Defender Raptor Bonus Epilogue
This story is a bonus epilogue to Defender Raptor, and contains major spoilers for that book. It also features some characters from the Protection, Inc. series.
Make sure you read Defender Raptor first! If you haven’t read it yet, get it on Amazon here. The whole series is free in Kindle Unlimited.
LAST CHANCE! SPOILERS BELOW!
Defender Raptor Bonus Epilogue
by Zoe Chant
When the women of Protection, Inc. told Dali they were throwing her a bachelorette party, she was both touched and slightly nervous.
Tirzah was a good friend, but Dali had met the rest of them only recently, when the west coast team had come up to see the Fabulous Flying Chameleons’ final Refuge City performance. And while she’d liked the bodyguards and their mates, the women all seemed to have distinctly wild sides.
It wasn’t just that Destiny turned into a tiger, Fiona into a snow leopard, and Catalina into a regular leopard. Journey was a world traveler. Ellie was a big-city paramedic. Raluca was a rising fashion designer. Grace, the stage manager with whom Dali had the most in common, had an unmistakably punk sensibility—even if it was the sort of punk that was largely pink.
For all that Merlin had shown Dali the joys of spontaneity and adventure, not to mention clown cars, she still wasn’t much for wild parties.
But she set her worries aside. Sure, they were an adventurous bunch, but they were also adult women with adult responsibilities. Ellie had twin toddlers. Grace had a baby. Destiny was pregnant. They might take Dali drinking and dancing, but they were hardly going to order up a stripper.
Not to be outdone, the Protection, Inc. men invited Merlin to a party on the same night. Well… sort of a party.
“Are you sure you don’t want a real bachelor party?” Dali asked Merlin on the night of her bachelorette party. A little doubtfully, she said, “The Defenders could throw you one after the west coast team leaves… Maybe.”
“You should drop them a hint about that. I’d love to see exactly what sort of disaster my teammates would create.” Merlin hastily added, “Kidding! I’ll miss you, but this is fine, really. I love toddlers.”
His utter sincerity was evident in his clear blue gaze and sweet smile. And that was one of the many things she loved about him: he was genuinely happy to attend a “bachelor party” consisting of his co-workers plus a bunch of harried dads barbecuing while watching their kids and pets.
“You don’t love babies?” she teased him.
“Babies are fine,” he said. “But toddlers are the best. Especially once they start talking. There’s nothing like having a long conversation with a three-year-old about houses made of jam and lettuce-powered trucks and superheroes whose power is that they turn into a million bees—no, wait, that was a real superhero.”
“Pretty sure that was a villain,” Dali said.
Merlin whipped out his phone, typed rapidly, and looked up. “You’re right! He was a Nazi scientist who tried to enslave a hive of mutant bees, only they ate him and somehow his consciousness merged with the swarm—comics have a lot of ‘somehows’—and he became a supervillain called, unsurprisingly, The Swarm. A+ retro comics knowledge!”
He held up his hand for a high-five. She smacked it, but admitted, “I never heard of The Swarm. I just thought a million bees couldn’t possibly be good news.”
Merlin laughed, then bent to kiss her. When his lips met hers and his strong arms closed around her, she instantly regretted that they wouldn’t spend the evening together. Maybe there was time for a quickie before the party…
A knock at the door made them spring apart.
“Later,” Merlin whispered, and went to answer it. As Dali was hurriedly straightening her hair, she heard him call, “It’s your ride!”
She went into the living room, where she was surprised to discover that Nick’s mate Raluca, the silver-haired fashion designer, had come to pick her up. Dali had assumed she’d ride with Tirzah, since they lived in the same apartment building.
“Have a blast, Dali,” said Merlin. “Raluca, make sure you and the rest of the women show her a good time!”
“Certainly,” said Raluca in her precise, lightly accented voice.
Merlin whistled to Blue and Cloud. The little grey kitten flew down from the top of a bookcase, her dragonfly wings buzzing, and perched on Merlin’s shoulder. Blue, who had been napping on the sofa, woke with a loud snort, sneezed, scratched himself, then jumped off with a thud like a small earthquake. He ambled up to Merlin, his claws clicking against the hardwood floor and his tiny dragonfly wings flapping lazily.
“Vanish,” Merlin instructed them. Dali, who was watching closely, caught the blink-and-you-miss-it flicker as both pets became invisible to people who didn’t already know about them.
“Thank God we’re done with the Pokemon coat,” she said as the door closed behind them.
One of Raluca’s silver eyebrows arched in curiosity. “I beg your pardon?”
