"I'VE GOT YOU, MOON."
Strong arms wrapped around Shaye's waist, and she gratefully buried her face in the hollow of Valerian's neck. In that moment she didn't care who was holding her, she was simply happy that someone was. She even wrapped her legs around his waist, strengthening her grip on him. She could finally breathe, she just couldn't stop falling.
"Don't let go," she cried.
She'd never held on to anyone with such force, such need. That Valerian held on to her just as tightly was... comforting, something she'd craved for many years before convincing herself she didn't need or want such a thing. And she would believe it again - tomorrow.
They were spinning faster and faster, left and right, tumbling toward the unknown. Nausea churned in her stomach. She didn't understand what was happening; she only knew the water had disappeared as if it had never been, leaving only this spiraling black tunnel that stretched for eternity.
"Valerian," she panted. "What's happening?"
"Don't worry, love. It will be over in a moment."
Did he speak of death?
Zipping lights once again blazed past her ears, firefly flickers extinguished all too soon and replaced by that thick, oppressive darkness. The bevy of screams increased in volume and shattered her fragile hold on calm. No. No! Her temples hammered with a sharp ache. Her blood froze, yet sweat beaded over her skin. Fear clutched her in a painful grip.
As a little girl, her favorite fairytale had been Alice in Wonderland. Over and over she'd read about Alice falling down the rabbit hole, and had wanted to fall into that hole herself. Not now. Now that she felt like Alice, plummeting into the unfamiliar, she didn't like it.
Alice had landed in a whole new world - and that thought scared Shaye more than never landing at all.
"I'm not sure... how much more... I can take," she gasped out.
Then, suddenly, Valerian hit a solid foundation. His knees bent, absorbing the impact, and the vibration trembled through her. His arms tightened around her waist, holding her up with his determined strength.
"Take a moment to breathe." He slid her down his body inch by gradual inch. "Breathe for me, love. I don't feel your chest moving."
In. Out. Air filled and left her lungs. In. Out. Surprisingly, she did calm. She could smell his scent, salty, sultry. Could feel his heat, his strength.
"Good, good. But you are pale," Valerian said, a hint of concern in his voice.
"I'm always pale," she muttered. Her eyes were squeezed tightly shut, she realized, slowly forcing them to open.
They had entered a cave. She gulped. How had they entered a cave? The walls were bleak and rocky, silver stones splashed with crimson. A metallic tang layered the cold, cold air, and that cold, cold air continued to wrap around Shaye's soaked, nearly bare body, chasing away Valerian's warmth. That frigid breeze ruffled her wet skirt and hair, and she shivered.
She slowly turned, taking in every detail. One by one, the other warriors were walking out of a clear, jellylike pool that swirled mysteriously. They were clasping as many frightened, trembling women as they could hold. Mist curled all around them and drifted to the ceiling. The entire scene was like something found in a movie. Where am I?
Trembling, Shaye faced her captor once again. Her gaze traveled over him, starting at his booted feet, moving up his muscled legs, skipping over his male... parts to his chest. Droplets of water trickled over his tiny brown nipples, through his silver nipple ring, and pooled in his navel. He had no chest hair; not a strand dared mar his perfection. Rope after rope of tantalizing muscle banded his bronzed stomach.
How could one person be so utterly flawless?
Up her gaze went again, finally hitting his face. His savagely, amazingly perfect face. Perfect sandy brows, perfect crystalline eyes, perfect nose. Perfect lips, lush and pink. Of course, he now sported bruises under his eyes because she'd punched him in the nose. Even with the bruises, however, he was the most sensually erotic creature she'd ever seen. He wore confidence like a cloak; he radiated primal ferocity.
Reaching up, he gently traced his fingertips over her forehead, nose and chin, wiping away the water. She wanted to pull away, but couldn't summon the strength. His touch reverberated through her like a live wire. Hot. Scorching.
"Welcome to your new home, little moonbeam." Desire coated his words - as if he had felt the sparks, as well. "Welcome to Atlantis."
Atlantis. She blinked once, twice. Atlantis... the city buried under the ocean? Like the ocean she'd just exited? Her mouth went dry. No way. No damn way. "Please tell me you meant to say Atlanta, as in Georgia, and your accent screwed it up."
His brow puckered. "I know not this Georgia. You heard me correctly. You have entered Atlantis, city of the gods' finest creations. Home to nymphs, vampires, demons and many others that do not bear mentioning, for they are unimportant."
