38. In a Land of Unicorns and Dragons, You Better Believe in Yourself Too!

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The garden no longer smelled like fruit and blooms. Instead, it reeked of burnt evil stepsister, which, to be honest, was not much different from unburnt evil stepsister—molten metal and sulfur with cinnamon overtones.

The grass beneath the hatched egg had blackened, shards of golden shell gleaming in the wreckage. Derek ignored the humans and sat with the dragon in his lap, murmuring the most nonsensical baby talk, while its spikey tail curled around the prince's well-built torso.

Not that Ashley noticed his torso!

Gerald's was the only torso that mattered.


She scrubbed her hands together, wracking her brain for ways in which she might become reunited with said torso. Preferably the reuniting would happen somewhere private, right after a four-hour bath, some industrial-grade teeth brushing, and in close proximity to a bed. Actually, the bed wasn't one-hundred percent necessary.

But no sense letting those thoughts invade her mind. There would be no torsos, lips, necks, nor any other Gerald body parts explored until they'd completed their quest.

The odds that they could find the children and escape unscathed were so minuscule that Ashley laughed at such folly. Not a pleasant laugh, more the maniacal kind you'd hear in an insane asylum.

But dammit, she had friends. Powerful, smart, determined, talented friends.

Like Kai, who could grow a tail and was destined to rule the oceans!

Sadira, who had a heart full of love and empathy despite being put to sleep for a century.

Tressa, raised in an isolated tower by an evil witch, found her voice and wasn't afraid to use it.

 Layyin, who, through force of will, had overcome a lifetime of vulnerability to become a fear-enthusiast.

And Derek, with his plethora of knowledge, biting wit, and impeccable fashion sense, possessed a deep well of loyalty, although he'd never admit it.

Ashley smiled at each of them. If any makeshift band of heroes could bring down a dark magical operation, they were the ones.

Kai stood—long limbs, unfolding like a waterlily at dawn, rubbing her legs and gazing at the fountain with longing. Poor thing hadn't been in the water in so long. "That stepsister of yours had a perfectly good water source right here, and instead of diving in, the fool runs away?"

"Good point," Ashley said. "She never was the brightest. Here, Sadira, let me help you." She offered a hand to Sadira, who rose with princessy elegance, then stretched.

Derek remained seated as the baby licked and sucked the prince's fingers, leaving red streaks from the hot dragon saliva. "Boojeee, boojeee, boojeee," Derek crooned and offered his peacock hat as a sucking substitute for the human flesh.

"Derek, you said you loved that hat; you're dragon-besotted," Tressa needled.

"I am not besotted. It's simply good parenting." He cleared his throat. "The first few minutes of bonding are critical to the dragon's long-term sense of security and self-esteem. If it doesn't get immediate nurture, it will become a fire-breathing killing machine."

"As opposed to ..." Tressa cocked her head, "oh, I know ... becoming a fire-breathing killing machine?"

"My tenderness is purely based on the scientific research," Derek said, pursing his lips and exhaling through his nose. "What? Did you guys think I was acting maternal because this adorable, sweet baby, google giggle gaga boody, looked at me with its big golden eyes, and I fell in love?"

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