Won’t you be glad to read the rest of the book? And because you’ve gotten a head start, you’ll leave reviews really fast, right? Right? Please? I don’t want the other dragon books to mock mine. Anyway, without further ado, here is the chapter and preorder link
“Why exactly did we come to the game?” Melinda asked. She was sitting beside Tori in the bleachers, mostly checking her phone and taking selfies. The crowd around them had erupted in a cheer—Jesse had made another basket—and the guy next to Melinda jostled her, making her spill popcorn on her lap.
“School spirit,” Tori said.
“Uh huh.” Melinda wasn’t a sports fan, which had always seemed like a good thing. For the most part, Tori avoided sports events. The yells from the crowd, the clapping, the sound of players thumping across the floor—and worst of all, the shrill referee whistles—it was a constant assault of sound.
But after Jesse had joined the basketball team, Tori had undergone a sharp increase of interest in the game. Tonight she’d told her parents she was going to Melinda’s house and then dragged her to the game. That way, she didn’t have to bring her bodyguard with her.
Melinda cast a glance at Jesse. “I thought you were over Jonathan.”
“I am. Sort of. It’s complicated.”
Melinda rolled her eyes. “He’s hot and acts all unattainable. That’s not a complication, that’s a challenge. And you’ve fallen for it just like every other girl in the school.”
At first, Jesse had acted unattainable to the other girls because he’d been seeing her. But even after their split, he wasn’t seeing anyone. Was that because he still had feelings for her or because he didn’t want any entanglements that would keep him from his Slayer duties?
The crowd erupted into another cheer, drawing Tori’s attention back to the game. Well, not really to the game—she was only paying attention to Jesse. He ran down the court with a stride that had a grace and flow that made everything he did look effortless.
He’d stolen the ball from the other team and was winding his way around their players to the school’s basket. He pivoted around the guard and went up for a layup. Two points. The crowd whooped its approval.
He didn’t even pause before he headed down to the other basket to play defense. For a moment his gaze flickered to the crowd and Tori wondered if he saw her sitting on the bleachers.
Probably not. Jesse had a way of concentrating on what needed to be done and forgetting about the unimportant details. In this case: her, staring at him like some groupie.
The guy who sat on the other side of Tori was talking to a friend beside him. “We’re going to bury Maret. That new kid is on fire.”
He was. Tori hoped some of the scouts from local colleges would want him. It would be a pity if he had to turn down out-of-state offers because Dr. B had instructed the Slayers to stay in the area. She let herself wonder what Jesse’s life would be like if he weren’t a Slayer. He not only had athletic potential, the guy was smart and had a good head on his shoulders. He could go anywhere. He was the sort of person whose future should be wide open and limitless.
A familiar sensation bloomed inside of Tori, made her catch her breath. It was the feeling that a counterpart was close. Dirk. Her eyes searched the gymnasium. He was somewhere nearby.
Even as the thought occurred to her, she dismissed it. Why would he be at this basketball game? And yet that feeling of familiarity—of him—was there.
People were coming and going through the door. When her gaze turned in that direction, he wasn’t hard to spot. He was tall, broad-shouldered, blond, and handsome. Those sorts of guys always stood out.
He wandered toward the bleachers, scanning the crowd, and the next moment his eyes connected with hers. He smiled but there was a tinge of worry, a hesitation in his expression. He crossed the floor, still holding her gaze.
Was this coincidence or had he come to see her on purpose? If it were on purpose, it could be good news—or very bad news. She peered at the area behind Dirk to see if anyone was with him. Overdrake maybe or an assortment of henchmen.
He seemed to be alone. No one who was burly, armed, or sinister trailed him. Eyes still on her, he made his way to her section of the bleachers.
