“Ember, when did your parents die, and what was the cause of death?”
I stifled a groan and tore my gaze from the car window, where the bright, sunny town of Crescent Beach shimmered beyond the tinted glass. The air in the black sedan was cold and stale, and annoyingly, the driver had engaged the child safety locks so I couldn’t roll down the window. We’d been stuck in the car for hours, and I was itching to get out of this moving prison and into the sun. Outside the glass, palm trees lined the road, and charming villas shared the sidewalk with weathered gray shacks advertising food, T-shirts, surfboard wax and more. Just beyond the pavement, past a strip of glistening white sand, the Pacific Ocean shimmered like a huge turquoise jewel, teasing me with its frothy waves and countless beachgoers splashing freely in the glittering water.
“Ember? Did you hear me? Answer the question, please.”
I sighed and settled back against the cold leather. “Joseph and Kate Hill were killed in a car accident when we were seven years old,” I recited, seeing the driver’s impassive gaze watching me from the rearview mirror. Beside him, Mr. Ramsey’s dark head bobbed in affirmation.
I squirmed against the seat belt. “They had gone to see a Broadway musical, West Side Story,” I continued, “and were struck by a drunk driver on the way home. My brother and I went to live with our grandparents, until Grandpa Bill developed lung cancer and could no longer take care of us. So we came here to stay with our aunt and uncle.” I snuck a longing gaze out the window again, seeing a pair of humans on surfboards, gliding down the waves. My curiosity perked. I’d never gone surfing before, not in my dusty little corner of desert. It looked nearly as much fun as flying, though I doubted anything could compare to soaring the air currents, feeling the wind in your face and beneath your wings. I didn’t know how I was going to survive the summer completely earthborn. Humans were lucky, I thought, as the car sped on and the surfers were lost from view. They didn’t know what they were missing.
“Good,” muttered Mr. Ramsey, sounding distracted. I imagined him scanning his ever-present tablet, scrolling through our files and background. “Dante, what is your real objective while in Crescent Beach?”
My twin calmly pulled his earbuds down and hit the pause button on his iPhone. He had this uncanny ability to zone out to music or television and still know exactly what was going on around him. I did not have this talent. My teachers had to smack me upside the head to get my attention if there was anything remotely distracting around. “Observe and blend in,” he stated in his cool, unruffled voice. “Learn how to engage with humans, how to be human. Assimilate into their social structure and make them believe we are one of them.”
I rolled my eyes. He caught my gaze and gave a small shrug. Dante and I weren’t really twins, not in the truest sense of the word. Sure, we were the same age. Sure, we looked very similar; we had the same obscenely red hair and green eyes. And we’d been together as far back as I could remember. But we didn’t come from the same womb. We didn’t come from a womb at all, really. Dante and I were clutchmates, which was still highly unusual because our kind normally didn’t lay more than one egg at a time. Making us strange, even among our own. But Dante and I had hatched together and were raised together, and as far as anyone was concerned, he was my twin, my sibling and my only friend.
“Mmm.” Apparently satisfied that we had not, in fact, forgotten the made-up backstory drilled so deep into my head that I could recite it in my sleep, Mr. Ramsey went back to scrolling through his tablet, and I went back to staring out the window.
The ocean receded, the sparkling horizon dropping from view as we turned off the main stretch and entered a subdivision with impressive white and rose villas lining the streets, surrounded by perfectly manicured lawns and palm trees. Some of these dwellings were truly enormous, making me stare in amazement. I’d never seen such huge houses except on television, or in the documentaries the teachers made us watch years ago, when we were first learning about humankind. Where they lived, how they acted, their behavior and family units and language―we’d studied it all.
Now, we would be living among them.
Excitement rose up again, making me even more impatient. I wanted out. I wanted to touch and feel and see the things beyond the glass, to finally experience it. My world, up until now, had been a large underground facility that I never saw the outside of, then a private school in the middle of the Great Basin, with no one around for miles, and only my brother and teachers for company. Safe, protected, far from prying human eyes…and possibly the most boring spot on the face of the planet. I squirmed against the seat again, accidentally hitting the back of the chair in front of me.
