Hours ticked by as Grace thinned the carpet in her tiny living room, pacing back and forth, from one wall to the other. The hallway had fallen silent half an hour ago. Every time she blinked, she pictured Darius sitting just beyond her front door, his eyes closed, expression pensive, his mind thinking of ways to leave her behind. She scowled. Darius might travel home in the morning, but not without her. Whether he approved or not, she was going.

Pushing out a breath, Grace rubbed her temples. Her shoulders slumped dispiritedly. What am I going to do ? Beneath her frustration with Darius hovered a constant fear for Alex, and she knew that was the true catalyst to her riotous emotions. Helplessness ate her because she knew there was nothing she could do but wait and pray Darius was right. That Jason Graves would keep Alex alive because her brother had something he wanted.

The medallion.

She laughed humorlessly. It always came back to that.

If she'd suspected the true value of that damn chain, she would have held on to it tighter. Where the hell was it?

She needed Darius. She needed him to reassure her. She needed him to wrap his arms around her and reaffirm wrongs would be righted and life would continue with promises of pleasure and happiness.

"Darius," she said in frustration. What was he doing?

The air in front of her thickened and blurred, sparkling with crystallized raindrops. A whisper of heat, a waft of masculine scent, then Darius materialized right before her eyes. His features were taut as his gaze darted left and right. "What is wrong?"

"I need you," she said. "I need you. That's all."

His visage relaxed, fraying his worry but leaving behind lines of tension.

Their gazes locked. She stood frozen, drinking him in. More than strained, he looked... changed. Different somehow. Sexier than ever before. Scorching. Needy. He sensed her growing desire, perhaps, because his nostrils flared and his eyes lit with fire.

Grace's heart flip-flopped in her chest. Darius didn't resemble the man who accosted her in the cave, a sword raised over his head, death in his gaze. Nor did he resemble the man who had nearly choked the life from Patrick. Right now he reminded her of the man who found delight in colors and chocolate, who had tenderly kissed her lips, savoring her every nuance. He had licked her palms and soothed her bruises.

Oh, God, how she wanted this man.

But guilt swam through her, locking her in place. How could she want him, enjoy him, when Alex was hurt?

"You cannot help your brother right now," Darius said, as if divining her thoughts. His gaze reached across the space between them, caressing her with quiet strength.

"I know," she said softly, yearning for him all the more. She tried to absorb his comfort from a distance, but that wasn't what she needed. Only full-body, skin to skin contact would work.

He stretched out his hand. "Then come here."

Without another word, Grace launched herself into Darius's arms. He caught her with a humph and banded his arms around her waist, anchoring his hands on her bottom and backing her into a wall. Instantly he smothered her mouth with a kiss. No, not a kiss. A devouring. He worshipped her taste, and she reveled in his, and as their tongues danced, she became a part of him. He became a part of her. She moaned, and her legs tightened around him.

He pulled away. "I will not stop this time," he said raggedly.

"Good, because I wasn't going to let you."

He trapped her earlobe between his teeth and gently tugged. The time had come; the wait was over.

One hand cupping his neck, the other kneading his back, she fit herself against his erection. The contact sizzled. A tremor moved through her, leaving a desperate arousal in its wake. He reclaimed her lips in total possession, branding her very soul.

She was his woman, and he was her man.

 

His tongue swept inside her mouth, and her desire raced toward the point of no return. No, that wasn't exactly true. She'd reached the point of no return the first moment she saw him.

She quivered with the force of her need, with the intensity of his heat, and the consuming ache to finally know him. All of him.

"Darius," she whispered.

"Grace," he whispered back.

This is where he belonged, Darius thought savagely, gazing down at Grace. Right here. With this woman. He'd never felt more alive than he did right now, in her arms. She showed him a world he'd never thought to see again, a world of colors and tastes... and emotion. True emotion. And he exalted in it. In her .

Slowly, seductively, her fingers crawled up his chest. She smiled a feminine smile. He nearly spilled his seed just then. The deepest, most primitive part of him had recognized her the moment she'd stepped through the mist. She was his mate.

His reason for being.

He would wed her, Darius decided in the next instant.

