He’s a dangerous jewel thief… she’s the gem expert standing in his way…
Mikhail Barinov knew he F’d up, five hundred years ago. His ‘one job’ as part of a Russian family of imperial dragon shifters? To protect the family hoard of jewels. But a dazzling virgin—who just happened to be the Elizabeth I, the Queen of England—tricked Mikhail and stole the jewels. But now he has a chance at redemption. The jewels have been found five centuries later. The only problem is they’ve been turned over to gemologist, Piper Linwood. She’s sexy, smart, ripe for seduction—but if centuries of exile taught him one thing, it’s never trust a beautiful woman.
Piper Linwood can’t wait to get her hands on her latest project. But hot damn she never expected how badly she’d want to get her hands on the dark, brooding man she sees at the museum. Of course she didn’t know he was a jewel thief. Or a dragon shifter. But all that becomes abundantly clear when he takes the jewels and her, then flies (yes, flies) to his ancestral castle. While all the alpha-male stuff is what fairy tales are made of—and frankly sexy-as-hell—the fact Piper disappeared with Mikhail has her labeled as his partner in crime. Now she must choose.
Will she betray him to save her career? Or will she stay and become the dragon’s greatest treasure?
Twilight meets Games of Thrones in this hot new dragon shifter romance by USA Today Bestselling author Lauren Smith!
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2018 by Lauren Smith
Excerpt from Rurik: A Royal Dragon Romance by Lauren Smith, Copyright © 2018
Cover art by Cover Couture
Photography by Darren Birks Photography
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ISBN: 978-1-94206-20-5 (e-book edition)
ISBN: 978-1-94206-21-2 (trade paperback edition)
ISBN: 978-1-947206-29-8 (hardback edition)
For everyone who ever gazed upon an aged map and breathed the words “terra incognita” and wondered if there might be dragons there.
Rurik: A Royal Dragon Romance
The Cheapside Hoard Jewels
Other Titles By Lauren Smith
About the Author
Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.
―C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
England, September 1559
The halls of Hampton Court Palace were quiet so close to midnight. There was no sound of laughter from the courtiers, not even the hushed murmurs of gentlemen luring young maids into dark corners for secret kisses. The tapestries lining the stone walls rippled faintly with the breeze that slipped in through half-open windows.
Mikhail Barinov adjusted his black-and-gold doublet as he walked in light, quiet steps toward a bedchamber door. He ignored the prickle of unease he felt at the silence cloaking him as he saw a guard ahead. The man was posted outside the door, his hand resting on the pommel of a lethal-looking blade that Mikhail wasn’t the least bit afraid of. He was, after all, not human. He was a dragon shifter, and there had been no human yet who had been able to do him harm.
“Halt!” the guard growled. Mikhail was close enough to see the whites of the other man’s eyes in the flickering light of the wall sconces.
He raised his hands, showing his empty palms before he offered a slight courtly bow. “My name is Mikhail Barinov. Her Majesty requested my presence.” When the guard relaxed, Mikhail removed a small bit of parchment from his doublet and handed it to the man.
The guard scowled as he stared at it. The odds that the man could even read were small, not that he would admit such a thing. But the royal seal of Queen Elizabeth was visible on the paper, and the guard recognized it at once.
“Wait here.” The guard rapped his knuckles on the door behind him, then disappeared into the queen’s antechamber. A minute later he reappeared, flustered as he pushed the heavy oak door wide, allowing Mikhail to enter. He nodded at the guard and stepped into the antechamber.
A soft voice rose from a chair beside the fire. “Well now. I was worried you might not come.” The woman leaned forward in her chair, allowing the light and shadows of the flames to dance upon her. Her long reddish-gold hair was unbound and cascaded over her shoulders in ripples of fire.
Mikhail swallowed hard as a bolt of desire shot through him. Queen Elizabeth, the newly anointed monarch, wasn’t a traditional beauty with delicate elfin features. Rather, there was a cunning curve to her lips and a keen sharpness to her eyes that warned a man she was not some wilting flower, but his equal. He found it enticing.
“I would not refuse my queen’s summons,” Mikhail said as he drew closer.
“Am I your queen?” As she rose from her chair, he caught a glimpse of her gown. The orange satin overskirt and the gold-and-silver embroidered bodice presented a tempting view of her breasts. She wore no ruffles or stiff collars tonight. She looked more like the twenty-five-year-old woman who had unexpectedly learned she was to become queen and not the cold, disciplined monarch she’d become.
