Darius uttered a fierce curse and allowed his sword to pass just in front of the woman, never actually touching her. The action danced a delicate breeze through the red tendrils of her hair. The fact that he could see the actual color, a tempest of carmine that tumbled around her shoulders, startled him enough that he hesitated to destroy the possessor of such brilliance.
He fought past his shock and gripped his weapon at his side, trying to prepare his limbs to wreak destruction. Trying to force icy determination through his veins and push away any thoughts of mercy or sorrow. He knew what he had to do. Strike. Destroy.
That was his oath.
But her hair... His eyes basked in their first intake of color in over three hundred years. His fingers itched to touch. His senses longed to explore.
Kill , his mind demanded. Act !
His teeth gnashed together, and his shoulders tightened. His tutor's voice echoed through him. " Killing travelers is your obligation. Killing them is your privilege ."
There were times, like now, he loathed the tasks he performed, but never once had he hesitated to do what was needed. He'd simply continued on, assassination after assassination, knowing there was no other alternative for him. His dragon life force had long since overpowered his mortal side. There was a conscience living inside him, yes, but it was shriveled and decayed from lack of use.
So why was he hesitating now, with this traveler?
He studied her. Freckles dotted every inch of her skin, and streaks of dirt marred her jaw. Her nose was small and elfin, her lashes thick, sooty, and so long they cast spiky shadows on her cheeks. Slowly she opened her eyes, and he sucked in a heated breath. Her eyes were green and flecked with ribbons of blue, each color dusted with determination and fear. These new colors mesmerized him, enchanted him. Made his every protective instinct surface. Worse...
It shouldn't have-gods, it shouldn't have-but desire coiled inside him, powerful coils that refused to loosen their grip.
When the woman realized his sword tip pointed to the ground, she crouched down ever so slightly, clutching an oddly shaped metal object. He could only assume she was in attack position. She was frightened, true, but to survive she would fight him with all of her strength.
Could he really destroy such bravery?
Yes. He must.
Mayhap he truly was the heartless beast Tagart had called him. No, surely not, he thought in the next instant. The very actions that made him evil made him a keeper of the peace and provided safety for all residing in Atlantis.
There could be no other way.
Yet looking at this newest intruder, really looking at her, he felt like a beast. Her features were so guileless, so angelic, sparks of some unfamiliar emotion crackled within him. Concern? Regret? Shame?
A combination of all three?
The sensation was so new, he had trouble identifying exactly what it was. What made this traveler so different from the others that he saw colors-and, gods forbid, felt desire? The fact that she resembled a delicate fairy queen? Or the fact that she was everything he'd always secretly wanted-beauty, gentleness and joy-but knew he could never have?
Unbidden, his gaze drank in the rest of her. She was not tall, but had a regal bearing that gave her an air of height. Her skin was smudged with grime and sweat that did nothing to detract. Her clothing fit her rounded curves to perfection and paid her beauty proper homage.
More unwelcome sensations pulsed through him, un-namable sensations. Hated sensations. He should feel nothing; he should remain detached. But he felt; and he wasn't. He yearned to trace his fingertips all over her, to immerse himself in her softness, to bask in her colorful brilliance. He yearned to taste, yes, actually taste her entire body and drive away the flavor of nothingness.
"No," he said, more for his benefit than her own. "No."
He must destroy her.
She had broken the law of the mist.
All those years ago a Guardian had failed to accomplish his duty, had failed to protect Atlantis, and in turn brought about the deaths of many people-people Darius had loved. He could not, would not allow even this fairy queen to survive.
Knowing this, Darius still remained in place, unmoving. His cold, hard logic warred against his primitive, male appetite. If only the woman would glance away... but seconds turned to minutes, and her gaze remained fixed on him, studying. Perhaps even appreciating.
Desperate to escape the mental hold she had on him, he demanded, "Turn your gaze, woman."
Slowly, so slowly, she shook her head, whisking red tendrils around her temples. "I'm sorry. I don't understand what you're saying."
Even her voice was innocent, soft and lyrical, a caress of his senses. Yet he had no idea what she had said.
