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New York City
June 26, 2010
Rox came home, triumphant. She’d finally found the perfect job for her roommate and current “project.”
This would work.
Thorolf, who called himself T, was a big bike courier with no direction or ambition. Rox had known from the outset that T could make more of himself, but she’d had a hard time persuading him to try. Every option had been impossible in his view, but Rox hadn’t given up. And now her efforts would pay off. True to form, Rox had pulled in a favor and found exactly the right job for T.
Reduce, reuse, and recycle didn’t apply to just goods in Rox’s world. People could be reinvented, too.
And if there was ever a man who needed reinvention, it was T. She’d never met anyone with such a lack of focus, yet so much potential. Once she’d seen what he could do, Rox had been determined to help him make the most of his innate gift.
T, unfortunately, wasn’t inclined to change.
Delivering groceries for the neighborhood organic store would be a perfect step for him. The job would give him a paycheck, enable him to help with the rent, allow him to be outside—which he preferred—and keep him from partying late so that he could get to work early each day. Rox thought it was the perfect combination of responsibility and freedom.
But it would work only if Rox could persuade T to accept the job. He was the obstacle to his own success.
She unlocked her apartment door and heard T rummaging in the bedroom. It was a good sign that he was home. She dropped the bag of groceries on the counter—scored while she finalized the job offer—and strode into his bedroom, only to find T packing his few possessions.
He was still in his black Lycra tights with the khaki shorts over top of them, the mud up his back fresh from a day of being a bicycle courier. He was home early, though—and the fact that he hadn’t just grabbed himself a beer from the fridge and crashed on the couch, or gone drinking with his buddies, meant something was up.
Something, Rox would bet, that she wasn’t going to like.
The furtive glance T shot over his shoulder in her direction, as if he had been caught, only fed her suspicions.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
T dropped his gaze and returned to his packing. If anything, he was moving faster. “I’m, uh, leaving.”
Rox folded her arms across her chest. “Leaving as in taking a vacation or leaving as in moving out?”
“Door number two,” he mumbled, not looking at her.
Rox feared he was going to move in with one of his friends, whom she considered to be bad influences. “You find a job or just a better offer?”
Rox waited, but T said nothing more. He picked up greasy bike parts from the floor in the corner of the room and packed them with a reverence most people would have saved for precious gems. She waited, but he kept packing, gaining speed. She tapped her toe and he ignored her.
Rox’s anger flared at his evasiveness. “You’ve finally found a job, after three years of my bugging you about it, and you can’t even look me in the eye to tell me?”
T shuffled his feet. “I know you’ll be pissed.” In another time and place, Rox might have been amused that this man—who was almost two feet taller than she and weighed easily twice as much, who could use his fists like no one she’d ever known, and who could change into a dragon at will—was afraid of her.
As it was, her mouth went dry. What had T gotten himself into?
“It’s not a real job, is it?” she guessed. “Are you involved in something illegal? Because you know that has to be the stupidest choice—”
“It’s not illegal, Rox. Just weird.” He faced her,but still didn’t meet her eyes.
This was bad news.
“Tell me the truth,” Rox demanded. “No matter what you’ve done, I’ll be more mad if you lie to me.” She poked him in the shoulder when he didn’t immediately reply. “What’s going on, T?”
“Not T,” he insisted, as had become his habit recently. It was exactly the opposite argument he’d made when she’d first met him—then he’d insisted that he had to be T.
And they said women changed their minds too much.
“Thorolf,” she said deliberately, wondering what the hell had gotten into him. If he needed direction, she had one for him. “I found you a job today. That organic grocery store by the tattoo shop needs a delivery guy. You’d be outside pretty much all day, but you’d get a regular check. . . .”
His lips set stubbornly. “No. I gotta go, Rox. That’s all there is to it.”
“Where are you going to live?”
“That’s taken care of, too.”
