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JOACHIM LAY IN HIS BED, his arms propped under his head. Scowling, he stared up at the glistening crystal, wishing he could take comfort in the plethora of colors shooting from the jagged shards. Pink, like a woman's nipples. White, like a woman's skin. Russet, like a woman's soulful eyes.

Alas, he took no comfort.

Night had long passed, and morning was here. Through it all, his thoughts remained black and refused to settle. He shifted and eyed the wall of weapons he'd acquired over the years. A weapon for every man he'd slain. Their numbers were so vast, he'd long ago lost count. He was not ashamed of that. No, he reveled in his victories.

That was why his behavior last night cut his pride so deeply.

After leaving Valerian and Shaye, he had brought the two females to his room. He'd been about to enter one; he'd held his cock in his hand, poised, ready. She'd been willing, so willing, writhing in passion, opening herself wider. And he'd stopped. Stopped!

As he had stared down at her, the sense of all-consuming need had abandoned him. There one moment, gone the next. An image of the dark-headed witch he'd wanted so badly at the selection ceremony, the one with the curly hair and ripe little body, had flashed through his mind. Suddenly he'd wanted her. Only her. He'd pictured her in Shivawn's arms, moaning, mindless with pleasure, and a terrible rage had overcome him.

Joachim's two bed partners had tried their hardest to excite him after that, but they'd failed. He should have taken them anyway. He needed to sate himself and regain his strength. Yet... he'd sent them away to find another lover and pleasured himself instead.

Still. He was as weak as before. But at least Valerian, too, would be weakened this day, having gone without a woman's touch. His mate's touch, if he were to be believed. Mate. How Joachim wanted to find his, that one woman who would love him above all others.

He sighed. He didn't want to take the pale woman from Valerian. She did not excite him. Not really. Not like the dark-headed one with her sensual, lush curves, her innocent and wild contradictions. What was her name? She hadn't said. Hadn't spoken at all. He wondered what her voice would be like. Low and husky? Sweet and soft? If he'd had the opportunity to choose her, the night would have ended differently. Damn Shivawn for taking her and forcing him to change his plan.

As his friend had led the lovely witch from the room, Joachim had decided to console himself by taking Valerian's crown.

He liked and admired his cousin, but he liked and admired power more.

Joachim did not enjoy being told what to do. He never had. He preferred to give the orders, to have others do his bidding. Even his women. He was master. He was commander.

His cousin ruled with an iron fist, expecting total and complete obedience. It was time to change that. It was time for Joachim to rule.

Valerian had offered to fight him, true, but Joachim could not become king that way. No, Valerian had to willingly agree to surrender his throne. Would he? Valerian had had a night to consider his options, to realize there was only one thing to be done to keep the pale woman.

"The crown will be mine," Joachim snarled.

Some men were meant for greatness. Some were... not. And Valerian had made many foolish mistakes lately. The first and most important was leaving the nymph females behind to take this palace. The women were now lost, no trace of them to be found in either the Inner or Outer City. Yes, Valerian had a contingent of men searching for them even now. But that wasn't enough. They would not need finding if the king had brought them along in the first place.

The second and most unforgivable mistake Valerian had made was not letting the men travel to the surface until yesterday, when their strength was nearly drained. The palace needed guarding, true, but the men could not guard if they were weak.

I would not have allowed such things to happen. His eyes narrowed. The pale woman was simply a means to an end. He'd seen the way Valerian hovered over her, protecting her, silently willing the warriors away from her. So Joachim had chosen her, hoping his cousin would do anything to keep her.

His hope had paid off.

And perhaps, when he became sovereign, he would simply take the dark-haired witch from Shivawn. He grinned at the thought.

Oh, he was going to like being king.

WHEN SHAYE BRUSHED ASIDE the door cloth and stepped toward him, Valerian's breath caught in his throat, burning like the hottest fire.

Would she always affect him this way?

 

She wore his shirt, his pants, and even though they bagged on her slight frame, she was the most beautiful sight he'd ever beheld. The dome's rainbow flecks glistened over her cheeks. Like a siren she was, luring him, tempting him. He would willingly go to his death for her.

"If you're going to tell me to change," she said, challenge in her voice, "save your breath."

Tell her to change? Never. "I like you just as you are."

Surprise darkened her eyes, making the brown velvet swirl with black.

