Authors: D'Elen McClain
I gently pick her up and notice immediately that she weighs practically nothing. With quick strides, I carry her from the room and the horrid smell. It takes only a moment to realize part of the smell comes with her. Henry is no longer in the hallway. “Henry,” I yell into his head. “Have a bath drawn in my bathing chamber and if you have any concern for your life, it will not be you who does it.”
I’m so angry that I want nothing more than to breathe fire and burn up a village or two. Pepper begins convulsing and I almost drop her. Rearranging my grip, I pull her closer so she gains heat from my body. She’s wearing only a thin, filthy nightdress. I have no doubt she’s been in the dungeon cell since I told Henry to keep her away from me.
I run up the human tower instead of going back the way I came. No one is about and thankfully there is no sign of Henry. I burst out of the upper door onto the landing perch. I haven’t thought this through or I would have run with her all the way back to my rooms. I’m actually afraid to put her down for fear she’ll die.
“Stay with me, Pepper,” I whisper against her hot cheek.
I gently rest her on the stones and shift as soon as I’m far enough away from her. My talons scrape as I carefully gather her within my sharp claws and fly to my tower. I’m able to shift to human and hold onto her when I land, but I still fear her death if I put her down when I’m in my bathing chamber. I hold on, impatiently waiting for someone to enter the room and start the damn bath.
I mentally begin kicking my own ass while I wait. Her condition is my fault and I am such a complete fool. The harshest I’ve ever been with my humans is to yell at them. I’m not a tyrant. Do I not take them to their earth realm every ten years? Most don’t even bother returning to their earlier home after the first trip. They love me and take care of my needs because they owe me for their very existence. Polishing all the gold in my treasure room is a fitting punishment for any misdeed. What’s been done to Pepper amounts to torture. And though Meagan is no longer here, I feel her disappointment. I caused this mess and if Pepper will only hang on; I will fix it.
Finally, an older woman arrives. Her hair gray, she’s short and bosomy wearing a blue mid-calf length dress. I’ve seen her before but don’t remember her name. She stares at the floor and nervously wrings her hands. I can smell her fear and my ire intensifies. I treat my people well and I would swear she thinks I kick puppies on a daily basis. I have no time to waylay her qualms, though I try very hard not to growl as I speak. “Start a bath and be sure the water is tepid. I need to lower her temperature and get her clean.” The woman’s eyes shoot upward and go directly to the bundle I hold in my arms. I see the moment she recognizes Pepper in my arms as tears slide down her cheeks and she doesn’t move. I don’t have time for this either. I pull Pepper a little tighter against me, hold back the flames that are working their way up my throat, and try a gentler tone. “She’s in bad shape and I need your help. We must hurry.”
The woman jerks her gaze from Pepper to me. Her eyes narrow and I see her blaming me for the condition Pepper is in. I hold her gaze. She finally shifts her eyes away and walks toward the huge bathing tub. She turns the large gold dragon fixtures and starts the flow of water. Only my tower is equipped with piped water. The servants must fill tubs with buckets in order to bathe. I have no idea why I’m thinking of this now. I’ve never been more thankful for an earth realm luxury than at this moment.
My thoughts quickly return to Pepper. “Collect a clean sleeping garment from Meagan’s wardrobe and bring it here. Be sure it’s something warm and comfortable.” I’m glad I haven’t removed Meagan’s clothing. It’s been on my mental list of things to order done, but each day, I find myself entering Meagan’s garment room and breathing in her scent. It a part of her I just can’t let go.
The old woman moves away and I step into the lukewarm water. I lower myself with Pepper in my arms. When she comes in contact with the water, her body begins to tremble again. I situate her on my lap and tear the nightdress away. I toss it one-handed over the side of the tub and gather her more firmly against me. She smells awful, but that’s the least of my concerns at the moment. I hold her tightly until the trembling fades. The old woman lays a long nightdress on the table next to the tub and I meet her soft hazel gaze.
