The Indefatigable landed at the Narenda spaceport, the pilot powered down and silence fell, broken only by the squawks of a flock of scarlet birds, unsettled by the noisy arrival. Dragon shifter Gryffnn Drake’s chest rose and fell on a harsh exhalation. Tension slid through him, finding an outlet in clenched fists.
The doors slid open and the Indy crew appeared—leopard shifter Ryman Coppersmith, his mate Camryn O’Sullivan, the pilot Nanu, their medic Mogens and the luscious and unpredictable Kaya Ignatius.
A whisper-soft sigh released from Gryffnn once he confirmed Kaya was with the crew to fulfill their quarterly contract. Something about this woman called to him, to his dragon, yet she only had eyes for his older brother Ransom.
A sad fact but this time he had a strategy.
The crew spotted him, waved and strode down the ramp in his direction. Gryffnn averted his gaze from the woman who’d claimed his attention from their first meeting and nodded in greeting.
“Gryffnn.” Ry Coppersmith held one of his twins. “How is Ransom?”
“Is he showing signs of coming out of his coma?” Camryn held their other wriggling twin.
“He’s about the same.” A wave of anxiety and sadness struck Gryffnn. His older brother’s unexplained coma concerned him. While Gryffnn didn’t mind temporarily stepping into the chieftain’s shoes, he’d prefer it if Ransom regained consciousness, especially with this new complication. “He’s reached a plateau, neither improving nor declining any further.”
“Will Sable be all right minding the twins?” Camryn asked. “They’re a handful now they’re mobile.”
“Niran’s youngest daughter intends to help my sister,” Gryffnn said. “They’re both responsible and will take good care of your offspring.”
“We’re more worried about Sable and Niran’s daughter,” Camryn said drily. “These two are hell-on-wheels.”
Gryffnn grinned, getting the general idea even though he didn’t understand the words. Camryn came from a distant planet, and sometimes her colorful language perplexed him. The Indy crew often borrowed words from her, meaning he had to concentrate. Ransom had also confessed to confusion at their word choices, which made Gryffnn less agitated with himself.
“Have you seen activity around the mine?” Nanu asked, the tendrils of his hair stirring and hissing.
Whoa! That was new. “We’ve tried to watch from afar,” Gryffnn said, eyeing Nanu’s hair. “But we’re wary of getting too close.”
“We’ll check out the area when we collect more precious stones for you,” Ry said. “What about those plants?”
Someone—probably pirates—had introduced a carnivorous plant to the planet. They’d thrived in Narenda’s tropical climate and created a new hazard for those who collected the raw materials he and the other dragons used to make their renowned jewelry.
“We’ve kept away from the mountain range,” Gryffnn said. “But rumor says the plant numbers aren’t increasing as they were. The salt spray you used to deter them has worked well.”
“We’ve come prepared with more,” Kaya said.
Without warning, a solution to his problem zipped into his mind. Gryffnn stilled, stunned by the audacious scheme, which was even better than his original idea. It might work…
The child Ry was holding shrieked, throwing up his arms.
The flight of dragons in the distance—all youngsters in training—wheeling through the sky, indicated the source of the child’s interest.
“Something wrong, Gryffnn?” Camryn set down her squirming daughter who scampered away to explore the colorful red flowers to their left.
“A complication,” Gryffnn said. “Let me collect your daughter, and we’ll walk to the compound.”
A short time later, the Indy crew sat with Gryffnn in Ransom’s office. Even though he spent many marks each cycle here, he still thought of it as his brother’s domain. Books lined two of the three walls while the large windows in a third wall overlooked the training field where the young dragon shifters practiced their flying and other battle skills. At present, two bright green dragons were practicing their flame-throwing. One opened its maw and flame flared outward, almost striking their instructor. Gryffnn stifled his burst of humor. They required better aim to progress in the ranks.
“As I mentioned, we have a complication,” Gryffnn said and glanced at Kaya. She cocked her head, interest flitting across her face. He caught a quick peek of one pointed blue ear before her straight blue hair settled back into place. Those pointed ears of hers intrigued him.
“Oh?” Ry said, his big body straightening.
Nanu wrinkled his nose and his hair hissed.
His attention diverted, Gryffnn stared in fascination at the copper-colored dreads. “Why is your hair hissing at me?”
Nanu flashed a broad grin. “I have a mate. You remember Jazen?”
“Yes, the nurse. Your mating changed your hair?” Gryffnn asked.
“Yes,” Nanu said. “I’ll tell you the story later, once we hear about this problem of yours.”
