Rurik - Lauren Smith - E-Book

Rurik E-Book

Lauren Smith

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Beschreibung

A dragon’s prisoner…or his deepest desire?
The fiercest of a royal line of Russian dragon shifters, Rurik Barinov spends most days defending his family’s homeland from rival clans. By night, sins of the flesh—drinking, dancing, and sex—keep his volatile warrior dragon in check. Barely.
With his choice of mortal women to bed, he has no interest in changing his bad-boy ways—until a creature of molten sex poured into a tiny red satin dress steps into his nightclub. A jagged edge of raw desire nicks the impenetrable armor around his heart.
Charlotte MacQueen has been told since childhood to stay in school, live a normal life. Leave the family business—hunting down dragons—to her brothers. But tonight, she’s shed her chemist’s lab coat and infiltrated enemy lines to bag a dragon of her own.
She never expected sexy, all-too-wicked Rurik Barinov to capture her, body and soul—the perfect weapon to use against her brothers. Or that she’d fall for the brave, battle-scarred dragon shifter who covets her heart like the most precious of jewels.
Twilight meets Games of Thrones in this hot new dragonshifter romance by USA Today Bestselling author Lauren Smith!

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Rurik: A Royal Dragon Romance

Brothers of Ash and Fire Book 3

Lauren Smith

Contents

Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Epilogue

Grigori: A Royal Dragon Romance

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Other Titles By Lauren Smith

About the Author

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 Grigori: A Royal Dragon Romance by Lauren Smith, Copyright © 2018

Cover art by Cover Couture

Photography by Wander Aguiar Photography

All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitutes unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.

ISBN: 978-1-94206-22-9 (e-book edition)

ISBN: 978-1-94206-23-6 (trade paperback edition)

ISBN: 978-1-947206-30-4 (hardback edition)

Prologue

Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale. —Peter S. Beagle, The Last Unicorn

Moscow, Russia

Rurik Barinov watched the men and women dance in his nightclub, Logovo—the Lair. Its dark interior was lit by flashing strobe lights and fog from the machines at the opposite ends of the dance floor. The entire club looked like a cross between a cave and a dungeon. The walls were rough stone, and dancers were showing off their moves in iron-barred cages.

While Rurik’s older brother ran a sensible business, one that was built on technology in commerce, Rurik traded in something far older: pleasure. Dancing, drinking, and sex never went out of style. He was not buttoned-up and proper like Grigori. He enjoyed wild nights with wicked women, bodies straining and yearning for that headlong rush of mutual satisfaction. It never ceased to amaze him that Grigori had walked away from such things. But he’d heard that after a thousand years a dragon tended to lose his wildness, at least in part. Only when they found their mate did they experience a resurgence of that frenzied lust.

Rurik chuckled. He could not picture Grigori doing anything with a frenzy except slaughtering the competition in a boardroom. He was damned good at that. Scary as fuck too, always cool and controlled. Yet when Rurik had shown interest in the little mortal professor, Madelyn Haynes, Grigori’s eyes had blazed and he’d growled a dark and dangerous warning. It was the first time he’d ever been afraid of his own brother. Dragons were possessive by nature, and as Russian Imperial shifters they were more covetous than others when it came to jewels and women.

Thinking about jewels reminded Rurik of his other brother, Mikhail. The brother who was lost to them. He’d failed to secure a hoard of jewels from a treaty they’d made with English dragons and had been exiled for his failure by their father. For one brief year when their father and mother had traveled the world, Grigori had called Mikhail home. For four seasons, Mikhail had been part of the family again. That had been two centuries ago.

He wished Mikhail were here now. Mikhail knew Grigori better in some ways, even though he hadn’t been home since the nineteenth century. Mikhail would have known how to warn Grigori against the temptations mortal females presented.

“Rurik?” A sweet voice caught his attention and dragged him out of his ancient thoughts. A beautiful French woman with dark hair and green eyes watched him from across the bar. His best bartender, Nikita, wore a silver sequined dress and killer black heels that made every man in the room assume she was a customer and not the bartender. Whenever he looked at her, the hardness in his heart always softened. But she was human, and he could never be with a human. Not for long.

“How are the numbers tonight?” he asked as he joined her, leaning on the bar toward her. He couldn’t help it—she pulled him in like the glint of a diamond just within reach. It made him practice his self-restraint.

She smiled warmly, a smile meant only for him, and he knew why. She was in love with him, but she was too much like him, a free spirit, unchained even by the forces of love. Any other woman he would have slept with and moved on, but he couldn’t do that with Nikita. She had the potential to be a true mate. If he even dared to kiss her, it could destroy his family. Battle dragons couldn’t risk love; their lives were dangerous. If they dared to mate a human, that human could be used against them. A fragile mortal life was easy to snuff out, and that would kill the dragon because mated dragons always died shortly after their mates.

