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“I didn’t need you to protect me. The bear was an accident. It was confused, not dangerous. I was casting a drawing spell, and somehow the bear got caught by it,” she explained.

“So, it was a drawing spell.” The irritation that had begun to creep into his voice vanished, to be replaced by an arrogant chuckle and another knowing look. “That is why you called my name. You want me.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Dragon grinned as he watched the young priestess’s face flush a lovely shade of pink.

“You have mistaken my intent,” she said

“You said it yourself—you were casting a drawing spell. I heard you speak my name. Obviously, you were drawing me.” He paused, thinking that it all made sense now. “No wonder I left Shaw and the rest of the Warriors and walked home by myself from the docks. I thought it was because of Biddle. He’d watched me before I left for the Vampyre Games, so I already knew he didn’t like me, but tonight his stare was so hard, so strange, that I supposed it’d made me feel odd, almost as if I couldn’t breathe, and I needed to be out here, where there was air and space and–” He broke off, laughing a little and giving her the beginnings of his famous smile. “But, no matter. The truth is I am here because you desire me.” He rubbed his chin, considering. “We haven’t met. I would remember such beauty. Was it my reputation for prowess with the sword that has piqued your interest, or was it a more personal kind of prowess that–”

“Bryan, I don’t desire you!”

“Call me Dragon,” he said automatically, and then continued. “Of course you do. You just admitted your drawing spell. You need not be embarrassed. I’m flattered. Really.”

“Dragon,” she said in a way that he thought verged on sarcasm. “I am embarrassed, but not because of you. I’m embarrassed for you.”

“You aren’t making any sense.” He wondered briefly if she’d hit her head when she’d fallen.

The priestess drew a deep breath and let it out in an exasperated sigh. Then she offered her hand and forearm to him, saying, “Merry meet, Bryan Dragon Lankford. I am Professor Anastasia, the new priestess of spells and rituals at the Tower Grove House of Night.”

“Merry meet, Anastasia,” he said, gripping her bare forearm, which was soft and warm to his touch.

“Professor Anastasia,” she corrected him. Too soon, she released her grip on him and said, “You weren’t meant to know about this spell.”

“Because you don’t want anyone to know you want me?” Including me, he added silently to himself.

“No. The spell has nothing to do with wanting you. It’s the opposite, actually,” she said. And then in a voice that sounded as if she was lecturing a classroom of fledglings, she continued. “This is going to sound unkind, but the truth is I am here to cast what amounts to an anti–Dragon Lankford spell.”

Her words took him aback. “Have I somehow done something to offend you? You do not even know me. How could you dislike me?”

“It isn’t that I dislike you!” she said quickly, almost as if she was trying to cover something up. “Here is the truth of the matter: in the fortnight I have been teaching at Tower Grove House of Night fifteen fledglings have come to me to ask for love spells with which to bespell you.”

Dragon’s eyes widened. “Fifteen? Really?” He paused and took a quick mental count. “I can only think of ten girls who would want to bespell me.”

The professor didn’t look at all amused. “I would say you underestimate yourself, but I do not think that is possible. So I’ll just assume you are better at swordplay than addition. Be that as it may, I came out here tonight intending to cast a spell that would draw to each of your besotted admirers the truth of you so that they could see clearly and honestly that you aren’t the right mate for them, which would end their silly infatuations,” she finished in a rush.

He couldn’t remember the last time he had been so surprised. No, that wasn’t true. The last time he’d felt this kind of soul-deep surprise was when the night had been illuminated to reveal the masthead of a ship and a new life. He shook his head and said the first thing that came to mind. “This is hard for me to believe. You really dislike me. Women usually like me. Quite a lot, actually.”

“Obviously. That is why thirteen of them asked for me to bespell you.”

He frowned. “I thought you said fifteen before.”

“Thirteen girls. Two boys,” she said dryly. “Apparently boys like you quite a lot, too.”

Unexpectedly, Dragon laughed. “There you have it! Everyone likes me, except you.”

“What I do not like is the thought that so many impressionable young fledglings are infatuated with you. It’s simply not healthy.”

“Not healthy for whom? I feel just fine.” He smiled at her then, turning on every bit of his charm.

Dragon thought he saw her stern look relax a little and those big turquoise eyes soften, but her next words dashed cold water all over him.

“If you were more mature you would care about others’ feelings.”

He scowled. “Really? I’m almost twenty.” Dragon paused and looked her up and down appraisingly. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two,” she said, lifting her chin.

“Twenty-two! That’s too young to be a professor and too young to be lecturing me on being more mature.”

“And yet I am your professor of spells and rituals, and someone should lecture you about what you would be if you acted older. Who knows, with a little guidance you might grow up and be a Warrior of integrity and honor.”

“I have just returned from games where I earned the title of Sword Master. I already have integrity and honor, even though I’m not yet a fully Changed vampyre.”

“You can’t win integrity and honor from games. You can only earn them from living a life dedicated to those ideals.” Her eyes held his and he realized that she wasn’t speaking to him with condescension. She sounded oddly sad—almost defeated. And Dragon had no idea why that made him suddenly want to say something—do something, anything that would make the little furrow of worry on her otherwise smooth brow disappear.

“I know that, Anastasia—Professor Anastasia,” he corrected himself this time. “I am already dedicated to my Sons of Erebus training. I will be a Warrior someday, and I will uphold their standards of honesty and loyalty and valor.”

He was pleased to see her smile, though it was slight. “I hope you do. I think you could make an extraordinary Warrior someday.”

“I’m already extraordinary,” Dragon said, his smile back.