As he continued to watch her, Grace licked one of her fingers and drew a moist heart around his right nipple. Air hissed between his teeth.

By mating with him, Grace would become a citizen of Atlantis. His oath stipulated only that he kill surface dwellers who passed through the mist. If she were Atlantean... gods, yes. He would make her Atlantean.

The relief, the joy, resonated through him like a torrid rain.

He claimed her mouth with more ferocity, growling his need. She responded by weaving her hands in his hair and slanting her lips over his more fully. She rubbed herself against his erection, gasping, taking, giving. Their clothing only added to the friction. His fingers dug into the soft roundness of her buttocks, quickening her rhythm, and their kiss continued, hard and fast, then slow and tender.

"You are so beautiful," he said brokenly.

"No, I-"

"You are. I burn for you. I flame."

She melted against him. Into him. Her breasts meshed against his chest, her nipples pearled, waiting. Tasting them became as necessary as breathing. In all of his other couplings, Darius had rushed. He'd been savage, giving the woman pleasure, taking pleasure for himself, but offering nothing more. Never more. There would be no rushing now.

He wanted to savor and give.

"I will take care of you," he whispered. "Do you trust me?"

"So much, I ache."

With her legs still wrapped firmly around him, he sank to his knees and laid her tenderly on the carpet. He gently gripped her chin and forced her to meet his gaze. "This will not just be a coupling, sweet Grace. I am giving you me. All of me." He paused and studied her features. "Do you understand?"

Something he couldn't read leapt into her eyes. Uncertainty? Or excitement? She chewed on her bottom lip, then shook her head.

"I want to make you mine for now and always," he explained.

Her brow crinkled. "Do you mean... get married?"

"More than that. Life mates."

"There is a difference?"

"One that cannot be explained. One that must be shown."

"And you want to do this here?" Her eyes widened. "Now?"

He nodded.

Grace gulped. Surely he wasn't serious. He had to be teasing her. But the lines of his face stretched, determined, and an air of vulnerability clung to his shoulders. He refused to relinquish his hold on her gaze.

He meant every word.

And she didn't know how to react.

Grace en Kragin , her mind whispered.

Though she didn't understand what had brought him to this decision, the thought tempted her on every level, and a great need welled inside her. She'd already admitted that she loved him. Why deny her feelings in this? I want to be his wife . She did. Now and always, like he'd said.

How wonderful to be the one who snuggled in bed with him each night, the one he pulled tightly to his side, his breath on the back of her neck, his whispers of love in her ears. How wonderful to be the one who gave him children. Her mind easily supplied the image of a plump baby. Their baby. A boy as strong as Darius, or a girl as intense and focused.

"You saw the violence of my past," he said, mistaking her silence. "You know the things I've done and can guess the things I will do. I'm asking you to accept me regardless. If you can do this, I will give you my life, my riches and my vow to always protect you." The last words left his lips with all the desperation inside him. With all the longing. With all the need.

Her expression softened; her lashes dipped to half-mast. "I don't need your riches," she said. "Only you."

At her words, the possessiveness Darius had always felt for Grace raged to the surface. Raw, primal arousal burned inside him, hotter than ever before. Everything inside him cried for her. Not just part of her, but her entire essence.

He joined their hands, palm to palm.

Not pausing for a moment, lest she change her mind, he uttered, "To you I belong. My heart beats only for you." He held her gaze with the strength of his own. "No other will tempt me, from this day and beyond. To you I belong."

As he spoke, the places where his body touched hers warmed, became blistering, and a strange swirling unfurled in the pit of Grace's stomach, sweeping through her from head to toe.

"Say the words back to me," he intoned harshly.

Yes. Yes . "To you I belong. My heart beats only for you." As she spoke, he inched his lips closer to hers. "No other will tempt me, from this day and beyond. To you I belong."

The moment the last word left her mouth, he fit his lips directly over hers. She cried out, and he caught the sound. His eyes tightly closed as his entire body clenched and bowed.

A part of her soul ripped out of her body and into his. Instantly the void filled with his essence, sweeping through her like wildfire. The exchange was powerful, wholly erotic. Her stomach heated and tingled, and she lay there, panting. The fine hairs on her body clamored for him.

"What happened?" she asked between breaths.

