NEW EXCERPT! Blood Dragon's Heat: Royal Dragon Shifters of Morocco #4

It’s here! The first chapter of book #4 of the Royal Dragon Shifters of Morocco series is ready for your reading pleasure.

By popular demand, this book is all about Layla’s Seattle friends, and the twists and turns they get into in the Twilight Realm.

I’m aiming to have this book out Mid-October, and while that’s a bit to wait, there will be more goodies coming your way in the meantime, I promise! :)

BLOOD DRAGON’S HEAT: ROYAL DRAGON SHIFTERS OF MOROCCO #4

About the Book:

When everything she loves is taken from her, will she be strong enough to reclaim it?

Layla Price’s life has never been more complex. With three sexy, tempestuous Royal Dragon men bound to her, she’s got all the hot tempers she can handle.

Add to that her upcoming debut as a Courtesan for the Red Letter Hotel – a deadly gamble to draw out her mate Adrian Rhakvir’s enemies – and tensions couldn’t be running higher.

But when her human friends and her devastatingly hot ex-boyfriend come to visit, then are abducted, Layla must wrangle her fractious Dragon lovers.

Can she unite her bound Royal Dragons in order to save her friends?

Or will they break – taking her down into darkness?

CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD!! Read no further if you want the end of book #3 to be a surprise!

CHAPTER 1 – FRIENDS

Waiting on the promenade outside the Red Letter Hotel Paris, Layla Price shifted from foot to foot as snow fell all around. Off-work for Yule, she wore skinny jeans with russet leather boots, bundled in her navy peacoat with a cream scarf and hat against the chill midwinter day. Though the afternoon was bright all around the innermost quadrangle of the Palace of Versailles, a storm had moved in, snow swirling down to the grand black and white marble courtyard – though by some trick of Twilight Realm magic, it evaporated before it could stick. 

Waiting with her, her boss and bound Royal Crystal Dragon lover Dusk Arlohaim grinned at her, a wave of light rippling through his artfully-styled dark hair. His sapphire eyes were luminous in the snowy day, serrated ridges of midnight Dragon-scales at his temples outlining his exquisite handsomeness. Wearing a slim charcoal Italian suit with a midnight-blue pocket square and matching tie, he was comfortable in the cold. Grinning at her like a handsome devil as he tucked his hands in his trouser pockets with nonchalant grace, Dusk was calm as Layla fidgeted, until she finally glanced over, her breath puffing in the late-December air. 

“What?”

“Layla Price, I do believe you’re nervous to see your Seattle friends.” Dusk chuckled in his rolling baritone, though it was absent of his deep earth-shaking magics today.

“I’m not nervous.” Layla spoke stubbornly, shoving her hands into the pockets of her peacoat in an attempt to get control over her fidgeting. “I just want to make sure my friends get a good impression of the Hotel while they’re here, that’s all.”

“You’re nervous.” Dusk grinned more, watching her with astute humor glinting in his bright sapphire eyes. “I can feel it vibrating all through you. Not to mention it smells like a Yule-log soaked in bourbon out here.”

“Thanks.” Layla sassed with a lift of one dark eyebrow, though she was smiling now. It was hard to not smile at Dusk’s handsomely cheeky nature. 

But a car moving through the wrought-iron gates distracted her and she glanced over – a silver Jaguar rather than one of the Hotel’s black limos. Juniper boughs with fae-lights like fireflies wreathed the gilded gates for Yule. Gold and white ribbon with sprigs of holly and bright crimson berries had been woven through the wrought-iron. The same decorated the entirety of the sprawling complex of the Palace of Versailles, evergreen and holly, gold and white twining up every column and through every rail. Massive gilded braziers twisting with magical white-gold flames had been set up around the courtyard, highlighting the enormous cream and gold banners of the Hotel with their crimson ‘R’ and gilded crown that flanked the main ingress. 

The effect was gloriously elite, a winter wonderland for Yule. Layla knew her friends were going to love it; the interior of the Hotel decorated the same though with the addition of mistletoe everywhere. But all the same, something moved restlessly inside her. As another car drove through the gates, a white Tesla Roadster, she shifted again. 

“I think it’s cute that you’re nervous for the arrival of your Seattle friends.” Dusk spoke, interrupting her reverie. “Let me guess: nervous about Luke and I meeting? Your current hottie versus your ex?”

“I’m actually thinking about a lot of things right now, not just your ego.” Layla snarked at him with a teasing smile. But even she couldn’t deny the intensity boiling off her right now. Her Dragon-magics were rioting, waiting from her friends to arrive. She and Dusk had only been standing in the snow a few minutes, but as Layla shifted her stance again, it felt like an hour. 

“You’re worried Luke’s going to be jealous.” Dusk spoke cheekily beside her. “Even though he and I have talked on the phone about this trip, getting your friends ready for everything they’ll encounter in the Twilight Realm, he’s still your ex, and I’m your current beau. One of three. That’s got to be on your mind.”

“So what if it is?” Layla glanced at him, though deep inside she knew he was one hundred percent right. Her nervousness roiled, not knowing how to explain to her friends that she had not one, not two, but three bound lovers since Thanksgiving. And all of them were handsome-as-hell Royal Dragons who could slay even the hottest human man Layla had ever met in the looks and sex appeal department. 

Though Layla had yet to sample one of them in the bedroom. 

“Well, I know how protective Luke is of you.” Dusk held her gaze with gravitas now, snow settling into his sculpted hair and onto the shoulders of his slim Italian suit. “He’s already taken my measure, and fortunately, we get along. But he’s going to size up Adrian and especially Reginald, once they get a chance to meet. Luke has already judged Adrian badly. And Reginald… well.”

Layla gave short sigh. Dusk was right. Luke was a tempest in a teakettle, and Layla was already dreading him meeting Reginald Durant, Royal Siren and Head Courtier of the Hotel – and perpetual dick to anyone he judged as beneath him. Dusk and Adrian were arrogant in their own ways, but Reginald was ten times that. “Small favors that Reginald is still away visiting his clan right now in the North Sea. Any word when he’ll be back, by the way?”

“Not yet.” Dusk sobered, heaving a hard sigh as he stared off into the settling snow. “The North Sea Sirens are a tempestuous bunch, Layla. Reginald has a family score to settle with his clan now that Bastien is dead. Though Reginald won their battle a month ago, it was with intervention. His brothers and father are debating if that raises Reginald into the Clan Second position or not. If it doesn’t, he’ll likely continue on here at the Hotel as Head Courtier once his mandatory leave is finished. But if it does…”

“Reginald’s going to be more embroiled in his clan’s politics than ever.” Layla sighed heavily, her breath puffing in the chill air. Deep inside, her Dragon coiled through her veins with a tight, bitter worry. “What about Adrian? Any word from him yet?”