“You are my queen,” Mikhail replied, his voice turning husky. The scent of her body lulled his inner dragon into a heady state of submission. He wanted to growl in pleasure and rub himself against her. She was untouched, the virgin queen, and Mikhail knew that was a dangerous thing to be around. A dragon was drawn to maidens; the purity in them was as bewitching as an uncut gemstone. Their scent alone could drive a dragon to sweet madness.
“Don’t you owe your loyalty to Ivan? Would you forsake your czar for me?” Elizabeth trailed pale, delicate fingers along the back of her chair, a coy smile upon her lips.
“The Barinov family makes alliances with whomever we please,” Mikhail said. He had traveled a long way from his home in Russia to come to the English court to arrange for a treaty with a clan of English dragons. He’d thought he would long for Russia, but in fact he did not miss his homeland. Not when he looked at this woman. England felt right, and Elizabeth… She was his true mate. And when a dragon mated, it was forever.
True mates were sacred, and from the moment he’d seen her, he’d known she was his, the one destiny had chosen for him. There could be no other. He’d answered her summons tonight to tell her what he really was and to offer her his heart and his love. He didn’t care that mating her would shorten his life immeasurably—all that mattered was being with her.
“Yes. The Barinov family. I was so curious when you arrived at court. The rumors I’ve heard are quite…interesting.” She came closer and reached up to brush the backs of her fingers along his jaw. His skin burned at her touch. Once they kissed, he would begin to bond with her so strongly that it could never be undone. His heart and hers would unite in a way that human lovers could only ever dream about.
“Rumors?” he replied, his eyes half-closed as he enjoyed her sensual caress. It made his inner dragon growl in pleasure.
“Hmmm… They say that you have an ink marking on your back, a mighty dragon that is said to move.” Her brown eyes were cool and impassive, but a hint of a smile lingered on her lips.
That sense of unease returned as he studied Elizabeth closely. His tattoo was the beast’s outward form when he was human. How could she know about that?
“I…” He hesitated. Was now the time to confess it all?
She ran a fingertip down his doublet to his stomach, making his abs quiver and tense. “Show me, Mikhail. Please your queen.” He’d wanted to show his true self to her for so long, and now the time had come. His heart raced as he accepted this moment, this unveiling of the truth to his intended mate.
He’d spent the last year in England and the last six months falling in love with England’s virgin queen. At last, he could show her his world. Watching her through hooded eyes, he slowly removed his doublet by unlacing the leather points and letting it drop. Then he removed his shirt, allowing Elizabeth to gaze at his bare chest.
Her dark eyes surveyed him with a possessive gleam, one he recognized all too well. He’d come to England on a quest for a fortune in jewels to take home to Russia. The moment he had collected his hoard, he had clutched a handful of gemstones in his hand for hours, watching them glint and sparkle in the firelight. Elizabeth was looking at him now as though he were a precious gem that she held in the palm of her hand.
“How beautiful you are.” She traced a pattern over his biceps before walking around to examine his back. The silk of her skirts whispered on the rug.
The gasp she gave made his muscles twitch. He could feel his dragon stirring inside, longing to reveal itself.
“It moves?” The queen’s voice was full of awe, and he smiled at the touch of her fingers between his shoulder blades. “Is it sorcery?” she asked in a whisper, almost too quiet for him to hear.
“Sorcery? No, it is something far more ancient, Your Majesty.” Now was the time to tell her what he really was and to ask her to join him in mating. His heart skittered in his chest, and he nearly laughed. He, an almost two-thousand-year-old dragon, was nervous.
“Ancient?” She circled back around to face him, and her cheeks glowed with a soft pink blush. Her breasts rose and fell as she breathed faster.
“Yes. I wish to tell you what I am.” He should not be nervous or frightened, but he was. What if she wanted him no longer? After six months of secret courting, he could not stand the thought of being turned away, not when his dragon had decided she was worthy.
“What you are…” she said, echoing the words. “My dear Lord Barinov, I believe we should have a drink before we discuss our dark secrets.”
“A drink?” He watched in surprise as she brought him a goblet and took one of her own.
“’Tis mulled wine. I believe you’ll find it to your liking.” She took a sip of her glass, and he did the same. The wine was sweet with spices on his tongue, and he drank it greedily.
“You are what we believed long dead, aren’t you?” she asked.
Mikhail took another sip of his wine, wondering how best to answer.