"Our joining."

No more needed to be said because she understood. They were joined, not physically-not yet-but joined in a way that was even more tangible. Undeniable. She didn't understand the implications or mechanics of it. They were not two separate entities. They were one. She'd needed him before, but now she would die without him. She sensed it, knew it in the deepest part of her being.

"I am nothing without you," he said, echoing her thoughts. "Do you feel how much I hunger for you?"

She did. God, she did. His hunger mingled with her own, purring within her veins.

"You are more important to me than air," he said. "More important than water. You, Grace, are my only necessity."

"I love you," she said, at last giving him the words in her heart. As she spoke, the contentment that had always remained elusively out of reach was suddenly there and hers for the taking. So grasp it she did, holding Darius closer. He encompassed everything missing from her life: danger, excitement, passion.

Fire flashed in his eyes. Reaching back, he peeled his shirt over his head. "I'm going to give you everything you crave, sweet Grace. Slow and tender now." His lips lifted in a fleeting smile. "Hard and fast later."

Anticipation shivered through her. She threaded her palms up the strength of his chest, over his ribs and nipples, over his tattoos. He sucked in a breath. His tattoos were slightly faded, not as red and angry as before, but still there. Still sexy and warm. Her mouth watered for a taste of them, and she rolled him onto his back. Leaning down, she licked a path along the colorful dragon wings, savoring the salty taste. His muscles jumped at the first stroke of her tongue.

He slithered his hand between her legs and played; the fabric of her jeans created a dizzying friction. She moaned, arched her neck, and became lost in the breath-takingly sensual caress. Everything within her sprang to life, even places she hadn't known existed, starved for more of his attentions. She ached to be filled. By Darius. Only Darius.

He claimed he had done horrible things, but deep down she hungered for that fiercest part of him. For the wildness. The danger. She might have tried to deny it upon occasion, but she'd always known the truth. He was her every fantasy; his presence alone offered her more excitement than any challenge or adventure. When she was with him, she felt whole. She felt alive.

She felt vital.

"I want you naked." Darius didn't wait for her response, couldn't, impatient for her as always, he did exactly what he'd done before. He gripped the neck of her shirt and ripped. Underneath he found lacy green fabric, her sexy belly ring and a light outline of a dragon tattoo.

He traced the edges with his fingertip. "Look," he told her.

Lost in sensation as she was, a moment passed before she obeyed. When she did, she gasped. "What the-I don't understand. I have a tattoo." Shock dripped from her tone, and her stunned gaze went from the tattoo, to him, to the tattoo. "I've never gotten a tattoo in my life."

"You bear my mark," he said, rolling them over once again and easing her down. "I am a part of you forever."

He tore the green material in half, just as he'd done to her shirt. Her breasts were lush and lovely, and the sight of them made him tremble. Tremble like a boy. He palmed one then the other, loving the way her eyes closed and her back arched, a silent entreaty for him to continue. He moved down her body and sucked a nipple into the hotness of his mouth. She gasped his name like a reverent prayer.

He sucked harder.

"Oh, God," she groaned.

Her knees clenched around his waist; her hands gripped his hair. He continued to knead one glorious breast, abrading the pearled nipple between his fingers while he laved and sucked the other. Like raspberries, they were, pink and rosy, sweet and delicate. One of his hands gravitated to her belly, fingering the delicate silver loop.

All the while he teased himself between her legs. She moved wildly against him, then with him. When she was gasping incoherently, he jerked at her shoes, then her pants, tugging them down and kicking them from her ankles with his foot. The sight of her, lying under him in only a pair of lacy emerald panties, nearly made his heart stop. Such beauty. His beauty.

He drove his fingers past the delicate lace and found the silken heat of her. She was wet and hot. Ready. But he wanted her beyond ready. He wanted her desperate. Using the tip of one finger, he smoothed her moisture over her soft folds, gently grazing the center of her desire.

"Yes," she said, curving into his touch. "Yes. Touch me there."

"You need to be filled, Grace."

"Yes. Please."

He slowly sank one finger inside her, then another. "Are you ready for more?" A bead of sweat trickled down his temple. He bit her neck, making a small sting, then he licked it away as he thrust those fingers in a delicious rhythm.