“Ember,” Mr. Ramsey said, a note of irritation in his voice, “sit still.”
Scowling, I settled back, crossing my arms. Sit still, calm down, be quiet. The most familiar phrases in my life. I was never good at sitting in one place for long periods of time, though my teachers had tried their hardest to instill “a little patience” into me. “Patience,” stodgy Mr. Smith had told me on more than one occasion, “is a virtue that holds especially true for your kind. The best-laid plans are never conceived in a day. You have the luxury of time—time to think, time to plan, time to calculate and see everything come to fruition. Talon has survived for centuries, and will continue to survive, because it knows the value of patience. So what’s the blasted hurry, hatchling?”
I rolled my eyes. The “blasted hurry” was that I rarely had any time that was truly my own. They wanted me to sit, listen, learn, be quiet, when I wanted to run, shout, jump, fly. Everything in my life was rules: can’t do this, don’t do that, be here at this time, follow the instructions to the letter. It had gotten worse as I got older, every tiny detail of my life regulated and laid out for me, until I was ready to explode. The only thing that had kept me from going completely nuts was the day I turned sixteen. The day I would “graduate” from that isolated corner of no-man’s-land and, if I was deemed ready, begin the next stage of training. I’d done everything I could to be “ready” for this, and thankfully it must’ve paid off because here we were. Observe, assimilate and blend in, that was our official mission, but all I cared about was that I was out of school and away from Talon. I’d finally get to see the world I’d studied all my life.
The sedan finally pulled into a cul-de-sac of smaller but no less elegant villas and rolled to a stop in front of a driveway in the very center. I peered through the window at the place that would be home for an indefinite length of time, and grinned with excitement.
The structure looming above us sat across a tiny lawn of short grass, scrub and a single palm tree encircled in brick. Its walls were a cheerful, buttery yellow, the tiled roof a deep red. The top floor had huge glass windows that caught the afternoon light, and the front door stood beneath an archway, like the entrance to a castle, I thought. But best of all, through the gap between the house and its neighbor, I could just make out the silvery glint of water, and my heart leaped at the thought of the ocean right in our backyard.
I wanted nothing more than to yank open the door, jump out and go sprinting down the sand dunes until I hit the ocean waiting for me at the bottom. But Mr. Ramsey, our official escort for the day, turned in his seat to eye us, particularly me, as if he knew what was going through my mind. “Wait here,” he said, his rather large nostrils flaring with the order. “I will inform your guardians you have arrived. Do not move until I return.”
He opened his door, letting in a brief, intoxicating rush of warmth and salt-drenched air, slammed it behind him and marched up the worn brick path to the waiting villa.
I drummed my fingers against the leather seat and squirmed.
“Wow,” Dante breathed, peering over my shoulder, craning his neck to see the whole house. I could feel his presence behind me, his hand on my back as he steadied himself. “So, it’s finally happening,” he said in a low voice. “No more private school, no more getting up at 6:00 a.m. every single day, no more being stuck in the middle of nowhere.”
“No classes, no study hall, no evaluators dropping by every month to see how ‘human’ we are.” I grinned back at him. The driver was watching us, listening to us, but I didn’t care. “Sixteen years, and we finally get to start our lives. We’re finally free.”
My twin chuckled. “I wouldn’t go that far,” he murmured, gently tugging a strand of my short red hair. “Remember, we’re here to blend in, to study the humans and assimilate into the community. This is just another phase of training. Don’t forget, at the end of the summer, we start our sophomore year of high school. But more important, our real instructors will show up, and they’ll decide where we fit into the organization. This is a brief respite, at most, so enjoy it while you can.”
I made a face at him. “I intend to.”
And I did. He had no idea how much. I was tired of rules and isolation, of watching the world go by without me. I was tired of Talon and their endless string of policies, laws and restrictions. No more of that. The summer was mine, and I had big plans, things I wanted to do, before it ended and we’d be forced back into the system. This summer, I was going to live.
