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Dionna's Shadow: A Reverse Harem Romance (Dragon Origins Book 5) by Ruby Ryan (42)

 

If you want to learn what happens to the dragons in the future, you’re going to love my Gryphons vs Dragons series. , or keep reading for a sample of the first book, EMERALD GRYPHON!

 

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A priceless totem. An unexplainable transformation. And a secret he can’t keep from her for long.

 

Ever since finding the gemstone figurine in a cave in Belize, Ethan’s been experiencing strange sensations: chills, body aches, and a buzzing in his chest like there’s a beast trying to escape.

Which is exactly what happens when Jessica, a temp in his office, finds the figurine and presses the emerald set inside.

Now they share an impossible secret: that Ethan can shapeshift into a gryphon, a mythical creature with the body of a lion and head of an eagle. And as the one to first unleash it from the totem, Jessica is inexplicably bound to him.

But just when they begin to understand what the shapeshifting entails, they’re chased by a mysterious man with fire tattoos all over his body, who can turn into his own winged beast. As they scramble for their lives, soon Jessica and Ethan begin to wonder: is such an ability a blessing… or a curse?

 

GRYPHONS VS DRAGONS is the new paranormal shapeshifter series from Ruby Ryan. There’s steamy romance, exciting action, and no cliffhangers. Each book in the series can be read standalone, and of course each features a Happily Ever After!

 

1

 

ETHAN

 

“Dude, come on. Get up.

I groaned and cracked open an eyelid. Sunlight streamed through the window of my bedroom, and even just the split-second of light was enough to send my head pounding.

“Ugh,” I moaned.

I heard Andy round my bed and throw aside the curtains, then open the window. The smell of salt and sand gusted inside with the cool ocean air. I rolled over to face the opposite direction, but then Andy was stomping around to do the same on that side of the room.

Christ, couldn’t he let me sleep?

“Get up!” he repeated, peeling off my sheets. I curled into a ball and wedged my eyes shut against the growing light of day.

“I’m good here.”

“We’re gunna be late,” Andy insisted. “Orlando booked the cave tour days ago. He’s gunna be pissed if people bail out.”

You’re gunna be pissed,” I corrected.

“Everyone’s going. We can’t stay in bed all day.”

I considered fighting longer, but Andy wasn’t the kind of guy to give up unless I was dead. So I surrendered and grabbed my glasses from the side table.

“I’m going,” I croaked, mouth feeling like it was made of a lizard’s scales. Andy shoved something at my face which ended up being a glass of water.

“Meet you out front in fifteen.”

And then, blessedly, he left.

I wasn’t the drinker I used to be. None of us were, but that hadn’t stopped us from emptying two bottles of rum between the five of us on the Belize beach. It wasn’t often you celebrated your ten year college reunion with your best friends.

Less alcohol tonight, I decided, head so cloudy that even those three words came with difficulty. It was our final night in the small Central American country, and I sure as hell didn’t want to feel like this when I jumped on a plane in the morning. Maybe some beers instead of hard liquor, a drink I could sip on and take my time.

Yeah. That sounded nice.

I lurched my body into the shower and stood under the hot water until I felt vaguely human, threw on some shorts and a T-shirt, and left my room.

The villa we’d rented had five bedrooms around a shared living space. The kitchen was filthy with upended shot glasses and cups that still held half an inch of alcohol in the bottom. The scent of alcohol was so strong I could smell it from the hallway, and I felt my gag reflex crawling up the back of my throat.

I rushed outside to meet the others.

The sun punched me in the brain like it’d been waiting in ambush, bright and hot and bright, did I mention bright? For a second I considered going back inside to put in my contact lenses, which would then allow me to wear sunglasses, but I didn’t want to delay things further.

I was the last one ready, I saw with muted annoyance. Andy stood chipper and cheery in a baggy white shirt, gesturing with his hand while he explained something only Andy could care about. Sam nodded along, his dirty blond hair bouncing gently with each movement.

Roland stood next to them and stared off at nothing. He removed his sunglasses and rubbed at his bloodshot eyes, then scratched at his mop of Irish auburn hair.

The Belfast-born man saw me and gave a nod of mutual agony.

