Micky had been alone since her fiancé had taken his own life, just days before they were to be married. The note he’d left had put all the blame on her. It was in his handwriting, but she wasn’t so sure that it was a suicide. She had her suspicions that it was staged to look that way, but the police were in a hurry to close the case and that was the end of it. So, Micky had packed up and moved to a small town in Ohio, took employment as a cashier in a grocery store, and kept to herself. She liked it better that way. No one else would die because of her.
Lucas Manning hated hospitals. His dragon hated hospitals even more. Only days after becoming an immortal, during a bank robbery, he took a bullet to the chest. By all rights he should have died. His doctor told him he was under too much stress as well and if he didn’t do something about it, immortal or not, he could be in some serious trouble.
Taking the doctor’s advice to heart, Lucas decided to make some serious changes in his life. Eating healthier was a smart change, so he went shopping.
When the man put his things on the line she was in, Micky told herself that she was going to quit at the end of her shift. There wasn’t any point in working much longer. And the sooner she got moved, the sooner— She realized that the man was staring at her oddly.
“I’m sorry. Did you say something to me?” He shook his head and she started ringing up his things. A health nut came to mind when she rang up salad makings, coconut milk, and vitamins. When she was finished and told him how much it came to, he stared at her as if he’d never seen a woman before. “Are you all right?”
“I am now. What’s your name?” She pointed to her name badge, thinking that he was off his noodle. “My name is Lucas Manning, and you’re my mate.”
Micky could have gone her entire life without those words.
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Cooper Manning and his five brothers were true dragons. Centuries ago, when the humans had turned on their kind, their father sacrificed himself to save his sons by casting a powerful spell which allowed them to walk among the humans. Even centuries later, Cooper couldn’t seem to let go of the past and despised most humans.
Carson Langley was exhausted. After being forced to work thirty-six hours straight, she unwittingly complained to the new plant owner, now she knew she was fired. There was nothing left to do but go home and cry about it later.
Cooper was sent by his brother to retrieve the helpful woman and bring her back to the plant, and he wasn’t happy about it either. It didn’t help that when she answered the door she shared his sour mood, and when he touched her hand, the magic that surged between them meant only one thing—she was his other half, and she was human…. Cooper was seeing red.
Winnie wasn’t happy with Cooper at all. She had only done as ordered and had spent five years in prison because of it. Cooper was supposed to protect her, but he didn’t. Now the dragon king wanted her to protect them all from the new slayers in town? How was that fair? The sooner she completed her mission, the sooner she could move on and leave it all behind her.
Hudson had been told that Cooper had hired a man by the name of Wendall. He just wanted to meet him so he could measure his worth, but when the door opened, the woman behind it was writhing in pain. He only meant to help her, but the moment he touched her, her pain became his as well.
Winnie had been appointed by the Dragon Board to be their protector long before last names were given. She had hunted her first, expecting to be paid by coin, but was rewarded instead with magic and a title. She didn’t have time to take a mate, much less a Manning. She had too much work to do.
The word “no” wasn’t in Hudson’s vocabulary. Winnie was his mate and he’d do whatever he had to claim her.
With slayers lurking in the shadows, Winnie has her hands full, and can’t let a new mate distract her. She had to remain on her toes or all would be lost….
Lincoln figured the new artist in town would be one of their mates. He’d heard she was a real ball buster and thought that maybe she would be Tristan’s mate because Tristan said he couldn’t handle that. But when Ginger introduced him to her sister, Grace, he knew from the moment he touched her she was meant for him.
Grace was in shock. Garrett had taken her into his office when the show was still going on and told her that she had all but one of her paintings sold, including the twelve that she’d given him permission to sell. Twice now she’d had to put her head between her knees, which wasn’t easy with the dress she had on, in order to not pass out. Sold all but one? How was that even possible?
Lincoln sat at her feet on the hem of her dress. His attempt to to calm her shaky nerves had her about addled, and when Grace suddenly stood, the dress ripped from shoulder to hip. Standing there trying to get herself covered, she felt her temper snap. Now what was she supposed to do? Grace didn’t know whether to kick him or beg him to help her.
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Lucas hated to be in the hospital. Actually, he hated any place where he was inside. He preferred the outdoors, even when it was cold or raining. It was where he felt the most alive. When someone knocked on the door, he gently turned his head to it. Since being shot, Lucas about puked every time he moved too quickly. “How you feeling?” He told Cooper that he was feeling pretty good except for the dizziness.