If I was ever allowed out of this stupid car.
The front door opened again, and Mr. Ramsey waved us forward. But instead of disengaging the child locks, the driver himself got out of the sedan and opened the doors for us. Of course he let Dante out first, and I almost slid across the seat to exit the car behind him. I was literally bouncing with impatience by the time the driver walked around to my side and finally let me out.
When my feet hit the ground, I stretched both arms over my head and yawned, breathing in the sun-soaked air, letting it warm my skin. I already loved how this place smelled. Ocean and sand, surf and hot pavement, the sound of distant waves caressing the beach. I wondered what Mr. Ramsey and my future guardians would say if I blew them all off and went skipping down to the ocean without looking back.
“Ember! Dante!” Mr. Ramsey stood in the shade of the archway, beckoning to us. I sighed and had taken one step toward the trunk to get my bags when the driver stopped me.
“I’ll bring in your luggage, Miss Ember,” he said solemnly. “You go on up to the house.”
“Are you sure? I can get it.” I stepped forward, holding out a hand, and he cringed back, averting his eyes. I blinked and stopped, remembering that some humans in the organization—the ones who actually knew what we were—were afraid of us. Our teachers had told us as much; though we were civilized and had slipped perfectly into human society, we were still predators, higher up on the food chain, and they knew it.
“Come on, sis,” Dante called as I stepped back. He stood at the edge of the walkway with his hands in his pockets, the sun gleaming off his crimson hair. He already looked perfectly at home. “The sooner we meet everyone, the sooner we can do what we want.”
That sounded good to me. I nodded and followed him up the walk to Mr. Ramsey, who ushered us into a charming, well-lit living room. Through the large bay windows off to the side, I could see a rickety picket fence and, beyond that, the beach, a long wooden dock and the ever-tempting ocean. A pair of humans stood in front of a green leather sofa as we came in, waiting for us.
“Ember, Dante,” Mr. Ramsey said, nodding to the pair, “this is your aunt Sarah and uncle Liam. They’ll be taking care of you until further notice.”
“Nice to meet you,” Dante, ever the polite one, said, while I hung back and observed our new guardians curiously. With a few distinctions, all humans looked basically the same to me. But our teachers had instructed us that it was crucial to see the differences, to recognize the individual, so I did that now. “Uncle” Liam was lanky and wind-burned, with russet hair and a neatly trimmed beard peppered with white. He had a stern face and unsmiling, swamp-water eyes that swept over us critically, before he gave a short, brisk nod. “Aunt” Sarah was plump and cheerful looking, her brown hair pulled into a neat bun, her dark eyes watching us with hawklike intensity.
“Well,” Mr. Ramsey said, tucking his tablet under an arm. “My job here is done. I’ll have Murray deliver your bags to your rooms. Mr. O’Conner, you know who to call if there is an emergency. Ember, Dante…” He nodded to us, fixing me with a firm glare. “Obey your guardians. Remember your training. Your evaluators will be in to check on you in three months.”
And, just like that, he swept from the room, out the front door and was gone. He didn’t say goodbye, and we hadn’t expected him to. Sentiment was not a big thing among our kind.
“Ember and Dante Hill, welcome to your new home,” Uncle Liam announced, sounding like he’d done this speech before. He probably had. “I’m sure your instructors have informed you of the rules, but let me remind you, in case you forgot. While you are here, Sarah and I are your guardians, thus we are responsible for you. Meals are served at 8:00 a.m., noon and 6:30 p.m. You are not required to be home for mealtimes, but you are to call to let us know where you are. You should already have the numbers memorized, so there is no excuse not to. Talon has provided you with a vehicle—I understand you both have driver’s licenses—but you must ask permission before taking it out. Curfew is strictly at midnight, no exceptions, no questions asked. And, of course, the most important rule.” His green-gray eyes narrowed. “Under no circumstances are you to Shift into your true forms. And you are never to fly, for any reason whatsoever. With the amount of people, technology and hidden threats, the risk of being seen is far too great. Your old school was on Talon property and they controlled the airspace around it, so the risks were minimal if you needed to Shift, but that is not the case here. Unless you receive a direct order from Talon itself, flying around in your true forms is strictly, one hundred percent forbidden. Is that understood?”
