Lincoln figured the new artist in town would be one of their mates. He’d heard she was a real ball buster and thought that maybe she would be Tristan’s mate because Tristan said he couldn’t handle that. But when Ginger introduced him to her sister, Grace, he knew from the moment he touched her she was meant for him.
Grace was in shock. Garrett had taken her into his office when the show was still going on and told her that she had all but one of her paintings sold, including the twelve that she’d given him permission to sell. Twice now she’d had to put her head between her knees, which wasn’t easy with the dress she had on, in order to not pass out. Sold all but one? How was that even possible?
Lincoln sat at her feet on the hem of her dress. His attempt to to calm her shaky nerves had her about addled, and when Grace suddenly stood, the dress ripped from shoulder to hip. Standing there trying to get herself covered, she felt her temper snap. Now what was she supposed to do? Grace didn’t know whether to kick him or beg him to help her.
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Cooper Manning and his five brothers were true dragons. Centuries ago, when the humans had turned on their kind, their father sacrificed himself to save his sons by casting a powerful spell which allowed them to walk among the humans. Even centuries later, Cooper couldn’t seem to let go of the past and despised most humans.
Carson Langley was exhausted. After being forced to work thirty-six hours straight, she unwittingly complained to the new plant owner, now she knew she was fired. There was nothing left to do but go home and cry about it later.
Cooper was sent by his brother to retrieve the helpful woman and bring her back to the plant, and he wasn’t happy about it either. It didn’t help that when she answered the door she shared his sour mood, and when he touched her hand, the magic that surged between them meant only one thing—she was his other half, and she was human.... Cooper was seeing red.
Winnie wasn’t happy with Cooper at all. She had only done as ordered and had spent five years in prison because of it. Cooper was supposed to protect her, but he didn’t. Now the dragon king wanted her to protect them all from the new slayers in town? How was that fair? The sooner she completed her mission, the sooner she could move on and leave it all behind her.
Hudson had been told that Cooper had hired a man by the name of Wendall. He just wanted to meet him so he could measure his worth, but when the door opened, the woman behind it was writhing in pain. He only meant to help her, but the moment he touched her, her pain became his as well.
Winnie had been appointed by the Dragon Board to be their protector long before last names were given. She had hunted her first, expecting to be paid by coin, but was rewarded instead with magic and a title. She didn’t have time to take a mate, much less a Manning. She had too much work to do.
The word “no” wasn’t in Hudson’s vocabulary. Winnie was his mate and he’d do whatever he had to claim her.
With slayers lurking in the shadows, Winnie has her hands full, and can’t let a new mate distract her. She had to remain on her toes or all would be lost….
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Lincoln looked at the bins being filled with food and the ice going into the meat display. It was finally here. The grand opening of the Greenhouse and Market Place, or GhMP for short. He loved it. “Hey, Lincoln? You have a minute?” He said that he did for him. Ben was a good kid and had been there from the first. “Sure, you do. I think you’ve found out I’m the biggest pain in the ass here. But there are some veggies I wanted to ask you about. You said this stuff was from the warehouse? Well, I think they sent us the wrong stuff.” Looking it over, he wondered why he thought that until he saw the invoice on the top. This was for a store in Birmingham. Pulling out his cell phone, he called his buddy, Alex, to ask him about it. Alex Porter shipped fruits and vegetables all over the state of Ohio, and sometimes to others. And he was going to sell off his extra, sometimes damaged, things here in the marketplace. When the phone was answered, he asked to speak to Alex. When he came on the line, he explained what was going on. “It’s yours. The people declined their order for yesterday, and if you can take it off my hands, I’ll give you half. There’s an invoice that should be with it.” He told Alex that there was. “Good. She’s going to get charged for the entire invoice, so you can get what you can out of it. Her contract said that she got one chance at this and that’s all. I don’t want to have ripe fruits in my warehouse all week that’ll be rotten before the end of today. I don’t work that way. If you can sell it, I won’t have wasted my money on bringing it back to the warehouse.” “I wouldn’t even know how to price this, Alex. I know very little about fruit. And you know me, I don’t bother with the stuff unless it’s under threat of death. And don’t get me started on vegetables.” Alex asked if Ben was there. Handing him the phone so they could work this out, he walked down the rest of the causeway to make sure all the booths were filled. Lincoln could have occupied them several times over if need be. There was a waiting list about a mile long with names and products. When he saw his buddy from up north, the two of them embraced. “I’m nervous.” Peter told him he’d be too if this was his first day. “We went for a Monday morning on purpose. Sort of a soft opening. That way we can work out the kinks before the.... What are you laughing about?” “Your soft opening is for shit, you know that, don’t you?” He said that they weren’t expecting a huge crowd. “Linc, when I drove up here, I had to wait in line twenty minutes to get into the parking lot. And that’s not counting the line out front, just waiting for the doors to open. You’re going to have a very busy soft opening.” “There’s a lot of people?” He asked if he’d gotten banks for people in the event they needed cash. “Yes, just as you told— There really are that many here? We didn’t even advertise so it would be a slow day. Which it won’t be, will it? How many are out there, you think?”
