Riley knew she wasn't alone the moment she woke. She was surrounded by Dax's scent. Warm. Masculine. Wild. Dangerous-which was strange because she instantly felt safe.

"Open your eyes."

Her body responded to that soft, hypnotic voice, melting, turning liquid. She lifted her lashes and looked into his face. Desire, raw and electric, sizzled through her body until heat pooled low. He looked sinfully beautiful, the most beautiful man she'd ever seen. There was nobility in that carefully carved face. Each feature was distinct and etched with an artistic hand. His short, spiked hair, obsidian black, nearly sparkled, giving her palms a tingly feeling and forcing her to curl her fingers tightly into fists to prevent her from running them through that thick pelt. God, he was gorgeous.

Her breath caught in her throat. He was lying beside her on his side, his body curved protectively around hers, on one elbow, his head propped up by his hand, his eyes drifting possessively over her. The look in his eyes stole her sanity. There was desire, stark and raw that set her blood surging hotly, bringing every single nerve ending in her body alive.

Riley was reluctant to sit up, savoring the feel of his hard muscles, the impressive length and thickness of his heavy erection lying tight against her bottom and the heat from his body warming her. He smiled at her, a flash of white teeth, his strange eyes claiming her. The multifaceted eyes glowed at her with small orange-red flames illuminating the colors of diamonds. His free hand was in her hair, as if he couldn't resist the feel of it. His long fingers massaged her scalp, sending the most delicious sensation through her.

She blinked up at him. "Hello."

He inclined his head. "Good evening. I brought you something."

His hand reluctantly slipped from her hair, and she actually followed the descent of that warm touch with her head, wanting to rub against him more. Was there shyness in his voice? Not quite, but certainly a hesitant charm she found intriguing. She turned over and as he sat up, so did she, stifling a yawn. He traced the pad of his finger down her cheek to her lower lip.

"You have this very tempting lip that makes me want to lean over and just bite," he said very softly.

She found herself blushing. She wasn't a woman who blushed, but then men didn't say blatantly sexual things to her as a rule. Her mother always told her she was intimidating, unapproachable and too striking. The combination, according to Annabel, was lethal when meeting men. Only the bravest would dare to get shot down. Of course mothers had to say things like that-maybe they even believed it. Riley had never bought into her mother's explanations.

His finger caressed her lip, soft brushstrokes threatening to steal her sanity. She had an incredible, and completely out of character urge, to draw that finger into her mouth. He was temptation personified-the serpent in the garden-and she was falling faster than Eve ever thought of eating that apple.

She made a sound, she knew she managed something, but his eyes, with those small red-orange flames flickering with such heat, surrounded by the longest lashes she'd ever seen, were so distracting and intense.

"Do you want your gift?" he asked softly.

Her gaze dropped to his perfectly molded mouth. If she leaned forward just a few inches ...

"Sivamet, are you awake?"

There was laughter in his voice. Riley had it bad, because that laughter resonated through her body, setting every nerve on fire. She managed a nod, completely mesmerized by him. She had wanted out of the classroom, wanted some adventure, but she had never considered she might find ... him.

"This is an ancient tradition," he explained as he gave her a single flower.

The blossom was large, much like a lily but shaped like a star. The petals were open to reveal the inside, the ovary a deep ruby red with two striped filaments. The shape and size of the stigma brought the color flooding to her face-that particular part looked like a very large erection. She knew flowers, her mother grew every kind, but this one, stunningly beautiful, definitely could be used to explain sex.

"Taste it."

She blinked at him. Swallowed. She didn't know why that sounded sexy. Everything he said and did seemed to be sexy.

"Use your tongue to stroke along the ..."

"Um. I get it." She couldn't possibly.

Her eyes, captured by his, refused to look away. She was caught there, in those mesmerizing eyes, trapped, unable to defend herself. Her tongue darted out and she touched that bulbous head tentatively. At once taste burst through her mouth, vibrant and spicy. Addicting. She licked along the underside and all around the head, seeking more of the elusive flavor.

