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Branded: That Old Black Magic Romance (Heart's Desired Mate) by Ann Gimpel (1)

Chapter 1

“Hey, dude, slow down.” Hal’s words were thin, strained. He was trying to sound cool, but tension bled through.

“I can’t stop right here. Relax. I won’t let you fall. You’re roped in,” Liam Fiontan called back. The music of Scotland still ran through his speech, and he missed hearing it in the flat, nasal twang of Americanized English.

“You’ll run out of rope.”

Heat began in Liam’s belly. Before things got totally out of hand and a gout of fire blasted through his mouth—tough to explain something like that away—he focused on the granite beneath his fingertips. Smooth, but with nubs in all the right places, it was his favorite kind of climbing.

He could have free-climbed this pitch, but he wasn’t deep in the mountains for himself today. Nope. Today, he was guiding another human klutz. In exactly ten years, thirty-five days, and ten minutes, his enforced exile in this godawful place would be done. Then he’d return to Xara, where he could take to his dragon form whenever he wanted. The way he felt right this minute, he didn’t care if he was ever human again.

“Good to finally be appreciated,” his dragon commented dryly, and a small thread of smoke trailed from Liam’s nostrils. He hoped to hell Hal was too spun out to notice.

Ten years, thirty-five days, and ten minutes, and he could go home. No one would have the right to bar the doors of the world he’d been born into thousands of years before.

Unless he showed up without a mate. The way things were going, that might turn into the deal breaker that kept him earthbound.

When the world was younger, and Atlantis fell into the North Sea, Xara took its place. Shielded from Earth by a series of enchanted veils, a particular series of notes was required to open them. Anything different, and the would-be sojourner lost his life.

It kept the riffraff out. Except the musical code had been altered to exclude him too. He gnashed his teeth. His enforced exile still pissed the holy crap out of him.

“Why haven’t you stopped? Is something wrong?” Hal called, the frantic note back in his voice. “Pay attention! We’re down to maybe twenty-five feet of rope.”

Liam squelched a desire to draw the knife from where it hung in a sheath off his hardware belt and cut the goddamned rope. See how much Hal liked it then.

Patience. Compassion.

He repeated the two words like a mantra and searched for a spot he could tie off and belay his client up the dicey part of this multipitch climb. Hal didn’t have much experience, which was why he’d hired Liam.

“See that knob?” Liam pointed. Without waiting for Hal to reply, he went on, “There’s a tiny ledge and a place for me set up a belay. Five more minutes.”

“The rope,” Hal persisted.

“There’ll be plenty left. You’ll see.”

Liam scrambled upward, trying for credible moves as he felt Hal’s gaze glued to him. Now wasn’t the time for gravity-defying stunts. The mood Hal was in, anything that felt weird might send him spinning over a metaphorical edge.

Reaching the rock protuberance, Liam looped the rope around it.

“Okay. Come on up.”

“It’s about fucking time,” Hal mumbled, probably assuming Liam couldn’t hear him. Had he been human, that assumption would have held water, but dragons had very keen ears.

As he waited for Hal to haul his out-of-shape body upward, scrabbling for easy holds and then losing them, Liam yearned for his winged form, replete with coppery-green scales. He shifted, but only on nights with no moon, and he never flew very far. With modern technology, all it would take would be one over-zealous jackass with a high-powered rifle fitted with a night scope to notice him. They could shoot all they wanted. Bullets wouldn’t penetrate his hide, and even if they did, he was damned close to immortal. The damage to being spotted would come from live footage on social media that would turn viral overnight.

He winced at likely headlines blasting over every platform. Maybe they wouldn’t call him a dragon, because men today didn’t believe such things existed. Whatever they labeled him instead would probably annoy him so much, he’d go off the deep end and chase down the idiot who’d began the whole mess, leaving broken heads and bones in the wake of his wrath.

And blood. Plenty of bright, red blood.

Just thinking about it made his heart thud hard and his nostrils flare with anticipation. Life today was far too sanitized. Men needed bloody, to-the-death fights to be, well, men. The current batch was nothing but a bunch of pussies.

Ninety years down. Ten to go. He forced a steadying breath, followed by one more. At least his vision, which had taken on the layered aspect it held as a dragon, returned to its human attributes.

