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Despite being a dragon shifter, Ridley Dragos doesn’t lead a life of adventure or excitement. Instead, he prefers the quiet solitude of his bookstore and the brief interaction with his customers. He has no aspirations of falling in love or living happily ever after, but all of that is about to change.
When he walked into The Book Attic that morning, Julian Haell harbored no expectations other than finding a new book for his ever-growing collection. Ridley intrigues him, though, and challenges everything he thought he knew about friendship and desire. A simple chat over tea turns into a comfortable, weekly routine, but as the months pass, Julian can’t help but want more.
It’s not every day a guy realizes he’s fallen for his best friend, but unfortunately, Ridley’s window of opportunity is closing fast. When Julian visits the mysterious Cupid Inc in search of a date for Valentine’s Day, Ridley finds himself facing an impossible decision—either seize the moment and confess his feelings, or let the love of a lifetime disappear forever.
“Read it. Read it. Read it.” Browsing the fiction section at the local bookstore proved to be a fruitless endeavor. Considering how many books he read in any given month, he really shouldn’t be surprised, but still, he couldn’t help but be disappointed.
“You look right lost, mate. Is there something I can help you find?” a deep, masculine voice asked in a sinfully sexy British accent.
Rising out of his crouch, Julian turned to greet the owner of the voice, but found himself facing a broad, muscular chest instead. “Oh, uh, hello.” Tilting his head back, he followed the curve of the man’s thick neck to his square jaw, over his full lips and narrow nose, and up to a pair of sapphire blue eyes. “I…was…” The words became muddled in his brain, and his voice caught in the back of his throat. “I’m sorry.” Julian shook his head and blinked several times. “What?”
Those pouty pink lips curled into a bemused grin. “Are you looking for something in particular?”
“No, not really, just browsing.” Some of the fog cleared from his brain, and at least he could make coherent sentences again. “Unfortunately, I’ve read all of these.” A rush of heat crept into his cheeks as he waved a hand at the row of books behind him. “I like to read,” he finished lamely.
“No shame in that. What do you like to read?”
Gods, that accent. “Well, I like all different kinds of books—mysteries, dramas, adventure.” He ducked his head and turned away. “Romance,” he mumbled.
Julian nodded. “It’s one of my favorites.”
“I’ve just the ticket. Come with me, mate.” Wiggling his fingers, he motioned for Julian to follow as he navigated through the shelves and display racks toward the counter. “I received a new shipment just this morning, haven’t even opened the boxes. I think you’ll be agreeable to what I have back here.”
Julian’s excitement bubbled over, and he felt like a kid in a toy store on Christmas Eve. “I’m Julian, by the way, Julian Haell.”
“Ridley,” the man replied over his shoulder, “just Ridley, owner of this fine establishment.”
“Owner?” Julian had been to The Book Attic a hundred times, and as far as he knew, old man Mosley owned the place. “A recent acquisition?”
“Don’t miss a thing, do you? Aye, I bought the place from Mr. Mosley about a month ago. Says he’s getting too old for these New England winters, so he took his bonny lass down to Florida for a little sand and sun.” Ridley’s biceps bulged as he lifted a large box from the floor and dropped it on the counter. “Here we are then.”
Curling his fingers against his palms, Julian tucked both hands into the pockets of his sweater jacket and bounced on his toes, eager to see what Ridley would pull from the cardboard box. “Are you going to tell me what it is?”
“Ah, but that’s half the fun.” Ridley winked at him, a simple action, but it still made Julian’s stomach flutter. “I’m afraid you’ll have to wait a bit longer while I log this into inventory. Why not grab yourself some coffee?” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the counter at the back where a pretty girl in a pink apron served up all kinds of exotic coffees for the patrons. “I’ll have this to you right quick, Julian Haell.”
“I’m not much for coffee, but I guess I could have some tea while you finish up.” Julian didn’t have any meetings scheduled until the afternoon, and in the meantime, he didn’t have anything better to do. Besides, if he stayed, maybe he’d have a chance to talk to Ridley a little longer. “Take your time.” With a shy smile and a dip of his head, he pried his eyes away from the storeowner and wandered to the back of the store.
