Rancher Dragon’s Unexpected Mate by Alicia Banks

Chapter One: It Begins

Vinia Hale stood with her head held high before the entire community with her infant daughter in her arms and her four sons standing at her side. Her youngest son, Drake, had tears running down his face. Colton, her eldest, held Drake's hand and tried to comfort him, even though Vinai could see his jaw clench time and time again as he listened to the proceedings. She knew he was hurting as horribly as she herself, but at the moment, she had no ability to do anything about it. The entire situation had gotten completely out of control, and at this point, she was fighting for her own life and those of her children.

The Sacred Gardens. Home of the Green Dragons, a paradise known to only a few outside of their own; a place that even fewer would ever visit. Broken into several provinces, each had their own luscious gardens filled with flowers of every variety, koi ponds of the deepest hues of blue, and a Zen with nature that rivalled none. It was a utopia of peace and serenity, and the dragons lived without fear as they raised their children in the natural beauty and existed as a self-sufficient society.

The Sacred Gardens had one central plaza where all the provinces came together for special occasions. The gardens were richer in color, with a raised gazebo right in the middle which is where they now stood. This place was the only home that Vinia and her children had ever known, but it no longer represented peace and harmony in her world. The beautiful flowers suddenly seemed to be covered with thorns, and the calm, azure-blue pools now appeared to swirl with sharks. People she had known her entire life now stared at her with disgust and contempt. All because they were told to, with no proof, no motive. Weak-minded fools, every single one of them. Traitors to everything they knew and believed. Worthless to her.

You are all weak, her mind screamed at them. One tyrannical leader was sending the sheep to slaughter because he talked a good game and they were too blind to see his self-serving, egotistical ways.

And now she was on trial after losing her husband and her children, their father. And Jeremiah Hale lay in a dark pit on the outskirts of paradise where he would remain for eternity, alone and forgotten. And all for nothing that he had done.

Fury and heartbreak warred within her soul as she listened to the Alpha Dragon King, Ardec, present his case and slander her husband, a man she had loved almost her entire life; at least since she was old enough to attend school. Jeremiah had been dead for almost twenty-four hours, and no one, not her family, her peers, or her friends, had the decency to allow her to grieve. So hungry were they for the scandal and the drama, that the entire island had lost their morality.

Ardec droned on and on, weaving a story of thievery and distrust. "Caught in the act, Jeremiah Hale was detained for the theft of the Idol of Mithras," he paused as there was a collective gasp, "an act that would plunge the Sacred Gardens into darkness and despair. Coward as he was, Jeremiah tried to run and when confronted, he chose to fight. His actions cost him his life, and now he has brought shame and dishonor upon the lives of his disgraced family."

Vinia struggled to remain quiet. She knew that anything she said or did was going to directly reflect on the boys. Colton met her eyes, and she read so much pain and humiliation in them that her soul screamed at the injustice. When she saw a tear roll down Colton's proud cheek, something within her snapped, and she just couldn't contain it any longer.

"Jeremiah Hale did no such thing, you vile, pompous ass," she screamed at Ardec. "You will not speak ill of the dead as you are and get away with it! Not while I have a breath in my body."

As far as she knew, Jeremiah had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. While she hadn't been present and didn't know the whole story of how the details happened, she knew that her husband had been on his way home and had not participated in a robbery that had occurred. A temple had been desecrated, and an invaluable idol stolen. Since he had happened to be passing by, the blame had been firmly placed on him and only him. The guards had beaten him to death.

His brow rose at her outburst, but she read humor in his expression. Carefully concealed, but still present. She struggled to control her tongue to avoid adding to his pleasure. He was enjoying the show, and she was just adding fuel to his fire. His voice boomed across the veranda. "You dare to challenge me? You defend a thief?"

"Where's the idol, Ardec?" Vinia gave up any pretense of being respectful. "Your men killed my husband, in cold blood, as he was walking home. Why didn't they find the idol? By your own admission, Jeremiah was leaving the temple, which means he hadn't had time to go anywhere else.” She paused and let the words sink in, even though she knew they were doing no good. “And yet you still ordered your men to ransack my house and destroy our home." She stepped toward him in her anger. "You told them to tear up my daughter's teddy bear. Who does that? And for what? When would we have had time to hide the idol?"

"Silence!"

