MY MATE, VALERIAN thought, incredulous. He'd found his mate.

He hadn't been looking, hadn't wanted to find her, but found her he had. As legend claimed, he'd caught the scent of her and had known. Known beyond any doubt. Mine. His every cell had awakened for her, responded to her.

When he and his men had first exited the portal, human sea-warriors clad in strange, tight, black garments had attacked them and tried to drag them onto boats that waited above. There had been a struggle, but the nymphs ultimately won, disposing of both the men and the boats. After that, the nymphs hadn't cared about the scenery of this surface world they'd only dreamed about. They simply wanted to find some women and sweep them to Atlantis.

One female in particular had caught and held his gaze. She was tall and slender, yet beautifully curved, her stomach flat, her hips slightly rounded. Her legs were long and tapered and climbed straight to the new center of his world.

Her angelic face boasted a luscious little chin, glowing cheeks and a daintily sloped nose. Her eyes were big and brown, a rich brown, almost gold, filled with striking vulnerability and undeniable determination, offset stunningly by pale, gloriously long lashes.

He'd never seen skin as fair and luminous as hers, not even on a vampire. Like the very moon he'd seen shining in the heavens, she was soft and radiant. Ethereal. His hands itched to reach out and caress her slowly, lingering and savoring, making sure she wouldn't shimmer away, an unattainable dream.

As to the clothing she wore, well, he vowed to keep her dressed exactly so for the rest of her life. The many strips of green grass hanging from her waist parted with her every breath, revealing succulent glimpses of her thighs. No, he hadn't wanted to find his mate - and a human, no less - and he was angry that he had. But beneath the anger was a possessive hunger he couldn't deny. Didn't want to deny.

He'd been pleasured by women (many, many women) for so many years he'd forgotten what it felt like to desire one on his own. To simply look and crave. Already his blood heated with a seemingly unquenchable fire, and his skin tightened. Mine. His muscles hardened. Mine.

Obviously she hadn't yet recognized him as her mate. In fact, she seemed to want only his disappearance. Humans, he inwardly scoffed. Standing as she was, she appeared untouchable, this mate of his, but touch her he would. He would die if he didn't.

Valerian paused, blinked, the words echoing through his mind. He would die if he didn't. How many times had a woman said something similar to him? That she would die if he didn't touch her? That she would die if he didn't fuck her? He'd never understood that until just now, this moment, studying the little moonbeam.

She was essential to his being. Hate that fact, he might, but there it was.

As he drank her in, her lips parted slightly, as if she couldn't decide whether to suck in a breath or belt out a scream. Valerian wanted her to do both. Wanted to hear his name roll from her tongue as she panted and screamed in climax.

She was his mate - his woman - and he would prove it to anyone who said otherwise. Even her. Oh, yes. His every cell knew it, knew she belonged to him. Never again would he be able to enjoy another woman. Enjoy? he thought. He almost laughed. Had he ever truly enjoyed a woman until now?

He wanted the moonbeam, with her ghostly hair and frosty skin. The moment he had seen her, bathed so prettily by the moonlight, he'd wanted her. The world around him had faded, and he'd seen only her. She radiated an untouchable veneer his every warrior instinct responded to and relished.

Gods, he wanted her. Just looking at her now, his body forgot about the day's excesses. He was starved for a taste of her.

But she had told him no. Several times. She'd run from him, too. Valerian hadn't yet tamped down his shock over that fact. Or his arousal. The warrior in him delighted in the challenge of changing her mind and making her desperate to have him.

His gaze flicked to the small dagger she held, upraised and ready, and the corners of his mouth twitched. Did she really think to keep him from her with such a puny blade?

Oh, but she had a lot to learn about a determined nymph warrior.

"Gather all the unmated females," he told his men, speaking in his native tongue, never taking his gaze from the object of his fascination.

She retreated a step. When she realized what she'd done, she stilled. She straightened her shoulders, raised the blade higher and stepped back into place. Ah, a woman of courage. One who would fight to the death. He grinned, desiring her all the more.

"What do you want with us?" she demanded, using the same language the other surface females had used.

He barely heard her words; he was too entranced by the way her soft-as-petals lips moved so sensuously. By the pink little tongue he'd glimpsed inside. His cock jerked in reaction.

A female suddenly brushed her fingertips over his arm. He tore his gaze from the moonbeam - surely one of the most difficult things he'd ever done - and glanced down. Not just one female, he noticed, but several surrounded him. They had already worked their way to him and his men and were running their hands over them, oohing and aahing, some even rubbing their breasts against them.

Valerian bit back a gasp of shock when he noticed one of the human males trying to kiss Dorian. Dorian wore an expression of utter horror and pushed the determined male away.

"Only the unmated ones?" Broderick asked, his eyes closing in surrender as a pretty brunette licked his collarbone.

"Only the unmated ones," he confirmed. The nymphs would be able to smell another man on the women, and those women with permanent lovers would be left here. If the pale little moonbeam who held him so enraptured had already been mated, he would have taken her anyway. Without reservation. But he knew from her sweet, entrancing scent that she belonged to no man save himself.

