POSEIDON WAS BORED.
He was god of the sea, ruler of fish, merpeople and ocean waves, and he was bored. Lately even the storms and destruction he caused failed to amuse him. People screamed, people died, yada, yada, yada.
Maybe he'd care if the humans had not forgotten his existence. But they no longer served him; they no longer worshipped him - both of which were his due. After all, he'd helped create the ungrateful race.
He traced his fingers through the dappled liquid surrounding him. There had to be something to combat this constant sense of ennui. Create a hurricane or a tsunami - no. The last few had been yawners. Start a war - no. Too much effort for too little reward. Abandon the water and enter Olympus - no again. The other gods were selfish and greedy and he did not want to deal with them.
What could he do, what could he do? The only worlds he had dominion over were Earth and Atlantis, he thought, straightening. Oh, oh, oh. Was that... yes, it was. For the first time in what seemed an eternity, he experienced a flash of excitement.
He hadn't considered Atlantis and its people in years. He'd walked away from them, thinking - hoping, perhaps - that they'd destroy themselves so that he'd never again have to gaze upon what he considered an abomination. Instead they'd thrived and he'd let them, because they had obeyed the laws he'd set in place. More than that, he'd been completely caught up in his humans and had forgotten about the races of creatures made before the formula of Man had been perfected.
Yes, it was past time he checked on Atlantis and its citizens.
Poseidon couldn't help himself. He grinned.
SHAYE STARED at Valerian's back as he led her through the palace, following the same path they'd taken earlier. She didn't protest. Muscles strained and bunched in his bare shoulders. Blood blended with sand, and both were splattered all over him, forming lines and circles on his skin.
He'd very nearly killed a man. His own cousin, no less. Might have, actually, if Joachim's wounds became infected. He had done this without hesitation. Without remorse. She'd watched him do it and hadn't flinched.
She'd been too relieved that he was the winner and would live.
The fight had unfolded like something out of a movie. Valerian had moved with grace and fluidity, each intricate step as beautiful as it was dangerous. A menacing ballet. Her heart had drummed erratically in her chest, then stopped altogether when Valerian was injured. She'd been unprepared for the anger she'd felt toward Joachim in that moment.
She'd been unprepared for the fright she'd felt for Valerian.
She could have run away and escaped the madness. But she hadn't. She'd stayed. Not because she had promised Valerian - a promise made under duress wasn't really a promise, to her way of thinking - but because knowing the outcome of the battle had seemed vital to her own survival.
I hereby claim Shaye Octavia Holling as my woman. My mate, my queen, he had said.
His words drifted through her mind, making her shiver now as they had in the arena. He'd said them, and they hadn't bothered her as much as they should have. They hadn't bothered her at all, really. She'd actually experienced a tremor of - she growled, just remembering - contentment.
Just then Valerian stumbled over his own feet. He quickly righted himself, but the action brought her to the present. "You're injured," she said, as if he didn't already know. Her concern for him doubled. "You need a doctor."
He didn't turn to face her. "You will act as my healer."
The thought was as appealing as it was disturbing. "I know nothing about wound care."
"I trust you."
Why? She didn't trust herself. Not around him. "I might do more harm than good."
"Shaye," he said, clearly exasperated. "You are the only person I want touching me in any way."
Put like that... "Fine. But when you die, you can tell God I warned you."
His shoulders shook, and she heard the rumbling purr of his laughter. Unbidden, her lips inched into a half smile and she forgot her concerns. She liked his amusement.
"Were you trying to save him," she asked, "or did you accidentally miss his heart?"
The question made him stiffen. "I never miss an intended target."
Apparently male pride was the same for nymphs as it was for humans. "What if he challenges you again? And what if he cheats next time, hitting you unaware?"
"He will not."
"How can you be sure?" she persisted.
"Joachim lost. He was shown as the weaker warrior. Whether he kills me in the future or not, he will never be accepted as leader."
"Oh." She barely managed the one-syllable reply, so upset was she by the thought of Valerian dying.
"What's more," Valerian continued, unaware, "he did not need to die for you to become my woman, and that is the main reason I fought him."
A shiver rolled through her. "I am not your woman."
"Cease your protests, moon. They will only embarrass you when you at last admit your love for me."
She snorted, but quickly changed the subject. His words were a little too... prophetic. "Where are you taking me?" she said, studying the torch-lit hallway with its familiar nicked-and-scuffed walls. Recognizing the area, the answer hit her, and every molecule of air in her lungs froze. "No!"
A pause. A sigh. "My bedroom," he admitted reluctantly. "Yes."
Her stomach clenched against the sudden bombardment of erotic sensation. Valerian. Bed.
