“My, what big teeth you have…” The feminine voice drifted from the darkness. He jerked against the chains that held him, an instinctive response to that sensual purr of sound. “Would those be the better to eat your enemies?”
A snarl built in his throat. It vibrated against the thick collar that had been sealed around his neck.
“And, oh, my…what giant claws you have,” she continued, her voice sliding over him as she hid in the dark, just beyond his view.
His claws scraped across the stone floor. He’d already gouged deep slash marks into the stone, cutting in desperation over and over again.
“Let me guess. Those claws—are those so that you can rip your enemies apart? The better to slice and dice?”
He opened his mouth. Flames didn’t shoot out. The collar stopped the flames, but tendrils of smoke escaped.
Husky, throaty laughter reached him. A taunt. “Oh, what wonderful flames I bet you have. The better to roast anyone who gets in your way?”
He strained against the chains that held him captive. She was so close. He could smell her. Some sweet, flowery scent that didn’t belong in the dungeon. When had she been placed in the cell next to him? He didn’t remember her arriving, but since he’d been trapped in the form of his beast, he’d been losing time.
He’d been losing his fucking mind.
A shifter wasn’t meant to stay this way. If you stayed as a beast too long—particularly in the form he carried—you would lose your humanity. The man died. The monster reigned. His monster was very, very close to taking over. And when the beast did, even those chains wouldn’t hold him. The only way to stop him?
Kill the beast and the man.
A soft sigh reached him. “No response? Well, it’s not like I truly expected a dragon to talk with me. Though that would certainly have livened up my night.”
Come closer! Inside, he was shouting those words. But from the beast’s mouth, only a growl emerged.
Still…footsteps shuffled forward. She’d been hiding in the very far corner of her cell, beyond the area he could see because of the damn bars and stone walls around them. But she advanced slowly, as if she had all of the time in the world. The sweet scent—what was that? Roses? Lilacs? He had no fucking clue. The scent drifted to him, and the beast greedily inhaled. He’d been in that prison for so long, only smelling waste, rats. Death.
His mystery woman smelled like hope.
Impossible, of course, because he had no hope. And soon, his captors would be forced to end him. If he couldn’t transform back before the rising of the full moon, there would be no stopping the beast. So they’ll kill me before the full moon can reach the top of the sky.
“Oh, wow, what very, very thick and big scales you have.” Her voice was a little louder now. Definitely mocking. She thought it was funny to mock a beast? Her hand curled around the bars between their cells. “What are those used for? So that no one can ever touch your cold, cold heart?”
He lunged at her—or, rather, he lunged as far as the chains would allow. About a foot.
She laughed. Actually laughed in the face of a snarling dragon. Her laugh was kind of like…a cackle.
Shit. No, don’t be—
“Hello, dragon.” She smiled at him. She was fully visible now, as she stood with her face close to the bars. An absolutely perfect face. Oval, with porcelain skin that looked as if it had never been marred by anything in her long life. Her lips were full and sexy. Cherry red. Her eyes were chocolate and framed by the thickest lashes he’d ever seen. Her long hair—deep, dark black—tumbled over her shoulders. She was dressed in a pale blue dress, one that clung tightly to her curves. One that made it seem as if she should be attending some fancy ball and not be trapped in the darkest dungeon to ever exist.
He recognized her on sight. There was only one woman this particularly beautiful—unforgettably, hauntingly so—who would be trapped in a cell. After all, this was a paranormal prison. A place reserved for the worst of the worst.
And he was looking at someone who was evil. To her very core.
Only she had the face of an absolute angel.
Her gaze swept over him. No fear showed on her face. He didn’t know if she was capable of feeling fear. According to the stories, she didn’t feel anything.
The most wicked of all the witches. Not that all witches were bad. Some were quite good. Valerie had missed that whole good memo.
“Shifter, shifter, shifter…you seem to be having yourself a very bad day.”
Not a day. Not a week. Try a month. He’d been in that cursed form for nearly a month. When the full moon rises again, I’ll be dead.
She shook her head. Made a tut-tut-tut sound that grated on his nerves. “Got stuck, didn’t you? You changed into your strongest beast, and I’m betting you were having a serious rage moment when you did so. Shifters. You always let your emotions rule you. That’s a flaw.”
He blew smoke at her.
She just laughed. “I’m sure that would have been way more intimidating if you’d actually been able to spew a flicker of fire my way. But, well, since you’re collared, you’re kind of like a really big, really sad, puppy.”
The hell he was.
His claws scraped against the stone.
She winced at the grating sound. “Please, stop that. Especially when I’m here, offering to help you.”
Bullshit. The baddest witch on the block didn’t help anyone. She killed. She cursed. She left hell in her wake.
She…she was batting her long lashes at him. “I know shifter secrets.” Now her voice was a bit sing-songy.
He realized the stories he’d heard about her were true. The dark magic she used had destroyed her mind. He was staring at one crazy witch. She crooked her index finger at him, as if urging him closer to her. Of course, he couldn’t get closer because of the fucking chains.
