The final book in a romance series set in a “fun, sexy world” (USA TODAY), where paranormals seek love through a dating service called Midnight Liaisons.
Ryder is hiding a dark secret from her coworkers at Midnight Liaisons. Every time she’s sexually attracted to a man, her dragon side breaks through. Not exactly man-bait! But she needs to lose her virginity before her twenty-fifth birthday, or she’ll become a dragon forever.
Her solution? Big, hunky Hugh, the appointed guardian of her chastity. He’s clearly hot for her, but he has powerful reasons to resist Ryder. Can temptation—and love—possibly find a way?
As we pulled up in front of my house, my date, Jordan, parked the car and glanced over at me. “I had a nice time tonight, Ryder.”
I gave him my cheeriest smile. “It was a lot of fun. Thanks for asking me out.”
He grinned back, handsome in a cocky, confident sort of way that I found appealing. After a moment, he reached out to touch my blond hair. “You’re really sexy, you know.”
I shied away, narrowly avoiding his touch with a laugh. “I’m a lot of things, Jordan, but sexy isn’t one of them.” And I batted his hand away with my pink Hello Kitty purse, which acted as both shield and proof that I wasn’t anyone’s idea of sexy. I was cute.
Cute like puppies and kittens and pink lipstick with glitter in it (which I was currently wearing). My hair was in two tight blond pigtails high on my head, and I was wearing a bright pink A-line dress with a Peter Pan collar, yellow stockings, and matching pink Mary Janes that looked like something Baby Spice would wear. When my date had seen me tonight, he’d commented that I looked like I was dressed up for Easter. I wasn’t. I was dressed up for Tuesday. I just liked bright, happy things and loved to wear them.
You know the saying “Fake it until you make it”? I lived that every day of my life. On my date I was nervous as heck, but you’d never know it from the way I giggled and flirted and chattered nonstop. I was in Ryder On mode. When Ryder was on, I was an endlessly effervescent personality. When I was Ryder Off? Well, I didn’t show the world Ryder Off.
No one got to see Ryder Off but me. It was best for everyone involved.
Jordan stroked a finger down my arm in a flirty move and I shuddered, thankful that I’d worn long sleeves. I held my breath, waiting for something bad to happen, but nothing did. The nervous knot in my stomach eased a little.
“I haven’t been able to take my eyes off you all night,” he said in a seductive voice, sliding a bit closer to me.
I giggled inanely again, inching away. I knew where this was going, and I was terrified. My palms were sweating profusely, and my forehead broke out in an anxious sweat.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to kiss Jordan; he was handsome and funny and attentive. I wanted to kiss him more than anything. Heck, I wanted to drag him inside and introduce him to my bed.
But that wasn’t going to happen. I knew that deep in my bones.
Still, I was on this date because I was an eternal optimist. I had to hope—or I had nothing.
“Ryder,” he said softly, sliding even closer to me.
I pressed up against the car window to put as much distance between us as possible. “Jordan, I really like you, but I don’t know that we can take this further than friendship.”
He gave me a surprised look. “If you like me, why do you say that?”
“It’s . . . complicated.” Extremely complicated, in ways he couldn’t possibly imagine.
“I like you enough to work with complicated,” he said in a smooth voice, reaching out to touch my hair again.
I squeezed my eyes shut, waiting . . . but nothing happened, and I relaxed. Maybe . . . maybe this time it’d be different?
Hope rising, I didn’t flinch away when he scooted so close that I felt his warm breath on my skin and smelled his scent. Fresh. Clean. Human. A quiver of pleasure shot through me at being so very near an attractive man.
Jordan gently brushed the backs of his fingers over my cheek. I felt a tingle, but it was muted, and I smiled at that. He took my smile for encouragement, and the next thing I knew, his lips were pressing on mine.
Shock flickered through me, quickly followed by a burst of pleasure when his tongue darted into my open mouth. A man was kissing me. Oh, wow! It was even better than I’d expected. I made a small noise of pleasure, closing my eyes and sinking into the feeling.
Then my cheek rippled. Not in a pleasant, shivery way; more like the sensation of something coming alive and trying to escape. Of skin trying to pull away from bone.
My eyes flew open and I pushed at Jordan’s chest. “No.” My good luck had just run out. Jordan wasn’t The One.
His eyes remained closed, his mouth seeking mine as if my protests would be swallowed by another kiss. If I’d been any other woman, they might have been.
But I wasn’t any other woman. One could argue I wasn’t even human.
An awful prickling sensation crept through my skin, like a thousand needles. My feet cramped painfully and I felt the press of claws inside my shoes. I groaned, pain flickering all over my body, and I felt my skin shift and creep again. Now my bones ached; I had only seconds before they’d pop and crack with the onset of my transformation.
And Jordan was going to see it all if I didn’t do something fast.
I pushed frantically at his chest again, breaking away just as fangs cut through my gums and I tasted blood. I fumbled for the car door, tumbling out backward and falling onto the driveway.
“Ryder!” I heard his car door open and his gasp when he saw me sprawled on the concrete. “Oh, my God, are you okay?”
I jumped to my feet and ran for my condo. Thank God I was on the first floor. I ran down the hall, heading for my door and safety. My forehead throbbed, hard and bony protrusions growing under my skin as I fumbled for my key with claw-tipped fingers. My legs were cramping hard, and the bulges protruding from my back would soon rip through my cute pink dress.
With shaking hands, I managed to unlock the door. I slipped inside and locked it, then leaned back against the thick, heavy wood, relieved.