I managed a brief nod, though the thought made me physically ill. How did they expect me to never fly again? They might as well just tear my wings off.
“If you fail to comply with these rules,” Liam continued, “or if we deem you unfit for human society, Talon will be informed at once, and you will be evaluated to see if reeducation is necessary. Other than that, you are free to come and go as you please. Do you have any questions?”
I did. I might be completely earthbound, but that didn’t mean I had to stay here. “So, the beach,” I said, and he arched an eyebrow at me. “Can we go down there any time?”
Sarah chuckled. “It’s a public beach, Ember. As long as you’re home by curfew, you can spend as much time down there as you want. In fact, it’s a good place to meet the locals—a lot of kids your age go there to hang out.” She turned, beckoning to us with a chubby hand. “But here, let me show you to your rooms and you can unpack.”
Music to my ears.
My room was on the top floor, light and airy, with bare but cheerful orange walls and large windows. It had a fantastic view of the beach, as if I needed any more encouragement. As soon as Sarah left, I dug a green two-piece bathing suit and cutoff shorts out of my suitcase, not even bothering to unpack my clothes. Talon had provided us with a wardrobe for sunny Cali, so I had plenty of suits, shorts and numerous pairs of sandals to choose from. I guessed they really did care about us fitting in.
But before I did anything else, I carefully dug my jewelry box out from where it was nestled within a pile of shirts and set it on my new dresser. Talon had provided us with everything—clothes, food, entertainment—but this small wooden box, fashioned like an old chest, was where I kept all my personal things. I unlocked the box with the hidden key and gently pushed back the lid, peeking in. The bright sunlight sparkled off a collection of small treasures: a couple of rings, a gold necklace, an assortment of old coins collected over the years. I picked up a piece of quartz I’d found in the desert one afternoon and held it up to the light, letting it glitter in my palm. Hey, I couldn’t help it. I liked shiny things; it was in my blood.
Replacing the crystal, I closed the box and checked myself in the mirror above the dresser. A short, somewhat spiky-haired human girl gazed back. After what seemed like an eternity, I had become used to her face; it had been a long time since the human in the mirror seemed like a stranger.
Whirling around, I strode to my door, flung it open and ran straight into Dante.
“Oof,” he grunted, staggering backward as I tried not to trip and fall over him. He had changed into shorts and a loose sleeveless shirt, and his red hair was mussed as if already wind tossed. He gave me a rueful look as he caught himself on the railing, rubbing his chest. “Ow. Well, I was going to ask if you wanted to go check out the beach, but it looks like you beat me to it.”
I shot him a grin, the same as when we competed against each other in school, defiant and challenging. “Race you to the water.”
He rolled his eyes. “Come on, sis. We’re not in training any—” But I had already rushed past him down the hall, and heard him scramble to catch up.
Bursting out of the house, we flew down the steps, leaped the picket fence and broke into a flat-out run toward the ocean. I loved running, or anything that involved speed and exertion, feeling my muscles stretch and the wind in my face. It reminded me of flying, and though nothing could compare to the pure thrill of soaring through the clouds, beating my twin in a footrace, or anything really, ran a very close second.
Unfortunately, Dante and I were pretty evenly matched, and we reached the water’s edge at the same time. Splashing into the turquoise sea at last, I gave a breathless whoop, just as a wave came out of nowhere and smashed into me, filling my mouth with salty water and knocking me off my feet.
Wading over, Dante reached down to pull me up, but he was laughing so hard he could barely stand. Grabbing the offered wrist, I gave it a yank, and he toppled in after me as another wave came hissing in and covered us both.
Sputtering, Dante rolled upright, shaking water from his hair and wringing out his shirt. I staggered to my feet as the water receded, sucking at my ankles as it swept back to the ocean. “You know,” my twin muttered, giving me an exasperated half smile, “you typically take off your regular clothes before you decide to do a face-plant into the ocean. That’s what normal people do, anyway.”
