I need to protect her from the dangers of the world...and herself.
Lila is my destined mate.
I know it the moment I see her.
Wanting her isn’t enough. My inner dragon demands that I keep her safe.
Even from herself.
The disease she lives with is tearing her apart, making her suffer. She suffers incredible torment. Why keep suffering when my claiming bite could heal her?
But illness isn’t the only trouble.
Threatening notes. Stalking. Danger to my mate and her daughter.
I won’t let anyone touch them. Whatever it takes to keep them from harm, it’s done.
Lila wants me to see beyond her illness. I do. I want every part of her.
She’s mine and it has nothing to do with making her whole.
How can I convince her to accept my bite?
READ THE DRAGON'S HEALING TOUCH NOW
Chapter 1 - Leath
Fresh country air and lush green mountains were only two of the reasons I loved the small town of Spruce, Vermont. I could have searched my whole life and never found a place so ideal with its wide-open spaces to fly, which was helpful since not flying was similar to constipation for non-dragon shifters. And nobody liked that. After retiring from lengthy careers in the military, my dragon clan and I had come here to start new lives. The plan was to be all that we could be in a completely different way.
So far, that plan was off to a shaky start.
My truck speakers rang with an incoming call. Since this was technically my first real gig for Dragons for Hire, the company we’d started in this quaint little town, it was most likely Sam calling to check in. He was a fire dragon and had a vested interest in this job because it involved his mate’s sister. Sam was also a big worrier, and he’d probably been staring at the clock, waiting until it was time to make sure nothing had held me up, and I would be on time.
“Hey, Leath. You on your way?” He was too casual to actually be casual. Even through the speakers in my truck, the nervous waver in his voice came through loud and clear. But this job was as important to me as it was to him since our kind were born protectors. I, for one, was tired of retrieving cats from trees and cooking at the old folks’ home. Although, truthfully, that one wasn’t so bad; I kinda liked my Sundays with the golden oldies. But for Sam, this job was personal.
“Yeah. Just passed the police station.”
Something like amusement laced his voice. “I heard you were out making friends this morning.”
Spruce was one of those towns where word traveled quickly. Everyone knew everyone else, which made it hard to keep much private, but this town was quiet, accepting, and friendly. The striped awning over the dress shop, the always busy chessboard outside the barbershop, and the gaslight lamps lining the main streets were more welcoming than any sign they could’ve planted at the edge of Spruce, but the people were what made this place feel like home.
I’d been in town for three months and was finally starting to get familiar with folks below the age of seventy, like Cheryl, Marsha, and Lou, who were the cashiers at the grocery store near my house. I wouldn’t have called them friends yet, but we were on a first-name basis, so it was progress.
“You know me. Doing what I can to socialize with the people.” I wasn’t doing much else, and I was starting to feel a little lost. I was used to action, doing something, always moving.
I checked the GPS again, and it showed I should still be pointed north, which meant through the forest and up the mountain. A patch of wildflowers at the edge of the road filled the air with their alluring scent, which gave way to the smell of honeysuckle and pine as I entered the forest, but there was no turn-off where I expected.
I’d only flown over the area once before, for an entirely different reason, and didn’t really remember the lay of the land. I should have scoped it out on my morning flight. Maybe I should’ve just flown in, but then I would’ve arrived naked, and that definitely wasn’t the impression I wanted to make. Still, I’d expected the entrance to be a bit closer to town than I’d already driven. There weren’t any fences or signs to indicate there was even anything out here.
“How far up is this place, Sam?”
“You’re looking for a dirt road. You can’t miss the turnoff. There’s a gate with some kind of big crystals on either side.” Easy for him to say. Sam had been out here several times when he and his mate, Gretta, were first getting started. Being surrounded by nature was always my preference, as an earth dragon, but I was unfamiliar with this particular area and nervous about my first real job on top of that. I clenched my hands around the steering wheel.
“Did you pass it?”
Did I pass it? If I knew I’d driven too far, I would’ve turned around. “GPS says no.”
“Did you get to the clearing yet? The road is right after the clearing.”
Sam would have taken the job himself if not for the fact he knew I was desperate to get my hands dirty, so to speak. I continued zigging and zagging up the mountain. Finally, the line of trees thinned into a clearing with said turn-off to the right. It wasn’t that I’d been driving long, I just preferred to know where I was going without an electronic voice leading my way.
I pictured Sam nodding with relief, a sentiment I echoed. “All right, man. Call me when you’re done there and let me know how it goes.”