It wasn’t much of an answer, not enough of one to suit Rox, but T turned back to his packing. He began to jam T-shirts and bicycle parts into his backpack in no particular order, obviously in a rush to get away from her. It was incomprehensible that this man who had never shown a spark of initiative or determination, despite her many efforts, had finally developed some resolve.
And it meant he was saying no to her.
After three years of encouraging him, after three years of trying to make something of the mess of a man she’d met in a bar and taken into her protection, Rox was not amused.
She was worried.
“Why?” she demanded.
“There’s something I gotta do. Something I gotta learn.” He ran a hand over his hair. “A whole lotta stuff I gotta learn and it’s not easy.”
“You?” Rox was incredulous. “You’ve never had any ambition to learn anything, no matter how many ideas I shove under your nose. You don’t even have the initiative to stock beer in the fridge.”
“Well, that’s gonna change.” His tone was resolute. “I know this guy and he’s teaching me things. . . .”
Rox felt her eyes narrow as everything began to make sense. “Guy?”
“Yeah.” For perhaps the first time ever, T—Thorolf—showed real enthusiasm. “His name’s Niall Talbot and he’s a bit of a pain—snotty; you know—but he’s teaching me this great stuff that I want to know. And now it’s time to take the next step.”
“What kind of great stuff?”
“I, uh, can’t tell you.” His nervousness gave Rox a pretty good idea of what was really going on. T was a lousy liar. “I need to go and live there with him, like an apprentice, and learn as much as I can.”
“He runs an eco-tourism travel place, with an office down in Chinatown. I’m gonna stay with him. Erik said so.”
Rox’s suspicion rose with the introduction of another unfamiliar name. “Who’s Erik?”
“He’s, um, this other guy.” Thorolf rummaged in the pockets of his shorts and came up with a business card that looked the worse for wear. “There! That’s Niall.” He smiled triumphantly as he handed it to Rox, then began to whistle as he plucked his spare brake parts off the radiator.
He was leaving and he was happy.
Rox found her hand shaking as she stared at the card. Either T had finally gotten a decent job, just the way she’d been bugging him to do for years, or he was lying to her and had found some big trouble.
Rox would have bet her favorite tattoo gun on option number two. She was pretty sure “Niall” was a cover story for a woman. T only showed this much energy when he thought he was going to get lucky.
What was she going to tell Gary about the delivery guy who was no longer around to take the job?
And what would happen to T?
“You found this card,” she accused, “or you delivered a parcel there. You don’t know this guy.”
“Sure I do.” He gestured vaguely with one hand. “He’s, um, like me.” Thorolf slanted Rox a glance that made her heart stop cold.
That admission changed everything. She had seen T shift shape in that bar fight when they had first met; she had seen him become a dragon right before her eyes. If she hadn’t been stone-cold sober, she wouldn’t have believed it. If she hadn’t already been crazy in love with dragons, she would have been afraid.
As it was, Rox had taken T’s nature in stride.
In fact, she’d thought—very, very briefly—that he might have been her dream come to life. One morning had been all it had taken to relieve Rox of that romantic notion.
T was a mess.
He was a project, not a dream date.
Part of the reason she had taken T into her care was to give him an alibi and an endorsement. She didn’t doubt there were many people who would take advantage of his odd talent, and T was ridiculously trusting.
But two dragon shape shifters in New York? With a bit more thought, Rox had more doubts. She flicked the corner of the card, not troubling to hide her skepticism. “Have you seen him do it?”
“Well, sure.” T shuffled his feet. “He knows stuff, a lot of stuff.”
“I can’t tell you.”
“No.” Rox didn’t believe him. “This is a bad idea.”
He appeared to be insulted. “Why shouldn’t I learn to use my abilities?”
“It would be one thing if you did, but I know you, T.” At the flash in his eyes, she corrected herself. “Thorolf. You’re driven by three things—sex, sex, and beer, in that order. You have no aspirations, no dreams, no desire to learn anything. If you weren’t such a big sweetie, I’d have given up on you ages ago.”
