Firefighter McAllister “Mick” Malone knows he has a protective streak, especially when it comes to his deceased best friend’s sister, Tessa. But after twenty-five years of verbal sparring, Mick can’t help but notice that their recent arguments have started to feel a lot like foreplay. And while Tessa knows exactly what to say to get him going, Mick is thrown for a loop when he actually starts breathing fire.
Antique-store owner Tessa Preston has loved Mick Malone since she was ten years old—not that she’d ever admit it. Fighting with Mick is the only thing keeping her from an embarrassing romantic confession, but when the sexy firefighter accidentally ingests some ancient dragon scales masquerading as powdered aspirin, Tessa finds herself handling something much hotter than long-simmering sexual tension…
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“Did you hear me, Tessa?” McAllister Malone asked, tamping out a pile of embers with his foot in his best friend’s sister’s store, Auntie Q’s.
“Oh, you were heard,” Tessa Preston replied, her full lips compressing, then thinning into a sharp slash of a line on her soot-covered, water-streaked face.
“I said I was sorry.” Sorry I set the store you work your ass off for on fire. On. Fire.
“Three times in the last three or so minutes. Noted and appreciated.”
Mick gazed down at her in concern, lifting what was left of one of his eyebrows. “You counted?”
Tessa waved a hand under her nose to ward off the stench of burnt electrical wiring. “I like numbers. They soothe me when I’m stressed. It’s a hyper-focus thing.”
“More appreciation.” Her response, still filled with rational words, held only a twinge of sarcasm.
That worried him. “Tessa,” he coaxed, looking for the usual signs her crank had officially been yanked. He knew she was angry. But right now, maybe due to her shock, her behavior seemed practically catatonic as she floated in and out of the clear need to give him hell and the inability to do so for the magnitude of what he’d done.
So he tried to get a rise out of her again. “C’mon—say something. Call me a slug—or what was that thing you screamed at me the other day? You said I was a—a—”
“An overbearing penis wielder,” Tessa provided with a scowl, clenching her fingers together in a fist. Then the haze she’d been nursing seconds ago clouded her bright eyes again, and her hands relaxed.
Mick nodded his head and gave her a thumbs-up with an encouraging grin. “Yeah. That was it. As always, clever comeback, T. So go ahead. Let’s get your scream on.” He rolled up the charred remains of his sleeves, almost the only bit of material left of his now backless shirt, and mimicked a boxer’s stance to try to get the kind of rise out of her he was accustomed to. His feet stuck to the sopping-wet floor as he got into position. “I’m ready. Let’s do this, Sugar Ray.”
Instead of reacting, Tessa took a shuddering breath. With her fingertips just resting on her bottom lip, she spoke in a hushed whisper. “Fire . . .” Her eyes, darting and wide-eyed, scanned her trashed antiques store, Auntie Q’s.
“Biiig fire,” Mick agreed, spreading his arms wide, still waiting for her to explode. “Like, bonfire. Five-alarm, maybe.”
She gave him a dazed, glassy-eyed glance instead. “Flames . . . so . . . many. Soooo . . .”
“Bet that pissed ya off, huh?” He poked at her verbally, hoping she’d respond like the crouching tiger she was.
But hidden dragon she remained. Though her feet did shift in the puddle of water she stood rooted in, as though she wanted to summon the wherewithal to clock him but couldn’t due to shock. “Die,” Tessa stated, dull and monotone, spitting out more water dribbling down her face.
“As in, once you catch your breath and get past the shock, I’m going to?” Mick inquired sweetly, letting a subtle taunt grace his words.
Tessa gulped, then breathed in and out. “Bloody. Very bloody. Entrails and organs everywhere. Promise.”
Mick chucked her under the chin and winked. “Excellent, my fine she-warrior. I wait with the kind of girlish anticipation only organ-riddled battles can bring. Until we don our swords, got any more full sentences in you?”
Tessa let her cheeks puff outward. When she gazed up at him, her eyes were wild with an unspoken rage, which meant she was warming to the idea of killing him.
Yet her words were still stilted and eerily wooden. “McAllister Malone. No. Words.”
Mick pondered that momentarily. Tessa out of words? Nah. She was just catching her breath before she spewed a mouthful of rude name-calling. Or maybe her lack of lung power had something to do with the coughing fit that had wracked her body just moments ago.
Undoubtedly induced by smoke inhalation.
At this stage of the fiery hell he’d created, he should be gearing up to argue a Tessa rant—loud and proud while he chuckled to goad her on. He hated to admit it, but he got a kick out of arguing with his best friend’s sister.
They’d been doing it for over twenty-five years. But today . . . well, today, if—or better yet, when—she blew her top, he’d have to get on board with “Team Tessa.” He deserved every rude comment about his genitalia and his big doofy feet she could creatively put together. Until then, Mick just didn’t know what to do with her freakish composure.
“You think you can put a time frame on when exactly I should prepare for your big windup? I’d feel much better if I at least knew it was actually coming,” Mick goaded her through a thin veil of smoke. “This rational, verbally challenged Tessa is like an extra in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
Tessa spread her arms wide, making small black clouds appear from under her armpits. For a second or two, Mick thought she’d come out swinging, guns loaded. Her throat worked, taking in gulps of air, and her mouth opened with a squeak.
However, rather than let fly all those heinous pet names she’d given Mick over the years, she bit the tip of her fingernail. That meant she was trying to keep from crying. Tessa would rather die than cry in front of him.
In what Mick knew was an effort of sheer will, Tessa managed to hold up her finger to indicate he should wait for it.