He’d settled in the backwater town of Stillwater, California about fifteen years ago. He didn’t think he could remain ten more years without people noticing he hadn’t aged at all, which meant he’d have to pull up stakes—again.

He glanced down, checking on Hal. “Doing great there, buddy,” he yelled.

Hal turned a sweat-streaked face upward. His blue eyes were bloodshot, and strands of dark hair were plastered to his forehead. “I don’t see how you make it look so easy.”

Because I’m not human…

“Years of practice, mate. You can stop and breathe a bit. No rush. Plenty of daylight left.”

Liam checked the rope out of habit. It hadn’t moved, but he hadn’t expected it to. He was good at what he did. He’d had a pile of crappy jobs over the span of years since he’d been booted from Xara for the crime of using magic to seduce Kai, his cousin’s mate.

Farrier. Mechanic. Bartender.

Starting his own mountain guide service had been little shy of brilliant. It allowed him to be outside, oftentimes alone as he scouted routes, and it afforded more shifting opportunities than he’d had since leaving Xara.

Beyond that, his clients paid well and tipped him on top of his fees.

Not that the dragon tribunal hadn’t been within their rights exiling him. He’d gone a wee bit overboard with his seduction scheme. Kai had actually believed she was having sex with her mate, Grigori. She’d been livid—and gorgeous—when she’d discovered the truth, fire spewing from her mouth in huge splats of fury that made him hard all over again just thinking about it.

Liam clenched his jaw hard enough to make the bones hurt. His other task while on Earth was to locate a mate of his own. He might have ten years left, but aside from bedding a series of lissome maids, he hadn’t found anyone he wanted to spend eternity with. Dragon shifters didn’t recognize divorce. Matings were final, which made the selection process so important.

Not only had he not managed to locate a potential mate, he’d quit trying half a century before. When he’d broached the topic of other worlds and other cultures—on a purely philosophical basis, of course—he’d been met with jeers or suggestions he’d had a few too many shots of whiskey. Even if he’d fallen in love, it was doubtful the lass would be so smitten she’d have agreed to leaving home and hearth to undergo the ritual that would turn her into a dragon shifter like him.

No choice there. Only dragon shifters were allowed past Xara’s boundaries. He needed a mate to return, ergo the mate had to be a dragon shifter. Case closed.

Hardware rattled, alerting him his client was close. He gripped Hal’s harness, dragging him the last foot onto his belay ledge. Liam wrinkled his nose but stopped shy of telling his client he stank. Fear sweat was the worst, and it hung around Hal in a thick, cloying miasma reminiscent of salty, overripe trash.

“Jesus, that was hard.” Breath steamed from Hal, and he swiped his forearm across his wet forehead.

“The rest is easier, and then we have a choice.” Liam infused a confident calm into his words, more for himself than his client. Hal was far more inept than most of his customers.

“What kind of choice?” Suspicion beat a tattoo beneath Hal’s question.

Liam turned to face him squarely, a neat trick on the four-inch ledge. “You’d have an easier time if you trusted me, mate. I have an impeccable track record. I’ve never lost a client. You won’t be the first.”

Hal’s cheeks, already red, grew more colorful, and he looked away. “Sorry. I know I’m not very brave. It’s why I want to learn how to do shit like this.”

“You’re doing okay.” Liam forced a crooked smile. “You could have bailed five feet off the ground, but you’re still here.”

Hal grinned back. “Yeah, I guess I am. Lead on.”

“Nope. Your turn to lead. This next part is easy. Class three-four.”

Hal’s grin widened. “Are you sure?”

“You bet, I’m sure.” Liam scooted over to make room for Hal to climb past him.

* * *

It was full dark by the time they reached the trailhead where Liam tucked Hal into his car and watched him drive away. Pushing Hal into leading the last two hundred feet of easy climbing had done worlds for the man’s self-confidence. He’d thanked Liam profusely, and tipped generously.

Liam snorted, and a few flames shot from his nose. Paper money lacked the panache of gold and gemstones, but what the hell. No one used gold anymore. It was mostly relegated to collectors and museums. The glow from the car’s taillights vanished in the murk, and he tossed hardware into the back of his ancient Chevy 4-wheel-drive pickup. It had been green originally but had turned to a mélange of rust and faded patina.

