange another word until Becca was pulling out the third bullet, the one that had taken out her human fingernail. Becca eyed the mangled claw. “You really had a human fingernail?”
 
Theresa sighed. “It was beautiful. Feminine. I loved it.” She tried not to wince as Becca dug around in her claw for the bullet. “It was the one indication that there was still some chance I had at changing my life. Now I’m back to where I was. Stuck in this stupid dragon form. It makes me feel like there’s no hope to change my future.”
 
Becca made a cluck of sympathy then leaned back and studied Theresa, chewing her lower lip. “You know, if you promise not to go after my chef, I might be able to get you another fingernail.”
 
Theresa stopped breathing for a full minute. “How?”
 
“Satan.”
 
“Oh, no.” She shook her head vehemently. “I’m not giving him my soul. No way.”
 
“He wouldn’t expect an entire soul for a single fingernail. If it gives you hope for your future, it might be worth his price.” 
 
Becca’s voice was suspiciously emphatic, and Theresa cocked her head to look at her. “You need something to hope for, too?” 
 
“Never.” Rivka dropped the bullet on the table with a clang and shoved the forceps into Theresa’s neck.
 
A stab of pain blistered through Theresa’s neck and slammed into her head. “Ow!”
 
“So sorry.” Becca gave her an innocent smile as she held up the last bullet. “Got it.”
 
The sharp pain faded to a throbbing ache, and Theresa rubbed her neck. “Did you get some of my vertebrae while you were in there?”
 
“No, but I could give it another go if you like.” Becca looked far too cheerful as she gathered the bullets off the table. “How long will you have bullet holes?”
 
“A few hours at most.”
 
Becca shot her a curious glance as she stepped on the foot pedal to lift the lid of a smoothly polished stainless steel trash can. She dropped the bullets in with a thunk. “Does it hurt?”
 
“Yup. But a dragon is never bothered by pain, of course.” That was the rumor, at least, when it came to dragons. It sounded fantastic, but Theresa had never been able to manage it. Pain felt like pain, and she hated it. 
 
“Of course. Pain is an illusion, right?”
 
“Totally.” Lie, but whatever.
 
“I feel the same way.” Becca washed her hands then grabbed her keys. “I don’t suppose you’re strong enough to fly home tonight?”
 
What? That totally sounded like Becca had just given her an opening to stay there. Hope leapt through Theresa. “No. I definitely can’t fly right now.” She sighed with satisfaction as she wedged herself deeper in the chair that was too small for her dragon-sized butt. “I can’t possibly go home to my lonely existence. I’m stuck here with you. You’re not exactly warm and fuzzy, but you have a full kitchen and you acknowledge I’m alive, so that’s something at least.” Yes, even a Rivka was better than being alone for another endless night. At Becca’s scowl, Theresa added. “There’s no food at Quin’s. I’ll starve if I go back.”
 
Becca grabbed a smooth leather wallet out of drawer, removed a credit card, and slipped it into her bra. “I’ll take care of that while I’m out.”
 
Yay for the food, but boo for the fact that the Rivka was abandoning her. “Where are you going?” Becca might be Satan’s right hand, but at least she was someone to talk to. Theresa had had kind of a crappy night and the thought of being alone was almost too much to take. “Maybe you could stay here. We could get drunk and rent movies with hot guys and complain about our lives. Justine and I used to do that a lot. It’s kind of fun.”
 
Becca gave her an odd look as she shoved the utensil drawer closed with her hip. “Really?”
 
“What? You don’t know how to do the girl bonding thing?” Theresa hopped up and yanked open the freezer. “My God, girl. You’ve got sixteen different kinds of ice cream in here. This is perfect for a bitch session.” Her belly rumbled as she picked up the nearest pint. “Chocolate fudge brownie? And cookie dough? I love this stuff!” She glanced at Becca. “I didn’t know Rivkas needed comfort food.”
 
Becca yanked the ice cream out of Theresa’s claw, put it back inside, then slammed the freezer shut. “I can’t stay. I have to get some souls. Satan needs a few new skillsets for his kingdom.” She flashed Theresa a glimpse at a very skimpy ensemble under the black leather coat. “Trolling the alleys in this outfit at this hour makes it easy to find souls who deserve hell.”
 
“You have awesome breasts.” Theresa sighed with envy. “I wish I could go have men gawk at my boobs. You have the best job.”
 
Becca managed a half-smile. “You’re one warped dragon.”
 
“Wow. Thanks. I’ve always tried my best to break all the dragon rules.” The Rivka’s smile made Theresa feel better, and she sat back down at the table. “And, let me say, you’re one psychotic Rivka.”
 
Becca grinned. “Why, thank you.”
 
“Any time, baby cakes.” Theresa blew her a kiss. “Bring me breakfast when you come back?”
 
“As long as you promise not to go eat my chef.”
 
Theresa took a bite of her cereal and pretended to contemplate the request. “Mmm…I won’t eat him until after you get back. How’s that?”
 
