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The Manning Dragons Book 3


Kathi S. Barton

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

World Castle Publishing, LLC

Pensacola, Florida

Copyright © Kathi S. Barton 2018

Smashwords Edition

Paperback ISBN: 9781629899213

eBook ISBN: 9781629899220

First Edition World Castle Publishing, LLC, April 16, 2018

Smashwords Licensing Notes

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews.

Cover: Karen Fuller

Editor: Maxine Bringenberg

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

About the Author

Chapter 1

Lincoln looked at the bins being filled with food and the ice going into the meat display. It was finally here. The grand opening of the Greenhouse and Market Place, or GhMP for short. He loved it.

“Hey, Lincoln? You have a minute?” He said that he did for him. Ben was a good kid and had been there from the first. “Sure, you do. I think you’ve found out I’m the biggest pain in the ass here. But there are some veggies I wanted to ask you about. You said this stuff was from the warehouse? Well, I think they sent us the wrong stuff.”

Looking it over, he wondered why he thought that until he saw the invoice on the top. This was for a store in Birmingham. Pulling out his cell phone, he called his buddy, Alex, to ask him about it. Alex Porter shipped fruits and vegetables all over the state of Ohio, and sometimes to others. And he was going to sell off his extra, sometimes damaged, things here in the marketplace. When the phone was answered, he asked to speak to Alex. When he came on the line, he explained what was going on.

“It’s yours. The people declined their order for yesterday, and if you can take it off my hands, I’ll give you half. There’s an invoice that should be with it.” He told Alex that there was. “Good. She’s going to get charged for the entire invoice, so you can get what you can out of it. Her contract said that she got one chance at this and that’s all. I don’t want to have ripe fruits in my warehouse all week that’ll be rotten before the end of today. I don’t work that way. If you can sell it, I won’t have wasted my money on bringing it back to the warehouse.”

“I wouldn’t even know how to price this, Alex. I know very little about fruit. And you know me, I don’t bother with the stuff unless it’s under threat of death. And don’t get me started on vegetables.”

Alex asked if Ben was there. Handing him the phone so they could work this out, he walked down the rest of the causeway to make sure all the booths were filled.

Lincoln could have occupied them several times over if need be. There was a waiting list about a mile long with names and products. When he saw his buddy from up north, the two of them embraced.

“I’m nervous.” Peter told him he’d be too if this was his first day. “We went for a Monday morning on purpose. Sort of a soft opening. That way we can work out the kinks before the.... What are you laughing about?”

“Your soft opening is for shit, you know that, don’t you?” He said that they weren’t expecting a huge crowd. “Linc, when I drove up here, I had to wait in line twenty minutes to get into the parking lot. And that’s not counting the line out front, just waiting for the doors to open. You’re going to have a very busy soft opening.”

“There’s a lot of people?” He asked if he’d gotten banks for people in the event they needed cash. “Yes, just as you told— There really are that many here? We didn’t even advertise so it would be a slow day. Which it won’t be, will it? How many are out there, you think?”

“I’d say a few thousand.” Lincoln nearly fell over. And might have but for Peter grabbing him. “Just stay focused and you’ll be fine. Go tell your people to gear up, they’re coming to see them in about four minutes.”

Lincoln sprinted down the lines, and into the building, to tell them. Word had traveled fast. By the time he got to the last line of the six rows of vendors, they were already putting out more of their product. He was glad now that someone had suggested he call in some off-duty cops to help with the crowd. And banks for extra cash just in case. He’d have to tell Peter thanks.

“Have you seen the crowd out there?” He told Cooper not now. “I know, but you said that this was going to be a trial run, not all of the state—”

“Cooper, I don’t think you’re helping.” Lincoln felt green when Carson asked if he needed anything. Then the sting to his cheek made him rub it while looking at her. “You’re just lucky I hit you and not Winnie. Now, what do you need us to do? We’re here for you.”

“Take a row and see if they need anything after the first half hour. I have extra cash should they need it. I’ll give you one to sell to each vendor. There is a thousand in each, all ones and fives.” Cooper took his bag and the apron that said Marketplace on it.

By the time the gates were opened, the rest of his family had shown up. He gave them each an apron and a bag of cash. Before nine-thirty, half an hour after the gates opened, he was making another run to the bank. Thank goodness it was a weekday.

After about eleven, things started to slow down. Everyone he talked to while helping with the overload of customers was happy. Some said that they were never leaving. He was glad for that. And that he had taken the time to listen to everyone’s advice. It would have been a disaster if he hadn’t.

He’d been about to take out an ad in the local paper. Lincoln wanted things to go well for the vendors. But he’d been told if they were overwhelmed the first day, they might not come back. Most had never done anything like this before.

At noon, they got another wave of people. Businesswomen and men coming to check them out and grab some lunch. A lot of the restaurants were busy, and were also selling quite a few drinks. If this was what he could expect in May, he wondered what it could be like when the weather was hot. He’d cross that bridge when he came to it.

Ben joined him. “What do you want me to do?” He asked if he had a replacement at the fruit stand. “Nah, it’s all gone. We even sold the boxes, believe it or not.”

“What do you mean, it’s all gone? There was a truckload, and I do mean that literally, of things there. Did you sell that too?”

