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HIS OWN WOMAN wanted him to stay away from her so badly that she'd held a weapon on him, Valerian thought as he stormed into the dining hall. "My own mate," he grumbled. "Refusing to pleasure me. Refusing to let me pleasure her."

Sadly, he knew not what to do about the situation.

Except, perhaps, drink himself into oblivion.

He halted abruptly when he spied Shivawn at the table, a different flask in each hand. The man already had red, glassy eyes and was wobbling in his chair.

Shivawn was young, nearing one hundred years of age. A babe, really, compared to Valerian's six hundred. Shivawn was a strong warrior, though, and swift on his feet. He did not hesitate to render a death blow to his foes. In fact, if an enemy needed torturing, Shivawn would volunteer for the job.

Good man, that.

However, Shivawn was impulsive, led by his emotions. Perhaps he was that way because his father had been staid, a rule follower in the extreme. Never deviating. Like Valerian's own father. Neither of them wanted to end up like their sires. Both men had died battling demons. Demons who had claimed to be allies, only to change their minds during a peace talk and slaughter every nymph present.

Such was the way with demons. Valerian, of course, had gathered the men, babe that he'd been, and attacked their camp the very next day. Much blood had spilled during the ensuing battle. Demon blood. It had been his first victory - the first of many.

Where was his victory now? He could defeat an army of demons, but not one small wisp of a woman.

"Women," Shivawn groused.

"Women," Valerian agreed. He plopped beside the warrior and grabbed one of the flasks. Only half of the liquid remained. He drained the contents in one gulp. Unfortunately, he found no comfort in the river burning to his stomach.

"My bedmate doesn't want me," Shivawn said bitterly. "How is that possible? I am a nymph."

"As am I. I am king. I rule this place. My word is law."

"Maybe - maybe Brenna only likes other women."

"Ha! Her sexual preference doesn't matter. All women like nymphs. They adore us."

Shivawn's shoulders slumped. "I do not understand her. She actually fears me. Fears me, as if I am a monster who wants only to hurt her. I have never hurt a woman, Valerian. Never. All women worship me. Desire me." He sighed heavily.

"Why are you complaining? Your woman did not hold you at sword's length." Valerian confiscated the other flask and drained it. "Besides, Brenna is not your mate. Why do you not find another lover?" Oh, that he could take his own advice. He should find another since Shaye did not want him.

No, that wasn't true. She wanted him. He'd seen the desire in her eyes, heard it in her voice, watched the way her nipples beaded. She just didn't want to want him, and so fought him every step of the way.

Their kiss, though...

She'd erupted, come alive. A living spark. She hadn't hidden her desire then. She'd reveled in it. Her body had burned for his, desperate for him to quench the seemingly unstoppable need.

Why do you not find another? drifted again through his mind. His hands clenched around the empty flasks, and he slammed them onto the tabletop. He didn't want another woman. Couldn't abide the thought of having another in his bed, actually. His arms craved Shaye. His legs craved Shaye. His cock craved Shaye. She exuded a special scent, and every part of him recognized other women as imitations. Imposters.

Shaye had wrapped him in a terrible and wonderful and hated and loved... lust. Consuming lust. How could he win her? She'd said she craved her home and her job. Well, he could not give her the first, but he could give her the second. Anti-cards, she'd said. She liked to write, she'd said. First thing in the morning he would deliver canvas and writing stones.

Would that melt her resistance?

 

He could only hope.

Aside from winning her affections, he wanted to know everything about her. Her past, her present, her future. What had made her the woman that she was? While he wanted to ram her defenses into the ground, just plow right through them, he suspected she would need gentle wooing. He sighed.

"... can't find them," Shivawn said.

"I am sorry. I was thinking of Shaye. What did you say?"

Frowning, Shivawn plucked a crumb from the table and tossed it aside. "The only women without lovers are the three surface women who came here first. I cannot find them. And believe me, I have searched."

"They are around here somewhere." He rubbed his jaw. "They will show up sometime, I am sure. You can claim one and give your black-haired wench to another warrior."

"Women," Shivawn said again. He stood, stalked to the kitchens and returned with an armful of bejeweled flasks.

"Women," Valerian agreed. He quickly drained two of them, the contents no longer burning. "I have told Shaye how much pleasure I can give her, but she does not listen."

"Perhaps she needs to hear a few testimonials from your former lovers."

He blinked. In his current state, that didn't seem like such a bad idea. She could assume his profession was nothing more than pride, but she would have to believe the women who'd actually experienced the bliss of his touch. Wouldn't she? Nothing else had convinced her.

"I do not think Brenna would care about testimonials." Shivawn's voice was a little slurred. "I think she would still fear me. Women," he growled. "We don't need them."

"Don't need them," Valerian parroted, raising yet another flask. But the declaration tasted foul in his mouth. His survival depended on Shaye, so yes, he needed her.

"I'm becoming weak as a babe," Shivawn admitted. "Earlier, I tripped and fell in the hall like a clumsy dragon hatchling."

"The gods surely cursed us when they bound us to sex."

"Before coming here I would have said they blessed us. I would have said we were obviously their favored."

Neither of them had that illusion at the moment.

"Much longer," Shivawn added, "and not even self-pleasuring will help me."

"Don't our women know we have needs?"

For a long while, neither man spoke. Shivawn finally said, "I don't think I ever want to find my mate. Perhaps I will wander all of Atlantis, servicing every woman I encounter."

"The danger in that, my friend, is that many women will become enslaved to you. And since there will be no other nymphs with you, you will have to see to their needs. All of their needs, on your own. They will become resentful of the time you spend with the others - and if they left behind a spurned lover, that lover will hunt you down for vengeance."