Mick winced, waiting.
She cleared her throat and smiled up at him. The phony smile she used when she was going to sink his battleship. “After this, I think I should be allowed an unlimited amount of time to build up my rage, Mick. I want to be sure it’s hot and fresh out of the kitchen when I finally let you have it. Until then, I have customers.” She tilted her head in the direction of the ladies who’d entered at the exact moment of his fiery impact.
The three stunned women who’d happened upon Tessa’s antiques store, Auntie Q’s—while on a road trip, if he’d overheard right—stood rooted to the floor, their mouths wide open with surprise on their soot-blackened faces. They’d remained silent until now.
But the pretty brunette with the singed wavy long hair who was dressed like a man in work boots, a red hoodie, and a sweatshirt that read I KNOW VIOLENCE ISN’T THE ANSWER. I GOT IT WRONG ON PURPOSE didn’t stay that way for long.
She slapped the arm of her jacket to put out a lingering flame. When she spoke, she, too, articulated with an eerie calm. “Goddamn it, Wanda. We can’t even go on an all-girls, no-damn-rug-rats flippin’ vacation anymore. Would you just look at this shit?” She swung around, her finger taking an accusatory position when she thrust it under a pretty blonde’s nose. “Marty? I blame you. I don’t know how many times I said I didn’t want to look for shit that has not just a fat-ass price tag but cobwebs, too, in stupid Vermont, while we sat by a roaring fire and drank hot chocolate with those mini-marshmallows I can’t even goddamned eat. We could have been snowboarding by moonlight, but nooo. Instead you have me picking through used crap from the Stone Age in a state that should have been named the Ice Age.”
The blonde shifted positions, taking a defensive stance that made her heeled brown boots with the still-smoking fur rub together. Her hair stood up on end as though she’d stuck her finger in a live socket, and her presumably once-white tie-waist jacket was what some would call well-done.
Yet she lifted her chin defiantly, her blue eyes blazing, the clink of her multiple gold bracelets making a racket as she shook her finger right back at her friend. “They’re antiques, heathen. If you had an ounce of culture in all that pissed off, you’d recognize their beauty.” She followed her statement up with an angry poke to the brunette’s shoulder.
The brunette grabbed her finger and twisted it, snapping her teeth together with a menacing crack. “This is fucking beautiful?” she crowed, stomping on a reprint of a melted Grandma Moses painting with her stained, soot-covered work boot.
In response, a puff of smoldering ashes in orange and blue rose and fell in fluttering flecks of color.
The third woman, chestnut-haired and elegantly dressed in a knit dress and dark shawl, pushed her way between the two women. She reminded Mick of Grace Kelly, her stature long and tall, her carriage willowy and reeking class.
Mick noted that somehow, in all the rubble surrounding her, and even with a burnt patch in her shawl the size of the black hole, this woman managed to look collected. “Ladies!” Then she hacked a cough—because, well, Mick conceded, the smoke had been thick.
She cleared her throat and straightened, cocking her chin upward. “We’re in a public place. Granted, that public place is experiencing some disharmony, but we’re still in public. Behave as such. And excuse me, but OMG, it’s almost like the universe sent us an engraved invitation, girls. Clearly,” she whispered, partially covering her mouth with her gloved hand and leaning into her friends, “I believe, after what we just saw go down, we have a paranormal crisis here.”
Mick wiped his mouth on his forearm to rid himself of the horrible aftertaste lingering on his tongue. It tasted like he’d eaten a fireplace whole. And apparently, he was “in” some kind of crisis. Whether it was whatever she’d labeled it was debatable. “You have a what?”
She dug inside her melted black purse and pulled out a gold business card while giving him a genuine smile. “You, sir, are in paranormal crisis. That’s what we specialize in. We’re sort of paranormal counselors, if you will. And aren’t you a lucky duck that we just happened to be here?”
The brunette snorted, tightening her tattered hoodie around her lean face. “Yeah. Lucky, lucky, lucky. I’m never fucking going on vacation with you two crazies again.”
The elegant woman slipped the twisted remnants of her mangled purse back over her forearm, where it dangled precariously, the balance of it now gone due to its untimely death by blowtorch.
Holding her hand out to Mick, she ignored the brunette completely, tripped on a broken stool, then righted herself. “I’m Wanda Schwartz-Jefferson. This mouthy abomination to your ears is Nina Blackman-Statleon, and this over here is her sparring partner, Marty Flaherty.” She waved a dismissive hand in the direction of the other women like she’d done this introduction a hundred times before.
Mick wiped the soot off his hands onto his jeans before shaking hers. “Mick Malone, and the store’s owner, Tessa Preston.” A black cloud of smoke followed his words, shooting from his mouth without warning. He frowned.
While Tessa shook Wanda’s and her friend’s hands with stiff fingers, Mick held up the card Wanda had given him, and by the glow of the one pile of burning antique armoire still not completely tamped out, read, “OOPS—an Out in the Open Paranormal Support group, serving all your paranormal crisis needs.” “Paranormal crisis?” His eyes shifted to Tessa, wary.
Hers returned a vacant stare in response, and she remained silent. But her puckered goldfish lips began forming. The same lips she’d used when he’d pulled her pigtails as a kid or, later in life, when she’d disapproved of his prom date, Francine Lewbowski.
Nina bumped his arm with her shoulder, making him, at almost six feet six and 234 pounds, jolt forward. “Yeah. You read that right. Now, here’s the short of it, and believe me, it’s gonna be short because I’m sick and fucking tired of repeating the same bullshit over and over. But first, you’re a dude, so do me a solid?”