“I’d say a few thousand.” Lincoln nearly fell over. And might have but for Peter grabbing him. “Just stay focused and you’ll be fine. Go tell your people to gear up, they’re coming to see them in about four minutes.” Lincoln sprinted down the lines, and into the building, to tell them. Word had traveled fast. By the time he got to the last line of the six rows of vendors, they were already putting out more of their product. He was glad now that someone had suggested he call in some off-duty cops to help with the crowd. And banks for extra cash just in case. He’d have to tell Peter thanks. “Have you seen the crowd out there?” He told Cooper not now. “I know, but you said that this was going to be a trial run, not all of the state—” “Cooper, I don’t think you’re helping.” Lincoln felt green when Carson asked if he needed anything. Then the sting to his cheek made him rub it while looking at her. “You’re just lucky I hit you and not Winnie. Now, what do you need us to do? We’re here for you.” “Take a row and see if they need anything after the first half hour. I have extra cash should they need it. I’ll give you one to sell to each vendor. There is a thousand in each, all ones and fives.” Cooper took his bag and the apron that said Marketplace on it. By the time the gates were opened, the rest of his family had shown up. He gave them each an apron and a bag of cash. Before nine-thirty, half an hour after the gates opened, he was making another run to the bank. Thank goodness it was a weekday. After about eleven, things started to slow down. Everyone he talked to while helping with the overload of customers was happy. Some said that they were never leaving. He was glad for that. And that he had taken the time to listen to everyone’s advice. It would have been a disaster if he hadn’t. He’d been about to take out an ad in the local paper. Lincoln wanted things to go well for the vendors. But he’d been told if they were overwhelmed the first day, they might not come back. Most had never done anything like this before. At noon, they got another wave of people. Businesswomen and men coming to check them out and grab some lunch. A lot of the restaurants were busy, and were also selling quite a few drinks. If this was what he could expect in May, he wondered what it could be like when the weather was hot. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it. Ben joined him. “What do you want me to do?” He asked if he had a replacement at the fruit stand. “Nah, it’s all gone. We even sold the boxes, believe it or not.” “What do you mean, it’s all gone? There was a truckload, and I do mean that literally, of things there. Did you sell that too?” “Yeah, your nephews came to help, Simon the most. We bagged and unloaded while the little one, John, pitched for me. You know, five oranges for five bucks kinda thing. You have yourself a nice barker there if you need him.” He didn’t think the kid would lie to him, but he went to check, just to assure himself. “I called Peter, and he said congrats. Also, that now he’ll know to double up this weekend. And he made a hefty profit too. He’s thrilled.”
