The wind blew through my hair, streaming it back under the helmet as the massive engine purred between my legs, vibrating through my entire body. I gripped Alex's waist with my hands, my breasts pressing against his back as we leaned into the turn. His body was icy even through his butt-hugging jeans and snug leather jacket. He smelled like bay rum, and by now, I knew that scent all too well. I knew every curve of his body—six weeks of steady sex had ensured that.
We were headed toward the new 520 Bridge. As we neared the floating bridge that stretched out for over a mile, crossing the lake that separated Seattle from the Greater Eastside, I could feel the call of the water—a deep, sensual recognition that washed through my core, making me ache for its depths. The water and I had a special connection, seeing that I was a blue dragon and my very nature was connected to the life-affirming liquid. But tonight we weren't headed to the beach so I could swim. No, it was party time.
I wasn't sure exactly where we were going, but apparently Bette was in charge of it, and that was all Alex would tell me. "Unless you've been to one of Bette's parties, you've never been to a party."
With that less-than-comforting thought ringing in my head, I had swung onto the back of his Suzuki Hayabusa and held on as we roared out into the April night, under a heavy cloud cover. As we wove through the silent city streets, Alex deftly maneuvered the rumbling machine through the labyrinth of roads. It occurred to me that Seattle must have been planned out by some drug-crazed cartographer who randomly decided to have one-way streets change direction at major intersections.
As we gobbled up the miles, the streets grinding beneath the bike's wheels, I glanced up at the pale shadow of the moon. She was gleaming from behind the cloud cover, two days past full. By the time we crossed the bridge, the wind was churning the water to splash up and over the edge. To our left, the specter of the old bridge was awaiting deconstruction. It had been decommissioned only a month ago, a dark silhouette that had become outdated and dangerous. There was a one-in-twenty chance the 520 would go down, floundering to the bottom, if the area had another major earthquake. And the chances of a major earthquake in Seattle were when, not if.
We passed a car that had stalled out, and then we were over Lake Washington and coming up on Bellevue. We were headed to a private residence on Lake Sammamish in Redmond. Not Bette's house—she lived in a houseboat at the Gasworks Marina—but her current beau's home. Apparently he was some genius software engineer at a startup that had put down roots in the area. High tech was king here, and this was the land of Microsoft, Starbucks, and money.
I inhaled another breath of Alex's cologne. It was comforting—familiar in a world that was still so alien to me. In my realm, I had nothing like this. In my world, I was an outcaste, pariah. Here, I mattered. At least in some small way, I—and what I could do—made a difference to people.
We leaned into the gentle curve of the exit as we swung off the 520 freeway and onto West Lake Sammamish Parkway NE. As we passed through the suburbs and then past Marymoor Park, we came to a fork in the road, where the parkway split off into Bel-Red Road. We veered left, keeping on the parkway, as we curved toward Lake Sammamish. A few minutes later we swung onto NE 38th Street and down to the end, to the neighborhood next to Idylwood Park.
To the left sat a row of houses, and we pulled into the driveway of the last one before reaching the lakeshore. A string of cars filled the drive. I gazed up at the house. It was huge—one of what were commonly called McMansions, or starter castles, around these parts—and it had its own private beach access.
As Alex idled the motor, then switched it off, I removed my helmet, shaking my hair free. I swung off the bike, hopping aside, as Alex put down the kickstand and then joined me. We hung the helmets over the handles of the bike and—as I ordered my hair to straighten itself and smooth out the frizz—we headed for the private beach.
Alex wrapped his arm around my waist. One thing I'd say for him—he made an attentive boyfriend. I wondered for the umpteenth time why Glenda had let him get away. He was a handful when it came to stubbornness, but in the six weeks we had been going out, I had never once felt neglected. In fact, in some ways, the attention was overwhelming. Togetherness was fun, but too much togetherness left me chafing.
At six one, Alex had me beat by an inch. His wheat-colored hair was tousled and shoulder length, and his eyes were pale—frosty as an autumn morning. Handsome in a scruffy, rugged way, he also happened to be a vampire. He also happened to be my boss and parole officer, so to speak.
