Genre = Paranormal Women's Fiction, Fantasy, Romance

Muse It or Lose It Cover, Donna McDonald

Muse It or Lose It

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LENGTH: 83,000 words, 332 pages

My name is Goddess Atlanta and this is my Mortal Midlife Story.

Sometimes I just don’t understand my crazy life. On one hand, I can call lightning and save a trapped dragon when I need to. On the other, I need freaking reading glasses to read how many aspirins to take when my knee hurts. Despite being a foretold savior of my pantheon, nothing has spared me from my own mortal fate. I’m still aging, just like everyone else.

With two tasks out of nine finished, and no one dying from our misadventures yet, I admit I’ve been feeling pretty good about myself. The Fates have finally stopped popping in on me, so I’m hoping I’m on the right track. And none of my family has stabbed me in the back this week. See? Good times.

So I’m fine… mostly. Well, except my champion’s been a real pain to deal with lately. He’s sort of a dragon now and I’m afraid feeling special has gone to his head. Can anyone say entitlement issues? Anyone? I hope Cale gets a handle on his problems soon, because hey… I am the special one in our relationship. I’m the goddess.

Yes. Okay. I admit tasks three and four aren’t looking like a whole lot of fun, but I trust Cale and I will get through them. I have to because failing means death. Everyone in my pantheon is still counting on me to stop the doomsday prophecy from coming true.

All I can say is Gaia help me, because I’m going to need all the help I get.

WARNING:  This new story is both paranormal (think Fairies, Pegasi, and Dragons) and women’s fiction (think issues of aging). Many fantasy and romantic elements are also included. This is the second book in the Nine Heirs and a Spare series which has its roots in Greek mythology. You can count on the good guys winning some of their battles, but that’s the only promise I can make. As with all my work, there will be some good laughs along the way. 

Chapter 1

I couldn’t say tonight was the worst date I’d ever had since coming to the Mortal Realm, but this one was fast moving to the top of the list. If I hadn’t gone to so much trouble getting ready, I might not have been so irritated. But I did go through a lot of trouble.

A couple of hours ago, Cale smiled at me and my sexy clothes without even commenting. I would have settled for a whistle of appreciation or a slow, interested perusal, but I didn’t get either. While I internally reeled from my failure to entice the male taking me to dinner, Cale called for a ride. I fumed silently during the trip to the restaurant, but my distracted date was absorbed in his phone and didn’t notice that either.

The restaurant reeked of special-night-out ambiance with its polished tables, crisp white napkins, and softly lit chandeliers. Given the special attention we received from the staff, I suspected it was yet another restaurant Cale and his family owned. The Drakons seemed to love investing in great food.

“Sorry. I have a backlog of messages,” Cale explained as he forced himself to put his phone into a jacket pocket.

I nodded, but I felt no sympathy for my distracted date. I’d spent a very long time getting dressed up for him, and Cale hadn’t said a word about how great I looked. He knew I no longer possessed powers capable of smoothing out my wrinkles and brightening my complexion. No, I had to use makeup primers and concealers to look this perfect. In fact, I ended up visiting the mega-Muse-mansion to borrow from my sisters because I didn’t have all the gazillion makeup things I needed.

My disappointment in Cale’s failure to appreciate me wasn’t even an age thing. It was a woman thing. He was ignoring me. No woman deserved that.

Cale worked on his phone the entire ride here and had stayed on it even after we sat down. I was now a whole glass of red wine ahead of him and had eaten half the bread our attentive server brought us as an appetizer. Not a word of dinner conversation had passed between us yet.

When he finally stopped typing for five seconds, Cale offered me a lame apology. I gave him a faux sympathy expression in return. He hadn’t paid proper homage to the trouble I’d gone to just to impress him, which in my book meant he didn’t deserve genuine sympathy.

“If you’re so busy, Cale, maybe we should leave and get Chinese takeout on the way back home.”

I suggested hoping to annoy him, but judging from his smile, it didn’t work. Cale only laughed. Apparently, Cale and I weren’t residing in the same realm this evening.

When Cale stopped laughing, he shook his head. “We’ll get takeout another time. I don’t want you to miss the food here. It’s wonderful.”

The passionate, shirtless hug I’d gotten after his dragon flight had replayed over and over in my head while I dressed for our date tonight. Thoughts of repeating that hug and seeing where else it might lead had inspired me to wear one of my two sexy black dresses, and not the black business-y one.

For all the attention Cale was paying to me, a pair of jeans and a t-shirt would have sufficed. My lips pressed together when my distracted dinner companion lifted his hands into the air and sighed.

“Even with work issues coming in at the galactic rate, I can’t stop thinking about it. I try, but two minutes later, I’m thinking of it again. I’m a dragon, Atlanta. All the men in my family are dragons. How am I supposed to adjust to knowing that?”

I had no idea how to respond. I found it hard to stay polite, but I summoned up a small smile. “I’m sure it’s…” Words—I needed the right words. I needed to offer moral support. “I’m sure it’s exhilarating as well as confusing.”

I patted my back for responding with a mature answer involving big words. Somehow, I’d successfully kept myself from responding like an upset goddess who never, ever got ignored by the men she dated.

“Confusing is a good word,” he replied with a nod.

My accidental champion, Cale Drakon, recently discovered his ancestry included descending from actual dragons and that he could fly when in his beast form. Long ago, my father locked Indar, the original Drakon and a real dragon, inside a dragon statue.

Cale and I freed his ancestor, and now all the males in Cale’s family knew what they were. And part of that was the ability to shift between physical forms. My champion wasn’t yet able to control taking his beast form when he chose, but Cale seemed determined to learn.

Okay, I could see how that was a lot to get used to. Gaia only knew the revelation that I was turning mortal and aging had hit me hard when I first noticed it happening for real. Those first couple of years were traumatic, especially when I saw wrinkles forming at the same time I felt my power waning. Maybe I was being too hard on Cale.

I mean—how could my sparkly cleavage, thanks to sparkly pink dusting powder belonging to one of my sexy Muse sisters, ever compete with that sort of life-changing revelation? Never mind that I also spent two freaking hours on my face…

No, no, I wasn’t going there again.

When Cale’s phone buzzed and buzzed without stopping, he dropped his gaze from mine, whipped it out of his jacket pocket, and started thumbing away. Bored once more with watching him ignore me, I returned to my full-on mad state over it.

Making a scene, as the mortals say, had never seemed so appealing to me. Luckily for Cale, I was hungry enough to restrain my temper until after our meal.

Lacking anything better to do while Cale worked, I sighed and looked around. A handsome man with silver at his temples was dining alone two tables over from us. He winked at me and then raised his eyebrows as if to ask what a mature woman like me was doing with some young guy who kept ignoring my awesomeness.

While Cale still wasn’t looking, the man grinned and pointed to the empty chair across the table from him. I discreetly shook my head, but his offer made me smile at him. His silent flirting, which Cale completely missed, reassured me that my short black dress and matching three-inch heels made me as worthy of male appreciation as I’d thought.

When another ten minutes passed in complete silence, I realized it was time to face some facts. It wasn’t like tonight was the first time I’d ever lost a man’s interest so completely. Yes, Cale had seemed attracted before, but men changed their minds as much as women did. My ego stung, mainly because it was the first time I’d lost a man’s interest before he’d even bedded me. Maybe I wasn’t the young and seductive female I once was, but there were some good things to be said for maturity between the sheets. 