“That’s not why you stick up for me,” he said, gesturing toward the living room walls.
Rox wasn’t interested in talking about her motivations. She wagged the card at him. “This isn’t true. You found this card. You’re really moving into some woman’s place, aren’t you?”
T pushed a hand through his hair and looked discomfited. “Awww, don’t make this harder than it is, Rox.”
“Why not? I’m worried about you!” It was typical of T to think he could just saunter out of her life without giving a decent explanation, without even realizing that someone gave a crap about him and his survival.
Rox knew that the world could be a tough place, and that an ability to fight wasn’t always enough.
“Okay, so maybe it’s because of you.” T held up a hand when she might have argued. “Maybe because you’ve been on my ass all these years, I recognized opportunity when I saw it.” He appealed to her, apparently sincere. “I’m doing what you’ve always wanted me to do, Rox. I’m learning about my powers. Be happy for me.”
“But . . .”
“But nothing. I gotta go, Rox. Ciao.”
As Rox watched, stunned, the hulk of a man who had been the greatest make-work project of her life strode out of her apartment.
Just when she’d been within an inch of making something of him.
The door clicked behind him and she heard T leap down the stairs, as if he’d broken free of a prison.
Trusting in someone.
Someone other than her. She was perfectly prepared to help her projects find their wings, so to speak, and loved watching them take flight into their own futures.
But this was different.
Something was wrong.
Rox stared at the business card and felt sick with concern. She wondered whether Niall Talbot had ever even heard of Thorolf.
Rox was going to find out.
There was trouble on the wind.
It was late on a Saturday evening and Niall was walking home from the gym. He’d left Thorolf at a café; already he needed a break from spending every moment of the day with the Pyr’s newest recruit. The fact that Thorolf was driving Niall nuts within mere hours of Thorolf’s having moved in with him wasn’t a very good portent for this mentorship.
There had been a partial eclipse in the morning, one that had been mostly visible over the Pacific. Niall hadn’t needed to see it to feel his body respond. If nothing else, it reminded him of his self-imposed deadline. In December 2010, the first of three total eclipses would occur. The three firestorms linked to those eclipses had to be key to the Pyr, and Niall was determined to ensure that the world was devoid of shadow dragons by then.
He had roughly six more months to destroy all of the shadow dragons. The Dragon’s Blood Elixir that had been used to create the shadow dragons was destroyed, and Magnus, the leader of the Slayers who had raised dead Pyr and Slayers with the Elixir, was dead. Niall had volunteered to clean up the details.
He had expected the cleanup to be quick, but it had been an ordeal. The shadow dragons had been unpredictable.
Niall hadn’t thought they had it in them. In the past, they had been robotic, mindlessly following the commands of Magnus until they were incapable of doing so. With Magnus gone, they should have attacked in unison, keeping at it until they were dismembered and their ashes scattered.
But they hadn’t. Niall couldn’t figure out what had changed.
Worse, Erik, the leader of the Pyr, had insisted that Niall and Thorolf work together. Niall had eliminated twenty shadow dragons, sometimes with Thorolf’s help, including another the night before. But Thorolf was less than reliable, and Niall was sick of having to track down the other Pyr. He was fed up with Thorolf’s being out partying when he needed him. The shadow dragons tended to appear suddenly, as if conjured from nowhere, always having the element of surprise on their side.
Niall had lost it the night before. Thorolf had arrived so late for the surprise attack that Niall had given up on him. They’d argued after the shadow dragons were destroyed, Niall insisting that Thorolf move in with him or quit. He’d known it wouldn’t be easy to live with Thorolf, but he needed eyes at his back.
He needed a fighting partner he could rely on.
He needed some sleep.
And that meant he had to keep a closer eye on Thorolf, whether he liked the prospect or not.
