Cindi Janis was worried. The murders had been all over the newspapers. Young, redheaded women were found murdered, too many to be just a coincidence. Cindi hadn’t heard from her Aunt Caroline in quite some time, and she fit the description of one of the victims. So did she, for that matter. A short trip to Ohio and Cindi could claim the body if it was indeed her aunt and get on with her life. But what she found when she got to Ohio wasn’t on her agenda.
Xavier Manning wanted to help; someone needed to go to the airport to pick up Miss Janis to get this nasty business of identifying the body out of the way. He hadn’t expected that the beautiful redhead getting off the plane was going to be his mate.
The killings were getting closer to home. Now that Xavier had his mate and she fit the killer’s profile, the pressure to solve these murders was ramped up. Would Cindi be next?
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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.
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.
Wynter Dawn had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. She had gone to the mall to get a well-deserved birthday present for her mother when all hell broke loose. She had taken four bullets herself, but too many others had died. Now, the police were trying say she was an accomplice and pin the blame for the others’ deaths on her. They were going for the death penalty.
Tristan Manning had never met Wynter before, but when Xavier rescued her from the courthouse, Tristan was called to Cooper’s home. When he arrived, the dragon tattoo, the one he’d had since birth, came alive and was clawing his way forward. The pain was excruciating. When he entered the room, Wynter was screaming in pain as her dragon tattoo was doing the same. When the dragons came forth in a burst of magic, both Tristan and Wynter passed out.
Eric had been tasked centuries ago with killing any and all newborn dragons before the eggs could hatch. But somehow he’d missed one and he needed to rectify that there would be hell to pay….
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The plane landed on time, but the cool air after being in the warm jet was almost too much. Even the wind here felt so much more brutal. Cindi had made arrangements to have a car rented before leaving home and was dismayed to find out that the order had not been filled. Not knowing what to do, she saw her name on a piece of cardboard and walked to the two men holding it up. “That’s me. I’m Cindi—with an I, by the way. How did you know that I’d be coming in today?” The older man told her his name, then introduced her to the younger man. “I’m glad to meet you in person, Mr. Green. Is there something wrong with your son?” “He’s not my son. I love him like one, but he’s only a good buddy of mine.” Mr. Green poked Mr. Manning in the ribs. “What’s with you? She’s been talking to you.” “Ms. Janis, I’m sorry. I was caught off guard for a moment.” Cindi stared at him. His bright pink cheeks were cute, but she wasn’t into men right now. She had too much going on to have some overgrown man think she was going to be some kind of plaything. “You should be aware right away that I can read your mind.
I’m sorry about your not being into men, but I’m your mate. Do you know what that means?” “Yes.” Cindi knew enough about mates to know that they were going to be stuck with each other no matter how much she didn’t have it in her to be a slave to anyone. When he grinned at her, she thought of all the things that she had to deal with. “Can I be taken to where the body is? I’d like to know before her daughter gets here.” “Of course. It’s not that far from where we are. Also, I’ve made arrangements for your staff to have an open line of credit to replace or repair anything in the Ivy. One of the men on the cleanup crew is a friend of mine.” She asked if there was much to take care of. “No. But with you and your staff living there full time, I thought that it should be as safe as it can be. Nothing major, but he did have to redo the floor in the kitchen, and a couple of the appliances were outdated. It’s a good solid building. You got a good deal on it.” Cindi thanked Mr. Manning as they made their way to his car. “I know you must think I’m stupid for buying something without even looking at it. But if this is my aunt, then I’d like to know that we can have a place to stay without having to drive back and forth from Columbus.” Mr. Manning told her that she wasn’t stupid at all.
“Rash then. I assure you, I don’t make many rash decisions.” “I believe you, or you’d not have taken your parents’ businesses and made them more profitable, as well as going green as much as you can. I don’t want you to think I’ve been stalking you, but I knew your grandmother when she was younger.” She didn’t say anything to him about that. Her grandma was in her nineties, and this man, perhaps in his mid to late thirties. “I’m much, much older than I look. I’ve also made sure that your luggage is taken directly there. There is a car at your disposal too. My brother Cooper took care of that for you. We all wanted to make sure that your stay here is easy on you.”
