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Craved by the Dragon Warriors by Ashley West (1)

Chapter One: Good for Nothing

“Will you just take your medicine?” Natasha demanded, one hand on her hip, the other wrapped tightly around a pill bottle. “I mean, seriously, just do us all a favor and take it.”

Her mother, a small, angry woman, turned her nose up at Nat and the bottle. “I already told you I’m not taking that stuff,” she spat. “There ain’t nothing wrong with me.”

Anyone who knew Dorothea Hamilton knew that sure wasn’t true, but trying to convince Natasha’s mother that she needed help was harder than trying to get the dog to come out from under the bed during a thunderstorm. Mostly because Dorothea wasn’t motivated by dog biscuits and snuggles.

This wasn’t even medicine for her messed up brain. No, this was just because she had sprained her ankle chasing the mailman off her property and needed to take her pain meds.

Being in pain just made the woman worse.

Her already short temper flared faster and hotter, and since Natasha was the only one who still came around to help her, she was the one who got the brunt of it.

She wasn’t even Dorothea’s only child. Natasha had an older brother and an older half-sister. Both of them had long since washed their hands of their mother. In Cheryl’s defense, she had moved to New York to pursue her acting dreams, but Bailey lived in the same state, just half an hour away, and he never came to see their mother or offered to help Natasha out.

It put her in a foul mood, and so her temper was fit to match her mother’s as she moved around the woman’s small house. She made tea, popped leftovers in the microwave, turned the TV on so she wouldn’t miss her crime procedurals that just made her more paranoid than she already was, and tried to coax her into taking her pain pills.

When it devolved into a shouting match, Nat had had enough. That was always her breaking point. She was a twenty-five year old woman, and she wasn’t about to yell at her mother like she was fifteen and trying to get permission to go to the movies. She was grown, and now she was leaving.

“Go on, then!” Dorothea shouted after her as Nat let the screen door slam behind her. “Get outta here! Don’t come back, you ungrateful—”

Whatever she was going to call her was cut off by Natasha stomping down the front steps and getting into her car. On the horizon, she could see storm clouds, and the air was heavy with the scent of oncoming rain.

Good. Dorothea’s kitchen had a leak in it. Maybe she would slip and fall and hit her head, and then wake up a nicer person.

As soon as she thought that, she felt guilty. There was something wrong with her mother, she knew that—everyone knew that, except Dorothea herself, of course. It would be one thing if Natasha had help, someone to help her convince her mother to go talk to someone or see a doctor or anything. But she didn’t. It was just her, moving around her mother’s house on a Thursday evening after working from six to five, getting yelled at like some kind of child.

The sad part was that for all accounts, Dorothea had once been a beautiful, free spirited person. Her aunts had told her and shown her pictures of her mother when she was younger, and it was so hard to reconcile the woman she knew now with the woman in those pictures.

Dorothea had smiled all the time, and it filled her face with such joy and light that it made her even more beautiful than she already was. And she had been a looker. Short and slender, she'd had the kind of milk and honey skin that freckled and tanned in the hot summer sun rather than burned, and in most of the pictures, she was wearing halter tops and shorts, legs and shoulders freckled and being kissed by the sun.

Her hair was a honey blonde color, and it had fallen around her shoulders in waves that made her look both mature and youthful at the same time. Her blue eyes were clear and bright, and there was never any trace of the bitter malice that Dorothea was now infamous for in her face.

The sadder part was probably that Natasha looked just like her in some ways and not like her at all in other ways. She'd always thought that one of the points of contention between them was that Dorothea was at the same time jealous that Natasha was young and lovely and upset because she wasn't just like her when she was young.

Nat had the same golden hair, the same skin that tended to freckle and tan when she spent too much time out in the sun, and the same set to her mouth when she smiled. She had her father's nose, though, just a bit too large for her face, and she was short and curvy where her mother was tall and slender. Her eyes were hazel, another thing she'd inherited from her father, and there were some times when Dorothea looked at her, and Nat knew she was seeing the man who had left her.

With good reason, of course, but still. It had been hard for a while, before Nat had decided to stop caring about what her mother thought of her, but it still wasn't what she would call easy. It just added to the problems that the two of them had, but since she was the only one who was around to look after Dorothea, she put up with it, all the while dreaming of something better.

'Head in the clouds' her best friend said to her every time she mentioned how much she wanted to run away.

'Just go,’ her brother and sister always said. 'Just leave. There's no reason to stay'.

Clearly they were of the opinion that their mother had made her bed and it was time for her to lie in it. If she was going to be horrible and rude to the only person who still cared about her, then she deserved what she got.

They had a point, but somehow it was hard for Natasha to let go.

