Back to the Round Robin Blogvel - what on earth is it, you ask? It's a traveling blog novel started by the funny and talented Michelle Simkins. She started us off with a killer first chapter, and it has been progressing each week with a new chapter from a different blogger! If you're following along, make sure you're caught up! Chapter eight was posted last week by Jennifer Merritt at The Demeter Diaries, and the next post will be next Monday at Laura's Universe. Click the Round Robin Blogvel tab at the top of the page for a full list (with links!) of previous chapters.
Without further ado, I present to you Chapter Nine of The Skeleton Key!
Fear seizes my heart for a beat. I look around, searching for whoever could be setting off the magical metal detector. How am I supposed to know? I don't see any obvious ghouls or goblins. Then again, if I've learned anything today, it's that monsters don't always look monstrous.
The person in front of me in line moves to the side after paying, and the cashier looks at me. I look at the still-thrumming hummer, then at the food. I was dumped into the middle of this inter-species war against my will, and I've seen things I’m still not sure are real. Whether to eat or follow the hummer's signal really shouldn't be a question worth debating. And yet it is.
Dammit! The food smells so good. I'd kill for just one noodle. Damn the vampires and prophetesses and Nerbils and the rest of the creatures. I smile at the clerk, ducking my head sheepishly as I step out of line. And damn Ax for dragging me here and leaving me alone! I could use that broad, muscular chest to lean on right now... I mean – damn!
The hummer buzzes more loudly now, drawing my thoughts back to my predicament. What do I do? Do I take it out? It looks a little weird, and I don't want to draw attention to myself. But as I walk away from the food cart with one hand buried in my purse, fingers wrapped around the hummer to feel any changes in the vibration, I feel a little ridiculous. How creepy must I look, walking around with my hand shoved into my mysteriously buzzing bag? Like I’m hiding some freaky sex toy. It is called a hummer, after all.
I try to walk at a normal pace, which is hard to do when you have no clue where you're going. After stopping, turning, and starting again three times, the hummer's signal intensifies and stays steady. I keep walking, searching the people and buildings for a sign. But what sign? Ax and I obviously need some time together for hummer instruction.
The thought stops me in my tracks and I laugh out loud, unable to help myself. A few people turn to look at me, the crazy laughing girl with one hand permanently stuck inside her vibrating purse. Before my traitorous body can fully react to the thought of me, Ax, and a hummer, the signal stops. Gone. Sayonara.
The smooth metal is hot in my hand, but I don't dare take it out to look at it. It feels like it's permanently attached to my palm, I've been gripping it so hard.
The signal flickers through again, for only a second. I turn around, looking back the way I came. Where in the hell am I? I was so focused on following the signal that I didn't pay attention to street signs or landmarks – not that I could've recognized any of them anyway, but still.
Another brief signal. Or maybe I’m imagining it? When I was in college, I kept my cell phone in my pocket on vibrate so Ashley and I could text back and forth. Sometimes I got phantom vibrations against my hip when I didn't have my phone there.
Nope. Not a phantom sensation. But no way do I want to follow it any more. I need to find my way back to Ax's condo. Somehow. Hummer be damned. I walk slowly, unsure of which direction I’m heading, and try desperately to ignore the staccato buzzing in my palm.
Let it go, genius! But I can't. An irrational fear has my fingers clamped around the ancient device, like its random vibrations are pointing me home. A few hours ago I would've been glad to be rid of Ax forever, but now he's the only person – dragon – I want to see. At least if he was here I'd know I'm safe. And he could tell me how the hell to use this damn thing. I don't suppose they bothered to write instruction manuals back in the 1800s.
Heartbeat. Footsteps. Buzz. Buzz. Heart beats faster. Feet move faster. Buzz. BUZZ! I’m a walking symphony of terror. If I drop to my knees in the street and yell Ax's name, will he magically find me? I'll never see the people around me again (I hope), so what do I care if they think I’m a raving lunatic? I feel like a raving lunatic.
Turning into a deserted alleyway – because my feet are following the hummer's signals despite my brain's admonitions about every horror movie we've ever seen – I smack into a brick wall and let out a sissy-girl shriek. The brick wall puts its arms around me and the scream dies in my throat.
“Rebecca, what are you doing?”
“I—me? What?” There are no coherent thoughts in my brain at the moment. Just a mix of joy and subsiding fear.
“I got back and your sister was hysterical, crying that you'd left here there hours ago and she didn't know where you were.” He smooths my hair back from my face, but doesn't loosen his grip on me. His voice is stern, verging on angry, but I can hear the smooth edge of genuine concern in there. “Where have you been? Are you okay?”
“I was just—I didn't mean—it was this thing!” I pull my hand from my purse and thrust it toward his face. My fingers are still clamped firmly – and painfully – around the hummer. “Oh my god!”