Andy clapped his hands together, finally noticing that I was there. “Good! We’re all here. It was so quiet this morning I thought I’d find dead bodies in your beds.”

“Would that you did,” Roland muttered, his Irish accent thick in the morning sun.

Orlando spoke with the driver next to the jeep in Spanish, then turned to us. “We’re all set. Ten minute drive out to the caves.”

I play-punched him on his dark-skinned arm in greeting as I passed, and he gave me a smirk in return. “If you get sick on the ride, hombre, speak up so we can pull over.”

“Why would I get sick?”

It turns out the reason I might get sick was because the road to the caves was more of a game trail than an actual road. For fifteen minutes we bounced over rocks and jutting tree roots, and for half the trip I did think I was going to be sick. Somehow I held my nausea in check. Andy stood in the back of the jeep like a World War Two tank commander, gazing around like he was leading the way instead of an American simply along for the ride.

The low-hanging jungle trees finally cave way to a small clearing, with enough room for three or four cars to park. The land sloped away in a trail, leading toward a small black crack in the slate mountain face.

“These are the incredible caves you’ve been going on about?” Roland said, voice thick with disdain. “I got out bed for this?”

Disappointment flashed on Andy’s face, but only for an instant. “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. It’s bigger on the inside, right Orlando?”

“That is how caves work,” Sam mumbled.

Orlando translated the question to the guide, who nodded vigorously. I shrugged and climbed out the jeep, already counting down the time until we were done and could return to our beds for a nap.

The guide handed out helmets and gear, which ended up being thin harnesses with some sort of tracking device and a small LED flashlight. Our group of hungover thirty-somethings strapped the harnesses on in silence.

“No picks or climbing equipment?” Sam asked, a frown falling across his blue eyes.

Orlando laughed and said, “Dude, no. It’s not that tough of a cave.”

“At least, not the part we’re exploring,” Andy cut in. “There are some expert tunnels, but that’d be a death sentence for anyone in your current state.”

“Amen,” I said, which drew a few laughs.

The guide addressed us, speaking in broken—but understandable--English. Follow him, taking care where we stepped. Always keep the person in front of you in view. Never leave the path unless he says it’s okay.

We nodded along, barely hearing.

And then we were descending toward the cave entrance itself, an unimpressive black gash in the grey rock.

The entrance tunnel was just wide enough to pass through without ducking, though my shoulders brushed against both walls. I wondered if any of my buddies were claustrophobic. That probably would have been a good thing for them to announce before coming out here, but there was rarely logic in a hungover mind. I was the fourth one in line, following behind our guide and Orlando and then Andy, and I kept the sight of Andy’s white shirt within my view as I shuffled along the uneven ground. The tunnel extended maybe fifty feet, it was tough to tell--

And then Andy disappeared.

I felt a brief moment of panic before realizing our tunnel was opening into a larger area, and Andy had stepped to the side. I sighed with relief as I passed through the final squeeze of rock.

I gasped.

We were in an enormous subterranean chamber. The cone of Orlando’s flashlight arced across the air above us, revealing a rocky ceiling so far above it almost didn’t seem real. The air smelled faintly musty, and a rush of air stirred the hair on my legs. My brain struggled to make sense of the huge space and failed.

“It’s like being inside a sports arena,” Sam said, words thick with wonder. Even Roland couldn’t make a sarcastic comment now, and stared around with wide eyes.

“Eh?” Andy said, smug as all hell. “Didn’t I say it’d be worth waking up for?”

The guide led us across the enormous cave, which was interspersed with small pools of still water. There were no markings anywhere I could see, but he seemed to know the way by heart, and we came to another crack in the far wall.

Then we were scraping along another narrow corridor like the entrance. This one occasionally was marred by a jutting piece of rock from the ceiling, requiring us to duck down in several places. The tunnel curved to the left, then split, and our guide took us along the left-most path.

“Everyone doing okay?” Orlando called from the front.

“Is it too late to tell you I have to piss?” Roland said.

“Wherever you go,” Andy said, “don’t do it in a place we have to walk back through!”

But Roland remained right behind me without stopping. I couldn’t blame him; I didn’t want to get left behind in a place like this. The idea of pausing for even a few seconds while the group moved out of sight filled me with a primal terror.