“Good. We are at maximum capacity, but—” Her voice trailed off, and her eyes widened as she stared at something over his shoulder.

“Niki?” he queried.

Her green eyes cut to his, and she whispered one word.

“Drakor.”

He spun, instincts kicking in. Ruslan Drakor stood only a few feet away, grinning like the devil he was. As the eldest son of Dimitri Drakor, the head of the Drakor family, Ruslan was an arrogant bastard who believed he didn’t have to abide by the terms of the treaty between the Barinov and Drakor families.

“Ruslan. What the fuck do you want?” Rurik made a grand show of leaning casually against the bar, even though every muscle in his body was tense.

He prayed that Ruslan wouldn’t be so stupid as to attack him in a club full of humans. The Drakor family ran the eastern half of Russia, while the Barinovs controlled the west. The Yenisey River acted as the formal boundary between their territories because it split Russia almost cleanly in half.

The Barinovs had control of both Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and under Rurik’s father in 1750, they had made a treaty that allowed the Drakors to enter and leave those two cities without incident so long as they did not interfere with Barinov business or cause trouble. This protected both of their families. Conflict between supernatural houses tended to attract the wrong kind of attention, such as the Brotherhood of the Blood Moon.

“I’ve come for a drink and women.” Ruslan laughed, but there was a feral gleam in his eyes.

Rurik remained still, the picture of casual ease. They both knew that Rurik could knock Ruslan on his ass without breaking a sweat.

“Good for you, Ruslan, but find another club. Not mine.” Had they been outside the city, Rurik would have attacked, but the damned treaty kept him on his best behavior.

Ruslan brushed his dark hair out of his eyes and walked to the other end of the bar. His expression changed to one of hunger as he spied Nikita.

“You, female, bring me the best vodka in the house.” He slapped his palm on the counter hard enough that the expensive glass layer over the wood fractured, tiny cracks fanning out around his hand like spiderwebs.

Son of a dog… Rurik growled softly, the dragon inside him stirring. He could feel the tattoo moving on his back. He’d never been very good at restraining the beast within him, even at the best of times. His father had said it was because he was built for battle.

“Ruslan, leave now,” he warned.

The other man made a show of getting comfortable. Then he looked over at Nikita and licked his lips. That was it.

“Nikita, the alarm if you please.” Rurik tried to stay calm, but he could feel the dragon surging to the surface.

His bartender ducked beneath the bar and slapped a red button. An alarm blared, cutting the music off. Dancers scrambled out of the cages and off the dance floors, rushing toward the exits in varying degrees of panic.

It was a shame to lose a good night of business, but better to have an empty club than risk human casualties. There was nothing like a spike in mortality rates to draw the Brotherhood into their business. They had no offices in Moscow that he knew of, but there were always agents about, and they could mobilize from Saint Petersburg in short order. The last thing either he or the Drakor family needed were supernatural hunters swarming the city.

“Such hostility,” Ruslan said. “I was just here to talk business. I like your bar. I was thinking about buying it. How about…one ruble?”

Rurik growled. “One last chance, Ruslan. Walk away and I leave your pretty face intact.”

The other man laughed. “I was about to tell you the same thing.”

Rurik sensed Nikita close behind him. Not everyone had left when the alarm went off. “Nikita, get out of here.”

“But—”

“Go!” he roared, his voice dropping to a low pitch as his vocal cords started to transform.

Nikita tried to flee, but Ruslan threw up a hand. Fire shot out of his palm, and a blazing beam cut off her escape. Ruslan’s eyes morphed into red irises with slitted pupils. A hint of smoke puffed from his nostrils. Both men were fighting to stay in control and not fully transform. The club wouldn’t be able to fit one full-grown dragon, let alone two.

“You would break your father’s treaty?” Rurik bellowed, raising his own palm, unleashing a spray of fiery sparks. It was the closest thing to a warning shot he could manage without starting a fire in his club.

“I am not bound by his word!” Ruslan balled his other fist and slammed it down on the bar. The glass counter shattered into thousands of pieces, and the wood beneath exploded in a burst of massive splinters.

A six-inch piece of wood buried itself in Rurik’s lower belly. Fuck! Pain set in like a dull ache, and he knew it was bad.

“Rurik!” Nikita screamed and ran toward him. He gripped the shard and ripped it out. Hot blood streamed down his shirt, and his belly throbbed. He would heal fine—the wound was already clotting—but the sight of it must have scared her. When Nikita reached him, he waved her away.

“You have to get out.” He panted. “I can’t fight him and worry about you.”

