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Tempted By Fire (Dragons Of The Darkblood Secret Society Book 4) by Meg Ripley (1)


Dirk Bennett’s eyes flew open.  It was still dark, or at least the thick curtains over his windows were keeping out the light from the morning sun.  He’d been dreaming, but it had been so real.  He searched his mind, trying to grasp at the last few wisps of imagery.  There had been something special going on in that dream, the kind of thing he wanted to hold onto to pull into reality.  But it slipped through his fingers and was gone, leaving him with only a vague sense of discovery and loss.  Dirk’s alarm sounded, causing the last vestiges of the dream to vanish like fog in the heat of day.

The scent of coffee drifted through the house.  Dirk could afford—and owned—a lot of nice things, but what he appreciated the most was his basic coffee pot with a programmable timer.  It wasn’t anything new or flashy, and it hadn’t even been all that expensive, but there was something special about the scent of the hot liquid filling the apartment, beckoning him to the waking world.  It didn’t necessarily make him dance his way to work, but it still helped.

He swiped irritably at the screen on his Cobalt Computers tablet, turning off the alarm, and continued to lay in bed.  Dirk tried to remember what day it was and what he had going on.  He’d been in such a heavy sleep that it took him a moment to regain his mind, but his schedule soon came flooding back to him.  It would be a day of meeting after meeting, handshake after handshake.  As the son of the oil magnate Reginald Bennett, Dirk would be pressing the palms of politicians and easing the minds of worried dealers.  He would wheel and deal and sweet talk his way into and out of numerous situations.

Heaving himself out of bed and whisking the curtains back to reveal the brilliant sunlight, Dirk ran his hands over his face and padded to the bathroom to shower.  As the cool water woke him up a little more, he remembered the other meeting scheduled for the day over breakfast.  He moved a little faster to finish getting ready, dashing naked to the kitchen pour a mug of coffee before retreating back to his bedroom to get dressed.

With his custom Fioravanti suit and Gucci loafers, Dirk checked his email on his phone as he rode the elevator down to the first floor.  He glanced up when a woman got on at the fifteenth floor and smiled.  He hadn’t seen her around the building before, but her dark, sleek hair and curvy figure were alluring.  She gave him a smile and a small nod as she turned to lean against the wall of the elevator.  Dirk noticed the shining diamond ring on her finger, but it didn’t concern him; he had found that married women were just as happy to line up at his door as the single ones—sometimes, even more so.

If it hadn’t been for the meeting, he would have struck up a conversation that started in the elevator, continued in the lobby, and flowed right over into breakfast until they were back at his place.  But he already had a breakfast date, and it was one he couldn’t miss.

Arriving at the parking garage, Dirk strode confidently toward his designated spot.  Businessmen in suits were getting into their vehicles all around him and heading to work.  As he circled around to the lower floors of the garage, he saw the dogwalkers and nannies arriving in their vans and on bicycles.  It was a busy building, and that was just the way he liked it.  Everyone always had something to do.

He tapped the steering wheel of his Ferrari as he waited for traffic to clear out on the street.  On most days, Dirk didn’t worry about being late to the office.  He could flash his father’s secretary a quick smile and nothing would be mentioned.  But it would be different today, and he wanted it to be.  He had been looking forward to this meeting for the past week, and he felt a ripple of excitement through his veins as he once again thought about all the research he had done. 

The security guard at the entrance to the Bennett Energy building tipped his hat and opened the door.  “Good morning, sir.  Did you have a good weekend?”

“As usual,” Dirk replied with a grin.  With a boating trip that involved plenty of semi-naked women and many of Dirk’s friends, it couldn’t have been bad. 

His father was waiting for him on the top floor, tipped back in his chair, reading the paper.  A massive breakfast spread had been laid out on the mahogany table in the conference room.  He glanced over his wireframe glances at his son and then checked his watch.  “You’re early.”

“Don’t sound so surprised.  I’m a partner in this company, after all,” Dirk said as he sat down and helped himself to some fried eggs.  He spooned a glop of salsa and a dab of sour cream on top before cutting into them with the side of his fork, watching with pleasure as the yolk ran out onto the plate.  With a large number of employees who were working at all hours of the day and night and sometimes not having enough time to leave the building, it had been a smart move to upgrade the small cafeteria the company had started with and put in a full-scale restaurant.  Dirk knew he certainly appreciated it.