And then she surprised him again by looking him squarely in his eyes, almost as if she was a Warrior herself, and saying, “If you’re so extraordinary, then prove it.”

Dragon brandished his sword and bowed to her, hand fisted around the hilt, pressing it to his chest just as if he was a full Son of Erebus Warrior and she his priestess. “Send me on a task! Point me at the bear I must slay to prove myself worthy.”

This time her smile was full, and Dragon thought it lit up her already beautiful face with a happiness that seemed to glow around her. Her mouth, with its full lips tilted up, was distracting him so that he had to blink in confusion and say, “What? Me?” when he realized she was pointing directly at him. “Even a vampyre who is too young to be a professor should be able to see that I am not a bear.”

“I was assuming you were speaking metaphorically when you asked me to set you on a quest to prove your worth.”

“Quest?” He blinked. He’d just been kidding. What was she thinking?

“Well, I suppose it doesn’t really qualify as a full quest, but it is a way you can prove to me that you’re extraordinary.”

He took a swaggering step toward her. Now this was more like it! “I am ready to do your bidding, my lady,” he said in his most charming voice.

“Excellent. Then come over here to my altar. You are going to help me cast this spell.”

His swagger ended. “You want me to help you with a spell that will make girls dislike me?”

“Do not forget the two boys. And the spell won’t make them dislike you. It will make them see you more clearly because it will get rid of their haze of infatuation for you.”

“I have to tell you, this sounds a little dodgy to me. It seems a lot like cutting my arm off to prove that I’m an extraordinary swordsman.”

“You do not have to help me.” She turned back to the altar, fussing with the element candles and then the three little velvet bags that sat beside the chalice and food.

Dragon shrugged and started to walk away. It was no matter to him that this odd young priestess was set on making his love life difficult. So what if thirteen fledglings were no longer interested in him? (He didn’t count the guys.) One thing he’d learned since he’d first discovered the pleasures of women was that there were always women who wanted him. He had even started to chuckle to himself when her next words drifted across the distance between them.

“Actually, pay no mind to my request. You should be getting back to the House of Night. Dawn approaches. Most fledglings are already in their beds.”

He stopped and whirled around, wanting to spit fire at her. She’d spoken to him as if he was a child! But she didn’t realize how her words had affected him. Anastasia was still puttering around the altar, her back to him, as if she had already completely erased Dragon Lankford from her mind.

She was wrong about him. He wasn’t a child and he didn’t lack honesty or loyalty or valor. He’d show her by … by …

And then he heard himself saying, “I’ll stay and help you with the spell.”

She looked over her shoulder at him and he saw surprise and something else, something that might have been pleasure and warmth in those big blue eyes. But her voice was nonchalant. “Good. Come over here and sit there, on the edge of the rock.” She pointed. “Be careful not to disturb the altar cloth or knock over a candle.”

“Yes, my lady. Anything you say, my lady,” he muttered.

As he rejoined her she raised a brow at him but didn’t say anything and went back to arranging the candle and neatening the altar.

Dragon studied her while she worked. His first impression of her held—she was a beauty: petite with long, wheat-colored hair that fell straight and thick to her waist. But even though she was small, she still had generous curves, which he could easily see through her sheer linen top and flowing blue skirt. He didn’t usually pay much attention to what women wore—he preferred his women naked—but Anastasia’s clothing was decorated with shells and beads and fringe, making her look fey and Otherworldly, an effect that was enhanced by her tattoos, which were graceful vines and flowers, so exquisite in detail they looked real.

“All right. I’m ready to begin again. Are you?” she asked.

He blinked and shifted his attention to the altar, not liking that she’d caught him staring. “I’m ready. Actually, I’m looking forward to hearing the names of the fledglings who asked for love spells.” He turned his gaze from the altar to meet hers, being sure he put a challenge in his voice.

Anastasia’s look remained unruffled. “Because you are aiding me with the spell, I won’t need to call the fledglings’ names. Your presence and cooperation add enough strength to my casting that it will affect anyone who has been distracted by you.”

Dragon exhaled with a snort. “It sounds like it’s a good thing I don’t have a ladylove at this moment. What we’re about to do would certainly mess that up.”

“No, it wouldn’t. Not if that person was truly interested in you and not some overblown image of you.”

“You make me sound like an arrogant ass,” he said.

“Are you?”

“No! I’m just me.”

“Then this spell will not affect anyone who wants just you.”

“All right, all right. I understand. Let’s get this over with. What do you want me to do?”

She answered with a question of her own. “You have taken three years of spells and rituals classes, haven’t you?”

He nodded. “I have.”

“Good, well, I’ll mix the spellwork herbs in your hand. Hold it up like a cup.” She demonstrated with her own. “Like this. The herbs touching you will help lend strength to the spell. Do you think you could manage the completion of at least some of the parts of the actual spellwork if I lead you through it?”

He stifled his irritation. She didn’t sound patronizing. She sounded as if she hadn’t actually considered the possibility that he might enjoy class—might be good at anything besides swordplay.

Professor Anastasia was in for a surprise.

“If you have to ask, you must not have checked out my class work record from the previous spells and rituals professor,” he said blandly, hoping that his tone would make her believe she would have found one substandard grade after another.

The young professor sighed heavily. “No, I did not.”

“So all you really know about me is how infatuated some of the other fledglings are with me.”

Her eyes met his and, again, he saw an emotion he couldn’t identify in their cornflower depths. “I know that someday you will be a Warrior, but that does not mean you can cast a spell.”

“All I can do is to give you my word I will do my best tonight,” he said, wondering why it mattered at all to him what she thought.

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