Gryffnn heaved out a harsh sigh. “Fifteen rotations ago, I took one of the Gwilym dragon clan as my mate. The clan is based on Dalcon. It was a way to stop the war between our clans and introduce peace. Our pairing was not without problems. I left the Gwilym to return here and brought our son with me. We’ve kept a tenuous peace ever since with little contact between our two clans. Aideen Gwilym, the leader of the Dalcon clan, contacted me yes-cycle requesting a meeting.”
“Why is that a problem?” Camryn asked.
“We’ve tried to keep Ransom’s illness quiet, but I believe word is out, and she is visiting to discern the truth herself.”
“What happened to your mate?” Kaya asked. “Is she part of the visitor contingent?”
“That is the other problem.” Gryffnn’s voice hardened. “There was mention of an apology and a resumption of the relationship between our clans. I refuse to spend time with that she-devil.”
“What about your son?” Mogens asked. Streaks of black writhed across the medic’s cheeks as he studied Gryffnn.
“Another thorny problem,” Gryffnn said. “I don’t wish them to have contact with my son. My opinion—they’re testing us. Our strengths and weaknesses. They believe we are vulnerable. I fear we are on the brink of a war, and if our clan loses, Aideen and her tribe will force us to leave Narenda. This means Niran and his people are in danger too. With Ransom out of commission, Aideen considers us ripe for pillaging.”
Ry tapped his fingers on the wooden float-desk top. “Your men are well-trained. You’re doing an excellent job. Ransom couldn’t do any better. Perhaps they’ll visit and leave.”
“Aideen is not one for polite chitchat. We’ve had no communication and that thrilled me. The downside is we have no knowledge of their current situation. I heard a rumor about the limited supply of precious stones on Dalcon, but I have no idea if this is truth or fallacy.”
“You think they’re after your resources?” Ry asked.
Gryffnn yanked at his tunic collar and unfastened a toggle. “That is my suspicion. I’ve nothing to base it on, but my gut is jumping and bouncing like a dragon unused to flying.”
“Wait, what about this ex-mate of yours?” Camryn asked. “What happened after your split?”
“She mated with another dragon. I heard he died, but I haven’t determined the nature of his death.” Gryffnn scowled. “This is the first formal contact between our clans since I left Dalcon.”
“They can’t force you to mate with her,” Ry said.
Gryffnn eyed Kaya, trying to read the warrior woman. “No, but their desire for talks means they might prolong their stay for many cycles. I don’t want them here. Their visit won’t thrill Ransom either.”
“When are they coming?” Ry asked.
“I haven’t replied to the correspondence yet. I wanted to discuss the matter with you first.”
“Lad, you don’t require our input,” Mogens said, his violet gaze drilling into Gryffnn. “You are a capable leader. You have proved yourself already. Ransom is proud of you. I am certain of this.”
“I have an idea I wanted to run past you before I reply to Aideen.” Gryffnn hesitated before turning to Kaya. No, this was a good idea. A sound one, and if it meant he got to spend time with the beautiful Kaya, it couldn’t be wrong. This was his opportunity to woo and win the courageous woman. “Actually, Kaya, my plan involves you. I wondered if you would be amenable to act as my betrothed, my intended mate.”
Kaya’s blue, blue eyes widened. A spurt of amusement filled him on seeing her unattractive gape.
“Me?” Her brow wrinkled and she pressed her palm to her chest.
Gryffnn tried not to stare at her plump breasts, diverting his gaze to her eyes. “If I already have a mate, Aideen can’t use betrothal talks as an excuse to prolong their visit.”
“I guess I could pretend to be your mate,” Kaya said.
“No.” Gryffnn watched her closely. “Forgive me, but I need to be blunt. We’ll need to have sex so you take on my scent.”
“Friends with benefits?” Camryn asked.
“This term is new, but yes. That sums up my needs.”
“We’d have sex?” Kaya demanded.
“Yes.” Gryffnn was having difficulty reading the woman. Was that intrigue he saw in her expression? He wasn’t certain.
Kaya stared for a fraction longer while the other members of the Indy crew remained silent. Finally, she nodded. “It wouldn’t be a hardship having sex with you. At least I’d break my dry spell.”
“Kaya!” Nanu said.
“Oh, Kaya.” Mogens tsked.
Camryn and Ry both chuckled.
“Excellent.” Gryffnn struggled for impassive when he wanted to leap to his feet and cheer. Once Kaya got to know him, without Ransom hovering in the background, she might decide she wanted to keep him. It was up to him to become the mate of her dreams.
