HOARDING SECRETS

Hoarding Secrets, an urban fantasy / paranormal romance and the third book in the Dragon Spirit series by C.I. Black

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HOARDING SECRETS
A Dragon Spirit Novel: Book 3

She can’t remember. He can’t forget.

Once a powerful warrior, Grey’s greatest battle now is with his out-of-control magic. What empowers him to remember everything also threatens to imprison him in his most horrific moments. He yearns for peace, but with the dragon sorcerer, the Handmaiden, missing, he has nowhere to turn. So when someone ransacks the sorcerer’s chambers, he agrees to investigate, hoping he’ll find her. What he didn’t count on was having to work with an agent of the Dragon Court, who instantly captivates and soothes his writhing memories but endangers everyone he holds dear.

Tortured with a lack of memory, Ivy wakes each day not knowing who she is and having to learn again and again that she’s the servant of an insane prince. All she wants is freedom. When she’s assigned to the case of the Handmaiden’s chambers and encounters Grey, she realizes she can use his secrets to force him to help her escape… if she can just ignore how he makes her feel.

But they soon discover the Handmaiden has hidden a dangerous, powerful magic and the first key to finding it has been stolen. Now they must put their desires aside and race against time, risking everything, to save dragonkind and each other.

PROLOGUE

Her heart pounded in a thrumming tattoo that ratcheted her nerves and sent ice sweeping into her gut. She didn’t recognize the simply adorned pink floral bedroom she’d just awakened in, didn’t know where she was, had no idea how she’d gotten there, and all she wore was a tank top and underwear.

Her panic snapped stronger and her grip tightened on the blanket. Someone had undressed her. Someone had taken her and stripped off her clothes while she was unconscious. She—

Her pulse stuttered.

She. There wasn’t anything after she. She knew she was a she, and knew within her fragile human flesh curled the spirit of a green dragon. Anything more clung to the back of her mind, murky, viscous, and out of reach. It spoke of power and strength and a soul-rending ache, an emptiness so consuming it threatened to steal all breath and thought.

No. She shoved the blanket back with a growl.

She was stronger than this. She couldn’t explain how she knew, but she did, and she mentally clawed at the darkness within her. If she just concentrated, tore into the darkness, she’d remember. And when she did, whoever had taken her, stripped her of her clothes, her memories, even her name, would know the truth about abducting a dragon.

She jerked off the bed. Across from her sat an old-fashioned dresser — the only other piece of furniture in the room — complete with swirling scrollwork, stout legs ending in feet carved into the shape of dragon claws, and a tall mirror, captured on either side with wooden dragon tails. A hint of blue fire danced over its surface, flaring stronger when she thought about it, but it didn’t burn her, nor did it help her figure anything out. Her reflection didn’t help, either. Nothing jumped to mind, and she didn’t recognize the woman staring back at her with large dark eyes. They should be green. That’s what she was. Green, earth, life—

She blinked, but the woman didn’t change into a dragon. She remained human, with straight dark hair cut an inch above her shoulders in a sharp, clean line. Her pale skin held a hint of a blush indicating good health — for whatever that was worth — but it wasn’t green protective scales. She drew her hands up, examining her small, clawless digits in the reflection. Too small. Everything about her was too small, too delicate.

Her thoughts whirled. How could she be human? She was a dragon. That truth lay in the core of her being. Green drake.

And broken.

That darkness at the back of her mind shuddered, teasing her, reminding her she didn’t know her name let alone who had done this to her, or how she’d gotten in this strange, pink floral bedroom with only a green tank top, a pair of black panties, and a gold locket hanging around her neck.

Her gaze dipped to the reflection of the locket. Lockets held things. Maybe there was a clue inside.

Yeah, and maybe she was grasping at straws. If the locket didn’t hold answers, she needed to move on, find clothes, and get the hell out of wherever she was. She could find answers about who she was once she knew she was safe.

