Authors: Elsa Jade
Masters of the Flame: Book 3
She fell for a dragon half turned to stone.
Now the mating fever will turn them to ash – or let them fly
As lord of the Nox Incendi dragons, Bale Dorado is supposed to protect his people within the exclusive Keep casino in Sin City, but the curse that plagues the clan has all but turned him to cold stone. Only by finding the powerful, burning heart of his treasure will he survive to lead them against a deadly magical threat to dragonkin. Instead, he finds himself falling for a wounded, delicate…virgin?
Esme Montenegro fears everything about the broken, disfigured dragon lord—including her wild, feverish attraction to him. She too is falling…and if she can’t find her wings, they and all the Nox Incendi are doomed.
Copyright © 2016 by Elsa Jade
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as factual. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be scanned, reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.
In the long-dead language of the dragonkin, his name had translated to balefire: a signal fire that burned on the heights, a message in the darkness.
When he had been all but extinguished by the stone blight, they whispered another version of his name: baleful—something sinister and malevolent.
Bale Dorado thought maybe the whispers were not so wrong. With the cold stillness of the petralys poison confining him to his cavernous prison, the dark wasn’t just
It was in him.
Since he’d become watchdragon over this sleeping beauty, though, he’d felt stirrings in places he’d thought had turned to stone.
He prowled closer. “I feel myself falling,” he murmured. “Because of you.”
Considering he was half stone already, falling was
a good thing. But Esme Montenegro was everything that incited a dragon’s lust. Exposed by the simple folds of her white shift, her skin gleamed with a pearl’s luster in the pulsing light of the brazier’s low-burning embers, and the occasional spark shimmered like diamonds in her hair. But it was the tantalizing whisper of her heartbeat in the silence that drew him closer yet.
He clenched his right hand into a fist. Instead of feeling the silky tangle of her long, blond locks, his jagged talons bit into his palm. “You remind me of sunlight, which I’d almost forgotten,” he told her. His gaze traced down the twisting gold strands, glinting with her every breath, and paused on the pale upper curve of her breast before he glanced away. “Or moonlight,” he added wryly.
He knew she couldn’t hear him in her slumber, but sometimes when her dreams were disturbed by the malicious magic that had brought her here a week ago, his low words seemed to soothe her. After years of rarely speaking, his voice was as rough as shattered granite. Still, even in her sleep, she turned her face toward him.
If he hadn’t been watching her so closely, he might’ve missed the tremor of her lashes or the hitch in her slow breaths, not quite a sob. Despite the cave’s thick, protective rock walls, her nightmares had found her again.
She was lying on a low ledge of shelfstone jutting up from the middle of the shallow pool in his cave. Delicate curls of steam drifted above the water, and bioluminescent algae glimmered on invisible currents fed by geothermal springs deep below the Keep. Just that token amount of light and heat pained him, burning on his frozen nerves, but without another thought, he waded across the pool to her side.
“I’m here,” he said softly. “No one will get to you, not through me.”
When he’d said that before, she’d settled back into deeper sleep. But this time, her pale brows furrowed and she muttered under her breath, as if she didn’t believe him.
He couldn’t blame her. Before she’d come to Las Vegas, she hadn’t known about warlocks or dragons, but then she’d been made a weapon by one wielded against the other. Now she was hiding in a preternatural cave up in the penthouse of Sin City’s most exclusive casino. And still, none of that was as unlikely as the thought that
—imprisoned, sick, dying—could save her.
Holding one hand above her, not quite touching but close enough that her breaths feathered over his palm, he repeated, “I’m here. Quiet now. I have you.”
She stilled, and the restive flicker of her lashes halted so she was once again a lovely centerpiece in his stone garden. His dragon, half somnolent itself from the petralys, uncoiled to admire her. The sensation ached in his chest, making him stiffen. That she could rouse a sleeping dragon…
Bale started to back away.
And she grabbed his hand.
Her eyes flared open. Her pupils were blown wide, and panicked white ringed the dark brown of her irises. He froze, pinned by that wild, dazed look. In that instant, her fingers laced through his.
“Are you real?” Her whisper was ragged and hoarse, as if she’d been screaming in her nightmares. “Are you…are you there?”
He realized she couldn’t see him as well as he could see her. The light that hurt his eyes was nothing more than a faint, dull glow to her. Even so, he carefully angled the left side of his body farther away from her, hiding his twisted form.