“Adrian’s settled in a safe location, finally.” Dusk smiled gently as he slung an arm around Layla, hugging her close. “He’s at one of his safe-houses, though I can’t tell you where just now. Everything’s going to be ok, Layla. Adrian’s safe and Reginald’s in no immediate danger from his clan or the Hotel Board. Your friends are going to have a fantastic time this week at the Hotel. I’ve set up all kinds of fun activities for them. Everything is taken care of, I promise.”

“I know.” Layla glanced up and cuddling close to Dusk, she kissed his lips. “You’re like this incredible grounding force in my life, Dusk. Every time I start to worry, it’s like you’re always there, cool and calm, planning six steps ahead of anyone else. Believe me, I’m grateful.”

“Your welfare matters to me,” he spoke, his bright sapphire gaze smiling at her, genuine. “And as a Crystal Dragon, I have a lot more grounding than most. If I can use that to better your situation – I will.”

“But how are you not infernally jealous of the other men in my life?” Layla protested, still held in his his arms though she pulled back slightly. “It’s like you’re always just steady, smoothing tempers, helping us all get along in this crazy new world that you and Reginald and Adrian and I have entered with our Bound power.”

“I am jealous.” Dusk’s smile was wry though his blue eyes were honest. “But I get time with you while we’re working. I get time when we sleep together at night. Adrian isn’t around now that the Hotel Owners want his head on a platter. Reginald is off at his clan home, working to get a handle on his Dragon and dealing with his clan’s shit. And your Dragon attacked Luke as an inferior mate, so he’s out of the running to be your beau. Plus, I understand complex relationships. You forget how many lovers I’ve juggled over the years. A Dragon’s sex life is a crazy world, Layla, and you’re just getting started. I’m jealous, but I know how to put it aside and be practical. The last thing you need in your life is a pissy Crystal Dragon trying encase all the rest of your men in quartz cocoons and hide them outside in the snow.”

Layla laughed; she couldn’t help it. Dusk had an ego as big as the moon, but she couldn’t deny his endless practicality. Lifting up, she gripped his lapels and kissed him. It was deep and sensual and he wound his arms around her with a deviant rumble. It thrilled Layla, making her Dragon turn over deliciously inside her as she became breathless, her heart hammering. Dusk chuckled as he pulled away, his sapphire eyes luminous and impossibly cheeky. 

“Besides. You like me best. I can feel it.”

“You wish!” Layla laughed, slapping his chest lightly. “How many lovers do you still have, anyway?”

“I’ve cut the impossibly long roster to three these days.” Dusk grinned, nuzzling her nose. “You, Amalia DuFane strictly because she makes me the best outfits, and Rake André when the mood strikes me. Royal Dragon Binds are a lot to handle in bed. Sometimes six or seven times a night, I’ve discovered.”

“Rake is one of your regular lovers? Not Rikyava anymore?” Layla blinked, ignoring Dusk’s innuendo about her ridiculously high libido, courtesy of her new Dragon-magics. He wasn’t kidding that there were occasionally nights where Layla woke up numerous times needing to be satisfied – and Dusk was always happy to supply. 

Layla had known her best friend and Head of the Hotel Guard Rikyava Andersen slept with Dusk on and off, though it was a surprise to hear Dusk had cut that particular association off. She hadn’t known that Head Bartender Rake André, who was also interim Head Courtier now that Reginald was on hiatus, was one of Dusk’s lovers. Layla had known Dusk occasionally took men to bed, and the thought suddenly made her body grip hard. A wash of sweet bourbon and orange peel scent wafted up around her as she imagined the fit-as-shit Dusk and the slender, gorgeous Rake André in bed together. 

It was a hot image and she knew her cheeks burned as Dusk laughed.

“Rikyava’s too busy these days. And besides, she’s still pining for a man she can’t have, though she won’t tell anyone who. But you didn’t know Rake was one of my regular partners, did you?” Dusk chuckled, teasing as he leaned in, speaking by Layla’s ear with a delicious rumble of his magics. “Maybe I’ll let you participate sometime. Rake’s not a Dragon but he slays them in bed, believe me.”

“Shut up.” Layla rolled her eyes, solidly facing the promenade once more though she couldn’t help it; she was smiling now. Dusk had a point with his lurid innuendo – all Dragons had disastrously high appetites for fighting and fucking, and Dragon-relationships were far more complicated than anything she could typify in human terms. Layla was still getting used to it, and managing the urges of her magic was an hourly task even despite her significantly better control since she’d bound Reginald. 

Especially with the temptingly sexy Dusk around night and day to trigger it now.

Black Bentleys and Jaguars had arrived, guests being escorted into the Hotel through the snow, their baggage hefted up by crimson liveried Hotel Guards. But none of the cars held her friends yet, and watching the guests, Layla’s impending position as a Hotel Courtesan hit her. Panic flooded her about her debut at the Yule Ball tonight: not knowing who would win her at her debut auction, or what she would have to do for them in the sack tonight. 

But then she felt Dusk step in behind her with a chuckle. Winding his strong arms around her, he set his chin on Layla’s shoulder, kissing her neck tenderly and making a twist of passion surge through her.

“You’re really having a hard time with this, aren’t you?” He spoke knowingly. “Stepping into a world where monogamy isn’t the currency of the realm? Not just with your three Bound men, but also your impending position as a Hotel Courtesan.”

“It’s driving me insane, Dusk, trying to reconcile the values I was raised with, with my new Dragon-appetites.” Layla spoke with a sigh, knowing she still had a lot of internal judgments to face about her own sexuality.

“I like how insane it’s driving you.” Dusk kissed her neck, grinning into her skin. “It’s nice.”

Layla smiled, feeling all the intimate time she and Dusk had shared these past weeks. Sex with Dusk was mind-blowing, and Layla felt herself heat with a delicious roll of pleasure as she thought back over everything they’d been doing since Thanksgiving. Reginald had permitted them to be together while he was away, though Layla still needed to train with Rikyava in the fight-halls beneath the Hotel daily to blow off extra magical steam. 

“Anyway,” Layla spoke, trying to push down her libido since her human friends were soon to arrive, “monogamy is different for you and Reginald. He’s lived his entire life as a Courtier, and you’ve had numerous lovers all of yours as an important pressure-release for your crazy high energy. For Adrian and I… it’s different.”

“Is it different?” Dusk spoke, his voice flat now. “Or are you just less bothered by Reginald and me having sex with other people, rather than Adrian or yourself?”

That stopped her. Layla went utterly still, her Dragon pausing within her. She felt like a rabbit pinned in the drifts by a snowy owl’s talons. Dusk had said it with glib panache, but Layla could feel him, waiting for her answer with a tense stillness. Layla suddenly smelled his cool river-water scent blossom up around her, tension in it like a whitewater flood. Dusk was casual about sex, but he wasn’t casual about love. Layla could feel how he’d given his heart to her.

And the tension in him as he waited to hear if he was less important to her than Adrian Rhakvir.