"Where is everybody?" I glanced around, looking for the party site.
"Down at the water's edge. Bette said they had a bonfire going." His arm still encircling my waist, we headed down the sloped road leading to the shore. There was a gate—of course. Around here, it seemed like everything fun was gated away from the public, for private amusement only. But the gate was open and the sound of laughter filtered up from behind the foliage-thick hedges barring our view.
Within a couple of minutes we found ourselves on the lakeshore. Sure enough, Bette was there, manning the massive grill covered with dogs and burgers. The smells set my stomach to grumbling. Because I couldn't shift form unless I was underwater, and therefore couldn't just fly off to catch and eat a cow every now and then, I found that I had to eat every day, several times a day, just like humans. If I let more than a few hours go by, I was hungry again. That had been one of the most surprising discoveries when I came Earthside.
"I'm going to find Ralph. Go say hello to Bette for us." Alex gave me a slap on the ass and meandered off into the crowd.
I was slowly getting used to being around crowds. I'd been a loner most of my life, and in the Dragon Reaches, where the population was sparse and I could go for days without seeing anybody, being a loner meant truly being alone. I glanced around, finally steeling myself to wander through the crowd of strangers over to Bette. But the next moment, a familiar voice intruded into my thoughts.
I turned to find Ralph standing there, his Flying Horse energy drink in his hand. The man consumed caffeine like a crazed jackrabbit. He smiled, but I could tell something was unsettling him. The longer I was around others, the more I realized that I was somewhat of an emotional barometer. It was a blue dragon thing, though I hadn't realized it extended beyond my fellow dragons. I wasn't entirely comfortable with the fact that I could walk into a room and sense that Ralph was irritated at his family, or that Bette was hungering to jump her current boy toy of the month.
Ralph nodded me off to the side. He was around five eight and lanky, with brownish black hair and John Lennon glasses, tinted dark. Good-looking in a geek-chic way, Ralph was also a certified computer genius and a werewolf. Over the past few weeks, his crush on me had abated, especially since Alex and I had gotten together, and now the awkwardness had passed.
"Shimmer, I'm worried about Bette. Where's Alex?" He craned his neck. "I thought I saw you come in together."
"We did, but he took off toward... hell, I don't know where he went. Is Chai here yet?"
Chai was my best friend. A djinn, he had followed me when I got exiled from the Dragon Reaches. He said it was to see the sights, but I knew he wanted to keep an eye on me. He was a good sort, though—like all djinns—he was unpredictable, and he had settled in as my roommate. On the plus side, he did a great job of keeping the place spotless. He also significantly cut down on the heating bill by radiating enough heat when it got chilly to create an ambient temperature. On the downside... well, there wasn't a downside.
Ralph shook his head. "Not that I know of. Anyway, Bette's putting on a good show for the public, but I caught her crying earlier, and you know how often that happens. When I asked her what was wrong, she pretended she had an eyelash in her eye, but those were real tears."
The tone of his voice told me enough that he wasn't exaggerating. I glanced over at the Melusine, wondering how to approach her. Bette was friendly as all get-out, but she was closemouthed when it came to her own vulnerabilities, and she knew how to ward off anybody who got too close to touchy subjects.
Right now, she was flipping burgers onto a plate that Dent, her current boy toy, was holding. Ralph had told me in private that Dent was a poser—that he really wasn't all that good at his job but was able to fake his way through. But poser or not, he and Bette had fun, and that was all that mattered.
"I'll corner her and see if I can find out what's going on." But at that moment, my attention was violently yanked away when Alex's voice thundered over the murmuring of the crowd.
"I swear if you don't get your ass away from me, woman, I'm going to put the fang to you!"
What the hell? I glanced at Ralph, who shook his head. We jogged in the direction of the outburst and as we threaded our way through the crowd and out into the open, I froze.
"Oh crap." I face-palmed, shaking my head. "I don't want to deal with this right now."
"You and every other sane person on this planet," Ralph
There, standing in front of Alex, one hand on her hip, shaking a finger in Alex's face, was the pleather-clad, red-haired succubus who I had hoped might have fallen off the face of the earth. Alex's ex-girlfriend, Glenda. And Glenda was no Glinda. She was a harpy-tongued bitch, rather than a saccharine-sweet witch, all right.
