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"I'VE NEVER, IN ALL MY LIFE, been pleasured like I was last night."

"Me, either."

"God, me, either."

Shaye gazed around the room. There was a couch, a thousand silk pillows, books that looked as if they were made from canvas rather than paper, needles and thread. A hobby room, she thought. Great. Women were everywhere, a sea of twitters and laughter. She'd never seen a better example of a harem.

Shaye's gaze strayed to the curtain-covered door, and she bit her lip. Now is the time. "Ladies," she said quietly. She clapped her hands until she'd gained everyone's attention. "It's time to think about getting out of here. There are enough of us to overtake the guards. We can look for a way home."

Someone laughed. "Why in the world would we want to do that?"

"I'm not leaving," someone else said.

"I'm staying."

"If you try to run, I'll scream for Valerian."

Shaye gritted her teeth in frustration and in irritation. "Why do you want to stay?" She said the words for herself, as well. "You mean nothing to these guys."

For over an hour the ladies lauded the sexual ecstasy they'd been given. For over an hour she countered with speeches of home and respect. Several women finally got tired of listening to her, and called for the guards. Much to her chagrin, Valerian was summoned.

It didn't take long for the king to respond. He strode into the room without preamble. He was sweaty and dirty. He didn't say anything, just pounded to her, wrapped her in his arms, and proceeded to kiss the breath right out of her.

The kiss lasted only a few moments, just enough to remind her of his taste and drive her crazy as it consumed all of her senses. When he pulled away, he was panting. Women were closing in on him, reaching for him... touching him.

Shaye scowled at them.

"Be good," he said, "and I will take you into the Outer City when I finish training." With that he left.

Oh, unfair, she thought, to issue such a promise.

Disappointed sighs filled the room. Trying to slow her erratic heartbeat and cool her heated skin, Shaye found an open corner and plopped onto a pillow. She couldn't help it; she really wanted to see the Outer City in person. The single glance she'd had wasn't nearly enough. From the moment she'd first spied it, she'd wanted to breathe its air and absorb its ambiance.

She would escape tomorrow.

I'm not relieved about this. I'm not happy to spend more time with Valerian. To distract herself, she used her new supplies to make anti-cards. Making the cards had always been a big stress reliever for her, and if she'd ever needed to de-stress, it was now. She already had a few good ones in mind.

"As the days go by, I'm so happy you're not here to ruin them for me."

"You want a piece of me? Oops, sorry. I already gave one to your brother."

A third card popped into her head, and it was so unlike the others that she blinked in surprise. "Some men aren't so bad. I guess."

Before she could ponder it, someone said, "I'm so jealous that you were chosen by Valerian, the hulking blond beefcake." In that moment all eyes focused on Shaye. "Was he as good as he looks?"

 

"He even fought over you." Another sighed dreamily. "How romantic is that? I'm Jaclyn, by the way."

"I'm Shelly," said an elegant, almost regal blonde. "I belong to Aeson."

"I'm Barrie," said a plain, soft-spoken brunette.

"Rissa," said the redhead who'd wanted to fight her for getting too close to Broderick. Now she appeared jovial, even affectionate.

On and on they introduced themselves. Though they'd been wedding guests and friends of her mother's - or maybe the new husband's - Shaye hadn't really met them until now. "Aren't we the luckiest girls in the world?" Jaclyn said.

Several squeals of delighted agreement erupted.

"Well, was Valerian good?" Barrie asked eagerly. "If he walks like a wet dream and talks like a wet dream... I bet the king fucks like an animal."

Shaye bet he did, too.

And she didn't like this woman wondering about Valerian, perhaps picturing him naked. A sense of possessiveness rose up inside her, hot and angry. It was a nail-baring, teeth-snarling possessiveness that surprised her with its undeniable force.

You don't want him, remember? You held him off with a sword. You had your chance with him and didn't take it, so let him go. She should be happy someone else wanted him. She should encourage Barrie to find out for herself if Valerian did indeed fuck like an animal.

She didn't, though.

She couldn't.

Something inside her, a greediness she hadn't known she possessed, said, Mine. Only mine. She hated the feeling, but there it was. It refused to leave.

