Alex Carlyle was hot and cold at the same time.
A single guard shoved him inside his newest prison. A single fucking guard because he was too weak to be any real threat. The drugs his captors were pumping through his system were hell on his body. They kept him compliant, groggy and dependent. Kept him uninterested in escape.
Kept him stupid.
Or maybe his weakness stemmed from low blood supply. Vampires were allowed to suck from his neck anytime they wanted, as long as they didn't kill him. He almost wished they'd finish the job.
For months he'd done nothing but breathe and live Atlantis. He had acquired the proof he'd wanted of its existence, but he no longer gave a damn.
He shivered. The room was cold. So cold frost formed every time he breathed. Why, then, did his skin burn? He sank to the hard floor. Another tremor scratched down his spine like long, sharp fingernails.
A woman was shoved into the cell. The only exit slid shut behind her.
Alex closed his eyes, too tired to care. Within moments, small, delicate hands grasped his shoulders and gently shook him. His eyelids flickered open, and he found himself staring up into Teira's beautiful, ethereal face.
"You need me?" she said.
He'd lost his glasses, but he didn't need them to see that her pale brown eyes were alight with concern. She had the longest lashes he'd ever seen, as light as her waist-length hair. She claimed she was a prisoner, just like he was. The two of them had been "escorted" so many places he didn't know where he was anymore.
This newest cell was stripped bare, as if someone had recently scraped everything off the walls. "I'm fine," he lied. "Where are we this time?"
Her home. He inwardly sighed. That told him nothing. She'd never mentioned where she lived, and he hadn't asked because he didn't know yet if he believed a word out of the woman's gorgeous mouth.
He didn't know whom he could trust anymore.
Lately he'd been swindled and double-crossed by everyone he encountered. Every member of his team had betrayed him, willingly giving away his location and his purpose for a few hundred dollars. The guide he'd hired to see him safely through the Amazon had been a paid mercenary. Now he had to contend with Teira.
She was beautiful, exquisitely and guilelessly so, but beauty often hid a mountain of lies. And she was too concerned for him, too eager to learn about him. Perhaps she'd been sent to seduce the location of the medallion from him, he thought irritably. Why else lock her in a cell with him? He laughed humorlessly. Why else but to fuck the answer out of him.
Well, the joke was on her. Teira wasn't his type. He preferred women who wore too much makeup, and tight clothes over their even tighter, surgically enhanced bodies. He preferred women who screwed hard and left the same night without a qualm-if they didn't speak to him in the meantime, even better.
Women who looked like Teira terrified him. Instead of makeup and tight clothes, they wore an air of innocence, a marry-me-and-give-me-babies kind of wholesomeness that unnerved him.
He'd spent too many years caring for his sick father, too afraid to leave the house in case he was needed. He stayed as far away from wholesome women as he could. Just the thought of being permanently grounded made him nauseous. His captors should have locked him up with a slutty-looking brunette. Then he might have talked.
His jaw clenched. He never should have acquired that damn medallion.
What had Grace done with it? And why the hell had he sent it to her? He hadn't meant to involve her; he simply hadn't realized the extent of the danger until it was too late. He didn't know what he'd do if she were hurt. There were only three people he gave a shit about, and Grace was at the top of the list. His mom and Aunt Sophie claimed a close second and third.
Teira gave him another gentle shake. Her fingers were like ice, and he noticed her teeth were chattering.
"What do you want?" he barked.
She flinched but didn't back away. "You need me?" she asked again. Her soft voice floated over him, as lilting as a spring breeze. Her English wasn't very good, but she'd managed to learn the basics-and quite quickly, too. How convenient.
"I'm fine," he repeated.
"I help warm you."
"I don't need your goddamn help. Go to your side of the cell and leave me alone."
Her innocent features dimmed as she scooted away.
He fought a wave of disappointment. He would never tell her, would never admit it aloud, but he liked her nearness. Dirt might streak the smoothness of her skin, but she still smelled as exotic as a summer storm. The scent comforted him-but scared him, too. She was not his type, but he often found himself gazing at her, yearning to hold her, to touch her.
As if she sensed his inner longings, she moved back to him and smoothed her trembling fingertips over his forehead, down his nose and along his jaw, her touch light. "Why will you not let me help?" she asked.
