“Yeah, but humans are decidedly dumb when it comes to what is walking—or flying—around them. They wouldn’t say anything if they did spot me because they don’t want to be taken for idiots. It’s that whole UFO effect. Besides, I doubt the cops would have seen us. We were well gone before they got to the cliff.”
“Humans are not that dumb, trust me,” I muttered. Otherwise I would not be in this pickle, and Egan would not be dead. “And that was still a stupid risk to take.”
He shrugged again, his gaze moving past me and his expression still remote. “I think the first thing we should do is find somewhere to rest for the night.”
“Good idea.” Once I was warm, I might be able to think coherently and ask some questions.
“Come on, then.” He grabbed my hand again, his fingers hot against my own. That was the good thing about air dragons—they were nice to snuggle up to, even on the coldest of nights.
Not that I’d be snuggling up to this dragon any time soon—no matter how strong the weird awareness zinging between us might be.
We managed to catch a cab, then Trae directed the driver to a hotel several miles inland. It wasn’t the Hilton—I doubt it was two-star let alone five—but the beds looked clean and the water was hot, and that’s basically all that mattered.
While Trae took his turn in the shower, I hung up my clothes to let them dry, and then snuggled into the bed. And even though I had no real intentions of sleeping, that’s exactly what I did.
It was dark when I woke. Blue light flashed intermittently through the shadows, revealing glimpses of the still-neatly-made second double bed. Trae hadn’t slept, though his tangy, spicy aroma still rode the air.
I shifted some more and saw him. He was a shadow in the darkness, untouched by the flickering light coming in through the window to my right. He sat at the end of my bed, his pose seemingly casual, and yet there was something about his very stillness that seemed both unnatural and deadly. The predator watching his prey.
What I had to work out now was whether that predator was friend or foe. Marsten and his scientists had used our kind to capture most of the dragons currently being held in their Loch Ness research facility. Of course, most of those dragons were youngsters ranging in age from seven to fifteen and, as such, had put up little fight. My mother, Egan, and myself had been the only adults, and while I had no idea how they’d captured Mom, I knew it had taken three hunters to bring Egan down. My own capture was due more to my own fool-hardiness—and willingness to trust—than any form of skill on their part.
Which was why I had to be so careful now. I might want to trust Trae, I might want to believe he was Egan’s brother, but that didn’t mean I could actually do either of those things.
My gaze slid down Trae’s shadowed front, coming to a halt on one extended arm. He seemed to be pointing something at me. Tension crawled through my limbs, and the sense of danger leapt into sharp focus.
I reached to my left and turned on the bedside lamp. Pale yellow light washed across the room, revealing the cracked walls, worn-looking paint, and the gun in Trae’s hand.
“Well, well,” I said, glad my voice was steady because my pulse rate sure as hell wasn’t. And I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was fear or attraction or maybe a bit of both, because there was something dangerously attractive about the heated anger in his bright eyes. “The thief has a sting.”
“The thief wants answers.”
I pushed myself into a sitting position, and hugged my knees close to my chest. My skin was cool, infused with the chill of the night, and glowed with an odd luminescence—the result of taking after my mom more than my dad. It was only the day and the sun that warmed me.
The sheet that had been covering me slid down my legs as I moved, probably revealing a whole lot more than was wise. But after eleven years of being kept naked by the scientists, it no longer particularly worried me.
Trae’s gaze didn’t waver, and neither did his aim. “Where’s Egan?”
“I’m not telling you anything about Egan until I know whether you’re telling the truth about who you are and what you’re doing here.” My gaze flickered to the gun and a tremor ran through my limbs. His hand was too steady, too still. That spoke of familiarity, and practice. “Go ahead and shoot me if you want. I’m sure the scientists will give you a handsome reward for my dead body.”
The confusion that flitted briefly across his face eased a little of my tension. If he didn’t understand what I meant, then he probably wasn’t a hunter. A small mercy, perhaps, given that he still had a gun on me, but the long years of captivity had taught me to be grateful for such things.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, his voice still cold, his eyes still filled with anger, “but I can assure you, I’m not working with any scientists, and I don’t want a reward for your dead body.”
