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Fire Me Up, Page 2

Katie MacAlister

  "You da man," Jim drawled, shoving me out of the way so it could put its paws on the door and stick its nose into the taxi, giving Rene a couple of good swipes with its tongue. "Thank god you're here. She's falling to pieces, and we've only been in the country a couple of hours."

  "Jim! It is a pleasure to see you again. Thank you for the postcard from the Oregon coast. I didn't know you could write."

  Jim shot me a nasty look. "I can't, not after one of my toes went missing. I dictated and Aisling wrote for me."

  I shook my head in an attempt to clear it as Rene leaned out through the window to reach back and open the door of the taxi. "This doesn't make sense. You're a Paris taxi driver. This is Budapest. The two aren't even remotely close. Something here does not compute."

  Jim leaped into the car. I stood on the sidewalk clutching my luggage, the phrase book fluttering at my feet. Rene grinned, got out of the taxi, and gently pried my fingers off the handle of the suitcase before taking it to the trunk. "My cousin Bela, he is a taxi driver most discreet here in Budapest. But his stone of kidneys erupted, causing him much pain, so he is unable to drive for the next two weeks. I am here to fill in for him. "

  "Fill in?" I asked, grabbing my phrase book and allowing him to shoo me into the car. Jim had its head out the far window, great big ropes of drool thankfully dribbling outside rather than down its chest, as they usually did. "Wait a minute. Didn't you say that you and your family take a vacation during the month of August? Why are you spending your vacation time working?"

  Rene grinned at me as he slid into the driver's seat, carefully buckling the seat belt. I hurried to do the same. J'd ridden with Rene and knew that there was nothing he loved more than driving through cities in a manner that left passengers flung around the interior of the car if they weren't strapped in. "Heiri, my wife and the little ones are in Normandy. It is hot there, Aisling, very hot. And the children, they will have sand rashes and sunburns and stomachs upset from too much ice cream and candy, and my wife will be without her wits trying to control them. Me, I prefer Budapest and tourists to that horror."

  I slumped back against the hot faux-leather upholstery as Rene eased us into the busy traffic. "Welt, I'm profoundly grateful that you're here. I've had a hell of a day."

  "Ahem," Jim said, pulling its head in the window to give me a glare.

  "Sorry. Heck of a day. First there were thieves trying to steal the item I'm couriering, and then—"

  "Drake's in Budapest," Jim told Rene before sticking its head back out the window. "She had a meltdown seeing him with another babe."

  I pinched the thick fur of Jim's haunch as Rene sucked in his breath. "Drake? The wyvern of the green dragons?"

  "One and the same, and I did not have a meltdown." I gnawed my lower lip for a couple of seconds, absently admiring the lovely architecture in the row of historic white stone buildings we were passing. "You don't happen to know why he's here, do you, Rene? It's kind of an odd twist of fate that he, you, and Jim and I are all here at the same time."

  Rene's eyes met mine for a moment in his rearview mirror. He gave one of his effortless but expressive French shrugs. "You never know with fate, hern) Perhaps it is Trying to tell you something. For you and your mate to be in the same city after you left him most cruelly—"

  "He's not my mate. I'm his," I said sourly, watching the city slide past us. This was only my second time abroad, and part of me was utterly thrilled at being in such a beautiful city. We passed historic buildings, small leafy green squares surrounded by the ubiquitous black wrought-iron fences, streets filled with stores and shoppers, a couple of pedestrian arcades, and more churches than you could shake a stick at. It was all lovely, and I made a mental note to try to squeeze into my busy schedule a little time to see the sights. "And I didn't leave Drake cruelly. I explained to him why being a wyvern's mate didn't fit in with my plans. Just for the record, he didn't even try to stop me. Nor did he call me and beg me to come back to him. Not that I wanted to, but just in case you were wondering, he didn't. So fate can just go take a flying leap where that whole issue is concerned."

  Rene's brown eyes flashed in the mirror again.

  "He didn't even e-mail me," I groused, feeling ashamed even as the words left my lips. I had had four long weeks to come to grips with the fact that life evidently had ideas for me that I wasn't ready to accept, one of which was that I'd been born the mate of a wyvern, the head of one of the four dragon septs. The other was a talent I was more willing to allow into my life—assuming I could find someone to mentor me in learning Guardian skills.

