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The Panther's Rival by Emilia Hartley (35)

Life didn’t make sense anymore. So many people lied to her. All she knew in that moment was that she was pulled to the man beside her like a magnet. He was her due north in that moment. She had put her hands on his chest to fight her way out of his embrace, but it backfired.

She looked up at him and found herself drawn to his lips. It didn’t help that his full bottom lip begged to be bitten.

Where had that thought come from?

She questioned herself for a second before it vanished once more. Her hand slipped behind his head, fingers tangling in his red tresses. A growl filled her chest and her hand fisted in his hair. She heard his sharp breath before she pulled his lips down to meet hers. She pulled his lower lip into her mouth, gently nipping before she let it go to press her tongue between his lips. She needed to taste him, to know his taste intimately.

As though he’d been trying not to move before, his hands tightened on her and he kissed her in return. He deepened the kiss, accepting her demanding tongue. Through her thin bathrobe, she could feel just how much he wanted her. He walked her backwards until he could press her up against a wall. His body flattened against hers and his tongue pressed into her mouth. She bit it hard and he let a lusty laugh fill her.

The tie to her robe fell away and his hands snuck beneath the fabric. Rough skin passed over her hip, up her stomach, and beneath her breast. His thumb flicked her nipple and she felt a jolt of pleasure settle in her core.

He pulled away, breathing hard. “You are no different than you once were.”

His words brought her back to reality. Panic shot through her, alarming and polarizing. Her eyes widened and she shoved him off her. Confusion and hurt flashed across his face. She could not be kissing the enemy. He was a dragon.

“Get out of my house.” She pointed her finger toward the door. He knew the way out from there.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” His voice was deep with anger, but he didn’t move.

“You heard me,” she said, fighting the tremble in her own body.

“I came in here and picked you up when you were falling apart and this is how you treat me? You cut yourself open, bled all over yourself, and nearly broke down when you realized that you’re a dragon…”

“Do not say that,” she hissed.

“Are you going to deny it now? Are you going to try to live your life lying to yourself? Because it isn’t going to end well if you do. I’m not mad about the kiss or how you pushed me away. That is your choice and always will be, but do not think to lie to yourself after today.”

Without another word, he stalked out of the bathroom. Rhiannon didn’t have to follow him to know where he went. She could hear his every footstep though her creaky house. Never before did she realize how much the floorboards creaked. She even heard him throw his body into the lawn chair on her back porch.

She sighed, angry that he didn’t go as far as she hoped. Her control around him was little to none and that scared her. She prided herself on her self-control, on her ability to look trouble in the eye and tell it to fuck off. Today was the complete opposite of that.

Inside her head, she felt a giant creature writhe. It circled through her head, brushing her insides in a feeling that was largely unsettling. She knew that if she turned her attention inside of herself she would be greeted by a pair of gold eyes and charcoal colored scales.

But, she didn’t. Instead, she set about getting ready for the day like it was any other day of the week. She tugged on a pair of skin tight black jeans and a black V-neck top. She was reaching for her gold necklace when her phone vibrated on the nightstand. A single message flashed on the screen.

Tonight. Sundown. You know where.

Her heart sank. Inside her head, her alien beast growled. It was awful at using words. Instead, it settled for grunts and growls as though Rhiannon could understand what it was trying to express. It made her head throb. She yanked open the top drawer of her nightstand to retrieve the drug store pain killers. After popping two and swallowing them dry, she deleted the message Everett sent her.

She would sneak away from the dragon man on her back porch and meet Everett tonight. Her stomach rolled. Was she willing to go through with this now that she knew what was really going on? That she was a dragon shifter after all? No matter how much she wanted to deny it, the truth of it was there and she couldn’t ignore it.

But, she owed Wilson her life. She tried to tell herself that he did it so that he could better take care of her, so that he could raise her like a normal girl. This was Wilson. She could lie to herself as long as it made her feel better about her discovery. She would be there for him tonight.

She just didn’t know how much she would help.

She let her head fall into her hands. GOE would not like her being a dragon. They would be in an uproar if they knew one of theirs was less than human. It would feel like an attack from the inside to them and they would retaliate on her. No one could know. No one in her life, not even Everett.

 

***

 

Ditching the dragon man had been easy. He was fast asleep on the back porch and she was more aware of the sound her footsteps made now that the dragon inside of her was awake. Quietly, she crept out of the house. She didn’t bother with her car. There was too much energy pent up inside of her now. It made her palms hot and her muscles twitch. Rhiannon traded her jeans in for a pair of spandex leggings and a pair of black trainers.

