SHE MIGHT NOT SURVIVE the night, Delilah thought. She'd spent her life fighting one battle or another, had gone weeks at a time with barely any food or rest. But she had never been this drained. Literally.
Twice Layel had drunk from her. One encounter she'd enjoyed a little too much. One had been necessary to save him. If he had killed Tagart, her team would have killed him. So she'd taken the force of his fury herself. There had been pain in the savage bite, but there had also, unexpectedly, been pleasure. His weight pinning her down...his strength...his ferocity...
He'd told her many humans had died after drinking vampire blood. How would it affect her? As strongly as the man himself did? She shivered as she remembered the way he'd hovered over her, determined to keep her alive, protective, focused only on her, everything she'd ever dreamed - and almost fell from the log she currently balanced upon. Becoming vampire would ruin her. But she couldn't deny the fact that she liked the thought of having some part of Layel inside her. Even his blood.
Mind on the task at hand.
The gods had indeed decided it was time for another challenge. Every member of the two teams had been told to choose a log rising from the water. One team on each side, opposing members facing each other. They were to stand on the tiny planks while the waves danced at their ankles.
Last one standing won.
A worthy warrior can endure heat, exhaustion, hunger and inactivity for long periods of time, one of the gods - a female this time - had said before the game commenced. And so you will stand and endure, proving by your tolerance that you have earned the right to call yourselves warriors.
Once again you are working as a team. Encourage each other if you must, distract your opponents if possible. But above all else, your mission is to be the last one standing. Your team will then know the glory of our delight - but since I suspect you will not fully comprehend just how great a reward that is, you will also be granted a more tangible prize. The other team, the losing team, will say goodbye to another member. I wish you all the strength you are surely going to need.
Those words ringing in her ears, Delilah peered down the opposite line and eyed Nola. Her sister seemed fine, anchored and steady. Thank the gods. Assured of the warrioress's stamina, Delilah shifted her gaze. To Layel. She couldn't help it. They were facing each other. He'd made sure of it, shoving Brand out of the way when the dragon tried to take the stump opposite her. She had experienced a stirring of pride as she'd watched her man - is he? - fight to be near her.
They'd been standing here for over an hour, moonlight keeping them cool. With every minute that passed, her head swam with more dizziness, becoming lighter, as if she were floating in the clouds.
"I know the goddess told us we were doing this to prove our endurance, but really. What's the point of this challenge in the big scheme of things?" she muttered.
"The warrior who can stand firm against any obstacle to meet his objective is the warrior who will prove victorious in the last battle," Layel said.
"Do you mean bite any obstacle?"
Layel didn't laugh as she'd intended. As she reflected upon her words, she realized they weren't funny. They were cruel. He had not meant to hurt her. He'd even apologized. Gods, what was wrong with her? Why was she - swaying...falling. Her eyelids popped open - when had she closed them? - and she planted her feet firmly on the stump, maintaining her pose.
"Look at me," Layel demanded fiercely.
Black spots winked over her vision as she sought him. A long, dark tunnel greeted her. Where was he?
"Delilah," he snapped.
"What?" she snapped back. Lashes - closed. Damn it! She pried them open again. Feet - planted. Layel - glaring at her.
"Do not fall asleep, woman. That will only irritate me."
Her lips twitched. "Are you commanding me because you hope I'll jump in the water just to spite you?"
His eyes sparkled like freshly polished sapphires, and he slowly smiled.
She loved his smile. Loved the way his eyes crinkled at the corners. Loved the light that seemed to illuminate his entire face, chasing away the somber memories. But every time he showed her the barest hint of genuine amusement, she fell a little deeper under his seductive power and that was foolish.
"I'm going to beat you." Hopefully by speaking the words she gave them the power to keep her upright.
"Me, perhaps." His broad shoulders lifted in a shrug. "I doubt you will defeat my...team." He said the last with disgust. "They are determined to win this time."
If they didn't, they would go back to the execution circle. Her blood chilled. To lose another man meant that Layel's team would be two members short. Worse, Layel might be the player to go.
Another bout of dizziness hit her, and she swayed.
"Damn it, Delilah."
Her legs shook and her neck ached, but she stood her ground despite her body's obvious need for rest. "Yes, cursing helps," she said dryly.
"What will it take to make you concentrate?"
Several others glanced over at them, frowning. At the moment, she didn't care what anyone thought. "How about if you jump? That ought to get my attention," she said, half-fearing he would.
"Besides that." He scrubbed a hand over his face, wiping away the beads of sweat glistening in the golden moonlight. "How do you feel?"
