VALERIAN HAD TO CARRY his intended mate to the dining hall. Something he enjoyed immensely, even though she kicked and shouted profanities the entire way. Her breasts pressed into his back, her legs draped over his stomach.

He grinned. Oh, but he liked this woman's spirit. How amusing she was. He only wished he knew her name. Up Yours, indeed. She refused to tell him the truth, and that he didn't like. He hadn't cared before, with other women, but knowing this one's name seemed necessary for his survival.

"I will not be your sex slave, and I will not be your army's sex slave. Do you understand me? I won't!"

No, she would be his lover. His mate. His. And only his. Earlier he had seen the way his men glanced at her, the way their gazes had trailed over the curve of her waist, awaiting glimpses of the pale skin beneath her grass skirt.

Perhaps he would not keep her dressed that way, as he'd first thought. Perhaps he would drape her in thick, dark cloth from head to toe. As it was, one of his warriors would probably try to select her. What man could resist the fire burning beneath the cool facade, begging for release?

Valerian would kill before he allowed another man to have her.

He'd told her that his honor would not allow him to lie, but really, honor meant nothing in the face of losing her. He'd lie, he'd cheat, he'd do whatever was necessary to ensure that no other man tried to claim her.

As he turned a corner, Valerian wished the little moonbeam would have let him take her to his room. He would have shown her the city view as promised, yes, but he also would have utilized the stolen time to the fullest. He would have tempted and tantalized her until she thought only of him. A forbidden caress, a lingering, heated glance. His men would have seen how much she desired him, only him, and would have been less inclined to choose her.

Now he would have to think of something else.

"Take me back to the beach," she said, beating her fists against his buttocks. "Right now, damn it! I'm through playing nice. Do you hear me?"

"I am not sure how many different ways I can tell you that this is your home and you are staying here forever." Perhaps it was best they hadn't gone to his room. Now he could get the selection process over with. Now he could prove she belonged to him. Now his men could concentrate on their chosen.

He, of course, could then concentrate on... Up Yours. "What is your name?" he asked. While her continued defiance was amusing, it was also frustrating.

"When the cops hear about this you'll... you'll... this is kidnapping, you bastard."

That she didn't want him and would have been happiest if he'd left her on the surface world was as humbling as it was shocking. "You are frightened," he rationalized. "I am sorry for that."

"Frightened? Ha! I'm pissed."

Despite her denial, he knew she was scared. Her heartbeat drummed erratically against his back, and he could feel the shallow exhalations of her breath against his skin. She fought the emotion, however, showing only fury. His admiration for her increased.

Gods, he wanted - nay, needed - her. To kiss her. To know the taste of her tongue. He'd come close to kissing her in the cave. But one touch of her sweet little tongue, and he would not have been able to stop. One touch and he would have needed a second and a third. He knew it. He would have spread her legs, laved his tongue through her heat, then pounded inside her to the hilt. So deep she would only have been able to gasp his name.

He knew women and knew this one would be violent with her passions. Look at the way she reacted to anger and fear, like a hissing, scratching wildcat. Her sexual desire would be no different. Once she unleashed her inner fire, she would erupt into flames, burning her lover to sated ashes.

That passion belonged to him, he mused darkly.

Frowning, he came to a halt. "Will you attack any man who attempts to claim you?" With a gentle tug, he moved her body down his. Slowly, so slowly. Their naked stomachs brushed, and she sucked in a breath. His muscles jumped in excited reaction.

She might deny it, but she was aware of him in a very sexual way.

"Will you attack them?" he repeated. He'd plant the suggestion in her mind, if necessary.

"Damn right I will." Her eyes glared amber fire at him, daring him to contradict her or threaten to punish her. "I'll fight to the death. Their deaths."

As if he would punish her for something he wanted desperately. His lips edged into a contented smile. Since he could not make her admit her desire for him - yet - this was the next best thing.

Get this over with. Urgency filling him, he intertwined their fingers and pulled her behind him. They quickly bypassed the training arena, as well as the kitchens. "Do you like the palace?" he asked before she could begin protesting again. See the beauty, he silently commanded. Sconces decorated the walls, flames flickering inside and illuminating the path.