How had he found her? Well, she shouldn’t really wonder. He’d known she’d gone to this school before she moved. It wasn’t surprising he would check here—but why had he come? Was he about to deliver some sort of ultimatum to the Slayers? That’s what the bad guys in movies always did when they showed up unexpectedly. Her breaths came faster, her heart pounded, and she wasn’t exactly sure whether it was from worry or happiness—because, frustratingly, even though she was worried, another part of her was just happy to see him.
He climbed the steps, and then people scooted over, letting him edge through her row. When he was still a couple feet away, she asked, “What are you doing here?”
He stopped on the bleacher beneath her, waiting for people to shift away from her to make room. “I came to talk to you, to make sure you were okay.”
The guys on Tori’s side didn’t move. They were too engrossed in the game to notice Dirk standing there. Melinda didn’t move either, but that was because she was staring, starstruck, at Dirk.
He spoke without sitting down. “Why didn’t you answer any of my messages?”
She blinked at him, confused. “Your last message said not to contact you.”
It was his turn to look surprised. “You haven’t heard anything from me since then? You didn’t hear my new contact information?”
She shook her head. Should she admit that she was connected to Khan now and not Vesta? If Dirk ever had another warning for her, she wanted to make sure she heard it. But at the same time, Overdrake hadn’t let Aaron be alone with Vesta. If Dirk knew Tori could hear what Khan heard, would Aaron be kept from that dragon? Perhaps Overdrake’s restrictions on the fledglings weren’t only due to their unpredictable nature. Maybe he was making sure Aaron didn’t leak anything to her.
Before she could decide what to say next, her attention shifted. The crowd had momentarily grown quiet, seemed to be suspended in a collective gasp. The ref’s whistle chided a shrill complaint. Something was wrong.
She didn’t see the basketball hurtling toward the back of Dirk’s head. She couldn’t see it because he was blocking her view of the court. But he turned—split-second fast—reached into the air and caught the ball before it hit his head.
Several people in the stands let out exclamations, some of relief that no one had been hurt, others in pure appreciation of the sort of skill it took to catch a ball going fast and hard when your back was turned.
But most of the crowd just gaped in disbelief, some at Dirk, some at Jesse.
Tori knew Jesse was the one who’d hurled the ball into the stands even before she tilted her head to see him standing in the middle of the floor glaring up at Dirk.
Jesse had apparently seen Dirk in the stands and his first reaction had been to stop the game and fling the only hard object he had at Dirk’s head.
Jesse should have known it wouldn’t work. The Slayers had done this sort of thing often enough at camp—pitched things at each other to test one another’s reaction times. Dirk was hard to catch off guard.
“Well,” Dirk said wryly, “look who’s playing on your team.”
Jesse stormed toward the stands, saying something that was drowned out by the ref’s scolding whistle. Perhaps Jesse’s teammates were close enough to hear him, or perhaps his look of determination was enough to announce his intentions because a couple guys grabbed Jesse’s arms to hold him back.
Dirk smiled at Jesse, took aim at the opponent’s basket, and threw the ball in that direction.
The ball swooshed through the net and the crowd let at an assortment of hoots and cheers. The guy sitting next to Tori raised his hand to give Dirk a fist bump. “Dude, that was so awesome!”
What it was, was proof that Dirk’s powers were turned on. None of them could have so effortlessly landed that shot without their extra abilities, but it was the sort of thing all of them did at camp. Dirk had done it to make a point: He had extra strength and Jesse didn’t.
Jesse stopped struggling against his teammates. His gaze went to Tori and the apprehension in his eyes made his thoughts clear. She didn’t have extra strength right now. If she needed to fight off Dirk, she wouldn’t be able to do it.
While the guy sitting next to Tori asked Dirk where he played, Tori held up a hand to Jesse, making the Slayer sign that everything was fine. Dirk wouldn’t hurt her. She didn’t sense any aggression or hostility from him. He’d come to make sure she was okay.
Jesse didn’t look all that reassured, but at least he wasn’t marching into the bleachers to confront Dirk.