“Hello.” The young woman greeted him with a bright smile when he approached the counter. “What can I get you today?”
“A Moroccan mint tea with honey.” New owner, new barista, new books—Julian kind of liked all the changes to The Book Attic.
“You got it, handsome.” She grabbed a paper cup from the stack and scribbled on it in black marker. “Pull up a chair, and I’ll bring it to you when it’s ready.”
“Okay, how much do I owe you?” Julian reached for his wallet, but she waved him away.
“On the house.” She cast a sideways glance toward the front of the store and giggled as she lifted her hair away to reveal a small earpiece. “Boss’s orders.”
“Then I guess I’ll have to thank him.” Rapping his knuckles against the countertop, Julian turned away and went to find an available seat with a clear view of the front desk.
Ridley’s beige T-shirt hugged his torso like a second skin, and his artfully ripped designer jeans showcased the most magnificent ass Julian had ever seen. His dark hair spiked out in disarray, but not as though he’d spent hours in front of the mirror with a comb and a bottle of styling gel.
When the barista brought his tea, Julian thanked her with a polite nod. He tried not to read too much into the free beverage, though. Possibly, Ridley bought everyone a drink as a kind of welcoming to the store. It would definitely be good for business. On the other hand, no one had ever given him so much as the flu before, and though it made him feel foolish, the gesture touched him. “Just stop it,” he muttered under his breath. “He’s probably straight and married with three kids at home.” Even if Ridley batted for the same team, a guy who looked like that didn’t stay single for long.
Lifting the single cut tulip from the vase in the middle of the table, Julian twirled it absently by the stem while he warred with himself. Maybe he could find a subtle way to inquire about a wife or partner. Then again, he doubted he really had a chance with the man anyway. Julian didn’t consider himself unattractive, but he had a tendency to come on too strong, and the intensity he brought to the table had driven away more than one potential lover.
Jerking out of his thoughts, Julian nearly toppled over in his chair, and he probably would have if Ridley hadn’t caught him. “What did you say?”
Ridley patted him on the shoulder and rounded the table to slide into the chair across from him. “Elf.” He pointed to the flower still pinched between Julian’s thumb and forefinger. “Am I right?”
The tulip had grown to twice its original size and even turned from red to almost completely white. “Crap.” Julian dropped the flower to the table top and jerked his hand away. “It was already like that.”
“It’s not a broken cookie jar.” Sighing, Ridley picked up the tulip and tapped it against his lips. “I set these out this morning, I did. Look around. All the others are the same.”
“I really don’t know what you mean.” Gods, he couldn’t believe he’d been so stupid as to let his emotions run away with him in public. “I should be going.”
“Julian, sit.” Ridley didn’t speak loudly, but the chill to his voice held Julian immobile in his chair. “Did you ever stop to think that if I know what you are, then maybe I have a secret of my own?”
“No, I guess I didn’t.” Once he’d realized his mistake, the fight or flight instinct had taken over, and he’d just wanted to get as far away as possible. “I don’t want any trouble, okay?”
“Well, I’m thinking that’s not such a bad thing, because I don’t want you to have trouble.”
Julian wanted to believe him, but he didn’t know why else Ridley would bring up his heritage if not to use it against him. “What do you want?”
“Believe me or not, I only want to talk.”
Weighing the risks, Julian decided he had nothing to lose by engaging in conversation. “Okay, let’s talk.” Be cool. Don’t be a complete nerd.
“Who’s your favorite author?”
“Excuse me?” He’d expected more questioning about elven culture, his background, or maybe even an interrogation about his abilities. “Do you really want to talk about books?”
Ridley swept his arm from left to right in a gesture that encompassed most of the store. “When in Rome?” When Julian didn’t respond, the storeowner actually laughed. “Humor me.”
So they talked. They discussed books, movies, sports, art, and everything in between but always safe, innocent topics. Neither of them brought up religion, politics, or anything to do with the paranormal world until Julian’s curiosity finally got the better of him, and he just had to know.
