Margery was dying. Damn it. Life was just getting good.
After twenty-five years as a redheaded human who never burned in the sun, Margery had unexpectedly shifted into a sun-worshipping sky dragon. She could fly! Well, not at the moment, and probably not anymore.
The sway of the boat had long since stopped making her seasick, but she couldn’t get used to being in the pitch darkness. Away from the sun, her new dragon body shriveled. Her glorious scales became brittle and flaked off one by one. When they opened the hatch to toss down her meals, she could see that her once colorful feathers were now faded and drooping. She was terrified to shift back into human form. If she was weak as a dragon, as a human she’d be easy pickings for the men who had captured her.
Gunfire and shouting gave her the strength to lift her head up from the slimy deck. Could it be there was a chance of escape? Margery crawled over to the ladder, but her arms were too weak to lift her up the rungs. If she didn’t have the strength for that, she’d never get past the locked hatch.
“Help me!” Her voice, hoarse from screaming, was just a rasp of breath.
The boat rocked hard, and she tumbled across the hold. When it tipped on its side, she scrabbled across the walls. The inside of her prison exploded as something punched through the side of the boat.
“Sun,” she croaked. Daylight poured into the rank cell. She belonged in the open air with the sun on her face. She had been slowly dying without it.
Margery caught sight of a large serpent’s head and giant teeth as it ripped open the boat. Water surged in, but she didn’t care. She had to get to the light. With the last of her strength, she lunged but fell short. Her heart fluttered and slowed. Her breathing stuck in her throat.
No. Not like this. Not when escape was so close.
A box of the little red dragon dolls that got her into this mess tumbled toward her. She snatched one up out of the water. If she was going to die, they’d find the evidence on her body she’d risked her life to get.
That sounded like the female dragon that had been tracking her down telepathically...Viola.
“I’m here,” Margery said, but her voice cracked. Please! Don’t leave me down here any longer. Don’t go! She thought with all her might, trying to reach Viola telepathically. But she didn’t have that skill. “Help me.” Her voice was just a whisper.
There was no way they were going to hear her. When a ray of sunlight hit her eyes, she found just enough strength to crawl toward the hole. Her wings flopped uselessly, but she managed to stick her head out into the blessed daylight. There were three dragons staring at her like she just won the Pulitzer.
“You found me,” Margery said, blinking at a three-headed dragon hovering above the water. “You’re real.” She had half convinced herself she’d been hallucinating.
“You’re safe now.”
Margery gave the female dragon a weak smile. Don’t cry. Don’t pass out.
She took a deep breath of the wonderful, fresh lake air, closing her eyes as her abused body absorbed the healing rays of the sun. With the full effect of the sun hitting her, she grew stronger and cleared her throat. “Thank you.” Proud that her voice didn’t shake, she still felt wretched, but she was going to live. She was going to live. This time the tears flowed down her cheeks, and she tried to sob quietly.
Viola asked, “Champ, can you do something about the pleasure boats coming in to investigate? And help me round up the crew in the water. We need some answers.”
Champ was the dragon in the water, the one who’d smashed through the boat. He looked like a cross between a brontosaurus and the Loch Ness monster. But he had kind eyes. He kept the boat from sinking by holding it on the surface of the lake with one of his massive coils.
Wait! Did she say “Champ”?
“They were going to sell me to the river monster named Champ in exchange for him looking the other way while they smuggled drugs across the border,” Margery forced out as quickly as she could. Coughing, she tried to take in deep breaths, but couldn’t.
He reared back, affronted. “I’m not a monster. I would never have allowed that.” Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and paused a moment. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here sooner, but I just returned from Scotland this morning.” Champ bent his head in respect. “This is my lake, and I offer you my protection while you’re on it and in my territory.”
She nodded, her vision dimming as her head swam from her coughing fit, but didn’t immediately accept his offer.
There was a dragon protocol to all of this. The first thing she’d done, once the curse that stopped females from shifting into Queens had been broken, was read about dragon politics. Margery knew a lot already, based on some stories she’d done in the past. But any information on a female dragon—a Queen—was closely guarded. She had to proceed carefully, otherwise she could be bound to someone against her will.
She looked at Viola and noticed another purple dragon flying around. Surely, her rescuers could be trusted. “I’m not sure about the dragon formalities,” Margery said, hoping that she could blunt any faux pas with her apology. While she was pulling herself out of the destroyed hull, a wave of dizziness hit, and she stopped half in and half out, immediately regretting her decision. Stretching toward the sun, she hoped, would give her more strength, but it didn’t. For the moment, it was enough that most of her was out in the open. “My name is Margery Cooper. I’m an investigative reporter—or I was until I shifted.” Her stomach clenched, and if she’d had anything in it, she would have thrown it up. “I’m not feeling very well.”
“Come with me,” Viola said. “We can get you to safety.”
“I have so many questions. I need to call my editor.” But then the adrenaline she’d been relying on ran out. Margery fought the blackness, but it was futile.
REMY “CHAMP” CHAMPLAIN watched the sky dragon’s eyes roll back into her head, and she neatly slid into the water. Her body collapsed in on itself and shifted into a naked human about to drown in his lake.
Not on my watch.
Ducking his head, Remy got beneath her body and pushed her back to the surface. Viola grabbed her in her claws and flew her to shore. A Queen. Alone and unprotected. Fear for her made him reckless, and he plowed through the lake, casting great wakes as he made for shore. He transformed into human and caught the naked redhead when Viola dropped her in his arms.
Sergei, Viola’s consort, flew cover, snarling and whipping his tail to discourage anyone from getting in too close as Remy hurried to get the Queen in his truck before the news crews could converge on them. That’s all they’d need was to have every stud in the area attacking to get to the Queen.
After jumping into his truck, he set her down as gently as he could on the bench seat. Why did she have to be a redhead? He had a weakness for them. And beautiful? He stifled the punch of lust he felt, seeing her naked and dripping just inches from him. Feeling like a pervert, he averted his gaze out of respect. Still, her curves beckoned him from the corner of his eye. So he floored it and concentrated on keeping the truck on the dirt roads as he ate up the terrain. Sergei and Viola provided air cover until he was clear of the locals. No one would dare come on his private lands.
Although the media was getting bolder lately, even with him. Normally, he wasn’t much of a story. Sure, he was a dragon. But he didn’t run a Fortune 500 company, and he wasn’t a movie star. The most exciting thing he did was throw out the first pitch when his baseball team, the Lake Monsters, opened up their season.
However, ever since Queen Lerisse sacrificed herself to break the curse that stopped female dragons from being born or hatched, any dragon was news. A month ago there had only been five Queens in the world. Now hundreds of them were popping up, shifting into their new forms. And dragon studs who hadn’t ever even seen a Queen were desperate for one of their own. Desperate enough to do unforgivable things to defenseless women who’d been human for most of their lives.
Like the unconscious woman lying next to him.
He knew nothing about her. She could be like a normal human or like one of the five ancient Queens—entitled bitches who wanted to rule the world. Grinding his teeth, Remy tightened his hands on the steering wheel. Didn’t matter. She was his problem until she declared her court. Here’s hoping she already had one. He hadn’t lived his entire life off the Queens’ radar to be dragged into dragon politics.