“I’m here,” he said for the third time. “You’re safe in this place.”
To his consternation, she tightened her grip on his hand. He curled his fingers gently over hers, piercing his talons into his own flesh lest he scratch her.
“I couldn’t wake up,” she murmured. “I kept falling…falling asleep.”
“You’re awake now,” he assured her. “I know the cavern is…strange, but the cold and the dark stopped Ashcraft’s spell from controlling you.”
She shuddered and clutched his hand between her breasts, holding so fiercely he was shocked to feel the slow surge of his pulse beneath her fingertips. “Is he…is Lars dead?”
Bale knew Esme had been engaged to be married to Lars Ashcraft, industrialist scion. She’d arrived at the Keep under the pretense of a bachelorette weekend with her friends. That Ashcraft was a secret warlock who had intended to sacrifice her to a dragon in order to obtain draconic ichor for his own alchemical magic probably negated any prenuptial agreements.
“Not dead.” Though he tried to smooth the rough edges of his voice, the dragon’s rumble echoed in the undertones. “But he won’t hurt you ever again.”
“You won’t let him,” she murmured. When she curled into herself, her words breathed over his skin, and his half-dead nerves blazed like lines of black powder. “I heard you say so. You promised.”
He winced. What else had she heard him say?
As he shuffled through the last few days in his head, he tried to extract his hand, but with her knotted grip, he didn’t want to hurt or scare her.
And maybe, partly, it was his dragon that wouldn’t let go.
“I destroyed the ring Ashcraft gave you,” he told her. The engagement ring had looked like a diamond, but his dragon had known the alchemically twisted “stone” was a fake. He’d burned it to ash, and then he’d burned the ash to smoke. “Now that you aren’t breathing the bespelled spores, your head will clear and you’ll regain your strength. He can’t get to you while you’re here in the Keep.”
Lashes fluttering down over her dark eyes, she let out a shivering breath. “I’m here,” she whispered. “With you.” Her eyes opened again, searching for his gaze in the darkness. “You’ll be here?”
“I won’t go anywhere.” He couldn’t leave the cavern, but she didn’t need to know the specifics. She sought his reassurance only because she was alone and afraid of the dark. Rightly so.
If she saw the clawed hand she clenched so tightly, she’d be even more afraid.
When she fell asleep again—a natural slumber this time—he stayed by her side though his hand cramped and his toes were turning glow-in-the-dark.
When the door to his prison opened, though, he had to retreat. The light was too harsh, and he didn’t want his brother to see him.
Or to see how he’d been lingering over the vulnerable human female like a hungry dragon over its prey.
But apparently his luck had failed, along with his eyesight and his body, because Rave halted awkwardly on the verge of the brazier’s flickering light. His head swung from the frail blonde sprawled on the shelfstone toward the shadows where Bale had withdrawn, and his eyes narrowed. “I came to see how she’s doing. But I guess you’re on top of that.”
“She’s…” Though Bale tried to trap the rest, the incredulous words escaped between his clenched teeth. “She is my true mate.”
His dragon had known—
—what she was. With the beast barely contained in his tortured skin, why had it taken longer for the truth to well up to his consciousness? Because he hadn’t wanted to believe that Esme Montenegro was his solarys mate. It wasn’t just hard to believe; it was—
“No,” Rave said.
The flat denial from his brother made the dragon in Bale rear up in defiance. Pain spiked through his spine, sending lashes of black lightning to the ends of his nerves. He bit back the urge to roar and only hissed out a slow breath.
Finally, the worst of the agony passed, and he refocused. “What did you say?”
Rave paced the edges of the circle of light near Esme. “It’s impossible,” he said tightly. “There must be something else going on. Why would the dragon choose her?”
“That’s not what you said,” Bale prodded.
His brother stopped pacing and crossed his arms over his chest, straining the sleek black linen of his dress shirt across his broad shoulders. As general manager and public face of their exclusive Las Vegas casino, he looked the part: half stylish, half ruthless. But the beast within was pure savagery in defense of the Nox Incendi dragons.
And the warlock’s wounded princess/pawn was a danger.
Huffing out a breath, Rave dragged one hand through his thick, brown hair. “I said no,” he admitted. “Forgetting for a moment who I was talking to.”