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Dragon Games

Supernatural Bonds


Jory Strong



Copyright 2012 by Jory Strong

Smashwords Edition


Cover design by Syneca Featherstone



* * * * *

Table of Contents


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Thank You!

About the Author



* * * * *

Chapter 1


Tielo leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the desk. Tilting his head, he opened his mouth and exhaled a controlled burst of fire toward the ceiling in the way a human might send a puff of cigar smoke upward. Life didn't get any better than this.

Through the open doorway he could hear the spin of roulette wheels and shuffle of cards. He could smell the gold of the coins used in place of poker chips, and the scent of glittering jewels piled on tables as additional collateral. And best of all, he could feel the excitement generated by his latest scheme.

It's perfect.

"Perfect," he repeated. And if he sounded like a dragon stretched on a sunny ledge, or lying on a bed of priceless gems, well, he was a dragon and Drake's Lair was part of his hoard, one shared in partnership with the fey lord, Pierce—who stepped through the doorway as if summoned by the thought of him.

"Someone looks pleased with himself," Pierce said, flopping down in the chair across the desk from Tielo.

Tielo lifted a crystal flute filled with Dragon's Flame in a salute. "I am genius, hear me roar. Our fortunes are about to double, if not quadruple. You have, no doubt, noted the influx of patrons to the club."

"The Dragon's Cup is here, guaranteeing fertility to any pair who drinks from it, what did you expect? Even those dragons who don't have an existing mate, or a woman in mind to become a mate, want to see for themselves that the cup has been recovered and is now in dragon possession. Or more specifically, in the possession of male dragons, so you no longer have to play the role of boy toys to the females of your kind."

Tielo snorted black smoke through his nostrils, refusing to let Pierce ruin his excellent mood with a reminder of what was now the past. Not yet the distant past, but then, for a dragon, such a measure was a difficult feat anyway.

Pierce spoke the truth, though many a male would still choose a human female over a dragon one. Having the cup here, in this human realm and in the bastion of male power that was Drake's Lair, did in fact change the dynamic between dragon sexes—an imbalance that had formed over the millennium thanks to the curse placed on his race by the wizard Enos.

By the Great Ancestor! Tielo had no desire to be encumbered with a mate of any species, but rage burned through him with thoughts of the wizard.

May the sorcerer burn in Hades! Or better yet, be chained to a rock like Prometheus for all eternity. Only instead of having his liver eaten each day by an eagle, only to be regenerated so the torment could begin with the rise of the sun, let Enos lose testicles and cock!

The wizard had been envious of dragon wealth, covetous of it. He had created the chalice and tied dragon creation magic to it, making births rare.

In the old days, before the chalice fell into the hands of the fey and then was lost in the mortal realm, dragons could get around the curse by giving Enos some of their treasure. In return, the sorcerer would allow them to drink from the cup, restoring fertility for decades, and occasionally centuries.

Now, thanks to a pact between three dragon princes—Severn, Hakon and Malik—the cup had been recovered. It was available to all males and their chosen mates, without payment or obligation. And though Tielo claimed allegiance to his cousin Severn, Drake's Lair had long served as neutral territory and now housed the Dragon's Cup.

His lips would not soon touch the cup's rim. But that didn't mean he couldn't capitalize on the desire of other dragons to shackle themselves to a female and breed.

The prospect of growing riches banished old rage and sent pleasure purring through him. Dropping his feet to the floor, he set his glass on the desk and poured one for Pierce before refilling his own. Handing the flute to his partner and reclaiming his drink, Tielo said, "A toast is in order."

"Let me guess… To your genius."

He affected a modest nod. "Care to hear about my latest scheme, already set in motion?"

"I can hardly wait." Pierce touched his glass to Tielo's, hiding his amusement as he did so. He'd set his own plan in motion, and it was about to intersect with his partner's—though Tielo didn't know it.

They emptied their glasses, the Dragon's Flame a rich, potent elixir delivering a satisfying burn on its way down.