Niall walked quickly, fighting that sense of being watched. He still couldn’t get the smell of incinerated shadow dragon out of his nostrils. Maybe it was the scent and the reminder of that near loss that made him feel vulnerable. Maybe it was a lack of sleep that left him feeling stalked.
Maybe he shouldn’t have left Thorolf behind.
The streets were oddly quiet, the wind making little gusts that sent the dust scuttling in the gutters. The vegetable stalls and tables of fresh fish that crowded the streets of Chinatown in the daytime had been packed up and towed away, and the evening crowds were surprisingly thin. There was a bit of litter blowing across the pavement and the neon lights seemed to be advertising to no one at all. The wind was a cold one, unseasonable, more like a September wind than one he’d expect in June.
But it was more than the cold. The wind smelled to Niall of decay and death and destruction. The wind was wrong and unsettled, unnatural. The scent of rot riding the wind made him think of Slayers, although he couldn’t sense any in the vicinity.
Niall caught glimpses of the sky between the buildings and didn’t like the way the clouds were dark on their bellies, roiling. The sky was simmering.
He supposed that even humans with their less-sharp sense of smell might find the weather unsettling. Niall found it downright disturbing. He asked the wind for tidings—politely, because its mood was unpredictable—but received no response.
At least, there was no direct response. A swirl of wind ripped down the street immediately after his question. The awning over a Thai restaurant’s street-side patio snapped hard, as if it would be ripped free of its support. The metal brace creaked and groaned, and the only couple on the patio stood up with alarm. Their table flipped, and a pair of glasses shattered on the concrete as the wind snatched the tablecloth away.
The cloth sailed down the street, flipping and whipping, wrapping itself around a light standard before it tore free and disappeared. When Niall looked back at the restaurant, a busboy was sweeping up the broken shards of glass and the couple had gone inside.
The power went out, all of the street plunged into sudden darkness. It was odd to see Mott Street without the pulse of neon.
The wind stopped completely, the air turning still.
The hair on the back of Niall’s neck prickled and he felt a shiver slide down his spine.
Something had arrived.
Niall began to run toward his studio loft. He didn’t need the wind to deliver this omen. He had booked a lot of business this week, and even though his computer had a surge protector, even though he had backed up his files, he had a really bad feeling.
He felt targeted. Niall wasn’t going to question that sense—he’d defend himself first and ask questions later.
Could the shadow dragons communicate with one another?
Were they gathering to destroy him before he finished them all off? Had they worn him down with exhaustion just to end the battle when he wasn’t at his best?
It was a crummy moment to be alone, and he sent a summons to Thorolf in old-speak.
Of course, Thorolf didn’t respond.
Niall ran as fast as he could, down the street and around the corner. His loft was over a store, intended originally as the owner’s apartment, but long since sold off as a condo.
There were three condo units in the old redbrick building, two small studios on the second floor, immediately over the Asian furniture store on the street level, then Niall’s combined living and work space on the third floor. The furniture store owner used the quieter back studio on the second floor once in a while, whereas the front unit was owned by an artist who traveled frequently. A door to the left of the shop’s windows led to a staircase that accessed all three apartments.
Niall turned the corner just in time to see someone enter the door that led to the staircase. It was neither the older shop owner nor the burly artist.
There wasn’t a candle or a flashlight shining from the windows of the artist’s loft, a reminder that Niall’s neighbor was to be in Europe until July.
The door had been locked when Niall left.
Maybe the threat he sensed was human. Maybe it was a simple case of someone intending to rip him off. A thief might know his routine, know that he usually stayed later at the gym.
Niall raced to the door. He caught it just before it closed and he slipped into the darkness of the small foyer without interrupting the door’s slow steady swing.
The lock clicked as the door closed behind him, and the darkness in the stairwell became more pronounced. He glimpsed someone climbing the shadowy stairs and knew his keen Pyr senses were giving him an advantage.
It was one he would use.
He moved silently, leaving his bag of gear across the bottom of the stairs. If he spooked the thief, the intruder would trip, giving Niall another advantage.