She cried out and lifted her hips. His shaft strained for her, but he worked another finger inside her. How he loved the feel of her tightness. Her moist heat. Soft, mewling sounds escaped her lips when he circled his thumb around her clitoris.

"I'm ready," she said. "I promise I'm ready."

With a growl, he latched on to her mouth and drank from her. He didn't deserve her, but the gods had given her to him and he was going to do everything within his power to make her happy. She would never regret giving herself to him.

"I want to kiss you here," he said, again circling his thumb around the very heart of her wetness.

Her eyes closed in surrender. As generous as she was, his Grace wasn't content to take pleasure only for herself; she insisted on returning it. "I... want to kiss... you here," she said, between panting breaths, slipping her own hand between them and cupping the long, thick length of him. "Who gets to go first?"

Those beads of sweat grew into a fine sheen over his entire body. She craved excitement, he thought, and so he would give it to her. "We will both go first."

Her tongue shot out and traced her own lips, taking in the residual taste of himself he'd left behind. "Really? How?"

In a total of two seconds, he removed his pants, then her panties, leaving them both completely naked. He gathered her into his arms and settled on his back, placing her on top. He'd never given a woman a chance to take him in her mouth. Picturing Grace's red curls spilled across his abdomen, over his thighs and cock, picturing her teeth grazing his length and her mouth sucking him deeply, nearly made him come.

"Straddle me," he said, surprised he still possessed a voice. His need pounded through his veins. "Do not face me. Face the other direction."

Her nipples pebbled further, and she gazed down at him with an expression of utter longing. Slowly she did as he instructed. Her back was long and slender and perfectly proportioned. He caressed a fingertip down each vertebra, and tiny bumps of pleasure appeared on her skin.

He clasped her hips, tugged, scooting her closer and closer to his waiting mouth.

"Now lean over," he instructed.

Languidly sensual, she moved her mouth toward his thick erection. Her warm breath fanned his heavy testicles as he lifted his head and licked into her slick heat.

At that first contact, Grace screamed her pleasure. Not an orgasm, but close. So close. Her hands clenched Darius's hips. He continued to lave her, and she inched the thick length of him into her mouth-and almost screamed again. The eroticism of having his shaft nestled in her mouth while Darius tasted her very essence proved earth-shattering.

"This is what I meant when I said I wanted to eat you," he rumbled, the vibrations resonating into her.

His words and actions combined, bringing her swiftly to a torturing climax. Her body jerked and quivered as a thousand lights sparked past her mind. Pleasure, so much pleasure. She tore her lips from him as his name ripped past her throat. "Darius, Darius, Darius." The heat of it branded.

When her climax faded, she should have been sated, completely fulfilled. But she wasn't. She wanted him buried deep inside her, so deep he'd leave his mark on her for days.

Desperate, Darius lifted her and spun her toward him. He tumbled her over and gazed down at her. "Now?" The word emerged hoarse and eager. Frantic. He needed to be inside her.

She spread her legs wide, fitting his hard length where it belonged, almost-but not quite-at the sweet edge of penetration. "I'll always be ready for you."

"You're my woman. Say it."

"I'm yours. Now. Always."

"And I am yours." He slanted his mouth over hers at the same moment he impaled her. He cried out at the joy of it, the heady bliss, his enjoyment so intense his wings burst unbidden from his back, stroking a heated draft over their bodies. His majestic wings stayed suspended in the air for a breathless moment, two deceptively sheer extensions that at last lowered, surrounding him and Grace in an iridescent cocoon.

Shocked, he stared down at her. Her eyes were closed, and her lips pressed together. Instead of a pained cry, she murmured in surrender.

For Grace, the sharp pain of virginity left as suddenly as it appeared, leaving only the thickness of him. The hardness.

"You are... this is... I am your first lover," he said, when the realization struck him. "Only lover." A possessiveness more potent than orgasm shuddered through him.

"Don't stop," she said. "Mmm. You feel so good."

"Your only mate," he said with awe. He moved slowly at first, but that wasn't enough for her. She gripped his hips, raised her own and ground herself into him. He needed no more encouragement. He clasped her bottom and pumped into her, over and over, again and again.