“Yeah, your nephews came to help, Simon the most. We bagged and unloaded while the little one, John, pitched for me. You know, five oranges for five bucks kinda thing. You have yourself a nice barker there if you need him.” He didn’t think the kid would lie to him, but he went to check, just to assure himself. “I called Peter, and he said congrats. Also, that now he’ll know to double up this weekend. And he made a hefty profit too. He’s thrilled.”

“Are you coming back?” He asked if Simon and John were going to help. “I can ask their parents, but I think they’re here already. How long did they work? I’ll need to make sure they’re paid.”

“Peter said he’d take care of them. I turned their hours in with mine. I was told to do it that way, Mr. Manning.” He wasn’t sure that he was going to agree to that but said nothing to the young man. “Also, Mr. Pack, the meat guy, fed us with his employees. Said he was having such a great day that he didn’t mind whatsoever.”

Lincoln went to find Cooper and Carson to tell them the kids had done a good job. They were at the meat counter themselves, and Mr. Pack was telling him what a great day he’d had. He wanted to know if there was going to be a permanent place for him. Lincoln told him that all the inside vendors were welcome to sign a lease for their space after next week. Lincoln didn’t want anyone to feel like they’d made a mistake.

“I didn’t by coming here. No siree, I’m telling you, son, I did more business today than in a month at my location. The parking is better, and people feel safer here because you have it all lit up. You did good, Lincoln. I’ll be here for as long as you’ll let me.”

The man selling cookies looked as if he’d closed early, but in actuality had sold nearly every cookie and cupcake he’d brought. So, he was talking to the customers walking around and telling them he’d have more when he opened Wednesday.

Everyone that he and Cooper had spoken to as they went around collecting their views on how it went today didn’t have one thing bad to say. Most had sold out before lunch, and the rest had been close to that. Even the spice guy said he’d had one of the best days ever. Cooper said that he’d bought a few things as well.

“It was fun because of all the people here. Most of them were in such high spirits that it was difficult to be upset about a few extra minutes in a line.” He laughed. “You’ll need to have the port-a-john people come out more often if this is the trend here.”

At midnight he was still in his office. Today’s sales were through the roof if the totals were correct. Everyone had given him their daily total so that he could go to the bank when the month was out and apply for an expansion on the land he’d already had. There were another fifteen acres where he was going to add some outdoor activities for the kids, as well as weekend vendors that sold their own art.

He was just putting things away for the night when Ginger Rice came to see him. “I heard you had a good day.” He smiled and told her he’d had a fantastic one. “Good. Can you use some help with the bookkeeping? I have Cooper all settled in, and since I can do it daily now instead of catching him up, I have some spare time on my hands.”

“Your sister comes tomorrow, doesn’t she? I heard she’s met Garrett and he sort of overwhelmed her a little.” She smiled and said that she was cursing like a sailor. “I’m really glad that he could help her. And yes, if you have time, I’d love for you to handle that. I have an idea what to do, but I’d be slow in learning it.”

“Grace will take up some of my time, but she wants to make sure Walton isn’t going to bother us anymore. She’s hated him from the very beginning. And I’m to understand that the other day he found out I had a son, not a daughter.” He asked how that went over when she stood. “I wish he’d not found out until after the trial, but I really don’t care. He tried to have me, and my children, killed, and he isn’t getting me back for any amount of money or begging. I’m done with his ass.”

“Your happy with your house and children being around? I mean, I know it’s sort of big, but as a rental, it’s all right. Cooper has owned it for some time, I’m to understand.” She said that she was very happy with her living arrangements. “Good. Family is both good and bad at times. I’m so thankful you are the former.”

“Are you saying you don’t care for yours?” He laughed and said that he loved them very much. “Then I don’t understand. I thought you guys were all very close.”

“Oh, we are. Very much so. And that is the problem.” She said that she understood now. When her faerie joined them in the room, Lincoln could see that she was happy with her too. Lincoln had his own, Drizzle, and he found the little man to be quite useful. “I’ll take off now and come by sometime tomorrow. I’m to understand that after today, you won’t be open on Mondays, correct?”

“You are. We took a vote, the tenants and I, and we all decided that Monday, after a long weekend, will be just be the perfect day to rest and stock up. I’m not sure what we’re doing for the Fourth just yet, but we’ll get to that soon.” She said that it was only six weeks away. “I know. Spring has just flown by, don’t you think?”

“It has.” She looked around the office. “You’re going to need some supplies in here for me to work. I’ll need only a few things that I can bring from my office.”

“Order what you need, and I’ll pick it up at the stationary store for you. I’ll also set up an account like my brother has. Cooper said that he’s never had it so easy before.” She told him they were making her life better. “All the same, you’re a welcome treat to have around. Even if you weren’t a wizard at bookkeeping.”

After making her list, she talked to him while he finished what he had to do. She said she’d come in Monday when it would be quiet in the office. He told her that a lot of people were going to come in and do restocking, so she might want to barricade herself in the office. She laughed at that.

“I’ll let them in if you make it so I know them. I don’t want to let in shoppers or some robber while I’m here.” He told her that he’d put a lock on the doors that they had to have a badge to get in with. “That’s very clever. My goodness, you Mannings sure do have a lot of experience in this, I guess.”