“I am a dragon shifter. I have lived upon this earth for more than a thousand years. I am fully man and fully beast.” He waited, watching, hoping his announcement wouldn’t scare her.
“Two beings in one divine body.” She ran her hand over his chest again, a coy smile on her lips. “The church would have you burned at the stake if they were to discover such heresy.”
Mikhail chuckled. “I do not fear fire. It obeys my will.” He raised his hand and gestured to the nearest candle on the table closest to them. The flame winked out.
Elizabeth’s eyes widened. “Such power…”
“And it is yours, my queen. As my mate, you would have the might of my people at your disposal.” He held his breath, afraid to tell her that if she became his mate, it would shorten his lifespan, but love was worth that sort of sacrifice.
“Is it true that dragons hoard jewels?” she asked suddenly, mischief glinting her eyes. She was breathing faster now, her breasts pressing tight against her corset, making it hard for him to think of anything but taking her to bed. He gulped down more wine, pleased that he was winning her over so easily.
“We love all things that glint and shine, my queen, whether they be jewels or the eyes of a pretty woman.” He grinned at her, feeling strangely relaxed and confident.
She set her glass down and then moved to the doorway that led to her bedchamber. She leaned against the doorjamb, her gown trailing behind her, the tiny diamonds on her sleeves winking at him.
“I believe we should find a much more suitable place to whisper our secrets.” And then she vanished into the darkness. Mikhail followed, his steps a tad heavy and his preternatural senses strangely dulled. By the time he reached the large canopy bed, he felt weak as a drakeling. Was this how it felt to claim one’s mate? To feel weak and giddy like a mortal man drunk on mead?
“Mikhail,” Elizabeth crooned as he collapsed onto the bed, his brain fuzzy. She leaned over him, and the distant candles from the table by the bed lit her face.
“My queen,” he sighed dreamily, wishing that he could lift his arms to pull her down for a kiss. Why was he so tired? It wasn’t like him.
“Where is your hoard of jewels, my love? I wish for you to share them with me.”
“Secret. Safe,” he said, his voice slurring a little.
She feathered her lips over his, and he thought he would die with how wonderful it felt. “Tell me.” She tortured him with her sweetness. He wished he had the strength to grab her and pull her beneath him, but he could barely move.
“Mikhail, you must tell me where the jewels are, the ones you are taking from the Belishaw family.”
He frowned, confused. “You know about the Belishaws?”
“I am the queen. It is my duty to know everything,” she said, her voice slightly cold. “Those jewels were my father’s, not theirs, yet they took them from him.” She dug her nails into his shoulders. “Now, tell me!” Her tone was more insistent, and he found he couldn’t fight anymore.
A distant flash of alarm came too late for him because he was already speaking.
“Buried beneath a copse of trees close to St. Giles in the Fields.” His head fell back onto the feather tick mattress, and he could feel his body betraying him with its weakness.
“Thank you, my love. You have given me a dragon’s hoard of jewels. Sleep now, because when you wake, I fear you shall be most angry with me.” Elizabeth pressed her lips to his, and the kiss was bittersweet.
“But…you are my true mate. Why would you betray me?”
“True mate?” she scoffed. “As if I could ever love one such as you.”
His eyes widened.
“You think I didn’t know what you really are?” she said with a laugh. “I have been warned about you, love. My royal advisor discovered what you were long ago. My father left warnings about your kind when he was still alive. You would seduce me, plunder my country’s riches, and leave me with nothing as you returned to your home. You disgust me.”
“No, I would… never…”
“The drink I gave you? A gift, from my most trusted magician. He spent months learning all he could about your kind. Formidable as you are, you are not invulnerable. He learned of a way to make you weak, make you human, just like the rest of us.”
“Human?” He choked on the word, fear tearing through him.
“Yes, human. You even say the word with contempt. Do not worry, it will not last forever, but long enough for me to take back what is rightfully mine and to punish you properly.”
“No. Please. You cannot…betray me, I am… I am your mate.”
“Mate? I would never mate with an unholy beast whose existence is built upon lies and greed.” She slid off the bed, leaving him lying helpless in the shadows of her bedchamber. “Oaths hold no power over you. How could anyone love such a serpent?”
But he could say no more. Words abandoned him. She was stealing the jewels, the ones he was supposed to take home. He was a fool. He had failed in his duty. And even if he escaped this fate, he would be exiled for this. The dark rush of thoughts consumed him as he slipped deeper and deeper into unconsciousness.