I moved a little faster at the thought, keeping Andy’s shirt safely within view.

We walked for the better part of fifteen minutes, our path slowly descending deeper into the ground. The air became more stale with each step, and I imagined the centuries and millennia and eons of time that must have passed before a place like this was ever discovered by humans.

Eventually we came to another open room. It was significantly smaller than the previous one, though still roughly the size of a warehouse in volume. Our guide waited until we were all inside, then spoke with a silly grin on his face.

“Eyes adjust,” the guide commanded.

“Okay. Everyone’s lights. Turn them off.”

“Do what now?” Roland sputtered.

“He’s gunna show us how dark it is down here,” Orlando explained.

“I know what the dark is like, thank you very much,” Roland said.

“Not like this!” Andy snapped off his flashlight, then waved at the rest of us. “Come on guys! Don’t be poor sports.”

One by one our lights flickered out. Roland’s was the last one, until finally he shrugged and did the same. Darkness rushed into the vacuum left by the light, and my eyes tried to adjust, that moment when your pupils dilate and drink in as much light as they can… but they failed. The moment where objects materialized from the darkness never came. There was no light at all this far into the cave. The darkness was absolute.

I’d never known what true darkness was until this moment. It was awe-inspiring.

I reached out and grabbed Andy’s arm, just to feel someone around me.

“This is the kind of shit deprivation tanks are made for,” Sam said. “Take away all light, and sound, and the brain starts hallucinating. If we had some noise-canceling headphones…”

“This is much cooler than a sensory deprivation tank.”

“Well yeah…”

I blinked. There was something pulling my head, like a twinge of gravity only I could feel. I turned in the darkness—at least, I thought I turned, it was impossible to tell beyond the way my feet moved on the ground—and followed the sensation to my left.

There was nothing there. It was playing a trick with my brain. My aching, hungover brain.

“Pretty neat, huh?” Orlando said.

I started to answer, but then something happened.

Something that didn’t make sense.

Across the space, a green light began to glow. Except it wasn’t in the room we currently occupied: it was too far away to be in here. It was like a single pixel of green, an ember that had been ignited and was slowly growing brighter.

I frowned in the darkness, and blinked rapidly, but the glowing light remained.

My other senses leaped into the moment; I felt air on my skin rushing toward the light, and it pulled on me as if I were tied to a rope. Gently, just enough to make me lean forward. Stepping toward it.

“Do you guys see that?” I said out loud.

“What, the whole bunch of nothing?” Roland said.

“No. The green light.”

Green light?” Sam said in a scared voice.

“Dude, your senses are all out of whack,” Andy said. “Like the deprivation tank.”

The light intensified, growing to a quickly-nearing climax.

“Deprivation tanks only work if you block out sight and sound,” Sam whispered.

“Well if Ethan’s seeing something…”

“More likely Ethel is fucken with us,” Roland insisted.

I barely heard them. All I could do was focus on the intense green light, somewhere deeper within the cave. My jaw hung open, and I began to move toward it…

…and then, as if someone had snapped their fingers, it was gone.

Light returned in that same moment, Roland shining his flashlight all around. “There. Back to normal. Still see anything, Ethel?”

I winced at the light and shielded my eyes, then said, “No.” But I knew what I’d seen. It was so intense! That felt far more real than just some hallucination.

And I could almost still feel it pulling on me…

“Break,” the guide said, pulling an electric lantern from his pack. Its glow created a large sphere of light to combat the black. “Ten minutes. Rest. Enjoy!” He waved a hand around him and plopped his butt down on a rock.

Orlando spoke with him in Spanish, then turned to us. “He says this room is safe to explore; all the main off-shoots are beginner-level. Just don’t go anywhere you have to crawl to get to.”

Roland looked around and said, “Which way are we going next?”

The guide pointed to the right.

“Then I’m gunna go take a piss over here,” Roland decided, walking in the opposite direction.

Toward where I’d seen the green light.

“I’ll come with you!”

Roland turned to me. “I don’t need a buddy, though thanks for the thought, mate.”

“I, uhh, have to piss too.”

He shrugged, and turned away.