"I'm now sufficiently fortified to hear your latest," Pierce said, setting the flute on the desk, though also lifting the centuries-old decanter and refilling his glass.

Tielo opened his top drawer, retrieving a postcard-sized piece of paper. He handed it to Pierce.

A sinuous, multicolored dragon bathed in flame ran along the card's border. Bold lettering entitled the bearer to enter the club and join its members for a game of cards, with Drake's Lair providing a gambling stake of $100,000 in chips and winnings above that amount convertible to cash at the conclusion of the evening.

Pierce placed the card on the desk between them. Pretending ignorance of its intended use, he said, "An interesting concept, but we hardly need to bait a hook in order to lure human whales into the club. We've got a waiting list of wealthy individuals who want to come here and gamble their fortunes away. If we were willing to allow them as members, even with limited privileges, we could quadruple our membership inside a month's time."

Tielo shook his head. "You lack vision, my friend." He gestured toward his open doorway and the crowd visible through it. "The invitations are meant to bring suitable women here. Already the cards are making their way into the hands of a select few. That's why the gaming tables are full and the dining areas overflowing—in anticipation.

"I don't truly understand the appeal, though there must be one since you yourself have succumbed—to the extent of being willing to share a wife—but there is obviously a large number of males anxious to surrender their freedom to a female. And Drake's Lair is in the unique position to benefit from it."

Pierce called fire, his element, because yanking a dragon's tail even metaphorically was a dangerous game. He manipulated the flames, creating a ball to toss between his open hands so he'd have a ready defense.

"How are you distributing the cards?" he asked. "Tell me you don't have Henri trolling the beach for bikini-clad beauties and passing the invitations out."

Tielo laughed at the image of the club's very proper maître d' engaged in such an activity. "Hardly that, though the idea does have merit, purely for its amusement value. No, my plan is much more refined. In fact, it's perfection."

"If you do say so yourself." Pierce couldn't resist the urge to throw the ball of fire at Tielo.

Tielo exhaled a small gout of flame, meeting fire with fire over the center of his desk. "If I may continue?"

"Of course."

"Severn and Sophie are back from their sex-cation, their little vacation to the dragon realm to complete their bond. As soon as I learned they were home, I paid a visit. Flush from the pleasure of nonstop mating, our now-mutual cousin Sophie agreed, with Severn's permission, to take some invitations to Inner Magick and get the half-elf—"

"Aislinn. She's friends not only with Sophie, but with Storm. Not to mention the dragon princes consider themselves indebted to her for the help she freely gave. Without it, the cup might not have been recovered at all."

A hand touched to Tielo's chest and a quick bow of his head served as an apology for any slight Pierce might feel on behalf of the woman who was friends with Storm, the wife he shared with his cousin Tristan.

Pierce gave a slight nod. He picked up the flute of Dragon's Flame, tipping it toward Tielo in acceptance of the apology and a signal for Tielo to continue explaining his grand scheme, a dragon game Pierce hoped would have a different outcome than the one Tielo expected.

"Sophie has agreed to petition Aislinn on our behalf. She felt sure Aislinn would be willing to offer the invitations to some of those who frequent her shop."

Pierce allowed a smile of satisfaction, confident Tielo wouldn't understand the full truth of it. "An excellent plan. Aislinn is in the unique position of meeting those who are open to the possibility that supernatural beings exist."

"Exactly."

Pierce took a long drink from his glass, willing himself not to appear as smug as he felt about the fate that would soon befall Tielo. If misery loved company, then it was doubly true for those who'd settled contentedly into the bliss of mated life and wanted their unmatched companions to find the same.

Thanks to his cousin Tristan's esoteric knowledge about all things magical, a deck of fey cards featuring dragon images—Tielo's included—was now in Aislinn's possession. She'd already devised a way to match likely couples, and now Tielo had provided a means for their introduction.

Lowering his glass, Pierce asked, "Would you be interested in a wager by any chance?"

"Always my friend. Always. What's the nature of the bet?"

