Ember’s Kiss

Ember's Kiss, #8 in the Dragonfire series of paranormal romances by Deborah CookeOnly one woman can persuade him to embrace his powers.

Brandon Merrick is determined to banish his shifter nature forever. The charismatic tattooed surfer is on the cusp of the ultimate challenge – to prove himself on the whitecaps of Hawaii and secure his future as a pro surfer. But his dragon isn’t prepared to be tamed so easily…

One look at marine biologist Liz Barrett ignites the spark of the firestorm: Liz is his destined mate and his chance for happiness. While Brandon sees their first night together as just the beginning, his dragon seizes the upper hand. Awakening in the company of a raging dragon challenges Liz’s ability to believe her own eyes. Can Brandon accept his inner beast in time to make it work with Liz?

Neither one realizes that Brandon is caught in an ancient Slayer‘s scheme to enslave him. When the deadly plot ignites, the very island will be at risk…and Brandon and his mate could be the ultimate sacrifice.

“Dodging your birthright is the theme of the latest terrific Dragonfire novel, as both the hero and heroine attempt to deny their bloodlines. Cooke introduces readers to the world of witches, opening up other intriguing plot possibilities. Ember’s Kiss is filled with passion and the power of self-discovery — another Cooke classic!”—Romantic Times Book Review

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An excerpt from Ember’s Kiss:
Liz felt as if she’d arrived in paradise.

There was no better place to make a fresh start.

Maureen had picked her up at the airport, as planned, and they were driving away from Honolulu. The warm temperature was a welcome change from the snow in New England. It amazed Liz that she’d shoveled her driveway for the cab that would take her to the airport just fourteen hours before.

Instead of being tired from her trip, she felt invigorated.

Maureen had the windows open on her ancient turquoise Mercedes and the wind blew through the car like a warm caress. The flowers in Liz’s lei, which Maureen had bought for her, were yellow plumeria and smelled like heaven.

This place might just be heaven.

Liz felt a tight knot within her loosening, and she knew the stress and tension of the past year was easing out of her body. She was excited at the possibility of making connections at this symposium to access the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and continue her research there. No wonder she felt so energized – plus she was ditching a lot of negative garbage that had been wearing her down.

She smiled, recognizing a thought her mother would have expressed.

Maureen tossed Liz a smile. “Are you relaxing, finally, or is it just jetlag that’s made you quiet?”

“Probably a combination of both, but it feels good.”

“That’s the magic of this place,” Maureen said. “It feels so good. Stay a week and you’ll never want to leave.”

Liz had a feeling it wouldn’t take a week to convince her to stay.

Maureen was in her fifties, a ferociously clever marine biologist who had been Liz’s mentor and doctoral advisor. She’d always been stern and somewhat daunting on the east coast, but the woman who had picked up Liz at the airport could have been Maureen’s wilder twin sister. She’d cut her hair since coming here to continue her research two years before and had stopped coloring it. It blew around her face in flattering silver waves. She looked less careworn, though Liz imagined that she was still a perfectionist when it came to reports.

“It looks as if it suits you to be here,” Liz commented.

Maureen laughed. “They’ll take me off this island when I’m ashes in a jar and not one moment before.” She winked at Liz. “Since you and I are two of a kind, inviting you here for this seminar is part of my diabolical plan to tempt you here for good.”

Two of a kind? Liz supposed that she and Maureen had been similar. She certainly had always liked the older woman, and intuitively trusted her. There was a lot that Maureen didn’t know about Liz, though, and Liz was going to keep it that way.

She’d no sooner thought that than Liz saw the entry to the tunnel looming ahead, a porthole to darkness. She suddenly had a bad feeling, like someone walking over her grave, and shivered.

What was going on? She didn’t have a fear of darkness.

Maureen must have noticed Liz’s reaction because she hurried to reassure her. “It’s not a very long tunnel, and it’s the quickest way home. Next time, I’ll take you around Diamond Head for the view. I figured you’d be tired today and quicker would be better.”

They were swallowed by darkness before Liz could answer, the headlights of the car illuminating the road ahead.

Firedaughter.

Liz’s eyes widened when she heard the whisper. It was a mere breath of sound, like a wisp of smoke on the wind, gone as soon as she perceived it. She couldn’t tell if it had been whispered in her ear or had resonated in her thoughts.

Either way, she hadn’t been called that in years.

Fourteen years.

She glanced at Maureen who was apparently oblivious. “Did you hear that?” she asked, already guessing the answer.