Dax leaned closer until she could feel his warm breath against her neck. "Do you like it?"

"It's amazing," she admitted. "I've never tasted anything like this."

"The flower takes on the taste of the giver."

His gaze bored into hers, compelling her to get every last drop, the intensity of desire sending a shiver through her body. Why in the world would she find his declaration hot? And why couldn't she stop devouring the fragile flower, craving that spicy taste. The petals, soft velvet, held his scent. She felt surrounded by him with each stroke of her tongue, drawing that nectar into her body.

"Hand it to me." He didn't take his eyes from hers.

Reluctantly she took one last lingering lick along the stigma and handed him back the flower. Holding her gaze, he dipped his head, his mouth in the bloom. His tongue found the filaments and ovary, devouring the nectar collected there. She'd never seen anything so sexy in her life. Her entire body went hot.

"Your taste is addictive." His gaze burned into hers. Blatantly sexual.

A flood of liquid heat added to her discomfort. Tension coiled in her belly, slithered through her deepest core until she crawled with need. She pressed her lips tightly together as he took his time obviously savoring the inside of the flower. His gaze burned over her, those tiny flames growing hotter and wilder as he ate out the night flower.

By the time he lifted his head, his eyes were glowing. "Kneel up for a moment."

She didn't think to question him, too caught up in his sexual web. Whatever the pull of lifemates, the physical attraction between them sizzled and she didn't want to miss one intoxicating moment.

She knelt.

He nodded approvingly. "Sit back on your heels and open your thighs." As he gave her the command, he held the flower cupped in both palms, solemnly, as if it was of great importance.

Heart pounding, she complied. He placed the flower exactly at the junction of her legs, petals whispering against her open, jean-clad thighs.

"Tied vagyok." His gaze for the first time left hers, to drift possessively over her. "Sivamet andam." The flames in his eyes leapt high, while the multifaceted diamonds glittered and burned. "Te avio palafertiilam."

His softly spoken words sounded beautiful, but more, she recognized a ritual quality to the presentation and knew he was telling her something important to him. Her entire body had reacted to those nearly whispered words. His voice was a weapon, she decided, especially when he spoke in his own language. The tone was as hypnotic as the words and she found herself straining to understand. "In my language please," she asked.

"Tied vagyok means ..." He frowned, searching for the words in a language he'd just acquired. "'Yours I am,'" he said simply.

Her heart jumped. This amazing warrior, so beautiful, so protective and sexy was hers?

"Sivamet andam would be, 'my heart I give you.'" He touched her face gently, tracing her cheekbones, her jawline and chin and then back up to the curve of her mouth, as if memorizing every detail.

Blood surged hotly through her veins. She felt him inside of her, a part of her. Riley pressed her lips tightly together. Something important was happening, but she didn't know what. She didn't want to say or do the wrong thing. A part of her wanted to run. She had no doubt Dax believed exactly what he was saying-he was giving her his heart. He was larger than life. One of the heroes from a movie who could save the world. She thought of herself as ... ordinary. Here in the rain forest where there was no one else, she probably looked like a great find, but there was an entire world waiting for him.

"There is only one lifemate for our species, Riley," he said.

Her entire body clenched. Wept. Electricity sang in her veins. She wanted to believe that she could have him, but truly it was absurd. They barely knew one another. He was from ancient times. She was caught in some kind of intense dream she didn't want to wake from.

"What does te avio palafertiilam mean?" Was that her voice? So husky and sensual?

He frowned, concentrating, trying to come up with a suitable translation. "You, wedded wife, my." He shook his head. "'You' is equated to lifemate. Wife is your closest word. Your marriage ceremony is the closest to the binding ritual I can find in Gary's memories. I am saying you are my lifemate."

She blinked at him. "Is this a marriage ritual?"

He shook his head, a flash of white teeth sending another surge of desire skittering through her body. His teeth looked strong, straight and just pointed enough that she found herself a little frightened, which only added to the exhilarating experience.

