LAYEL BLINKED open his eyes, murky light coming into focus, a combination of bright and dark, clarity and haziness. Fighting confusion, he groaned against a sharp ache in his temples. Where was he? What had happened? He'd been on a battlefield, yes?
Yes, he thought, absolutely sure. The scene flashed through his mind: him, rushing toward his enemy, blade raised. Brand and Tagart in dragon form, flying at him, death in their golden eyes. And then he'd been plucked into nothingness.
Now he was...lying down, he realized. Atop sand. Another ache, followed by a thickening fog, broke his stream of understanding apart. He squeezed his eyelids shut. One heartbeat passed, two. As he'd hoped, the fog thinned and his thoughts realigned. Had he been injured fatally before reaching Brand and Tagart and now rested in eternity?
Not yet, he nearly screamed. I am not ready. I have not avenged Susan.
Calm. Think. He had been injured, he remembered that. Cut in the chest, one arm shredded. If he was alive, those injuries would still be present. Shaking, he slid one hand under his shirt and rubbed up and down his chest and arm to be sure. Scabs greeted him, and his mouth curved into a half smile.
So...what had happened? he wondered again.
In and out he breathed, the scent of salt and coconut filling his nose. Familiar. The crash of turbulent waves resounded in his ears, washing against the shore. Again, familiar.
Once more he opened his eyes. Slowly this time, allowing the light to reach him gradually. At first he saw only white, puffy...things floating across a limitless expanse of blue. Not familiar. The half-smile mutated into a deep frown. Usually a crystal dome surrounded Atlantis, arching and jagged. Where was he?
Focus. Gingerly, he sat up.
Spots of gold and rose flickered before his vision. In, out, he continued to breathe. When the spots faded, lush palm trees in different shades of green and white, from the brightest emerald to the palest jade and ivory, came into view. He turned his head - and had to massage his temples to tame another sharp ache. Soft sand stretched into clear azure ocean, the water undulating into foam, misting, blushing under the stroking beams of a bright orange...ball.
A ball that burned his skin far worse than the dome ever had, he noted, frown intensifying.
His eyes watered so badly he had to cast his gaze back to the sand. That did not lessen the burn, but the burn soon became the least of his worries. Bodies were scattered throughout the sand. Unconscious. Dead?
Layel remained in place and studied the male closest to him. Zane, he realized, who was no longer cut and bruised. The warrior's chest was rising and falling, proof he still lived. Thank the gods. Next he saw - he tensed. Several feet away, Brand lay sprawled on his back. Though he had morphed into a dragon during the battle, ripping away his clothing, he was now human and dressed. Beside him sprawled Tagart. Human and dressed, as well.
As though it had never left him, only ebbed to the back of his mind, rage tore through Layel. Rage that their fight had ended so abruptly, rage that the dragons were not dead.
Whatever had happened to bring them to this strange land, Layel suddenly didn't care. The dragons had to die. Should be dead already. Scowling, he jumped to his feet. He swayed against a surge of dizziness, unsteady, but stumbled forward anyway. He reached for his daggers, every ounce of his determination pulsing from the tips of his fingers.
The blades were gone. A growl echoed in his throat, growing louder, fiercer, when a quick body-pat revealed every piece in his arsenal was gone.
He didn't slow. Using his teeth to rip out their jugulars would work just as well. Still, a few weapons would have been nice. Just in case. No matter, though.
Almost upon them...almost...he slammed into an invisible barrier.
Every bone in his body vibrated from the impact, and that cursed dizziness again swept through him. He blinked in confusion, lifted his arms and pressed at the air. What in Hades? There was some sort of...shield?
Yes, yes, he realized. That's exactly what it was. Clear, unseen, and yet solid, preventing him from moving another inch. He banged his fists against it, but it held steady. He clawed at it, but it did not crack. No, it snapped two of his nails from their beds, causing blood to flow down his hands. He rammed his shoulder into it, nearly dislocating the bone, but the shield did not even shake.