I hung up, focused now on reaching my destination. Beech and birch trees lined the narrow dirt path leading to two tall pieces of amethyst alongside an iron gate. I wasn’t alive when the witch trials happened down in Massachusetts, but this gate looked like it had been ripped out of an earlier era and transported here. Though weathered by time, it was ornate and curled along the top and behind where it disappeared into the shrubs on either side. And like she was inviting danger to her door, the woman who needed protection had left the security gate wide open.
I drove through. If an actual witch lived here or was the reason for the unrest here, I would’ve known. I would’ve sensed it—kind of like a bad taste in my mouth. But so far, not even a tingle on my tongue. Most shifters had a thing that made them notice magic in the area.
The first thing I noticed about the turn of the century colonial was the twenty or so windows along the front of the house, all wide open with the curtains billowing through in the warm summer wind. Instead of modern vinyl siding, cedar shakes scalloped the front, and a tall brick chimney sprouted out of the roof, smoke-free since we were almost into July. There was a small garden at the side of the house that had seen better days.
I pulled the truck through the U-shaped driveway to the center and stopped at the steps to the wrap-around porch. The front door was hanging open as wide as the windows, but I knocked anyway, then squared my shoulders and listened for a reply.
My dragon’s pull to this house was strong enough it churned in my gut. He needed to go in. I needed to go in. I’d never felt an urge so strong and purposeful. Usually, I controlled the dragon. I made our decisions, but right now, I didn’t have a choice, and I couldn’t deny the longing to go inside.
I stepped through the rounded-top front door and took a deep breath. The smells of lemongrass and sage transported me back to Asia in the late 1800s. I breathed deep, wanting to savor the memory and the scent, but my dragon hadn’t calmed yet, and this place wasn’t Asia.
The foyer was a clutter of mismatched décor. Ornate and rough carved statues along with various crystals in all shapes and sizes sat in a line on floor-to-ceiling shelves across from a mirror with black scrolled ironwork. An orange quarter moon hung in a circle from the center of a door frame, and of course, what house in Spruce was complete without the requisite dragon tapestry.
This one hung above a doorway to my right and portrayed a puny little air dragon in flight while another sat guard over a night sky. I shook my head. Typical. Humans thought they could hang a dragon picture or tapestry and a shield of protection would magically fall over their houses. Little did they know.
Lila, my client, obviously should have known, considering she was the victim of a horrible wizard attack only a few weeks ago. They’d placed spelled crystals around and inside her property to make her feel ill, to make it look like her MS was getting worse—all to manipulate her sister into experimenting with dragon blood to ‘find a cure’. What the wizards were really doing was trying to find a way to drain our power and kill us.
I ducked under the hanging moon into a living room with windows on three sides and a woman holding a book above her head, trying to place it on a high shelf between the windows. Maybe I made a sound, or maybe she felt the air in the room change, but she spun, hurled the book into the air, and screamed. I wasn’t The Rock or anything, but rarely did my presence earn such a fearsome reaction. Unless I wanted it to, of course.
As I was about to introduce myself, my dragon sighed with longing, deep, and soft but powerful enough that I knew. I knew. This woman, this beauty in a short, flowered dress and hair the color of chocolate, was my destiny, my mate. She was the one I was sent here, in more than one way, to protect.
She brought her hand to her heaving chest. “I’m sorry. I don’t usually scream at my customers like they’re scary movie villains. Did I forget a massage or a class?”
“Customer?” I knew the answer to the question I hadn’t quite managed to ask, but a haze formed over my mind, and I couldn’t think past her big hazel doe eyes or the fact she’d asked if I wanted a massage. Which I did. Very much—from her.
I moved closer, fully prepared to sweep her off her feet. Literally. Figuratively. Freestyle if she’d let me.
Her fingertips fluttered against the collar of her dress, long slender fingers I knew would be strong and powerful against my skin despite being delicate and dainty.
“Yoga. I, um, I teach yoga.”
Yes, she did. “Right. Yoga.” Now I remembered. She had some hooey New Age business model and worked it out of her house.
I opened my mouth to tell her who I was, but she picked up a candlestick made of some sort of sparkling crystal with a silver banding. She held it out in front of her body at arm’s length with hands wrapped around the base as if she planned to use it in a swordfight. Her body language said she wanted to hit me. Hurt me. The fuck?
Oh, right. She was a human. And I’d walked into her house uninvited and without introducing myself, like the kind of creepy stalker that I’d come here to stop. Way to make a first impression. I held up a fist like an idiot and demonstrated. “I knocked. But I guess you didn’t hear me. Sorry. I’m, uh—” I sure as hell hadn’t forgotten my own name. “Leath. Leath Lane. Gretta said she was going to tell you I’d be stopping by.”