“I don’t know what to say. Thank you. About my staff. When they’re finished with the clean-up, most of them will be returning to the place where they work. But I’d like to have a nice meal with them someplace that doesn’t take a large bus to get us there.” He told her that he had a home. “I’m sure you do, Mr. Manning. But how about if we take this one thing at a time?” “What I meant by that is, I have a large home with plenty of staff available that could accommodate a large party. They’re on call in the event that I need them, but they don’t need much in the way of advance notice. Anyone of my brothers also have houses that could do that for you as well. But it’s up to you if you would feel more comfortable with one of them letting you use their home.” She didn’t know what she wanted to do at this point and walked to the car that was just pulling up in front of the little airport. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Stop reading my mind.” Mr. Manning said that he would do that, but only if she would talk to him. “Fair enough. My aunt is Caroline Janis—she goes by Carol. She was here a few days ago when she called me at home to tell me where she was. I’m not sure why she was in Ohio. When she’s writing a book, she goes to the places she’s writing about rather than just looking it up.” “I have a couple of her books at home. I had no idea when I heard that this person might be her that she was the writer.” They were in the car by then, and Mr. Green was in the back. “The funeral home has prepared the body for you to view. I don’t know how…damaged she is, so if it’s too much for you, just let me know.” “I speak to the dead. I usually can see them only moments after they’re dead. Few of them are in good shape when they die, so I’m used to seeing blood and such.” He pointed out that she was not related to them. “True. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s the reason I couldn’t contact her if this person is my aunt. By the way, how was she found?” “Grace could feel her. No, that’s not right either. Grace is an artist, and she gets her ideas from a muse. That’s what she calls him, Muse. When someone on the other side comes to Muse, somehow Grace has a need to paint them. Sort of like a lifeline of their life up until their death.” Cindi asked if her name was Grace Manning. “Yes, that’s her. You’ve seen her paintings then.” “I have. And now that I can put the two of them together, I can understand what you mean. So my aunt somehow contacted her muse, and that made it so that she could be found.” Xavier said he thought that was the way it had gone. “She was found in a cave, they said—the police, when I called here. What would she have been doing in a cave?” “I haven’t any idea. But you should know that your aunt wasn’t the only woman that has been killed the same way. If this is her, I mean.” Cindi told him that she’d read up on it coming here on the plane. Xavier glanced at her a couple of times as he drove. “I don’t want to alarm you, but you could be a victim as well. Red hair, slim build. It’s the same with the other women.” “How do you know that it’s not from a bottle?” He said that he could tell. “Must be a shifter thing, I guess. What are you, anyway?”
“I’m not a shifter. I was a dragon before I was able to be a man. We were being hunted, our kind. My mom gave her life to protect us. My dad did the same, giving up his life to change us into beings that could blend in with humans.” Cindi told him she was sorry. “I don’t remember my mother much. My dad? I have vague memories of him. I think because I was so young when they both died, as well as it’s been thousands of years since they both died.” “I lost my parents not long ago. They were killed in a plane crash on the runway. Another one skidded out of control and hit theirs in the gas tanks. My brothers and I, we saw it happen as we were still waving goodbye to them.” Xavier said he was sorry too, and she looked around when he parked. “I don’t know if I want to know right now. I mean, should I wait for my cousin? Should I see and then tell her what happened to her? I want to know, but I don’t either.” “I can understand that. If you’d like to put it off until tomorrow, that’s fine. Or, if you have a picture of her, I can go in and check for you. I’ve known the Wilsons for a long time, and he’d allow me to check for you.” Cindi stared at him, then glanced back at Mr. Green when he said he’d do it for her. “If you’d rather wait, I can bring you and your cousin back tomorrow, and we can do it then.” Cindi got out of the car. So did both the men. She needed to know. “If I put this off until tomorrow, I know that I’ll never get any sleep because of worrying.” Mr. Green said that he’d go in with her. “I hate to sound like I’m a wimp, but could you both go in with me? I’m terrified that it’s her. Actually, I’m sure that it’s her.
While she wasn’t the best aunt, or even mother, in the world, she was still a relative.” “Of course we’ll go on in with you.” Mr. Green went up to the door and waited for them. Cindi turned to Xavier. “I suppose you have a comment about my behavior?” He asked her what she meant. “I’ve been around shifters all my life, Mr. Manning. I know they have opinions on a great many things that are none of their concern. What is yours of me and dealing with this?” “First of all, I’m very proud that you want to get this over with. If I were in your shoes, I’d want my entire family here with me. Just to hold me upright. Secondly, I don’t know the shifters that you do, but I can tell you right now, I’m nothing like them. I’m calm and enjoy my own company rather than that of a person that likes to talk all the time. Foster has been quiet today, but he’ll talk your arm off if you allow him to. And third?” He pulled her into his arms. Nothing sexual about it, just a comforting hug that Cindi hadn’t known that she needed until that moment. “Don’t judge me by others, please. I’m a good man. A man who, as your mate, hurts as badly as you do for the suffering that you’re going through. I would never, not in all my life, belittle you for having feelings for anything. Understand?” “Yes.” She pulled away from him, and he let her. Cindi wasn’t sure why the thought of going back into his arms sounded so appealing, but she could have spent the day just being held by him. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.” The building was lovely, with an old world look as if the owner had kept it up over the years rather than letting it go to pot, like so many other buildings that she’d seen. As
soon as she walked in the door with Mr. Green holding it for her, Cindi smelled flowers and other sweet-smelling things.
