The squeal came from a gaggle of older women who followed the lead of a young scrawny man. At the sight of the royalty, however, they abandoned their guide and rushed over. We found ourselves surrounded and gawked at by the admiring eyes.
One of the women offered me a gentle smile. “You must be the pretty Mother we’ve heard so much about. We’re looking forward to the Consummation in a few days.”
“It’s why we traveled fifty miles to get here!” another chimed in.
I cast a side look at Luca and lifted an eyebrow. “Consummation?”
Luca cleared his throat and lifted his arms above his head. “Ladies, I welcome you to my city and hope you enjoy your stay. For now I will leave you in the care of this young gentleman-” He used a hand to gesture at the guide, “-and hope to see you again.”
I frowned at the dragon man. “What’s this about-hey!”
Luca swept me into his arms and wiggled his way through the crowd. He rushed us down the steps as the women crowded about the columns. Luca opened his wings and flapped hard. Everyone in the square stopped to gawk at us as we took off, creating a soft cloud of dust beneath us. We were airborne in a minute and flying over the patchwork city.
I glared up at Luca who faced ahead. “What’s this about a consummation?”
He didn’t meet my accusing look. “Merely a formality.”
“Uh-huh. One that involves sheets?”
“Only the kind worn about the shoulders.”
“And after that?”
The corners of his lips twitched upward. “Then no sheets are required.”
My eyebrows crashed down so low they almost fell off my face. “Listen, bub, there wasn’t anything in that hill-climbing contract about hanky-panky.”
His eyes dropped to me and I froze. There was a distinct sensual heat in them that excited me more than I cared to admit. My own body reacted in kind as a thrill of warm ran up my back. I set my hand against his firm chest to push myself a little further away, but a soft growl escaped his lips.
I couldn’t explain it, but some secret voice deep inside me told me there this feral man, this dragon creature, had been lurking beneath the surface since the very moment we first met. I was bother flattered and flustered. His intentions were clear, and my own body wasn’t helping matters.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and tamped down the heat in my body. “N-now listen here, dragon man. I’m not just a piece of sexy meat you can carry around out of cold storage. Whatever your customs are about wooing females, I’m not ready to jump into your nest egg.”
The feral look in his eyes faltered, and then vanished to nothing. He stared ahead again and pursed his lips. “I’m sorry. I should have warned you from the beginning.”
I frowned. “About what exactly?”
Luca turned his face away. “About your reason for being here, but that is a long discussion that must wait for another time. We’re almost there.”
I looked ahead of us and watched the castle come closer. A large balcony on one of the lowest levels looked out over the circular courtyard at the front base of the imposing structure. Luca landed us there and set me down.
He kept a gentle grasp on one of my hands and I turned to face him. “I have to find the key before the dwarf king decides to renovate parts of my city. You’ll be safe inside the castle.”
I gave his hands a squeeze. “Then I’m coming with you.”
He shook his head. “I can’t guarantee your safety, and I’ve already done enough harm to you that I won’t allow any more to come to you.”
I frowned. “I’m a big girl, and besides, you’re the only one I know from here.”
Luca looked past me and at the pair of white doors that led inside. “Here comes someone you may trust.”
I turned to watch an older man of a height over six feet walk through the doors. He wore a red robe that accented his extreme pallor. His age appeared to be within a decade of Methuselah, on his left hand was a signet ring that featured a red rose. He appeared to not so much walk as float over the stones, and he stopped a few feet away from the door and bowed his head to us.
A man of darker complexion followed the robed gentleman, and I noticed a slight similarity between Luca and him. The eyes were the same, what with that strange tinge of green, and the nose was similar.
Luca set his hand on the small of my back and led me over to them. The tall man lifted his head and revealed a pair of eyes so devoid of color that they appeared almost white. He offered me a hand and a smile, and when he spoke I noticed he had a slight accent in his words. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss-?”
I gave him my hand. “Bray. Diana Bray.”
He wrapped his fingers around my hand, but made no attempt to put my hand to his lips like I expected. “You have a warmth about you that is most becoming, Miss Bray.”
The young man at his side grinned. “Don’t I get a chance to kiss the hand of my cousin’s lovely bride?”
Luca stepped up to the man’s side and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Diana, this is Cassius Luminare. As he mentioned, he’s a cousin of one of the more gift branches.”
Cassius laughed. “You flatter me, cousin, but compared to my father I am a mere parlor trickster.”
“You have far enough skill to perform the task I entrust with you now,” Luca insisted as he rested his gaze on me. His smile softened and he used his free hand to gesture to me. “Miss Bray is in dire need of protection.”
The old man nodded. “We were informed of the kidnapping attempt, Your Highness, but unfortunately the men responsible remain elusive.”
Luca pursed his lips. “I suspect it’s the Trulio gang. I captured one of their ilk, but magic prevented him from speaking.”
Cassius grinned and patted one side of his breast. “I might be able to make him talk.”
Luca shook his head. “That’s impossible. The magic burned away his body.”
The old man frowned. “That is quite unusual for pirates to have such magic.”
Cassius nodded. “I agree. They usually look down on suicide missions like that, preferring the motto ‘live to thief another day.’”
“The reward must be worth disregarding their motto,” Luca mused as he sidled up to my side. He slipped his hand around one of mine and smiled at me. “But regardless, you’ll be safe here with them until I return.”
I frowned, but the pig-headed look in his eyes told me arguing would have been pointless. “You just take care of yourself. I’ve got too many questions to ask you for you to up and die on me.”
He lifted my hand to his and pressed a light kiss on the back. “Your wish is my command. I’ll return as soon as I can.”
Luca released me and turned away. He sprinted across the balcony and flung himself over the edge. My heart leapt like he did and I raced to the tall wall that surrounded the balcony. Much was my relief as I watched his flying self glide over the rooftops and disappear into the jungle of buildings and trees. I grasped the railing tightly in my hands and bit my lower lip.
A few whispered words left my lips. “Don’t you dare not come back. . .”