It’s amazing how often my day starts with a three-legged dragon and an enraged dairy farmer. I stood, clad in a set of knee-high muck boots and a brand new pencil skirt, and tried to restore some order to my first appointment of the day, an encounter involving a very hungry dragon and the dairy farmer whose cattle had been unfortunate enough to be within grabbing distance at meal time.
“It was j-j-just a l-little sn-sn-snack!! My doctor’s appointment took way l-longer than it was supposed to and I was h-h-hungry!” The floor literally shook with the dragon’s sobs. Isiwyth Armatoth, lovely purple dragon and niece of our nation’s dragon lord, balanced atop a thick wooden beam that served as the room’s sole dragon perch. Her birdlike claws contracted rhythmically with tension as she tried to explain herself through tear-induced hiccups. Mrs. Isiwyth Armatoth was a mess.
And so was my office. The cattle hadn’t all hit the floor when Isiwyth lost her lunch. Instead, their mangled remains had landed dead center of my sturdy wooden desk, and were currently dripping a mixture of saliva, blood and stomach acid onto the small space heater I used to warm my toes while riffling through paperwork. The noxious fumes were probably permeating the entire building at this point.
My coworkers loved me.
While her hind legs made kindling out of my office furniture, her front legs waved wildly to punctuate her sobs. Well, her front leg. The other one was missing, thanks to the farmer’s skill with game traps. I shifted slightly onto my toes so I’d be ready when I had to move fast. Isiwyth’s claw had started to heal quite nicely, but I still had to dodge the spatters of blood she sent sailing with each gesture. And I had to do it discreetly. In a pencil skirt and muck boots.
I waited until the volume of her tears had dropped from deafening to loud, and then pulled out my most professional tone of voice. “Mrs. Armatoth, we understand. I can only imagine how much energy it takes to keep those two dragonlings healthy and growing. When did you say they were due again?” The doctor’s appointment that had kept Isiwyth from her normal lunch was a checkup on the two tiny dragons stretching her already enormous stomach.
The purple dragon sniffled once more, but stopped crying. “Next month. I have the ultrasound photos if you’d like to see.” Her gorgeous green eyes gazed into mine, judging the sincerity of my interest.
I smiled widely. “Absolutely.” Anything to get Isiwyth’s mind off her injured claw. The dragon giggled, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Apparently even expectant mothers loved talking about their children, and Isiwyth was no exception.
As Isiwyth dug around for the prints in a large satchel strapped to her side , I dropped the smile and arranged my face into a more serious expression before I turned to the room’s other occupant. Switching from dragonspeak to English, I laid a hand on the farmer’s shoulder. “Mr. Sompston. I’m so sorry about today’s events. Would you mind telling me exactly what happened?” I’d managed to piece together quite a bit from Isiwyth’s sobbing monologue, but it was never a bad idea to hear both sides of the story.
Mr. Sompston raised his face from his hands and met my eyes. “Annabelle! She ate my Annabelle!” With those words, Mr. Sompston promptly broke down in tears that nearly rivaled the dragon’s.
I blinked. This wasn’t good. From his stony-eyed expression upon their arrival, I’d assumed the dairy farmer was simply irritated at the loss of his cattle and impatient to hammer out the details of the compensation he was due for the consumption of his stock. I didn’t realize someone had been killed. Here at DRACIM, officially known as Dragon Relations, Arbitration, and Cooperative Interspecies Mediation, property loss was one of the more common cases we handled, especially here in Reparations, the department where I was employed. But if Mrs. Armatoth had indeed eaten Annabelle, I needed to get the legal team in here.
I cleared my throat. “Excuse me—did you say Mrs. Armatoth ate someone named Annabelle? Was this your wife?”
Mr. Sompston wiped his nose and frowned up at me. “Of course not. I’m not married.” Once more his eyes welled with tears, but he dashed a hand over his face and visibly composed himself. “Annabelle was my baby. I raised her after her mama died giving birth. I bottle-fed her from my own kitchen floor.”
From his own kitchen what? And then it came to me.
“Mr. Sompston, are you saying Annabelle was a pet?”
The farmer glared at me from bloodshot eyes. I was obviously not displaying the appropriate level of outrage. “Annabelle was more than a pet. She may have been a cow, but she was family. And that thing—” he pointed to Isiwyth, who was waiting patiently with ultrasound photos in hand, “— gobbled her up like she was nothing more than an appetizer. I wish that trap of mine had taken her head instead of an arm.” He glanced at my desk, where parts of Annabelle still dripped to the floor, and lost it completely, his chest heaving with the effort to suck in enough air for the sounds of despair rolling from his mouth.
I sighed. No one could accuse my life of being glamorous. In fact, on days like today, it was downright annoying. Especially when this entire mess should have belonged to my boss, were he in the habit of arriving on time for work. But Emory, as usual, had yet to make an appearance.
