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Kai folded her arms and balled her hands into fists. I will not set anyone on fire. I will not set anyone on fire
Voices buzzed in the air and people pressed in on all sides, vying to place their order at the long, low counter of Rifle's newest hangout, Caff-Elation. Baristas scurried back and forth, filling cups and pulling gluten-free scones from the glass case displaying baked goods.
She wished she'd gotten magic that would let her clear a space in the crowded coffee shop. Instead, she kept her hands crammed into her armpits. Not that she actually thought she'd set the place ablazenot at the moment, anyway. Though she did her best to avoid touching anyone in the throng, she wasn't annoyed, frustrated or angry, which meant the hurricane of fire magic inside her wasn't likely to escape.
It was a good thing her magic wasn't triggered by horrible, consuming loneliness, or everyone in the place would be doomed.
Kai gritted her teeth. She'd sworn she wouldn't think about that. Wouldn't think about him. Lonely was better than turning over her free will to a guy she couldn't trustwho had sent her away because of politicsno matter how much the stupid magical bond they shared twisted up her insides so tight she was about to snap like worn-out rope.
Giving the thoughts a final shove into a dark corner of her mind, Kai raised herself on tiptoe and craned her neck trying to find Juli and Ashemher best friend and her best friend's shape-shifting dragon mate. Ashem's assignment as Kai's bodyguard meant he didn't let her out of his sight for longer than the occasional bathroom break, so he was around somewhere.
Unfortunately, the row of musclebound dudebros behind her were uniformly tall, blocking Kai's view of the tables scattered at the back of the little shop. At five-two, Kai was lucky if the top of her head came to most guy's shoulders, even on tiptoe.
One of the dudebros leered, and Kai pressed her lips together and settled onto flat feet. If she'd known the coffee shop would be like this on a Tuesday afternoon, she never would've suggested they come. She and Juli had taken Ashem for a hike at Rifle Falls State Park, and the late November temperatures had left them downright frosty. Well, Juli and Ashem. Not Kai. She didn't really get cold since heartswearing to a flame-wielding dragon had granted her a personal internal firestorm.
"Hey!" An unfamiliar male voice cut across the chaos. "Aren't you that girl who disappeared?"
The crowd at the counter went quiet. Kai tensed. Being recognized was new, and so far, nothing good had come of it. She turned to face the guy who'd spoken. "I don't know. I feel pretty present."
The man smirked. Or Kai thought he did. It was hard to tell through his fairly spectacular beard, which was a shade darker than his slicked brown hair. He wore a tan sports coat over a sweater and a plaid shirt, and his pants ended a solid two inches above his ankles. He adjusted his thick-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses with one hand and offered her the other. "Jacobsen Starnes Smith. I'm with the Denver Post!'
"Oh. Hi." Kai forced her hands more tightly against her sides, her eyes darting around the coffee shop. There had been some national coverage of her disappearance and recovery six weeks agoespecially after Juli went missing and they turned up together. But it had died down within a couple of weeks, and Kai had no idea why someone would want to talk to her about it now. Ashem, where are you? There's some guy
As if from nowhere, a tall, heavily muscled Persian man appeared at her side. The reporter actually stumbled back, bumping into a couple of people. Ashem scowled, his voice a dark, velvety growl. "Can we help you?"
Kai was no longer crowded. Ashem's magicthe power to manipulate mindswould actually give him the ability to send the masses scurrying. But he wasn't using his magic. He was just that scary.
Smith straightenedwhich still didn't make him as tall as Ashemand tilted his chin up to meet Ashem's glare. "Who are you?"
"Can we help you?" Ashem repeated. Slower this time, like Smith might be an idiot.
Smith's voice took on a tone both condescending and belligerent. "I just have a few questions for Ms. Monahan."
Ashem folded his arms across his chest and fixed the reporter with a golden-eyed glare. "Ms. Monahan doesn't choose to speak with you."
Oh, hell. People were looking. They were supposed to be lying low here. Kai put a hand on Ashem's arm and tilted her head toward a table near one bare brick wall, where she'd just spotted Juli. So much for hot chocolate. "If we're going to talk, let's get out of everyone's way."
Before Ashem could protest, Kai slipped out of the crowd and marched toward the table. Juli, seated against the wall, lifted one perfectly arched brow and mouthed, "Men."
Of course, Juli would know exactly what happened thanks to her profound mental bond with Ashem. Though Kai couldn't imagine it, they were perfectly comfortable living inside each other's heads.