But she didn’t want to dwell on that. Every time she left her mother’s house, she had these melancholy thoughts, and it was exhausting. Trying hard to put it out of her head, she sighed and drove home.


Nat's home was small and run down, it was hers and that was all that mattered. She'd lived in this little house since she was nineteen years old. Her teens had been spent saving every single dime she could get her hands on, and when she happened to drive past a tiny yellow cottage on the other side of town that had a 'For Rent' sign out front, she'd slammed on the brakes of her run down Honda and had written down the number to call frantically.

In a place like Salem Grove, houses didn't go on sale or go up for rent very often. This was the kind of town where people stayed until they died. They were born in a house, and usually they continued to live in it until their parents died and it became theirs. Sometimes people moved to the city, or left the state altogether, but Natasha had always thought that there was something about Salem Grove that kept a hold of the people unlucky enough to be born there.

Most people never traveled, never saw anything new or different in their lives. They drove the dusty streets to the little grocery store or the gas station, sent their kids to Salem Grove Elementary, and then Salem Grove Middle, and then Salem Grove High.

If a kid was lucky, maybe they would get into the community college in Franklin, the closest city to them. Maybe they'd go on to the university there, too.

Usually they just ended up working at the Shop Mart or one of the fast food places.

The whole place reeked of despair and broken dreams, Natasha always thought. And if that sounded like seventh grade poetry, then it was Salem Grove’s fault for bringing that out in her.

Still, there was something about her tiny house that lifted the gloom whenever she saw it. Maybe it was because it was the first thing she'd ever done for herself. It wasn't a hand me down like her car, and it hadn't been handed to her like her job at the little coffee shop in the center of town. She'd scrimped and saved and had just been able to afford the rent that the owners had been asking.

And the feeling had been incredible. When Nat had walked into her mother's house after signing the lease and announced that she was moving out, it was amazing.

Her mother's face had gone red and then white and then red again, and there had been so much yelling, but it didn't matter.

Nat weathered all of it. She listened to her mother yell and didn't yell back, and when it finally went quiet, and her mother was done telling her how ungrateful and horrible she was, Natasha had just packed her things, loaded it all into her car and driven away.

In her mind at the time, she'd imagined that maybe she wouldn't have to see her mother again, but with her siblings being the way they were and both of her mother's former husbands wanting nothing more to do with the woman, Natasha's familial loyalty had kicked in.

She ended up at Dorothea's house most nights, making sure the woman ate and had food.

But coming back here, to her small, yellow cottage at the end of the road, was enough to lift her spirits.

Where the paint had been faded and old when she’d moved in, it now was a vibrant, sunny yellow. The roof shingles had been replaced, and the door, which had hung crooked and splintered was shiny and straight.

Out front, Natasha had planted flowers in the boxes, bringing even more color to the area and saving it from being all drab and brown and gray like everything else.

Color was the one thing that was saving this house from being like all the others, so Natasha worked hard to make sure the flowers were kept alive and had all that they needed.

It wasn't a grand life, by any means. She was just a barista. She was just a woman with a few friends and a fractured relationship with her family. She was never going to be glamorous or smart or well traveled. Not really. Nat might have dreamed about those things, but the chances of them happening were pretty slim.

All she could really hope for was that at the end of the day, she was better than her mother. That she didn't turn out mean and bitter and angry at all the wrong people. That the few people in her life didn't get driven away by her bad attitude and habit of lashing out.

She'd be...fine if she could just have that.


Natasha walked into work the next morning ten minutes early. The nine to four shift was her favorite, honestly, and she liked to start it with a cup of coffee that she didn't have to pay for and could drink while she was clocking in.

It was one of her little routines, and it got her ready for the day head.

Bean There was one of those helplessly trendy coffee shops that had sprung up in Salem Grove of all places four years ago. It was never very full, considering the people of this town wouldn't understand what a trend was if one jumped up and slapped them in the face with a bag of fair trade coffee beans, but there were some dedicated regulars who made it their business to come in and keep the shop afloat.

Five years ago Kathy Theron had shown up in Salem Grove with nothing but a bag slung over her shoulder and a gleam in her eye.

She'd taken one look at the building that had once been a chicken restaurant before the owners died, and the fact that they didn't have a Starbucks and then she'd leapt into action.

Within seven months of her moving to their town, Bean There, Done That had opened and was doing regular business.

By then, Kathy had already become one of Nat's favorite people. She was one of those people who had such ideas and such vigor. She was from New York of all places, but she'd wanted to live somewhere where she might actually get noticed for once, so she'd found herself here.