“We’ve been around for a long time.”

Ginger left after they talked for a bit. He could tell that she was excited about her sister coming while also dreading it. She sounded a little on the caustic side, and he had a feeling she was going to be his mate.

Lincoln didn’t know why though. Probably because he was too busy to woo a woman, and Grace sounded like she was so far opposite of him that it sometimes made him want to crawl into a deep cave and make himself a hermit when he thought about her. But he liked people too much to do that.

At one o’clock he left his office at the greenhouse. Tomorrow they were going to be open, but he both hoped and didn’t that they had another like today. The greenhouse had had a good day too, selling all the planters as well as taking orders for more. He had a feeling that the weekend before the Fourth they were going to be really busy, due to people getting their houses ready for the big day.

His house was beginning to fill out. Having the funds to have all the renovations done the way he wanted them was nice. But he was sick of having workers around all the time. Davie, the contractor, said they’d be done this coming week, and he was looking forward to it. The only rooms complete were his bedroom and the kitchen.

Tomorrow was a big day and he was going to enjoy it. There were too many things going on in his head for him to sleep, so he went for a walk. The moon was just bright enough to light his way. Lincoln loved the solitude of the woods and the bewitching hour. He also knew that he’d sleep better after a good stretch.


Grace wasn’t happy. Firstly, she felt like she was being ambushed. Secondly...well, she was pissed off. She wasn’t even sure at what just yet, but she was all the same. When the man in charge of her feeling this way came toward her, she put up her hand.

“You know that you can’t keep me away. I just came to tell you that you’ve sold another painting.” She looked at him with a stern eye. “You can glare all you want, but I did tell you that you’d have a good showing.”

“It’s not even until tonight. How are these people—? You’re letting some come in now?” He said that they were his patrons. “I don’t care if they’re your brothers, you said that I’d have a good show tonight. I’m not prepared for this.”

“That’s why you have me.” She could honestly say that she could gladly kill Garrett Massey and whoever had told him about her. If it was Ginger, she was going to murder her too. “There are things going on in your head that are very frightening, aren’t they?”

“I’m planning your demise.” He laughed. The man was forever doing that. “What do I do if there isn’t anything left to sell? Not that I think that’s going to happen. But do you have a backup plan if it does?”

“Yes, talk you into the other twelve paintings that you have stashed in my office. You let me put them out and we’ll have an even better showing.” She said that she didn’t care anymore. “Seriously? Great. I have just enough time to display them. And since you don’t want to know what I’m selling them for, you’re going to be pleasantly surprised, I think.”

“I don’t know how you sold the first one, much less two. Those prices are well above what I would have sold them for, aren’t they?” He said again that was why she had him. “I don’t know what’s going on. What if these people get home and say they don’t like them? Are you going to make me give you the money back?”

“I don’t think anyone is going to do that. And they sign a contract when they buy a piece of work from here; it’s theirs. You worry too much, sweetie.” He laughed again, and she wanted to punch him. Twice. “Besides, I doubt very much that once your name gets out there, anyone will want to return them. You’ll be a hit, and those first pieces will be worth a great deal more than they are right now.”

“They’re not worth the price you’re putting on them. I don’t know how much, but I know it’s more than I would have charged. Also, I can’t believe people are going to pay you whatever you want for my work. It’s insane.” He kissed her on the forehead and she stood there when he walked away. She wanted her sister.

Grace wasn’t one to whine and complain. She was more the type of person that took care of things when they came up, and usually with flare. At least that’s what she called it. Her flare was to ignore the person causing her issues. Or—and it amazed her how many times this plan came up—she kicked the shit out of them. Pulling out her cell, she called her sister.

“I was wondering if you’d call.” Grace felt better just hearing her voice. “I just laid Mattie down for a nap and I’m feeding Wendall, so you can talk to me all you want.”

“You’re so domestic. I miss that about you.” Her sister laughed and told her she could be too. “No way. I don’t like people. I called to see if you’re still going to make it tonight. You’re my rock.”

“I am. I have the best sitter ever keeping an eye on the children, and I have this dress that is going to make you jealous.” She hadn’t told her sister that she’d had a makeover and felt foolish in her own. “All of the Mannings are coming too. You’re going to be overwhelmed, all right. Just don’t hit any of them.”

“I don’t hit people right off the bat.” She laughed with Ginger. “I’ve warned Garrett we’re twins and it’s difficult to tell us apart. Hopefully everyone will think you’re the artist and leave me alone.”

“And what would I say if they were to ask about a piece? Nothing. I wouldn’t even know what to tell them about the kind of paint you use. Besides, you’ll be just fine.” Ginger told her to hang on. “I had to switch boobs.”

“You don’t need to tell me that.” She did though, and it was great that her sister was so happy. “I’ve hired this guy to take care of my work. Though I don’t think there was ever a doubt to him that he was. He seems to think that I’m the best thing since sliced bread. And that’s what he said to me. And he’s a tiger.”

“Yes, I know that. The men here, they have all kinds of paranormals coming in and out all the time. I’m getting good at telling the difference. Oh, and I took on another client. I’ll be doing Lincoln’s books now too. I’m having so much fun.” She told her only she would have fun with numbers. “They sing their song to me. And you should know how that is. You tell me all the time how your muse seems to call to you. Does he still zone you out when you paint, like he did all the time?”

