Authors: Annie Nicholas
Koishi glanced at her over his shoulder, his eyes changing to red before her. “Run!” His word turned into a roar as a glow surrounded him.
Ishi stood where Koishi had been, in all his red-scaled glory. They were the same person–creature–whatever. The bastard had tricked her. He’d made her sing and pretended not to know what she wanted from him. If those monsters didn’t stab him to death, then she would.
One of those things leaned to the side and caught a glimpse of her. A wicked grin spread across its face.
She’d stab Koishi later. First, she needed to save her own ass. Making a one-eighty, she ran for the closest tunnel. The clash of weapons and cries of pain followed her escape, but so did the jingle of armor.
Someone was behind her.
Running blind, she took the first right, then kept hitting more junctions and splits in the tunnels until she’d taken so many turns she didn’t know who was chasing whom anymore. She slowed and leaned against the cold wall. Out of breath, she tried not to pant so loudly. Only the drip, drip, drip of water sounded in the tunnel. The noise of battle faded the deeper she went.
This tunnel was lit by torches, smoke staining the rock ceiling. Brighter light spilled from an entrance not far from her, and the scent of roasting meat drifted to her nose. As she tiptoed toward it, she caught the sound of jingling armor.
She pivoted and met the gaze of the armed creature with its evil smile. Her heart froze. Nothing good would come from this meeting. With a leap, she raced into the brightly lit room and came face to face with a similar monster, except this one was cooking.
Its big green eyes widened at her arrival as it sipped from a ladle. The liquid dribbled from the side of its mouth.
She’d run into a kitchen, of all things, with a dead end. A cast iron pan rested on the cutting board next to a large carving knife. She grabbed the pan’s handle and spun around in time to meet the swing of a sword.
The cook squealed and dove behind a long, wooden table in the center of the room.
Her hand went numb with the impact, but she didn’t let go of her only weapon. She’d never had to fight, and assumed she’d be better with a skillet than a knife. It was bigger and carried more weight.
She dodged the next sword swing as she swept around behind her attacker, using the momentum to smack him across the back of the head. The pan rang and her fillings vibrated.
The thing stumbled forward a step but then straightened its spine, twisting to face her with a slow turn.
Her stomach bottomed out. “Oh shit.” She shuffled to the other side of the table and joined the cook.
He squealed again and made an attempt for the exit.
Their assailant blocked his way with a slap of the flat of its sword.
The cook fell to his knees with a cry as the sword was raised over his head.
Her heart jumped into her throat and she raised her hand. “Stop.” Over the creature’s head, a set of red inhuman eyes peered through the door. She met the dragon’s gaze and sighed, almost dropping her pan with relief.
* * * *
Blood pumped through his body with a surge of heat. Filled with battle fury, Ishi raced through the maze of tunnels, hot on Sandra’s trail, to find her fighting with kitchenware.
Pride swelled in his chest as his little human took on a goblin three times her weight. This was no meek mortal waiting for rescue. She still needed it, this goblin was a warrior after all, but she fought back and even seemed to protect his pet.
He snatched the back of the goblin’s tunic with his canines and tugged him out of the kitchen. The place would need a good disinfecting. Tossing the goblin against the far wall, he smiled at the satisfying crunch the goblin made upon impact. It didn’t move.
Sticking his head through the door, he eyed both his pet and his toy. “Are either of you injured?” He used the kitchen only in his human form. It wouldn’t accommodate his dragon size.
Urgle scurried under the table and remained silent.
Sandra strode around the table, wielding his largest frying pan.
The knot that had formed inside his chest when he’d seen the goblin pursue her finally unwound. “Sandra?” He leaned closer, but couldn’t spot any visible injury or smell her blood. If they had harmed her…
She took a wide stance and swung the pan in a two-handed arc that smashed across his jaw. “You lied to me.”
His head snapped back at the unexpected assault. Sharp pain flared along his jaw. He tongued the inside of his mouth. “I think you cracked my tooth.” Standing at his full height, he loomed over her so she couldn’t get in another cheap shot. “I didn’t lie. I just didn’t disclose the full truth.” He pointed to the spot she’d hit. “I have my reasons.”
“You didn’t tell me you’re Ishi because I might hit you? You’re a dragon. You could swallow me in one bite.” She wielded the pan as if it were a baseball bat.
“That’s something I wish you’d keep in mind while swinging that thing.” He plucked it from her struggling hands before she did either of them more damage. “I don’t trust anyone who comes searching for me and my treasure. No matter how pretty.”
She sighed and appeared to deflate. Leaning on the table, she sagged. “I can’t believe I’m alive.”
“Me either.” He stroked the back of his claw along her arm.
She recoiled. So much for the kiss they’d shared. She jerked once more without his touch and cried out while swatting at her leg. “Don’t touch me.” She directed her command at Urgle and scrambled toward Koishi.
The goblin withdrew his hand to his chest, his wide-eyed gaze on her. “Soft.”
She pressed her body behind his foreleg and pointed at Urgle under the table. “What is it?” Apparently, dragon flesh was more appealing than goblin.
“Urgle is a goblin, like the others, but he’s my pet. Don’t whack him unless he really deserves it.” He eyed the roast cooking over the fire. “It’ll burn if you don’t rotate it.”
“Yes, Master.” The goblin shuffled from his hiding place, not turning his back on the deadly human female.
Koishi resisted the urge to stroke her again. The goblin was right. She was soft.
With his tail, he poked the goblin he’d tossed out in the tunnel. It was as dead as its comrades. Shape shifting appeared safe now. He glanced at Sandra and the knives within her reach. Somewhat safe. He changed form.
Her eyes went wider than Urgle’s, if that were possible.