Damn this! He would not be denied. Would lose a limb if necessary. What did physical pain matter when faced with such a delightful outcome? As he threw his body against the barrier over and over again, he glared at his still-sleeping enemies. Never had a time been more ripe for vengeance. Soon...
Next to the dragons were two Amazons, one of whom happened to be his bloodthirsty, blue-haired wench. Not mine, he corrected instantly, fervently. But he couldn't deny the sight of her caused his breath to heat and singe his lungs. Couldn't deny his blood quickened.
As he'd fallen through that dark void, he'd heard her raspy voice and had grabbed on to her limp body. She'd been warm and soft, a torment to him. And yet, he'd been oddly protective of her, cradling her against him, marveling at her sea-kissed scent as he recalled the way she'd looked at him on the battlefield, as if he were a miracle and a devil wrapped in the same tempting package.
He didn't recall letting go of her, yet they had clearly been parted. Now, he drank her in when he should have looked away.
She appeared rumpled, as if she'd fallen asleep after a vigorous hour of lovemaking and had only now awakened for more. Her eyes were slightly uptilted, the lids at half-mast and shadowed by long dark lashes. Her nose was small and dainty, her lips still red and lush. And her skin...more was revealed, smooth, amber-rich, each pulse point hammering deliciously. A large bruise covered the left side of her jaw. Her breasts -
Do not think of her like that, you disgusting pile of dragon droppings. Females were off-limits to him.
Layel tore his gaze from the Amazon and renewed his study of the other creatures, only then realizing he'd stopped pounding at the air shield. All were beginning to stir, sitting up and rubbing their faces. He might not be able to reach them - yet - but he could hear them. Moaning soon overshadowed the hum of the waves.
There were two nymphs, a male and a female, pushing to a stand and staring at the beach of creatures in confusion. Around them were one pair each of minotaurs, demons, centaurs, formorians and gorgons, the snakes atop the latter's heads hissing and baring fangs much sharper than Layel's. Two of each race. Why two?
What in Hades is going on? he wondered yet again.
The Amazon scrubbed a hand over her delicate face, barely painted now with the remnants of swirling blue designs. Those designs etched onto her temples didn't smear. Were they tattoos? She was blinking, as though she couldn't quite believe what she was seeing.
You're looking at her again. He growled and returned his attention to the dragons, his rage intensifying. He shoved at the invisible wall. Still there, still unyielding. His fingers were bloodied and tattered now, nearly useless. His shoulder was completely out of its joint.
He needed to think, to plan. More than that, he needed to find shade. What skin was bared now felt as if it were blistered. Probably was. Hating the thought of retreat, hating himself, he edged backward, trying not to draw unwanted attention as he stopped beside Zane and crouched, gripping the vampire's shoulders and shaking.
Zane's eyelids popped open and he hissed, swinging a claw in reflex. Quick as a heartbeat, Layel bowed his back, managing to evade a fatal slice to the throat. "Calm," he commanded quietly.
Seconds passed as the vampire oriented himself. "What happened?" Zane demanded roughly, on his feet a moment later. The consummate warrior, he braced his legs apart as his hands fisted at his sides, prepared to initiate battle. His eyes were dark, flat, and he looked hungry for blood. Like Layel's, his skin was red, beginning to blister.
"I'm not sure." Layel rose and motioned to the others with a tilt of his chin. "One moment we were fighting, the next we were not."
"What is this place?" Zane's gaze circled the surrounding area. "Why do I feel as though I'm on fire?" He patted himself down, snarled. "And where are my weapons?"
Something Susan had said long ago, after they'd made love out in the open, under Atlantis's sparkling dome, suddenly drifted through Layel's mind. His mouth fell open in astonishment. I wish we could travel to the world of my people. Just for a little while. With all the stories my family used to tell me, I think we would love it.
He'd held her tighter, afraid she'd somehow slip through his fingers. Tell me about it.
