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The pounding in my head kept perfect time with my footsteps as Richard pulled me by the hand through the wide hallways of Budapest's most elegant hotel. Only minutes ago, I'd been in the middle of a more-than-minor disagreement with an enraged dragon who'd wanted to eat my best friend Myrna. The fact that I'd also just accused her of sleeping with my boyfriend seemed like a minor point, especially since said boyfriend and I were currently running from another dragon. Except this one was smarter, older, and held the title of Dragon Lord of North America.
Unfortunately, I was in no condition to sprint; the spots dancing in my vision refused to get out of my way long enough for me to actually see where Richard was going.
"Richard. I need to stop." I was afraid I might throw up if we went much further.
"Shhh. We're almost outside."
A part of my brain, the part that hadn't been slammed against a wall by a giant, scaly-clawed fist, was worried that the lights, floor and walls were bleeding together into one large blob. I put a hand on my stomach and gagged. Before I knew it, I'd shifted my body until my face was pressed against the most heavenly patch of carpet I'd ever had the privilege to lay upon.
"Carol." Richard gently shook my shoulder. I tried to turn my head toward his voice, but the carpet suddenly became much less heavenly as it scraped along the surface of my scalp.
Richard grabbed for my wrist. "Oh God, Carol! You're bleeding. A lot." He sounded a little scared.
Exhausted from the effort it had taken to raise my head, I forgot about the rubbing and simply blinked as Richard yanked a blindingly white handkerchief from inside his suit jacket and gave it a hard shake to unfold it.
I tried to push him away when he pressed the cloth to my temple, because it made the single bongo playing against my skull turn into a full-fledged university drum line, complete with cymbals and gong. But I was dimly surprised to realize my hand wouldn't obey me.
"I'm okay." A lie. But a necessary one. "We don't have time to play doctor." Play doctor. I chuckled at my own stupid joke, fully aware that the quip was guided by hysteria rather than humor. But I didn't laugh for long. The motion made the drumming in my skull even worse, and I bit my lip against the pain.
I managed to focus long enough to grip the door's safety bar and haul myself up. I squinted at the green sign hanging from the ceiling, hoping it said EXIT, because the buzzing in my ear had upgraded to a ring. I fought another bout of nausea. "Just get me outside. We'll worry about the blood in a sec."
Richard muttered something under his breath, but did as I asked. The cold wind slapped me in the face, and helped me refocus my muddied thoughts. Richard half carried, half dragged me toward a small maroon sedan and batted my clumsy hands away from the latch.
"Here, let me do it." His voice was quiet, but I heard the tremor underlying his words. I must be bleeding badly for it to scare Richard this much. He was used to working with dragons.
Crumpling gratefully into the passenger seat, I put my head between my knees and tried to will away my dizziness. I felt something warm on my neck and I swiped at it, only to have my fingers come back covered in blood.
"Richard, I'm not feeling so well " I concentrated on holding the cloth to my head, my fear mounting as I realized the material was nearly soaked through.
"Carol, baby, I need to you to stay awake for me. I'll get you to a hospital, but I need to find one a bit further away from the hotel."
The car came to life with a shudder. When Richard pushed hard on the gas, we shot forward, jerking my body forward and causing me to groan.
He glanced into the rearview mirror and winced at whatever he'd seen. "Sorry. I'm afraid I'll be breaking some speed limits in the next few minutes."
Normally, I would have protested, but the roar of an angry dragon and the unmistakable thump as something slammed into the side of our car led me to admit that Richard might be right.
I cried out as he made a hard turn into a narrow alleyway, and my left arm was bashed against the car's electronic window control. That was the point where my body decided I'd had enough, and the contents of my stomach landed in a wet heap right between my mismatched socks.
"Oh, Richard! I'm so sorry!" The words, which had made perfect sense while still inside my head, tumbled from my mouth in a mix of unintelligible syllables.
Richard's fist hit my knee as he shoved the engine into a higher gear. "Hang on!"
