Of all the times to forget my motion sickness pills.
Lily pressed her face to the cool surface of the plane’s window, watching the ground roll by beneath them. Her boss’ private jet might have every comfort imaginable, but it was still vulnerable to turbulence, and so was she.
They were below the cloud cover now, and she could see the city through the rain-splattered glass. Everywhere she looked, she saw grey. Grey streets, grey clouds, even the daylight had a pall to it, like it had been filtered through smoky glass.
As dull as it looked outside, she’d trade a week’s worth of lattes for a breath of fresh air right now. If it would get them on the ground faster, she’d consider offering up her firstborn. Not that there was any chance of her conceiving a kid any time soon. First, she’d need to be dating someone, and she didn’t have much luck when it came to romance. Her co-worker, Megan, theorized it was because she only dated nice, safe guys, and kept trying to set her up with guys from her gym or dojo.
Megan was a freaking bodyguard who Lily was privately convinced was some kind of terminator. She was tough, smart, and immune to bullets. Lily had seen her get shot once, and instead of falling over like a normal person, Megan had just sworn louder and kept firing at their attackers. Megan had saved their lives that day, while all Lily had done was get on the radio and scream for help. She just wasn’t cut out for a life of danger. Especially not in her love life. She’d had enough danger in her personal relationships to last a lifetime.
The plane pitched again, and she gripped her armrests tighter. “Definitely not in my love life, and especially not while traveling!”
“I’m missing all the best parts of that conversation. Care to back up and start at the beginning?” Megan drawled from her seat, her lips parted in an ear-to-ear grin.
“Nope. Inside voice malfunction. Please disregard.” Lily flapped a hand in the air.
Everyone laughed and started their pre-landing rituals. They all had them, and after so many years together, Lily knew exactly what they were. Hanna would store her laptop and then do a quick check of her hair and makeup so that she came off the plane looking polished. Megan wouldn’t bother at all about her appearance. Instead, she’d walk the length of the plane to limber up after sitting still for hours.
Lily spent the last few minutes going over their itinerary and reviewing her notes. Hanna was an easy woman to work for, and Lily took pride in ensuring that her employer’s days proceeded as smoothly as possible. That included providing Hanna with any information she might need, including statistics and the names of anyone she might meet in the course of her meetings. Over the years, they’d worked out a system that allowed Hanna to focus on the bigger picture while Lily handled the small details. Today, every detail might be important.
Hanna Dewan ran a charity organization that specialized in rescuing women and children from hostile areas and relocating them. Until now, all those relocations had been to other countries on Earth. If this meeting went well, then some of those women would be travelling to a distant planet to find their new start.
When she’d been hired, she’d never imagined all the places she’d visit or the people she’d meet. She’d also never dreamed that she’d become close friends with the woman who signed her paycheque. Hanna and Megan were like the sisters she’d never had – a family she’d chosen for herself.
Lily exhaled in relief when they finally touched down. It didn’t matter where they were landing— London, Vancouver, or a landing strip deep in a war zone—Megan treated every arrival the same way. She went first and assessed the area. Once she was satisfied, she’d wave Hanna and Lily forward.
Lily retrieved their suitcases while waiting for the all clear and then took her place behind Hanna, positioning herself in a current of fresh air from the door.
Hanna gave her a sympathetic smile. “Ready to be off this plane?”
“All clear,” Megan called from outside. “But soggy. Welcome to the west coast, ladies. Land of liquid sunshine.”
“She is way too happy to be home,” Hanna murmured over her shoulder as she left the plane.
“You’d think after so many Toronto winters, she’d be used to the snow.” Lily didn’t bother to lower her voice. She wanted her friend to hear her.
“Never going to happen. Snow sucks.” Megan started down the metal stairs.
Lily made her way down the stairs carefully, juggling all three suitcases with the ease of long practice. Megan needed her hands free, and Hanna was already meeting with the alien ambassador they’d flown here to meet.
She got a good look at him once she was down the stairs. She’d seen his photo and interviews as part of the research for this meeting, but he was even more handsome in person. Dark hair, movie-star looks, and a suit that looked like it cost more than her last paycheque. He was holding an umbrella out for Hanna while they greeted each other and then made introductions.
Another man was with them, but she was too busy dealing with the luggage to pay much attention. It wasn’t until she heard Jet say the other man was from Romak that she looked up, surprised. She hadn’t expected there to be a Romaki dragon here today.