My name is Myrna Banks, and I’m a dragonspeaker. And today’s little scene was what I handled for a living.
When a dragon was caught on film as she flew over Portugal shortly before the end of World War III, humans’ belief in the superiority of their race was rocked to the core. Human armies quickly redirected their focus from bombing each other to the goal of eliminating these interlopers. The massive creatures possessing the ability to completely take over our planet suddenly seemed more important than oil rights or religious disagreements.
Most historians agree that World War III officially ended when the charge to kill dragons began.
Scientists managed to gather enough data to infer the dragons had actually been created by humans—more specifically they found it was some doctor in a research facility who tripped over a massive unforeseen by-product of genetic splicing in an effort to cure cancer.
The doctor did manage to cure cancer—but he also mixed up the human DNA with that of some particularly hardy reptiles in a few hundred test tubes. With cancer cured and his research project complete, he hopped on a plane to accept his Nobel Prize in Medicine and left an underpaid assistant to dispose of his earlier test subjects.
The assistant tossed all the tubes into an in-house incineration unit and voila, after a three- year incubation period, dragons were born.
It was ten years before the humans figured out what happened, and meanwhile the dragon race had been happily breeding. By the time of the Portugal photo incident, there were thousands of them. Completely freaked out by the new life-forms, humans quickly tried to eradicate the dragons.
However, on top of their growing numbers, the creatures were practically unstoppable. Impervious to the effects of a vast majority of our weapons—nuclear or otherwise—dragons had seated themselves firmly at the top of the food chain. The human race had been in real danger of becoming extinct.
Until dragonspeakers were found.
Only a few humans were able to turn a series of dragon snorts, huffs, and smoke streams into something approximating a human linguistic pattern. One such individual, Joseph Green, managed to persuade some of the political higher-ups to give him a chance to negotiate with the dragons. His attempt proved successful, and he was able to hammer out an agreement with them that not only stopped the war, but provided humans a set of guidelines that protected our well-being and livelihood.
Joseph, with the full approval of the remaining world governments, proceeded to install an office of dragonspeakers near the cities around the world where the seven original dragons decided to settle. Thus the birth of the DRACIM empire.
I worked in the Tulsa DRACIM office, in the middle of the North American dragon lord’s territory. Five years ago, I’d honed my talent with as many books as I could get my hands on, finished college, and then I’d applied for a job. Today, I was still waiting for an opportunity to move out of the business of vomit cleanup and into the more glamorous position of arbitrator.
Which, granted, still involved an inordinate amount of vomit cleanup, but at least I’d get a pay hike, new boss and fancy nameplate hung outside my door. As Emory’s assistant, I’d been doing all of his arbitration work anyway. It would be nice to have a set of business cards giving me credit for my trouble.
Unfortunately, today was not shaping up to be that day. I pinched the bridge of my nose and willed my headache to subside. Isiwyth had long since tired of my conversation with Mr. Sompston—I’d been too busy panicking about dead wives to translate—and she was currently using one of my pencils to pick her teeth. Her actions only served as a reminder to Mr. Sompston that his favorite dairy cow was now a hamburger. His understated sobs morphed into outright wailing.
So of course my boss chose that moment to open my office door.
“What the hell is going on in here?” Emory shot me a look that was a mixture of shock and annoyance. His gaze absorbed the chaos of the room, and I knew things were about to get interesting when he placed himself behind my desk and hitched his pants up an inch or so under his round belly. The move was his “sheriff’s stance” and it signaled that he was about to start barking orders. I hustled to reach his side, knowing that Emory’s particular brand of “mediation”—an odd mixture of complete nonsense coupled with an alarming number of derogatory slurs on dragonkind in general—was the last thing we needed here.
To this day I’m still not sure how Emory managed to land his job. He wasn’t a dragonspeaker, which was rare enough here at DRACIM, but on top of that fact, he didn’t even like dragons. More than once he’d referred to their species as “those filthy beasts” when speaking to his coworkers, and more than half of my job was trying to find creative ways to translate his words into something the dragons wouldn’t want to kill us over during arbitration.
I’d heard rumors that Emory had some political buddies who managed to wheel and deal him into DRACIM management, but I’d never found actual proof. His continued presence with the organization was one of life’s great mysteries. The majority of individuals lucky enough to interact with dragons on a daily basis realized that most of them were pretty lovable if you could ignore their penchant for loud roaring and very raw food.
Speaking of raw food…
I’d managed to make it halfway across the room when my rubber-soled muck boots hit a slick spot on the floor. My arms windmilled wildly as I attempted to do the impossible and stay upright. Just when I’d given up any chance of saving my skirt from the same blood-covered fate as my blouse, I felt a hand on my shoulder and another against my lower back.
