December provided one cold front after another. Kayla couldn’t remember a winter when it got so cold, so early for so long. That was Marcie’s excuse when the January rent was due – and Christmas, of course. That was the reason Marcie brought in another roommate. This one was a young woman and she was going to be the new babysitter. Lindsey was ultra-thin and her expression often looked vacant. Her eyes were bloodshot and the pupils were so dilated that at first Kayla thought the blue-eyed blond had brown eyes.
Marcie said that Lindsey had lost her job and needed a place to stay. She would babysit Stephanie for her part of the rent and that way Marcie could use what she was paying a babysitter to help pay the rent. It sounded logical, but Kayla had a bad feeling about it. This time she didn’t tell her mother. Perhaps she should mind her own business, but when did a person reach the point that they looked away when a child might suffer?
The more she thought about it, the more concerned she became. That was why she finally decided to ask someone who had some experience in the landlord business – Drake, the dragon.
It took all the courage she could muster to visit his home, and when he didn’t answer her first timid knock, she gave serious thought to abandoning her plan. That was when Drake the dragon answered the door – his expression much like she had imagined it would be the first time she came to his door. It lacked the warmth she had seen in the parking lot – when she had ignored him.
He scowled at her. “What do you want this time? I’m sorry, but I’m all out of dead-beat renters at the moment.”
Warmth rushed up her neck and spilled onto her cheeks. “Oh…I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have bothered you. I’ll just leave and….”
“Wait.” The scowl left his face as he opened the storm door. “I was in the middle of a scene and…” He shook his head. “No, there is no excuse for me being so rude. Come in out of the cold.” He held the door open wider, and when she hesitated, his tone gentled. “I really am sorry. I’m glad to see you.”
She shook her head. “I wanted to talk to you about something…but this is obviously a bad time. I should have called.”
He gave her a wry smile. “I probably would have let the phone ring. I get this way when I’m writing. My thought train has already been de-railed and conversation with you would probably be more interesting anyway.”
She frowned. “You’re a writer?”
He chuckled. “And an author, but don’t let that intimidate you. Come on in.”
She had already interrupted his work, there was no point in insulting him as well. She stepped into the house and he shut the door. She followed him to his office. “I didn’t realize you were a writer. What do you write about?”
He used his mouse to save a document on his computer and when his gaze lifted, it landed on a book on his desk. She followed his gaze. It was the book she had commented on the last time she was in his office. It took her a moment, but when the thought occurred to her, she caught her breath.
“You’re Ayden Scott?”
He nodded and indicated a chair with the wave of a hand. “The one and only. I’m writing a sequel. Have a seat and tell me what’s on your mind.”
For a moment she stared at the chair. She should probably leave and let him get back to his writing. He had neither the time nor the interest to entertain her problems.
He stepped around his desk. “Let me take your coat. I’ll go get us some coffee while you organize your thoughts. I imagine you’re here about Marcie.”
She sat her purse in the chair and allowed him to help her out of her coat. When he left the room, she set her purse in the floor and sank into the comfortable chair. He was all out of dead-beat renters. He had asked how things were going with Marcie when they met in the park. Did he feel guilty about getting rid of Marcie? He shouldn’t.
He returned with two cups of coffee and placed one steaming mug in front of her. “Be careful. It’s hot.”
Great. Now he felt it necessary to warn her that the coffee was hot. He probably thought she was an idiot. She hadn’t given him much reason to think otherwise.
He settled into his chair and took a sip of his coffee before setting the cup on his desk. He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest, fixing her with an expectant gaze.
She had his full attention, but she didn’t know where to begin – or if she should talk to him about it at all. Well, she was here and the worst he could say was tough luck.
“I hoped you could give me some advice. You have more experience with this kind of thing.”
He studied her face. “By this kind of thing, I assume you mean that Marcie isn’t paying the rent.”
She shrugged. “She usually pays it – eventually.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Or someone does, anyway.”
“Did she have roommates here too?”
He grunted. “She tried to. I reminded her that her contract stated that she had to pay more rent if more people were living there.”
“I never thought about that.” She shrugged again. “If I had thought about it, I would have decided it was unfair.”
His laugh was short and void of humor. “That’s what I thought at first, but I had the guidance of my parents. They were kind and caring people. I knew that if they had the contract written up like that, there was a reason. I didn’t take it out and I’m glad I didn’t.” He reached for his cup and gave her another wry smile over the rim. “You’re not the first person to fall into that trap. Don’t beat yourself up over it.”
“Probably not. I wish someone had told me…” She cut the thought off. It sounded like she was blaming him.
He set the cup down again and frowned. “I don’t know. If you hadn’t come in here with that chip on your shoulder, acting like I was some kind of demon, I might have sat you down and talked to you about it, but you clearly weren’t in the mood to listen.”
“I wasn’t inferring that you were to blame. I guess I was a little snooty about it. I believed everything Marcie told me.”