He sighed, savoring her caress even while he knew he should make her stop. Cameras were probably hidden everywhere, and he didn't want anyone to think he'd finally caved where this woman was concerned.
"Do you have a syringe? Do you have whatever the hell they're giving me?"
"Then you can't help me."
She began tracing strange symbols over his cheek. An intense concentration settled over her features.
His tremors gradually slowed, and his coldness receded. His muscles relaxed.
"Feel better?" she asked, a trace of weakness to the words.
He managed to give her an indifferent frown and lift his shoulders in a shrug. What symbols had she drawn and what did they mean? And how in God's name had they helped him? He was too stubborn to ask.
"Why you not like me?" she whispered, biting her lower lip.
"I like you just fine." He wouldn't admit that he would have died without her. His captors, the same men who had chased him through the jungle, then plucked him from one location to the other, had been brutal. He'd been beaten, drugged and nearly drained, and shuddered with each memory. Always Teira was there, waiting for him, comforting him. Holding him with her quiet strength and dignity.
"Why do they have you locked in here?" he asked her, wishing immediately that he could snatch the words back. He didn't want to watch her features cloud with deceit as she spun a web of lies. He knew why she was here. Didn't he?
Softly, gently, she lay beside him and wrapped one arm around his waist. The woman craved bodily contact like no one else he'd ever met, as if she'd been denied it most of her life. And he'd be lying if he said her little body didn't feel good curled up next to him.
"They kill my man and all of his army. I try to... what is the word?" Her brow scrunched as she searched her mind.
He gazed deeply into her eyes. They were as devoid of duplicity as always. "Defeat them?"
"Yes," she said. "Defeat them. I try and defeat them."
Whether he believed her story or not, he didn't like the thought of her being tied to another man. And he liked even less that he cared. "I didn't know you were married."
She looked away from him, past him, over his shoulder. Sorrow and grief radiated from her, and when she next spoke, her pain was like a living thing. "The union end too quickly."
He found himself reaching out to her for the first time. He wrapped his fingers around her palm and gave a light squeeze. "Why did they kill him?"
"To control the mist he guarded and steal his wealth. Even here, in this cell, they removed the jewels from the walls. I miss him," she added softly.
To control the mist he guarded ... Alex had known she was from Atlantis, though he had failed to realize she was the wife of a Guardian. Or rather, former wife. God, he felt stupid. Of course she would be kept alive. She would know things about the mist that no one else knew.
He studied Teira's face with fresh eyes, taking in the elegant slope of her nose and the perfect curve of her pale brows. "How long has your-" Alex couldn't bring himself to say husband "-has he been gone?"
"Weeks now. So many weeks." Reaching up, Teira traced the seam of his lips. "You help me escape?"
Escape. How wonderful the word sounded. How terrifying. He'd lost track of time and didn't even know how long he'd been imprisoned. A day? A year? At first, he'd tried numerous times to flee, but he'd always been unsuccessful.
He rolled onto his back, and the action made his bones ache. He groaned. Teira wasted no time tucking her head into the hollow of his neck and placing her leg over his.
"You are lonely like me," she said. "I know you are."
She fit perfectly against him. Too perfectly. As if she'd been made specifically to match his body curve for curve. And he was lonely. He stared up at the flat ceiling. What was he going to do with this woman? Was she a heartless bitch who only wanted the medallion and was willing to sell her body to get it? Or was she as innocent as she appeared?
"Tell me about you."
She'd made the same request a thousand times before. It wouldn't hurt to give her some information about himself, he decided. Nothing important, just a tidbit or two. He wouldn't mention Grace, of course. He didn't dare. His love for his sister could be used against him, and that he wouldn't allow.
"I'm twenty-nine years old," he told Teira. He placed his hands on her head and sifted his fingers through her hair. Not only did the strands look like pearly moonlight, they felt like it, too. "I've always had a passion for fast cars." And even faster women, but he didn't disclose that part. "I've never been married, and I don't have children. I live in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan."
"Man-hat-tan," she said, testing the word on her tongue. "Tell me more."
He didn't mention the crime or the pollution but gave her the details he knew she craved. "No matter what time of day or night, crowds of people wander the streets as far as the eye can see. Buildings stretch up to the sky. Shops and bakeries never close. It's a place where every desire can be indulged."