“Easy there,” a male voice drawled.
My heart stopped. I knew that voice.
“Hello, sugar. Long time no see.”
“Trian.” I spat his name from my mouth like a rotten apple and struggled to loosen his grip.
A year ago, I’d felt myself privileged to hear that smooth rumble near my ear while snuggled in my bed during a particularly cold December. A year ago, I’d been happily dreaming of an engagement ring for our one-year anniversary. And a year ago he’d disappeared from my life without a word, taking some very sensitive work papers with him, and dooming me to who knew how many more years under the incompetent management of Emory.
Before, there’d been no question I was on the fast track with my chosen profession. With my specialized training—I’d studied all the dragon history DRACIM had available, and knew more about international dragon politics than anyone in the building—I was jumping rungs on the career ladder.
When he’d stolen my paperwork, I’d panicked. DRACIM had a strict confidentiality clause. Technically, we weren’t even supposed to bring work papers home with us, though Emory usually looked the other way so long as it helped his department meet productivity standards. But if he knew I’d more or less handed DRACIM information to a member of the public? I’d have been out of here faster than you could say unemployed idiot.
So I’d lied, and told Emory I’d accidentally tossed the papers during one of my semiannual apartment purges. I still don’t know whether Emory was really mad, or whether he saw my mistake as the perfect opportunity to make his life easier, but he’d immediately announced my demotion to the entire staff. Instead of being the lead arbitrator of his Reparations department, Emory installed me as his “administrative assistant.” I’d been stuck under his thumb ever since.
When both feet were flat on the floor, I turned to face him, and had just enough time to note he was still drop-dead gorgeous. He was also amused and absolutely clean. There wasn’t even a speck of bodily fluid on his obviously expensive suit. The fact did not improve my mood.
“What the hell are you doing here?” The farmer looked up at my exclamation, and I gave him a harried smile.
I turned back to Trian. I didn’t know why he was here or how he’d managed to find me in the building, and I didn’t care. When he’d left, I’d cried for a week straight. Then, with the help of my roommate, Carol, I’d picked myself up off the floor and said good riddance to the lying bastard.
At the time, I swore I never wanted to see him again. And now, staring into his grinning face, I realized my feelings hadn’t changed in the slightest.
“Today’s a business trip for me, sugar.”
My hand itched to slap him. How dare he assume I’d allow him to waltz into my place of business like we were on friendly terms? When Trian took those documents, Emory forced me to disclose the loss to the DRACIM oversight board. DRACIM’s upper management had been understandably concerned when the oversight board told them about the loss. They’d wholeheartedly approved of my demotion. Since then, I’d been Emory’s virtual slave, fetching cups of coffee and managing his entire department while my former peers watched me with pitying eyes
I moved to escort Trian personally out of my life forever, but I didn’t get the chance. He calmly straightened the cuffs of his suit before letting himself out of my office, tossing a casual “I’ll be in the waiting room” over his shoulder before slamming the door in my face.
Furious, I grasped the knob and started to follow, but Isiwyth chose that moment for another dry heave, and although not much came out, it did remind Mr. Sompston that his Annabelle was in pieces on my office floor. Emory shouted something unintelligible—which was probably for the best—and Mr. Sompston wailed in despair.
I glared at the door’s wood paneling, silently warning Trian that I’d deal with him later, and turned back to the farmer. This fiasco needed to be wrapped up quickly. I had only fifteen minutes before my ten o’clock appointment, and I needed five of those to boot a very irritating someone out of my waiting room. I laid a comforting hand on the back of the distraught farmer, and waited until he’d exhausted the worst of his tears.
“Mr. Sompston, I know there’s nothing we can do to get back what you’ve lost, but we can honor Annabelle’s memory. Just south of this office, we’re building a new barn to house some of our livestock. Would it be okay if I asked them to name it after Annabelle? I’m sure that if she were here it would make her happy knowing other animals were being cared for in a building bearing her name.”
The farmer looked up, eyes red-rimmed but hopeful. He swallowed audibly before he spoke. “R-r-really? You could do that?” He wiped awkwardly at his runny nose with a sleeve. I crossed the room to grab a box of tissues from my storage closet.
Through the small reception window between my office and the waiting room, I could see Trian sprawled in a chair, taking advantage of the full view of the entertainment we were providing. I snarled and yanked the tissues from my cabinet. When I looked back, Trian simply watched me, his gaze dark and probing, as if I were an intriguing puzzle to be arranged neatly, admired, and shoved back into its box. I resisted the urge to look elsewhere, instead meeting his eyes straight on. If he’d expected a heartbroken puppy, he would be sadly mistaken. His lips quirked into a faint smile. He touched a hand lightly to his head in a salute that was both mocking and old-fashioned.