Her eyes locked on the murals, murals so vivid they almost looked alive. Sensual multihued scenes, all, where naked men, women and creatures of every race writhed in different stages of orgasm. He and his men had painted the scenes to make the palace theirs, not the dragons'.

Nymphs were natural wanderers, flittering from one location to the other, always searching for the next sexual conquest. They'd never cared where they resided. But Valerian had grown weary of that type of existence. He'd wanted more for himself, more for his people. He could not pinpoint exactly what had made him feel this way; he only knew that a sense of restlessness had been growing inside of him for months and that the thought of wandering had no longer held any appeal.

When he learned a mere hatchling of a dragon had been left in charge of this palace, he'd decided to take it. Quickly. Easily.

And so he had.

He did not regret the decision. Once he'd entered the palace, his restlessness had been replaced by rightness. Valerian tilted his head as a thought occurred to him. Perhaps he needed to take the woman at his side the same way he'd taken the dragon palace. With cunning. With precision. With an absolute lack of mercy.

Oh, yes. Slowly his lips lifted in a grin. She would soon find herself on the receiving end of a full-scale, irresistible attack. He could hardly wait to begin.

"Do you like the palace?" he asked again.

She hesitated before saying, "I'll be honest. Your home... the walls, remind me of you."

Our home, little moonbeam, our home. "Thank you."

Frowning, she slapped at his hand, trying to force him to release his hold. "That wasn't a compliment."

"Being told pictures of sex make you think of me is not a compliment?"

Her mouth fell open, but she snapped it closed. "That's not how I meant it, and you know it."

He chuckled. "Deny it all you want, but every time you look at me you think of naked flesh and writhing pleasure."

"Don't forget the gag and rope," she growled. "Let me go."

"I like the sound of the rope."

"You would, you dirty pervert."

The air was heavy with anticipation and excitement as he stepped into the dining hall. Up Yours stilled, gasped. He stopped and wrapped an arm around her waist. For once, she didn't protest. Didn't fight. Shock probably held her captive.

"We have arrived," he announced. A contingent of warriors lined one side of the room. A sweet-smelling cluster of females lined the other. And a large wooden table etched with fierce dragon heads separated them.

He'd meant to destroy the table, for he wanted no dragon possession in his home. But he'd found no other table large enough for his men.

Perhaps he'd keep it and love his woman on it.

The walls were plain onyx and ivory. Before, sapphires and emeralds, diamonds and rubies had glittered from the wide expanse, but they had been removed by human soldiers months ago. Those humans had been slaughtered by dragons, providing the opportunity Valerian needed to sneak his men inside and conquer.

Usually nymphs only attacked when provoked, keeping their bestial natures under strict control. Yet dragons were enemy to the only ally they possessed: the vampires. Unlike every other race in Atlantis, the vampires did not curse the nymphs for their power over women; they did not seethe with jealousy. Layel, the king, found it amusing.

Wiggling at Valerian's side, his mate said, "I'm not placing myself on the menu of this - this smorgasbord." Her elbow slammed into his stomach, almost knocking the air from his lungs.

"Be still, woman."

"Die, bastard."

His men watched them with varying expressions of horror. He'd taught each of them the surface language, for he believed knowledge equaled power, so they knew exactly what the little moonbeam had said to him. Women simply did not act that way. Not with Valerian, at least. Women loved and worshipped him. They fought for his notice. They begged for his touch.

They did not command him to die!

He was not embarrassed by this display, however. No, he was elated. If Valerian, the most desired of the nymphs, failed to woo her, his men would know that they were destined to fail with her, as well. And by choosing her and failing, they would be forced to sleep alone this night, something they would hope to avoid. For right now, they wanted sex. Not love, not a mate. Just sex.

Valerian had to force himself to frown when he tapped her bottom, knowing it would encourage her antics all the more.

She screeched. "Did you just spank me? Tell me you didn't just spank me, Valerian, before I introduce your nose to my fist. Again."

Ah, he loved hearing his name from her soft, pink lips. Because her face was so pale, the color of her lips stood out like a beacon, lush and begging to be sampled.

