I will stop at nothing to keep her safe.
Faking things with Gretta should be simple and fun. Scaring off her evil ex is a bonus. She makes the dragon inside of me rage, screaming fated mate. I need to make things real. But I don’t know if she will accept me if I tell her I’m a dragon shifter. Hell, I don’t even know if she’ll believe me.
And when protecting Gretta from her crazy ex turns into protecting her from evil wizards, I realize things go much deeper than just faking a relationship. But it doesn’t matter. I will stop at nothing to keep her safe.
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Chapter 1 - Gretta
The smell of freshly brewed coffee filled the air just as the percolator indicated the last few drops had hit the pot. I groaned and pushed away from my cluttered desk as I shoved my glasses on top of my thick mass of dark hair. Two or three pots of coffee wouldn’t be enough to revive my tired eyes.
I'd spent most of the early morning hours working on my application to become Dr. Holt's new medical research assistant. After waiting years for the opportunity, I’d expected to get more than just my name on the paper, but my mind had drawn blank after blank while I tried to think of the exact words to land me the job I wanted. Tried. Tried again. Failed. Time for a break. I headed toward the kitchen to pour myself a hot cup of coffee. Cardamom and cinnamon. Delicious and, oh, so necessary.
Behind me, the front door opened, and I cursed under my breath. It had to be Bill, my very soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. So much for leaving for work without seeing him. I'd waited up half the night to tell him it was over between us and to get the hell out. I wanted more out of life than to be his convenient place to stay, his booty call when he had business in my little town of Spruce.
"You look like crap." Bill sauntered into the kitchen, raised his eyebrows, and flicked his head toward the coffee as if he expected me to pour him a cup. I didn’t. He could damn well pour his own. If I got it, it would end up in his face. And that would burn him. And that meant paperwork.
So, I refrained. “Well, you look like an ass,” I muttered under my breath.
He hadn’t always been a dick. For the first three months, he’d been sweet and kind, but the last few weeks it was like some switch had flipped in his twisted head. He’d gone from Prince Charming to a pain in the neck without passing go, not to mention the $200.
It didn't make telling him it was over any easier, no matter how selfish or heartless he was.
“What was that?” he said as he eyed the coffee.
I raised my voice. “I said thanks.” I smoothed my robe before tugging my wire-rimmed glasses back onto my face. There wasn't much I could do about my hair; it had its own ideas of style.
He looked me over and grimaced. "Nothing new, I guess. Right, Gretty?"
I inwardly cringed as his words cut through me. I never should have told him my high school bully called me Gretty. At the time, I’d believed Bill would have some compassion for what had been a stressful time in my life. In the end, her torment paled in comparison to Bill’s deplorable antics, and I’d had enough.
This was my now or never moment. Put up or shut up time. Do or die.
"Do you have time to talk before you head back to Burlington? It’s important." Ooh. I sounded strong. Confident. Gretty, my ass.
"Not about the application on the desk, I hope. I mean, come on, Gretta. Give it a rest. You don’t have the skills or the experience to be Dad’s assistant." Bill shook his head and poured a cup of coffee, finally getting the picture that I wouldn’t be doing it. "You don’t even have the skills to be his secretary.” He jerked his head toward my office. “You fill that out, you’re just going to embarrass me."
I clenched a fist to keep from punching him. Hitting him might hurt me, and doctors needed their hands.
He swallowed a sip of coffee then scrunched his nose. "Wow, this is horrible. You can’t even brew coffee well. What kind of assistant would you be?" He walked into the living room shaking his head and muttering under his breath.
“It’s a special blend,” I called. “One I happen to like. I didn’t pick it out for you.”
That was his MO—say something snide, then walk out before I could respond. Well, no more. I stiffened my back and followed him.
"I’ll have you know I am more than qualified and skilled and experienced enough to be your dad’s assistant." Jerk. It wasn’t too often I spoke to anyone with such venom, but it seemed like lately Bill brought out the anger in me like no one else. I hated confrontation. Some women thrived on it, but it made me nauseated.