Before, my heart would have fluttered at the acknowledgment. Today, it burned with rage. How dare he come here after what he’d done?
Emory cleared his throat behind me in an obvious order to finish what I’d started. I reluctantly turned back to the group. Taking a deep breath—empathy and understanding were key—I handed Mr. Sompston the tissue and answered his question.
“Of course we can do that. Annabelle was important to you. And as such, I feel strongly that she’ll serve as a symbol of hope for all who see her face.” I had to force myself not to roll my eyes at the speech. It wasn’t one of my better moments. I mean, seriously, how could a dead cow serve as a symbol of hope for anything? Especially as DRACIM’s livestock were used exclusively to feed hungry dragons. Hope was in short supply on our farmland.
For the pigs and for me.
Emory piped up, probably feeling left out as his earlier speech had been interrupted by a gagging Isiwyth. “And we’d love your input on a plaque we’ll install at the entrance.”
Idiot. We already had the farmer appeased; now we’d have to commission a plaque. But Mr. Sompston was already nodding eagerly at Emory’s words, so I swallowed my complaint and turned to the purple dragon, translating the gist of the discussion thus far.
“Mrs. Armatoth, can I assume we’ll be receiving a donation from your clan? One large enough to cover the expense of the barn and a small anteroom for Annabelle’s memorial?”
I held my breath. The facts of the case were in Mr. Sompston’s favor according to the laws imposed by Lord Relobu, Isiwyth’s dragon lord and uncle. When she took the farmer’s cattle without permission, Mr. Sompston was within his rights to attack her. Lord Relobu’s laws might not be gentle, but they were effective.
But just because he could attack her didn’t mean she would be happy about it. And unhappy dragons made bigger messes that those with simple morning sickness. I did not want a human injury this early in the morning. The paperwork would kill me.
I sighed in relief when Isiwyth waved her hand in a vague acceptance. Her arm had healed nicely; the claw of her pinky finger was the only thing missing from her regrown hand. “Of course, dear. It’s the least I can do.” The large dragon angled her body to the left and addressed the farmer directly. I stood at Isiwyth’s shoulder, ready to translate her words. “Mr. Sompston, please accept my deepest apologies. I had no idea she was a friend of yours. To tell you the truth, I am not fond of cattle, their bones are large enough to cause distress if swallowed…”
“Um…thank you, Mrs. Armatoth.” I jumped in before she could go into detail about her culinary tastes. There was only so much paraphrasing I could do in the translation. “DRACIM appreciates your cooperation in this matter. Would you be so kind as to wait here while I draw up some paperwork? It won’t be but a moment.”
I made a mental note to call in a cleanup crew and turned to the farmer. “Mr. Sompston, would you mind walking with me to my supervisor’s office? I’d like to take down your information, as we will need to speak with you about the arrangements at a later date.”
I gestured toward the door, praying I could get him out of the room before the deal fell apart. The paperwork for Mrs. Armatoth would be very basic; we had templates for pretty much everything. But it was important that Mr. Sompston felt involved, so I’d write up a quick addendum to the fundamental contract about the memorial. And the stupid plaque.
Mr. Sompston nodded and held out a hand. “Thank you for your support and understanding. This is—will be—a very trying time for me. I appreciate your kindness, Miss…?”
“Banks. Myrna Banks.” I assembled my features into what I hoped was a professional expression and shook his grimy hand. Fishing a card from my ruined blazer, I handed him my contact information and hoped I wasn’t making a huge mistake. In my opinion, anyone who was that attached to a cow was potential stalker material. Still, DRACIM preached the need for a positive global image at all costs, and today the price of acceptance was a business card and a sympathetic ear.
“If you have anything special you’d like in the wording of the dedication, you can send me a message directly.” Because Lord knew Emory would never think to follow through on his promise.
The farmer startled me by wrapping me up in a huge hug. While he squeezed the life out of me, I saw Melissa, our newest intern, poke her head in the door and give me a thumbs-up. Isiwyth’s mate must have arrived.
Once the farmer set me back on my feet, I gave him a polite nod and gestured toward the door. Once Mr. Sompston had shuffled out into the hall, I introduced him to Melissa.
“Mr. Sompston? Would it be okay if Melissa showed you the way to Emory’s office? I need to stop by the supply room for some pen and paper. Then we can get started on the contract.”
The farmer nodded and trailed after Melissa, who mouthed “great job” over her shoulder as she sashayed down the hall in her pristine white blouse. I hoped Mr. Sompston didn’t decide to hug her too.
Then again, it would serve her right for being clean at a time like this.
As they turned the corner, instead of heading straight for the supply room, I adjusted my jacket and ducked into the waiting room, filling my lungs in preparation for Trian’s imminent departure-by-security-guard.