Leathery wings suddenly burst from my back with a wet snapping noise, and I groaned in pain as my loose, swingy dress became chokingly tight. I clawed at the zipper in the back, then gave up and shredded the fabric with my thick, curved talons until it pooled at my feet. My shoes were the next to go, wrecked by the transformation, and I pressed my hands to my awful face and slid down the door until my tail and ass hit the floor.
Damn it. For a brief, shining moment, I’d really thought that Jordan was The One. But he wasn’t. He wasn’t even close.
I was unsurprised when he knocked at my front door a moment later. “Ryder,” he bellowed, his concern evident. “Are you okay? What happened?”
“No means no,” I yelled back, hoping he wouldn’t notice the growly rasp in my voice now. “Don’t call me again.”
“Open up so we can talk about this.”
“Go away.” I meant it, too. Jordan was nice, handsome—and completely and totally useless to me. Just like every other human man out there, his touch triggered my curse.
The monster under my skin had something to do with sexuality. I could flirt harmlessly all day or hug a female friend. Shake hands. No problem. But the moment a man’s hand caressed me with sexual intention? Out came the scaly fanged beast. I ran a finger over the thick fangs now protruding from my gums over my canines. Those always hurt the worst and were the last to disappear.
“Please, Ryder,” Jordan said, his voice softer. “Can’t we talk through this? I really like you.”
“You’re not who I thought you were,” I yelled back. Oh, the irony of those words. “Go away before I call the cops.”
There was a long moment of silence, then he slammed a fist on the door. “Fuck you, cock tease.” I heard him stomp down my sidewalk back to his car. A moment later, it screeched out of my driveway and down the street.
Well, now. It was a good thing Jordan wasn’t my True Love, because it seemed like he was hiding a douchey side. Not a surprise. We all had our hidden sides.
Mine just happened to be scarier than most: I was a changeling.
At least that’s what the old fortune-teller had told me. I’d had my first experience with my monster shortly after getting my first period. I was fourteen, and I’d made out with a guy on the docks at summer camp. He’d blushed and gotten a boner; I’d grown scales and a tail. My date had chalked up his horrific monster visions to some bad mushrooms. Me? I’d been terrified, so I’d done what any logical fourteen-year-old would have done—I’d stolen my mother’s wallet and taken a bus across town to consult a fortune-teller and get some answers.
It turned out that was the best thing for me. The moment I’d met the tall, willowy fortune-teller, I’d known she was different from other humans. She’d had a soft radiance that I hadn’t been able to identify then. I now knew what it meant—she’d had fae blood.
The fortune-teller told me as much a few minutes into our conversation. She wasn’t entirely human, her fae ancestry coming from her great-grandmother. Her great-grandmother had schooled her in the occult arts, teaching her everything she’d needed to know about the supernatural. Great-grandma had married a satyr, she’d told me, and I’d scoffed. The woman was clearly nuts.
Now, ten years later, I worked at a dating agency for the supernatural and had set up more than one lonely satyr on a date. Life was funny that way.
Anyway, the fortune-teller had had all the answers. She’d told me I was a changeling. That back in the days when the fae folk mingled more openly with humans, the fae would steal a human child and leave a changeling in its place for the parents to raise.
I’d heard the fairy tales, but I’d always thought that changelings were scary, legendary things. I’d been a cute blond teenager who’d happened to look thoroughly human until someone touched me.
The fortune-teller had explained that, too: my natural guard was down in those moments, and the “glamour” that had been cast on me faded. By the time I hit twenty-five, if I remained a virgin, the glamour that made me look human would be unable to overcome my beast side, and I’d be a monster forever.
At fourteen years old, I’d been shattered. Not only were my parents not my real parents but I was also a monster of some kind and would be cursed forever if I didn’t beat the deadline?
The fortune-teller had patted my hand and given me a ray of hope. According to her great-grandmother, every changeling had a perfect match in the world. He’d be The One for me, my True Love. If I found that man, I’d be able to touch him without triggering my monsterlike changeling side. Then I could break the curse, securing the glamour so I remained human, not scaly-clawed-bony-gargoyle-ish. I couldn’t even say what my monster form was; it just seemed like a mix of everything hideous.
So I had to find my perfect mate. And like the fairy tale where the girl kissed a lot of frogs? I had to touch a lot of men. I flirted freely, just a happy, cheerful, young woman. When I got the nerve up, I’d touch a guy. Just to see.
It triggered my monster every time. I’d become a master at escaping before people noticed. I’d feign food poisoning and hide in a bathroom until my creature side faded. I’d bail on a date through the back door—I did that a lot—and transform in the dark parking lot, where no one could see me. My changeling side never lasted long. Already, I could feel my fangs throbbing, a sign that they were about to slide back into my gums. I extended a hand, watching the hint of scales on my skin disappear, my curved, clawed fingers returning to their regular length, my pink-tipped manicure still flawless.
This guy hadn’t been The One, but that didn’t mean the right guy wasn’t out there. I’d keep looking for the answer to my problem, and I’d find it. I wasn’t about to let a little monster side slow me down.
The fact that my twenty-fifth birthday was less than a month away? I didn’t dwell on that.
I worked at a dating agency for the supernatural, after all. Midnight Liaisons catered to vampires, shifters, monsters, and everything else that went bump in the night and wanted a mate. If there was a perfect, magical man who would break my curse, and if he was out there for me, I’d be able to find him through connections at work.
I just had to keep on kissing my frogs until then.
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