Whatever Cale’s problem was, this epic fail of a dinner date reminded me of promises I’d made to myself. The emotional disconnect I’d dreaded ever experiencing for the second time in my life had arrived after I finally warmed up toward Cale.

Oh, I knew Cale’s distractions had likely doubled since he found out he was a dragon, but mine were doubling every day as we worked through the tasks of the prophecy. My champion should be grateful that I was not a dragon like him because if I had been one, I’d have fried him in his seat until he was crispy.

Or at least I would have fried his freaking phone.

I sighed with relief when the server set our dinner on the table. Sure, I might as well have gone to dinner alone since Cale and I hadn’t exchanged more than a few words so far, but at least the food looked yummy.

As soon as we ate, I was shuffling us back home as quickly as I could. I wanted out of my wasted seduction gear and to forget my epic failure to gain my younger date’s full attention. “The food smells wonderful,” I said aloud as I mentally sent gratitude to our chef.

Cale tucked his phone away again and nodded. “This is a great restaurant. That’s why my family bought it.”

I glanced up at Cale’s confirmation of my suspicions. My distracted date looked at me across the table, but there was no appreciation in his eyes. His expression said his thoughts were far away from us and our dinner.

His dismissal dented my ego, but I’d survive. Despite being forty, I knew I looked good. I was far from being a shriveled, old crone like all the Fates were turning into now. Either I’d lost my appeal, which was possible even if not probable since I was a goddess, or Cale was still thinking of what it had been like to sail through the air with a kind of freedom most mortals never got to experience.

And how could I be mad at him for feeling that? I’d felt the same riding on Wizard, my sister’s Pegasus. Wizard flew at speeds the largest of birds couldn’t replicate.

But still…

It had taken me over two whole hours to get dressed tonight. I put on makeup—actual makeup—foundation and everything.

Gah… there was nothing worse than worrying about a man’s thoughts.

I knew better than to dwell on this crap. Nothing good ever came of trying too hard when the other person wasn’t trying at all. This was precisely what the end of my relationship with Mark Antony had been like, and I was not reliving that ego-battering crap again.

I shoved my frustration away and ate with relish. My six-foot-tall body required a lot of fuel, and I refused to allow anything to dull my enjoyment of our magnificently prepared food.

***

After several minutes, I slowed eating only to notice Cale wasn’t eating at all. My gaze lifted from my plate to find him frozen mid-lift with his fork about an inch from his lips. My fork lowered as I looked around.

Everyone in the restaurant froze but me. Great. Someone had used a time-stop device on all the mortals in the room.

But why had it worked on Cale if he was now a dragon? Huh… that was strange. Wasn’t it?

I needed to ask Indar about how mortal his dragon side had become. I could ask my father, but who knew what witch or wizard he’d paid to help him grant Indar’s shifting ability? In my experience, most granted wishes came with a big catch.

I twisted in my seat, then spoke into the silent air around me. “Duffinnia, did you do this?”

A familiar portal opened next to our server, who looked like he was heading back to our table. I sighed as Duff exited the portal. When she noticed how close she was to the guy, Duff patted his back.

Guess I should be grateful she hadn’t given his butt a Leprechaun love tap.

I defiantly took another bite of my dinner before reluctantly setting down my fork for good to glare at her. “Why the grand entrance? You could have texted, and I would have answered.” I snorted. “My date’s been doing it all night. I’m learning that younger mortals don’t consider being on their phone during a real dinner date to be rude,” I said with a frown.

“There’s no time for mortal niceties like calling ya. I have a genuine emergency,” Duff said. She winced as her gaze dropped to my half-empty plate. She knew how I felt about eating. “I’m really sorry about yer dinner. It looks yummy.” She glanced at Cale and grinned. “Yer date’s easy on the eyes. Is this handsome fellow yer champion?”

I kept my glare fixed on the Leprechaun I hadn’t yet forgiven. “He’s mostly a client, or at least he was a client. After this is over, I don’t think he’ll be needing the Muses or me again.”

I turned and frowned at a frozen Cale before looking back at Duff and sighing in resignation. After the way Cale had been behaving, I should’ve been happy she froze him, but oddly, I wasn’t.

“So, what’s up?” I asked.

Duff tugged on her red curls. “I need a favor from ya.”

I lifted a hand to stop her right there. “No. I’m only two tasks into nine of the prophecy, and I’m not sure we’re back to being friends enough for you to be asking for a favor.”

Duff glared at me. “We drank Fairy Mead to celebrate yer forgiveness, Atlanta. Does the word of a goddess mean so little now that ya’re stuck in the Mortal Realm?”

I picked up my wine and drained half the glass before speaking. Crap—she had me. “Fine, but I make no promises. What’s the favor?”

Duff’s answering glare was meant for an absent person. She shook her head to pull herself from her thoughts. “Someone cast a spell and fossilized my parents in amber. I don’t think they’re dead, but rather in some sort of limbo. The favor I need is for ya to help me bust them out.”

I chuckled. “Duff, you can open portals. Plus, I know being sneaky must be listed as a top skill on your Leprechaun resume. Why in any realm do you need me to help you?”

Duff snorted as her eyes darkened with anger. “Because I’m fairly sure my younger brother is the one who did this to them. As I told ya, my parents announced to our entire pantheon that I wouldn’t be ruling them soon. Knowing that, Hamlin’s gleefully taken it on himself to name himself as ruler in their place. When I asked him what happened, the bloody arse smiled and said our parents had many enemies. Then he waved me away from the throne where he now sits and gloats.”

I lifted my shoulders in a big shrug. Duff’s story sounded like family problems, and I had enough dealing with my own. Saving Duff’s people from her brother needed to stay off my list. My headshake matched hers. “I still don’t see how I can help.”

 Duff shoved her hands into her jacket pockets. “Ya have a combination of traits I don’t possess. I think ya could reason out a solution that my irrational disgust of my brother is preventing me from seeing. If I kill my brother, I’ll have to take over for sure, which would directly violate the promise I extracted from my parents. It would leave my right to rule open to challenge. Fending off challengers would become my full-time job. But if I don’t save my parents, I’ll have to take over for sure because Hamlin will destroy everyone if I don’t. No scenario ends well for me except the one where my parents get out of the amber and go back to ruling.”

The restaurant resumed activity again. My gaze jerked to Cale, whose fork finished the trip to his mouth. I turned back to hear Duff swearing under her breath. That sure was a short ten minutes. Or Duff was losing her touch.

“Hey, Duff. Meeting you here is so… uh… unexpected. Have you met my champion, Cale Drakon?” I said, narrowing my eyes at her in a warning.

I didn’t know if Cale realized Duff had frozen him. Indar did that to him once and he’d been aware the whole time. I had seen no signs of temper in Cale yet, but who knew what his dragon side would be like? I had enough to deal with. Duff and her problems needed to go away.

Duff turned to Cale and smiled. She pulled one hand from the pocket of her jacket and extended it. “It’s a pleasure, Cale. Atlanta didn’t tell me she was dating you. I doubt that means she’s ashamed of ya, but consider yerself warned. She’s a woman of many attitudes.”