I'd barely had a chance to get my hands on the dashboard when the car's tires squealed as we turned in another wild circle, and razor-sharp fangs appeared in the windshield right in front of me. My mind couldn't make sense of what I was seeing, until I realized: the dragon's face was upside down.
Oh crap. He must be perched on the top of the car.
That fact was confirmed when a giant orange claw slid through the gap in my window.
"Who's chasing us?" The dragon who'd attacked me and Myrna had been green, and had been pretty up front about the fact that he'd been sent by Hian-puo, the dragon lord of China. Hian-puo hadn't exactly been fond of Myrna, since she's the one who'd uncovered his plot to murder the rest of the world's dragon lords with a bioweapon designed for just that purpose.
I didn't get a chance to think about it much longer, because the roof of our car made a metallic screech as the orange dragon tried to rip it off. Panicked, I finally located the window control and pushed. The dragon roared again, and our car fishtailed sideways as the claw disappeared and the dragon shifted its weight. I had a second to hope we'd managed to dislodge him, but my hopes were dashed when that same claw punched through the roof as if it were tin foil.
Richard yelled as he punched the gas, and I heard a sickening thud of flesh on stone as we shot into a tunnel. I turned my head as quickly as I dared, just in time to see a dragon lying motionless on the road behind us.
The movement made my stomach roll, and I closed my eyes in an attempt to hold the nausea at bay. "Richard, I think I'm going to "
I heard the faint sound of Richard screaming as I felt consciousness slip away.
The beeping of the heart monitor was driving me insane. I'd been forced to listen to the sound for what felt like forever, and I couldn't figure out why I was the only one who was bothered by its incessant squawking.
I'd panicked a bit when I'd tried to tell someone to turn it off, because no matter how much I concentrated, I couldn't seem to get air to push past my vocal cords. I wondered if this is what death felt like. Trapped in a body that no longer functioned.
Except for my hearing, which I prayed would malfunction.
Then again, at least it kept me awake. I'd started to dread sleep, because every time I succumbed to the urge, my memories of how I got here would come rushing back to swallow me whole. Well, at least they were partial memories.
I think. Everything was really confusing lately.
I remember being slightly buzzed, and I'd been climbing onto the enormous bed in Myrna's room when a dragon had burst into the room.
And I mean that literally. Even though the door had been several feet away, I'd instinctively ducked as large chunks of the hall-facing entry spewed toward my face. Myrnawho just forgiven me for accusing her of sleeping with Richarddid the same, and I must not have been moving as fast as I thought, because she was at my side and pulling me to the floor before I was able to do it myself.
The bedframe dug into my hip, and my right elbow was bent rather uncomfortably against my stomach, but I didn't complain. The dragon was bigger than any I'd ever seen before.
Even with the hole he'd blown in the wall, the green beast still filled the doorway, his thick scales scraping against the damaged construction and his clawed feet sinking into the plush carpet as he stepped fully into the room.
The dragon paused and, as if he hadn't just caused thousands of dollars of damage to the hotel room, took his time looking over the furnishings, like he was a prospective buyer looking for a new home. Or maybe he was just hoping to find something else to crush into bits. If his scars were anything to go by, the bruiser enjoyed that type of thing.
Myrna and I had spent a week working around angry, human-hating dragons, and while the job was old hat to her, I still wasn't used to the sight of their long pointed teeth and flaring nostrils.
I tried to scoot further under the bed. No luck.
My friend worked with dragons at Dragon Relations, Arbitration, and Cooperative Interspecies MediationDRACIM for short. She'd been working for the North American dragon lord, Nir Relobu, to try and negotiate the release of a team of scientists who had been detained by Lord Hian-puo of China, because they'd come too close to discovering the Chinese dragon lord's plan to engage in biological warfare with his fellow dragon rulers.
We'd gone in without knowing this important fact, and Myrna's team, me included, had barely escaped with our lives. We were in Budapest to witness the Chinese dragon lord's trial, andbased on how the proceedings wentlikely his execution as well. Dragons really have no problem with the death penalty.