Mick stared down at her, frowning, still stuck on the words crisis and paranormal. “A solid?”
“Yeah. A solid. Figures someone from the Ice Age—er, I mean, Vermont—wouldn’t know what that is. It’s like a favor. Here’s the favor. Shut the fuck up and don’t whine. Being a dude, you’re supposed to keep all your girly crap on the inside. I like it when you keep it on the inside. In fact, I like it so damn much, it would bring tears to my eyes if I could still cry.”
Mick crossed his finger over his chest, bewildered but still willing to adhere to the man code. “I’m not sure why you anticipate girly crap, but the girly crap stays on the inside. Swear it. But if you don’t mind my asking, why am I hiding my feminine side?”
Because a really small part of him wanted to whine as he surveyed the damage in Tessa’s store. From the blackened curtains now hanging in crispy clumps to the burned-clear-through-to-the-wiring walls, Mick figured whining would be a forgivable act after today’s events. You know, if he were to let his man guard down.
“Oh, you’ll see, Optimus Prime. Jesus, you’re big. Anyway, just remember you swore,” Nina warned with a cluck of her tongue, placing an elbow on what was left of Tessa’s glass checkout counter to lean back, clearly assuming a more comfortable position. “Okay. So here goes the spiel.” She swung her head in Tessa’s direction and wagged her finger. “You might wanna hear this, too.”
“Nina . . .” Wanda let out a warning growl, which struck Mick as odd.
The Nina woman rolled her eyes. “Just shut it, Suzy Sunshine. I’ve been streamlining this stupid speech so we can avoid all the minutia. It’s dragging us down, and to be honest, it’s as old and boring as Marty is. Plus, if you’ll fucking remember, we’re on vacation. So we don’t have the damned pamphlets to give him.” She turned back to Mick. “Anyway, no hand-holding, no bullshit poor babies. He’s a man. For the love of peaches, he’ll take this like one.”
Now, that statement brought cause for concern. He raised his hand. “Being the man here, what exactly am I taking?”
Tessa sucked in her cheeks, using an impatient hand to brush at her soggy hair. Hair he himself had dumped a vase of water on. So he could keep his knight-in-shining-armor status and save the distressed damsel’s hair.
Mick knew what that look meant. Her patience was dwindling. He should know. It did that all the time when he was around. Their love-hate relationship was an enduring one.
He brought out the worst in her, and she brought out the ten-year-old in him. His instinct to protect and look out for her had become fierce since her brother, Noah, his lifelong best friend, had died three years ago—and she didn’t like it. Which was what had led to their screaming match and then to the mess now surrounding them.
Tucking her burned turtleneck around her chin, Tessa spoke with a caution she reserved for difficult customers. “I’m not sure what minutia we’d be avoiding, and rude is the absolute last thing I want to be, but I think you can see from this mess, I have to go look on Craigslist under the heading bulldozer.” She gritted out the last word and finally shot the old glare of death at Mick.
Yep, from the way she was kicking at the slushy pile of blackened receipts she’d thrown the bucket of mop water on, Tessa was preparing for liftoff.
But goddamn it all. He’d lost his focus now. He couldn’t take pleasure in the potential verbal battle with Tessa, deserved or not, if he could only focus on things like the fact that he wasn’t supposed to need “bullshit poor babies,” whatever that was.
Nina squinted at Tessa, giving her an almost thoughtful glance. “Bulldozers. Okay, that’s as good a starting point as any. So why is it you have to rent heavy machinery, lady?”
Tessa blinked for a moment, as though saying out loud what had occurred would sound as ludicrous as it really was. Though, as Mick scanned her face while she mentally formulated her words, he saw the first sparks of anger.
He straightened, his shield of armor at the ready. But scratch that. While Tessa had much more practice being pissed at him, she wasn’t quite ready to throw down. “Because—of—him,” she mumbled in Mick’s direction.
“Bingo, lady,” Nina agreed, slapping the countertop for emphasis. “And what did he do?” she prompted, with what Mick would swear was a whiff of demonic pleasure.
Tessa waffled then, a clear indication that her disbelief had returned full force. She clamped her teeth on her lower lip, her hazel eyes grazing the littered floor. “He . . .”
Marty pinched Nina’s arm with French-manicured nails. Mick knew they were French manicured because Tessa had hers done just like that all the time at Sally’s Salon just down the block. “Nina! Stop taunting the client this instant or I swear, when we get back to the inn, I’m going to make you eat that bottle of sunscreen whole.”
Nina flicked her fingers at a clump of Marty’s burnt hair. “I’m not taunting her, blondie. I’m forcing her to face the reality of what just happened. You know, so we don’t have to do the denial thing until we’re fucking blue in the face?”
Mick’s head shot up. “The client?”
Wanda patted his arm as though she were soothing a child. “You’ll see what she means in a minute. Nina, wrap this up—now, Miss Nurturer.”
Nina flipped Wanda the bird before returning her focus to a wobbly Tessa. “Where were we?”
Tessa tilted her chin upward, smearing more soot over her cheek when she used her forearm to push the burnt strands of hair from her face. “We were playing the blame game. Mick in the antiques store with a blowtorch being the obvious suspect,” she offered in a reference to the game Clue. A game they’d played a lot of as kids at her parents’ cabin.
Nina gave her head a brisk shake and cracked her knuckles. “Right. That’s good. Okay, so what did the bad giant do with the blowtorch?”
