| Must Love Dragons |
By Stephanie Rowe
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Theresa Nichols was going to starve to death and no one cared.
She didn’t know which was ticking her off more, the fact that she hadn’t had her no-carb pretzel fix in a week, or the fact that Quincy LaValle had apparently forgotten her yet again, like everyone else in her life.
Her stomach growled and a sharp pain ground through her gut.
Who needs to eat?
Certainly not an eleven-foot winged dragon under house arrest, hidden away because people in New York City would freak out at the sight of a real dragon. No need to be spotted by someone who could start the next world war with shrieks of invasions, Martians, and other such panic-inducing nonsense.
Because of the close-mindedness of humans, she’d been stuck behind closed doors for two hundred years, and quite frankly, it was getting old. Especially when she was withering away, alone and forgotten and starving to death.
Since she’d been put under Quincy’s neglectful care, she’d lost 161 pounds. Completely unacceptable! She was a dragon, dammit, and dragons had needs! Food, violence, destruction, incineration. None of which she was allowed to indulge in Quincy’s house. Heaven forbid she burn anything up or turn his neighbors into crispy critters.
Being deprived of food was making it that much harder to resist all her other dragon desires. She groaned and leaned her head against the fridge, willing away her insatiable craving to blow up his kitchen. Keep it together, Theresa. You can handle this.
She let out a deep breath that was a little too smoky for comfort, then marched over to the phone and punched the speed dial. Again. And again, his answering machine came on. “Quincy! It’s Theresa. I haven’t eaten in two days and I’m starving. I know you don’t care about me or the Goblet, but your brother’s now the Assistant Guardian, in case you forgot. He’ll kick your butt if he comes home from his honeymoon to find that Mona has been stolen because you let the Interim Guardian die of starvation while you were obsessing about some stupid math equation that no one but you cares about. And the Council will skewer you if you screw up Guardianship. Literally.” She paused to take a breath, forcing herself not to shudder at the thought of the Council, the ruthless governing body in charge of the Guardians and the Goblet. Guardians who screwed up were seriously toast, even Interim Guardians. “And if you don’t get home with food in thirty minutes, I’m burning down your house and moving in with Becca.” She slammed down the phone and glared at the Goblet of Eternal Youth, which was currently masquerading as an espresso machine. “Mona! This is all your fault.”
The espresso machine said nothing.
Of course it wouldn’t. In two hundred years, Mona had never so much as hinted at being sorry for turning Theresa permanently into dragon form. Yeah, yeah, so Theresa was the one who’d actually drunk from the Goblet of Eternal Youth, but wasn’t it the Goblet’s duty to warn her that a sip while in dragon form would keep her that way forever?
Theresa yanked open the freezer and stared at the contents. Empty. She supposed she could eat some more ice cubes. She’d at least be hydrated when she died of starvation. Bonus.
Or maybe she could eat some chairs. Nothing wrong with fiber, right?
Now that Justine, her best friend, roomie, and personal servant for the last two hundred years, was off on her honeymoon, it was all too apparent what kind of a life Theresa had: none.
No social life.
And most important, no way to get food.
She slammed the door shut as her stomach rumbled again and a burning sensation clawed at her belly. She’d bet a box of Vic’s Pretzels that her body was beginning to eat itself. Wouldn’t that be a fun way to die?
No! A dragon should die a violent and fiery death! Dying of starvation was completely unacceptable.
Dammit! She slammed her tail against the fridge, too hungry to bother checking to see if she’d left a dent. She wasn’t even allowed to order delivery because she was guarding Mona, and it was a big no-no to have strangers parading up to the door when the Goblet of Eternal Youth was hiding out. You never knew if the skinny little delivery boy might be packing a sword in his stay-hot pizza bag. Plus, how was she supposed to explain her appearance when she answered the door? No, you’re not really seeing an emaciated eleven-foot dragon with gold eyes. It’s the scent from the pizza causing your hallucinations.
She stalked over to the window of Quincy’s house and stared at the darkened suburb. If she were in her own condo, she could probably get Xavier the doorman to get her some food, but no, their condo was still a shambles after Justine and Derek had gotten a little trigger happy with Becca’s machine guns.
