Bright neon lights glazed from nearby buildings. Grace sucked in a deep breath as her gaze darted left and right. I'm a criminal. I'm breaking and entering - or committing a B and E as the arresting officer would say . She pursed her lips together and fought a shiver. She'd never admit this aloud, but hidden beneath her nervousness surged an intense adrenaline rush.
She and Darius stood outside Jason's swanky apartment building. A slight breeze drifted past, cooling her heated skin. She pressed her back to the brownstone, and cast another glance to her right. Unfortunately Darius couldn't magically teleport them inside. He had to visualize a room first, and he'd never been inside Jason's. She wondered, though, how he planned to get them in undetected.
"What if we set off the alarms?" she asked softly. Did the people strolling the streets suspect the truth? She was wearing all black, after all. Criminal colors.
"We will not," Darius answered confidently.
"Security guards observe screens of every corridor, maybe every room."
"That does not matter. I will cast a spell to guard us before we set a single foot inside." He leveled her with an intense stare. "Are you ready?"
She gulped, nodded.
"Put your arms around my neck and hold tight."
After only a slight hesitation, Grace intertwined her shaky fingers around his neck, pressing her breasts into the hardness of his chest. Tingles raced through her nipples. "We could get into serious trouble for this," she said. "I don't know why I suggested it."
He grazed her lips with his own. "Because you love your brother."
Ripping fabric drifted to her ears a split second before Darius's shirt fell to the ground. His long, glorious wings unfurled. Her heartbeat galloped as her feet lost their solid anchor on the ground. Whoosh. Whoosh . A cool breeze stirred.
"What's happening?" she gasped, but she knew the answer. "Darius, this is-"
"Do not panic," he said, his grip on her tightening. "I have not forgotten how to fly. All you need do is hang on to me."
"I'm not panicked." She laughed. "I'm exhilarated. We're flying on the Darius Express." They moved quickly, smoothly, higher with every second that passed.
He uttered a chuckle of his own and shook his head. "I expected fear from you. Will you ever cease to amaze me, sweet Grace?"
"I hope not." She looked down, loving how the cars and people appeared like small specks, loving the giddiness of hovering in the air.
A hunter's moon loomed closer and larger, growing in intensity until she could only gape at its luminance. Darius chanted under his breath, and a strange vibration unfurled from him, a vibration that began as nothing more than a slight tremble, then grew into an intense shaking through the entire apartment building. No one below seemed to notice.
The shaking stopped.
"We are safe now," he said.
She didn't ask how exactly since they had reached Jason's upper balcony. As his wings glided them slowly forward, Darius set her firmly on the ground. The action drew a grunt from him, and she glanced up at his face. His cheekbones stretched taut and lacked any color. He kept his gaze from her as he drew in a shaky breath.
"You're weak again," she said, concerned. "Perhaps you should go home and-"
"I am fine." Irritation-with her or himself?-lashed from his tone.
She gulped, determined to get him out of here as quickly as possible. "Let's hurry, then."
White gauzy drapes billowed around the French double doors. Grace brushed them aside and tried the knob. Locked. "Do you know how to pick these?"
"No need." Darius ushered her aside, positioned himself in front of the doors and spewed rays of fire. The wood around the glass panels quickly charred. The tinkle of glass erupted as the panels fell and hit the ground.
"Thank you." Stepping over the jagged pieces, Grace waved her hand in front of her nose to whisk away the smoke. Unabashedly she entered Jason Graves's home. "It's so dark," she whispered.
"Your eyes will adjust." He didn't use a breaking-and-entering voice. He used a why-are-you-whispering-you-silly-woman voice.
Even as he spoke, her vision opened and objects became clear. A chaise longue, a glass coffee table. "What about motion sensors and security cameras?" she asked. "Are we one hundred percent protected from those?"
"Yes. The spell disabled them."