She bit her lip and nodded. “Be safe,” she said. She kissed his forehead and fled, but she never reached the door. Ruslan raised his hand and aimed a jet of fire at Nikita. She was knocked into the wall against a massive mirror just feet from the exit. The mirror shattered, and her limp body fell to the ground. Blood dripped from Nikita’s lips, and the light in her green eyes faded like the light of a dying star.

Something inside Rurik broke, a piece of his heart.

A cold, harsh laugh escaped Ruslan’s lips. “What’s one more human, more or less?”

Shock and grief raged inside Rurik. His Nikita, his Niki was gone. A red mist descended over his vision. He didn’t care about the club, the treaty, or the Brotherhood right now. He cared only for vengeance.

With a deafening roar, Rurik’s clothes shredded as his body transformed into a fifteen-foot-tall black-scaled dragon. His frill fanned out around his neck as he opened his jaws and a stream of fire shot out, so hot it was nearly blue.

Ruslan tried to change into his own beast, but Rurik’s jaws caught Ruslan’s elongated neck mid-change and snapped shut. The heavy crack echoed in the room as Ruslan went limp beneath him. The battle was over before it even began.

Rurik released him, and the body changed back to a man, lying broken and bleeding at Rurik’s feet. Rurik’s eyes darted around the room, seeking out more threats, and then he saw Nikita’s body. The beast recognized the loss of a woman he cared about, and he let out a mournful sound.

Rurik let go of the dragon side of him, and his body shrank back to its mortal shell. Rurik fell to his knees.

Nikita was dead, Ruslan was dead, and a three-century-old treaty had been broken.

He dug his hands into his hair, trying to stop them from shaking as emotions rolled through him like violent riptides. How was he going to tell Grigori that he had killed Dimitri Drakor’s eldest son?

I’ve just started a war.

1

Among all the kinds of serpents, there is none comparable to the dragon. - Edward Topsell, 1658

Moscow, Russia – Three months later

Charlotte MacQueen tugged the sweetheart neckline of her red satin cocktail dress up a few more centimeters. Despite the thick red velvet winter coat she wore, her exposed skin had drawn the cabdriver’s eyes and made her shift restlessly until he’d had to focus back on the road. But then, she’d known her dress would have this effect. She was practically falling out of the damn thing, but she had a hunch this would be one of the few times having full breasts would be an advantage instead of a hindrance.

She’d spent most of her life hiding her curvy figure behind draping sweaters and lab coats. It was silly, but she’d never felt comfortable in sexy clothes.

Charlotte wasn’t sure if it was how the slide of satin felt on her skin or the way every masculine eye fixed on the thigh-high cut of her dress or the lowered neckline, but tonight she was trying hard to ignore how exposed she felt. She couldn’t be distracted because she was pulling a Mata Hari. She was going behind enemy lines—or rather, into dragon territory—to seduce a seriously dangerous dragon shifter.

How the hell did I get here? It wasn’t the first time she’d asked herself that question.

Before tonight, the idea of chasing down a man who could shift into a dragon was ludicrous. Not because she didn’t think they were real; she’d grown up her entire life knowing the truth about things that went bump in the night. Vampires, dragons, werewolves, shifters—all of it. Until now, she’d been kept safe by her overprotective older brothers, but she was done with that. She wanted to do something meaningful with her life, and tonight that meant quite literally walking into the dragon’s den.

If my brothers figure out I’m here, they’ll probably try to send me to some convent like it’s the middle ages. The thought almost made Charlotte smile, despite the dangerous situation. Her brothers, Damien and Jason, were the experts at this sort of thing—well, not the seduction part, but the infiltration. They would know exactly how to handle something like a dragon shifter. But she’d never been a part of their secret supernatural hunter lifestyle. Until tonight.

If I bag this guy, they’ll have to admit I’m not just their kid sister anymore. Maybe then they’ll let me join the Brotherhood.

But if she were being honest with herself, coming all the way to Moscow hadn’t just been about proving her brothers wrong. It began when she saw the man from the files she’d gotten from the Brotherhood’s headquarters. The man she couldn’t get out of her head. The man she planned to capture.

Her target was Rurik Barinov, youngest of the three remaining dragons in the Russian Imperial bloodline who controlled the western half of Russia. Pulling out her cell phone, she scanned the pictures she had of him, probably for the hundredth time. She’d been lucky enough to snap some shots of the surveillance photos they had of him on file.

He was gorgeous in a dangerous sort of way, with a strong jaw, bright green eyes, and wavy dark hair that was a little too long, making him look a bit like a pirate from those swoon-worthy romance novels she’d devoured as a teenager. Charlotte hadn’t known men could look like that in real life, and she’d already had some seriously dirty thoughts about what he would be like in bed. He’d been her first choice out of the three brothers to try to capture, but that wasn’t because of his looks.