“You will wash her body while I hold her head above water,” I order. She nods and picks up soap and a cloth. She begins cleaning Pepper’s hairless scalp first. Pepper remains deathly still until the trembling begins again. We stop for a moment so I can pull her tightly against me until the shaking stops. Even filthy her skin is incredibly soft. I like having her against me and I like the tingling sensation she causes where our skin comes in contact. I finally turn her body so the old woman can clean her from head to toe, back and front. The water is now a murky gray and I would swear the woman in my arms is a few pounds lighter. I don’t like thinking of all she’s suffered at my hands. I stand up and hold her tightly while the tub is emptied and refilled.
Now that she’s clean, her beauty is more pronounced. I love a woman’s long hair, but Pepper’s hairless beauty is striking. Long eyelashes swoop down over her bright red cheeks. Her lips, though quite pale, are plump and her small, slightly pointed nose blends with her features. I’m stunned at how exquisite she actually is. I remember when Meagan told me she wanted to have a headpiece made for one of the young humans we brought over. I waved my hand to give my assent. Meagan loved gold more than sparkling jewels and I knew one of my precious goblets would be melted down. I didn’t care. I loved seeing Meagan happy. I sigh aloud because it hurts to think of how upset she would be if she were here. I bring my attention back to the young woman in my arms.
Pepper’s body is well-proportioned and feminine though undernourished. Her breasts are small and firm and her hips rounded. Her bottom presses into my mid-section and I hold back a groan. What the hell is wrong with me? I cause her undeniable pain and my cock betrays me when all she needs is proper care. She will have a husband soon and he will protect her from further harm. It will be his duty and I will make sure he understands that. I silently vow that Pepper will be happy and have a choice in the man she couples with. Meagan loved this woman and in honor of my bride’s memory I will make sure Pepper is properly cared for until the day she dies. Hopefully that day will not be any time soon.
I look to the old woman and wonder if she has any idea of the lurid betrayal of my body. Pepper blocks her view and of that I’m relieved. I can’t imagine the looks I would receive from my servants if they knew what a reprobate I actually was. “Place two towels out and return to your bed. I will call if I have additional need.” My voice is gruffer than I meant it to be but when my thoughts are all over the place it’s the best I can do.
The old woman openly assesses me with eyes of steel. It takes a few moments for her to decide I obviously pass whatever test she has given me. She finally performs the task I request and leaves the room with one last glare in my direction.
She’s gone for only a short time when Pepper begins coughing. Steam continues rising from the water, so I’m hoping it helps. Illness is almost unheard of in the dragon realm because our humans are well cared for and we do not have disease such as that which is found in the earth realm. As far as I know, no one has ever been left in a cold room nearly naked for weeks. Until my mindless order.
The coughing fit subsides and her entire body goes limp once more. I only rise from the water when it begins to cool. I grab both towels and carry Pepper to my bed. I lay her on the comforter and tenderly dry her off. I try very hard to ignore her nakedness. The fact that her breasts are made for a man’s hands and her too small waist only accents her rounded hips makes it nearly impossible. I would never touch her sexually, but I can’t help acknowledging her stunning beauty as I stand back and gaze at her. I am pure male whether man or dragon and that cannot be turned off.
Pepper remains still as death, which helps dispel any ridiculous needs my body might think it has. I finally have her dry and place her beneath the covers. I quickly dry myself and climb in with her. I forgot about putting her in the nightdress and I’m not doing it now because her body begins to shiver again. With us both naked she gets more of my body heat. It takes another hour before the chills and coughing subside. I give a thankful sigh when she settles into a deep sleep. Her breathing seems better too. I drift off spooned around her back with my face at the top of her head wishing it was my sweet Meagan in my arms.
For the next two days, the old woman and I care for Pepper. We force broth and water down her throat and I hold her head over a towel as she vomits up most of what we feed her. We change her into a different one of Meagan’s gowns each day and keep her clean by washing her down with a cloth. Her lips move occasionally, but I have no idea what she’s trying to say. It’s her silent tears that affect me most. They trail down her cheeks and remind me of how deeply she’s suffered. I don’t like it one bit and I can see Meagan’s shadow judging me for the horrible dragon I am.