I grinned at him cheekily. “What? Now you have an excuse to take off your shirt and show everyone the manly six-pack you’ve been working on all year.”
“Ha ha. Hey, look, a shark.”
He pointed behind me. I turned, and he shoved me into another wave. With a shriek, I sprang up and tore after him as he took off down the beach, the foaming seawater lapping at my toes.
Sometime later, we were both drenched, hot and covered in sand. We’d also traveled pretty far down the beach, passing sunbathers and families, though the strip was emptier than I’d thought it would be. Farther out, I could see surfers on their colorful boards, gliding through waves much larger than those close to shore. I wondered, again, what it was like to surf, if it was anything like flying. I made it a priority to find out.
Closer to the edge of the beach, a volleyball net stood in the sand, and several teenagers bumped a ball back and forth over the net. There were six of them, four boys and two girls, all wearing shorts or bikinis. They were very tan, as if they’d spent a lifetime out in the sun, the girls slender and beautiful, the boys shirtless and muscular. A pair of sleek yellow boards lay nearby, showing that at least a couple of them were surfers. Curious, I stopped to watch from a safe distance away, but Dante nudged my shoulder and jerked his head in their direction.
“Come on,” he murmured, and started ambling toward the group. Frowning, I followed.
“Um. What are we doing?”
He looked back at me and winked. “Fitting in.”
“What, right now?” I glanced at the humans, then back at my brother. “I mean, you’re just going to walk up to a bunch of mortals and talk to them? What are you going to say?”
“I figured I’d start with ‘hi.’”
A little apprehensively, I trailed after him. As we approached the net, one of the boys, his dark hair bleached blond at the tips, leaped up and spiked the ball toward one of the girls on the other side. She instantly dove into the sand to save it, sending the white sphere flying in our direction.
Dante caught it. The game paused a moment as all the players turned in our direction.
My brother smiled. “Hey,” he greeted, tossing the ball to one of the girls. Who, I noticed, nearly missed the catch from gaping at him. “Need a couple extra players?”
The group hesitated. I noted the way the girls were staring wide-eyed at Dante, and bit down a snort. By human standards, my twin was charming and extremely good-looking, and he knew it, too. It wasn’t by accident. When choosing the form that would be ours for the rest of our life, everyone in Talon was groomed to the highest standards of human beauty. There were no ugly “humans” in the organization, and there was a very good reason for that. Mortals responded to beauty, wealth, power, charisma. It made them easier to sway, easier to control, and Dante was a natural at getting what he wanted. This was sure to go to his already inflated head. But at least three of the guys were staring at me, too.
One of the boys, lean and tan, with blond hair down to his shoulders, finally shrugged. “Sure, dude.” His voice was light, easygoing. “The more, the merrier. Come on in and pick a side.” He flashed me a grin, as if hoping I would choose his side of the net. I hesitated a moment, then obliged him. Fit in, make friends, adapt. That was what we were here to do, right?
The other girl on my side, the one who’d dived for the ball, smiled at me as I joined her on the front row. “Hey,” she said, pushing long brown hair out of her face. “You’re new around here, aren’t you? Come for summer vacation?”
I stared at her and, for a second, my mind went blank. What did I say? What did I do? This was the first human, not counting my teachers and guardians, who had ever spoken to me. I wasn’t like my brother, who was comfortable around people and knew how to respond regardless of the situation. I stared at the human, feeling trapped, wondering what would happen if I just turned around and sprinted back home.
But the girl didn’t laugh or tease or give me a weird look. “Oh, right,” she said as Dante was tossed the ball and encouraged to serve. “You have no idea who I am, do you? I’m Lexi. That’s my brother, Calvin.” She nodded to the tall blond human who had smiled at me earlier. “And that’s Tyler, Kristin, Jake and Neil. We all live here,” Lexi continued as Dante walked to where a lone sandal sat several yards from the net, marking the back line. “Except for Kristin.” She nodded at the girl on the other side, blond and tan and model-gorgeous. “But her family owns a beach house and comes down every summer. The rest of us have been here forever.” She shot me a sideways look as Dante prepared to serve. “So, where did you two move from? Ever played volleyball before?”