A tall, blond man with the perfect amount of Hollywood scruff and amazing eyes turned from Hanna and walked toward her, smiling. “Hello. Do you need some help with those?”
She tried to speak, but it came out as an awkward squeak of surprise. “Oh! Uh, I mean yes, that would be helpful. Thank you.”
He held out his hand. “I’m Vykor. You must be Ms. Dewan’s assistant, Ms. Ashton.”
She stared at him for a handful of mortifying seconds before her brain started working again and she took his hand. “Hello, Vykor. Please, call me Lily.”
She was pleased at how rational and normal she sounded despite a sudden urge to ignore his outstretched hand and kiss him instead. What’s wrong with me?
The second their hands touched, her brain short-circuited again, and when he raised her hand to his mouth to kiss the back of her knuckles, a shiver ran down her spine that had nothing to do with the winter weather.
“Lily.” Vykor tipped his head to one side and smiled, his dazzling eyes gleaming silver and gold. “That’s a flower, isn’t it?”
“It is. My mother’s favourite flower. Which is why she named me for it. What does your name mean? If it has a meaning, that is.” She babbled, trying to ignore the lingering feeling of his lips against her hand. Normally, she didn’t like being touched, especially not by guys, but apparently the ghost of trauma’s past was making an exception for Vykor.
He paused. “It has a few meanings. It can mean something that is lost or someone who is searching for something.”
“And you’re a researcher, right? Here to document the legends about dragons from our cultures to see if they could be lost members of your species. So, you really are looking for something.”
He took her suitcase from her and moved the umbrella he held to shelter her from the rain. “You know who I am?”
She caught the note of surprise in his voice. “It’s my job to know anything my employer might need to know.”
He considered that for a moment, then nodded. “You’re her researcher.” His voice wrapped around her like a caress, and she forgot all about the chill wind and rain.
“That’s part of it. My job is pretty boring, though. Not like yours.”
He gave her an amused smile. “Most beings think that about mine, too.”
“But you study dragons!” She regretted her words the second they left her mouth. Of course it wasn’t a big deal to him, he was a freaking dragon.
“I feel the same way about learning the history of your species.” Much more interesting than my own. I’ve been reading about Atlantis. I have a theory…” He trailed off and inclined his head toward the others, who were already moving to a waiting limousine. “Shall we join them?”
“I’m so sorry. Of course.”
Vykor started walking, keeping the umbrella over her as they went. “Why would you be sorry?”
“Because I was talking too much, and you’re getting soaked standing around listening to me.”
“I’m not concerned by a little dampness.” He lowered his voice to an amused murmur. “We Romaki aren’t as delicate as the Pyrosians.”
She glanced up at him, barely suppressing a giggle. “That’s not a very diplomatic thing to say.”
“Ah, but I’m not officially a diplomat. I’m here as…” he paused as if searching for the right word. “Jet’s wingman?” Is that right?”
This time, she couldn’t stop herself from laughing. “I understand your meaning, but you might not want to say it quite that way.”
Vykor frowned. “Why not? I thought it was a military term.”
“It has a slang meaning, too. If you’re acting as someone’s wingman, then your job is to help them score with a woman. Usually, in a social setting like a bar.”
Vykor’s dazzling eyes filled with amusement, and he glanced over at Jet. “Until he meets his mate, Jet has no need of a wingman. And unless things go catastrophically wrong, he shouldn’t need my help after he’s met her, either.”
She looked at Jet, then back at Vykor. “I don’t suppose either of you need any help in that department.”
Vykor blinked and almost tripped over himself. “You don’t?”
“Well, no. I mean look at you. Guys like you shouldn’t have any trouble attracting a woman’s attention on any planet.”
She expected him to laugh, or at least smile, but he didn’t. Instead, his eyes darkened and his jaw tensed. “The females of my planet do not share your opinion.”
His voice was as tight as his jaw. She stopped briefly, released the handle of one case, and touched his arm, her shyness losing out to her need to fix what she’d done. “Then the females of your planet are idiots.”
He smiled and ducked his head, and for a second she could have sworn she saw him blush. “Thank you.”
“For telling you the truth? You don’t need to thank me for that.” She started blushing, too, and they walked the last few steps in silence, neither of them looking at the other. One day, she’d figure out a way to talk to a good-looking guy without making a fool of herself. Today was not that day.
What in the name of Solun’s frostbitten balls is wrong with me? Vykor took one last breath of winter air before getting into the vehicle. It didn’t do anything to cool the sudden flash of heat that had kindled inside him the moment he’d spied the little blonde female. He’d been so taken with her he’d almost walked away from their other guests before introductions were made.
