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TENSION AND TESTOSTERONE sparked around the room, hot enough that Shaye felt burned. Fury sizzled and snapped; a raging inferno, barely banked, burned in Valerian's turquoise eyes.

Shaye was used to being around emotional people. How many tirades, fits of jealous rage, had her mother thrown over the years? Countless. If a husband came home late, crystal china was thrown at his head - right along with accusations of infidelity. If a birthday was forgotten, tires were slashed.

Yet Shaye didn't know how to react to such potent fury from Valerian. Someone who, until this point, had shown only desire, amusement and patience. Well, he'd given glimpses of anger, but nothing like this.

The need to kill was there in his expression. His lips were thinned, his teeth bared like an animal's. He was cold, capable of any evil deed.

"I have a bargain for you, Joachim." Never had his voice sounded more brusque.

Joachim gave no outward reaction, though his eyes did bear traces of the same dissatisfied tension Valerian and Shivawn possessed. Seemingly unconcerned, he leaned against the towering door frame, a column of twisted gold filigree. "I am listening."

"I will give you my sword," Valerian said. "You may have it with my blessing, but you must renounce all claim to the girl."

"Unacceptable." Joachim removed his helmet and anchored it at his side. His black brows were winged arrogantly. "Make me king, and you can have her. She will be yours to do with what you will."

Shaye laid her palms on the table, looking back and forth between the men. She didn't know what to do, what to say. She felt as helpless now as she'd felt watching her parents fight as a child.

Tense, Valerian shook his head. "I cannot simply make you king. You know that. My men would never follow a man who had not proven himself worthy."

"True," Joachim allowed. "That is why I'm willing to prove myself worthy."

"And just how do you plan to do that?"

"Yesterday you were willing to fight me. Are you still?"

Valerian's hands clenched and unclenched. "Yes."

"But are you willing to give up your reign of leadership if I best you, thereby proving myself worthy?"

A predatory stillness came over Valerian. For a long while he didn't speak. Considering his options? Shaye wondered. Finally he said, "Such a thing has never been done," his tone careful, guarded.

Joachim's hand tightened over his sword hilt. "Yet such a thing has often needed to be done."

Shaye had thought tensions already high. With Joachim's last words, the room began to pulse with danger. More than ever, she didn't want these larger-than-life men fighting over her. With swords, for God's sake. She didn't want Valerian fighting, period. Strangely, the thought of him getting hurt unsettled her.

Only because you don't want to be stuck with someone else, someone less tolerant, she assured herself.

She eyed his opponent. Joachim appeared confident in his ability to win. He radiated the same arrogance as Valerian, yet at the same time he glowed with a bloodthirstiness that did not encompass the king.

"Why don't you fight me instead?" she found herself asking Joachim. The words slipped from her unbidden. "It would be my greatest pleasure to cut off your balls and feed them to you."

A muscle ticked in Joachim's jaw. Valerian's lips twitched as he fought back a... grin? A scowl? The two men at the table chuckled, thankfully relaxing.

"That I would like to see," the too-handsome-to-be-real one said. Black hair, violet eyes. If she remembered correctly, his name was Dorian.

 

"Shaye will not be fighting," Valerian said.

"As if a woman could best me," Joachim snorted. "Well, Valerian." He straightened, his armor clinking ominously. "What say you? Shall we fight, the winner made king with all rights to the woman?"

Slowly Valerian eased to his feet. "I accept. However, winner will remain king and keep the woman."

"Only time will tell," was Joachim's satisfied reply.

"Now wait just a minute." Shaye slapped the table, frustrated when the bowls failed to shake and the food and drink failed to spill. "You're acting like children. There's no reason to fight."

Valerian leveled her with a fierce gaze. At least she'd gotten his attention. "In this, moon, you will not have your way. My cousin is in dire need of a lesson."

"He's your cousin?" She scrubbed a hand over her face. This was worse than she'd thought. "There were times I wanted to kill my family, Valerian, but you have to resist the temptation."

"You will not change your mind?" Joachim asked him, ignoring Shaye as if she were not even in the room. "When you lose?"

Dorian and Broderick snarled like animals at the insult to their king, then there was only silence. Wave after terrible wave of Valerian's fury wrapped around Shaye, and she was immensely grateful it was not directed at her.

"Are you. Calling me. A liar?" Each syllable seemed to be ripped from him.

Joachim's cheeks colored bright, vivid red. "My apologies. That was not my intent."

Only slightly mollified, Valerian splayed his arms, encompassing the room and everyone inside. "We have witnesses. Dorian and Broderick will hereby attest to my consent to this battle - and the outcome."

Panic unfurled sharp fists inside of Shaye, beating painfully. They were going to do it; they were going to fight. The knowledge was there, churning in their eyes.