“You said you were mates. I thought dragons developed bonds in the same way as feline shifters,” Ry said, his green gaze piercing and intelligent.
“We do.” Gryffnn’s mind leaped to the past and his naivety with Caley. Slightly older, she’d never wanted him. Their pairing had been political. Expedient. Not that his father had forced him into the arrangement. Gryffnn had seen his pairing as a way of helping his clan. He shook himself away from the painful betrayal. “Dragons pair. After a rotation together, they take stock of the relationship and, if they wish to stay together, they exchange dragon fire. It is this that cements the bond. Caley refused to take this last step.”
An abbreviated history of his failure.
Caley had ripped out his heart and stomped on it, laughing the entire time. Worse, she’d rejected their son, and he’d never forgive her cruelty.
“So there is no danger of a mating bond springing a trap on my unwary head if we have sex?” Kaya asked.
Gryffnn fought a grin. “I repeat. Our bond will differ from Ry’s and Camryn’s.”
“Or me and Jazen,” Nanu said.
“All right,” Kaya said. “I’ll do it, but I’ll need details to pull off this con.”
“We’ll talk later,” Gryffnn promised. “Our soldiers have been watching the coming and goings on the planet. Entry through the spaceport is easy since we require everyone to request the right to land, but it is difficult to monitor the mountain range. None of my people wish to go close to the mountains after Ransom fell into a coma. I don’t blame them. A short flight left me vibrating for half a cycle afterward.”
“We’ll do a fly over and check out the mined area, see if things have changed since our last visit,” Ry said. “Once you know when your guests will arrive, we can be here to watch your back.”
“What if the tender malfunctions again? We’ve never pinned down the cause of our crash,” Nanu stated. “Jazen is expecting me back home after this visit with all my bones intact.”
“We’ll collect the load of precious stones first,” Ry said. “Make sure you have enough in stock before we investigate the mine. Have you considered hiring a third party to guard your property on the other side of the mountain range? Someone is sneaking onto Narenda and that is the obvious point of entry.”
“Our spaceport isn’t picking up anything on radar,” Gryffnn said. “This is frustrating as hell. The mine worried Ransom. That’s why he was so insistent on flying over the region. We dragons are a possessive lot when it comes to our wealth.”
“As long as you don’t think you own me,” Kaya said, her chin rising with attitude. “No man possesses me.”
“No man would put up with you,” Nanu muttered.
Kaya glared at Nanu, and Gryffnn fought to keep his amusement contained. He enjoyed her sharp tongue and sass, her take-no-prisoners arrogance, and the way her nose lifted in defiance. And she bore integrity, which was important after his dealings with Caley.
“When do you think the dragon contingent from Dalcon might arrive?” Camryn asked.
“I received a formal comm two cycles ago,” Gryffnn confessed. “I’ve been trying to think of a reason to deny their visit. Tradition and protocol means I need to welcome the contingent even though I don’t trust them.”
“Why can’t you tell them it’s not a convenient time to visit?” Kaya asked.
“Because I can’t risk them taking offense and starting a war. My father worked hard to bring peace to our clans. I’m only caretaker of the chieftain role. Once Ransom recovers, he’ll take over again. I don’t want to thrust him into the middle of a conflict.”
“You suspect these dragons will try something with Ransom out of commission?” Ry said.
“They don’t consider me a leader, not after what Caley put me through. To them, I’m weak and ineffectual.” A tic fired to life at his jaw. He was not a soft touch, and he intended to prove it to all those doubters. He’d do it for Ransom, and he’d do it for himself and their clan.
Ry pulled a leather tie from his tunic and confined his long black hair into a tail. “You are a leader, Gryffnn. We’re here to aid and offer moral support. Tell us what you need.”
“I hate to put any of you in danger, especially your children,” Gryffnn said, although the offer pleased him. “The Dalcon dragons have no awareness of our strong ties with the Incorporeal people since the Incorporeal are recent arrivals to our planet. Once Aideen learns of their existence, it will make us even more attractive.”
“What does Niran say?” Kaya asked.
Gryffnn tapped his fingers on the float-desk top. “He’s worried, but he’s refusing to leave.”
Ry nodded. “I understand their desire to remain in their homes, but their young will be vulnerable. Perhaps I can convince Niran to send them to Viros. Leeam and Sheera would care for them. King Lynx will do everything he can to help.”
“Niran wanted to greet you, but his oldest daughter is having her first child,” Gryffnn said. “I’ll speak with him again about their safety.”