She liked that he knew her well enough to sense when she spoke true - or not. "How much longer until people start to fall?" she wondered aloud.
She nearly groaned. "Surely someone - "
"Quiet!" a centaur snapped.
"If you desire peace," Layel told him sharply, "jump from your post and swim to shore."
Silence met his solution.
Why did that excite her? What kind of woman had she become? He had only to exude his prowess on anyone and her body reacted. Her nipples were hard, and that moisture once again pooled between her legs despite her weakness, despite those around them, despite the circumstances.
Broderick the nymph inhaled deeply and sent his gaze down the line. His pupils were dilated, and when he spotted her, he licked his lips. There were tiny puncture wounds all over his face, neck and arms.
Her gaze shifted to the gorgon on their team. A beautiful woman - a rarity among the race - she was tall and lithe, with elegant features. Her eyes were wide and dark, flecked with silver and filled with satisfaction. Long, thin snakes slithered atop her head, hissing in every direction. Broderick must have sated himself with her, over and over again, for he appeared stronger than ever, his skin rosy with color, his muscles firm, his stance solid. And yet he still wanted Delilah? Nymphs! They were impossible to please.
Layel growled low in his throat, drawing her attention, the nymph forgotten.
"Something wrong?" she asked him.
"I told you to focus, yet you were staring at the nymph."
Jealous again? How had he treated his mate? Had he smiled at her often? Tenderly loved her each and every night? Given her everything Delilah wanted for herself? Or had he been fierce, as he was now? Delilah wished she had known him then. Except, well, she might have killed his mate in a wee bit of jealous rage, so perhaps meeting now was for the best.
"Preparing to chop someone to bits?" Layel asked, catching her expression.
"The nymph, I hope."
"You?" She'd meant it as a statement, but it emerged as a question, the thought of feasting on him tantalizing.
"That would be wise," he said, and there wasn't a hint of anger or amusement in his tone.
Her head tilted to the side as she studied him. "Why?"
He was silent for a long while before shrugging as he had earlier. "Remind me never to attack you again. You become annoying."
A gasp escaped her. "Annoying?"
"You continually ask questions and repeat what I say."
"What questions have I asked?" she demanded, then felt color heat her cheeks as he gave her a droll look. With the color, however, came strength, her limbs trembling less. Had he purposely baited her to help her retain her balance?
Dear gods. Now she was questioning herself. "Never mind. You are not as evil as you would have the world believe," she told him, neither asking a question nor repeating something he'd said.
He was agreeing with her now? That was a first.
She rolled her eyes. "I don't believe you. Tell me the worst thing you've ever done."
"I can tell you that," Brand said, suddenly speaking up.
Layel bared his fangs at the dragon.
That man and his hate. He was eaten alive with it, had condemned an entire race for one woman's death. You would do the same had it been one of your sisters. That would have to change, she thought. For both of them. She didn't like the thought of Layel being consumed by anything save desire. His touch - and his smiles - were simply too wondrous.
She leveled a narrowed glance at Brand. While she wanted Layel's secrets, she wanted the vampire to be the one to tell them to her. "Keep speaking, and I'll tell the entire assembly something about you. Something you wish I didn't know."
Nola, who stood at the far end, leaned forward. "Speak louder. I want to hear this."
Zane stared at the girl, his expression dark. Brand, too, looked over at her and tilted his head to the side thoughtfully. Nola caught his look and blushed. Actually blushed like an untried girl, though Delilah knew she had once been given a captive male as a reward for demonstrating unparalleled bravery on the battlefield. Perhaps, though, she had left the man untouched and spent the night alone. Perhaps she'd wanted something more than mere capitulation from a lover, as Delilah did.
If she kept looking between them, Delilah mused, she was going to fall. She carefully replanted her heels on the log. Heard a splash in the distance. Her back straightened, and she gazed down the line, searching.
The demon on her team had fallen. He came up sputtering. The two centaurs, who'd twisted to watch the creature swim to the beach, fell next, unable to balance their hooves any longer. Delilah shook her head - dizzy, stop! - and sighed.
"Amazon," Brand called suddenly.
Delilah blinked at him, but he wasn't watching her. His gaze was still glued on pretty Nola.
"Stop glancing between your sister and the vampire. You'll fall," he said.
Nola raised her fist at him before glaring straight ahead.
"Ah, look at that. An Amazon who obeys a man's command without question. A novelty indeed," Layel said.
Delilah turned back to him, pulse jumping at the sound of his husky voice. Gods, he was beautiful. Striking and full of verve. A protector in a predator's skin. "Are all vampires angry, snarling beasts?"
He inclined his head. "Just me. Thank you."