Most people in the stands were still staring at both Dirk and Jesse, trying to piece together what had happened. Melinda was just staring at Dirk as if hoping if she waited long enough a priest would appear and marry them. “Tori,” she chimed. “You haven’t introduced me to your friend.”
Dirk shook off his fanboy and turned back to Tori and Melinda. “I’m Dirk,” he said with a forced smile. “I’m here to take Tori home.”
She couldn’t leave with him. They were, after all, enemies. “I can’t,” she said. On the basketball court, the ref had retrieved the ball and was trying to get the game started again. The coach was at Jesse’s side yelling but Jesse’s gaze was still on the stands, a fact that was making the coach’s face turn an unnatural shade of red.
She tapped the All’s Well button on her watch and sent the message to Jesse so he wouldn’t make things worse.
“We’re old friends,” Dirk told Melinda. “And we’ve got lots to catch up on. Sorry to take her away.”
Melinda smiled back at him. “I’m one of her old friends too. Which means we probably have lots of other things in common.”
Dirk took hold of Tori’s wrist, a soft grip but an insistent one. “Let’s leave. I’m blocking people’s view of the game.”
Tori tried to tug her wrist away from him, a pointless gesture against his strength. “You know I can’t leave with you.”
Melinda leaned toward him and giggled. “Hey, I’ll leave with you.”
Really, when had Melinda become this much of a flirt?
Dirk didn’t let go of Tori’s wrist. His voice went low, serious and teasing at the same time. “Don’t make me carry you out of here.”
“Don’t even think about it,” Tori said. “This is a public place.”
She looked at Jesse again, and Dirk followed her gaze. Jesse was walking to the benched players, pressing buttons on his watch. No doubt, he was calling for reinforcement. Dr. B would bring a simulator so the Slayers could fight and capture Dirk. How long would it take them to get here?
“The watches,” Dirk said in a tone that reminded her of Overdrake. Confident and plotting. When Dirk was a Slayer, he’d owned one, so he knew what they did and how important they were to the team’s communication. Before she realized what he was doing, he hooked his finger underneath her watch and pulled. With the force of his strength, the band snapped and came loose from her wrist.
He held it up. “Do you want this back?”
She lunged for it and nearly toppled down the bleachers. He took hold of her waist, steadying her. He smelled of aftershave, a scent that brought to mind parties where men wore tuxedos. “Throwing yourself at me?” he murmured, then set her on her feet again. “This is a public place.”
Melinda laughed, clearly missing the undertone of the conversation. “Are you okay, Tori?” She saw the watch in Dirk’s hand. “Did that thing finally break? Good. Now she can get something decent.”
Tori held her hand out to Dirk with an impatient wave of her fingers. “Give me my watch.” Theo had recalled and changed all of their watches when Overdrake captured Alyssa and took hers. Tori didn’t want to go through that again. As much as she hated the way her watch looked, it was handier than a phone and more secure. Her conversations with the other Slayers were automatically encrypted.
“I just want to talk to you,” Dirk said, turning to go. “You can tell I’m not lying about that.”
Without another word, he strode down the bleachers. His message was clear. If she wanted her watch back, she had to come with him.
She did want to talk to him, but not like this. She didn’t like being forced into it or hurried so that she didn’t have time to consider all the implications and dangers of going with him.
Still, he wanted to talk to her and he hadn’t had a lot of ways to reach her since he didn’t know she was connected to Khan. And what if he’d come to give her information or broker some sort of deal? Her gaze went to Jesse again. He’d noticed Dirk moving to the door. Jesse had his wrist lifted, pretending to wipe sweat from his forehead. A practiced move to hide the fact that he was speaking into his watch.
Jesse was not going to be happy when he noticed her leaving the gym and realized what she’d done, but then she supposed that was par for the course. The Slayers didn’t want her to speak to Dirk and she kept disappointing them. She would just have to live with whatever grief Jesse gave her.