Barrie and the others soon got tired of awaiting her answer. Actually they forgot about Shaye entirely, and resumed their conversation about their lovers as if it had never been interrupted.

Shaye stretched her legs and propped her feet on top of a pillow. Frustration - for so many different reasons - ate at her. Sexual frustration? Yes. Confusion? Definitely. Sighing, she gripped her notebook and stones to her chest. She didn't want to become one of these lovesick women. Didn't want to lose herself in a man.

And that's what would happen if she gave in to Valerian. Foolishly, that seemed to matter less and less.

A short while later, different warriors began to straggle into the room, collecting their women. They were covered in sweat and sand, even blood. Each time the curtain lifted, she found herself tensing with dread and anticipation. Would it be Valerian?

It never was.

Soon there were only a few females remaining. One was the girl with curly black hair and sad brown eyes, the one who had struggled on the beach and, like Shaye, hadn't wanted to be chosen by a warrior. Shaye watched her for a moment, then gathered her supplies, stood and walked to her.

Normally Shaye didn't approach strangers and strike up conversations. That totally negated her "remain detached" preference. But there was something vulnerable about this girl. Something almost... haunting. She found herself drawn to her, found herself sympathizing with her obvious unhappiness.

"Hi. I'm, uh, Shaye." God, she felt awkward. Without an invite, she sat.

The girl flicked her a nervous glance. "Brenna," she said. Her voice was deep, rough, halting and strained. A smoker?

"I've noticed that you're the only other person who isn't ecstatic to be here. Were you... did the one who picked you... "

Brenna shook her head.

"Good." Shaye sighed with relief. Just in front of her, there was a table piled with food. She leaned over, swiped a handful of bread squares, then handed a few to Brenna. They ate in silence for a bit. "I, uh, also noticed you said you were a healer and that you were put in charge of Joachim's care."

A nod - this one hesitant.

"How's he doing? Will he live?"

Another nod - this one sure. And, Shaye saw, there was a gleam of something... hot in the girl's brown eyes. Oh, oh, oh. What was this? Did Brenna have a crush on her patient? "You like him?" she asked.

Brenna shook her head violently. Protesting too much, in Shaye's estimation. She knew all about that. "Scared," the girl said.

Scared. Yeah, Shaye had experienced her fair share of that emotion. In the beginning, her fear had been of the unknown and of whether or not Valerian meant to hurt her. Now, well, her fear was for an entirely different reason. If she desired Valerian so intensely now, what would happen if she actually knew what it was like to make love with him?

Don't you dare find out, either. Keep fighting the attraction. "I wonder why all the women are slaves to their hormones and we aren't," she mused aloud.

"Smart," Brenna said, and they both laughed.

But Shaye's humor quickly faded. "I don't feel smart."

"Me, either." Brenna sighed dejectedly, her humor gone, too.

Shaye opened her mouth to ask why, but her gaze snagged on the two men who suddenly entered the room. Shivawn and Valerian. Valerian stopped and stood utterly still, watching her. A shiver of awareness swept through her.

Unbidden, she eased to her feet. Her grip tightened on the notebook, but she never removed her eyes from him. He was the most beautiful sight she'd ever beheld, and all she could think about just then was his mouth on hers.

"Come," he said, just as he had earlier that morning.

She did. Without protest. Brenna and everything else forgotten. Mine, her mind whispered, all of her possessive instincts resurfacing. He led her through the hallway, and her heart gave a nervous flutter. He looked determined. Hardened.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"The Outer City, just as I promised."

VALERIAN ESCORTED SHAYE out of the palace and into the afternoon heat. The crystal dome glowed brightly, and birds whistled playfully. They hadn't left yet, but already he had a fierce need to return. So when he reached the stables, he quickly commanded one of the centaurs to prepare for travel. The dark horse-man leapt into action, trotting over to him.

"It will be my pleasure to take you into the city, great one."

Shaye gaped up at him. "Uh, that horse is half man," she said, "and you expect me to ride him?"

"Yes."

She gulped. Valerian mounted and held out his hand. Tentative, she placed her palm over his. He lifted her up behind him, loving the feel of her pressed so close to him. Much as he loved it, though, it increased his need to hurry this trip along. You want her to fall in love with the city, remember?

