I wake to sun seeping into my eyelids. I sit up. I’m late. I have a history test. I swing my legs around to climb out of bed, only there’s no bed. My bedroom window has been replaced by a cave wall. A strong animal odor permeates the space. I try to orient myself. I know I wasn’t camping. I should be at home. I can remember being in my room just last night. I turn around, studying my surroundings. I’m in some kind of cave and I’m alone.
How did I get here?
I stand and follow the light to the entrance of the cave. The cavern is halfway up a rock structure. Below me a river runs rapidly at the bottom of the rock. Beyond the river is a forest of pine trees. The river reminds me of something that I can’t place. I can’t name this place.
I turn my head at the sound of footsteps on the forest floor. A branch moves aside and a young man enters the clearing. He has sandy blond hair and is dressed in animal leather leggings and a tunic knit of colored wool.
I look down at my own clothing. I’m wearing jeans, a black Taylor Swift t-shirt and a pink hoodie, the same thing I wore to Davis High School the day before. At least I’m not in my pajamas.
I wonder if I have traveled in time as well as space.
The young man has continued his approach during my musings. He is at the bottom of the stone structure. “You’re going to want to get down from there. That cave isn’t safe; it’s a dragon’s lair.”
“Dragon?” I feel a headache coming on.
“Yes, a dragon, large nasty lizards that fly and breathe fire.” He says it like he is describing how to breathe.
“This can’t be.” I bite my lower lip, trying to make sense of everything.
“We can talk later, please just get away from there.” He motions from me toward himself.
I make my way down the rock, slipping and sliding the whole way. As soon as I reach the bottom, he starts up.
“Wait,” I say, “you just told me to get away from there, that it isn’t safe.”
“Yes I did, and it isn’t.” He reaches the cave.
“What are you going to do?” I ask.
“I’m going to take the egg.” He disappears into the cave.
He reappears stuffing a large golden egg into his backpack. He hurries down the stone and passes me. I follow him toward the wood, not sure what else to do.
When we reach the tree line, he turns to me, “I am Ryder from Riverside.”
“My name is Marie London- er- from Utah.”
“Why are you dressed so strangely?”
“This is what we wear.”
“Where is this Utah? Is it over the sea?”
“Honestly, I don’t think it’s on this planet or realm or reality or something.”
“Planet?” He stops walking to look at me.
I push passed him. “Oh, never mind. Let’s just say it’s a long way from here.”
We follow a trail through the trees for another half an hour, and I come to a complete stop as we enter the clearing containing the village of Riverside. Ryder doesn’t stop walking, and I find myself grabbing his arm.
“I know this place,” I say.
He looks at me like I’m out of my head. “So do I. This is Riverside, and I live here.” He pulls his arm from my grip and continues on, but I’m frozen in place. For weeks I’ve been having reoccurring dreams about this village. I try to bring to mind details from the dreams until I realize that Ryder is almost out of sight, and I don’t know where he’s going.
“Wait,” I call after him. He slows so that I can catch up. “I don’t know which house is yours.” A part of me can’t help but wonder if I do.
At first, all the squat wooden houses look the same, but as I look closer, I see subtle differences. One has daises all along the path. One has a large apple tree in the front yard. Another has a porch with two wooden rocking chairs.
Ryder stops at one set farther back on the lot than the others with a large vegetable garden in front. A gate surrounds the yard, and Ryder holds it open for me. “This one is mine, well, my family’s.”
Looking at Ryder’s home, I have a flash of memory, something from a dream. I’m pressed against the door. I can feel the rough wood against my bare arm. One of Ryder’s calloused hands is on my cheek. The other is tangled in my chestnut hair. His lips are on mine, soft and wet. He tastes of scones spread with honeyed butter. He smells of honey and fresh earth and male strength. I’m so engulfed by the memory, so taken by the realness of it, that I miss a step and stumble. Ryder catches my arm.
I find his blue-green eyes and catch the faintest scent of fresh earth and strength. He gives me a small smile.
“I don’t think your shoes are fitting for my world.” He releases my arm.
I look down to see I’m wearing my platform sandals with their three inch soles. They’ll have to go. I must’ve fallen asleep fully clothed, down to my sandals. I was probably studying my history and must’ve fallen asleep.
My heart is beating fast, my breath coming too rapidly so I stop to try to gain control, and Ryder opens the door to his house. Still trying to return to normal, I see that he’s holding the door, waiting for me to enter.
A girl, about thirteen, bounds to the door. “Did you get it?”
In response, Ryder swings his pack around to the front and unhooks the clasp. He pulls the golden egg from within and crosses the room, dumping the glittering sphere into the fireplace causing the fire to flare around it.
“What did you do?” I take a step forward as if I can somehow stop the consuming fire.
The girl drops from her toes, noticing me for the first time. “Who’s she?” she asks coldly.
“Manners, Lacy. Her name is Marie.” Ryder says.
I can’t stop myself from staring at the egg that is somehow not being devoured by the fire.
“What is she wearing?” Lacy stares openly at me.
“The egg was cold.” Ryder puts a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “The mother has been missing for days, and the fire she left went out.”
I turn on him. “I was in no real danger at the cave.”
“I’ve been watching that cave for some time, but there was still a chance she would return. There was a greater chance that you were there after the egg too.” He grins and his blue eyes light up.
I shake my head.
Lacy comes up behind me and touches my hoodie. “What kind of material is this?”
“Cotton,” I answer my attention still on Ryder and the dragon egg.
“The mother dragon holds the egg against her belly, where her fire burns. Dragon babies are used to being kept very warm. When she goes to hunt, she leaves the egg in a fire that she starts with her breath, but all that was left of that dragons fire was ash.” Ryder gestures to the egg in the fireplace. “The baby might be dead.” He sighs.