But I’d left my understandably heavy door—dragons were rather large, and the doors we had to accommodate their size were better described as swinging walls—ajar, and the scene in my office caused me to pull up short.
Emory, the guy who made it a regular practice to loudly proclaim his hate for all dragons, stood beside Isiwyth, cooing at her ultrasound photos. I shot a warning look at Trian, who’d jumped up from his seat in response to my surprise, before veering toward my boss and his new best friend.
“Myrna, why didn’t you tell me we had Lord Relobu’s niece right here in the halls of DRACIM? What an honor!” His tone was nothing but delight, but his eyes shot daggers in my direction.
I gritted my teeth in frustration. Emory’s dragonspeak was terrible, so he must have peeked at my notes for that little tidbit of information. What his eyes really meant was “what do you think you’re doing by not informing me of a prime chance to schmooze with dragon royalty?” Lord Relobu was the most powerful dragon on the North American continent, and Emory never passed up a chance to rub elbows with important people.
Trian made his presence known by snorting at Emory’s words. My boss shot an annoyed glance in his direction. I ignored them both. I refused to have my schedule disrupted this early in the morning, which meant I had less than ten minutes to get my office hosed down by the cleaning crew before the next appointment.
I re-pasted my professional smile.
“Mrs. Armatoth? In your condition, I’m guessing you’re probably starving to death. How would you feel about taking a walk with me outdoors? Your mate has arrived, and we have some refreshments prepared for you. We’d be delighted if you’d accept.”
The violet dragon giggled self-consciously. “I suppose I am ready for a little snack. Morning sickness is odd like that. One minute I’m losing my lunch, and the next I feel like I could eat just about anything.” The promise of food restoring her spirits, Isiwyth patted her eyes dry with a towel Emory must have raided from my desk, tossed it to the floor, and heaved herself up from her perch, the thick claws on her feet tapping daintily as she moved into the hallway.
Isiwyth waddled happily toward the corrals, chattering about her dragonlings with a too-delighted—and likely confused—Emory. Deciding I would deal with Trian by snagging a member of security on the way, I followed a few steps behind the purple dragon, trying for a glimpse at her injured claw, but she’d shoved it in her hip satchel to pull out another set of ultrasound photos for her captive audience. I couldn’t get a good look.
“It’s completely regenerated. Claws and all. And don’t worry. She’d need to lose a lot more blood than that to endanger her dragonlings.” Trian appeared beside me, hands in the pockets of his dress pants, as if he hadn’t even noticed my burning desire to kill him. Trian had always known a lot about dragons. He’d said he’d spent a lot of his childhood around a group of them that hadn’t minded his endless questions.
When we’d dated, I’d been so jealous of his casual knowledge of dragons. I’d grown up around one, but I’d never been encouraged to engage him in conversation. So I’d spent hours peppering Trian with questions about my obsession to make up for lost time.
I’d never understood why he’d decided to work outside the walls of DRACIM. Most dragonspeakers found the pay much better than any jobs they could get outside of the company. To my surprise, Trian didn’t have that trouble; as a freelancer, he’d always managed to have a prime dragon-related contract lined up as soon as the last one was finished, even without the DRACIM stamp of approval on his dragonspeaking skills.
I’d spend a good portion of our dating days trying to convince Trian to apply for a position in Reparations so we could spend even more time together.
But now, today, I couldn’t get him out of the building fast enough. It was too much to hope that he might disappear on his own.
I glanced again to Emory, waiting for the inevitable moment when he’d either have to admit to Isiwyth that he couldn’t follow her dragonspeak or force me to unobtrusively lead him in the conversation. But he seemed confident in his ability to fake, because he hadn’t even looked my way.
It was probably for the best. Emory’s wife, Amy, was a perpetual gossip. And one of her “very good friends”’ worked in a nearby department. When Trian had stolen DRACIM’s property, I’d had to personally bring the results of the oversight board’s results to my boss and explain how I could possibly be that absentminded. Not surprisingly, within the week, the entire office was buzzing with the sheer stupidity of my mistake. It had been humiliating, to say the least.
I’d been a hair’s breadth from being fired. And had DRACIM actually known the papers were in the hands of an outsider, I would have been kicked to the curb long ago.
Instead, I’d been doomed to eternal servitude. Which didn’t give me warm squishy feelings for my current companion. I stepped close and lowered my voice. “I’m not even sure how you managed to get in here without an appointment, but I will say this one time, and then I will contact security. Get the hell out of my building.”
His smile was quick, and a little uncertain. “Myrna. It’s been a while. I’d hoped we could catch up.” His eyes met mine, his golden irises practically glowing. Before I could jerk away, Trian captured my hand, his grip warm but firm. His hand was large and long-fingered; the calloused tips of his fingers brushed against my inner wrist as we shook. I yanked free of the touch.