"I believe you will fall prey to your own scheme and end up mated."

Tielo laughed, eyes watering with tears of mirth. Pierce suppressed his amusement, though couldn't prevent himself from saying, "He who laughs last, laughs best."

Gouts of flame escaped Tielo's nostrils as he snorted. "That laugh already belongs to me. The foolishness of your proposed wager nearly boggles the mind. Sharing a wife with Tristan has filled your head with romantic nonsense."

"Perhaps, but I'm willing to back my play with gold and jewels."

Tielo's eyes glittered with dragon interest, despite his being a wealthy man millions of times over. "What amount are you thinking to hand me so easily?"

"It depends on how well your scheme plays out. The wager is for my share of the club take on those nights a potential mate comes here."

"Insanity." Tielo motioned toward his cock. "Why would I want to limit myself to one female and deny all the others a chance to experience this?"

Pierce rolled his eyes, all the while fighting the urge to point out that, like the dragon prince Hakon, Tielo presented himself as a playboy but hadn't actually been with a woman in quite some time. Tielo might have forced himself into a human form, but dragon instinct would rule when presented with the right female.

"My share of the club take on those nights a potential mate comes here," he repeated.

"Done." Tielo glanced toward the doorway. "Be assured, my friend, I won't be drinking from the Dragon's Cup with a look to the future and a dream of offspring."

* * *

Sophie Alexander—soon to be, officially and legally, Sophie Alexander Damek—wore a huge smile as she entered Inner Magick and saw her best friend, Aislinn.

"I can't believe Severn let you out of his sight," Aislinn said, coming around the counter and giving Sophie a hug.

"It was a battle but I figured I'd better start the way I mean to go on, not that I'll be able to shake the guards." Sophie grimaced. "Who knows how many more there are, besides the five openly accompanying me."

"A dozen or twice that, easily. Queen Otthilde of the fey would love to get possession of the Dragon's Cup again. If she thought she could capture and use you as a bargaining chip, she wouldn't hesitate to do it. You're Severn's mate after all."

"I know. Severn drove that point home. Forcefully." Erotically.

Aislinn laughed, correctly reading the statement, or maybe the sigh and the dreamy expression that came with memories of Severn's brand of persuasion.

"I don't think I have to ask if you enjoyed your trip."

"Tielo called it a sex-cation when he stopped by the house."

Sophie grinned at her own subtle jest. Severn's home—hers now—was a mansion set on grounds large enough to have a maze that held more than one delicious memory of a chase and capture. The estate was surrounded by high walls and boasted top-of-the-line security. There was a hoard of treasure to guard, plus Severn valued his privacy and his anonymity—both of which were going to be severely challenged going forward, but those were battles for another day.

Noticing a round mirror on the wall above a display case with a collection of rune sets, Sophie moved in for a closer look. "This is new."

"It's a sorcerer's mirror. Originally it was created to see into the future, but the original stones were lost."

Aislinn traced the intricate symbols on the frame that surrounded and linked a trail of small, clear gems. "I replaced the sorcerer stones with heartstones."

Sophie felt a little thrill of excitement at the prospect of witnessing the same kind of magic happening for others as she'd experienced. She tugged the pendant she wore out from beneath her shirt. Aislinn had made the heartmate necklace for her, and it had done as promised, come to life in Severn's presence, glowing and warming to indicate he was her perfect mate.

"You know I'm a believer in the power of heartstones. So someone looking into the mirror sees their future mate?"

"It's more complicated than that, and I'll admit I'm still learning how it works. Your friend Jazzlyn came here while you were away. She was the first person the mirror reacted to. She said she was drawn to it by a flash, and when she touched it, the stones warmed and filled with color. The effect became hypnotic and ultimately it was Xanthus' relative, Kirill, who she saw in the mirror. She's with him now in the dragon realm. The mirror's reacted to one other person, a witch who saw a fellow witch, someone he'd wanted to date but hadn't worked up the courage to ask out. They're a couple now."