Bill plopped down in his ugly tweed armchair, then turned on his massive television, which I still didn't remember permitting him to bring over.
"Come on, Gretta. You don't have what it takes. Dad needs intelligence and drive, and you just don’t have it. Facts are facts, babe.” He flipped a wink at me, and I had a bird I wanted to flip back, but I curled my fingers into my fist. He looked up again. “What? I'm sorry but it’s true, Gretty."
My blood heated to red hot. "Don't call me that. Look, we need to talk. It’s over."
Bill nodded and only heard what he wanted to hear. As usual. "Yes, we do. I have a work dinner tonight with some of the bigwigs from the firm, so you need to meet me at the restaurant by seven thirty. And do something with your hair." He stood and ignored my dropped jaw.
He had to be kidding. “I’m not going out with you tonight. Even if I wanted to, which I don’t, I couldn’t. I told you I needed to check on Lila and pick up Zoe from school.”
As if he gave a shit. “I don’t care about your sick sister or snot-nosed niece. Make it work, Gretta.” He put his cup on the end table, sloshing coffee on my grandmother’s hand-crocheted doily.
“Hey!” I grabbed the coffee cup and the doily, and by the time I turned around, he’d walked into the bathroom and clicked the lock. Frustrated, I sat on my desk chair and stared at my blank application, waiting for him to come out.
He didn’t care that I had a life of my own. As far as he was concerned, my main purpose in life was to be at his beck and call. He didn’t even care that I sometimes needed to work late or would be called into the hospital for an emergency. I’d thought since he was a lawyer, he would understand dedication. Goals. Commitment. But only his career mattered in our relationship.
Well, not tonight. And not anymore.
Bill emerged from the bathroom in a fresh suit, and from past experience, I knew he expected me to get the other one cleaned for him. I counted to ten and tried to control my breathing and my temper. I needed to be reasonable, pleasant, calm. He had to know I meant business, not that I was just upset.
I shook my head. Even he couldn’t be this selfish. "I told you I can’t go out tonight. But I do want to talk to you. Now. This isn’t working.”
He sighed. "I don't have time for this. I need to look at this morning’s news." He swept past my desk and scoffed once more at my application before he flipped on his big screen. "If you can’t meet me there, I'll pick you up at seven o'clock, but you’d better be ready."
This guy took asshat to a whole new level. I shot him a glare then noticed the clock as I was about to tell him to go to Hell. “Damn it.” I was going to be late for work. I had two minutes until I had to be out the door and I was still in my bathrobe and didn’t know where my phone was. I needed to send Justin, my best friend, and my favorite nurse, a quick text. Not on my desk. Not on the floor. Not in my robe pocket. I retraced my steps to the kitchen and spotted it on the counter. I slid my finger across the screen and…whoa. Naked woman. Apparently named Maureen. Naked Maureen.
Come get me, big boy.
Naked Maureen wanted Bill. Because this wasn’t my phone. It was Bill's. Stunned, I didn’t hear him come up behind me until he snatched the device from my hand.
"Give me that."
Oh, all bets were off now. That son of a bitch. “Who’s Maureen?” We were T-minus two seconds to a full-on meltdown. Or blow-up.
“A friend.” So cavalier. So matter of fact.
“A naked friend.” I didn't know if I was more shocked and disgusted that he’d cheated on me or that he didn't try to hide it. "Look, you have to go. We’re done." I said it loud. I said it firmly. And it felt damn good. Bracing myself, I expected Bill to have a tantrum as he always did when he wasn’t getting his own way, but he shrugged. Like it was no big deal.
Well, good. Better for me if he didn’t argue.
“Fine, but I need to keep my things here.”
Oh, hell no. “I’m not a storage shed. Call Naked Maureen. She can keep your stuff for you.”
He sighed like I was the one testing his patience. “Maureen lives in Burlington and she has roommates. You have space.”
“I also have a hammer.” I had one of those, too and I wanted to smash it through his television and his collection of Celine Dion CDs and his high school basketball trophy.