I opened my mouth to say this wasn’t a date but shut it when I realized the Fates might be listening. I’d promised Cale nine dates in exchange for him hanging around until all the tasks were done. This date was date two, and lousy or not, I wanted tonight to count toward my promise.

“I haven’t seen you to tell you. And we’re still new to each other,” I said, lifting my chin when Duff laughed at my careful wording.

Cale shook Duff’s hand and smiled at her. “Nice to meet you, Duff. Are you a goddess too?”

I felt sure Cale asked Duff that to test her. He’d been so clever when dealing with my new Troll bestie, Shengis. I wondered if some quiet instinct warned Cale that he was talking to someone of a similar paranormal type. Leprechauns, Trolls, and Sprites were all in the same pantheon—well, sort of.

“Me, a goddess?” Duff repeated before she laughed. “No, Cale. I’m a Leprechaun princess. And what are yer paranormal leanings, if I might ask?”

Cale blinked at her for a moment and then grinned. “I’m the mortal Champion of the Doomsday Prophecy and Goddess Atlanta.”

My head jerked around to stare at him. Cale’s sudden discretion surprised me after all the talking he’d done about how cool it was to be a dragon. We might not be heading to bed tonight—or ever—but his loyalty boded well for us staying friends for a good long while.

Duff giggled at his answer. “Well played, Champion.”

I rolled my eyes at them. It was just like Duff to ask me for a favor, then bat her princess eyes at my date. My gaze moved back and forth between them. They were smiling at each other in a way that made me feel like squirming in my chair—not that I would ever do that. Goddesses never squirmed.

I let my gaze finally land back on Duff. “I don’t know when I can get to your favor, but if I do it, I’m going to need two from you in trade. That’s my best deal.”

“Done. Ya know I’m desperate if I’m willing to make a two-for-one deal,” Duff said, looking more hopeful.

I smirked at Leprechaun logic. “Meet me at the office tomorrow morning. Let’s say around 10:00, alright? We’ll discuss the details of our trade.”

“I can do that. I go into the bar around 11:00. I’ll come by before work,” Duff promised. Then she turned to Cale again. “Well, I’ll let ya both get back to yer dinner. Nice to meet ya, Cale.”

“Nice to meet you, too,” Cale answered.

We watched Duff walk through the restaurant toward the lobby. She disappeared the moment just before she reached the place to turn. I glanced around the restaurant, but no one had seemed to notice her magical exit.

Tonight was a total bust. I’d made a Leprechaun deal, which I knew better than to do, and I let my dinner date ignore me without suffering any consequences. And now my delicious dinner was cold.

“Does she do what you do to travel from place to place?” Cale asked.

I lifted a shoulder as I picked up my fork and ate it anyway.

“Similar, I guess—but not the same. Duff has all her power, so it’s easier for her to vanish. I’m getting by on a fraction of what I used to have, so my transporting is a clunky process. The only reason we could transport together to Ares’s Grove was the extra power Zeus gave me. The trip across the globe wore me out, which is why I had to rest.”

“How long did it take you to fly to the Sea of Hell on Athena’s winged horse?”

I ate a bit more before responding. The food was cold, but it was still tasty. “I didn’t time it, but Wizard was fast. Athena’s lucky to have her winged horse.”

Cale nodded. “Once I can control my shifting, maybe I could fly us where we need to go.”

Cale’s offer made me smile. I did like him most of the time. His eagerness for our adventures always pleased me. The bottom line was that I needed to think of my accidental champion as simply another trainee soldier. I needed to stop thinking of what Cale might be like in bed. That would solve all my problems, and tonight would never be repeated.

I shook my head as I smiled. “None of the dragons I knew ever had riders. Talk to Indar about the rules. It might be against the dragon code to carry a non-dragon rider. Great Beasts are apex predators here in the mortal world.”

“Seriously? We’re apex predators?” Cale asked with a chuckle.

“Dragons once were the ultimate beast in any realm, but remember that my pantheon killed dragons to the point of extinction. Indar got tricked into not fighting back, but someone like my father or Ares caught the others.”

“Yes. That is something to keep in mind,” Cale said.

I nodded. Cale probably thought I was joking, but I wasn’t. “And being a Pegasus, Wizard has his own magical abilities. He cloaks him and his rider so planes in the air and people on the ground don’t see him flying by. I felt his magic the whole time I was on his back. He’s a magnificent creature.”

“Okay, I’m convinced,” Cale admitted with a grin. “I’ll ask Indar about dragon riders… and if I can cloak my flight.”

I blew out a breath. “Not to be the bearer of only bad news, but I’m not sure dragons can cloak themselves, Cale. I cloaked the four of you when you shifted and flew. I didn’t want your family having to explain it to all their neighbors.”

“Oh,” Cale said and sighed. “Maybe you should get a Pegasus.”

That made me laugh. “Oh, for sure, I’d love to have one devoted to me, but Pegasi are free agents. They choose their riders when they want to or when they owe them a favor. Getting a Pegasus to commit means you’re very special. I would love to know what Athena did for Wizard. They’re very close.”

“Interesting,” Cale said.

I laughed because he might as well have said “cool” because that was the tone he was using. “Maybe I’ll ask Wizard next time I see him.”

Cale chuckled. “Does a Pegasus talk?” he asked before eating.

“It’s more like they send pictures into your mind. They prefer to show you what they’re thinking. Communication goes both ways, but they understand words so long as you think about what you’re saying while you’re talking to them.” I ate a few more bites. “Question—why didn’t you tell Duff what you are? She told you the truth about who she was.”

Cale paused. “I didn’t say because she let your father into her house without warning you. I knew you no longer trusted her because of it.”

I nodded as I stared at my plate. Sometimes Cale humbled me. I hated that feeling.

“Tomorrow, we’ll have to tell Duff the truth because I want her to ward your family’s land. I also want her to reinforce the wards at the office and the mega-Muse-mansion. Duff has to know who and what to allow inside and keep out to make the wards work. We don’t want her keeping out dragons at your place.”

“Who are you worried about trying to get in?”

I lifted a shoulder. “Mostly, it’s preventing the unknown threats that we can’t anticipate. But I also don’t want someone like Ares breaking free from the hold of your magical weapon and coming after you. He’s the sort who wouldn’t hesitate to cause your family problems. Dragons won’t worry him. He and my father chained Indar to the tree to guard the golden fleece.”

Cale nodded as he continued to eat. After a bit, he set down his fork. “When Duff did that thing to freeze everyone, I could still see and hear everything, but I couldn’t physically move.”

“Just like when Indar did it,” I said as I pondered the ramifications. “Guess hearing while you’re frozen is a good thing. Most mortals never know time stopped. Duff’s reach is confined to a small space like the size of her bar or this place. She stopped it the day Eros and his brothers came to collect me.”

“Why are you immune to her time-stopping effects?” Cale asked.

“Because I’m not mortal. I’m a goddess,” I said with as much attitude as possible. Then I spoiled my brag by laughing. “Or it may be because Duff has a way to program the time stop for only those she wants it to work on. The effects last for about ten minutes max, but just now, it ended in less than that. I would say, more like five minutes.”

Cale grunted. “Even one minute is a long time when you’re frozen and can’t move.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “I’ll have to take your word for it.”