For a moment, she considered calling Becca, Satan’s favorite Rivka and right-hand badass, but finally dismissed it. The Rivka had more important things to do than bring carryout to a dragon, and Theresa had too much pride to beg.
She closed her eyes and dug her claws into the windowsill. You are not hungry. You are not lonely. You are a goddess. The shattering of the wood jerked her back to the present, and she jerked her claws away from the window. Even the house wasn’t built for helping a dragon through the throes of misery.
There was only one thing that would help her now. One man. If Zeke wasn’t online, heaven help her and the neighborhood she was hiding out in.
She grabbed her computer and IM’d Zeke, the only man she’d had cybersex with in the last six months. Six months of monogamy for Theresa Nichols, former Queen of the Sluts. Astounding, wasn’t it? Just proved how good a cyberlover Zeke was. For him to satisfy a dragon who was completely deprived of all other outlets was quite the feat. Thank God for Zeke.
“Zeke? You there?” she typed.
His reply was instant. “Yep. You?”
Tension eased from her body at his immediate response and she smiled, imagining what his voice must sound like. Deep. Manly. He probably had thick whiskers that would make a woman tremble with longing. Zeke was definitely a badass. She could sense the undercurrent of violence in him. She loved bad boys. What dragon wouldn’t? Whoever she dated had to be able to deal with a girl who liked to burn things up and ate six pizzas for an afternoon snack. “I bought a new piece of lingerie off the Internet yesterday. Want me to describe it?”
She frowned at his hesitation, and an anxiety spark shot out of her nose and sizzled on the keyboard. “Zeke? Don’t leave me hanging. Not tonight.”
He finally typed an answer. “Listen, I think we should meet.”
She jerked upright in Quincy’s microfiber recliner, slamming the footrest back to the floor with an ominous thud. “I can’t meet you!” She scowled as a wave of longing washed over her, smashing her claws onto the keyboard as she typed her response. “I’m still in isolation at the FBI containment center, remember? They haven’t figured out how to keep my contagious disease from infecting everyone who comes within ten feet of me.” She felt a little guilty about the lie, but it wasn’t as if she could tell him she was a dragon. Besides, being locked up in an FBI containment facility was sort of dramatic and cool, and way better than her real life.
“I think you’re avoiding me.”
She grinned at his perceptiveness, imagining his brows furrowed in aggravation as he typed. “Tell that to the dude with the machine gun guarding my door.”
“Give me his number and I’ll call him up.”
Some of her amusement trickled away at his continued pressure. “He won’t get close enough to talk to me. Afraid I’ll infect him.”
“Isn’t that convenient?”
Her tail switched at his thinly veiled sarcasm and she accidentally dropped a puff of ash onto Quincy’s hand-woven carpet from India. She’d been fending off Zeke’s requests to meet for months, but something felt different tonight. Or maybe her perception of reality was being distorted by the fact that her stomach was beginning to eat her brain. “No, it’s not convenient. I’d love to meet you in person and engage in some real flesh-to-flesh activities.” Understatement of the year. Cybersex was better than nothing, but it was no substitute for having a man wrapped around her. She’d even had Justine buy her some of the aftershave Zeke said he wore, and she sprayed it around whenever they had cybersex. The woodsy, masculine scent was nearly enough to give her an orgasm on its own, let alone when Zeke was working his magic with the keyboard.
And when she couldn’t sleep, she sprayed it on her pillow and pretended he was there, hugging her pillow to her chest. Not that she’d admit that to anyone. Dragons didn’t need nighttime comfort, and she was no exception. She was just sexually deprived and she loved to bask in the scent of the man of her fantasies. And if she liked it when he talked about his favorite movies and places he’d like to take her on their first date, it was only because she was so desperately lonely for any kind of a real life, even if it was vicariously through Zeke. Not because she liked him or anything. Because that would be incredibly stupid, given her permanently scaly state.
“Seriously, T, I don’t care about your infectious disease. I can buy a biohazard suit anywhere. We need to meet.”