"When the ritual binding words are said, that is equivalent to your marriage vows-but more. That cannot be undone. This is more like ..." He broke off, clearly searching Gary's memories for an analogy. "This ceremony is important for us both."

He rubbed the bridge of his nose, a gesture she found endearing. "I've courted you in the way of my people and this ritual ensures fertility and acceptance."

Her heart jumped again. Her body burned. "Fertility?" Her voice sounded squeaky even to her own ears.

"Our women don't have many children in spite of the longevity. This flower is important to our preserving our future."

"It is?" She glanced around her, keeping her voice low. Their conversation seemed so intimate-so sexy. As always, she and Dax were secluded away from the others. When he arrived, he always seemed to find a way to isolate her before waking her.

"You need to repeat the words back to me," he said, his voice dropping an octave lower.

He shifted to his knees, opening his thighs wide. Her breath hitched in her lungs.

"Take the flower in both open palms and place it ..."

"I get it," she said hastily, color creeping up her neck and face.

She tried to pull her fascinated gaze away from the impressive bulge in the front of his jeans. The material was stretched taut, looking as if at any moment it would give way. She'd never been so enamored, sexually frustrated or interested in a man. She'd even dreamt of him. The erotic dreams only added to her shyness with him.

Very carefully, so as not to bruise the petals, she scooped up the flower and, cupping it carefully in both hands, she transferred it to the vee between his open legs. The sides of her hands brushed along his thighs. She could feel his powerful muscles and the tremendous heat emanating from his body. Her hands shook, so she deposited the flower quickly and placed her moist palms on her own thighs.

"You say the words back to me," he encouraged.

She had listened intently to the accent and the words, but saying them aloud to him instead of Gary was intimidating. Not only that, but did she mean them? Was she his? She enjoyed being with him, was intrigued by him and felt safe with him. He had a sense of humor, was intelligent and was a walking god of sensuality. She didn't feel alone anymore. Everything about him appealed to her-but could she trust it? Did she have the ability to hold a man like Dax? When this adventure was over, what would they do?

Dax leaned toward her, his breath warm on her face, a whisper against her lips. "Ainaak sivamet jutta, which means 'forever to my heart connected,' is exactly what you are. All these doubts of yours must be laid to rest. There is no other for me. You can turn me away, but you will be condemning me to a half-life. You possess the other half of my soul. You have only to touch my mind, Riley, and you will know me far better than others will know their partners in their lifetimes."

"Don't you think this is happening too fast?"

"I am not familiar with your society or culture," he admitted, "but in mine, we have certainty. You are my other half. There can be no mistake. You restored my emotions and the color to my life. Your soul completed mine. My heart calls to yours. I crave the taste of you and I burn for your body. There is no doubt in my mind."

How could she not respond to that? He made her feel beautiful. Intelligent. The only woman in the world. She wasn't ready to give that up. In any case, what did she have to go back to? Her parents were gone. There was nobody. But ...

She leaned closer to him, over the flower, her mouth scant inches from his. "I want to do this. I really do, but I'm not certain what you want of me in the future. I have no idea what your world is like, other than vampires, dragons and things with big teeth occupying it."

His gaze moved over her face, branding her, claiming her, burning his possession into her. "We'll take it a day at a time until you're comfortable. I'll explain everything to you as we go along. Anything you're not ready for, I don't mind waiting. It's important to me that you want me in the same way that I want you."

She studied his expression. He felt right to her. For once in her life she was going to let her heart overrule her mind. She bit her lower lip and nodded. Instantly his gaze dropped to her mouth. Her stomach muscles bunched and fingers of arousal teased her thighs. If he could do that to her with just a look, what could he do when he was really touching her?

"Do you remember the words I said to you?"

She nodded slowly, took a deep breath and jumped off the proverbial cliff, praying he'd catch her. "Tied vagyok." Her lashes veiled her eyes. "Yours am I."