Tessa’s lower lip trembled. Obviously, she was battling with more disbelief. However, she caught herself and reared her shoulders back, putting on her tough-guy front. “He . . .” She paused, taking a deep breath that shuddered. “He set my store on fire. Like he was some sort of human Bic.”
Mick winced. Yeah. He had. Strangest thing, too.
“And how did he do that, Tessa Preston?” Nina prompted, and if Mick was hearing her tone right, she did it with devilish glee.
Tessa was back to wavering, her eyes flitting from corner to corner of the store to avoid Nina’s. She frowned, opened her mouth to speak, then snapped it shut again. Evidently she still hadn’t passed disbelief. Instead, she jammed her hands on her hips and picked up the death glare where she’d left off.
Wanda tapped Nina on the shoulder. “I think we’re addressing the wrong person here, Nina. Tessa’s store can be cleaned up. Insurance claims filed, et cetera. She’s but a by-product of this mess and only distantly involved other than the clear fact that she has a relationship with the big guy. The one with the real problem here is Mr. Malone. It would seem that he’s the one most in need of our services.”
Nina gave a sharp nod. “I don’t like it, but you’re right.” She slapped Mick on his bare back, with a whole lot more force than he was comfortable admitting to. She was a girl, for Christ’s sake . . . “So, big guy. How did you set your lady friend’s store on fire?”
Mick shoved his hands in the pockets of his semi-charred jeans. They’d caught fire when he’d . . . well, just when. “Do you really need to hear me say it? Like, out loud?” Because all that “girly crap” he was supposed to keep on the inside just might find itself on the outside.
Marty shot him a sympathetic look and fluffed her crunchy hair. “Unfortunately, you need to hear it more than we do, Mick. Acceptance and all that therapeutic jazz.”
Nina winked an almond-shaped eye. “So, dude. Who set the nice lady’s store on fire?”
He scuffed his feet, feeling like he was in the principal’s office with all these female eyes on him waiting in expectation. And he’d been to the principal’s office more than once in his youth. “I did.” You, you, you, Mick Malone. Yes, you are essentially an arsonist. Wouldn’t that be the shit with the guys at the station? A fireman who’d set his best friend’s sister’s store on fire by . . . Shit. Shit. Shit.
Nina’s smile was pleased. Grimly so. “Riiiight. And how’d you do that, Gigantor?”
Oh. He had an answer for that—or maybe it was more like a question. “I feel like you’re supposed to tell me.”
Nina nudged his foot with hers. “Answer the question so we can get on with this shit already. You know, the acceptance-thing bit.”
He cocked his head to the right, opened his mouth to provide the much-anticipated answer, then closed it again, finding that he, too, couldn’t quite articulate the events of the last ten minutes or so.
Eyes, four pairs to be precise, bored into his. There was even some impatient toe tapping.
Women and their need for unnecessary verbal ownership. “I don’t know exactly how I did it.” And technically, he didn’t. In fact, what he’d done was nuttier than squirrel shit. To define it would mean going one step too far over the line of blithering idiot.
“I’ll tell you how you did it, Mick,” Tessa enunciated each word, her eyes finally beginning to settle into that familiar narrowing. The one that meant his ass chewing was about to begin. “You opened your big mouth again, which is no surprise, and stuck your nose in where it didn’t belong. Again, no surprise—only this time when you flapped your gums with all your lame, overprotective bullshit, it set my entire store on fire. That’s how you did it, Mick.”
Nina and Marty looked at each other, mystification all over their faces—which, if they were who they said they were, didn’t leave Mick with a reassured feeling.
Clearly, something had occurred here. Whether it had paranormal properties and he needed crisis management was yet to be decided, but it would certainly help if the crisis counselors in question didn’t have such a fish-out-of-water look.
Yeah. That would help.
“Hold up, girlie.” Nina eyeballed Tessa like she was on trial for murder. “I came in just as the flames erupted, but the way it looked from where I was standing, those flames came from his hands. He didn’t do this with his fingertips? You know, like shooting fireballs from ’em?”
“Uh, no,” Mick interjected. “That was just my fingertips on fire; I had to put my pants out with something.” He held his hands up for inspection. Though not seriously burned, they were still a little pink.
Tessa let out an exasperated sigh, the rise and fall of her chest making Mick instantly look away. Something he did often in honor of his best friend’s memory. “No! How ridiculous. Who can shoot fireballs from their fingertips? That’s insane.”
Nina twisted her lips in a mocking smile. “I so dig that word. Oh, and I totally dig ludicrous, ridiculous, preposterous, nuts, crazy, and certifiable. Love ’em, like all big hearts and flowers-ish.”
Wanda put her hand over Nina’s mouth in a move so quick it was almost blurry. “Is it any more insane than Mick shooting fire from his mouth, Tessa?” Wanda admonished. “I, unlike our reluctant antiquer Nina, was the first in the door. The walnut jewelry box in the front window caught my eye. Of course, now that lovely piece is just a tragedy, but I saw what happened, and so did you, Mick.” Her voice softened, as did her expression when she let go of the cagey Nina and set her aside as though she were lighter than a feather.
Yeah. Okay. He’d seen it, too. More to the point, he’d felt it erupt from his throat like boiling lava. Why wasn’t that freaking out anyone but him and Tessa? For the first time, his shock was replaced with suspicion for these women who had all the answers. “You have a point.”
“And seeing as the circus isn’t in town, I imagine fire-breathing isn’t what you do for a living, right, Mick?” Wanda asked, her voice soft and cajoling.