She made her way down the bleachers, her footsteps tapping against the floor. She hardly heard them over the pounding of the game and the noise of the crowd. Most everyone had returned their attention to the floor. Only a few people watched her make her way to the door.
Dirk waited in the foyer, standing casually by the trophy cases and looking every bit the golden boy who could win them. He read her watch face, and without glancing up, said, “Jesse texted and asked what you’re doing.” Dirk spoke out loud as he wrote back. “I’m leaving the rest of you and running off with the man of my dreams. YOLO.”
Tori marched over to him, hand out. “Give me that.”
“Let’s go talk first.” He headed out the front doors, leaving her no choice but to follow him.
She reluctantly did so. She still sensed no aggression from him, no deceit. If he wanted a private place to talk, fine. The school steps were private enough. The cold night air pressed against her throat and face. She’d only worn a light jacket.
Dirk stood at the bottom of the school steps, had probably leapt down there.
She walked down them slowly. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Not here.” Dirk sauntered out onto the parking lot, reading messages on her watch again. “Ryker will arrive in ten minutes. Fifteen if Dr. B gets held up in traffic with the simulator.” Dirk shook his head as he ambled through a row of cars. “DC traffic. The bane of commuters and dragon Slayers alike.”
Tori’s watch buzzed and Dirk checked it. “Jesse says to stop being flippant and take the situation seriously.” Dirk spoke as he wrote back. “Like when you chucked a ball into the crowd, Mr. Good Example?” He pointed to his black Porsche sitting in the back of the parking lot. “My car is over there.”
He wanted to drive someplace. This just kept getting riskier. She stopped walking. “Where exactly did you want to talk?”
Instead of answering her, he increased his pace, pulling further ahead of her.
She hesitated. She shouldn’t get in a car with an enemy. But then again, if Dirk wanted to kidnap her, he could have already done it. He could have carried her off and she wouldn’t have been able to stop him. She grudgingly followed after him again. He was several yards ahead and wasn’t slowing down. “Why aren’t you waiting for me?” she asked.
“Because I need to do this.” The Volkswagen bug he was passing had a window that was cracked down an inch. He slipped her watch through the opening, then checked to make sure the car doors were locked.
She reached the car and peered inside. Her watch lay on the driver’s seat forlornly, one panel lit up to indicate she had a new message. “You said you were going to give it to me.”
“You’ll get it back,” Dirk said. “As soon as Jesse tells Dr. B you left with me, he’ll trace your watch’s position and find it here. Ryker or Jesse will break into the car and get it.”
Tori kept looking at the watch. “You were the only one who was good at breaking into cars. You remember that, don’t you? Ryker is new and Jesse…”
“Is lacking in many skills. I do remember that.” Dirk took her hand and led her toward his car.
She wondered if Dirk had somehow seen the Slayers breaking into Alyssa’s car last October. Jesse hadn’t been able to get the tool to work and they’d all ended up crowded around the car conspicuously while people strolled by giving them dirty looks. Tori felt the need to say something in their defense, or at least Jesse’s defense.
“Jesse is trained to fight dragons. Breaking into cars doesn’t come up much during those sorts of fights.”
“Don’t worry about him,” Dirk said. “The Volkswagen’s owner probably won’t catch Jesse trying to jimmy his lock, and if he does—how tough can the owner be? He drives a bug.”
They’d reached Dirk’s Porsche. He unlocked the car, then held the passenger side door open for Tori.
“You know,” she said, not moving to the car. “I don’t think we have a very well-defined hero-villain relationship. I bet Wonder Woman never got in a car with…who did she fight, anyway?”
“Guys who could be stopped with a lasso. I see you didn’t bring yours.” Dirk kept holding the door open. “I only want to talk to you. Villains and heroes do that all the time.”
Tori wrapped her arms around herself to keep from shivering. “You’re not going to kidnap me, trick me, trap me—anything I’ll regret later?”
He shrugged his shoulders in mock innocence. “How would I know what you’ll regret later? What did you regret last time?”