"What is your weapon of choice?" Valerian asked his cousin, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Swords, of course," was the reply. "The weapon of a true warrior."

"To the death?"

Joachim considered the idea and frowned. "I do not want to kill you, Valerian. I do not hate you. We were friends once, as children, but I was born to rule. Commands should be mine to give, not receive."

For a long while the two men simply stared at each other. Finally Valerian nodded. "Go to the arena, Joachim. I will be there shortly."

"Another command." Joachim looked as if he meant to protest but ultimately nodded. He turned on his heel and strode away. Shaye was not given time to argue.

"Dorian," Valerian said, "gather the rest of the men. I want them to watch what happens to those who think to usurp my rule. Broderick, go and prepare my gear."

Chairs skidded backward. Footsteps pounded.

I can't believe this is happening, Shaye thought.

She'd been kidnapped from her mother's wedding - shrug. She'd been dragged underwater and into a lost city - yawn. She'd been chosen to be the king's mistress - could someone pass a nail file? All of that suddenly seemed paltry, dreamlike.

This battle, though... it was pure nightmare.

"I'm asking you not to do this," she said to Valerian. They were alone now, no one else in sight. "He obviously doesn't want me. He just wants to hurt you and take your crown."

Valerian sat down, leaned back in the bench and regarded her intently. "Do you fear for me, moon?"

She snorted. Inside, though, she trembled with fear. "I could care less about you, actually." Lie. Stupid of her, yes, but a lie all the same. His safety did matter to her, she admitted silently. He'd said all those nice things to her. His touch electrified her. And he was... sweet, damn it. "I just don't want to be pawned off on that Joachim jerk." Truth.

Casually, he popped a grape into his mouth. "I told you I would do whatever was necessary to keep you and I meant it. Now I am not going to take offense at your lack of confidence in my skills as a warrior because you have yet to watch me fight. You do not truly know me."

"And I might not have a chance to know you. Not that I want to," she added quickly. "But still."

"I will, however," he continued as if she hadn't spoken, "take great offense if this lack of faith ever occurs again."

Her eyes focused on him with forced unconcern. "I'm shaking. Really."

His eyes rounded with incredulity, and he shook his head. "Have you no sense, woman? I've just warned you of my wrath and you mock me?"

"Two words - hell, yes."

Far from angering him, though, her words seemed to amuse him. "I like your wit, Shaye. I also like your courage. You please me, for you are a worthy mate. A worthy queen to my warriors."

Queen? Hardly. Look at the mess that her own life had become. Like she really needed to be in charge of other people. And as for the other, well, she didn't want Valerian to like her. Okay, she did. She just didn't want to want him to like her. The more he liked her, the more determined he'd be to keep her, the harder he'd pursue her and the tougher it would be to resist him, to remember who and what he was - and the less she would want to escape.

"Come. I have tarried enough, yet I was unable to resist stealing a moment alone with you." He pushed to his feet and held out his hand, palm up, a silent command for her to take it. "They are awaiting us in the arena."

She studied his palm, powerless to turn away. She knew that if she intertwined her fingers with his, warmth would tingle up her arm. Such drugging warmth. Unwanted warmth. Dangerous warmth.

Her throat constricted. She stood, keeping her hands at her sides. "Lead the way."

He remained where he was, beckoning with a single wave of his fingers.

She crossed her arms over her chest.

His lips dipped into a disbelieving frown as he realized she was refusing him yet again. "I allowed you to refuse once. I will not allow you to do so now. I need your touch, Shaye. I need your strength. My victory depends upon it."

Ah, hell. Way to stick a knife in her. Their gazes locked in challenge. The lush length of his black lashes cast decadent shadows over his cheeks. How did a man with blond hair have such dark eyelashes? They should have been pale, like hers. "Sorry," she said. And she was.

"You are stubborn," he said. "And you want to be cold."

She raised her chin. "I assure you, I am cold. I'm a bitch."

"Given time," he added smoothly, "I will heat you. I will make you burn."

The words were laced with promise, dripping with determination, and drifting beneath them was a challenge: every resistance will be met and conquered until you've soared over the sweet edge of surrender.

She gulped, but still didn't allow herself to reach for him.

A muscle ticked in his jaw. "You have a choice. Take my hand or be carried in my arms."

"You didn't mention my third choice. Leaving." She skidded around the chair and backed away, a single step.

"You? Leave?" He shook his head. "No, you are too brave. I will give you till the count of three to decide, then I will make the decision for you. One."

Another step backward.

"Two."

Yet another.

"Thr - "

She rushed forward and clamped onto his hand. At first contact, the warmth she'd feared speared her, spreading up, spreading out, overtaking her entire body. But if he had chased her and thrown her over his shoulder - and he would have - the sensations would have been so much worse. More potent.