“We used to disguise Blue in this hideous fur coat, before we taught him to go invisible,” Dali explained. “We had to claim he was some kind of hairless dog if we ran into anyone.”
Raluca smiled. “Nick and I were once forced to insist that our dragonette Doina was an unusual variety of iguana.”
“How’d you account for her wings?” Dali asked.
“Luckily, Nick was wearing his leather jacket when she decided to join us on our walk,” Raluca said. “He placed Doina inside to hide her, but she stuck her head out of the collar just as we were passing a group of tourists. I told them she was a rare reptile native to Brandusa. Which was true, so far as it went.”
When they left her apartment, Raluca hit the up button on the elevator. Dali assumed they were going to Tirzah’s apartment, but rather than pushing the button for the fifth floor, Raluca hit “roof.”
When Dali felt her eyebrows rise in puzzlement, Raluca said, “Tirzah has already departed.”
“Um… Okay,” said Dali, though that hadn’t answered her question. She felt both like she was missing something and that it would be awkward to ask. “What’s on the roof?”
Raluca smiled as the doors chimed and opened. “I am.”
Dali was half-expecting all the women to jump out, yelling, “Surprise!” But there was no one else on the roof.
In the day, the roof was a sunny, pretty place, lined with hand-painted pots of flowers and vegetables and, in summer, peas and strawberries. Tenants often went up to sun themselves and garden. But it was night now, and a cool breeze blew.
Dali shivered, but Raluca seemed untouched by the cold. Her hair glimmered in the moonlight, and her layered skirts swirled around her legs, making her seem to be standing in mist. She looked otherworldly. Magical.
“Merlin said you loved the trapeze, the feeling of flight,” said Raluca.
Dali abruptly remembered that Raluca was a dragon shifter. And with that, she realized why the other woman must have brought her to the roof. “You mean—Would you really…?”
“Once upon a time, only my mate could ride me. Later, I allowed a few others, but only in the direst need. But now my circle has widened, to include my friends. And not only for times of danger, but also for celebration.” Raluca smiled, and Dali felt warmed by it. “Hold tight, but don’t be afraid. I won’t let you fall.”
She backed away from Dali. In the moonlight, her silver hair and the swirling silver tattoos on her arm seemed to glow. Silver sparks blinked into existence around her, swirling and multiplying until the elegant woman was completely concealed by them. Then they vanished.
Where the woman had been, a silver dragon now crouched. Dali gasped in amazed delight. The dragon spread her translucent wings, then turned her slim head to indicate where to mount. Dali then swung her leg over Raluca’s back and settled into the saddle-sized depression behind her neck. The dragon had hide, not scales, with a velvety texture like suede.
Raluca tossed her head, sending strands of her mane over Dali’s hands. Dali grasped them, at first gingerly, not wanting to pull too hard, then more firmly when the dragon nodded. They were halfway between feathers and hair in texture, but Dali could feel that they were strong.
Gripping tight with hands and legs, she said, “I’m ready!”
The dragon leaped into the air. Dali’s heart jolted, and then the rush of adrenaline transmuted into sheer joy. She was flying over the city, with bright neon below her and bright stars above her, the wind blowing in her hair and Raluca’s silver wings beating steadily. It was like all her childhood dreams come true.
Dali was touched that Raluca had been willing to give her such a marvelous gift. She was also filled with love for Merlin, as she was certain he’d deliberately dropped that hint to Raluca in the hope of getting exactly this result. Her world had gotten so much bigger since Merlin had charged into it, full of love and friendship and magic.
When Raluca touched down in an empty alley, Dali slid off with a sigh of happiness. Silver sparks gathered again, brilliant in the darkness, swirling to hide the dragon and vanishing to reveal the woman.
“Thank you so much, Raluca,” Dali said. “That was absolutely wonderful.”
“Everyone who had ever ridden me has said that,” Raluca replied. “It almost makes me wish to ride a dragon myself.”
“You never have?”
“I am a dragon.”
Dali guessed that was a no. “You should try it. Ask Lucas if he wants to trade. You ride him, he rides you.”
“That is not done, among dragons. Though… it would be intriguing.”
“It’s also not done to turn down a kingdom and marry a werewolf,” Dali pointed out.
“True. If Nick were here, he would say, ‘What do you care about what’s done among dragons? You are your own person.’”
A woman’s voice said, “Actually, Nick would say, ‘What the fuck do you care about what’s done among fucking dragons? You’re your own fucking person.”