“What? Oh! The engine has a little tick. It’s funny how it seems louder in the tunnels. It’s nothing to worry about.” Maureen smiled. “This car will be running long after both of us are gone.” She patted the steering wheel with affection.

But it wasn’t the engine Liz had heard.

It had been in her head. This was not good.

“Just another minute,” Maureen said cheerfully. “This old volcano is high but not that broad. I’m sorry. I didn’t know that you didn’t like tunnels. Next time, we’ll go around.”

Then Liz understood what was happening. No matter how extinct it was, this volcano had a connection to the lava of the earth’s core. She was closer to the molten heart of the planet than she’d been in a while. Had something recognized her?

She looked around the car carefully, but she and Liz were alone.

Firedaughter. Liz really didn’t want to think about the last time she’d heard that word. Those were memories best forgotten.

To her relief, they shot into the sunlight a moment later and she could forget the whispered salutation. In fact, Liz gasped at her first view of the windward side of O`ahu. It was gorgeous, all azure bays and lush greenery.

A Garden of Eden.

This was real, not whispers in the dark.

“So, you have a scheme to tempt me here for good?” Liz asked, encouraging Maureen to elaborate. Liz had hoped that she might find more opportunity in Hawai`i than just a guest spot at a symposium. She was interested, though, in hearing why Maureen thought she should move. “What makes you think I’d leave New England?”

“Why not leave? You’ve no family, no husband, no boyfriend. You don’t even have a cat.”

Liz took the role of the devil’s advocate. “But it’s where I live. I have tenure.”

“It’s where you have lived,” Maureen countered with her usual pragmatism. “You could have tenure here, too. Might take a while, but not as long as you might think.”

Tenure, and soon. It was almost too good to be true.

“Besides, New England’s not a place that continues to be good for you.”

Liz glanced at Maureen in surprise and was shocked to see a brilliant pink aura dancing around her friend. She hadn’t seen auras in years and this one was as glorious as a tropical sunset. Liz blinked and the aura was gone.

No. It must have been an illusion. A trick of the light.

Shaken, she looked out the window, trying to hide her reaction from her observant friend. First the whisper, now a glimpse of auras.

How could her lost powers be reappearing? It made no sense. They’d been sacrificed forever.

And good riddance.

Liz forced herself to continue the conversation. “Why not?” she asked, sensing that Maureen was waiting for her reply.

“Rob, of course!”

Rob dumping her was the least of Liz’s concerns, but she didn’t correct Maureen.

Instead, she stole another sidelong glance. No aura. That was a relief. She must have imagined it.

Maureen, characteristically, wasn’t so easily put off when she had something to say and for once, Liz was glad of it. “What does it serve you, seeing him every day in the lab, knowing he’s having sex every night with that woman?” Her disgust was clear. “How can you possibly move on and find your own future if you stay in the same place?”

Liz knew that her failed relationship with Rob wasn’t an issue.

“I don’t think it’s a problem…”

“Nonsense!” Maureen shook a finger at Liz. “You’re just in denial.” She clicked her teeth in disapproval. “Only a man could imagine that you two could still work together as a research team after he did something like that.”

“But then you told me not to date him in the first place,” Liz observed with a smile.

Maureen chuckled. “Well, I had been there and done that. Something about him reminded me of my ex in those early days.”

It was startling to have something else in common with Maureen. Liz realized she wouldn’t mind driving around Hawai`i in a vintage Mercedes in twenty years. That thought made her smile.

Maureen turned off the road, then got out of the car to punch a code into a locked gate that secured a parking lot. Once back in the driver’s seat, she continued as if there’d been no interruption. “After the divorce, coming out here was the smartest thing I’ve ever done – never mind that it’s the only thing I’ve ever done for myself.” Maureen parked the car. She fixed Liz with a stern look and her eyes were the vivid blue that indicated she meant business. “It’s about time you did something for yourself, Liz. Do it sooner than I did.”

“Is that an order?”

Maureen grinned. “Maybe it should be.”

Liz smiled. “Maybe you won’t be surprised to find out that I accepted the invitation to the symposium hoping that it might lead to a more permanent connection.”

Maureen smiled triumphantly. “Excellent! I’d been afraid I’d have to waste the week arguing this with you.” She winked. “Let the bastard miss you, in the lab at least.”

Liz felt like a fraud for letting Maureen believe that Rob was the reason behind her choice. On the other hand, Maureen could facilitate her move. There would be lots of time to sort out the truth – if she ever did confess it.

Liz glanced around with interest. “So, where are we?”