***

We finished the rest of our dinner in silence. Cale got a clue about how badly the evening had gone when I didn’t bother ordering dessert. I didn’t want to get into it, but I’d learned long ago that the truth couldn’t be put off forever, no matter how much people tried to avoid it.

“Let’s go home, Cale. Tomorrow is going to be a big day,” I said.

Cale ordered a ride for us and then paid our check. We walked to the lobby together, but I felt like I was miles away from him in nearly every way.

Finally, I looked at him. “Thank you for dinner. The food was amazing. Let me buy dinner once in a while. I promise no one’s going to pull your man card for letting your date pay, especially when everyone can see she’s older than you.”

Cale chuckled before releasing a long breath. “No, I don’t think I want to do that. I somehow made you mad tonight without intending to. That’s bad enough.”

“What finally clued you in to my feelings, Junior? Other than I can’t wait to get home and call this evening done.”

Cale hung his head and sighed. “Was it the phone? I know I should have turned it off and answered those messages later.”

I rolled my eyes again. “You’re not sixteen, Cale. If you don’t know why you were a lousy date tonight, then you don’t need to be dating. You’re a good-looking guy, but no man is that handsome. Be grateful I’m cutting you some slack by not making a big deal about it.”

Cale grunted. “Women always say things that. Like I should automatically know what I did wrong. Why do women never directly tell you in specifics what ticked them off?”

I snorted. “Why should a woman bother talking when the guy she’s out with is too busy on his phone to hear her?”

The guy who’d flirted with me earlier chose that precise moment to walk by us. He was leaving too. I could see now that he was indeed older, probably a little more than my mortal age, but he sure looked great.

He swung close and handed me a business card, then winked when I met his gaze. At the exit door, he blew me a wicked smoochy kiss before he pushed it open and left smiling.

Cale frowned at his back. “Who the hell was that, and why did he do that all stuff?”

I snorted. Was Cale’s youth making him dense? Or was he just spoiled by dating women who let their uber-wealthy date get by with crap? His youth appealed to me, but I was so tired of making allowances. Next time I went out on the kind of date that made me want to woman up like I had tonight, it would be with someone more my equal—maybe someone older.

“It was nothing,” I said.

Cale studied me. “It sure looked like something to me.”

I turned to glare. “Fine… he did all that because he knew he was the only man who paid any proper attention to me tonight. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the one I was having dinner with. My actual date was too busy for me and should have canceled.”

Cale huffed before replying. “We canceled last night. I didn’t want to cancel again.”

I laughed. “And I didn’t want to spend two long hours getting super dressed up for dinner only to be ignored all evening by the man I did all that preparing for. When I go home, it’s going to take me at least an hour to undo all the woman magic I’ve got going on. Since I’m a midlife mortal woman instead of a freaking fairy, I have to work at being glamorous. I can’t just wave my hand and get it done.”

Cale sighed and looked at my short black dress as if he’d just noticed I even had clothes on. “Point made,” he muttered.

“Not yet, but it will be. I’m just getting started with giving you specifics,” I said, throwing his words back at him.

Cale walked to our ride and held the back door open for me. I swept around him and let my sexy dress ride up my thighs as I climbed inside. His gaze slid up my legs, and he tugged at his tie. I huffed and slid across the seat to put a healthy distance between us.

Cale slid in next to me and turned to look at my face. “You look beautiful. I’m sorry about tonight.”

“It’s too late for a weak apology to save you,” I said sweetly. “You insisted we do real dates, so I gave it my all tonight to show you how serious I took your request.”

“Okay. Ouch…” Cale said with a chuckle.

I sighed and shook my head. “There’s a reason Gaia made me forty and not your age in this realm. I’m too old to train a man to treat me right. My date has to come equipped with what it takes to make me his top priority for the evening, especially when he calls our time together a date. A date is by definition a time when your attention needs to be one hundred percent present with the person across the dinner table.”

I paused in my rant to sigh again before finishing. “All women hate being ignored for any reason. Multiply that hate by a factor of a hundred and you might get close to what a goddess feels like when she gets ignored. You’re lucky I didn’t call down a lightning bolt to take out your phone. It would have cost me some power, but the look on your face would have been worth it to me.”

Cale winced. “Okay, then… I think I’m simply going to go with a humble promise to do better next time.”

“Apology accepted, but you don’t get off that easy. I’m not dressing sexy for you again. You’re going to get business Atlanta, not sexy Atlanta next time. And no more kissing. Tonight didn’t remotely live up to that passionate, shirtless hug you gave me after dragon flying. You’re acting like a tease, and you need to stop it.”

“And now I’m back to thinking of you as a dominatrix,” Cale said with a boyish grin.

He was playing down my assertiveness. Better men than him tried that tactic and failed. I laughed at his weak attempt to charm me out of being upset.

Outside the car, I made thunder rumble overhead. When the lightning flashed, our driver swore about the crazy weather. I turned and looked at Cale with sparks still in my eyes and smiled when he scooted against the door.

“One day you’re going to learn who I really am, Cale. Until then, I suggest you don’t make assumptions that I’m the same kind of woman your mother or your grandmother is. They’re mortal in body and mind. Each plots behind her husband’s back and quietly manipulates him into doing what she wants. My mind doesn’t work like that. While I may be a midlife mortal in body, I’m a goddess in every other way. So next time you ask me out and ignore me, all our dates after that will be popcorn and a chick flick at my mother’s. Am I being clear?”

“Crystal,” Cale said and stared out the window for the rest of our ride home.

Chapter 2

When Cale and I got home, Night could tell something was wrong. He’d pestered me to talk about it, but I refused. The owl asked me nothing else after that. He also didn’t tell me where he was going. He simply picked up Mother’s parrot in his claws and flew off into the dark with the kidnapped bird. His defection suited me because I wanted to be alone.

Before trying to sleep, I took a long bath and broke out my emergency stash of Viking mead. Drinking alone wasn’t my favorite pastime, but it beat not sleeping. Mead was sweet and helped me not sulk because I hadn’t ordered dessert. It also dialed my anger back enough not to go storming across the hall to bang on Cale’s door. After losing my temper on the ride home, I’d said a quick goodnight. Cale needed no more specifics, despite my irrational desire to keep giving them.

I’d slept lightly and woke early this morning, reminding me of habits I’d had during my warrior days. I briefly thought about contacting Zavak for some training but didn’t because I couldn’t risk hurting myself for anything not involving the prophecy.

Mother wasn’t home, so I left a note for Cale to take the time he needed this morning to take care of his business tasks. I suggested he meet me at my work when he finished.

Instead of calling for a ride or driving, I transported myself directly into my office and sat down at my desk. It was familiar and strange at the same time. Chalk that up to the mood I was in this morning. I hadn’t gotten over being mad yet, even though I knew it was dumb of me to feel so let down.

I sat brooding about it in the dark until the front door opened and the lights in the lobby clicked on. I heard the click-clack of unfamiliar high heels on the marble floor just before I smelled a new perfume.

Not wanting to startle the intruder yet, I stood and quietly drew my green energy sword before walking to my office door. I peered out into the lobby area and saw a short woman with a perfect French twist settling in behind the reception desk. She hummed something as she settled in and looked quite pleased with herself.

I opened my door wide and let its squeak alert the person to my presence. Her head lifted with a bit of surprise, but when she saw me, the unexpected intruder smiled wide.