“Yes, I would imagine that would be something that you’d have. You were shot. Did they tell you that?” “No. No one mentioned me taking a bullet and it took me a while to figure out. I’m guessing the reason that I’m still here is because it was either iron or steel.
Where is my doctor? I think she’s avoiding me.” Lucas frowned at his older brother. “I’m embarrassed at the things I said to her. When she came in here this morning, I realized my mistake. But she did smell great.” “Yes, she had a talk with all of us, asking us if you ever had this sort of issue before.” Lucas asked if she really called it an issue. “Yes. She knows all about us, as you can imagine with her being a doctor and all. But the fact that you claimed she was something else to you sort of set her off into the world of unknowing. Not mad, but she had thought that the bullet might have done more damage to you than she’d first thought.” He could see that. When the door opened again, Lucas started to tell the good doctor that he was sorry once more when she simply lifted her hand up. Cooper laughed and stood up. Lucas asked him to stay and he declined. “I have baby duty later—I still have a lot of things to get done while she’s with her mother.” He turned to the doctor and put out his hand. “Thank you so much for taking such good of my little brother.” “You’re very welcome.” Doctor Carver sat down beside the bed when Cooper left. Her smile, for some reason, was not very reassuring. “I wanted to tell you straight up that you should be dead.
The bullet had pierced your heart. If it hadn’t been for your sister-in-law telling me about you being an immortal, I would never have believed it.” “Lucky for me that was a power given to me just the day before.” She nodded. “I’m truly sorry for saying those things to you. I think, as you asked me once, I hit my head a little harder than I thought. You also told me that the man and the bank manager are both dead.”
“Yes. Someone here was treating him for his mental problems and had been for some time. They adjusted his meds for some reason, and we’re believing that is what had him going to the bank.” Lucas nodded. “The entire county and beyond think that you nearly died. As you’ve more than likely done in the past, we have to play it up for the cameras and the others out there. I would suggest a couple of more days. In fact, I’d like to insist on it. I know that you’re still having trouble with the dizziness, correct?”
“Yes. It makes me ill to move too quickly.” Doctor Carver asked him if he was still sick after he stood up. “Just a little. Not as much as when I move my head. I can walk well, just the quick movements.” “I’ve done an MRI on you and had someone come in and have a look, as you know. I’m thinking that it’s a pulled muscle or a pinched nerve. There is no other explanation that I can find to tell us why that is going on.” He nodded, saying he supposed a neck sprain was possible. “I’ve talked to your family, and they told me that you’d been under a little stress lately.” “Yes. I’m helping the family out with some investments. As well as a few other projects that I have a hand in. It’s very time consuming, but I like it.” He looked around the room slowly and noticed that there were more flowers than had been there yesterday. “I’ve been an attorney a few times in my lives, and it’s served us when it was needed.”
“Your brothers also told me that you’ve bought several buildings downtown, help the kids at their garden plots when you have time, as well as being involved in four more ‘projects.’ You’re not going to get any better if you don’t slow down. Do you have anyone working for you?” He told her his helper was on vacation. “Alan Peck?” “Yes. How did you know?” Doctor Carver told him that Alan had been in to see him, and one of the others told her how Alan had been on vacation. “He didn’t come home for me, did he?” “I wouldn’t know.” She stood up. “Mr. Manning, you have family. I would like to suggest that you start having them or someone help you out. You’re stressed, and you need to calm down. Having immortality would be horrific if you couldn’t enjoy it.
” After she left him, he lay there on the bed thinking. He could have gone home, she told him, but he decided to do what she said and stay on a few more days. Also, he was scheduled to have a cat scan soon, and that might tell them what was going on. Closing his eyes, Lucas tried to relax his body. How about I tell you a bedtime story? I can even modify it so that there is blood and guts in it if you wish. He smiled when he realized that Carson had spoken to him. The doctor just called Cooper and told him what she thinks and wants you to do. If I were you, I’d jump on that so that you tell Cooper what your plans are before he gets to order you to listen to the doctor. It’ll make my day. He did just that and could hear the frustration in his voice when he told Cooper he was going to stay at the hospital for some extra time and would try his best to delegate more when he was working. Lucas was still laughing when he told Carson what he’d done. He’s none too happy with me at the moment. She told him congratulations on upsetting Cooper’s plans to make him do it. You sound a little sad. What’s up? Anything I can help you with? That is the very reason you’re stressed, you know. He told her that loving her wasn’t stressful. Yeah, sure it’s not. No, I don’t have anything going on that you could help me with. Unless, of course, you’re lactating and would come and help me feed my baby.