“Orlando, wanna go check out this tunnel?” Andy asked, pointing in another direction.

“Ehh…”

I tuned them out as Roland and I picked our way along the uneven rocks across the room, taking care to watch for any places that were slick with moisture. Each footstep let out a strange echo in the room, my ears struggling to discern what it was hearing. And the low conversation of our friends seemed weirdly clear even though they were fifty feet away. Sound traveled strangely down here.

Roland reached the end of the room, where the rock curved upward in a smooth wall. “I can take it from here,” he sneered, stepping up to the rock and unzipping his pants.

I stared at the wall to the right and frowned.

The glow I’d seen had come from this direction, about another thirty feet past the wall. As illogical as it sounded, I’d expected there to be a passage or something here.

I shook me head. I was going crazy. Or at least, my hungover brain was. That’s what I get for rushing out without getting some food in my stomach first.

I turned away… and stopped.

Down on the ground was an opening between two rocks, about two feet wide and one foot high. I went down on my hands and knees and aimed my flashlight inside: the tunnel extended about ten feet before opening into another chamber.

“Ahh, that’s the stuff,” was the last thing I heard Roland groan before I pushed into the tunnel.

It was barely wide enough for my broad shoulders, and I felt my brown hair brush against the ceiling, but I squirmed through eagerly. It was like I was pulled along against my will. Several times I wondered what I was doing, tried telling myself not to go off the beginner paths, but I continued crawling along.

Soon it became difficult to take a deep breath with the rock pressing all around. A wave of claustrophobia struck me, the thought of being pinned there forever with an entire goddamn mountain of rock above me, all of its weight crushing me as easily as a shoe stepping on an ant. And just before such thoughts could overwhelm me, the tunnel gave way.

I scrambled up into the darkness, swinging the cone of my flashlight forward.

The tiny chamber would have been crowded if anyone joined me; with my back pressed against one wall I could almost touch the opposite side. I had plenty of head-room though. I shone my flashlight above me and gave a start: there was no ceiling. It was like being at the bottom of a well, one so deep I couldn’t see the sky.

I wondered what sort of geological phenomenon could create such a vertical shaft, but then my eyes were pulled downward.

A rock the size of a soccer ball occupied the space, and green light glowed underneath it. The light spread as it had before, increasing with intensity, to the point that I almost thought I could hear it in the air like a high-pitched vibration. I put the flashlight down and rolled the rock to the side with both hands.

The rock had hidden a hole the size of my fist, and inside was a stone figurine.

The figurine was some strange animal. It had the body of a lion, but the head and curved beak of a bird. And sprouting from its back were a set of wings, thick with feathers and folded in on themselves like it was waiting to take flight. On the top of the object was the obvious source of the glowing light: a rectangular emerald the size of my thumbnail, set in the back of the animal’s neck.

The figurine pulled at me. The high-pitched noise had returned to the air, blocking out all other sound and making it difficult to think. Foreign thoughts invaded my brain: if I didn’t pick it up, someone else might. They could snatch it away at any moment, even though that was stupid since I was alone in this tiny room. Do it, my mind insisted in a voice all its own. Take it.

And unable to resist, I did.

The moment I touched it the ringing noise fell away. The statue felt heavy in my fingers, an immense unseen weight that didn’t make sense. It was smooth with age, and I turned it over to admire the emerald. It was cartoonishly large, and almost certainly fake. There were no prongs that I could see, but it was somehow set into the stone like it had always been there. Like it belonged.

“Ethan?” someone called from a far away place, voice full of urgency. “Ethan!”

The spell having been shattered, I shoved the figurine in my pocket and crawled back out.

“Where’d he go?”

“He was just right here…”

“He couldn’t have just disappeared, could he?”

My friends were frantically calling out and shining their flashlights around the room when I emerged from the tunnel. Roland saw me first, and came darting over, practically sliding down the rocks between us.

“Dude!” He panted in the darkness and grabbed my arm as if I would disappear again. “Where the fuck’d you go?”

“I was right here…” I began, twisting to shine my flashlight at the low tunnel.

Andy appeared a moment later, with Orlando right on his heels. “Ethan, what did we say—”

“I’m fine,” I cut him off, annoyed by the sudden attention. “You guys are overreacting.”