"You're pond scum, Alex Radcliffe. You're a bottom-feeder. Cocksucker! Motherfucker!"
Alex stared at her, his look flashing between amusement and irritation. "To think I used to kiss that mouth. Glenda, what did you expect? It was a mutual breakup, in my opinion, but it was far too long in coming. Face it, we're done. We were done years ago, but neither one of us had the courage to let go. It was time we said good-bye. You weren't happy, and neither was I."
He shifted, darting away from her shaking finger. But his casual tone seemed to just fuel her fire.
"I should have drained you—I should have sucked your chi down to the core." Her voice had risen higher than I thought possible. Now, everybody was staring at them.
I sidled away, not wanting to draw her attention, but that was a hope gone to hell in a handbasket as I accidentally bumped against one of the guests. In trying to both keep my footing and steady the man I had knocked off balance, I overcompensated in the other direction and wavered, teetering on one foot. In slow motion, like in the movies, I went careening into the pool, gasping as I sank deep beneath the chlorinated brine that masqueraded as water. As I kicked my way to the surface, sputtering, I saw that every head had turned to stare at me.
Alex had an incredulous look on his face. Then, before I could make a move to get out of the pool, he began to laugh, slapping his thigh. "Oh, Shimmer, bless you for breaking up this little farce of a tête-à-tête. I needed that laugh. Get out of there, woman, and dry yourself off."
Glenda gave him a seething look. "How dare you ignore me?" Her hand met his cheek, the slap echoing through the air.
Alex stopped laughing. His eyes turned a dangerous shade of crimson and he let out a low hiss. "Don't you ever strike me again, Glenda. Not if you value your breath. I put up with your tantrums for too long, but no more. Hit me again at risk of your life. Do you understand?"
Ten seconds flat turned the easygoing expat Aussie into a deadly predator. Everybody took a step back at his words.
Glenda's eyes widened. "This isn't over, Radcliffe," she said, but now her voice was shaking, the anger turning to fear. As she swung around, I pulled myself out of the pool and began to wring out my hair, the scent and taste of chlorine making me queasy. "And you... you'd better hope we never cross paths in a dark alley. I blame you! You encouraged him. I knew from the start that's what you were out to do."
I stared at her, my own temper flaring. A cold breeze rushed through me. "You need to rethink your words, Glenda. You may be a succubus, but let me remind you... you know what I am." I wasn't in the habit of revealing my nature in front of humans—it wasn't good common sense.
A cruel smile crossed Glenda's face. Apparently, she realized the same thing because very deliberately, she locked my gaze, then snorted. "You're just a neutered dragon."
As whispers began to race through the crowd, I took a step toward her. I had to defuse the potential damage she had just caused.
"Call me a dragon lady, will you? You're the bitch here."
She stiffened, but before I could drag her skinny-ass self over to the pool and throw her in, Chai appeared. Over seven feet of gorgeous, muscled golden body, with a jet black high ponytail and sea foam–colored eyes, the djinn cut a formidable figure. He was wearing a form-fitting V-neck tee and jeans. I envied him his ability to create wardrobe out of wishes—he could wear anything he wanted without worrying about the cost. But right now, clothes were the last thing on his mind.
He leaned over Glenda, and she actually cowered back. "If you ever threaten my little sister again, I will personally stuff you in a bottle, seal it shut, and toss you out on the Ocean of Agony. Do you understand?"
Glenda let out an audible gulp, fear washing across her face. "I was just about to leave."
"Then, may I suggest you go now?" Chai's voice was barely above a whisper, but somehow it seemed a far worse threat than if he had been yelling.
Glenda whirled on her stiletto heels, marching off. She didn't say another word—not even a mumble. Alex and Chai watched her go, both with grim expressions on their faces. I shivered as Ralph handed me a towel. Bette hurried over, Dent by her side.
"Are you okay, Shimmer? I'm sorry you took an unexpected dip." Dent seemed perfectly amiable, if a little bland. "I don't know if I have anything that will fit you, except a terry-cloth robe, but if you want to change into that, we can wash and dry your clothes while you wait."