“You’re pale.” Maybe her injuries were internal? He swept her into his arms and carried her past the carnage of the gateroom to his private quarters.
He kept both a large bed and a nest of gold to sleep upon, depending on the form he wore. Setting her on the blankets, he ran his hands over her chest and abdomen. Neither seemed hard or bulging. He began to undo the buttons down the front of her dress.
“What are you doing? I’m fine.” She shoved his hands away. “Stop it. Of course I’m pale. I just fought a goblin for the first time and I haven’t felt well since we–we teleported here.” Dropping her head onto his pillows, she relaxed into the cushions and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Grabbing onto me was an unbelievably dangerous thing to do.”
“You were fading, like Ishi.” She gave him a pointed stare. “Like you did on the mountainside. I wasn’t letting you get away. Not again.”
Escaping this female was the last thing on his mind. His gaze traveled over the generous curve of her breasts, along the graceful sweep of her waist, to the juncture–
She tapped under his chin. “I’m up here.”
He gave her a small smile and watched the blush rise on her cheeks. Leaning closer, he whispered, “I’m very, very aware of where you are, Sandra.”
Koishi’s softly spoken words re-awoke desire in Sandra. The man appealed to her. However, the dragon terrified her. She couldn’t believe they were one and the same. Even after watching him change form twice.
The oxygen in the room seemed to have vanished and she found it hard to catch her breath as he drew closer. His dark stare sent a thrill of lust straight to her core.
“You should spend the night, just in case you’re injured and aren’t exhibiting symptoms yet.” He ran his fingertips along her arm. “I’ll stay close and watch over you.”
She pressed her hands against his shoulders and tried to restrain him, but the strength of a supernatural monster was contained in this body. He could do whatever he wanted; she couldn’t stop him. “I’m fine. That thing never touched me.” She had the impression he wanted to do more than just watch her sleep. Deep down inside, she wanted more too.
He traced a line over the buttons of her dress. “Maybe I should check and make sure.” He popped one open. “I’d hate to leave a bruise unattended.”
Muscles low in her stomach clenched as he undid another. “And if I said no?”
Circling the next button, round and round, he regarded her as if not understanding.
Like a shot in the dark, it struck her. “Oh my God, no one has ever said no to you?” She thrust his hand off her chest and sat up, leaning against the massive wooden headboard. With a glance over her shoulder, she swallowed a hard lump in her throat. The thing had handholds carved into it. She was so out of her league.
His soft laugh grew louder. “Of course some females denied me. They went down well with a bottle of Bordeaux.” He patted his stomach.
She shot him a look. “I wouldn’t believe you unless you showed me their bones.” He’d been playing with her head since the moment she arrived on the island. She blinked. Didn’t he have better things to do? “Shouldn’t you be guarding the gate?”
His amused expression vanished, replaced by something much deadlier. “I always am.”
“When you’re down at the dock buying sheep, how can you be guarding it?” She crossed her arms, mentally patting herself on the back for changing the subject from a sleep-over party.
“My skills as a guardian are not for you to judge.” His dark eyes faded to the dragon’s red.
She swallowed and pressed her back flat to the headboard. “Fine, then let’s make the exchange and point me in the right direction of the nearest village.”
He jerked away and ran his fingers through his hair as he gazed at her. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I’d never hurt you. Or any mortal, for that matter.” He gave her small crooked smile. “Stay? For dinner, at least? I did promise to feed you.”
How should she respond? Sure, she’d love to have dinner with a dragon.
Please, don’t eat me as an appetizer.
Or the one answer that kept nagging her
Yes, and do it to me hard
. She took a shaky breath and crammed the last response back deep into her brain. “I’d be fl–flattered.”
His smile vanished, replaced by a frown. “No, you’re not. You’re frightened.” Sighing, he stood and offered her his hand. “The only way off the caldera is to fly. I’ll take you home.”
She took a deep breath, the easiest one she’d had since drinking sake on her balcony. Koishi had an uncanny talent for stealing her breath away. Shouldn’t a woman have that in her life? A person who she’d never thought would desire her taking notice and sweeping her off her feet, in her case, literally.
But this was Ishi, the guardian of the East. She hadn’t been told too much of the other gatekeepers, except they existed, and were tougher than any mortal army, let alone a soldier.
Yet, Koishi had tried to make her coffee and almost poisoned himself. He’d been taking her on a date when all this happened. He’d kissed her.
She placed her hand in his and allowed him to aid her to her feet.
His large hand engulfed hers, and she pictured how a dragon’s personality could do the same to hers. They weren’t equals. They’d never be. An attraction doomed before it even began. Why should they even try?
When Koishi met her gaze, the sparkle that had danced in his eyes each time he’d teased her had vanished. That sparkle had been in Ishi’s gaze earlier today as she sung on the mountainside. His dull stare made her heart ache.
He infuriated her and pushed her to do idiotic things, but she had enjoyed their small adventures. It was the most fun she’d ever had. She didn’t have any excitement in her life, and she’d discovered a new longing for more.
She didn’t let go of his hand as he led her from the bedroom. “Why can’t we teleport like before?”
“I can’t do that. It’s the gate that transports me when it’s breached.”
Stopping, she waited for him to face her. “So that’s why you can travel away from it and aren’t stuck in this den.” Hope fluttered in her chest. “Is there a limit to how far you can travel?”
He shook his head.
“Maybe you can come visit me?” The question was out before she’d thought it through. He wasn’t looking for a long distance relationship, just a little nookie.
“I’d like that. I’ve always wanted to see your world.” The smile on his face held a touch of sadness.
The flutter in her chest died. “But…” She was such a fool to open herself up for rejection.
“But the gate’s transport is one way. If I were in America I’d be returned here when the gate needed me, then what? Fly back only to be transported again?”