In what felt like no time at all, she was standing outside a small government building. It was the offices of many of the higher ranking GOE officials in Wales. Most of the lights above the first floor were off for the night. Officials had the luxury of going home when the clock struck five. The security guards, on the other hand, had no such luxury. Rhiannon watched the two security guards patrol the first floor through the tall glass panes that surrounded them. Every once in a while the two would stop, exchange a few words, and move on while laughing about some joke she couldn’t hear.

She hoped that Everett had a plan for getting them out of the building before it was destroyed. The guards were GOE; they were one of them.

But she wasn’t one of them, she reminded herself. She was a dragon shifter. The thought made her stomach roll anxiously. She hoped that she would be able to ignore the voice in her head long enough to seem like nothing had changed. She didn’t need Everett figuring out that she was no longer the human he laid with once upon a time.

As if in response to the thought of their past love making, her beast growled unhappily. She was getting better at gauging the beast’s emotions from the sounds it made. She couldn’t, however, figure out why the idea of laying with Everett pissed the creature off so much.

“I didn’t know if you would come,” a familiar voice said from behind her.

She spun around, barely able to hide the snarl that touched her lips. It was so unlike her usual self. She knew that it was the beast inside of her, grabbing for control. It had been locked away for all of her life. It made sense that the beast was wary of everyone.

Except for Gareth.

Rhiannon locked that information away for further inspection later. She rolled her shoulders and looked Everett in the eye. She was ready for this. He nodded, falling into their old rhythm. Everett placed a small explosive in her hand. Its weight was heavy in her hand, carrying all of the implication of what they were about to do with it.

Rhiannon didn’t see where he had pulled the plastic explosive from, but she couldn’t see evidence of any more. The mission had called for several to be placed in specific spots all around the building. She wondered if he had begun without her because there were no more explosives to be seen.

“This is going to be a riot,” another voice joined them.

The hair on the back of her neck stood on end. A jolt raced up her spine when his scent hit her nose. It was frost on a cold day.

“Why is Raphael here?” Rhiannon asked through clenched teeth.

“Because this was his idea,” Everett informed her. Her partner slapped a paper map into her hand and left without saying another word.

Beside her, Raphael watched her with sparkling eyes. He had to know. He could smell it on her, she thought. Her hand clenched around the map in her hand. The beast inside of her thrashed and growled at the white dragon standing ten feet away. She did not like him.

The smell of burning paper greeted her nose and she looked down. A small bark of surprise escaped her when she saw the paper burning in her hand. She shook it out and held it by the corner to keep from burning it further. Avoiding Raphael’s gaze, she set about her own mission. The further she could get from him, the better she could control herself.

Her eyes roved over the map, combining with her own familiarity of the building in question. She was supposed to go around the back side and slip into a basement window. From there it was her job to place the small plastic explosive beneath the furnace. The resulting explosion would make the end result look like fire damage.

She slipped through the alley between the buildings, but, to her dismay, Raphael followed her. The beast inside her thrashed from side to side. She swayed on her feet from the beast’s movement. Her teeth clenched. She couldn’t give in to the thing’s fear. She couldn’t let it give her away.

Everett would kill her on sight.

“Are you doing okay?” Raphael asked, petulantly. He could see the strain that her fight for control was putting on her. It was a wonder that he hadn’t outed her from the get go. He could have easily sniffed her and told Everett the truth. If he hadn’t by now, he was waiting for something else to happen.

He was waiting for her to give away the secret herself.

“Just dandy,” she tossed back at him when, in fact, she was not doing okay.

The window she was supposed to slip through was just ahead. It was low to the ground and narrow. When she knelt to push it open, the glass warped under her touch. The heat radiating from her hands was uncontrollable. She fisted her hand and closed her eyes, trying to summon her inner calm if only for a second. Turning inward, all she found were frayed nerves and the low, rumbling growl of her beast.

It screamed at her, but she couldn’t understand what it was trying to say. All the beast was succeeding in doing was making her head throb. She could barely feel the prickle of her nose that announced the arrival of someone else.

Her head snapped up.

Raphael was gone. She hadn’t even noticed his exit. Instead, at the head of the alley stood a uniformed security guard. She could hear the voice of her partner coming closer. What she heard made her stomach roll. The beast inside her revolted.

“She’s a traitor!” Everett’s voice filled the alley. “Find her before she blows up the building!”