And now it appeared that Chinese dragon lord hadperhaps rightfullydecided we were to blame for his current plight. The green dragon had made it very clear he wasn't in Myrna's hotel room by accident, and that Hian-puo of China had sent him there. We'd done our best to fend the creature off, but even with two of us, the odds were firmly in his favor. I made the mistake of trying to stop him from killing my friend, and he'd slung me against the wall in response.
This was the point where my memories started to get hazy. Unfortunately the fear of the experience was still all too clear. I remember Richard arriving, and me stabbing at a dragon with a fireplace poker, but not much else.
I blinked twice and waited until my vision was something other than a mass of wet, shimmering bubbles of light. The wait was much longer than I expected, but at least my eyes were working.
And they were staring at a ceiling. A large water stain marred the white surface above my head. The panel looked a little soggy, and I wondered idly whether anyone was aware of the leak. They should send someone to fix that.
"Carol?" I heard Richard's voice just before his face appeared above me. His hair was a mess and his face unshaven. "You're awake. You had me so scared." I felt his hand grip mine, and I gave his fingers a reassuring squeeze.
The movement caused pain to shoot up my arm.
"Ow. What happened?" I raised my hand to find it nearly twice the size it should be and covered in scabbed skin and bruises. It looked like I'd gone toe to toe with a brick wall and lost. Badly.
Richard's forehead creased. "You don't remember?"
I searched my memories. "I remember leaving Hian-puo's trial, and coming to look for you " I glared at him. "You were ignoring me and hanging out with Myrna's good-for-nothing boss."
Richard worked for the North American dragon lord, doing everything from hiring Lord Relobu's house staff to negotiating business deals with foreign nations on the dragon's behalf. Though Trian
Myrna's boyfriend and the head of Relobu's security teamhad recommended Myrna as DRACIM's best mediator to work through the prisoner exchange with China's Hian-puo, Richard had been the one to actually hire her for the job.
She'd introduced me to Richard soon after, and we'd started dating. I'd thought things were going well between us, until Richard had pulled out the silent treatment at the Budapest hotel. At first I'd assumed he was busy with the week's cleanupa bomb, a homicidal dragon, and a dragon lord's criminal trial wasn't exactly normal, even in his line of work. But when all of that had been taken care of and he still hadn't talked to me, I'd started to worry. Then I'd started to get paranoid.
And when I say paranoid? I don't mean the normal, run-of-the-mill version where I thought Richard was just staying with me for the sex. No, I tipped completely into crazy-land. After the last day of the Chinese dragon lord's trial, I got drunk, got dressed in the world's most ragged set of pajamas, and turned my impressive skills of ass-hattery toward blaming Myrna for pretty much everything. I blushed as the memory of accusing Myrna of sleeping with Richard popped front and center in my mind. The shame of it almost felt worse than my injuries.
I had to give her creditshe didn't laugh in my face, even though any fool could see that she was head over heels in love with her newly reclaimed boyfriend, Trian.
Nope, Myrna was a stand-up gal who also had the benefit of knowing me for years. She was well-aware that I didn't have the best track record with guys.
It was my fatal flaw: I was attracted to good-looking men.
My preference for the card-carrying members of the eye-candy club doesn't sound like a flaw. In fact, most people would likely consider my tastes normal. Probably nine times out of ten, if I asked a woman whether she was more attracted to the hot dude shooting hoops on a basketball court or the hefty, middle-aged man running the concession stand, she's gonna go with the attractive ball player.
But if you told that same woman that the ball player lived out of his car, beat his dog, and stole money from every girlfriend he'd ever had, the concessions manager would start looking pretty darn good by comparison. But me? I was always the idiot who offered to share an apartment, watch the dog, and sign up for a joint checking account just because the hot guy looked even hotter when he was about to kiss me.
Like I said, my fatal flaw.
Usually Myrna was there to knock some sense into me before I did something irreversible like marry one of these jerks. But she'd seemed to almost approve of Richard.