As Dali snickered and Raluca gave a tolerant smile, Destiny stepped out of the shadows. “Come on, Dali. We rented out the club, just for you!”
“You rented a club?” Dali echoed as she followed them inside. She was stuck between being delighted by the idea and appalled at the expense.
Tirzah, who was at the door, said, “Don’t worry about it. It didn’t break the bank. I did a little favor for the owner.” She flicked her fingers as if she was typing on an invisible keyboard.
“Do I want to know exactly what it was?” Dali asked, though she was already sure that it was some sort of illegal hacking.
Tirzah grinned. “No. No, you do not.”
The door closed behind them. Dali looked around the club. It was small, but it had a stage, a dance floor, tables and chairs, and a bar. All the women were already gathered, with drinks in their hands and gifts stacked on a table beside them.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have—” Dali began, but was drowned out in cheers.
“A toast!” Catalina shouted. “A toast to the woman of the hour!”
“She needs a drink before we can make a toast.” Journey slipped behind the bar, the light glinting off the gold dragon pendant in the hollow of her throat. “What can I make for you, Dali?”
Dali wasn’t normally much of a drinker, but this was too good of a chance to pass up. Journey had traveled all over the world, and if anyone could make the world’s coolest cocktail, it was her. “Make me something I’ll love.”
“Ooh, a challenge,” Journey said, and began sorting through the bottles.
“Now that’s the nice sort of challenge,” Grace remarked. “Not like what we all got put through at Protection, Inc.”
Ellie, Catalina, Raluca, and Journey laughed, while Fiona and Destiny looked mildly guilty.
“What? What are you talking about?” Dali asked.
“The team all took turns hazing everyone’s mates,” Ellie explained. “I was the first, but not the last. That bunch of over-protective weirdos! Don’t the Defenders do that?”
Dali and Tirzah glanced at each other and shook their heads.
“Amazing,” said Tirzah. “I think we’ve found the one way that our team isn’t quite as dysfunctional as the west coast set.”
Journey handed Dali a red-orange drink in a tall glass, with ice and a slice of orange. It was much less elaborate than Dali had expected, and when she sipped it, she found that it was light and refreshing and bittersweet.
“What is it?” she asked.
“A bicicletta,” said Journey, coming out from around the bar. “It means ‘bicycle’ in Italian. Campari, Italian dry white wine, and soda water. Do you love it?”
“I do. It’s delicious. I was just expecting something more… I don’t know, complicated.”
“Oh, I could make you something complicated,” Journey said cheerfully. “I could do layers, even. But you said to make you something you’d love.”
Dali was impressed. In the short time she’d known Journey, the woman had either noticed what she liked in terms of drinks, or had been thoughtful enough to check with Merlin in advance.
“A toast!” Tirzah raised her glass. The women all raised their glasses. “To Dali Batiste, a woman who wears many hats. She’s run a battleship, a circus, and Refuge City’s most challenging office. She’s an awesome neighbor, and an even better teammate and friend. And every morning I thank my lucky stars that she was willing to work at Defenders and rescue us from that disaster area we called an office.”
“To Dali!” the women chorused, and drank.
Dali sipped her bicicleta, and also swallowed a lump in her throat. Only a year ago, she’d felt so lonely and lost. And now she not only had Merlin, but Tirzah and the west coast women. She sat back and relaxed as her friends chatted and presented her with gifts.
Grace gave her a bullet journal with a hand-tooled leather cover, and Fiona gave her an electronic organizer. Ellie gave her a gift certificate for a fancy spa, and Catalina a gift certificate for a cat café. Tirzah presented her with a dessert cookbook by a famous female pastry chef, Destiny with lovely pair of earrings from India, and Raluca with a silk blouse with an intricate pattern around the collar, which close inspection revealed to be tiny flying kittens.
Journey gave her a bottle of dragonfire, a golden liqueur with a handwritten label. “You and Merlin enjoy it together. Alone.”
“Like on our wedding night?”
“Exactly,” said Journey, with a wink.
The last box had a card signed by all of them. From the way the women giggled when she picked it up, Dali could take a guess as to what was inside—if their reactions hadn’t been a dead giveaway, its size and shape would have told her anyway. Not to mention the discreet label from Refuge City’s classiest sex shop, For Her.
She was still struck dumb when she actually unwrapped it.
Gleefully, Catalina said, “It’s called The Raptor! So we knew it was for you.”
“It has eight different speeds and six levels of intensity,” said Fiona.