She shivered again. "Are you going to lock me inside?" The question trembled from her.
"No." There was more determination in that one word than she'd heard in her entire life.
"Wh-what are you going to do to me?" Deep down, she already suspected the answer was going to be -
"Make love to you, moon. I am going to make love to you."
"No, no. No!" She dug her heels into the polished ebony floor, bringing them to an abrupt halt. "I refuse. Do you hear me? I refuse!"
Slowly he turned and faced her. He didn't release her hand. His lush lips were firm, his harsh expression etched in stone. "I have been injured," he said, as if she should know why that was important.
She scowled up at him. "I can see that you're injured. I even pointed it out to you. But you should know that you'll sustain more injuries if you try and take me to bed."
"I am injured," he repeated. "Sex strengthens me. I will heal faster once I have penetrated you."
A hot gasp bubbled in her throat, nearly choking her. "Uh, you can die for all I care. I'm not letting you - " she weaved a hand through the air " - penetrate me."
"You will find my lovemaking exquisite." The corners of his mouth edged into a deep frown. "I assure you."
"Shaye," he cajoled. "Sweet moonbeam."
"Valerian," she snapped. "Whoremonger."
A muscle twitched beside his eye. "I have turned away all other women for you. I have publicly vowed to make you my queen."
"I'm going on record right now saying I don't give a shit and my answer is no."
If she'd thought his expression hard before, she was now shown the error of such an assumption. His gaze became frosted with turquoise ice; his nostrils flared. His cheekbones looked cut from glass. "I can make you beg for it."
She quivered with trepidation but said, "I don't beg for anything."
He regarded her silently for a long while, then pushed a hand through his hair, causing several blond locks to fall over his eyes. A foreign part of her - a part that revealed itself more and more lately - urged her to reach up and caress those errant strands from his beautiful face. Yes, he could make her beg for it. There. She'd admitted it. His decadent flavor was still in her mouth, the press of his lips imprinted on her memory. But she had to resist him. She had to fight him.
And she had to, at last, escape him.
Before she could take a step, however, he moved toward her and licked his lips, as if he knew - knew, damn him - exactly what naughty memory played through her mind and planned to exploit it by whatever means necessary. All thoughts of escape vanished.
"I need you, Shaye. More than I've ever needed another."
Only Valerian spoke to her in that tone. Husky rich, honey warm. As if the thought of her ravishment was an exquisite bliss. As if, in his mind, she was already naked and he was already inside her. She had no response for him - not one she was comfortable giving.
Silence once again encompassed them; this time it was a knowing silence, a heavy silence. A tempting silence. He waited, letting her mind and body battle for supremacy. Stay strong. Be cold. If he touched her... Wait. He was touching her, and it felt good.
She ripped free from his clasp and inched backward, not caring if the action was cowardly. "I'll clean your wound, but that's it. Nothing more. Do you understand?"
He considered her words as he stared into her eyes, gauging her inner resolve. "Are you resistant to me because I almost killed a man?"
"No," she admitted.
"Then why? Some women abhor violence. Some are titillated by it." Closer, closer he came to her. "Which are you?"
"Neither," she said, and backed herself straight into the wall. She gasped. "I just don't - " say it, hurt him " - like you."
He stilled, popped his jaw. Maybe she had hurt him, maybe she hadn't. She'd definitely hurt herself. Lying like that caused her stomach to clench painfully and her throat to constrict.
"Very well, then," he said, toneless. "I will allow you to care for my wounds. Both of my arms need tending."
Be casual, unaffected. "Gee, thanks. You will allow me." She snorted, hoping she appeared properly unimpressed. While she administered aid, would he "accidentally" touch her? Would he purr his warm breath into her ears, over her skin, and let his white-hot gaze devour her? "But there will be no... petting."
Because here was a better question: Would she be able to resist him?
Already her resolve teetered on precarious ground. Perhaps playing doctor wasn't so smart, after all. She would have to be on full alert. Being with Valerian, she suspected, would be like shooting herself full of heroin. Addictive, lethal and absolutely stupid. If she could resist taking that first, experimental taste, she wouldn't have to deal with withdrawal. And after she patched him up, she could leave him with a clear conscience.
You've already had a taste. Remember that white-hot kiss? Shut up!
"While you help me," he said, "I will not pet you. If, however, you change your mind and wish me to do so, you have only to say."
Not giving her time to respond, he grabbed her hand, pivoted and kicked back into motion. With his final words ringing in her ears, she was aware of every point of contact between them. Smoothness against rough calluses.
"Do you have any Neosporin?" she asked, hoping to get her mind off everything related to sex.
"I have no idea, as I do not know what that is."
