I swung one leather-clad leg over the balcony railing and froze. Straddling the stone balustrade, I gazed upward, willing my heart to still. A crescent moon cut a half-smile in the starry night as if mocking my rebellion. Or perhaps encouraging it.
Don’t look down.
A smudge of cloud blurred over the moon, nudging me into the darkness. Deep breath in, I swung the other leg over and shimmied toward the ivy trellis. My long legs helped me maintain balance on the stone balcony, making it easier to climb down. Of course, I had to have the villa suite on the top floor—an obscene luxury for a college student. Only the best, my father would say. I knew the truth. He tucked me away in an ivory tower, complete with armed guards, imprisoning me to watch my every move. It had nothing to do with protection. Not mine, anyway.
My maroon silk blouse snagged on a tendril of ivy. I slipped the hem loose and dropped the final few feet to the grass below. I peeked around a manicured shrub toward the front of the complex. One of the guards leaned against the entrance, nearly dozing. Smiling to myself, I crept across the shadowed lawn to the side street.
I jumped into the sleek, black coupe waiting at the curb and turned to Sorcha. “Let’s go.”
She grinned and tore off into the night, away from Cade Heights.
“I don’t get it.” Ella leaned forward from the back seat. “Why can’t you just walk out the front door like everyone else, Jessen? There’s no curfew or anything.”
I flipped down the compact mirror above the passenger seat, checking my hair. I plucked a leaf from the black waves falling past my chest. “Ella, have you actually met my father?” I wiped away a streak of dark liner from below one eye. “Sorcha, where’s your eye shadow?”
“Check the glove compartment.”
I touched-up the tawny shade of color on the outside corners and smeared a glossy cream on the bottom lids, setting off my light brown eyes. Pleased my hair and makeup looked fresh, and not like someone who just crawled down an ivy trellis, I flipped the mirror shut.
“Yes, I’ve met your father. You know I have.” Ella didn’t get the concept of rhetorical questions. Her glazed look, as always, made her pretty features more child-like. “So?”
“So!” Sorcha careened around the next corner, veering deeper into the city. “That man could suffocate a person with a glance.”
I sighed. “Forget about him. Don’t you ladies want to know our destination tonight?”
“Oooo, I do love it when you’re sneaky, Jess. So what’s the big secret? Why am I decked out in my highest-heeled boots and shortest skirt?”
I pulled the glossy flier from my back pocket and handed it over.
“Oh, yeah. That’s what I’m talkin’ about, baby.” Sorcha turned down a side street, heading for the farthest edge of the Gladium Province.
“What is this?” Ella snatched the paper from Sorcha’s hand. “We can’t go there. It’s a Morgon club, Jessen! We’re not allowed.”
“Oh, Ella. Relax.” I snatched the flier back and pointed at the headline. “Do you see who’s playing tonight? We have to go. For moral support.”
“Yeah, for moral support,” agreed Sorcha with a mischievous grin, tossing her dark red locks over one shoulder. “And to play with a little fire.”
I laughed. Ella didn’t.
“You two are crazy. Out-of-your-minds crazy. I don’t care if Jed’s band is playing. He knows we’re not allowed on that end of town, much less in one of their clubs.”
“Calm down.” I twisted in my seat. Ella looked like a wide-eyed doe frozen in the headlights. “First of all, that’s not true. It’s not illegal to go to a Morgon club.”
Ella needed a refresher course on desegregation laws, and how it was illegal for either race to bar anyone from a public or even private place of business. Of course, my father might let a Morgon come into his place of business, but he’d never let one step foot in his house. Not unless there was money riding on it. Unlawful or not. Ella’s parents also fell into his line of thinking.
“Look. Other humans go all the time. Jed told me. I mean, why the hell would they hire a human band to play if it were against the law? Times are changing.” I wanted to believe it was true, whether or not my father was stuck in the dark ages of bigotry and discrimination.
Ella heaved a small sigh, voice almost a whisper. “But, my mom, she told me never to go to their side of the city.” I glanced over my shoulder. She twisted a blond curl around her index finger, a sure sign of distress for my timid friend. “It’s dangerous, Jessen. Your dad would kill you.”
“Hence, the very reason I snuck out of my apartment rather than let his henchmen tail me all night long, as usual.”
Sorcha zoomed into the Morgon district, the buildings transformed to suit the dragon-hybrid race—sharper, wider, taller, like mountains made of glass and steel.
“I don’t approve,” protested Ella.
Sorcha squeezed her car into a parking spot on a street where glittering clubs lined the block, then popped open her purse and applied a fresh coat of cherry-red lipstick in the rearview mirror.
I gave Ella my reassuring expression while Sorcha primped. “I know. Don’t worry. Jed wouldn’t invite us if he wasn’t sure it was safe. Now, come on. Let’s have some fun.”