“I’ll comm Lynx and Jannike,” Ry said. “We had intended to relax this end of the cycle and collect precious stones tom-cycle—”
A strident buzz came from Kaya’s comm, interrupting Ry.
“Sorry.” Kaya plucked her comm from her internal jacket pocket.
Gryffnn watched her scan the screen and the tinge of healthy color seeped from her cheeks, leaving her features a delicate blue. She jumped to her feet.
“I’m sorry. This is urgent. I have to take this call.” She darted away before Ry continued.
“Will she be all right?” Gryffnn asked.
“I bet it’s one of her many boyfriends.” Nanu smirked. “Maybe one of them is pregnant.”
“Nanu,” Mogens chided.
Gryffnn’s body heated as his dragon sent a shower of disapproval cascading over his skin. The tattoo on his left biceps glowed as he fought for control. The jealousy lashing his mind refused to leave without a struggle. “I’d consider it a favor if you’d observe our battalion of dragons at training,” he gritted out. Speech helped to release his tension, so he continued. “Niran wanted to discuss security with you. He decided basic training for all Incorporeal adults made sense, and my trainers have aided them. He thought you might have helpful advice since he’s heard how well Leeam and Sheera are doing.”
“They’re good kids,” Ry said. “We’re happy to help, but we’ll get those stones for you first. You’ll want to keep up production.”
“Yes, I want everything to proceed as normal. I’m lucky Ransom included me in his plans. He is more hands-on than our father was, and it has made Ransom’s illness easier to handle. I owe my brother a great deal.”
“Which you are repaying with your careful guardianship,” Mogens said.
A burst of pleasure suffused Gryffnn. “I’m doing my best, but I worry about Aideen. The dragon woman is cunning and unpredictable.”
A faint tinkle filled the air along with a chilly burst. “Welcome, Niran,” Gryffnn called.
An instant later, Niran and three Incorporeal men shimmered in to view.
“Good welcome.” Niran, the leader of the Incorporeal people, pressed his hands together and bowed his head. “Excellent. You’re here, Ryman. I have three volunteers to aid you when you travel to collect stones.”
“No,” Gryffnn said. “It’s dangerous for them on the other side of the mountains. What if they spring a pirate’s trap? I can’t let you do it.”
“Our scientists have been working on a method to make the invisible traps visible,” Niran said. “An excellent opportunity to test our invention.”
Gryffnn exchanged a glance with Ry, caught his imperceptible nod.
“We intend to leave at once instead of tom-cycle,” Ry said. “What preparations do you require? Are you ready to leave?”
* * * * *
Kaya pressed the return call button on her comm, her hand trembling as she waited for her brother Tayte to answer. Her gut hollowed, and she paced the corridor to rid herself of the nervous energy residing in her middle.
“Yes. What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Mother is dead.”
Kaya swallowed, her hand tightening on her comm. “What happened?”
“Oh, goddess,” Kaya whispered. “I wish I’d taken the risk and called her. She’s been on my mind. I picked up my comm half a dozen times…”
“She understood,” Tayte said. “It was too dangerous.”
“How did you learn of the coup?”
“That’s the other thing,” Tayte said. “I need to speak with you in person. I’m on my way to Viros and will arrive in three cycles.”
“We’re on Narenda at present, completing a contract for the dragon shifters.”
“No problem. That’s closer.”
“It’s a closed planet,” Kaya said, her mind racing in dozens of directions at once. Her mother dead. Tayte on the way to visit her. A relationship with Gryffnn.
“Kaya,” Tayte said, his tone sharp. “It’s imperative I see you, and I don’t have a lot of time. Fix it for me. I’ll see you soon.”
“Yes, of course,” Kaya said, his arrogant, bossy big-brother abruptness dialing back her panic.
“I will arrive tom-cycle. See you then.” A shrill cry sounded on his end and the comm disconnected.
Kaya frowned. She didn’t see her brother often. The last time had been a brief stop-off after their Christmas visit to Earth and Camryn’s people.
The door to the office opened as she slid her comm back into her pocket. Her mother was dead. She blinked, refusing to let tears fall. When she’d fled Sitnam, she hadn’t cried. Weeping now changed nothing.
Her mother was dead.
If the leaders of the coup learned of her existence, she’d die too.
No, crying wouldn’t solve a thing.
“Kaya, we’re leaving to collect stones now,” Ry said. “You ready?”
She nodded. “Yes. I need a quick word with Gryffnn before we go. Two, three mins tops.” Without waiting for an answer, she hustled into the office to find Gryffnn still seated behind the big desk, his dark head bowed and an air of defeat clear in his mien. “Gryffnn, am I interrupting? I need to ask you something before we leave for the collection fields.”