She grabbed the locket, an oval the size of her thumbnail and barely thick enough to hold anything inside. More of the strange blue fire burned around it, brighter than what enveloped the dresser. Only one word, only two letters long, was engraved on both sides.

“Si,” she read out loud.

Lightning exploded in her head and a blinding blue flashed across her sight. Her knees buckled, and she grabbed the dresser to keep standing.

Ivy.

Her name was Ivy. And for hundreds of years she’d woken every morning not knowing who, only what, she was. Fleeting, hard to grasp images of her with a different human body — many different bodies — shot through her. But she couldn’t hold onto them long enough to look at them, only to know that she’d been someone else before and that it didn’t really matter. She was Ivy now, and she had the ability to read the memories of objects.

The thought came with a mix of relief and pain. Relief that now, in this body, she didn’t have to start fresh every morning like she’d done for the hundreds of years since dragonkind had lost their dragon-forms in the Great Scourge. This body gave her a life, hope — albeit a small hope — for a future. The locket, along with her magic, was a lifeline, a way to keep herself sane, and not become soul sick every hundred years, needing to be reborn again and again.

But that hope was mixed with fear. A gut-churning knife of ice sliced into her soul. Her hope was her imprisonment. Regis, Prince of the Dragons, had discovered her power and claimed her as his own. She was too valuable for another coterie to have and she could never leave the Dragon Court. He’d capture and rebirth her before letting her go, and she’d be faced with the bleak emptiness of not knowing her friends or even herself until the insanity of soul sickness possessed her and her soul was stripped to its core and shoved into a new human body. Keeping her allegiance with Regis, a drake who’d rather see her dead than happy, was her only way to keep her tenuous grasp on that little bit more that kept her sane.

CHAPTER 1

A woman screamed, and Grey’s grip on the deck chair’s arms tightened.

It wasn’t real. It was a God damned memory. That was all.

Except that wasn’t all. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t control it. The memories — and he remembered everything — kept devouring reality and dragging him back into reliving every horror and regret in his over two thousand years of life.

The pressure in his chest squeezed tighter. A crowd of as-of-yet unseen people yelled and jeered. The woman — she’d been so kind to him — sobbed. Impossible sunlight, since it wasn’t even dawn yet, flashed on water, blinding him.

He squeezed his eyes shut, determined to shove the memory back where it belonged.

In the here and now, he sat outside, in the dark, on Nero’s patio on his estate on the outskirts of Newgate. It wasn’t late afternoon. He wasn’t in that Spanish village. And it wasn’t 1527.

Heat swept through him, and sweat beaded on his face and along his neck as he fought to control himself.

It shouldn’t be this bad. The Handmaiden had enspelled his seething memories to the back of his mind less than a month ago. Her magic lasted longer than that. Months. Sometimes close to a year.

The light flashed in his eyes again even though they were still closed, and the sobs grew stronger, the pitch deepening, growing masculine and multiplying.

Smoke swept around him and a cold blast of air hit him in the face, making his eyelids fly open. Ruined muddy ground pocked with the violence of warfare stretched before him, and broken and bloody bodies surrounded him, the horrific result of a massacre. Gunfire popped to his left and the thwump of cannons boomed farther away.

He clenched his jaw, clenched everything, desperate to push it all back and get in control. God, why couldn’t he just remember the good times? There’d been lots of good times. He wouldn’t mind succumbing to those memories.

As if summoned by the thought, the thwomp of cannons turned into the drums and the final chords of the movie Dark Angel. He’d loved that movie, loved all movies. He’d hoarded stories, scratched onto parchment or printed and bound into books, but he hadn’t realized what really called to his soul until those tales were captured on film.

Yes. Remember those, all of those stories, all of his hoard back in his suite at Court. But his surroundings remained murky, revealing only a hint of the alley he’d stepped into to get from the theater to the all-night diner sliding into focus.

Shit.