“What possessed you to go down there?” Orlando asked, squatting down to look at the tunnel. “Good lord. How’d you even fit?”

I moved my hand to my side, where the figurine hung heavily in my pocket. I wanted to show them. It was exciting, and they were my friends, and it would distract them from worrying.

But as my hand went into my pocket, something stopped me.

My brain was inundated with excuses. They’ll laugh at you. It’s probably fake; then you’ll look really stupid. Or they’ll want it for themselves. My head still pounded from the hangover, and showing them what I had right then would only increase their frenzied annoyance. Right now I just wanted to be left alone.

“I was just curious,” I found myself saying. “Sorry. It won’t happen again.” And the minute the words were out of my mouth, the insistence in my head disappeared. Like it was satisfied.

Goddamn. I really needed some food.

Before they could question me further, a retching noise drifted from across the cave. Five sets of flashlights whirled to illuminate Sam, who was bent over and vomiting liquid against the far wall.

“Dude…” Roland muttered.

“Sorry guys,” Sam said, brushing back his blond hair. “Really. Must be the aftereffects of last night…”

Andy put an arm on his shoulder. “No sweat, buddy. Maybe this was a bad idea.”

“No, I think I’m okay!” Sam tried to stand up straight and wobbled a little bit. “I just need a minute…”

But Andy was shaking his head, a strange insistence now in his voice. “Forget about it. This was fun, but I was probably overzealous. Let’s get back to town and grab some food.”

“We just got here…” Orlando began, but something had gotten Andy and he demanded we leave.

Orlando was the only one who tried protesting further, but with him outnumbered he soon relented. Our guide shrugged and led us back the way we’d come.

I’ll tell them later, I decided. Once we all had some food in our bellies, and were somewhere calmer. Yeah, that sounded good.

But as we climbed back out into daylight, a quiet calm had come over our group. Like a secret had passed between us, one none of us could understand.

When we returned to the villa Andy made everyone sandwiches, ever the group mother. We chatted quietly while eating, passing around a big bag of potato chips. Everyone seemed to stare off, lost in thought.

We spent our final day in Belize relaxing on the beach. We went out to dinner at a restaurant, made toasts to one another to the happy lives we’d built since college. We played drinking games in our villa, beer pong and quarters and flip-cup, reliving the idiotic days of college when we were simpler men.

And throughout it all, the only thing I could think about was the weight in my pocket, and the emerald too large to be real.

 

2

 

JESSICA

 

Being a temp was not as glorious as I’d expected.

“Jessica, where’s that software inventory?” Mrs. Arnold called across the office. “I told you I needed it for my 10:00am meeting!”

Okay, so it wasn’t glorious at all. But I hadn’t expected it to be this shitty.

“I thought I sent it out,” I mumbled, hastily alt-tabbing across my computer screen. I stopped when Outlook popped up. “Yeah, here it is. Sent 45 minutes ago.”

“Well I didn’t get it, Jessica,” Mrs. Arnold said, growing impatient. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her rise from her desk and stride over here. “Don’t blame technology for your own fuck-ups.”

I pulled my metal hair clip from the band of my Apple Watch and twirled it in my fingers, a nervous tick I’d had since I was a teenager. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I’ll send it again.”

She stopped behind me and crossed her arms. I could practically feel the burn of her gaze over my shoulder as she watched me open a new email, attach the software report, and hit send.

“If you had done that the first time I would have gotten it,” she muttered.

I did send it that way the first time, you blind fucking witch of a woman. Ohh, it would have felt so good to say that right then. But the feeling of having a job, no matter how shitty, felt better than the fleeting satisfaction of telling her off, so what came out of my mouth instead was, “You’re right, Mrs. Arnold.”

“If anyone needs me, I’ll be in that Asset Management meeting. The one you’ve made me late for.”

She strode from the room with her laptop.

Still twirling my metal hair clip, I leaned back in my chair and closed my eyes, savoring the silence.

The temp job was only scheduled to last another week, but I still had high hopes that it would turn into a part-time, or even full-time position. That didn’t seem likely, based on how my boss acted, but I clung to the irrational hope nonetheless.