He inhaled deeply, surprised by the mingled scents of leather, body lotion, blood, and a dark undertone.
Then he caught the waft of perfume, a floral scent with the richer base note of a woman’s own skin.
His intruder was female.
Niall suddenly felt warm in the stillness of the entry. He knew it was because he was out of that erratic wind, because the building was folded protectively around him. The building had a quiet aura about it that he liked a lot, maybe because it was so old. He narrowed his eyes, noting that the intruder was at the top of the stairs.
She had great legs.
Niall frowned at the golden glow between the two of them, the one that had let him see her legs. She rounded the corner without looking back, taking the route to Niall’s apartment.
The light disappeared.
Had he imagined it?
He followed the thief silently, his suspicion growing even as he wiped a bead of perspiration from his lip.
Who was she?
Just as he’d suspected, she continued to the third floor. She was targeting him. He heard the steps creak, just as they always did, and was surprised at her lack of hesitation. She moved decisively, quickly, knowing her destination, and certain she wouldn’t be interrupted or caught.
Maybe she didn’t care.
Maybe she was strung out, desperate for money or alcohol.
Then why break into a flat on the third floor?
No. She was specifically looking for him.
Niall climbed, finding it warmer with every step he took. The heat always rose in the stairwell, wafting up from the hot water radiator just inside the exterior door, but Niall couldn’t remember it ever being this hot.
Plus the furnace was turned off in June.
Niall heard her knock once on his door, then try the door. He smiled at the expectation that anyone would leave a door unlocked in Manhattan. She jiggled the knob then more vehemently and he thought she swore.
“Liar,” she muttered. “Liar, liar, liar.”
Then she kicked the door. Hard.
Niall frowned, reached the top of the stairs, and eased around the last corner. She was trying to peer through the lock, her skirt rising high in the back.
She was petite, her hair dyed black with fuchsia tips and moussed into spikes. She wore a black leather biker jacket liberally embellished with studs, a black and yellow tartan skirt, biker boots, and black fishnet stockings. He could see tattoos through her stockings and noted her chain-mail gauntlets. On her left hand, on the smallest finger, a silver ring gleamed.
She was tiny, but her legs were lean and muscled—remarkably so. Niall shook his head at his own awareness of her gender, then stepped around the corner.
She was just about to give the door another kick.
“What the hell are you doing?” Niall demanded, and she jumped, pivoting to face him. The spark that leapt between the two of them shocked Niall in more ways than one.
He froze at its sudden brilliance and felt dizzy at the heat it sent rocketing through his body. He understood immediately that he was experiencing his own firestorm.
With a punk chick who was trying to rip him off? Just one look at this woman told Niall she was as unlikely a companion for him as could be imagined. She folded her arms across her chest and glared at him, seeming to share his perspective. Her eyes were lined with black, her lips painted burgundy, and her gaze filled with hostility.
“What the hell was that?” she demanded. Her voice, the low throaty purr of a jazz singer, was her only asset.
“Who are you?” Niall said at the same time.
“Who are you?” She put her hands on her hips, her eyes flashing. He was surprised that she was undaunted—she couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds and he was fully pumped after his workout. “Are you some low-life jerk from the burbs who buys rental buildings and doesn’t keep the wiring to code?” It was clear she had an opinion about that, and it was one Niall shared.
But then she cast a disparaging glance over him and shook her head. “You probably think people who live in the city don’t deserve to have safe wiring, especially if it cuts into your profits. . . .”
Niall interrupted her. “Who are you and why are you kicking my door?”
“Your door?” She blinked. “So you’re Niall Talbot?”
How did she know his name? “Who else would I be?”
Her sudden laugh took him completely off guard and transformed her features. She fell against the wall as she laughed. She looked young then, mischievous, and unpredictable. Sexy. Niall checked her legs again, without meaning to do so. He felt something tighten within him, something he wasn’t inclined to heed.