He held out his hand, not touching her, but needing to. So badly he wanted her to accept him. He wanted her willing. Wanted her to find joy in each and every moment of contact they shared, as he did.

That glorious gaze of hers flicked to his palm. Slowly the color abandoned her cheeks. So pale now, he thought. She could have been a dream, a ghost. A phantom come to torment him.

A flicker of something blanketed her expression. Pain? Panic? "No. No touching." She shook her head, punctuating the words. She even whipped her hands behind her back, as if to remove temptation.

Hearing her rejection, he decided to push her - to see how far she would allow him to push her, really. He wanted her touch too much to admit defeat so early in the game. "Sweet moonbeam, why won't you acquiesce over something so small? I am not asking for more than a touch." Yet.

"Please. I'm not stupid. One touch will lead to one kiss. One kiss will lead - " She flushed, returning that heavenly, rosy glow to her skin. She cleared her throat. "You get the picture." Chin high, she sailed past him. But she stopped abruptly at the fork of doorways. She didn't turn to face him. "Which way is breakfast?"

"What if I told you I was the main course?" He watched her back stiffen, watched her hands clench at her sides. However long it took, he'd chip at her resistance until she caved. I'll have you begging for me, love. "Would you be so eager to leave then?"

Waves of anger and frustration radiated from her. "Which way?" she ground out.

He paused a moment before responding, drinking in the vision of her pale hair tumbling down her back. Some of the ends curled, some of them fell straight. What he would have given to sift his fingers through the thick mass. His home? His life?

His soul?

Yes, all of those things. The need was sharp inside him, yet so unattainable at the moment. "I will show you the way," he said, his voice deep, nearly a croak. He closed the distance between them, his long legs quickly eating up the short space, and brushed past her, purposefully caressing his arm against hers.

Gasping, she jumped away from him as if he'd shoved her. She even glared at him with suspicion. His lips twitched in amusement and victory. Oh, yes. She will be mine. Her awareness of him - for that's what this reaction was, whether she denied it or not - would ultimately be her downfall.

She might not have accepted him as her mate, but her body recognized him. Desired him. And when the physical body desired something, or someone, it did whatever was necessary to convince the mind to seize it. People could not help themselves. They wanted what they wanted, bad for them or not.

Shaye would be no different.

Soon, he thought. Soon.

"Don't you ever wear a shirt?" she grumbled, turning away her gaze.

"I saw how you looked at my chest and decided it was in my best interest to never wear a shirt again."

Her lips compressed into a thin line. "I was staring in horror."

"Who are you trying to convince? Me? Or yourself?"

She bared her teeth in a scowl.

He had made his point, so he let the subject drop. For now. "Breakfast is this way." He clasped her hand (without permission) and led her out of his quarters, down the winding hallway of his army's barracks. Several couples had decided to camp there, even when the loving was done. They lay naked and intertwined in the open. Unlike the chaotic moans of last night, all was now silent. Most likely everyone was exhausted from their long night of sexual gratification and debauchery.

How he would have liked to be in their numbers, to have experienced that same satisfaction.

Perhaps tonight...

"So, what are we going to do about Joachim?" Shaye asked. "I'm not going to be his slave. No matter what. And don't tell me we'll deal with him when he wakes up. Give me an answer this time. I hate not knowing."

We, she'd said. Not I. Not you. We. He liked the sound of that, liked that she did not reject the thought of his aid. Liked that she saw them as partners in this. "Worry not. I will do whatever is necessary to keep you with me."

"Would you - " she gulped " - kill him?"

"If necessary." He answered without hesitation.

She uttered a frustrated groan. "If you would just take me to the beach, he couldn't have me and you wouldn't have to commit murder."

"If I took you back, I couldn't have you, either."

"Exactly."

"Your plan - what is it you told me about my bargaining skills? - sucks. Yes, your plan sucks."

He kicked a pile of clothing out of their way and turned a corner. Finally the dining hall came into view. A fresh, warm scent wafted to him. The male centaurs and minotaurs he'd acquired from the city had prepared the usual breakfast of fish, fruits and nuts.

Beside him Shaye purred, "Mmm." Her stomach growled.

Usually at this time of the morning warriors surrounded the table, devouring every morsel of food. Now he and Shaye were alone, the servants having already retreated to the kitchen for their own meal, his men still sleeping and recovering from the night's pleasures.

