Chapter One Carissa made her way up the secluded path, far from the sounds of the pack howling and partying near the lake. The full moon hung in the sky, a huge silver orb, calling to her, pulling at her skin, her muscles, her tendons. Tension reverberated down her spine as sparks of energy burst over her warmed flesh. In a dense copse of trees, she dropped her duffel bag and began to shed her clothes, folding them and placing them in her bag. Then she waited. Wild laughter and howls drifted toward her. A quick sniff of the air told her that no one had followed her. She’d managed to avoid attention by slipping in once it was full dark and taking a wide path around the packs that had gathered by Shadow Cove Lake for the monthly shifting.She had no desire to encounter any of her kind tonight. Pain picked its way down her arms and legs as the hair on the back of her neck stood up. Her wolf paced, growled, whined, and pawed at the barrier that kept it locked deep within her. The musk of animals swirled around her as she allowed the pain to penetrate deep into her soul. The wolf was coming out.It began with a prickling in her ears. Her almond eyes changed shape, becoming rounder; her nose flattened and shrunk; her lips thinned as her muscles began to stretch and thicken. Her arms and legs contracted as her breasts blended into her torso. The pain increased as she gritted her newly sharp teeth and tried to ignore the blood that filtered through her saliva. An unwanted whimper escaped her lips. She felt a pang of loneliness hit her square in the chest. She was open, vulnerable, and utterly alone.Fully shifted, she darted her head this way and that, taking in the musk of night animals and the sweet call of the moon luring her into the forest. Her body was lower to the ground now, heavier, and yet sleeker. Even in wolf form, she felt the need to avoid her kind, especially the unmated males. Her human mind receded deeper into herself as her wolf senses came fully alive. Pain continued to burst and ping throughout her body. She ignored it. She just wanted to get this night over and done with. Neither Carissa nor her wolf wanted to be out here too long. Nervous energy filled her as she continued to prowl around, chasing birds and animals that had come out to hunt.Bear musk drifted past her and she reared. Fear flooded her senses, making her wolf whine and rush around with no direct path in mind. After a few frenzied minutes, she found herself back at her duffel bag. Neither the human nor the animal wanted to continue on deeper into the woods. It wasn’t the bears or the other wolves that had her spooked; it was something else. She was haunted by a powerful and unfamiliar mix of emotions. She felt a great need to put a barrier between herself and others, a need for protection. She wanted to be left alone—and yet, at the same time, more than anything else, she wanted a mate.She closed her eyes and soothed the wolf with assurances that one day they’d be able to do what they both wanted: run free and not have to worry about the packs and the desire for a mate. Bright blue eyes burned in her mind for a moment, and then faded. Pain washed around her body in waves. The shift receded as she returned to human form, weak, gangly, and vulnerable. Everything around her seemed like a threat, ready to dart out and harm her. Her stomach grumbled, in need of sustenance. She hadn’t brought food for her shift and her wolf hadn’t fed.Dressing quickly, she grabbed her things and rushed to her car. The back of her neck prickled as if eyes were on her, following her every move. She knew that she’d get a talking to from her mom for not showing up at the party at the lake. With a sigh, Carissa pulled into a twenty-four hour McDonalds and placed an order.She knew her mother would never leave her alone until she had found a mate. But she was always trying to shove Carissa in directions she didn’t want to go. Was it too much to ask to be allowed to choose and not have one forced on her by her mother? That question triggered another more pressing one: would she ever be comfortable shifting into her wolf form without feeling so self-conscious? Her mom would call it frigidity, even though it had nothing to do with sex.Carissa sighed and drove home, weary and frustrated.