The flames in his eyes leapt, revealing desire bordering on lust. His chest rippled, all those delicious muscles beneath that thin cotton shirt of his. She felt as if she was free-falling through a storm of glittering diamonds.

"Sivamet andam. My heart I give you."

His eyes blazed fire. She felt his gaze burning right through her skin to her very bones, branding her. Her heart matched the rhythm of his. Her breathing followed his. She swore her pulse found his. She felt him breathing in and out. Felt the blood rushing through his veins. She heard his heartbeat in her head.

"Te avio palafertiilam. You are my lifemate."

The moment she uttered the words, Dax poured into her mind. Warm. Filled with strength. He was both gentle and tough. Courageous. Images flashed through her mind, his memories, his youth, his centuries of hunting, his stark, utter loneliness, even when he traveled with Arabejila, believing he would never have a woman of his own, believing he had failed his best friend and that friend's daughter. Her heart ached for him. She wanted to be the woman to comfort and love him.

"Now, pick up the flower again and come sit between my legs while I braid the vines and small flowers in your hair. While I braid your hair, you feed me one petal as you eat one. Once this is done, our courtship ritual will be complete and you will have indicated your willingness for me to continue with our relationship."

Riley frowned at him, but without a word scooted closer, turning to face away from him. Her heart pounded with the enormity of what she was doing. She was no young girl to jump into a relationship because she was overwhelmed with physical attraction, and yet she seemed too helpless to stop herself. She wanted him. Craved him. And every minute in his company just seemed to amplify her needs.

He reached out and pulled her into the junction between his open legs, back against him, until she was so close, every muscle seemed imprinted into her skin. He radiated heat, his warmth surrounding her like a blanket. She pressed her lips together as he gathered her long hair in his hands, dividing it into three sections.

A shiver of arousal went through her. She was burning up. Needing him. Was it the flower? The ceremony? His taste? Or the man? Everything was blending together into one potent aphrodisiac. His hands were in her hair and every gentle tug sent electricity arcing and snapping through her. Her need of him bordered on obsession. She broke off a petal and reached behind her with it.

Their eyes met. A flood of liquid heat dampened her panties. She had the sudden urge to reach back and pull his head to hers. The flames in his eyes leapt and burned. His lips parted-those perfectly sculpted, tempting lips-and she placed the petal in his mouth. His white teeth bit down, and her stomach clenched in response. Deliberately, eyes still locked with his, she put a petal in her mouth. His taste burst on her tongue, hot and masculine, shattering her every idea of the hunger between a man and a woman. She felt almost desperate for him.

Still locked with his gaze, she saw that same heady combination of lust and hunger flaming in his eyes and then something else crept in-something dangerous and feral. He looked all at once predatory. Beneath his skin she caught the faint lift of scales, almost as if a beast lay in wait. He turned his head slowly but she knew he was aware of everything and everyone around them. Only then was she aware of the approach of Gary and Jubal. Disappointment and frustration rushed through her.

"Another petal for both of us."

His voice was husky. He was just as affected as she was and that made her feel better. He didn't want their time together alone to end any more than she did. She put another petal in his mouth and crushed a second in her own. The second petal only seemed to increase her desire. Knowing Jubal and Gary were approaching fast should have taken the heat out of her skin and the hot surge from her veins, but nothing seemed to dampen her desire for Dax, not even company.

Riley was grateful for the night, although the full moon seemed to turn night into a soft glowing day. She managed to place the last petals into Dax's mouth and her own just as Gary and Jubal reached them.

"Good evening," Dax said pleasantly.

Had Riley not seen his reaction she would never have known he was smoldering with desire for her and not at all happy with the interruption.

"Where did you get that flower?" Gary asked, excitement edging his voice Dax frowned, the flames in his eyes growing. Clearly he didn't like the demand in Gary's voice.

"Gary and Jubal came here looking for a particular flower," Riley explained hastily.

"It's important," Gary added. "That flower is extinct in the Carpathian Mountains. We've speculated for a while now that it's important for the women's ability to conceive."