Without a word, Shaye commandeered the chair at the head of the table. As she did so, she eyed him, expecting him to balk, he was sure. When he didn't, she shrugged and piled a plate high with food.

She swallowed a bite of coconut cream, and her eyes closed in sweet surrender. "Who prepared this? Surely not your army. They may look life beefcake, but I doubt they know how to cook it."

"As if I would allow my men to cook," he said, filling his plate.

"Hey, there's nothing wrong with a man knowing how to prepare a meal." She popped a grape into her mouth.

He eased onto the bench beside her. "Warriors battle. Warriors kill. Warriors seduce. They do not cook. That is a servant's job."

"What if all your servants get sick and can't work? What if all your servants are stolen? What will all your big, strong warriors do then, huh?"

He blinked, the idea never having occurred to him. Who would be foolish enough to steal from a nymph? "We would acquire new servants."

"Typical," she said dryly. Her gaze traveled the room.

Looking for a way out? he wondered. He wouldn't doubt if she'd engaged him in this conversation about servants just to distract him. He let her do it, though. Talking with her excited him. "How is such a thing typical?" He leaned back and bit into a strawberry. How he would have loved to trace the berry over her lips and lick the juice away.

"In my experience, men such as yourself are - "

"Men such as myself?" he interjected.

"Yes."

"What kind of man is that?"

Her gaze returned to him, and she seemed to forget her search. "Arrogant. Bossy. Chauvinistic. Pigheaded. Stubborn. Half-witted. Spoiled. Demanding. Self-absorbed. Morally corrupt."

When she paused for breath, he grumbled, "Is that all?"

"No. Horny. Overbearing. Mean." She paused, tapped a finger against her lips, then nodded. "That's all. Anyway, as I was saying. Men are - "

"'Mean'?" He frowned. "I have been the epitome of nice to you, catering to your every need. Have I not clothed you? Fed you? Kept you safe and warm? Refrained from making love to you?"

She pursed her lips. "Did you not steal me from everything I hold dear? Have you not refused over and over again to let me go?"

Unconcerned, he waved a hand through the air. "One day you will thank me for my refusal. Now, please continue with your explanation of my 'typical' male behavior."

"Fine." She raised her chin, looking down at him. "But you won't like it."

"Nevertheless. I will listen. Because I am nice."

"Nice? Really? To save your male pride from doing something you consider beneath you, you would rather steal someone from their home and their family so they can do it for you." She bit into a strawberry of her own, white teeth sinking into the fruit. Droplets of juice trickled down her chin. "I'm living proof."

His body tensed. Once again he was overcome with the desire to lick juice off of her lips and chin, perhaps cover the rest of her with strawberry juice, as well, and lick that, too. Several sweetly tart droplets would pool in her navel, of course, before dripping to the pale, silvery hair between her legs. She would writhe when his tongue followed the liquid. She would tunnel her hands in his hair. Her knees would squeeze his temples.

The fantasy came to a halt when she wiped the naughty juice away and scowled over at him. "You're staring at me, and I don't like it. Stop."

Her voice held a strangled edge, as if she fought a wave of anger - or desire.

"Yes, I'm staring," he said. "You are a beautiful woman." He popped another grape into his mouth and relished her dismayed shock. Normally he ate his share of fish, as well as the fruit, but right now he hungered only for Shaye. His woman. His mate.

"Do you have no reaction to my words, then?" She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "I all but called you dishonorable."

"Why should I react to your words? They are true. I would rather steal someone from their home than cook for myself."

Her mouth fell open, forming a delightful O.

He arched a brow. "My easy admission surprises you, I see."

"Well, yeah." She regarded him warily.

"I have only ever taken those in need of a better life, Shaye, or those I thought I could give an easier life, whether they thought they needed it or not. The men who prepared this meal were slaves to the demons before I stole them. They were forced to steal, kill and destroy, and would have one day become the main course of a demon meal. Believe me, they are grateful that I took them." He leaned back on the bench, stretching out the long length of his legs, watching her, gauging. "Perhaps, though, you will help me see the error of my ways. I am more than willing to let you try to convince me of my terrible deeds - over and over again. I listen best when the speaker is naked."

As he watched her, a flush of pink suffused her cheeks. Another blush. The hedonistic women of his acquaintance were as comfortable with sex and erotic banter as he was. That Shaye found the topic risqu¨¦ enough to blush excited him. Mesmerized him.