Allowing herself to relax, she padded throughout the living room, tracing her fingertips over the paintings and jewels-yes, jewels-hanging on the walls. "So much wealth," she said. "And none of it belongs to him. It's like we've stepped through the mist and into Atlantis."
Darius remained at the threshold, his teeth bared in a red-hot snarl as he took in the stolen Atlantean artifacts.
"I know you're a child of the gods," she said, hoping to distract him from his fury, "but you're not technically a god. Where does your magic come from?"
"My father," he said, losing his infuriated edge. He entered, his steps clipped. "He practiced the ancient arts."
The image of his parents' lifeless bodies flashed in her mind again, exactly as she'd seen them in her vision when he'd cast his binding spell. She ached for the little boy he'd been, the child who'd found his family slain. She couldn't imagine the pain he must have suffered-and still suffered.
"I'm sorry for their deaths," she told him, letting her remorse and sorrow seep out with the words. "Your loss of family."
Darius stilled and glanced over at her. "How did you know they were... gone?"
"I saw them. In your mind. When you cast the binding spell."
His shoulders straightened, and surprise flashed through his eyes. "They were my life," he said.
"I know," she said softly, aching for him.
"Perhaps one day I will tell you of them." The offer emerged hesitant, but there all the same.
"I would love that."
He nodded, a little stiff. "Right now, we must search for any information this Jason has about Atlantis and your brother."
"I'll check the library for the Book of Ra-Dracus ." She looked around. "I'm willing to bet he's the one who stole it from my brother."
"I will search the rest of the home."
With a last, lingering glance, they branched off. The floors were polished mahogany panels, and the decor something out of a medieval home and garden magazine. Upstairs, Grace quickly found the study. Piles of books littered every corner, and some appeared old and well used. She flipped through each one, finding references to dragons and liquid nitrogen, magic spells and vampires, but none were the Book of Ra-Dracus . A large walnut desk consumed the center and a world globe made completely of... what was that? Some sort of jewel, perhaps? Purple, like an amethyst, but jagged like crystal. She studied it more closely. In the center, a waterfall churned around a single body of land. Around Atlantis. And a pulsing sapphire.
Though she wanted to study it more closely, she forced herself on the matter at hand. She moved toward the desk and shuffled through the papers on top. Finding nothing of importance, she withdrew a letter opener and, after struggling for several minutes, pried open the drawer locks. Inside the bottom drawer, she discovered photos that shocked and repelled her. She covered her mouth to muffle her horrified gasp. The graphic images depicted dragon and human warriors covered in a white foam, blood flowing from multiple bullet wounds. Some showed Alex and Teira. The two were lying in a jewel-encrusted cell, dirty but alive. Several held grotesque imprints of tall, pale creatures with eerie blue eyes feasting off the dragon bodies. The humans standing off to the side watched, their expressions a mix of fear, disgust, and titillation.
Why take photos of his crimes? As a momento? To prove the existence of Atlantis? Or did he hope to write a book, How I Like to Kill ? She scowled.
She replayed the vision of her brother that Darius's medallion had supplied. This room wasn't the one Alex first occupied. This was a different room, one she knew resided in Atlantis. Those jeweled walls were very similar to what she'd seen inside Darius's home. When her husband returned to his home, she thought, more determined now than before, she was going with him.
Perhaps Darius sensed her growing disquiet, because the next thing she knew, he stood over her.
"What do you-" He paused, then very slowly, very precisely, reached over her shoulder and slipped the photos from her hands. She tried to pry them from him because she didn't want him to see the travesties done to his friends. He held tightly. "This is Javar and his men. And these are vampires."
Vampires. She shuddered. Having proof of their actual existence settled like lead in her stomach.
"I'm so sorry," she said, turning to face him. His eyes narrowed, but even from those tiny slits she could see their color glowed ice-blue. Fragments of grief radiated from him and into her.
"What else is in there?" He set the photos aside with one fluid motion, a deceptively calm motion.
