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AFTER ONE FINAL LOOK at Shaye, Valerian whipped around, facing his cousin and shoving the moonbeam behind him, his body acting as a shield. How dare his first kiss with Shaye, his mate, his one and only, be interrupted. And by this man! Fury seethed and bubbled through his blood, a rushing river of molten lava.

"May I recommend the two of you sit down and discuss your problems before you resort to bloodshed?" Shaye suggested primly. She tried to sidestep him. When that didn't work, she peeked around his shoulder.

"No." Joachim. Smug expectation colored his face. The man truly thought to win and become king.

"No," Valerian replied, even knowing Shaye didn't want him to fight. While he did not want to deny her anything, fight he would. Even though he was at a disadvantage. While Joachim had spent the night gaining strength thanks to his sexual conquests, Valerian had... not. He had not even self-pleasured.

Without looking behind him, Valerian reached back, palm extended, for Shaye to place her hand in his. She'd refused twice before and coercion had been necessary. He expected her to refuse once again. But he had to try, had to touch her once more before entering the arena.

Shock pounded through him when her fingers slowly laced with his. Her hand was soft and delicate, the bones fine, the skin smooth. He couldn't help himself. He stood in place, tracing his fingers over hers. Her nails felt perfectly rounded, and he knew they were painted the color of coral shells. More than anything, he wanted to suck them into his mouth.

She squeezed his hand, and his shock intensified. Did she offer him comfort? A silent warning? He didn't know, but he reveled in the action.

Was she coming to care for him?

She'd responded to his kiss so passionately, erupting from cool to blazing in seconds. She'd responded, and she'd wanted. Just as he had. He'd bedded many women over the years, more than he could count. Yet none had ever stirred his heart like she had. A simple kiss, and he'd burned for her uncontrollably. He hadn't wanted just her body. He'd wanted all she had to give.

Later, he promised himself. Later.

"I am waiting," Joachim said, impatient.

Valerian's eyes narrowed. "Come," he said to Shaye, ignoring his cousin. Anger fueled his steps as he ushered her down the rest of the hallway.

Joachim remained in place, watching them.

Valerian barreled past him, shoving the foolish man out of the way. No one would treat him with such disrespect. By the time their private war ended, anyone who harbored thoughts of taking his place would see the error of his ways.

Perhaps he should take Shaye to his room and place a guard at the door. He wasn't sure he wanted her to see his most vicious side, the animal inside him. An animal that maimed and conquered. Already she protested the confrontation.

Yet as much as he wanted to protect her from the beast inside him, he wanted her to see it, to know his strengths and know that he could take care of her. Whoever, whatever the enemy.

"Well, this is fun," Shaye said dryly.

"Wait until the battle actually begins," Valerian replied.

Joachim's gaze bored into his back, and he felt the heat of it as he strode forward. Sand flung from his boots. The arena overflowed with warriors, he noticed. They circled the walls, brimming with anticipation and eagerness. Good. He wanted all of his men to witness the coming event.

Several warriors had brought their women, and these females stood interspersed with the men. They were draped in Atlantean robes, violet and yellow and rose-colored scarves woven with silver thread. Sapphires, rubies and emeralds sparkled from the soft materials, and all of the scarves split at the bottom, offering glimpses of thigh. Fine, metal links looped around the women's waists, showcasing the shapely curves of some, the lean delicacy of others. They ranged in age, size and beauty, but each had her own appeal.

None of them, dressed as finely as they were, compared to Shaye. Not even close.

Valerian stopped in front of Broderick. "Is all ready?"

"I have taken care of every detail." Broderick grinned and wound his arm around his chosen, a pretty brunette. "Women and war in one day. The gods must be smiling upon us."

 

Smiling... or cursing. "Watch this little morsel for me," Valerian said, gently thrusting Shaye at him. She humphed. "Guard her well and allow no one to touch her." He paused, considered Broderick's past liaisons, and added, "Not even yourself."

Broderick's grin faded, and he lost all traces of his enjoyment. "Keep her with me, but do not touch her? This is the wench who fought you. What if she tries to run away?"

"She won't." He turned his gaze on Shaye and met her rebellious eyes. "Will you?"

She studied her fingernails. "Whatever you say, big guy."

He expelled a hot breath. "I do not want to punish you, Shaye, but I will if you force me."

"If I force you?" She glared up at him. "Now there's Barbarian Mentality 101 if I've ever heard it. Perhaps I need to make a card for women who find themselves stuck with a Neanderthal. It could say something simple like, 'Got Razors'?"