“Yeah, I’m weird like that.” She saw Garrett pulling her paintings out to the floor. “I have to go and see what he’s about. I gave him the last of twelve to put out for tonight. I think I’ll be bringing them when I come see you.”

She wanted to bring her sister home with her, to her house, but she didn’t have that anymore. As soon as she told her landlord she was going away for an extended period, he told her that he was selling the house and she might as well move out. It was very abrupt, but she knew it was coming. He was ninety-two and had no one to help him with rentals anymore.

“I had to sell, honey. I loved you being here all the time, but I’m falling more and more, and I can’t be doing that and living by myself. I got into one of the assisted living places. They’ll even do my clothes for me. Imagine that, why don’t you, somebody to wash my undies.” They laughed. “I’ll give you back your deposit, and you can take your time moving out. I’m sorry.”

She and Ginger talked about this and that when they were on the phone nowadays. It was comforting because Ginger was so calm. They talked mostly about the children, who Grace was excited to see. Mattie had been just a wee thing the last time she’d seen her, and now there was a little boy. Ginger deserved so much better than the ass that had taken her.

“I have to go, sweetie. We need to get dressed up, and I should do that now while Wendall and Mattie are asleep. I’ll see you tonight and you’ll be coming with us.” She said that she hoped she could find a place to live. “You will. You can live with us. We’ll have good times again.”

After hanging up, she went to the office to see what was left. Really, it was to hide out. She really wasn’t very good with people. They made her freeze up. She thought that was why she painted, just to escape the world.

Last night, it had taken her an hour tossing and turning to realize she wasn’t going to sleep. So instead of continuing down that futile path, she got up and pulled out her things. The hotel she was staying at, thanks to Garrett, said she could paint in her room but would be responsible for any damage done to it. Garrett had put down a large deposit and told her that he’d pay for any damages. To paint when the mood struck her was something she couldn’t do without. It, like her sister and her children, calmed her in ways she couldn’t explain. Last night’s painting had been the best she thought she’d ever done.

For some reason the idea of a large castle had come to her. Not the pretty kind with turrets with flags and flowers at the front. This one was dark and full of secrets that only the ghosts that lived there were aware of. And they were going to keep out everyone that tried to come to the big stack of stone. As she painted, seeing it in her mind’s eye, she got more information on the inhabitants there, and was glad for the lights when the darkness of the place started to make itself known to her.

Death was all over it. It had been in a siege and many lives were lost. The king had killed his wife, to save her from certain death that would not be easy on the delicate lady. Then he’d thrown himself out the window, sure that it would be preferable than the one the new king would have for him. There were other stories like that one, but she loved rather than hated them.

Part of the castle wasn’t coming to her, but she was all right with that. Instead of trying to make it, she just painted something else on it. The broken gates, the large stones at intervals around the place. There were other things that had fallen into disrepair, but she had a feeling the castle and its surroundings were going to be something that would haunt her forever. Like the unfinished part of the castle, something was blocking her from seeing it all.

When she stepped back from it when her alarm went off to get up, she was amazed at the detail. But then she was like that with each of her paintings. But in this one, this was calling to her in a different way. Like she had the unfinished business, not the castle. Cleaning up, she noticed something that she hadn’t before. The makings of a dragon that seemed to be flying over the castle, the part that she’d not finished. Seemingly protecting it from whatever was coming for it. Or her.

“What is wrong with you?” she had asked herself. “It’s a painting, not a fortune teller. Get a grip, dumbass.”

And now here she sat, wanting to work on it, but knowing that for now it was as finished as she could make it. Until...whatever was needed for her to do was ready. Laughing to herself, she decided to return to the hotel anyway and get dressed. Tonight was going to be huge for her, and she’d get to see her sister.

Taking a second shower, Grace pulled her hair into a ponytail and then braided it. After wrapping it with a rubber band, she coiled it around her head, mostly to keep it out of her face. Then she pulled her dress on. Black, Garrett had told her— to show how important she was. Instead she felt foolish. She never wore dresses at all, and this was strange.

It was more of a sheath, she supposed. There wasn’t any kind of nipping at the waist. The only part that was tight was around her breasts. And there was a slit up the side that showed off her entire leg and most of her thigh. She wasn’t thrilled about that, but it was the only dress they had in her size that was black. She was going to have to do some serious shopping if she had to do this very often. Grace did not like showing off more than she saw in her mirror every day.

Chapter 2

Lincoln was getting dressed when his brother contacted him. Tristan was having trouble with his tux and wondered if Lincoln could please help him. He asked what the problem was. Tristan said he was coming over.

The doorbell rang just a few minutes later, which told him that his brother had been on his way. As soon as he opened the door, he could see what was wrong. He had no idea how to make his tie work. Pulling him into the hallway, Lincoln had him set in seconds. His butler, Milton, met them at the front door with their capes. They were going all out on this thing, it appeared.

“I don’t want to be a caped crusader.” Milton simply cleared his throat, standing there holding them out as if he’d not said a word. “You do know that you work for me, not the other way around?”