She had, in great detail, as if she'd already visited it in her dreams. A seemingly never-ending expanse of blue - sky. Fat, puffy white masses - clouds. A glowing orange ball - the sun.
"I think...I think we are on the surface world." How? Why? "I know we could tolerate the daylight under the dome, but the sun's light must be stronger. Harsher. And the weapons? Vanished."
"Surface?" Zane's mouth fell open in a mirror of Layel's expression.
"We must find shade. Now."
"Our battle - "
Together they backed up, neither willing to give the other creatures their backs, shield or not, and moved into the thicket of trees. Instantly Layel's body cooled.
He sighed. "We will remain in the forest until we figure out what's going on." Even if that meant avoiding the dragons. Right now they seemed to have the advantage, the sun caressing them like lovers rather than hated foes.
"We should make new weapons," Zane said.
"Yes." But he didn't move another inch. Could barely form a coherent thought. The blue-haired Amazon had just popped to a stand, her eyes wild. She reached for something at her waist - probably a blade - found nothing, and scowled. Like him, like Zane, she patted herself down. Also like the both of them, she found herself completely unarmed.
Someone had taken all their weapons.
He watched as she spun in a circle, studying, gaping. When she spotted the other Amazon, she rushed forward.
"Nola!" she cried, so loudly Layel had no trouble hearing her from his new sanctuary. She bent down, locks of silky hair tumbling over her shoulders, and shook her sister.
The dark-haired female moaned and rubbed at her forehead, eyelids cracking open. "Delilah?"
Delilah. The name played through his mind. Delilah...Delilah...soft, feminine, exotic. A name that bespoke midnight fantasies and insatiable passion. A name that could send the strongest of men to their knees. When the thought registered, Layel stiffened. I will never speak that name aloud, he vowed. Too...dangerous.
"I'm here," the woman in question said. "Right here."
The one called Nola massaged her temples, her lips pulled in a tight, pained frown. "What happened?"
No doubt it was a question everyone on the beach would ask.
"I wish I knew." Delilah looked left and right, searching again, gauging, and then she was staring over at Layel, the shadows nothing to her.
The force of that violet gaze jolted him. Made his muscles jump. For a moment, he was light-headed again and there was a pain in his chest, exactly where his heart resided, as though it were once again healthy and whole. How was she doing this?
Apparently he wasn't the only one suffering a strange response. The Amazon's pulse pounded in her neck - he couldn't see it, but he could sense it, hear it - every erratic beat like a summoning finger. His mouth watered, preparing to feast even though he had gorged himself during battle. When he sank his teeth into that woman he would...His jaw clenched painfully. What are you doing? You will never taste her. Since Susan's death, the only blood he allowed himself was the blood of his enemies. And the supply was vast. He was never without, didn't need to take from anyone else.
Who was this Amazon, that she was able to tempt him to forget? She was lovely, yes, but she wasn't Susan. Would never be his sweet, gentle Susan. And he would not defile his love's memory with fanciful thoughts of another.
Delilah pounded toward him. "Who did this to us? How were we brought here? Do you know?"
Layel ignored her. Her raspy voice was as seductive as her body and he'd already made the mistake of softening toward her several times. He would not do so again. Being polite to her would encourage familiarity between them when he craved only distance.
He turned his face away from her, wondering how she'd breached the invisible wall. Do not even think of her. All of the creatures had risen and were now pairing off, growling and hissing at their enemies, though none could seem to get within striking distance. Unlike Delilah, they were met with the same obstruction he had encountered.
"Demons," Zane suddenly spat. He marched forward, his intent to slaughter evident with every step, their agreement to remain in the shade obviously forgotten. When he, too, hit the clear barrier, he paused and shook his head. Banged his fist against it once, twice. Paused again. Screeched an unholy sound of frustration. A second later, he attacked the air with a vengeance, screaming curses and promises of brutality all the while, oblivious to the cruel sun.