"I'm waiting," she growled.

"No. You're beautiful."

At first her expression softened and he was given a glimpse of a sweet and vulnerable female. He almost kissed her, unable to help himself. Then fury sparked in her eyes, driving away the heart-melting image. "Don't talk to me like that. I don't like it."

He blinked. She would rather he utter mean things? Interesting. Confusing and odd, as well, but something to ponder. Why would a woman want such a thing? Was it a defense against him?

"My king," Broderick prompted. "We are ready. We have instructed the women to remain in line until they are chosen."

A quick count revealed more men than women. "My elite will pick first," Valerian said. They had fought in more wars, were stronger, faster, and needed sex more than an average solider.

The elite cheered. The others groaned in disappointment.

"Stay quiet," he said to his woman, knowing very well she would do the opposite. "And stay in this line. My men need a good look at you."

To his utter delight, she retorted, "Like hell. No matter how eager everyone else might be, I will not quietly accept this T-and-A pageant. I will not passively stand here."

Except... she didn't bolt. No, she pressed into his side, allowing him to surround her with his strength, though she still wouldn't face him. Her shoulder brushed his chest, and several strands of her silky hair caught in his nipple loop. He could hear the erratic beat of her heart, could feel the warmth of her soft, soft skin.

He splayed his fingers over her rib cage, and she shivered.

He had to see her face, had to see what emotions lingered there. Helpless, he cupped her chin and forced her to look at him. Their gazes clashed and held. The rest of the world faded away, as it always seemed to do when he looked at her. Her eyes were dark velvet, rich and warm, absolutely riveting in her pale face.

"What is your name?" he found himself asking again.

"There's no reason for you to know," she said breathlessly. She licked her lips, then ran the plump bottom between her teeth. His cock jumped in reaction. "I'm leaving soon. Very soon."

As if he would ever allow this delicious morsel to leave him. "If I promise to help you drive these men away," he whispered, "will you tell me?"

"I - maybe." Her eyelids slitted, and the length of her lashes cast spiky shadows over her cheeks. "Why would you help me?"

Why indeed. The answer should be obvious to her. "I want to keep you for myself." He stated the words as baldly as possible, smiling slowly, eagerly. He needed an extreme reaction from her. Anything to appall his men further.

As he'd hoped, she began struggling against him. "I am not a piece of meat. This is not a buffet. You should be ashamed of yourself."

Valerian forced himself to sigh. "If you will not remain in line, I will be obligated to hold you here." A wave of triumph swept through him. Things were working out just as he'd hoped. "Broderick," he called.

"Yes, my king." Broderick stepped forward, his color high.

"As second-in-command and leader of the elite, you may have first choice." Valerian loosened his hold on his captive so that her movements were more obvious. She squirmed all the harder, her pants and grunts filling the air. The actions, the sounds, aroused him.

Broderick grinned and approached the females, starting at the far end. Feminine twitters and purrs echoed throughout the spacious enclosure. "Pick me, pick me," erupted.

Relishing his role, the warrior slowly edged his way down the line, stopping here and there to unzip a woman's dress and peek at her breasts. For a joyous few, he also sampled a taste of their nipples. Unfortunately, he had not made his selection by the time he reached the little moonbeam, and he studied her with desire in his emerald eyes.

Valerian's jaw clenched. Mine, he thought again, tightening his grip.

Broderick reached out to part the woman's grass skirt.

"I'm Shaye," she said in a rush, the words almost a screech. "My name is Shaye Octavia Holling."

Valerian knew immediately what she wanted from him. I'll help you drive the men away if you tell me your name, he'd promised her. Promised Shaye. Shaye. He rolled the name over his tongue, savoring. Relishing. The name fit her. Seemingly cool, aloof, yet utterly sensual.

"Kick him," he breathed into her ear. "Hard."

She did so without hesitation, bringing up her leg and slamming her foot into Broderick's stomach. The stunned warrior propelled backward, tripped over his own feet and tumbled to the ground. The rest of the army burst into gales of laughter. Broderick popped to a stand, frowning at Shaye in confusion.