There was no odor of chemicals like she had expected. “Ms. Janis. I’m so sorry that you must do this. I’ve been assured by the police department that your aunt did not suffer overly much. I’m so sorry for your loss.” Cindi shook her head, not sure what to say to the man. She watched as Xavier took Mr. Wilson aside. When they both came back, Mr. Wilson apologized for his words. “I hadn’t realized that it wasn’t confirmed as yet if she is related to you.” “Thank you.” She looked at Xavier and thanked him too. “Would you please go with me? I don’t want to impose or anything.” “It’ll be my pleasure to help you with this.” She nodded and followed the funeral director to a little set of stairs. “Be careful of these steps. In the winter months, they get a little slick.” She did slide a little but caught herself from falling on her ass. Xavier didn’t make fun of her, nor did he seem pissy when he helped her the rest of the way down. Even her brothers would have teased her greatly if they had been with her. The room she was in was small, but Cindi thought it had a great deal to do with the man standing behind her. He was big, but he didn’t encroach on her space. When Mr. Wilson said he’d be right back, she saw the curtain to the area she was staring at move. Reaching for his hand, Cindi was happy when Xavier not only took hers into his own but held her to his side as the curtain was moved back. With Xavier at her side, she walked to the now open area. It took her a few seconds to realize that a person was there. When she saw what was left of the woman’s face, Cindi cried out. Just as she was falling back, she was scooped up and pulled into strong arms. “It’s not her. It’s not Aunt Caroline.” Xavier told her over and over that he had her.
And for whatever reason, she knew that he did really have her. As he held her, she let the sleepless night, the fear that she had, and the terror that she’d felt coming here settle over her, and Cindi did something she rarely did. She fainted. ~*~ Xavier put the cell phone back on the bedside table and sat in the chair by the bed. Cindi had been resting for the last several hours, and he didn’t have the heart to wake her. So he’d not only answered the phone when it rang for her, but he’d been able to talk to each of her brothers about the woman in the funeral home. Each of them was so relieved to know that their aunt was still out there. But the last call had been from Blair Owen, their cousin. He thought about what she’d asked him while he kept an eye on Cindi. “How do you know that it’s not my mom?” Xavier, always a patient man, told her for the fourth time that Cindi said that it wasn’t. “I don’t want it to be her—you understand that, don’t you? But where is she if not—? Shit. That sounded almost like I wanted her dead, so I would know where she was. I didn’t mean that.”
“I know that, Ms. Owen. You’re stressed out, and you’re coping. I think you’re doing very well with all this.” She thanked him. “Cindi is still resting. Is there anything that I can tell her when she wakes? I think she had herself convinced that it was going to be your mom as well.” “I think we all did,” Xavier told her that he could also understand that. “You’re a very nice man. I hope so, anyway. The young woman that is— Do you know if they have any clues as to who she might be?” “No. I know that one of my sisters-in-law has taken her fingerprints. We’re just waiting to find out if they get something back on them. It does help to narrow it down to know that it’s not your mom. I’m very happy for you all.” Blair seemed distracted, and when she told him to hang on, he did so without any question. When she came back, he asked her if everything was all right. “Yes. My cousins, Cindi’s brothers, are here, and they’re telling me that they spoke to you already. I’m sorry about that, Mr. Manning.” He told her to call him Xavier. “That’s very kind of you. Daniel, one of Cindi’s brothers, is making arrangements for us all to come there. They’re thinking that Ohio was the last place that we knew where Mom was, so we’ll start there. Is that all right?” “Absolutely. I’ll talk to Cindi when she is up and around and let her know. You need anything, you just call me.” He gave her his cell phone number. “I’ll be there with Cindi to pick you all up when you land. Just let us know when you’ll be arriving. I’m so happy things turned out well. The Ivy is coming along nicely, too, so you shouldn’t have any trouble once you’re there.” “What a lovely name for a bed and breakfast. The Ivy.” Xavier could have told her why it was called that, because of the miles and miles of ivy that hung from the porch, but he knew that they’d figure it out when they arrived. “I’ll call Cindi later and let her know what I’ve got scheduled. Thank you again for making sure that my cousin is all right. I don’t know what any of us would do without her.” He’d not told any of them that Cindi was his mate.