I was trying to keep up with the endless string of words, to find time to respond, when Dante tossed the ball, leaped gracefully into the air and hit it with a resounding whack that propelled it over the net and behind my head. It was expertly bumped to the blond boy, who hit the ball with his fingertips, setting me up for a spike. I hadn’t ever played volleyball before, only studied it on TV. Thankfully, my kind were naturals at picking up physical activities, and I instinctively knew what to do. I bounced into the air and smacked the ball right at Bleach-tips. It shot toward him like a missile, and he dug for it frantically. The ball struck his hand at an angle, bounced off and rolled merrily toward the ocean. He cursed and jogged off after it, while our side cheered.
“Nice shot!” Lexi grinned, watching Bleach-tips scoop up the wayward ball and come striding back. “Guess that answers my question, doesn’t it? What was your name again?”
The tightness in my chest deflated, and I grinned back. “Ember,” I replied as Calvin smiled and nodded in approval. “And that’s my brother, Dante. We’re here for the whole summer.”
We played until the sun began to sink over the ocean, turning the sky a brilliant shade of orange and pink. At one point, Dante had to borrow someone’s phone to call Uncle Liam, as we’d both forgotten ours in the mad dash to the beach. When the light began to fade and the group finally split up, Lexi and Calvin invited Dante and I to the burger shack on the edge of the beach, and we accepted eagerly.
As I sat beside Lexi, munching greasy fries and sipping a mango smoothie, something I’d never experienced before (nor had my stomach, though our digestive tracts could handle just about anything), I couldn’t help but be amazed. So these were normal teenagers, and this was what summer was supposed to be. Sand and sun and volleyball and junk food. No trainers. No evaluators with their cold hands and even colder eyes, watching our every move. The two surfboards I’d seen earlier lay propped on the table beside us; they actually belonged to Lexi and Calvin, and both had offered to teach me. Yep, I’d say my first day of being human was going swimmingly.
And then, sitting at an outdoor table with the sun fading into the ocean and the sky dotted with stars, I felt a strange prickle on the back of my neck. The same feeling I’d get whenever I was being observed by an evaluator, all tingly and disconcerting. It always meant someone was watching me.
I turned in my seat, scanning the parking lot, but I didn’t see anything unusual. A pair of girls walking back to their Camaro, drinks in hand. A family with two toddlers heading to the door. None of them were staring at me. But that tingle rippling across my neck hadn’t gone away.
And then, a dragon pulled up on a motorcycle.
Not in its real form, obviously. The art of Shifting—changing into human form—was so widespread it was common dragon knowledge now. All our kind knew how to do it. And those that couldn’t were either taught very quickly, or they were hunted down by the Order of St. George, the terrible cult of dragonslayers whose only purpose was our destruction. Shifting into human form was our best defense against genocidal dragon killers and a world of unsuspecting mortals; one did not just wander about in full reptile form unless one had a death wish.
So, the dragon who cruised casually to the edge of the lot appeared human, and a fine specimen of humanity, too. He was slightly older than us, lean and tall, with a tousled mess of black hair and a leather jacket over his broad shoulders. He didn’t kill the engine, but sat there staring at me, a smirk stretching his full lips, and even in human form, there was an air of danger about him, in his eyes that were so light a brown they were almost gold. My blood heated at the sight of him, and a flush rose to my skin—instant reactions to another of our kind, and a stranger at that.
Lexi noticed me staring at the parking lot, and her gaze followed mine. “Oh,” she sighed, sounding dreamy all of a sudden. “G double B is back.”
“Who?” I whispered, wondering when Talon had planted him here. It was highly unusual to run into another dragon anywhere; Talon never placed their charges in the same town, for safety reasons. Too many dragons in one spot attracted St. George to the area. The only reason Dante and I had been placed here together was because we were true siblings, and that was almost unheard of in the organization.