Mikhail jerked awake, the memory from half a millennium ago still lingering in his mind, the taste of Elizabeth’s kiss still on his lips and her mocking smile still burned into his memory. But it wasn’t 1559 anymore. Half a millennium had passed between that fateful kiss and the solitary life he led in Cornwall now.
He sat up, eyes adjusting to the lack of moonlight, his thoughts still back at the moment his life had changed forever—when the woman he’d thought he loved had drugged his wine, stolen his hoard, and then imprisoned him behind iron bars, the one metal that could harm a dragon and which he had no power over, for half a century. The woman had taken everything that mattered to him, and centuries later, it still stung to realize the extent of his gullibility.
Eyes sharpening in the darkness, his dragon senses assessed the night. A faint patter of rain against the bay windows drew his attention. The dragon inside him shifted, wanting to manifest itself and take flight. Over the years the beast in him had become almost feral, carrying with it a desire to fly in dangerous conditions.
Elizabeth’s betrayal had dug deep into him, like claws raking old wounds open again and again. He had wanted her for his mate, she had been the one fate had chosen for him, yet she hadn’t believed true mating was real, not until she was on her death bed, and by then it was far too late.
I was nothing but an unholy beast to her except in those final hours of her life. She saw me only as a means to take back those jewels to line her royal coffers.
Being rejected by her had nearly killed him. A dragon couldn’t live without its mate. And while he hadn’t completed the mating bond, his dragon had been driven half-mad with grief by losing her. Even now, five hundred years later, thinking of her made his dragon reckless, desperate to hurt itself because it didn’t care to live, not without its mate. He could feel it stir inside him, wanting to plunge off the cliffs and test its wings against the lightning and the rain.
Soon, he promised. Soon.
He swung his legs out of bed and stood. The stone floor was cool beneath his feet. He was surprised that it wasn’t snowing outside. This time of year on the coast of Cornwall there should be a great, fierce storm raging against the shore, layering the rocky inland hills with wet, sticky snow.
It was not the kind of snow he was used to, however, even after living here for five centuries. He preferred his snow thick and fluffy, dry as vodka. Russian snow. The snow of his homeland. But that was lost to him. He could not go home until he recovered the jewels Queen Elizabeth had stolen from him. It was a matter of honor.
Mikhail left his bedchamber and walked down the narrow hall of his home. It was a stone country house, a mere mile from the cliffs. The secluded spot left him isolated, just as he liked it. It was dangerous to navigate the roads around the coast this time of year, and the self-imposed isolation left him melancholy, but he welcomed the dark tide of feelings.
He hadn’t always been this way, the kind of man who preferred solitude to companionship. But he’d been burned too often by the friendship of mortals to fully trust them ever again, and he’d never felt at home among the English dragon families, except perhaps for the Belishaws. He was content to be an outsider…forever.
He paused at the foot of the stairs, listening to the old grandfather clock ticking away the hours. Two in the morning. Outside, the sea pounded against the cliffs, the sound reminding Mikhail of how alone and remote his country house was. The frothy white spray from the water struck the rocks and formed a thick, almost impenetrable mist that had lured many a ship to a watery grave. In many ways, Cornwall was like the edge of hell—a dark, harsh place, especially in winter, and yet somehow that made it beautiful as well. A place of endings, a place of darkness and loneliness that called to his wounded soul.
His eyes strayed to an oil painting by the stairs, one of the dark cliffs with the distant black figure of a dragon flying out to sea. The house was full of memories and the ghost of his friend James Barrow, the one human he had trusted. But James had died long ago, more than a hundred and fifty years now.
“Mikhail, stop brooding.” James’s laughter echoed through the hall, a flash of memory that made him smile. If there was anyone aside from his brothers who had understood him, it had been James. The human had been a friend to him when he’d needed it most, a brother when he had become brotherless. Their bond had run deep in a time when Mikhail had felt most alone because of his exile. When James had died, he’d left Mikhail the house, as well as all of the ghosts and memories that came with it.
Mikhail had no urge to return to bed, lest dark dreams come creeping back up on him. With that unpleasant thought, he headed for the living room. He collapsed onto the leather sofa and flicked on the television, flipping through the absurd number of channels before a news story made his body freeze.
He turned the sound up to listen to a breaking news report from London. A reporter spoke in front of the entrance to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
“We officially confirmed last night’s immense discovery,” the man said, excitement flustering his face. “Workmen installing a new wine cellar in the basement of a small bed-and-breakfast in Cheapside unearthed what turned out to be the remnants of a far older building. Tests confirm that the edifice was likely built around the middle of the sixteenth century.”