Allowing him to change the subject, she said, "That's it. Did you find anything?"
"More artifacts from Atlantis." Radiating cold determination, he clasped her hand. "Jason Graves deserves so much more than death. He deserves to suffer."
Another shudder worked through her, because she knew he would do everything in his power to see that Jason got exactly what he deserved.
And she planned to help him.
Grace wanted to bang her head against the wall.
She and Darius arrived home several hours ago, yet he still remained rigid with tension. He refused to speak. She hated this, hated the remorse radiating from him.
He sat on the couch, his head back, his eyes closed. Not knowing what else to do, she quietly approached. "I want to show you something."
His eyelids reluctantly opened. When he offered no reply and made no move to rise, she added, "Pretty please with a cherry on top."
Not a single word left his lips, but he stood. Grace wrapped her fingers around his and ushered him into the bathroom. She didn't explain her actions; she simply removed his clothing, then her own. He was in need of loving-and she was going to give it to him. All the loving he could stand.
After turning the knobs and allowing the water to heat, she stepped inside the tub and tugged Darius in behind her. Still he remained silent. Hot water cascaded down their naked bodies, and as she stood in front of him, she lathered his chest with soap.
"I've got a joke for you," she said, mentally converting jokes she knew into dragon jokes.
He frowned-his first reaction. It didn't matter that he'd only given her a frown. She'd take anything she could get.
"What did the dragon say when he saw a knight in shining armor?"
His brow wrinkled, and he sighed.
"Oh, no, not another canned meal."
Slowly, so slowly, his lips inched up in a smile.
I did that , she thought with a surge of pride. I made him smile . She basked in the warmth of it and all the while his smile continued to grow. So sweet, so endearing, it lit his entire face. His eyes darkened, becoming that golden-brown she loved. He traced his fingertip over her cheekbone.
"Tell me another one," he said.
She nearly sank to her knees in relief at the sound of his rich, husky voice. Grinning happily, she slipped behind him and traced her soapy hands over his back. "It's long," she warned.
"Even better," he said, tugging her in front. He nibbled on her ear, dragging the sensitive lobe through his teeth.
"There was a dragon who had a long-standing obsession with a queen's breasts," she said, growing breathless. "The dragon knew the penalty to touch her would mean death, yet he revealed his secret desire to the king's chief doctor. This man promised he could arrange for the dragon to satisfy his desire, but it would cost him one thousand gold coins." She spread her soapy hands over his nipples, then down his arms. "Though he didn't have the money, the dragon readily agreed to the scheme."
"Grace," Darius moaned, his erection straining against her stomach.
She hid her smile, loving that she had this much power over such a strong man. That she, Grace Carlyle, made him ache with longing. "The next day the physician made a batch of itching powder and poured some into the queen's bra... uh, you might call it a brassiere... while she bathed. After she dressed, she began itching and itching and itching. The physician was summoned to the Royal Chambers, and he informed the king and queen that only a special saliva, if applied for several hours, would cure this type of itch. And only a dragon possessed this special saliva." Out of breath, she paused.
"Continue," Darius said. His arms wound around her so tightly she could barely breathe. His skin blazed hot against hers, hotter than even the steamy water.
"Are you sure?"
"Continue." Taut lines bracketed his mouth.
"Well, the king summoned the dragon. Meanwhile, the physician slipped him the antidote for the itching powder, which the dragon put into his mouth, and for the next few hours, the dragon worked passionately on the queen's breasts.
"Anyway," she said, reaching around him and lathering the muscled mounds of his butt, "the queen's itching was eventually relieved, and the dragon left satisfied and touted as a hero."
"This does not sound like a joke," Darius said.
"I'm getting to the punch line. Hang on. When the physician demanded his payment, the now satisfied dragon refused. He knew that the physician could never report what really happened to the king. So the next day, the physician slipped a massive dose of the same itching powder into the king's loincloth. And the king immediately summoned the dragon."
