DELILAH SPENT MOST OF the morning contemplating what to do about Layel. Once she'd thought - hoped, tricked herself into thinking - a single night with him would be enough.
It hadn't been.
Now she wanted more. More of him. More of everything. He'd touched her body, but he had branded her soul. She thought she might even...love him. Love who and what he was, who and what he'd been. Who and what he would be. The darkness of him, even. And she wanted him to love her in return, to desire her as a mate. To make love to her and hold her afterward, not run away as if she were poison.
She wanted him to cherish her as he still cherished the other. I am a prize, damn it!
Delilah was jealous, she admitted that. And even though she craved Layel all to herself, she would not ask him to forget his first love. Provide Delilah with a place in his heart, yes. She suspected a small part of his heart would be better than the complete devotion of a thousand others.
Had Delilah been less of a warrior, she might have said the task of winning him was impossible. Already her teammates were turning on her, thinking of her as the helper of their enemy. And Tagart had warned her. To engage the vampire king was to nullify their alliance. More than that, Layel himself seemed determined to push her from his life.
He had cried, for gods' sake. Cried. Thinking of those hot tears knotted her stomach painfully. How broken and raw he must have felt to do such a thing in front of her.
How broken and raw she felt, remembering. He hadn't shed a tear when he'd been hurt. He had not even grimaced. Why, then, had he done so after making love to her?
If only she knew more about men and their ways. But she didn't, had only her limited experience with Vorik to lean on, so she was just going to have to fight for him blind. "The most important battle of my life, and I'm practically weaponless," she muttered to the trees.
After she bathed, hating to lose Layel's scent on her skin but knowing it was necessary, she dressed, wrapping thin strips of leather around herself. The less material she wore, the less her opponents had to grab.
With a sigh, she made her way to the beach. Above, the orange globe shone brightly, its heat dotting sweat beads on her skin. Yet both teams sat around a crackling fire, she saw when she reached camp, eating from the body of a roasted pig. She spotted Nola, who was soaking wet and bleeding, but the wound was weaving itself together even as Delilah watched. How was that possible?
Nola spotted her, too, studied her, frowned and motioned her over with a wave of her fingers. She crossed her legs, hiding her swiftly healing wound.
Delilah blushed as she walked. Do I look different to everyone? Satisfied? She sat on the log beside the other Amazon, a spicy aroma wafting to her nose. Her mouth watered. "Your injury is - "
"Not important. We lost another member of our team this morning," Nola said, handing her a thick green leaf topped with blackened meat.
"What?" Eyes wide, she balanced the leaf on her knees. "How? My team lost the challenge."
"Silly fool tried to escape. Swam toward the dome." Nola shrugged, uncaring. "He was eaten by the sharks. Probably a merciful death compared to what the gods would have meted out. But I won't ask where you were or why you weren't here to help me as you swore you would be."
Delilah's blush intensified to a sizzling burn. "Hopefully the number of teammates will not matter during the next challenge."
Nola popped a bite of yellow fruit into her mouth, chewed thoughtfully. "Do you truly care if my team fails?"
"For me, or your vampire?"
Her vampire. She liked the sound of that. "Why can I not be concerned for you both?"
"The vampire king despises you, you know. He's using you to win."
Delilah stared down at her plate, tendrils of fear whispering through her. "Why are you doing this?" She'd come here hopeful of a future with her man. Her sister had, with only a few words, sliced her up inside and exposed all the fears she'd tried not to dwell on. "I'm not allowed to find happiness? Is that what you're trying to tell me? Just because I'm an Amazon?" She pinched a bite of meat into her mouth, her fingers shaking.
"Happiness?" Nola laughed down at her, but the sound had a sharp bite to it. "With a man? An enemy? A warrior who will ultimately betray you? We have never been the best of friends, Delilah, but even I would not wish such a fate upon you."
Delilah knew that, and the food she'd just ingested turned to a lead ball in her stomach.
"You're willing to leave our tribe for him, aren't you?"
If he would have her, she thought she just might. Men were not allowed to live among the tribe outside of mating season. To even ask for such a thing was to invite punishment.
Layel would be worth it, though she doubted he would want to live with her sisters. Still, she suspected he would do it if she asked - and if he loved her, of course. He would do anything to protect and soothe the woman he loved. She sensed it with everything inside her. He would not be happy until his mate was happy. He would love her so fiercely, the rest of the world would vanish.
She could do no less.
Could he love her, though? Those tears...and he'd asked only for one night. But so did you. True. Perhaps, like her, he now regretted that decision. Perhaps he was thinking of fighting for her. Slowly she grinned.