But she was saved from answering as an entire cadre of Hotel Guards suddenly marched out the main doors of the Hotel and formed a chevron before the Hotel’s primary entrance. Glancing back, Layla smiled, recognizing Dusk’s handwork: he’d arranged a formal Hotel welcome for her friends, just as Layla had received when she’d started in Concierge Services. It was something the Hotel only did for the highest dignitaries, and Layla smiled even wider as her Blood Dragon friend and Head of the Hotel Guard Rikyava Andersen strode forward, clasping arms with Dusk and then snapping her black boots together and bowing smartly before Layla. Rikyava rose with a reckless, fun grin on her full Swedish lips and high cheekbones, her lavender eyes sparkling with delight as she set a hand to the rapier at her hip and swept her long blonde French braid back over her shoulder.

“Hey chica.” Rikyava grinned at Layla with a wink. “The Guard heard there were some important folks coming in today.”

“Is this your doing?” Layla laughed, gesturing at the Guardsmen and women lined up in their chevron, standing at stiff attention in their crimson 1800’s uniforms with long pikes and baldrics of frightfully impressive weapons. Some of them looked human, but most didn’t – including four enormous Red Giants at the rear of the chevron whom Layla knew were intensely loyal to Adrian.

“Oh, a little birdie might have just whispered in my ear.” Rikyava winked at Dusk, who was smiling now with a fun, devious wit. 

“A little birdie with crystal Dragon-scales?” Layla turned to Dusk, grinning also now.

“Hey. A royal welcome is sometimes approved for human guests.” He chuckled. “Though I can’t say I ran this one by the new Hotel Head. He’s a dick, and—”

Dusk was about to say more, when a black Bentley limo suddenly pulled up before them at the edge of the checkered marble courtyard. Layla’s friends from Seattle were suddenly spilling out of the car with squeals of delight and her joy surged, watching her friends gape at the opulence of the Red Letter Hotel. 

Moving forward, Layla was in their arms. Laughter was in her heart as she did a happy dance with geek-chic Celia Caron, wearing a quilted parka that squished fluffily as they hugged. Big buff Charlie Avondale was next, swaddling Layla in his massive arms, clad in a UW sweatshirt and jeans. Layla laughed into his Adonis-blond curls, longer and more stoner-like than ever. Her best friend Arron Jacobs pushed in third, wearing a lean navy pinstriped suit with a hot pink pocket square, sweeping Layla up into his tall frame. Lifting her off her feet, Arron made Layla laugh breathlessly as his goodness poured through her. 

But Arron set Layla down with a twinkle in his grey eyes as Layla’s last housemate rounded the car. Wearing a blue blazer with nice jeans that fit his lean, mean body to a T, Luke Murphy was gorgeous as ever. Moving close, he ran a hand through his Irish-thick dark hair as he watched Layla with a careful gaze. She suddenly forgot all her troubles as she stared into his impossibly green eyes. Like emeralds shining through spring grass, those eyes spoke of tempestuous heat and renegade fury – and Luke’s impossibly deep love. Their history held Layla as she drowned in his eyes for a moment. 

And then he swept forward, gathering her into his arms. 

The feeling was like coming home as Layla let out a deep sigh, cradled close to his strong, lean body. Luke’s hand slid up her neck, holding her, and she felt him relax as she did, her hands lifting to clutch his blazer. His cheek turned to hers and Layla felt her passion leap to him as it always had. He didn’t kiss her, just breathed her in as they held each other. Tears pricked Layla’s eyes. Her Dragon didn’t want him as a mate, but Layla would always love him. 

Luke was just too special.

“Hey.” He murmured at last, nuzzling his nose into her jaw.

“Hey,” Layla breathed back, smiling. 

“I missed you.” He spoke, pulling her closer.

“I missed you, too.” 

Layla felt a deep tenderness pass between them, the best of what they’d once had as a couple. But it held sadness now, something poignant that hadn’t been there before as Luke set his lips to her temple in a soft kiss, then pulled back. His eyes were luminous, bright with pain as he hesitated to let her go. Layla felt emotion stretch between them, even though her magics had never bound Luke, human as he was. 

But something held her close to him all the same – something that could never be replaced for all the magic in the world. 

But as they watched each other, movement caught Layla’s attention. At Luke’s open shirt collar, she saw a silver chain, a dark pendant resting in the cleft of his sculpted chest. Layla perked as her gaze moved to it. Jewelry on men was something Luke had been adamant against all the years she’d known him, even more than dancing. Luke’s new teardrop pendant was a forest-green bloodstone flecked with rust-red, twined into an ornate filigree of silver. And as Layla watched, the stone writhed with stunning currents, veins of silver and gold flowing through the green and twisting into the red like currents of smelted blood.

It was so stunning that Layla blinked. 

And so obviously magical that she glanced up at Luke with alarm rushing through her. 

Copyright Ava Ward 2019, All Rights Reserved. No portion of this content may be reproduced in any way without written permission of the author.

Royal Dragon Bind - Chapter 2: Opportunity

CHAPTER 2 – OPPORTUNITY

The restaurant’s open space was brightly-lit, cozy yet modern with a cascade of wine racks down one wall and enormous picture windows upon the other. Layla and her mystery billionaire were quickly seated at a two-top table near the floor-to-ceiling wall of wine; a cozy nook with the clink and chatter of people all around. Asking what kind of wine she liked, her mystery guy immediately ordered a bottle of the restaurant’s best chardonnay, and was given a crisp nod as the host poured their water. Settling in as darkness devoured the street outside, Hot Mystery Guy sipped his water, his piercing eyes never leaving Layla – though he seemed to have regained his composure.

“So,” he began, “tell me about yourself.”

It was an extremely open-ended question and Layla balked. It was unclear if they were on a date, his body language genial now that they were seated. She still felt like she wasn’t thinking clearly since the gallery, though he seemed to be taking the strange events in stride. Blinking, Layla amassed her wits, unfolding her cloth napkin in her lap and taking a drink of water to fortify herself. Lesson one of strange men: don’t tell them much about yourself. 

Lesson two: don’t sink into those amazing eyes, no matter what.

“Well,” Layla set her water down, her regular brisk nature coming back online, “maybe you could start. By telling me just what exactly happened in the gallery back there. That was not your normal Friday afternoon.”

He gave a chuckle, his eyes twinkling with mischief and also with a secret. “Seems like you had a pretty severe allergic reaction to the cuff’s metal. Gave you quite the burn.”

“Bullshit.” Layla leaned forward and was about to tear him a new one, her feisty nature truly coming back now that he had tried to pull a fast one on her, when the wine arrived. In that moment, Layla realized her mistake coming to Lark. She looked up into the face of their lean, impeccably-dressed server as he set down two white-wine glasses, giving Layla a quick smile and a waggle of his blonde eyebrows. Layla’s chest gripped; it was Arron Jacobs, one of her housemates. She’d forgotten he was working tonight, Lark one of his two regular serving jobs. 