His spine went rigid under the women’s scrutiny. “Um, right. Not a fire-breather. I put them out. I don’t start them.”
Wanda nodded, the soft wisps allowed free in her loosely pulled back hair frizzy from the effects of the explosion. “Exactly. So I bet you’re wondering how you did what you did, right?”
Nina scratched her head. “Hang a sec. What did he fucking do, Wanda? I had him pegged as a demon. I was at the ready with Darnell and Casey on the voice-activated-dial gig, but now I don’t know. So if he isn’t a demon, then what the hell is he?” Nina asked.
“A demon?” Tessa croaked weakly, worry now creating lines on her forehead.
Mick’s head began to spin.
Marty tugged on Nina’s long hair, her lips forming a thin line. “Can it, mouth. Didn’t we tell you the best way to keep a client calm is to always appear in control? You know, like you actually know what you’re doing, Elvira?”
Wanda stepped in front of the other two women, blocking them from his sight while her eyes compelled Mick’s to focus on her. “First, before we get into explanations, let me give you our credentials as paranormal crisis counselors.”
“You have a degree in that?”
Wanda popped her lips at him. “Life is our degree, Mr. Malone. Now, we’re going to share something with you that will no doubt leave you in more shock than you’re already in. However, in order to prove we can provide services, it’s a necessity. And as Nina said, I imagine you’ll be able to handle it better being the big hunk of man you are. Women are far more emotional. Not to say that’s a bad thing, but it can hinder the process when you’re handing out tissues and dabbing tear-swollen eyes.”
“The process . . .” he mumbled. Jesus Christ.
“Indeed.” She nodded her affirmation, tugging at her gloves. “The process. I’d tell you to sit, but it seems we’re fresh out of furniture for the moment. So how about you just steady yourself? You’re a rather brawny man. It’s all in the balance and placement of your feet.”
“Maybe Tessa and I should go grab some dinner?” Marty asked, putting a hand on Tessa’s arm, her expression one of visible concern, putting Mick at ease for a moment.
Until he remembered the process.
“Oh, the hell,” Tessa responded. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m pretty tough, and I want to know what happened here, too, and what it has to do with demons. I don’t know what a paranormal crisis is, or what you mean by process, but I’m dying to find out. I have to put something on those insurance claim forms.” She gave Mick a pointed look.
Mick clenched his jaw. “I said I was sorry.”
“Sorry doesn’t bring back my Louis XVI chevet, now, does it?” she scoffed at him, thumping his shoulder with her hand.
“Are you sure, Tessa? What you’ll see can be very disturbing . . .” Wanda warned, shrugging out of her singed shawl. What was so disturbing she had to partially undress for it? Mick wondered.
Tessa nodded her head, her resolve evident to Mick. He knew that look, too. It was the one that said, if you and my brother can plunge into the lake on a swing rope from twenty feet above, I can, too. Except, she’d broken her leg. “I’m sure. I can take whatever this is.”
Nina shot Tessa a skeptical raise of her eyebrow. “That’s what all the girlies say.” Cracking her knuckles, she didn’t wait for Tessa to respond. Instead, she glanced at her two friends. “Let’s get it on.” And then she laughed.
Which left Mick a little uneasy.
Well, a lot uneasy.
Mick reached for the edge of a torched wing back chair, gripping it so he wouldn’t topple over. He was, under normal circumstances, pretty solid. Nina hadn’t nicknamed him Gigantor without reason. But what he’d just seen had left him weak and so close to mewling like a newborn kitten that he had to hang on to something to prevent his knees from buckling.
And the story that went with all that fur and power lifting? It was just this side of unreal. There were teeth accidentally lodged in another person’s flesh, and poodles, and making potties, and dental hygienists, and blood drinking, and life-threatening illnesses, and levitation, and veterinarians who were cougars, and genies, and even an accountant who’d drunk a baby-making formula by accident and turned into a werewolf. All accidental incidences as relayed by Wanda. Wanda the halfsie. Half werewolf, half vampire.
It was a cornucopia of crazy.
Mick pressed the heel of his hand to his eyes and rubbed hard, forcing himself to say something—do something. He pointed at Nina, sucking in a deep breath. “You just . . .”
“Picked up a fucking car.”
“With . . .” he faltered.
“One hand. Yeah. Nifty, right?” She repositioned a passed-out-from-fright Tessa on her shoulder like she was a blanket and not a one-hundred-and-forty-pound woman.
“And you have fa . . .” he grunted.
“Fangs,” Nina provided with a saucy wink, stretching her free arm over her head and rolling her shoulders.
Had he really seen this woman’s teeth jut from her mouth like she was an extra in that movie Twilight? Yes, Mick. Oh, yeah.
“And you! Jesus Christ, you . . .” Mick’s gaze swung to Marty when his words continued to fail him.
“Shifted.” Marty brushed at her boots to remove the stray bits of werewolf hair lingering on the suede, then broke out her compact to check her makeup and gasped at the sight of her burned hair.
“You looked like . . .” No. He couldn’t say it. Would. Not.
“A dog.” Marty let out a small, bored sigh. “I get that a lot.”
Mick shook his head as if the motion would clear the visual that remained in his mind’s eye. He looked to the most reasonable of the bunch. Halfsie Wanda. “What . . . ?”
“Just happened?” Wanda filled in.
“Yes.” It was all he was capable of.
