Darius stood at the edge of the bed, staring down at Grace.

She was surrounded by a multitude of colors. A pink satin sheet beneath her, a waterfall of red curls around her shoulders and an emerald blanket draped over her. The sight was intoxicating. She looked more relaxed than she had in his vision. Sleeping peacefully, languidly, her expression was soft and innocent. The moment he'd first seen her, his only thoughts had been of joining her. How he longed to reach out and stroke the pale delicacy of her skin. How he longed to comb his fingers into the silky cloud of her hair.

Perhaps he should fulfill his oath here and now, he mused, simply to end this strange fascination he had with her. But he knew he wouldn't. He was too much a man of strategy. He liked all facts before him, and much still remained a mystery. He needed to know more about these surface dwellers and their weapons. Only then would his army storm Javar's palace and conquer everyone inside.

Darius had spent several hours searching for Grace, following magical wafts from the spell of understanding. Since no Atlantean could survive outside of Atlantis for long, he should have been filled with a sense of urgency now that he'd found her.

He wasn't.

He lingered.

His breath ragged, Darius continued to drink in the sight of his tormentor. She wore a thin white shirt, leaving her shoulders bare and glistening in the moonlight Leaving her full breasts clearly outlined. Her nipples formed shadowed circles he longed to trace with his tongue. He watched the rise and fall of her chest, watched the life that radiated from her. The longer he studied her, the more starved and desperate he felt for her. What would her heartbeat feel like under his palms? Steady and gentle? Or hurried and erratic? His blood sang with vitality, rushing to his cock and hardening him painfully.

I do not want to hurt this woman , he thought. I want to relish every moment in her presence . He shook his head against such dishonorable thoughts.

He had lived so long by his oath of death and destruction that he knew not what to make of these newly acquired desires-desires that had not muted with the distance between them.

Desires such as these could drive a man from his chosen path, push him and beat him down until he collapsed from regret. He frowned as something occurred to him. Perhaps the gods had created Grace merely to punish him. He'd often thought he could endure any punishment stricken upon him. If he'd only known how cruel the gods could be...

Grace muttered something under her breath, then gently, delightfully moaned. What did she dream of? He would be lying if he denied that he wished her to dream of him. She fascinated him in so many ways. Her resourcefulness. Her bravery in challenging him as few men had ever dared. Her defiance.

What would she do if he lay down beside her on the bed? If he stripped the clothes from her body and tasted every inch of her honey-smooth skin-lingering, savoring, sinking deeply into the hot moistness between her thighs? Sliding, slipping, slowly pumping?

He tore his gaze from her. Gird yourself against her. Distance yourself from the situation . Stay sane. Sure. This woman posed a greater threat than any army. She had plunged through the mist and completely destroyed his sense of order. She had violated his innermost thoughts, ignored his commands and lured him to dishonor with her beauty.

And yet she still lived.

He couldn't recall the last time he'd had a woman, but knew it had been primitive, savage and quick, as were all his sexual encounters. With this woman, Darius desired something slow and easy. Something gentle. Like their kiss.

As he observed the rest of the room, he saw floral curtains hanging over both windows, each a symphony of colors. Pink, yellow, blue, purple... Colors more beautiful than he remembered. A mirror consumed one wall, while flowers and vines were painted on another. Green leaves and purple grapes bloomed in feigned sunlight. Grace was a woman who enjoyed the sensuality of life. Things he, too, enjoyed of late.

Grace, Grace, Grace . His mind chanted her name. If he could have one more taste of her, he could forget her. Just one more . He found himself approaching the side of the bed. Compelled by a force greater than himself, he leaned down and inhaled her exotic fragrance. His eyes closed as he relished the carnal sweetness of her. He gently caressed his lips against hers. Lost in her dreams, she instinctively tried to mold herself against him.

He knew, though, that if she'd awoken just then she would have fought him. He knew it as surely as he knew his will to resist her could not survive any more bodily contact. Not knowing what else to do, he uttered a temporary peace spell that would keep her relaxed for the first few moments after she woke.

When he finished, he straightened. "Grace," he said softly. "Awaken."

"Hmm," she muttered. Her eyes remained blissfully closed as she shifted, causing the pale pink and emerald linens enfolding her to wrinkle and bunch.

"Grace," he said again. "We must talk."

Slowly her eyelids fluttered open. She offered him a drowsy sweet smile. "Darius?" she asked breathlessly.

At the sound of his name on her lips, his mouth went dry, and he found himself unable to reply.

 

"You're here." Her smile widening, she stretched her arms over her head and purred low in her throat. "Am I dreaming?" She considered her words, and her brow wrinkled. "This doesn't feel like a dream."