Dax shook his head. "I've lost so much time. I thought, from your memories, that Xavier was the culprit behind the loss of our women and children, that it was his poisonous microbes in the soil."

"He definitely attacked your people," Gary admitted, "nearly destroying an entire species over time, but he had some help along the way."

"The flower?"

Gary sighed. "I think the toxins in the soil, the microbes Xavier introduced, killed off the flower. Gabrielle ..." He stopped, glanced at Jubal and then shrugged. "Jubal's sister is conducting research with me. Some of the ancients have returned to their homeland and when she interviewed them, a fertility ritual with this flower came up again and again. We began to believe there was something to it, so we focused on finding out what happened to it."

"We use satellites and computers," Jubal added. "The good thing about being around a long time is the accumulation of wealth and knowledge so Carpathians can afford all the latest gadgets. We have a couple of kids in the community that are amazing on computers. They've programmed theirs to look for certain trigger words. The man who filmed the ruins on the mountain and sent the pictures to the professor also filmed the flower and posted it on his website, asking if anyone knew what it was. He thought he'd found a new species. Josef, that's our resident genius, picked it up and we came looking for it."

"They can't be native here," Gary speculated aloud.

"Arabejila planted them. She loved them and knew she'd end her life here. She wanted a little bit of home. They only bloom at night, and she planted them up near the village where she planned to live out her days," Dax said.

"Are there a lot of them?" Gary asked. "Enough that we can harvest the roots and transplant them back where they belong? Did they survive the blast?"

Dax nodded slowly. "I can gather them tonight with the roots intact. The larger flower carries the seeds. The dragon covers ground fast. I could be at the top of the mountain and catch up to you fairly quickly."

"You'll need to pack the roots in soil," Riley contributed. "I could go with you to help," she offered, feeling suddenly shy. There was a part of her that was afraid of rejection, but the idea of flying across the night sky on the back of a dragon and spending more time with Dax was irresistible.

Dax rose, reaching down to take her hand and draw her up next to him. "I would enjoy your company very much, Riley."

He pulled her back against his body, the movement so natural she felt as if she belonged. His body felt strong, firm, an anchor in the midst of a storm. Excitement fluttered in her stomach. He reached around her, circling her body with his arms, trapping her against his chest, his hands clasped at her waist.

"You will have to be careful," Dax continued, as though he hadn't just made his claim very public. He was extraordinarily gentle, and so easygoing and natural about it, Riley could tell the movement was a gesture of ownership, but more his need to be close to her.

"Mitro is well ahead of us," he continued instructing the others. "And he's making his way out of the jungle, but he needs information, just as I did. He's been long away from this world and he'll have to catch up. He'll need languages and every bit of data he can accumulate to fit in easily."

"He'll know you're hunting him," Jubal said. "Won't he just run? It seems the prudent thing to do."

Dax shook his head. His thumb slid back and forth in a little caress across the bare skin of her stomach just beneath her shirt. Riley wasn't altogether certain he was aware of that little strumming motion.

"He'll need blood first, and the knowledge of this century is all important to his survival. He will avoid me, and especially Riley. I think he believes she's Arabejila, and he knows she can track him. He'll head for a populated area, but he'll want to slow us down. He'll set traps to kill us and false leads to delay us."

"We'll be careful, Dax. We'll keep moving toward the river." He glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the others. "Weston and Shelton are asking questions why we're not making a straight line for the river. Miguel hasn't said anything to them, but they have GPS."

Dax frowned, clearly not understanding. He touched Jubal's mind and "read" the information and then rolled his shoulders in a casual shrug. "Instruments can be misleading, especially with all this ash in the air."

"Which is why our emergency contact hasn't sent in their helicopter to bring us out," Gary said.

"Avoid any tribesmen," Dax advised. "You can't trust anyone you meet. Riley's given us Mitro's general direction, but she can't know if he's killed anyone else, turned them into puppets, ghouls or programmed them to kill you. We'll be back well before sunrise."

