Alone in the room, Grace tugged and squirmed until she freed her wrists. She untied the knots at her ankles and jerked upright. Alex had tied her up many times when they'd been children, so escaping seemed like child's play. Besides that, her captor had not tied the knots that tight. She dragged in a shaky breath as her gaze darted throughout the spacious interior, taking in every detail. Other than the gloriously soft bed she sprawled upon, a tiered ivory chest was the only other furnishing. Colors... so many colors glistened from the jagged walls like rainbow shards trapped in onyx. There was a cream and marble hearth, unlit and pristine. The only exit was a door with no handle.
Where the hell am I ? she wondered, panic rising.
Fear and adrenaline pounded furiously through her blood. A man who could afford this type of luxury could afford an impregnable security system. She fisted her hands on the sapphire velvet coverlet as another thought invaded her mind. A man who could afford this type of luxury could afford to kidnap and torture an innocent woman with no consequences.
Shooting to her feet, she tried to fight past her fear. I'll be okay. I'll be okay . She just needed to find a way out of here. Before he returned. She raced to the door, clawing at the tiny seam. When that didn't work, she pushed, trying to force the doors to split down the middle. The thick ivory remained firmly in place, refusing to budge even a little. She expelled a frustrated screech. She should have expected no different. Like he'd make escape that easy.
What was she going to do?
There were no windows to crawl through. And the ceiling... she glanced upward and gasped. The ceiling was comprised of layered crystal prisms, the source of the room's light. A thin crack stretched across the middle from one end to the other, giving way to a spectacular view of swirling, turquoise liquid. Yet the liquid didn't drip through. Fish and other sea creatures-those were not mermaids, she assured herself-swam playfully through the water.
I'm underwater. Underwater ! She banged her fists against the door. "Let me out of here, damn you!"
No response was forthcoming.
"This is illegal. If you don't let me out, you'll be arrested. I swear you will. You'll go to prison and be forced to have intimate relations with a man named Butch. Let. Me. Out."
Again, no response. Her punches slowed, then stopped altogether. She rested her cheek against the coolness of the door. Where the hell am I ? she wondered once more.
Something tugged at her memory... something she had read. A book or a magazine, or... Alex's journal! she realized. The bottom dropped from her stomach, and she squeezed her eyes shut as the full implication hit her. Her brother had written about a doorway from earth to Atlantis, a portal surrounded by mist. Her mouth formed an "O" as a section of his text invaded her mind, clicking in place like the piece of a puzzle. Atlantis was not the home of an extraordinary race of people, but of horrible creatures found only in nightmares, a place the gods had hidden their greatest mistakes.
Her knees weakened and her stomach clenched. Turning, placing her back to the door, she sank to the cold, hard ground. It was true. She had traveled through the mist. She was in Atlantis. With horrible creatures even the gods feared.
Let this be a dream, a dream I'll awaken from any moment. I promise I won't complain about anything ever again. I'll be content.
If the gods heard her, they ignored her.
Wait, she thought, shaking her head. She didn't believe in ancient Greek gods.
I have to get out of here . She'd wanted danger and fulfillment, yes, but not this. Never this. En route to Brazil, she'd imagined how intrepid she would feel helping Alex, how accomplished she would feel proving or disproving such a well-loved myth.
Well, she'd just proved it-and she felt anything but accomplished.
"Atlantis," she whispered brokenly, staring over at the bed. The comforter appeared quilted from glass, yet she knew exactly how soft it was. She was in Atlantis, home of minotaurs, Formorians, werewolves and vampires. And so many more creatures her brother hadn't been able to name them all. Her stomach gave another painful clench.
Just what type of creature was her captor?
She searched her memory. Minotaurs were half bull and half human. While he may have acted like a bull, he had not possessed the physical characteristics of one. Formorians were one-armed and one-legged creatures. Again, he didn't qualify. Could he be a werewolf or a vampire? Yet neither of those seemed right, either.
With his dragon tattoos, he seemed more like, well, a dragon. Could that be right? Didn't dragons have scales, a tail and wings? Perhaps he was the only human here. Or perhaps he was a male nymph, a creature so sexual, so potent and virile, he could not be released into human society. That certainly explained her hopelessly powerful reaction to him.
"Darius," she said, rolling his name across her tongue.
She shivered twice, once in fear and once in something she didn't want to name, as his image filled her mind. He was a man of contradictions. With his swirling, ice-blue eyes, harsh, demanding tone and rock-solid muscles, he personified everything cold and callous, everything incapable of offering warmth. And yet, when he touched her, she'd felt molten lava run through her veins.