“A partner who’s usually late,” Mr. Bennett corrected, “but I’ll take what I can get.  I take it this means you’re interested in discussing where we spend our cash holdings this year.”  He folded his paper and set it to the side, then removed his glasses and laid them on top.  “I have to say that I’m a little excited, myself.  We’ve done very well this year.”

“All I can say is you’re welcome.”  Dirk reached across the table for the coffee pot.  As much as he loved his coffee at home, he loved the brew from the in-house restaurant even more.  The cooks made it with normal percolators for the majority of the staff, but for Dirk and his father, it was pressed by hand.  He had experimented with French presses himself, but he rarely had time for it on work mornings, even when he didn’t mind being late. 

Mr. Bennett raised an eyebrow as he forked a few slices of avocado and set them on his toast along with some diced tomato.  He topped the structure off with a sprinkle of freshly-ground pink Himalayan salt.  “Do you think you run this company all by yourself?  I knew it would be an unnecessary boost to your ego when I made you partner, but I didn’t realize it was going to make your head so big, it barely fits in this room.”

“Don’t you think a person needs to be a bit overconfident to run a place like this?  There are lobbyists constantly waiting to break down our doors and get a word in edgewise, and they’re all pushing different agendas.  We’ve been through business acquisitions and overseas deals that would spin the brains of most people.  We deal with foreign princes and local magnates like we’re inviting them to a backyard barbecue.  Face it, Dad, you and I just aren’t like other people.”  Dirk scraped the last bit of egg off his plate and reached for a bowl of oatmeal topped with fresh blueberries and strawberries, his favorite.

His father shook his head.  “I know you aren’t, that’s for sure.”

A thread of discomfort wiggled through the back of Dirk’s mind, and he brushed it aside.  He and Mr. Bennett had their share of arguments over the company and the way it was run.  The elder Bennett leaned toward the old-fashioned tactics of his own father, making conservative decisions that risked very little and only earned them a very small profit.  Dirk, however, was happy to throw himself and his company out into the world and see what happened.  Unfortunately, they had each been proven right with their tactics before. 

Dirk cleared this throat, ready to dodge this bullet before it was fired and get down to business.  He picked up his briefcase and set it on the table, clicking open the latches and pulling out his tablet.  “I’ve been doing some research, and—”

“Before you get started,” Mr. Bennett interrupted, “we need to go over the current reports so we’re on the same page as to just how much of a cash overage we have on hand and how much of it would be safe to invest.  I had my top accounting people put these together for me.”  He reached into the chair next to him and flopped a manila file folder onto the table, removing several sheets of paper and handing them to Dirk.  “I don’t think we should concentrate on investing the entire ball of wax.  There are plenty of profits, yes, but I don’t want to tie up all our money if we don’t have a guarantee of getting it back.  You and I both know that the oil industry can have its ups and downs.”

“That’s exactly what I want to talk to you about.”  Dirk glanced at the reports, but he’d already seen the figures.  Mr. Bennett needed someone to compile all the data for him, but Dirk had a more modern approach to things.  He was good friends with Ethan Beaufort, the owner and genius behind Cobalt Computers, and it had taken nothing to commission a better accounting program that could beat the pants off any guy in a suit his father wanted to hire.  Dirk had tried to get Mr. Bennett to use the program throughout the company, but of course that hadn’t gone over well.

He pulled up several charts and diagrams on his tablet and turned them around to show his father.  “In past years, we’ve invested our cash holdings in companies that are in the same genre as our own.  We’ve bought land we thought might be good for drilling, and we’ve purchased equipment for that same purpose.  We’ve acquired gas station chains and bought out smaller oil companies.  There have been times that we’ve even bought shares of our own company with the overages.”

Mr. Bennett nodded.  “Of course.  It only makes sense to continue to expand our business.  I like the idea of having a hand in every step of the chain.  It’s a smart business move, so we can always have a feeler out for what’s happening in the oil industry.”

Dirk shook his head.  His father just didn’t understand.  Dirk’s grandfather had started the company, and so Reginald had grown up with it just as Dirk had. But it had still been in its infancy for much of that time, only coming into its prime a few years before Dirk was born.  Bennett Energy was massive.  It was the type of company everybody wanted to work for due to the excellent benefits it offered its employees as well as its global reach.  There had been at least a few employees who had relocated to London or Dubai without having to change jobs.

“Yes,” he agreed tentatively, “but that’s only going to work for so long.  There’s a limited supply of fossil fuels, and we’re continually seeing more car companies working on alternative fuel sources.  It’s only a matter of time before they take over in earnest.”