Valerian bit back a grin. His second-in-command quickly selected a pretty, sedate brunette. They rushed from the dining hall without a backward glance. One down...

"Dorian." Valerian nodded to the black-haired man, whose muscled body emitted a palpable air of eagerness. "You are next." To Shaye - ah, he couldn't get enough of her name, as delicate and lovely as the woman herself - he whispered, "When he approaches you, ignore him. Do not even look at him."

"Are you sure?" Shaye couldn't believe she was relying on Valerian to get her out of this mess. He was the one responsible for it! But she could think of no alternative. Letting one of these barbarians "claim" her, then drag her away and do God knows what to her, held no appeal. "Won't ignoring him bring out all his caveman instincts?"

"Not with this man." He sounded amused.

Dorian had onyx hair and irises so blue they rivaled the ocean in purity. His mouthwatering beauty was something out of a fairy tale. Somehow, his features were even more perfect than Valerian's. He didn't make her ache, however. He didn't fill her mind with X-rated images of naked, straining bodies.

Shaye's stomach churned with nervousness as the man followed Broderick's example and considered every woman in line. He looked, he tasted, he enjoyed a little too much. Shaye was offended for the women. How dare he treat them so casually? It didn't matter that they seemed to love it. Didn't matter that they asked for more.

When he reached her, he remained out of striking distance and crossed his arms over his massive chest. He studied her, his intense gaze lingering on her every curve. Several seconds ticked by and Valerian stiffened.

"Remove the shells," Dorian finally said. "I would see your breasts."

Ignore him had been Valerian's advice. She turned her chin away from Dorian and studied her cuticles. If he tried to remove the bra himself, he'd walk away with a bloody stump in place of his hand.

"Did you not hear me, woman? I said, remove the shells."

She yawned - a nearly impossible feat. With Valerian's strong arms banded around her, she was foolishly turned on. Not bored. Despite every other emotion - fear, anger, affront - her desire had remained. Grown. She didn't feel like her normal self around the vain, egotistical giant. She felt like a sexual being whose only purpose was pleasure. Giving and receiving it.

Why had she not felt this way on any of the dates she'd gone on? Why now? Why this man?

Dorian expelled a frustrated breath. He tangled a hand through his silky hair and eyed his boss. "Valerian, make her look at me."

Valerian lifted his shoulders in a shrug. "I cannot force her eyes to you."

"But - "

"Is she the one you want or not?" The words lashed from him, abrupt, harsh. Filled with impatience. "The others are waiting for their turn."

A scowl darkened Dorian's features. He spun away from Shaye and stalked to the only redhead in the group. "I choose you."

The degrading debacle continued for half an hour. Only one other woman seemed upset by the happenings, the same woman who'd been as unwilling as Shaye to blithely walk into the water with the nymphs. She was a tiny thing and very pretty, with dark, curly hair, wide, dark eyes and a button nose. And, despite her innocent, school-girl features, she radiated dark, wild sensuality.

Unfortunately, she was selected by a tall warrior with beads in his sandy-colored hair. One of the men still in line - she couldn't see which - slammed his fist into the wall, the force of it reverberating through the room. "I wanted that one," he growled.

"Too bad for you, Joachim," was the smug reply. "She's now mine." Beaded Hair clasped Nervous's hand and tugged her from the line.

She dragged her heels, but didn't utter a word in protest.

Obviously puzzled, he glanced over his shoulder and frowned. "Do not be afraid. I will not hurt you."

The girl chewed on her bottom lip, tears in her eyes.

"Let her go," Shaye shouted. She'd seen enough. "Let her go right now! She doesn't want to leave with you."

His frown deepened, and he glanced at Valerian in confusion. "But... I chose her."

The girl leveled a frightened, watery gaze on Shaye. Still she didn't speak, just continued to bite her bottom lip.

"Valerian." Shaye latched on to his wrist and squeezed. "You have to do something about this. She doesn't want to leave with him."

Seconds passed in absolute silence. "What will you give me in return?" he finally replied. "If I do something as you've so sweetly asked, my men will think me odd. But if I was to receive compensation, I would be willing to risk their displeasure."