“Wait!” Sorcha passed me the lipstick. “You look good in this.”
I applied and handed it back. “Better?”
“Luscious.” She winked. “Look out Morgon men.”
We walked the block in silence, taking in the towering sight of Acropolis at the end. At least ten stories of Gothic stone with wing-like buttresses and spires stabbing into the darkness above. Grotesque gargoyles glared down. The stone creatures drew my eye with their long limbs, sharp claws, wings spread wide, and gaping mouths, tongues lolling. Was this some kind of subliminal warning to beware of winged beasts?
Sorcha glanced up at one particular fiendish gargoyle, seeming as if it would leap off its pedestal at any moment. “Mmm. I’m feeling like a damsel in distress. How about you, Jess?”
“Um, isn’t this owned by the Nightwing clan?” asked Ella, sandwiched between us.
“Yep,” I replied.
Sorcha added more sway to her walk. “Awesome.”
Though the exterior reeked of an ancient time, an electric blue sign burned above a black door—Tonight: Red Dream. My heart skittered at the sight of the man checking IDs. I’d never seen a Morgon this close. We’d had a guest speaker in my Multicultural Literature class, but the Morgon woman, a poet, stood on the stage a good distance from the audience.
This guy was huge, a wall of bulging muscles. His brawny physique wasn’t what kept the three of us riveted to the spot. Massive wings—leathery, jagged, and magnificent—held us spellbound. The man cleared his throat to get our attention, gesturing inside with a crooked smile. “Welcome, ladies.”
“Such a gentleman,” said Sorcha, batting her bedroom eyes. As we stumbled into the club, she grabbed my shoulder and leaned in. “I think I’m in love.”
“Slow down, Sorcha. There are plenty more inside.”
Sure enough, there were. Sorcha bee-lined for the bar. I followed, scanning the décor. I’d never been inside a Morgon building. Maintaining the Gothic style in black leather seating, low-lit sconces, and wide, gold-trimmed mirrors on every wall, the space didn’t feel stifling or closed-in as expected. Rather the opposite. The bar lined one side of the ground floor, the stage the other. The center of the room was the dance floor that opened all the way up to the tenth floor. The skylight in the ceiling framed a deep, inky night. On both sides of the club, wide stairwells spiraled upward. Wrought iron railings barricaded each floor, maintaining the sense of open space. I was standing at the bottom of a giant birdcage. I smiled to myself. Of course I was.
“Jess! Come here!”
I’d stopped midway to the bar, stunned by the vast and opulent interior. A throng of Morgon men surrounded Sorcha and Ella. Oh, hell, Sorcha. Ella looked like she was about to bolt, a frightened rabbit hemmed in by wolves. I sauntered up, well aware my body drew attention. Though not as voluptuous as Sorcha, I stood much taller. With black wavy hair brushing my hips, I straightened, thankful for my gift of height. In a biology book on Morgons, which I’d smuggled from the library in my teen years, I’d learned the average height of an adult Morgon male was six-foot-seven. The average. Just like the one with platinum blond hair currently raking me with hungry eyes.
“This is my friend, Jessen,” Sorcha introduced. She turned to the two chestnut-haired Morgons on her other side. “This is Conn and Corbin Rowanflame. They’re twins.” Sorcha winked. They nodded in unison with identical expressions of my-mouth-would-make-your-knees-buckle. I didn’t doubt it. I nodded in greeting, examining the deep russet hue of their wings. Sorcha turned to the platinum blond whose ravenous gaze didn’t waver for a second. “This is—”
“Slade Silverback,” he interrupted, taking my hand and sweeping a kiss across the knuckles. His wings shimmered silver-gray under the lights.
“Is it true each clan is named for their wings?” I asked.
He kept my hand in his, pulling me closer. “Yes. It’s true. The coloring is distinct to each clan. The dragon inside us is patriarchal.” He puffed up his chest. “Children always have the wings of the father.”
I tilted my head. “What happens when a Morgon woman marries…um, I mean heartbonds, to a Morgon of another clan?”
He leaned closer, too close. “Her wings change color to match her mate’s.”
“Because of soulfire, right?”
He didn’t answer my question. “Why don’t you let me take you flying? I could make you soar.” Silver wings twitched at his invitation.
Did these cheese-ball lines actually work for him?
He kept inching into my space. Though he assumed I was flirting, I wasn’t. I’d always been curious about Morgons, their more personal information forbidden to us. This was my first flesh-and-blood conversation with one, and he was stripping me naked with glittering green eyes. “I’m sure you think you could, but no thanks.”
“Whoohoo! Come here, Jess.” Saved by Sorcha.
I scooted up to the bar between her and Conn, avoiding the too-close attentions of Slade. The bartender, a young human woman about our age, lined the bar with shots, each glass in front of a pint of beer.