The wine-dance began with the presentation of the bottle, followed by uncorking. From Arron’s smirk, he clearly thought Layla was on a date as he presented the first pour in Mystery Guy’s glass, who slid it over for Layla to taste. She swirled it, sipping and trying to hold back an embarrassed burn in her cheeks – to no avail. But the wine was lovely, smooth and buttery. She nodded and Arron poured the rest, then set the bottle on the table and whisked away with a grin, leaving two menus in his wake after announcing the specials.

Taking up her wine and having a good swallow, knowing she was going to hear it from Arron later, Layla leaned back towards Mystery Guy. “Look. You’re selling me a line about what just happened in the gallery, and I’m not buying. Something real happened in there; something I could feel. That damn cuff you purchased did something to me. I can still feel it like fire ants burning beneath my skin. So spill. Tell me the truth.”

He have a low laugh, swirling his wine and gazing down at it; stalling. She could see his mind working furiously behind those oceanic eyes and dark lashes, planning what he would say. At last, he looked up. “Would you believe it if I told you I’m a collector of rare artifacts?”

“Sure.” That, Layla did buy. His flagrant display in the gallery confirmed it, as did his scrupulous examination of every item in the place. But there was so much more he wasn’t saying. “What else?”

He chuckled again, but this time his eyes remained on her. “Artifact acquisition is not my only investment, but it is one that is important to me for personal reasons.”

“Heritage reasons?” 

“You could say that.” He nodded, swirling his wine and sipping. “I do only collect artifacts important to my heritage, like that cuff. The rest of the items in the gallery were common, but that one is special to my people.”

“Some tribe in Morocco? And special how?” Layla wondered out loud, digging for information. The more she could learn about him before telling him anything about herself, the better. She didn’t need any more Hot Enigmas in her life after Gavin with his secret harem of women and shady high-finance deals. 

“Indeed.” He nodded, watching her with the full force of those amazing aquamarine eyes. “My tribe’s heritage has been scattered over the centuries, and I’m trying to bring it back together. That particular cuff was crafted under unique circumstances. Rather like a talisman – and if you’re sensitive to energy dynamics like a psychic or a shaman, you likely felt its effects. Because of its unique crafting, that cuff is priceless. I admit I was tracking it down; the buyer was a fool for accepting my offer. He didn’t know what he had.”

“Interesting.” Layla pondered that information, watching him. She had a very good bullshit radar, and it didn’t quite feel like a lie – actually more truth than lies, though she could tell he was holding back. The history of the cuff she could believe. Much pillaging had been done in North Africa over the past hundreds of years, and Layla could understand wanting to return objects of cultural significance to their home. If he was in a position to do so, go him. She wasn’t sure she bought all the energy-stuff, but she had been affected before by crystals, seances, and the like. Even to the point of fainting, once. 

“What else do you do?” Layla pressed, determined to wrest more out of him. “You don’t make money buying Moroccan artifacts and returning them home.”

“No, I don’t.” He chuckled, his aqua eyes flashing in the light of the brushed-steel spotlights overhead as he sipped his wine. “I am part-owner in a hotel chain, actually. Very elite; very exclusive. Think Hilton, but for only the top one-hundredth of one percent.” Here, he produced another fine business card from the gilded card-carrier in his pocket, extending it. Taking it up in her fingertips without touching him, though something inside her wanted to, Layla examined the card. A scarlet “R” in an elegant script was embossed on the front of the exquisite cream cardstock, surrounded by a gilded crown. There was an international telephone number imprinted in the lower right corner in scarlet ink, but that was all. No name, no address, nothing else.

“Shady,” she commented, offering it back. 

“Keep it.” He extended his hand to stop her. 

“Okay.” She set it down on the table by her plate. “Are you sure you’re not James Bond or something?” She joked casually, though her alarm bells were ringing from that business card.

“No, I’m not James Bond.” He gave a lopsided grin, adorable and sexy as hell – almost diffusing her alarms. “Though like James Bond, my work does keep me traveling, constantly. I rarely get to go home to Morocco and when I do, it is with great relief. And you?” He queried, sipping his wine. “You were born in Morocco, but you live here – Seattle?”

“Yes.” Layla nodded vaguely, keeping her information as clean of personal details as possible with a man she knew nothing about. “My mother is Moroccan but my father is from here. Bartending is temporary. My PhD is in International Studies.”

“Recently graduated?” He queried, interested. “Any employment prospects?”

“I’m exploring my options.” Layla lifted a dark eyebrow at him, swirling her wine and getting peeved at his pushing. 

He gave a low chuckle, those arresting eyes pinning her as a dark smile lifted his lips. “Now you’re the one who’s giving me bullshit. Let me guess. You were the shining star of your program, top of your class. Witty, argumentative, opinionated. Dissertation to die for. Gave a speech at graduation. And then you got passed over for that big position – maybe the United Nations, maybe some consulate – and you’re fuming, pissed. Wondering what your life has been for as you tread water and tend bar. Up to your eyeballs in student debt while barely managing to scrape by with a house full of roommates in the scalding competition of Seattle’s urban housing market. How close am I?”

Layla’s cheeks were positively crimson. She could feel them burning her face off. She set her wineglass down, staring at him. Other than the part about having given a speech at graduation, which she had been sick for and missed after finding out she’d not gotten the position with the United Nations in Paris, he was spot-on. 

Scary spot-on.

“How the hell?” She whispered, furious – while also relearning how to breathe.

“It’s part of my job to read people, and a natural gift.” His aqua gaze was penetrating; relentless but also calm. “Too many graduates find themselves in your situation. Excellent credentials, high-achieving, talented, stepping out into a flooded job market that doesn’t want them. A cutthroat world of too much skill and too many people, plus overwhelming expenses and debt. But what if there was another way?”

Excuse me?” Layla set her jaw, the conversation entirely too personal for her liking now. She crossed her arms, sitting back in her chair and lifting an eyebrow at him, making him see her rage. “Are you trying to sell me timeshares or something?”

“Not at all!” He laughed, his oceanic eyes sparkling, his own ease with the conversation warring with Layla’s tension. “I’m trying to say there’s a whole world out there that you are perfectly suited for. A life that could earn you everything you want, based on the credentials you have. If you’re willing.”

“Willing to do what?” Layla darkened, eyeballing him with fury coursing through her veins as she guessed where this was going. “Sleep with you?”

“No.” He smiled and actually blushed a little, his gaze almost embarrassed. “No, gods no.”

“Then what?” Layla’s brows furrowed. He was clearly working her up to something, but she still couldn’t place what it was. But that sketchy business card and his cagey dancing around the exact nature of his hotel chain was working her hackles up.

“I’d like to invite you to come work for my hotel.”

He watched her with a level directness, gauging Layla’s reaction. She blinked at him, feeling absolutely hostile even though he was still hot as hell. “Is this some kind of fluff-and-buff Dubai prostitution ring? Because if it is, you are going to get a drink your face and you’ll see my pretty ass walking out that door, stat.” She nodded to the tall glass doors at the front of the restaurant. “My life sucks, but it doesn’t suck as bad as that. No fucking thank you.”