Mr. Bennett waved off the idea with a flick of his wrist.  “Yes, and every year they think they’ve finally got all the bugs worked out.  But people buy those cars and realize what a pain in the ass they are.  You can’t get the same kind of power out of an electric engine as you can from a gasoline one, and it takes forever to charge a car compared to just filling the tank.”

“Yes, but what happens when there’s nothing left to fill the tank with?” Dirk argued.  It was something that had bothered him for quite some time, but it wasn’t the sort of thing to bring up at business meetings with companies who wanted to buy the oil that they did have.  “Every bit of scientific data points to the idea that the petroleum under the Earth’s crust will eventually run out, and we’re foolish if we don’t think about that.”

“Alright.”  Mr. Bennett heaved a sigh and looked at his son with tired eyes.  “Let’s pretend for a moment that we really are running on a limited supply, one that’s limited enough that you and I will see the end of it within our lifetimes.  Just what do you propose we do about that?”

Dirk tapped the screen and pulled up a different image.  “I suggest we invest in other types of companies, ones that will either provide other services for the future or that will help our own.”

“What does that mean?”  Reginald frowned at the screen and flicked the tablet back across the table. 

“That means we find companies who are maybe small and ground-level right now, but who are going to be really big in the future.  Some of them might be completely different from ours, say a health food company for instance.  It would diversify the company’s portfolio and help keep us from completely tanking if something goes south.  But what I really believe in is funding companies who can turn around and directly help us in the future.”  Dirk was truly getting excited now.  This was his sales pitch; this was going to be his contribution to the company that his employees and heirs would be talking about for decades.  “There have been some major breakthroughs in synthetic biology, which could mean a true alternative fuel source for the future.”

With a heavy sigh, Mr. Bennett shook his head once again.  “I think you’ve been reading too much.”

A wave of anger washed over him, but Dirk did his best to control it.  His father always knew how to push his buttons, and sometimes it seemed as though he enjoyed doing it.  “I know what I’m talking about.  I do have a degree in biology, remember?”

Mr. Bennett rolled his eyes.  “Oh, here we go with that again.  I don’t know why I ever let you study something so silly and useless.  It’s not as though you were ever going to spend your life stomping through the woods and counting animals.”

“You didn’t let me,” Dirk reminded him through gritted teeth.  “You set everything up with the college for me to go into business management.  It was only when I went back to my counselor and changed it all that I was finally on the right track again.  And I do love science, but I didn’t study it because I thought it would be an easy way out.  I truly loved it, and I can see now that it will really make a difference in the future—not only of the company, but of the world.”

“Alright, wise guy, then tell me just how this is going to work.”

Dirk took a deep breath.  “There are several labs out there that specialize in synthetic biology.  They’re working on all different kinds of projects right now, but if we provide full financial backing for one of them, then we’ll have control over what happens.  We can direct the focus to biofuels.  It might take a few years for them to come up with something viable, but that’s okay.  We know Bennett Energy can hold out for at least a little while.  Once the lab really does have an alternative fuel source, we’ll be lauded in the environmental community for providing energy that has a far smaller or even nonexistent carbon footprint.  The environmentally conscious will come running into our arms, and as the fossil fuels slowly fall out of the market for being too expensive and cumbersome, Bennett Energy will be the world’s leading company in its sector.” 

“That’s a pretty idealistic outlook,” Mr. Bennett said quietly.  “You know, when my father started this company, he had a good reason to think it might not last forever.  He had lived through the Great Depression as a boy, and he remembered what it was like to be poor and starving, even though his own father had been a fairly wealthy man for most of his life.  But we’ve recovered from that, Dirk.  We’ve made it through numerous recessions and economic dives, and we can’t go running scared in the other direction.  Your little biofuel idea is a nice daydream, but if it was going to happen, then it would have by now.”

Dirk pressed his tongue against the back of his teeth.  He had known his father wouldn’t agree, but he hadn’t expected him to dig his heels in so stubbornly.  Still, he was a businessman, and he knew there were at least two sides to every story.  “Okay.  Then you tell me what we should invest in this year.”

Mr. Bennett smiled.  “I’m glad you asked.  There’s a small company in Arizona that is looking to completely change the gas station experience.  Instead of getting your hands dirty while pumping fuel and then waiting in line to get a drink inside, there will be carhops who do it all for you.  It’s like the old-fashioned full-service stations, and the attendees will not only pump your gas but clean your windows and check your oil.  And I know what you’re going to say.”  He held up a finger to stop Dirk from arguing with him just yet.  “It’s all too old, blah blah blah.  But you can use an app on your phone while you’re at these stations to order and pay for whatever you want from the store.  An attendant brings it all out to you, so you never have to get out of your car.”  His eyes twinkled as he tipped his chair back once again. 