“Are you coming back?” He asked if Simon and John were going to help. “I can ask their parents, but I think they’re here already. How long did they work? I’ll need to make sure they’re paid.” “Peter said he’d take care of them. I turned their hours in with mine. I was told to do it that way, Mr. Manning.” He wasn’t sure that he was going to agree to that but said nothing to the young man. “Also, Mr. Pack, the meat guy, fed us with his employees. Said he was having such a great day that he didn’t mind whatsoever.” Lincoln went to find Cooper and Carson to tell them the kids had done a good job. They were at the meat counter themselves, and Mr. Pack was telling him what a great day he’d had. He wanted to know if there was going to be a permanent place for him. Lincoln told him that all the inside vendors were welcome to sign a lease for their space after next week. Lincoln didn’t want anyone to feel like they’d made a mistake. “I didn’t by coming here. No siree, I’m telling you, son, I did more business today than in a month at my location. The parking is better, and people feel safer here because you have it all lit up. You did good, Lincoln. I’ll be here for as long as you’ll let me.” The man selling cookies looked as if he’d closed early, but in actuality had sold nearly every cookie and cupcake he’d brought. So, he was talking to the customers walking around and telling them he’d have more when he opened Wednesday. Everyone that he and Cooper had spoken to as they went around collecting their views on how it went today didn’t have one thing bad to say. Most had sold out before lunch, and the rest had been close to that. Even the spice guy said he’d had one of the best days ever. Cooper said that he’d bought a few things as well. “It was fun because of all the people here. Most of them were in such high spirits that it was difficult to be upset about a few extra minutes in a line.” He laughed. “You’ll need to have the port-a-john people come out more often if this is the trend here.” At midnight he was still in his office. Today’s sales were through the roof if the totals were correct. Everyone had given him their daily total so that he could go to the bank when the month was out and apply for an expansion on the land he’d already had. There were another fifteen acres where he was going to add some outdoor activities for the kids, as well as weekend vendors that sold their own art. He was just putting things away for the night when Ginger Rice came to see him. “I heard you had a good day.” He smiled and told her he’d had a fantastic one. “Good. Can you use some help with the bookkeeping? I have Cooper all settled in, and since I can do it daily now instead of catching him up, I have some spare time on my hands.” “Your sister comes tomorrow, doesn’t she? I heard she’s met Garrett and he sort of overwhelmed her a little.” She smiled and said that she was cursing like a sailor. “I’m really glad that he could help her. And yes, if you have time, I’d love for you to handle that. I have an idea what to do, but I’d be slow in learning it.” “Grace will take up some of my time, but she wants to make sure Walton isn’t going to bother us anymore. She’s hated him from the very beginning. And I’m to understand that the other day he found out I had a son, not a daughter.” He asked how that went over when she stood. “I wish he’d not found out until after the trial, but I
really don’t care. He tried to have me, and my children, killed, and he isn’t getting me back for any amount of money or begging. I’m done with his ass.” “Your happy with your house and children being around? I mean, I know it’s sort of big, but as a rental, it’s all right. Cooper has owned it for some time, I’m to understand.” She said that she was very happy with her living arrangements. “Good. Family is both good and bad at times. I’m so thankful you are the former.” “Are you saying you don’t care for yours?” He laughed and said that he loved them very much. “Then I don’t understand. I thought you guys were all very close.” “Oh, we are. Very much so. And that is the problem.” She said that she understood now. When her faerie joined them in the room, Lincoln could see that she was happy with her too. Lincoln had his own, Drizzle, and he found the little man to be quite useful. “I’ll take off now and come by sometime tomorrow. I’m to understand that after today, you won’t be open on Mondays, correct?” “You are. We took a vote, the tenants and I, and we all decided that Monday, after a long weekend, will be just be the perfect day to rest and stock up. I’m not sure what we’re doing for the Fourth just yet, but we’ll get to that soon.” She said that it was only six weeks away. “I know. Spring has just flown by, don’t you think?” “It has.” She looked around the office. “You’re going to need some supplies in here for me to work. I’ll need only a few things that I can bring from my office.” “Order what you need, and I’ll pick it up at the stationary store for you. I’ll also set up an account like my brother has. Cooper said that he’s never had it so easy before.” She told him they were making her life better. “All the same, you’re a welcome treat to have around. Even if you weren’t a wizard at bookkeeping.” After making her list, she talked to him while he finished what he had to do. She said she’d come in Monday when it would be quiet in the office. He told her that a lot of people were going to come in and do restocking, so she might want to barricade herself in the office. She laughed at that. “I’ll let them in if you make it so I know them. I don’t want to let in shoppers or some robber while I’m here.” He told her that he’d put a lock on the doors that they had to have a badge to get in with. “That’s very clever. My goodness, you Mannings sure do have a lot of experience in this, I guess.” “We’ve been around for a long time.” Ginger left after they talked for a bit. He could tell that she was excited about her sister coming while also dreading it. She sounded a little on the caustic side, and he had a feeling she was going to be his mate. Lincoln didn’t know why though. Probably because he was too busy to woo a woman, and Grace sounded like she was so far opposite of him that it sometimes made him want to crawl into a deep cave and make himself a hermit when he thought about her. But he liked people too much to do that. At one o’clock he left his office at the greenhouse. Tomorrow they were going to be open, but he both hoped and didn’t that they had another like today. The greenhouse had had a good day too, selling all the planters as well as taking orders for more. He