He sat back, watching her closely, something mysterious settling about him as he swirled and sipped his wine. Layla realized he’d hesitated. She shook her head, an incredulous look taking her face. Lifting her napkin from her lap, she slapped it to the table and pushed up out of her chair. She was two steps into ditching his ass and this whole damn cluster-fuck, when he reached out, snagging her wrist. An intense sensation shivered all the way through Layla’s body, and it was all she could do to not throw her head back in ecstasy at his touch. Her body shuddered, flaring with passion so hard it left her breath heaving, and a small sound escaped her lips. Heat flushed Layla’s face; both from embarrassment and from her response.

Her body wanted him; hard. As his fingertips brushed the inside of her wrist where the cuff had burned her, she felt a thrill sear up her arm – deep into her chest and down into her groin. A breath left Layla’s lips as she stared at him, incredulous. His aqua eyes flared, the gold in them bright as a shudder passed through him also. Whatever was happening wasn’t just her, and as Layla turned to face him he rose from his seat, his fingers still at her wrist. Smoothing a circle on her inner wrist with his thumb, he gazed down, Layla staring up into his incredible molten eyes. They were so hot they could have burned the Sahara, a match to his burning touch at her wrist, and she realized they were breathing together – sharing breath, matching each other sip for sip.

“No.” He spoke at last, something intense in his visage. “It’s not prostitution.”

“You hesitated.” Layla breathed, feeling his closeness, wanting it and not knowing what the hell was going on.

“I did.” He nodded, something dire in his gaze. “Please sit, and I’ll explain.”

Layla was one step from bolting or two steps from retaking her seat. The solid heat of his nearness pressed her like a hand, stroking an amazing, shivering sensation through her. It was so strong she shuddered again, her eyelashes fluttering involuntarily. Though she flushed with embarrassment that he had such an effect on her, she saw an answering tremor wrack him.

And an answering flutter of his own black-lashed eyes.

That swayed her more than anything he could have said. Whatever was going on was not just her. Layla felt a deep mystery as he gently released her wrist, beckoning to her chair. She reclaimed it, watching him warily like a bird with a snake. But something about her was having an effect on him too – so perhaps they were two snakes facing off across the table.

“Talk.” Layla took up her wine, downing what was left and pouring again from the bottle. She didn’t refill his glass, eyeballing him with a tense composure. He downed what was left of his own wine and after he’d refilled his glass, drank another big swig before he set it carefully down.

“The Red Letter Hotel,” he began, watching Layla intently, “serves the most elite clientele on earth. Don’t bother researching it on Google or anywhere else. You won’t find anything.”

“The Red Letter Hotel.” Layla pinned him with her gaze. “What’s that? This?” She held up his business card. 

That,” he nodded soberly at the card, “is an exclusive invitation. To become part of one of the most elite organizations on earth. Elon Musk wishes he had our connections. And that card in his fingertips, just as you have now.”

“But you prostitute people.” Layla frowned.

“No.” He tapped the pedestal of his wine glass with one finger, watching her with his searing gaze. “We invite luxury clients to have a one-of-a-kind experience during their stay with us. It can include sex, but not necessarily. We provide an experience that will blow a person’s mind, body, and spirit, and re-configure everything they ever knew about the world. Our guests value us for providing that perspective and pay handsomely for it. I’m inviting you to come be a part of it. To start in Concierge Services, using your formidable talents to navigate tricky political situations with grace, wit, and fire, for the benefit of both yourself and our establishment. Learning on your feet and coming to understand a whole new world by being a part of it. A thorough understanding of who you really are, and how much power and benefit it can bring you. If you’re ready.”

Layla was stone-cold for a long moment. “Who the fuck are you?”

He had opened his lips to respond when something near the door caught his eye. Layla could practically feel him bristle as he came alert, like spines or barbs prickling in the air. She could feel it all over her body, and she shivered as the man’s hand snaked out lightning-fast to a steak knife upon the table, touching it like he might attack someone. He paused, watching the door with a rigid, animalistic fury that made his eyes flash gold once more. The moment stretched, Layla barely able to breathe from the intensity flooding from him. Her breath came in small gasps, and his eyes flicked to her. Worry creased his handsome features, and taking a deep breath, his fingers eased from the knife – that bristling sensation in the air diminishing slightly until Layla could breathe again. 

He leaned forward, dropping his voice. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to upset you. But I can’t tell you my name. Not here, not now. It’s not safe. But please know, Layla Price, that with your International Studies PhD, the seven languages you speak fluently and how easily you pick up more, and with your mother’s heritage out of Marrakesh – that you are precisely the person I’ve been looking for. The cuff’s reaction to you tonight confirms it. Consider all that I’ve said. Please. I’m begging you to.”

With that, he rose, snagging Layla’s roommate Arron by the arm as he passed, pressing his black credit card into Arron’s hand. “Anything the lady wants, please see that she is taken care of. I have to leave, but make certain she gets this card before she goes, to take with her and use as she sees fit.”

“Sir.” Arron’s blonde eyebrows climbed his forehead as he nodded. He glanced between them with an incredulous look at Layla, then bustled off to the server’s station with the card. 

Gazing down at Layla, a complicated look washed through her mysterious stranger’s eyes. They seemed to change again in the bright light of the restaurant – like an ocean roiling with currents of sea green, royal blue, then gold. Layla’s breath caught, feeling like she was rolled under the Mediterranean – drowning in his desert-spice scent as waves of heat and cool flooded off his skin. 

Her breath was fast again as he reached out, touching her fingertips. At his caress, a spear of electricity shot straight through Layla. Blistering heat rolled from him; an answering heat rolled hard through Layla as he held her gaze and lifted her fingers to his lips. At the touch of his lips, so impossibly smooth upon her skin, passion roared through Layla’s every fiber. She could suddenly feel those lips kissing her everywhere. Her neck, her nipples, her groin – lust hammered her, then disorientation as if she were seeing him in a hundred different skins.

All of them changing except for the piercing blue of his desert-ocean eyes.

Sliding his free hand into his pocket, he retrieved the hamsa-cuff and set it on the table by Layla’s plate. Guiding her hand from his lips, he set her fingertips to the red coral and white bone. “This is yours. Call the number on the card. Become who you were meant to be.” 

With that, he released her, something like agony flickering across his face and flaring deep in his eyes as he devoured her one last time. And then he was gone, sidling through the restaurant and out into the night so quickly it was like he’d never been.

Stunned, Layla still simmered with annihilation, every nerve on fire. Reaching out, she claimed her wine, downing it. Arron was there quickly, refilling her glass, his big grey eyes deeply alarmed. “Layla? What just happened? Did your date just ditch you?”

“I don’t know.” Layla gave a slow blink and looked up at him. 