Rurik tended to wear leather jackets, jeans, and biker boots, and there was a long scar down one side of his face, which only made him look that much more dangerous. Her sexy biker dragon was too much of everything, and she had to admit getting close to him tonight was going to be a heck of a thrill.

God, there has to be something wrong with me. He’s not my sexy biker. He’s my target. But she couldn’t deny the fact that the idea of getting up close and personal with Rurik turned her on.

Keep your cool and focus on the mission. It was the tenth time she had to remind herself of that.

Tonight was strictly recon, though. She needed to get into Rurik’s club, survey the scene, locate and observe him. Nothing more. She’d read the notes on the Brotherhood’s dragon monitoring. These days they really just tried to keep an eye on the dragons’ activities and not interfere, but a few months ago two dragons had fought in a nightclub and a woman had died. This sparked rumors of a coming dragon war between two families in Moscow, possibly drawing in support from other countries. It could easily spiral out of control, and the Brotherhood were desperate to figure out how to stop it before it happened. And it all came down to Rurik.

He’d been the dragon at the nightclub who’d survived. Her brother Damien had made a note in the file that Rurik might be the key to all this. If they could question him, they could determine how serious the situation really was and whether or not they would have to intervene.

So far no one had been able to get close to Rurik. Direct contact was useless. Shifters didn’t trust the Brotherhood and always closed ranks the moment they appeared. They’d tried incognito female agents. It seemed logical, given his background and reputation, but he never let any of them get close enough to lure him to a secure location. He always seemed to sniff them out somehow. And bringing him in by force would only justify the distrust shifters had and make it even harder to get answers.

That’s why I’m here alone. Rurik won’t see me coming.

She grinned a little. She wore a light perfume she’d concocted that contained a bit of enhanced pheromones, a side project she’d been working on. If it worked, she would catch his interest and then go with him rather than try to lure him somewhere with her. That had been the tipoff, she assumed. The moment the female agents had tried to get Rurik someplace he wasn’t familiar with, the warning flags went up.

But Charlotte had a better way in mind.

Once she had him alone in a place he felt comfortable, she’d use her secret weapon on him: a drug that could incapacitate him long enough to call in the Brotherhood to help her transport him to secure facility where he could be questioned safely without anyone getting hurt.

The cabdriver hit the brakes as a car ahead of them swerved into their lane. Charlotte winced as she jerked forward and collided with the cab’s back seat.

“Sorry!” the driver muttered in heavily accented English. Then he flashed an obscene gesture at the driver ahead of them. At this rate, it would take them forever to reach the club where Rurik was supposed to be.

Charlotte slid back in her seat and tried to still her jittery nerves. She would have been back in her little lab in Detroit—safe and sound, instead of here dragon hunting—if it hadn’t been for her friend Meg.

Meg Stratford, a hunter for the Brotherhood, had secretly called on her to analyze a serum Meg had found in London—a drug that could subdue a dragon’s shifting abilities. Charlotte had unraveled the chemical composition in a matter of days. The product she’d synthesized essentially made them human for a period of time depending on the dose. She’d made samples that would last around twenty-four hours on an average-sized shifter.

But the drug was potentially dangerous. Not in terms of directly harming the shifters, but because of how easily it could be misused. In the wrong hands, it would threaten the balance that existed between the various supernatural factions. Even certain members of the Brotherhood, known for their overzealous nature, couldn’t be trusted with it. As a result, Meg had sworn her to secrecy, even from her own brothers.

A stab of guilt cut through Charlotte. She’d told Meg she needed more information on dragons to help her solve the mystery of the serum, but that hadn’t been true. The real reason she needed to know about dragons was because she planned to prove she was a worthy hunter just like her brothers.

She’d created a batch of the dragon-dampening serum for herself, and she had the vials tucked away safely in her hotel mini-fridge. She went over the list of what she knew about dragons in her head as the taxi drove toward Rurik’s nightclub, the Lair.

Dragons could grow old—like thousands of years—but for most of their lives they resembled men and women in their mid-thirties.There were more than a dozen breeds, such as Russian Imperials and Nordic ice dragons. Rivalries were common between many of them.Dragons could breathe fire as well as control it.They had protective thick hides with scales. Those scales were often used in magical spells.Dragons could shift between human and dragon forms in seconds.They were obsessed with jewels.For some reason they were sensitive to pure iron. It could both injure them and bind them. While they could be wounded by normal weapons, they healed fast, and only iron weapons could do lasting damage.

Charlotte studied the Moscow nightlife nervously as the taxicab came to a stop in front of the nightclub. Being out of America for the first time in her life, she definitely wasn’t used to the cultural differences. On the flight over she’d listened to some Russian language lessons on her smartphone, trying to learn some phrases, but it gave her a headache. It didn’t help that Russian was a notoriously difficult language, requiring a greater range of vocabulary just to reach a basic understanding. Luckily, the majority of the hotel staff and taxi drivers spoke English, something she was incredibly grateful for. However, once she stepped into that nightclub, she was positive it was going to be all Russian. The driver had warned her that this was a Russian-only nightclub, not the sort of place for tourists.