"That wasn't a compliment."
"Look who's asking questions now," she told him smugly. A swift survey of the contestants had her noticing the other vampire's gaze was once more on her friend. "Your warrior watches my sister with dark intentions in his eyes, as though he wants her for dinner."
Layel's gaze slowly perused Delilah's face. "That displeases you, I see. Jealous?"
There was so much anger in the question, she was momentarily taken aback. And then, gods help her, she was smiling. "Are you?"
He didn't answer. He even looked away as if dismissing her. But he didn't dismiss. He merely said, "I am not jealous," his tone quiet, calm. "But I think I would kill even my own brother, if I had one, if you decided to take him as a lover."
Water splashed. There was a vile curse.
The other demon had fallen.
"How do you feel?" Layel asked before she could respond to his angry - wondrous - announcement.
Tired, weak, shaky. Unsure. "Fine."
His gaze slid back to her in another lingering perusal, hot, stopping in all the places she wanted his mouth to travel. He licked his lips as if remembering the taste of her. For once - twice? A third time? - nothing around her mattered but a man. Her weakness was forgotten. The game was forgotten. Consequences were forgotten. Only Layel existed.
"You never told me the worst thing you ever did."
A muscle ticked below his eye. "Why do you wish to have such information? What purpose could it possibly serve?" There was genuine perplexity in his voice.
"I want to know you better. That's all."
A warm blast of sea-kissed air blustered about them, whipping his hair around his face and causing her mouth to water. He didn't have a shirt on and his pants were ripped. Every hard rope of muscle and sinew he possessed was bared to her view. She couldn't help but marvel at the sight. I held this powerful man in my arms.
He didn't have any scars. She'd always thought she'd desire a man with scars - proof that he did not back down from a fight. Proof that he'd fight for her. Vorik had possessed many. But she wanted Layel far more than she'd ever wanted the dragon - who hadn't fought for her after all. The vampire's skin was velvet-covered steel, smooth and strong, and tempted her as nothing else ever had.
"Have you ever killed a woman?" she asked, inclining her head.
"Oh, yes." He didn't hesitate with his answer. "I held Marina, the former demon queen, in my arms and killed her the way I almost killed you. I drained the life out of her with my mouth. And I have never regretted it."
"I suppose she hurt you in some way." Had they been lovers? Delilah wondered, fists tightening. That small action upset her balance, and she swayed again.
Layel kicked out his leg, preventing her from toppling. The movement was as swift as a blink - gliding up, then back down - that no one could have noticed, but it saved her.
Her heart pounded in a staccato rhythm of gratitude and embarrassment. "Thank you," she muttered.
"I warned you. Pay attention. Next time, I may let you fall."
"My sweet hero." Feeling a hot gaze boring into her, she glanced around. Brand and Nola were staring straight ahead, Zane the vampire was watching Nola again and - Tagart. Damn. He was glaring at her.
"You have to stop helping me," she grumbled to Layel. "Saving me will only get you killed."
"At least you don't deny needing aid. And before you tell me that you wouldn't have needed aid had I kept my teeth to myself, I know. You are strong and capable when your veins are fully stocked."
He acknowledged her abilities as a warrior? Shock nearly felled her. One of the reasons the Amazons so often had to prove their abilities was that the men they fought so often lied, claiming victory they had not warranted, too embarrassed to admit they'd been defeated by mere women.
"Sometimes I feel weak around you," she admitted quietly, lowering her voice so only he could hear, "and it has nothing to do with blood loss. The things I want you to do to me...they shame me, and yet that never seems to matter when I'm with you. I crave them."
He gulped. "They should not shame you."
"And why is that?"
"Because it has been my...pleasure to fulfill some of your needs. Because it's all right to allow another to see to your care."
"Would you? Allow another to see to your care, I mean?" I want to be that woman. She desired him so badly. In her bed, in her life - there, she had finally admitted the second. They should have been enemies; he would probably hate the woman who made him forget his precious mate, even for a second, but...If he would look at Delilah with tenderness just once, it might just be worth any hardship.
"I - No. If I were not mated..."
But in his mind, he was. Would always be. Much as the knowledge hurt, it was the most he'd ever offered her and so she took heart. Seemed she grew more foolish with every day that passed. "Why did you kill Marina?"
One corner of his mouth curled upward. "She was breathing the same air as me."
Her heart skipped a beat at the sight of that half smile. "And?" she prompted when he failed to elaborate.
She couldn't stop a grin of her own from forming. "I never liked her. She was a thief and a liar."
"And lies disgust you?"
"Of course." Trust was a sacred thing, and lies mocked it.