Darius threw back his head and barked with laughter. The sound boomed raw and new, and she fell deeper in love with him at that moment. She'd never heard anything so precious because she knew how rare such amusement was for him. She hoped he found such joy every day they spent together.
When his laughter subsided, a sensual light glowed in his eyes. His features were so relaxed, so open. "I'm intrigued by this breast feasting," he whispered, rubbing his nose against hers.
"I am, too," she admitted. "I have an itch."
"Allow me to help you." He pressed his lips to hers in a lazy, delicious kiss. His fiery flavor, his heat, his masculinity, still managed to enthrall her. Need and desperation wrapped around every inch of her body, and she threaded her wet hands around his neck.
His palms caressed a slippery path down her spine and stopped at the small indention at the base. When those scorching fingers dipped lower, cupped and pulled her tightly against him, she sucked in an eager breath. She pressed her lower half into him, cradling his erection. Her nerve endings were alive with the memories of making love, and longed to repeat the experience.
"I'm going to have you again," he said.
"Tell me you want me."
"I do. I want you."
"Tell me you need me."
"So much I'll die without you."
"Tell me you love me."
"I do. I love you."
She was living passion in his arms, Darius thought, and she was all his.
"Kiss me. And don't ever stop kissing me," she said.
He did more than kiss her. He gifted her with sweet nips and erotic licks, then proceeded to suck every drop of water from her body. He invaded her senses until all she could see, all she could feel, all she could taste was him. She shivered when the tip of his tongue swirled along the edge of her ear.
Suddenly he paused. A slow, suspended moment dragged by. "Help me forget the past," he whispered brokenly.
She nuzzled his neck and dipped her hand over his ridged abdomen. When she clasped his thick erection, he hissed in a breath. She didn't hold him long, just long enough to stroke him up and down. Then she released him, granting him one last fleeting, teasing caress before cupping the heavy sac of his testicles.
While her fingers gently tugged, she swirled her tongue around his nipples. They felt like little spikes in her mouth, and she lapped at the masculine taste of him mingled with the water.
"How am I doing so far?"
"I need more time to decide," he said roughly, raggedly. His fingers tangled in her hair, then massaged her neck... her breasts.
The sight of his strong, bronze hands on her soft, white flesh proved the most erotic thing she'd ever seen. Once more she curled her fingers around his length. He was so hot and big, so hard. Up and down, she tormented him. She wanted so badly to fill his days with happiness, to help him "forget" his pain, as he'd said. No, not forget, but heal. She would do whatever was necessary to give him the peace he craved.
"What's your naughtiest fantasy?" she murmured against his collarbone. She bit down, not hard enough to break the skin, but hard enough to leave her mark. "Perhaps I can make it come true."
"You are my fantasy, Grace." His hands cupped her jaw, and he forced her to look up at him. "Only you."
If she hadn't already loved him, she would have fallen just then. "I have a fantasy," she whispered. She licked the seam of his lips. "Want to hear?"
He trailed his hands down her back, making her shiver, then cupped her bottom and jerked her into him for deeper contact. "Tell me."
"Well, I like to read books about big, strong warriors who love as fiercely as they fight, and I've always wanted one for my very own."
His lips twitched. "Now you have one."
"Oh, yes." The warm water made their skin slick and she rubbed against him, letting the peaks of her nipples abrade his chest, letting the plump head of his penis catch between her legs. "What I fantasize about is my big, strong warrior lifting me up, pressing my back into the shower tile and filling me."
He pressed her back against the cool tile and shoved inside her, deep and hard and scorching. Steam billowed around them, but it was the spicy scent of dragon and soap that filled her nostrils. He felt so good inside her, more exciting than climbing a mountain or bungee jumping from a bridge.
He pumped in and out of her, and she wound her arms around him. His strength beneath her palms filled her with heady power. He bit her neck, making her shiver. He spread her knees wider and pounded harder. She panted his name. Moaned his name. Gasped his name.