“Good morning, goddess. Why aren’t you out doing more tasks?”

I let the energy sword fade away. The tiny Sprite looked very different in business clothes. She looked mortal. Just like the rest of us. “Princess Petal?”

“Oh, just call me Petal,” she said with a long-suffering sigh. “Clients laugh when I tell them I’m a princess.”

Laughter won out over my shock. “Yes, they do the same to me when I tell them I’m a goddess. So just call me Atlanta.”

Petal’s giggle made me feel marginally better. Getting some coffee in me would likely improve my mood even more. I completely understood everyone’s addiction to the brew. And some days I needed it more than others.

“Yes, you definitely need coffee, Goddess… I mean, Atlanta. I think you should train your mortal champion to fetch it for you. He should do more than merely look cute and get hurt all the time. He should strive to be useful to you outside of kissing you senseless once in a while.”

Now I was the one giggling. “I’m too old to train a man. Don’t be reading my mind, Sprite.”

Petal frowned. “Oh, my, you’re in a grim mood this morning.”

“I am indeed,” I admitted to the Sprite. But my smile stayed in place. “Why are you here? Let’s talk about that instead of me.”

Petal smiled. “Muse Melpomene hired me to sit here, look pretty, and greet clients when they came in.”

“I see. Do you enjoy greeting our clients?” I asked.

Petal shrugged her shoulders. “It’s good for me to have a purpose since I can’t go home.”

“Why can’t you go home?” I asked because I was astonished. “You did what you promised. You waited for me above and beyond what anyone could have expected you to do. I’m still awed by your patience every time I think about it.”

The Sprite sighed deeply. “Your words are very kind, but my parents say my good deeds are still not worthy of accolades. I cannot go home until I can show our people that I am the most worthy of all Sprites to inherit the throne.”

My face wrinkled in confusion as I tried to understand her parents and the problem. “But you waited centuries for me. What could be more awesome than that?”

“I honestly do not know. When I checked with my parents, they said I was not done yet. So I decided to help your sisters work on deciphering the rest of the doomsday poem. I like the Muses. They let me move into their gigantic house. I have my own room there.”

“Good. You deserve your own room,” I said and meant it. I mentally added Sprite to my allowed in the mega-Muse-mansion list. I would have to tell Duff. “When everyone gets here, I want to go over task three and see what we’ve found out.”

“You want to have a meeting with all of us?” Petal asked in a squeal.

I never heard anyone get so excited about a meeting. She was bubblier than any of the Muses and considered work fun. I could see this situation working out well if Petal stayed on to mind the reception desk.

The hallway door to the office opened to reveal a man’s butt backing through it. After turning around, Cale walked the rest of the way inside. He carried two conference-sized thermoses of coffee-shop coffee, a bag of something that smelled amazing, and a single tall cup with steam coming out of the sipper lid.

He walked straight to me and extended the steaming cup of coffee. “I finished my work last night because I couldn’t sleep. I also asked my father to watch things for me until we’re done. Please accept this coffee as a peace offering until I can prove to you that you’re now my priority.”

I liked that Cale didn’t offer me another lame apology. Plus, his peace offering smelled terrific. I took the cup, sniffed the cinnamon fragrance, and sighed before taking a sip. The coffee was perfect—absolutely perfect. “Thank you,” I said with a sigh.

“You’re welcome. Don’t leave me behind again. I had a panic attack before I saw your note in the kitchen.”

I nodded and let his complaint go. Part of me wanted to tell him it had been safer to leave this morning than to stay and deal with him—safer for him, I mean.

It would take way more than one cup of coffee to shift my mood this morning, but I thought it was a great apology.

***

By the time the Muses trailed in, we’d laid out the bait to gain their cooperation. The smell of pastries drew them to the conference room without Petal or me having to coax them there. The worst part of it was that Cale and I both had to endure hugs. Evidently, Petal had shared several stories about our fight with Ares.

When we were settled with our coffee and treats, I asked who had gotten task three.

Cale sat in a chair off to the side, just like last time. I couldn’t help but notice that his phone had yet to make an appearance today.

“I’ve got task three,” Polly said as she stood up and waved her stanza.

Her actual name was Polyhymnia, Muse of Sacred Poetry. Her getting this stanza worried me a little because sacred poetry could be anything from a lovely long poem extolling a person’s goodness to an elaborate spell that begged for a sacrifice.

Polly smiled at me, and I smiled back in encouragement. I told myself she wouldn’t have been smiling if the task related to a spell. At least, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have. There were some things about the Muses and their work that I preferred not to understand.

“I think I figured out my part of the poem, and I think I know what to do. You’re going to proud of me, Atlanta.”

“I’m already proud of you for simply taking it on, Polly. Let’s do a group discussion about it to be sure we’re all on the same page with your solution. Will you read the stanza so we can all hear what it said?”

Polly nodded and read:

 

Every family births a worthy one who’s meant to guard their gate.

Though time flows by them slowly, the worthy one continues to wait.

Gold is never the real glory—instead, honor rings more true.

This worthy one only stayed worthy because he or she honored you.

 

“He or she?” Tally laughed at the hedge. “Well, that’s about as clear as Olympian mud.”

“Agreed,” I said, smirking at Tally before turning to the most patient Muse of the nine. I was suddenly grateful Poly was the one who’d inherited this stanza to interpret. “Tell us your proposed solution, Polly. Does it involve weaving a spell?”

Nooo… please don’t say a spell,” Mellie said with a groan. “The doomsday prophecy is a sacred poem containing a series of nine spells. Look at what came from that. We’re all doomed to spend forever figuring this prophetic crap fest out.”

“That’s true, Atlanta. The doomsday prophecy is a poem cloaking a series of spells. That’s why you feel a release of magic whenever you solve one,” Polly admitted.

I nodded. “Okay. I can see that. It feels like the load gets a little lighter with every task we solve.”

Polly bit her lip as she looked at me. “To solve task three, I think you’ll be required to weave some kind of spell. It’s a bit like… well, it’s like it needs the sacred poem to be both legend-worthy and contain a power that gets released with each telling. I will help write the poem and determine the spell. What I don’t know is who the poem needs to be about.”

I laughed and shook my head. “I can weave a spell when one’s needed, but I’m certainly no Muse. I don’t yet know who the poem needs to be about. Guess I’ll need some time to think about it.”

“Here’s my thought. When you consider the fundamental purpose of the nine of us—the job of a Muse is to inspire someone to become a better version of themselves,” Polly said. “And the poem is about someone you’ve inspired to be patient enough to wait for you. Who fits that criteria?”

“Me. I’ve been waiting for six years,” Cale said from his corner.

I looked at his mischievous grin and rolled my eyes. “Are we really going to discuss last night in front of my sisters?”

Cale held up a hand and grinned back. “No, I don’t want to think about last night anymore. BUT… since I am still waiting for you to get a clue about the reality of us, I think you have to consider that it could be me.”

I looked at Polly. “Do you think this stanza of the poem is about Cale?”

Polly sighed as she shook her head. “No.” She looked at Cale. “Sorry, Cale, but I think I would feel it if you were the person.”

Cale grinned as he lifted a shoulder in defeat. “Can’t blame a guy for hoping. I need an edge with your sister.”

Polly giggled. Then the rest of the Muses laughed. I rolled my eyes and fought not to sigh in frustration.

