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Devil’s Gate, Nevada
Disasters were always a surprise, Dragos thought.
He raced through the bizarre forest, his heart pounding a thunderous rhythm in his ears. Branches of alien-looking foliage and creeping vines whipped his face and arms as he exploded through the tangled underbrush like a heat-seeking missile.
Dragos had a wide-ranging vision, and he knew how to play a very long game. If he saw something coming, even if it took decades for the event to occur, he maneuvered to either avoid or confront it. Sometimes he chose to go to war, but when he did, he always calculated the cost.
Often in recent centuries, he employed his relatively new-fangled skill for politicking, and the dragon smiled cynically to himself as he treated with the smaller, weaker creatures around him.
They were all so eager to believe they were important, so credulous that he saw them as important too, and so remarkably easy to manipulate. Whereas, really, the most dangerous and important things about them were their strength in mass numbers and their ability to propagate at an alarming rate.
He didn’t call any of those things disasters. Those were situations that he handled, and he handled them well.
No, disasters were something else entirely. Disasters were the small child suddenly gone missing or the explosion in the face that took away vitally important chunks of memory.
Or his mate in danger.
That one. Disaster was too puny a word for that one. That was an apocalypse waiting to happen, because if the dragon lost his mate, he would not crumble meekly in some humble demise. No, he would set the whole world on fire and drag it down with him into the dark and never care that it would destroy the other people he might have once loved.
Dragos castigated himself viciously. This was his fault. He should have known how bad the trouble would be from the moment it had appeared on their horizon. The warning signs had been there, but he had been too preoccupied to take proper note.
As soon as he had discovered that Death had come to Las Vegas, he should have grabbed Pia, turned on his heel, and gone home.
Death only appeared in person for the extraordinary events.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Two days earlier
“I can get myself out,” Pia said irritably when Dragos stuck his hand inside the limo.
He bent to look in at her, one black eyebrow raised. The Bellagio Hotel and Casino was busy, and they had parked to one side of the main entrance, half the limousine out of the shade of the gigantic, ornate portico.
Slanting, laser-like sunshine lined the edge of Dragos’s tough, bronzed features and black hair in radiant white. The desert sun was nothing like the sun in upstate New York. It was harsh and unforgiving here and, despite the luxurious, glittering city that sprawled around them, potentially lethal.
Dragos did not appear to be discomfited by the difference in climate, and he never needed to wear sunglasses to protect his eyes—he only wore sunglasses to maintain a barrier between him and the outside world.
He was the only physical creature Pia knew who could look directly at the sun and not be blinded by it. Whenever sunlight bathed him, he grew more burnished and vital, as if the fire that lived inside the dragon recognized the fire from the sun and gained nourishment from it.
His gold gaze narrowed. “You’ve always accepted my help before.”
She could tell his feelings weren’t hurt. He had the strongest psyche of anyone Pia had ever met. She could probably drive over and reverse on his feelings repeatedly with an eighty-thousand-pound eighteen-wheeler before she managed to put a dent in them.
No, he was simply, genuinely baffled.
Realizing she was being irrational, she breathed deeply for a moment before she explained, “I accepted your help before because it was sexy.”
And right now nothing was sexy. Not even him.
He gave her rounded belly a significant glance. “But you’re so big you actually need my help this time.”
“I’m so big,” she repeated in a flat voice. If there had been a table anywhere in reach, she would have been sorely tempted to flip it. “Thank you so much for pointing that out to me, Dragos. I hadn’t noticed how big I am. If it weren’t for you, that fact would have flown right by me. Now, if you’ll just move out of my way, I’ll get my own big damn self out of this car.”
He angled his jaw and his expression turned calculating, but he straightened and stepped back without saying another word.
Then Pia had to rock a few times before she got enough momentum to hoist herself up so she could lumber out. Moisture from the Bellagio’s famous fountains wafted against her cheeks, blown by the hot desert wind.
Gah. That must have looked horrible. She was so ungainly. She had never been ungainly before, not even when she had been at her biggest with her first pregnancy. Then, she had felt sleek and powerful, like she’d been a sex goddess and a mother goddess all rolled into one.
The times she and Dragos had shared during her first pregnancy… Then, everything had been sexy. Newly mated, they had burned up the bedsheets with an insatiable need for each other.
As Dragos opened his mouth, she angled her head away and held up a forefinger as she muttered, “Don’t say a word. I got the job done. That’s all that matters.”
Standing a few steps behind Dragos, Eva held Pia’s Kate Spade purse and waited, lips pressed together and dark eyes snapping. Her face was certainly expressive of something, but after studying Eva’s bold features, Pia decided she didn’t need to know.
Pia took her purse and told the other woman telepathically, I don’t want to hear a word from you either.
Me? Eva’s eyebrows shot up. I would never!
Eva’s mental tone was so pious, her lie so enormous, Pia had to laugh in spite of herself.
Turning, she said to Dragos, “I’m sorry I’m so crabby.”
His eyes gleamed in a subtle smile. “You’re very pregnant,” he told her. “And as you are well aware, I’ve read several books about pregnancy. I’ve decided to consider you somewhat insane until the baby is born.”
They had flown to Las Vegas to attend Rune and Carling’s wedding, and for the trip he had dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt that hugged the muscles in his chest and arms. From his military-short black hair to his scuffed boots, he was at his plainest and most unvarnished.
But that didn’t mean he could go unnoticed. At six-foot-eight, Dragos towered over everyone else around him. His Power was so intense it shimmered around him in an invisible corona like heat rising off the pavement. She had seen the same effect in others from the first generation of the Elder Races, those who had sprung into existence when the Earth was formed.