Layel didn't even try to rein in the vampire's rage. They had been together only a few months, and in that time he had learned that Zane could not be subdued until exhaustion gripped him. The male had spent centuries as a demon queen's consort - willing or unwilling, Layel didn't know. He only knew the experience had left the warrior wild, uncontrollable, and so volatile Layel only utilized him during battle.
There was no better killer than Zane.
Layel waited until the warrior's actions slowed and his screams quieted. An eternity, surely. He strode to him, away from the Amazon, and placed a warning hand on one of Zane's tense shoulders.
Panting, the vampire whipped to face him, fangs bared to bite. Zane stopped himself in time, and Layel withdrew his hand, his point made.
"For some reason, we cannot hurt them." Yet. "You must remain calm."
"I want those demons on a pike," the warrior snarled.
"And I want the dragons' heads to roll."
Silence enveloped them as they stared at each other in understanding. Their enemies might be different, but their pain was not. Layel only wished he knew what had been done to the warrior.
Finally Zane nodded. But a muscle ticked below his left eye, contradicting the easy acceptance. "What should we do?"
"We shall learn the layout of this land." Maybe they would find the perfect place to ambush the others. If the invisible wall did not stop them again. "Maybe as we do so, we will learn the reason we were brought here."
"Where are my weapons?" Brand suddenly shouted, drawing Layel's attention. The dragon soldier was searching the sand for his blades, grains flying in every direction. "Tell me or I will burn this - "
"Mine are missing, as well," Tagart growled. His side no longer bled. Unfortunately, he'd already healed.
"Look!" someone said, their shock cutting through the commotion.
"Is that...Can it be...?"
Intrigued, Layel twisted. He found himself peering at a large crystal dome several miles away, which stretched above the rolling waves and momentarily blighted the luminous rainbow that glittered at the water's edges.
Atlantis, he realized, dread curling his stomach. How was that possible? It lay far beneath the surface world. But he was looking right at it, standing on land he'd only ever heard stories about. Wasn't he?
Could their hidden world be tiered, with layers he had not known about? Could he still be inside Atlantis, just in another part? If so, there would be a way home. He had only to find it. Perhaps the same way he'd gotten here - the tunnel that had tugged him down, down, down.
How had he stumbled upon the tunnel, though? A god? They were certainly powerful enough to create such a transport, moving more than a dozen creatures from one location to another in seconds, stealing their weapons and erecting a shield to prevent them from killing one another.
Could it be?
The gods were not something he usually considered. They had neglected the Atlanteans for thousands of years, only returning a few months ago. Or so he had heard. He himself had yet to encounter one. What possible reason could they have for whisking two of every race to this island?
Unable to stop himself, he stood helpless as his gaze once more sought the Amazon. She was still watching him, those inviting lips pursed as if she was lost in thought, trying to decide on the best course of action. A tendril of hair caressed her cheek, and he found himself wondering if her skin was as soft as he remembered. Found himself jealous that his fingers were not what caressed her.
Oh, no. No, no, no. There would be none of that, he reminded himself, determined to repeat the mantra as many times as necessary. His eyelids narrowed to tiny slits, and the spark of hatred he'd felt earlier grew. Intensified. Perhaps it was best that his weapons had been taken from him. He might have killed the Amazon right then for daring to claim desires that belonged only to Susan.
"Should we swim out?" one of the gorgons asked the crowd.
A debate arose.
"Come," Layel told Zane. He ignored the sense of loss that assaulted him as he once again pivoted. Swimming, he was confident, would prove pointless. Someone powerful wanted them here, so here they would remain. "We have weapons to make."
Sweat glistened on the other vampire's face as he nodded. "I cannot relax until I have blades in my hands."
They moved deeper into the thicket, the dewy foliage about to wrap around them completely. "We will - " Layel hit another invisible wall and cursed.
Snarling, Zane kicked out his leg. "No one should be able to hold us like this."