Becca lifted one eyebrow. “Funny dragon.”
 
Theresa grinned. “You know you love me.” 
 
All she got in return was a snort, then Becca turned into an inky black puddle and disappeared through the floor, which was super impressive. Those disciples of Satan sure could do some cool shit. But certainly not cool enough to risk a deal with him just to get a bit of his magic.
 
Then Theresa looked at her mangled claw and sighed. A human fingernail on the other hand…would that be worth a deal with him?
 
No. She would not succumb.
 
She wasn’t that desperate…was she?
 
Heaven help her if she was. 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
CHAPTER FOUR
 
 
The footsteps caught Zeke’s attention the moment his visitors stepped into the hall outside his door.
 
It was just before midnight, and he was in his sparsely decorated office, nursing too-old coffee and negotiating a bribe…err, payment…for some confidential information. He had almost gotten his contact where he wanted him when he sensed someone approaching his office. It was late. He wasn’t expecting anyone. Which meant it wasn’t good. 
 
“Hang on a sec, please.” He hit the hold button on his phone and closed his eyes, letting his senses explore.
 
Two human males. One was angry. Tense. Carrying a freshly oiled gun. He smelled like money. The other…nervous. Not armed. The scent of desperate sweat rolled off him. He also carried the odor of cash. 
 
And the energy pulses of both men were directed toward Zeke. 
 
He knew immediately that he needed his full attention on the men who were about to burst into his office.
 
He connected to his call again. “I don’t like the price you’re setting. I’ll have to think about it.” Then he hung up. 
 
Oh, sure, he would have paid that price, but since he had to get off the phone anyway, he might as well use it to his advantage. The information wasn’t going anywhere. 
 
He leaned back in his favorite chair, a well-worn black leather chair that had soothed him for years. He turned up the jazz music emanating from his CD player, laced his fingers behind his head, watching the door. Waiting. Getting his equilibrium set before all hell broke loose. 
 
His visitors didn’t disappoint.
 
The door flew open to reveal a huge man with a shaved skull and a neck that blended into his head. He looked twitchy and was wearing an expensive suit, probably custom to fit those steroid-induced shoulders. “You Siccardi?”
 
“Yep.” Zeke tapped his foot in time to the jazz music, trying to stay focused on the trumpet, and not on the violence rolling off his visitor.
 
Twitchy Guy did a quick scan of the room. “Is anyone else here?”
 
“Nope.”
 
“Don’t move.”
 
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Involuntarily, Zeke’s gaze flicked to the locked gun drawer by his left shin. It had been decades since he’d opened it, but the urge was strong right now, stronger than it had been in a long time. 
 
He closed his eyes for a moment and let the music wash over him, trying to channel the serenity that he’d been pursuing for so long. 
 
Twitchy Guy went back into the hall, and returned a minute later with a tall, bony man in another expensive suit. Zeke would lay odds that the new addition was the negotiator.
 
Zeke checked the old, wooden clock on his desk. He’d give them three minutes and then send them on their way. Any longer than that, and he’d probably have to grab his gun and shoot them. The violence rolling off them was getting under his skin fast. 
 
Bony Guy sat down in Zeke’s guest chair while Twitchy set up guard at the door. “Nice office,” said the Bony Guy. 
 
“Thanks.” He kept one eye on Twitchy, but so far his hands were by his side and not near his gun. “What can I do for you?”
 
“I hear you find people.”
 
“That I do.”
 
“I hear you’re the best.”
 
“I am.”
 
Bony Guy nodded his approval, then slid a photo across the desk. A name was scrawled across the bottom. “Find him.”
 
Zeke didn’t even glance at the photo. “Why?”
 
Bony Guy gave him a grin. “Because his dad misses him. Wants to bring him home for the family reunion.” Then he winked. 
 
Zeke didn’t buy the story for a second. The only way they were going to bring this missing person home was in a body bag, which wasn’t his gig anymore. “Sorry, but I can’t help you.”
 
Bony Guy set an envelope on the table. “Full cash payment up front. We know you’re good for it. You have a reputation.”
 
“And Twitchy will kill me if I stiff you.”
 
“Who?”
 
“The fine upstanding gentleman by the door.” Zeke finally took his hands from behind his head and leaned forward, folding his hands on his desk. “I’m sorry you wasted your time, but I no longer take cases like yours.”
 
Bony Guy frowned. “What does that mean?”
 
“No violence. No men with guns. No dirty cash.” He spread his hands. “I’m clean and I run a clean shop here.” The scars all over his hands told another story. Maybe he should get them lasered off. Bite wounds didn’t exactly enhance his new image. Hell, while he was at it, he should get a manicure.
 
Then he grinned. Some things were just never going to happen. 
 
Bony guy cleared his throat. “There’s a two million dollars cashier’s check in that envelope.”
 
“Find someone else.” Zeke had never been driven by money, even back in the day. Women? Maybe. A good battle, definitely. Money? Not so much. 
 
