Dragon's Curse (Harlequin Nocturne)

With a life on the line, a beauty and a beast must join
forces in Denise Lynn’s scintillating romance….

Only the threat of losing her brother could force Ariel
Johnson to break out of her predictable existence and into the stronghold of a
changeling’s ancestral estate. Following him from a mystical island to a remote
Appalachian resort, she’s trapped between sibling loyalty and an unquenchable
desire for a lover who is both beast and man.

But when Cameron Drake’s inner beast is awakened by the
beauty he would claim for his perfect mate, his human side is not so easily
convinced—for he knows Ariel is in the pocket of a sorcerer who wants his family
dead.

There are no easy choices for a woman who has yet to embrace
her power within. And when love is wrapped in a curse, all will pay to
play….

“You are in a betting mood, aren’t you?”

Ariel’s heart jumped at his words. If he kissed her now she
would be in trouble. “Isn’t this what they call sexual harassment in the
workplace?”

“Perhaps.” His breath was seductively warm. “But I’m positive
this will completely cross that line.” He hooked his free arm behind her waist
and slid her lower body tight against his.

They were alone. In his lair. If he didn’t back off now,
there would be no stopping his beast. So he ignored the dragon’s demands and
issued one of his own: “Why are you here, Ariel?”

Rather than answer she shook her head and got to the crux of
the present matter. “Seducing me will gain you little.”

He took his time trailing his gaze to where their bodies met.
Returning his focus to her face, he smiled. “Who do you think you’re
fooling?”

Books by Denise Lynn

Harlequin Nocturne

Dragon’s Curse #140

Harlequin Historical

Falcon’s Desire #645
Falcon’s Honor
#744
Falcon’s Love #761
Falcon’s Heart #833
Commanded To His Bed
#845
Bedded by Her Lord #874
Hallowe’en Husbands #917
“Wedding at Warehaven”
Bedded by the Warrior
#950
Pregnant by the Warrior #978

DENISE LYNN

Award-winning author Denise Lynn has been an avid reader of
romance novels for many years. Between the pages of books she has traveled to
lands and times filled with brave knights, courageous ladies and never-ending
love. Now she can share with others her dream of telling tales of adventure and
romance.

Denise lives with her real-life hero, Tom, and a slew of
four-legged “kids” in northwestern Ohio, USA. Their two-legged son, Ken, serves
in the USN. You can write to her at P.O. Box 17, Monclova, OH 43542, or visit
her website,
www.denise-lynn.com
.

Dragon’s
Curse

Denise Lynn

Dear Reader,

I’ve missed you at the Lair during our long phase of
renovation. Thanks for stopping by once again. A lot has happened since last we
met—while Braeden and Alexia found and protected the emerald dragon pendant, and
began translations of the family’s ancient grimoire, there are more dragons to
be found, more pages to bring to life.…

And more secrets to share.

While you’re here, keep an eye on Cam and Ariel—their
“mating” dance is quite entertaining at times. It’ll be interesting to see who
can outfox whom.

Enjoy your stay, but beware, not just of the sharp swords,
but of Ariel’s stun gun. It’s a highly charged weapon and she knows exactly how
to use it—just ask Cam.

Take care,
Denise Lynn

For my sister, Cheryl—I freely bequeath to you all of Cam’s
magic, may it serve you well.
Much love, always.

Chapter 1

Mirabilus Keep—Isle of Mirabilus—Current
Year

D
ragons don’t
exist.

Ariel Johnson reassured herself of that simple fact for the
hundredth time as she tossed the wire cutters back into the duffel bag.

It didn’t matter that for all her childhood she’d dreamed of
dragons. Those dreams had been nothing more than the wild imaginings of a child.
In reality there were no dragons.

They just simply don’t exist.

She slid a charged stun gun into the holster beneath her vest
then shimmied through the hole she’d cut in the chain-link fence. Her watch
vibrated against her wrist and she ducked, hiding her face in the ground. She
would wait until the timed spotlight swept the area before quickly racing for
the shed off the west wing of Mirabilus Castle.

Nine days ago, she’d stood at her younger brother Carl’s
hospital bed. She’d stared at his numerous injuries and the bullet wound. Guilt
left her with one question at the forefront of her shocked mind—how could she
have let this happen to him?

Even now, after she’d had several days to digest what had
happened and why, her head still pounded with worry and she was sick to her
stomach with the knowledge that it all could have been avoided.

And while mothering a nineteen-year-old was nearly impossible
to do, especially when he no longer wanted a mother, she should have kept a
closer eye on him—paid closer attention.

Since their parents’ untimely deaths five years ago, Carl had
become her responsibility. His welfare and safety were in her hands. Seeing him
so helpless, so vulnerable, was tangible proof of her failure.

Ariel’s watch vibrated again, startling her out of her painful
misgivings. She ignored the throbbing of her head to rush across the darkened
open space of ground and then ducked behind the far side of the shed to wait for
another pass of the spotlight.