"Trapped," someone said behind them. "The forest is blocked."
"What should we do?" another demanded. A female.
Layel twisted, saw the two nymphs had followed him, and scrubbed a hand down his face. Valerian, the nymph king, was his only true friend, the man's followers his allies. These two were more beautiful than most, both boasting pale hair and vivid blue eyes. Features so pure and perfect they far surpassed the radiance of the sun.
"Broderick," he acknowledged with a nod. "Why aren't you trying to swim back to Atlantis?"
"Several reasons. The first is that I'm not convinced it will do us any good - and I'd just as soon stay warm and dry if that's the case. The second is that I trust you more than I trust any of the other creatures here. Where you go, my sister and I will go. Have you any idea what's going on?"
"All I know is that our way is being blocked, which must mean we are not to leave the beach. Perhaps if we return, whoever has done this to us will finally reveal himself." Bastard.
"We can hope." Walking back, side by side, Broderick said, "Word is you were battling dragons again."
"Not yet." But he would.
"They are not bad men." Valerian had recently allied himself with the dragons to save his mate. Layel had understood the need for such a union, even if he despised it with all of his being. He would have done no less for Susan. "They are respectful of our women, aid us in our defense of our palace, never strike at us in spite. They - "
"Are not up for discussion." Having reached the edge of the trees, Layel was careful to remain in the shade. He studied the creatures anew. They were divided, whispering in their groups of two.
Or maybe not so divided after all. "There's only one other avenue of escape. Who's with me?" The proclamation came from Brand as he stalked toward the water. The others were quick to follow him.
A moment later, there was a splash, then another and another. Every creature save Layel, Zane and the two nymphs entered, swimming for the dome. Even Delilah. Her head bobbed up and down with the waves.
He gritted his teeth. You must stop seeking her out.
"Should we follow them?" Zane asked.
"They'll return," he replied confidently. "There are powers at work. Strange powers, strong powers. As I said, we are clearly wanted here. There will be no escaping."
He watched as arms and legs peeked above the water, some scaled, some lined with horns, some humanlike. Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty, thirty. No one gained any distance. No matter how hard they fought the ocean, they remained a few feet from the beach.
One by one, they gave up and crawled to shore, exhausted and panting. Delilah was the last to exit, which spoke volumes about her character. Strong, determined, unwilling to admit defeat.
He should not admire her for that.
She was scowling as her gaze latched on to his. She lumbered into a march, her expression darkening the closer she came. All of her war paint had washed away, revealing golden skin tattooed with intricate designs the same luscious shade as her cerulean locks, swirling around her face, upper arms, waist and thighs.
What little clothing she wore clung to her curves.
Soaked tendrils of hair were plastered to her, dripping liquid down her stomach and thighs. His gaze followed several droplets, and his blood heated as if he were baking in the sunlight again. Oh, to lick them up...
Zane tensed and stepped in front of him. "Enemy approaching."
"Let her come." If she could. Would the air shield stop her this time?
Curious, Layel kept his hands clenched at his sides. Part of him hoped she would be allowed to reach him. He had tried to ignore the sensual power she wielded, the awareness that sizzled every time he looked at her. He had tried, and he had failed. It was past time the madness ended. Susan deserved better from him. And there was only one way he could think of that would halt his new desires permanently. Death.
As he was not yet ready to die, that left one option. Killing the Amazon. He would not be upset about it, would not miss her. He didn't even know her.
"Do not touch her. Do not even approach her, no matter what she does or says."
The command surprised them both, but he did not rescind it. She belonged to him, her last breath his to deliver.
Eyes narrowed, Zane moved out of the way. He stared Delilah down as she stalked past him, still no hint of the air shield in evidence.
She tossed the man a withering glance before once again focusing all her fury on Layel. "A bodyguard," she said, brows arched. "Afraid of a little girl, vampire? I don't know why, but I expected better of you."