A month of misery in the cold and dark is beyond comprehension. Pepper was always such a wispy little thing, full of life and endless energy. She smiled incessantly and her impish grin gave Meagan constant delight. The two of them were always conversing in that confounded hand language. It drove me crazy that I couldn’t understand what Meagan was saying. I also wanted to hear Meagan’s voice as much as possible and whenever possible. Seeing her talking silently to my servants always left me in poor temper. Then Meagan would turn my way and a smile would spread across her face. My heart softened instantly and joy replaced my foul mood.
While the old woman and I waited for Pepper to heal, I asked her to teach me a few of the hand signs that I never cared to learn before. I learned eat, drink, and sleep. The woman also wrote her name on a piece of paper. It was barely legible, but I could make out the name Betty. Meagan’s legacy to teach the humans grows very important to me as I take care of my human ward. I have so much guilt over what happened and I want Meagan’s forgiveness even though I know it’s unattainable.
The magic when I touch her is startling too. And I know it for what it is even if I don’t understand it. Magic burns within this human. A magic that blends with mine.
I’m warm… and it feels so good. The heat at my back reminds me of one of the large stoves used in the kitchens. I take a deep breath and my chest aches slightly, but not as bad as it had. If I were dead, I don’t think it would continue to ache at all. My head feels fuzzy and I’m very tired. It doesn’t stop me from remembering the nightmare of the dungeon cell. Whatever nice dream I’m having needs to continue. This is so much better than the dark and cold.
“Meagan,” someone whispers in my ear as a large, warm hand covers my breast.
My eyes pop open and I notice three things at once. I’m in the dragon’s bedroom, his hand is covering my breast, and something hard is poking into my back. I’m lying beneath soft linen and it’s Tahr who’s causing the heat.
“Meagan?” It’s a question this time.
I have no way to answer and I’m very frightened of what he will do when he discovers I’m here in his room and that I’m not Meagan. I don’t have long to wait because he jumps from the bed which shifts my body so I half roll toward him. He stares down at me with a look of horror on his face.
“Fucking Goddess, oh my fucking hell,” he shouts into the room.
He’s going to kill me and I don’t even know how I got here. His eyes meet mine and red creeps up his neck and into his cheeks. This is it. He will incinerate me where I lay.
He does the last thing I expect. In a much calmer voice he speaks. “I’m sorry. You were ill. I… I’m sorry.” He runs his fingers through his hair and looks away.
I slowly drop my eyes and let them trail over his rippling stomach muscles until I stop at his um… thing. It’s a magnet for my attention. I’ve seen him naked many times, but never seen him this close or this large. As if it has a life of its own, it jumps just a bit and Tahr quickly moves his hands down and cups his thing with both hands completely missing the top half.
“Hell, don’t look at that.” His voice rises again.
My eyes jerk to his and heat travels into my face. I’m at a loss when he turns suddenly and leaves the room. I glance around having no idea what I’m to do. In self-preservation, I pull the covers up high and peek out from beneath them as I try to find the nerve to run. Before I can put a plan into action, he returns with trousers covering his lower half. He holds out a dressing robe and I’m forced to release part of the cover to take it from his hand. He turns his back and I bring the robe to my nose and inhale the scent I remember so well.
Meagan, oh Goddess it smells just like her. Tears form in my eyes at the remembrance of her beautiful scent. I need her desperately. She was such a loving soul and when I was in her company, I was never nervous or terrified like I am now. I glance up and the dragon is peering over his shoulder watching me with a look of understanding on his face. It helps alleviate my fear. I wipe the tears from my cheeks without removing my gaze from his.
His voice is gruff when he speaks. “It was Meagan’s. She would want you to use it.”
I nod and bury my face within the soft cloth to calm my nerves even more. When I look up, Tahr is no longer watching me and I swiftly pull the robe around my shoulders. I can’t adjust it lower because I don’t want to completely remove the blanket. The gown I’m wearing is hiked up around my hips and I feel very exposed even with the cover.