He paused, catching his breath before continuing. “But the most amazing part of this discovery is the large pile of jewels that were uncovered in the remains of the old building beneath the inn. More than two hundred pounds of raw gems and finished settings, believed to have been from the Elizabethan era, have been transported to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Over the next two weeks, the items will be cataloged and transferred to the Thorne Auction House.”
The female news anchor interrupted. “And I understand that this find is unusual for another reason?”
“That is correct. Because the finding is strictly made up of gemstones, they do not fall under the Treasure Act of 1996 and are therefore not required to be sold to a museum. As such, they remain the property of the bed-and-breakfast owners, a Mr. and Mrs. Elwes-Bush. The Victoria and Albert Museum representatives will be among the bidders at the auction, of course.”
The TV cut away from the reporter to show photos of the jewels. Among the pearls and rubies, he caught a glimpse of a gemstone emerald watch made from a single large emerald, cut into a square box shape, with delicate gold roman numerals inside. A string of wild thoughts raced through him as he recognized what he saw.
Mikhail could barely breathe. The jewels, his jewels, were at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He knew those gems, had gazed at them for hours, burning their vivid colors into his mind so he would never forget. He’d spent five centuries trying to find them again, searching all of England for them, and they’d been hidden away somewhere in Cheapside.
She’d never put them back in the royal treasury, possibly because she knew he’d look for them. When he’d finally emerged from his prison, he’d sought word on their last location. What he’d discovered was that the hoard of jewels had been stolen while being transported from the Tower of London to one of Elizabeth’s residences. The robbers were never caught, and the treasure was lost forever.
The listless melancholy that had colored the last five hundred years of his life faded. The jewels were in London. He was going to get them back, and he would finally be able to go home.
A slow smile curved his lips. This time, there would be no tempting virgin to stand in his way.
The greatest treasures were most often guarded by the slyest and cruelest dragons.
―Adam Nevill, House of Small Shadows
Diamonds are my best friend… The words hummed through Piper Linwood’s head as she stood in the showroom of the Victoria and Albert Museum, staring at the glass-encased display of jewels with longing and fascination. Never in her life had she seen such an impressive and awe-inspiring collection. As one of the premier gemologists in North America, she’d seen hoards that would make a queen emerald-green with envy.
But all of those paled in comparison to this.
No one back home in Massachusetts would have guessed she’d end up in glittering, aristocratic London, overseeing a trove of this magnitude. After ten years, multiple jobs, double course loads for classes, and a heavy caffeine addiction, she’d clawed her way up from small-town life to cataloging this remarkable find.
And I am going to help sell them. She still couldn’t believe it when Thorne Auction House had contacted her for the position, along with her friend and colleague Jodie Harkness. As a consulting gemologist, her job was to identify and place a starting value on each piece in the collection. It was a huge honor. She was only thirty, but they’d chosen her over a handful of even better qualified gemologists.
She looked around the exhibit room, full of tourists snapping pictures and taking selfies next to the hoard of jewels, several of them pretending to make a grab for them. A group of blank-faced security personnel protected the collection. Only a small number of jewels were currently on display, and they would rotate the pieces between the vaults and the exhibit.
But this exhibit was temporary. The pieces would soon be sold at auction, so this was the only chance for the public to see them. A camera crew was recording the event, with a reporter standing next to a collection of salamanders encrusted with diamonds and sapphires.
The display room was crowded and warm and noisy. She was more accustomed to a tiny room with a gemological binocular microscope, a set of jeweler’s loupes, a refractometer, and a dozen other tools of the trade she used to assess a gem’s quality. The bustle of so many people made her slightly edgy, especially when they strayed too close to the display. She couldn’t help but feel a little protective of the collection, even though they were secured beneath thick pressurized glass cases.
As she studied the room, her eyes lit on one person and stayed attuned to him as he stood next to one of the glass displays. She shifted her position and frowned, taking in the tall, dark figure, with black slacks and a dark gray sweater that fit him almost regally. Taking a few steps closer, she began to follow him slowly through the exhibit.
He meandered from case to case, like any tourist, but there was a precise, controlled quality to his movements. Whenever he stared at tourists blocking his view of the display case he was currently gazing at, the tourists moved away like startled rabbits. Piper couldn’t help but look at him, fixated on his tall, lean form. He was handsome, very handsome, but in a too-intense sort of way that made her heart pound and her head feel fuzzy.