His throat tightened even more, and sudden agony seared across his neck. He couldn’t catch his breath, couldn’t move beyond the pain. The reek of rotten food wafted around him and rain rattled against a windowpane.

“How fast can you heal?” a voice hissed and the alley fully solidified around him, dark and damp, a narrow space wide enough for a garbage truck to pick up the diner’s refuse.

Not fast enough.

It was never fast enough. He was weak, crippled by memories that attacked his sense of reality at every moment. And a weak drake was a dead drake.

Except he wasn’t dead. Hunter had saved him in that alley and then avenged the attack. And the Handmaiden continued to weave her magic into his mind and ease the agony his so-called earth magic inflicted on him.

But now both Hunter and the Handmaiden were gone.

He had no idea when either would be back and the reality of just how dependant he’d been on both of them hit with terrifying clarity. He shouldn’t have been relying on them in the first place.

It was just so hard to focus, to stay in the here and now, without her. And so hard to hope for any kind of a future without friendship — and after that assassination attempt in the alley, Grey had withdrawn until Hunter had been his only remaining friend. He could trust Hunter. Grey didn’t really know about anyone else.

“Come on, drake,” the voice from that night in the alley hissed. “Show me what you’ve got.”

But Grey didn’t have anything. Blood pumped from his neck, hot between his fingers. Every breath was an agony. The moment he moved they’d take his head. Any attack would be useless. He was useless.

God damn it.

A roar bubbled in his throat. He wasn’t useless. He held the memories of all of dragon history and was one of a few drakes remaining who could still recall the Great Scourge. Heck, he remembered times before the Scourge when drakes were predators hunting from the sky.

He wasn’t weak. He was a dragon, and it was time he started acting like one.

He roared in full and wrenched from the chair, somehow finding the strength he hadn’t had sixty-four years ago to punch at the drake who’d slit his throat.

The drake jerked back. “Jesus, Grey.”

“Not this time.” Grey swung again. He’d never been useless, and he was tired of hiding. If he’d learned anything in the last few weeks, it was a rediscovery of the drake who’d gone on five crusades with Hunter, lived as a mercenary for two centuries, roamed the world, and fought in numerous human wars. Yes, he yearned to forget, but he was still a dragon. And while a change of body would eliminate the magic that never let him forget, in dragon law that was illegal and it wouldn’t be the clean slate he’d get from being reborn — also not an option, because the Handmaiden was missing. Which left him with fighting his magic and staying strong… no matter how exhausted he was.

The drake in front of him vanished with the whoosh of a gate. Another gate whooshed behind him, and Grey whipped around.

The world tilted. The nighttime alley vanished, turning into a starlit, partially snow-covered deck with a biting cold that stung his cheeks. The assailant materialized out of the darkness, with swarthy skin, dark eyes, and long black hair. Diablo. Friend, not a foe.

Shit. Grey bared his teeth, unable to fully rein in his aggression. Adrenaline still pounded through him, and his throat still burned with the memory of that vicious slice.

Diablo’s eyes narrowed. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.” But Grey’s breath misted around his head with too-fast exhalations, belying any truth that he was fine. Shit.

Diablo cocked an eyebrow, accentuating the sculpted cheeks of his body’s Native American heritage.

“Gee, I don’t know,” Grey said. “The Handmaiden is missing, Hunter has gone off to find her leaving his newly inamorated human sorcerer to figure out her wildly out-of-control powers by herself while dealing with the emotional strain of being separated, Regis has locked down Court, and it isn’t safe for me to go home—”

A soft giggle carried through the darkness from the solarium.

“And the drake you’ve been pining over for… what? A good couple hundred years? Has found her inamorato and is still in the honeymoon stage.” Diablo opened the patio door and stepped into one of the estate’s many living rooms.

“Thanks for reminding me.” Grey had carried a crush for Capri for longer than he’d wanted to admit, but the blue drake had never returned his feelings. Now he knew why. They weren’t destined for each other. She’d found her inamorato and — with the destruction of her house — had temporarily moved, along with her lover, into Nero’s mansion.