"Grace," he growled. "Mine."
And she was. Completely.
Darius held a sleeping Grace in the tight clasp of his arms.
She possessed inner strength, a giving heart and a deep capacity for love. Her smile gleamed brighter than the sun. Her laughter healed him. Actually healed him.
As he lay in the stillness of the night, with hazy moonlight enveloping him, he remained weak and sated from their loving. Long forgotten memories finally resurfaced, bits and pieces of his past, pieces he'd thought buried so deeply they'd remain lost forever. He didn't fight them, but closed his eyes, saw his mother laugh down at him, her smile as gentle and beautiful as the pristine waters that surrounded their city. Her golden eyes flashed merrily.
She had caught him with his father's sword, brandishing the weapon through the air with a dramatic flourish, trying to mimic the warrior strength his father possessed.
"One day," she said in that sweet, lyrical voice of hers, "your strength will far surpass that of your father." She claimed the sword from him and leaned the gleaming silver against the nearest wall. "You will fight beside him and protect each other from harm."
That day never came.
He saw his father, strong and proud and loyal, striding up the cliff that led to their home. He'd just come from a battle with the Formorians, had washed away the blood on his skin, but his clothing still bore traces. When he spied him, his father smiled and opened his arms. Seven-year-old Darius ran to him and threw himself into the waiting embrace.
"I've been gone only three weeks, but look how you've grown," his father said, squeezing him tightly. "Gods, I missed you."
"I missed you, too." He fought back a tear.
His strong, warrior father wiped the moisture from his own eyes. "Come on, son. Let's go greet your mother and sisters."
Together, they walked side by side into the small house. His three sisters danced around a fire, laughing and chanting, their long dark hair bouncing about their shoulders. They each possessed identical features, plump cheeks and such innocence it hurt to gaze at them.
"Darius," they called when they saw him, running to him first, though they'd seen him only a few hours ago. They shared a special bond with him that he could not explain. It had always been there, and would always remain.
He hugged them close, drawing in the sweetness of their scents. "Father has returned. Give him a proper greeting."
Their faces lit with their grins and they propelled themselves at the warrior.
"My precious hatchlings," he said, laughing through more tears.
Their mother heard their mingled joy and rushed inside the chamber. They spent the rest of the day together, not a single member of the family straying far.
How happy they'd been.
Here, in the present, a lone tear slid from the corner of Darius's eye. He did not wipe it away, but allowed it to trickle down his cheek and onto his ear.
As tuned to him as she was, Grace sensed his torment. She shifted to face him, her features alight with concern. "Darius?" she said softly. "It's okay. Whatever it is, it will be okay."
Another tear came, then another. He couldn't stop them, and wasn't sure he wanted to. "I miss them," he said brokenly. "They were my life."
She understood immediately. "Tell me about them. Tell me the good things."
"My sisters were like sunlight, starlight and moonlight." Their images filled his mind once again, and this time he nearly choked from pain. And yet... the pain was not the fearsome destroyer he had expected, but a reminder that he lived and loved. "Every night they created a small fire and would dance around the flames. They were so proud of their ability and were determined to one day create the biggest fire Atlantis had ever seen."
"They didn't fear being burned?"
"Dragons welcome and thrive in such heat. I wish you could have seen them. They were all that is good and right."
"What were their names?" she asked softly.
"Katha, Kandace and Kallia," he said. With an animalistic growl, he slammed his fist into the side of the mattress. "Why did they have to die? Travelers tortured and killed my sisters as if they were garbage."
Grace wrapped her arms around him and laid her head in the hollow of his neck. There was nothing she could say to ease his anguish, so she held him more tightly.
He rubbed at his stinging eyes. "They did not deserve such a death. They did not deserve what they suffered."
"I know, I know," she cooed.
He buried his face in the hollow of her neck and cried.
At last, Darius mourned.