had a feeling that the weekend before the Fourth they were going to be really busy, due to people getting their houses ready for the big day. His house was beginning to fill out. Having the funds to have all the renovations done the way he wanted them was nice. But he was sick of having workers around all the time. Davie, the contractor, said they’d be done this coming week, and he was looking forward to it. The only rooms complete were his bedroom and the kitchen. Tomorrow was a big day and he was going to enjoy it. There were too many things going on in his head for him to sleep, so he went for a walk. The moon was just bright enough to light his way. Lincoln loved the solitude of the woods and the bewitching hour. He also knew that he’d sleep better after a good stretch. ~~~ Grace wasn’t happy. Firstly, she felt like she was being ambushed. Secondly...well, she was pissed off. She wasn’t even sure at what just yet, but she was all the same. When the man in charge of her feeling this way came toward her, she put up her hand. “You know that you can’t keep me away. I just came to tell you that you’ve sold another painting.” She looked at him with a stern eye. “You can glare all you want, but I did tell you that you’d have a good showing.” “It’s not even until tonight. How are these people—? You’re letting some come in now?” He said that they were his patrons. “I don’t care if they’re your brothers, you said that I’d have a good show tonight. I’m not prepared for this.” “That’s why you have me.” She could honestly say that she could gladly kill Garrett Massey and whoever had told him about her. If it was Ginger, she was going to murder her too. “There are things going on in your head that are very frightening, aren’t they?” “I’m planning your demise.” He laughed. The man was forever doing that. “What do I do if there isn’t anything left to sell? Not that I think that’s going to happen. But do you have a backup plan if it does?” “Yes, talk you into the other twelve paintings that you have stashed in my office. You let me put them out and we’ll have an even better showing.” She said that she didn’t care anymore. “Seriously? Great. I have just enough time to display them. And since you don’t want to know what I’m selling them for, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised, I think.” “I don’t know how you sold the first one, much less two. Those prices are well above what I would have sold them for, aren’t they?” He said again that was why she had him. “I don’t know what’s going on. What if these people get home and say they don’t like them? Are you going to make me give you the money back?” “I don’t think anyone is going to do that. And they sign a contract when they buy a piece of work from here; it’s theirs. You worry too much, sweetie.” He laughed again, and she wanted to punch him. Twice. “Besides, I doubt very much that once your name gets out there, anyone will want to return them. You’ll be a hit, and those first pieces will be worth a great deal more than they are right now.” “They’re not worth the price you’re putting on them. I don’t know how much, but I know it’s more than I would have charged. Also, I can’t believe people are going to pay
you whatever you want for my work. It’s insane.” He kissed her on the forehead and she stood there when he walked away. She wanted her sister. Grace wasn’t one to whine and complain. She was more the type of person that took care of things when they came up, and usually with flare. At least that’s what she called it. Her flare was to ignore the person causing her issues. Or—and it amazed her how many times this plan came up—she kicked the shit out of them. Pulling out her cell, she called her sister. “I was wondering if you’d call.” Grace felt better just hearing her voice. “I just laid Mattie down for a nap and I’m feeding Wendall, so you can talk to me all you want.” “You’re so domestic. I miss that about you.” Her sister laughed and told her she could be too. “No way. I don’t like people. I called to see if you’re still going to make it tonight. You’re my rock.” “I am. I have the best sitter ever keeping an eye on the children, and I have this dress that is going to make you jealous.” She hadn’t told her sister that she’d had a makeover and felt foolish in her own. “All of the Mannings are coming too. You’re going to be overwhelmed, all right. Just don’t hit any of them.” “I don’t hit people right off the bat.” She laughed with Ginger. “I’ve warned Garrett we’re twins and it’s difficult to tell us apart. Hopefully everyone will think you’re the artist and leave me alone.” “And what would I say if they were to ask about a piece? Nothing. I wouldn’t even know what to tell them about the kind of paint you use. Besides, you’ll be just fine.” Ginger told her to hang on. “I had to switch boobs.” “You don’t need to tell me that.” She did though, and it was great that her sister was so happy. “I’ve hired this guy to take care of my work. Though I don’t think there was ever a doubt to him that he was. He seems to think that I’m the best thing since sliced bread. And that’s what he said to me. And he’s a tiger.” “Yes, I know that. The men here, they have all kinds of