His hair was long enough to fall over his eyes, but he didn’t brush it away or even seem to notice it. He stood transfixed at the final display in the exhibit case, which contained a bag of partially decayed pearls that had been uncovered where the trove was found. Next to the artfully scattered pearls on a blue velvet cloth was a clock made entirely of emerald. It looked like a pocket watch with an emerald lid that folded down to cover the delicate gold filigree face. The clock’s hands had vanished sometime during the last five centuries, but one could still see the numbers around the dial. A few of the other gemologists who’d seen it believed the housing had been carved out of a single emerald the size of a man’s fist. If that was true, then it increased the clock’s value to nearly priceless.
With a flush of heat that she tried to ignore, Piper approached the man by the case. He wasn’t dressed like a tourist, and he wasn’t acting like one, either: no pictures, no casual flipping through the exhibit brochure. He stared at the case as though it contained all of his answers. His fixation was unsettling, but she had to admit, it was not unlike her own. Perhaps he was a gemologist? No one else would look at jewels that intensely.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” she said as she came beside him. Her words came out a little breathless, but he didn’t seem to notice. He didn’t turn to face her the way most men would when a woman spoke to them.
“The pearls…” he whispered, his tone dark with a smooth but bold Russian accent. “They used to be so beautiful. They gleamed like moonlight trapped in frozen drops of dew.” He raised a hand as though he wanted to reach through the glass to clasp a handful of the age-pinkened pearls.
The features of his face, which Piper could only see in profile, were cut of marble and destined to break a woman’s heart. This man was as beautiful as the pearls and the emerald clock, but far more dangerous. Jewels were a girl’s friend. A handsome man was not. He looked like the sort who could seduce any woman he wanted and leave her brokenhearted.
Piper gave her head a shake and focused back on the jewels. Gems would never stand her up on a Saturday night.
“If left in the ground without proper protection, pearls will decay, just like any other organic material. They are far more delicate than the gemstones.”
She felt silly rambling to this stranger. This was why she didn’t have a boyfriend. They always said she talked too much about her work and never focused on them. They acted like it was her fault that she’d never really been that into them or their relationships.
The man slowly turned to face her, and she was struck by his green eyes, so bright, like emeralds.
Eyes didn’t come in that color of green. They had to be contacts. His mouth—it was a thing of dreams, and its sensual fullness made her want to lean in and nibble his bottom lip and…what was she thinking?
“You understand treasure?” he asked.
“Treasure? You mean gems and…” She was flustered, too distracted by his eyes and lips. Was it crazy that she was picturing him leaning down and kissing her right now? Yeah, super crazy. Had she had too much caffeine today? Not possible—she’d only just had her fifth cup from the cafeteria. If anything, she was due for another.
He nodded, and his eyes now watched her with the same intensity he’d given the jewels. Her entire body flooded with awareness like some kind of sixth sense. Every hair on her arms seemed to rise, and her blood began to pound in her ears. A slow wave of heat started from her face and moved down to her toes. Her body rebelled against her, all because this dark stranger was staring at her in a way that reminded her she was a woman, making her think of all the things that a woman wanted from a man in the dark of night.
Whispers, sighs, limbs entwined and bodies writhing…
Piper came back to herself with a jolt and tried to remember what they were talking about.
“I’m a gemologist. My job is all about treasure.” She couldn’t help but use the word he had. Funny, she never thought of gems and precious stones as treasure, but they were. This amazing new discovery was by definition a treasure trove.
The man cocked his head and leaned toward her. His nostrils flared as he inhaled deeply. The predatory move into her personal space made her tense and try to move back, but she was too close to the jewel case. She’d bump into the glass and set off the alarms. The corner of his mouth twitched up as though he almost smiled at her realization of being trapped.
“A gemologist.” He tested the word, making it sound decadent on his lips.
“Yeah,” she answered, a little breathless, trying to regain her composure. “I’ve been hired to appraise the gems of this collection before they go to auction.”
A sharp gleam in his eyes made her freeze in place.
“Have you now.” It was a statement rather than a question, and for some reason that unsettled her. When she met his eyes again, the green seemed to melt into liquid gold. She jolted and he blinked, the yellow glint vanished. There was something predatory about him that made her both excited and uneasy at the same time. She’d always been into men who were dominating, but she’d never been around a man who actually put off those dominant vibes before. Her skin flushed at his dark, knowing look.