He did not even pretend to understand what she had just said. "Promise me you will stay here. If I am worried about you, I cannot concentrate on the sword being swung at me."

She paled once again, a lovely ice queen. He drank in her snowy beauty.

"Promise me," he said again, tenderly this time.

Her expression softened ever so slightly. "Fine. I promise. But only for the fight. The fight I don't want you to participate in. After that... "

Satisfied, he looked to Broderick. "When I return, I want her in the same condition I have left her. Not a single bruise."

"As if I would ever hurt a woman," his friend grumbled.

"As if I would allow him to hurt me," Shaye said, her chin tilted stubbornly.

Broderick arched his brows, a who-is-this-woman expression on his face. Valerian fought a grin.

The brunette at Broderick's side pointed an accusing finger at Shaye. "I don't like you standing near Broderick."

Shaye rolled her eyes.

Broderick regained his amusement and grinned. "Rissa is possessive of me, what can I say?"

"Just make sure she keeps her hands off Shaye."

"I can take her," Shaye said. Her dark brown eyes glowed with challenge.

"I know you can, moon, but if you were to hurt her I would owe Broderick another woman." He clasped her delicate shoulders in his hands and rubbed her arms. Brave, sweet thing. "I would rather not have another battle on my hands."

Shaye's lips pressed in a mutinous line, and she peered down at the sands. At least she didn't offer another rejoinder.

He wanted to kiss her just then, to thrust his tongue into her mouth and feel her heat, her wetness. Taste her sweetness. He couldn't. Not yet. Not again. Not with Joachim's challenge hanging over their heads.

"Valerian!" a female squealed from behind his mate. "Valerian!"

His muscles stiffened. Damn it! Already Shaye resisted him, and she'd made her dislike of his past lusts very clear. Yet now, heading straight toward him, was one of the three women from the other night. She shoved her way through the crowd, swathes of red hair trailing behind her.

"My sweet king. I came to wish you well."

Shaye, too, stiffened - before she was shouldered out of the way. He scowled, was about to issue a stinging rebuke, but the redhead's hands were suddenly caressing his bare chest, lingering over every curve and hollow, pulling gently at his nipple ring, then riding the ridges of his abdomen and cupping his backside.

"I just heard about the fight, and wanted to cheer for you."

"Isn't this special," Shaye said, an airy breeze to her tone. "A Lust family reunion."

Eyeing the newcomer, Valerian said, "Our association is at an end, sweet." He kept his tone gentle, not wanting to inflict unnecessary hurt. He felt guilty for not learning her name. "Joachim is your lover now. Warm his bed this night, for he will need all the loving he can get."

Her pink lips dipped into a pout, and she traced her fingertip over his navel. "I don't want to warm his bed. Joachim didn't please me like you always do."

"Did. Always did. I have a mate now," he reminded her. His guilt increased.

"You can please more than one woman at a time, I know for a fact. The three of us can - "

"This conversation is boring." Shaye sighed, but the breathy exhalation held a sharp bite. "I believe your cousin is ready to cut your head off. You might want to hurry out there."

Jaw clenched, Valerian wrapped his hands around the clinging redhead's waist and handed her to one of his men. Whom, he didn't care. She opened her mouth to protest, but he held up his hand for silence. Instead of simply quieting her, everyone in the arena stopped speaking.

He did not want an audience for the conversation he needed to have with Shaye. "I will speak with you about this later," he said, his eyes only for her.

She shrugged as if she didn't care, but she couldn't hide the fire in her gaze.

He had to force back a chuckle of satisfaction. His woman did not like others to handle him. She might deny it, but he knew women very well. She was jealous.

Finally, something was going right in this seduction.

"Are you, at last, ready to begin?" Joachim demanded behind him.

With a final glance at Shaye, he turned. It was time. Joachim stood in the center of the sandy arena, swinging a spear over his head, loosening his muscles. The metal whistled and zinged in the air like a war cry. In his other hand, he held a silver shield. Except for the color, Valerian's shield was exactly the same, with two wings embossed on each side. In the center of both shields rested a sword.

Joachim replaced his helmet, covering his skull and ears. The movement caused his armor to glint.

Valerian held his hand out, and Broderick slapped a spear into his grip. He felt its familiar weight, nodded. Broderick then handed him a shield. He handed it right back. "Remove The Skull from the center and replace it with another sword," he commanded.

"But, my lord, you have never - "

"Do it." He had never used a sword other than his own, but he did not want to inflict irreparable damage to his cousin, and that was what The Skull would do.