She wiped beads of sweat from her forehead. Her heart beat
frantically with fear at what she was about to do. Her stomach churned harder
than it had these last several days.

When their parents had died, Carl had just turned fourteen.
He’d been frantic about their future in the way only a teenager could—dramatic
and highly emotional. She’d promised over and over that they would be fine.
She’d sworn to take care of him no matter what.

Through the years there’d been a few problems, but nothing the
two of them couldn’t solve with a conversation over pizza.

During those talks, when night sometimes turned into day,
they’d shared so many dreams and plans for their futures. After finishing
college she was going to spend a few years working, gaining experience, and then
open her own software company. Carl was going to use his inborn ability working
with machines and electronics to open a repair shop next door to her. They were
going to succeed together.

But dreams sometimes had a way of fading beyond reach. She had
finished college with a degree in systems and landed a job as a project manager
in a computer department at a local manufacturing plant.

Lately, however, she’d been so busy working—just trying to make
ends meet, that she hadn’t paid much attention to what Carl had been doing.

She’d soothed her guilt by telling herself that he’d graduated
from high school and for the most part was capable of caring for himself.

She hadn’t realized that he’d fallen in with the wrong group of
people. Now, because of her inattention, his life was in grave danger.

There was no one else to blame—this was all her fault. No
matter how many hours she’d had to work, or how adult he thought he’d become,
she never should have let those Thursday-night pizza sessions lapse.

Upon learning about what had happened to Carl, she’d been, and
still was, determined to do anything to make it all up to him. She’d quit her
job to fulfill her responsibilities to her brother. Once this was over and Carl
was safe, she’d find another one.

While she had never counted on risking her life for him, she
would. She had to—it meant saving his life and having the opportunity to make
things right.

Ariel took a deep steadying breath, before moving to the front
of the shed. She pressed the door latch, thankful that it was unlocked. Once
inside, she reached out in the dark, located the shelving unit and pulled it
away from the back wall.

Her hands shaking with fear and frustration, Ariel grazed the
damp wall, feeling for a horizontal crack in the stone. Unable to locate the
crack, she nearly cried from the overwhelming failure.

She paused for a moment to shake off the gathering coldness of
doom. Fighting to regain a sense of purpose, Ariel straightened her spine and
slowly inhaled a long, deep breath and then traced the width of the wall again.
Finally, after the third pass, she detected the barely perceptible gap. Just as
she’d been instructed, she followed the fissure with a fingertip until it made a
ninety-degree bend.

Ariel traced the crack for two feet, pausing before she pressed
her hand hard against the stone, to the left of the slight gap.

Her breath hitched with relief as the wall moved beneath her
touch. The door swung slowly open. It scraped across the dirt floor and she
paused, listening for any sign that someone had heard the sound.

She froze, barely breathing, certain she’d be discovered and
hauled off to jail before she could complete her task.

When nothing but the steady lapping of water from the beach
broke the silence of the night, she slipped through the narrow opening. Cold,
damp, stale air brushed across her face. She held her breath and stepped into
the corridor behind the hidden wall then flicked on her flashlight.

With a cursory glance at the inside of the movable wall, she
made a mental note of the latch’s location—she didn’t want to fumble for it on
her way out. After sliding the wall closed, Ariel followed the corridor,
brushing spiderwebs aside with a shudder as she made her way deeper inside this
hidden maze.

Carl had been forced to share what little information he knew
about this secret room with his new employer, Jeremy Renalde—an extremely
wealthy and powerful thief, from what Ariel could tell. Since Carl hadn’t yet
come out of his coma, the information about this chamber had been gained through
a psychic.

At first, when Mr. Renalde had explained the process to her,
she’d scoffed at the idea. She’d also scoffed at the idea of her breaking into
Mirabilus. Yet here she was, looking for a puzzle box and jewelry, while staying
on guard for dragons.

She didn’t really believe in dragons. At least not the
mythical, flying, fire-breathing kind. The beasts were nothing but folklore and
dreams—an obsession she’d never been able to explain.

Her parents had indulged her when she’d been a small child by
filling her bedroom with toys and posters of dragons. But when her fascination
hadn’t waned as she’d grown older, they’d insisted she set aside her childish
fantasies and focus on things that truly existed.

It had been difficult, had felt as if she’d been cutting off a
piece of herself, but to a point she had followed their orders. School, college,
then work and Carl had left little time for feeding fantasies, and somewhere
along the way her dreams of dragons had slipped into nothing more than childhood
memories.

Mr. Renalde had only laughed at her disbelief. He had assured
her that she would soon discover just how wrong her parents had been in their
thinking.

So now, with less than sixty grueling hours of training,
learning to use the stun gun, operate the one-person life raft and desperately
trying not to scream as she jumped from a perfectly good helicopter into the
water below, she had become a criminal.

The only thing that kept her from walking away was her
certainty that Renalde would carry out his threat to kill Carl if she didn’t
bring him what he wanted. From the moment she had met the man, she’d been
overwhelmed with a dire sense that he was more than a thief. She had little
doubt that the man was a cold-blooded killer who would snuff out her brother’s
life without an ounce of remorse.