“What’s this?” I asked.
Corbin winked and gestured for us to step away. “Watch, ladies.”
We shuffled back a foot. Corbin sucked in a lungful of air, held it a second, then blew a stream of flame from his mouth along the row of shot glasses. Ella squeaked. Sorcha laughed, throwing her head back. I marveled with a smile as a line of red-orange flame licked and lit the top of each glass. Fire danced around the rims as if Corbin controlled it. He grinned, making me wonder if he did. “Drop the glass in the beer and down the hatch. Quick!”
One by one, we dropped the shots, dousing the flames, and guzzled the liquor-spiked beer. Sorcha beat us all, slamming down her mug. “That was badass. Do it again, Corbin.”
The guy blushed. I didn’t blame him. Attention from Sorcha could make any man, any species, crumble. I wiped the back of my hand across my mouth, glimpsing two Morgon men at a side door. Dressed all in black, they reminded me of the burly guy checking IDs. Giant, rock-like statues with military awareness in their watchful gazes.
“Hey, Corbin.” I pointed to the stone-like guards, reminding me of the gargoyles squatting on the roof of this place. “What’s up with the extra security in this place? Looks like we’ve got a celebrity coming or something.”
“Huh?” He glanced toward the guards. “Oh. Nah. Typical Nightwing security.”
My fascination with Morgons led me down a specific research path during my adolescence. Much to the consternation of my high school history teacher, I’d read everything I could get my hands on regarding the hybrid race. The Nightwing clan were direct descendants of Prince Larkos and the dragon king, Radomis, himself. Because of their royal ancestry, they continued to be the most powerful clan among their kind.
“What do you mean typical?”
“They protect their family investments. And they take extra precautions when there’s a human band on site, knowing there’ll be more mingling of the species.”
I’d read an article recently about the Nightwing financial holdings in Acropolis and other new nightclubs, attracting more and more patronage from humans. I’d heard my father cursing the fact on a number of occasions.
Nothing irked him more than corporate competition. For his lead rival to be a Morgon clan made his blood boil on a regular basis. I knew, because I witnessed his rants and tirades more than once to my brother, Demetrius, over breakfast. Mornings were such a delight at the Cade household.
“What you really mean,” I said to Corbin, “is they suspect violence is more likely to break out, and are preparing for said violence.”
Corbin’s mouth tilted into a boyish smile, which was odd and adorable coming from someone his height. “You’re a smart young woman. And who said human women were dim-witted?”
“Excuse me? Are you saying Morgon men think we’re stupid?” Heat flooded my face.
He grinned. “No. I just wanted to see you get angry. We like feisty women. The way your eyes get all wild and your cheeks turn pink. It’s hot.”
I punched him in the arm, only making him laugh. “How’s that for feisty?”
The pounding of drums and the screech of a guitar pulled our attention to the stage. There stood Jed in all of his golden-boy glory, smiling at the crowd. In torn-up jeans and a raggedy T-shirt, he still had a line of women—Morgon and human—clinging to the stage at his feet.
“Welcome, everyone,” he said, voice rumbling. “It’s a pleasure to be here. We are Red Dream, and we want to hear you scream!”
He winked and laced the words with so much sexual innuendo, I thought the groupies would faint. The women in the front row erupted in squeals when the first song vibrated to life.
“Come on!” Sorcha grabbed my hand, dragging me into the crowd. Ella held back with Conn. Fear no longer lingered in her eyes. Perhaps it had something to do with the brawny guard, making sure no one bumped or jostled her. Since she was in good hands, I followed Sorcha into the sweaty mix.
Slade sidled up and handed me a blue-bottled longneck—Scale Ale, a microbrew import from Drakos, one of the pricier ones. I took it with a tight smile, not wanting to be rude, not wanting to encourage him either. He watched me take a sip. The dark, rich lager slid down my throat with a kick. “Good stuff,” I said, giving him a genuine smile.
He winked with a lop-sided grin of his own. I sipped the beer and bobbed my head to Jed’s insane lyrics about star-crossed lovers, broken hearts, and death being his love’s true paramour. I swear, the girls panted and swooned at his rock-star antics.
When the first song ended, Sorcha nudged me with her elbow, a frown creasing her lovely face. “Don’t look now, Jess, but Demetrius and his entourage are here.”
She gestured toward the wall to my right. I glanced over. Demetrius saw me. “Damn it. And Aron is with him.” They stalked straight for us.
“Shit is right.” Sorcha downed the last of her beer. “Party’s over.”
Demetrius yelled over the pounding music. “What the hell are you doing here, Jessen!” He grabbed my arm and twisted me to face him.
“The same thing you are, Demetrius.” I smiled too sweetly. “Here to watch the show.”