She knew she had hit a nerve. "I most certainly will not keep quiet. This lynch mob is ready to see me hanged, but I want an answer. Where is the idol? If you are so certain that you caught the thief of the century, to the point that you are putting babies on the stand, why haven't you found the damned thing? Explain yourself."

He let out a long sigh. "I'm afraid that you will need to be disciplined further than I intended. Your outburst just displays your intent to defend a thief and snub the laws of our society."

The fact that he intentionally sidestepped her question was not lost on her. But when Vinia looked at the crowd for any type of support, all she could see were the crazed eyes of a pack mob who smelled blood. Her shoulders slumped in defeat, but she didn't miss the satisfied grin that Ardec struggled to hide.

"Your family," he announced with a grand flair, "is hereby banished from the Sacred Gardens."

Vinia's heart dropped, and she heard her boys' gasp. She had expected to be cast to the outer province that wasn’t as beautiful as the others, where the residents lived as paupers instead of members of acceptable society. But Ardec was taking it much further than she had imagined. He was hiding something and using her to take the fall.

A new form of panic suddenly mixed with her anger. He was forcing them to leave the Sacred Gardens completely. Where would they go? Her heart broke all over again that Jeremiah would indeed be alone forever in his unmarked grave.

"You will leave immediately," he continued, "and you will never be allowed back. Your family will be wiped from our scrolls, and no record of any of your relatives will be mentioned in any of our genealogy."

She stepped toward him, no longer caring about any of it. "You sonofabitch. My husband did nothing except be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But you know this, and I can't for the life of me figure out why you're pushing things so far. You killed my husband. You killed the father of my children. And you found nothing because he was not the thief." Vinia turned to face the ever-growing crowd. "And you people make me sick. You are blindly following a corrupt master simply because he told you to. If you would just think for yourselves, you'd see that it's not possible for Jeremiah to do that which he was accused of. Where is the idol? she screamed. "WHERE IS THE IDOL?"

Colton touched her arm as Sarah fidgeted in her arms in response to a raised voice. Colton's eyes were hurt, but calm. "It's okay, Mama. We'll be okay. You can't reason with those who have no common sense. Dad wouldn't have wanted you to fight like this."

Ardec pointed at Colton. "Listen to your son. You have one hour to gather your belongings before you are escorted away."

One hour. They were given one hour to pack up what they could carry from their lives. One hour until they knew nothing about their lives, their future, or even their safety. Banished from everything they had ever known. But it wasn't over, not by a long shot.

She stepped right up to him, the only thing stopping her from getting closer was the baby. "You mark my words. I will get my revenge on you. I will make you pay for what you're doing to my children. It may not be in my lifetime, but I will see you in hell."

"Are you threatening me, Vinia Hale?"

A pin drop would have sounded like an explosion as everyone waited eagerly for her answer. She saw the hope in their eyes that she gave them something else to gossip about.

"I would never threaten you, Ardec, not if I didn't think I could follow through. And I will make this promise now with all of these people standing around. I will avenge my husband. I will avenge every rotten action that you are taking right now. Count on it."

Instead of replying, he nodded at the guards. They came to lead her away, but she shook off their hands. "I am perfectly capable of helping myself, thank you."

An hour later, they all took one last look at what was no longer their home. Bags in hands carrying as much as they possibly could, tears flowing freely, and without their husband and father, six lost souls left the Sacred Gardens forever, without much hope of ever being able to look back.

As they sat on the transport, one of the guards pressed a note in her hand so quickly that Vinia had to feel it twice with her fingers to make sure she hadn’t imaged it. She adjusted Sarah in her lap so she could peek at the note without being seen. Colton noticed, but Vinia shook her head not to say anything. She read the words and then tucked the note into Sarah’s diaper.

The guard wouldn’t look at her, and Vinia had about two seconds to decide if she trusted him. She recognized the man as a friend of Jeremiah’s, even though at this point, he could never admit it.

The driver was to ask her one time where she wanted to go. Taking a deep breath, Vinia repeated the words from the note. “Manitou Springs, Colorado.” There was also a name on the note for a person she needed to find when they arrived. Fear choked her as they started to move. The guard met her eyes once and he gave her a slight wink. Being the only person to show her the slightest bit of kindness, she sent up a silent prayer that he was sincere. Her children were counting on it.