No, no, no. Hell, no. She shook her head, her mind valiantly trying to discredit such an explanation. Atlantis was a myth. It couldn't possibly be real. The creatures he'd named were also myths. They, too, couldn't possibly be real. For God's sake, vampires? Demons? In nightmares, perhaps, but not reality.
Welcome to Wonderland, Alice.
No, no, no, she thought again. There had to be another explanation. And yet... she could think of nothing else. She'd entered the sea, fallen into a dark tunnel, and now stood in a cave. A cave found below the water, not above it.
Atlantis whispered across her mind. She gulped, tightening her hold on disbelief, unwilling to relinquish it even for a moment. To do so meant accepting the craziness of Valerian's claim - the claim of a deranged kidnapper.
"So I drowned, and I'm in hell." Eyes slitted, she tilted her chin stubbornly. "Obviously, you're the devil."
"We shall see. Men," Valerian called, a harsh growl. His penetrating stare never left her face. "Take the women and gather the rest of my army in the dining hall. The choosing will soon begin."
With an air of eager anticipation, the warriors leapt into action. One of them tried to grab her arm, but Valerian stopped him with a feral, "I will bring this one," even as she slapped at the offender's hand.
"As you wish, my king."
King? King! They pounded up a coarse, wooden staircase, the women close on their heels. Most of the men were grinning and clapping each other on the back. "Who will you choose?" she heard one of them say. Another responded with a hearty, "I want the redhead. Her breasts are... " Their chatter faded away.
A single man remained behind. Or perhaps he'd been waiting here in the cave. He wasn't wet like everyone else. He wore a white shirt with a deep V-neck that almost reached his navel and tight black pants.
Valerian finally released her from his stare and turned to the remaining warrior. "How are the prisoners?" he asked.
Prisoners? Shaye's eyes widened, and she clutched at her throat. Dear God.
The man gave a brusque answer in that odd language she'd heard Valerian use earlier, but Valerian shook his head. "Speak in the human tongue."
"Alive," the man said with a frown.
Wait. Human tongue? What did that make Valerian's dialect? Inhuman?
"Have they given you any trouble?" Valerian asked.
"None at all, my king."
"Very good. Continue to see to their needs." He waved in dismissal, scowled, then called the man back. "Has there been any word about our females?"
"Very well," he said, his disappointment clear. "On with you."
The man nodded and clomped off, his boots beating into the rocky ground.
"What prisoners?" Shaye found herself asking on a trembling breath.
"Beasts. Killers." He turned toward her and she was once again hit by the full majesty of him. Icy air at her back, pure heat in front. "Do not fear, for they will not be allowed near you. Some are to be a present to my friend, Layel, and some are to be used to bargain."
How ominous both plans sounded. What did the man have planned for her, then? Was she to be a present for one of his friends? Was she to be used as a bargaining tool?
He watched her with a frighteningly possessive intensity. The water in his hair was already drying, lightening the locks to a rich, honey gold. Several of those amber strands fell over his forehead and trickled tiny, lingering droplets onto his cheeks.
"I see the disbelief in your beautiful eyes," he said, leaning one shoulder against the jagged silver wall, "and I will do my best to prove my claim that this is Atlantis. The faster you accept the truth, the faster you will accept me."
Before she could respond, he reached out and applied pressure to the boulder behind her. His hand brushed her bare skin, shooting those electric shocks through her blood. She twisted, seeing one of the huge rocks embedded in the wall slide backward and sink deeply. As it descended, a secret doorway revealed itself. Rocks creaked and grumbled as they parted. Inch by inch, smooth, glassy crystal was exposed.
Her mouth fell open in an imitation of the doorway. Unbidden, her feet walked her to the edge. Water swirled behind the enclosure, and sand swayed at the sea's bottom. Pink coral and multicolored fish danced a lazy waltz. Emerald plants rose proudly.
"That's the bottom of the ocean," she said, awed and shocked. "That's the freaking bottom of the ocean."
"I know. I discovered this wall only a few days ago and have spent many hours down here. Breathtaking, isn't it?"
A gentle hum echoed in her ears when she flattened her palm against the crystal. The coolness and vibrations of the water assured her this was no hallucination. My God. Atlantis. As she peered out, trying to come to grips with what she was seeing, a gorgeous, dark-haired woman swam up to the crystal. No, not a woman. Shaye's brow furrowed in shock. A mermaid. A bare-chested, tail-wagging mermaid.
Curiosity gleamed in its - her - green eyes. She stretched out a dainty arm and placed her hand exactly where Shaye's rested. Gasping, Shaye jerked away. Shock pounded through her, and her hand fell to her side. Her mouth dried. Her knees shook. The creature frowned... until her gaze latched on Valerian. She smiled, pleasure gleaming in her eyes, and waved.