“What do you want with a baby dragon?” I ask.
Lacy and Ryder share a look.
“She doesn’t need to know.” Lacy says through clenched teeth. “We aren’t keeping her.”
“I’m not a stray dog.” I say.
Lacy turns her glare on me. “What’s a stray dog?”
“You know, a dog without an owner so it follows you home and you have to decide if you want to keep it or turn it back out in the cold.” I say.
Lacy continues her glare.
“Well, you did follow me home.” Ryder says, straight-faced.
When I look at him in confusion, he laughs.
“Dogs are little-er- some of them are big, but they’re animals. I’m not in need of an owner.” I try to explain, not sure what part he doesn’t understand.
“I know what you mean.” Ryder says to me. Then he turns to Lacy, “She has nowhere else to go and I won’t turn her out.”
“For all we know, she’s dangerous,” Lacy says.
“I’m not dangerous,” I say.
Ryder laughs again. “She was outside a dragon cave completely unarmed. She’s lucky to be alive.”
“Where did she come from, anyway?” Lacy asks.
“What were you doing outside a dragon’s lair?” Ryder asks.
“I don’t know.” I drop into a chair beside the fireplace. “I don’t know how I got here or why I was in the cave. I don’t know how to get back. I don’t know what to do.”
Ryder frowns. “What do you mean you don’t know how you got here?”
“I woke in that cave. Last night I was studying for a history test, and I must’ve fallen asleep. The next thing I knew I was in the dragon’s cave.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Ryder’s eyes travel me.
“You’re telling me.”
“But you said you recognized the village?” He looks mistrusting for the first time.
Now it’s my turn to frown. If I tell them I’ve dreamt of this place, they’ll think I’m crazy,
“Marie?” Ryder’s trying to meet my eyes, but I’m afraid he’ll see that I’m hiding something.
“I’m still working that out.” My eyes are on my platform sandals. “What are you going to do with a dragon?” I direct the attention off me.
Lacy hits Ryder’s arm. “We don’t have to tell you anything.” Lacy says too loudly. “You probably aren’t even trustworthy.”
“That’s too far. I haven’t done anything untrustworthy.” I unzip my hoodie, warm in the little house beside the fireplace.
“What did you just do?” Lacy’s eyes are like an owl’s.
“I unzipped it.” I slip the hoodie off my arms.
“Can I see?” She holds out her hand expectantly.
I slide the ends of the zipper together and zip it up enough that it’ll remain together. I hand the pink hoodie to Lacy. She zips and unzips it over and over until the noise starts to get on my nerves.
“This is amazing.” She holds the hoodie out to Ryder, demonstrating the zipper.
“Those would be useful.” He turns his attention to me. “Did you make that clothing?”
“My hoodie? Heck no, I got a C in sewing.”
He stares at me, not understanding. “Was it made by this Taylor Swift, like your shirt?”
“What? Taylor Swift doesn’t make shirts.” I glance down at my shirt, remembering the Taylor Swift concert. I wonder for a moment if I will ever hear her music again. “Taylor Swift is a singer where I’m from. My mother took me to her concert for my birthday, and she bought me the shirt to remember. It’s memorabilia.”
Ryder traces the “T” of Taylor, high on my chest with his finger, sending a chill through me. “So you couldn’t make one of those contraptions?”
“The zipper? No, I don’t know how to make a zipper. You can buy them at material stores and crafts stores and probably most grocery stores.”
“I don’t know what most of those things are.”
“Let’s just say that zippers are pretty common place in my world.” I pull up my t-shirt to reveal the one in my jeans.
“Ingenious!” Lacy says.
The fire crackles as a log splits and all three of us turn to look at the egg.
“Is there more firewood?” Ryder asks.
“Some,” Lacy says.
“Come with me.” Ryder takes my arm and pulls me behind him out the back door. “Lucy isn’t the trusting sort.” He says as we step outside. “Me, I think you might be able to help us.” He leads me to the barn. Inside smells like sulfur and ash.
The first stall contains an elephant sized lizard the color of polished gold. It turns its body so that its spike tail is aimed at me.
“Flash,” Ryder chastises, “Marie is a friend.” The dragon peers at me with its emerald green eyes. Spikes run from its lower back to the tip of its tail and around the crown of its head. It reaches up with one of its front limbs and grips the stall door with its talons.
“She won’t hurt you,” Ryder says. “She’s just curious.”
Flash pulls herself onto her hind legs and sniffs the air.
“How many do you have?”
“I have three here.” He starts toward the next stall. “George’s got three at his barn.”
The name George triggers a memory of a tall guy with messy dark hair and dark eyes. His clothing is singed, and he bleeds freely from a cut on his cheek. I shake my head to clear it and look up at the next stall. This one contains a dragon the size of a Clydesdale, only long and sleek. Its reflective silver body is free of spikes but is shiny and smooth.
“Bolt is built for speed.” Ryder slows until I’m beside him. “He also spits lightning.”
“What about the gold ones?”
“They spit fire.”
“What color are George’s?” I follow him to the last stall.
“All golds, but Cooper’s got one of each.”
I see Cooper from one of my dreams. He has blonde hair and eyes like a river with the sun glinting off it. He’s bleeding from cuts all over his face, and he’s struggling to breathe. Looking down at his chest, I see that it’s covered in horrible burns. A moment later he takes his last breath. I fall against Ryder, his solid body bringing me back to the present.
“We really need to do something about those shoes.” He smiles and balances me back on my own feet.
“So, eight dragons?” I ask.
“Ten, Hunter’s got two more golds.”
“Ten.” I say as I have a vision of Hunter. He is shorter than George and wider with brown hair and eyes. A burn mars his handsome face, and his arm from his shoulder to his wrist. Whatever they have planned, it won’t end well. I frown and shake it off.
