Chapter One



Leo sighed until he wrung every last breath from his lungs, seeking solace in the white haze seeping from the corners of his mouth. He had brought one of the kitchen chairs into his living room and was seated in it backwards, one hand rubbing his forehead as he struggled against the urge to slam his head into a wall. Apparently, his common sense was on the fritz and it needed some good old percussive maintenance to get it up and running properly again.

That could be the only reason why he thought it would be a good idea to bring the mysterious woman who had fallen from the sky in a ball of fire to his apartment. Sure, she was injured, but the police sirens he heard following her dramatic descent only caused him to question his impulsiveness further. With a half-hearted shrug, Leo folded his arms at the top of the chair’s back and dropped his chin in the middle.

Well, it’s too late now. This is fine. I either just accidentally kidnapped this woman or willingly became her accomplice. No big deal. I didn’t have weekend plans anyway.   

Absentmindedly rolling the cigarette between his lips, he continued to stare at the source of his lapse of sanity resting peacefully unaware on his couch. The blood he had noticed earlier was from a nasty gash across her right arm and back. It had been difficult to see in the poorly lit alley, but the severity of it became apparent once he had gotten them both into his apartment safely.

Although Leo had patched her up the best he could with some gauze he found in his old first aid kit, he wasn’t too worried about the wounds or his shoddy bandaging skills. From what he could tell, the lacerations were already trying to heal. Regrettably, he didn’t know much about dragons or their kin, but he had heard enough about them to know that they were fast healers.

And Leo was absolutely certain that this woman was undeniably some kind of dragon.

If her fiery plummet to Earth and her ability to create flames wasn’t a dead giveaway, the highly detailed tattoo on her back of the dragon eating its own tail was. Leo had covered her with an extra blanket he had lying around so he couldn’t see her tattoo at the moment, but it troubled him all the same.

He was still staring at her back musingly when she finally began to stir. The woman’s deep, restful breathing was interrupted by a shaky groan and the stretching of sore muscles. A moment later, her eyes popped open. Leo expected her to be frightened, to see the fear of waking up in an unknown location under unknown circumstances reflected in her wide-eyed gaze. But it only took one good look at the woman’s face for him to realize how badly he’d messed up by assuming anything about her.

To his surprise, there was not even the slightest amount of fear in her blazing gold eyes; only raw, unbridled rage.

Leo always thought of himself as a pretty understanding guy. He honestly couldn’t blame her for being pissed. Not many people would be too thrilled after falling out of the sky and ending up in some random stranger’s apartment. However, once her eyes focused on him, the first thing she did was set his couch on fire, which was something he wasn’t mentally prepared to “understand”.

“Shit!” he exclaimed as he jumped up and fell back out of his chair, knocking it over in the process.

Seemingly oblivious to the fire, the woman pushed herself off the couch and lurched forward, the hand from her good arm reaching out towards his face. Luckily for Leo, the fire was warning enough of her imminent attack, and he was ready. He planted his hands more firmly into the carpet and released a quick burst of frost magic. Two trails of ice erupted in snake-like streaks across the floor until freezing over the woman’s feet and anchoring her in place.

Between her sudden movements and her injuries, the woman wasn’t very steady and the icy restraints only made her inevitable fall happen sooner rather than later. Leo swept the chair blocking him aside with a distracted swat of his hand and surged to his feet, catching her before she could hit the ground.

The blanket that had been covering her was in a heap on the couch that was currently on fire, so when Leo caught her, they embraced skin to skin. The woman immediately hissed, although if that was from the sudden intimate contact or because of her injuries, Leo wasn’t sure. Either way, he wasn’t offended. Mainly because he also hissed in pain and surprise.

Her skin was scorching hot, promptly burning the palms of his hands. She pushed at his chest to free herself from his grip just as Leo released her to avoid losing the skin on his hands. They both fell back and, for a split second that time misplaced, their eyes locked across the distance between them and collided.

And then the smoke detector went off.

Startled back to reality, Leo jerked his head in the direction of the burning couch while he still had the woman’s attention.

“Do you mind?” he shouted above the ear piercing alarm. “You’re charbroiling my couch.”

Oddly enough, the smoke detector going off seemed to have calmed down the woman to a degree. She didn’t attack him again, but her eyes never left him as she reached behind her and felt around until her hand found the couch. Just as suddenly as they appeared, the flames receded and disappeared, leaving behind only irreparable fire damage to the couch and wisps of ash colored smoke.

Careful not to make any aggressive movements, Leo slowly rose to his feet and gingerly grabbed the chair off the floor. He dragged it to the kitchen until he was directly below the blaring smoke detector. Keeping the unpredictable woman in his peripheral vision, he climbed up onto the chair and unceremoniously pressed the button on the smoke detector to shut it off.

There was something akin to relief in the silence that followed. Leo stepped down from the chair, dragged it back into the living room, and collapsed into it. The blanket had escaped the fire far less burnt than the couch and the woman was using the half-charred fragment to cover herself.

Leo opened his mouth to speak at the same time the woman parted her lips to do the same but both were abruptly interrupted by loud knocking coming from beneath them. The neighbor who lived below Leo wasn’t exactly Mr. Rogers and hated his very existence for no discernable reason. Apparently Leo’s smoke detector screeching in the middle of the night was enough to warrant obnoxious banging on his floor and absolutely zero concern for his wellbeing.

When his neighbor was satisfied that if Leo was going to burn himself alive he’d do it more quietly from now on, the banging stopped, leaving Leo and the woman in silence once more. Using one hand to dig in his pockets for his pack of cigarettes, he gestured invitingly to the woman with the other, offering her the opportunity to speak first.