When his hair was damp, it had a little curl to it, she realized. Then she scowled. Why did she care about his stupid hair? "It's medicine for your arms."
"I will gather everything that you need." They came to the room's entrance, and with his free hand, he swished aside the white lace.
He stepped inside; she followed on his heels. Though the room was located in the same corridor as the one she had slept in, it was more masculine than hers, a combination of battleground and leisure. A large bed occupied the far section, with rumpled violet-and-gold sheets and the imprint of a large male body. Gold armor and an arsenal of weapons hung on ruby hooks. Rainbow lights glistened from the walls, like diamonds trapped in glass.
To the side, steam curled from a bathing pool, twining around the flower petals that floated on the surface. That was a very feminine touch, and she knew Valerian was not responsible. One of his many lovers must have prepared the water.
"This is your main bedroom?" she asked.
"Yes." He released her hand.
Slowly she twirled around. "I noticed that some of the walls have holes, as if things have been scraped out of them. Jewels, right? Like these?"
"Yes," he repeated.
"Why is this room still intact? And the other room of yours, the one I slept in?"
"After I took possession, I made sure they were worthy of me."
He spoke with no hint of smugness, no hint of pride. Only truth. "You don't think too highly of yourself, I see."
Standing there, Valerian drank in the sight of his woman. Then he drank in the sight of the bed. Large, beckoning. Violet sheets with golden trim. He wanted Shaye there, splayed and open for his view. For his touch. Being inside his room, having a bed nearby and Shaye within reach, proved an intoxicating dilemma.
Why had he promised not to touch her sexually while she tended him?
He'd never had to seduce a woman before. They always desired him, no provocation needed. Shaye made him feel at a loss. While he hungered for every part of her, she continually pushed him away. And of all the women in the world, she should want him most.
How much longer could his body withstand the rejection?
Not much, he suspected.
He gathered clean rags, a basin of hot water, a jar of cleaning oil, and a vial of healing sand from the Forest of the Dragons. He placed all of them on a tray. His ears remained attuned to Shaye's every movement, lest she decide to bolt for the door. Surprisingly, she didn't. She remained exactly where he'd left her, in the center, gazing around.
Their eyes locked as he walked toward her. Gods, she was lovely. Her pale hair was pulled over her shoulders, an erotic curtain. Kiss her. Instead of placing the tray in her outstretched hands, he leaned down, slowly, giving her ample time to realize what he was doing.
He couldn't resist. He had to do this, was helpless to stop. Not petting, he rationalized.
His lips lightly brushed hers. A gentle kiss, no tongue, but arousing all the same. Her snow-sweet scent filled his nostrils as he captured her gasp in his mouth. "Thank you for tending me," he said, his voice as soft as his touch.
Her eyes had widened and now they glinted with a trace of fear. Of him? Or herself? "I'm not known for my gentleness," she warned. Her voice trembled. "So you might want to save your thanks."
He fought a smile and straightened. "Then what are you known for, little moonbeam?"
"Being a bitch." Biting her lip, she appropriated the tray from his grasp and spun on her heel.
"That is not a compliment, I take it?"
Her shoulders lifted in a shrug as she moved toward an amethyst chest. "Not to some." She anchored the tray on the surface.
After he explained what she needed to do with each item, he hefted the room's only chair - trying not to grimace - and placed it next to Shaye. "You like people to think you are cold and unfeeling. You have even tried your hardest to convince me of this. Several times. Why?"
Her lips pursed, and she motioned to the chair with a wave of her hand. "Just sit down and shut up. My mom made me see shrinks when I was a kid, so I don't need an amateur diagnosis right now."
"Tell me," he beseeched. He remained standing. She might think she wanted to be cold, but he saw the moments of warmth and softness she tried so hard to hide. He noticed the way she sometimes hesitated before she issued an insult, as if she had to force herself to say it. And when she spoke of her uncaring nature, there was wistfulness in her brown eyes, a neediness she hadn't yet accepted.
"There's nothing to tell, really. Over the years, I learned that emotions bring only pain and upset." She pushed on his shoulders. Her strength was no match for his, but he eased into the chair nonetheless.
With somewhat shaky fingers, she brushed the dark sand from his shoulder, careful to avoid his wound. He winced as sharp pain radiated from one corner of his body to the other.
He frowned. "I would not be suffering right now if you would simply accept the inevitable and make love with me."
"Don't be a baby. I warned you that I wasn't good at this sort of thing." She soaked one of the rags with oil. "This smells good. What is it?"
"Soap, I think your people call it."
"Our soap doesn't smell like this, like orchids and magical waterfalls."
His chin tilted to the side, and he eyed her. "You wish me to think you aloof and yet you enjoy pleasing your senses with delicious smells."