Shivawn glared at him. "Thank you for destroying my dream," he said dryly.

"You are welcome."

"Theophilus's human mate isn't giving him problems. Why is that, do you think? What is he doing that we are not?"

Valerian linked his fingers behind his neck and leaned back, casting his eyes to the ceiling. He blinked in surprise. Two mermaids had their breasts, hands and faces pressed to the crystal, gazing down at him and Shivawn.

When they realized he'd spotted them, they smiled prettily and waved. He returned the greeting, but he was groaning inside. He pinched the bridge of his nose - a gesture he'd caught Shaye making a few times. These girls wanted him, would have welcomed him eagerly if he but asked (and even if he didn't). Why wouldn't Shaye?

Shivawn slapped his arm to gain his attention. "Do you not have an answer?"

"I have forgotten your question," he said, looking away from the mermaids. "Sorry."

"You are distracted." A statement, not a question.

"Yes."

"I wish to know why Theophilus's human mate gives him no trouble."

Valerian, too, would have liked to know the answer to that. He pictured the woman in question. She was a timid little bird. Plain, yet possessing a deliciously plump body made for a man's hands. She had put up no fight whatsoever. Had simply taken one look at Theophilus and offered herself to him.

Next he pictured Shaye, who wanted the world to think of her as arctic and untouchable. Who would not speak of her family. Whose loveliness blinded him to all others. "Perhaps our women have secrets - sad, painful secrets. Secrets that allow them to hold themselves away from us and remain unaffected."

He knew Shaye had secrets.

Unlocking them was becoming an obsession. A necessity. Like breathing. Like sex. If she again refused to tell him, well, he might be reduced to plying her with drink. One way or another, he would learn the truth about her.

She would tell him every detail of her life. And in the telling, perhaps he would find the key to softening her and winning her heart.

Shivawn jerked a hand through his dark hair, and the beads clanged together. "I will try and divine Brenna's secrets, and see if she will have me afterward," he said, parroting Valerian's thoughts. He paused. "This... working to win a woman. It is not fun."

"No."

"I have learned I do not like challenges."

"As have I."

"Women," Shivawn grumbled.

"Women," Valerian agreed.

They clinked their flasks together and drank deeply.

SHAYE LAY ON THE BED, wondering where Valerian was, what he was doing. Who he was doing.

Was he with another woman?

He'd been aroused when he left her. Painfully, utterly aroused. He professed to want no woman but her, but men often changed their minds. Especially when they were aroused and one woman told them no.

She wadded the silk sheets in her hands. She was mad at herself. Since Valerian had stormed out, she hadn't tried to escape. No, she'd bathed. She'd thought of Valerian. She'd tried on the pretty gowns in the closet. She'd thought of Valerian. She'd lain down for a nap.

She'd wanted Valerian.

She'd... missed him.

She dreamed of him when she closed her eyes and desired him when she opened them. There was no escaping the man's appeal.

The day had passed. Night had come and gone, and morning had once more appeared. Neither offered her any relief. Today, she decided, she was going home. There could be no more lingering. No more distractions. She'd come too close, too damn close, to giving in and stripping for him. To allowing Valerian to take her - body and soul.

He was too dangerous. Too potent.

"Come."

Shaye nearly jumped out of her skin, startled as she was by his voice. Slowly she sat up, dreading - anticipating - what she'd see. Her heart leapt inside her chest the moment she spied him. He stood in the doorway, holding the curtain out of the way. He was total masculinity, pure sex. He wore black pants, a black shirt that tied at the collar, and his hair was in complete disarray.

"Come," he repeated. There was no hint of emotion in his tone. His eyes were taut, his mouth thinned in... displeasure? Pain? He held out his hand and motioned for her with his fingers.

"Why?" Remaining in place, hesitant, she fingered the ends of her still-damp hair. "Where are you taking me?"

He again motioned with his fingers. "I am not going to pounce on you, if that is what you fear." How distant he was, so unlike his usual self.

Had he already given up on her? Did he now plan to take her back to the surface? Disappointment rocked her. You should be thrilled, you big dummy!

She gulped, but stood and walked to him. She clasped his proffered hand. He immediately turned and tugged her through the hallway. "What's going on?" she asked.

"I must practice with my men. To ensure you do not cause mischief while I am preoccupied, you will stay in a room with the other women."

"Oh." He wasn't taking her back, and she was mad about that - really she was.

A few minutes later they reached the room in question. She didn't utter a single protest, even though she did not want to spend time with the lovesick, sex-crazed females from her mother's wedding. Well, you can always use the time away from Valerian to escape. Like you freaking planned.

Yes, that's exactly what she'd do. No more mooning over Valerian. No more crazy thoughts about staying.

Several men stood guard at the entrance. One held a bundle of paper and thin, colored rocks. Valerian scooped them up and handed them to her. "I thought you might enjoy writing some of your anti-cards."

A moment passed before his words registered, and her mouth fell open. With shaky hands, she clasped the bundle. How... sweet. He'd gathered these for her. Her stomach tightened with several different emotions - emotions she didn't want to name. He hadn't gone the easy route and given her flowers and candy. No, he'd searched for something she loved, something specific to her.

"Thank you," she said softly.

"My pleasure," he said, his voice rough. He pivoted to the men, saying, "I want two guards - no, four guards posted at this door at all times. No one is to enter or leave without my permission. Understood?"

Each of the warriors nodded.

Valerian turned back to her. "I must go."

Their eyes met, and she fought the urge to rise on tiptoe and breathe in his scent, absorb his strength. Kiss me, she silently beseeched, hating herself for the desire but unable to stop it. In the end he didn't. He held back the curtain and gave her a gentle push inside the room.

"Until later," she heard him whisper. And then he was gone.

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