* * *Heated skin slid against Brent’s side, a soft groan and the whispering of the moving sheets dragging him out of dreamland. He opened his eyes and turned to look at the blonde who lay next to him. All he could do was stare as he tried to figure out who she was. Last night was a hazy memory. A moan and another shift of the sheets caught his attention. He sat up and looked over at his friend, Fletcher, still asleep on the other side of the woman. The faint scent of sex drifted on the air—sweat, some sort of floral perfume, and musk.He forced his mind to work, gazing at the overly tanned skin of the blonde. Her messy golden hair formed a nest on the pillow next to him. Her name was Ashley, a tourist from Chicago. Boredom, several shots of tequila, a lot of flirting, and a desire not to spend the night alone had led him and Fletcher to take her home with them.An emptiness hung in Brent’s chest. There hadn’t been much to it, the quick slap of skin on skin without much foreplay. Fletch had taken her ass while he took her pussy. He’d come—they all had—but it had been a disappointment, just another out-of-towner wanting to live on the edge by having sex with a couple of paranormals. It was the same thing every tourist seemed to want. They flocked to Shadow Bay to view paras in their natural habitat, maybe have an exotic fuck or two, and then return to their usual lives.Normally he enjoyed sharing an enthusiastic tourist with his friends. He’d always been ready to go and up for anything. But this time, he felt disgusted by it all. Brent wasn’t sure what was missing. He looked over at the woman. The longer he stared, the more it felt like a thousand ants were skittering over his skin. Energy jittered along his muscles and his dragon began to roar. He threw back the covers, slid out of bed, and padded out onto the back deck.An early morning swim was just what he needed to wake up and get his head cleared. The morning breeze carried a gentle nip of heat along with the scent of chlorine, a hint of alcohol, charcoal, and wood. Music drifted through the early morning quiet, the remains of the party that had been raging when he and Fletch had arrived home. They had been a lot more action earlier: firecrackers, mini-bonfires everywhere, braziers with blazes, dancing in the streets, alcohol flowing freely, and a general Mardi Gras atmosphere. There had been parties everywhere, confetti littering the town and police monitoring the action to make sure things didn’t get out of control.He felt the dragon stir, slick scales smooth against his flesh. A cool touch of liquid strength flooded his limbs, making the world around him feel more solid. His senses opened up wide. He could smell rain in the distance. A hint of electricity danced in the atmosphere with each pull of breath. Brent felt goose bumps rise on his skin. The morning now felt cold, as the dragon amplified his senses. He also felt its skittishness and shyness. If he didn’t keep careful control over his emotions, he’d go back into his room, kick Fletch and Ashley out, and hide in there until everyone was gone. Despite the parties going on all around town, he felt suddenly very lonely.Brent looked down at the pool’s crystal-clear blue water. It looked like an oasis. Stretching his arms over his head, he heard the pop and crack of vertebrae as his muscles lengthened. He pulled his shirt over his head, then shoved his pants down and stepped out of them. Despite the constant complaints of Tor and Fletch about his chosen swimming attire, he didn’t feel right wearing trunks or a Speedo. Feeling the silken glide of the liquid against his skin sent a thrill through him. Besides, it allowed his dragon to get closer to its natural element. Who was he to deny his inner beast that pleasure?With a grin, he dove into the ice-cold water and felt the pleasant shock reverberate through his body. After a length underneath, his lungs began to burn from a need for oxygen. He swam up to the surface, taking in a lungful of sweet air. The dragon exhaled a cold breath, chilling his body further as the beast settled into its element.The sun wasn’t high in the sky yet and there was no movement on the streets. The tourists had been living it up ever since they had arrived. Brent couldn’t keep up with all the events that were planned around town, and he didn’t even want to. There were beautiful women everywhere he looked, as if it were ladies night all the time. It was enough to put a smile on the lips of any man. But it just made Brent feel tired.Now that he had adjusted to the water temperature, heat surged through Brent’s body, and he felt the dragon pushing him to shift. He dove under the surface again, as gills split along his neck in searing stripes of pain. Webs glued his fingers and toes together by thin membranes. He opened his eyes and took in the dark blue tiles and the bright white flooring of the pool. Oxygen flooded his lungs. He breathed in the chilly water and blew out bubbles. Flipping onto his back he gazed up at the shifting surface of the water. Beyond, the world moved in and out of focus. He saw a flock of birds fly overhead and the plants waving to and fro around the pool. Sounds were dampened under the water. It was peaceful.He tried to let go of the tension and the stress that had been filling him lately, but it seemed that his dragon had something on its mind.“When will we find our mate?” The dragon’s question surprised him. It whispered through his mind like scales brushing against the inside of his skull. He hadn’t even realized that his dragon had been looking for a mate.