“Ten dragons; the four of us and Julia and Wendy, Turner and Belle, and Lacy thinks she’s coming. She’s even taken a couple of turns on Smoke here.” He gestures toward the third stall where another silver dragon, this one the size of a large stallion, sleeps.
“Where are you going?”
“To get our parents back.” He pulls a wagon full of logs from a fourth stall.
I feel foolish for not noticing the absence of their parents, but mine have both worked since I started the first grade. I wonder how time passes in my world compared to Ryder’s world. Have they noticed that I’m missing? I’m often the first to leave in the mornings, depending on Mother’s shift. They might not discover I’m gone until I don’t return from school.
“What happened to your parents?” I ask as we start back to the house.
“Garrison Strong.” Ryder’s walking backward, pulling the wagon. “He used to be governor here, until he killed a dragon.” He stops to push a piece of wood back onto the wagon. “I still think he got lucky; dragons aren’t an easy kill. Then he figured out that she was a mother. He found the lair and the egg. He raised the dragon and used it to terrorize the village.” He stops to open the door. “One day out on his dragon, he discovered an unpopulated island. He claimed it as his own. He wanted a palace and gardens and an orchard. Strong knew he couldn’t do all of that himself.” He unloads the wood into a box, throwing several pieces into the fireplace. “First he took volunteers. Then he bullied some people into the work. He wasn’t satisfied, so he resorted to kidnapping.”
“He kidnapped the adults?”
“He needed muscle, workers, not kids.”
“Why don’t they just leave?”
“The island is completely isolated.” Ryder uses a stick to push a log deeper into the flames.
“Which is why you need the dragons.”
“Exactly.” Ryder turns to Lacy. “She’s going to need to borrow some boots.”
“No. I don’t want her to come so why would I lend her boots?”
“The dragons need to eat and feeding them all at once is easier.”
“I’ll go and get George or Cooper.” Lacy starts toward the door.
“Lacy.” Ryder’s tone is hard. “Marie is coming.”
A knock sounds at the door, and Lacy finishes crossing the room to open the door. Hunter enters. I recognize him from the visions. His wavy brown hair is neatly combed.
“Thought you might need a hand with feedings.” He closes the door behind him.
“See,” Lacy says, “we don’t need her.” Lacy gestures in my direction.
“Who is this?” Hunter crosses the room and takes my hand. Up close, what I thought was just a stockier build, I see is all muscle. Hunter is gorgeous with a perfectly shaped nose, jaw line and cheekbones. His brown eyes are focused on my face. I feel a stab of pain over my earlier vision that such beauty will suffer from terrible burns.
“I’m Marie London,” I say. He kisses the back of my hand, and my cheeks heat.
“Let’s go before Flash decides to eat the barn.” Ryder starts toward the back door; his hands are clenched into fists. Lacy is close on his heels. I’m unsure if I’m supposed to follow, but Hunter pulls me along behind him. I grab my hoodie as I go by the chair.
“You aren’t from here, are you?” He keeps my hand in his. I’m too flustered to pull it away.
“No, I’m not.”
“I knew I’d never seen you before. I know all the pretty girls in this village.”
I realize he is the charmer in the group and pull my hand away, acting like I did so just to put on my hoodie. We enter the barn to find Ryder securing a saddle to Flash’s back, and Lacy trying in vain to get Smoke to take a bridle.
“Help her with Smoke.” Ryder motions Hunter toward Lacy. “Then you get Bolt.”
“Bolt, really?” Hunter’s eyes light up.
“Yeah,” Ryder says. Something is bothering him.
I don’t know where this leaves me, so I stand in the doorway.
Ryder looks up from the saddle, sees me and smiles. “You’re with me.” He fastens the last buckle and pulls open the stall door. Flash bears her fangs at me.
“I don’t think Flash likes me.”
“Flash doesn’t like anybody.” He jerks on her reins, until she’s facing him. “Be nice.” He says close to her face. “Have you ever ridden?”
“A dragon? They don’t even exist in my world.”
“A horse then?”
“It’s been a while.”
Still holding the reins tight, he gestures toward the saddle. “Come on then.”
I feel fear rise in me, and my feet are frozen to the ground.
“I won’t let her hurt you.” He meets my eyes. “In truth she’s quite harmless.”
“She doesn’t look harmless.” I start toward the saddle, my eyes on Flash. Ryder is between me and Flash, and I have to squeeze passed him in the tight stall. I’m taken by another memory, perhaps triggered my Ryder’s smell. My heart is pounding. My breath is coming too fast. Ryder’s body is pressed against mine, and I know we have to be quiet. Still every part of me wants to scream with fear.
“Lacy’s ready.” Hunter’s voice comes from Bolt’s stall, bringing me out of the memory.
I stumble and fall against Ryder’s shoulder.
“I’m starting to think it isn’t the shoes.” He grins, but there is worry in his eyes. “Blast, Lacy didn’t give you boots.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll go barefoot.” I slip off the sandals and position myself on the saddle. Ryder is quick to climb up behind me, still holding the reins. He steers Flash through the barn door that has been modified to accommodate her size.
Flash doesn’t move anything like a horse. She doesn’t move smoothly, but more like she is climbing along the ground. I grab for the saddle as she lurches forward. Ryder’s arms are around me so that he can hold the reins, and I fall against him as we move into the yard. Flash stretches her wings, and her movements are so unnatural to me that only Ryder’s body around mine keeps me on her back.
Lacy is in the yard on Smoke, and she laughs at my awkwardness and discomfort.
“If I don’t recall, you fell off the first time that Smoke stretched his wings.” Ryder says.
Lacy frowns at me as if I were the one that had made the remark not her brother.
“Let’s go.” Hunter bursts from the barn on Bolt and pushes him straight into the air.