“Here is okay?” the driver asked.

“Yes, thank you.” She slipped him a few hundred rubles and then got out of the cab. There were several men lingering at the entrance of the club, one of whom whistled when he caught sight of her.

She clutched her cell, which contained an emergency number for the Brotherhood office in Saint Petersburg, hoping she wouldn’t have to use it.If things went poorly, she’d have to face her brothers and listen to them tell her “I told you so” about staying in Michigan, where life was safe but boring.

Please don’t let this be a bad idea.

One of the men by the door said something to her in Russian, but she didn’t understand him. She smiled but kept her head down as she brushed past them. One of the men slapped her ass as she walked by. She tensed and almost tripped.

Just stay cool, her inner voice warned her. She might not be a hunter like her brothers, but she’d taken enough self-defense classes to know how to take care of herself. If this guy wasn’t careful, she’d kick him in the balls so hard they’d snap up into his cheeks. But she couldn’t afford to make a scene. She needed to stay calm and not call attention to herself.

Ignoring the harsh laughter of the men outside, she slipped into the dark club interior. The energetic dance music enveloped her, and the bass pounded so hard against the walls that she could feel them shake as she skirted the club’s interior. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, even with the flashing white lights and pulsing strobes. Fog filled the bottom of the club, hiding a clear view of the dance floor. Everywhere people were dancing, drinking, and laughing. It was a hedonistic gathering where pleasures ruled the night.

Charlotte clutched her slender purse and headed for the bar. A dark-haired man with an intricate neck tattoo of a wolf howling was flipping bottles and pouring drinks. He took one look at her and retrieved a large rounded glass, then poured a dark red wine in it. He slid it across the slick wood surface of the bar to her. He chuckled when she caught the glass, which glided smoothly into her waiting hand. Then she took a sip.

Wow. The red was soft and dark with a hint of oak and…cherry? Yes, that was it. She smiled at the man, who gave a roguish wink before he turned to see to his other customers. A bartender who guessed your style of drink…that was certainly interesting. A guy like that would rake in tips in America. She studied his wolf tattoo more closely. Was he a shifter? Meg had told her all sorts of things about shifters over the years. Tribal tattoos were pretty popular among the wolf clans. But what were the odds that a wolf shifter was working in a dragon-shifter-owned bar?

She watched the dancers on the floor for a while, scanning the room until she saw what she was looking for. A back door. It probably led to some offices. That might be where Rurik hung out when he wasn’t working in the club. But she had no plans to barge in there and look. She would stay here and wait. Hopefully he would come out soon, and then she could start her reconnaissance.

The files she’d studied assured her that he always stuck close to Moscow and rarely went to his second residence, which was somewhere south in the country. She took another sip of wine and looked back to the dancers. Three of the men from outside the club stood in front of her, watching her with wicked grins. She froze. The man who had slapped her ass was talking to her again in Russian.

“I’m sorry—I don’t speak very much Russian,” she told him, one of the few Russian phrases she could manage, and tried to turn back to the bar. One of them grabbed her from behind and dragged away from her seat.

“Let go!” She swung her purse, smacking him in the face. The heavy gold clasps thunked as they made contact with the man’s nose. He cursed, clutching his face as he waved his other hand at his friends, who rushed her.

Oh shit! She dropped into a fighting stance, praying she wouldn’t break an ankle in her low heels when she tried to roundhouse whoever made the first move on her. A man tried to grab for her hair with a meaty hand. She pulled herself back and countered. The man was too close for a roundhouse, but not a solid knee to the breadbasket. He dropped with a gasp, and Charlotte backed away, waiting for the next. But there were too many of them, and she doubted they’d oblige her by coming one at a time after that.

A deep bellowing shout thundered through the room and sent the men scrambling away like rats.

Panting, she held her purse, which dangled on its chain from one of her hands. She felt someone’s eyes upon her, a gaze as tangible as a caress along her skin, making her shiver. She looked around for whoever had scared the men off. Her heart thumped in a panicked beat against her ribs when she saw who had rescued her, standing behind her.

Rurik Barinov. He looked dangerous and sexy in jeans and a black T-shirt and especially those biker boots. If she was being honest with herself, those boots had always played quite a large role in her fantasies whenever she thought of him. Considering he was supposed to be her target, not the star of her most sensual daydreams, that wasn’t a good sign.

“Are you all right?” he asked. His accent, a deep, rumbling, slightly growling tone, did funny things to her insides. For a second she couldn’t speak—her brain had short-circuited.