He rode her hard, unable to slow. His kisses grew fervent, plunging in sync with his powerful thrusts. Exquisite tension held her in its grasp, held tighter, tighter, then suddenly exploded, gifting her with the most shattering gratification she'd ever experienced. She shuddered with it, gasped and screamed with it.

"By the gods, you are sweet," he said through clenched teeth. Anchoring her legs atop his shoulders and sending him deeper inside her, he quickened his strokes further and joined her, chanting her name.

Unexpectedly she climaxed again.

Darius carried Grace to bed and neither of them rose for several hours.

He wanted to spend the rest of his life right here in her arms, her plump backside nestled against him, but knew that wasn't meant to be.

Midnight had settled over the land.

Moonlight crept through the windows, its silvery fingers intertwining with darkness. The city pulsed with life, even at this later hour. Time to leave. Still...

He allowed himself a few more minutes of quiet luxury, of holding Grace in the protective shield of his embrace. Her intoxicating scent surrounded him, and her warmth seeped into his bones. Virgin. She had been virgin. This beautiful, sensuous creature had given him what she'd given no other man.

She was a treasure more rich and satisfying than any other. He would protect her with his life.

"Darius?" she sighed, snuggling closer.

"Hmm?"

"Are we married? I mean, we didn't sign anything or-"

"We are joined. Never think otherwise."

"I'm glad." She eased up on her elbow and offered him a satisfied smile.

"As am I," he said.

"What we did-I don't think there's even a word to describe the bliss."

He nipped the softness of her shoulder with his teeth. "I meant to go slowly, wife, meant to savor you."

Her eyelids fluttered down. "Say it again."

"I meant to go-"

"No. The part where you called me your wife."

His arms tightened around her. "We belong together, wife."

She rolled onto her side and faced him. "Just so you know, I happened to like it the way you gave it to me, husband ."

His cock should not have stirred for hours-perhaps days-but as he looked at her and basked in her words, need unfurled through him. If they did not get up, he would take her again, and he knew he wouldn't have the strength to leave afterward.

"Get dressed," he said, patting her bottom. "Time for us to visit Jason Graves."

Grace lost her dazed expression. The sensual reprieve ended as real life intruded. She lumbered to her feet and stumbled to her bathroom. Wincing at the soreness of her body, she took a quick shower and slipped on a pair of black pants and a matching black, short-sleeved shirt.

When she glanced up, Darius stood in the bathroom doorway, watching her through intense, golden eyes. Golden eyes! Her pulse fluttered in time with a single thought: he is my husband ! His pants hung low on his waist, giving him a sexy, rakish air. She found herself taking a step toward him, intent on slipping her fingers beneath the black material and-she stopped that line of thought before it was too late. Before she lost herself in him.

He didn't appear aroused in any way. He looked... pained, like that strange weakness afflicted him again. Proud as he was, he didn't say a word.

"Come with me," she said. She led him into the kitchen. There, she hurriedly fixed him a sandwich, and once he finished eating, he leaned back in his chair. He looked the same. Why hadn't that helped? She frowned and took his hand, meaning to gauge his temperature. But as she held his palm in hers, his color returned. It wasn't food that strengthened him, she realized, but her. Her touch.

"You have to tell me what's going on," she said, holding his gaze and retaining her grip on his hand. "What causes your illness?" When he remained silent, she persisted. "Tell me."

He sighed. "When the gods banished us to Atlantis, they bound us irrevocably to the land. Those that try to leave, die."

Her stomach twisted, and her body went cold. If staying here meant his death, she wanted him gone. "You have to go home. Now." She allowed all of her concern, all of her anguish at the thought of his demise, to seep into her voice.

"I will return in the morning as planned."

"I'll search Jason's home on my own, then fly to Brazil. I can be in Atlantis in two days."

"No. On both counts."

"But-"

"No, Grace."

She had to convince him to leave. But how? She released him and began cleaning away the dishes, keeping her back to him. In seconds, he was directly behind her, holding her captive between his arms.

"You are upset," he said.

She paused, saying, "I'm scared for you. I'm scared for Alex. I want this to be over."

An undercurrent of menace suffused his voice when he said, "Soon. Very soon."