The man reeked of danger, resembling a warrior who lived with no laws but his own. Like the deliciously tantalizing warriors she read about in romance novels. This was no novel, however. This man was real. Raw and primal. Purely masculine. When he spoke, his voice resonated a dark, barely leashed power reminiscent of midnight tempests and exotic, foreign lands. Despite everything, she had been drawn to him in the cave.
Despite everything, she was still drawn to him.
Never, in all of her twenty-four years, had a man stirred such sensuous awareness inside her. That this man did, a man who had threatened her-several times-blew her mind. He'd even tried to slice her in half with that monstrous sword of his. But he didn't hurt you , her mind whispered. Not once . His touch had been so gentle... almost reverent. At times, she'd thought his gaze was pleading with her to touch him in return.
" You need your head examined, young lady, if you actually find that man attractive ." Her mother's stern voice reverberated in her mind. " Tattoos, swords. Not to mention the beastly way he carried you over his shoulder. Why, I was horrified."
Then her aunt Sophie piped in, " Now, Gracie baby, don't listen to your mother. She hasn't had a man in years. Does Darius have a single, older brother ?"
"I truly do need my head examined," she muttered. Her relatives were taking residence inside her mind, dispensing bits of advice whenever they wanted.
A wave of homesickness hit her in a way she hadn't experienced since her first week of summer camp all those years ago. Her mother might be reserved and exacting from years of caring for Grace's sickly father, but she loved and missed her.
She drew her arms around her stomach, trying to mask the hollowness. Where had Darius gone? How long before he returned?
What did he plan to do with her?
Nothing good, that much she suspected.
The air here was warmer than in the cave, but the cold refused to leave her, and she trembled. Her gaze flicked up the jagged walls, to the ceiling. Climbing up might earn her scratched and bloody palms, injuries she'd willingly endure if the crystal ceiling opened wide enough for her to slip through and swim to safety.
She eased to her feet, her legs shaky. First she needed sustenance or she'd collapse-and then she'd never escape.
On top of the dresser was what looked to be a bowl of fruit and a flagon of wine. Drawing in a deep breath of sea-kissed air, she approached. Her mouth watered as she reached out and palmed an apple. Without giving herself time to contemplate the likelihood of poison, she quickly ate-more like inhaled, she thought-the delicious fruit. Then another. And another. Between bites, she sipped the sweet red wine straight from the flagon.
By the time she stepped to the edge of the wall, she felt stronger, more in control. She gripped two small ledges and hoisted herself up, balancing her feet on the sharp ebony. Up, up she scaled. She'd once climbed the Devil's Thumb in Alaska-not her favorite memory since she'd frozen her butt off-but at least she knew how to climb properly. She dared a peek down, gulped, and thought lovingly of the harness she had used on Devil's Thumb.
She reached the top, and her palms were indeed bruised and raw, throbbing. Using all of her might, she pushed and clawed at the crystal. "Come on," she said. "Open for me. Please open for me." Hope curdled in her stomach as the damn thing remained firmly closed. Near tears, she maneuvered her way down to the lowest outcropping and hopped to the floor.
She shoved her hair out of her face and took stock of her options. There weren't many since she was stuck in this room. She could passively accept whatever Darius had planned for her, or she could fight him.
No deliberation was required. "I'll fight," she said, resolved.
By whatever means necessary, she had to get home, had to find and warn her brother about the dangers of the mist-if it wasn't too late already. An image of Alex popped into her mind. His dark red hair artfully arranged around his pale face; his body lying motionless in a coffin.
She pressed her lips together, refusing to consider the possibility a moment longer. Alex was alive and well. He was. How else would he have sent her his journal and the medallion? Stamps were not sold in the afterlife.
Her gaze scanned the room again, this time looking for a weapon. There were no knickknacks. No logs in the hearth. The only item that might work was the bowl holding the fruit, but Grace wasn't sure how much damage she could do to Darius's fat (okay, sexy) head with a surprisingly flexible bowl.
Disappointment swam through her. What the hell could she do to escape? Make a trip cord of the sheets? She blinked. Hey, that wasn't a bad idea. She raced over to the bed. When she lifted the silky linen, her palms ached sharply.
Despite the pain, she tied each end on either side of the sliding doors. Darius might look indomitable, but he was as vulnerable to mishap as everyone else. Even the myths of old spoke of every creature, be they human or god, as being fallible. Or in this case, fallable.
Though she lived in New York now, Grace had grown up in a little town in South Carolina, a place known for its friendliness and politeness to strangers. She'd been taught to never purposely hurt another human being. Yet she couldn't stop a slow smile of anticipation as she studied the sheet.
Darius was about to take a tumble.