Diablo flicked on the light, shrugged out of his winter jacket, and headed to the bar. “Don’t you have your own place?”

“Don’t you? It’s four in the morning. You’re wearing the same clothes from yesterday. I wouldn’t expect you to come here to do the walk of shame.” Grey sagged into an armchair by the door. “There are children living here, for goodness’ sake.”

“It’s five, and this isn’t a walk of shame. I have a meeting with Nero at six.” Diablo poured three fingers worth of Nero’s good scotch into a glass then reached for another glass.

“None for me.”

“It’s happy hour somewhere in the world. If you like, we could gate there and drink.”

“You heal too fast for it to do anything.”

“I like how it tastes.” Diablo took a slow sip. His gaze settled on Grey, and he frowned. “Really. You look like shit. Yeah, you can’t go back to Court, but why are you here? You’re old enough to have more than a dozen places scattered over the planet.”

Capri giggled again.

Jeez, Grey had never thought she was a giggler — and if he told her that to her face, he was sure she’d shoot him just to prove him wrong.

“Why are you here torturing yourself?” Diablo asked.

“Anaea’s power is getting stronger, and her control isn’t keeping up. She felt it was safer to stay here than be alone at her and Hunter’s house.”

“So you stay.”

“I promised Hunter.” At least this promise to Hunter gave him purpose. It might have dragged him out of Court’s safe interdimensional sphere and into the human realm, not to mention endangered his life a number of times, but it gave him purpose. That and Court wasn’t safe any more for any drake and certainly not for one who was clearly aligned with Hunter — Prince Regis’s number one enemy.

“When this is done, Hunter is going to be in debt to you up to his eyeballs.” Diablo dropped with predatory grace onto the sofa across from Grey. There was something dangerous about Diablo, more so than any other drake Grey knew, as if the dragon soul trapped within Diablo’s fragile human body was bigger, meaner, than other drakes.

The light caught on something shiny smeared along the neck of his black T-shirt and a spray of drops down his chest. It hadn’t been noticeable on Diablo from the other side of the room, but now, at the right angle—

“Is that blood?”

Diablo glanced down at his shirt and shrugged.

“I didn’t think you had a line on any more human mages.”

“I didn’t. Walk of shame, remember.”

“Jeez, tell me it’s your blood and not some human woman’s.”

“What if it was consensual?” Diablo flashed a wicked grin.

“I don’t want to know, and I’m pretty sure Nero doesn’t, either. You might want to change before your meeting.”

“That was my intention before I saw you needed a drink.” Diablo downed his scotch in a swift gulp.

“I feel much better, thanks.” The shadows at the edges of the room billowed. Grey tensed, concentrating on the blood splatter on Diablo’s shirt. Stay in the present. Just stay, at least until Diablo leaves. He couldn’t risk letting Diablo or anyone know how weak he really was.

Diablo stared into his empty glass then blew out a heavy breath. “Don’t ask me, but I’m sure everyone else in this house would be happy to help you get your shit together.”

“My shit is just fine.” Grey flashed his teeth in a half-hearted show of aggression.

“So you say.” Diablo stood and the reek of rotten food filled the room and far away, a telephone rang.

Grey’s throat burned.

The ringing grew louder.

Diablo pursed his lips.

Just go already, so I can go crazy in private.

“How fast can you heal?”

Someone screamed… or was that the phone ringing again? The alley flickered over the living room then melted back into the shadows.

Another ring… scream?

Diablo’s frown deepened. “Are you going to get that?”

No. It’s just a memory. It wasn’t real—

But if Diablo could hear it—

Crap. It was his phone.

The ring came again, and Grey pulled his phone from his pocket. Please let it be Hunter and he’s found the Handmaiden. He looked at the call display and his chest tightened. The number listed was Tobias’s, which meant no relief from the memories and more than likely some kind of mess with Court that could get him killed.

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