This was the first real job I’d had as a temp since graduating. Two contracts as a secretary, and one as a data entry drone, and then this. Systems Administrator, running real-time software and hardware reports against the company’s database. Infinitely more satisfying, Mrs. Arnold aside.

But the server-client system they used was a mess when I arrived, a chaotic jumble of folders and sub-folders and sub-sub-folders. It’d taken me a full week just to figure out the data schema, and I’d been banging my head against the wall ever since. Whoever I was temporarily replacing was a huge dick.

It didn’t help that Mrs. Arnold kept interrupting me every ten minutes with some new, menial request. It was tough to get into a groove in SQL when you kept getting distracted.

So I savored the solid hour of time while she was in her meeting. Slipping the hair clip back into my watch band, I created three new reports that had sat on the top of my to-do list for too long, and then created email subscriptions off those that would go out once a week. With that finally done, I went in and begun cleaning up some of the computer collections, sorting them by location and software type and other categories that would be useful later.

Hopefully useful to me, if I somehow turned this into a full-time gig.

Mrs. Anderson didn’t return from her meeting, which meant she’d gone straight to lunch. And feeling extra motivated by the solitude, I decided to skip my own lunch to get more work done.

I was not going back to the temp agency after this. I was too smart, too hard of a worker. Especially compared to the other temps who worked there. Most of them only had administrative experience: glorified secretaries, men and women who thought the real world boiled down to sending emails, scheduling meetings, and taking notes. I wanted to do real work.

My cell phone flashed on my desk with a text message. Careful not to look at it, I flipped it over so the screen was face down. I couldn’t deal with him right now.

I pulled up Mrs. Arnold’s calendar and looked up her later meetings. A 3:30 with the head of the I.T. Security department, probably to go over the compliance numbers for the most recent Anti-virus upgrade. After that she had a meeting with Legal, which would be about the new Exchange Mail data retention policy. I pulled up my SQL code and proactively began running the reports I knew she’d need for those meetings.

If she was going to treat me like shit, I was going to kill her with kindness. Even if it killed me in the process.

I was halfway done when my desk phone rang. It was Mrs. Anderson.

“I was just—” I began, but she cut me off.

“Why aren’t you at the airport?”

I blinked. “The what?”

“You were supposed to be at the airport ten minutes ago!”

I quickly opened my calendar. What the fuck was she talking about?

“Ethan’s flight comes in at 12:30,” Mrs. Arnold explained, sounding annoyed at needing to. “Didn’t you get the email I sent?”

Don’t blame technology for your own fuck-ups, I wanted to spit out, but with a saint’s worth of restraint I stopped myself.

“I must have missed it. Ethan who? And why isn’t a car picking him up?”

“Because it’s silly to send a car when we can send you,” she said. “Ethan Masterson. His office is down the hall.” And without another word, she hung up.

I stared at my screen, proactive reports only half completed.

I didn’t know Ethan Masterson, much less anything about his flight, and I sure as hell didn’t want to call her back to ask her. I pulled up his calendar, but nothing was noted there. I did a search for his name in my inbox, but that gave me too much info: he was CC’d on most of the emails I had. Not to mention I only had ten days worth. His office had been dark since I’d been here.

Eventually I called our Travel department and found his flight info that way. And sure enough, he’d landed ten minutes ago.

Great. Another person to disappoint today.

I grabbed my keys, cursed to myself, and ran out the door.

 

*

 

I was thirty minutes late by the time I pulled up to C Terminal at DFW Airport.

I’d realized too late that I had no idea what this guy looked like. He could be my age, or he could be an octogenarian, though the latter seemed unlikely since he worked in the I.T. Department. So what did I end up doing?

“Ethan?” I asked a balding man who walked the window of my car. He looked at me like I was crazy. “Hey—are you Ethan?” I asked the next guy—who ended up being an acne-faced teenager, once he got close enough for me to see.

Not wanting to make that mistake again, I left the car running and got out.

For the next five minutes, I was the crazy lady accosting every man who walked by. The airport cop monitoring traffic even came over to make sure I wasn’t legitimately crazy, but she gave me a sympathetic look when I told her what I was trying to do. I found two Ethans, both of whom looked shocked that I magically knew their name, but neither were the one I wanted. I twirled my hair clip nervously, not wanting to return to Mrs. Anderson empty handed. That was a hole I didn’t think I could dig out of.