But for some reason, Dragos’s Power felt hotter and fiercer than even the oldest of the old that Pia had met. She suspected that too was because of his Wyr form. The dragon was a creature of fire, and everyone around him seemed paler and smaller by comparison.
Behind him, a multitude of people hurried to do their jobs. The Cadillac SUV transporting Dr. Medina and Aryal, one of the Wyr sentinels, had pulled up behind the limo, and they had climbed out. Aryal impatiently directed guards and bellhops who piled luggage onto wheeled racks.
While Dragos stood ignoring them all, his attention solely focused on her, they orbited around him like satellites as they did his bidding.
She’d been lying to herself. His brutal handsomeness and raw masculinity tugged at her even when she was at her most tired and cranky. He was always the sexiest thing she had ever seen, and it was never subtle.
No, she was the one who wasn’t sexy anymore. She felt huge, puffy, and clumsy, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man that had rampaged New York in Ghostbusters, and the only way she could hide the dark circles that seemed to have taken up permanent residence underneath her eyes was with a liberal application of concealer.
She caught sight of a tall, leggy blonde walking past them. The woman had supermodel good looks and wore a halter top and shorts so short they showed a hint of lacy purple underwear. Completing the outfit were cowboy boots, long dangly earrings, and a cowboy hat. She stared at Dragos with such single-minded hunger she walked into a nearby bush, apologized to it absently, and moved on.
Meanwhile, Aryal strode over to Dragos and they talked together in low voices. Dragos had never even noticed the leggy blonde woman or her antics.
Pia didn’t know whether she wanted to snarl or laugh. Maybe both?
She rubbed her face instead and struggled to get a grip on her unruly emotions. Dragos was indisputably hers. They were married, and in the unique way that Wyr had, they had bonded for life.
Still, the part of her that had gone somewhat insane whispered that their mating bond only ensured they would be mated for the rest of their lives. It didn’t guarantee anything about sexual fidelity or enduring love.
Meanwhile, the drug protocol she needed to take daily in order to bring their unborn son safely to term had dampened her immune system. When she had been pregnant with her first son Liam, the only weight she had gained was baby weight. Even when she had been eight months pregnant she could have run for miles, a particular talent she took from her Wyr form.
This time she had already gained far too much weight, and Stinkpot wasn’t born yet. Just the thought of running made her want to lie down and take a nap, and a perpetual low-level anxiety chewed at her like mice nibbling at the electrical conduits in a house. She felt frayed and frumpy. She’d had no idea how much her self-esteem had been tied to her looks until she’d lost them.
Besides, Eva said, amusement lacing her voice, even if I did want to say something, I’m on your side.
Pia started and glanced at the other woman. She had been so preoccupied with her own miserable thoughts she’d forgotten that she and Eva had been talking telepathically. Her memory and attention span were other casualties of this pregnancy.
Eva shrugged. He might have read several pregnancy books, but that don’t make him no expert on nothing. Nobody should tell their baby mama she too big to get herself out of a car. Men really are from Mars, I guess.
Men might be from Mars, Pia said, and women could possibly be from Venus, but Dragos is a planet all on his own. Just look how everyone revolves around him. On Planet Dragos everything goes the way he arranges it—unless you decide to cross him, and God help you then, because he doesn’t know how to back down, and he doesn’t ever, ever let up.
She had been reaching for lighthearted and amused, but that comment had come out sharper than she had meant for it to.
Eva asked, You guys still fighting?
Yep. She could feel Eva studying her profile but refused to look in the other woman’s direction. I don’t want to talk about it.
After a small silence, Eva said finally, Well, if you ever do, let me know. I’m here for you.
Thanks. Pia gave her a twisted smile.
Dragos touched her arm. “I’ve got to talk to Aryal, but there’s no reason for you to wait while I do. Why don’t you go inside where it’s cooler?”
As she and Eva turned to the front doors of their hotel, Pia glanced in the direction where the supermodel blonde had been walking, but the other woman had disappeared.
A flash of light caught her attention. She looked up to see Dragos’s figure featured on a billboard surrounded with colored lights.
Jolted out of her preoccupation, she stared more closely as a shadow passed over the sun. The scene on the billboard was a luxurious nightclub filled with dark shadows, white and gold lights, and red roses.
A powerful figure of a man stood on a stage. He wore a black suit and was in silhouette, half turned away. Twisting at the waist to look back over one wide shoulder at the camera, he held out a hand as if beckoning the onlooker. One corner of the billboard read LAST DANCE, THE MIDNIGHT LOUNGE, RIVERVIEW HOTEL & CASINO.
It wasn’t Dragos. It couldn’t be. The man had the same black hair, but upon closer examination, he appeared to be slimmer. The only thing she could tell for sure about his lean face was that he appeared to have green eyes.
“How odd,” she murmured. “Dragos, do you know who that is? He looks like you.”
Like Pia, he had been in midmotion as he turned back to Aryal, who was arguing with someone over the phone. He paused to look in the same direction as she did, and his expression hardened.
“He’s nobody,” Dragos said. “Ignore him.”
Aryal walked up, held her phone out to Dragos, and snapped, “You talk to him. I’m done.”
Dragos gave the billboard one last, long look. Then he bent his head to kiss Pia’s cheek. He told her, “This may take a little while.”
“No problem,” Pia said as she tilted her head up to him. He hadn’t exactly answered her question, had he?
by Thea Harrison
All rights reserved
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