“Lady Carson said if you gave me any trouble, I was to call her. This is the sister to one of our own, she said I was to tell you, and you were to behave, or she’d make you hurt.” He looked at them. “She is scary when she wants something, is she not?”

“She is at that. So is Winnie. And she’s the one that would make me hurt in ways I don’t even want to think about.” They all laughed as Lincoln and Tristan pulled on the capes. He had to admit, they did make a striking pair. Tristan continued speaking as they headed out. “I’ve been talking to Ginger about her sister, and I just know she’s my mate. She’s going to have me for dinner. I don’t do well with aggressive women.”

“You’ll do fine. It’s funny, Xavier and I have been saying the same thing about her being mated to one of us.” Tristan told him Jorden was bored with the whole thing of finding a mate. “Is he now? Then I hope its him. He deserves to be with the ball buster.”

“Who’s a ball buster?” The limo had pulled up as he was saying that, and Carson had, of course, heard him. “You mean me? Then I thank you. I love that I can stand my own ground. And I’m glad to see that you didn’t give poor Milton any trouble about the capes. He’s a nice man to put up with you.”

“You are one, but we were referring to Grace.” Ginger laughed then, and he smiled at the pretty woman. “She is going to bust our balls, isn’t she?”

“Oh yes, you can bet on it. And I hope one of you are going to be her mate. It would be perfect for her to have someone like you guys in her corner.” He asked what she meant. “For all her ball busting, as you called it, Grace is more tender than I am. She just hides it better with violence and mayhem. I don’t know if she still does it or not, but when she was drawing when were kids, she’d sob after she was finished, because it was the last one, she would tell me. And she had some trouble with a few people she worked with at the plant. I don’t know all of it, but she’s been hurt before. They don’t like having a woman boss.”

“What does she do there? We have the distribution plant here. Perhaps she can shed some light on smaller issues we’ve been having.” Ginger told Cooper she’d find it. “Good. Even though it’s running now, there are still points we could use help on.”

“Grace was the manager of the entire place. And she did a great job too. They were having some major shrink issues and she found them and cut them out. They’re down to less than one percent now where they had been at eighteen.” Carson asked what had happened with the trouble that she’d had. “I don’t know. She’s very private, even with me. But I know that she gave notice about a month ago. I don’t know what went down, but she’s less stressed about everything now. She told me today she’ll need to find a place to live around here. I’m hoping that means she’s going to stay. I’ve missed her.”

Lincoln could understand that. He saw his brothers every day and didn’t know what it would be like to have one so far away. Even if they were only in the next state, he’d reach out, talk through his day with them. And if he didn’t, they would him. It was what they had always done, be there for each other.

They were pulling up in front of the gallery when he realized they were going to be spending the night in town, and he had no place arranged. Oh well. And he’d have to go shopping as soon as possible to get something to wear home. Either that, or he’d be the butt end of every joke they could manage from wearing his tux home when they all had jeans and T-shirts, he’d bet.

The first thing he saw when he entered was the art on the main wall, and it blew him away. The painting was called Evening Train. He loved how the locomotive seemed to jump right off the canvas at him. Almost as if he should move out of the way or be run down. But the subtleties were what got him. The man standing on the tracks as the train came at him. The happy face of the person in the front cab, who hadn’t noticed the other man. There was a stream of smoke coming out the top that made him think of how fast it seemed to be going. There was a sad feeling about it, and he wondered if that was what she’d meant to do.

Lincoln looked in the direction Ginger was when she said her sister was there. He couldn’t see her yet, but he could feel his dragon stirring. Looking around for whatever was making him nervous, he started toward them when he saw Garrett. It was him that was in trouble; not really, but he was nervous about something. Lincoln didn’t know why yet, but he went to see if he could help him.

“What do you think of the artist?” He told Garrett he’d not met her yet. “She’s going to flip out when the night is over. She has it in her head that nothing is going to sell. But I have a feeling she’s going to have people begging for more of her work.”

“Speaking of which, I want the train one in the front.” He told him that it was sold. “Damn. That is a wonderful painting. It says a great deal, doesn’t it?”

“I didn’t get it until she showed me. The man on the tracks? I never saw it. Nor the other things on the painting.” He asked if he meant the note in his hands. “Yes, as you can well imagine, I felt foolish. But like you, I fell in love with it. To be honest, Lincoln, she wasn’t going to let me show it. I had to almost beg her to release the others in the room. It has me a little nervous, if you want the truth. I think she’s going to outgrow me before this thing even starts to make either of us some serious money.”

They wandered around the gallery, pointing out which were sold and the ones he thought would go next. He loved the train though, that was his favorite, but the woman had talent, he could see that.

Ginger was coming toward them when he saw the woman. Christ, she was a dream, which was weird to say considering she and Ginger were twins. And to say that she looked like Ginger would have been an understatement. They were identical. Even their dresses, one blue, the other black, made them seem more alike. He moved toward her when Ginger said his name.

“Lincoln, I’d like you to meet my sister, Grace. Grace, this is the man I was telling you about, Lincoln Manning, who opened the greenhouse marketplace.” He heard her talking, Ginger was, but he only had eyes for Grace. And he knew as soon as he touched her what she was to him.