“Princess Petal waited for Atlanta. Maybe it’s about Petal,” Mellie said, sipping her coffee.

I turned to look at Petal who was currently arranging stir sticks, sugars, and creamer packets into flower designs. The Sprite seemed bored with our task three discussion, but Mellie had a point. Petal had waited a long time for me to show up and fix the fleece. I hadn’t put the whole timeline together, but Petal had hinted she’d waited centuries. That kind of patience boggled my mind.

Polly and I exchanged glances. When she nodded, I let out a breath that we found our target.

“I consider Petal’s perseverance in keeping her word to be poem worthy,” I said.

But what kind of spell would Petal require?

Peta’s head lifted from her task. “No one but you appreciates the things I did, Goddess… I mean, Atlanta. My people only see me as the princess who got sent away to help another pantheon. They do not care how many million squirrels I had to chase away from the fleece. Or how many times I had to steal it back from bad people who stole it from the tree.”

I laughed because… well, just because. “What was the hardest sacrifice you made while guarding the fleece?”

Petal stopped playing and pushed everything into a big messy pile. “I would rather not say. It took me a long time to get over it.”

I stood up and dragged my chair closer to Petal. “Princess Petal, the Muses, and I want to honor your life with a sacred poem. You don’t have to tell me, but will you tell Polly your stories?”

“Even if I confessed the most intimate details of my life, what good is such a poem?” Petal asked.

I had no answer to that question yet. It was something I’d have to work on. But I reached out and patted Petal’s arm. “We’ll work on the other issues once Polly finishes the writing. A poem is not something that gets written in a day. It probably seems like more waiting to you, Petal, but I promise you can trust us to create something your parents will have to accept as proof of your worthiness.”

Petal sighed and then giggled. She nodded as she met my gaze. “I accept your gift, Goddess Atlanta of the Doomsday Prophecy. Let us touch hands like the mortals do when making deals.”

I chuckled at her request and held out my hand. The moment our palms touched, the ceiling lit up with green sparkles that rained down on our heads. The Muses giggled and held out their hands to catch them.

My brain took that moment to notice that the Sprite wore a pretty green suit today. When I met Petal, she was wearing a dress of sheer green veils. Green seemed to be Petal’s favorite color.

All the validation I needed was right in front of me that we were on the right track.

***

After the meeting broke up, Cale followed me back to my office to wait on Duff. Now he paced around the space like a caged tiger, or I guess I should say a caged dragon. He admired my bodybuilder awards, turned and gave me a thoughtful look, then paced back to the chair in front of my desk. My eyes refused to look elsewhere while Cale lowered his whole six-foot-plus body into it.

“Okay. What happens now?” Cale asked.

I leaned back in my executive chair and tried not to dwell on how attractive Cale was. “Polly will write a sacred poem for Petal. Everyone except Polly will keep working on stanza four. Duff should be here any moment, which is why you and I are still here. Are you bored already?”

Cale lifted a shoulder as he turned to me. “Not bored—more like I feel guilty. Everyone’s working. I like to feel necessary.”

I smiled at Cale. “After I make my deal with Duff, we’ll go see your family and tell them that Duff will come by. Maybe you can talk to Indar while we’re there. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do with figuring out your shifter inheritance.”

Cale nodded, and then he laughed. “I need a Dragons for Dummies guide.”

I smiled at his attempt to joke but realized maybe I could help him. “Come with me if you want to learn,” I commanded in my worse Schwarzenegger voice, grinning when Cale followed me without comment. He was cutting me a lot of slack today.

I took him to the back of the building and turned to face the wall. I waited until Cale did the same. I pointed to a tiny blue dot on it. “Put your finger on that dot.”

Cale lifted an eyebrow as he turned to look at me.

“Just do it,” I ordered and waited until Cale obeyed me.

If he were too mortal, he wouldn’t be able to get it to work. I’d have to let him in and come back to get him later.

“Now repeat after me… Patentibus.”

“Patentibus,” Cale repeated and then audibly gasped when the wall vaporized before his eyes to reveal a doorway.

“Congratulations, Champion. You just performed your first magic,” I said, smiling at his easy success. Someone was channeling his inner dragon this morning.

Cale stepped inside the room without me and looked around at the large space full of loaded bookshelves and glass artifact cases with a plethora of Greek treasures inside them. He probably thought the room looked like a museum. That’s what I’d thought when we created the library here in this small area instead of in the enormous basement of the mega-Muse-mansion. But having it here kept the Muses from having to use their power to transport home and back.

I slowly walked in behind him. “The shelves are arranged alphabetically by subjects. We used to have them set up by Latin terms, but we changed to using modern English last year. When we did that, the books changed to be read in English. In short, you should be able to find dragon content in the ‘D’ area and be able to read what you find. I don’t know what books we have, but reading will at least pass the time for you.”

“Thanks.”

“Being in here can be dangerous for a non-magical being,” I said. “Stay away from spell books and do not open the artifact cases. The artifacts belong to the Muses. They don’t open each other’s books or touch each other’s tools, so you can’t either. Got it?

“Don’t touch spell books or play with any of the Greek toys locked away. Got it,” Cale said with a laugh as he trailed behind me.

I went down a row and browsed the “D” shelf for a minute before pulling a book off. “Try this one first. I think you’ll find it illuminating,” I said, handing him a book about how to charm a dragon into doing what you wanted it to do.

Cale laughed. “I keep trying to figure out why I stay so interested in you. Is this your book?”

My mouth twisted. “No, Junior. All these books belong to the Muses. My library is in personal storage. Most of my books are about winning wars.”

Cale grinned but didn’t say comment. I don’t know what he was thinking, but it probably wasn’t good, judging by his permanent smirk today.

Petal suddenly appeared at the entrance and peered inside. “Oh, my. This room holds the library of the Muses. It’s wonderful.”

“It really is. Get Mellie to show you how to get in,” I told her.

“But you can’t touch the spell books or any of the cool Greek toys belonging to the Muses,” Cal warned.

That same smirking grin he’d been giving me now beamed in Petal’s direction. I think Petal would have looked less surprised if Cal had punched her. Sprites prided themselves on protocol.

I covered my mouth with my hand to hide my smile.

All five feet of Petal’s mortal form vibrated as she fisted a petite hand on her hip. “There is no need for such a rule for me. I would never violate anything magical of the Muses. Who would do such a thing?”

“There’s a need for the rule, so just roll with it,” I said with a grin.

Petal quickly caught on and rolled her eyes at me. “Gaia save the world from curious males and uneducated dragons.”

I tilted my head at Petal. “How do you know what Cale is?”

Petal winced at revealing something she hadn’t meant to. “I noticed when he brought you coffee. He reeks of dragon today. Does his magic come and go?”

I looked Cale up and down. “Huh… I never thought about it, but that’s an interesting theory.”

I waved my hand toward a nearby reading chair covered in enormous flowers and changed it into a more masculine leather-covered one. I looked at a surprised Cale after I’d finished. “I made you a comfy chair that will hopefully lower the estrogen in this space. If you need me, I’ll be in my office waiting for Princess Duffinnia to show.”

“The Leprechaun royal is already here to see you. That’s why I came looking,” Petal explained.