"No dream," he said, the words ragged. The color of her eyes was far more beautiful than any other color he'd ever encountered.

"So you're real?" she asked, not the least afraid of him.

He nodded, knowing the peace spell was responsible for her languor. It was irrational, he knew, but he wished he himself had caused such a reception, not his powers.

"What are you doing here?"

"I have more questions for you."

"I'm glad you came," she said.

"I need the medallion, Grace. Where is it?"

She watched him for a long, slumberous moment, then eased up and wound her arms around his neck, crashing her breasts into his chest. She tugged him closer until they were nose to nose. "Questions later," she said. "Kiss now."

His nostrils flared at her demand-but not in anger. A traitorous fire licked through him. He'd meant to relax her, not arouse her. Gods, he'd cast the peace spell to avoid touching her, yet here she was demanding that he do so! "Release me," he said softly, knowing he could pull himself away if only he could find the will.

"I don't want to." Her fingers toyed with the hair at the base of his neck, and her eyes beseeched him. "Every night I've dreamt of our kiss. It's the only thing I've ever done that made me feel complete, and I want more." She frowned slightly. "I don't know why I just told you that. I-Why am I not afraid of you?"

I deserve a beating , he berated himself, but he lowered his head anyway. Her admission lured him as surely as a beckoning finger. He was helpless against her allure. Any moment the aura of peace around her would wither, and she would jerk away from him. Until then... "Open," he told her. And he didn't care what type of man this made him. Dishonorable, so be it.

She immediately obeyed. His tongue swept inside, swirling and searching. His rough moan blended with her airy sigh. She was a m¨¦lange of flavors: warm, delicious, mesmerizing. It was a taste he'd experienced only once before, the first time they kissed. He wanted to experience that sweetness again and again.

She clutched at his shirt, then kneaded his neck, opening herself up, silently demanding he hold nothing back. He was humbled that she responded to him so openly, so uninhibitedly and so quickly. A deep-seated yearning to let her goodness seep into him blossomed and heightened. How desperately he wanted to press deeply inside her, over and over, and take her in every position imaginable until this hunger for her vanished.

He eased himself on top of her, allowing them both to lie in her bed as he'd imagined doing moments before. He gently rolled them to their sides. Had she been coaxing him to his death, he gladly would have followed. The full lushness of her breasts cushioned his chest. Besides the thin shirt, she wore a small patch of lace between her thighs. She was the most erotic little creature, and he deeply resented the menial barriers preventing complete skin to skin contact.

She settled one leg over his waist, cradling him intimately, and he sank deeper into the apex of her legs. He hissed in a breath at the exquisite pleasure. He knew he should shove her away, knew he should begin the questioning. He did not have much time, for he already felt the weakening effects of leaving Atlantis.

But he could not stop. Was helpless. Desperate for her.

He had to have this woman.

His lust for her was dangerous, forbidden, but time slipped outside of reality, and Darius allowed himself to feel instead of think. As he did so, the very things he'd always despised became his greatest allies. Tenderness. Passion. Greed. Warm, female flesh tantalized him. Her sweet, feminine scent drugged him. Smooth and perfect A sheen of sweat covered his brow.

As if she read his mind and discerned his needs, she sucked on his tongue, nibbled on his lips, and slanted her mouth for deeper penetration. She taught him the way of it, consuming him bit by enticing bit. And he let her do it. He would have begged her to continue if necessary.

He trailed one hand over her body, tracing the velvety texture of her skin, first along the column of her spine, then over the roundness of her bottom. She moaned, and he slid his fingers between her legs, allowing them to travel up and over her panties, her moist heat, then under her shirt.

"I love the feel of your hands," she gasped when his fingertips grazed her nipple. He circled the hard bud with the tip of his finger. "So good."

She'd said as much to him before and still he relished the words. They made his every nerve dance and clamor to please her. He licked her neck and rubbed against her, nestling his erection in the pulsing heart of her desire. Their gasps blended, his strained, hers hoarse. Which only made it clear they both needed more.

"I want you naked," he said raggedly.

"Yes, yes."

Impatient to see her, he tore the folds of her shirt in two. She didn't flinch from his action; instead she arched her back, offering herself to him. Silently telling him to do with her what he would. Her breasts sprang free, revealing two rosy nipples, both pebbled and wanting. In the moonlight, her slightly rounded stomach glowed like fresh cream, and a small, silver jewel winked from her navel. He paused and fingered the stone.

"What is this?" he asked.

She wet her lips. "A belly-button ring."

He'd never heard of such a thing, but praise be the gods for its creation. The eroticism of seeing a jewel nestled in the hollow of her stomach nearly felled him. His muscles taut, he bent his head and flicked his tongue over the little bud. She gasped and shivered. His body jerked in response.