No. No thanks. I don’t think I’d enjoy that all that much. But seriously, what is it? She didn’t answer him, and he tried again. I might not be able to help you, love, but I know a great many people that would jump at the opportunity to do something for me. Just say the word. I’m bored. I love being a mom, especially when the boys came here. They’re like a breath of fresh air in my day. But I’m not able to be gone for long because I have to feed the little one, and even when Cooper is here, he’s not really. I mean, I love him to death, but he’s not much in the way of conversation when he comes home and shuts himself up in the office. He asked her why she’d not told him that. I don’t know. I guess because I figured that if the door was closed, not to come in. Not bother him. Nah, he’s just closing the door because he’s done that all his life. He might leave it open once in a while, but he’ll eventually get up to shut it. I’m sure that it still stems from being hunted for so long. You have to remember that Cooper was the oldest of us, and saw how the humans treated our kind a lot more than any of us. She said she’d not thought of that. I’m sure that if you asked him, he’d say he didn’t even realize he was doing it. I thought for sure that he was telling me to stay out of his domain. Lucas said that Cooper would never do that to her. I think that you’re right on that. I’ll work on that for myself.
So, you didn’t find your mate. I have to tell you, you were funny right after you were shot. I’ve never seen someone so hell bent on leather as you were to have a mate. I’m just glad that the doctor wasn’t her, by the way. She has three children and a husband that worships her. But she’s out there, Lucas. Don’t give up because of this. I want to see you happy—all my new brothers happy, as a matter of fact. I won’t. I promise. This was just a bump in the road, I guess. He looked around the room. I have a favor to ask of you. There are a lot of flowers in vases in my room. I’m going to be here for a few more days. Do you think you could arrange for them to be picked up and put out for the little creatures before they’re no longer good for them? Carson said she thought that was a wonderful idea. You remember that, so you can tell my actual mate what a guy I am. She was still laughing when the connection was broken
. He, like his brothers, loved Carson—hell, all the women in the family. They had taken his brothers to a level of kindness that he’d never seen before. Not that they’d not been kind before, but now they were more accepting of change and showing their affections. When his supper was brought to him, he was surprised to see the bag it was in was from one of his favorite all time restaurants. Opening it up, he read the note before digging into the food. Hey. Knew you had to be sick of the food there, so I thought of you when I was at Submarines this afternoon. If I can, I’ll have the rest of the guys bring you something better for each meal. Love you, little bro, Hudson. Opening the foil around the first of two subs, he was so happy to find that it was also his favorite—meatball. He could literally eat them for every meal. Biting into the crisp bread with the soft inside, he moaned when he also tasted the sauce and meatballs. If he kept getting food like this to be delivered, he might survive staying in the hospital. Not really, but it would make it slightly more tolerable. Lucas ate both subs and the large bag of cookies that were in the bag. He usually didn’t eat sweets that much—they were something that he really enjoyed but kept
himself from eating.
Now that he knew that he needed to be less stressed, he decided to enjoy food a little more. In moderation, he told himself. There wasn’t any point in over indulging too much—he’d burn out. Lucas lay back. Things were going to be better for him soon. ~*~ Micky ran each item over the scanner as the two women in her line spoke. Well, argued. The woman in line behind the person she was checking out was screaming at the first woman. Something about food cards and eating things like frozen pizza and other convenience foods. Micky didn’t care so long as no one killed anyone. Murdering someone had become the way people dealt with things that they didn’t like. If someone were to argue with someone, or even have a driver cut them off on the highway, the solution was to pull out a gun and kill them. It was one of the reasons that she didn’t drive. Another reason was that she didn’t own a car. Not that she couldn’t afford one, she told herself as the produce was weighed and bagged; she could. But that would mean dipping into her savings account, or any number of places that she had money stashed, and she wasn’t going to do that. Just as she was finishing up the groceries, the second woman totally lost her shit when the total for the first woman came to over two hundred dollars. “Why are you able to spend that much on groceries when I can barely afford to feed myself on what I make?” The woman she was helping didn’t engage but handed Micky the card that would pay for her food. “You have to answer me. I’m the one making it so you can have food on your fucking table, by God. I work my ass off so that you can laze around your house, eating whatever you can microwave or pop in a toaster, as your—” “You think I like being on this card? You think that I’m sucking on the tit of society?
Well I have news for you. If it were to bring my husband back to me, I’d surely give up being able to feed his four children and myself. He died for you and your freedom to have free speech. Well, right now, you can go and fuck yourself and your freedom of speech. I’m a mother of four small children that have no idea why their father isn’t coming home to us. I was suddenly thrust into being the head of a household that I’m barely holding on to, if you fucking care. And since going back to work just after giving birth to his fourth child, his little boy, his sisters and I are needing some help.” She looked at Micky with tears in her eyes and on her cheeks. For the first time since working here, Micky wanted to hug someone.