“Gorgeous Biker Boy,” Lexi replied as the strange dragon continued to stare at me, almost challenging. “No one knows who he is. He showed up a few weeks ago, and has been coming around all the popular hangouts. He never talks to anyone, just checks the place out, like he’s looking for somebody, and leaves.” Her knee bumped mine under the table, making me jump, and she grinned wickedly. “But it seems like he’s found what he was looking for.”
“Huh? Who?” I tore my gaze from the strange dragon as he revved his bike and cruised out of the parking lot, vanishing as quickly as he’d appeared. “What do you mean, he’s found what he was looking for?”
Lexi just giggled, but I suddenly caught Dante’s eye over the table and burger wrappings, and my stomach dropped. My twin’s expression was cold, dangerous, as he glared at the spot the other dragon had been moments before. His pupils contracted, shrinking down until they were black slits against the green, looking inhuman and very reptile.
I kicked him under the table. He blinked, and his eyes went normal again. My stomach uncoiled. Jeez, Dante. What was that about?
“We should go,” he announced, standing up. Lexi made a disappointed noise and pouted, but he didn’t relent. “It’s our first day here, and our aunt and uncle will worry if we’re not back soon. We’ll see you around, right?”
“Dude, it’s cool.” Calvin waved him off. “We practically live on the beach. Ember, meet us here tomorrow afternoon, yeah? The waves are supposed to be sick.”
I promised I would, then hurried after my brother.
“Hey,” I whispered, lightly smacking his arm as I caught up. “What’s with you? You nearly went psychopathic lizard on me, right in front of two very normal humans. What’s the deal?”
He shot me a guilty look. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s just…” He raked a hand through his hair, the salt making it stand on end. “Do you know what that was, in the parking lot just now?”
“You mean the other dragon? Yeah, I kinda noticed.”
“Ember.” Dante stopped and met my gaze, grim and a little frightened. Which, in turn, scared me. Dante was always the calm, collected one. “That wasn’t anyone from Talon,” he said solemnly. “That was a rogue. I’d bet my life on it.”
My insides shriveled.
The stranger was a rogue. A dragon who, for reasons beyond comprehension, had broken away from Talon, severing all ties and going on the run. This was the one unforgivable crime in the eyes of Talon; dragons who went rogue were immediately pronounced traitors and criminals, and offered one chance to turn themselves in. If they refused, the infamous Vipers were sent to bring them back, to whatever punishment awaited them for such betrayal.
A rogue dragon, hanging around Crescent Beach. Staring right at me. Like he’d known I would be there.
“What do we do now?” I asked. “How long do you think he’s been out of Talon?”
“Probably not long,” Dante muttered, watching the last of the humans on the beach with an intensity that hadn’t been there before. “I can’t imagine he’ll be around much longer. Ember, don’t tell Liam and Sarah about this when we get home, okay?”
Puzzled, I frowned at him. “Why?”
“Because they’ll inform Talon,” Dante answered, making my stomach clench. “Because the organization might call us back if they suspect a rogue is in the area.” He must’ve seen my look of horror, because he placed a hand on my arm and smiled. “It’s all right. Let me handle this. I’ll take care of everything.”
I believed him. Dante always accomplished what he said he would. I should’ve been relieved.
But I remembered the strange dragon’s eyes, the look on his face as he’d stared at me, the way my blood had warmed at the sight of him. I remembered the heat of his gaze, the instant awakening of something fierce and primal inside me when our eyes met.
The rogue dragon was trouble. Plain and simple.
And I was intrigued.
The next day started off perfectly. I slept in for maybe the first time in my life, waking up close to noon to find Dante had already gone down to the beach. I found him with several of our new friends from yesterday, and we spent the afternoon talking, swimming, playing volleyball and eating more junk food from the Smoothie Hut. It was easier this time, to mingle, fit in and be part of this group, though some of their mannerisms were strange. Touching, for example. Lexi was very touchy-feely, and the first time she grabbed my arm, I had to force myself not to pull back, hissing. She and Kristin giggled a lot and talked at length about subjects completely foreign to me. Clothes and shoes and shopping and boys. Especially boys. It was baffling, this obsession with other humans. Clothes I could understand; shoes seemed to be the humans’ equivalent of shiny things and treasure. Maybe they hoarded boots like we did gemstones. That was something I could comprehend. But every time Lexi snatched my arm and pointed to some random human on the beach, I would nod and agree that he was “gorgeous,” as she put it, but I couldn’t see the attraction.