That she was now inches from him, practically in his face, her sea-kissed scent tormenting his nose, electrified him. He'd just decided to kill her. Could he, though? he wondered now as his gaze locked with hers. All that violet...a man could get lost. His hands still rested at his sides, the muscles lax. Do it. Strike! Not even a twitch.
"I don't care what you expected. Your opinion has no value to me." Cruel, yes, but necessary. If he couldn't hurt her physically - what's stopping you? Simply act, move - he would have to hurt her emotionally. Anything to preserve the distance between them.
Her mouth fell open, pain shimmering in her eyes. Pain she quickly masked.
Has to be this way, he reminded himself, since he clearly wasn't man enough to slay her. "Don't come near me again, woman. Don't look at me, don't even breathe in my direction."
As he spoke, she ran her tongue over her teeth. "As if I'm the only one doing the looking. But I'll tell you what, vampire. I'll stop looking at you, if you'll stop looking at me."
His jaw hardened - and he refused to admit what else hardened at the sight of that pink tongue. "Done." He forced himself into motion, attempting to sidestep her.
She stiffened and jumped back in front of him. "Stay where you are. There are a few more things we need to work out."
True to his word, he kept his eyes averted from her. "No. Now, out of my way, Amazon." A mistake, letting her get close to him. Besides being too hot, his skin was suddenly too tight for his bones and his stomach was knotted.
"You're being very rude," she said. "I've killed men for less."
"Do you want a prize?" he asked drily. Still, he managed to face the beach. Her sea-salt scent continued to tease him, strong, lovely. Hauntingly familiar.
"I'll settle for your testicles in my trophy tent."
That did not amuse him. "Perhaps later. At the moment, I need them." He headed for Brand, who sat near the water's edge, knees drawn to his chest. His back was to Layel, his braided blond hair as soaked as Delilah's. Obviously the air shields were down, not just for Delilah but for everyone, creatures now touching one another.
As if sensing him, Brand hopped to his feet and spun. His lips curved into a grin, animosity flaring as if there had been no break between battles. "I expected you sooner."
"I live to disappoint you. Ready to die?"
"Come and get me, bloodsucker."
"My plea - " Layel hit the damned invisible wall again, knocking the breath right out of his lungs.
Brand's grin became smug. "What's the matter? Change your mind? Frightened?"
Calm. Do not show emotion.
"You're the coward, dragon," Delilah said, suddenly at Layel's side. Brand's smugness became fury.
"Can you move past this point?" Layel asked without facing her, trying to quash the pleasure that came with her defense of him.
She bristled at his harsh tone. "Can you?"
"That is not my name." She kept her gaze on Layel; he felt the heat of it. A quick glance at her proved he was right, and that her hands remained fisted, as if she expected Brand to attack her at any moment.
"Can you move past this godsdamn point, woman?"
He waited. Even Brand waited. Still she did not speak. Had he hurt her again? Did tears swim in her lovely lavender irises? Why did the prospect not please him as much as it should?
"My name is Delilah."
Her shoulder brushed his arm and he hissed. "Say my name," she said, suddenly breathless, "and I'll consider finding out."
Something about her tone...pure challenge layered the wispy undercurrents, as if she wanted him to deny her. He was not sure what to make of that. "Why do you wish me to do this?"
"I want to hear my name on your tongue."
"Because." Stubborn as he'd come to realize she was, she said no more.
"Tell me why," he demanded.
"Just say it!"
"No," he said, while inside his mind he whispered Delilah, drawing out each syllable. The name was a prayer and a curse, both wonderful and evil. Unable to help himself, he looked down and studied her. So lovely, and yet so dangerous in a way she could not possibly comprehend.
A pause. A deep breath, as though she prayed for patience. "Have it your way, vampire. But if you won't say my name, at least tell me yours."
No reason to deny her. She would find out one way or another. "I am Layel."
Her eyes widened. "The vampire king?"