Not needing any more encouragement, his men leaped into action, beckoning the unmated females to line up. Of course, these women obeyed without hesitation, their feminine instincts instructing them to obey a nymph's every edict. The mated ones cried in distress because they weren't chosen and tried to shove their way into the line, anyway. Even the male who desired Dorian tried to take a place in line.

When a human man protested the happenings, he was quickly subdued: a hard fist to the temple that swept him straight into slumber. Most were too frightened to do anything and remained hunched and shaking at the edges of the tent. What puny men, Valerian thought. Had they never engaged in battle before? He could not imagine acting in such a way.

He returned his attention to the moonbeam. "Do you know who I am?" he asked her.

"What do you want with us?" she demanded a second time, ignoring his question.

He grinned his most debauched grin. "What any man wants from you. Your body. You will belong to me. Now, come."

Instead of obeying, she bared her teeth in a scowl, revealing a white row of perfection. Why wasn't she entranced by him? Why wasn't she begging for his touch? The mystery intrigued him.

"You can't do this," she spat. "Get out of here before the police arrive and you're arrested."

Police? Arrested? Valerian frowned. "You will change your mind about my possession of you, this I swear." He maneuvered around the women still vying for his attention and closed the distance between himself and the moonbeam. Her dark eyes widened with his every step. The closer he came, the more her delectable fragrance drew him like an invisible chain. Except...

One of his warriors reached her first, his strong arms wrapping around her from behind and swooping her into his arms. She screamed and kicked, fighting like an enraged vampire famished for blood.

A feral growl rose in Valerian's throat, and he bit back a wave of utter fury. Fury over her torment; fury over his intense sense of possessiveness. Mine. She belongs to me. He'd never experienced a moment's jealousy in his life. He and his men shared women all the time. But the sight of another man holding his little moonbeam nearly undid him.

"Mine," he barked. Even though he wanted to rip the warrior's arms away from her, he remained still. "She's mine."

Shivawn paused, the beads in his hair clanging together. The moonbeam continued to fight in his arms, pounding her fists into his face, making him bleed and grimace.

If he dropped her and hurt her, Valerian seethed, he would die.

"But, my king, you said you didn't want any of these surface women. You said they were for us."

He had, Valerian realized. The reminder sent another wave of dark fury pounding through him. He'd never broken his word to his warriors before; they would expect him to keep his promise today, and rightly so. Which meant one of his men would expect to claim this woman, his mate, for his own, stripping her, pleasuring her, watching her climax.

He couldn't allow that.

Every instinct he possessed demanded he do something, anything, to prevent it from happening. Yet there was nothing he could do now and he knew it. Eyes narrowing and hands clenching at his sides, he said, "I will carry her," an edge of steel to the words.

Shivawn regarded him silently for a protracted moment, then shrugged, handing her over. "She's a wild one. Be careful of her legs, for she'll try to kick your manhood." The moment his hands were free, Shivawn grasped another woman, a dark-haired beauty who looked less than pleased by the happenings around her.

Hmm. Very odd. Another unhappy one. What was wrong with these surface females?

Valerian forgot about her, however, as he gently clasped the moonbeam in his arms. She stilled, delicious little bumps breaking out over her skin. She kept her face away from him and wrapped her hands over her stomach. Unable to resist, he burrowed his nose into her neck, breathing in her fragrance of... snow and wild flowers - yes, that's what her scent was - relishing the softness of her pale skin.

"Do you smell my scent?" he asked her.

"N-no. Should I?"

His shoulders slumped with disappointment.

"If you don't put me down," she said stiffly, as if each word were forced from her throat, "I'm going to claw out your eyes and eat them in front of you."

He chuckled, disappointment forgotten. She had a sweet face and a bloodthirsty nature. What a delicious contradiction. "Why are you not begging for me to pleasure you?"

"Are you kidding me?" she gasped out. "Someone needs to check into Egos Anonymous, I see. Now put me down!"

"You did not answer my question."

"And I'm not going to. For God's sake, put me down!"

"I want to hold you. Forever."

A muscle ticked in her jaw, but this time she didn't reply.

"I wish I could give you what you ask," he said, "but too well do I like where you are." The side of her body was pressed into his chest, and everywhere their skin touched, he burned. "Perhaps, though, I would be willing to bargain with you. Perhaps you could convince me to grant your request."

Finally she cast her glance in his direction. When their gazes met, blue against golden brown, he sucked in a breath. Awareness sizzled inside him, stronger than before. Such beauty. His nostrils flared, and he knew his pupils dilated. His body hardened painfully.

She gulped, and her already pale skin became pallid. "No bargaining. Just put me down. Or do you and your steroid goon squad plan to rape us?"

"Rape?" he asked, unfamiliar with the word. Judging by her tone, it was not favorable. "Explain this rape to me."

She did. And in the most disgusted voice he'd ever heard.

He chuckled again. Unconcerned male pig? Unwilling female? "Sweet moonbeam, how you amuse me. I've never forced a woman in my life, and I will never have to. No, when I get you into my bed, you will be desperate for it. Desperate for me."