"You know her?" Shaye managed.
He nodded, but didn't elaborate.
The woman... mermaid... whatever, had the face of an angel, innocent and more lovely than a long-awaited sunrise. Long black hair curled around her delicate shoulders and lush breasts. Her tail shone like spun glass, an irradiance of violets, yellows, greens and pinks, each scale a kaleidoscope of colors. Naked desire adorned her features as she stared at Valerian.
"Do you believe me now?" he asked.
"Yes." The admission left Shaye on a ragged breath. Part of her wanted to sink to the twig-laden floor, curl into a ball and cry. I've been abducted by an Atlantean and carted to a city under the sea. The other part of her wanted to - she didn't know what.
Another mermaid joined the brunette, a symphony of curves and colors, pressing herself against the crystal and smiling seductively at Valerian. Passion glazed her amethyst eyes. Shaye had no doubt what the two women were thinking: three-way.
"You said this is the home of the gods' finest creations," she said softly. Without facing him, she asked, "What kind of creature are you?" He'd already mentioned that he wasn't human.
"I am a nymph." His tone reeked of pride. "The nymph, actually. King of my people. Leader. Warrior." He hesitated. "Lover."
A nymph. Another so-called myth. A sexual being. Seductive. Irresistible. Able to give pleasure with a glance, a word. Beauty personified. Valerian fit the description perfectly, and that frightened her so much more than if he'd said he was a soul-sucking demon from the deepest depths of hell.
"I thought nymphs were... " Obsessed with sex - check. Continuously naked - close. Willing to sleep with anything that moved - probably. "Female," she ended lamely.
He snorted and stepped closer to her. "There are females, yes, but mostly we are males."
God, she had to get out of there. His nearness disturbed her sense of peace and reduced her to a trembling, sex-starved hormone. Already her nipples had hardened. Her stomach quivered. "Take me home, Valerian. I don't belong here."
He didn't reply. The wall began to close, gradually shutting out the view of water, gradually shutting out the now infuriated mermaids banging on the crystal. Shaye covered her mouth with a shaky hand. "Please take me home."
"Love, this is your home now. I swear to you, you will soon come to adore it as I do."
How beguiling he sounded. His husky tone promised endless nights of passion and days of wild abandon.
Resist. Flee. More than ever, she needed the safety of numbness. She squared her shoulders and raised her chin. She would feel nothing for this man; she would be rude, completely unlikable. Sometimes that was the only way to keep someone at a distance. "I'm going home," she said, determined. "With or without your permission."
Before he had time to respond, she jolted into motion and sprinted toward the whirlpool. Her sandals dug into rocks and twigs. Breath caught in her throat, burning, urging her on. Almost there... just another step...
Valerian grabbed her by the arm and twirled her around.
"No!" she shouted, kicking backward.
"If you enter the portal without me, you will die." The words held an unmistakable edge of fury. His hand tightened on her. "You will never be able to swim the length of the water alone. Do you understand? You will die out there, your body nothing more than nourishment for the fish."
She stilled, the blood chilling in her veins. The water... how could she have forgotten the water? As if he'd shackled her wrists and ankles to the wall, she was trapped. Leave and die. Stay and... what? It didn't matter, really. Living here held no appeal - not when she had King Pleasure to contend with.
"You can swim the distance," she said, using her haughtiest tone. "I command you to take me home."
"It is my greatest pleasure to give you anything and everything you request, but I cannot give you that. Anything else you desire will be yours." He released his grip on her arm and traced his fingertip along her collarbone. "One day soon I hope it will be me that you desire."
Red alert, red alert. She had to get away from him, had to escape that tempting wish. How? Where could she go?
"At least tell me your name," he cajoled.
"Up yours." The words emerged breathless, rather than insulting as she'd intended. Exquisite fire trailed the same path as his fingers, then journeyed the length of her spine. Dangerous.
A heavy pause stretched between them. All the while, Valerian radiated a sense of amusement, sadness and anger. Sadness? She frowned. Surely not. Hulking he-man warriors were never sad. Were they?
His arm curved around her waist, an impenetrable force. "Come then, Up Yours, and I will show you the palace." He ushered her up that long, winding staircase, coarse and crudely built.
Not knowing what else to do, she followed without protest. Really, what could she say? Leave me in this cold, dank cave to rot? God, what kind of nightmare had she entered? Every second that passed became more surreal and damning than the last.