He didn't want Joachim to die. As Joachim had pronounced earlier, they had been friends as children. The best of friends. Then Valerian's father died and Valerian had to take control, become leader. That was when Joachim's resentment first sprouted.

Valerian wanted his cousin to live, forever an example of what happened to those who challenged the king.

"Any sword will do," he said. "Any save The Skull."

A pause, then the shield was taken out of his hands. Footsteps. The cool press of the shield's handle. His gold shield, yes, but his sword no longer lay inside of it. A plain, sharp-tipped blade now held the honor. He nodded in approval. This battle was not just about Shaye. Not anymore.

"Your helmet, my king," Broderick said.

"No." He kept his gaze on Joachim. "Not this time."

Broderick frowned. "What of your other armor?"

"No."

"I hope you pound each other to a bloody pulp," Shaye mumbled behind him. "This is stupid."

Her words elicited several male chuckles and several feminine gasps of horror. He suspected that her anger was merely a defense against something she feared. Losing him? He should be upset by her lack of faith, but he was strangely thrilled.

"How dare you say such a thing," the redhead said accusingly.

"She is allowed to say whatever she wants," Valerian informed everyone, "for she will one day be your queen." He tossed her a glance over his shoulder and saw that she now wore an expression of pique. "That doesn't mean I will always give in to her desires. This time, however, I will take great pleasure in granting part of her request."

"I, too, will enjoy granting part of her request," Joachim said.

Valerian scowled at him. He hefted the weight of his spear in one hand, his shield in the other, and stepped into the arena. Determined, he circled Joachim. The man watched him, never slowing his swinging lance. "Shall we begin?"

"We shall. I've wanted to be king for a long time," Joachim admitted.

"I know. But what makes you think you will be a better commander for my army? You are too war-happy, too ravenous for control."

"Such qualities should be lauded."

"Lauded? When the hunger will never be appeased? There will always be someone else to conquer. Were you to rule my army, you would lead them straight into war. In the end, I have every faith you would conquer Atlantis and all the kings and queens inside, but you would also destroy the entire city."

"Better to rule a decimated land than not to rule at all." With a roar, Joachim leapt at him.

Their spears clashed together midair. Immediately Valerian countered, ducking low, pivoting and slashing. He missed as Joachim sliced to the side. Clang. Their spears met again. In the next instant Joachim raised his lance and Valerian rammed it high. He spun, aiming for his cousin's neck.

Joachim darted out of the way with a grin. "Getting slow, Valerian." He removed his helmet and tossed it aside.

Valerian stabbed forward, his spike and shield swinging simultaneously. Joachim quickly lost his smile as he was forced to duck. He stumbled backward. Valerian's spear nearly sank into his stomach, but Joachim blocked, swung. Thrust.

That low thrust grazed Valerian's thigh, slicing cloth rather than skin. Valerian dropped to one knee, absorbing the next blow with his shield. When he regained his footing, he lunged forward. The tip of his weapon whizzed past Joachim's side, taking a hunk of armor with it.

"Still think I'm slow?" Valerian asked.

Their fiery gazes met, blue against bluer, and Joachim scowled. He swung to the left, missed, then swung to the right. As the lance dipped toward the ground, Valerian leapt over its middle, trapping it between his legs and jamming his elbow into Joachim's nose. Blood squirted and Joachim howled as he tripped, falling away from striking distance and flinging dirt in every direction.

"Get up," Valerian commanded.

"You'll pay for that." His cousin jumped to his feet and ran straight at him, continuously stabbing forward.

Valerian circled quickly, shield blocking. His muscles began to burn, and sweat began to run down his face and chest in rivulets. Already his breath emerged in shallow pants. Damn this! At this rate, his strength would be quickly depleted. Lack of sex did that to a nymph.

Looking tired himself, Joachim arched high, intending to puncture his shoulder on the downward swing, but Valerian hit Joachim's wrist and his cousin dropped the spear. At a disadvantage, Joachim dove, rolled and reached for it. His fingers closed around the middle. Maintaining a fluid pace, he spun back to his feet. But Valerian was already there, stomping on the lance and snapping it in two.

Growling low in his throat, Joachim kicked up. His foot slammed into Valerian's wrist and Valerian, too, lost his spear. Both men sprang apart, unsheathing the swords from their shields.

As blood continued to drip down his face, Joachim launched forward, wildly swinging. Air whistled, zinged, just like it had before the battle began. Movements slower than normal, Valerian didn't duck in time. The blade sliced his forearm. He felt the sting of it, the burn of torn flesh.

He didn't give a reaction, didn't allow it to slow him further.