"Damn this," he muttered. "And damn me."
The corners of his lips twitched in a scowl. He commanded himself to remain indifferent to her even while he sheathed his sword and closed the distance between them. There was no reason to do what he was about to do, but he could not stop himself. His actions were no longer controlled by his mind, but by some force he didn't understand or want to acknowledge.
She gasped at his approach. "What are you doing?"
He pressed her back, crowding her until she met the rock-lined wall; she kept the metal object directed at him, the silly thing clicking over and over again. Did she truly expect to protect herself from a dragon warrior with such a useless object? He easily pried it from her fingers and tossed it behind his shoulder. Unbeaten, she lashed out, kicking and hitting and scratching like a wild demon.
He secured her by the wrists, pinning them above her head. "Cease," he said. When she continued to squirm, he sighed and waited for her to tire. Only a few minutes passed before her movements slowed, then halted altogether.
"You'll go to prison for this," she said, dragging in breath after breath.
Her warm exhalations caressed his chest, their intoxicating sweetness a tangible entity that prodded his memory, like a gentle reminder of the family he couldn't quite banish from his mind. He almost jerked away from her, but the scent of fear and woman enveloped him, a sensual declaration of her appeal. He'd smelled nothing but ash for so long; he couldn't help but luxuriate in this new fragrance. Inhaling deeply, he pressed against her, brushing her body with his, closing all hint of separation. The need to touch her, any part of her, refused to leave him.
She shivered. From the cold? he wondered. Or from a turbulent desire similar to his own? Her nipples were pebbled against his ribs, erotically abrading, and as he watched her nibble her soft bottom lip, the arousal he felt for her became a storm. A desperate, wild storm. A storm so intense it was like a supernatural entity. His dragon's blood flowed to his cock like a freshly sprung river, hot and consuming.
His lips curled into a self-disparaging smile. The moment he realized he was actually smiling, he frowned. How his men would have laughed to crown this dainty creature the winner of their wager. Yet he couldn't seem to make himself care. By the gods, he'd never felt anything so perfect, so right. He snorted.
His captive blinked up, and their gazes collided. Had white-hot sparks of awareness visibly enveloped them at that moment he would not have been surprised.
This woman is your enemy , he reminded himself, gritting his teeth and shifting his hips so that his erection remained a safe distance away.
"The mind is open, the ears will hear," he bit out. "Understand we do, apart or near. My words are yours; your words are mine. This I speak. This I bind. From this moment, through all of time."
Still watching her, he said, "Do you understand my words now?"
"Yes. I-I do." Her eyes widened, darkening with renewed flecks of alarm. Her mouth opened and closed several times as she struggled to form a coherent rejoinder. "How?" was all she could manage. Her voice was strained. Then, she added more strongly, "How?"
"I cast a spell of comprehension over your mind."
"Spell? No, no. That's not possible." She shook her head. "I speak three languages, and I had to work hard to learn every one of them. What did you do to me? What did you do to my brain?"
"I have already explained that to you."
"Don't tell me the truth, then." She laughed, the sound emerging desperate rather than humorous. "None of this matters, anyway. Tomorrow morning I'll wake up and discover this was all a horrible nightmare."
No, she wouldn't, he thought, hating himself more at that moment than ever before. Tomorrow's dawning she would not wake at all. "You should not have come here, woman," he said. "Do you care nothing for your life?"
"Is that a threat?" She fought against his hold. "Let me go."
"Cease your struggles. Your actions merely press your body deeper into mine."
She immediately stilled.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"I'm an American citizen, and I know my rights. You can't keep me here against my will."
"I can do anything I like."
All color drained from her face because there was no denying the truth of his words.
To prolong her demise like this is cruel , his mind shouted. Close your eyes and strike .
Once again his mind and body acted as separate entities. He found himself releasing her and stepping backward. She leapt away from him as if he were a blood-sucking vampire or a hideously misshapen Formorian.