Gryffnn straightened, his hazel gaze piercing her. “Problem? Have you changed your mind?”
No, if anything, seeing Gryffnn’s rare vulnerability when he usually swaggered and oozed confidence, firmed her decision to help him. Sharing her body with the dragon shifter wouldn’t present a hardship. Like his older brother, Gryffnn drew the eye with his shaggy black hair and robust build. She’d only seen his dragon twice, but still recalled his vibrant red as he’d zapped through the sky while teaching his son to control his fire.
“No, I’m fine with that. I’ve made a promise and won’t go back on my word. It’s something else.” She hesitated.
“Speak freely, Kaya. You have nothing to fear from me.” He rose and rounded the desk, clasping both her hands in his. He squeezed them, his gaze serious. “We’re friends, aren’t we?”
She nodded, taking in his height and powerful physique. His broad shoulders and a peek of his tribal tattoo. Having seen him shirtless before, she knew his tattoo extended across his chest and over his back. His skin was much darker than hers, a deep tan while his eyes bore a faint slant. At times of high emotion, as with any of the dragons, his scales became more visible. Red, in his case, to match his dragon.
“Tayte, my brother has something urgent to discuss with me. He wishes to speak with me in person and was flying to Viros. I told him I was here. Can he have clearance to land? He should arrive later this cycle or early tom-cycle.”
“Has Ry met him?”
“Yes. We stopped at his home base for two cycles before we arrived at Viros.” Kaya didn’t mention specifics or the large distance between Slyvia and Viros. Habit kept her silent to protect her brother.
“All right,” Gryffnn said. “He is welcome. Ry expects to return later this eve. If you’re delayed for any reason, I will greet him myself.”
“Thank you.” Kaya started to retreat.
“I believe we should seal our bargain with a kiss,” Gryffnn said.
Kaya froze. Her tongue slid along her bottom lip, moistening it. “Ry is impatient to leave.”
Gryffnn strode toward her, intent in his gleaming hazel eyes. “He can wait.”
Gryffnn halted her dithering, by drawing her close and sealing his mouth over hers. His lips were hot yet soft, his tongue bold as he wrapped strong arms around her and kissed her as no man had ever kissed her. She clung, her knees no longer holding her upright, and enjoyed the hell out of the embrace.
When he parted their mouths and released her, she had difficulty processing her reaction. One thought bashed around inside her head like those pinball games Camryn had introduced them to on Earth. Gryffnn bore hidden depths, and now curiosity filled her. She’d thought she’d enjoy pretending to be his mate, but now, after his decadent kiss, she looked forward to completing the favor.
“I’d better go. I’ll see you later.”
Gryffnn smiled, and it held enough smug male satisfaction to fan her temper. He’d better not consider bossing her around or expecting her to run around after him and emulate a slave.
“I look forward to our evening,” he said in a rumbly, sexy purr. Then, he straightened, resolve settling on his features. “I’d better explain this to Hallam before Aideen and her clan contact us about their expected arrival.”
Kaya’s irritation seeped away at the mention of his son. “Will Hallam be all right?”
“We’ve discussed his mother before, and why we no longer live together. Don’t worry. He’s a good kid. He won’t make life difficult for you. I want him to understand what’s going on so Aiden and Caley won’t take him unawares.”
Kaya nodded and bolted, aware of her friends waiting. She’d be a stand-in mother for Hallam. Perhaps, with her lack of experience, this charade wasn’t the best idea.
“Kaya!” Ry shouted.
She put on a burst of speed and ran down the passage and the stairs leading to the ground floor.
“Sorry, I had to ask Gryffnn a favor. It was important.”
Ry’s nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed. “We’re on a timeline. Save your friends with benefits for later.”
“We didn’t make out,” Kaya said indignantly.
“Then why do your clothes reek of Gryffnn?” Camryn inserted herself into the conversation.
Kaya scowled and lifted her charcoal gray tunic to her nose. She sniffed and shot a glance at Ry and Camryn. Her friends were grinning, their amusement digging into their features.
Kaya huffed. “I don’t want to talk about it.” She stomped to the area where Nanu had landed the tender, trying to outrun her friends’ laughter and the anxiety that had seized her mind the instant her brother had said he needed to speak with her in person.
Both concerns followed her as if attached by invisible strings. She swallowed as she stormed up the ramp and dropped onto a tender seat. Her past had caught up with her. If she hadn’t sensed that already, the prickling of her pointy ears was the next big clue.