“Thanks, Petal. I’m easily distracted today.” I patted Cale’s shoulder. “Read while I talk to Duff. Don’t try to take the book out of here. The ward will snap on you. Just mark your place when you get done and leave the book on the table. No one will bother it while you’re gone.”

“This is great. Thank you,” Cale said as he positioned his now chair to get comfortable enough to read.

Chapter 3

Back in my office, I found Duff pacing. “Want something to drink? We have some bottled water—maybe some soda.”

Duff waved her hand. “No, thanks. Can we just get to it?”

I waved at the chair in front of my desk. “I know how difficult it is to loathe your family and yet feel like you have to save them. We’ve always had that in common, Duff. You know I didn’t volunteer to be anyone’s heroine. My pantheon is forcing me to be the Goddess of the Doomsday Prophecy.”

“I suppose ya’re right,” Duff admitted, studying her hands for a moment. Finally, she lifted her gaze to mine. “Hearing the resignation in yer tone makes me feel more guilty for my part in yer torment. Now here I am asking for yer help like it never happened. We’re neither of us children, Atlanta. I understand why ya don’t want to get involved with me or my problem. Only a fool would want to help their betrayer, and I know ya’re not a fool.”

I leaned back in my chair and grunted. “The irony for me is that if I hadn’t been banished from the God Realm, you and I never might have met. Becoming mortal brought us together.”

Duff made a face. “Are ya now thinking never crossing my path might have been a blessing to ya?”

Laughter escaped unchecked. “Yes, but that’s nothing new. I’ve always thought that. Despite what you did to me, I intended to ask for your help with something today. The Fates would probably say that us needing each other at the same time is not a coincidence.”

“I thought ya hated those witches?” Duff asked with a chuckle.

“Oh, I do, and I hate them most when they’re right. Back in the God Realm, I would have continued to ignore them and the prophecy. Having to live here as a mortal has given me a new perspective on the procession of time and the effects of its passing.”

“Ya could simply tell me to insert yer ‘being mortal sucks’ comment into the conversation.”

Was I really the kind of person who complained all the time? I rolled my eyes. “I may not like my current destiny, Duff, but I see now that I have to fix the prophecy for the sake of restoring my sisters and my mother to their full goddess-powered selves. They drive me crazy, but I also know they love me. Without their help, I wouldn’t be getting through the tasks.”

“Well, I’m glad ya ended up here in this realm, Atlanta. It’s been nice having a powerful friend who didn’t want to use me to advance her political interests.”

I chuckled. “Good Gaia, I hate Olympian politics. Why would I want to involve myself in the Celtic politics going on in your realm? That would be stupid.”

“I still say that comment sounds like yer forty-year-old mortal wisdom making itself known.”

Her teasing made me grin. “I like it here in the Mortal Realm. I also enjoy being an older mortal, even though I don’t like aging’s side effects. In the God Realm, I had power, but no one knew or cared or bothered to acknowledge it. There—I had no respect. Here—I have tons of it.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed the younger mortals in this realm fear yer reactions to things. And I’ve often seen ya enjoying the fact,” Duff said.

I lifted a shoulder and let it fall. “What can I say? It’s been liberating to do what I want. Even my sisters treat me better here.”

“Why? Because of yer fierce midlife wisdom?”

That was genuinely laugh-worthy, and I didn’t hold back. “No, my Muse sisters fear me because the lines on my forehead and at the corners of my eyes scare the bejesus out of them. They keep mirrors at their desks to make sure mortal deterioration isn’t happening to them yet.”

“I confess that I don’t like them, but Gaia save me from becoming obsessed.”

I grinned at Duff. “When I look in the mirror, the lines make me happy. Well, they do most of the time. Age for women in the Mortal Realm often reduces their appeal to men, though I haven’t figured out why yet. It seems to have something to do with how mortal men react to their own lost youth.”

“Yer boy toy seems to find yer lines and wrinkles appealing enough,” Duff said.

I huffed. “When he’s in the mood to pay attention to me that might be true, but evidently, that’s not the case when I’m in the mood to reciprocate. He’s all about the chase and nothing about the catch, Duff. Cale has a lot to learn about women.”

Duff chuckled. “So teach him. There’s something to be said for getting to train one. I kind of envy ya that.”

“Don’t. The idea sounds fun in theory, but trust me, it’s not so great in practice. But speaking of Cale…”

“Yes—go on. I enjoy talking about yer eager-to-please champion,” Duff prompted when I paused too long.

“I’m serious, Duff. You need to know this. Cale’s not completely mortal.”

Both Duff’s eyebrows lifted. “Really? I didn’t get any magical vibes from him when we met. And he froze like other mortals.”

I lifted a hand in the air. “His gifts are hereditary. Cale descended from dragons. With help from an ancestor, he can now shift into his inner beast and fly. I’ve seen him do it.”

Duff’s eyes widened. “Great Mother of Earth, Atlanta. Are ya saying Cale’s a mythical Great Beast of the Sky? I’ve never seen one, and I’d always heard they weren’t real.”

I laughed. “Oh, they’re real, alright. I saw dragons fly for the first time when I was a very young goddess. By the time I became an adult, Zeus had enslaved and killed most of the God Realm dragons. Cale’s ancestor escaped death by Zeus’s hand but spent centuries of imprisonment inside a metal dragon statue. I recently broke him out of that prison. Now all the Drakon males can shift forms between dragon and man.”

Duff grinned. “So ya’re dating the youngest of the Drakon family. What’s it like dating a dragon?”

I lifted both shoulders. “I wouldn’t call what we’re doing dating, but Cale calls it that.”

“Was he that disappointing between the sheets?” Duff shrugged. “If so, ya have my condolences. I find younger men to be full of great enthusiasm.”

“Yeah, Cale and I are definitely not dating like that,” I said with a chuckle.

“Atlanta…” Duff shook her head. “Ya need to get over that one who broke yer heart. Ya deserve more than to grieve someone who wasn’t worthy of yer devotion.”

“Let’s talk about our deal instead of rehashing the past,” I said, changing the subject before I got the entire lecture. “I need you to ward Cale’s family compound. It’s a lot of land and a few houses. I also need you to check the wards at the mega-Muse-mansion and Mother’s house. You’ll need to allow dragons to enter at both places. Cale is temporarily staying with me at Mother’s.”

Duff laughed. “But ya said ya weren’t enjoying his company. Make up yer mind, woman.”

“I’m not sleeping with him. He’s in Mother’s second guest room,” I informed her.

“Ya mean, for now,” Duff teased.

“No. Forever. He’s not worth the headache of taking as a lover,” I said with a chuckle. Then I lifted my chin. “So? Are you in or not?”

“Do ya promise to help me save my parents?”

I held my hand out over my desk. “I will do my best to help them, but I can’t promise I will succeed. As the rightful heir to their throne, you’re the only one who can change what ultimately happens in your pantheon.”

Duff nodded. “So I’ve been told.” She stuck out a hand. “We’ve got a deal. Let’s do yer warding today. Let me call my favorite fairy and tell her what I’m doing. Jane will see that my bar gets stocked while I protect yer dragons.”

When Duff’s hand met mine, the entire room lit with a brilliant white light and a chime rang out. It was the same chime Cale and I heard the day he’d become my champion.

“What in Gaia’s name was all that pomp and glitter about?” Duff asked as she looked around.