“Who are you?” she hastily asked in a strong, steady voice that Leo wouldn’t have expected from someone in her weakened and confused state. “Where am I?”

Completely out of habit, Leo tapped the cigarette pack into his palm and immediately regretted it when the sharp pangs from his surface burns made him drop the pack into his lap.

“My name is Leo and you’re in my apartment.”

He picked up the pack again but carefully this time, glancing between his hands and his cigarettes with a troubled expression.

“Make yourself at home,” he added, “although I’d prefer you to keep the fires to a minimum since everything in here is highly flammable, myself included.”

With methodical, guarded scrutiny, the woman took in his sparsely furnished one bedroom apartment with its charmingly depressing bachelor pad appeal. But her focus never wavered off Leo.

“Don’t worry,” he said, noting how she was eyeing the door and the windows. “I made sure we weren’t followed. If we were, someone definitely would have raided my apartment building by now.”

Her gaze snapped back to Leo.

“How did I get here?”

“I carried you.” He nodded at the window. “I work a few blocks away at a little hole in the wall Greek restaurant. It was the closest and safest place I could think of.”

She absorbed the information without commenting on it and although her face remained unreadable, the taunt muscles of her shoulders betrayed her unease.

“You’re a frost mage,” she stated, more to the room than to anyone in it. Pausing, she adjusted the blanket more securely over her knees and rubbed at her ankles. The fact that she had discreetly and effortlessly melted his ice shackles had not escaped Leo. When she decided to speak again, her eyes were bright and iron-firm, drilling into him with quiet intensity.

“What guild do you belong to?”

Leo met the woman’s gaze, momentarily forgetting about his cigarette predicament and flashed her a sloppy grin.

“I don’t claim any guild.”

The slight pursing of her lips and the unimpressed lifting of one eyebrow called Leo a liar in so many words.

“Then I guess I died when I hit the ground and I’m speaking to a dead man,” she said, challengingly. “Last time I checked, the only way a mage leaves a guild is when he no longer has a pulse.”

“Well, there’s a lot of people that think I’m dead. Does that count?”

Leo really hoped that it did. But the woman didn’t appear even the least bit convinced. As if truly seeing him for the first time, she looked him up and down like she was sizing up an adversary for an all-out brawl. This time when their eyes met, he could feel the heat behind her stare.

“Show me.”

Unable to help himself, Leo blinked several times, wondering if she was actually slow roasting his eyeballs or if it was all in his head. He made a mental note never to challenge her to a staring contest and tried to think of a way to politely decline her request without winding up a blackened husk. The woman’s tone hadn’t been demanding but there was something about the way she said the words that made Leo carefully consider his options.

She didn’t trust him, that much was obvious. Leo had to agree that that was probably the smartest decision made in his apartment all night. But he had a hunch that if they didn’t reach even the most basic level of trust, there was a chance that the neighbor below him would finally have a good reason for his hate when he woke up to find an angry dragon melting his ceiling.

Keeping that in mind, Leo leaned forward at the waist and gently set down the pack of cigarettes on the carpet. He wasn’t happy about what he was about to do. It wasn’t something that he went around doing for kicks and giggles and it had been ages since he had had to show anyone, much less felt comfortable doing so. But trust was a two-way street and if he couldn’t place some of his trust in her, then he certainly couldn’t ask her to do the same.

Leo placed his hands in his lap and dropped his eyes to the floor. There was a bittersweet twinge of nostalgia as he felt his magic pulsing in his veins, commingling with his blood. The magic absorbed into his skin and spilled out across the surface, illuminating the arcane runes he had carved into his body long ago.

His arms and neck started to glow with the soft blue light from the runes but the reveal of his darkest secret was far less flashy. He held out his hands for the woman to see, palms facing out. His former guild’s sigils were visible on both palms yet instead of glowing like they would have been if he were still bound to a guild, they were completely black. Leo wasn’t sure if she could make out the x-shaped scars over the sigils from where she was seated and nothing in her reaction gave him any answers.

“Satisfied?” he asked, giving her jazz hands since wiggling his fingers teasingly would have been more painful than amusing. “And before you ask, yes, Elsa was based on me.”

The tension in her shoulders relaxed just a bit as she nodded to herself. “I’ve only seen black sigils on corpses, so I suppose you proved your point.” There was a hint of wry humor in her voice when she smiled without warning and added, “I believe you. On both accounts.”

Even though it had been his intention all along to make it happen, the moment the dangerous, fire starting dragon woman utterly devastated him with her dimpled smile, he knew he was finished. Over and done, completely ruined with no way to save himself.

Defeated and struggling to come to terms with it, Leo allowed the magic to drain back into his body. The glowing runes seeped into his skin, faded into nothing and were concealed once more. He picked up the cigarette pack from the floor and clumsily shook one out, wasting no time in pressing it between his lips.

Leo grinned despite himself. “You smoke?”

The woman shook her head, examining the bandages on her arm curiously.

“That’s one of the few things you don’t have to worry about me burning.”

Gripping the blanket close to her chest, she looked back up at Leo. Her eye color had shifted from golden and lambent to a mellow coppery brown.

“Leo,” she said, quiet yet direct, “I appreciate you helping me even though you don’t know me or my circumstances but it was the wrong decision.”

With deliberate care and a solid resolve, the woman pulled herself to her feet. She wasn’t tall but her squared shoulders and the stubborn tilt of her chin made for a resilient presence that didn’t need the extra height. Despite her ready-for-anything stance, there was no heat in her gaze as she locked onto Leo’s eyes and held fast. Her words were delicately damning, a feather-soft cut from a blade coated with grim remorse.

“My name is Amara and you should have left me in that alley where you found me.”