Dax stepped back, taking Riley's hand. "Be safe, all of you. If you call to me, I'll hear you, but I may be too far away to give much aid," he warned.

Jubal gave him a small salute. "Just get us those flowers. We'll handle this."

"Don't be cocky, Jubal," Dax said. "Mitro is unlike any vampire you've come across. I'm a skilled hunter. Even while tracking Mitro, I executed many vampires, none of whom held anything close to Mitro's power."

"Believe me, Dax," Jubal assured. "When it comes to vampires, I'm always ready to pass on them. Any of them, let alone this one. I've seen what he does. I have no desire to meet him, especially without you to back me up."

Dax nodded his head and turned abruptly, as was his way. He was still a little uncomfortable in the presence of so many people, but he liked both Jubal and Gary. They both were men of integrity and they'd fight with him if needed. He read their determination to protect Riley. They also understood the lifemate bond. Riley didn't fully comprehend yet, but she was willing to try with him and he couldn't ask for more.

He tugged on Riley's hand, bringing her under his shoulder. "So are you ready to be a dragonrider?"

Riley's impossibly long lashes lifted and her eyes met his. His breath caught in his lungs. Her eyes glowed at him with excitement. Her cheeks were flushed beneath her flawless skin. She looked more beautiful than ever.

"I can't wait, although I'll admit I'm a little afraid. You'll talk to me the entire time?"

That was his lifemate, ready to meet each adventure head-on. He brought her knuckles to his mouth and nibbled gently. "I'll be with you. The Old One regards you as his family. He won't allow anything to happen to you, either. You'll be safe."

"I know." Riley made it a statement.

Dax walked with her beneath the protection of his shoulder, her hand pressed against his heart while he took her away from the camp and the prying eyes of the others-especially Weston, who had no idea he was placing himself in danger every time he turned his leering, all too hungry gaze on Riley.

Her body moved like liquid grace against his. Flowing. Sensual. The taste of her was still in his mouth. His pulse leapt at the close proximity. He had always known the lifemate pull was strong, he'd witnessed that powerful force between couples, but he hadn't expected the need to be so intense. Still, he was determined that Riley make her own choice. He wanted her to save him because, to her, he was worth saving.

Once they were out of sight of the others, he lifted her in his arms and took to the sky. He needed a large clearing where the dragon could take off and land. He could feel Riley's excitement, the faint trembling of her body, the shimmer of anticipation running through her, and found himself smiling. He couldn't remember experiencing shapeshifting for the first time, or flying, or just being happy. Now that he was with her, he was learning all over again to laugh, to feel. He really was just as genuinely excited for her as she was.

She turned her face up to the wind and laughed out loud. The sound resonated through his body. He could feel the Old One stirring as well. Her laughter was so contagious, that not only was he affected, but so was the dragon. Setting her gently in the tree line at the edge of a meadow, he strode into the center of the large field.

At once he felt the Old One stretch deep inside of him. Strangely, this time, instead of feeling apart from the dragon, he felt a part of him, feeling the intense emotions much more vividly than before. Dax wasn't certain if it was because Riley had restored his own emotions to him, or if he was merging with the dragon to the point they were becoming one and the same. He knew once he made his claim on Riley and said the ritual bonding words, their two souls would be forged together. Could that be happening with the Old One?

None of that mattered. Riley was waiting, and he couldn't wait to share the experience of flying a dragon with her. She could barely contain her excitement, jumping from one foot to the other like a small child. Her eyes shone and her face was flushed. Her lips were slightly parted, an invitation he forced himself to resist. Once they were alone on the mountain, among the field of night star flowers, he would take advantage, but not now, not while she was waiting and anticipating. He wanted to give her this gift.

It is a gift, she said softly, her voice filling his mind with-her.

She had a way of pouring into him like warm honey. She gave him a feeling of joy, and he'd never known what that was before. She admired him, respected him, and thought him beautiful and extraordinary. Now that he'd found his lifemate she would know his heart's desire and would always be aware of his every mood.