Stopping by, moving in, loving her until the day I died. A rose by any other name. Whoa, Shakespeare. Really? Before I could embarrass myself further, she breathed out a relieved laugh and rolled her eyes, the dangerous candlestick dropping to her side.
“Don’t mind me. It’s not a deadly weapon.”
She cackled at her joke, and I smiled. To be honest, I probably hadn’t stopped smiling since I got my first eyeful of her long legs, chestnut hair hanging loose around her shoulders, and those delicate hands trying to be tough holding her weapon of choice. And if the beauty of her face wasn’t enough to have my heart doing double time, her soft, melodic voice would have been.
“You’re the dragon for hire.” She laughed, and the sound was intoxicating enough if she dared one more chuckle, I’d dissolve. With fingers no longer trembling or fluttering, she replaced the candlestick on the table and moved around to hold out one of those beautiful hands. “Yeah, of course, she mentioned you. I’m sorry, my nerves are just strung a little tight right now. I’m Lila Kipling.”
I rolled her name around in my mind. It was smooth, like maple syrup, and perfect for her. And if I didn’t pull it together and quit staring, she was probably going to end up using that candlestick. Desperately looking for something to say, I nodded to the tapestry.
“I suppose you were expecting someone smaller. Maybe more magical?” Because in all the lore, dragons had powers. I suppressed an eye roll, barely, and smiled. I might have also flexed my shoulders.
Then she pursed her lips. “You don’t like my décor?”
I shrugged. “I’m more of a real-world kind of guy. Crystals and talismans are a little Fantasy Island for me.”
She flashed the tip of her tongue against the corner of her lips. I was one palpitation away from a heart attack. Pulling it together might have been too much to hope for, but I did manage to stay upright and not humiliate myself.
“Fantasy Island? Really?”
“You mean weird.”
“If that’s the word you wanna use.” But yes, I meant weird.
She narrowed her eyes, and if she were the type, she probably would’ve flipped me off. Instead, that tongue poked out again, which somehow seemed way more potent than a flying finger, and I felt the ice thinning under my feet.
“That’s rich coming from a dragon.”
Feisty on top of beautiful. Witty on top of charming. My mate was a total package, and I was in way over my head. That was probably why my mouth kept slipping past its filter. “There’s a difference between supernatural and whatever New Age bullshit that’s about.” I jerked a thumb over my shoulder at the relics in the foyer.
“Bullshit?” She huffed out a sharp breath and lifted an angry eyebrow. “My New Age bullshit cures many ailments, soothes pain, quiets bad dreams. I help bring peace to tormented souls. You fly through the air with the greatest of ease. Sounds more like the greatest show-off to me.”
I pressed my fingers to my chest in mock offense. “Show-off? Moi?”
Well, okay, I could give her that one. Maybe on occasion I soared with gusto. And she’d picked up on my tormented soul, but only because I’d walked in here and found her, my mate. Now I had to, what? Convince her? Make being my destined mate sound like the best damned deal this side of dollar day at the donut shop?
“Call me what you want, but I’m not the one who called me to protect you.” Great. I’d moved from insulting her to taunting her.
“Neither did I.” A truth she spat from between clenched teeth.
Wow, we were really starting off on the wrong foot. I wasn’t totally sure how we'd gotten here. I’d gone really wrong somewhere. “Yes, I know. Sorry. Your sister said you’ve caught some unwanted attention.” Stalker. Gretta had said stalker, but I didn’t want to rub that in.
After a moment’s hesitation, Lila walked to the table across from the one where she’d set the candlestick, her dress swishing against her long, tanned legs, and I silently groaned. When she turned to look back at me, her hazel eyes caught mine. I could practically see her thoughts. She was wondering if she could trust me, but she knew I was Sam’s friend, and I supposed that cinched it for her in the end. She handed me a folded note.
“I got this and a couple of weird texts.” She shrugged and folded her arms. “Gretta is a worrier. I’m sure it’s not a big deal.”
The note was nondescript on plain lined paper with crude penmanship. It held only two words, which wasn’t a big clue into the person who jotted it down.
Direct. To the point. Creepy, even, but there was nothing to indicate a witch’s curse, or any other kind of dark magic associated with it. “Most likely human.” And sometimes, that could be worse. Without any assistance from the supernatural, they still managed to be the most dangerous species alive.
All the tension Lila had held in the lines of her face vanished, and I realized then how much she’d needed to hear those words. After her ordeal with the wizards, I didn’t blame her for wanting that reassurance. I took a deep breath as I reined back my desire to stroke a line from her temple to her jaw. My dragon pushed for control while I watched Lila and tried to memorize every detail and curve of her face, every fleck of amber in her hazel eyes, every nuance of her smile.