"Was practice rough?" she asked after the centaur began descending the cliffs. She sounded nervous.

Valerian didn't answer. He'd worked his men and himself until sweat had poured from them. Until exhaustion had set in. He'd needed an outlet for his frustration, but it hadn't worked.

There was only one thing that would work.

Shaye, in his bed. Shaye, joined with him.

He'd never been more determined to win her. "I'm sorry, but we can't stay long."

"I don't care. I'm just happy to visit."

Happy. Just the way he wanted her.

They reached the Outer City in minutes. As usual, there were no females present. Having sensed his arrival, they'd hidden away. Only males - centaurs, minotaurs and formorions - manned the tables and booths, selling their wares, from food to jewelry to clothing.

While they were there, Valerian saw to Shaye's every need. Whenever she wanted to look, he took her. When she was thirsty, he bought her a drink. When she was hungry, he purchased her a snack. Delicious meat pies that seduced the taste buds. As time ticked by, he forgot about his need to return and simply enjoyed her.

At first she was wary of him and treated him coolly, distantly. But as a troupe of siren males passed them on the cobbled street, singing of love and passion, she began to warm, as if she just couldn't help herself. She watched with delight. Griffins charged by them, chasing their tails, and she skipped after them. He'd never seen her so relaxed; he'd never seen her so happy.

Looking at her, light glowing around her like a halo, love swelled inside his chest. This was the real Shaye. He knew it, sensed it, and he would bring her here every day if needed. Next time he would even take her to the waterfalls and watch her splash in the pools.

"Is anyone selling oranges, do you think?" she asked him wistfully, slowing to a walk.

"We shall see." But the few stands that sold the fruit were out. Shaye couldn't hide her disappointment, and Valerian vowed to search all of Atlantis if necessary. His mate would have her oranges before the day ended. "Ready to return?"

She cast a wistful glance at her surroundings. "Yes. I can't believe how beautiful this place is," she said as they found and mounted their centaur. "It's paradise."

She was paradise.

"Thank you for taking me."

"My pleasure, love. My pleasure."

She shivered against him.

His lips lifted in a slow smile - thankfully, it was a smile she could not see. Her defenses were down, just as he'd hoped, and her desire for him was making itself known. They reached the palace a few minutes later, and his blood heated. Almost time...

At the stable he dismounted and helped Shaye do the same. She no longer hesitated to touch him, he was pleased to notice. After thanking the centaur for the ride, he led Shaye to his room. Along the way, he sent a few of his men to search for oranges.

"I have a surprise for you," he told Shaye.

"Good or bad?"

Before collecting her for their journey, he'd gone to his own chambers and filled them with food. He'd scented the pool with oil and removed some of the wall sconces for a dimmer atmosphere. He'd also circled a group of satin pillows around a low table nearly spilling over with fruits and desserts.

When she saw what he'd done, her eyes widened. "You're... this is... "

"Sit at the table," he instructed.

For a minute she didn't obey. She glanced from him to the table, from the table to him. She gulped. He expected her to say something in rebuke, but she surprised him by walking to the table and sitting.

He loved the way his shirt and pants draped her slim body, but all he could think about was getting under them.

He removed his armor, unbuckling the links at his shoulders and letting the gold pieces fall to the ground. He washed his face in the basin, splashing cool water over his skin. He should have bathed before collecting her and taking her into the city, but he'd been too eager to see her. And a part of him hoped to bathe with her.

"We are going to have a conversation, you and I," he said, striding to the table. He sat across from her and filled two goblets with wine.

"Very well." She sounded reluctant, unsure. At least she hadn't denied him outright.

"I was going to have a few of my former lovers advise you of my wondrous skill, but in the light of day that did not seem so wise."

"No," she said, nearly choking on her wine.

"Instead, I will tell you something about myself. Then you will tell me something about yourself. A conversation, as I said. Do we have a bargain?"

"I hate talking about myself," she said, tracing her fingertip over the bottom of her glass.

"Still, you will do it." Pause. "Please."

She bit her lip again, but nodded.