I feel the same way. Her voice was shy. It's nice to know I'll always have someone who'll defend me.

You have both of us, Dax assured. The Old One and me. He's a part of us, and you're his family now. Like me, he'll defend you with his life. It was important to him that no matter what happened, how bad things got, she would never have to face any danger alone.

He summoned the Old One, sinking his spirit deep to allow the other freedom. The dragon would have been reluctant to emerge had it not been for the fun of allowing Riley her first dragon ride. His time was long past, and he'd spent centuries content with hibernation in the warmth of the volcano.

Riley held her breath as Dax shimmered into transparency so that she could actually see through him, and then he disappeared altogether. Red and gold flakes sparkled in the moonlight, floating toward the ground all around where he'd been standing. She thought of Dax like that, moonlight and flame, fire and ice, glittering gold and fiery red. He was beautiful. His heart was beautiful. His soul.

Someone else stirred in her mind and for a moment she tensed, looking around her, but the feeling was far too familiar. Too much like Dax.

Our soul. The voice was matter-of-fact. Ancient. Modern. Timeless. A hint of humor crept into her mind.

I see you can still speak, Old One, Dax said. And you prefer to do so with Riley.

Now she felt the dragon's laughter vibrating through her mind. He was very amused at Dax's expense.

She loved that Dax found the entire thing as amusing as she did. Nothing ever seemed to ruffle him, and in truth, they were all three very connected.

He is the strong silent type until he gets in a fight and then all thought process goes out the window, Dax informed her.

Riley laughed, the sound taking wing in the night sky. She loved to hear Dax sound so carefree. All he'd known was duty, and, although he was determined to find and destroy Mitro, he took time with her to enjoy the moments they shared together.

The dragon shimmered into solidity. Huge, his great bulk settled, giant wings outspread and fanning, creating wind. Riley clasped her hands together and pressed them hard against her fluttering stomach. The Old One craned his long neck toward her, and even though she was still partially in the trees lining the meadow, his wedge-shaped head nearly touched her. He stared down at her with his opalescent eyes-eyes as multifaceted as Dax's, although where Dax had a volcano's flame flickering behind the gemstones, the dragon's eyes appeared golden in color.

His snout was long, with the upper jaw curving down over the lower jaw, revealing gleaming teeth. He had one horn in the center of his nose, a short, wicked-looking weapon, and two more, just as lethal, beneath his chin. Horns protruded all the way down the back of his head and down his neck, great sharp gold and red spikes protecting his head. She could see just how dangerous the dragon would be in a fight.

His scales were absolutely, incredibly beautiful. Every shade of red from a deep crimson to a pale red covered his body, the plates overlapping to protect him in a fight. Riley touched the lighter-colored ones closer to his belly, a little in awe.

Very politely, the dragon extended his leg to her. Riley's pulse raced, her heart kicking into overdrive as adrenaline rushed through her veins, but she didn't hesitate. She stepped onto the Old One's leg and swung one leg up and over to settle into the small leather saddle positioned just at the neck junction. She didn't have to be told that Dax had provided the saddle for her. There were no reins-it wasn't at all like riding a horse. She found stirrups, more to brace herself with than for any other reason.

Riley grasped one of the long spikes and held on tightly. The Old One didn't need to be told she was ready; their connection was growing stronger, just as her bond with Dax grew stronger with every passing moment. She felt the tremendous strength as the dragon gathered himself to make the leap into the air. Great wings pumped strong and they were aloft.

Riley lifted her face to the star-studded sky, laughing with sheer joy. She had dreamt of adventures, yearned for so much more, hungered for that one partner, that perfect man who would fit with her, would give her the courage to embrace life. In this perfect moment she had it all. She felt Dax entwined deep inside of her, holding her close-safe.

The dragon was such an unexpected gift. Dax had given her so many in such a short time. He was everything she'd ever dreamt of. It was impossible not to fall more and more for him. He had spun ties around her heart without her even realizing he was doing it. There was something so incredible about the combination of the gentleness he inevitably showed her and the fierce, explosive warrior he could suddenly become the moment circumstances demanded.