“I feel like I’m at a disadvantage.” Glancing around to make sure no one was eavesdropping, he lowered his voice and leaned in closer. “You know I’m an elf, but I don’t know what you are.”
“Fair enough.” Ridley linked his fingers together on the tabletop and leaned closer as well. “My last name is Dragos.”
“Dragon,” Julian breathed. When he spoke, a plume of vapors billowed from between his lips, and the hairs on his arm stood on end as the temperature around their table dropped at least forty degrees in a matter of seconds. “Neat trick.”
“I have more.” With a devilish grin, Ridley drew a figure eight on the side of Julian’s tea cup with his fingertip.
Popping the lid off the paper cup, Julian peered inside and frowned at the frozen block that had once been his Moroccan mint tea. “Hey, I was drinking that.”
Ridley snorted as he leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “I’ll buy you another, mate. I’m guessing you’ve gotten the idea now, or would you like another demonstration?”
“No, no, I get it. Ice dragon, correct?”
Julian had heard all the stories about the various families of dragons, but he’d never actually met one in the flesh before. While he had a range of questions, particularly concerning the bits of truth within the legends, he contained his enthusiasm and steered the conversation back to more mundane topics. He’d never want anyone to treat him like a specimen under a microscope, so it seemed only fair he offer the same courtesy.
Another hour passed in easy dialogue until Julian finally had to say his goodbyes or risk running late for his afternoon meeting. “I really enjoyed talking to you, Ridley.”
He reached out to shake, but Ridley captured his hand and brought it to his lips. “Charmed.” Then he brushed a soft, tender kiss over the knuckles.
Clearing his throat and damning his pale skin when the blush swept over his cheeks, Julian pulled his hand away and tucked it into his pocket. “Right, okay, well, I need to be going.”
“I’ll walk you out and get that book for you.” Ridley didn’t lead this time, but walked beside Julian on the way to the front counter. “What kind of meeting are you off to, then?”
“I have to see a guy about a horse.”
Ridley stopped in the middle of the Science Fiction section and blinked. “Is that code for something?”
“No.” Julian chuckled and shook his head. “I’m in advertising. The client I’m meeting owns one of those resort ranches up in Highland. Anyway, he’s driving down to go over the new campaign for tourist season, and he’s probably going to want horses in the ads again.”
Though Ridley started walking, his eyebrows drew together, and his nose crinkled. “Horses are a bad thing to put in an advertisement for a ranch?”
Julian shrugged. “They are if the ranch is a resort and doesn’t actually have horses.” Sometimes people made it really hard to remember how much he loved his job. “People pay me a lot of money to sell their products or services, but they always know best. Most of my clients don’t have any idea what they want, but they sure love to tell me all the ways I’m doing it wrong.”
“Why do it?”
“I like to see people succeed, and I like being a part of making that happen.” Yes, he made damn good money doing it, but it wasn’t about that for him. Julian just liked making people happy, and he felt their victories were his victories. “I really should be going.”
Ridley slid a large, hardback book across the counter toward Julian. “As promised.”
The fanciful cover gave Julian pause, but the title and blurb were intriguing. “Thank you. How much is it?”
“I’ll make you a deal, Julian Haell. You come back later this week for another chat, and we’ll call it square.”
“Ridley, thank you, but I can’t do that.”
Instead of arguing with him, Ridley winked and began backing away. “I’ll see you around.” Then he turned and made his way to the back of the store without giving Julian a chance to say anything else.
“Well, all right then.”
Snorting to himself, he hurried out into the afternoon sun to hail a cab, which turned out to be surprisingly easy given the location and time of day. Once he settled into the backseat and gave the driver his destination, Julian thumbed through the pages of his new book, growing more excited with each passage he skimmed. Turning back to the beginning, he frowned when a folded piece of blue paper fell from between the pages and into his lap.
Setting his book to the side, he unfolded the lined paper and smiled as he read the printed message.
May you find the adventure you seek.
I’m sure we’ll meet again, Julian Haell. You know where to find me.
With a wistful sigh, he tucked the note back into his book and shifted around in his seat to watch the passing buildings through his window. “Yes,” he whispered, “we’ll definitely meet again.”