Finally, the corridor opened into a round chamber. She panned
the room with the flashlight. Beneath layers of dust, more spiderwebs and grime
were assorted containers, manuscript pages and maps littering every available
space.

How was she supposed to find anything in this mess?

A breeze ruffled some of the papers on the small writing table
in the middle of the chamber. Ariel froze and feared she was no longer alone. A
sudden whoosh of sound sent her ducking behind a large wooden chest as she
turned off the flashlight.

She chanced a quick glance around the chest. The hair on the
back of her neck rose and her heart slammed against her rib cage. It was too
dark to see anything, but she heard the heavy ruffling of what sounded like
wings and the scraping of talons on the stone floor.

Had Mr. Renalde been correct about this, too? Did a mythical
beast truly exist?

The urge to shine her flashlight on whatever had entered the
chamber was strong, but the will to stay alive kept her from flipping the light
on.

A chandelier overhead suddenly illuminated the room. She
slapped a hand over her mouth to mute a gasp, as candles flickered to life and
the shadow of a beast fell across the floor.

Wings folded against the long, sleek body before it turned in
her direction. In that split second—before terror numbed her mind—she swore the
beast smiled at her.

She’d laughed at Renalde when he’d warned her of the beast’s
existence. She’d fully expected to find some oversize lizard. That would have
been frightening enough.

Ariel struggled desperately for breath against the hard beating
of her heart. This was no lizard.

This…this…monster was not some frolicking imaginary friend that
filled the dark, lonely hours of the night. It was not a dragon of her childhood
dreams. Instead, with its great size, scales and lethal teeth, it was a creature
right out of some late-night horror movie. One that usually killed the villagers
before some reluctant warrior hero dispatched the brute.

But, there was no warrior hero at hand.

Ariel’s shaking knees threatened to give out beneath her. She
lunged from her squatting position to her hands and knees, quickly crawling
backward—as fast and as far away from the beast as possible.

The pebbled, hard, dirt-packed floor bruised her knees and legs
through the black military-style pants she wore. Her palms scraped across the
floor, leaving trails of blood in their wake. Ignoring the self-imposed abuse,
she scrambled to the far side of the chest.

Ariel silently cursed her trembling hands as she fumbled while
trying to retrieve the stun gun from her holster. Unable to free the weapon, she
swallowed a scream of desperation and closed her eyes.

Dragons don’t exist, Ariel.

Her parents’ words whispered in her mind. This wasn’t
happening. It was a dream. She tried to convince herself that when she opened
her eyes, she would be back in London, sitting in a plush office. Better yet,
she would be at home, still believing all was well and normal.

Hot, moist air brushed across her cheek, chasing away her last
thread of hope.

Of all the gruesome deaths she could imagine, Ariel didn’t want
to die like this. She fell forward, her hands clasped together, facedown on the
floor, begging, “Please. Please, don’t kill me.”

With her eyes still tightly closed, she heard the beast’s
scraping movement, then what sounded like the rustling of clothes and the
metallic scratch of a zipper.

Confusion swirled into the fear. She raised her head and opened
her eyes. Instead of a beast, she saw a man.

In that split second before cloth covered his muscular back,
she swore she saw a glittering iridescent dragon etched along one shoulder blade
that stretched before settling into place.

Frozen in place, Ariel blinked as the chamber was once again
cloaked in darkness.

“You can come out.”

His deep, raspy voice, an odd mixture of human and something
not quite human, promised danger—and so much more.

“If I was going to kill you, I’d have done so by now.”

Something in his tone beckoned her to trust him. Ariel shook
her head, fighting to ward off the increasing urge to obey his summons.

She couldn’t permit herself to be that foolish. Not if she
wanted to live. She
had
to live—her brother’s life
depended on her. Instead, she once again reached toward her holster, hoping this
time she’d be able to free the charged weapon. Before she could even touch the
stun gun, strong fingers clamped around her wrist.

Ariel shivered. The saying that life passed before one’s eyes
at the moment of death was true. It did—at a dizzying pace. Every mistake she’d
made, each regret she carried close to her heart, flew through her mind in a
flash.

As she drew in what would certainly be her last breath, the
man—the creature—the changeling pulled her to her feet. They were surrounded by
a darkness so black she couldn’t see the end of her nose, but she sensed his
nearness.

The sensual warmth of his body next to hers meant he was far
too close. The feel of his breath against her cheek made her fear he’d consume
her in a blaze of fire.

But instead of breathing out fire, he inhaled slowly, as if
taking in her scent. His lips brushed her temple, making her heart thud even
harder—faster, as he suggested, “You might want to run before I change my
mind.”

Ariel clutched the flashlight to her chest, realizing in that
moment that he had released her wrist. Without a second thought, she turned and
in the dark, raced blindly down the corridor. She bounced off the damp walls,
but didn’t slow her pace until she reached the door.