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From Huntress by Alexandra Christian
Available from Little Red Hen Romance
She could smell it before they could see it. The stench of ash and sulfur like the pits of Hell overwhelmed them. “God, how do they sneak up on anyone? They smell like a pile of burning shit,” Markus complained, pulling his tunic over his nose. Thalia wasn’t listening. She was too busy watching the sky. She wanted to see it when it burst through the trees.
Dragons both frightened and fascinated her. Everything about them was built for the hunt. Their massive bodies were covered in impenetrable scales, but they could move with an almost feline precision. Their talons were razor sharp and grooved so that once the prey was caught, escape would be impossible. They could lock around even the smallest wriggling creature and hold on. The beating of their wings could create a gale that would level whole villages. Then there was the fire. Dragons were made of it. It flowed through their veins like blood, making their flesh steam. Just touching the hide would scald one’s hand, peeling the blackened skin from the bones. A deep breath was all it took, and the flames would spew forth from the beast, burning everything it its path.
“We must draw it away from the villagers, Markus. Hurry and get everyone inside! Out of sight and quiet.” He ran off into the streams of screaming villagers, running to and fro. The stench of brimstone and sweat was so overwhelming, it burned Thalia’s eyes. The thick odor of terror was nothing new. It was everywhere she went and fueled her fury. She ran toward the western gate. Her arms ached with the weight of the heavy crossbow. Many were surprised that she could wield the rustic weapon with any accuracy, but it was the weapon of her father and his father before him. The only real problem was that to deliver a kill shot, one had to be standing in the furnace. A dragon was only vulnerable when he breathed fire. For a fragment of a second, he would expose his chest, and if one were clever and cunning, one might be able to deliver an arrow between the soft spaces in the scales and pierce its heart. Otherwise, there was nothing for it but a lucky blow that distracted the wyrm long enough to let you get away. Despite the rumors of her might, Thalia had never taken the head of a dragon. It would take one much stronger than herself to slice through the iron ropes of sinew and tissue, much less penetrate the scales.
In a graceful movement, he dropped to one knee, taking her hand and pulling her close. The heat from his body was intense, and steam rose from his skin in thin plumes of ether. “Never fear me, Thalia. I am forever your servant.” His kiss, finally fulfilled, was searing. He tasted of ash and flame. It was a flavor which she knew she would savor well after the dream was done. It permeated her senses and filled her with more of that lust with which she had become so familiar. Before she knew it, she was opening her mouth, inviting him inside. He eagerly accepted with gentle swipes of his tongue against her lips and teeth. He took her breath away, and though she gasped, she would not break. Thalia wanted more of him. She breathed him in, taking his heat into herself. His arms enveloped her, the folds of his robe cloaking her in darkness and hiding them from the world.
“Dark prince,” she said. It wasn’t a question. She reached out for him and felt his hand close over hers then bring it to his lips. He kissed gently at the delicate bones. “Tell me your name,” she whispered, watching the shape of his mouth as his lips lingered on the slope of her wrist.
“Names are unimportant,” he replied, drawing her into his embrace. “You may call me Your Own. Prince, lover or savior. It does not matter.” She felt his arms slide around her waist, pulling her further into his darkness. His smell filled her, making it hard to breathe. Musk and ash, burning sandalwood—all of those scents that when she caught a whiff of them in her waking world made her blood race and her sex tingle. “In your language, my name would mean nothing. It would be repugnant to your ears.”
Thalia said, nuzzling into his neck and kissing at the bit of exposed flesh, “All that you are, whatever you are—I am forever yours.”
He pulled away, threading his fingers into her hair and brushing it back from her brow. She wanted to touch him, but her arms were so heavy. She was like a carnival puppet in his arms, only moving as he wished. “I would almost believe you, little thing.” His hold was strong as he lay her down on the grass. “But you and I are only meant for dreaming.”
“I know that you’re real.”
“I am an illusion, Thalia. I have been selfish to let you dwell so long in this darkness. This dreamworld that can never be.” He knelt beside her. “It is time for you to find your own path.”
Thalia panicked. “What are you saying?” she gasped, sitting up. “You can’t leave me!” She tried to reach out and take his arm, but he stopped her.
“Every time we meet it gets harder to let you go. I fear that you will follow me too far and not be able to find your way back.”
“I don’t care,” Thalia whispered. “I want to be wherever you are.”
“You don’t mean that!” he hissed, savagely pulling her body against his. He crushed his mouth against hers, holding her tightly so that she could not touch him. He held her so tightly she could feel the blood rushing to the site of the pressure. The hand that held her arm was thrust into the light, and she could see that it was strange, more of a talon that grasped her, its long nails and scaly flesh burning her flesh beneath its grip. She opened her mouth, offering herself freely to his invasion. Slowly his tongue slid along hers, tasting her, tasting him.
Gathering the curls at the base of her skull in his fist, he pulled her head backward, drawing a moan from her lips. He blazed a trail of kisses down her jugular vein, then nibbled gently as if her skin were the most delicious of delicacies. His fingertips trilled lightly across her collarbone. The path worn by his fingers was still warm as he continued lower. He’d never been so bold before and though it was frightening, Thalia craved his touch. He paused, looking up at her, his eyes beseeching. “No…” he snarled. “I cannot let this be!”