paranormals coming in and out all the time. I’m getting good at telling the difference. Oh, and I took on another client. I’ll be doing Lincoln’s books now too. I’m having so much fun.” She told her only she would have fun with numbers. “They sing their song to me. And you should know how that is. You tell me all the time how your muse seems to call to you. Does he still zone you out when you paint, like he did all the time?” “Yeah, I’m weird like that.” She saw Garrett pulling her paintings out to the floor. “I have to go and see what he’s about. I gave him the last of twelve to put out for tonight. I think I’ll be bringing them when I come see you.” She wanted to bring her sister home with her, to her house, but she didn’t have that anymore. As soon as she told her landlord she was going away for an extended period, he told her that he was selling the house and she might as well move out. It was very abrupt, but she knew it was coming. He was ninety-two and had no one to help him with rentals anymore. “I had to sell, honey. I loved you being here all the time, but I’m falling more and more, and I can’t be doing that and living by myself. I got into one of the assisted living places. They’ll even do my clothes for me. Imagine that, why don’t you, somebody to
wash my undies.” They laughed. “I’ll give you back your deposit, and you can take your time moving out. I’m sorry.” She and Ginger talked about this and that when they were on the phone nowadays. It was comforting because Ginger was so calm. They talked mostly about the children, who Grace was excited to see. Mattie had been just a wee thing the last time she’d seen her, and now there was a little boy. Ginger deserved so much better than the ass that had taken her. “I have to go, sweetie. We need to get dressed up, and I should do that now while Wendall and Mattie are asleep. I’ll see you tonight and you’ll be coming with us.” She said that she hoped she could find a place to live. “You will. You can live with us. We’ll have good times again.” After hanging up, she went to the office to see what was left. Really, it was to hide out. She really wasn’t very good with people. They made her freeze up. She thought that was why she painted, just to escape the world. Last night, it had taken her an hour tossing and turning to realize she wasn’t going to sleep. So instead of continuing down that futile path, she got up and pulled out her things. The hotel she was staying at, thanks to Garrett, said she could paint in her room but would be responsible for any damage done to it. Garrett had put down a large deposit and told her that he’d pay for any damages. To paint when the mood struck her was something she couldn’t do without. It, like her sister and her children, calmed her in ways she couldn’t explain. Last night’s painting had been the best she thought she’d ever done. For some reason the idea of a large castle had come to her. Not the pretty kind with turrets with flags and flowers at the front. This one was dark and full of secrets that only the ghosts that lived there were aware of. And they were going to keep out everyone that tried to come to the big stack of stone. As she painted, seeing it in her mind’s eye, she got more information on the inhabitants there, and was glad for the lights when the darkness of the place started to make itself known to her. Death was all over it. It had been in a siege and many lives were lost. The king had killed his wife, to save her from certain death that would not be easy on the delicate lady. Then he’d thrown himself out the window, sure that it would be preferable than the one the new king would have for him. There were other stories like that one, but she loved rather than hated them. Part of the castle wasn’t coming to her, but she was all right with that. Instead of trying to make it, she just painted something else on it. The broken gates, the large stones at intervals around the place. There were other things that had fallen into disrepair, but she had a feeling the castle and its surroundings were going to be something that would haunt her forever. Like the unfinished part of the castle, something was blocking her from seeing it all. When she stepped back from it when her alarm went off to get up, she was amazed at the detail. But then she was like that with each of her paintings. But in this one, this was calling to her in a different way. Like she had the unfinished business, not the castle. Cleaning up, she noticed something that she hadn’t before. The makings of a
dragon that seemed to be flying over the castle, the part that she’d not finished. Seemingly protecting it from whatever was coming for it. Or her. “What is wrong with you?” she had asked herself. “It’s a painting, not a fortune teller. Get a grip, dumbass.” And now here she sat, wanting to work on it, but knowing that for now it was as finished as she could make it. Until...whatever was needed for her to do was ready. Laughing to herself, she decided to return to the hotel anyway and get dressed. Tonight was going to be huge for her, and she’d get to see her sister. Taking a second shower, Grace pulled her hair into a ponytail and then braided it. After wrapping it with a rubber band, she coiled it around her head, mostly to keep it out of her face. Then she pulled her dress on. Black, Garrett had told her— to show how important she was. Instead she felt foolish. She never wore dresses at all, and this was strange. It was more of a sheath, she supposed. There wasn’t any kind of nipping at the waist. The only part that was tight was around her breasts. And there was a slit up the side that showed off her entire leg and most of her thigh. She wasn’t thrilled about that, but it was the only dress they had in her size that was black. She was going to have to do some serious shopping if she had to do this very often. Grace did not like showing off more than she sa