Theresa’s heart started to pound and her hind claws curled into the floor. Zeke was her one contact with the outside world. He was the one person who would notice if she died. Their wild and daring cybersex and late-night gossip sessions were the only outlet that kept her sane, since violence, gorging on food, and incineration weren’t options. She took a deep breath and tried to focus. She had to reel him in before he ruined everything, before he demanded what she couldn’t give. “What’s the point in meeting if you’re wearing a biohazard suit? We wouldn’t be able to have sex.”
His reply was quick, as if he’d anticipated her answer. “I want to know what you look like.”
She scowled. She was an eleven-foot winged dragon with bluish-green scales and golden eyes. Would that do it for him? Doubted it. “Sorry. No pictures, remember?” It had been so long since she’d been in human form, she wasn’t sure she’d even recognize herself.
At his hesitation, Theresa shoved the computer off her lap and jumped to her feet, pacing past the beautiful ash color coffee table that Quincy had specifically forbidden her to burn up. Heat roiled through her, struggled to escape. A spark slipped out of her nose and landed on the hardwood floor. Crap! She stomped it out, then spun back to face her computer when she heard it beep. She was afraid to read Zeke’s reply.
After a moment she lifted her chin, straightened her tail, and marched back over to read what he’d written.
“I think maybe it’s time to change the rules.”
She growled at the screen. There could be no rule-changing! Face-to-face meetings were not happening!
“T? You still there? I’m serious. Things need to change. I can’t keep this up.”
How dare he ruin the only decent thing in her life by demanding something she couldn’t give, no matter how much she might want to? She wouldn’t let him. Not tonight. “The scientists are here to run more tests on me. Gotta run.” She hesitated, then added her usual sign-off. “Love your body.”
Then she disconnected before he could reply.
She slammed the lid closed on her laptop and stomped across the room, ignoring the pictures rattling on the walls. Well, wouldn’t that be fine and dandy? Not only was she starving to death, but she would die alone and sexually frustrated because Zeke was about to bail on her.
Forget it. Things had gone too far. A girl had her limits.
She smashed her hip into the kitchen door and shoved it open, ignoring the trickle of sparks that dropped on the tile. Quincy would just have to get over a few burn marks. He’d be lucky if she didn’t burn down his house by accident. She narrowed her eyes at the espresso machine. “I have to eat, which means it’s time for a highly illegal field trip. And you’re coming with me, since I can’t leave you behind unprotected.” She picked up the espresso machine and tried to tuck it under her arm. Not comfortable, especially for a dragon who wasn’t exactly in top flying shape. “I don’t suppose you could turn into something smaller and easier to carry?”
The espresso machine didn’t so much as flicker.
“What if I take you on a flying tour of the New York City skyline so you can see this city that you’ve been living in for the last five years?”
Mona immediately changed into an ankle bracelet.
Theresa grinned, all too familiar with the desperation Mona would be feeling at being locked in her inanimate cell for so long. “That’s my girl. Maybe we can be friends after all.” At least there was something in this world that was more desperate than she was.
Forty-five minutes later, Theresa was perched on the roof of the Vic’s Pretzels that was down the street from the condo she used to live in. She was wearing her favorite come-hither outfit: a leather miniskirt, a black lace bra under a transparent white top, the topaz earrings she’d bought during their brief stay in the Amazon (so what if dragons don’t have ears? The scales located on the side of her head worked just fine), a new diamond stud in the piercing at the end of her tail, and, of course, her new ankle bracelet.
She might not have any breasts or even a waist to do the outfit justice, and her blue scales weren’t exactly sexy, but one should never underestimate the effect that sexy clothes can have on a woman’s mood. Or a dragon’s.
She took a deep breath and inhaled the amazing scent of fresh dough rising, letting it soak into her lungs. Vic’s No-Carb Pretzels were her reason for living, definitely worth taking a forbidden trip out into the night air.
The sounds of the humans working the ovens drifted up to her, and she took a moment to sort out their scents. There were at least three of them, two male and one female. Probably one person manning the kitchens and two customers getting their late-night pretzel fix. Unfortunately, incinerating all of them was out. Someone would notice three piles of human ash.
She growled, realizing that food would have to suffice to appease her needs. If she could get the people outside for a few minutes . . .