He sipped his goblet of wine, watching her over the rim. "I will begin." He paused, gathering his thoughts. How did one go about getting to know another person? What bits of his past should he give her? "I... had a brother," he said. It was as good a place as any to start, he supposed, as it was something he rarely spoke of, and never with a woman. The subject was too painful.

"Had?" she asked softly.

Nodding, he pinched a piece of fish between his fingers and popped it into his mouth. He chewed, swallowed. "He was my twin. He was stolen when we were children."

Her eyes widened. "Who took him?"

Familiar rage filled him, but he tamped it down. "The gorgons."

"The gor - what?" She crossed her legs, one over the other, and leaned forward, propping her elbows on the table. He had her full attention. She was interested in what he had to say, and her usual shields were still down.

"Gorgons are a race of women who can turn a man to stone with only a glance. Snakes slither on their heads. They are evil. Pure evil."

Ah. Like Medusa. "Why did they take him?"

Valerian slid a platter of grapes toward her and beckoned her to take one. She did. "They hoped to trade him for my father's aid - which they did not receive," he added darkly. "They killed Verryn for it. He and I shared a mind connection, and when that went dark I knew that he was gone." The last emerged as little more than a whisper. He glanced to Shaye, trying to clear his mind of the hated memories. "Now, it's your turn. Tell me something about yourself."

What should she tell him? Shaye wondered. He'd divulged something personal, something painful. She could do no less. Still, she tried to hold herself back. Tried not to reveal too much. He'd completely enchanted her today, and she feared she would never recover.

"Once I had a stepsister who chopped off all my hair," she said. "I was sleeping and didn't know it until the next morning." The action had been punishment, in her stepsister's mind, for cutting the hair of her favorite doll - a crime Shaye hadn't committed. That honor went to her stepbrother.

When ten-year-old Shaye ran crying to her mother, she was told to "work it out like a big girl."

Valerian's features darkened. "Your hair is sheer beauty, like moonlight and stars. Anyone who cuts it deserves death."

Pleasure speared her, utterly sweet in its headiness. She wasn't used to receiving compliments, yet Valerian gave them to her so readily. "Thank you."

"Living with the little demon must have been difficult."

"Yes. Thankfully, though, my mom was only married to her father for a year."

"Your mother had more than one mate?"

Shaye nodded. "She's had six."

"Six!"

She nodded again.

"Here a man takes but one mate, and keeps her for eternity."

She frowned as she considered his words. "What if the mated people are miserable with each other?"

"They must perform a blood ritual and offer a sacrifice."

"Oh, ick." She bit her bottom lip, not allowing herself to ask what type of sacrifice.

Valerian's gaze caught and lingered on her mouth, making her tingle, making her blood flow hot and achy. Then he shook his head, as if pulling himself from a spell. "What else would you like to know about me?" he asked.

"What about your first time?" she found herself saying. She wanted him, she did, and the more they talked, the weaker her resistance became. Surely hearing about his escapades with other women would strengthen her resolve.

He arched a brow. "Are you sure you want to know?" When she nodded, he said, "It was with my mother's favorite servant. She came into my room to bring me clean clothing, found me in the pool and joined me."

At her disappointed expression, he laughed. "What did you expect? Toys? Orgies?"

"Well, yeah."

His smile grew. "What about you? How was your first time?" The moment he asked the question, he tensed. His eyes darkened with what looked like fury.

Okay. What was he mad about now? "I, uh... " She stumbled over her words, even felt a blush heat her cheeks. "I haven't had a first time yet."

His mouth fell open. "Surely you jest."

"Hardly. Look," she said, defensive. "I never wanted to have to deal with the problems associated with a sexual relationship."

"What problems?" Valerian's shock had yet to fade; it only seemed to intensify. Shaye was virgin. She was untouched.

She was his.

He wanted her more in that moment than ever before. He wanted to be the only man to taste her. Now. Ever.

"Emotional entanglements are messy," she said. "And if I don't get involved, I don't have to worry about getting hurt."

"I will never hurt you, Shaye. I will never lie to you." He'd meant to learn more about her, to let her learn more about him. But he found himself saying, "I think, perhaps, the only way to convince you of this is to show you. So from this moment on, there will be no more talking. Only doing."

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