“We proved to you the paranormal exists. I told you our stories and how we ended up like this, and I have to say, this streamlining Nina suggested really is the best way to introduce a client to our world. No fuss, very little muss. So again, I’m a werevamp, Nina’s a full vampire, Marty’s a werewolf, and my absentee sister is a demon. We were all turned by accident—well, of course with the exception of me. That was on purpose and never to be spoken of outside this circle. We’ve dealt with many paranormal incidents since ours, which is why we formed OOPS. So, in closing, you, sir, are as yet unidentified, but definitely paranormal from the looks of this place.”
Nina tugged on a still-unconscious Tessa’s hair with a gentle yank for someone so ready to rumble. “Hey, sissy pants—wake up.”
Well, if nothing else, when Tessa did rejoin them, Mick had bragging rights on the last man standing during a paranormal event. With a roll of his head on his neck, he carefully pieced his words together.
He would take this like a man, and he’d gather the kind of information a man would hunt down and gather. Yes, he would. “So what does this mean for me? I’m not any one of those things you showed me—how does that make me paranormal?”
“You don’t think breathing fucking fire means you’re still human, do you, dude? You. Breathed. Fire. From your piehole, pal. Don’t start with the delusional shit now, okay? I wanna toboggan down that big-ass hill, and if you’re going to do the denial thing, these two saps are gonna wanna hang around and make your boo-boos all better. But me? I’m just not up to it today, buddy. I’m not up to it any day.”
Wanda snapped her fingers in Nina’s face. “Hush.” She turned to Mick and said, “Obviously, this was the first time this has happened to you. So can you tell us what you did just before you blew Tessa’s store to smithereens?”
“I came to the store to check on her like I always do.” He kept his words purposely evasive. Not just because it was none of their business what his reasons were for coming to Tessa’s store, but because he didn’t exactly want to share the childish nature of his arguments with her. The neener, neener quality to them, as dubbed by Tessa, didn’t exactly scream mature.
Wanda flapped one of her gloves at him and then rolled her eyes not just at Mick as one of the fingers of the glove broke free and fell to the soiled floor. “Oh, don’t be cryptic, silly-billy, or I’ll have Nina root around in your mind. You don’t want that, do you? It’s so invasive. Now, just tell us all of it. Even the smallest detail can factor into this mess you’re in.”
His skeptical eyes met Wanda’s. “May I offer a misgiving first?”
“Fucking naturally. Anything to hold this shit up,” Nina moaned. “I thought you were a bigger man than that, Mick. My bad.”
“Shhh, Nina,” Marty chided, giving up on restoring her makeup to shoot Nina a look of disgust. “He has every right to be suspicious, and ask questions. Or do we have to remind you of your turning, whiner?”
That’s right. He had every right to ask questions. This way there’d be no buyer’s remorse if he bought their desire to help him. “How do I know you ladies are on the up-and-up? Doesn’t it seem a little suspicious that you three just happened to show up when this went down?”
“You don’t,” Wanda replied succinctly. “All you have is our word and the fact that we’ve helped several people in predicaments much like yours. Add in what we just showed you, and I’d think you’d at least consider our help. We clearly know a thing or two about the supernatural. So take it or leave it. We can remove ourselves at any time.” She crossed her arms over her chest in a clear go-on-and-see-what-happens-if-we-leave-the-playground-and-take-our-toys-too stance.
The idea of them leaving did nothing to ease Mick’s fears, either. What a double-edged sword they were wielding.
But what choice did he have? They definitely hadn’t been lying about that process thing. He clenched his fists. Fine. “Like I said, I came to check on Tessa. We had an argument . . .” Like one of their biggest ever. Lots of yelling and name-calling. Only this one had had an edge to it he couldn’t put his finger on.
“And what did you argue about?” Marty asked from behind him, poking her head around his back.
He bristled, then forced a calm response. “Why does that matter?”
Nina paced like some caged animal, Tessa still limp over her shoulder. “Dude, cough it up or I’ll beat your ass with your lady friend as my stick, okay? And hurry it up. The night ain’t gettin’ any younger, and I wanna toboggan.”
Mick didn’t doubt Nina’s words. He was used to intimidating people with his size—though typically it wasn’t on purpose—but this slender, easily-riled-to-the-point-of-violence woman gave him pause.
Fine again. Maybe there was something in the details. “I got word from the guys at work that she’s seeing a total jackass. I, being the good best friend I was and continue to be to her dearly departed brother, came over to warn her to watch out. She, being the confrontational, difficult, infuriating woman she is, threw something at me. Much screaming ensued.”
Marty tugged at his shirt. “And then?”
“And then I had a headache—which is par for the course with Tessa. So I asked her for some aspirin. Only she never has the kind in the bottle—she’s all about that hokey, organic crap when an Excedrin Migraine would do just as well.”
Nina nodded her head, her eyes sharp and watchful.
Mick ignored her in favor of finishing his tale “Anyway, Tessa, and not without more yelling about what a pain in the ass I am, sent me to the back to the bathroom, where she said she had some packets of this powdered crap that would fix my fat head right up. I was desperate enough to take whatever she had, because Tessa could give even Mother Teresa a headache, if she were still alive.”
“So you took something,” Marty drawled as though she suddenly understood.
He nodded while trying to stay on track and go over every detail. For his own sake as well as the women’s. “I grabbed the packet, washed it down with some froufrou designer blueberry acai juice she has in the fridge back there. Yeah, it was a little rough going down, and it got a little stuck in my teeth, something I can’t say I remember happening the last time she gave me a powdered aspirin, but I was on a mission. So I come back up front to finish giving her hell. We go another round about the douche bag she’s dating—she makes me even angrier because like I said, I’m just looking out for her. I open my mouth to yell some more, and this”—he spread his hands wide—“is the result. There was projectile fire flying out of my mouth like the kind of vomit ten drunks spew. The entire place went up in flames in seconds, but most of it burned out just as quickly. Then there was screaming and the sprinklers went off, and, well, you three were here. You know the rest.”