“Hunter!” Ryder calls after him. “He’s got to be more careful. It ruins everything if Strong finds out we have dragons.”
I barely get a breath, and Ryder signals Flash to take to the sky. I’m lost in the rush of speed and wind and the flex of Ryder’s muscles against me and the scent of him.
Ryder keeps Flash low, just over the housetops and follows the river to the sea. Once over the open water Ryder loosens his grip on the reins, and Flash dives at the water. All the breath is sucked out of my lungs and just when I think we’ll go under, she pulls up, plucking a fish from the water with her mouth. Flash floats for a bit, plunging her head into the water after fish, and I’m able to breathe normally again. I catch sight of Hunter and Bolt doing flips and rolls against the blue of the sky.
“He’s supposed to be feeding him,” Ryder says, and I get the impression that Hunter isn’t Ryder’s favorite person.
I don’t know if Ryder signals Flash or if she makes the decision, but in a flash we are shooting upward. She is graceful in flight, gliding smoothly through the wind in strong contrast to her bulky clumsiness on land. Flash rolls over, and Ryder and I are upside down for a few seconds. My body goes rigid, and I feel a scream in my throat. When we land in the water again, Ryder gives a little laugh.
“Are you ill?” Ryder asks.
“No, I’m just not used to that. I’ve never been a fan of roller coasters.”
I realize I have no idea how to explain a roller coaster to someone from Ryder’s world. “Something from my world.”
“Does it fly?”
“Not exactly, but they are very fast.”
“If you don’t like speed, I recommend you stay away from the silver ones, especially Bolt. He really enjoys going fast.” I can tell he is looking around. I can feel his weight shift behind me. “Do you see Lacy?” he asks.
I shade my eyes and look all around. “No.”
“Curse that girl.” He stands on Flash’s back; his hand on my shoulder for balance. He does a couple of turns, his eyes on the sky. Hunter passes overhead but not Lacy.
Ryder sits down hard behind me and signals Flash into the air. We fly back over the water and the coast and start up the river. “If something has happened to her…” Fear vibrates in his voice.
About a mile up the river, Lacy stands knee deep in the water. Smoke floats nearby ducking his head in the river to feed.
Ryder lands Flash in the river with a splash. “Where have you been?”
Lacy glares at me, water dripping from her face. “Smoke wanted to eat here.”
“You know Hunter and I were headed to sea. We’re supposed to stay together.” He hands me Flash’s reins and moves through the water to Lacy.
“You splashed me intentionally.” She throws herself at him taking them both under.
Ryder bursts out of the water lifting Lacy with him. “What if something happened to you?”
“Smoke wouldn’t let anything happen to me.” Lacy sputters.
“And what if Strong came along with an adult dragon? What good would Smoke be then?”
“What if some girl from who knows where shows up, and you let her into our house and show her the dragons and tell her our plans?” She glares at me. “And what if she’s really a spy or a demon or who knows what?”
“Unbelievable.” Ryder shakes the water from his hair and walks back toward Flash. “Sorry,” he says to me as he climbs onto Flash’s back.
“You don’t have to apologize to me.” I hand him the reins.
“She’s done nothing but pick fights with me since Ma was taken.”
“Don’t be too hard on her. I’m sure she’s scared.”
Ryder laughs. “It’s pretty funny that the demon girl is defending her.”
“I just know that life can be hard for a teenage girl, and I can’t imagine doing it without my mother.”
“It hasn’t been a fishing trip for me either.”
“I don’t doubt that. I just think you two could be more supportive of each other.”
He grunts, and we lapse into silence, watching the dragons catch fish. With things calmer, I feel my own stomach rumble. I haven’t eaten since dinner back at home. I wonder when the humans around here eat.
“We should head in,” Ryder calls to Lacy. She mounts Smoke. We take the dragons back to the house and leave them in the barn.
“What about Hunter?” I ask as Ryder fills a trough with water for Flash.
“I’d like to say he’s responsible and that I trust him to take care of Bolt, but I guess we’ll just have to see when he comes back.”
I frown. I don’t understand Ryder’s relationship with Hunter. I got the feeling from the dreams that they were a group of friends.
He holds the stall door open for me as we leave. “Are you hungry?”
I want to hug him because I wasn’t sure how to ask him for food on top of everything else. “I am.”
Ryder throws more wood in the fireplace with the dragon egg. He lights a stick from that fire and stuffs it into a wood stove. I consider offering to help, but I don’t have the slightest idea how to cook on a wood stove. Lacy comes in the back door.
“Will you pick some things for lunch?” Ryder hands her an empty basket.
“What are you making?” she asks.
“That’s what I like with them.”
“George still hasn’t brought the milk.” She starts toward the door.”
I watch from the chair by the fireplace, captivated while Ryder mixes dough for scones, without using a premade mix, and with nothing but a hand pump for water. When he has batter, he tests the temperature of the stove top by dripping water droplets onto the pan. Satisfied, he scoops some of the batter into the pan. He disappears momentarily into a door I didn’t notice before.
“Where does that go?” I ask when he returns with a jar of honey.
“The root cellar.”
I glance around the room. Of course they don’t have a refrigerator or a pantry. The root cellar must act as both.
He stops to turn over the scone and then continues to the table where he places the honey in the center. He goes to a cabinet and takes out four plates that appear to be made of fired clay. He puts three on the table and takes the fourth to the stove where he flips the first scone onto it. He just pours the batter for the second one when Hunter bursts through the back door. His wavy hair is windblown and his cheeks are reddened by the winds.
“That was incredible! That dragon sure loves to fly.” He makes his way to the water pump where he wets his hands and starts rearranging his hair.
“Did you let him eat, at least?” Ryder has the same annoyed tone as before.