  "You want a little cheese with that whine?" Jim pulled its head in long enough to ask.

  "Rene is a friend. I'm allowed to complain a little to a friend. You are a furry demon. Put your head back out the window and don't get any bugs up your nose because I don't have the money or time to take you to the vet."

  "See what I mean?" Jim asked Rene. "Meltdown."

  "'What hotel am I taking you to?" Rene asked quickly. He'd been around Jim, too. He knew just how much the demon dog could get on my nerves.

  'The Thermal Hotel Danu. It's on Margaret Island. It's supposed to be a big conference hotel with all sorts of bennies."


  "Benefits. Services. Amenities. You know, stuff like world-class masseuses, parkland surrounding the hotel with walking and jogging paths, saunas, thermal baths, and something the hotel brochure called an amusement bath. I can't wait to see what that is."

  "Ah. I know the Hotel Danu. It is very expensive, very chic." One of Rene's eyebrows rose as his reflection looked at me. I yelped and pointed out the front window. The taxi swerved to avoid colliding with another car, throwing Jim onto my lap before the vehicle settled down, "It is not like you to stay in such a place, yes?"

  Only Rene could take a near head-on collision with such bland disregard. I twitched with the effect of the adrenaline pumping into my body at the close call, taking deep breaths to calm my pounding heart. "No, it's not like me, but yes, I'm staying there. I'm here for a conference that's being held at the hotel, and they had special rates. It's taken most of my savings to pay for the conference, but I figured it's worth it. When I found out the conference was going to be held in the same city where I'm supposed to deliver the amulet, I decided it was too good an opportunity to miss."

  "You see?" Rene nodded. "You listen to fate. That is good. I did not realize that you knew goddamn.

  I mentally shook my head. I couldn't possibly have heard him correctly. "I beg your pardon?"

  "Goddamn. The conference. You are here for the conference of Guardians, Oracles, Diviners—"

  "—Theurgists, and Mages," I finished with him, wondering how he knew about the conference. Like me, Rene had been a newcomer to the Otherworld, becoming involved with it via my attempts to extricate myself from a nasty murder rap. "Yes, that's it. GODTAM. Gotcha. How did you hear about it?"

  "I am not so sheltered as you think," he answered with a great air of mystery. "It is good that you are listening to your heart about being a Guardian. It is what you are meant to be, yes? But you mentioned an object? You are still the courier most faithful for your uncle?"

  "Yeah. Something has to pay the bills—not to mention my ex's alimony. Uncle Damian is giving me another chance to prove that I can transport a priceless object without having it stolen by a certain green-eyed dragon in hunk form. It doesn't have any gold on it, so it should be safe enough from him. How familiar are you with Budapest? The guy Vm supposed to deliver the amulet to is a hermit. He doesn't have any fixed address, but supposedly he hangs around the city parks."

  "A hermit?" Rene shook his head, then leaned on the horn when a bicycle courier dashed out in front of him. "I do not know about a hermit, but there are many parks in Budapest. Margaret Island is itself a park botanical. Jim will enjoy the Rose Garden, I think."

  "Jim has no trouble finding enjoyment wherever it goes. I'm not worried about Jim. I'm worried about how Uncle Damian
expects me to find a hermit whose whereabouts no one knows. All I have to go on is an address at which the hermit is supposed to pick up mail, but who knows if it's still valid?"

  "Do not worry. I arn here. We did most well in Paris, yes? We will conquer this hermit, too."

  I smiled at Rene's reflection. "Yeah, we did work together well, didn't we? I'm very grateful you're here. Are you taking private passengers? I managed to talk my uncle into giving me a tiny little expense account for travel and such. I'm going to need someone to drive me around to all the parks in the area."

  "Because walking would be, like, so healthy," Jim said, glancing toward me for a minute.

  "I get enough exercise taking you out for the gazillion walkies you seem to feel necessary each day," I pointed out. "Besides, unlike some four-legged demons I could mention, Rene is smart, insightful, and most importantly, willing to help. I'd welcome any assistance he wants to offer in rinding the hermit."