“I should leave you to—” she said, now trying to sidestep him.
“My name is Mikhail Barinov,” he announced, stopping her. There was a touch of pride in his tone, but it lacked the arrogance that she expected to go with it. It was almost as though he expected her to know of him, but she obviously didn’t. Which begged the question, who the hell was he?
“I’m Piper, Piper Linwood.”
Mikhail raised her hand to his lips and gave her a chivalrous kiss. His lips were warm and soft on the backs of her fingers. She shivered. It was impossible not to imagine his lips touching other parts of her. The wicked thought filled her with a wild rush of excitement and a hint of panic. She never thought about strange men like this. Was it because Mikhail was insanely gorgeous? Or was it because at the age of thirty she was still a virgin and her hormones were finally kicking into high gear?
“Will you be attending the reception at the Thorne Auction House tonight?” he asked her.
Surprise fluttered through her. “Why yes. How did you know about that?” She didn’t think the reception was open to the public.
There was a flicker of hesitation before he replied. “I shall be there as well.” His lips curved into a small crooked smile that sent her heart racing. “I shall look forward to seeing you again, Ms. Linwood. And the jewels.”
Before she could reply, the mysterious and sexy Mikhail Barinov slipped into the crowd and disappeared. He hadn’t even told her how he’d known about the private reception.
Her friend Jodie Harkness joined Piper at the display case. “Who was that?”
The emerald clock and the scattered pearls lay on the velvet cloth. They were beautiful and enchanting, but now when she looked at them all she could see were Mikhail’s eyes. She remembered what he’d said: The pearls…they used to be so beautiful. They gleamed like moonlight trapped in frozen drops of dew.
It was as though he’d seen the original jewels before they’d been lost beneath an old inn for five hundred years. But that was impossible. She must have misunderstood him. He was clearly Russian, and English was not his first language. Yes, that was it—he’d gotten his tenses mixed up and hadn’t meant to make it sound like he’d seen them before, but rather that he was sad to see them not looking brand-new.
“Hey, Earth to Piper,” Jodie teased.
Piper finally drew her scattered thoughts together and looked at her friend. “What?”
“Who was Mr. Tall, Dark, and Devastatingly Handsome? Tell me you’re finally exploring that kinky side you mentioned you had. He looked like he was into it.”
Jodie tugged the ends of her gray suit jacket down and leaned against the wall next to the display case. Piper sighed with more than a little envy. Jodie was tall and slender, with dark hair and pretty brown eyes. She looked like she’d come out of a Vogue fashion ad.
Piper, on the other hand, was only five foot four and too curvy to look good in most off-the-rack outfits. Her hair was that boring color somewhere between brown and blonde, and her eyes were a light, almost washed-out blue. The only thing she really liked about herself was her face. It wasn’t model caliber, but pretty enough if she put some makeup on. Not that she did that very often. When she was examining gems through her tools and viewing scopes, heavy makeup on her eyes posed a problem.
“I don’t know him. At least, not before two minutes ago. He said his name is Mikhail Barinov. I believe he’s Russian.”
Jodie’s eyes sparkled. “Russian? Oh, they are the best in bed.” Piper laughed, but her friend continued, her tone earnest. “I’m serious! They are dark and brooding and more than a little kinky. This could be good for you!”
Piper’s heart jumped in her chest. “Kinky?” Although she was a virgin, she’d had plenty of fantasies, and she knew what turned her on. She’d begged her past boyfriends to experiment, but none of them had been into it, so she’d never been that interested in handing over her V-card. She wanted her first time to feel explosive, to blow her away, to fulfill her fantasies.
“Yeah.” Jodie leaned in to whisper as a crowd of tourists strolled by. “Like tying you down, bit of spanking, bit of bondage. That sort of good stuff. I’ve dated a few Russians, and they’re all like that. Dominating and sexy.”
Piper’s eyes widened as she imagined Mikhail in bed, pinning a woman down while he…
“Easy, girl.” Jodie giggled. “If your face gets any redder, you’ll set off the fire alarms.”
That was the problem with having some seriously dark fantasies and a modest personality—they tended to collide in uncomfortable ways. She’d told Jodie only a few weeks ago that she’d like to have a man who would be a little rough, someone who would dominate her in bed, maybe spank or tie her down. Her friend hadn’t laughed, but she’d never forgotten, either. The mere mention of it and her entire body heated up, and it always turned her face an embarrassing shade of fire-truck red.