Sophie sighed with satisfaction. "I love a happy ending. Speaking of which, there was a reason for Tielo's visit. He—"

Aislinn's sudden smile made Sophie laugh. "You already know about his scheme to lure potential mates to Drake's Lair."

"His isn't the only scheme afoot. Pierce and Tristan came by with Storm a couple of days ago to set their own plan in motion."

"Dare I ask?"

"Fey magic, this time used to benefit the dragons. Let me show you."

Sophie followed Aislinn to the counter. She remained on the customer side, idly digging through a bowl of polished stones to select one of them.

Aislinn went around and retrieved an intricately carved wooden box from a cabinet. Opening it, she removed a deck of cards. They looked hand painted, the artistry amazing. The card backs were the same scene, a forest path with a naked, androgynous couple seen from behind.

"This is Tristan's work," Aislinn said. "There are different sigils woven into the back of each card, subtle, so they're not visible, except to the subconscious. The cards were mentioned in an old, old book of faery tales he bought for Storm."

She turned the deck over, spreading them out along the counter. Painted on the front were the faces of men, overlaid onto the image of the dragon Sophie thought must be their first form, their true form.

Sophie smiled at recognizing some of those who lived on the estate as they served out their liege time to Severn. But it was the sight of Tielo's face, then the dragon prince Hakon's, that had her snickering. "Oh man, I'm not sure whether to feel sorry for the women who pick those cards, or to feel gleeful at the prospect of those two guys falling hard. They may think they don't want mates, but in the presence of the perfect one, instinct will kick in and they won't be able to hold out."

"True enough." Aislinn scooped up the cards and placed them back in the box. "Tristan and I devised a plan. When he saw the mirror, he suggested I place each of the cards on it."

"Sort of like feeding images into a magical mate-matching computer."

"Yes." Aislinn shrugged. "There's no way of telling if it'll have any impact on what someone might see if they're drawn to the mirror and it reacts to them, but… Our hope is to ease the potential mate into accepting the possibility they'll meet not just their match, but that the one for them is more than human."

"Makes sense. Plus if the person sees the image in the mirror, then sees the same face on the card, that'll reinforce the match and also give you a chance to call Pierce and make sure the dragon shows up at Drake's Lair when their perfect mate is there."

"Yes."

"How will you know when to offer the deck and have someone choose a card? Almost everyone who comes here already believes to some extent in the supernatural, or are at least curious about it. But they won't necessarily volunteer that they actually saw something in the mirror or tell you what it was. Without seeing what they saw, how will you be sure the perfect match isn't to something not dragon?"

Aislinn smiled. "You've been one of a great number of test subjects and so far there hasn't been a single miss. Without prompting, and I'll bet without conscious thought, you chose an affinity stone which I happen to know was at the bottom of the bowl."

Sophie glanced down at the polished round stone in her hand, noticing then that all of them were the same color, black, and seemingly identical in appearance though she could feel a small glyph carved into it. Looking closer, she recognized it as Elvish and grinned. "Let me guess, the symbol means, 'Crazy about dragons.'"

"Or could be crazy about at least one of them, if introduced to the right mate."

"So the stones are a safeguard, a clue."

"Yes."

Sophie put the affinity stone back in the bowl, burying it deep before retrieving the invitations Tielo had given her and setting them down on the counter. "So if the mirror reacts, when they come to the cash register—because who can enter Inner Magick and leave without buying something—you see if they pick out the dragon stone. And if they do, you then present the cards, and afterward, the invitation."

"That's one possible sequence. Different matches will probably come about different ways."

"You're trying to cover all the bases."

Aislinn nodded. "And hopefully prepare the women invited to Drake's Lair the best I can without violating the covenants governing those supernaturals living or visiting this realm."

Sophie laughed, doing a small hop up and down as she clapped her hands. "I am loving this! I'll love it even more when Tielo or Hakon meet their mates. Are you leaving it totally up to chance and just waiting for someone to walk in and have the mirror react to them?"

"No."