Without breaking eye contact, I stopped one of Emory’s interns with a hand on his upper arm. “Russell? Would you mind fetching security for me?”
Russell coughed uncertainly. “Um, sure. I’ll be right back.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Trian murmured. He blinked and fixed his eyes on the intern.
Whatever Russell saw, it worried him. He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, his gaze bouncing between us.
I practically growled in frustration. “Give me one good reason I shouldn’t have you tossed out of here.” I didn’t really care for his reasons, but I also didn’t want to make a huge scene if I could help it. Russell may have been new, but he had enough contacts to start the rumor mill turning, should our confrontation escalate.
A throat cleared beside me. I whipped my head around to discover the identity of our audience. A sandy-haired man, dressed with the same casual elegance—and cleanliness—as Trian stepped forward and held out a hand.
“Umm, pardon me. Perhaps I could introduce myself. My name is Richard Green. I see you and Mr. Chobardan have already…ah…met.”
Shocked, my gaze flew to the man’s face. It was a moment before I could gather my wits enough to accept his outstretched hand. “Mr. Green. It’s a great pleasure. Truly.”
Richard Green was somewhat of a celebrity in the halls of DRACIM. The son of DRACIM’s founder, Richard had entered the DRACIM ranks twenty years ago at the age of fifteen, and promptly moved to head Reparations, a newly created department in charge of managing human and dragon civil suits—the one in which I now worked. During his time there, he created an entire written language for dragonspeak—while simultaneously juggling an astonishing caseload single-handedly. He’d been the role model for my career since day one. Everyone adored him, humans and dragons alike.
I could see why. Mindless of my current appearance, not to mention smell, Richard treated me like royalty. He took my hand and touched my fingers lightly to his lips. Deep blue eyes twinkled with humor. “Trian, you didn’t mention Miss Banks was a breathtakingly beautiful woman. I find myself wishing I still worked here at DRACIM, if only for the company.”
Trian’s amber eyes flashed gold, but he only smiled faintly. “I’m sure that could be arranged. Just say the word, and I can make it happen.”
Richard’s lips quirked slightly, but he didn’t reply to Trian’s dig.
Because it annoyed Trian, I grinned. “Mr. Green, I assure you, the instant you decide to come back to DRACIM, we’ll be here waiting with open arms.”
Richard gave my fingers a small squeeze before letting me go. “Tempting. Very tempting.” His gaze ran over my body appreciably, but the twinkle in his eyes told me it was all for Trian’s benefit. Too bad for me. He was an incredibly handsome man.
In all honesty, DRACIM had nothing to offer Richard better than the position he already held. Eight years after joining DRACIM, Richard had accepted a request from Lord Relobu to oversee the dragon lord’s entire human workforce. Over three-hundred thousand people. It was mind boggling.
Richard Green was likely the most influential human in North America. Not bad for a guy still in his thirties.
I started to speak, to offer Mr. Green refreshments or a quiet office to wait until I could send somebody for Emory—my boss would kill me if I didn’t introduce him—but Trian interrupted by handing me a business card.
“Isiwyth is why we’re here. Lord Relobu sent us to make sure the farmer’s complaints were settled to everyone’s satisfaction, and that his niece is in good health.”
I stared at the card. Director of Security, Relobu Holdings was emblazoned on the surface, along with Trian’s name and contact information. I looked up at my ex-boyfriend.
Today wasn’t a normal Monday anymore.
Trian worked for Lord Relobu? For how long?
Trian answered the question before I had to ask. “I’ve worked for him the past three years. And known him for twelve. He adopted me.”
Twelve years? He was only twenty-eight when we were dating, so he’d been with a dragon lord since he was a teenager? How did I not know this?
Trian had always avoided talking about his childhood, but I’d simply assumed the reason was because it brought back unhappy memories. He’d once told me his parents were dead—and that only after I’d asked him directly. He’d never volunteered the information, and I’d been more than happy to coast along in clueless bliss. I guess this explained why he hung around a lot of dragons.
“And your freelancing work?”
“There was never any freelance work.”
If Trian had worked for Lord Relobu for three years that meant my files were stolen while he was a Relobu employee.
“Impossible.” Relobu had no reason to steal. And I couldn’t have been stupid enough not to realize who my boyfriend had been working for. Could I?
Trian raised an eyebrow at my exclamation, his eyes sparkling. Those eyes used to make me melt inside. Now his laughter made me angry. Probably because I’d finally figured out we weren’t laughing together. Instead, he’d been laughing at me the entire time. He’d been working for the dragon lord when he’d stolen those papers. Our entire relationship had been one big joke.
I shrugged off my hurt feelings. I had a very hungry dragon waiting for me outside, and damned if I’d let Trian screw up the rest of my day.