He nodded curtly. Was that admiration now sparkling in her eyes? Surely not. "Try and step past me. Please," he added reluctantly. It was easier to beg than to give her what she wanted.
Silent, trembling, she moved closer to Brand. Unhindered, unfettered. Irritation raced through Layel that she could do so and he could not. She did not remain there, however. She returned to Layel's side.
"Want me to kill the dragon for you while I'm here?" she asked, as casually as if they were discussing the weather.
Brand snorted, not the least bit fearful. Foolish.
Layel gave a clipped shake of his head. "Why?" he demanded of the sky. But if the gods heard him, they gave no indication. As usual.
"Maybe I'll do it for my own pleasure, then," she said to Brand, ignoring Layel as her eyes narrowed. "I haven't forgotten what was done to my sister."
The dragon scrubbed two fingers along his jaw. "What little was done, she brought upon herself. And anyway, I have a feeling we aren't meant to harm each other. Why else would our weapons have been taken?"
"I don't need any weapons to take you down." Layel stepped in front of Delilah. Not to protect her, he told himself, but to claim Brand's attention. "Why don't you try and breach the shield, dragon?"
"No, I don't think I will," Brand said. "I'm done with this conversation. Done with you, too, now that my anger has cooled. I'll leave you at the...tender mercies of the Amazon." Then he did the unthinkable. He walked away. Walked the hell away.
Layel's fangs cut into his lower lip, drawing blood. He tried to follow. Couldn't.
Delilah pivoted, in front of him again, blocking his view of the retreating dragon. "As I was saying, we have some things to discuss, you and I."
He popped his jaw before forcing his expression to relax. She was still geared for a fight, still seemed to crave one. "Poor baby," he said, unwilling to give her what she wanted. "Did I hurt your feelings when I abandoned you a moment ago?"
Her cheekbones pinkened, highlighting the freckles atop her dainty nose. Would she have a dimple when she smiled? If she ever smiled, that is. So far, the Amazon had only glared at him.
Susan had had two dimples, and she'd rarely been without a smile. One that had always entranced him. So why did Delilah's glare affect him just as powerfully?
Layel almost beat himself in the temples to dislodge that torturous thought. He would not compare another woman to Susan. There was no comparison. She had no equal, then or now.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Delilah asked, now curious rather than upset. "In fact, why are you looking at me at all? You said you would not."
Because I am a terrible husband. "How was I looking at you?" He stared past her, past the water to the crystal dome that was so close, yet so far away. Like I want to draw you close and push you away at the same time? Like I want to both taste you and kill you? Like you're dangerous in a way you have no right to be?
"Like I'm a disgusting demon," she said.
She wasn't a demon; she was far worse. Admitting it would have given her power over him, though. "Why did you approach me, Amazon? What do you want from me? And understand that I will not fight with you, no matter what you say. Not now. You will stop trying to provoke me."
"I wasn't trying to provoke you," she said, indignant.
"You succeeded nonetheless. I asked you a question. You will answer it."
At first, she gave no reaction to his words. Then her lips pursed. Those lush, beautiful lips. What would they feel like against his skin? What would -
With a hiss, she kicked out her leg, knocking his ankles together as he'd done to hers in the forest. At the same time, she pushed his shoulders, propelling him backward and giving him no way to balance or catch himself. When he landed, he landed hard, breathing a thing of the past.
You knew better than to allow yourself to be distracted in the presence of an Amazon warrioress, he berated himself, trying to suck in a mouthful of air. Around any enemy, really, but especially one so volatile.
Delilah hopped on top of him, pinning his shoulders to the sand with her knees. There was now another layer to her already complex scent, he realized. Arousal. The discovery shocked him. Hot, erotic arousal, and his mouth dried, his tongue desperate to lave between her legs, where she would be wet. If he moved, raised his head even a little, he would be able to quench his sudden, desperate thirst.