He unbuckled his pack and tossed it atop the hardware, breathing in fresh, mountain air, redolent with the scents of pine and small, nesting rodents. They were all in their dens this time of year, living off food stocks they’d laid in during the summer months. Having Hal ahead of him had offered hours of thinking time.

For once, Liam took advantage of it. Usually, he blanked his mind, but he needed a plan. Stillwater was an odd place. Other magical beings lived there, but they played their paranormal ability very close to the vest. He hadn’t wanted to rock anyone’s illusion they were passing as human, so he kept to himself. Besides, what would he say?

“Hey, there, lass! You’re looking a whole lot like a witch to me.”

Or, “Bollocks, mate. Are you a shifter too?”

Not that Stillwater held any other dragon shifters—none that he knew of anyway. Just an assortment of wolves, bears, coyotes, and birds.

Of course, there wouldn’t be dragon shifters. They all lived in Xara just like he used to.

He screwed his face into a grimace. The other problem with outing anyone magical was it would reveal he couldn’t be human, either. Saying anything was fraught with glitches, and he far preferred to keep his life as simple as possible.

It wasn’t hard. He lived a few miles outside town at the very end of a rocky, rutted dirt road where he barely had Internet or cellular service. He enjoyed the privacy, but he also maintained a small office in town. It was where he met clients. Last thing he wanted was for his clients—or anyone else—to know where he lived. If an errant soul decided to drop in on him while he was either between forms, or fully dragonesque, it would be impossible to explain. He could use magic to wipe someone’s memories, but he wasn’t certain how well it would work on another magic wielder.

He’d wound wards around his grotto not to protect the rustic log cabin but to ensure no one found the entrance to his cave. Another snort rumbled past his lips, followed by steam. The cave was actually a mine, and the cabin had once belonged to whoever worked it, but the tapped-out gold mine made a perfect spot to conceal his hoard, an opportunity that had eluded him before moving to Stillwater.

He’d amassed small stashes before, but they’d been stolen—twice.

The first time, he’d killed the miscreant who’d pilfered his gold and gems, and nearly been caught. That little incident happened during the early years of his exile, before the advent of state-of-the-art police aids like DNA testing. He’d taken care to be far more circumspect after that.

And ridden herd on his temper.

The dragons’ covenant gave him an absolute right to kill anyone—human or otherwise—pilfering from his hoard, but he doubted those laws would hold up here on Earth. Merely mentioning them would like as not be enough to get him sent off for a mental evaluation.

In truth, the abandoned mine was one reason he’d remained in Stillwater as long as he had. He loved wandering into its deep shafts and letting the small hoard he’d collected run through his fingers. He’d even shifted within the mine and lain atop his treasure, loving the feel of it beneath his belly.

He sent power zinging outward. He hadn’t heard a car since Hal left, but people could be camped in the nearby wilderness. It might be dark, but a half moon had just crested the horizon. He wanted to shift. This was a perfect spot, but not if he ran the risk of discovery.

His nostrils flared as he scented the air, savoring his solitude. Between cell phones and the Internet, no one was truly alone anymore. Ever. Maybe that was what was wrong with people. They never figured out who they were since their signals were forever bouncing off everyone else in an infinite tape loop spouting gibberish.

Kind of like a digitized Tower of Babel.

The analogy made him grin.

He tucked the keys beneath a tire and stripped out of his clothes, folding them neatly and stashing them behind a nearby boulder. He had second thoughts about the keys, retrieved them, and left them with his clothing, tossing an obfuscation spell over the whole mess.

Spreading his arms, he let the shift magic take him. As soon as he had wings, he pumped them hard and rose into the night amid the clean, righteous sound of his scales clanking against one another. For the next few glorious moments, he didn’t think about anything beyond the wonder of flight as his wings cleaved air thicker than Xara’s atmosphere. He had to work harder to gain altitude, but once there, the sturdier air made it easier to remain airborne.

A flicker of movement caught his keen eyes. A small herd of elk had stopped beneath an evergreen canopy to drink at a fast-moving mountain stream. Fools! They weren’t even bothering to scan the skies, but why should they? In their world, hunters were tethered to the land, just like they were.

Once he realized he was flirting with a stealth attack, he reined himself in. If he killed the fat buck he had his eye on, he’d be stuck eating it where it fell. Flying it back to his truck was risky. Even chancier would be driving home with poached prey. It wasn’t hunting season, and even if it were, he didn’t have a license.