Even as he said the words, his gaze slid down my length ever so briefly. He mightn’t want my dead body, but he sure did want my live one. His desire filled the cool air, heating it, heating me. And while I wasn’t entirely sure whether my own reaction was merely lust or something far stronger, I did know it was damned inconvenient timing. Even so, I couldn’t help dragging in a breath, drawing in the scent and heat of him, letting it briefly chase away the chill and set my soul alight with a deep-seated hunger that I’d never known with Egan.
Part of me wanted to feel guilty about that, but honestly, I just couldn’t. Egan and I had been lovers because we’d been lonely, and because we’d had little other choice. Had we met in the outside world, I doubted if we would have even shared a hello. Which would have been a shame, because Egan was a good man who deserved a whole lot more than what he’d gotten out of life and me.
“So if you’re not intending to hand me over to anyone, why are you pointing a gun at me?”
“Because I have no idea what, exactly, the powers of a sea dragon are, and I certainly don’t trust you.”
“A sea dragon can’t do much away from the sea.” Which wasn’t entirely true. We could control any sort of water we wanted—and if it was a lake, often the land that surrounded it—but it was the sea that held our true strength, the sea where we had full control. “And you holding a gun on me isn’t doing a whole lot to make me want to answer your damn questions.”
He stared at me for a moment longer, then shook his head and lowered the weapon. “I sit here with a loaded gun and a mean look, and you sit there completely naked and totally unfazed. You’re crazy.”
“If that’s the best mean look you have, you really need to go to acting school.” I rested my chin on my knees and watched him carefully. Just because he’d lowered the weapon didn’t mean he had no further intention of using it. This man was a dragon, and air was his element. He could move faster than I could blink. “Are you really Egan’s brother?”
He didn’t answer immediately, just reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a wallet. “Look inside,” he said, tossing it onto the bed in front of me.
Opening it, I saw that he was indeed Trae Wilson, and that he was thirty-five. The same age as Egan, and six years older than me. Then my gaze was drawn to the picture sitting inside the small photograph window. It was of two almost identical boys. Same age, same cheeky smile, same golden skin and sun-shot hair. The only thing that was different were the eye colors—one pair golden, one sky blue. Egan and Trae as boys.
Behind that were a couple of other photos—Trae with two women, one older, one younger, but all three sharing the same blue eyes, and another shot of him and Egan, this time as teenagers. Both of them were goofing around with surfboards, and the laughter and friendship—love even—between the two seemed to have been caught in that single photo.
There could be no doubt that they were, indeed, brothers. God, how was I going to tell him that Egan was dead?
I tossed the wallet back on the bed, then said, “Have you been searching for him the whole time he was gone?”
“No, because he told me he was disappearing for a while. I just didn’t expect it to be for ten years.” He raised the gun again, and anger sparked in the depths of his blue gaze. “Now stop avoiding the question. Where is he?”
I blew out a breath. There was no easy way to do this. No gentle words that could make the hearing of it any easier. “He was shot in the chest last night. We escaped, but I couldn’t get him to a hospital and he died.”
Pain, deep and haunting, flashed briefly through his eyes. He’d known, I thought. Had felt something was wrong, which is why he’d been so angry with my refusal to talk about Egan’s whereabouts.
“Where is his body, then?”
I hesitated, closing my eyes briefly against the sudden sting of tears. “I waited with his body until dawn’s final death, and prayed to the Gods of sun and sky and air to guide his soul onto his next journey.”
He didn’t get angry. Didn’t react in any of the ways I’d half expected—which only confirmed the thought that, deep down, he’d known his brother was dead. He stared at me for a moment, his gaze moving up to the scar on my head then back again to my lips, and then he lowered the gun. “Thank you for doing that much.”
I nodded, a little thankful that he hadn’t asked why Egan had been shot. But then, maybe he already knew—after all, he’d been in contact with his brother before his death.
“Egan was a good man. I couldn’t just leave him there alone. It wouldn’t have been right.”
“No, it wouldn’t have.” He stood up abruptly. “Would you like a cup of black coffee? We haven’t got any milk.”
“I can live without milk. I can’t live without three sugars.”
“Three sugars? It’s a wonder your teeth aren’t rotten.”
I stretched out a foot and toed open the wallet. “Who said they aren’t?”
“Sweetheart, those teeth of yours look in fine biting order.”