“So did I – at first. She can be pretty convincing. I figured I fell for it because she was so pretty. Apparently not.”
“Her reasons are logical. I feel sorry for her because she works so hard.”
“She chose her profession. It’s not like she couldn’t do something else. She’s an intelligent and imaginative woman.” He shrugged. “What a waste that she doesn’t apply her talents in a more constructive way.”
That was true, but she didn’t come here to discuss Marcie. “I thought you might give me some kind of idea about how I can get out of this mess.”
He rubbed his neck and looked away. “You could always dump her on some unsuspecting fledgling landlord.”
“This isn’t your fault. As you pointed out, I wouldn’t listen.”
His gaze returned to her face. “Everyone isn’t like that, but the ones who are sure ruin it for other renters. I just ate the loss rather than deal with it. Then you came along.…” He shook his head and looked away. “I should have told you.”
“You did, in a way. I just didn’t believe you.”
He let out a long sigh. “Well, about the only thing you can do is evict her, but you’ll have to prove she broke the contract. Even with that, you’ll still need to get a lawyer.”
She frowned. “I don’t know if I want to evict her yet. Where would she go? I’d be putting Stephanie out of a home too.”
He shook his head. “Then you’ll just have to absorb the loss in income. I felt bad for the daughter too. I even thought of turning Marcie to child welfare, but even if they found just cause to take her away, would that be better for the daughter?”
“I don’t want to get Stephanie taken from her…and I can’t afford to eat the loss, either. Mrs. Langley trusted me to make the payments and I don’t want to let her down either.”
He leaned forward in his chair and placed his elbows on the desk. “I’m sorry. I’m not much help. Maybe you could get a lawyer.”
“I can’t afford a lawyer.” She grimaced. “Unless I commit a crime, and then one would be assigned to my case.”
He smiled and his eyes were warm with humor. “Don’t kill the person who let you walk into this mess.”
She sighed as she stood. “It appears that even after all that has happened, I’m still unwilling to follow your advice. I bet you’re wondering why I interrupted you.”
He stood. “No, actually, I was wondering if you would let me take you to dinner.”
She picked up her purse. “Now I’ve got you feeling sorry for me. You’re a kind person, but I’ll work this out – somehow.”
He walked around his desk and paused in front of her. His gaze traveled over her face. “I didn’t offer to take you on a date out of pity.” He cupped her chin in his hand. “You’ve got a down deep inside where it counts kind of beauty.”
She grimaced and gently pushed his hand from her face. “Actually, I’m not very nice. I thought you were a slumlord. Marcie and I joked about you being a dragon and I was the dragon slayer – the landlord slayer. I’m not nice.”
He laughed. “Kayla, the Landlord Slayer. I like that. As for my being a dragon, have you forgotten that when I opened the door today I was practically breathing fire?”
She smiled. “Well, yes, but I had also forgotten that you were in the middle of a paragraph, and here I stand, still keeping you from your work.”
He followed as she walked out of the room. Her gaze fell on the huge bookcase, adorned with all its dragons.
“Marcie said you had a dragon collection.”
“It was my mother’s. I suppose, in a way it inspired me to write my first novel. After I started it, I discovered the writer was always there. It just wanted out.”
Marcie hadn’t lied about the dragon collection being his. She simply jumped to the conclusion that the collection was born of something evil instead of love. And Kayla had accepted it without question.
Her coat hung on a rack beside the door and when she reached for it, he grabbed it and helped her into it.
“So how about dinner? I’m a persistent dragon.”
She looked up at him. “Are you sure you’re not asking out of guilt?”
He placed a hand over his heart. “I swear to God and hope to die if I lie.”
She giggled. “Well, it does sound nice.”
He lifted his brows. “Then it’s a date?”
“It’s a date.”
“I’ll pick you up at five?”
“Sounds good to me.”
He walked her to her car and opened the door for her. A twinkle came into his eyes. “You realize, of course, that I might still be on that paragraph.”
She climbed into the car and smiled up at him. “If you don’t show up, I’ll know where to find you. I might get that free lawyer after all.”
He laughed as he shut the door. “Thanks for the warning.”
She drove home with a smile on her face. She hadn’t solved her problem, but she was certainly feeling more positive. She’d find an answer, and maybe Drake the dragon would provide more help than he thought he would. He had already provided her with some valuable insight. Neither she nor Drake were dragon landlords. The real dragon lived in the duplex beside her.
That evening, when she was eating dinner with Drake at a nice restaurant, she spotted Marcie with a woman she didn’t recognize. Drake followed her gaze and lifted his brows.
“No wonder she doesn’t have the money for rent.”
That thought had crossed her mind as well, but in all fairness, there might be a reason. “Maybe her friend is paying for it.”
Drake took a sip from his water glass, his eyes meeting hers as he spoke. “She must have a lot of friends who pay for her.” He shrugged. “I know she has one person who helps her out of compassion.”
Kayla shrugged. “Innocent until proven guilty.”
Drake said nothing more about it.