“I’d bet Marty’s ovaries whatever he shoved down his gullet was what did it,” Nina guessed.
“What did it look like, Mick? Taste like?” Marty asked, her blue eyes shiny in the mask of black soot covering her cheeks and forehead.
He shrugged his shoulders. “It tasted awful and it looked just like the powdered aspirin she always gives me. But it was a little chunkier this time.”
Tessa’s head popped up suddenly as she hung from Nina’s shoulder, her smooth hair stuck to the side of her mouth. She spat it away and raised those accusatory eyes at him again. “Which packet did you take, Mick?”
Mick took the two short steps toward Nina and looked Tessa in the eye, suspicious. “I took the one you told me to take, Tessa. The one by the fake flowers in the vase in the bathroom.”
She struggled her way out of Nina’s grasp, sliding down the vampire’s body and landing on the floor with soft knees that wobbled.
Wanda came to her rescue, putting a hand at her elbow, but Tessa moved out of her grasp and stuck a finger in Mick’s chest. “That’s not the one I told you to take, you imbecile! I said the one on the stand by the shower! Oh, sweet baby Jesus. That was a client’s! A client who paid me well over ten grand to locate it and have it shipped here from India. It’s some rare spice he’s been looking for for twenty years, Mick! Do you have any idea how long that took me to find?”
Mick planted his hands on his hips, his lips forming a thin line. “Like I was supposed to know that? Why the hell would you leave something so rare like that lying around anyway?”
Tessa’s eyes glittered at him. “Ohhh! I was in a rush, Mick. I had customers in the store when I got back from the post office. If you’d listen to me just once instead of blowing in here like you have some right to tell me who I can and can’t date when I’m thirty-five years old, you would have heard me!”
“Hey!” Nina shouted into the room with a wince. “Both of you—corners, now. Shut the hell up. It hurts my ears when you screech like that.”
“You mean your sensitive vampire ears, Nina?” Tessa challenged, her cheeks puffing outward.
Nina was in front of her in the blink of an eye. The. Blink. Of. An. Eye, he marveled. “Yeah, that’s what I mean, loudmouth. You got the gnads to say otherwise?”
Tessa went a little pale under all the soot, leaning her upper body backward. “Sorry. Tense moment. A lot of money on the line. My apologies.”
Nina gave her a sly smile and jammed her hands in the front pockets of her hoodie. “Okay, so, it doesn’t take Angela Lansbury to figure this out. It had to be whateverthehell you accidentally took, Gigantor.”
Tessa shook her head, her eyes wide once again. “But it was just a spice. How could a spice from India make him breathe fire? I mean, he incinerated my entire store with a spice? That’s crazy.”
“Lady, you don’t know crazy. I bet a day or two ago, you would have called what we showed you tonight crazy. Now? Maybe not so much, huh? So can the talk about the crazy and save your ‘oh-em-gee’ for later when I’m tobogganing by moonlight and you’re all alone freaking out while you replay the horror of Marty’s shift in your mind. Right now, let’s figure this shit out. Something I know Marty and Wanda are gonna make me do whether I like it or not while they swing the BFF bat in my face.”
Wanda’s nod was brisk and no-nonsense. “Nina’s right. We’re here to help however we can. I’ve tweeted some of our sources because, to be quite honest with you, I don’t know of any fire-breathing paranormals. But we’re a tight community and someone’s always willing to lend a hand.” She held up her iPhone to show she was on it.
Mick turned to Wanda, who’d begun scrolling through her messages on her phone. “I appreciate the help, and if you find anything, I’ll give you my cell number or catch up with you at the inn, but for now, it looks like it’s over. There’s nothing to suggest it isn’t. Maybe whatever it was that I took only had temporary side effects.” Yeah, you keep telling yourself that spewing fire is temporary, Mick.
Forgetting his paranormal counselors for the moment, he turned to Tessa and shot her a genuine look of apology. “Okay, yes. I set the store on fire, and I’ll probably end up apologizing for it for the rest of my life. I’ll have the guys at the station come over and help clean up. Promise.”
Tessa made a face at him and scoffed. “And what will you tell your Neanderthal firemen friends, Mick? How are we going to explain this? I can’t believe that no one has shown up already. The glow from that blowout had to be visible from at least a mile away. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing I’m tucked so deep into the village now, huh, Mick? Remember when I opened the shop and all those criminals you were sure were going to rob me blind right here in Valley View, Vermont, population four hundred twenty-five, were just waiting to use their deception on an innocent, unsuspecting woman?”
Yeah, yeah, yeah. He’d worried. But she was young and pretty, and they had a lot of tourists when the foliage changed. City tourists who thought a pretty woman was prey—Tessa, in particular. “Look, we’ll just make something up. We’ll figure it out. I’ll take care of it all. For right now, everything’s calm and my flaming vomit seems to have passed. Oh, and as far as I’m concerned, this is all your fault. Who leaves a packet of”—he swiped his fingers in the air to make quotation marks—“ten grand worth of spices in the bathroom, cupcake?”