“Are you looking for someone for now or forever?” he asked. The answer was important. He had to be sure this was what the dragon really wanted.“Not temporary,” it whispered. “Always.”Brent felt relief sweep through him. So that was it! But the relief was quickly followed by worry. They were still young in human years, not even twenty-five yet. He had a job, but he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to continue working at the Dragon’s Lair. His future seemed up in the air.He tried to push away these thoughts and focus on what the dragon wanted: a mate. He thought of Tor and Louisa. Once they’d been mated at New Year, they had seemed to exist in their own little world, so cozy and close. Tor stayed over at her place practically every night unless she needed some alone time. A pang of envy burst in Brent’s stomach.The more he thought about the idea of a mate, the more it appealed to him. Part of him wanted someone for himself. He wouldn’t be opposed to sharing with his friends from time-to-time, but when all was said and done, she would be all his. But another part of him was scared. What if there wasn’t anyone for them? What if she wasn’t out there? What would he do then? How would his dragon react to that? It had happened before—dragons searching the world over and not finding anyone. It was a sad and pitiful existence. Some thought it was punishment for past deeds, but Brent didn’t like to think that. Not even the coldest bastard deserved to be alone. Brent suddenly yearned to experience that first blush of love and contentment, to feel what it would be like to love and have that love returned.“When?” The dragon pressed.“I don’t know,” he told it. How should he go about finding her? A dragon matchmaker? A witch? Or should he rely on pure luck and fate?“She’s here, in town,” the dragon pressed. “I can feel her.”Brent almost changed back to his human form from shock. He hadn’t felt anything unusual, but then again his senses had been bombarded by so many things as of late. The fact that the dragon had been keeping this from him sent a wave of scalding heat through his body. The dragon had watched him fumble through one encounter after another, each less satisfying than the last. Why hadn’t it just told him it wanted a mate? “What do you mean?”The dragon hissed out a cool stream of mist, interrupting his thoughts and pulling his focus back to the beast. “You must clear your senses. Use mine.”Brent didn’t know how to open himself up to the dragon without undergoing a full shift. He felt his frustration mounting. The ability to share senses was supposed to be fluid and effortless, and yet it seemed to be all or nothing with his dragon.“Stop. Let it go and relax. Think about our mate,” the dragon urged.“Easy for you to say,” Brent muttered. How was he supposed to do that if he didn’t know anything about his mate?He floated up to the surface and closed his eyes, letting the gentle lapping of the water center him. His limbs went limp and he sank down again, letting the soothing waters envelop him. Brent tried to picture his ideal woman, or at least an outline of her. A woman with curves, and a healthy appetite. A woman who was intelligent, strong, capable, independent, and full of respect for herself. Just thinking on those qualities made Brent’s heart ache. His frustration with his life grew as he thought of all that he yearned for. He missed having someone to spend time with, to cuddle with. He missed the basic human contact and comfort that he could find in a relationship. He wanted to be able to wake up with someone, make them breakfast, go out on dates, and spend the evenings talking about their days.“Yes,” the dragon hissed. “Think on that.”Brent’s body became buoyant, and once again he floated with ease.Now he tells me, Brent thought. In his mind’s eye he could see the faint hint of clear, chocolate-brown skin, and light brown eyes. A cool breeze drifted over him, raising goose bumps. He inhaled deeply. The scent of the forest wafted past his nose. They were nowhere near the woods. With another pull of air, he got the scent of a million different perfumes, some herbal, some floral, and some spicy. Heat churned in his gut as his balls hardened. Arousal traced a fiery path along his spine. Shock reverberated through his system at the sudden onslaught of pure, unadulterated need. It had been a long time since he’d had a taste of real, honest-to-gods desire, and he didn’t even know who it was that his body wanted.He tried to sense something of her personality beyond her multitude of scents. The imaginary woman imbued him with warmth and comfort, a coziness with the spice of sexual excitement that only increased his need for her. He felt his cock thicken, filling with blood as his body temperature spiked. Brent tried to push past the feeling and concentrate on locating the woman. It was one thing for the sexual chemistry to be