I’d almost given up entirely when I found him.

“Ethan?”

The guy exiting the terminal wore khaki shorts and a tight-fitting T-shirt over a broad chest. “Yes?” he said, blinking in surprise.

“Ethan Masterson?”

“Also yes.”

“Oh thank God.” I almost hugged him I was so relieved. “I’m from the office. Mrs. Arnold sent me to pick you up.”

A funny smile crept onto his face, and he gazed at me with eyes so green it was like they were neon signs. “She too cheap to pay for a car?”

“How’d you guess?”

We hopped back in my car and left the terminal. I looked sideways at him as I exited onto the freeway; he was gorgeous, especially the way he filled out that shirt with muscle, but his eyes were bloodshot and he looked like he couldn’t breathe out of his nose.

“You sick or something?”

He waved a hand. “Just hungover.”

“You look worse than hungover. You sure you’re not gunna give me the Spanish flu? I can take you home instead of the office.”

“Thanks for your concern.”

I eyed his sandals. “You can’t go into work dressed like that.”

He shook his head and said, “I’ve got a change of clothes in my office. And I’ve got too much shit to do when I get there. Lots of catching up.”

“Yeah, that place is a mess right now. It doesn’t help that Mrs. Arnold makes every inconvenience out to be the end of the world.”

He snorted in agreement. “I got an email from her when I landed. The ditsy temp they sent fucked up all my database schema while I was gone. It’ll probably be days before I have it all back to normal.”

I felt a pang of surprise, then rage. “Wait, you’re Ethan? Login account GID0224?”

“In the sunburned flesh.”

It was him. He was the reason I’d struggled adjusting to the department: his stupid, shitty organization in the database.

I drove for a few minutes, and then couldn’t hold back any longer.

“Maybe the database was fucked up before, and now that the collection boundaries are all configured to proper Microsoft standards everything will run smoother.”

He gave a start, slowly turning his head toward me. “We don’t use proper Microsoft standards for boundary discovery because we have more than 20,000 clients in our environment. It just makes everything crash. At least, until we upgrade to the newest version of System Center.”

My face must have gone white as a ghost, because he suddenly smacked himself.

“You’re the temp we brought in while I was gone, aren’t you? Shit. I called you ditsy, didn’t I? Shit. Shit.”

“I’m Jessica, yes. And it’s fine,” I said curtly. “Ditsy was probably Mrs. Arnold’s description.”

“Actually, it was!” he seized on the excuse. “But seriously. Did you really redo the entire database schema?”

I stared straight ahead, and then said in a small voice, “Maybe.”

“Whelp. I know what I’m doing today. And tonight. And tomorrow.”

I wanted to apologize, but the weight in my chest wouldn’t let me.

 

3

 

ETHAN

 

Mrs. Arnold stood in my office, a scowl on her face so deep I wondered if it were stuck there.

“You should have left more explicit instructions.”

Part of me wanted to throw all the blame on the temp. Jessica. I hadn’t expected some worker drone to come in here and redo the entire database schema. If I had to leave instructions to not do something like that, I might as well have included instructions not to burn the building down while I was at it.

But I felt a pang of sympathy for the poor woman. She was clearly more technical than I’d expected, if she was able to redo the schema all by herself. And she’d done it properly, even if it was the wrong thing to do. That was impressive by itself at a new company.

“It’s entirely my fault,” I agreed. “Next time my instructions will be more clear.”

“There won’t be a next time,” Mrs. Arnold growled, “because I’m never letting you take a vacation day again.” She narrowed her eyes at me. “Or a sick day. Blow your nose and get to work. All of this needs to be fixed by tomorrow so we can resume normal software deployments. If I have to explain to the Legal department why we can’t run software inventories, I’ll lose my job too.”

She left in a huff.

Did I really look that bad? I certainly felt like shit, an aching in my joints and an exhaustion so deep it was like I’d run a marathon. Which was weird, because me and the guys didn’t drink much last night. I’d woken up early for my flight, but that still meant a solid seven hours of sleep.

