DR. BRENNA JOHNSTON tied her black curls on top of her head with a thin strip of cloth. As always, a few of the shorter curls escaped confinement and cascaded down her temples.
How did I get myself into this situation?
She gazed down at the man lying unconscious on the bed of sapphire silk. His beautiful dark hair was spread over his large shoulders. His eyelashes etched shadows on his cheeks. His nose was slightly crooked, his lips lush.
He looked like a fallen angel.
A dying, bloody, pain-entrenched fallen angel.
Blood oozed from the thick gashes on his chest and thigh. His skin, she knew from seeing him earlier, was usually tanned. Now it was pale, tinted slightly blue because he'd gone into a mild form of shock. She was a surgeon, but she would have preferred her tools in her hospital with her nurses. Not the jars of oil and sand she'd been given, not the nonsterile environment, not the lughead standing guard at the door. Still, Brenna couldn't let her patient die. She wouldn't.
She had been terrified since she'd been taken by these giant, hulking beasts, but for the first time since entering this... whatever it was, she felt in control. Like herself. Confident and in her element.
Brenna motioned to the guard stationed at the door, and he approached her. She didn't back away, but forced herself to stand her ground as she signed what she needed.
His face scrunched with confusion, and he held up his hands, a command for her to be still. "I do not understand what you are doing. Can you not speak?"
She sighed inwardly. Her vocal cords had been severely damaged years ago. There weren't any scars on the outside; no, her scars were internal. She'd been attacked - a blurred, blackened, hated memory she could not allow herself to relive at the moment, not if she hoped to function - and while she could speak, her voice was... ugly.
"Needle," she croaked. "Thread." Primitive that he obviously was, he probably wouldn't know a scalpel from a butter knife. "Operating tools."
He cringed at the rough, broken sound, but nodded and raced off. When he returned a short while later, he handed her a lumpy black satchel. She unrolled it, finding a bronze scalpel, long, thin hooks and several iron needles.
"Fire," she said. "Hot water."
Understanding, he grabbed a lit sconce from the wall and tossed it into the hearth. The logs inside quickly caught flame, crackling and burning. After he had gathered the bowl of water, she heated the instruments over the fire.
Once everything was as sterilized as she could get it, her hands scrubbed clean, she at last approached her patient, ready to act. He had yet to move, had yet to make a single sound. His features were relaxed, unaffected.
That both elated and worried her. At least he wouldn't feel the pain of her needle. But such a deep sleep... Brenna squared her shoulders and got to work. She cut off his pants, cleaned the gaping wounds on his legs and chest, and did her best to repair the torn tissue - which was in better shape than she'd dared hope. Sounded easy, sounded quick, but she was by his side for several hours and sweat beaded over her skin. Toward the end, fatigue shook her arms and back.
That will have to do. She would have liked to give him a transfusion but knew such a thing was impossible here. The man who had chosen her last night, Shivawn, had attempted to ease her distress by explaining where she was and why she'd been brought here. Of course, his explanation had only intensified her fear.
Nymphs. Atlantis. Sex. At first she hadn't wanted to believe him. However, after everything she'd witnessed today, she no longer had the luxury of disbelief. Sword fights and bejeweled walls. Silk pillows lining every wall and warriors having sex atop them. Mermaids and a crystal ceiling that produced light. Women going mad, becoming sex starved.
Shivawn had expected the same easy (and enthusiastic) response from her. How surprised he'd been to be met with slaps and kicks and, she was ashamed to say, sobbing. But he'd finally left her alone. He'd been oddly... sweet about the entire situation. Surprisingly protective.
Still, he regretted his choice already; he had to. This morning she'd caught glimpses of other warriors (naked) in bed with their chosen (also naked). Some of them hadn't been sleeping. Shivawn had to want that for himself, but she couldn't give it to him. She simply couldn't.
Brenna had only allowed him to pick her so that she would be taken away from the large group of men. One warrior she could (possibly) fight. But all of them? No way.
She sighed. For the next several hours, she remained seated beside the unconscious man - Joachim was his name, she recalled - sponging a warm, wet rag over his forehead and doing everything in her power to make him comfortable and keep him from getting cold. As much blood as he'd lost, he was susceptible to hypothermia.
"Brenna," she suddenly heard Shivawn say from the door. He sounded hopeful. "It is time I took you to my chamber."
Her heart kicked into overdrive. Remain calm. Bit by bit she turned to face him. He stood beside the guard, who was pretending to study the wall. Shivawn was a handsome man, with brown hair and green eyes, and a part of her wished she was a normal woman who could enjoy someone like him. Truly, just looking at him made her feel... achy inside. But she shook her head.
His shoulders slumped, and his lips compressed into a thin line. "Why do you continue to deny me? Have I hurt you in any way?"
She shook her head a second time. He hadn't, and that still shocked her.
He stepped forward. "I only wish to give you pleasure."
Again, a shake. "I stay."
He'd heard her voice before, so he didn't cringe this time as he had at first. Would her continued refusal cause Shivawn to erupt? Would he try to force her? Morph from nice guy to beast? A terrible trembling began in her limbs and spread to her stomach, twisting and turning.
His expression softened as he peered at her. "You do not understand the ways of the nymphs, Brenna. We must be with women or we grow weak," he explained patiently, as he would to a child. "I am growing weak, while the others become strong."
"No." When she finally decided to be with a man, it would be with one far less... intimidating. Someone who couldn't snap her neck with a flick of his wrist. Besides, she had a job to do. She pointed to her patient. "Needs me."