There had to be another way home; she had only to find it. Shaye studied the markings on the wall. The higher she stepped, the less jagged the rocks became. They appeared to be dusted with glitter, sparkling and inviting her to touch. Unable to resist, she brushed her fingertip over the smooth surface.
Valerian stopped abruptly. She bumped into his back and gasped at the fiery, full-body contact. As she hastily backed away, he spun around and faced her. He pushed her against the cold wall, his frown fierce, his turquoise eyes gleaming with purpose.
"Close your eyes," he commanded.
His imposing stance didn't frighten her. No, she struggled against a surge of excitement. Heady, blissful excitement. "Hell, no," she said.
"That was not a request, love. That was a demand."
"You should have taken me home when you had the chance. I'll never do anything you say. I told you that before."
One of his brows arched. "Keep your eyes open, then."
She smirked. "Nice try."
He pushed out a frustrated breath. "I do not want you to know the way back to the portal. Do not force me to blindfold you."
"Force you? Please." Her smirk became a glare. "I seriously doubt I could force you to do anything you didn't already want to do. The same holds true for me. I don't like you, I don't trust you and you'll never be able to bend me to your will."
"I could have lied to you." As he spoke, he closed the small distance between them, crowding her, eating up her personal space. But he didn't touch her. No, he left her craving it. "I could have told you that you would go blind if you looked at the rocks. You would not have known the difference. But there will be only truth between us. No matter how harsh, I will always tell you the truth."
Her defiance drained, and fear claimed center stage - past the kernels of desire fighting for life. His tone was so final. He truly expected her to remain here. He truly expected her to obey him. To trust him.
Valerian had said before that he and his men wanted her and the others for their bodies. Translation: sex. Were they to be sex slaves? Was she to be Valerian's slave? Shaye's eyes narrowed to tiny slits. She'd die first - and kill every male within reach in the process. She'd spent her childhood a slave to her parents' edicts. Kiss your new daddy, Shaye. Give that woman my phone number, Shaye. Don't you dare use profanity, Shaye.
She'd fought hard for her independence and would relinquish it to no one.
"Did the other women have to close their eyes?" she asked.
He ran his tongue over his teeth. "No."
"Well, there's your answer."
He leaned his face close to hers, cutting away the remaining distance inch by precious inch. His warm breath caressed her face, but still he didn't touch her. His male scent wafted deliciously. "Unlike you, the others will not try to escape."
"I don't know about that. The one with the curly black hair didn't look happy to be here."
Something dark settled over his expression.
Don't infuriate the man. No telling what he'll do. "What if I promise not to try and escape?" She didn't plan to try, she planned to succeed.
"I would laugh at such a blatant untruth and then scold you for lying to your man."
"You are not my man!"
"Not yet." But I will be echoed between them, unsaid, yet powerful nonetheless.
"Not ever," she said through clenched teeth.
His brow puckered, confusion settling over his beautiful features. "You continue to amaze me. How are you able to resist me with such fervor?"
Was she resisting him? She didn't know. She'd never felt so... needy. Even now, when defiance beat hard fists through her, her heart pounded, her skin stretched too tight. His heat slithered over her, inside her, shattering and chipping away at the ice she prized. Her nipples still reached for him. Her legs parted slightly, inviting an intimate glide, a hard press. Just... inviting.
His nostrils flared as if he sensed her growing arousal. If he moved another inch, he'd mesh himself fully against her. Finally. Part of her screamed in protest, part of her trembled in welcome.
"I want to touch you and kiss you, love, and feel - "
"No!" she shouted. "No kissing. No touching. And for God's sake, stop calling me 'love.'" But, oh, the thought of his lips feasting on hers was heady. "I don't know you, and like I said, I damn sure don't like you. You abducted me. You deserve jail time, not a make-out session."
"I can make you like me." He braced his palms on each side of her head, trapping her in a hard, muscled circle, touching her hair but not her skin. "Oh, I can make you."
The truth of his claim shimmered between them unmercifully. Because deep down, she admitted that with every second that passed, she liked him more. She wanted him more. Wanted that skin-to-skin contact he was denying her. Was he doing it on purpose? Making her desperate for something she couldn't have?
Idiot! Shaye didn't need a lot of experience with men to know she dangled on a precarious edge. If he pushed, she would crumble. She would take the momentary pleasure he offered and be glad for it. But in the taking, she would be no better than the others, forgetting his atrocious crime and throwing herself at his sexy feet.
She'd be one of those pathetic creatures who did anything for pleasure, everything for love. Just like her mom.