“I don’t have time for this.” I leaned around Trian to catch Richard’s attention. “Mr. Green, could you excuse me for just a moment? My boss is just outside. If you can give me five minutes, I’ll make sure he speaks with you about the details of Mrs. Armatoth’s settlement agreement. Let me find someone to show you to our waiting area.” I absently wondered whether the smell of dragon vomit had been handled by the cleanup crew, or whether I needed to park them in a different department.
I looked around, hoping to catch another of Emory’s employees and see if he or she could find a comfortable place for Trian and Richard to relax while they waited. Trian must have correctly determined my intent, because he cupped a hand on my elbow. “We’d like to come with you, if that’s okay.” His words weren’t a question.
I pulled my arm from his grasp. “Don’t touch me.”
His eyes flashed momentarily with surprise. Then they narrowed—a sure sign I’d made him angry. But he didn’t shout. Trian rarely raised his voice. So I wasn’t surprised when he leaned in until his lips were a hair’s breadth from my ear and whispered softly. “Oh, Myrna, it wasn’t so long ago that you were singing a completely different tune.”
I stiffened, and unable to trust myself not to say something that would humiliate me in front of my coworkers, I stalked to the door.
Isiwyth had already left the building. I had a boss, a hungry dragon and her mate waiting for me outside and an irritating ex-boyfriend within. I chose the dragons.
As a former employee, Richard knew the place. I was sure he could amuse himself—and Trian—for a few minutes alone. And I could only hope he could restrain Trian’s sticky fingers long enough for me to get the dragons fed and happy and on their way out the door before the bastard tried to steal something else.
Today I was almost glad my boss was power hungry. He’d jump at the chance for a meeting with Mr. Green. I’d let Emory have that meeting, and have a great excuse for pawning off Trian in the process.
Still fuming over Trian’s taunt, I gave him a mental middle finger and left the two men standing in the hallway. Trian wanted to come with me? I could care less what Trian wanted.
I pulled off my rubber boots at the door—the squeak of vomit on tile was getting on my nerves—and started toward the corral in my bare feet. I’d been wearing panty hose when I started the day, but now the only parts left of my nylons dangled in shreds at my knees. I shielded my eyes against the too-hot sun and found my dragons.
Trian was forgotten. I took a deep breath and simply stared.
Isiwyth and her mate stood near a wooden corral, oblivious to the panicked squealing of the hogs inside as they jostled each other for a chance at safety. DRACIM’s hogs were all too familiar with what the presence of dragons meant for their survival. But the hogs weren’t what held my attention. Isiwyth’s mate was gorgeous; his silver scales gleamed in the morning sun.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved dragons. I was born late enough to have no direct knowledge of their part in the war, and had lived near a shining example of their race throughout my formative years, so the old animosity and fear some people held for them didn’t register with me.
Before my parents’ death, I remember lying in my mom and dad’s field, watching the dragons fly overhead, imagining how it felt to fly so high above the earth—to see everything yet stand apart from the worst parts of it.
DRACIM’s therapist would tell you my interest stemmed from the need to escape. My mom died when I was only eight, and my dad spent the next four years slowly poisoning himself with grief and liquor, until finally he’d left me too. I’d spent my teenage years living with an old couple who worked on the estate of a wealthy dragon. The dragon had been nowhere near as influential as Lord Relobu, but he’d gone out of his way to provide me a comfortable home, and the means to further my education.
Maybe the therapist would be right, and my subconscious had cultivated an interest in dragons because I needed something to take my mind off of the harsh reality of my everyday life. I had to admit, the thought of flying away when things got tough was a brilliant idea. But I was also born a dragonspeaker. I’d like to think my love of dragons came from something purer than a need for escape.
I leaned against the far side of the corral and watched the awesome male dragon as he preened in the morning sunlight. I was hesitant to interrupt; Isiwyth was similarly affected by his appearance. It was almost fun to watch a three-ton dragon giggle like a schoolgirl as her mate, Doeho, whispered in her ear. He was a massive beast; one of the larger I’d seen. And it was obvious he doted on his bride. Making it seem effortless, Doeho hopped over the corral railing, grabbed one of the pigs with a quick snap of his jaw, and presented it to the blushing Isiwyth. She giggled again before taking his gift and shoving it down her gullet.
Were it not for the hunks of raw flesh, it was almost romantic. I glanced at my boss, wondering about his reaction to the scene. From the look on Emory’s face, he didn’t feel the same.
“You enjoy your work.” The voice came from beside me at the fence. I didn’t have to look. It was too much to think that Trian might have taken the hint and left me alone. He’d always been stubborn.
I didn’t bother to confirm Trian’s statement. I couldn’t trust myself to speak. I’d been hurt that he’d left me without a word, but I’d been furious that he’d stolen my files. My job was my life. And he’d put me perilously close to losing it.