“Are you ok?” He spoke again softly, reading her distress. 

“I don’t know,” she spoke again, still reeling. 

Watching her intently, Arron slid to the chair that Layla’s stranger had just vacated. Reaching out, her sweet lean twink of a housemate took her hand. “You look flushed. Maybe you should eat something, sugar. Perhaps your date was an asshat, but he did leave his card. We can burn a hole in his plastic; give him what-for. I say good riddance. You don’t need another Gavin.”

Layla laughed despite her current state of shock. She realized it looked like she’d just been walked out on by some high-finance asshole who was trying to pay her off with his little black credit card. Layla looked up, a sly smile curling her lips. “Charge my meal and drinks to his card, Arron. Hell, use it to buy everyone’s dinners tonight and give you and your staff a hundred percent tip for every meal. I don’t want his little black card. He can shove it.”

“You go, girl!” Arron grinned, impish with delight. 

“And don’t stop with the wine, ok?” Layla swigged back her chardonnay. “Even if I get plastered. I’ll call a Lyft to get back to the house tonight.”

“Or if you get hammered long enough, I’ll drive you back at the end of my shift.” Arron laughed with tinkling delight, then whisked a second bottle of chardonnay out of the rack-wall and uncorked it, setting it to the table. “Be right back with some appetizers.”

Arron whisked away, leaving Layla staring at the door. Watching; waiting. She realized some part of her was hoping her hotel-owning billionaire with his absurd proposal, strange heat, and oceanic eyes would be back. But as she gazed around the restaurant, she noticed she was alone now in her little nook.

Except for the Moroccan wrist-cuff by her plate. The damn thing held court there, looking at her with its bloody coral teardrop and bone-white hamsa. Challenging her; forbidding. Layla reached out, touching the bone of the hamsa with her fingertips. But there were no fireworks now and the silver of the metal had warmed in the restaurant, freed from its climate-controlled case in the gallery. Sliding her hand out, she set her forearm in the open clamshell. Nothing. No burn, no sparks. Closing the cuff, she slid in the silver pin, setting it. Turning her wrist over, she admired the hamsa design, now on her outer forearm. It gazed back as if asking a question with its burning coral centerpiece. 

What was she going to do with everything she had discovered tonight? 

What was she going to do – with the rest of her life?

Copyright 2018 Ava Ward. All Rights Reserved. No part of this content may be reproduced or used without the author's written permission.

Royal Dragon Bind - Chapter 1: Artifact

CHAPTER 1 – ARTIFACT

The Moroccan wrist-cuff in the glass box was exquisite. Layla Price gazed down at the antique Berber artifact resting on its black velvet cushion, watching the gallery’s light reflect off the ornately-fashioned silver. Inset with red coral, amazonite, bone, and amethyst, not to mention exquisite turquoise and yellow cloisonné enamel, the cuff was part of a collection of North African artifacts featured at the Vermillion art gallery for August.

Leaning over the display, a glass of chardonnay to hand, Layla tucked a curl of her sable hair back up into its twist. The cuff, featuring a bone hamsa with a fiery red coral teardrop in the center of the palm, seemed to ward or forbid any who might touch it – as if it was not to be owned, lest it claim the one who owned it. Enameled vases and inlaid tables, Berber necklaces and archways of colorful zellij mosaics were forgotten as Layla stared at the cuff. Lifting her glass, Layla sipped her chardonnay, refreshed by the crisp, smooth flavor in the muggy space of the gallery. The Vermillion was a local spot in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the long, narrow space allowing almost no meandering room between the displays. The tiny gallery featured a bar in the back, though almost no-one wandered the exhibit today. It was a shame; the pieces were exquisite, and brought a feeling of desert spice and evening winds to the stuffy space.

As if called up from the hamsa-cuff, a breeze lifted the air inside the gallery, stirring Layla’s curls. She was still dressed in her little black work dress and heels, showing her slim curves and long legs. Simple but low-cut, the dress attracted attention when Layla shook up a drink at the Needle & Thread secret bar – from where she had just come, off her bartending shift for the night. 

Glancing over, Layla saw the zephyr was just the glass door, propped open by a geek-chic gallery host to let in the evening breeze. As the host set the door, a man slipped in from the street, nodding to the host then gazing around the fantastic display. Dressed in an elegant ensemble of a crisp white collared shirt with sleeves rolled to his elbows, narrow pinstriped charcoal trousers with a shiny black belt and Oxfords, he was obviously rich. Men didn’t get that lean, mean physique without dedicated training, and those tall, cuttingly handsome looks weren’t fed pizza and beer. 

Rifling a hand through his brush-cut black hair as he gazed around, his piercing green-blue eyes perused every glass case from the door as if searching for something. His gaze finally came to the hamsa-cuff and he noted Layla – then those eyes traveled up Layla’s curves from high-heels to hips, to cleavage, to her face. As the man’s eyes locked on hers, an electric current shivered through Layla. Piercing, drowning, she was suddenly unsure if those eyes were blue or green, or a searing Mediterranean aquamarine. Vibrant and molten, they devoured her as flecks of gold in their depths caught the evening sun through the gallery’s windows, scattering it like a sea on fire.

Staring at her, the man’s lips fell open. She saw him inhale, then lurch forward as if drawn to that electric sensation Layla felt tingling through her body. Like her entire nervous system had come alive at the sight of him, Layla’s breath was fast as she flicked her gaze away. Tingles and heat rushed through her. Her head reeled and Layla locked her eyes on the hamsa-cuff as if it were the only thing that could save her from the man’s intense, almost carnal presence. 

She felt him move closer – stirring the breeze from the door with a flush of heat that smelled of cinnamon and anise, even desert jasmine. But it was just his cologne wafting around her as he paused then moved on by, giving Layla a wide berth as he moved toward the bar with his hands thrust casually in his pockets.

Shaken by the man’s arrival, Layla breathed deep, one arm clutching her waist as she tried to hold her wine glass steady. She could still feel his heat surging across her skin with a palpable pressure – as if he had touched her as he walked by, even though he hadn’t. She couldn’t get enough of his inundating cologne; the scent intoxicating on her tongue. 

Alarm raced through her with her sudden attraction. The last time she’d experienced a heat so intense with anyone was Gavin, and what a train wreck that had turned out to be. Six months after they’d broken up, she could still feel the disaster of that relationship. Screaming and throwing art-vases at each other, Layla had stalked out of his penthouse apartment downtown and never looked back. Too-hot-to-handle Gavin could keep his tech money and his Tesla Roadster – and the five women he’d been fucking on the side. Now, two months post-grad from the University of Washington with a PhD in International Studies but with no proper job, Layla was only good enough to serve assholes like Gavin their drinks; the Seattle job market abysmal for non-tech positions. 