Honestly, Xavier didn’t know why he’d not mentioned it. Several thoughts circled in his mind, but mostly he wasn’t sure if telling them was something they should do together or not. Pissing her off so early in their relationship was something that he wanted to avoid as much as possible. At noon Carson came to see him. She told him that she’d gotten back the fingerprints from the Jane Doe and that they had a name now. He didn’t ask her who it was. She might have told him, but he really didn’t want to know it right now. It would make it sadder for him to have a name attached to the poor young woman. “I’ve put out a search for her family. The autopsy was performed, so we know a little more about her. Not a great deal, mind you, but more than we did before. We know she had at least one child, but nothing much more. Well dressed.” Xavier asked if she’d had a wedding band. “There is a small indentation on her finger for one, but I think she’s not worn it for a while. There is no tan line. Also—and this one I find very strange. When the medics took her away, they found her purse, with all her identification gone, under her. There wasn’t a tube of lipstick or even a hairbrush in her purse.
There might not have ever been. I know most women have both those items within reach all the time.” “Is that consistent with the other women?” Carson told him that it was, but nothing had been taken from her. “You mean a trophy, don’t you? Did he take anything from the other women?” “No, nothing from any of them, so there are no apparent fetishes. I just wanted to come by and give you an update. Let us all know when Ms. Janis wakes up. Maybe she can think of things about her aunt that would help us locate her.” She left right after that. All his family had been over since he’d brought her home several hours ago. They’d sit with him for a while, then leave. Each of his brothers thought it was necessary to bring him food. As he looked over the number of subs that he had, he wondered if he could freeze them for later. Just as he was reaching for one of them, Cindi spoke. “I could eat a horse right now. You don’t eat them, do you?” He told her he’d not for a very long time now. “I’m guessing that grocery stores make it a lot easier for you to find fresh meat when you want it.” “It does. Occasionally we have to hunt down a little girl or two, just for the sweetness, but I don’t do that often either.” She smiled at him. “You’ve been asleep for about eight hours now. I’m not saying that you passed out, you’ll notice. However, you sure did scare poor Foster. He nearly keeled over and bit the big one. His words, not mine.” “He told me when I first talked to him that he’d been dead before and wasn’t now. I didn’t even think of how strange that is until right now.” Xavier told her how he’d done them a good turn. “Do I even want to know what that was? Did he, I don’t know, find you a dozen virgins to eat for some strength that is going to scare the shit out of me?” “Doubtful much scares you. But no. He lived in my house, you see. As a ghost. When the previous owner was—well, we’ll call it taken care of, Foster had the book hidden away that belonged to my kind. The book of dragons.” Cindi sat up but didn’t move off his bed.
“To have him around all the time was his gift for helping all of us. Another gift was given to him as well. Not only did he get to speak to his wife, who forgave him for being labeled a thief, but he also gets to talk to her at midnight. He only stole things to feed his family.” “I’m assuming that you guys are pretty powerful.” He said that they were. “And with all this power, what sort of consequences are there when you use it? There seems to be a tradeoff for using magic, from what I heard.” “I don’t think it works like that for us. We don’t deal in black magic at all. My family and I give a lot back to those that help us. More so to the kids than to the adults.” She asked him what he did for a living. “I invent games for computer systems, as well as all the platforms that are out there. I’ve also written a couple of books. I tend to do whatever catches my interest. However, being as old as I am, there isn’t much out there anymore that captures my attention for very long. I think that’s why I invent games for people to learn about history, science, as well as other languages.”
“That’s wonderful. I run several businesses and work too much. I’m stressed out all the time by trying to be as good as my parents were.” She smiled. “That’s not quite true. I do work a great deal. I don’t stress about being able to do a better job than my parents. They were who they were when it came to running a business, and I do things my way.” “If that makes you happy, then I’m sure they’d be very proud of you,” Cindi said she thought that they might be. “If you are hungry, these are pretty fresh subs. However, I do want to warn you, they’re more than likely hotter than you’re used to if you enjoy spicy stuff.” “I love spicy stuff. But I don’t think my stomach could take spicy right now. I’m still thinking about that woman.” When Cindi shivered and stood up, so did he. “Do you think I could have something light? I don’t know what that would be, but nothing too heavy for me. Later I’ll show you how much heat I can handle.” The thought of her handling heat made his cock stretch, but he didn’t say anything to her. They were getting along nicely, he thought and didn’t want to mess that up. He might later on, but for now, he was happy to let her pace them into a real relationship. Following her down the stairs, he pointed out some of the things that he’d been doing to the house. There were still a couple of rooms that he’d not touched yet. Since he did enjoy cooking, Xavier made her a grilled cheese sandwich as well as some tomato soup, neither of which, he was sure, had been in the refrigerator after he’d gone to the grocery. Putting out the hummus and the chips he’d gotten, Xavier wasn’t the least bit surprised to find that it was one of her favorite snacks.