He rolled his eyes. “Stop, you’re not going to trash my stuff. I’ll get to it when I can.” Instead of trashing his face with said hammer, I stood and tapped my foot, waiting until my pulse wasn’t over a hundred beats per minute.
I'd already been warned by Dr. Holt about my bedside manner and my lack of empathy. I needed to "work on it." And Dr. Holt was Bill's dad. The only way to go was to tread lightly. The last thing I needed was for him to run to his father and say I mistreated him. Damn him. He knew damn well he had something to hold over my head. "Fine. You can have a couple of days. But we're done. It's over."
"I’m not moving anything. My stuff is fine here. It's not like you're dating anyone else." His smirk made me want to punch the smug out of him. But again, doctor’s hands.
Bill snatched the apple I’d planned to take to work off the table and sank his teeth into the skin. I shuddered like he’d run his manicured fingernails over a chalkboard.
My entire apartment was full of Bill. I didn’t want his stuff here when he’d brought it, and I certainly didn’t want it after he was gone. “A couple of days.” I reiterated because sometimes he needed to hear things twice.
He took a second bite of the apple before tossing it on the counter, confident as he walked out the door without another word.
I raked my teeth over my top lip and sighed, wondering for just a moment if I’d done the right thing. Breaking up with anyone was never easy, not that I’d done it before, but, with Bill, he could make my life seriously difficult because of his dad. Well, it was done now.
After another glance around my living room, I dressed like I was going to be rewarded for speed, and as I was leaving, my phone dinged—on Bill’s armchair.
I should have known he’d grabbed it. He’d probably gone through my messages, the snake. I rolled my eyes and glanced at the screen. Bile rose into my throat when I saw the message. That jackass!
You’ve made a mistake, Gretty.
The phone dinged again.
This isn’t over.
When the phone dinged for the third time, I muted it and shoved it into my purse, grabbed my keys, and rushed out the door.
"Hey, Sourpuss, what's with the bad mood?" Justin perched his hands on his hips and stared at me.
My number one nurse and best friend stood in diva pose, hip cocked as he pursed his full lips, emerald gaze shining. Unless you knew him, there was nothing immediately telling that he wasn’t fully human. Even though shifters had gone public a while ago, it had surprised me a bit when he told me he was one. A panther, to be exact. Since then, I’d discovered a whole community of shifters here in the tiny town of Spruce.
When I didn't immediately respond, he released an exasperated breath and flipped his jet-black bangs off his forehead. I smiled when they fell back into place. His lithe runner's body was ever elegant in its graceful pose.
"Oh, honey, let me guess, it's Bill. Again. What did he do this time?” He dropped a sympathetic hand on my shoulder.
"Actually, I broke up with him." Oh, those were five of the most liberating words I’d ever spoken. I headed toward the nurses' station and stifled a laugh when Justin squealed and clapped his hands together in delight as he ran after me.
"Ladies and gentlemen, my girl, Gretta Kipling, for the win! And none too soon, might I add." He did the Nurse Justin headshake and cocked his hip. "I didn't want to go all black panther on his ass and scratch his eyes out, but the countdown was on, and it was only a matter of time." Justin clawed the air. I managed a weak smile, but he grasped my wrist and frowned.
“What did he do? Did he threaten you?” His eyes burned a brighter shade of green.
I pulled out my phone and handed it to him. He scrolled through an onslaught of about fifteen messages. Justin’s nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed as he read. I worried he'd shift right there in the hospital if he didn't calm down.
"Breathe," I said softly. I squeezed the pulse point in his wrist.
He shook me off. “I’m fine. The only reason he wants to leave his crap at your house is so he has a reason to keep coming around. I’ll come over after work and we’ll set his stuff outside. If he wants it, he can come to get it.”
Oh, if only it was so simple, but Justin didn't see the bigger picture. Bill wasn’t just a bully; he was vindictive. I needed a day to figure out what to do. I wanted to handle this firmly and not cross the line into vengeance. I also wanted to tread lightly so he didn’t run to his father and get me discounted for the job before I’d even had a chance to really try for it.