Darius stalked into the dining hall. He paused only a moment when he realized he no longer saw colors, but once again saw merely black-and-white. He inhaled a disappointed breath. When he realized he smelled nothing, he stilled. Even his newly developed sense of smell had deserted him.
Until now, he hadn't realized just how much he missed those things.
This was Grace's doing, of course. In her presence, his senses had come alive. Now that there was distance between them, he had reverted to his old ways. What kind of power did she wield that she could so control his perceptions? A muscle ticked in his jaw.
Thankfully his men had not waited for his return. They had already adjourned to the training arena as he'd ordered. Though they were several rooms over the sounds of their grunts and groans filled the air.
Lips drawn tight, Darius moved to the immense wall of windows at the back of the room. He gripped the ledge above his head and leaned forward. As high upon the cliffs as this palace sat, he was granted a spectacular view of the city below. The Inner City. Where creatures were able to relax and intermingle. Even vampires, though he did not spy the masses his men had encountered.
Crowds of Amazons, centaurs, cyclops, griffins, and female dragons ventured from shops and strolled the streets as merchants peddled their wares. Several female nymphs frolicked in a nearby waterfall. How happy they appeared, how carefree.
He craved that same peace for himself.
With a growl, he pushed himself from the ledge and paced to the edge of the table, where he gripped the end with so much force the fire resistant woodstone snapped. He had to get himself under control before he approached the woman-Grace-again. There were too many emotions churning inside him: desire, tenderness, fury.
He stabbed and pounded at the tenderness; he kicked and shoved at the desire. They proved most resilient, hanging on to him with a viselike grip. The lushness of her beauty could charm the strongest of warriors from his vows.
By the gods, if he experienced these sensations simply from holding her wrists, from gazing into her vibrant eyes, what would he feel if he actually palmed her full, lush breasts? What would he feel if he actually parted her luscious thighs and sank the thickness of his erection inside her? His tormented moan became a roar and echoed from the crystal above. Were he ever to have that woman naked and under him-he might perish from an overload of sensation.
He almost laughed. He, a bloodthirsty warrior who was thought to possess no heart and had felt nothing more than detached acceptance for three hundred years, was agonizing over one small woman. If only he hadn't smelled her sweetness, a subtle fragrance of female and sunshine. If only he hadn't caressed the silkiness of her skin.
If only he didn't want more.
What was it about her that made his senses come to life? he wondered again. If he knew the answer to that, he could easily resist her.
Fight, man. Fight against her enchantment. Where is your legendary discipline?
With an almost brutal slash, he jerked a shirt from one of the wall hooks. He pulled the black material over his head, covering both of the medallions he wore. The etchings at the bottom of the one Grace had worn flashed before his mind, and in a sudden burst of clarity he placed the stolen medallion with its owner. Javar, his former tutor.
Darius frowned. How had Javar lost such a precious treasure? Did Grace's brother wield some strange power that allowed him to slip through the mist, fight Javar and win the sacred chain? Surely not, for Javar would have come to him for aid-if he still lived, his mind added.
Darius had spoken to his former tutor by messenger only a month ago. All had seemed well. But he knew better than anyone that a life could change in the space of a single heartbeat.
"You have to do something, Darius," Brand growled, flying into the room. The long length of his opalescent wings stretched to fill the doorway. Without a pause in their glide, his clawed feet smoothly touched the ground. He began striding closer. His sharp, lethal fangs were bared in an ominous scowl, a beacon of white against his scales.
Darius gave his friend a hard stare, careful to withdraw all emotion from his features. By word or deed, he refused to let any of his men know just how precariously he clung to his control. They would ask questions, questions he did not want to answer. Questions he honestly had no answers for.
"I will not speak with you until you calm down," he said. He crossed his arms over the width of his chest and waited.
Brand drew in a deep breath, then another, and very slowly his dragon form receded, revealing a bronzed chest and human features. His fangs retracted. The cut on his cheek had already healed, a courtesy of his regenerative blood. Darius fingered the scar on his own cheek. He'd acquired the injury from the nymph king years ago during battle and he'd never understood why he'd been left with such a mark.
"You have to do something," Brand repeated more calmly. He claimed the only clothes left on the hooks and tugged them on. "We're ready to kill each other."
Darius had met Brand not long after he'd moved into the palace. They'd both been young, barely more than hatchlings, and both their families had been slain during the human raid. From the beginning, he and Brand had shared a bond. Brand had always laughed and talked with him, made sure he was invited to participate in every dragon activity. While Darius had declined-even then he had kept himself a strict mental distance from others-he'd found companionship with Brand, found someone to listen to and trust.
"Blame your silly game," Darius said with a slight growl, reminded of the previous antics, "not me."