"My people rarely stray to the surface, but your Man-hat-tan sounds like a place we would enjoy."
"Tell me about your home."
Dreamy remembrance clouded her eyes, making the gold darken to chocolate. She snuggled deeper into his side. "We are inside a dragon palace, though you cannot tell by this cell. Outside, the sea flows all around. Flowers of every color bloom. There are many temples of worship," she said, slipping into her native tongue, "but most of us have forgotten them because we ourselves have been forgotten."
"I'm sorry." While he was coming to understand some of her language, he wasn't close to fluent. "I only understood a little of what you said."
"I say I wish I could show you."
No, she'd said more than that, but he let it go. How wonderful it would be to trek through Atlantis. If he met the inhabitants, studied the homes, wandered the streets and inundated himself within the culture, he could write a book about his experiences. He could-Alex shuddered when he realized he was diving back into his old pattern of thought.
"I wish I had the power to help you understand my language," Teira said. "But my powers are not strong enough to cast a spell." She paused, traced her fingertips over his jaw. "Who is Grace?"
Horrified, he leapt up and away from her as if she were the devil's handmaiden come to claim him. He swayed as a wave of dizziness hit him, wincing as a sharp pain lanced through his temples. He stumbled to the pitcher of water in the corner and sipped. When he felt more steadied, he glared over at Teira. "Where did you hear that name?"
She was trembling as she sat up and pulled her knees to her chest. "You said while you sleep."
"Don't ever say her name again. Not ever. Understand?"
"I am sorry. I never mean to upset you. I simply-"
The door opened.
Dirt flung in every direction as three men stalked inside. One carried a small table, one a chair and the third a platter of food. Soon a fourth man joined them, cradling a semiautomatic in his hands. He pointed the gun at Alex and grinned, daring him to move. Their arrival meant he'd have his drugs, so he was incapable of fear.
Teira's trembling increased. Every day these same men brought him food, a simple meal of bread, cheese and water. Every day they escorted Teira from the room, leaving him to eat alone. And every day she fought them, scratching and screaming. Alex had always assumed her resistance was an act, that they were taking her away to find out what she'd learned from him that day, but as he looked at her, really looked at her this time, he saw the signs of true terror. Her already pale skin became pallid, revealing the faint trace of veins beneath. Her eyes became impossibly round, and she pressed her lips together-to keep from whimpering?
The table was placed in front of Alex. Hands now free, the guard who'd been holding it strode to Teira and clasped her firmly by the forearm. She didn't protest as he wrenched her to her feet. She merely gazed over at Alex, silently pleading with him to help her.
"Time for you to be by yourself for a while, sweetheart," the man told her.
Whether she worked for or against these people, Alex realized her fear was real. "Leave her alone," he said. He latched on to her other arm, making her the rope in a vicious tug of war.
One of the guards scowled and stalked to him. Something was slammed into Alex's temple. His vision blurred. His knees buckled, and he went down. Hard. Teira cried out, tried to reach him, and Alex watched in growing horror as she was slapped across the face. Her head whipped to the side, and he caught the sight of blood on her lip.
Fury consumed him. Hot, blinding fury, giving him strength where he should have had none. With a roar, he sprang up and tackled Teira's tormentor. All three men flew at him, and he found himself subdued and pinned, helpless once again.
"Alex," Teira cried.
Get up , his mind screamed. Help her . As he pushed to his feet, someone grabbed his arm. He experienced a sharp sting as a needle was shoved into his vein. Familiar warmth invaded him, calming, relaxing. The ache in his bones faded. His dry mouth flooded with moisture. When he was released, he sank to the ground, the will to fight completely deserting him.
Teira was dragged away.
He closed his eyes and let his mind float away to nothingness. Footsteps echoed in his ears, tapering to quiet as the rest of the men vacated the room. A new set of footsteps suddenly sounded, these coming closer and closer to him.
"Enjoying the woman, are you?" a man asked, his voice familiar.
Alex fought past the fog webbing his brain and blinked up. Hazel eyes peered down at him, the same hazel eyes that belonged to his boss, Jason Graves. Jason wore an aura of self-importance that was almost palpable. He also wore a dragon medallion around his neck.
