Dragon’s Captive is out tomorrow! Here’s chapter 1!
(REMINDER: Cassie Lockharte is Cassie Alexander and Kara Lockharte’s new combo pen-name! (We decided to take pity on our cover designers and collapse our names for more space ;))
“So, Damian doesn’t know any eligible guys, like at all?” Sammy was sitting across from her best friend and old roommate, Andi, at Jones and Shah Coffee. They were hanging out before their separate evening plans: Sammy, hostessing at a high-end restaurant downtown, and Andi, going in early to the hospital to work into a nightshift.
The small café was lightly crowded, full of the scent of strong coffee and the iced lemon scone Sammy’d bought to wolf down before work tonight. Other people’s conversations wrapped around them, as spinning spoons clanked against glasses and the espresso machine hissed. One woman laughed loudly in a corner as she flirted too hard on a first date—Sammy recognized both the woman’s tone and her date’s slight expression of horror.
First dates always suck, Sammy thought.
“Sammy,” Andi said flatly, giving her a maternal headshake, calling her attention back to the table. “No. You do not want this kind of hassle, trust me.” Her best friend waved a hand over herself. Andi was dressed in purple scrubs and wearing Dansko shoes with a cute checkered print on them, and the blue streak in her black hair was barely visible in her ‘I’m going to work’ bun. Tearing off a bite of the scone to push into her mouth, Sammy had absolutely no idea what Andi was even talking about.
“The hassle of someone giving me a three-carat diamond ring?” Sammy licked icing off her finger and then mimed difficulty raising her coffee with her left hand, even though Andi wasn’t wearing jewelry right now. “Oh yeah, I can see how that must be a really heavy arm workout,” Sammy teased.
Andi laughed. “A ring that I can’t wear to work because, while gorgeous, it’s ridiculous. But no, really Sammy, you know what I mean.” And Andi gave her that look that was all: We’ve talked about this before. You know I’m engaged to a dragon-shifter, right?
Which meant it was Sammy’s turn to give her a meaningful, But why can’t I ever see him as a dragon? stink-eye, back, until both of them grinned.
“Honestly, Sammy,” Andi said, getting real, looking around the room they were in and leaning forward. “There are at least three security cameras in this coffee shop, ever since that attempted robbery. And I guarantee you that right now all of them are pointed at me.”
Sammy pushed a wave of red hair out of her face as she glanced up to see the little plastic bulbs set in the coffee shop’s ceiling, which were new. Andi was right. “Why?”
“Because I don’t want to have a bodyguard. This is our compromise.”
Sammy pretended to think. “So…you’re kind of like Beyoncé, is what you’re saying?”
Andi laughed again. “No. Although I do sing better than you do.” She stuck out her tongue at Sammy. “Damian’s people have better things to do than to watch over me personally—but there’s a trade-off. If I get to pretend to have a normal life, then someone’s going to be low level watching over me all the time. Or listening in,” she said, tapping at her phone on the table between them. “So don’t say anything lewd.”
“Who? Me? I would fucking never.” Sammy put an affronted hand to her chest, laughing as Andi laughed too, before taking a sober inhale. “It’s…just hard to believe that your life’s changed so much, Andi. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe you.” Sammy knew the long term consequences of not being believed—she had known her best friend for too many years and they’d gone through too much stuff together for her not to. If Andi said her man was a dragon, well then, he really was. Somehow. “It’s just different is all,” she said with a half-shrug. “I mean, who would’ve guessed a few months ago that Andi Ngo would become a dragon’s most valuable possession?”
“Yeah,” Andi said, giving Sammy one of those dreamy ‘hopelessly-in-love’ smiles that she’d been prone to, ever since she and Damian had become serious—the kind that made Sammy really happy for Andi, but a little sad for herself. Sammy knew it wasn’t fair, but she was also only human, so she tried not to beat herself up about it. She shoved another tart bite of scone into her mouth.
“Although he doesn’t treat me like a possession,” Andi went on, in her man’s defense. “He’s not an asshole…. Well, actually, he is, just not to me.”
Sammy laughed, then picked up Andi’s phone to talk into it like it was a microphone. “Did you hear that? Damian’s not, I repeat, not an asshole,” she said loudly before setting it back down and grinning at her friend. “There. You’re covered.”
Andi snickered and pocketed her phone. “All right, girlie, so, enough about my relationship. Why are you asking about eligible men? What happened with the smart guy, Mr. Working-on-his-PhD?”
“Yeah,” Sammy began slowly, sinking toward the table to massage her temples with the first two fingers of each hand, bringing her closer to the comforting scent of her coffee. “Remember the research project he was working on so hard? I guess you could say it was a ‘group project.’”