“Lilipuna Pier on Kane`ohe Bay, where we get the shuttle boat to Cocoanut Island. You’re going to love it.” Maureen exuded enthusiasm. “The Institute is the only thing on the island, no cars are allowed, and you’re surrounded on all sides by a magnificent coral reef. Best location possible for research, even if it is a bit inconvenient. Look – here comes the shuttle boat, right on time. We’d better move it. They keep to schedule.”

Maureen got out of the car and Liz did the same, taking a deep breath of the ocean breeze. She loved the idea of a research lab that was remote from other people. Solitude was best for good work.

Liz stood by the car and surveyed the island, an outcropping of coral reef with research facilities perched on it. She heard the rumble of the sea, then felt the way her body tingled in response. She felt a familiar quickening, one that she’d managed to avoid for a long time, and was glad that the Institute was surrounded by water.

Water kept fire at bay.

She refused to think any more about that whisper.

Maureen, characteristically, continued to lecture as she hauled Liz’s bags out of the trunk. “It’s such a fabulous facility for marine research, and particularly good for the study of coral reefs. You, of all people, know that Hawai`i’s reefs are younger than other Pacific reefs and…

“…biologically distinct,” Liz concluded, taking refuge in the discussion of her work. “I’m looking forward to seeing more. There must be some great data collected here.”

Maureen shook her head as she slammed the trunk of the car. “There is data, but you’ll want to get out into the field for a change. Gather your own samples. See the reef with your own eyes. Here’s the chance to get away from the computer!”

Liz pretended to shudder in horror. “It’s safe in the lab. No need for sunscreen. No sharks.”

“Pshaw! With that innate sense of yours, you’d make ten times the progress if you got out into the reef. You’ll make your name here, Liz. Trust me.” Maureen glanced at Liz, expectant, but Liz just smiled.

She was not going to get out into the field. She was not going to immerse herself in the sensory influence of the earth and the elements. That would be a losing battle. She’d be casting circles again before she knew it.

Science was her refuge. Nice, logical, neat science. No magic or curses came with the occupation of marine biologist and that worked for Liz. She’d get out to the preserve, then send a grad student diving to get her samples.

“I like the lab. It’s predictable and controllable.” Liz claimed her own bag from the older woman, knowing it was heavy, as they walked briskly toward the pier. “So, over to the island, then early to bed?”

Maureen grinned. “Better than that.” She checked her watch. “You’ll just have time to unpack a few things before all of us go out for dinner. The regulars want to get to know the new arrivals before the symposium starts, so I chose a local favorite for our first night out. The seafood there is terrific.”

Liz immediately tried to decline. “But, I could use some sleep…”

“Nonsense! It’ll be fun.” Maureen cocked a finger at Liz. “That is an order.”

Liz stood on the dock and watched the shuttle boat was drawing steadily closer. She didn’t want to mingle with strangers, not tonight.

That whisper had spooked her.

The aura, too.

Maureen put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “You’ll do fine,” she said with encouragement. “I know you’re not much of a party girl, but it will be fun. Order a drink when we get there and drink half of it before the food arrives.”

Liz laughed despite herself. “You want me to get drunk?”

“I want you to relax and enjoy yourself. If you need a little sip of something to make that happen, it won’t hurt anybody. I promise not to let you drive.”

The shuttle pulled into the dock and a young man leapt to the dock to tie it up. The engine kept running as he reached to give Maureen a hand. He flashed a warm smile at Liz, his gaze assessing in a way that Liz had almost forgotten. He offered his hand to help her and Liz caught a glimpse of a deep purple aura around his fingers.

She blinked and it was gone again.

Liz ignored his outstretched hand, then stepped into the boat herself. She stumbled a bit in her haste, and he caught her elbow to steady her.

“Wait ‘til a rough day,” he said with a smile.

“Maybe I’ll stay ashore then,” Liz joked, sitting down quickly.

What if her gift was back?

How could that be? It had been absent for fourteen entire years. As much as Liz savored the renewed sensitivity to the elements surrounding her, she didn’t want the burden of that responsibility again – much less the conviction that she would be tested.

Science. That’s what she wanted. Not juju in the dark. No spells. No voices or auras or mystical doings in the night.

Maureen sat down beside her. “You just need to realize how attractive you are,” she whispered, misinterpreting Liz’s reaction. Liz chose to let her mentor think what she wanted. The engine roared and the shuttle pulled into the bay.

Liz kept her gaze fixed on the scenery. But she was afraid that something unusual was going on here. She wasn’t born of a line of family witches for nothing. Maureen was right – Liz’s intuition was infallible.

And she was spooked.

excerpt ©2012 Deborah A. Cooke.

The next Dragonfire novel is the Dragon Legion Collection.

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