Make him despise you. Hurt him. Now! Determined, she jerked up her knee. He anticipated the action and jumped backward, out of striking distance. His mouth thinned and firmed.
"I warn you now." He met her gaze, otherworldly blue against plain brown. Determination against determination. "Fight me if you must, but do not attempt escape. I will punish you, have no doubt."
She forced herself to snort. "I haven't begun to fight. And what the hell do you mean, you'll punish me?" The fury she didn't have to force. It increased with every word she uttered. "A little while ago you said you could never hurt me."
"There are ways to punish a woman that will not physically hurt her."
"And I bet you know every one of them, you sick pervert."
He released a long, frustrated sigh. "We have not the time to fight right now. Come. I will show you Atlantis before we meet with the others." Reaching out, he offered her his hand.
She stared at his blunt-tipped fingers, at the calluses and scars slashed across his palm, a contrast to his perfect beauty. As she stared, her anger drained. Total strength lay there, dormant now, but ready to kill at any moment. Except... he could have crushed her with those hands at any time. He'd shown her nothing but gentleness.
Foolish woman, she chided, placing her hand in his. Of course he hasn't hurt you. He needs a healthy sex slave. His fingers intertwined with hers. At the moment of contact, dark, erotic pulses tingled through her. They'd touched before, and each time had elicited sparks. But this time... it was more intense. A deeper awareness in this skin-to-skin contact she'd wanted so badly but hadn't wanted to want. Gasping, she tried to tug away from him, to sever the connection. He held tight.
"Mine," he said.
She bit the inside of her cheek against the pleasure that one declaration wrought. "I don't understand any of this. I don't understand you."
"You will. In time."
The dire words - warning? promise? - rang in her head as she climbed the rest of the wooden stairs. At the top, two gleaming crystal doors were held open by giant rubies. Jeweled doorstops?
Curiosity got the better of her. "Why do you have the entrance propped open like that?"
"A dragon medallion is needed to open and close the doorways, and I do not wish to wear anything belonging to a dragon." He spat the word dragon as if it was a foul curse.
What kind of response could she offer to that?
He tossed a frown over his shoulder. "And you had better not try to search for a medallion. If you do, you will be punished."
"Will I be punished for breathing?" she snapped. He seemed to be looking for an excuse to punish her.
"If it is done in the direction of another man, yes." The warning was serious, though the tone lacked true heat.
He flicked another glance over his shoulder. This time his lips were curled in a wicked half smile, and knowing intent sizzled in his eyes like blue fire. "Say that while we're naked. I dare you."
She gulped and tore her attention away from him. A smart woman would have been memorizing her surroundings for possible escape routes instead of antagonizing (aka drooling over) her captor.
Shaye forced herself to act like a smart woman. Down a long, winding hallway they strode, the walls jagged once again and completely barren, offering no distinguishing marks to help her find her way back. They turned left. Left again. Right. Left. Right. They bypassed several open doorways, but they moved so quickly she had no chance to peek inside. The sound of their footsteps echoed throughout the hall.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"Your what?" Mouth opening and closing, she dug her sandy, squishy sandals into the marble floor. "Hell, no. Hell. No."
He could have dragged her along, but he stopped and faced her. His luscious mouth twitched in amusement. "We will not make love tonight unless you beg me for it. Does that appease this sudden fear you have of my room?"
"No," she gritted out.
"I wish only to show you the Outer City from my window." He sighed another of those long, drawn-out exhalations. "Unfortunately there is not time for anything more."
Glaring, she anchored her hands on her hips. "You're lying. Your kind always has time for sex."
"My kind?" The smile quickly faded from his face. "By that I hope you mean the honest kind. I vowed never to lie to you, and I will not. My honor demands nothing less. I said I will not touch you tonight until you beg for it, so that is the way it will be."
Shaye didn't allow his fervent vow to sway her. Even if he kept his word and kept his hands to himself, they would be near a bed. Most likely a decadent, made-for-sin bed. What if she saw it, lost her will to resist, and made a pass at him? "Your honor doesn't mean shit to me. I'm not going to your bedroom."
A muscle ticked in his jaw. An inferno blazed in his eyes, a churning tempest of blues. From cerulean to azure to the palest violet. "Very well," he said, each syllable precise. "We will not steal a moment for ourselves. We will join the others. I can only hope your prudish nature will prevent my men from choosing you."
"Choosing me for what?" she bit out, ignoring the "prudish" comment. She suspected the answer, and she almost screamed when it came.
His brows arched, and his lips dipped downward. "For their bedmate, of course."