“No!” Andi gasped, already knowing which way this story was going to go. “Don’t tell me that! By which I mean, do tell me, so I can go and murder him!”
“I bet your phone caught that too,” Sammy said with a headshake, although she and Andi had probably watched enough true crime shows on TV together in their time as roommates to get away with actual murders if they put their mind to it.
“How’d you find out?” Andi pressed.
“I drove over to pick him up from campus and because I miraculously found good parking I decided to surprise him—and caught him boning some other grad student on his desk.”
“Ugh!” Andi said, furious on her behalf. “I mean, you’re so much better off without him, obviously, but the gall!”
“Down girl, I know.”
Andi’s eyes narrowed and she frowned. “Sammy, why didn’t you tell me?”
Sammy looked across the table at her best friend and couldn’t really say what she was thinking: Because. You look so happy—you make things look easy—why can’t they be easy for me? Andi reached across the table to grab her hand, reading a little of it on her anyhow, and Sammy squeezed her hand back.
“It just happened two days ago,” Sammy said, blowing things off. “And I knew I was seeing you today—now that you’re not living with me it’s a lot harder for me to keep track of whether you’re sleeping or not.. Plus, I’m not wrecked or anything. More just disgusted with the gender.”
Andi let go of her hand but kept staring at her, and Sammy knew she was being nursified.
“I feel bad leaving you all alone, Sammy. What if…you get another roommate? Or—a cat? Or a puppy? I mean now that Damian’s bought the building—”
“Don’t think I don’t appreciate that, Andi, because I do.” Not having to pay rent, thanks to Andi’s bajillionaire fiancé’s largess was pretty damn amazing. “But a cat is not the same as a person—though it can’t just be any person, you know?”
“No, it can’t, can it,” Andi said, agreeing with her—then getting a wicked gleam in her eye. “I mean, I probably am pretty irreplaceable as a roommate.”
“Yeah, I’m not sure how that Craigslist ad would go: ‘Roommate wanted, 20-something woman, must be into serial killer documentaries and cars.’”
“Hey now, I wasn’t into cars.”
“Well, if I’m going to bother replacing you, I might as well aim for perfection.”
Andi laughed. “Actually? Yeah. You should. Hold out for the good stuff, always.” She pulled out her phone to check the time and grumbled. “I’m sorry, Sammy, I’ve got to get going.” Andi got up and navigated to the condiment bar to grab a to-go lid, while Sammy not so subtly tried to see if the security cameras really did watch as she returned. “Dress shopping? This weekend?” Andi asked.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Sammy said. “And you’d better wear your ring then.”
“Why?” Andi questioned, picking up her bag.
“So if we get into trouble, without any bodyguards, you can punch somebody out with it,” Sammy told her, pretending to give someone a left hook.
“I don’t need bodyguards, Sammy, when I have you.” Andi beamed and gave her a careful not-spilling-her-coffee hug. “Talk tomorrow?”
“For sure,” Sammy said, and air-kissed her cheek.
Sammy waited until Andi was off to the bus stop knowing that Andi wouldn’t accept a ride into work unless she was going to be seriously late. Although maybe being on a bus was safer for her than being on the open road, because Sammy was going to have to break a few traffic laws to make it to her apartment in time to change and drive back downtown.
She parked outside her building, jogged up the stairs to the blue door of her apartment, let herself inside, and ran for her closet.
Andi was right—it was a little lonely here. Especially because Eumie wasn’t downstairs in their bakery anymore—they were off doing God knew what. Sammy’d lost both her nearby best friends in the space of a few months.
Andi wasn’t really lost-lost, but she was busy. Hanging out with Damian or letting him dote on her. Sammy had been over for a few awkward dinners at their place, and it wasn’t the same as it had been—and it wasn’t even Damian’s fault. He was an excellent sport, and he played the host nicely. It was just that things were different now, what with Andi living there, was all. The last time she’d gone over and they’d tried to make a girls’ night of it, watching the latest Netflix murder-show, some horrible sounding alarm had gone off in the middle of things. Sammy about peed her pants it was so loud, and Andi wouldn’t tell her what was going on, “For your own safety, I mean it,” and then had been tense until a few hours later when Damian had come back.
Sammy supposed Andi knew, and she knew she didn’t have a right to know. But now that they were keeping secrets from each other, things just weren’t the same.
Then again, she’d been keeping a pretty big one from Andi—and everyone else she’d ever met, for the most part—her whole life.
Sammy sighed and tugged down the tight cream-colored dress she’d be wearing tonight, then de-sexed it with a loose pink silk scarf around her neck and a fitted navy blazer. She pushed her feet into matching navy flats—she was verging on stewardess, but that was okay, as long as she looked like she worked for a high-class airline.