  Jim made a sour face. "Look, you knew when you •ummoned me that I'd been kicked out of Abaddon and didn't have any powers. Don't come whining to me about how I can't tap into the dark powers to do your bidding."

  I opened my mouth to protest that I'd not known any soch thing but bit back the words. Bickering with Jim always left me frustrated and resentful, two things I had hoped to banish from my life when I closed the relationship door on Drake.

  Drake. Dammit, why did he have to reappear in my life, just when I was trying to get a good solid grip on it?

  "Here is the Thermal Hotel Danu," Rene said, inter-repting my murky thoughts. The taxi swept around a grand curved drive to pull up in front of an astonishingly modern hotel. After the drive through the historic area of town, I was surprised to find this hotel looking more like an office building in Portland. It was white stone (no surprise there—many of the buildings in Budapest seemed to be made of white stone) and glass, layered into stripes that rose at least twelve stories high, but it was surrounded by the most gorgeous gardens I had ever seen. I followed Jim as the demon leaped out of the taxi, and stood looking out across a narrow parking lot to a long expanse of lush green lawn and flower beds brilliant with reds, yellows, deep blues, and at least a hundred shades of green.

  "Wow! I could get used to this!"

  "Gotta peel" Jim said as it shambled toward a nearby shrub.

  "Not on any flowers," I yelled after it, then turned to grab my luggage. "Oh, god, Rene, I'm sorry about the taxi. Are there any car washes nearby?"

  Rene came around the taxi and stared in surprise at the long ropes of partially dried Newfie drool that were plastered along the side of the car and the window,

  "I should have realized when I didn't have to mop Jim up on the ride here where all that slobber was going. How much will it cost to have that cleaned off?"

  "Eh ... it is of no account."

  "You sure?" Due to the pileup of conference-goers and tourists arriving before us, Rene had pulled in about sixty feet down the long reception area. We walked around the back of the taxi to the sidewalk, Rene pausing long enough to grab my suitcase from the trunk. I headed for the hotel lobby, stopping when I saw that sitting smackdab in front of the hotel was a long black limousine. "Crap!"

  Rene looked over to where Jim was circling a laurel bush. "No, he is just making much peepee."

  "No, not Jim. That." I pointed to the limo. "It would just be my luck that Drake and his bit o' hussy chose this hotel to stay at. I wonder if I can get a room anywhere else?"

  "Are you so afraid of the dragon, then?" Rene asked, his head tipped to the side as he considered me. I smoothed down my T-shirt with a self-conscious gesture.

  "'Afraid? No. Terrified is more like it—terrified that he's going to seduce me again and I won't have the willpower to refuse. How much do I owe you? Dog slobber cleanup included?"

  Thirteen euros. I will help you with your luggage."

  Suspicious, I glanced at Rene's face, but there was nothing but polite interest displayed. "You've never offered to carry my bag before. You just want to see if Drake's hanging around the lobby, don't you? You want to see if I'm going to make a fool of myself over him again, don't you? It's not bad enough that my underwear attacked the man in front of half of Budapest. Oh, no. Now you're secretly hoping for an encore. You ought to be ashamed of yourself, Rene! You're as bad as Jim!"

  He grinned and took my arm, gently pushing me down the sidewalk toward the hotel's entrance. "I do not understand what you say about your underwear attacking Drake, but I will admit that to me it is most curious that and he fight your mutual attraction. Despite this, I have no wish to see you make a fool of yourself."

  Mollified, I allowed him to escort me to ihe entrance, pausing long enough for Jim to catch up to us.

  "Behave," I warned it, grabbing its leash and giving it a look to let it know I meant business. "And yes, that's an order."

  The demon rolled its eyes. "The hotel is full of denizens of the Otherworld and you're worried about something as mundane as a demon?"

  "Shh! You know as well as I do that citizens of the Otherworld do not like to stand out and be noticeable. Besides, there are other people staying here. Sane ones who don't need a Demon I0I course. You will remember at all times that this is a nice, normal hotel, with nice, normal'—

  A woman with a long blond braid wheeled a crate past us stamped LIVE IMPS: HANDLE WITH CAUTION.

  —"people," I sighed.

  Rene snickered.