there, but to be able to stay with someone, he would need to forge a real connection to her. With a mental shove, he tried to open himself up to her more, get more of a feel for who she was.He hit a wall, hard, and bounced back. All sense of her vanished and the outline of her image wavered, then disappeared. He pushed again, trying to seek out that thread that connected them. He gritted his teeth as he tried to force himself past the wall. Brent pictured his energy like a large wave of water as it crashed against the solidity of her barriers again and again. He tried to reform the water’s shape to something sharper, like a sword or icicle, but again he was blocked.Confusion turned to anger and determination. I’m going to get to you, he thought. You will be mine.He tried to break through again and again, but his energy depleted with each effort, until he felt weak and lightheaded. Being in the pool suddenly didn’t seem like such a good idea.He turned onto his side and did a few laps before he climbed out. Gooseflesh rose on his naked skin in the coolness of the morning. His gills sealed shut and the webs disappeared from his fingers and toes. Any thoughts of his mate were pushed away and the concerns of the day filled his mind. He had a list of things to do before his shift started and he wanted to get them done so he could focus on his job. Once all that was done and he was alone, he could try to find her again.He stretched the muscles he’d worked out, and then headed toward the house. Giggles floated over to him from an open window across the backyard. He glanced up and gave a wave to the neighbor gazing at him, with lust in her sapphire eyes. Brent blew her a kiss before striding into the house stark naked, with the gentle touch of the air sending tingles across his skin. He could feel a new strength filling him. His stomach rumbled with need. With a grin, he shut the doors behind him.“Oh for Pete’s sake, put some clothes on,” Tor growled. He stood at the kitchen counter, mixing something in a large bowl.“Good morning to you too. I don’t like to swim in trunks. It deprives my cock and balls of freedom. You know that.” Brent grinned and snatched an apple from a plate on the dining table. “Is Fletch up yet?”Tor nodded. “Yeah. The girl that you guys brought home left a few minutes ago. How was it last night? You okay? You don’t look like you had a good night.”Brent stopped and stared. Was he that easy to read? He shook his head. “Do you ever…” He stopped, licked his lips, and started again. “I mean, did you ever feel like you’d never find Louisa? That everything you were doing was just routine?”Heat flared on his face and through his chest. His ears tingled and heated in embarrassment as he waited for the answer. The seconds ticked by, the silence stretching out until it became unbearable. Unable to take it anymore he shook his head and headed toward the stairs. “Sorry, never mind. You don’t need to answer that.”Tor held up his hand. “No, I do. That’s exactly how I felt before I found Louisa. Nothing was good enough, no sexual encounter satisfying enough. I was just left feeling empty and made of ice.” He paused. “Hey, Brent. I think you’re going into your mating time early.”Brent slowly turned around and stared. Finally, there was an explanation for what he was going through. “Yeah, that’s exactly it.”Tor came around the island and gave Brent’s shoulder a squeeze before turning it into a noogie. “Aw, our wittle Brent,” he teased. “Brent is growing up, wanting a mate. Don’t worry, you’ll find her.” He flashed a grin. “You’ll just have to use your hand until then.”Brent jerked away and smoothed back his hair. “Watch it. And yeah, I will find her.”Fletch stumbled into the room, scratching his chest, with only his boxers and one sock on. His red hair stood on end. He gave a large yawn and smacked his lips. “What’s for breakfast? I’m starving.”Brent looked at Tor and laughed. “And here I thought I had a bottomless pit for a stomach. I’ll go shower. You want to give his sleepiness his breakfast? I’m sure he’ll give you all the juicy details of last night.”Brent rushed up to his bedroom, stripped the bed, and stuffed the sheets into his hamper, which was already overflowing. He made a mental note to do his laundry sometime today, as long as Fletch or Tor didn’t hog the machine first.Once he was clean and dried off, he got dressed and groaned when he felt the hole in the sole of his sneakers. He would have to get a new pair. “Hey Fletch!” he shouted. “We have to go shoe shopping!”Brent’s stomach grumbled for more food. He headed down to the kitchen and hoped Fletch and Tor hadn’t eaten everything. Today was really looking up. He knew what was wrong with him and now he just had to put together a plan. She would be his—whoever she was—no ifs, ands or buts. After all, a water dragon on the path to his mate is unstoppable. Water is the most powerful element. Everyone knew that.