“That’s what I thought, too. And since there hasn’t been anything else, I think Gretta is probably just overreacting. So, while I appreciate you checking on me, I think I’ll be fine. I have your number, just in case, so you can go now. Thanks.”
Right. Now that she had her reassurances, she no longer wanted me. That hurt, but she was human. She wouldn’t feel the pull of destiny. She wouldn’t have any idea we were meant to be together—the whole soulmate thing.
So simple. A shrug of her shoulders, and I was out.
Except, now it was complicated. I couldn’t go. I hadn’t given her anything yet. Not a business card, no contract, assuming Cam had thought to have one drawn up. I hadn’t even informed her of my life’s promise. And speaking of which… “I hear what you’re saying. I promise I do.” I cleared my throat and rubbed my palms together, prepared to either bid her farewell or grovel. Could’ve gone either way. “But it’s not that easy.”
The apprehension that had darkened her eyes earlier was back. And this time, she added a frown. “Sure, it is. Everything you did to come here, just do it again in reverse.” She smiled, but it didn’t reach her eyes. It was probably intended more to put me at ease and give her time to figure out how to maim me with the candlestick she’d already put down.
“I can’t go because—” I took a steadying breath. I’d never said these words before because they were a once-in-a-lifetime thing. “Because you’re my—” Nothing to do but spit it out, and it would’ve been easier had she not been giving me a death glare. I shook out my arms and went for it. “—my destined mate.”
“I’m your what now?” Her voice went flat, and her brow wrinkled. She looked at me like I’d spoken a different language.
I frowned, confused. “Like Gretta? With Sam?” Surely, her sister had told her what it meant to be destined to Sam, how it felt, what it was like.
Lila cocked her head and stared. “You mean she’s destined. Oh, okay. I’m destined, too.”
“Right.” Excellent. A woman who paid attention. Now we were getting somewhere. “Gretta is destined to Sam.”
“For Sam. Mated to.” She shot me a glare.
I held up my hands, palms facing her. “Okay, yeah. Prepositions don’t matter. You’re right. Destined means what?”
I hesitated, trying to choose the right words. I didn’t want to scare her off. If the explanation wasn’t perfect, I could end up freaking her out, driving her away. Then where would I be? I tapped my fingers on my leg nervously. Damn, I wasn’t good at this.
“So, it’s like this, uh, we belong together. In all the world, all the creatures, you and I are chosen, meant to be together. Destined.”
Her eyes were wide, and she swallowed a couple times. “Oh, well. Why didn’t you say so when you got here?” Her frown was back.
“I was going to but, you know, the candlestick—” It took a second, but I recognized the tone of voice. “Oh, you were being sarcastic.”
She backed up a step. Dammit. I should’ve found better words, but maybe she didn’t agree with destiny. Maybe she didn’t understand the consequences.
“Look, I’m sure you’re a great dragon, and being your fated filly or destined darling would be swell, but really, I’m good. I’m happy where I am, with my hocus pocus New Age bullshit and my teeny tiny dragon tapestry. And I am one hundred percent sure a handsome guy like you can find a thousand girls who want to be your wingmate.”
Oh, but if only it were so easy. I took another of those deep calming breaths, waiting patiently for the moment she got it out of her system so we could talk. I was sure she just needed a minute to grasp the concept and stop looking at me like she wanted me to die.
She began pacing, her footsteps light, and not a trace of the fatigue or pain I knew she suffered from. After a few trips up and down her living room, she turned to face me. She was tall for a woman, but slight and delicate—the opposite of my hulking frame. She was so perfect it almost hurt me to be so close to her and not touching.
“So, destined. What does it mean, exactly?”
“We are two halves. A matching set. Like, um, salt and pepper, or ketchup and mustard.” I couldn’t do much worse than this, but I couldn’t think past the need to hold her in my arms.
“Oh, okay, so we’re condiments.”
I winced. “No. I mean we complement each other. We belong together. Without one, the other is incomplete. When we’re together, our strengths are stronger. And our weaknesses—”
“Are weaker?” she snapped. She took a deep breath, then huffed it right back out. “Look, I know you’re serious, and I know I should be flattered. I mean, what girl doesn’t want someone like you to look at them, right? But I’ve already got one freakshow fixated on me, and I certainly don’t need ano—” She clamped her mouth shut, closed her eyes, and seemed to take a moment to center herself before she looked at me again. “I’m sorry. That was ugly. I’m not like that.”
I knew, but I remained silent, letting her absorb everything I’d told her and what I believed she intuitively understood—because once she did, we could move past this and get on with the claiming, and I would be able to breathe easier.