She eyed the roof and found what she was looking for. Didn’t anyone have the foresight to protect their vents from dragons anymore? She glided over to the vent (yes, she might weigh several tons, but that didn’t mean she had to stop practicing the double-jointed-hips walk that had brought men to their knees two hundred years ago) and pressed her face up to it. “Hope you all are wearing your gas masks.”
Wasn’t this going to be fun? She hadn’t tortured humans in forever.
She grinned, rolled some smoke around in her chest for a moment, then expelled a huge black cloud into the vent.
Then, for kicks, she did it again.
The sound of coughing and the scent of human alarm drifted up to her, and Theresa flopped down on her belly and let the sensations wash over her. It wasn’t actual destruction, but it soaked into her pores and eased the desperation off her needs.
It took less than three minutes for the humans to vacate the premises. Once they were hacking away out front, she sat up, shook off the soothing effects of the assault, and coasted down to the back door. She tugged on it, found it locked, then grinned with delight and yanked it free, along with the doorframe. She tossed the still-locked unit into the alley and scooted inside the kitchen of Vic’s Pretzels.
Three feet inside the door, she was hit by the intense aroma of baking dough and melted butter and fell flat on her face. Holy mother of pearl. She groaned and rolled onto her back, drinking in the heavenly odors. Cinnamon. Fresh bread. Melted frosting for the dessert pretzels. Her claws curved against her chest and she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply as euphoria slackened her muscles, slowed her heart rate. She would never move again. Just lie here forever.
A distant clang caught her attention, and she shook her head, trying to clear it. This wasn’t a safe environment. She shouldn’t be sprawled on the floor. She tried to uncurl her claws, but she was too relaxed, too overcome by lassitude.
Come on, Theresa. Block your olfactory receptors. Now she remembered. That’s what she was supposed to do. Basic dragon survival technique. God, but how? She couldn’t recall, and it felt so good. The freshly cooked bread smelled so divine. She didn’t want to block it out. She just wanted to lie here and suck it in.
No. She had to get up. Get up.
She held her breath, then rolled over, landing with a thud on her belly. Progress. Good.
Somehow, she managed to stagger to her feet. Starting to suffocate. Need to inhale. She closed her eyes and concentrated on shutting down her scent receptors, taking a careful breath through her mouth. She got a whiff of hot pretzel and almost went down again.
She slapped her claws to her face, pinching her nostrils shut. Two hundred years of being locked away with no threats to worry about had obviously eroded all her dragon defenses, not that she’d ever been a model dragon, even as a kid when she’d still been living among dragons. She’d gotten sloppy, and if there’d been real danger, she’d be dead now.
Her head began to clear, and she surveyed her surroundings. She was in the kitchen. Tile floors, racks and racks of pretzel ingredients, huge metal ovens, trays of cooling pretzels, pretzel-shaped pot holders hanging on neat little hooks shaped like more pretzels.
Her stomach rumbled, and her mouth began to water.
Having food in her belly would help her control her nose, wouldn’t it?
She lurched toward the racks of cooling pretzels, took a deep inhalation through her mouth, then released her nose to grab a tray of pretzels. She dumped a rack of no-carb delights down her throat. Then another. Then another. No time to savor. She needed to eat and run before she collapsed again.
She started to feel dizzy, so she grabbed a couple of pot holders and wedged them in her nostrils. Better. She turned back to the pretzels and tossed six more down her throat, the intense ache in her belly barely beginning to ease.
It occurred to her that this was what the Dragon Cleansing of 1788 must have been like, when the dragon slayers wiped out the dragon population. In a normal attack, a slayer would disorient a dragon with his incredibly powerful scent and then come charging in to gain the advantage before the dragon could recover. During the Dragon Cleansing, all the slayers had joined together and attacked at once. She shuddered at the thought of being hit with all that olfactory stimulation.
Any halfway decent dragon learned how to shut down her scent receptors before she was two years old. It was the first line of defense against the slayers.
Well, guess what? She wasn’t a halfway decent dragon, apparently. She’d almost been knocked out by pretzel dough. Imagine what a single dragon slayer’s scent would do to her. She was too pathetic.
“Holy Jesus! What the fuck is that?”
Theresa dropped the tray she was holding and spun around. A guy in a chef’s hat stared at her from the doorway, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide.