“You’re holding me too tight.” When he let her go, Grace glared. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Surely, you’ve seen a woman before tonight. And I would think you’d know not to manhandle them.”

“I’ve never seen a woman like you.” He knew he was messing this up and tried to regroup. “I’m terribly sorry. It’s been a long week, and I still have the weekend to go through. The greenhouse has been taking up a great deal of my time. If you could forgive me, we can start again. I’m Lincoln Manning. And yes, I know better than to manhandle women.”

He looked for someone to get him out of this mess before he screwed up more. He needed someone to rescue him from himself. But Grace was called away and he let out a long breath. But he’d forgotten about Ginger, who was currently staring at him like he was a freak show.

“She belongs to you, doesn’t she?” Lincoln told her that saying it like that to Grace might not go over well. “No, not with her it wouldn’t. I’m happy for you, I really am, but she’s not going to come easy. You are aware of that, aren’t you?”

“Yes. I don’t know what to tell her either. I mean, she doesn’t strike me to be anything like you in how well you took what we were.” She laughed and told him he was in big trouble. “Yes, I think you might be right on that. Please don’t say anything to anyone just yet. I don’t want her to find out from them before I can talk to her.”

“I can do that. But she’s far from stupid, and she knows what you are. Not all of it, but that you’re all dragons.” He nodded and thanked her for that. “Don’t thank me yet. I love Grace, she’s all I had in the world for a long time. Then when Maddie came along, we sort of drifted apart. But when I was having trouble with Walton, she wasn’t just there for me, but gave me money I’m sure she didn’t have to help me get away. Then he tried to kill us.”

“I’ll be careful with her. Do you think she’ll do the same for me?” Ginger just laughed as she walked away. “I’m so fucked right now.”

He moved around the gallery again, this time looking for a painting that didn’t have a blue sticker on the name. It looked as if she was having a good show if those were any indication. Lincoln found Grace in one of the back rooms staring at a painting entitled simply Mine.

“This one is dark too. Are all your paintings that way with a secondary meaning?” She glanced at him, then back at the painting. He wasn’t even sure if she was going to answer, but she finally did.

“I live in a dark place when I paint. Most of the time, when I need to step back from them, I’m amazed at what I’ve done. I sort of zone out.” He stood closer to get a better look at the canvas and see if he could touch her. “I’m painting one now, in my hotel room, that looks like I’m going to be in trouble before it’s finished.”

“Why would you say that?” Lincoln wanted to know how to protect her. How to make the painting be one of happiness instead of the dark he knew was going to be there. “Is someone threatening you?”

“Not at the moment. I might be soon, but not right now.” She looked at him. “I got this burst of magic when we touched. It kind of freaked me out. Then when I was helping with the painting that this guy just had to have, I realized what it meant.” He waited, not wanting her to know just yet, not until he was ready and wanting her to know so they could talk about it. Lincoln had never been so indecisive before. So, he changed the subject.

“I own this piece of land. It’s a lot of acreage, but I’m happy with it. There were some things left in the house. Not a great many things—I’m guessing they were things they couldn’t take when the house was emptied.” Grace asked how many acres he had. “With the house, just over sixteen hundred. It’s a lot. The second house, it came with a hundred, which we didn’t know until the surveyor came out to do the job. There are also some buildings. A big metal one that someone took the time to mostly insulate and never used that I could see or smell. A regular barn, made of wood, that has the most amazing features to it. A water wheel that supplies the corn mill inside of it. Also, some of the land is rented by farmers who pay each year to have extras planted for their farms. I had no problem with it, so we’re going to keep doing that.”

“I lived in a rental house for most of my time out west. I hated it—being out west, not the house. But the landlord is retiring and has sold my house. Lucky for me he’s a nice guy, and put all my things in storage.” Lincoln said that was nice. “Yes. Are you nice, Lincoln? I’m not. I don’t like people, and I’m hard on men. I want you to know that right up front. I’m not a pushover, and I don’t jump when someone tells me to. Unless it’s to keep me safe. I’m not that stubborn or stupid.”

“I’m not good with people, but I like them. Mostly I avoid them because I’m never sure what to say when they ask a question.” She nodded, and he turned to look at her. “I want you to like the house I bought. It’s not necessary—I can sell it as it sits for more than I paid for it.”

“I’m sure that it’ll be fine.” She laughed. “I never thought I’d be this calm about finding someone that was going to take over my life.”

“I won’t.” She frowned and asked what he meant. “I won’t take over your life. I can promise you that. I would like to be a part of it, in decisions you might make that would affect us both, but I will never tell you what to do nor how you should do it. And I’ll do the same for you, not make any decisions that might alter how we do things.”

“Ginger was hurt by a man. Twice as a matter of fact. She was married to Mattie’s father for about a year and a half, and I guess the entire time he would beat her almost daily. She didn’t try to get away from him. I think that was due to having Mattie and her being so young. She wanted it to make it work. He had money, you see, and Ginger didn’t.” He said he had money as well. “I know. Ginger told me that all of you have a great deal. But about the men in her life. Our parents were about as close as a jackal and a mouse to us. They were cold, and we figured out they didn’t want us in their lives. I think that’s why I’m so mean now. But one night, when we were sixteen, I’d had enough and packed us both up and we went to live with our Aunt Bev. She’s a trip. Anyway, without her, I’m thinking that we might not have survived living on the streets. And that is why neither of us have been with another man since then that’s been good to us. Walton, he didn’t come into my sister’s life, he sort of barged his way in and took over. I’m glad that he’s no longer a threat to her.”