"I can't just throw his stuff in the street. You know how he is. If he runs to his dad, I could lose my job. And even if I didn’t, how would that look when I apply for the research position? I've worked too hard for this. Lila isn't getting any better, you know."
Ever since my sister's diagnosis, I’d vowed to do everything in my power to find a cure for MS, and this position was my chance. I wasn’t afraid to break up with Bill, but I didn’t want him to ruin my chances to join the research project either. Maybe those weren’t the right motivations, but it was reality.
Justin nodded as a slight tinge of red crept up his neck and over his jawline. He'd grown close to Lila and my twelve-year-old niece, and Lila’s illness affected him almost as much as it did me.
"I know. But if the research thing falls through, we'll figure something out to help Lila. There are all kinds of clinical trials out there we can investigate. But you've got to tell Bill to take a hike, hurt feelings or not. He cheated on you."
As much as I knew Justin was right, I also knew Bill wasn’t worth the hassle. And nothing, not even my own well-being, was more important than helping Lila. "I want to let things settle down a bit before I make him move his things out."
An elderly patient shuffled out of his room, saw me, and did a quick U-turn. I sighed because that was typical of the patients at the hospital. I wasn’t known for inspiring love from my patients. Justin, on the other hand, was a big hit with pretty much everybody.
He nodded and picked up one of the tablets we used for patient information. "Look, I get it. You don't want Bill running to his daddy and have Dr. Holt thinking you're a woman scorned, or is it the scorning woman? Bad enough everybody thinks you’re a robot.”
He tapped the tablet screen as he spoke. I’d told one kid, one, to suck it up, that he’d be getting pain meds in a minute. Now, I had a reputation.
"Gee, thanks." But he was right. I had to work on better patient relations. Bedside manner. Smiling. Softening the blows. Straight to the facts didn't sit well with everyone, especially ten-year-old boys with broken arms. "Maybe if I ask him nicely, he’ll move out."
Justin let out a howl of laughter. "And afterward, we can go to the pig-flying celebration."
The phone at the nurses' station rang, startling both of us.
"Spruce Private, Third Floor, how may I help you?" Nurse Pruitt smiled into the handheld she’d had in her pocket.
"Yes, Mr. Holt, Dr. Kipling is right here, sir. Please hold one moment."
"Mr. Holt. So, not the important one." Justin loved the distinction between father and son.
I stifled a laugh because no one could tell it like it was better than Justin, the most loyal friend I’d ever had. Nurse Pruitt held the phone out to me, but Justin snatched it before I had the chance. Not that I fought hard to beat him.
"This is Nurse Lampert. I’m the floor nurse supervisor today. How may I help you?" He winked at me. "Yes, Dr. Kipling was just here, Mr. Holt, but she's doing rounds right now, taking care of her patients. Doing doctor things." Justin rolled his eyes and put his hand over the receiver. "I’ve got this."
"Justin." I tried to take the phone, but Justin lunged left, out of my reach.
"Oh, I'll be sure to give her the message," he said before he abruptly hung up.
I shook my head and almost groaned. "Why screw with him? You know it’s only going to make him worse." I scowled when he continued to smile and didn’t answer. "Well, what did he say?"
“You’re so full of yourself thinking he’d be asking about you all the time.” He grinned and waved his hand. “I told you, bestie, I got this.”
Famous last words. I leaned against the counter. The last time someone let Justin handle their breakup for them, it had involved a pack of wolf shifters and a chase through the woods at the edge of town. I didn't want that kind of trouble. Besides, I could handle it myself. I would handle it myself.
"I don't know…”
“Gretta, trust me. You must put your foot down. Saying the words isn’t going to be enough with this guy.”
Of course, he was right, but his usual methods were a little unorthodox. "You can help if I need it, but you've got to promise me—"
He held up a hand. "No wolf shifters, I promise."
“Definitely not.” What a disaster.
He nodded, and he would keep his promise, but the gleam in his eyes said before it was all over, I’d probably be wishing the wolf shifters were back.
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