“Of course I let him eat. I didn’t hurt him. I know he’s your precious dragon.” Hunter moves one last curl into place.
“Oh,” I say but then stop myself from going on. Ryder’s annoyance is out of jealousy or some kind of possessiveness over Bolt.
“Are you well?” Hunter rushes to my side.
“Fine, I just realized something.” I say lamely. “It doesn’t matter.” I wave him away.
Ryder flips the scone.
“Thanks for the ride.” Hunter pats Ryder on the back as he walks by him. “If you ever decide to favor another dragon, I’d be happy to take Bolt. I’ll stop by tomorrow to help again if you want.”
Ryder looks up from his cooking. “I think we can handle it. I want to teach Marie to ride.”
“Let me know if you need me then.” Hunter seems disappointed he won’t get to ride Bolt again.
“I’m not so sure that me riding is a good idea.” I walk to the table and place a plate in front of each of the three chairs at the table.
“I don’t think you arrived here by chance.” Ryder says.
My knees feel weak, and I slip into one of the chairs at the table. “Why would I be here then?”
“I can’t say, but maybe we need you to help us free our parents.”
I’ve read enough fantasy novels to know what he is implying, but I’m not anything special, and I can’t learn to use a sword in a week or a month, or probably ever.
Lacy comes in with a basket full of strawberries, raspberries and three red ripe apples. She rinses them in water from the hand pump and places them in a bowl in the center of the table. She seems pleasant enough, but every time she looks in my direction, she scowls.
A knock sounds at the front door. The door opens before Lacy reaches it, and George strides into the house. He is easily six feet tall with hair so black that the highlights seem purple. He, like Ryder and probably me, looks windblown. Only Hunter bothers to fix his hair after riding a dragon.
“Sorry, I’m late.” He holds out two milk bottles and places them on the table.
“I knew you’d bring them sooner or later.” Ryder flips another scone onto his plate before going to the root cellar. He returns with a basket of eggs and four red apples.
“Thanks,” George says as Ryder hands him the basket.
“Did you get the dragons fed?” Ryder asks.
“Yes, Julia helped.”
I see Julia. She is a beautiful blonde with red lips and ivory skin. I see her wiping blood from George’s face. She appears uninjured, but at the thought I see her foot, wrapped in bandages.
Lacy walks passed George to get three clay mugs from a cupboard. George watches her place them on the table. When she places one in front of me, George notices me for the first time.
“Sorry, who’s the girl?” he asks.
“George, this is Marie. Marie, this is George.” Ryder says nodding at me. “I wasn’t thinking, sorry.”
George leans in to Ryder and whispers loudly, “She’s pretty. I’d keep her away from Hunter if you want to hold on to her.”
“It isn’t like that,” Ryder says too quickly.
George raises his eyebrows. “I’d probably still keep her away from Hunter.” He flashes a smile at me. “It’s good to meet you Marie. I need to go, chores to do.” He pulls the door closed behind him.
“George’s family runs the dairy farm.” Ryder carries the plate of scones to the table. Lacy takes two. He slides one onto his plate and one onto mine. “I forgot the butter.”
Lacy gets the butter from the root cellar and spreads a large helping of it onto her scone. Then she oozes the honey over both and tops them with raspberries.
Ryder pours another scone into the pan before sitting down himself and spreading his with butter and honey. I copy him and then look at the sticky food, wondering if they have forks. Lacy picked hers up and folds it in half before taking a bite. A string of honey runs down her chin.
Ryder stands and flips the scone and returns with cloth napkins. “You’ve got something there.” He gestures to Lacy’s chin and hands her a napkin.
I pick up the scone and take a bite careful not to drip the honey on myself. It is delicious, but it makes me think of Ryder and the memory of him kissing me. I study my plate. I can’t look at him or I know I will blush.
Ryder continues to cook between bites of his own scone until we’ve all had three scones each. Then he sits down and takes a bite out of one of the apples. I take one of the other ones and taste it. The apple is perfectly ripe and almost as sweet and juicy as the honeyed scones.
“Thank you for feeding me,” I say after I’ve chewed the bite.
“You’re our guest.” Ryder says.
Lacy scowls. “Where’s our guest going to sleep because it’s not going to be with me and it shouldn’t be with you?”
Ryder’s ears turn pink. “I’ll sleep in Ma and Pa’s room, and she can sleep in mine.”
Lacy folds her arms across her chest, annoyed that he found a solution so easily.
Someone else knocks on the door.
“Is it always like this?” I ask as Ryder gets up and opens the door.
“No,” Lacy says.
“Sometimes,” Ryder answers at the same time.
Cooper stands at the door. His blonde hair is also windblown and there’s an excited light in his eyes. “George said you have another egg.” He pushes passed Ryder, but his eyes are on me not the fireplace. Cooper is small, shorter even than me and that combined with his light blonde hair and roundish face makes him look much younger than the other three.
I see Cooper in my mind, the way I saw him before; his body burned and broken. My chest clenches. I never want to see him like that in life.
“I think you should stay away from dragons.” I blurt out before I can stop it.
Cooper is at the fireplace, but he turns from the egg to look at me again.
“George mentioned a girl too. Marie, right?” He comes back to the table and offers me his hand. “I’m Cooper.”
“I know,” I say still flustered from the image of him I saw moments before.
“You do? What has Ryder told you about me?” Cooper grins, a roguish light in his eyes.
But I’m looking at Ryder, whose eyebrows are lowered. His blue-green eyes narrow. “I barely mentioned you. I said you have a silver dragon and a gold dragon.”
“I-I just meant that you must be Cooper since you’re the only one I haven’t met yet.” I try to cover, but I know that Ryder is still watching me, untrustingly.
“Another gold?” Cooper is back at the fireplace.
“I think Strong is focused on killing off the silvers. They are getting harder and harder to find.” Ryder frowns, but I feel it is only in part because of the state of the dragons.