By the end of the day, however, the ebb and flow of human conversation was starting to sink in, and I felt I was starting to “get it.” I confirmed with Lexi that she was willing to teach me to surf, and she promised to take me to a “secret spot” farther down the beach, where it was never crowded and the waves were constant. As evening approached and the sun dipped lower over the ocean, we went back out on the sand and Calvin dug a shallow pit, filled it with driftwood and started a fire. Entranced, I buried my feet in the cooling sand and stared into the flames. Beside me, Lexi chatted away as a boy who had brought a guitar picked at the strings with deft fingers. The fire snapped against the wood, beautiful and glorious, seeping into my skin and warming my face. Oh, yeah. Life was good. At the moment, it was perfect.
And then, my phone chirped sharply in the quiet.
Digging it out of my pocket, I held it up just as Dante’s phone went off, too. We shared a glance, then gazed down at the screen. There was a new text from Liam and Sarah, and a cold knot settled in my stomach as I read it.
Come home, it ordered, simply. Now.
Dante immediately rose to his feet, dusting himself off. “We gotta go,” he told the group, who “awwed” at him in protest. He grinned and shrugged. “Sorry, family calls. Ember, come on.”
I didn’t move. It wasn’t curfew. Liam and Sarah had said we could go where we pleased as long as they knew where we were. They were only human. What were they going to do, come out and drag us home by the ear? “I’m not ready yet,” I told him, making his eyes widen. “You go ahead. I’ll catch up.”
His eyes narrowed to dangerous green slits as he glared down at me. I knew what he was saying, just from that stare. We knew each other so well, it almost echoed in my brain.
We have to go, it told me. We have to obey the guardians, because Talon put them in charge. Don’t screw this up for us.
I glared back. I want to stay. I’m just getting the hang of this.
His gaze sharpened. You’re going to get us in trouble.
You go, then. I shrugged, settling back on my elbows, my intent crystal clear. I’m staying right here.
All this passed between us in a heartbeat. But then, Dante stopped glaring, and his expression turned pleading as he mouthed, Please.
I slumped. Angry Dante I could handle, but scared, beseeching Dante always got to me. “Fine,” I muttered, and got to my feet, dusting sand from my clothes. “Let’s go, then.” I gave my twin one last glower that said, You owe me, and he smiled. With a last longing look at the bonfire and the flames licking gloriously over the wood, I turned my back on the group and stalked up the beach with my brother.
Aunt Sarah and Uncle Liam were waiting for us in the living room, but they weren’t the only ones.
As soon as we walked through the door, my primal instincts flared, hissing and cringing as a pair of cold, unamused gazes met mine. They were dragons; there was no mistaking that aura of power and the way my own dragon shrank away, wanting to flee from another, stronger predator. Yeah, Talon might be superorganized and spread all over the world, but centuries of survival instincts could not be forgotten just because we were “civilized” now. And when a hatchling was faced with two scary-looking, fully mature adult dragons, even in human form, it was hard to stay put when all her survival instincts were telling her to slink away with her tail between her legs.
“Hello, students.” One of them stepped forward, acid-green eyes piercingly bright. She was actually the scarier of the two―a tall, elegant woman in a black Armani suit, her blond hair pulled into a tight bun. Her male companion, also dressed in black Armani, watched with his hands folded in front of him. His dark hair was slicked back, his eyes flat and cold, but it was the female who radiated danger, even as she smiled at me. Her three-inch heels clicked over the tile as she stopped at the edge of the living room and regarded me as if I were a curious bug that had crawled beneath the door. “There’s been a change of plans.”