"You're smiling at the thought of betraying your race? You truly are demented," Nola grumbled.
Funny that the Amazon thought so, since Delilah had never felt more levelheaded. Nervous, yes. Unsure, yes. But the thought of being with Layel just felt right.
Was he worth anything? Worth everything?
The questions besieged her just as Layel stepped from the forest and toward the fire. He winced against the bright light overhead, his movements slow, his expression unreadable. He'd found a shirt, probably stolen it from one of the other creatures. The black material covered his chest - and the scratches she'd probably left there. He wore the same pants he'd donned last night, though they were now clean, as if he had meticulously washed them.
Her heart skipped a beat at the hauntingly lovely sight of him. Awareness rushed through her veins and a sense of possessiveness rose inside her. Mine. She didn't like other women even looking at him, she realized. Last night, she'd fisted that white hair. She'd kissed those red lips. She'd caressed that hard body. Definitely mine.
See me, she silently beseeched. Come to me.
Layel didn't look in her direction.
Just one glance, that's all she needed. A moment between them, stolen and knowing. Private. But he gathered a leaf and meat and sat as far away from her as possible. As far from everyone as possible. Vampires could eat solid food? She hadn't known.
Evidently Nola hadn't, either. "Why is the vampire eating real food?" she asked, head tilting in thought as though she were outlining battle plans.
"I'm not sure. Perhaps he just wants to blend in." She hated that she didn't know. She wanted to learn everything about her man and his race. Look at me, Layel. Please. What was he thinking? Did he even know that she was here?
Delilah also hated that she had to war for his affections in private when everything inside her screamed to go to him, sit in his lap, wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him breathless. To put her brand on him so that everyone would know who he belonged to.
Belonged to? She frowned. The mighty warlord would never belong to anyone. That, she knew. He was too proud, too stubborn.
"I'm ashamed of you," Nola said, dragging Delilah from her thoughts. "Deeply ashamed. You are looking at him as if you would strip away your pride, turn your back on your family and give up all that you are if he offered the slightest encouragement."
Those words echoed in her mind, and Delilah pushed to her feet, leaf tumbling to the ground unnoticed. Anger was a hot poker inside her. Anger with Nola, anger with herself. "I'm ashamed of myself, too," she said, "for allowing the opinions of others to sway me." She'd wanted to go to him, and so she should. She should not care what anyone else - her sister, her teammates - thought. She was not ashamed of her feeling for the vampire and she would not act as if she were.
That was weakness at its finest, and weak she refused to be.
Was Layel worth anything, worth everything? Even risking her life? Yes. Oh, yes.
Determined, she kicked into motion. His gaze lifted, clashed with hers as if he'd been attuned to her from the first and had known her every move. His eyelids narrowed to tiny slits, shielding the brilliant blue of his irises.
He gave a harsh shake of his head, a single movement meant to stop her.
She continued forward. This was a war, after all. Besides, his dominance might be welcome - and enjoyed - during lovemaking, but anywhere else she would not obey.
Several gazes followed her, watching, intent.
Only when she reached her target did she stop. They were toe to toe, almost touching. Up close, she could see his hair was damp, his skin glistening like freshly polished pearl. He smelled of man and power. Dark, energetic.
"What do you think you are doing?" he demanded quietly, fiercely.
"Giving you my support." She could feel Nola's gaze boring into her back, hotter than anyone else's, but she did not back down. The outcome was too important.
"I don't need your support, woman."
"Still, you have it."
"Let me rephrase. I don't want your support."
"You're lying." A battle, remember? She could not give up. "Last night - "
"Was not supposed to be repeated. Was not supposed to be talked about."
Delilah anchored her hands on her hips. "Well, I changed my mind."
His nostrils flared. "You cannot do that."
"I did. I have. Last night - "
"Was clearly a mistake," he finished for her.
The claim wounded her, but she had fought hurt and bleeding before. "No. I enjoyed myself. I liked having you inside me, and I want you there again."
His focus snapped behind her, to the creatures surely still watching them. Tagart wasn't here, she knew, but he would hear of this. She didn't care.
"We agreed," Layel growled. "Once. No more."
Stripped of pride, Nola had said. If that's what was required, well..."I want more. I need more."
He shook his head in denial, though his pupils dilated. "You can't have more."
"I can. I will."
"Then you'll have to find someone else to give it to you." He said it flatly, as if he didn't care and almost hoped she took his advice. But there was something in his eyes, a gleam of absolute murder. So ferocious, she shivered.
One of her brows arched. "Shall I disprove your words right now?"