“And this attachment makes it fun for Merlin too,” said Grace. “I mean, not that he wouldn’t have fun just watching you, but…”
Her face flaming, Dali hurriedly re-wrapped The Raptor and replaced it in its box. “Er… thank you! I’m sure I—we—um, thanks!” She took a huge gulp of her second bicicletta.
Then, remembering a better way to distract them, she scooped up her purse and took out her own gifts. She carefully stacked the boxes on the table, saying, “Ta-da! I made them myself. With a little assistance from the most awesome raptor—er—”
“Marshmallows!” sang out Catalina.
“Truffles!” said Tirzah.
The women pounced like ravening wolves. Or maybe like ravening tigers and leopards. Dali watched, grinning, as they opened the boxes and discovered not marshmallows or truffles, but miniature macarons in six different flavors.
“How darling!” exclaimed Journey.
“What flavors are they?” asked Fiona.
“I—okay, we—did a bachelorette party theme,” said Dali. “They’re strawberry dacquiri, margarita, mint julep, cosmopolitan, White Russian, and Kahlua. Destiny’s are virgin.”
“Unusual macarons,” said Grace. “Excellent!”
“And you don’t need to worry about saving some for your guys,” Dali added. “Merlin has his own set of boxes.”
The women delightedly tried their macarons. The cosmopolitan, which was made with fresh raspberries, was the popular favorite, with a small but vocal contingent preferring the margarita.
Grace clapped her hands. “Okay, we’ve eaten, we’ve drunk, now for the—”
Party games, Dali thought resignedly. She’d always found them awkward and unfunny. But they were traditional, so she’d do her best to get into the spirit…
“—dancing!” Grace concluded. “Tirzah? Hit it!”
As lively dance music began to play over the speakers, the dance floor lit up in pulsating colors. Delighted, Dali hit the floor. The women danced their hearts out, with Grace and Tirzah alternating as deejays while the rest danced, Tirzah spinning in her chair and Grace getting down and dirty. They danced until they were hot and sweaty and could dance no more, and one by one sank down into their chairs.
Dali, flopped down comfortably with her third bicicleta, blinked tipsily as Grace’s voice came over the speakers. “And now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for! A very special treat for a soon-to-be-married woman!”
The music changed to bump-and-grind music as the stage lit up.
Oh, no, Dali thought. A male stripper! That’s even worse than party games.
But her friends meant well. And the rest of the party had been wonderful, and exactly to her taste. They’d miscalculated for this one thing, but Dali would put on a smile and pretend to enjoy it, rather than hurt their feelings. Not to mention the stripper’s feelings.
A man came soaring through the air in a spectacular flip, landing with a solid thud in the center of the stage. Even before he landed, Dali knew who he was. No one else moved with that astonishing grace.
“MER-LIN! MER-LIN! MER-LIN!” the women chanted.
It took Dali a moment to join them, she was laughing so hard. Merlin was wearing a sort of firefighter’s outfit consisting of a helmet, vest, suspenders, pants, and boots—but no shirt. He held a hose in one hand.
“You ladies want to see a little more of me?” he called over the music.
He was met with raucous approval and a shower of dollar bills.
“Let me tell you, it gets hot in the fire house,” Merlin purred. “So hot that sometimes we just can’t stand all these heavy, heavy clothes.”
“Take them off!” Dali yelled, not having to work at all to get into the spirit of it. “Take them ALL off!”
“I think I just might,” said Merlin.
Grace turned the music up, and Merlin proceeded to do a striptease that made Dali squirm in her seat, but not from discomfort. He used the hose in ways that made her jaw drop. He used his body in ways she hadn’t realized were physically possible. As he slithered and danced and crawled and cartwheeled around the stage, he removed his helmet, his shoes, his vest, and revealed more and more of his lithe, muscled body. Dali felt like she was going to spontaneously combust, starting with her panties.
When everything was off but his pants, she couldn’t take it any more. She snatched the hose from his hands, flipped it around his waist, and reeled him in. A moment later, his bare body was pressed against hers, his heated mouth had captured hers, and she was lost in a haze of lust and love.
She wasn’t sure when she looked up, but when she did, the music was off, only the work-lights were on, and everyone was gone but Tirzah—and she was heading out the door.
“Merlin!” Tirzah called, and tossed him something. It flew gleaming through the air before he caught it in one hand: a key. “Lock up when you’re done.”
An instant later, Merlin and Dali were alone.
“How was your party?” she asked breathlessly.
“Fun,” he said. “Yours?”
“Amazing,” she replied. “Now, take it ALL off.”