The female was small and curvy, and the spiralled curls of her blonde hair blew around her face in a chaotic tangle he wanted to bury his fingers in. It didn’t make any sense. He’d been attracted to females before. He might be a dragonless male, but he was still male. Even so, he’d never felt anything like this.
He entered the limo and belted himself in, forcing himself to keep his focus on that simple task instead of watching Lily as she claimed the seat across from him. She wore a simple skirt of deep blue that came down to mid-calf and boots that rose past the hem of her skirt, completely hiding her legs. Her jacket covered the rest of her, frustrating his desire to see more.
He did his best to ignore her effect on him, but every few minutes he stole a glance across the limo, and each time he grew a little more concerned. Her windburned cheeks had faded to a sickly pallor, and her lips were pressed together in a hard line. He wanted to talk to her, ask her what was wrong, but he couldn’t do that without pointing out her discomfort, which would only embarrass her.
When they got to the embassy, he’d talk to her again and make sure she was alright. Did she need to see someone at the medical center? Maybe she just needed something to eat. Whatever it was, he’d make sure she got it.
It took him a few seconds to recognize how insane he sounded, even to himself. She was almost a stranger, and Jet hadn’t brought him along so he could look after Ms. Dewan’s staff. He was supposed to be helping to ensure this meeting went smoothly.
Jet wanted him to take on a more active role at the embassy, to try his hand at diplomacy and working with the humans. Vykor wasn’t sure he had the knack for it, but Jet believed he did, and he was happy to try any job that would allow him to stay on Earth. Here, he’d found some level of acceptance. Back home, there was no such thing. How could there be for a Romaki born without a dragon’s spirit?
He fisted a hand at his thigh as an unexpected rush of anger rolled through him. He had to take a few deep breaths and repeat the litany he’d been taught as a child three times before the anger faded.
He couldn’t remember the last time his control had slipped like that.
He relaxed into his seat, taking note of what was going on around him. Hanna was seated beside him, talking in soft but animated tones to Jet about what the process would be for the women she hoped to eventually bring to Pyros. Jet was explaining that the women would have full citizenship before they even set foot on the planet, and it was clear Hanna was thrilled by the news. Her passion and enthusiasm showed in every word and gesture. He’d read her biography, knew that she was dedicated to her mission, but reading about someone wasn’t the same as sitting beside them as they spoke.
He listened to their conversation but didn’t join in. Things were going well and despite Jet’s concerns, Vykor didn’t see any signs that Hanna needed reassurance. No doubt there would be a moment he could step in and give an honest opinion as someone with no ulterior motive. It wasn’t his planet suffering a catastrophic lack of females. Besides, Romak was only just recovering from a planet-wide civil war. None of Hanna’s refugee females would want to go there. It would be too much like the places they were fleeing.
He looked over at Lily again and caught her watching him. She blushed and dropped her gaze immediately, denying him a longer look at her lovely violet eyes. He leaned forward to say something to her when Megan shouted a warning to hold on.
There was a second of silence, and then everything happened at once. There was a jarring impact, the screams of living beings and twisted metal, and the vehicle careened wildly and threw everyone against their restraints.
It was over almost as quickly as it started. Across from him, Lily looked shaken but unhurt, and he uttered a sigh of relief. Megan was issuing orders, arranging for help to be contacted before declaring she was going to go outside to take a look.
That’s when she looked at him for the first time. “If anything happens, can you transform and get the others out of here?”
Shame choked him, but he opened his mouth to reply. She needed to know he couldn’t help. Not like that.
He never got a chance to answer. The driver’s partition lowered, and everyone started speaking at once.
Their driver, Kyle, dropped a canister through the gap. The partition rose again, sealing them inside. The doors all locked, a synchronized clunking noise that boomed in the suddenly silent space.
A white vapour poured out of the canister and Vykor knew exactly what was happening – they were being gassed. The problem was, he didn’t know what the hell to do about it. Though he was stronger than most humans, he wasn’t strong enough to tear off a door or shatter one of the windows, which were made of projectile-resistant glass.
Megan was sprawled across Lily, hammering at one window with powerful two-footed kicks, but it wasn’t going to be enough. Dizzy and disoriented, he undid his seatbelt.
Something heavy sagged against his side, and he groggily realized that Hanna was slumped against him. He should have been able to move her easily, but his arms were too heavy to lift, and he slumped in his seat.
Who turned up the gravity?
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