The corners of Brand's lips suddenly stretched to full capacity. "Emotions from you already? I'll take that to mean you want my head on a platter."
"Your head will do... to start." Forcing himself to appear relaxed, he clasped a chair and eased down backward. He rested his forearms against the velvet-trimmed back. "What caused you to transform this time?"
"Boredom and monotony," came his friend's dry tone. "We tried to begin the first round of a tournament, but couldn't stop fighting long enough. We're on the verge of complete madness."
"You deserve to be driven mad after the chaos you caused earlier."
Brand's smile renewed. " Tsk, tsk, tsk , Darius. You should be thanking me, not threatening me."
Brows arched, Brand said, "Don't tell me I'm about to win the wager. Not when there is no one here to witness my victory."
His scowl intensified. "Other than the game, what can I do to help ease this boredom?"
"Will you reconsider bringing us women?"
"No," he quickly answered. Grace's lovely face glimmered in his mind, and his lower abdomen contracted tightly. There would be no more women in his palace. Not when such a tiny one as Grace caused this type of reaction in him.
Brand did not seem to notice his disconcertment. "Then let us play our game. Let us try to make you laugh."
"Yes, even that. It is long past time someone broke through your barriers."
He shook his head. "I'm sorry, but my answer remains the same."
"Every year I watch you grow a little more distant. A little more cold. The game is more for your benefit than it is for ours."
With the fluidity inherent to all dragons, Darius shifted to his feet, causing the chair to glide forward. He did not need this now, not when he struggled so fiercely for control. One grin and he might crumble. One tear and he might fall. One scream and his deepest agonies might be unleashed. Oh, yes. He knew if ever the day came that he lost total control, he would be destroyed in a maelstrom of emotion.
"I am this way for a reason, Brand. Were I to open a door to my emotions, I would not be able to do my duty. Is that something you truly desire?"
Brand tangled a hand roughly through his braids. "You are my friend. While I understand the importance of what you do, I also wish you to find contentment. And to do so, something needs to change in your life."
"No," he said firmly. When Grace had stepped through that portal, his life had changed irrevocably-and not for the better. No, he needed no more change. "I happen to embrace monotony."
Realizing that argument held no sway, Brand changed his tactics. "The men are different from you, then. I am different. We need something to occupy our minds."
"My answer is still no."
"We need excitement and challenge," Brand persisted. "We yearn to discover what the vampires are up to, and yet we are forced to stay here and train."
"No, no, no . How I weary of the word."
"Yet you must make peace with it, for it is the only one I can offer you."
Brand stepped to the table, casually running his finger over the surface. "I hate to threaten you, and you know I would not do so if I felt there were any other way," he added quickly. "But if you do not allow us something , Darius, chaos will reign supreme in your home. We will continue to fight at the least provocation. We will continue to disrupt the meals. We will continue-"
"You have made your point." Darius saw the truth to his friend's words and sighed. If he did not relent in some way, he would know no peace. "Tell the men I will allow them to finish their wager, if they swear a blood oath to stay away from my chambers." His eyes narrowed and locked on to Brand. "But mark my words. If one-just one man-approaches my private rooms without my express permission, he will spend the next month chained to the bastion."
Brand's chin tilted to the side, and his golden gaze became piercing. Silence thickened around them as curiosity tightened his features. Darius had never barred anyone from his chambers before. His men had always been welcome to come to him with their troubles. That he withdrew that welcome now must seem odd.
He offered no explanation.
Wisely Brand asked no questions. He nodded. "Agreed," he said, giving Darius a friendly slap on the shoulder. "I believe you will see a remarkable change in everyone."
Yes, but would the change be for the better? "Before you reenter the training arena," Darius said, "send a messenger to Javar's holding. I desire a meeting."
"Consider it done." With a happy swagger to his step, Brand strode from the room as quickly as he had entered.
Alone once more, Darius allowed his gaze to focus on the staircase and climb upward toward his rooms. An insidious need to touch Grace's silky skin wove a tangled web through his body, just as potent as if she were sitting in his lap.
Brand had spoken of the men going mad, but it was Darius himself who was in danger of madness. He pushed a hand through his hair. Leaving Grace had not helped him in any way; the image of her atop his bed glowed as real in his mind as if he were in front of her. He realized he was as calm as he would ever be where that woman was concerned. Which meant not calm at all. Best to deal with her now, before his craving for her increased.
Stroking the two medallions he wore, he followed the path his gaze had taken until he stood poised at the doorway. She would give him the answers he wanted, he thought determinedly, and he would act as a Guardian. Not a man, not a beast. But a Guardian.
Resolved, he released the medallions and the doors opened.