Scowling, she slapped the cloth against his wound. He laughed, for he was beginning to see a pattern to her bouts of anger. When her sense of detachment was most threatened, she reacted with waspishness.
As she gently rubbed the flesh around the wound, cleaning away sweat and dirt, she said grudgingly, "You did good out there."
His amusement died a quick death; shock pounded through him. A grunt of relief even gusted past his lips. Perhaps violence did not bother her as much as he'd feared. He was glad, for that meant she might more readily accept her life here, where wars constantly raged. "Are the men of the surface allowed to combat each other with swords?"
"No. Not without consequences."
"What do you mean?"
"If a man on the surface maims another man like you did today, he is hunted down and locked away. If his victim dies, he can be executed."
He rolled her explanation through his mind. "What if the man is protecting himself or those he loves?"
"There are still consequences, they simply aren't as severe. People in my world sue for the dumbest stuff imaginable. I heard about one case where a man broke into another man's house. The thief fell off the roof and sued the homeowner. He actually won the case, too. How dumb is that?"
"I do not think I would like living on the surface, then."
"Well, I like it," she said defensively.
"This cut is pretty deep," she muttered, probing the edge with her fingers. "I think you need stitches."
He bit his lip to hide his wince. He'd never had to deal with his wounds before. After a battle, he immediately made love to a woman and his wounds disappeared of their own accord. "What I need is sex." He tried for a seductive tone, but sounded reproachful. "With you."
She scowled, even as she tenderly dried the injury. "I'm more than willing to go get one of the other women for you."
As her words echoed between them, she pressed her lips together. A combination of rage and trepidation - that he would take her up on the offer? - flitted over her expression.
"Ah, little moonbeam. When will you learn that only you will do?"
She relaxed, her expression softening. "Yes, well, when will you learn that I don't sleep around?"
"Have I not already explained that you are my mate?" He did not want to listen to another of her denials, so he added, "Your protests are silly."
"A mate is a willing partner, right? I think we both know I'm not willing. Nor am I your partner. Or queen. I am not a queen."
Unable to help himself, he plucked the ends of her hair and sifted the silky strands through his fingers. He brought them to his nose and sniffed. Ah, sweet heaven. "You smell so good."
"I can't say the same for you."
He didn't take offense. "I am most definitely in need of a bath. Would you care to join me?"
A quiver raked her, and she dropped the rag to the floor. "Damn it. Stop saying stuff like that."
"Why? I want you. I am not one to deny my desires."
"Yeah. I get that." Bending down, she scooped up the rag and tossed it into the unlit hearth. She picked up a clean rag and scooped sand into a gaping pocket. "You do realize I'm about to put sand in an open sore, right?"
"And you still want me to do it?"
His brow puckered. "Of course."
She shook her head, incredulous, then shrugged. "Whatever. It's your infection." But she hesitated a moment before smearing the grains into his injury.
He didn't speak for a long while. He concentrated on her breath, gently fanning his shoulder. He concentrated on her teeth, nibbling on her lower lip. His cock grew increasingly hard.
"Desires are a natural thing, moon," he said. "The more you deny them, the stronger they become, until they are all you can think about, all you can see."
"Stop right there." Her voice shook, and he knew she wasn't unaffected by what he'd said. Her nipples were hard little points against her shirt. "Don't try to engage me in a conversation about desires, okay? I'm not interested."
He grabbed her wrist, closing his fingers around her delicate bones with soothing finesse. Still not petting, he assured himself. He tugged her in front of him. Her gaze slid to his mouth, to his erection. A surprised gasp slipped from her.
"You're right," he said. He needed her so badly. "We should not talk about it. I should show you. Tell me to show you, Shaye. Tell me."
Suddenly panicked, she leapt away from him and to the wall, where she grabbed one of the smaller swords. She held it in front of her, looking very much like the warrior queen she so vehemently denied being. "No. No! Do you understand?"
Shaye had been fighting a fierce desire for him since he'd first sat down, and every time he touched her, every time he looked at her, every time he spoke to her, her resistance crumbled a little more.
He froze in place, a blank shield shuttering over his expression. Only his eyes revealed any hint of emotion. They were blazing with need and rage and disappointment.
"Very well," he said. "Tonight is yours. I will not touch you."
No, her body wept. Don't listen to me. Fight for me. "Thank you." She had to stay strong. She couldn't give in. The ramifications were simply too great.
They stared at each other, locked in a silent battle. "Tomorrow, however, belongs to me. There will be no more denying me. Do you understand?"
She gulped, didn't dare speak.
"If you attempt to leave this room, you will regret it." He stood and left her then, striding away without a backward glance.