She was never more aware of the small plastic explosive in her hand. It was damning evidence. She gripped it harder. If she dropped it, there would be no getting out of this. The security guard raised his weapon and his flash light at the same time. The light blinded her newly sensitive eyes. She threw her arm over her face.

Unable to see, she mentally plotted her path of escape. There was no way that she could run forward. The security guard had a gun and she was sure that she’d heard Everett coming around that direction. The path behind her was still open, but she didn’t know where Raphael had gone.

There was another option. When she opened her eyes, she looked up into the sky. She had no idea what she was doing, but it might be her best option. Swallowing back the nagging feeling of reluctance, she let go of her control on the beast inside of her. It flowed out like a crashing wave of water. Magic filled the air around her until a solid, scaled body filled that space.

She was dark against the night. Two shots rang out in the narrow alley. The brick of the building beside her exploded. Vertigo made her sway as she took in her new shape and height. It was awkward to adjust to, but there was little time. She pushed her claws into the brick wall and climbed toward the roof. From there she could spread her wings wide and try to fly.

Try was the key word.

She’d obviously never tried anything like this before. Adjusting to the new form happened quickly in the heat of the moment, but flying was a whole other thing. She hoped it was like her time paragliding. She had a little experience with that kind of sport.

Another shot rang out. Stinging pain hit her in an unfamiliar area. The beast thrust its tail back and forth. The resulting sting of pain told Rhiannon that she’d been shot in her tail. She had a tail…

Get moving, she reminded herself. She poured herself onto the roof and snapped open her wings.  The sky ahead of her was dotted with buildings of varying height. All she had to do was avoid them all. Easy, right? Not so much. Her wide wings beat against the air as she ran forward. Her beastly heart thumped in her ears. Below her, shouts rang out from every direction. More guards were pouring out of the building.

This was a trap.

Her beast tried to warn her. That was what it was trying to tell her with the shrill sounds it screamed at her.

She jumped from the building’s roof and took to the air. Her great form wavered in the air, unable to hold the wind beneath her. Her stomach flipped from the sudden drop in air. Her back foot clipped the edge of a building and she veered too far to the left. Another building rose before her. She leaned hard to the right, her wings nearly perpendicular to the ground. Tucking her feet into her body at the last moment, she narrowly missed the building.

Bullets streamed through the air around her. She made a mistake. She’d given herself away as a dragon. It was clear that the time with GOE was officially over, but that wasn’t what bothered her in that moment. She knew that changing shape then and there put a dragon with a weapon outside a GOE building. She’d fallen for their trap one way or another. She could only hope that no one thought to take a picture of her in the chaos.

Her attempt to fly was failing her as she fumbled through the air. She had to land somewhere, quickly. Her beast’s eyesight caught the shape of a park to her right. She banked toward it. Losing altitude quickly, she clenched her jaw and prepared for impact. Before she hit, the flow of magic passed over her. The soles of her trainers hit the ground and she ran with it. In the dark, her human form slipped through the park. She spared a moment to wonder where her clothing had come from, but there were other pressing matters.

There was the betrayal of her friends and family to worry about for they most certainly wanted to kill her. She couldn’t fathom why she’d been set up. Had Wilson planned to use her like that all along? She was his ticket out of prison. Everything that he had done could now be blamed on her.

Because she truly was a dragon.

The rumble of an old engine approached her as she burst onto the street. She ducked back into the park for cover to wait for the truck to pass her by. Instead, it rolled to a stop next to where she hid. Impatiently, the truck honked its old horn at her.

“Damn it, woman!” Gareth’s voice barked into the darkness.

She shot forward, propelled by the strong faith of the beast inside of her. The beast trusted this dragon man implicitly. So far, Rhiannon figured he was the only one that hadn’t betrayed her so far. In the distance, she could hear GOE’s sirens. She was thankful that her beast’s scales were dark enough to blend into the night when she made her break for freedom. It was probably what had actually saved her this night. Not her spectacular flying skills, sarcasm implied.

“What the hell is going on?” Gareth growled as she slid into the passenger seat of his truck. Even though his voice was filled with anger, he reached out and laid a reassuring hand on hers. Almost as if to assure himself that she was there with him and alive.

“Wilson’s plan was a trap,” she breathed. The adrenaline and magic were wearing off. Her eyelids were getting heavy. The beast inside of her settled back, trusting that Gareth would keep them safe. “Why do I have clothes after shifting?”

“Why can a dragon turn into a man? Magic is the only answer I have for you.”

She barely registered his response before sleep gripped her. She slipped into unconsciousness in the safety of the cab of his truck.