"This is better," she said, practically humming with satisfaction. And disappointment? Did she want to be weaker than him? Surely not. To her, such a thing could bring only humiliation. "The king of the vampires, mine to command. Now you are going to answer my questions. Tell me why you didn't try to swim home like the rest of us. You know something. You must."
Fighting his need for her - just a touch, a taste - he snapped, "I will never be yours to command. Never be yours, period."
"We shall see." Baby-fine strands of her hair brushed his cheeks. A purr rumbled in the back of his throat, and he growled to mask it. "I have heard of your conquests, vampire king."
"Have you?" Slowly he raised his hands to her waist, pretending he wanted to hold her, be closer to her. Hating that it was not as much a pretense as it should have been.
She didn't protest. "Yes. They're impressive. You killed the demon queen, sucking her dry. You have slaughtered more dragons than anyone else ever to live. Combined. You torture ruthlessly just to hear your opponent scream."
"And yet you seem remarkably unfazed by such fearless feats."
"Have you, perchance, heard of my conquests?" She sounded hopeful.
"No." He hadn't, but wished otherwise.
"Liar," she said, unable to hide her dejection.
"About many things, yes, but not this." When she opened her mouth, perhaps to list her own feats, he added, "I do not wish to hear about them, either." Proof that he did, in fact, lie whenever he wanted.
Fire blazed in her eyes as she licked her lips, baring that pink tongue again. "All I want to know is wwhhyy - "
With a flick of his wrists, he tossed her overhead. She landed on her back and rolled, but he expected the motion and rolled backward himself, pinning her to the sand with his body's weight. Behind them, a gasp sounded. Followed by a laugh, a cheer. No footsteps swished in the sand, however. Perhaps, like him, the others could not breach the shield. Or perhaps they were simply enjoying the show.
Delilah lay there a moment, stunned.
"You were saying?" he asked, one brow arched smugly.
"Release me, Layel. Now."
Her breasts pushed into his chest, her nipples hard and wanting. He was tempted, so tempted, to palm them. Was shaking with the need, he realized. "What are you doing to me? How are you making me feel this way?"
She blinked up at him, truly confused. "What way?"
He would not admit his desires aloud. They were wrong, unacceptable. Oh, he knew that men and women constantly fell in and out of lust. Knew that many who lost their lover grieved for a time and then found someone else.
He could not, would not do so.
Susan had been killed in the most painful, brutal way imaginable. She had been humiliated, used, spat upon and finally burned. She had felt her baby die inside her, the kicking gradually slowing until it ceased altogether. She had begged and she had pleaded for Layel's help, but he had not reached her soon enough. He had not saved her.
He did not deserve another chance at love.
He did not deserve another woman.
More than that, Susan did not deserve to have her memory overshadowed by another woman.
"What way?" Delilah insisted, reaching up.
What she meant to do, he might never know. He jolted to his feet with a roar. "Do not touch me. Ever. Just stay away from me, Amazon. Do you understand?"
He didn't wait for her reply, but stalked away from her. Stalked away before he looked at her, saw hurt in her eyes and apologized. Before he begged her to ignore his words and touch him anyway. Before he threw himself at her, sobbing for a chance at something he was not worthy of.
Sand was flung against his calves and he knew she'd stood. "I only approached you to ask if you knew why we were brought here," she called. There was no emotion in her tone. Merely a detachment he suddenly loathed nearly as much as he loathed the dragons.
Silent, he continued to stride away from her with a fierce determination he usually reserved for the battlefield. One amorous glance from a woman and a part of you longs to forget Susan. You promised her an eternity, yet you only gave her a few hundred years. Pathetic.
Cringing, he covered his ears with his hands. Dark, treacherous emotions were welling inside him, close to bubbling over. If they succeeded, Layel knew he would be lost to them forever. There would be no returning, no reclaiming his sanity. Vengeance would be forgotten, his own pain all he would be able to see.
"Do you know? Does anyone know?" Delilah shouted.
"I do," a booming voice answered, relish in every syllable. "I know."