Jodie changed the subject. “So what did you and Mikhail talk about?”
She could tell her friend was trying to suss out any details of a possible romantic encounter. Ever since she and Jodie had flown to London a week ago, Jodie had been hell-bent on finally getting Piper laid. But she didn’t hold it against her.
I was the idiot who had too many cocktails at the airport bar, then told her I was a virgin and that I got turned on by a bit of domination. Smooth.
It was sweet, though, Jodie’s desire to help her get rid of her pesky V-card.
“Talk about? Oh, well, we talked about the jewels at the reception tonight.”
“Is he coming?” Jodie asked.
“It sounded like he is. I wonder how he got an invite. Only potential buyers and employees are attending.” Piper bit her bottom lip, thinking it over. Who does he know who could get him into the auction? She’d met many of the potential buyers and seen lists with names on them from the auction house, but she hadn’t seen any Barinovs on the list. Still, he might be a late addition, fresh off a private jet from Moscow or something.
“Maybe he’s connected to the auction house, but we just didn’t meet him before today?” Jodie suggested.
“There was something about him…” Piper murmured, once more thinking of Mikhail’s green eyes and how, for a second, she’d sworn they’d started to turn gold. How he’d acted like he knew the jewels personally, which was, of course, ridiculous.
“He was crazy hot. You need to jump his bones ASAP before he flies back home,” Jodie added and then brightened. “That’s it. We’re going shopping. We’ll get you something totally amazing to wear tonight. I could see he was into you from across the room.” Jodie seized her arm and hauled her out of the exhibit room. “We are so not missing this opportunity.”
She wasn’t really looking forward to shopping, but she did have a sudden urge to look her best for the sexy, mysterious Mikhail Barinov. She would’ve felt pathetic acting like this for any other man, but there was something about the man and the way he’d looked at her, the same way he’d looked at the jewels: with an intense hunger.
Was it foolish to hope he might be genuinely interested in her? Probably. But she wanted to take a risk. If there was a man worth risking herself for, it was definitely the man with bewitching green eyes and a Russian accent.
We men dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do not do; they are.
―Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore
Mikhail walked up the steps to Berkley’s Club, his skin tingling. It had been a long time since he’d scented a virgin woman in her prime. He’d stayed away from humans for so long that he’d almost forgotten how the sweet, floral scent of a naturally beautiful woman could tease his nostrils. The little virgin gemologist was as ripe as a red apple hanging low on the branch, begging to be plucked. His body hardened at the thought of getting her alone, stripping her naked, and inhaling that intoxicating, pure scent until he was drunk with the aroma.
He gave his head an almost violent shake. No—he refused to be a fool for a woman again, especially a virgin. Piper Linwood was no different than any other female, ready to betray a man the moment it was convenient. It didn’t matter that she’d carried a loneliness in her eyes that called to his, or a hopeful blush in her cheeks when he’d leaned in close to her. It was a ruse and nothing more. His hands curled into fists as he rapped his knuckles on the club’s front door and waited, his mind racing with thoughts of the past.
The memories of that night when Queen Elizabeth had seduced and betrayed him five hundred years ago had left him filled with a quiet rage. When he’d entered the jewel exhibit an hour ago, his heart had stopped at the sight of his jewels on display for the world to see like common trinkets. But they weren’t.
The hoard was his family’s payment for a treaty with the Belishaws, an English dragon family. The Belishaws had received those same jewels years before Elizabeth was born as a payment from King Henry VIII, when he was a young and weak monarch. In exchange, the Belishaws had provided the Crown with their support and protection. Now those jewels belonged to him and his two brothers, Grigori and Rurik. To see the hoard on display like this had upset his dragon. A dragon’s hoard was supposed to be hidden deep below the earth in caverns where no one could steal it.
The door to the club opened. He took a deep breath as he stepped inside. A servant met him just inside the door.
“Good evening, sir.”
Mikhail handed the servant his black membership card. “I’m here to see Randolph Belishaw.”
The man’s eyes widened as he examined the card. “Yes, of course, right this way.” He waved for Mikhail to follow. They walked up a flight of gleaming, polished wooden stairs, softened by expensive carpets. Paintings of famous members from days long past lined the walls. He paused at the top of the stairs and noticed a portrait of a blond-haired man with laughing gray eyes. The man wore buckskin breeches and a blue waistcoat. The inscription beneath the painting read, “Charles Humphrey, Seventh Earl of Lonsdale.”
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