She scowled up at him. Light banked his features, giving him a breathtaking radiance no one person should possess.

He grinned. "That was not so hard, was it?"

"Shut up. Just shut up."

He chuckled, but his laughter didn't last long. His expression grew serious. "I have your scent in my nostrils, moon, and can find you wherever you are. Wherever you go. Do not think to try and escape from me during the battle." With that, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the dining hall, dragging her with him.

Hissing a breath between her teeth, she fought to keep up with him, flying forward at neck-breaking speed. "Slow down. And what do you mean, you've got my smell in your nose?" She recalled yesterday, how obsessed he'd been with making her smell him.

"Just that your essence is branded into my every cell," he said, not bothering to face her. "As mine will soon be in yours."

"There will be no branding!"

"Actually, there will be no stopping the branding." Utter confidence cascaded from his voice.

Another promise.

Don't engage him. Don't encourage him. Her gaze snagged on the wall. White marble inlaid with silver stone, crumbled in bits and pieces. Scratch marks, as if someone had taken a tool to every inch. Changing the subject she said, "What happened here?"

"Humans invaded, is my understanding."

Her gaze whipped to his back. Hard muscle and sinew strained under bronzed velvet. "Humans know about Atlantis?"

"Some do."

Wow. People actually knew about this place, yet they'd managed to keep it a secret. "Have you always lived in this castle?"

"No. My army claimed the palace only a short time ago."

Claimed. Aka "stole," she was sure. "Who did it belong to before you?"

"The dragons."

She skidded to a stop, forcing him to stop, as well, or drag her prone body. "Dragons? Did you say dragons used to own this property? And you stole it from them?" That explained the dragon murals, the dragon etchings, the dragon medallion he'd told her about.

Slowly he faced her, his expression confused. "This upsets you. Why?"

"Dragons spew fire and eat humans as tasty snacks. They'll want their palace back."

"Yes."

Her eyes widened at his nonchalance. "And that doesn't bother you? The thought of battling such fierce creatures?"

"No. Why should it?" His chest seemed to expand before her eyes. "I am fiercer. I am stronger."

God save her from male arrogance. "Sorry I don't share your confidence," she said dryly.

He frowned. "If the thought of dragons scares you - "

"Terrifies me," she interjected.

"How will you react when I introduce you to the vampires?"

A strangled gasp wheezed from her throat, and she covered her mouth with a shaky hand. "I'm not meeting vampires."

"They are our friends."

He'd said our. He hadn't said my. But our, as if they were already a couple. "You told me those creatures were in Atlantis, but I never thought you'd make me interact with them! Vampires drink blood, Valerian."

"They will not drink yours."

Grrr. There was no arguing with him. He had a response for everything. "That's right, they won't. I'm not meeting them, and I'm not staying here."

"Vampires are our allies. You have nothing to fear from them. You have nothing to fear from anyone in this land. I will always protect you. With my own body, if necessary." His voice dipped with sexy, husky promise, once again flashing images of naked bodies, sweat-soaked skin and quivering pleasure through her mind. Grrr!

"You know, if you had any chance of convincing me to stay here - which you didn't - you blew it with talk of dragons and vampires."

He shook his head, his brow furrowed. "How you distract me, woman. Why are we discussing this now? I have a battle to win. A woman to claim," he said as he tugged her back into motion.

Crap. The battle. In the distance she could make out the sound of swords clanging together. Grunts. Male laughter. Excitement.

"I'm going to say this one more time. I don't want you to fight."

He lost his air of affection. He stopped, turned and took a menacing step toward her. Close enough that she felt the heat of his skin, the heady scent of it. Saw the flecks of blue and green in his eyes, brighter than the most precious jewels. He became utterly wrapped in malevolence.

"I warned you what would happen if you voiced such doubt in my ability again. I am powerful, a force to be feared, and I will have your faith."

If he expected her to apologize or back away, he did not get his wish. She stepped toward him, destroying even more of the open space between them. Where she attained such bravado, she didn't know. She only knew she could not let him in that ring. "And I told you I didn't give a shit about your warning."

Sconces blazed from the walls, their glow flickering over the contours of his face. Shadows and light fought for dominance, playing over his cheeks. He suddenly appeared even more harsh than he had a moment ago.

Tendrils of desire, the same consuming desire she'd encountered when she'd first watched him stride from the ocean, glittered inside her.

"You will," he said, right before he tangled his fingers in her hair and jerked her to him. Instantly his lips slammed into hers with such force she gasped.

He used her open mouth to his advantage. His hot tongue pushed inside, past her teeth, past any thought of resistance. His big body engulfed her, set her on fire with ethereal flames. Flames that spread with dizzying speed. Wondrous speed. In mere seconds she went from cool, uncaring, untouchable Shaye to wild, aching, never-stop-touching Shaye. A woman who existed only for pleasure. For sex and debauchery. For this man.