Feeling a presence return to the gallery, Layla’s gaze lifted to see Hot Guy idling near a tiled arch. His gaze shifted to her as he sipped a blood-red wine, as if he felt her watching. The sensation of a desert wind blew through Layla again as she met that searing aquamarine gaze – watching her with a level intelligence and dark passion. It rocked her and she dropped her eyes to the floor, the tiled mirrors – to anything but stare at Hot Guy Trouble.

Moving around the gallery, he took his wine and his tall, hot self in the opposite direction – idling at every mirror, gazing into every case of jewelry. Stepping to the wall, Layla avoided him. Admiring an inlaid vase, she was awed by the breathtaking detail. But the only piece that truly called to her of her mother’s Moroccan heritage, was the six-inch cuff in its spotlit box. Migrating back, Layla’s gaze sank into the shining silver, the bleak bone of the hamsa – the red coral like a drop of blood in the center of the palm.

“Arresting, isn’t it?” 

A smooth baritone voice at her side nearly made Layla drop her wineglass. Of course, her hot kryptonite had migrated to her side, admiring the wrist-cuff, his rakish good looks even more exquisite up close. She glanced over, trying not to stare and failing. His cheekbones were high, his jawline cuttingly defined, his short black hair thick and glossy. With slightly tanned skin, he looked Mediterranean, though those piercing aqua eyes with their flecks of gold were unreal. His short black stubble looked soft, and Layla fought an almost irrepressible urge to lift her fingers to his jaw and touch him.

“It’s lovely.” Layla returned, trying to make her voice firm. His heady desert-spice musk flowed around her as his presence pressed upon her like a hand caressing down to things unseen. Sipping her wine to cover her blistering reaction to him, Layla tried to ignore the wetness she felt down below and the hammering of her pulse. Usually, if she dismissed men long enough, her ardor got the hint. Working as a bartender in high-class Seattle establishments since undergrad had given her a lot of helpful tricks against sexy bad boys – and Layla set her determination firmly in place, knowing this one was as sexy and bad as they came.

“As if it could take you by the hand and lead you into danger,” he murmured, sidling nearer with his gaze riveted to the cuff. “Or out of it. Protection or devastation. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

“Rumi.” Layla’s eyebrows lifted; rich assholes didn’t speak poetry. She blinked as she turned to him, her determination to brush him off slipping. “The cure for pain is in the pain.

His lovely lips quirked, his aqua eyes smiling with delight – transforming him from devastatingly handsome to absolutely annihilating. “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” His gaze flicked down to the cuff then back up to pin her; flooding Layla with his intense presence. “I feel a strange pull when I look at this thing. As if my only option is to surrender, and be bound by it.”

Layla wasn’t entirely certain they were speaking of the artifact anymore. Flooded with heat, she flushed across her own light olive skin, unable to draw her gaze away from drowning in her unexpected companion. “As if there could be no other way,” she mused, feeling the strange pull of not only the Moroccan cuff, but also the man beside her.

A moment passed between them, shivering with heat. Currents of air stirred from the open doorway, the lurid smell of the city blending with the man’s cinnamon spice scent. Layla could feel him; pulling her, surrounding her with an almost animal magnetism. As if their bodies understood each other, Layla found them moving closer as they tried not to fall into each other and failed. His gaze pierced her, drowning her; though she saw something equally annihilated in his arresting stare. His lips had fallen open as they pulled steadily closer.

Suddenly, Hot Mystery Guy cleared his throat, his beautiful black lashes blinking. He made a quick gesture to the gallery host, lingering by the door and fanning herself with a Japanese paper fan. Hustling over in her black T-shirt, black jeans and combat boots, she beamed behind chunky square-rimmed glasses, her blonde hair shaven on one side. 

“Questions?” She chirruped, adjusting her glasses.

“How much is this piece?” The man queried, his baritone smooth and rich like Turkish coffee. Layla suddenly realized he had a vaguely Mediterranean accent, though she couldn’t place it.

“Oh!” The gallery host blushed and adjusted her glasses again. “It’s not for sale; none of these pieces are. They’re being displayed from a private collection. I’m so sorry. But we are taking donations for the gallery, if you’d like to make a gesture of your appreciation for the show?”

With a sly smile that made his handsomeness obliterating, the man produced a gilded pen from his pocket and a cream linen business card from a gold card-holder. Writing a number on the card, he held it out to the gallery host. “Please make a call to the owner. Here is my offer for this piece, and I can pay it right away. I’ll wait.”

She took the card, a doubtful frown pinching her ash-blonde brows. But when she saw the sum, those blonde brows climbed her forehead. “Sir! I’ll be right back.”

Hustling away so fast she was practically running, she headed for the bar. Layla glanced over, watching the man put the pen and card-holder back in his pants pocket, his smile rakishly delightful. 

“Couldn’t leave it alone, could you?” Layla sassed, sipping her wine. “Just had to go flashing that money around to get anything you like.” Being brazen and cheeky was her back-up against hot rich men, if her body’s dismissal failed.

Which it had. Spectacularly.

His gaze pierced her, full of delight and carnal devouring. “I know someone this piece of jewelry would be perfect for. It would be a tragedy to leave it languishing in a glass case rather than gracing her perfect wrist.”

“Lucky her.” Layla’s gaze fell back to the cuff. She felt forlorn suddenly, that this rich asshole had purchased it, probably for his wife or lover. And that he could – just throwing around his money and his Rumi and aqua eyes and making the world do his bidding. And yet, the most disappointing thing was that he was otherwise engaged. It speared Layla’s heart suddenly that he had someone else – someone who was not her and never would be. Her ardor struggled, as if he’d trapped it and now it needed to be free. Her heat diminished as she sipped her wine, staring at the Moroccan cuff and letting conversation with Hot Mystery Guy drop.

“And how is it that an arresting creature such as yourself has come to be here on a Friday night, when all the rest of the world is out dancing?”

Layla blinked, realizing that he was striking up conversation while he waited for the judgement on his price. She glanced over, trying to not be arrested by his incredible eyes and still failing. “I just got off work. I heard this show was coming in and I’ve been looking forward to it.”

He cocked his head, giving her a keen once-over that made her flush and tingle again, damn hormones. “Bartender,” he spoke with a slight grin. “And half-Moroccan, if I’m not mistaken. You smell like twists of orange and lemon-peel with a splash of sweet bourbon. And that light olive skin and loose curls I’d know anywhere. Though those pale jade eyes of yours… I can’t rightly say where those come from.”

“Worldly, aren’t we?” Layla sassed him again, swirling her wine. It both pissed her off and impressed her that his assessment had been so acute – a little too acute. “I was born near Marrakesh, though my family moved here when I was an infant. My mother’s Moroccan. Have you been to Morocco?”

“I was born there also.” Uncouth, he clinked glasses with her, his incredible eyes witty. “I still have a place there, and family. I try to get back as often as I can.”

Of course he has a place there. Layla thought sourly. Probably has a palace in every corner of the world and thinks nothing of it.

“Your eyes are hardly Moroccan, either,” she bit somewhat harshly, irritated suddenly. 

