Smoke curled from the dragon’s shimmering, red-scaled snout.
Teddy blinked in surprise. Trailing behind her significant other, and the lodge manager he’d just hired, she stopped and studied the exquisite piece of ceramic art. Pottery did not smoke.
This piece did. A lovely red plume curled upward as the men stood beside it, talking.
With dread, she glanced around the gallery of valuable art the town would soon be auctioning off. Yes, Hillvale artwork leaned toward the weird. No, none of the other pieces appeared to be smoking.
Steadying herself, she waited for the two-foot-long creature to breathe fire. Her life was such lately that she was inclined to be very open-minded about fire-breathing ceramic dragons.
Emerald wings glazed in crystal paint shimmered in the dim light—the same crystal paint they now knew had untapped paranormal potential. Correction, the paranormally-gifted Lucent Ladies—Lucys—knew about the crystals. The mundane Nulls, like the two men in front of her, weren’t exactly believers.
“I understand your concerns,” the new lodge manager said, probably for the fiftieth time that morning. “I’ll have to review your staffing. That’s the best place to cut costs, especially going into the winter months.”
The colorfully feathered wyvern snorted another red plume—in response?
“Bullshit,” Teddy muttered, watching the dragon in fascination.
It breathed a lovely purple plume.
Kurt, her suavely handsome, horribly overworked partner turned and arched a sexy eyebrow at her. Normally, he could turn her to a puddle of goo with that look, but she was irritated by the pompous jackass he’d hired, and she’d rather be figuring out how crystals worked than listen to this self-serving blather.
“Cutting staff means we’ll have even fewer people to eat at Dinah’s and shop at Pasquale’s,” she said, just to see if Kurt cared what she thought. “If we lose the café and the grocery store, there will be even less reason for tourists to rent cabins. Cutting employees is always the start of a downward spiral.”
The dragon purred purple again.
“Ah, you’re an economics major, Miss Baker?” The slightly balding manager regarded her with bland disinterest. He’d been introduced as Frederick Roper, a former executive for a large hotel chain, looking for a less stressful position after a mild scare with a heart attack. He was only in his thirties but middle-aged spread had started early.
Neither man apparently noticed the smoking dragon, so it was crystal magic that they couldn’t see.
Teddy didn’t despise Roper for his looks. She despised him for condescending questions like that one. “I have a degree in business and a rather large operation of my own, Mr. Roper, but I speak from personal experience and common sense.”
Now that her sister’s ex was behind bars, Teddy didn’t mind that people knew she was Theodosia Devine Designs. Her high-end jewelry sold in fine department and jewelry stores throughout the west. But these days, she preferred her low-key shop in Hillvale, where she could study the power of the crystals she included in her designs.
“Mr. Roper knows the hotel business,” Kurt said, not exactly denying her opinion but skirting around it. Kurt had been forced to learn tactful at an early age.
The dragon billowed a smaller purple plume. Did the amount of smoke signify anything?
In the interest of scientific research, Teddy egged on the argument. “But Mr. Roper does not know Hillvale’s economy. I was pointing out that Redwood Resort has an intricate relationship with the town. In a small community, laying off employees has deep repercussions.”
The dragon huffed purple agreement.
“If the local community cannot support them, employees can find work in a larger economy,” Roper said stiffly, apparently not appreciating argument.
That was wrong on soooo many levels. . .
The dragon agreed. Angry red billowed upward.
Red for incorrect, purple for right? Quantity for amount of right or wrongness?
How in hell would a ceramic dragon know?
The dragon’s wide mouth gaped in a rakish smile, revealing a crimson tongue—but fortunately, no fire.
“I appreciate you showing Roper the art galleries so he knows what we’re trying to do,” Kurt said, hunting for the proper phrases. He wasn’t good at words or relationships and didn’t want to discourage Teddy’s eagerness to help. But he couldn’t have her running his business as well as her own.
He’d left Roper with the lodge’s head housekeeper and security manager while he returned to town to have lunch with the woman he loved in so many ways that it almost hurt. But he’d been alone for so long, he was sometimes too brittle to be flexible.
“He’s a pompous ass,” Teddy replied, studying a book on crystals, one of many she’d accumulated these past weeks.
They’d taken carry-out home from the café so they could have a few minutes together in the middle of their busy days. Kurt worried that the book meant she was getting bored, but her comment about the man he hoped would save his life came first.