Bony didn’t look happy. “Listen, I did my research. I know what you can do. You don’t have morals or a conscience. You’re lethal, but you’ve never been caught. You’re the man I need.”
 
Zeke felt the familiar twitch at the back of his neck. No matter how many centuries he went without, the allure of that lifestyle would never leave. No worry. He was stronger than the temptation. “You’re working with dated information.” Like a century or two old. “I find people for the right reasons. And yours won’t qualify.” 
 
Bony grinned. “The man I want you to find is a dragon.”
 
The twitch immediately flared up into a full-fledged roar and Zeke had to close his eyes for a moment to imagine his field of dandelions. Chirping birds. His happy place. A real live dragon?A cat sprang up out of the dandelions and munched a bird. His damn happy place was going to shit.
 
He growled as the urge crept down his arms, itching for action. He tried picturing Labrador puppies. A snuggly little black lab. Puppy kisses. A case about a dragon?As soon as he thought “dragon,” the mother of the puppies suddenly appeared in his fantasy, saliva dripping from her chin, her eyes narrowed with the fury that only a mother could feel. She lunged for him and he felt the teeth sink into his arm, sending his adrenaline spiking.
 
Crap. He shook his head hard and tried again to find his serene place, the one that would keep him from grabbing his sword and charging out the door after the dragon in the photo.
 
His mind went to the last possible place of respite he could think of: Theresa Nichols. In her lingerie. Licking a path down the inside of her thigh. Her hair would be silky, scented of vanilla. Her skin smooth, with a tattoo over her left collar bone, described so vividly by her that he could picture it exactly. There was no baggage between them. No deep emotions that could destroy them. Just fun and great sex. Ah. Better. He opened his eyes again, a feeling of peace settling over his limbs as he let visions of the woman he’d never met in person ease the ache in his bones. “No. I will not find the dragon for you.”
 
Bony chuckled and tossed a business card on the table. “When you change your mind, call me. You know you can’t resist a dragon.”
 
Still tingling with thoughts of Theresa and her soft lips, Zeke picked up the card and photo, walked over to the shredder and sent them both through. “Don’t underestimate me.” 
 
He always enjoyed it when people underestimated him, though now he was too civilized to make them pay for it, unfortunately. His life might be clean, but sometimes it was boring as hell. Or rather, as boring as heaven. Hell would actually be pretty interesting. Not that it mattered. Now that he’d walked away from his violent lifestyle, he’d live at least another five hundred years or so before he had to worry about the Afterlife. It was almost an embarrassment he was going to live this long. Most slayers died by the time they were a couple hundred years old, their life sucked away by the munch of a dragon. 
 
“Oh, I know all about you, Mr. Siccardi.” Bony stood up. “Don’t you want to at least find the dragon and warn him that we’re after him?” He set a replacement photo on the table, clearly having anticipated that Zeke would dispose of the first one. “Either way, you know you’ll track him down. If you work for us, at least you’ll be paid for your efforts.” He set another business card on top. “Think about it. We’ll know what you choose. Have a nice day.” He nodded at Zeke and then headed for the door.
 
Zeke watched them leave and wished for a moment that he’d met them a couple hundred years ago, when he could have taken the case and made a nice little sum from it. 
 
But that wasn’t his life. He had to remember that, no matter how much his old instincts tried to tell him otherwise. 
 
His phone rang and he picked it up automatically, figuring it was probably Bony trying to up the offer. “Siccardi here.”
 
“Mr. Siccardi, it’s Ralph Greene, Attorney at Law. On behalf of my client, I am following up to see if you have had any success in locating Theresa Nichols.” 
 
He settled back in his chair and kicked his feet up on his desk. “I may have a lead, but I need to confirm she’s the correct Theresa Nichols.” If the elusive woman would simply meet with him, he’d be able to compare her to the sketch he was working off of, and he’d know whether she was the right woman. He’d been working on her for months now, and although he’d gotten some great cybersex out of it, he hadn’t once managed to convince her to meet in person. 
 
But once this whole client thing was over…well…who knew? He grinned to himself. He had plenty of time to waste on a woman, especially Theresa Nichols. At least he wouldn’t have to lie to her about his day job anymore. Either one of his day jobs, actually. 
 
“Mr. Siccardi, the situation has changed. It is simply of the utmost urgency that we locate Ms. Nichols by the end of this week. If you are unable to find her, I have been instructed to assume she is dead and take appropriate action.” 
 
Zeke’s feet thudded to the floor and he sat up. “Mr. Greene, I have never failed a client, and you won’t be the first. You’ll have your answer by Friday.”
“Excellent. I’ll be expecting a call. Until then.”
 
Zeke hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair, tapping his fingers thoughtfully on his desk. It was time. He grabbed his laptop and pulled it toward him. He hesitated for a moment, then gritted his teeth and typed it in. “T? You there?” 

*****

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Stephanie

PS I will have more details on t as soon as I am done with my final edit! Soon, I promise!
 

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