"I'll allow you to live," she said through clenched teeth. "That should be payment enough."

He chuckled, a husky, sensual sound of pure enjoyment.

Damn him and his amusement!

"I'll be nice to you. For a little while," she grumbled.

He didn't hesitate. "Do you wish to be chosen by another warrior?" he asked the woman.

Her eyes roved over the remaining, eager men. She shrank back, gulped. Then she slowly shook her head.

"Take her, Shivawn, but do not touch her unless you have her permission. And do not force her to give permission," he added as an afterthought. He paused. "Does that satisfy you, Shaye?"

The way he said her name... she shivered and forced her mind to the matter at hand. No, it didn't satisfy her. But she knew he would not let the girl return to the beach. "Can Shivawn be trusted to obey your command?"

"All of my men obey me." There was a good amount of affront in his tone. "Go," Valerian told the couple.

Shivawn hurried the girl from the room before Shaye could utter another protest. Another man, the one who had hit the wall, swore under his breath.

And on the "selection" continued.

Every time a soldier approached her, Valerian told her exactly what to do. Spit, curse, faint. Thankfully, no one selected her. The line dwindled significantly, until only Shaye and a few others remained. Everyone else had adjourned to their rooms.

Later, when this was over, she suspected Valerian would demand some sort of reward for his aid. More than just her promise to be "nice." He copped a feel when attention was diverted from them, tracing his fingers over the curve of her hip. Dipping his thumb into her navel. Her nerve endings were on fire, clamoring for more of him.

Oddly, his possessive manner thrilled a secret part of her. A part she hadn't known existed. When someone approached her, he stiffened. A few times, he even growled low in his throat, as if he had withstood all that he could.

"It's almost over," he whispered. His breath fanned her ear as he trailed a fingertip along the bumps of her spine.

She almost slumped into a boneless heap. Only the sudden, unexpected feeling of being watched strengthened her resolve to appear unaffected. She felt a heated gaze boring into her, laden with purpose and determination. Eerie goose bumps broke over her as her eyes darted across the remaining men - and collided with a handsome brunet.

His heavy-lidded, come-to-my-bed stare slammed into her, and she stiffened. He scared her. There was menace in his eyes.

"Lean on me if your feet hurt," Valerian said, mistaking her reaction.

She pulled her attention from the dark-haired man. "I'm fine," she said, nearly breathless. Then she frowned; she'd meant to snap at him.

Her captor kept throwing her off guard with his sweet, let-me-care-for-you comments. He was treating her like a precious treasure, seeing to her comforts. She didn't like it. It made her vulnerable, made it harder to resist him.

There had to be something she could do to make him hate her. But what? He laughed at her insults, ignored her taunts. Keep trying until you succeed, damn it. If he continued to be nice to her, she would soften toward him. He might just melt the ice she so desperately needed to survive. What would happen to her then? Love? Would she lose herself to a man who could never return the depth of her feelings? God, no. No, no, no.

With all of her strength she attempted to pull from Valerian's hold, to at last put distance between their bodies. He locked his grip, cutting off her breath and shackling her in place.

"Be still, moon. Already my body hungers for yours, and I'm not sure how much more I can tolerate. We are almost done here."

She stilled, not wanting to arouse him further. But damn this! Why did she have to feel so safe in his arms? Safe and wonderful and aroused? He was dangerous to the solitary life she had built - and wanted - for herself.

"Joachim," Valerian called. "Your turn has arrived." He lowered his voice, murmuring in her ear, "Your scent is amazing. I want you so much. I want - "

"That one," a male voice said. Joachim - the current "picker," the angry-looking brunet who had been staring at her, stepped forward.

Valerian froze. Shaye gasped. She'd been so sure she'd scared everyone away... but he had... Dear Lord. Ice chilled her blood.

"What did you say?" Valerian gritted out. His fingers, wrapped so tightly around her waist, dug into her skin.

"I want the pale one, the girl in your arms." Joachim braced his legs apart, his expression stern and smug. Ready. He looked like a man who craved war. "Give her to me. She is mine."