I glimpsed his best friend Mikal over one shoulder. A grim line replaced the light-hearted smile Mikal usually wore.
Demetrius ground out his words in anger. “You do not have permission to be in a Morgon club. Ever.”
My brother had the same chocolate-brown eyes and black hair as mine. If he didn’t look like he wanted to bite something all the time, he’d be gorgeous. Lately, we were always fighting. Possibly because he was becoming more and more like our father every day. He gripped my arm tighter.
Protective brother was one thing, but dominant jailer was another. Anger flared in my gut. “How come you have the right to be here, but I don’t?”
“Because you’re a woman. You don’t know what you’re doing, what Morgon men want from you.”
Um, the same thing human men wanted? Hypocrite.
Sorcha stepped up. “You are such an asshole.”
He ignored her, yanking my arm. “You’re leaving. Now!”
“No, I’m not.” I jerked free of his hold.
Slade sidled in beside me. “The lady doesn’t want to leave with you, dude. Let her go.” Corbin and Conn were there two seconds later, hovering behind him.
“She’s my sister, you fucker!”
An electric charge snapped in the air, resonating around the Morgon guys. Having read about their extraordinary dragon senses in a book, and feeling them electrify my skin into gooseflesh, were two totally different experiences. Slade’s wings opened partway, a distinct stance increasing his size to scary proportions. The cold, fixed gaze of Conn and Corbin made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
I raised my hands in a calming gesture, hoping to crush the rising tension before they came to blows. Restrained violence rippled around the Morgon men in a tangible wave. Then Aron’s dumb ass stepped forward and opened his mouth.
“Back off, boys.” He looked ridiculous and out of place in pristine jeans and a cream-colored sweater. What an idiot. Calling Slade and his friends “boys” was exactly the wrong thing to say. Leave it to Aron.
“And who the hell are you?” Slade asked, a head taller than Aron.
“I’m her fiancé.” He gestured toward me.
I rolled my eyes. “No. You’re not, Aron. How many times do we have to go over this?”
He moved closer, his chin jutting out at an arrogant angle, making me want to punch him in his aristocratic face. “Yes, Jessen. We are engaged to be married, and I won’t have my fiancé in a place of ill repute.”
“A place of ill repute? Does this look like a brothel to you? It’s a club, Aron. That’s all. I’m watching one of my closest friends play in his band, or trying to watch. Until you showed up.”
“This is no place for my future wife.” His words grated out through clenched teeth.
“Perfect. Because I’m not your future wife.”
He grabbed me by the arm and all hell broke loose. Slade’s wings flared wide. Demetrius launched himself fist-first through the air. Corbin tossed Sorcha out of the way, slamming a fist into Mikal’s head, which snapped back with the force. I ducked and shoved through the sweaty bodies and swinging punches. Glancing back, I saw Conn slam an elbow, then his head, into some guy I’d never seen before, before scooping Ella off the floor and carrying her out of the mayhem. Before I could slip out of the way, someone shoved and pinned me to the wall by my shoulders. A body pressed against mine. Aron. Anger burned darkly in his cold eyes.
“You are mine, Jessen.” He glared down, his tone possessive and furious. “And I won’t have you here for these creatures to leer at.”
“No. You’re coming with me.”
I struggled to free myself. He gripped harder, then started dragging me to the door. I feared what confrontation awaited me in the parking lot. Or worse, back at his place. He’d tried to corner me alone at my parents’ house more than once, but I was always wary of him. I never liked the look in his eyes, especially when my parents mentioned a possible wedding in the near future. He might have my parents’ blessing for this archaic-as-shit arranged marriage, but he didn’t have mine. And never would.
“Let me go!”
Aron opened his mouth to say something. He froze, eyes glazed, then hit the floor.
Decked in black with midnight wings and eyes of blue-fire, a Morgon man towered before me like an angel of death. A fitted shirt outlined his broad chest and powerful frame, filling my vision. My breath caught in my throat. While chaos whirled, he wrapped vise-like arms around my waist, crushing me against a wall of steel in a rough embrace. I opened my mouth to scream. No sound came out. He bent his knees a fraction before two beats of vast, black wings lifted us with a jolt. I clung to his muscular shoulders for fear of falling, the masculine scent of him wrapping my senses into a tight knot.
I hadn’t noticed from below there were breaks in the railing for Morgon flight. He dropped me into a chair in an empty VIP section. Rising to a mountainous height, electric-blue held me captive. Piercing, his gaze reached deep inside, as if he could see the secret part of me, a part I tucked away from the world, kept hidden behind a mask of indifference and strong will. Someone screamed below. Hard angles contorted into a fierce mask. Snapping his gaze away, he spun, took two long strides and fell from the edge, plummeting out of view.