“The council could have helped you. They could have used their magic to turn you back into a man.”
No, impossible. The high council—a witch council—had been adamant that there was nothing they could do. They’d poked him. Prodded him. Tried their spells. Nothing had worked.
“Don’t believe me? What? Does the big, bad beast think I’m a liar?”
Hell, yes. He snarled.
Tears gleamed in her eyes. “I’m hurt.”
Her head sagged forward. Her long hair shielded her face. “Everyone thinks I’m evil. That I don’t feel. But I do. I—”
She was cackling again. Her head shot up, and her beautiful features were lit with mirth. “Too much fun. Beast, you are making my night. Yes, I’m a liar. Don’t forget that. Not ever.”
Why was he being forced to be cell buddies with Valerie Storm?
Her smile faded. “Want to know why the council didn’t help you?”
He wanted to know why she was still talking to him.
“It’s because they don’t believe in cheating death. You see, death is coming for you. He’s almost taken your human side. That’s why you can’t shift. The part of you that was a man—that part is at death’s door right now. The council doesn’t want to fight death. You can’t fight death with their good, white magic. You have to fight evil…with evil.” She grinned at him, revealing dimples. Dimples, seriously? “Luckily for you, I’m the most evil witch you’ll ever meet. I’m Valerie, Valerie Storm. You know, in case you haven’t heard of me.”
He’d heard. In great detail.
“I can turn you back into a man. I can do what those other witches were too afraid to do. I don’t mind using dark magic. In fact, it’s rather my drug of choice.”
He wasn’t scraping the stone with his claws any longer. She held his attention completely.
“But it’s not like I’m the type to do things out of the goodness of my heart.” Her hand rose and pressed to her chest, drawing his attention to—well, her high, firm breasts. “Some would say I don’t even have a heart.”
Plenty of people said that. Maybe the whole world.
“So if you want my help, we have to make a deal.”
Not like he had any options. If he didn’t change back, he’d die. That meant all of his people would be without a leader. They’d fall to his enemies. Their deaths would be on him.
“I’m pretty, right?” She was batting her lashes again. The crazy witch. “And I’m smart. Like, wicked smart. I’m also funny. And I think I have a really great laugh.”
She did not.
“I’m kind of the total package.”
If the package was a ball of hellfire.
“So, truly, I’m your best choice for a mate.”
Wait—what? More smoke escaped from his mouth.
She waved the tendrils away. “Okay, you need to work on that. I don’t like smoke to the face. No one does.”
He clamped his gaping mouth full of razor sharp teeth closed.
“You’re a shifter. Um, obviously. And you guys mate for life. Your mates are the most important thing to you, right? You’d do anything to protect the woman you were bonded with?”
“I want to mate with you.”
He was in freaking dragon form—
“Don’t look at me like that. I’m not being pervy. I’m not suggesting some weird dragon sex. I’ll give you a little of my blood. You give me a little of yours, and presto, we have a link.”
Mostly right. They’d have a temporary bond. The bond wouldn’t become permanent until they had sex, and that could only happen when he was in human form. He wasn’t just any shifter. He was royal. The most powerful shifter out there, and the rules for him were different.
“So if you want me to change you back, you have to bond with me first. Come on,” Valerie wheedled. “What’s a few drops of blood between friends?”
They weren’t friends. No one was friends with her. She killed her friends.
“Here. I’ll make it easy for you.” In a move too fast to see, she’d slashed her arm. Not some deep, gaping wound. Just a little cut near her wrist. Had she used her fingernails? Did the witch have a knife hidden on her? What was her deal?
She shoved her wrist though the bars. “Just stretch that dragon body and neck of yours. Take a little lick.”
If he did that…
He’d be tied to her.
Temporarily. He didn’t have to ever have sex with the woman. And, he could go back to human form. Providing she wasn’t just bullshitting him. But it wouldn’t be to her advantage to lie. Not right then. She’d either change him back or she wouldn’t.
She wiggled her fingers at him. “I’m waiting.”
He didn’t want to die in that cell. He wouldn’t die in that cell.
He stretched. Stretched hard against those chains. His tongue snaked out. Caught a drop of her blood. Blood that tasted ridiculously sweet, like candy. Blood that—
Her hand moved—lightning fast—and she was holding some kind of knife. A knife that penetrated his scales, so he knew the blade had to be magic. How had she gotten a knife in her cell? She brought the knife up to her mouth, and her little pink tongue delicately lapped up a drop of blood on its tip. “Someone tastes spicy.”
Deep inside, he could feel a change. Like a door had just closed.
“Okay.” She sighed. “This may hurt a bit. But, whatever, maybe you’re in to that.” And her stretching fingers—just the tips—touched his head. A tingle began when she touched him. She was chanting, and a faint, blue light slid from her hand to him. The blue light grew. Grew. And it burned.