"I am a liar."
A moment passed in silence as she digested his words. Liars didn't usually admit to their sins. Which meant he must want to elicit her disgust. Why? "You've said that before." Had she ever sounded so shaky? So...female?
"And you did not believe me. Yet, look what happened to you." His gaze flicked to her still-healing neck. "I said I would stay away from you and then I stole your blood."
Perhaps this was his way of keeping her away from him, she thought. Perhaps she was proving too much a temptation to his peace of mind. Perhaps he hoped she would treat him horribly so he could then hate her. "I like everything that comes out of your mouth," she said softly, huskily.
His breath hitched at the implication.
She wanted to laugh - am I right? - but added, "You may tell me anything you desire without fear."
Water splashed, signaling that someone had just fallen, but she didn't look away from the vampire. "Tell me - " She stopped, frowned and peered down at her feet.
The stump seemed to be shrinking. Was shrinking, she realized with shock. Her toes and heels were now hanging off the edge. She shifted, trying to discover a new sense of balance.
"Be still," Layel snapped.
Someone else fell, followed quickly by another. From the beach, she could hear cheers and shouts of warning as fallen teammates encouraged their brethren.
A rock suddenly flew past her face and into Layel's. He teetered, cursed, but thankfully stayed put as a trickle of blood flowed from above his eye.
"Who threw that?" she demanded. Her gaze moved over the challengers. Several mermaids were swimming around Broderick's ankles, some reaching out to caress his thigh, cooing as they did so. Mermen were swimming around the female nymph, who appeared frustrated by the attention. Every time they touched her, they caused her to wobble. How would Layel react if she fell?
"By any means necessary, the gods told us," Tagart said, drawing her attention. Eyes narrowed, he withdrew another stone from his pocket and launched it.
Expecting it this time, Layel managed to catch it with a movement so swift his swinging arm was nothing more than a blur. "Coward."
"What did you call me?" was the hissed reply.
"You heard me, dragon. Hitting me while I was unaware is the act of a coward."
"No, it is the act of a smart man."
"Tagart," Delilah snapped. "Stop."
"Whose side are you on, Amazon?" Tagart pointed an accusing finger at her. "I thought you had already chosen. But every time I turn around you are with him."
She opened her mouth, but no words emerged. Were she to say that she was indeed on his side, Layel would hate her. Again. Were she to declare allegiance to Layel, her team would soon vote for her to die.
In the end, she didn't have to say a word. A shark suddenly flew from between the center stumps, large jaws and fearsome teeth snapping at them. Its fat gray tail slapped at the female nymph, who screeched and fell. Layel didn't seem to care. Maybe that was why Delilah suddenly felt sorry for her. Thankfully the mermen swam her to safety.
One of the shark's fins nailed Nola in the stomach, but she managed to remain standing. For the moment.
When the shark hit the water, disappearing from view, everyone stilled, quiet.
Nola's eyes closed and she rubbed her temple. "I do not feel so...good." Her knees suddenly collapsed and she toppled.
Brand dove for her. When he surfaced, he had her wrapped in his arms. She was pale, teeth chattering as he dragged her toward the beach and laid her gently on the sand. That's when Layel tossed the rock he'd caught. It slammed into Tagart's groin with a thud.
"You're right," he said when the distracted dragon doubled over and yelped. "Smart."
Tagart propelled straight into the water. He didn't rise for a heartbeat, two, and then the water began to swirl, brighten. There was a huge spray when Tagart emerged as a dragon. He unleashed a fiery roar, his wings spreading, scales already replacing skin, tail twitching.
A stream of that fire launched at Layel. He ducked, the flames singeing his back. Vampires were quick, faster than any other race, but Layel had nowhere to go - and fire was a vampire's greatest weakness. She knew because Amazons made a point of studying every race, looking for ways to defeat them.
"Stop, Tagart. Stop!" Brand called from the beach. "Innocents are in the way."
Tagart was beyond listening. He spit another stream of crackling flames, cutting past everyone still standing - Zane and Broderick jumped into the water to avoid impact - and then the fire hit Layel, who had stubbornly refused to budge. Delilah screamed and found herself leaping to take the hit herself.
Just when the flames were about to engulf her, Layel's arms banded around her, jerking her down, down, down, twisting, landing in the water, his body the first to hit. But his feet had been the last to leave the stump. Which meant his team had won. She swallowed a mouthful, choking. The salt stung the marks on her neck, her lungs seized and she fought to get to the surface.
Layel's grip tightened. Her eyes widened as she realized why. The shark was swimming toward them, mouth open, teeth gleaming hungrily.