“Where are you going to put it?” Cooper asks.
“Probably here. I have the most room.”
“Are you sure Flash will go for it?” Cooper pokes the fire with a stick.
“I doubt she will, but I guess we’ll have to see.”
“Hunter’s bragging that you let him ride Bolt. When do I get to ride Bolt?”
I watch Ryder to see if he reacts with Cooper the way he did with Hunter over Bolt. But I recognize an obvious difference, Cooper is grinning, teasing Ryder.
“You’ve got your own silver; just teach it to go fast.” Ryder turns away from the fire; his eyes are back on me.
“Jess will never go as fast as Bolt, but she’s still more fun to ride than Goldie.” Cooper steps away from the fire. “Do you need help later?”
“No, I’m going to teach Marie to ride.” Ryder grins at me.
“About that,” I say, “I don’t think that is the best idea.”
“Like I should stay away from dragons, huh?” Cooper offers me his hand again. “Good to meet you. I’ve got to get back.”
“Not the same thing at all, actually.” I mutter.
“Lacy, you’ve got chores to do,” Ryder says.
“So do you,” she returns.
“And I’m headed there. Marie, you’re with me.”
He hands me a basket, and I follow him out to the large vegetable garden in the front yard. “Pick anything that’s ripe and put it in the basket. Any weeds go in the waste bin that I’ll pull around to the front.”
The garden is full of plants, some of which I recognize: squash, potatoes, corn, onions, cantaloupe, watermelon, carrots and peas. There are others that I don’t know though too. One that looks something like an onion, only smaller and another that is like a pink squash.
Ryder returns with the waste bin. I can feel him picking weeds and harvesting vegetables only a row away, but I don’t dare look at him. I can only guess about what is going on in his mind. It doesn’t seem right how well I know him, even though I only met him that morning because I have watched him in my dreams for so much longer. I can picture him, his back bend, and his left arm resting against his left leg as he examines and picks the ripe vegetables. I know the shape of his nose, the lines of his tanned cheeks. His brow would be furrowed, contemplating how best to start the conversation with me.
He moves closer, parallel to me. “What did you mean, back there with Cooper? How could you know him?”
“Like I said, I figure he had to be Cooper because I’d met George and Hunter already.” I manage to keep my voice steady.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see the movement of him shaking his head. “You can’t lie to me.”
I turn on him, my turn to be surprised. “What do you mean? You just met me, and you’re telling me you can tell when I’m lying?”
He steps over a zucchini squash plant to be beside me. “Yes, I can read you like I can Bolt, and you’re lying. I just can’t figure out why.”
“You wouldn’t believe the truth.”
“Try me.” He takes me by the shoulder and turns me to face him. His blue eyes are intense. I can smell the earth and the sea air on him. I think of the memory of his lips on mine. If I tell him, will it change everything? If it does, will it be for the better or worse.
I don’t want to look at him when I say it. I don’t want to see the change in his eyes, but I can’t look away. “I told you I recognized this village. I know the people in it too. I’ve seen all of you in my dreams. I’ve been dreaming of all of you for some time now.”
His eyes narrow for a moment, but then he releases my shoulder and turns away from me.
After a moment, he turns back. “Then you know things, things you aren’t telling me.”
“No, they were dreams. I can’t remember the details.”
“Then how did you know what Coop looked like?”
I shake my head, not wanting to say. “I had a flash of memory of each of your friends when you told me about them back in the barn with the dragons.”
He nods, taking in the information. “Why did you tell him to stay away from the dragons?”
My eyes start to burn as I fight off tears. “I don’t know your plan for taking your parent’s back, but I know something goes wrong or it doesn’t end well.” My vision fuzzes with the tears. “George fares the best, mostly mild burns and cuts. Hunter is badly burned. Julia breaks a foot. But Cooper,” I choke on his name, “he won’t make it.”
“Blast!” Ryder turns a complete circle. “We’ll change the plans. We’ll come up with something better.”
“It might not be enough.”
“What do you mean?”
“What if my dream of the results happened after you changed the plans? What if you changing the plan is what makes it unsuccessful?”
“What if I have no control over any of this?” He kicks at the dirt.
“Wait,” he grabs my shoulder again, “what happens to Lacy? What happens to me?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen. I don’t remember.”
“Then what did you see when we first arrived at the house?” he asks.
He has realized that it is the memories that throw me off balance. I feel my cheeks heat at the memory of his lips on mine, the feel of his body pressed against mine.
“It’s not important.”
“I think it was a mistake. I can’t see how it can happen. Maybe things are already different than they were in the dreams.” I fight off a blush.
“Was it about me?”
“What happened? I need to know.”
“It was you kissing me in front of your house.” I blush.
“Like this?” He puts his hands on my hips and draws me to him until our bodies are touching. Then his lips find mine. Only he smells mostly of the sea, and his lips taste of honey and apples. My chest warms with the nearness of him, heats, turns to dragon’s fire.
My friend, Emily, from back home, used to tell me about passion. She used to say it didn’t matter how good looking the guy was, how smart or funny he was. She’d say if there wasn’t passion, the relationship wouldn’t work. I never knew what she was talking about until Ryder kissed me. I never want him to stop. I want to forever feel his touch. I want to kiss more than his lips, and I want to feel his lips on other parts of me, parts I shouldn’t think about.
We are so consumed with each other, we don’t hear Lacy approach. “How are your chores coming, Ryder?” she asks loudly.
I step away, but Ryder keeps one of his hands on my hip. “Are you done with yours?” he asks.
“I am. I thought I’d help Marie so that you can fix the leak in the barn roof, but I’m not helping her if that’s the chore that needs to be done.” She shoots daggers at me with her eyes.