It would just take time for their friendship to find a new normal, was all. Sammy knew that, and she could be patient. It wasn’t like she had a ton of other friends besides. Acquaintances, maybe, and a string of disappointing men, for sure. But none of them were as solid as Andi, and Sammy just had to believe that if she waited out this phase in Andi’s life—even if she wasn’t sure of what it was or how long it would last—that they’d be strong again.
In a new way.
She looked at herself in her bathroom mirror, pulling her long curly red hair into a loose bun, swiped some lipstick on, poofed herself with blush, used the same blush for her eyeshadow, grabbed her purse, and ran for the door.
She swung it open to find a small box on her stoop—clearly labeled for their address, but not to anyone in particular.
Seeing as she hadn’t ordered anything lately, it had to be for Andi.
She swiped her phone open and found Andi’s contact in it as ‘Lefty’ because once upon a time when they’d still lived together, pre-Damian, Andi had expressed a desire to date Vin Diesel and Lefty from the Fast and the Furious movies was as close as she could get. (Plus, it was kind of funny, since Andi didn’t know how to drive.)
There’s a mysterious box here for you, she texted using voice-to-text as she brought it inside. Don’t worry, it’s too small to be a body part.
Andi texted back an eye roll emoji, faster than Sammy would’ve thought—she must’ve still been on the bus. D warned me this might happen. That people would send us stuff just because, to try to get in his good graces.
Sammy snorted softly. Well, it’s not a toaster or a shoe rack, so I know they didn’t get it off your registry—oh wait, you don’t have a registry, she said. Sammy had maintained that people would still want to buy them gifts, whereas Andi said that was silly because they already had everything.
Andi sent her back an emoji with its tongue sticking out. If it’s not ticking, and there’s no loose powder, want to open it?
Sammy hesitated—yes, she might be late, but…. What the hell would anyone send someone like Damian Blackwood’s fiancée to try to get on his good side? As Andi’s old roommate, she already knew that Andi’s most useful possessions were an infinite number of pens and sharpies—there must’ve been some nurse version of the sock-eating dryer monster that lived in the hospital basement, subsisting entirely on black ink. Or maybe it was a small box of Vietnamese instant coffee packets….
She set it down on her kitchen counter and opened the packaging. Inside the shipping box was another box—fancy and old, made of very structurally sound black cardboard that was embossed with tiny ripples—and inside of that, she found a dark purple velvet jewelry box.
Sammy knew she probably should’ve slowed her roll, but she also felt the need to just confirm that it really wasn’t any body part at this point, and her get-to-work-on-time clock was ticking. She flipped the lid and inside, cradled in more purple velvet, was a lovely teardrop-shaped red cabochon the size of her thumb, strung on a delicate gold chain.
She pulled it out of the box so it could swing freely. It looked old—and old-timey—because girls her age hardly ever wore jewelry like this.
Then again, could someone her age afford something like this? She honestly didn’t think so.
She snapped a photo and sent it to Andi.
Oh God—gorgeous, but so not me. Who is it from?
Sammy investigated the rest of the box thoroughly. No clue. No card.
Well, I’ll ask around, I guess? Although I don’t think anyone in my contacts list sent that….
Me either. They both knew their friend group was more of the gift-card or booze set.
Your brother? Sammy guessed although she felt it extremely doubtful. The only jewelry Andi’s brother had ever gotten Sammy when they’d dated was a little peridot solitaire ring for her birthday. She still wore it sometimes at work on her left ring finger to detour creepers.
No way, Andi agreed, and then went on: Hey, so, don’t hate me, but…I think I’m going to have to pass on dress shopping.
Sammy stared at her phone, mysterious jewelry and upcoming job forgotten. If you picked a dress out without me, I will not be your best friend anymore, so help me God, she typed, followed quickly by: joking-NOT-JOKING.
It’s not that! Andi protested. We’re taking a last-minute trip to Italy.
But what about your job? Sammy asked, knowing full well that Andi only worked because she wanted to.
We just bought my hospital a new wing. They’ll manage without me for a month just fine. And I’ve been thinking of going part-time, anyways.
Sammy huffed at her phone. That was the first she’d heard of it. But just like she hadn’t run straight to Andi to tell her about Mr. PhDickhead, maybe Andi was pulling back a little, too.
We’ll dress shop the day I get back, I promise, okay? Andi sent her.
Sure. Love you, Sammy sent, with an emoji smooch.
Sammy put her phone in her blazer’s pocket and stared at the necklace for a little bit longer. If no one knew who it was from…and Andi didn’t like it…and if they’d shared clothes all the time back when Andi used to live with her—Sammy’s hands rose, and she clasped the necklace around her neck quickly. The flat back of the cold stone warmed up quickly against her skin as she hid the gemstone with her scarf, and voila, no one would be the wiser.