“So, what happens?” She crossed her arms and tapped her foot to the beat of a thousand hyped-up drummers. “We light candles and burn incense? Some ritual tattoos or something?”
“Well, there’s a claiming bite.” I wiped my hand over my face, wishing I’d kept that tidbit to myself. God, that sounded way worse than it was, and I was not helping things at all. My damn mouth.
“A what, now?” She stopped tapping her foot and tilted her head as if to hear better.
“A claiming bite. Did Gretta not tell you about hers?” Sisters shared secrets, didn’t they? She shook her head. They seemed close enough, I’d assumed she knew. “Well, I bite you.”
To my credit, I didn’t bare my teeth. Because that would’ve been idiotic, and I’d done enough of that for one day. But I almost did it.
“So, what? Do we do it now?” She sat on the couch as if the strength had gone out of her legs. I almost went to her side, but I didn’t think she was ready for me to touch her yet. “Oh, I’m dying to know where you think I’m going to let you bite me.”
“It’s not like I just walk up and take a nibble.” I grinned, charming, more in charge of my thoughts, or so I thought. “Unless you want me to.” She shot me a scowl, and I held up my hands in surrender again. “Too much. Got it.”
“Just tell me.” Even when spoken from between clenched teeth, her voice made me want her and all the things having her meant.
“All right. When I claim you, you'll be able to change into a dragon, to fly. And there are other perks, too.” Maybe if I went at it like a car salesman, really sold it, I could make her listen, maybe even love the idea and we could skip all the relationship stuff that would roll out naturally after the bite.
Or maybe I could really learn to love the taste of my own foot in my mouth. I did seem to be excelling at that today.
She stared. “Like what?”
I wouldn’t have called it interest, but it was an opening, and I took it. Granted, I would have preferred to do this in a more romantic setting—over a glass of wine or a nice dinner, cuddled up in front of an open fire. There were thousands of dragons out there, and not all of them found their destined mate. I was blessed. I couldn’t fuck this up.
“You’ll never get so much as a cold ever again. You’ll be strong, and all the ailments normal people are subjected to will practically disappear. Your MS will be healed.” Her eyes didn’t so much as flicker with interest. They remained hard, unreadable, and my stomach sank a little. “So, usually, claiming happens, um, during sex. So, unless we want a baby right away, I would need to make sure to bring some kind of birth control.”
“I can handle my own birth control. Thank you.” The thanks was on the sarcastic side again. How was I messing this up so badly?
“Oh, I didn’t mean—uh, yeah. Right.” No big deal. Adults talked about sex. I was an adult. I could say the word without needing to adjust my pants. “At just the time when you’re ready to, you know, then I’ll bite you. We can pick a place pre-bite.”
Sam hadn’t warned me about the minefield that was this conversation. This was going way worse than I could’ve pictured.
“And just like that.” Lila snapped her fingers. “I’m a dragon, and I can fly.” She flapped her arms for a second, and then I saw her suddenly realize all the things she didn’t know she knew. Her eyes went wide.
“Gretta is a dragon now? She can fly?”
That hadn’t really been my place to tell her, but I’d messed up every other part of our conversation, so I nodded. And as quickly as she figured out what it all meant, and her face cleared of any doubt or confusion, she stood and came at me like a linebacker. She shoved her hands against my chest, and she backed me out of the living room, through the foyer and to the door. I could’ve stopped her, of course, but if she’d wanted me to walk out on my hands while whistling I would’ve.
“You know, I’m gonna have to take a hard pass. So, thanks for coming out, but I want you to go now. And I want you to forget you ever met me or that I met you.”
Ouch. Literally, that shit hurt. “I can’t do that. I have to protect you.”
“No, no. I release you from your destiny-ness, or whatever. Go in peace, my friend. Take a bite out of somebody else’s crime. I don’t need your help and I don’t want to be mated by you or anybody else.” She leveled a glare at me, hard, angry, disbelieving. Her voice was low, as deadly as any warning I’d ever heard. “Leave.”
What the hell? Destiny had put us together, so who the hell was she to question it? To question me? I’d die for her, and it went without saying I’d kill for her. Yet she’d poked fun and made jokes. Clever, but insulting. I hadn’t gone about it in the smoothest way, but it wasn’t like I’d come in and grabbed her to drag to my cave.
That figured. I found the one woman who destiny had in mind for me, and she turned out to be stubborn. Sassy.
Crazy. That was what she was. New Age magic hooey was her life’s chosen path, and I’d already suffered at the hands of a bunch of chanting yogis. I wouldn’t be doing that again.
Seems like destiny got this one wrong.