I’ve decided to do an installment release for the first book in my next series, Dragon Mother. These chapters will be unedited and certain elements may differ from the final draft, but I hope you enjoy it!
Fate has a funny way of walking into everyone’s lives. For me, fate strode into the town’s pub wearing a dark cloak and a sexy smile.
I wasn’t at the pub to down a few drinks and wallow in my sorrows, though if there was anywhere in my hometown to do that it would be there. The ancient building was rumored to have been the first structure built in the region, and had been filled with more laughter, brawls, and bawdy behavior than all the university frat houses combined. It was a place where everybody could go to learn the latest news around town and rest their weary feet before another doldrum day at work.
I couldn’t do that. The pub was where I worked.
That night was like any other. Well, other than it being Friday and the end of a month. That meant the paycheck money flowed more freely and more people crowded the dimly lit, open-rafter room. The heady walls of solid oak smelled of cigars long smoked and drinks long spilled as I swung around the tables with my hands full of beer mugs.
“Hey, Diana! When you gonna serve us?”
I dodged a scooted out chair and almost spilled the contents of one hand over another patron. “When I’m done with this dance I’ll go join yours.”
A young woman at one of the more crowded tables turned her nose up at me and scoffed. “If that’s dancing then the sky is green.”
That was Victoria Pierce, the richest brat in town. Her usual entourage of yes-men surrounded her like moths to an expensive flame. They were attracted not only to her money, but her raven-haired beauty and beautiful body, courtesy of strong genetics and a penchant for hiking in designer boots up the many hills and mountains that surrounded our tourist-focused town.
The crowd at her table crowed with laughter and some pounded the top with their palms. Their glasses danced their own dance and some of the mugs tipped over, spilling the contents into their laps. Cries rang up from the table and laughter from the other patrons of the pub as the wet people leapt up and glared at their friends.
“Stop wasting the drinks!” the bartender shouted.
I couldn’t hide my smile as I swooped through the tables and delivered the mugs to some thirsty customers near the front door. The man and woman had the look of wide-eyed tourists, and the whiff of a romance in more than the budding stage. A map of the area lay on the table in front of them, haphazardly opened to the foothills of the nearby mountains.
The man smiled at me as I set the beers down. “Do you happen to know the area?”
I wiped my hands on my apron and grinned at him. “Born and raised. What do you want to know?”
He turned to his lovely companion and his smile softened. “My fiance was wanting to know the location of Lover’s Pool.”
I tapped the map in front of them over the spot. Even the topographic showed the obvious shape of a heart in the features. “That’s not an easy hike.”
The man wrapped his arm around his beloved and grinned. “We like a challenge.”
“Don’t bother asking her about the places,” a voice spoke up, and the woman from the table appeared in my view. Her aim was the coke machine set against the wall near the front door, but she leaned her side against the box to face us and folded her arms over her chest. A wicked smile played across her lips and her eyes danced with malice. “She hasn’t been to any of them.”
The visiting woman frowned at Victoria. “Well, neither have we, but if anyone can show us the trial we’d appreciate it.”
“Oh, I know all the trails because I’ve hiked them,” Victoria bragged as she looked over the map. “Now let’s see here. . .” She scanned the topographic features as though they were runes to be deciphered. After a strenuously long time she wrinkled her nose and pushed the map back at them. “Get another map. This one doesn’t have any of the trails.”
The man smiled at his lovely companion. “We were hoping to go off-trail and get there by the path less traveled.”
Victoria shrugged. “Then I can’t help you.” She left, having not retrieved a pop from the machine. I suspected her saunter over here was a ruse to show off.
I turned back to the couple and nodded at their map. “I could show you an old glacier trail. Not many people use it, though, so you won’t find any beaten path, but the forest service has marked some parts of it for experienced hikers to use.”
The woman grinned. “That sounds perfect for us.”
I was at the end of explaining the route, an ancient one which followed the scarred edge left by a retreating glacier, when the door unexpectedly and quickly opened right beside me. The portal bumped into my rear and knocked me a little off my balance. I stumbled forward, but a strong arm caught me.
“I’m so sorry.”
The voice was deep, but melodious. I turned around and my jaw hit the floor. An incredibly handsome man stood behind me. He was about a head taller than me, with short sandy hair and bright blue eyes. His features were muscular, but there was a tenderness about the jaw line that showed he wasn’t as hard as a rock. He wore a cloak over a black turtle-neck sweater and thick jeans, and hiking boots adorned his feet.
“Are you alright?”
I had to shake off my stupor, but managed a smile. “I-I’m fine.”