“I’m sorry, but you’ll have to help me trim this down. I didn’t realize that I’d gone over.” She’d gone over by twelve dollars. When Micky started to tell her she’d cover it, the man behind the two women spoke up. He told her that he’d get it, that it would be his pleasure. Everyone in the store had heard the exchange, she realized, when a few more people decided to help her out too. After Milly—that was her name—thanked them all, especially the first man, for helping her, she went to her car. But while she was loading up, the man, finally getting his turn to check out, asked Micky to hurry, as he wanted to give his cart load of food to Milly as well. Fourteen men and woman also donated, not just groceries, but cash. One
woman bought her a gift card, telling her that she might have bills that it would take care of. Micky was walking home that night when she thought of the woman. She wondered if it was a scam. She’d heard it had happened before. Not where she worked, but another grocery store. The person would stand in line and wait to be abused. Then when the shit hit the fan, so to speak, they’d have this sob story all thought out, so they could get not just food, but cash as well. Micky smiled. She needed to think of better things than scams. There wasn’t any trust in her either, not for human kind. She was human herself and she knew a great many shifters, but she didn’t trust. Anyone. She hadn’t always been like she was now. Micky had learned the hard way not to even trust family. She had two sisters and a mother that were around, but she never engaged with them, nor did she try and seek them out when she had time to visit. They weren’t people that she trusted either, especially her mom. Mariam Mantle was as shifty as anyone she knew.
So were her sisters; Me-Me—her nickname that she’d given herself— and Bethany. Me-Me’s actual name was Mariam too. Giving herself such a cutesy nickname was something that she had done to differentiate herself from their mom. Bethany hadn’t stood for any nickname. It had always been Bethany, which she supposed was the reason that Micky called her Beth. And Me-Me, she was called Mariam the Second. It was the small things that got her through. Micky’s apartment was small, but she loved it. It wasn’t in the best of neighborhoods, but it wasn’t that bad either. She could come and go as she pleased, and there was a front doorman, the landlord’s son, who wasn’t there more often than he was. Micky was glad for that too, since every time she saw him he bugged her to go out with him. There wasn’t any way that she’d go out with Sam Adams for all the money in the world. He was a jerk. Putting her smock up, she sat her purse on the table. She would have a sandwich and then sit on the couch until it was time for her to go to bed. Yes, she thought, you do have a sorry life lately. Micky thought of her life thus far. She had been engaged once. The man that she had fallen in love with had hung himself rather than spending the rest of his life with her. It had devastated her so badly that she had cut herself off from everyone and everything for a long time. Actually, she sometimes still had trouble with people. Micky turned on the light on to read a bit. At just after seven, someone knocked on her door. If it was someone begging for money for some campaign, or even Sam, she was going to go straight to the landlord and complain. This was just annoying. Opening the door, the man she saw standing there looked confused for several seconds before he spoke. “Mariam Mantle?” She said that she was Micky. And like everyone over the age of ten, he asked about her name.
“Are you really Micky Mantle?”
“So it says on my birth certificate. Mariam is my mother or sister; depends, I guess, on what the birthdate is.” He told her. “My mother then. She doesn’t live here. Never has, as a matter of fact. You have the wrong Mantle.” “I’m to serve her.” Micky told him that she couldn’t help him with that either. “You have no idea where your mother might be?” “Not if I can help it. And if I did know, I’d tell you. Someone needs to put her behind bars.” He asked her if she wanted to know what she was being served for. “Nope. Whatever she’s done, not paid for, or stolen, I had nothing to do with it. The only time I see her is when she’s breezing through town and needs a place to flop. Not that I allow that, but she tries.” “You don’t like her.” She said nothing, but he seemed to understand. “All right, Miss Mantle. I’ll try elsewhere for her. Thanks for your time.” Shutting the door, her phone started to ring. Micky thought that she was about the only person in the entire state with an actual phone. She didn’t have a cell phone, cable, or even a computer. But she had a phone that hung on the wall. Smiling, she answered it. “What do you have to say for yourself?” Mariam the Second, her voice as shrill and nasal as it could have been. “I asked you a question, Micky, and I expect an answer.” “You asked me what I had to say for myself. Since I haven’t any idea what this could be about, just tell me so that I can either tell you to go to hell or to fuck off. It doesn’t matter to me.” She heard Mariam’s sharp intake of breath and knew that she was going to scream at her about something.