Pfft. Men were stupid and narrow-minded. No one should need a license to kill anything. He almost choked on more fire that wanted out. He’d paint the skies with his outrage—if he were anywhere but here.

The joy that had filled him frittered to dregs. This wasn’t Xara. He couldn’t hunt for whatever drew him. Why the hell hadn’t he gotten used to the status quo? He’d been here plenty long enough to move beyond falling into a funk when truth slapped him in the face.

A flash of headlights brought reality crashing down fast. He wasn’t alone anymore. And it wasn’t very dark. If the occupants of the SUV cruising along mountain roads twisting below him were a posse of illegal hunters, they’d use high-powered lights. Not that they’d be focused on the skies, but what if one of them looked up?

He curled his taloned forefeet into hard knots of anger. Fire shot from his mouth before he got the primal parts of himself under ragged control. These were his mountains. His. The interlopers had no rights. He could blast their puny automobile, turn it into a heap of smoking, twisted metal.

Yeah. And the minute I do something like that, I’ll have to leave Stillwater. Remaining would be too big a gamble.

Leaving Stillwater meant leaving his cave, and he wasn’t ready to give it up. Not yet.

He wasn’t able to shroud his dragon body with invisibility spells. As a fallback measure, he cast a don’t-look-here enchantment and flew in a straight line back to his truck. He left the SUV that had no business in his territory behind without incident and shifted in a blaze of light before his feet contacted the ground.

Not much he could do about the last part. Shifting without fanfare wasn’t possible. He dressed fast, trying to latch onto the simple pleasure that had rolled through him while he was airborne. It eluded him. All that remained was hollow resignation.

If he couldn’t locate a mate, he couldn’t return to Xara. It was part of his punishment, the part designed to ensure he’d never trick another mated dragon shifter into sharing his bed. Not only were dragon pairings permanent, the partners were always faithful to one another. Even the ones who’d stopped having sex never took another lover.

He slid his jacket on over his top and raked his hands through his shoulder-length hair. Settling in with a mate meant the end of fun. The end of experimentation. The end of spying a lovely, buxom lassie and plotting to bed her.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” he muttered. “How many times have I done that lately? Zero. Minus zero if you consider how long it’s been since my cock’s seen aught but my hand.”

He splayed his fingers over the chilly metal hood of the Chevy, half expecting talons to form.

They didn’t.

At least he was facing his problems tonight, not circumventing them like he usually did. What it came down to was simple enough. Did he want his freedom more than Xara? Or did returning home trump everything?

Forever was a long time to remain alone. A long time to be an exile, repudiating his true nature. A long time to string one-night stands together—if he ever found the energy to sink into seductions again.

He pressed his fingers into the metal, not surprised when it dented beneath his touch. Nothing in this godforsaken place was built to last, but why should it be? Men didn’t live very long. Never mind products rolling out of their factories didn’t even match their puny lifespans.

He pushed harder, deepening the dents. He was missing the point. This wasn’t about shoddy quality. It was about him and what he wanted. He had to make a choice and stick with it. No more games. No more jokes. No more putting everything off for another day.

He pulled the car door open, amid the protest of rusty hinges and aging metal, and jumped nimbly into the driver’s seat. For once, the high-mileage engine kicked over the first time he tapped the ignition. Maybe it sensed his foul mood.

He nosed the truck around and started toward home, forcing an open mind, one where thoughts bubbled up as they formed. He wasn’t even off the mountain before disgust for the half-life he’d been living coated his tongue with a bitter residue.

Hiding his dragon nature went against the grain. He may not agree with his kinfolks about mating—or anything else—but he’d suck up his misgivings. He needed to return to Xara. Needed to offer his dragon far more than the occasional furtive flight and pathetic hoard.

A sense of peace flowed from his midsection outward as he nudged the truck through a dark and silent Stillwater and thence toward his purloined miner’s shack. Inner harmony, where he wasn’t fighting himself, had dodged him since his exile. He welcomed the strength that came from not engaging in constant Socratic dialogue. Or anger. While a great diversion, it never solved anything.

“I made a decision,” he muttered to the darkened cab. “It feels right, but where the hell will I find a mate?”

He ground his teeth in frustration. Probably not in Stillwater, but he’d been thinking about leaving, anyway. Maybe sooner rather than later would be just the ticket.

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