The skin is blistered and red, stuck to the metal in places, and steaming every so slightly. My stomach turns, partially because I still haven't eaten, and partially because it doesn't hurt nearly as much as it probably should, and that freaks me out.
“What happened?” Ax's eyes are wide.
“I don't know. I swear.”
He pulls me farther into the alley without a word, away from the prying eyes of anyone passing by on the main sidewalk, and draws me into his chest again. I feel the heat and know what's coming.
I’m beginning to get used to traveling by fire. The heat is nice, in a way. Ax swooshes us back to his condo and manages to separate me and the hummer without much pain. A little magical salve, and my hand is almost back to normal after fifteen minutes.
Now we're sitting on giant pillows on the living room floor, with steaming mugs of tea, trying to figure out what happened. Ashley is asleep in the guest room – Ax had sedated her before he left because she was so hysterical.
“You shouldn't have been able to do that,” he says, boring into me with those red-gold eyes.
“Do what?” I hadn't done anything. Not on purpose, anyway. I'd explained everything that happened, but it still didn't make any sense to me. And he's sure taking his sweet time explaining what he thought happened.
“I think, in your fear, you manipulated the hummer's magic to find my signal.” A smile plays at the corner of his mouth. I can't decide if it's adorable or irritating. I nearly burnt my hand to a crisp, after all. Not really a laughing matter. He presses a finger to my forehead. “There is magic in there, somewhere.”
Me? Magical? Does that mean I’m a monster?
Listen to me! Yesterday I would've laughed in someone's face if they said I possessed magic powers. Today the only thing I wonder is if it makes me a big bad monster. Although not all monsters are bad.
Ax still stares at me with those eyes that threaten to boil the blood in my veins in the most delicious way.
Big, yes. Not bad.
“You know, that hummer is almost two hundred years old. And you nearly managed to ruin it,” he said.
Oh, right! Leave it to the stupid mortal girl to screw things up! I react before I register the smirk on his face, but by then it's too late. I can't put the scalding tea back in the cup.
“Oh god, Ax! Did I hurt you?” I kneel beside him and use the bottom of my shirt to mop his face. I guess it takes more than a cup of tea to scald a dragon. But I doubt he still wants me for a mate now. “Oh shit, I’m sorry.”
He tosses his head back and laughs. And laughs. Oh god, does he laugh. The sound echoes in the room, bright and yet deep, like a perfectly tuned brass ensemble. If I wasn't right there, seeing it for myself, I never would've thought he could be so joyous. Dragons are always so doom and gloom in the movies. Nothing like this. And I've never seen a dragon with a dimple like that.
Did I not notice it before, or has he just never smiled like this before? A gorgeous little dimple puckers his left cheek. It's small, but it softens the chiseled lines of his face. He looks so damn... cute! There's no other word for it. Impulsively, I lean forward and press my lips to his cheek, right to his dimple. His laughter softens to the tinkling of wind chimes, but it reverberates inside my chest, filling me with a gentle hum that spreads to the top of my head and the tips of my toes.
Is this what he meant when he said I hum?
Ax turns his face so our lips nearly touch, but he doesn't kiss me. His breath is hot against my lips. What I wouldn't give to be consumed by that fire. The vibrations in my chest begin to subside, but I don't want them to stop.
His eyelashes flutter and when he looks into my eyes, I see his are mostly red now. The gold is but a thin ring around his pupils. I nip gently at his lower lip.
“Ax.” I straddle his lap and he wraps his arms around me. “Hum for me.”
He kisses me with the force of a Mack truck, and I return the urgency. His lips are hot against mine, and everywhere his hands touch – my face, my arms, sliding up under my shirt now – my skin comes alive with the flame of desire. I bury my hands in his hair and hold tight. It's definitely coming from him, the humming. But it's not a sound so much as a sensation. Pressed together cheek to cheek, chest to chest, I can feel every very male, very human part of him against me. And yet his energy fills me until we hum together and I can't tell where he ends and I begin.
An ear-splitting scream slices through our cocoon of heat and I nearly fall backward.
“What did you do to her?” Ashley stands before us, wide-eyed and trembling, as if Ax had just devoured me before her eyes.
He and I are both still fully clothed, but I feel exposed and embarrassed nonetheless. Ax looks a little drunk, and blinks as though to clear his vision. I feel a little drunk, like my head is perched precariously on top of the rest of my body and may fall off at any moment.
“Ash, what are you--” I see it at the same time Ax does.
He grabs my arm and turns it this way and that. The silver-blue iridescence is beautiful. Almost beautiful enough to distract me from the fact that between my wrist and my elbow, I've sprouted scales.