"I shouldn't have done it," she said, gripping his shoulders, urging him on with the sting of her nails. "I'm not skinny enough."

"You are the most beautiful sight I have ever beheld."

Her heavy-lidded gaze met his. She opened her mouth to protest, then cupped his jaw and compelled his lips to hers. He slanted his chin, taking more of her, sinking into her. As his fingertips continued to caress the jewel, he trailed kisses along her shoulder and neck, then moved to her breasts. Biting her lip, moaning, she bowed toward him, letting him suck her nipples deeply, hungrily. He wanted to taste all of her at the same time: her stomach, her nipples, the core of her.

"Darius?" she said, her tone thick and drugged with arousal.

"Hmm?" Though his body urged him to finish what they'd started, he continued to savor. Continued to feast on her.

"I want my hands all over you."

He stilled, gazing down at her and thinking he must have misheard. No woman had ever said such a thing to him before. Perhaps he'd left them too quickly. Or perhaps they'd been as unconcerned with him as he was with them. "Tell me what you wish to do to me." His voice emerged hoarse, choked.

"I want to give you pleasure." Her eyes were like turquoise flames. "So much pleasure."

"How?"

"By kissing you like you're kissing me. By touching you like you're touching me."

"Where?" He couldn't stop the questions. He needed the words.

"Everywhere."

"Here?" He skimmed his hand inside her panties, felt the softness of her hair, and dove two fingers inside her silky wetness.

"God, yes!" she screamed. Her eyes closed, and she moved her hips with his fingers. She moaned, "That feels... that makes me... Ohmygod."

"Do you want to touch me like this, sweet Grace. Between my legs?"

"Yes. Oh, yes." Grace uttered a ragged exhalation and coasted her hands under his shirt and across the bold, black tattoos on his chest. The tips of his nipples speared into her palms as a deep thrum of pleasure rocked her entire body.

His fingers were stretching her, but oh, Lord, the pleasure. Darius's thumb found and circled her clitoris.

Lost in the magic of sensation, she gripped his forearms and let herself be swept away. So close... almost there.

"Seeing you like this," he whispered, "touching you like this gives me more pleasure than I deserve."

He crushed his lips to hers in a deep, openmouthed kiss that stole the breath from her lungs. He was kissing her the way a man kissed a woman right before sinking into her body. Kissing her the way she needed to be kissed. Her knees squeezed his waist, and she gripped his butt in her hands. His fingers never stopped working her.

"I want so badly to make you mine," he said through gritted teeth.

Something hot and wild exploded inside her just then, not allowing either of them to go slowly. He wanted to make her his woman, but she needed him to do it. She fisted her hands in his hair, holding him captive while she deepened the kiss. Other men had kissed her, but this was the first time she ever experienced a kiss with her entire body. This was the first time a man had ever made her feel as if she were his entire world.

His thick erection pulsed against her thigh and the need to have it inside her, a part of her, consumed her heart and soul. "You're so thick and hard. I want you, Darius," she told him, the words coming from a secret place within her. The most honest part of herself, a part she couldn't deny, though she knew she should. "I do. Make love to me."

"I-" A hint of reason swept into Darius's consciousness. He couldn't make love to this woman. To do so and then to destroy her would be more vile than anything he'd ever done in the past.

She ran the tip of her tongue over his neck, up his chin, and placed little nips along the column of his jaw. "I want to do this with you every night. Just... " Kiss. "Like... " Nibble. "This."

Every night. The one thing he couldn't give her. He had a duty to fulfill. Touching and tasting this woman was not part of it, much as he wished otherwise. Mired in guilt, he broke all contact, tearing himself away from her and jumping off the bed. He stood, staring down at her, fighting for control. And losing. Her taste was still in his mouth.

Her cheeks were flushed like the barest rose. Moonlight caught the moisture on her lips, making them glisten, beckoning him to sample them once more. Getting near her again was pure folly, he thought with self-disgust. Yet every instinct he possessed screamed that she was his. That she belonged to him and was his sole reason for living. Her conquest-no, her surrender -would be his greatest victory.

But even as he entertained the wild thoughts, he denied them.

Javar had fallen to a woman. Many years ago, his former tutor had taken a female dragon as his bride. She had softened Javar, made him lax in his duties. He became less cautious with the mist, no longer so quick to kill. That laxness had most likely earned him death. Or worse. Even now Javar might be imprisoned somewhere, being tortured for his knowledge and authority over the mist.

Darius could not allow the same for himself. Softening would mean the destruction of Atlantis.