Alex's eyes narrowed. He'd never considered the man a friend, but he'd been a dependable employer for the four years he'd worked for him. Betrayal washed over Alex, bitter and biting, as he realized just what this meant.
He'd suspected this, but having actual evidence still managed to shock him. I never should have stolen the medallion , he thought.
"I'm nothing if not hospitable," Jason said. His eyes gleamed bright with smug superiority.
Shards of his fury renewed, sparking past the complacency of the drugs. If only his body had the strength to act. "What are you doing to Teira?" He shuddered at the answer that leapt into his mind, certain now that she wasn't working with anyone, but was merely trying to survive. Just as he was.
"Nothing she doesn't enjoy, I assure you."
"Bring her back," he growled. "Now."
"First, you and I are going to have a t¨ºte-¨¤-t¨ºte."
The extent of his helplessness shone as brightly as a neon sign. He closed his eyes. "What is it exactly that you want from me, Jason?"
"Call me Master," his boss said. "Everyone here does." He claimed the chair that had been set in front of the table and removed the lid from the platter of food.
The scent of spicy meat and fresh fruits wafted in the air, making Alex's mouth water. This wasn't the bread and cheese he'd expected. But then, the meal wasn't for him. How long since he'd last eaten anything that smelled so divine? he wondered. Then he laughed. What did he care? "How about I call you Bastard instead?" he said.
"Do it and I will have you strangled with your own intestines," Jason said easily, almost happily. "Afterward, I'll have the same done to Teira."
"Master it is, then." Bastard . Wincing, he pulled himself to a sitting position and crossed his arms over his chest.
Jason swirled his fork in what looked to be pasta and said, "You have been stubborn, Alex, holding out on us."
A prickle of unease worked through him, and he fought to remain expressionless. "What do you mean?"
"Your sister, Grace." Casually Jason bit into his food. He closed his eyes and chewed slowly, savoring the taste. "The picture you have of her on your desk is of a ten-year-old girl."
Alex's unease quickly mutated into terror, and the cold air seeped all the way into his marrow. "So what," he said, striving for nonchalance.
"A voluptuous, very mature Grace was found looking for you in the jungle. She's pretty, your sister." Jason licked creamy white sauce from the fork.
Alex tried to spring up, tried to wrap his hands around Jason's neck. His body refused to cooperate, however, and in midair, he simply collapsed back into a heap on the floor. "Where is she?" he panted. "Did you hurt her? Did you do anything to her?"
"Of course not." Jason's tone actually held an element of affront. "What kind of man do you think I am?"
"You really don't want me to answer that, do you?" He scrubbed a hand down his face. "Where is she?"
"Don't worry. We let her fly back to New York. She's safe-for the moment. We left her an e-mail from you, saying you were okay, and for her sake, I hope she's content with that."
His jaw clenched. "Leave her the hell alone."
"That depends on you, doesn't it?" Jason placed his elbows on the table and leaned toward him. "Where's my medallion, Alex?" he asked, his voice growing harder, harsher.
"I told your men, I lost it. I don't know where it is."
"I think that's a lie," Jason said smoothly. He held a pineapple slice between his fingers and sunk his teeth into it, causing the juices to run down his chin. He dabbed at the wetness with his napkin, mimicking a proper Southern gentleman-the kind of man he'd often teased Alex of being.
"What do you want it for, anyway? You already have a new one."
"I want them all."
"Why? They aren't crafted from gold or silver. They're crafted from metal filigree. They're a worthless decoration, nothing more."
They both knew he lied.
Jason shrugged. "They offer the wearer power beyond comprehension, though we haven't yet learned how to harness that power. In time," he said with confidence. "In time. They also open every door in this palace, offering a banquet of riches. You could have been a part of this... I would have asked for your help eventually, but you chose to work against me."
"You think you can just blithely steal from these people and walk away unscathed?" He snorted. "They are children of the gods. I, at least, meant only to study them."
"No, you meant to expose them. Did you think that would have done them any good? Did you think the entire world could resist coming here and stealing the overabundance of treasures?" Now Jason was the one to snort. "To answer your question, no, I didn't think I could blithely steal from them. I knew I could. Quite easily, too."