They loved each other.
The loneliness surged, and Kai wrapped her hand around a carabiner clipped to her belt loop and pressed her mind against the mental walls she'd constructed to keep her dragon out.
The heat in her hands intensified. Forty-one daysone day shy of six weekssince she'd seen him. Dark red hair. Fire-blue eyes. Beautiful mouth pulled up in a half-smile. Body warm beneath her in a tiny cave while a battle had raged outside.
Her lungs constricted. In her memory she heard his voice, desperate, pleading. Kai
If Kai had known she would become heartsworn to himwhich gave her magic, extended her life by thousands of years and technically meant she was no longer humanwould she have chosen Rhys?
Weeks away from him had given her perspective. Originally, she'd erected the walls between their minds to keep him from jumping in and taking control again. On the last day they'd spent together, he'd shoved her aside and used their bond to draw so much of her fire magic that it felt like he'd seared her bones and boiled her blood to rusty dust. But he'd done it to save his life, and she'd made peace with that. Despite how complicated things were between them, her relief that he'd lived was beyond words.
That didn't mean she trusted him.
Besides, in what world would the king of dragons have ever chosen her?
Kai banished the thoughts as she slid into a chair next to Juli. Ashem took the one directly across from her. That left Smith sitting kitty-corner from Kai, or as far away as Ashem could wrangle him without making his machinations obvious. Kai might not have noticed the move if she hadn't spent two months in Ashem's constant, paranoid company.
Juli held out her hand and pitched her voice low enough that it wouldn't carry above the buzz of conversation. "Juliet King."
The reporter shook it, but must have seen Ashem's expression from one corner of his eye, because it was the briefest handshake Kai had ever witnessed. "Jacob-sen Starnes Smith."
Juli nodded. "The Denver Post."
Smith raised his eyebrows. He had fair skin, a straight nose and a condescending expression. "So you know who I am."
Juli gave him a charming smile. "Only since quite recently."
"You're the other girl who disappeared," Smith said. This time, it wasn't a question. "You were with the search parties looking for Ms. Monahan, here, and you went missing yourself."
Kai and Juli exchanged another glance, and Kai propped her chin in one hand. "What exactly is it you want, Jacobsen Starnes Smith?"
The smirk Kai had seen earlier lifted one corner of Smith's mouth. "I want the truth."
Kai had to bite the inside of her cheek to prevent a hearty, bitter laugh from escaping her mouth. Smith must have accurately gauged her reaction, however, because he put on a scowl almost as good as Ashem's. "I am deadly serious, Ms. Monahan. Your disappearance and that of Ms. King cost thousands of man-hours and far more in taxpayer dollars. Tell me, did you really get lost in those mountains? Or was all of this an elaborate yet shoddy attempt at short-lived fame?"
Kai's insides burned like she'd swallowed acid and her hand wandered toward the carabiners on her belt loop. "I'm sorry? You think we
what? Staged it or something?"
Shooting a look at Ashem, she wondered what Jacob-sen Starnes Smith would think about dragons.
Smith leaned forward, and his expression was so eager it was off-putting. "I think there's more to your story than you two will say."
Juli's lip curled. "Why would we stage a disappearance?"
Smith narrowed his eyes. "You weren't hoping for a reality show? A book deal? A little more time in the national spotlight?"
Dangerous heat prickled in Kai's hands. "If we wanted that, we'd have agreed to the TV interviews we were offered when we found our way back."
"Found your way back? I thought he found you." Smith jerked a thumb at Ashem, his suspicious gaze landing on Juli. "Convenient that you just happen to move in with the man who 'rescued you' in the mountains, Ms. King. Come on. What's out there? What really happened?"
"I got lost. Juli got lost. We found each other. Ashem found us. We found our way home. End of story." Kai suspected the story she, Juli and Ashem had concocted had just enough holesenough hints at something biggerto bring Smith sniffing around. This guy had ambition written all over him.
"Come on." Smith rolled his eyes. "I'm not stupid enough to believe that. What happened to the injured girl you found? How did you happen to run into Ms. King when none of the people combing the area could find either of you?"
Ashem shifted, but Kai caught his eye and gave him a slight shake of her head. "How did you find us?"
Smith ran his fingers over his beard. "I have my sources."
Juli snorted and Kai gave a humorless laugh. "Right." Kai squashed the sneaking suspicion that it had been her mother. They'd been getting along better since Kai had come home, but the woman was constantly nagging her take the attention she was being offered.