“I will never harm you if I can help it. I have no desire to order you around. I want—no, that’s not right. I need to make you happy, and I will try my very best to do so.” She looked at the painting again. “And if you could paint me something like the train in the front, I’ll be your slave for the rest of my life.”

Her laughter made him smile. It might not be so bad having a mate that was sort of mean if she was like this. But he knew it wasn’t something that he should count on. She had a temper, and Lincoln thought he might enjoy seeing it burn. So long as it wasn’t aimed at him.


Walton looked up when he realized someone was with him. He’d seen people in and out of the area he was in all day. No one had come to visit, and for that he was pissed. He’d fucked up last night and was told his privileges were taken away. So, if anyone did come, they’d be refused. Though he had no idea who would want to see him. Ginger sure wouldn’t.

What was wrong with that woman that she had to lie to him? He’d only wanted a son from her. A pretty woman like her, she should have been thrilled that a man like him would set his sights on her. He wasn’t stupid—Walton had an education. He even had some cash stashed away he could have used. Or he could just go and take it from his father—now there was a person who had money. But Ginger and her kid were putting a drain on him, and he’d had enough. Especially after thinking he was going to have a daughter and not a son like he wanted. Why couldn’t she just have had a boy? Then things would have been fine with them.

“Are you Walton George Conrad?” He said that he was but looked around when his middle name was put out there. “Are you? I’m looking for Walton George Conrad.”

“Do you think you could forget my middle name, buddy? I hate it as much as I hate being in here.” He stood and asked him what he wanted. “You’re not a visitor, that much I can see.”

“Here you go.” He took the blue envelope—really, he’d had no choice—and the guy asked him to sign for it. “You don’t have to. It’s all right here on the camera on my chest, as well as the one they have hanging out here, that you were served.”

“Served? As in someone is trying to sue me? Who would do that?” He said that he didn’t know, he’d have to read it. “Damn it all to hell and back. This had better not be my landlord again. I’ll kick his ass.”

It wasn’t him, but Ginger suing him for child support. For his own kid. The paperwork even said how much he had stashed, as well as the value of the house they’d lived in. He couldn’t understand how she’d know that unless....

“She went snooping around my things. How many times did I tell her to stay out of my boxes?” Walton sat on his bed and looked over the paperwork. “Oh no. Oh hell no, she is not hoping I’ll pay for her daughter too? I’m not paying for that thief at all. I’d have a dragon but for her skinny little ass. All she had to do was leave my things alone, and that included my dragon. Then what does she do? She takes it out of the barn and steals it.”

By the time dinner was served—another red-letter day in the meals this place handed out—he was seething mad at what she wanted from him. Walton was going to kill her as soon as he was free, and that kid too. And he would as soon as his attorney was aware of a few things. Like he’d fathered a son, not a daughter. And that she was trying to make it so he’d never see the kid. It was his, wasn’t it?

There couldn’t be any other way it would be someone else’s. He’d fucked her every day until she got pregnant. He’d only let her go from the chain when he had to take her to the doctor, and even then, he’d made sure that she knew if she ran or told anyone, he’d kill the brat of hers.

Then she’d gone to the doctor and had them lie to him too. Telling him that she was carrying another girl and wasn’t he so happy. Another little precious girl to raise.

“No, I was not. A little girl isn’t at all what I wanted.” He wasn’t sure why that was so important, but that’s what his father had always told him. Have a son, make sure there is someone to carry on the Conrad name. Like it was something to be proud of.

He supposed to his father it was. A rich fuck that had it all in a nice neat row. And he was tight too. Only gave Walton cash when he begged for it or made promises he wasn’t going to keep. Like not coming home again. It was his fucking house too, wasn’t it? His father had a screwed-up way of thinking when it came to him.

Now he was in jail for trying to kill her. If that other bitch had stayed out of his way, then he’d have no one but himself again. Women were the ruination of the world, his father used to say, and he was beginning to see that he might have been correct. They were only good for one single thing—well, two. Fucking and breeding sons.

Then there was the dragon. He’d caught it fair and square. Smiling to himself, he knew that was a fat lie too. He’d no more believed in them than he did faeries or unicorns. But he’d been at his buddy’s house and he’d had him tied down with chains in his big barn that he told him had to be iron so he’d not get away.

It had taken him a great deal of planning to steal the dragon. It hurt him, too, that he’d had to end up killing his buddy over it. But when he found out that it could practically shit out money, he had to have it. There was never a time when you could have too much cash. And once he started reading up on them, the more he realized what the sucker was worth. Like every piece was worth millions. He had planned to start cutting away at the thing when he got rid of the kids and their mom. Then this had happened.

His trial date was set for next week. Walton had called his father, who in turn had gotten him a lawyer. Dad hadn’t been that good of a role model for him, but when the shit hit the fan, like it had now, he could be counted on to help. He’d give you a hard time about it, but he’d get you to safer grounds.