Alex shook his head at such blatant arrogance. "I suppose you're going to tell me just how you did it. We can have ourselves a Bad Guy Confession Time."
A hard glint entered Jason's eyes, but his need to brag far surpassed his anger. "Before entering the portal in Florida, I tossed in enough fentanyl gas to put a legion of men to sleep. Then I sent in my troops. Most were killed, but casualties of war are expected. The Guardian of the Mist might have been strong, but he couldn't survive multiple rounds of firepower and he quickly bled out."
"What about his men? The Book of Ra-Dracus speaks of each Guardian possessing an army of dragons inside his palace."
"Ah, the Book of Ra-Dracus ." All arrogance, Jason lifted a jeweled goblet and sipped the contents. "Have I thanked you yet for the book's acquisition? It changed my life."
"You stole it from me," he accused, his eyes narrowed.
"Of course. Just like you stole from me. The irony is beautiful, isn't it?" Smiling smugly, Jason added, "You made the mistake of typing your notes into your computer. I keep tabs on all of my employees."
"You hack into their personal lives, you mean."
Jason shrugged "When I realized exactly what you possessed, I knew I had to have it. So I paid someone to 'acquire' it for me."
"I stole the medallion from you, yes, but I always intended to give it back. I didn't think you even knew what it was."
"Oh, I knew." A soft rumble of laughter escaped. "I'm slowly emptying this palace of every jewel, every piece of gold, every fine fabric and selling them on the surface. How else do you think I afforded those new buildings? My designer clothes?" He paused, tilted his chin. "And I'll do the same to the other dragon palace. But we digress. How did we kill the dragon army? The same way we found them. Ra-Dracus . We learned they are weakened by cold and bullets. Quick. Simple."
"You're a monster," Alex whispered, horrified by what Jason had done-and all he would do.
"A monster? Hardly. Those that dwell in Atlantis are the monsters. In fact, let me tell you a little about Teira, the sweet Teira you so wish to protect. She's a dragon. A changeling." He studied Alex's waning color and nodded with satisfaction. "I see you know what I am talking about."
"I read Ra-Dracus in its entirety."
"Then you know what happens when you infuriate a dragon? It transforms into a beast. A killer."
"If Teira is a dragon, why hasn't she changed? Why hasn't she freed herself?" He paused. "Why hasn't she killed you ?"
"She has seen what our guns did to her people, and she fears us. Fear will keep the fiercest of creatures submissive."
"Or maybe that's why you keep it so cold in here. To keep her weak."
Eyes narrowed, Jason said, "Dragons can go days, weeks without food. Then, suddenly, an intense craving comes over them. Do you know what they eat when this craving comes upon them, Alex?"
He swallowed. He didn't know, but he could guess.
"They eat whatever is in sight," Jason answered, leaning back in his chair. "And do you know what Teira will crave when the hunger hits her? You, Alex. You. She won't have to change to dragon form. She'll just start biting."
A wave of dizziness hit him as he shook his head in denial. "She wouldn't hurt me." He didn't know when he'd started to think of Teira as his ally. He didn't know when he'd lost his animosity toward her. He only knew that hers was the only kindness he'd known these last weeks.
"You sound so confident. So stupid." Jason laughed. "I know the nature of the beast, and I know beyond a doubt that when the time comes, she will feast on your body because you will be the only food in sight. She may not want to, she may hate herself for it, but she will do it."
"Why are you doing this? Why go to all this trouble? Kill me already and get it over with."
"Tell me where the medallion is, and I'll let you go. We'll forget this ever happened."
Liar , he almost shouted. Unless Jason meant to let him go with his head detached from his body.
Lethargy began to weave through the dizziness, and he closed his eyes. "I don't know where it is," he said. His voice sounded far away, lost.
"Need I remind you that I'm not above using your mother? Your aunt? Your sister? Patrick, one of the men who found Grace, would like nothing more than to spread her legs before he kills her."
Alex couldn't manage to open his lids; they were simply too heavy. He said weakly, "If anyone touches a single member of my family, I will-"
"You will what?" Jason said mockingly.
He didn't respond. There was no threat great enough... and there was nothing he could actually do. Not here, not now, and not while the drugs crawled through his system. Not while his body suffered from blood loss. Sleep, he just wanted to sleep.