Natasha still thought that she was crazy for coming to Salem Grove and expecting to be special (the only thing special in Salem Grove was the Salisbury Steak Dinner that happened every Easter), but she was glad that she had.

Kathy herself was behind the register when Natasha walked in, and she beamed at Nat. "Hey you. The usual?"

Nat nodded, sitting down at one of the barstools in front of the counter for just a minute. "Actually, can you put in an extra shot? I'm exhausted."


"Dorothea," Nat confirmed. "She called me at midnight to tell me what an ungrateful person I am and how I'm the worst of her children and that I'm going to die alone because what man would want to deal with me and my crap?"

Kathy made a face and shook her head as she moved to start making Nat's drink. "Wow, that's a lot of vitriol for midnight. Aren't you the only one of her kids who still gives a crap about her?"

"Yep. And yet, somehow, I'm still the worst. I guess because I'm the one she has to see the most often."

"You could always just...stop going over there. Let her fend for herself and then see how she likes it."

Natasha sighed. It certainly wasn't the first time someone had said that to her, and it wouldn't be the last. "She doesn't have anyone else. She never leaves the house, Kath. How would she eat? I don't think she even can drive anymore, and her car hasn't moved since before you got here."

"Sounds like a list of things that should be labeled 'Her Problems'. You've got a life of your own, Nat. You've got dreams and ambitions, and you're never going to be able to realize them if you're just taking care of her."

"I know, I know. I think mostly I'm just...waiting for her to finally collapse under the weight of her own bitterness. And then I'll be free."

It wasn't a great plan. It probably wasn't even a good one, but it was all she had.

She'd thought about just leaving before. Of course she had. Natasha dreamed about packing up her car and just driving until she reached the city and then driving some more until she was in another state. She thought about going so far that no one would ever find her. But then she always remembered that her mother was essentially helpless, and that no one would help her if she didn't. And she shelved those dreams.

She was never going to be able to leave of her own volition while her mother still needed her. It was sad, but it was true.

"This is a depressing conversation," Nat said, sighing. "Can we change the subject, please?"

"Oh sure," Kath said, grinning. "We could talk about the date I had last night instead."

Now that was a much more interesting subject. "I am all about that. Was it with someone here? Kath, say it ain't so."

"Of course it wasn't. None of the men here are worth a second look, really. No, it was with some guy from Franklin. We met online on one of those dating apps, you know?"

Natasha nodded. "And you didn't tell me beforehand? What if he'd turned out to be an axe murderer?"

"That's fair. I mean, he wasn't a murderer, but I did not do a good job making sure people knew where I was. Next time I'll be more careful. I'll text you a picture of the dude's license plate and everything."

"Thank you. Now go on. Tell me how it went."

She leaned against the counter as Kath told her about how the guy had been much taller than she'd expected him to be, and actually was more handsome in real life than he had been in his picture.

"He took me out for Vietnamese food, which was delicious, but then he spent the whole time talking about his job in finance, which was less than ideal."

"Blech, the self-centered ones are never very entertaining."

"And how would you know?" Kath asked, teasing. "When is the last time you went on a date?"

"I've dated. I've been on dates."


"You know...when I was younger."

"So in high school?"

"And after that! It's just been a while. I've been busy. And I don't have time to drive over to Franklin just to have some self-absorbed dude tell me about his boring job."

"Busy taking care of your mom when you could be living your life."

"Kath. I don't want to talk about that." She sighed. "I should clock in, anyway."

“I’m sorry,” Kath said, looking sheepish. “I’m not trying to be a dick, but you’re my friend and I want good things for you, you know? I just want you to be happy.”

Natasha looked at the counter for a moment, sighing and tracing her finger over the faux wood patterns. "I know," she said. And she did know that. Kath, her siblings, they all meant well when they tried to tell her that she was wasting away here and there was no reason for her to stay. They all wanted what was best for her, and they knew this wasn't it.

But they didn't get that it wasn't that easy.

Of course she wanted to go on dates. Natasha had thought so many times that things would be easier if she just had a partner. Someone to share the burden with. Or at least someone waiting at home for her with dinner or a cup of tea after she got done dealing with her mother.

That would give her something to look forward to, someone who could help so she wasn't doing it all on her own.

But that was a pipe dream. No one would want to deal with her mother and take care of her. And no one would want to leave a life they had somewhere else and come here to this dead end town.

If Nat wanted to have more, she was going to have to leave. She knew that, and she wanted it, but she was just...stuck for the moment. It was something she struggled to make her peace with every day, and sitting around wishing and talking about what could be or what should be or what she wanted wasn't going to get her there.

So she just gave Kath a weak smile and went to go clock in.

Another shift, another day where things were exactly the same as they always were.