He focused all of his might on her destruction, looking anywhere except her enigmatic, sea-colored eyes, thinking of anything except her fierce, admirable spirit. Her shirt was torn and gaped down the middle, revealing the hint of two perfect breasts encased in pale pink lace. Another spark of desire flared inside him. Until his gaze locked on the two sets of rubied eyes that hung in the valley of her breasts.
His breath snagged as he studied the ornament more intently. Surely that was not... could not be...
But it was.
A frown cemented his features, and his fingers fisted so tightly his bones almost snapped. How had this woman come to possess such a sacred talisman? The gods awarded every dragon warrior a Ra-Dracus, a Dragon's Fire, upon reaching manhood, and a warrior never removed his gift, not for any reason save death. The markings etched at the base of this one were familiar to him, but he could not recall exactly to whom it belonged.
Not this woman, that much he knew. She was not a dragon, nor was she a child of Atlantis.
His frown deepened. Ironically the very oath that commanded him to harm her also compelled him to keep her alive until she explained how and why she had the medallion. Reaching out, he attempted to remove it from her neck. She slapped his palm and scampered backward.
"Wh-what are you doing?" she demanded.
"Give me the medallion."
She didn't cower at his hard tone as most would have done. Nor did she jump to obey. No, she returned his gaze with unflinching courage. Or stupidity. She remained firmly in place, hands at her side.
"Don't come any closer," she told him.
"You wear the mark of a dragon," he continued. "And you, woman, are no dragon. Give me the medallion."
"The only thing I'll give you is an ass-kicking, you rotten thief. Stay back."
He leveled her with a resolute gaze. She was defensive and fearful. Not a good combination when trying to obtain answers. He almost sighed. "I am called Darius," he said. "Does that ease your fears?"
"No, no it doesn't" Contrary to her words, her muscles relaxed slightly. "My brother gave me this necklace. It's my only link to him right now, and I'm not giving it up."
Darius worried a hand down his face. "What is your name?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"What is your name?" he repeated. "Do not forget who holds the sword."
"Grace Carlyle," she reluctantly supplied.
"Where is your brother now, Grace Carlyle?" Her name floated easily from his tongue. Too easily. "I wish to speak with him."
"I don't know where he is."
And she did not like that she did not know, he realized, studying the worry in her eyes. "No matter," he said. "The medallion does not belong to him, either. It belongs to a dragon, and I will have it back."
She studied him for a long, silent moment, then offered him a sunny if brittle smile. "You're right. You can have it. I just need a moment to take it off." She raised her arms as if she meant to do as she'd claimed-take it off. But in the next instant, she darted forward until she stood poised at the mist's entrance. His arm snaked out and jerked her back into the hard circle of his body. She gasped on impact.
Had his reflexes not been so quick, he would have lost her.
"You dare defy me?" he said, perplexed. As leader of this palace, he was used to having his every command obeyed. That this woman opposed him was shocking, yet somehow added to her appeal.
"Let me go!"
He held steady. "Struggling is pointless and merely delays what must be done."
"What must be done?" Instead of calming, she beat her pointy little elbows into his stomach. "What the hell must be done?"
He whirled her around and used one of his hands as a shackle, locking her against him, chest to chest, hardness to softness.
"Be still!" he shouted. Then blinked. Shouted? Yes, he'd actually raised his voice.
Amazingly enough, she stilled. Her breath came shallow and fast. Amid the growing quiet, he began to hear the beat of her heart, a staccato rhythm that reverberated in his ears. Their gazes narrowed on each other and looking away proved impossible. Minutes ticked by unnoticed.
"Please," she at last whispered, and he wasn't sure if she was asking him to release her or hold her more tightly.
He used his free hand to smooth up the velvety soft expanse of her neck, then gently flick her hair out of the way. The heat of her beckoned him to linger, and he fought the urge to glide his hands across her every feminine peak and hollow, from the plumpness of her breasts, to the slight roundness of her stomach. From the exotic slope of her legs, to the hot wetness of her center.
Was she the kind of woman who could accept and return the barbarity of his passion? Or would she find him more than she could handle?
The thought jarred him, and he gave a brutal shake of his head to dislodge it. Whether she could handle him or not didn't matter. He wasn't going to bed this woman.