I ran the towel over my hair, squeezing it to dry it as much as possible. "Thanks, I'd appreciate that."
Alex touched my elbow. "I'm so sorry about Glenda. She's a real... well, she's got a temper on her and it looks like she's decided to blame me for the breakup. But I wonder why she waited until now?"
"I know why. She found out we're together. She doesn't want you, but she doesn't want anybody else to have you, either." I shook my head. "She's a real winner, that's for sure."
Bette cocked her head. "Follow me. Dent, take over the burgers, would you? I'll show Shimmer to the bathroom where she can shower and dry her hair while I find her a robe. Chlorine leaves a nasty residue." She linked her arm through mine and began to steer me toward the path leading up to the house, leaving Ralph, Alex, and Chai to discuss Glenda's inopportune appearance.
"You okay, sugar?" Bette was the chain-smoking, leather-clad, curse-like-a-sailor grandmother I never had. Clad in leopard-print jeggings and a chartreuse V-neck bodysuit, she was wearing a black leather jacket over the top. She was loud and nasal, with a bouffant so high it rivaled Marge Simpson's. I was confounded by how she managed to navigate on her platform CFM pumps. But Bette had become a good friend over the months, and she had introduced me to several delightful Earthside delicacies, like See's Candies—though I didn't have much of a sweet tooth—and dripping, oozy fast-food cheeseburgers.
I nodded. "Yeah, I am. Glenda had better watch out, though, or Alex will take her down. He's a gentleman, but not when threatened. And she crossed that line tonight."
"You aren't spoiling for a catfight, are you?" She glanced around to make certain we weren't being overheard, then lowered her voice so that it was barely a whisper. "Because honey, I know you're a dragon, but Glenda's mean as a junkyard dog, and she's got a lot of tricks up her sleeve. She wouldn't hesitate to fight dirty." Bette sounded so concerned that I wanted to hug her.
"No. I'm not spoiling for a fight at all. I'd be happier if she just disappeared." I paused, then remembered what Ralph had said. "Bette, I'm going to just come out and say it. We're friends. Ralph told me he thought something was wrong, and now that we're away from that crowd out there, I can sense it, too. What's going on? Your smile is pretty much plastered on right now." Now that I was standing next to her and everybody else was out of the way, I could tell that she was upset over something. The emotion radiated off her in waves. "Are you upset at Dent?"
She blinked. "Dent? Why would I be? No, he's just a little bit of fun and flirt right now. We both know that. But... now that you mention it, I am worried, but it's not about me. I have a friend I'm thinking may be in trouble."
"No, no one you know." She led me into a large bedroom that was decked out in black and white, with potted palms as one of the few accent colors. The floors were dark hardwood. Everything felt out of a designer magazine. Bette darted into an enormous walk-in closet, then returned with a thick, plush terry-cloth robe. It was a pale shade of blue.
"My favorite color."
"There's a bathroom through that door. Take a shower and warm up, get the chlorine off you. And on the vanity, you'll find a blow dryer so you can dry your hair. If you need anything, let me know. There are clean towels on the side of the vanity. I'll wait out here."
I wanted to ask about her friend but decided that it could wait till I got the chlorine off me. I hated the stuff, and it didn't like me much either. I seemed to react to it. Sadly, my reaction was strong enough that it put the kibosh on me puttering around in swimming pools. But two weeks ago, I'd discovered a saline pool nearby and signed up for a membership at the gym just so I could go swimming. Of course, it wouldn't do to turn into a dragon in the pool—it wasn't really big enough, anyway, but it felt good just to immerse myself in the water.
I slipped out of my wet clothes, kicking them to one side. As I stepped under the warm stream of water, I let out a long breath, stretching so that it pounded on my back. The bath gel was honeysuckle scented—no doubt Bette's rather than Dent's. I lathered up, soaping away the stink of the chlorine. The chemical didn't exactly burn my skin, but a pale rash rose up when I went too long without washing after it touched any significant portion of my body.