“He’s the only person I interviewed who isn’t fazed by my mother’s temper. He’s dealt with her type, and I have hopes he won’t quit in the first month. We’re lucky to find someone of his caliber willing to step down to our level.”
She left the book open but met his gaze squarely. “The lodge is not a step down,” she said loyally. “I know California has tons of resorts, but your family’s has a solid reputation, and if he tells you otherwise, boot him. I understand that you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. But Roper is still a pompous ass, and he won’t be good for Hillvale. I suppose he won’t last long either, so he might make a temporary solution. Just keep looking for someone better.”
She was on his side. The tight knot in Kurt’s middle loosened. He reached across the table to take her hand. “Thank you. I spend too much of my day arguing and need your support, even if it’s only half-hearted.”
She returned his grin. “Sorry, I know what you’re fighting. Even the dragon approves of you, if not Roper. I think I’ve discovered another use for my gift for crystals.”
He lifted a questioning eyebrow at the page she’d left open on aquamarines—the honesty stones that had caused him to end a former relationship.
Her smile widened. “I love when you crook your eyebrow like that. It gives me warm fuzzy feelings—but I don’t think we have time to act on them.”
“I’ll do it again tonight,” he promised. This auburn-haired package of dynamite who had miraculously agreed to share his bed raised more than warm and fuzzy feelings. “But what did you mean about the dragon? I noticed you staring at it. Aaron claims it’s worth a fortune.”
“In more ways than he realizes, I suspect. He’s a dealer in antiques, a crass counter of cash. He hasn’t noticed that the dragon is a priceless artifact which apparently detects. . . I’m not sure yet. I need to study more.” She regarded him a little warily. “I don’t want you to laugh. I may have had hallucinatory mushrooms for breakfast, but I saw the dragon smoke.”
“Someone dropped a cigarette inside?” he suggested.
“Not smelly smoke, colorful. Purple when I spoke, red when Roper did. It doesn’t signify anything,” she hastily admitted. “It could just mean that’s how my brain reacts to Roper. I don’t like him, and I don’t think the dragon does either. It’s glazed with crystal, and I’m suspecting the crystal might be aquamarine or celestite. I’ll have to ask our resident mineralogist.”
Grimacing, Kurt rubbed the back of his neck. “I know studying crystals is important to you, so I’ll accept that you see what I don’t. But I can’t hire or fire people based on dragon smoke. I need to get the day-to-day management off my back so I can devote more time to developing the restaurant and drawing up those museum plans.”
What he really wanted to do was put his architectural skills to use building houses, but the family wealth had been eroding for years. He had no assets left to mortgage and no reputation to rely on.
Teddy appeared to accept that assessment because she leaned forward eagerly. “What does Dinah think about cooking for a fancy restaurant instead of a diner?”
The diminutive owner of the café had only reluctantly agreed to Kurt’s expansion plans. “Dinah has issues,” he admitted.
“She lacks confidence,” Teddy corrected. “Imagine growing up black and transgender in a time when differencewas unacceptable. She’s been hiding for so long, that she’s forgotten what it’s like to be anyone else but a pancake flipper. I know she’ll be fabulous once she’s comfortable.”
“I hope so. I can’t afford to hire another cook. If we can swing a loan from the San Francisco banks, I can hire more help. Mother is scraping together another of her power dinners in hopes we can find new investment for the resort.”
Teddy grimaced. “More help is good. Power dinners. . . not so much.”
He wasn’t about to argue that. “Necessary,” was his only reply.
Finishing off the delicious crab salad Dinah had prepared for them, Kurt scraped back his chair. “I have to get back to the lodge, see if Roper has more questions. Will you check with Bill to see when they expect to have the balcony installation complete at your shop?”
Teddy rose when he did, stepping into his arms and hugging him as if she knew instinctively that he was tensing up already. Kurt held her close, offering up a prayer of gratitude for Whoever sent this understanding woman his way. “I love you,” he murmured into her thick curls. “I’m not sure I would have lasted another day up here if you hadn’t come along.”
She laughed. “You may regret that someday and hate me for keeping you here.”
A cold chill gripped Kurt’s heart. She had no idea how close she was to right about the regret part. “I’ll never hate you,” he promised.
He couldn’t promise that he wouldn’t regret staying, however.