He easily imagined Grace naked and in his bed, her body splayed for his view. Her arms open and waiting for him. She would smile slowly, seductively, and he would climb just as slowly atop her, dance his tongue over every delectable inch of her, enjoy her languidly-or let her enjoy him-until they both collapsed.
The fantasy caused his desire to intermingle with tenderness, each sensation sparking off the other as they raced through him.
Desire he could tolerate. Tenderness he could not.
For years he'd tried to suppress his physical needs, but he'd learned that was impossible. So he'd begun to allow himself the occasional woman, taking and pleasing them hard and fast, then leaving them quickly afterward. He didn't kiss, didn't savor. Just took them with a total absorption that often left his chosen bedmate exhausted and reeling.
He needed that same absorption now, only channeled differently. He needed to distance himself from Grace's appeal. With that firmly rooted in his mind, he hurriedly unhooked the chain's clasp from around her neck, though he was careful not to bruise her.
"Give that back," she demanded, pulling against his hold. "It's mine."
"No. It is mine."
Her expression turned venomous.
Without removing his gaze from her, Darius secured the medallion around his own neck, causing it to clang against the other Ra-Dracus. "I have many questions for you, and I expect you to answer every one," he told her. "If you utter a single untruth, you will regret it. Is that clear?"
A strangled breath slipped past her lips.
"Do you understand?" he reiterated.
Wide-eyed, she nodded slowly.
"Then we will begin. You told me you want to give the medallion back to your brother. Why? What does he plan to do with it?"
"I-I don't know."
Did she lie? The angelic cast of her features suggested no untruth had ever passed from her lips. Thinking of her lips brought his gaze to them. They were plump lips. Lips made for a man's pleasure. He ran his hand down his face, unsure what to believe, but knowing he should not imagine those lips slipping up and down his shaft, her red hair spilling over his thighs.
"Where did he acquire it?" Darius ground out.
"I don't know," she said hollowly.
"From who did he acquire it?"
His boss... Darius's jaw ticked. That meant there were more surface dwellers involved. "How long has the chain been in your possession?"
She closed her eyes for a moment, silently counting the days. "A little over a week."
"Do you know what it is? Or what it does?"
"It does nothing," she said, her brow furrowed. "It's just a necklace. A piece of jewelry."
He regarded her intently, studying, gauging. "How, then, did you find the mist?"
She pushed out a breath. "I don't know, okay. I was walking around that damn jungle. I was hot and tired and hungry. I discovered an underground spring, stumbled upon the cave and crawled inside."
"Did anyone enter the cave with you?"
"Are you certain?"
She glared up at him, daring him to do what he would. "Yes, damn it. I'm certain. I was alone out there."
"If you have lied... " He allowed his threat to hang in the air unsaid.
"I told you the truth," she snapped.
Had she? He honestly didn't know. He only knew that he wanted to believe every word she uttered. He was too captivated by her beauty. Too entranced by her scent. He should kill her here and now, but he couldn't bring himself to hurt her. Not yet. Not until he'd had time and distance to put her in proper perspective.
I'm a fool , he thought. Darius grabbed her by the waist and hoisted her over his shoulder. She began kicking immediately, and her nails raked down his back.
"Put me down, you Neanderthalic bastard!" Her shrieks echoed in his ears. "I answered your questions. You have to let me go."
"Perhaps a little time in my chamber will make those answers of yours improve. Surely you can do better than 'I don't know.'"
"Improve? Improve! If I'd given you different answers, I would have been lying."
"We shall see."
He strode up the cave stairs and into the palace above. She continued to squirm and kick, and he continued to hold her firmly with his arms. He was careful to avoid his men as he carried her to his chamber. Once there, he tossed her atop the velvet covered mattress and tied her flailing arms and legs to the posts. Seeing her splayed on his bed made him sweat and ache. Made him rock-hard. Gods, he couldn't deal with her now, not when she looked so... eatable. Without another glance in her direction, he turned and strode into the hall. The door closed behind him of its own accord.
Sooner or later, the woman would have to die... by his own hand.