Ryder doesn’t drop his protective stance or his hand. “I appreciate it. Just help Marie finish up harvesting. I’m going to make vegetable stew for dinner.” He finally releases me, but after a few steps, he looks back.
Lacy takes up his basket and moves over to the potatoes. “Why don’t you just go back to where you came from?”
“I don’t know how.” I drop to the dirt and pick some carrots. “Why do you hate me?”
She picks a potato, looks at it for longer than she needs to and drops it into the basket. “You can’t have him.”
“Strong took my Ma and Pa. You can’t take Ryder. He’s all I have left.”
I look over at Lacy, sitting in the dirt, pulling tiny weeds from the ground. She has tears in her eyes. She’s nothing more than a scared and lonely girl. I crawl over to her side, not thinking about the mud on my jeans.
“I won’t take him. Even if by some miracle he loves me, I won’t take him away from you.”
“You will. I know Ryder. I see how he looks at you. He’ll follow you anywhere. He’ll go with you back to your world.”
“No, even if I could go back, I won’t.
“You’ll leave your world of strange clothes and zippers. You’ll leave behind your family?” She looks up at me, unbelieving.
I think of my parents. I see my mother crying over my memory, thinking I’m lost forever. “I’ll find a way.” I pull a small weed from the ground and toss it at her. “You really think he likes me?”
She nods. “He never dated the girls in the village. Hunter’s been through all of them, more than once. Cooper and Bella have been together off and on for like their whole lives. Everyone knows they’ll get married. But not Ryder.” She picks a weed and tosses it at me. “I heard George ask Ryder what was wrong with him once. I think it was after Julia asked him out and he said he didn’t want to go with her. Everybody thinks Julia’s beautiful.”
I have the memory of Julia again with her perfect, curly blonde hair, red lips and ivory skin. She is wiping blood from George’s face. Her foot is still wrapped. I dig my fingers into the dirt to bring me back to reality.
“Ryder shook his head,” Lacy goes on, “he told George they just weren’t right for him and that he’d know when he met the right one. George laughed and asked him how he intended to meet someone new when he never left the village. Ryder said he didn’t know, but he would. That was a couple years ago.”
I frowned, wondering what it must be like to know that your only choice for a spouse had to come from the ten other teenagers around your age.
“The first time I saw the way he looked at you, I knew he’d been right. I knew you were what he’d been waiting for.” She looks up at me. “I’m sorry I’ve been cruel. I just don’t want you to break his heart. He’s waited for you for so long.”
“Why would I break his heart?”
“You’ll go home.” She picks a weed and pulls it apart. I watch her, thinking about her words. Would I go home if I could? Would I go home if I knew I could never return?
I pick a few more carrots, my mind flitting from my parents to Ryder and back again. How can one day change everything?
“I think we have enough vegetables to start the stew.” Lacy stands and picks up her basket. I follow her with my own basket. Inside, we wash and start chopping vegetables.
“How long have your parents been missing?” I ask over my potatoes.
“Eleven months and nine days.”
“When was Ryder planning on taking them back?”
“Soon.” She accidentally sends a piece of carrot shooting across the room. She lays down the knife to retrieve it. “We need them back before the harvests. We barely handled the plantings without them. There just aren’t enough of us to handle the harvest.”
“So he took all of the adults?”
“Everyone between Hunter’s and Cooper’s Gran’s age.”
“How old is Cooper’s grandmother?”
She shrugs. “Around sixty.”
Ryder comes in and washes his hands. He looks from me to Lacy and back again. Clearly, he notices that her glare has disappeared. He smiles.
“The roof is fixed, so that when the little guy hatches he’ll have a dry stall.” He walks to the fireplace and throws on more wood. “Marie, will you be comfortable riding Flash, or shall I let you take Bolt?”
I chop the empty air, missing my potato completely. “I can’t ride alone.”
“It’s not so bad,” Lacy says. “It can be quite enjoyable. I’ll let you take Smoke if you want. He’s younger, not as fast as Bolt and not as hateful as Flash.”
Ryder looks at me quizzically, as if to ask how I got her to stop hating me.
I mouth the word “later” to him.
“Will you ride Flash?” he asks Lacy.
“I can. She doesn’t hate me any more than she does anyone else.” Lacy says.
“I’m pretty sure she hates me more than she hates everyone else.” I say.
“That’s settled then.” Ryder pulls a big pot from the cabinet and fills it with water. He stops at my station and scoops all my potatoes into the pot. He takes the carrots and onions from Lacy. “We have enough potatoes. Start on the parsnips.” He says to me.
The front door swings open and Hunter swaggers in. “Do I get to ride Bolt again?” he asks.
“No,” Ryder says, “I need to make sure he actually gets to eat one meal today.” He puts the pot down on the counter and steps between Hunter and me. “You’ll have to bring one of your dragons. And while you’re out, tell all the others to bring a dragon to feed and meet us at the mouth of the river.”
“What’s going on?” Hunter’s eyes are on me.
“We need to change the plan.”
“I don’t like it.” Hunter says, still watching me. Ryder doesn’t move, but every muscle in his body is rigid. His jealous, possessive attitude toward Hunter is over me not Bolt.
“We’ll see you at the mouth of the river then.” Hunter winks at me and heads out the door.
We finish chopping vegetables and fill the pot. Ryder puts it on the stovetop and we go out to the barn. Ryder saddles Smoke, helps Lacy saddle Flash and finally saddles and mounts Bolt. We meet in the yard. I try to relax, to allow myself to tip and pitch with the motion of Smoke’s walk, but I can’t get used to the dragon’s unnatural gate.
“Ready?” Ryder asks watching me.
“How do I make him fly?” I ask.
“Pull the reins down to make him go up and pull them up to make him go down.”
“Isn’t that backwards?”