So why the hell did I feel this way? Maybe I was sick.

The couch in my office suddenly looked like the most comfortable place in the world. A ten minute nap would do me good. I could lock the door, close the blinds, and pretend I wasn’t here.

I remembered the object in my pocket, bulky yet too precious to toss in my carry-on bag. I removed the little figurine and admired it as I’d done every hour since finding it, running a thumb along the smooth body, then along the ridges of the feathery wings.

And that gem.

I’d assumed it was fake the moment I saw it deep in that cave, but now? I wasn’t so sure. It felt real beneath my thumb, dense with value instead of just plastic or glass. In its green depths I could see faint tangles of imperfection, the kind of thing that could only be present in a real gem. It was a wonder I got through customs with it.

I frowned. Was the emerald glowing brighter than before? The light coming from it was more than just a reflection of the ceiling lights; it had a luminosity all its own. Like it was calling me. Begging me to do something.

It might make you feel better, a thought drifted across my mind. And in that strange moment the logic made sense. If I surrendered to the figurine, I would instantly be imbued with new energy. If I let it take over everything would be better.

My thumb traced the outside of the gem, pulsing like it had its own heartbeat.

“Mr. Masterson?”

The pulsing cut off as the temp—Jessica—stuck her head in my office. I shoved the figurine back into my pocket and turned around.

Had she seen it? I don’t think so; my body blocked her view. I don’t know why that was important to me, but it was.

“Call me Ethan.”

She stepped all the way into the office. “I wanted to apologize again for… the database. What I did.”

“It’s fine,” I said. I felt an intense pang of annoyance at her intrusion. I wanted to tell Jessica to leave, then pull the figurine back out and resume admiring it.

But that would have to wait. “How can I help you, Jessica?”

 

4

 

JESSICA

 

“How can I help you Jessica?”

I felt like I was intruding on something private, which made no sense since Ethan was alone in his office. Still, annoyance flashed across Ethan’s green eyes as if I’d interrupted something precious.

His handsome, insanely green eyes.

“I was hoping you could explain the proper database schema to me,” I said, taking a tentative step toward his desk. “I know it’s too late to undo everything I’ve done, but if you show me the methodology you’ve been using I can start doing it the right way on the new reports I run.”

“You’re still here?” he asked. “I thought you were just a temp.”

“My contract’s through the end of next week. Plenty of work to do until then, and I’m not the kind of person who just phones it in.”

The annoyance softened, and he jerked his head in a nod. “Come here.”

I rounded his desk, and almost laughed to see that he was still wearing his khaki shorts and the tight-fitting T-shirt. But his face was even more devoid of color now—seriously, he had to be sick—so I didn’t poke fun of him for his dress.

He alt-tabbed over to the System Center management console, and pulled up the hierarchy schema.

“We can’t rely on the AD imports because of the issue I already mentioned,” I explained slowly. “So we do it by individual IP subnets.”

I whistled between my teeth. “Seriously?”

“Mmm hmm. Every single subnet across every single branch in our company. It’s not ideal, and we miss some in the cracks, but it’s the best we’ve got. At least, it was the best we had, before it was all messed up.”

I took the mouse from him—brushing his hand for a moment—and scrolled down the list of boundaries. All of them were grey now, overwritten by the other work I’d done. “It would have been nice to see this earlier.”

“Your account probably doesn’t have full admin rights to see the existing schema,” he muttered.

I turned to him in anger. “No, I mean it would have been nice for this to be included in the environment documentation. Then I wouldn’t have had to guess.”

He seemed surprised for a moment, then the fire returned to his eyes. “And it would have been nice for you to run a database backup before making changes in production. Then we could just restore the whole damn thing instead of redoing the boundaries from scratch.”

“I ran a backup!”

Ethan crossed his arms over his muscled chest while I switched over to the database storage drive. I immediately flinched.

“Well?” he gestured at the screen patronizingly. “Where’s the backup?”

I must have blushed a dozen shades of crimson, because my cheeks felt on fire.

“That’s what I thought.” He looked in another direction. Somewhere not at me. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, so unless there’s anything else…?”

I strode from his office, furious and embarrassed and miserable all at the same time.