I’d been a secretary for a full year now, and he was the cause. In all other areas, I was fully qualified for a management position, but I’d been passed over time and again. DRACIM thought I was careless, and I hated him for it.
We watched Richard approach the dragons and chat like they were old friends. I wondered how I could meet a man like Richard—well-dressed, well-educated, and with a healthy sense of humor—and feel absolutely nothing as we flirted, but be forced time and again to remind my beating heart to slow down any time Trian was nearby. I was a glutton for punishment.
“Tell me, why do you work for Emory Glask?”
Surprise had me turning to face him. Of all the questions I expected to hear, this hadn’t been the one. “What do you mean?”
“Mr. Glask has no love for dragons. Why do you work for him? Would you not be happier taking orders from someone who shares your enjoyment?”
Before my demotion, working in Emory’s department hadn’t been all that bad. His arbitrators were generally allowed more autonomy on their cases than most, simply because it was too much effort for Emory to micromanage. In fact, we’d only spoken once before I walked into his office to report the “loss” of DRACIM paperwork. And now, the simple fact was that no one else would take me. Most of the business we did required strict confidentiality clauses—in the Reparations department, if word got out about our “pay scale” for damages, we’d be buried in false claims. Dragons were generally well-off, and we did our best to get our human clients above market value on their losses. Sometimes that encouraged people to be less than honest about the source of their damages.
Most of the other DRACIM offices had similar reimbursement and pricing details. And because of those stolen files, the other department managers had decided I couldn’t be trusted with their data. But I refused to tell Trian just how badly he’d damaged my reputation. Pleasure or pity, I didn’t want anything from him.
“Emory has been with DRACIM since the beginning. I can learn a lot from him.”
Trian looked into my eyes with that unnerving gaze, but said nothing. He turned back to face the dragons. The couple had finished their meal—six pigs—and Richard was laughing while he slapped the silver dragon on the back before he and Emory started in our direction. The case was finished. It was time to get the paperwork signed and move on to my next appointment. I pulled a folder from my briefcase and found a pen.
“I’ll sign them.” Trian held out a hand.
“I work for Lord Relobu. He would like to take care of this matter for Isiwyth. A belated wedding gift, if you will.”
“I understand that. But I believe DRACIM would prefer Richard’s signature. That way we can be certain the paperwork won’t be misplaced and any promises made will be honored.” It was as close as I could get to calling him a liar. I glared at Trian, daring him to push me.
He turned his face away, hiding his reaction. “Very well.”
Without another word, Trian turned and left the corral. I stared after him, irritated at my brief urge to apologize. I’d hurt his feelings.
Well, it served him right. He’d hurt me far worse than an insult.
I forced Trian from my mind and headed toward Emory and Mr. Green. My professional smile was back in place by the time I rounded the corral and handed the folder to Richard. He scanned it briefly before pulling a pen from the pocket of his blazer and scrawling his name along the bottom.
I took the paperwork and shook his hand. “Thank you, Mr. Green. There will be a small addendum for the plaque,” I avoided Emory’s eyes for fear he’d see my annoyance at the need, “just to relieve Mrs. Armatoth of any claims should DRACIM run into any legal issues. I should be able to have it drafted within the hour. Could I offer you some refreshments before you take your leave?”
Richard grinned, his teeth very nearly glittering in the bright sunlight. “I think I’ll pass on the refreshments. It’s best I don’t eat here.” He glanced toward the dragon couple, and I winced. Of course he wouldn’t want to eat so near the corrals. Dragons are messy eaters, and there were unidentified…parts scattered near Isiwyth’s clawed toenails. I was an idiot.
“Of course. If you’ll excuse me for just one moment, I’ll find someone who can walk you through the wording of the addendum…”
“No need.” Richard once again took my hand. “We trust you. Just have a courier run it by my office.” He gave me another of his charming smiles and leaned down to whisper in my ear. “For the record, I always prefer the company of a beautiful woman to that of a department manager. We’ll be in touch.” He winked at me before turning back to Doeho.
The silver dragon thanked me briefly, and I responded in kind. I watched as he helped his wife waddle a few steps away from the corral. The two dragons took to the sky in a massive gust of air, their thigh muscles rippling under leathery skin as they pushed up from the ground and beat their powerful wings. I shielded my eyes to ward off the worst of the dust as they gained altitude. I never got tired of watching dragons fly. With their weight, it should have been impossible. It was more beautiful because of that fact.
Just like me and Trian. I’d never been able to resist the impossible.
Tucking that wistful thought deep into the “don’t ever open this” mental box, I glanced back at Richard.
But Mr. Green was gone, his shiny leather loafers whisking him away as silently as he’d first appeared.