As I scrubbed under the streaming water, I frowned. Glenda's arrival nagged at me. I wasn't seriously worried she would hurt me. Regardless of my temporary limitations, I could still beat the crap out of her, though I doubted my water magic would affect her in any significant way. But the fact that she had decided to show up at a party and pick a fight in public... that was troubling.
She obviously hadn't moved on, and considering the way she had used Alex like a whipping boy, I had the feeling that she was finding it difficult to dig up anybody else who would put up with both her temper and her inborn need to fuck every man she saw. Succubi weren't cut out for relationships. Neither were incubi. And yet some of them—against all odds—kept trying.
After I finished, I stepped out of the shower and wrapped my towel around me. It was so plush and thick that I checked the label—I wanted towels like this. Noting the brand, I wrapped another around my hair. As I padded over to the vanity, I saw that Bette had taken away my wet clothes and had laid out the blow dryer and the robe. I dried off, then slid into the robe and tied it tight.
Leaning on the counter, I stared at myself in the mirror. Six months ago, I had been sent Earthside. Exiled, for a crime that I fully admitted to. The alternative was to stay in the Dragon Reaches and let Greanfyr—the white dragon I had stolen from—hunt
me down and execute me. And if he did, nobody would raise a wing to stop him, given my persona non grata status.
As I softly ordered my hair to untangle itself, the shimmering streaks of blue and purple gleamed among the dark strands. They were natural. They indicated who—or rather, what—I was, and were as much a part of me as was my tattoo. My ink was a reminder to me that I existed. That I belonged, even though everybody else said I didn't. A blue dragon, the tattoo coiled up from my waist with the tail curling near my hip. The dragon slinked up my right side, surrounded by waves, curling up so that the neck and head coiled over my right shoulder and down my arm, with more ocean waves along the side.
I flipped on the blow dryer, the heat warming me as I instructed my hair to section out, holding itself away from my head while I aimed the blowing air at it. That was one lovely thing about being a dragon—my hair had a mind of its own and I could make it behave however I wanted with just a blink of a thought. Which was why when the Wing-Liege cut it to my midback, the pain had been overwhelming. Our hair was a part of our body, a part of our mane when we were in dragon shape, and unlike that of humans and Fae, it had nerve endings and could register pain and pleasure. Touching Alex's skin with my hair gave me a thrill, even as having someone yank on it could hurt like a son of a bitch.
As the hair fell into place, smoothing softly against my head in clean, gleaming lines, I began to shake off the evening. Earlier, I had been uneasy about coming to the party. I had thought it was just because I would have to face a bunch of strangers and pretend to be Fae—my cover was that of a water Fae. A nymph, to be exact. Humans didn't really know about dragons, and we aimed to keep it that way as much as possible. But something had set me on edge, and now I wondered if I had been anticipating Glenda showing up.
When my hair was dry and smooth, I slid my feet into the plush terry slippers Bette had left for me and headed into the bedroom to find her sitting there, checking her phone, with a worried frown on her face. She glanced up as I sat down beside her.
"All washed up and clean?"
"Yeah, the chlorine is off my skin, so I should be fine. Now tell me what's going on. Did you get some bad news?" I leaned back in the chair, thoroughly enjoying the soft sinking feeling of the cushions.
Bette looked about ready to say no, but then she paused. "I'm not sure if it's bad news or not. That's the problem. I told you I'm worried about a friend, right?"
She seemed reluctant to say anything, which meant she wasn't at all sure on what she was chewing on. I knew Bette and she was never reticent with her opinions unless she truly wasn't sure what she thought about something.
I nodded. "Right. Why don't you tell me, and we can talk it over and decide if it's bad news?" I motioned to the robe. "I really don't feel like wandering around in a group of strangers wearing nothing but a bathrobe. Plus it will give them time to change the subject to something other than Glenda, Alex, and me. I just hope that Ralph and Alex can quash the dragon rumor."
Grinning, I stuck my feet up on the ottoman and settled back, thinking that—given furniture this comfortable—I'd consider hanging out with Dent, too.