Oh, family. She was pretty sure she'd hate them if she didn't love them so much.
"Just tell me what happened in the mountains. What's up there? Drugs? A sex-trafficking ring?" Smith's voice was harsh and a little too loud. People were looking.
"What? No!" Kai heard her carabiner clicking before she realized she was thumbing the metal clip over and over again.
"I told you. Nothing. Just
nothing." Like the comforting pain of poking a bruise, Kai pressed her mind against the mental wall she'd constructed between her and Rhys, separating them. A wall of nothing where her soul screamed that there should be something. She wondered what he would do if she just knocked it down like, Surprise!
Rhys moved his fingers across her forehead, brushing away the rain. "I want this to work
I want us to be happy together."
Kai inhaled at the memory of his touch.
She'd love to try to be happy with Rhys. If she could trust him. If she weren't so afraid he'd take once glance at what was in her mind and realize she wasn't enough for him.
"We've told you." Juli's frosty tone jolted Kai from her thoughts. "Kai, our roommate, Charlotte, and I were hiking up in White River National Forest. We came across an injured girl at the base of a cliff. Kai volunteered to stay while Charlotte and I went for help. While we were gone, the girl woke up and begged Kai to help her to her campsite. Her leg was broken. Kai agreed to help. On the way back, Kai got lost."
It was amazing how much truth could fit into a lie.
Though in reality, Kai hadn't left the girl's camp at all. Instead, she'd been present when they were attacked by dragons. Freaking dragons. In the Rockies. Lucky for Kai that the girlDerynand everyone in her camp could shed their human bodies and turn into dragons themselves. Including her brother, Rhys.
"And what about you, Juliet?" Smith asked, eyes beady. "Do you have anything to add?"
Juli said something, but Kai was caught in her memories. Despite the staggering revelation that dragons existed and the reptilian aerial battle taking place overhead, Kai had still had the presence of mind to stab one of the dragons with a sword and save Rhys's life. The dragon, Kavar, who shared Ashem's power to manipulate minds, had taken exception and tried to squash her mind like a grape. So when Rhys and his dragons cut and run, they'd taken Kai with them. After that, there had been a cave and a nasty headache.
Oh, and Rhys had touched Kai's skin and become bound to her. Heartsworn. Forever.
That's when Kai found out he was the king. And he that was stuck in the middle of a civil war with his cousin, Owain. And if she didn't magically bind herself back to him, Rhys would go insane, lose the war, and Owain would gain complete control over every dragon on the planet and use them to murder the human race.
Of course, no one had told her about the whole king or insanity thing when crap went down, so she'd said a big, fat "hell no" to completing the bond and thenand this was the part that made her insides shrivel up to remembershe'd kissed Rhys's smooth-talking music-obsessed best friend, Cadoc. Half-crazy from the incomplete heartswearing, Rhys had tried to murder him. Cadoc had fled and ended up captured and tortured by Rhys's enemies.
It still made Kai nauseous to think about that. A guilty, creeping nausea. Owain had shattered the bones of Cadoc's hand, maiming him. He was a bard who could no longer play music, and it was her fault.
A couple of days later, Ashem had turned up with Juli, who had wandered into their Top Secret Dragon Location because she was stubborn and so determined to find Kai. Kai and Juli had stolen gear from the dragons and escaped.
All was well.
Juli knocked over the salt shaker she'd been toying with, startling Kai from her thoughts. Juli was partway through her own version of their story. "I stumbled on a well-hidden ravine and went through it without thinking. By the time I came out the other side and walked a little ways, I was lost. Luckily, Kai had wandered through the same ravine. That's when we found each other."
Kai bobbed her head, pretending to agree. Ashem said nothing. He didn't move at all, only glared at Smith in a way that made it abundantly clear he'd come up with a dozen ways to dispose of the reporter's body.
Smith edged away from Ashem and toyed with something in his jacket pocket. "And then what happened?"
Kai took over, exasperated. "We told you. That's when Ashem found us and brought us home."
Home. Not even close. Home had come after Rhys had hauled Kai, half-frozen, from a river, Ashem and Juli had become heartsworn, and Owain had shown up with a bunch of dragons and tried to murdered them.
By that point, Kai had finally come to her senses and completed her bond with Rhys.
"Oh, Ashem did, did he? How lucky," Smith drawled. He shot Ashem an ugly look.
Kai stood. Smith could have accused her of any number of things, but to look at someonesomeone she'd come to love like a brother, even if he was an asslike that? No. "We're done."