Ryder shrugs. “It’s the way that they recognize it. Lacy, why don’t you go first? Marie, you follow.”
Flash snaps her massive teeth as Lacy pulls her passed Smoke and Bolt, but she takes off into the sky at Marie’s direction.
I follow. Smoke runs before he lifts into the sky. I glance back to make sure Ryder is behind us, but I follow Flash and Lacy to the river. We fly low over the river until it opens into the sea. I’m so focused on staying on Smoke’s back I notice little else until we’ve landed in the water. Hunter is already there on a gold. Cooper is floating beside him on a silver.
Ryder lands beside me. “We’ll wait for the others.”
George and Julia arrive on golds. Turner and Wendy arrive together, each on a gold. Belle is the last to arrive on a gold.
“What’s going on Ryder?” Hunter asks shifting his seat as his dragon plunges its head underwater.
“I have some new information that makes me doubt the plan.” He looks at me. “I’m going to take Bolt in the morning out to the island. I’m going to see if I can find where Strong’s keeping everyone. I think we need more information before we can make a solid plan.”
“No,” Cooper says. “We can’t risk him seeing you.”
“That’s why I’ll go when it’s still dark.”
“Why you?” Hunter asks.
“Because Bolt and I can outrun anyone.”
“I don’t like it.” George says. “We should just rush the place like we’ve talked about. We can’t wait much longer. We can’t take time to make a new plan.”
Everyone breaks off, talking at once on top of each other, some agreeing with Ryder, others not.
“Ryder’s right,” I say softly, and the others go silent, listening to me. “You need to know what you are up against before you rush into anything.”
“What do you know about anything?” Julia asks.
“She’s trying to help,” Ryder says.
“None of it means anything to her. Her parents haven’t been gone for almost a year.” Julia goes on.
“None of this is up for negotiation.” Ryder says. “When it comes down to it, they’re my dragons. I’m the leader and this is how it will be done. I’ll let everyone know what I discover, and we’ll go from there.”
George frowns, but nobody says another word about it. Instead, everyone lets their dragons fly and eat and socialize. I get a little better at riding, but I still don’t feel comfortable. When the dragons have eaten their fill, everyone heads off in different directions to their homes.
The stew is ready when we get back to the house after caring for the dragons and leaving them in the barn. Ryder dishes up a bowl for me, Lacy and then himself. We eat in silence for a time.
“I don’t think you handled that well.” Lacy dips her spoon into her stew.
“They weren’t listening, and I had to change something. I never loved the idea of just sneaking out there and hoping Strong didn’t see us. I think we are better off knowing what he has and what we are up against.” He looks at me. “I just hope it’s enough.”
With my stomach full, I’m feeling drowsy. The day has been full of emotions and riding a dragon, twice, was enough for me physically. I yawn.
Ryder leads me to his bedroom. He rummages around in his wardrobe until he pulls out a pair of knit pants and a knit shirt. “It can get cold in here at night. The house has its cracks that let the cold air in.” He hands me the clothes, and his hand brushes mine.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Can I get you anything else?” His eyes drift to the bed.
The room smells like him. His closeness has my heart beating too fast. One lock of his hair is in his eyes. I reach up and push it back, and that’s all it takes. His arms wrap around me. I drop the clothes. His lips find mine. He tastes of stew and a trace of sea salt. His hands travel up and down my back. One of my hands is tangled in his hair. The other clutches at his shirt. I feel that heat again.
His hands move, releasing me, and I feel their absence at my very core. He pulls his shirt over his head. His body is all tanned muscle, and I trace my fingers along the definition in his abs, in his chest. Goose bumps climb his flesh. His lips find my neck, just below my ear, and I can’t think straight. I try to push away thoughts of his lips in other places. His hands are back on my hips and he presses me against him. I can’t breathe.
The door creaks open. Lacy takes in Ryder’s missing shirt, his hands on me, my hand tangled in his hair. She goes as red as the sunset and starts to close the door.
“Lacy,” Ryder says fumbling for his shirt. “Nothing happened. Nothing was going to happen. Please don’t look at me like that.”
“She’s going to break your heart!” Lacy yells. Her hands are balled into fists.
“Why would you say that?” Ryder asks.
“She won’t stay here. She’ll go home to her family, to her world.” Lacy’s glare returns and she directs it at me.
I’m speechless. I can’t promise that I won’t. I have the feeling I have no control over when I come and go into Ryder’s world.
“I can take care of myself,” Ryder says, “and that includes my heart.”
“I just came to wish you both good night.” Lacy says and closes the door too hard behind her.
I feel deflated and sink onto the bed. “She’s right.” My voice cracks. “Nothing can ever become of this.” Tears fill my eyes. “I’ve never felt like this before, but I can’t stay here, even if I could control it.”
“No.” Ryder sits beside me and slips his hand into mine. “I don’t want to hear it. You came here for a reason, and I’m not going to let you go easily.” He looks hard into my eyes. “I love you.”
“Please don’t say that. It’ll just make everything worse.”
“Love never makes things worse. I wouldn’t trade this day with you for anything, even if it is the only day we ever get.” He tucks a lock of my hair behind my ear.
The tears are flowing from my eyes. I don’t want to choose between him and the world I left behind.
“Come here.” Ryder lies down and pulls me down beside him. “Let’s not worry about it. Tonight, let’s just be together.” I put my head on his chest, calmed by the rhythm of his strong heart. He closes his eyes; his arm wrapped around me and falls asleep.
“I love you too.” I whisper and then fall asleep, surrounded by his love.
I wake to Taylor Swift’s Red playing from my iPod through my alarm clock. I’m upside down in my bed. My face is stuck to a page in my history book. I stretch, reaching for something, someone. But, of course, no one is there. I pull off my pink hoodie and catch the scent of the sea.