It fucking burned!
He didn’t just snarl. He roared. He bellowed. He—
Broke the chains. Tore them from the wall. The collar that had circled his neck shattered.
She kept touching him. Her eyes were closed as she chanted.
His scales vanished. His body hunched, and his head shoved harder against her fingertips. Bones popped and snapped. His breath heaved in and out. He opened his mouth, ready to let fire spew out and—
“Valerie!” Her name tore from him.
He could speak. He wasn’t a beast anymore. He was a man.
“Well, hello, stranger.” Her smile winked at him, but her face was paler than before. Her dark gaze dipped over his naked body. “My,” she licked her lower lip. “What a big—”
“Trust me, it’s better for the pleasure.”
She laughed. Cackled. And why was he starting to find that horrible sound to be oddly cute?
“Griffin Bastien,” he growled his name. Yes, he could speak like a man again, but he was still on the deep, growly edge. His voice was often like that.
Her eyes widened. “I do think I know that name.”
He stared down at his arms. His fingers. No claws, not anymore. No scales.
“You’re the king of the shifters.”
His gaze slid back to her.
Her dimples were winking, but dark shadows now lined her eyes.
“Figured you had to be,” she murmured. “That’s why I knew we had to do a blood link. Not just anyone can turn into a dragon.”
No, not just anyone could.
“Is it true?” Valerie asked, only sounding vaguely curious. “Can you also shift into the form of a wolf?”
He could shift into three different beast forms. That was why he was the damn king.
When he’d turned back into a man and that crazy blue light of hers had been sliding everywhere, she’d shattered his chains and his collar. Or maybe he’d shattered them, Griffin wasn’t sure. Didn’t really matter. Slowly, deliberately, he stalked toward her.
She didn’t back away from the bars. Valerie just waited for him. Studied him.
“You’re much more handsome as a man. Nice jaw. All hard and square and clenched.”
His jaw clenched harder.
“And I like your eyes. I think they are as green as your dragon scales were.”
He was sure his eyes were glowing with fury right then.
“Lots of muscles. Great body. Got to ask, do you work out?”
“Stop.” She was trying to drive him mad.
His witch shrugged. His. Because, yes, they were mated. Temporarily. He could feel the connection inside. A pull toward her. He wanted to put his mouth on her lips. Those blood red lips. Wanted to taste her. Wanted to fuck her.
Not the way he should be reacting to Ms. Wicked.
“Why did you want to mate me?” Griffin demanded. “Were you really so hard up that you’d take a dragon?”
She didn’t flinch. Just sighed. “You’ll find out why. Soon enough.”
Hardly a good answer.
She glanced over her shoulder. No one was in the corridor beyond their cells, but he could hear the approach of guards. Nibbling her lower lip, she peered back at him. “Is it true?”
Was what true? She’d lost him again. “Did you use dark magic to save me?” Griffin demanded.
“Yes, and that’s why I can barely stand up.” One hand pulled away from the bars, and she waved vaguely in the air. “You’re welcome.”
Griffin stiffened. He…hadn’t thanked her. The spell had obviously taken a physical toll on her. She was using her grip on the bars to stand upright. “I didn’t think witches could work spells down here. Aren’t these cells supposed to be magic proof?”
“White magic proof. And they’re pretty good at stopping dark magic, too. But I worked around their system.” She winked. “They thought I’d try to break out. That’s where they focused their magical guards. Instead, I just pushed the magic into you. I’m sneaky like that.”
She was quite mad like that.
And he was…oddly fascinated by her. Wrong. Absolutely.
“You didn’t tell me if it was true,” Valerie muttered, frowning at him.
He was stark naked and talking to an infuriatingly sexy woman. “Because I don’t know the question.”
A furrow appeared between her brows. “If your mate dies, is it true that you go mad?”
Now he stiffened.
The footsteps of the guards were very close.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she whispered. “Okay, here’s the deal. You’re really, really going to have to hurry. The fire is going to be really hot.”
What? “What?” Griffin roared.
But the guards were already in her cell. Four men. They seized her. Too rough. Too hard.
He snarled at them, “Get your fucking hands off her!”
He grabbed for the bars that separated his cell from hers.
The guards were dragging her from the dungeon. She waved to Griffin. “Hope to see you soon. Like, really soon, okay?”
His chains were broken at his feet. Rage blasted through him. The bars he gripped began to bend.
My mate. He wouldn’t have chosen her. No way would he have chosen Valerie Storm as his mate, but he hadn’t been given an option. She’d linked them, and now he could feel her, inside. A flame of dark magic within him.
She was being taken away. Forced away from him. His beast stirred. Growled.
You couldn’t separate a shifter from his mate. Whether he’d chosen her or not…you can’t separate us!
The bars broke. He lunged into her cell. The guards had foolishly left her cell door open. He rushed right out, claws bursting from his fingertips.
He wasn’t going to lose his witch.
Not when he’d just gotten her.