“Are you decent?” he asks.
Of course I can’t answer so I clap twice. We humans are very resourceful in our inability to speak. Clapping is one of the ways we communicate.
“I don’t know if that’s a yes or no. I’m turning,” he replies softly.
I smile shyly when our eyes meet again. He hasn’t killed me and he’s given me the gift of reliving Meagan’s scent. My pleasure dissipates the longer he assesses me and makes me uncomfortable for so many reasons. I’m in his bed, I’m wearing Meagan’s nightwear, and he’s so beautiful. His chest muscles ripple, his arms bulge, and a steady pulse beats at his thick throat. He’s just so… amazing. I have no idea what I should do now and it’s not like I can ask him to explain how I got here.
There’s a knock on the door in the other room and the dragon thankfully strides away, which gives me a chance to breathe deeply. A minute later, he returns with Betty, who’s carrying a tray of food. I’ve wanted to see her for so long and without thinking, I jump from the bed. My legs wobble and melt beneath me as the room spins. The next thing I know, I’m in the dragon’s arms and he’s laying me back on the bed. I’m embarrassed when he adjusts my gown and robe so my legs are covered.
I think I fainted. With his proximity and the whisper touches of his hand against my skin, it might happen again. He’s entirely too overwhelming, the electric feel of his touch too powerful. I glance beyond his shoulder and notice Betty covering her mouth and crying. I shakily place my hand out toward the dearest person in my life. The dragon moves slightly to give Betty room. Her arms circle me and she rocks me back and forth. I’ve needed Betty so badly for so long. I absorb her warmth as she holds and comforts me. I bask in her love and try to forget the weeks I’ve suffered. When I finally manage to gain a bit of control, the neckline of my gown is wet and I really need to wipe my nose. The dragon’s hand remains supportive and tingly against my back. With this new awareness I also realize my head is bare. I reach up and try to cover my head. When I glance at the dragon, I see pity in his eyes. My hands fall loosely to my sides as I fight more tears. No one sees me without the headpiece and now shame rolls through me.
Betty’s arms loosen and she leans away a bit. She rubs her fingers gently across my cheek in reassurance. Her tender smile lightens my shame as she places a finger out and gives me the sign to wait. I nod and watch her leave the room. I can’t look at Tahr again. The last thing I want is his pity.
Betty returns a moment later holding my most precious possession. I stare at the delicately shaped gold with an uncomfortable burst of emotion. I love it because Meagan gave it to me and it’s always hid my lack of hair. I lift the gold from Betty’s hands and simply hold the cold metal for a moment.
The dragon clears his throat and I look at him. “You’re beautiful without the hair covering, don’t let it bother you.”
I don’t believe him. Meagan was beautiful. I look nothing like her. Slowly I lift the headpiece and place it over my baldness. It’s cold and familiar. This isn’t the first one Meagan had made for me. As I grew, she had the piece resized or another made from scratch and always had some ornate artwork added. Meagan told me I was the only child who remembered her from the crossing. The headpiece was a gift to celebrate that bond and to make me feel beautiful.
The dragon startles me from my thoughts when he speaks, “You need to eat.” His voice is gruff and it’s an unmistakable order.
Betty picks up a bowl and brings it to me motioning for me to stay seated on the bed. After how long I’ve gone without food, it surprises me that I’m not at all hungry. I take the bowl and the smell drifts upward. I think it’s a vegetable broth. Because Betty brought it, I dip the spoon in and try to take a sip with shaking hands. It’s impossible and I dribble a small amount down my chin.
The dragon moves forward, which causes Betty to step back quickly. He sits on the side of the bed, takes the bowl and spoon from me, and wipes my chin with a small cloth from the nightstand. My mortification is complete when he lifts the spoon to my lips. “I will not watch you spill the hot liquid on yourself. You will eat and be well quickly. I order it. Now lean back against the pillows while I feed you.”