Sophie rubbed her hands together. "Who have you got in mind?"

"Her name is Lyra Cotterill. She's a teacher who collects tarot cards. I've got some unique ones coming in. They should be here any time now. When they arrive, I'm going to call and tell her they're here."

"Any guesses as to who she's going to end up with?"

Aislinn's smile was full of mystery while her eyes sparkled with teasing. "You're an author, Sophie, it'll ruin the story if you know the entire plot in advance."

"Cruel," Sophie muttered, but she was smiling as she reached over and tapped the top invitation. "Do you think she'll use this today?"

"All I can say with any certainty is that it'll be in her possession and there will be a selection of men at Drake's Lair for her to choose from."

Sophie snickered. "And to bring out dragon competitiveness."

"That too."


* * * * *

Chapter 2


Lyra put the last bite of enchilada in her mouth, savoring the taste and spiciness of it as much as she had the first bite. If she kept this up, she was going to need new clothes in a larger size.

The prospect of it wasn't exactly something to make her excited about hitting the mall and spending money. And then there was the whole seeing-herself-in-a-full-view-mirror thing.

Keep eating the way she'd been for the last several months, it'd be like looking into a fun-house mirror, only she wouldn't be laughing. And the truth was that eating as many meals as she could at the Ochoas' restaurant wasn't going to be enough to keep them in business or make a big enough difference when it came to helping the family.

She pushed the empty plate to the side. It was the signal her two companions were waiting for. Nine-year-old Sebastian pounced. "What about a tres leches cake with strawberries, Ms. Cotterill? If you order it, I'll go get it right away."

Dark eyes pleaded for her to say, yes, yes, yes. He was going to be a heartbreaker when he grew up, same as the brother sitting next to him. They'd both been her students, but she couldn't love them any more if they were her own nephews.

"Blackberries, not strawberries," ten-year-old Nicolas chimed in. "I bet Mama would even give it to you for less money if we tell her you're going to share some of it with us."

Lyra laughed, heart lifting as it did every time she stopped by for a meal. Six months ago, she'd braced herself to attend their funerals.

There were still times when she felt the well of tears, at how close she'd come to losing them after first Sebastian then Nicolas had become sick. It'd started as flu-like symptoms, nothing to rush a kid to the doctor for, not with flu going around and money tight.

She hadn't faulted Romina and Emmanuel. She would have done the same, delayed, and she'd known they were already struggling to keep their restaurant alive in an economy that had been hard for a long, long time. They'd heavily mortgaged their house, cut their own wages and, like a lot of people, had only the bare minimum of coverage when it came to health insurance.

Even if they'd taken the boys to the doctor immediately, she wasn't convinced Sebastian and Nicolas would have been correctly diagnosed, not based on the events that followed. They'd already been hospitalized and were in critical condition by the time three other students developed fevers followed by small red bumps and medical professionals knew what they were dealing with. MRSA—methicillin resistant staphylococcus.

MRSA was a seminar topic, something she'd heard about and received handouts on, but it wasn't at the forefront of her brain in the same way meningitis was. It wasn't exactly an everyday health concern in a school environment.

In layman's terms, MRSA was bacterium that caused a wide range of difficult-to-treat-infections. Most often it was localized to the skin, quickly diagnosed, and not as hard to get on top of. But there were also more virulent forms that affected vital organs and led to widespread infection.

The doctors didn't know why it hit Sebastian and Nicolas so hard and so aggressively, bypassing the skin so they never developed the small red bumps. But with the diagnosis of MRSA, health officials swarmed, closing the school temporarily. There'd been panic and fear for the parents of the other students, rampant concern that may or may not have been helped by news programs showing workers in hazmat suits sanitizing the environment.

"What about half strawberry and half blackberry, Ms. Cotterill?" Nicolas asked, drawing her back to the present.

"I think I'll burst if I eat any tres leches cake."

Sebastian's smile was heart-melting. "You don't have to eat much. Just a taste so you can tell Mama it was delicious when she asks. We'll help you finish the rest of it."