Bette lit up a cigarette and, as usual, let it dangle off her lip. I was about to ask if Dent let her smoke inside but then saw a few ashtrays scattered around, which meant he probably smoked, as well. Bette was no fool—she never got involved with nonsmokers or teetotalers who might try to curb her habits. But she was also gracious enough to refrain from lighting up in my house, or over at Ralph's, and she kept her smoke downwind.
She inhaled deeply, then blew out a ring pretty and perfect enough to make even a dragon jealous. As she gave me a little shrug and put her own feet up, she said, "All right. I hate breaking secrets. Oh, it's nothing earthshaking, but, fuck a duck, this has been eating me up. I don't know if you realized that I volunteer at the Supe Community Action Council once a week. I teach an art class there."
I stared at her. It was hard to imagine Bette doing anything of the sort. But I kept my mouth shut.
"So, a lot of my students tend to be elderly Fae—mostly Earthside. They're... think of them like the great-aunt who lives in the upstairs attic. They've lost enough strength and vitality to lack confidence, but they're still in fairly good health. Which means another few hundred years to go, but they aren't ready to die just yet."
I knew very little about how the Fae aged. My kind tended to keep to themselves for the most part. It was mostly due to arrogance but, regardless of the cause, there were few dragons who took an interest in the outside world. Or outsiders. We tended to be an insular race.
Bette puffed on her cigarette. "So, the problem is this: I have a student there, a friend really. Her name is Marlene, and she's one of the Woodland Fae. She's a lovely woman, but she's drifting, really. When the Fae get as old as she is, especially the nature Fae, they tend to get a bit..." She looked like she was trying to find a polite word for what she was thinking.
Ever helpful, I said, "Balmy?"
A nod, then: "Yeah, balmy sums it up. Marlene and I get together and play poker once every couple of weeks. We watch movies, and take walks in her garden because she's too old to go out in the wild anymore, but I keep an eye on her, you know? Make certain that she's eaten lately and isn't just sitting in the garden, dozing during the rain."
I sighed. In my realm, when dragons reached that age, they slept in their dreyeries until they never woke up again. They were treated by their families as sleeping gods, ancestors to be venerated and waited on. But among humans—and some of the Fae—the aging ones were treated with less respect and often just left on their own, discarded like used tissue.
"I understand. You make sure she's okay, and that's a good thing, Bette. But what's the problem?"
"Marlene told me a few days ago that she's dating a young man. I was surprised—she's no Melusine, after all. And she's never mentioned wanting to explore that side of her life again. In fact, I thought she was pretty much over any interest in anything but pottering around. But she told me he makes her feel young, and that he romances her." A dark look flashed through her eyes. "I don't trust him, Shimmer. Marlene's a lovely woman but she's not a cougar, and she's very, very wealthy."
I blinked at that. Vampires tended to accumulate wealth. The Fae? Some of them did, but Woodland Fae weren't that interested in material goods, especially the Earthside ones.
"So you think this guy is looking for a sugar mama?"
Bette croaked out a laugh. "Pumpkin, I think he's out to get what he can. I can't come out and tell Marlene what I think, though—it would hurt her feelings terribly. So I'm thinking I should just bite the bullet and find out what I can behind the scenes. I'll ask Ralph to use his know-how to see what we can dig up about the guy. I need his last name, though, and she hasn't given it to me. I'm supposed to meet her for lunch tomorrow. Would you join us? I know you can read emotion, even though you try to hide it."
I stared down my nose at her. "Oh, really?" Even though she was spot-on, it surprised the hell out of me to hear that she knew. I hadn't mentioned it to anybody but Alex. But then, he and Bette were thick as thieves and for all I knew, she was privy to our entire relationship.
"Shimmer, you've been working with us for almost seven months. By now, you should know that there aren't any secrets in the office." She cackled then and puffed on her cigarette again before tamping it out in one of the ashtrays. "Which is why I can tell you this: Glenda? She's not done with the pair of you. I'd expect trouble from that little bitch, because honey, you cross a succubus? You've got a mess of worms on your plate."
And with that lovely thought filling my head, I agreed to have lunch with Bette and Marlene the next day. But even as Bette brought me my clothes—now clean and dry—all I could think of was Glenda, the bad and brazen, and what revenge she might be planning.