She didn’t want to answer that question. “Just promise me that you’ll let me go anytime I want.”
“I’ll let you go anytime you want.” He said the words with too much mischief seeping into his sincerity, but that was part of his personality—an underlying mischief and way of stirring things up for his own personal amusement. He wasn’t feeling guilty enough to make her think he was lying.
She got in the car and pulled her jacket tighter around her. Once Dirk got in, he turned the heater on high, then drove across the parking lot. As he pulled onto the street, he glanced back at the school. “So you see Jesse every day. How’s that working out?”
“That’s not what you came to talk to me about.”
“Yeah, but it’s what I want to talk about now.”
“I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Hmm,” he said with a smile. “Not so well then.”
It was one of those times when she didn’t like being Dirk’s counterpart. He seemed to know all the things she wasn’t saying. Tori watched the rows of colonial houses file past her window. A thin layer of snow covered the lawns, hiding the dead grass beneath. “Now that you know Jesse’s location, Dr. B will probably move him.”
Dirk nodded. “Bummer.” Another smile.
Tori’s cell phone dinged, announcing she had a text message.
“That’s probably Jesse now,” Dirk said.
It was. His message read Are you okay? Where are you?
She texted an explanation about the watch, reiterated that she was fine, and told him she would call him when she was done talking to Dirk.
Jesse was going to have a lot to say about that, was probably already composing a lengthy text. She planned on ignoring it.
“So where are you taking me?” she asked.
Dirk turned from the street they’d been on. “To a remote, secluded location.”
She crossed her arms. “That sounds like you’ve planned my untimely death, not a polite conversation. How about we go to a restaurant instead? There’s a good Thai place a few miles back.”
He kept driving straight. “I know a place you’ll like better.”
“I’m not so sure about that. I prefer Thai to ‘remote and secluded’. What will we be talking about?”
“My dad hacked my last account with you. That’s why I told you not to contact me. So only post things there that you wouldn’t mind him reading. I set up an untraceable account on the dark web. The login and password are on that slip of paper on top of the dashboard.”
Tori picked up the paper. While she entered the information into her phone, Dirk said, “How come you haven’t heard any of my spoken messages?”
There was no point trying to keep the truth about her connection with Khan from him. She couldn’t come up with some other explanation for why she hadn’t heard Dirk speak when he was near Vesta. With almost a jolt, she remembered she should pretend to be angry that Overdrake had kidnapped Aaron. “I’ve heard you speak while you were with a dragon, but you never said anything that was directed at me.” She turned to face Dirk and concentrated on her worry for Aaron. She didn’t have to fake that. “I know your father has Aaron. I didn’t think you wanted that. Why haven’t you done something to free him?”
Dirk’s gaze snapped to Tori and look of surprised realization washed over him. “Your link is with Khan.” He said the sentence with self-reprimand. “I should have figured that out.” He released a slow breath as though figuring things out now. “Your default changed when you went into his mind. Before that, you were always connected to Vesta unless another dragon got a lot closer.”
“Why Vesta?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Her egg probably turned on your dragon lord genes, so she became your default. But after you went into Khan’s mind, you were more familiar with him so you’ve stayed there.” Dirk drove in silence for a few moments, thinking about this.
Tori focused her thoughts on her worry for Aaron again. He was so young, so easily influenced, so unused to dealing with people like Overdrake. “Are you even going to comment on the fact that your father abducted Aaron?”
Dirk tapped his thumb against the steering wheel, unconcerned. “Aaron is fine. In fact, he’s getting along better with my father than I am.”
“Dirk—” she began.
“My father has parental rights. Any court in the nation would agree with him about that. And besides, Aaron doesn’t want to leave. He’s never even asked me for help getting back to his mom.”
“Your mom,” Tori said. “She’s your mom too.”
Dirk grunted. “So I’ve been told.”