Lyra looked at the menu board. Nicolas chimed in. "How about this, Ms. Cotterill? What about playing rock-scissors-paper to see who gets to choose the topping?"

She needed to get back to her apartment, but she couldn't say no. "One slice. I flip a coin. Heads for blackberries. Tails for strawberries."

Digging in her purse, she came up with a quarter and tossed it. It landed on the table strawberry-side up.

"Yes," Sebastian said, pumping his fist. "I'll go get it."

He slid from the booth and left. Their older sister, Andrea, came over to collect the dishes.

"Add a slice of tres leches cake to the ticket," Nicolas told her.

Andrea gave a small smile, but worry hung on her in a way it shouldn't for a fourteen-year-old girl. Lyra knew the cause and felt her own stomach knot.

The restaurant was only a few blocks away from her apartment. She'd gotten to know this family well, even before she'd had Nicolas, then Sebastian in her class.

Between the economy and the horrendous medical costs, they were now living in a motel room, two adults and six children trying to stay together as a family. Lyra's mother had their cat, lost when the bank foreclosed on the house and evicted them. And Lyra had the hamster, at least for the summer. He'd go back to the classroom when school started.

The Ochoas weren't the only family to live at the motel. So many students called it home that it was an official stop on the school bus route.

Sebastian returned with a generous serving of cake. Lyra's mouth watered as she lifted her fork, trying not to think of fun-house mirrors where she'd be twice her current size when she looked into them. She wasn't a big woman, though she always felt like one when she was in the same room as her fine-boned, willowy sister.

Much more of this and my ass is going to serve as a tabletop some guy could set his beer bottle on. It was there in her genes, at least on her mother's side of the family. But her eyes closed in momentary bliss with the first bite of tres leches cake and she probably managed an equal share against the boys' quick eating.

"Excellent meal, as always," she told Andrea after paying the bill and leaving a good tip. "Tell your mom, okay?"

"Sí."

Lyra stood and the boys scrambled out from their side of the booth. They each gave her a hug at the door. "See you tomorrow, Ms. Cotterill?"

"Maybe."

A patrol unit pulled alongside Lyra at the edge of the parking lot. She smiled at Donovan. Damn, he was a fine-looking black man. Rich caramel to her dark chocolate but more importantly, he had just about every quality a woman could want in a man. Caring. Courteous. Honorable. A hard worker. And according to his new wife and Lyra's friend, Mia, knew how to make a woman scream with pleasure.

He could have been mine. But all she could feel was happiness that, instead of saying yes when they'd been neighbors and he'd asked her out, she'd done the next best thing and introduced him to a fellow teacher.

Donovan opened the door and got out of the car, reminding her again how gorgeous he was with his quarterback build. Trouble was, she had a thing for white men, probably because her mother had married one and because her stepfather, since she was four, had been everything a kid could want in a father-figure.

"You grabbing a bite here?" she asked, knowing that like her, Donovan and Mia tried to give the Ochoas what business they could.

His expression went from smiling to grim. "No. Swinging by to talk to Emmanuel and Romina. They both working tonight?"

"Yes." She glanced back toward the restaurant. "Can you tell me what's going on?"

"Trying to head off trouble."

"Carlos?" she guessed, though she didn't know the sixteen-year-old as well as she did the younger kids.

"Yeah, Carlos. I saw him with a couple of gang members over on J Street."

The food took on weight in her stomach. "They're involved in moving drugs?"

"Definitely. They wear a lot of bling and drive fancy cars. Temptation for a kid looking to help out his family with some fast cash. Hell, temptation for a lot of different kinds of kids."

"Will he listen to Romina and Emmanuel?" She knew without doubt they'd tell Carlos to stay away from gang members.

"Don't know. Mia taught him. Says he's a smart kid. But he's got to be scared about losing everything and he's probably full of enough machismo to think he can pull something like this off."

"Not a good combination."

"No." Donovan headed toward the front door.