Irritation raged through him-for what he couldn't have, for what he shouldn't want. How could the merest touch of Grace's lips and body reduce him to a fire-lizard focused solely on sensation? And how did just being with her let him glimpse everything missing from his life? Warmth. Love. An escape from the darkness.

Allowing himself to know the sweet joy of being in her arms, in her body, could destroy everything he'd striven so adamantly to build. She was life and light, and he was death and shadows. Joining their bodies would be more folly than simply allowing her to live with knowledge of the mist.

"We must stop," he said, the words ripped from him. He summoned all of his strength, all of his resolve.

"No. No stopping." She sat up slowly, a frown marring her features. Her eyes were still heavy-lidded from sleep, still relaxed from the peace spell, and she blinked. "I want you to make love to me. I need you to make love to me. I'm close. So close to climax."

"Cover yourself," he said, the words even harsher than before. If she didn't, he might beg her to strip completely.

The front of her shirt gaped open, revealing those perfect curves. When she didn't rush to obey, he leaned down and gripped her shirt, careful not to brush her skin. He was pushed past his endurance already, and one more touch... Whether his will was weakened because of his distance with Atlantis or because of Grace herself, he didn't know. Sweat ran down his brow as he tied the ripped hem together, partially covering her breasts, yet leaving a tempting amount of cleavage.

"What are you doing?" she asked, staring down at his hands, seeing the same image he saw. His darkness against her paleness. His strength against her femininity.

He pulled away, not responding.

Grace blinked. Shook her head. Heady passion still held her in its wondrous fog. She ached. God, she ached. At first she'd told herself Darius was nothing more than another figment of her imagination, but she'd known the truth. She knew it now. He was real, and he was here.

He promised he'd come after her and he had.

A shiver raked her spine. How she'd ever convinced herself those few hours with him in Atlantis had been nothing more than her water-deprived imagination, she didn't know. And it didn't matter now. It didn't matter why he'd come. All that mattered was that he was here and he wanted her, too.

Grace's gaze traveled the length of Darius's body. He wore the same black leather pants as before. Instead of being shirtless, however, he wore a black T-shirt that showcased every muscle, every ridge of sinew.

As she watched him, the peaceful lassitude woven so delightfully into her blood began to fade. The corners of her lips turned down as a lone beam of moonlight struck Darius's face, making the golden-brown of his eyes gleam. She paused. Golden? Before, in Atlantis, his eyes had been blue. Ice-blue and as cold as the color implied. Now they were a warm, golden-brown and hinted at untold pleasure, but also an inner pain so staggering she was amazed he hadn't buckled under the burden of it.

His features tightened, and his eyes lightened. Lightened until that cold, crystalline gaze was back in place. How odd, she thought, shaking her head.

"There is much we need to discuss, Grace," he said. The rough edge of his voice sliced through her musings. "When you finish covering yourself, we will begin."

Here she was, offering herself to him despite everything, yet he didn't want any part of her. The rejection hurt deeply.

She must have hesitated too long, because he added, "Do it. Now." His jaw clenched.

Unease dripped past every other emotion working through her, withering her relaxation a bit more. This was the man who had threatened to hurt her. This was the man who had chased her and locked her away. This was not the man who'd held her tenderly, who'd kissed her so passionately.

"Darius?" she said with a wisp of uncertainty.

"Use the sheet," he said.

"Darius," she repeated, ignoring his dictate.

He flicked his gaze to the ceiling, as if praying for divine intervention. "Yes, Grace?"

"What's going on?" It was a silly question, yet she could think of nothing else to say.

"I told you I would come for you, and so I have."

She swallowed. "Why?"

Before she had time to blink, he unsheathed a small blade from the waist of his pants and held the razor-sharp tip at her neck. The contact was light, not enough to draw blood, but enough to sting ail the same. She gasped and whimpered, the sounds blending and echoing off the walls.

Darius arched a brow. "We are going to have a chat, you and I."

"You didn't travel all this way to talk," she said. And he hadn't traveled here to make love to her, either. She gulped. What exactly did he want from her?

"For now conversation is all I require of you." His blade stayed suspended in the air for another fraction of a second before he slid it back into its sheath. "Do not forget how dangerous I am."

Yes, he was dangerous. And if now was for conversation, what was later for?

Fighting a cold sweat and a timorous shake, Grace scrambled up. Her sheet and comforter whisked to the floor in a tangle at her feet. Darius remained in place, as if he feared nothing she could do. Determined, she reached into the backpack on her nightstand, knocking down the empty wineglass in her haste.

She withdrew her Mace and without any hesitation, sprayed him in the eyes. While his roar reverberated in her ears, she bolted out the bedroom door.