Shivawn regarded her for a long while, a play of different emotions on his face. Disappointment. Regret. Resolve. He spun on his heel and stalked away. She breathed a sigh of relief and, shockingly, disappointment.
Get back to work, Johnston. She rotated back to the injured warrior and smoothed a hand over his too-cold brow. Would he survive? He'd lost so much blood.
He was bigger than Shivawn. Probably stronger. More dangerous, surely. But she found herself leaning forward, as if pulled by a power stronger than herself. She placed a soft kiss on his lips, willing him to get better. She hated to see anyone suffer. No one knew better than she how it felt to lie in bed, broken, beaten. Near death.
His eyes blinked open, as if that one action had given him the strength he'd needed to awaken. He spied her hovering over him and frowned, confused. She quickly straightened.
"Did I die, then?" she heard him say.
His voice was weak, strained. Still... she had to force herself to remain in place. He's feeble. He can't hurt you. Hand shaking, she again touched his brow. His eyes were opened only slightly, but she could see the pain-ripe gleam of his sapphire irises.
"Did I enter Olympus?"
She shook her head.
His gaze darted around the room. "Why are you here? Why am I - " His words ground to a halt. "Valerian," he gritted out. "The fight. Lost. I lost." He tried to sit up.
She gently pushed him down and smoothed his hair from his face, trying to soothe him and defuse his anger. Brenna didn't know what she'd do if he decided to fight her. Surprisingly enough, her touch seemed to appease him. He relaxed.
Drawing in a deep breath, he reached up and wrapped his fingers around her wrist. Remain calm, remain calm, remain calm. She tried to pull away but he held tight.
"What are you doing here, Shivawn's woman?"
Her pulse hammered in her neck as she pointed to his bandaged wounds.
His brows drew together as he studied her. "You are a healer?"
Brenna nodded and once more tried to free herself, but his grip remained strong. He should have been weak as a baby.
"Can you not speak?" he asked.
"Broken," she said, motioning to her neck with her free hand.
He didn't flinch at the sound of her voice, and amazement filled her. He released her hand and raised his own to her neck, where the pulse still fluttered wildly. His fingers brushed the soft skin, as if searching for an injury. She shivered, both appalled and needy. What was wrong with her? She hadn't reacted to a man in years, yet she'd responded to two today.
People always asked, as if they were inquiring about the weather or about where she bought her shoes. In the beginning, the question had thrown her, brought back the horrible memories of being pinned down and choked by her enraged, jealous boyfriend. Now she always answered with a casual, "car accident," but she doubted this archaic warrior would understand what that meant.
Brenna bit her lip and leaned toward him. Tentative, she wrapped one of her hands gently around his neck and shook, then pointed to her own neck with the other.
His eyes narrowed, and his hands closed over her wrists, far more gently than before. "Someone choked you?"
"A man?" The words were so quiet she barely heard them.
Again she nodded.
"No touching," the man in the doorway said, probably just noticing. "The king's orders. Release her, Joachim."
She'd forgotten about him.
Joachim's eyes darted to the guard, and he scowled. The two men engaged in a heated conversation in a language she didn't understand. During it all, Joachim retained that gentle grip on her.
She finally managed to jerk herself free, though. Relief swept through her, and she rubbed her wrist. Where he'd touched, the skin was warm. Sensitive. The man was frightening, volatile, violent; qualities she abhorred. She should not like his touch.
"Would you like me to kill him for you?" Joachim asked, surprising her.
She blinked in confusion and pointed to the sentinel at the door.
"No. The one who hurt you."
She hesitated a moment, then shook her head.
"Power is good," he said, his voice suddenly growing weak. "Hurting a woman is not." His eyelids drifted closed, but he pried them open.
She didn't know whether he believed what he'd said or not. Either way, he struck her as one of those people who could not control their actions when they were enraged. After today's sword fight...
"What's your name?" he asked.
"Brenna," he said, the name like a treat savored on his tongue. But in the next instant, his mouth pulled tight in a grim line. Fury darkened his eyes, churning like a violent sea. "Where is Shivawn?"
She found herself rising from the bed, trembling. In the blink of an eye, he'd become angry. Why? What had she done?
He frowned as his eyelids dipped shut once more. "Why are you backing away from me, woman? Are you going back to your lover?" The last was sneered.
Before he could rise from the bed and grab her, she turned and fled the room, unsure where to go. Only knowing she had to leave this place. Had to leave him.
JOACHIM FORCED his eyelids to open and cursed long after Brenna had gone. He'd never felt so powerless, and the feeling infuriated him. He didn't want her to go to Shivawn. He wanted her to stay. With him. Wanted her to talk to him.
Had he been able, he would have vaulted from the bed and forced her to return. He was master here. But he couldn't even comfort her or thank her properly for taking care of him. Instead, Shivawn had the privilege. Not that the man would thank Brenna for helping him.
"Follow her, damn you," he commanded Broderick, who stood in the doorway. "Make sure she arrives at her destination safely."
"You had best watch who you order about," the warrior growled before taking off after Brenna.
Joachim wanted to blame Valerian for this predicament, but he couldn't. He'd issued the challenge, and his cousin had beaten him fairly. As a man who valued power and control above all else, he respected Valerian's win. And, at the moment, he understood his cousin's need for the pale woman, his willingness to do anything to keep her.
Joachim would have done anything just then to have Brenna.