He stabbed low, then up, twisting before Joachim could counter. The tip of his sword whizzed by his cousin's face, and the man paled. He raised his shield and slammed it into Valerian's other arm, the sharp wings cutting skin. Valerian used the momentum to spin around and slice into Joachim's thigh.

His cousin shouted, and his knees buckled into the sand.

"Get up," Valerian snarled. "I'm not through with you."

Gritting his teeth, Joachim lumbered to his feet. He still clutched his weapon and shield. His eyes were dark with rage, his lips swollen with his thirst for power. "I am not through with you, either." He dropped his shield and slid a second dagger from his side.

Valerian hurled his shield aside, as well. He held out his free hand, and Broderick tossed him a second dagger. He easily caught the hilt. Two blades against two blades.

Instantly he and Joachim leapt for each other. One blade clashed, then the other, a lethal dance of dodge and slash. Valerian spun as he worked his blades, lunged and stabbed.

"I should have been born to your father. I should have been king," Joachim panted as he ducked.

"The gods did not think so." Stab, turn, stab.

"I was created to rule."

"You were created, yes, but not to rule. Verryn should be here, commanding us both, but he is gone. My father is gone. And that leaves me. It is well past time you accepted that." The first blade finally hit home, jabbing into Joachim's side.

His cousin screamed and dropped to his knees. Valerian's momentum kept him from drawing back his other weapon. He wasn't sure he would have, though, even if he could. But he did angle his arm, his second blade embedding in Joachim's shoulder, close to his heart, but not hitting directly. The silver glided smoothly through the links of armor. Joachim gasped for air as a trickle of blood ran from his mouth.

Total silence filled the arena.

Valerian straightened, panting.

"Why did... you let... me... live?" Joachim gurgled. "Should have... hit... my heart."

"You will live, and you will regret," Valerian said, unemotional and loud enough that everyone could hear. "If you ever again challenge my leadership, I will kill you without a thought. Without hesitation. Without mercy. No matter that we are family. No matter that we were once friends."

Joachim's chin fell to his chest, and his eyes closed. Dark shadows couched his blood-coated face. He tumbled into the dirt, unconscious. Grains of sand sprayed onto Valerian's boots.

He slammed the tip of his dagger beside his cousin's body and whipped around to eye the crowd of warriors who watched him in openmouthed shock. Perhaps they had expected him to kill his cousin. Perhaps they had expected him to deflect the final blow completely.

His gaze connected with Shaye's. Mine, his mind shouted. Mine now. No one could say otherwise.

Like his men, her face was darkened with shock. And horror? He knew he must look a sight, blood and sand covering his arms, legs and face. Strands of sweat-soaked hair clung to his temples.

Perhaps the surface dwellers did not fight quite so violently, but he couldn't force himself to regret what had been done. She belonged to him, would live here with him, so it was better for her to learn his way of life now.

Tearing his gaze from her, he looked at each of his men. "Is there anyone else who wishes to challenge my authority?"

After the echo of his voice settled, silence reigned. He paced in front of them. "Now is the time to issue such a challenge."

No one came forward.

He stilled, hands clenched at his sides. "Then I hereby claim Shaye Octavia Holling as my woman. Mine. My mate. Your queen. He that questions this shall meet the steel of my sword."

Amid Shaye's choked squeaks, he moved in front of Broderick. He didn't look at Shaye again. Not yet. He wasn't ready to see what expression she now wore - rebellious? Furious? Disgusted? He wasn't ready to know her thoughts.

Broderick cleared his throat. "What should we do about Joachim?"

"Pray that Asclepius and his two daughters visit." The words were uttered out of habit, for when a nymph became injured, prayers were raised to those gods of healing, even though they had wanted nothing to do with the people of Atlantis for many, many years. No one knew why the gods had abandoned them, only that they had.

Valerian still did not want Joachim to die. He wanted him to suffer.

Valerian scanned the crowd of onlookers. "Is there a healer among you?"

After a pause, Shivawn's silent, black-haired wench stepped forward. There were tears in her eyes as she raised a tentative hand. He nodded at her and faced Broderick. "Take Joachim and the healer to the sick room. She is to bandage him up and nothing more. Make sure she does not touch him sexually." If she did, Joachim would heal quickly, his injuries forgotten all too soon. Before the fight, Valerian had thought to give his cousin a speedy recovery. Not so now. He did not have time for the trouble the man was sure to cause.

Broderick nodded.

Without another word, Valerian grabbed Shaye's hand and tugged her into the corridor.

Now she truly belonged to him - and it was time he proved it to her.

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