“No, they’re not.” He cocked his head, brows furrowing at her terseness. “Tell me, have I—”

But he got no further as the gallery host whisked back, practically tripping in her haste, her eyes wide behind her chunky frames. “The owner said yes!”

“Fantastic!” The man’s face opened from worry to immense pleasure and he gestured to the case. The girl produced a bundle of keys and unlocked the glass. She slid the velvet pillow out with reverence, liberating the artifact. The red coral and bright silver caught the lights, dazzling as if exuberant to be free. While the white bone ate the light – devouring it as if hungry for more.

“I’ll just be a moment boxing it. If you’d meet me in the back?”

“Leave the item here; I’ve no need for a box. Run the sum on this – and please add a twenty percent tip for the gallery.” Reaching out, the man slipped a black credit card embossed with a scarlet R into the pocket of the girl’s black t-shirt. Eyes enormous, she set the velvet pillow with the cuff on top of the glass case. 

“I’ll be right back.” She spoke, then hustled off.

With slow reverence the man reached out, fingers hovering over the cuff. His aqua eyes were a thousand miles away as he set his fingertips to the scarlet coral, stroking the bone and inlaid silver as if stroking a lover’s skin. His lips fell open and his sigh seemed to fill the gallery, susurrating upon a sudden wind that intensified the scent of his cinnamon-jasmine cologne. As if responding to his touch, the bloody coral teardrop threw the evening light in a pulse like a beating heart – though it was just the last rays of the sun flashing out through the windows. 

“Hold out your wrist.” The man’s voice was a whisper in the empty gallery. 

“What?” Layla startled, glancing at him. 

“Hold out your wrist,” the man’s gaze caught hers, drowning like a Mediterranean ocean. “I want to make sure it fits the woman it’s for.”

“Oh! Sure.” Layla was shaking as she held out her left wrist, wineglass in her other hand. She wanted more than anything to have the cuff bound upon her, yet it was somehow terrifying. Draining his wine and setting the glass on a pedestal, the man’s long fingers claimed the cuff. With a deft touch, he pulled the long silver pin, then clasped the cuff around Layla’s wrist. The silver was so cold it burned, as if the cuff held an otherworldly energy. Setting the pin, the man’s hands slipped away. 

But at the last moment, his long fingers strayed over Layla’s wrist – touching skin-to-skin with the silver cuff between. A hard pulse rocked Layla. Like a firebrand had been thrust through her from the cuff and the man’s touch, it caused her to cry out in exquisite pleasure and terrible pain. The man grunted, doubling over as if he’d been punched, his hand spasming tight upon hers. 

With a roaring flow, a bright wind rushed through Layla as his hand clamped down – filling her nostrils with cinnamon and anise, jasmine and orange peel, destroying her with a vision of light. Vast deserts rolled away from her. Vistas of canyons; cities of ancient splendor. The feel of a desert wind as it surged through an oasis at twilight; the roaring demon of the sandstorm. She cried out again, shuddering and dropping her wineglass to shatter upon the gallery’s floor as the man’s fingers twined into hers – flooding her with a roaring, ancient passion.

With a gasp, Layla broke away from the man’s touch, staggering to the gallery wall to prevent herself from falling. The man stood near the pedestal, his iron-wrought frame shaking like a leaf in gale as he stared at her with eyes that shifted through every color now, including gold – amazing and impossible. Heat and pleasure continued to rock Layla, flooding from the hamsa-cuff and where the man had touched her. 

With a shudder, Layla hastily unpinned the cuff, dropping it. It was saved from landing in Layla’s shattered wineglass by the man’s serpent-fast reflexes. Cradling her wrist as surges of pleasure just this side of orgasm rocked her, Layla saw a red mark burned into her inner wrist. The hamsa with its bloody teardrop was seared into her flesh – right over the spot where the bone inlay had been.

The gallery host came running with a broom and trash sweep-up as Layla massaged her wrist, still unable to process what had just happened. Handing back the man’s credit card with a receipt, the host nodded to him, then began sweeping up the glass. 

“Forgive us!” The man murmured, making a nominal motion to help, though he was still breathing hard as if he’d just run a sprint. 

“No, it’s no problem!” She waved him off. “People break glassware in here all the time. And you’re all set with the purchase. Thank you so much for your patronage, we truly appreciate it! If there’s anything else I can do?”

With an unsteady step back and a shiver, the man produced a scarlet silk handkerchief from his trouser-pocket and wrapped the cuff, then pocketed it. His gaze simmered upon Layla, though his eyes had returned to their regular piercing aqua. Those eyes snapped back to the gallery host. “Yes. Best restaurant in a three-block walk?”

“Oh, I recommend Lark,” she answered. “Take Pike west to 10th, head south, then over and down on Broadway. You can’t miss it.”

“Thanks.” 

Before Layla could react, the man set a hand to the small of her back, then whisked them out the door and into the Friday night bustle on Capitol Hill. He breathed out shakily as they passed through the door, heat rising from his body as he stepped close, his hand searing upon Layla’s back. With a chuckle, he flashed Layla a smile from his still-burning aquamarine eyes. 

“I could use a bite after all that excitement. Shall we?”

“Get dinner?” Layla balked, pulling back against his hand, shaken by what had just happened. 

“Unless you have other plans?” Though his touch eased as they gained the sidewalk, he didn’t let her go. Hot Mystery Guy cocked his head, his penetrating gaze gone so dark in the twilight it was cobalt. Layla was about to decline, but his gaze was so arresting, his hand at her back so hot that she hesitated. Her body still reeled from whatever had just happened; her pulse pounded with each whiff of his cinnamon-desert cologne as a flooding passion rocked her. The entire episode had left her unseated from reality – the mark upon her wrist vivid from the burn of cold silver.

“You paying for dinner?” Layla sassed at last. So much for all her protection mechanisms against Hot Guy Trouble.

“Of course. There is nothing I would love to do more.” Her Hot Mystery Guy smiled, annihilating like a falling star in the dusk, and Layla felt heat surge through her all over again. She was undone by that smile, she realized suddenly. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for it. As if it bound her heart, Layla felt her passion and pleasure leap to him – needing that smile in her world like she needed breath. It swept her away so completely that she was left dumbstruck by how fast he had snared her. How hard she had fallen to his searing touch, to that cinnamon-jasmine scent breathing around her like a desert zephyr – to this deep and ancient lust surging between them.

With a graceful gesture, he beckoned down the sidewalk. Trying to pull her shit together, Layla stepped into the throng before he could arrest her again. With easy strides he accompanied her, threading through the punks and early drunks with a serpentine grace, his hand never once relinquishing its place at the small of her back. As if he, like the hamsa-cuff that had marked her, couldn’t bear to parted from Layla.

And for her part, Layla didn’t shrug him off.

Copyright 2018 Ava Ward. All Rights Reserved. No part of this content may be reproduced or used without the author's written permission.