He consumed her. Dark need consumed her. And she discovered that she liked being consumed.

His tongue worked hers with expert precision, causing her nerve endings to leap to blissful life. Her nipples hardened, her thighs ached, her stomach quivered. His taste was pure sexual heat, exotic, addictive. She shouldn't want to, knew she should pull away, but she found herself winding her arms around his neck and accepting him fully, demanding more.

A feral growl of satisfaction escaped him, raw, as if he couldn't hold it back.

"Do you want me?" he whispered fiercely.

As always the sound of his wine-rich voice excited her. More so than ever before. He'd been made for her, only her, his every action, every breath, existing simply to please her. The thought was intoxicating. Like the man himself. Heady and sultry and drugging.

"Do you want me?" he asked again.

"No," she forced out, then contradicted herself by licking the seam of his lips. Who was this wanton woman she'd become?

Valerian's woman drifted across her mind.

His callused hands slid from her neck over each vertebra of her spine and settled softly on the curve of her hips. His fingers gradually scrunched up the hem of her shirt.

"I want you," he said fiercely. Warm breath fanned her cheek.

There was a reason she should push him away. Yes, there was definitely a reason. A reason she should... drag his mouth back to hers. Taste him again. Feel the strength of his chest straining against her, feel the barely leashed power humming through his blood. Her nipples beaded tighter and hurt, actually hurt, for contact.

He released her shirt and reached under it, his fingers tickling her skin. She gasped in wonder.

"Your nipples ache for me, I know it." His hot gaze lingered on the area in question, making them pearl all the more.

"No, they don't," she denied.

"It would be my pleasure to prove it to you. I could stand you in front of a mirror, slowly remove your top, baring your flesh inch by precious inch. I could cup your breasts in my hands, framing your nipples as they cry for me."

She should have been used to it, expected it even, but the picture he described tunneled into her mind. Valerian behind her, his arms reaching around her, kneading her breasts. One of his phantom hands began a slow, languid glide down her stomach, stopping at the pale curls between her legs.

"I hate that idea," she lied breathlessly. "Hate it." She brought her hands to his chest, her palms over his nipples. They were hard little points her tongue yearned to lick. To suck. As her fingertip curled in the steel loop anchored there, she wanted to lick and suck that, too.

He groaned. "I like the way you hate."

Oh, she did, too. Their breaths mingled together. Their gazes locked, a sultry clash of turquoise against brown, passion against passion.

"Hate me some more," he breathed.

She didn't think to resist. She rose on her tiptoes - her body seemed to have a mind of its own - placing her lips just in front of his. His hands tightened on her waist, the grip needy, hard, commanding. Not allowing escape. He urged the lower half of her closer to him, so close, until she nestled against the long, hard length of his erection.

A hot, raspy gasp shuddered from her. Spears of pleasure arced through her, spawning other bursts of sensation. Needed sensation. Welcome sensation.

"I want to hate you, too," he told her in that same soft tone. "I want to hate you hard and fast, the first time. Slow and tender, the second."

"My king," someone called.

Shaye heard the voice distantly and despised the interruption. More kisses. She wanted more kisses.

As if Valerian didn't notice the voice - or simply didn't care - his gaze slid to her mouth. Wicked intent gleamed in his eyes. So much desire blazed from him, she had trouble catching her breath. He was a man ready to give her as many kisses as she desired.

"My king," the voice said again, this time projecting equal measures of reverence, impatience and eagerness.

Valerian's fingers clenched at her waist. "I don't want to stop hating you," he said softly, a growl.

Saying "You must" almost killed her.

"Must hate you?"

"Must stop."

He ran his tongue over his teeth. His nostrils flared, as if her taste lingered there. "For now," he allowed.

"Forever." What are you, stupid? She gulped. She'd never been kissed with such passion. Such fervor. As if the man doing the kissing savored her. Would be destroyed without her. And she wanted like hell to experience that urgency again.

Dangerous, her mind whispered.

But totally worth it, her body responded.

"Don't ever hate me again," she forced out. She tugged from his embrace, turned away, suddenly cold and empty. Hollow, as she'd been through her entire childhood.

He gripped her shoulders and spun her around. His eyes were compressed to tiny slits, his thick lashes nearly intertwining top with bottom. "My greatest pleasure will be - what is it your people say? - making you eat your words."

"Valerian," another man called. Joachim, this time. She recognized the deep baritone. Impatient now. Valerian didn't face him. "The woman is not yours to kiss."

Shaye drew her arms over her middle, tamping down a tremor of dread. She glanced over her shoulder, only to see that the dark-haired man resembled an angel of death. Great. A sign?

"Yet," Valerian said, the single word more lethal than a sword. His eyes never left her face. "Yet."

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