He knew the kind of woman who was right for him, and it wasn’t this troublemaker. The firestorm could be wrong; it could be misguided, but it was not going to persuade him to make a dumb mistake.
Especially not right now when he had so much else to do.
“You mean you really exist?” She shook her head in rueful amusement. That long silver earring on her left ear sparkled as she moved. Niall couldn’t see a mate on her other ear. “Because that would really take it, if that big dope wasn’t lying to me, after all.”
Then she swore with an earthiness that made him blink.
Niall took a step closer and the firestorm’s heat flared between them with unmistakable intensity. “Why wouldn’t I exist?” he asked, wondering what she knew about him and his nature.
He noted the curve of her jaw, the soft line of her throat, the fairness of her skin, and he swallowed. She was pretty—prettier than he had initially realized.
As if she wanted to hide her beauty with her heavy makeup and rebellious clothing.
Niall was intrigued.
And that made him angry. The firestorm was not going to mess with his game. He had enough responsibilities, more than enough jobs to get done, without any distraction.
All the same, her perfume teased him, making him keenly aware of her femininity—even if she tried to hide it. She would have been undeniably alluring, dressed conservatively, wearing pearls, her hair flowing loose instead of being sharpened into spikes.
“I just thought T—I mean, Thorolf—was lying to me. Again.” He saw her grimace, as if hurt, before her expression turned insouciant once more. It was astonishing to Niall that any woman could care enough about Thorolf to be hurt by anything he said.
That glimpse of her vulnerability, and her struggle to hide it, made Niall wonder what other secrets she had. He was surprised by how much he wanted to know.
“I guess he was telling the truth. There really is a Niall Talbot.” She folded her arms across her chest and smiled at him. “Who knew?”
“Who are you and why are you here?” His tone was more challenging than he’d meant it to be, but she didn’t appear to be intimidated by him. He found himself arching a brow. “A friend of Thorolf’s isn’t necessarily a friend of mine.”
She laughed. “I hear you. He hangs with some serious losers.” She lifted her chin, her gaze sliding over him, and he wondered whether she put him in that company.
“I’m Rox,” she said with pride, and another piece of the puzzle slid into place for Niall. Thorolf had mentioned someone named Rox before—in another time and place, Niall might have found it amusing that he’d assumed no person named Rox actually existed. She wrinkled her nose. “Is it true that he’s coming to live with you?”
“Yeah.” Niall nodded, knowing he looked rueful.
She laughed again, looking so mischievous that Niall took another step closer. A spark flashed between them. It shot to the ceiling, making an arc of brilliant yellow, and cast sparks toward the carpet.
“Holy shit,” she whispered as she stared at it. “You ought to do something about the wiring in this place.”
“It’s not the wiring,” Niall said flatly, but she shook her head.
“Bullshit. This place is a firetrap, and T shouldn’t be coming to live here. I’m going to tell him so. It’s not right or safe. . . .”
“You’ll tell him no such thing.” Niall hated how much he sounded like his father, stern and unyielding. He had no right to tell Rox what she could do.
And she knew it. Her manner turned hostile again. “What do you want with him, anyway? He says you’re going to mentor him, but he won’t say in what.” It was clear that she had a low view of this plan. She shook a finger at him. “If it’s illegal—”
“It’s not.” Niall declined to tell her about the Pyr.
Rox was undaunted, striding closer to him as the firestorm lit the hall with a brilliant yellow glow. “Because, you know, if you’re intending to take advantage of him, you’re going to have to deal with me first. He might not be the sharpest guy, but he means well, and he trusts people too easily.”
Niall shook his head at her fervent defense of Thorolf. There was something particularly bittersweet about the notion of his destined mate being smitten with Thorolf—the bane of Niall’s existence—but Niall had no time to express his irritation or defend his own position.
Because the earth heaved.
The building cracked like a walnut.
And Niall shifted shape to defend the human in his company, without a second thought.