"Delilah." A warning.
"I'm willing to risk everything for you, Layel. My sister is back there, hating me, but I came to you anyway. My team thinks I mean to betray them. I am risking everything."
"Which shows only that you are foolish."
A red haze washed over her vision. She had not thought winning his heart would be easy, but a little cooperation would have been nice. "I'm not asking you to give me everything. I am asking you for time. A chance." Don't push me away. See me as a prize worth fighting any battle for.
There was a long pause, but his expression gave nothing away. "Delilah..." He stopped, whatever he'd meant to say destined to remain forever unheard. "Listen closely, for I do not wish to have this conversation again." He stood, towering over her. Then he leaned down, placing them nose to nose.
She bit her bottom lip, wishing he would kiss her as he had last night.
Breath caught in his throat - she heard the hitch - and he backed a step away. "I had you and now I am done with you," he croaked out, staring at her lips.
Another lie. She knew it. "Layel," she said, reaching for him. "Don't do this. Let me - "
"No." Another shake of his head, this one nearing violence. "I don't want you. Nothing you say or do will change that."
The sharpness of the latest rejection slapped her, cut her, made her bleed on the inside as she'd never bled on the outside. And still she fought. "Layel - "
"No! Look at my arm, Delilah. Do it!" he growled when she hesitated. "Look and see what I was willing to do when I left your embrace last night."
Dread filled her, because she knew, deep down, that what she would see would change her somehow.
"Do it!" he shouted, and all of the forest quieted.
Gulping, she lowered her gaze. He had rolled back his shirt's sleeves, showcasing deep, deep grooves in both of his forearms. Dried blood, scabs. "I don't understand."
"I've had to carve this six times already because the wounds keep healing. I even rubbed dirt, moss and salt into each slice to slow the process. Read the words. Read them!"
She focused, tracing each scab with her gaze. Never. Again.
"Do you understand now?" he asked, his voice suddenly quiet.
Her mind emptied of thoughts, and her emotions numbed. The warrior instincts she'd been so sure would win him vanished as if they'd never been. He absolutely and unequivocally did not long for a future with her.
Never again. Never again would he kiss her, touch her, love her. She was not a prize to him, she was a nuisance. She was everything she'd never wanted to be, forgettable, unimportant, unworthy. Once again, she'd chosen the wrong man. Craved something that could never be. This time hurt far worse than the other. Far worse.
"I understand," she said softly. This time, he did not have to put space between them. She did. Inch by inch she backed away. Her legs were shaky, she realized vaguely, near collapse.
I was willing to give up everything for him, yet he doesn't want me. Oh, gods. He didn't want her. The numbness began to crack, lances of pain trying to shoot through her.
The more distance she gained, the more emotion Layel showed. Regret flashed over his beautiful features, followed by sorrow. "It has to be this way," he said with so much self-loathing it even managed to saturate the air. "I have a mission. I have a mate. I cannot forget that."
"You had a mate," she said, wanting to hurt him as he'd hurt her. "She died. You didn't save her and you feel guilty. I had thought, hoped, you'd done enough penance. Clearly you will never do enough."
A muscle clenched in his jaw, but she wasn't finished.
"No matter what you've done, it's who you are today, tomorrow, that matters. You deserve to be happy. I wanted to be the one to make you happy. I can't, I see that now. No one can. You don't have to worry that I'll bother you anymore."
Well, he remembered her name at least. Another step. "You don't have to say anything else. I saw only what I wanted to see, blind to...other things. I will not be so foolish again."
He ran his tongue over his fangs. "You are hurt. Do not think to fall into the arms of another. That will only make things worse for you."
"Only one way for me to know that for sure, isn't there?" she asked bitterly.
He was panting shallowly as he rubbed a finger over the carved reminder on his arm. "You are better off without me."
"Yes. I am. That's one point on which we absolutely agree." Another step. She wanted to spin around, flee, but refused. He would know how thoroughly he'd destroyed her. She laughed. What did it matter if he knew? He could not think any less of her. Oh, wait. He could. "My first lover, he was a dragon. Do you know what that means, Layel? It means you claimed the castoff of your hated enemy. You took a dragon's leavings. I hope the knowledge sickens you the way you have sickened me this day."
One of his fangs peeked over his bottom lip.
"I didn't ask you to give up anything for me," she told him, "but I would have given up everything for you." The war is over, and I have lost. War. Ha! As if she could have fought a dead woman. The battle had been over before it began. "Until the end of forever, Layel."
With that, she did spin. She did flee.
And for once she did not hope he would follow her.