I have no idea why that makes me smile. He thinks he can demand someone not to be sick. I guess for a dragon with eternal life one must think quite highly of their ability to control everything. I sigh before parting my lips and accepting the first spoonful from his hand. The broth hits my stomach and my need for nourishment takes over. I keep eating until half the soup is gone. I glance over Tahr’s shoulder and see Betty leaving the room. She doesn’t turn back, so I can’t wave goodbye.
Did the dragon order Betty to go? He has the ability to communicate silently to whomever he pleases, so I have no idea if he spoke to her. It makes me sad that she’s gone. Another spoonful of broth is forced between my lips. I badly need a drink of water and grab his wrist before he can bring the spoon back again.
There’s an instant zing that travels clear to my toes when I touch him. It’s so strong that I almost pull my hand back. He’s looking at our hands with a strange expression on his face. I should not have touched him and I spread my fingers and try to pull my hand back, but he grabs it. Very slowly he rests the spoon in the bowl that sits on the nightstand. He lifts my hand a bit and turns my wrist over to examine it closely.
“That should not happen.” He continues looking closely at my fingers. Finally he lifts his eyes and stares intently into mine. “I remember collecting you as a child—how sick you were and how much your parents loved you. You were very strong and mostly I remember that you didn’t cry. It was quite odd for a child your age.” He hesitates for a moment before his voice drops lower and the timbre affects me strangely. “Thank you for your friendship with Meagan.”
Why would he thank me? It should be the other way around. Meagan did so much for me. She taught me to read and write and most of all how to communicate with my hands. The dragon is acting strange.
My thirst takes precedent over all these weird feelings. I give the hand signal for drink by tipping my fingers to my mouth. Tahr is so close I can see silver specks in his dark eyes and the warmth of his breath brushes my face. I want to drift away in his eyes as they crinkle slightly at the corners and he smiles.
“A drink. You want a drink?” he questions.
I nod. He understood what I asked and that delights me. I always saw censor in his gaze whenever Meagan communicated with her hands. The complexities of all that’s happening don’t quench my thirst and I glance to the table beside the bed.
There are two glasses. One has dark liquid and the other clear. I really need water so I shake my head when he picks up the glass filled with the darker liquid. He sets it down and picks up the water. He tries to tip the glass so I can drink. I’m steadier now and take hold of his hand, but he doesn’t let go.
“You are quite stubborn,” he says when I continue to hold his hand back from my lips and his earlier smile disappears.
I have no idea why I’m behaving this way. Our hands remain locked in battle for a few more seconds before he hands me the glass. I bring it to my lips and allow the cool liquid to roll down my throat. It tastes so good and I can’t help but drink it all. Tahr sits back on the bed and dips the spoon into the broth again. I think about shaking my head, but realize I need to grow strong. His gaze settles on my mouth as he feeds me and I’m nervous all over again.
His arm muscles flex just a bit as he lifts the spoon. I look from his arms to his chest. I want to snuggle against him and run my fingers lovingly over his muscles. This is the biggest reason I need to be healthy and return to my room in the human tower. I must stay away from him and squash my wicked thoughts. The thoughts I’m having are what got me into trouble to begin with.
I realize the spoon is suspended a few inches from my mouth and I glance up. Tahr is watching me with a slight smile curving his lips again. “One last bite,” he says as he brings the spoon closer. I can’t take my eyes from his dimple. I… I want to lick it.
I’m lucky he speaks because I almost leaned toward him. “I owe you another apology.”
I blink because I think I misheard him.
“I told Henry I didn’t want you back in my rooms. I had no idea you would be punished so harshly. It was not my intent. I know you loved Meagan. What I have done disgraces her memory. I gave my words to Henry with no thought and there is no one to blame but me.” He takes my hand and a stronger tingling sensation passes between us. “Will you forgive me?”
I never blamed him. This was my fault. I’m guilty of loving Meagan’s dragon, but I can’t tell him that. I very slowly nod. His fingers press tighter around mine for a brief moment before he releases my hand and stands. “You need rest. I will be here when you wake. Betty will return later after you nap.” Another smile lifts the sides of his lips. “Sleep,” he whispers and darkness closes in.