Tori could feel the emotion stirring in him at the mention of her. Anger. Frustration. Pain. She hadn’t expected these sorts of feelings, or at least not in the quantity he felt them.
“Have you talked to her?” Tori asked. “Aaron would give you her number.”
Dirk hesitated. His grip on the steering wheel grew tighter. “I talked to her once for about a minute.”
“Why only a minute?”
“I didn’t have anything to say.”
Not true. He had twelve years of things to say. “I wouldn’t believe that even if I weren’t your counterpart. If you squeeze the steering wheel any tighter, you’re going to snap it in half.”
His grip on the wheel lessened. He didn’t say anything, though.
She waited. Finally, she said, “You can fake a lot of things. Apathy isn’t one of them.”
He hit his turn signal with a sharp flick, then stopped a bit too abruptly at a traffic light. “She chose to leave me so that she could be with Aaron. She can’t undo that now and pretend she cares about me.”
Tori worded her sentence carefully. She couldn’t admit she’d talked to Bianca and seen the pain in her eyes. “Maybe she wasn’t choosing Aaron over you. Maybe she knew she couldn’t take you away from your father. She couldn’t protect you from him because he knew about you and would make sure that no matter where she ran, he’d find you. But that wasn’t the case for Aaron.”
Tori didn’t feel any softening in Dirk, just the continuing rumble of pain within him. He was determined not to forgive his mother, determined to hold onto his resentment as tightly as he’d been gripping the steering wheel. She put her hand on his knee, half expecting to feel the intensity of his emotions buzz her skin like an electric pulse. “I’m sure your mom was brokenhearted to lose you.”
Perhaps Tori said the sentence with too much certainty. Dirk took his eyes from the light to check her expression. “How would you be sure about that?”
“Because I can’t imagine anyone not loving you.”
Dirk laughed and his anger and pain faded into the background of his thoughts. “I can think of several people who don’t love me.” He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “Some of them are converging on your school right now.”
She placed her hand back in her lap. “Loving you and disagreeing with you are two different things.”
His eyes cut to her again, reading her. “Do you love me, Tori?”
He returned his attention to the road. The light had turned green. “But not the way I want.”
When she’d answered the question, she’d been thinking of him as her counterpart. She’d been thinking of how hard it was to see him willfully make bad decisions. She wasn’t going to talk about the sort of love Dirk wanted.
He turned onto the freeway entrance. The spot he had in mind must be even more secluded and remote than she’d thought. “You say Aaron is okay, but I’m not so sure. Face it, your father is a horrible parent. What sort of man tosses a twelve-year-old into a dragon enclosure, tells him to fly, and then leaves?” She eyed him. “Was that how he taught you to fly?”
“I was younger. It wasn’t so hard for me.” Dirk rethought his words. “Or maybe it was harder because I didn’t know that my father was in the dragon’s mind, that he had control of him.”
Poor Dirk. She hated thinking of him as being young, vulnerable, and at the mercy of Overdrake. “Doesn’t your father’s ruthlessness bother you? You wouldn’t treat your own children that way, would you?”
“No,” Dirk said, as though he’d already given it thought. “I’m going to be like Dr. B. He’s what a father should be.”
The statement caught her by surprise and not just because Dr. B seemed entirely too willing to put the Slayers in danger. “How can you say you want to be like Dr. B and then fight against everything he believes in?”
She was prepared to elaborate on this topic, but Dirk lifted his hand to stop her. “I didn’t say I would have the same beliefs, just the same methods. Dr. B taught us to be strong, but he never let us forget that he cared about us.” Dirk picked up speed, weaving around a slow-moving car. “Although I don’t suppose Dr. B cares that much about me now.”
“He does,” Tori said. “You know he still does.”
“Yeah, I do,” Dirk didn’t sound like he was all that happy about the fact.
Tori glanced at the signs, noting the upcoming exits. “What restaurant are you taking me to?”
“We’re not going to a restaurant. I’m taking you to see Minerva.”