She immediately bowed low, kneeling before him. “You must be the pretzel chef. I adore your pretzels, and I am honored to meet you.”
He made a strangled sound and began backing around the corner. Theresa snapped her head up and narrowed her eyes at him. “Hey! Where are you going?” She couldn’t allow him to report a dragon sighting.
He yelped and dove out of sight.
She sighed and stood back up. She was going to have to kill him, wasn’t she? Then she smiled and her tail flicked. How fun! An added bonus for the evening. She always slept well for at least a week after she got to incinerate someone.
Then her tail sagged. But who would make the pretzels if she killed him?
Crud. What was she supposed to do? Protect herself or the pretzels?
Dammit. Exposing herself meant exposing Mona. She had to kill him. She stomped toward the door he’d vanished through. How unfair that she finally got to kill someone and it was a pretzel chef. The remorse was going to gnaw at her for weeks.
She followed his trail, taking a moment to peek around the corner into the front of the store, noting the two customers had apparently decided to head home.
Lucky for them.
Satisfied they were alone, she stepped into what looked like a supply room and saw the chef hunched behind a stack of boxes to her right. She whacked the boxes aside with her tail, and he jerked to his feet. His face was stark white and terror was cascading off him.
“I’m really sorry I have to do this,” she said. “But I promise to visit you in the Afterlife with pretzels, okay?” She closed her eyes so she didn’t have to watch, then opened her mouth, but before she could expel even a trickle of ash, she heard a loud explosion and a searing pain ripped through her left shoulder. “Hey!” She snapped her eyes open just in time to see the bastard aim his gun at her face.
Theresa threw her arm across her face as he shot again, and the bullet ripped through her right front claw, sending pain spiraling up her shoulder.
“Get out of here, you freak!” he screamed. “I’ll kill you before I’ll let an ugly monster take me alive!” He shot again, and the bullet tore through her tail, nearly taking out her new tail ring.
“Ugly monster? Are you serious?” How dare he insult her like that. She was wearing her sexiest outfit! Was even that not enough to overcome the scales and lack of breasts? She was already sensitive enough about her appearance without having some idiot scream insults at her.
“Your mother won’t have to look at your disgusting face again after I get through with you!” the chef shouted.
Her mother? Now, that was going too far. She lunged for him, and he shot her in the neck as he dove over a box of yeast and crawled behind an ice machine. She jerked in pain as blood gushed down her neck, and rage roared through her. She kicked the ice machine out of the way, reared back, and exploded fire at him.
But all that came out was a hack and a small puff of white smoke.
He yelped and scooted across the floor as she frowned and tried again. Nothing but a harmless wisp. What the hell?
She flung a metal storage rack out of her way and slammed her tail into the chef’s gut, pinning him against the wall as a faint memory trickled into her mind. Wasn’t there something in the annals about how dragons should always protect their necks in battle?
Maybe she should have gone to class more often instead of running around her home village causing trouble with the other delinquent dragons. Had she realized she was going to be orphaned and thrust into nondragon society so soon with no dragon mentors to teach her, she would definitely have paid more attention to the lessons she was supposed to be learning.
The chef whimpered and tried to get his gun free of her tail, to no avail. She pressed harder, and her frustration eased. She could still kick his heinie with her superior dragon strength. She smiled and leaned her face up against his. “Insult my mama, will you? We are going to have some fun tonight . . .”
Something twitched around her ankle and an espresso machine dropped to the floor in front of her.
Oh, no! She’d forgotten about Mona! The ultimate failure in Guardianship would be to let something happen to the Goblet of Eternal Youth. Each moment she stayed endangered Mona and put her closer to being at the brutal mercy of the Council.
She might be a failure as a woman and as a dragon, but God help her, she would not fail at being a Guardian. She flung the chef aside, grabbed Mona, and spun around, bolting for the door. She lurched into wobbly flight as soon as her wings were clear.
It took her less than a minute to realize she was too injured to make it all the way home. Didn’t that figure? She couldn’t even rescue Mona competently.
Excerpted from Must Love Dragons , by Stephanie Rowe . Copyright (c) 2006 by Stephanie Rowe . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top