“Mr. Conrad, you have a visitor. Now I’m going to let you see him today, but you explain that he can’t come back tomorrow. You’re grounded.” He pointed out that he wasn’t ten. “Then how about I tell that daddy of yours how you fucked up yesterday, and he’ll just have to go back to where he came from?”

“I’ll tell him.” It wouldn’t do any good. Telling his dad that he couldn’t do something was the same as saying go right on ahead and do whatever it is you want. Just make sure you stayed out of his way. Dad was a force that no one screwed with. “If I’m still grounded, why am I seeing him? Not that I don’t appreciate it?”

“You were served, and he said he was getting you an attorney. I can’t deny you that.” He nodded. “Also, he gave me some cash, and that gets you both a freebie.”

Shuffling out to the area where he was allowed to see people, with chains on his ankles and wrists, he wasn’t surprised all that much when he was led to a different place. One with a table and chairs, as well as food for him. Instead of eating it while the guard was in the room, he waited until his father dismissed him before reaching for the knife and fork. But before he could eat, the tray was shoved to the floor.

“You got caught, dummy. How many times have I told you to keep what you do at home behind your own closed doors? I said that to you every darned day, and now look where you are. I’m going to have to keep greasing palms, so you can get out and take care of business. What the F were you thinking?” His father rarely used the word fuck, replacing it with just the first letter when he was really pissed off. “Where is this woman that you knocked around?”

“I don’t know. Isn’t she at home?” He thought of something that would make his dad happy. “I have a son, dad. A little boy. I’m going to name him George Walton, after you.” He wasn’t, but Dad didn’t have to know that right away.

“I thought you said she was having a girl.” He said that she’d lied. “Women. That’s all they do. Where is the boy? I’ll get him and take him back with me.”

There was something there that made him think as soon as he got his grandson, his father would wash his hands of him. But instead of saying again that he didn’t know, he changed the subject.

“I was served. She wants me to pay child support for taking care of my own kid. Why would I have to when I could just take him from her and raise him myself? Maybe I’ll have her pay me to watch over him.” Father said that he’d take care of that. “I hope so. If she needs support, why doesn’t she just drop this whole thing and give him to me? That way she won’t be burdened.”

“You won’t be able to get him if she didn’t put your name on the birth certificate. And I’ll check into that as well. Also, with having a criminal record and all the other shit that you’ve done since you were born, it’ll be very hard to fight something you’ve been arrested for before. If that’s the case, then you might not stand a chance in taking him. But I will. That’s the way it should be anyway. I’m better equipped to handle him. If you go to prison, you can know he’s in good hands.” He asked if he was going to try and get him out. “Of course. I’d not let you rot in here. Though this is where you belong for getting caught with the goods, so to speak. I don’t know who the person is that had you arrested, but she has some big balls to turn against my son. A grandson. I can’t believe it; after all this time you finally did something right.”

“I do things right all the time. You just choose not to notice them.” His father just nodded. “I do. Who enlarged your dope area? I did. Who is the one that told you the building you wanted downtown was going up for sale?”

“Yes, and I didn’t get that either, did I? Sometimes you’re more trouble than you’re worth. I blame it on your mother, God rest her soul.” He pointed out that she wasn’t dead. “She might as well be. And would be too, if she didn’t have a pre-nup that I should never have signed, and then she wouldn’t change everything over to me. I should never have let her live, that’s all. Damn it all. I have a son.”

“I do. You have a grandson.”

Again, he was waved off, but it got him thinking. He wasn’t getting out of here. Also, no matter what his father said, he wasn’t going to take his son from him. Instead of listening, Walton started making his own plans. Not just to get out of here, but to get the boy too. And he’d kill whoever got in his way, including his own father. He’d fathered the boy, and he wanted to raise him. Bullshit on child support to Ginger. He would be the one getting paid.

Chapter 3

Grace was in shock. Garrett had taken her into his office when the show was still going on and told her she’d sold all but one of her paintings. Twice now she’d had to put her head between her knees, which wasn’t easy with her dress, in order to not pass out. Sold all but one? How was that even possible?

“You want me to get someone for you?” The first person to pop into her head wasn’t her sister, but Lincoln. Which was silly—she didn’t even know him that well. “I can get Ginger for you, she’s not too far away.”

“Away? Did she leave?” He told her what she was doing. “Oh. She told me that she’d have to pump tonight. No, don’t bother her. Could you maybe get one of the Mannings? I had a nice talk with the really tall one.”

“They’re all really tall, darling. But I’ll get Lincoln since I know he’s your mate.” She didn’t get a chance to ask how he knew because he was gone that fast. When the door opened again, she didn’t even bother looking, knowing he’d turned her down.

“You can bring in one of the women then. I know it was a longshot to ask him in here.” He cleared his throat and she turned to look at the most handsome man she’d ever laid eyes on. “I didn’t think you’d come.”

“Yes, well, he said you were hyperventilating, and needed someone to pick your chin up off the floor.” She was going to kill Garrett. “You look better than I expected, at least. Are you all right? You don’t look comfortable. Want me to hold your hand?”

“No, I’m not all right. I sold all but one of the paintings.” He said that he’d heard and congratulated her. “I don’t want to sell them all. I’m not that good.”

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