“I…”

Rurik gently grasped her by the elbow. That got a reaction from her, as her first instinct was to pull back. But his response to this surprised her; he looked at her and said, “Please,” while holding out his hand. Something about his voice disarmed her, and she allowed herself to be led away. He took her into a dark, quiet alcove where the acoustics of the room couldn’t reach them. His eyes, a beautiful green, swept over her from head to toe. He pressed her back against the wall and cupped her chin, lifting her face. She shivered as his thumb caressed her bottom lip.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

She shook her head.

He tilted his head, still studying her in an intense manner. “American?”

“Y-yes.”

“You shouldn’t come to a club like this alone. It is too dangerous for a flower such as you.” He let go of her face, but he leaned in a few inches, inhaling deeply before he murmured something to himself in Russian.

“I’m not that delicate,” she replied stiffly. Sure, she wasn’t a kick-ass supernatural hunter like her brothers, but she wasn’t totallyhelpless.

His lips curved into a grin that made a storm of butterflies come to life in her stomach. “It is true. Some flowers have thorns, and you certainly showed yours.” The dim lights and the way he stood half in shadow exposed a thin scar that swept down his face across his cheek. It had a distinctive shape to it, as if he’d been slashed by something. Was it from another dragon’s claw? She had to admit she was fascinated. The Brotherhood files on the Barinov dragons were slim. She wished she knew more about him, and she had a feeling she was about to.

“Yet I think you are more delicate than you realize, little one.” He reached up to brush the backs of his fingers over her cheek. She shivered as a wave of arousal buzzed through her. She opened her mouth, even though she had no idea what she was going to say, but he placed a finger over her lips.

“Why don’t you leave your purse with my bartender and come dance with me?” He was tugging her away from the wall before she could argue. He slid her purse off her shoulder and tossed it at the tattooed man, who caught it in one hand and tucked it beneath the bar.

“Hey—”

“Shhh.” Rurik pulled her against him as music wrapped around them, pulsing and thumping. His hands curled around her hips, the tips of his fingers riding the edge of her ass as they began to dance. He moved smoothly with a rolling gait, and the slide of his feet felt like he’d had tons of practice. She’d always been a terrible dancer, but with his hands and body guiding hers, he made it seem so easy. It bordered on surreal, being here with him, the lights of the club spinning around them and music pouring into her soul.

Maybe I’m just dreaming about him again.

It wouldn’t have been the first time since she’d seen his face in those files that she’d woken up in the dead of night, her heart racing and her body hungry for the touch of this man…this man who was also a beast.

Her plan to capture him was still on track. If anything, this could work to her advantage. But she could relax, enjoy herself for a few songs first, couldn’t she? Dancing was one of the few ways a man and a woman could speak to each other without words. Well, that and kissing. But she couldn’t let him kiss her, not after she’d heard Meg’s lecture about dragon pheromones.

As a biochemist, she was well aware of the drugging influences of pheromones in some animals, and that had led to an idea: What if she could turn the tables on him? Shifters were still essentially human, and while human pheromones did not affect people the way they did other animals, some samples obtained from a rogue dragon shifter the Brotherhood had had to take down had resulted in a minor breakthrough. The pheromones they gave off were still human, but they were supercharged somehow, amplified in a way that no human could do naturally, but she could reproduce it artificially. She was wearing a sample of it now, a field test to see if it might make her more interesting to Rurik.

But she was also worried about the reverse happening. She didn’t want to come under the influence of anything she couldn’t control, biological or chemical. Part of her worried that he might have already exerted some kind of subtle influence over her. There were rumors that dragons could compel humans with a form of hypnotism.

“You are enjoying yourself?” he asked in her ear.

His hands drifted lower, cupping her ass. A new flash of arousal hit her, and she couldn’t help but moan when he pressed closer to her. She was too aware of him, of his undeniable sexuality. At times like this it sucked being a virgin. She felt like a live volcano ready to blow whenever she got too close to someone with raw sexual chemistry like this.

“Yes, this is fun!” she shouted over the music.

What the hell, right? Life is too short not to enjoy yourself.

He spun her in his arms, grinding her backside against him. She watched the dancers around them. The club was modeled to resemble a cave, but it also had a hint of a dungeon about it, complete with women dancing inside cages. Iron-barred honest-to-God cages. For a second she pictured herself in one of them, Rurik outside the bars, hungry to reach her, unable to touch her, yet knowing he had caught her. It was… Holy hell, it was so hot just to think about it.

Rurik’s hand slid up her body from behind, not quite cupping her breast, but coming close. “Want to give it a try?”

“Try what?”

“The dancing cages. I can see that you’re tempted.”

She tried to shake her head, not wanting him to know she’d been way too turned on at the idea of him putting her in a cage. “No…”

He chuckled, his lips feathering against her ear. “Yes, you are.”