"We've searched your home, Grace's home and even your mother's home. No one's been hurt yet. That can all change in an instant, Alex. I'm running out of patience." Jason pushed to his feet and walked around the table. He knelt in front of Alex. He gripped his hair and forced his head back, forced him to stare up into his eyes. "Do you understand?"
"Yes," he whispered hoarsely.
His hair was released, but he didn't have the neck strength to keep his head from slamming into the ground. He rolled onto his side and knew nothing more.
How long passed before the sweet fragrance of seawater invaded his senses, he couldn't fathom a guess. But when he opened his eyes, Teira was curled beside him, sleeping peacefully. Instinctively he jerked away as Jason's words flitted through his mind. She won't need to change into dragon form, she'll just start biting .
Teira's pale lashes fluttered open, and the corners of her lips gifted him with a sleepy smile-a smile that did odd things to his stomach.
She studied his expression, and her smile slowly faded. "What wrong?"
As he studied her in return, he lost his trepidation. A bruise marred her cheek, barely visible under the dirt covering her. "Nothing's wrong," he said, his throat scratchy. Still a bit groggy, he reached out and gently caressed the discoloration.
"You look in pain," she said.
"How long did I sleep?" he asked.
His fingers moved from her cheek and cupped her jaw. "What did they do to you?"
"They not hurt me," she assured him. "I think they fear I hurt them."
He chuckled, a low rumble that reverberated in his chest. She looked so delicate, it was hard to imagine her as a fearsome dragon.
"How you feel?" Concern glinted in her golden eyes. She placed her hand over his heartbeat.
"Better." Much better now that she was here. But the shakes would come again, he knew, and so would the need. "Teira." He sighed. "I'm sorry for how I've treated you." Born to a staunchly Southern father, he was ashamed of his behavior toward her. He might live in New York, but like every gentleman, he still opened car doors, still paid for meals and still called women when he said he would. Not that the ones he dated expected it. "I thought you worked for them, but that's no excuse."
Her gaze skittered shyly away from him. "I like being with you."
Her confession pleased him, warmed him as surely as a winter coat. She wasn't his type, but he was attracted to her all the same. A powerful attraction he couldn't hide anymore. Didn't want to hide anymore. "I like being with you, too," he admitted. He liked her more than he should.
Leaning up, hesitant, she placed a soft kiss on his lips. He knew she meant it as a chaste peck, a swift kiss of solace, but he pried her lips open with his own and swept his tongue deep. At first, she stiffened. But when she relaxed, she went wild in his arms. She came alive, plunging her tongue into his mouth, moaning her demands, fisting her hands in his hair and fueling his own response.
The air around them sizzled and that sizzle simmered in his blood. Her body pressed to his, her lithe curves a perfect fit. He'd gladly sprint to his death if only to die with her taste in his mouth. He reveled in her flavor, sweet and guileless, like the purest ocean, and unlike any female he'd ever tasted.
With a groan, he gripped her by the waist, clenching the fabric of her sheer gown in his hands. He settled her on top of him. He didn't care if cameras watched them. He didn't care that she was wrong for him. His need for her was too great. He deepened the kiss, exploring more of her mouth, running his tongue over her teeth. He allowed his fingers to trace a path down her spine, allowed them to cup her bottom and anchor her snugly against his growing erection.
She gasped his name, and the moment she did, she seemed to snap out of her haste. She tore her face from him. Their gazes locked, all hot and needy; their ragged exhalations blended. He fought the urge to tug her back down.
"Alex?" she said on a fragile catch of breath.
His hands shook as he smoothed pale strands of hair out of her face. "Yes, Teira." God, yes. His voice sounded slow and slurred, yet it had nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with the woman in his arms. His need for her surpassed any he'd ever known.
She caught her bottom lip between her teeth, and he watched as its plumpness tugged free. His shaft jerked in response. Then she leaned down, placing her lips next to his ear. "I can take us to freedom."
He paused, absorbing her words. "How?" he whispered fiercely, his arms tightening around her.
The corners of her lips turned up in a wry grin. "I stole a medallion."
Alex's smile matched hers. He laughed. They just might be able to escape. Which meant he could feed this woman real food-then spend the next few days with her in bed.