“My fault? Mine?” Tessa squawked. “You have some nerve, Mick.” She stopped short in front of him, and the confrontational glow in her eyes was suddenly doused, replaced by concern.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Accidentally Paranormal novels:
“Do yourself a favor and go buy everything that Dakota Cassidy has ever written.”—Fresh Fiction
“If you’re looking for some steamy romance with something that will have you smiling, you have to read [Dakota Cassidy].”—The Best Reviews
“Cassidy’s quirky and offbeat series continues to be outlandish fun laced with a hint of poignancy. There’s never a dull moment with this bunch!”—RT Book Reviews
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This whole series is so much fun - they are a must read for any Dakota Cassidy fan.
Dakota does it again. Anytime I pick up one of her books I know it's going to be snarky and funny, and I'm gonna fall in love with the characters. This book of course didn't disappoint and was a fun read! I must admit I haven't read this entire series, but definitely plan to go back and catch the others. Even if you don't know an entire background of other people in the book it doesn't take away from the main characters. Dragons, laying eggs and breathing fire unexpectedly? what's not to love? arc provided by author for honest review
Such a fun read! Action, heart-tugs, hilarity, and the O.O.P.S. team! Tessa Preston and McAllister Malone have pushed each other's hot buttons since they were little kids. Each hides their attraction for the other behind temper-sparking spats. Lately it's been getting hotter and hotter, until Mick actually sets Tessa's antique shop on fire. With his breath. Must have been that headache powder he took... Suddenly embroiled in a mystery to determine the source of Mick's new fire-breathing abilities, the two find themselves surrounded by some sooty, (and scary!) but experienced guides to the paranormal. As the weirdness ratchets up, Tessa needs Mick more than ever. But Mick's loyalty to his dearly departed best friend, Tessa's brother, could endanger any future they have. His eyes searched each woman’s. “Are you going to tell me that if I look in a mirror, I’ll see wings on my back? Wings?” “Yeah. Just like the kind on those feminine protection commercials, only not,” Nina said on a cackle. Before he had the chance to respond to this next batch of weirdness, Wanda began hopping around from one foot to the other, holding up her iPhone. “I know what you are!” she sang. “You, Mick Malone, are a dragon!” Rawr. In true Accidental Series form, The Accidental Dragon jumps right in, feet first. The reader, in tandem with the main characters, learns the situation is...GASP!... paranormal... with well-crafted, and humorous observations. Piecing together the "How?" part of the mystery, soon leads to the question of "Who?", and from there, the stakes and the drama build exponentially with a smooth arc. Information is carried in on the back draft of the peripheral characters - some new, some old favorites, and some that are mysteries until the very end. Tessa and Mick are so stubborn that if it weren't for the sudden fantastic situation they were in they'd never have gotten anywhere. They're the kind of people that will think themselves out of a feeling or situation. Mick lashes out to cover his feelings for Tessa, constantly getting her goat. His over-protective smothering would be enough to make any independent woman lose her temper. Tessa fights just as hard as he does. But, in her most vulnerable moments with Mick, it's clear Tessa's feelings for Mick have helped her get through some of the darkest moments of her life. Their relationship isn't at all sibling rivalry, it feels like a desperate lose/lose battle that will just wear them to shreds if nothing ever changes. Enter the O.O.P.S. team. Cassidy's got a great ability of using her peripheral characters to advantage. Even ones that have died. The struggle with the memory of Tessa's brother doesn't seem any less important than fear of the big bad paranormal meanie that seems to have it out for Tessa and Mick. All the O.O.P.S. favorites are here. They seem to be a bit more present than in a few of the other books. It didn't seem as though Tessa and Mick got a lot of time alone. The book is liberally coated in laugh out loud humor. You'll never hear certain music the same way again. Ever. I promise. Nina's smart-mouth is on fire, as usual, and Mick's mental musings are quite funny. All of this, and yet two little words..."Where's Carl?" had me laughing the hardest. With her signature style, Cassidy pulls together humor, danger, heart-tugging moments, and a twisty, full-circle everything-explained plot line with her usual flair and panache. After reading the entire series, The Accidental Dragon felt like coming home. There was enough familiarity to feel comforted, and so much original fun that I now have some new favorite characters to hopefully see in future works.
This was a very good story also. Trying to figure out the dragon story but Dakota Cassidy did it again. I'm loving all the crazy,loving characters so I'm going back and buying them from the beginning. Enjoy.
Wonderful story well written .
The girls (and guys are back)!! The big disfunctional family to the rescue.
Tessa and Mick are into their usual bickering when Mick accidentally sets fire to Tessa's antique store. Coincidentally, OOPS operatves Marty, Wanda and Nina were shopping there. They offer to help do damage control and help the new dragons accept new characteristics. Past demons, zombie, vampires, and other paranormals are summoned to battle Hell. Mayhem ensues. Dakota Cassidy writes downright funny dialogue and Nina often delivers it! Another hit in this series!
Another fun book from the fantastic Dakota Cassidy. This silly romp takes us to small town Vermont where the girls from OOPS (Marty< Wanda & Nina) are on vacation with no babies and no men folk. They come upon an antique store that goes up in flames as the owner and a hot fireman argue. They have to figure out why and what is happening to the two. Then they have to help them adapt to the changes and if it takes going to Hell to keep them safe so be it. This book can be read standalone but I promise you will enjoy it so much more if you have read the previous books.
Loved it! Dakota Cassidy did a great job with this book and this series! I loved Mick and Tessa's story. I loved how each new book has the same characters from previous books plus a few new ones. The book was funny as they all are and you can't help but turn the page to see what trouble they all find themselves in. Great read! Highly recommend.
Adding to the amazing paranormal family and with just the right amount of fire. I love this series.
Can't wait til the next book.