She ducked her head, hair falling in front of her face, trying to hide from him. But he brushed it back, tucking it behind her ear and over her shoulder.

“Come.” He led her toward one of the cages where a blonde girl was shaking to a dance rhythm that Charlotte would never be able to copy. He opened the cage door and jerked his head. The girl left immediately.

Rurik pushed her toward the cage. “Get in, little one.” She stumbled, caught herself on the bars, and turned to face him as he closed the cage door behind her. Then he leaned against the door, his arm muscles flexing. He had trapped her in the cage.

“Now, dance for me, sweetheart.” Rurik’s green eyes met hers, and she seemed to spiral into them. Every worry, every self-conscious thought she’d ever had seemed to fade into the back of her mind.

“Dance for me. Show me your heart’s desire.” The words were his, but he hadn’t spoken them. It was as though she’d heard the words inside her head. An irresistible compulsion to do what he said came over her, almost as though she was drunk—only on words instead of alcohol.

Charlotte rolled her hips, feeling the beat of the music and letting it run through her blood like a current. She moved, spun, leaned against the bars and threw her head back, sending her hair in a cascade as she gave in to the wild part of herself. A part she’d always denied, ignored, or repressed.

All the while he watched, satisfied, the dragon with dark brown hair and bewitching eyes. The green of his eyes was intense like emeralds. His lips were parted, and his hands were white-knuckled on the bars. Was he restraining himself? Holding himself back? That only made Charlotte bolder, wilder. Dimly, she was aware that she was being very reckless, but she couldn’t seem to stop.

I’m playing with fire. She just prayed she wouldn’t get burned.

2

Stars would fall to their knees at his compelling vision. - Rainer Maria Rilke

“Come in with me,” she said, knowing he would hear her despite the pounding music. A dragon’s hearing was keener than any human’s.

They stared at each other, the bass of the music making her heart thud against her ribs. His gaze pulled a woman in and drowned her with its promise of dark, delicious things. Charlotte could feel every cell in her body humming with sexual tension. Would he join her? Would he touch her again in a way that made her forget her very name?

Please…please make me forget everything but you. It was dangerous, but she wanted it, wanted to lose herself in this moment, lose herself in him.

Rurik flung the cage door open and entered, clanging it shut behind him. She swallowed hard, realizing that what she’d just asked had come true. She was trapped in a cage with a dragon—ancient, powerful, accountable to none but themselves—and this one was making her legs shake as he kept looking at her as though he wanted to eat her.

He spun her around to face away from him. She gripped the bars, bracing herself. He pressed his body against hers from behind and nuzzled her neck. She moaned as he began to kiss her throat and bare shoulder. It was as though he knew just where her sensitive spots were, the ones that electrified her entire body. They still swayed to the music, but everything had changed. She wasn’t focused on capturing him, not now—she could barely think straight. All she wanted was to stay close to him, to keep touching him wherever she could. She needed to feel his body caging hers and his mouth and hands on her body. She’d heard people talk about animal magnetism, but holy shit, this was beyond that.

They weren’t dancing anymore—they were grinding against each other, the sensual movements almost too much to bear. She was so close to danger, so close to the one thing she knew she couldn’t let happen.

I don’t care. I should…but I don’t. I want him…

His right hand touched her right knee, sliding up her leg beneath her skirt. When he reached her panties, he brushed a fingertip along her satin-covered slit. She whimpered at the explosive reaction her body had at that simple caress. Rurik bit her earlobe, and a zing of pleasure shot through her body. She knew people were all around them, probably watching them, and she couldn’t find it in her to care, not when he was making her feel so wild, so out of control in the best possible way.

“Tell me your name,” he whispered in her ear.

She struggled to focus. “Charlotte…” She wouldn’t tell him her last name. Even through the fog of her desire, she knew that would be a mistake.

“Charlotte.” Her name rolled off his tongue in that decadent accent, and she shivered. “My name is Rurik.” He flicked his tongue into the shell of her ear, sending a new bolt of arousal through her.

“I’m going to kiss you now, little one,” he warned, and she nodded, wanting, needing his mouth on hers. It didn’t matter that it was breaking her promise or that she knew her brothers would kill her for kissing a dragon. She had to kiss him. Pheromones be damned. Something inside her demanded it with a force that she couldn’t stop. He turned her around to face him, chest to chest, their bodies still pressed tight together. The bars of the cage dug into her back, but she didn’t care. All that mattered was this slow, delicious burning moment leading up to his kiss.