Lyra walked home, the sense of time running out for the Ochoa family growing with each step. It felt nearly overwhelming as she entered her apartment.

Her gaze went immediately to the old wooden desk she'd found in a secondhand shop and lovingly restored. The screen was blank on her computer, but not for long.

Next to it was a stack of books, all on a single subject, poker. Specifically, Texas Hold'em.

She had a head for odds and an innate ability to spot tells, probably compliments of her biological father, though she'd never met the man. Just as well, her mother would have been quick to point out, followed by something along the lines of, The only good thing to come out of that man's life was you and It's no surprise he was killed young and probably while trying to hustle money to gamble with.

Lyra crossed to the desk, dropping her purse onto a chair as she passed it. With a touch to the keyboard, the screen woke to a login page for a poker site. This was what she did in her spare time, and had since the day Sebastian had sobbed in her arms before school and told her about how they were moving and couldn't take either the cat or the hamster.

So far she'd played online only for practice, never for real money. Part of her thought it was a crazy idea. Even if she could win enough money to help the Ochoa family, would they accept the help?

Every time she expressed her doubts, Mia said, "Win first. Worry about handing the proceeds off afterward." And Mia had been willing to pledge some money as a vote of confidence, though like Lyra, she wasn't rolling in cash either, not on a teacher's salary, and not when she was still paying off college loans as well as setting up house with a new husband.

You care too much about your students. You're too invested in them. You're going to burn yourself out if you don't toughen up and accept that there's only so much you can do for any given one of them. Lyra knew that's what teachers who'd been at it longer than she had would say.

Maybe they were right. Maybe she was just young and idealistic, but…

She didn't think that was necessarily a bad thing. Believing something was possible was the first step to making it a reality.

History proved it repeatedly. Once upon a time, no one had thought a four-minute mile was possible. Then one day, a twenty-five-year-old British medical student did it. And as soon as Roger Bannister broke the barrier, then suddenly it became something a lot of athletes accomplished—not because the human body had changed radically but because human thinking had.

But… Gambling was why her mother had kicked her biological father out of their lives before Lyra was a year old. Her mother had been tired of food and rent money never making it home because he'd handed it off to his bookie.

I'm not like him. It was a refrain she'd repeated so often it had become a mantra. Only it never completely silenced the little voice that said, Maybe I'll find out that I am.

Her mother couldn't answer the all-important question of why he'd gambled. Whether it was an addiction, or whether he was a dreamer who wanted a load of cash by just getting lucky, a man who didn't understand that often hard work preceded luck, and luck was created when effort and opportunity crossed paths.

Lyra sat, logging in but not immediately looking for a table to join. Playing poker this way didn't lend itself to reading tells. She thought that would make a real difference when it came to her chances of success.

Live card games with friends, and being able to read a kid's face and body language, had all reinforced a lifelong belief she was good at telling what people were thinking and feeling. But until she went to a real casino, and played for money that mattered, she wouldn't know if her scheme would be a dream made true or the beginning of a long nightmare.

"I just need a sign I'm ready," she whispered, immediately chiding herself.

What sign did she want? Carlos dead or in jail after joining a gang? The family broken apart, kids divided up among relatives and parents living in their car or at shelters?

She knew it happened. Race didn't matter. Educational background or work ethic weren't always predictors either.

Her thoughts went to the tarot cards she kept in her bedroom. She was a little too embarrassed by the collection, and the fact she regularly consulted the cards, to have them out in the living room where a visitor would see them.

Maybe it was time to do a reading, if for no other reason than to bolster her confidence about going to a casino. She stood and took a step toward her bedroom, only to be halted by her cell phone ringing.

She retrieved it from her purse and couldn't help but smile when she saw who was calling. Aislinn, at Inner Magick. "Hi," she answered.

"Guess what just came in?"

Her smile widened. "Some new cards."

"Hand painted, unique. Some of the decks are new, but a few of them were picked up at estate sales. Right now they're in the back room. I haven't put them out yet. You're my first call."


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