The knight was damnably likable. He’d cheerfully ignored my order to rest and recover, though he had let me carry the heaviest supplies, mostly because I’d growled at him when he’d tried it. He’d frozen for a moment before grinning at me and holding up his hands in surrender.
Now he was cooking breakfast, moving around the kitchen like he’d lived here his entire life. He had not donned his armor this morning, so his fragile skin was only protected by a thin layer of cloth.
Cloth that clung to his body in a highly flustering manner.
He drew my gaze like a magnet, and I knew I would have to send him on his way soon. Already, my instincts were stirring. Dragons are both possessive and territorial, and there’s a reason we spend much of our time alone.
Ansel interrupted my thoughts by setting a plate in front of me with a flourish. “Your breakfast, my lady.”
He’d made eggs, bacon, and crispy potatoes, along with a thick slice of toasted bread slathered in butter. My mouth watered. “Thank you.”
He filled his own plate, then joined me at the table. We ate in silence for a while, then he asked, “What is your plan for the day?”
“The weather should be nice, so I need to spend some time in the garden.” The warm sun would help the last of my magic recharge. “After that, I’ll shelve my new books. I should probably also go patrol. I had no idea bandits had gotten so bold. I need to teach them the error of their ways.”
Ansel’s eyes widened in understanding. “You’re the reason people consider the roads dragon-blessed.”
“The ones in my territory, yes. But I haven’t been diligent enough. When you’re as old as I am, time tends to pass differently.”
“How old are you?”
The weight of my many years pressed on me. “Ancient.”
He grinned before he realized I was serious. He shook his head in disbelief. “You don’t look any older than me, and I’m twenty-nine.”
He was older than I’d expected, but not by much. The weight of my years grew heavier. “I was ancient before you were born, and I’ll be even more ancient after you are gone.”
Something in my chest twisted at the thought of him old and gray and dead. He would be gone in a blink.
I shut down that line of thought before it could form. I was perfectly happy alone, and had been for the many long years of my life. I’d raised three broods—on my own, as is the way of dragons—before sending them out into the world to seek their fortune.
I did not want or need a mate.
No matter how pretty his brown eyes and muscled body.
I showed Ansel how to weed the garden, and we worked in companionable silence. Well, he worked. I mostly lazed in the sun, basking in the warmth.
A shadow fell over me, and I cracked one eye open to find the knight grinning down at me. “I’ve done my half. Should I start on yours?”
“You should be resting. The weeds can wait.”
“I’ll rest if you show me your dragon form,” he coaxed.
“You know I’m not any easier to kill in that form, right?”
His brows drew together. “Why do you think I want to kill you?”
“You told me you were hunting the dragon who stole the king’s gold. I am said dragon. Therefore, you are hunting me.” I waved a hand at him. “It’s what knights do.”
He caught my fingers. His skin was warm under mine. “Perhaps, but not this knight. You are safe with me, Lady Dragon. I swear it, on my honor.”
I studied him carefully. “You mean that, don’t you?” He nodded, and I asked, “Why?”
“You are not a mindless killing machine. Neither am I.”
When I stared at him in astonishment, he grinned and pulled me to my feet. “I’m feeling a desperate urge to weed your half of the garden, so if you want me to rest, you know what you have to do.”
“Unfair,” I grumbled, but I led him to the courtyard, where I’d have plenty of room. I backed him against the wall and ignored the way his eyes lit with interest. “Stay there. If it’s too much, tell me and I will turn back.”
His head dipped in agreement, so I left him and moved back to the center of the space. Changing forms was as easy as breathing. Magic rushed over my skin, and I let myself sink into my true form. My body expanded, sheathed in scales so deeply purple they were nearly black. Two legs became four, and wings sprouted from my back. My tail flicked through the air as the sun warmed me, and I rumbled in contentment.
I’d nearly forgotten about the knight, but a glance proved he’d stayed frozen in place. His mouth was slightly open, but it was awe on his face, not fear.
He looked up and met my gaze. “May I touch you?”
I rumbled my assent and settled onto the courtyard’s warm stone pavers. I couldn’t speak human language in this form, but the knight understood anyway.
He approached slowly, like I was a spooked animal, and his touch, when it came, was gentle. After a moment, he chuckled and tapped a finger against my scales. “No wonder you’re hard to kill. I’m glad.” He glided a hand down my side. “Can you feel that?”
I rumbled again, and he laughed in delight. “And I could feel that.” He leaned his whole body against mine. “You’re so warm. Is it the sun or your magic?”
It was both, so I gave him the same rumbling growl, and carefully wrapped my wing over him, cocooning him in warmth.
He yawned widely before shaking his head. “Now who’s being unfair? You’re going to make me so warm and comfortable that I fall asleep, and I still have a garden to weed.”
I tucked him closer and crooned low in my throat. The part of me that had been clenched tight since he’d first gotten hurt finally relaxed. He was here. He was safe.
For now, it was enough.