He grinned and released me. “I’m glad to hear that. If you’ll excuse me.”
For once in my long bar-hopping career I was disappointed when the customer strode up to the bar and took a seat on one of the stools. More than one pair of eyes watched his movements, and Victoria had an obvious case of curiosity.
The bartender strode over and nodded at him. “What’ll ya have?”
“A glass of red wine, or white, if you have that.”
“Sure thing. A glass of white.”
Victoria slid out of her seat, but her boyfriend caught her hand. I couldn’t overhear what he said, but his look was one of annoyance. She glared back at him and shrugged off his hold before she strolled over to the handsome man. A cat-like smile curled onto her lips as she took up the seat beside him.
“I don’t remember seeing you before.”
The stranger smiled at her. “Because you haven’t.”
“I think we can find our way.” The woman’s voice shook me from my rude staring. Her eyes glistened with mischief as she jerked her head toward the bar. “I’m sure you have other things to do.”
I winced. “That obvious?”
The man laughed. “That every woman in here is looking at him? Yeah.”
His own companion nudged him in the elbows. “I’m not, now hush. And you-” She gave my hip a push in the direction of the bar. “Go on before that shark eats him.”
I snorted. “I’m not really looking for a guy.”
She gave me a wink. “Then maybe a guy’s looking for you, now shoo before I order something.”
I laughed and gave a lazy salute. “Yes, ma’am.”
I strolled over to the table that had earlier asked for attention, picking up a few empty mugs along the way. The table was as close to the bar as any other, and I was able to keep one ear on the stranger while the other ear took the orders.
“Come for the hiking?” the bartender, a large, friendly-faced man of fifty by the name of Bill, asked the stranger as he set the wine glass in front of him.
The newcomer took hold of the glass and smiled. “Something like that. I’m a. . .an historian of sorts.”
“Really?” Victoria cooed as she batted her eyelashes at him. It was her signature ‘cute’ move. “I love history!”
He raised his eyebrows. “Then you know about Dragon’s Hill?”
She shrugged. “Sure, who doesn’t? It’s not much of a challenge to get up the path, but it’s a good start for some of the tourists.”
The stranger cast a curious look at the bartender. “I believe your town has a rather old tradition of running up Dragon’s Hill on a moonlit night.”
Bill shrugged. “Never heard of it.”
I finished my ordering and scooted around the bar to fetch the drinks. Most bartenders wouldn’t tolerate a waitress behind the wood, but Bill didn’t mind when there was an interesting conversation to be had. “I think he’s talking about the hill climb, Bill. The one that happens during a blood moon and ends at the rock shaped like a dragon.”
The stranger nodded. “Just that.”
Bill’s eyes widened. “That one? I’m surprised somebody like you’d know about it. Not many locals have even heard of it.”
Victoria shrugged. “Probably because it hasn’t been done in, like, forever.”
“One hundred years.”
The stranger and I had spoken at the same time. I grinned and he smiled. “You know your history, Miss-?”
“Just Diana,” I assured him as I filled a few mugs.
“And I’m Victoria,” the aforementioned woman spoke up as she scooted closer to the stranger. Their arms touched, and she looked into his eyes with a promise of a bed and a long night. “What’s yours?”
Her hand flew to her mouth. “Luca! What a beautiful name!”
Her boyfriend’s grumblings floated over to us as the entire pub listened in on our conversation. “For a dog. . .” A roar of laughter rose up from the crowd.
Victoria shot him a look of death. “Shut up, Doug!”
The stranger himself chuckled. “I suppose it is. Would anyone be interested in resuming that tradition, at least this once?”
“Why would anyone want to be running up there during a full moon?” someone spoke up.
Luca turned to face the room and leaned his back against the bar. “For the sheer joy of it, though I’ll wager none will succeed.”
Doug pointed his thumb at himself. “I’ve gone up there a bunch of times. There’s nothing tough about that trail.”
“There’s supposed to be, at least during the blood moon,” I spoke up as everyone listened. “Nobody’s supposed to be able to reach the top unless they’re-”
“-strong of heart and free from fear,” Luca finished for me with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. He swept those eyes over the rapt audience. “Who is willing to join me on that excursion tonight?”
A few mumblings arose from the crowd, but nobody jumped up. Victoria wrinkled her nose. “That doesn’t sound very exciting.”
Luca bowed his head and chuckled. “Perhaps it isn’t, so I’ll make a wager. The first person to reach the dragon statue receives this.”
He reached into his cloak and drew out a sparkling golden crown.