The Old One flew high above the forest, and looking down she could see the damage the blast had done to the mountain. Mudslides had swept away trees in sections, cutting paths through deep forest. Steam vents had opened, and ash covered everything, but this side of the mountain had been spared the worst of it. For all the mess of the ash, looking down on the canopy was incredible. As if reading her mind, and he probably was, the dragon dropped down closer so she could even make out the animals and birds taking shelter in the branches.

The wind tore tears from her eyes and blew her hair back from her face. The sound of her laughter echoed through the skies. She could see why Dax had entrusted the dragon to make the journey. The powerful wings beat down and up, creating a wind of their own, so that dragon and rider streaked through the sky, high above the miles of rain forest. The river looked like a ribbon and the various streams feeding it appeared to be thin threads cutting through the dark forests of trees.

She should have been afraid, but Dax was too close, in her mind, whispering to her, pointing out waterfalls and cool, hidden pools as well as the silvery, moonlit leaves exposed after the wind from the Old One's powerful wings blew the ash away.

All too soon they were back to the mountain, and the dragon circled, descending over a ruin of a village. To one side of the ruins she spotted a sea of stars, petals open, bathing in the moonlight.

Dax. She breathed his name in a kind of awe. It's so beautiful.

Yes, it is. Thank you for showing it to me through your eyes.

The dragon banked hard and she clutched at the base of the spike at the junction of his neck, gliding as he approached the field of flowers. She held her breath, afraid he'd land in the middle of them and crush all those swaying night star flowers. Again she had the impression of amusement from the dragon. He settled just to the right of the field without as much as a bump. Very politely he extended his leg.

"Thank you, Old One," she said softly. "That was ... extraordinary." Riley scratched around the base of the horn on his nose.

The red dragon inclined his head, his eyes glowing affectionately. She stretched, pacing away from him to get a good look at the flowers. The field was tucked around ancient circular stone structures, and raised platforms dotted the slopes, very indicative of the Cloud People. Mist moved around her, enveloping her, nearly obscuring her vision of the ruins. Up so high, where she was born, in the familiar stunted growth of the lush forest, she took a moment to look around, hoping the blast from the other side of the mountain had spared the forest itself.

Thankfully, there appeared to be very little damage. The ruins were intact, a historical treasure for generations to come. The forest itself, the flora and fauna supplied by the heavy mist forming the veil of clouds shrouding the upper mountain. And that field of rare flowers ... It smelled like ... him. Every breath she drew brought him deep into her lungs. She tasted him on her tongue, setting up that terrible craving.

Riley turned and saw him. Her heart nearly stopped beating. She actually pressed her hand over her heart in a kind of protest. Dax stood tall and straight in the middle of the field of white stars, those glittering flakes of variants of red falling all around him like a shower of gold dust. The moon caressed him with fingers of light, stroking through his blue-black hair and highlighting the color of his skin. His shirt stretched taut across his heavily muscled chest. Arms and thighs were roped with muscle, rippling beneath his casual clothes. Only Dax could manage to look elegant in jeans and a white T-shirt.

The expression on his face as he looked at her robbed her of any sane thought. He looked at her with such a mixture of tenderness and desire her body just went up in flames. In that moment, she wanted him to belong to her as she'd never wanted anything in her life. There was only Dax and the amazing night, the joy bubbling brightly in her after her incredible, impossible ride on the back of a magnificent dragon. After that sensual, sexy ceremony she'd so willingly participated in.

His world was both terrifying and breathtaking. She'd never felt more alive, more sensual, more in tune with herself and the world around her than she did when she was with him. She felt beautiful and intelligent and even brave. It didn't matter that she didn't fully understand what a Carpathian was or what it would entail being with one. She only knew she wanted him to be hers. For once in her life she wasn't going to think every angle to death and be too cautious to make a move.

Dax's glittering eyes locked with hers and she knew she was completely, utterly lost, and she didn't even care.