I slid my hand away from Duff’s. “The Fates, probably. But I wouldn’t be surprised to find out what happened to your parents involved my father. Because that’s how completely sucky this Doomsday Prophecy gig has been.”

“Why would ya think I’d be involved in yer tale of doom?” Duff asked, obviously confused.

I covered my face with my hands and spoke through my fingers. “I don’t know, but every time I think something is a terrible idea, it seems to show up in the stupid poem.”

***

As Duff and I walked along the edge of the Drakon compound, I watched the two dragons flying overhead. What surprised me most was how they braked and hovered with their wings flapping slowly to keep them aloft.

I couldn’t hear any talking, which meant the two men were talking in their heads. Cale was probably asking Indar about all the stuff he’d read in the book I’d helped him find.

Duff drew a symbol in the air by the fence. She spoke in some ancient Celtic language as she set the ward in place.

“Are you considered a Druid?” I asked.

Duff shook her head. “No, Druids are like yer demigods. They’re mostly mortal but can extend their own lives if they choose.”

Duff raised her gaze to the sky when two dragons roared and took off racing over our heads. “I didn’t believe ya. Yet there they are. Two mythical beasts as big as anything.”

I nodded as my gaze followed hers. “Indar warned me that freeing him meant bringing dragons into the modern age. Cale has younger brothers. Indar said they’ll be shifting soon too. When Drakons marry, they replicate themselves and their beasts. Indar says his physical presence is changing all of them, even the women they married.”

“Changing how?”

I shrugged. “He’s not sure yet. All I know is that he’s magical. And unlike my pantheon, his latent power is growing instead of lessening.”

Duff chuckled. “Ya said they only birth males. Can dragons choose the sex of their babes?”

I lifted a shoulder. “In the mortal realm, dragons are apex predators. Guess their DNA is predatory too. Indar said he only meant for his descendants to keep his dragon genes strong for every generation. My guess is Mother Gaia got involved in helping him make his wish come true. Hopefully, they’ll birth something other than males in the future.”

“Worried about yer unborn daughters?” Duff asked.

“Children are not on my agenda—not even if I manage to fulfill the Doomsday Prophecy.”

“So Cale is not on your agenda?”

I laughed. “He’s definitely off it at the moment.”

“Is it his love affair with his phone?” Duff asked.

“More like his tendency to run hot and cold. He wants me, and I want him. But if he ignores me on a date again, I may kill him. I still need him to finish what I started with the prophecy, which means he’s off-limits now.”

“Killing him would put a damper on birthing his baby dragons.”

I laughed despite not wanting to. “Stop teasing me, Duff. You’re being silly.”

Duff lifted a shoulder. “I’m just relieved that we’re talking again. I missed ya. And I rarely miss anyone. I wish you’d move back in.”

“Even I wanted to, which I’m still not sure I do, that wouldn’t work right now. You only have two bedrooms, Duff.”

She giggled beside me. “Well, how else will I ever get to see a baby dragon, Atlanta? Maybe you’d give birth to the first female one. Wouldn’t ya like that? We’d have ourselves a baby goddess dragon to corrupt.”

“My mortal body is beyond babies. My ovaries have retired.”

“Bet that young stud ya’re keeping close to ya could coax them out of retirement. Mortal women give birth after forty. It’s not impossible.”

“Duff… I’m not talking about babies with you. Warrior goddesses make terrible mothers. Everyone knows that. I took children off my to-do list centuries ago.”

Her laughter echoed across the grassy expanse of acreage the Drakons kept as pristine as a golf course. “Goodness, Atlanta. I’m only jerking yer chain… and doing a good job of it, I’d say.”

The ground under our feet bounced as two enormous dragons landed somewhere behind us.

I grabbed Duff’s arm and squeezed. “No, no—don’t you dare turn around. Keep your attention on what you’re doing, Princess Duffinnia. No ogling.”

“Good Gaia on a Monday, yer dragons are naked after they shift back, aren’t they?”

I laughed. “No more questions. Don’t make me call up an energy sword.”

Duff laughed too, but she didn’t wrestle free of my grip, so I counted it as a win.

***

When the warding was finished, we ended up back at the house. I ignored Duff’s disappointed look and nodded to a fully-dressed Cale when he stopped in front of me. “Was flying as fun as it was the first time?”

Cale chuckled. “Keeps getting better. Though I am noticing one inescapable side effect that always happens afterward.”

“What’s that?” I demanded, instantly concerned for him.

“This,” Cale answered, his mouth pressing hungrily against mine before I could stop him.

The edge of his tongue teased my lips, but he kept the kiss brief. When he finally let me go, he sighed and shook his head before following Indar into the house.

Beside me, Duff choked as she fought not to laugh. “Oh yeah. We’re getting a dragon goddess baby,” she whispered.

“Stuff it, Leprechaun,” I whispered back.

Cale stuck his head back out of the door. “I almost forgot. Athena is working down at the pavilion. She said she was finishing the statue today,” he explained before instantly withdrawing again.

My face didn’t turn red, but I sincerely hoped Cale hadn’t heard Duff’s comment about a dragon goddess baby. I didn’t want anyone encouraging him now that I’d regained my common sense.

I’d decided to ignore the lightning bolt chemistry between Cale and me for as long as I could. My renewed resistance would allow me time to finish with the prophecy as I hoped, and therefore finish with Cale too.

Well, that was my plan anyway.

And I meant what I told Duff about feeling far beyond the idea of family. I’d leave that to the Muses. The nine of them would one day give my adopted mother all the grandchildren she could ask for. Both my birth sister Athena and I had set motherhood aside for the greater good. If we continued to age past midlife here in the Mortal Realm, childbirth soon would be a moot point beyond all speculation. Cale just would have to look for a younger woman when the urge to pass on his genes hit.

“What statue?” Duff asked. “And did he mean yer sister Athena? Or some other new sibling that’s popped up?”

Given my crazy life, I couldn’t be offended, but still. “It’s my actual sister. Athena’s been helping me. She’s an artist as well as a warrior.”

“I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have a twin sibling.”

I blew out a breath. “I suppose you could meet her if you wanted,” I offered reluctantly.

“I’d love to,” Duff said. “Where’s this pavilion Cale mentioned?”

Undeterred by the lack of enthusiasm in my offer, Duff marched in the direction I pointed. I practically had to jog to keep up with her short Leprechaun legs. She seemed far too curious for anyone’s good, especially mine.

With those in my pantheon, it was impossible to judge what kind of reaction they would have to meeting someone from another pantheon. Crazy ran deep in my kind, and aggression ran even deeper in the first two of Zeus’s children.

There were good reasons Athena and I both felt more comfortable in the middle of a war. Ares too. Zeus trained Athena and Ares for war. The battlefield was their childhood playground. Trained by a Minotaur, I might approach conflict differently, but the skillset was the same. Like both Athena and Ares, I excelled with a sword in my hands.

“Good Gaia, Duff. You don’t have to run.”

 “I’m barely walking fast. Ya’re slowing down in yer old age,” Duff said a laugh as she picked up her pace.

I mumbled curses as I followed. What did Duff care what my family members did anyway? She’d listened to me telling a lot of stories about them over the last six years. You’d think she’d want to steer clear of anyone from the Greek pantheon instead of rushing over to say a freaking hello.

Leprechauns. I’d never understand them.

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