“Dad,” Dirk started, and then paused.  He wasn’t quite sure where to begin his argument against this.  “People will be paying more for their gas than they are right now.”

“No, they’ll be paying for a service.  Surveys done all over the country show that people are more willing to pay someone else to do a dirty job than to do it themselves.  Just look at all the ride-hailing apps out there or the rising trend in housekeeping services among the middle class.  People even pay other people to organize their closets, for crying out loud.  This gas station keeps their lazy asses in the car while making them feel like they’re doing something old-timey.  I don’t know what’s trendier than that!”  Mr. Bennett grinned, looking very proud of himself for his market analysis.

“That’s all well and good, but that’s not going to serve our company beyond giving us an automatic gas station customer to sell to.  I’m really trying to look toward the future, Dad, and I wish you could see that.”

“What I can see is that you’re so stubborn and stuck in your own ways that you have no respect for how things have been done for decades.  You’ve only been my partner for a couple of years, and you just don’t know what’s best.”  He picked up his paper again, which sent his glasses skidding across the table and onto the floor.  Mr. Bennett bent to retrieve them, a look of irritation on his face as he settled them onto his nose. 

“I just might, if you would listen to me for a moment.  Look, why don’t we go to the board with this.  We can see what they have to say.”  Dirk knew they would agree with him.  They were a bunch of old fogeys just like his father, but surely, he could get at least a few of them to understand how important this was.  Dirk used human women like paper napkins, but that didn’t mean he didn’t care about what happened to humankind as a whole.  He wanted to make a difference in the world, to ensure a certain quality of life in the face of famine, disease and overpopulation.  He wanted to recommend investment in an overseas company that provided developing countries with clean water, but that would be his plan for next year.

Mr. Bennett slammed his hand down on the table.  “Absolutely not!  They’re capable of making a lot of decisions about this company, but I’ve always prided myself on keeping it in the family.  This is something for you and me to work out, not a conference room full of suits.  You’re just going to have to figure out that I know best.”

Dirk knew how important it was to keep his temper in check, especially when he was at work.  He couldn’t shift here, not when there were so many people around who might pop in at any moment.  To have the general populace find out just who and what he really was would be devastating, and Bennett Energy and all that extra cash would go right down the toilet.  Still, he felt anger boiling underneath the surface of his skin, threatening to send him straight over the tipping point and into his dragon form.  His shoulder blades itched with the longing to sprout a pair of wings, and he could almost feel the points of his claws pushing underneath his fingernails.

“I don’t agree,” he finally said, slowly.  He had to keep his thoughts straight and not let the animalistic side of him take over.  “You don’t always know everything, and just because you’re older doesn’t mean your ideas are better.  I own half of this company, just as you do, and I expect to be treated as such.”

“You’ve always been impetuous.  I blame your mother.”  Mr. Bennett stood up and strode to the massive windows that surrounded the conference room and looked out over the city. 

“That’s easy to say when she’s dead.”  Dirk blinked against the memories of his mother that always come flooding back when she was mentioned.  Her dark hair lay against the pillow, and Dirk pushed past the doctor as he left.  There wasn’t any more they could do, and Mrs. Bennett wanted to be at home.  Dirk took her hand and said something to her, but he still didn’t know if it had been the right thing.  Had she known he loved her when she died?  Was there some treatment out there that would have been available to her had someone like him—someone like his father—invested in the sciences?

“Damn it, Dirk, that’s exactly what I’m talking about!  She always wanted to let you be a free spirit, to roam the world and explore your life until you figured out what you wanted from it.  She let you say whatever was on your mind, no matter how rude it was, and she never tried to stop you from making a decision, even if it was a stupid one.  She thought she was doing right by you, but all she did was leave a mess for me.”  Mr. Bennett turned away from the window once again.  “I’ll make the decisions about the investments, and that’s final.”

“No, it’s not.”  Dirk stood now, his fists curling at his sides.  “I own half of this company, and I’ll take half of the cash holdings to invest as I please.”

“You will not!”  His father’s face was flushing red, making his steely gray eyes glow against the color. 

“Just try and stop me.”  Dirk grabbed his briefcase in one hand, tucked his tablet under his arm, and headed for his office.



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