  The lobby of the Thermal Hotel Danu was done in shades of peach, rust, and cream, a combination that sounds ghastly but that was pulled off here with an elegance that left me wishing I had changed into something a bit more sophisticated before we entered. Rene whistled in admiration as he followed us. I started across the huge lobby, admiring the ambiance and praying that Jim behaved itself when we were in public. We had gotten off to a bad start, but with luck nothing else embarrassing would strike me in public.

  A short blond man with a fuzzy upper lip strolled by as I was passing a clutch of peach-colored chairs grouped in a conversation nook, pausing just long enough to send me a bland look before he continued past. "You will trip and fall."

  "Huh?" I asked, peering backward at the man as he headed out the front door. "Rene, did you hear that man? He said I would—"

  Jim stopped suddenly in front of me. I tripped. I fell. With a loud squawk that seemed to echo to every corner of the elegant lobby.

  "My back! My liver! My spleen! You've killed me!" Jim wailed from where it lay beneath me.

  "You're a demon. You can't be killed. And shut up! Someone will hear you," I hissed, mortified to the tips of my toes as I tried to gather my sprawled limbs. People all over the lobby stopped chatting, mingling, sipping cool drinks, checking in, and doing all the various other things people did in fancy hotel lobbies, and turned en masse to look at where Jim and I lay in a tangled heap.

  A hand came into view, offering assistance. I grabbed it, allowing Rene to help me to my feet.

  As I stood, I realized the hand didn't belong to Rene.

  Jim looked up at the hand. "Drake, would you tell my demon lord that while it's true I can't be killed, this extremely handsome form can be damaged, and she's probably broken every rib in my body? Man, someone needs to drop a few pounds, and I can tell you one thing—it ain't me!"

  I gritted my teeth both at the sight of Drake's amused green eyes and at Jim's demon lord reference. I hated when it called me that. Technically the title was true, because Jim had been cast out of its previous lord's legions when I summoned it (thus binding the demon to me until F could figure out how to release it), but I resented being called a demon lord. Everyone knew demon lords were pure evil.

  Whereas I was merely clumsy. Or cursed. Or probably both.

  "Mate, your demon wishes me to inform you—"

  T raised my hand to stop Drake. "Point one, I'm not your mate. Point two ... er ... OK, there is no point two. So, thank you for helping me up, oh stranger who parades around with go
rgeous women who evidently shop at the Madonna Pointy Breast Bustier Boutique. Now you may be on your merry little way and leave us mortals to go about our lives without the addition of an annoying, fire-breathing lizard in a human suit."

  Drake leaned forward, his eyes going dark with emotion. "You have never seen me breathe fire, mate. You might enjoy it."

  Heat swept through me at his words, a familiar heat that flared into the inferno that was his dragon's fire. I fought it for a few seconds, knowing that if I didn't accept it, it would consume me where I stood, leaving nothing but a few charred ashes to mark what I had been. Smoke began to rise from my hair as Drake's fire flashed through me, setting every cell in my body alight. My mind screamed a warning that I was seconds away from total combustion and death, Drake's glittering eyes holding mine as I fought his heat, fought the connection we had, fought the fact that despite my wishes to the contrary I was one of the rare people who were able to withstand the test of a true wyvern's mate. With a grow! of futility against the inevitable, I opened the door in my mind that allowed me access to newly discovered powers, embracing the dragon flame as it consumed and renewed me, a fiery rebirth that I reveled in for a few seconds before turning it back on Drake.

  I wanted to say something witty and caustic to prove to Drake that nothing he did or said mattered to me, but all I did was pant a little at the effect of channeling so much of his heat. Triumph glowed in his eyes for a moment before he banked his fire. Without another word to me, he turned and strolled back to where the VIP and her gang of three were waiting impatiently.

  "I am so over my head with him," I moaned softly to myself, unable to keep from watching Drake's derriere as he walked away. Say what you will about dragons (and I had a number of things I wanted to say), they really knew how to move when they chose to appear in human form.

  "Yes, yes, you are. Don't you think she is, Rene?"

  "Very much, yes. He looks at her, she looks at him, and foof! Sparks, they fly. Look, her hair is still on fire."