He had to touch her.

He was just leaning toward her, outstretching his hand to see if that blush of hers gave off any heat and perhaps spread to her breasts, when two of his warriors strode into the room. Disappointed, he fell back into his chair.

Both men wore wide, toothy smiles of sheer bliss. Their faces were completely relaxed, utterly radiant. Power emanated from them. Each wore gilded breastplates, black pants and jewel-studded armbands. After their night of loving, they were ready to train.

"Good morning, great king," Broderick said. His voice had never sounded so joyful.

"This is the best of days, is it not?" Dorian sighed happily.

They whistled as they circled the table and heaped their plates with food. They must have worked up hearty appetites during the long hours of the night. Valerian glared at them. He had yet to sample Shaye's sweetness - yes, he knew she would taste sweet - so no, this was not the best of days.

A few seconds later, Shivawn entered. He wasn't smiling, wasn't relaxed. No, he was stiff and glowered at everyone. He slammed himself onto the bench beside Valerian, hair beads rattling, and silently filled his plate with the food in front of him. He didn't bother to reach for anything more.

Had his woman denied him? Valerian wondered. He and Shivawn probably wore the same expression. "Where is your chosen?"

"Sleeping," Broderick and Dorian replied in unison, as if he'd asked the question of them. Their grins grew wider, and they slapped each other on the backs.

"Flying through the gates of Olympus," Dorian added.

"Did you stop and make sure the women were willing before you bedded them?" Shaye asked, her tone dripping with loathing.

Dorian blinked at her, the question foreign to him.

Broderick chuckled. "Your woman is amusing," he said to Valerian.

"Amusing?" She popped to her feet with an angry growl. "I am not amusing when discussing rape."

At least she hadn't denied the fact that she belonged to him, Valerian thought, pleased.

"As if a woman would turn me down," Broderick said.

"Believe me, it happens," Shivawn muttered. He swiped up his plate and stalked from the room without another word.

Everyone watched him leave, each with a different reaction. Broderick - laughter. Dorian - intensified confusion. Shaye - satisfaction.

"FYI, gentlemen," she said, drawing attention back to herself. "Just because your mojo entrances a woman doesn't mean she truly, deep in her soul, wants you."

"Mojo?" Having no more room on his plate, Dorian eased into the empty seat beside Valerian. "What is that?"

"Doesn't matter." Shaye crossed her arms over her chest, causing the neckline of her shirt to gape and reveal soft hints of her breasts. "What matters is this - if the women knew you, your personality, your likes, your dislikes, your past, your plans for the future, would they want you still?"

If a woman knew you echoed through Valerian's mind. Not an altogether welcome thought, either. He'd never taken the time to discuss his life - past, present or future - with any of his bedmates. He hadn't cared to discuss it, and they hadn't cared to ask. Still, the question intrigued him.

He wanted that with Shaye, he realized. He wanted to tell her about himself and watch her reaction, hear her thoughts. He wanted to listen to her tell him about her own life. Wanted to know what gave her joy. What she secretly desired with every ounce of her being.

Too, he found himself wondering what type of man she had favored in the past. Scholar? Warrior? How had these men treated her?

Had she loved them?

His hands clenched at his sides, one nearly snapping the bench arm in half. A need to maim, destroy, kill any man who'd once held this woman's affections consumed him. Searing. White-hot. Hotter than even a dragon's fire.

Perhaps it was hypocritical of him - all right, it was hypocritical, considering his own debauched past - but he didn't like the image of his woman splayed and open for anyone save himself. Her passion - his. Her heart - his. He didn't want her deepest desires awakened by anyone but him. Couldn't tolerate the thought.

He yearned to brand his very essence into her every cell. She'd know no scent but his own. Feel no touch but his own. Crave only him, as he craved only her.

"Well, I see my chosen has quenched one hunger," a male voice suddenly said from the doorway.

Valerian stiffened as his eyes narrowed on his cousin. Joachim, who obviously still thought to claim Shaye, stood poised, ready. He wasn't dressed for training, but for war. Silver armor etched with battle scenes covered him from head to toe.

Valerian didn't stand. If he did, he would have leapt over the table and attacked. Joachim wanted to war, so they would war. It was past time he showed his power-hungry cousin the error of his ways. Beginning now.

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