He lowered his head and their lips brushed, and then he kissed her. Hard. It was the kind of kiss that made a rational, sensible person like Charlotte lose her mind. It was a kiss out of her darkest fantasies. He moved his lips over hers with a hint of roughness that kept her on her toes, as though at any moment he could take things to another level. It left her dancing on a razor’s edge of fear and excitement. He curled her hair in his hand, fisting the strands while he held her captive. His other hand gripped her hip, his firm hold keeping her right where she was. A dragon’s prisoner.

The music around them changed from one song to another, and then another, and yet neither she nor Rurik wanted to come up for air.

It was strange, but the more he kissed her, the more she had this funny feeling that she could hear whispers—soft, dark growling sounds deep inside her head. Like a man murmuring erotic words to her, but she couldn’t explain how she was hearing it. It must have been her imagination. Were all kisses supposed to be like this? Her previous boyfriends had never made her feel like she was on the verge of such sweet madness.

Their kiss finally broke apart, and he pressed his forehead to hers. She closed her eyes, hands gripping his shoulders as she tried to slow her racing heart. His muscles were taut beneath her palms, and she could feel the heat radiating off him. It didn’t soothe the aching need her body now had for him. For the first time in her life, she understood what her friends had joked about when they’d talked about wanting a man so much they were ready to beg for it. She was ready to beg.

“Club’s going to close soon,” he said in a low rumble.

“What?” She was distracted by his intimate embrace and how much she didn’t want this moment to end. His body was warm, and the leather of his jacket smelled so good. She wanted to bury herself against him, rub her cheek against his chest like a cat in heat. Her lips felt bruised, swollen from his kisses, and she licked them.

“We’ve been at this for over an hour, little one. I would like to continue, but I must close down the club.” A surprisingly rueful smile twisted his lips.

Reality crashed down around her. An hour? She had spent an hour making out with a dragon shifter? A dragon she knew was dangerous. The dragon she’d come to capture… God, no wonder her brothers wouldn’t let her become a hunter. She’d walked right into the lion’s den—er…dragon’s lair—and had all but jumped his bones. Mortification heated her face as she tried to shake the lingering flames of desire that his kisses had left burning within her.

“I should go.” She released his shoulders and looked away, but his green eyes kept drawing her focus back to them. She raised a hand to her kiss-swollen lips and almost smiled but had to shake herself to remember that this was dangerous. She shouldn’t have gone this far.

He cupped her chin and forced her to meet his gaze.

“Will you wait for me? After I close the club we can go to dinner.” The earnest desire in his words made her hesitate. Could she stay near him and not lose her head again?

“Please, my little rose, do not make me beg.” He winked at her, and the harsh lines of his scarred face seemed to fade into boyish playfulness.

“Eat? It’s after midnight!” she said, half laughing.

“An early breakfast then.”

She knew the logical thing to do was to thank him for the amazing evening and leave—but she couldn’t.

If I can keep control over my hormones, I can learn more about him. That’s what a smart hunter would do, right?

She needed to learn his weaknesses if she was going to figure out a safe way to inject him with the serum and call the Brotherhood to come and get him. Rurik was the key to one of their biggest crises at the moment. He feathered another kiss over her lips, and the last of her resistance crumbled.

“An early breakfast it is.” She grinned up at him foolishly. Maybe it was okay to play the bad girl and do something wild and reckless. Just once.

“Excellent. Come with me.” He led her from the cage to the back of the bar and sat her down on a stool, then waved over the bartender. “Victor, please keep this lovely woman company while I close up.”

The bartender spoke to Rurik in Russian, and Rurik responded with a chuckle and nodded. Victor handed Charlotte a fresh glass of wine. Rurik leaned in close and playfully tugged a lock of her hair before he walked through the club’s dwindling crowd. He disappeared through the back door she’d spied earlier.

“My boss likes you,” the bartender said. His accent was heavy, but his English was decent.

She took a deep sip of her wine. “You think so?”

The bartender chuckled. “He danced in a cage with you. He never does that with other girls.”

Charlotte wasn’t sure why that mattered, but God, it had been so hot, so fucking hot. She was wet just thinking about it. Clamping her thighs together, she tried not to think about what it said about her that a simple make-out session had gotten to her like that. But then, there had been nothing simple about making out with Rurik.

She finished her wine and watched the club close down, the bouncers escorting the last of the partiers out and locking up. The lights dimmed, and the fog cleared from the floors. Only then did Rurik reemerge through the back door. He still wore his black-and-red motorcycle jacket, but he held two black helmets and came over to her.

“Ready?”

“We’re not taking a car?” she asked as she took one of the helmets from him.

“I do not take my car to the club. I ride my motorcycle.” He held out a hand. She didn’t have to go with him—she could see it in his eyes—but there was a longing there, a need that matched her own. She took a deep breath and placed her hand in his.

The bartender handed Charlotte her purse, and she let Rurik lead her out onto the street. A sleek black motorcycle with dark green trim was parked on the curb. He stopped and turned to her.