“Well, they aren’t going to be biting you any time soon.”
He flung me a grin that briefly lit the room with its bright cheekiness. “What a shame. I might have enjoyed it.”
I snorted softly. “Your license says you live in San Francisco, but that’s not where Egan came from.”
“No, we were both born and raised in Stewarts Point, and our clique still lives there. I was there visiting my mother when he contacted me.”
A clique, I remembered from the few talks I’d had with my dad about my air cousins, was generations of air dragon families living together in a community. Unlike sea dragons, who tended to live in single-family units.
I had no idea how many cliques of air dragons there were, but I knew there were more of them than there were of us sea dragons. The sea might be a vast and mighty mistress, but she was also full of predators, and the ancient safe havens where we could birth and raise our young were few and far between. And getting more crowded with humans every day.
“What did he want?” I asked. “Why did he contact you?”
“He wanted help.” He hesitated. “And he wanted protection.”
He had to have meant from Marsten. And I guess the help of a thief would be valuable, given our plans to break into Marsten’s mother’s place and steal the backup security codes apparently kept there. But protection? “What can you do that Egan couldn’t?”
“Nothing.” He hesitated, then added, “He didn’t really explain what was going on, he just said he needed an extra pair of hands to protect you.”
That was Egan all over, I thought, blinking back tears. He was always more worried about everyone else than himself. Which was probably why the younger kids at the research center had taken to him so quickly—he was their protector. Or as much as anyone could protect them in that place.
He’d been my protector, too. Only now he was gone, and I was left with his brother.
“Carrying a gun doesn’t make you capable of protecting me.”
“No. But my willingness to use it does.”
I supposed that was true. I looked out the window, studying the cold night. Moonlight washed across the small parking lot beyond the room, highlighting several cars and the twisted shapes of the trees lining the boundary. They spoke of sea and sand and wind, those trees, even though we weren’t anywhere near them.
The small coffeemaker began to splutter. Trae clicked it off and poured two mugs. The sharp smell of coffee touched the air, mixing with the tangy scent of man, tantalizing my senses and stirring my desire to greater heights.
Which was annoying, to say the least.
I hitched the sheet up over my knees. Maybe covering up would offer some sense of control. He walked across the room and offered me a cheap white mug. “Black coffee, sickeningly sweet.”
“Thanks.” I took the offered mug, my fingers touching his briefly and sending little shocks of electricity up my arm. “Where, exactly, are we?”
He stepped back and sat down on the other bed. Though his moves were casual, I could taste the sudden tension in him. See the flare of desire in his bright eyes. “We’re in Newport.”
“Where’s that? Besides in Oregon?” I hadn’t swum that far, but I had no idea where he’d actually picked me up from, and therefore no idea where in relation to Florence that was.
“About fifty miles north of Florence.”
“So we actually went past it? Why, when that’s where we wanted to go?”
“Because when you’re being chased, it’s always safer to go past a target, then come back to it.” He took a drink, his gaze holding mine over the rim. Those blue depths were still watchful, still distrusting, despite the deep burn of desire. “Are you going to explain what you were doing, and how Egan got shot?”
I blew out a breath. As much as I’d wanted to avoid remembering, he deserved an answer. “We’d gone to Mexico—”
“Mexico?” he interrupted. “Why there?”
“He had this place near San Lucas—”
Recognition sparked in his eyes. So did surprise. “Villa Costa Brava?”
I nodded. “You know it?”
“Yes.” He shook his head, amusement and old pain evident in his expression. “It’s a long story, but let’s just say it was our escape house when we were teenagers. Go on.”
“He’d wanted to check that the villa was okay. He said something about it being the home of his heart, if not his soul.” The pain that had been evident earlier came to the fore, accompanied by a sadness that tore at my heart.
“It was indeed. Sila is buried there.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Sila?”
“The black dragon he loved.”
“What happened to her?”
“As I said, it’s a long story.” Trae’s voice held a bitterness so cold, so deep, that my soul quaked. “Go on.”
I didn’t want to. I wanted to hear about Egan—the man I’d spent ten years sharing a bed with, and yet who I so obviously knew so little about. But Trae’s commanding tone suggested he wasn’t about to be derailed from getting his answers.