“When you call the next time, make sure that you explain yourself better than you did this time.” Hanging up the phone felt good. She knew that it would be short lived, this feeling. It would piss off her sister to the point of her making a real nuisance of herself. So, when it rang again, she took her time answering it, waiting until the machine kicked in to take her message. Instead of answering it, like she’d planned, she let Mariam the Second rant. “You fucking bitch. Wait until I tell Mother what you’ve done this time. You are going to be in so much trouble.” Micky wondered if her sister realized that she was nearly twenty-five and had stopped caring what her mother had to say about her personal life when she’d been a teenager. “You need to bail out Bethany. I don’t know what they’re accusing her of, but she’s always been the nice one. You never have. She’s at county—” Micky was glad that there had been a timer on her machine. That way Mariam the Second had to call back. And she did so, three more times. The entire exchange could have just taken the one message, but Mariam the Second had to pull out all the stops and call her every name in the book. It might have been funny if it wasn’t so pathetic of her sister. When she called back the sixth time, Micky answered the phone.
Mariam was on a roll now and cursed at her again. Hanging up on her without saying a word, she waited until it rang once more before picking it up again. Mariam was much calmer this time.
“I want you to go to county lock up and pay to have Bethany gotten out of jail. This is all your fault anyway.” Micky asked her how that was possible. “You didn’t let her come and stay with you when she left her husband. The jerk was curtailing her spending. Like he didn’t have the money to burn.” “I didn’t even know Beth was married.” Mariam corrected her on the name and said that she’d been married last year. “Last year? Well, I guess by now she’d have it down pat on divorcing husbands. What one is this one? Four? Five?” “Seven. And what do you care for? It’s not like you send out Christmas cards or birthday cards. You’ve never sent one to my children, much less me.” Micky said that she didn’t care for her or her children. “What a horrible thing to say. My children are my life.” “I’m sure that they are. And someday they’re going to get life in prison for the way they act like rules don’t apply to them.” Mariam told her that they were exploring the world and that wasn’t a crime. “No, I don’t suppose you’d think so. But armed robbery and selling drugs, to most people anyway, is a crime. I guess you have your own set of rules, just like Mom and Beth do.” “It’s Bethany. And why shouldn’t we? We pay our taxes. We aren’t on welfare like most people that you more than likely hang with. Why shouldn’t we have a set of our own standards as to how we live?” Micky just laughed. “When can I tell Bethany you’re coming?
She’s been in holding all day, and she wants to go home.” “I’m not sure what you think I’m going to do, but I’m not paying to have her bailed out. You do it.” Mariam told her that her husband had put her on a budget, which didn’t include bailing her sister out. “I always knew that Michael was a smart man.” “I’ve not been married to Michael for nearly ten years. You should be ashamed of yourself for not knowing that. But my new husband, Neil Patterson, is a great deal smarter than I thought he was. I will be filing for divorce from him soon enough. I just have to stash away more money first.” Micky decided to find out who he was and let him know what his wife was doing. “Now that we’ve established that I’m not able to do it, that only leaves you.” “No, it doesn’t. And no, I’m not doing it. You’ll have to figure something else out. What did they arrest her on, anyway?” She told her. “Making a nuisance of herself? Yeah, well that does sound like something that Beth would do. Who did she bother? I’m sure that it was someone she wanted to accuse of something.”
“It’s Bethany, which isn’t that hard of a name to remember, Micky. Say it with me. Bethany. And she had every right to be there at her former home. She hadn’t been able to get her things out of the house before he had the locks changed. What a horrible man to do that to our sister.” “She’s only my sister when she or you want something. Same with you. I’m not going to do it. And don’t call here again. I won’t be answering the phone when you call.” Hanging up this time felt better than it had before. Taking the phone off the hook so that it would ring busy, she went back to her book and decided to just go to bed. Her family always landed on their feet, and this time, Micky knew, would be no different.
Going to bed, Micky knew that she wasn’t going to rest well. Whenever she had to deal with her family it was the same thing. She’d be all stressed out and her belly would rebel. Micky tried to count sheep and then name the presidents and their vice presidents. When neither worked, she got up to go to work. Today was going to be hard, she knew that. One or all of them would be looking for her. Micky decided at the last minute to leave her purse at home with her cards and money in it. All she had on her when she left was her lunch, having left her keys inside as well. There was a hidey key that she could get in with, so she felt like she was safe from them taking what didn’t belong to them. She told her boss about them as she clocked in. He said that he’d be ready for them. She hoped she was too.