"I AM GLAD YOU RETURNED," Joachim said.
Brenna inched toward his bed. Shivawn had escorted her here and now stood at the doorway behind her, watching and guarding her. She'd allowed it before, and she allowed it now. Usually, however, she could not stand having anyone behind her. That was how the attack had happened. Ethan had come at her from behind, surprising her, before flipping her around and - She cut off the thought.
They'd been together for a while, but his temper had grown blacker and blacker. When she'd tried to end things, he'd snapped. She should have died that day, so badly did he hurt her. So many times since then, she'd wished to die.
But today, having someone behind her - having Shivawn behind her - didn't scare her. She was coming to like Shivawn and his gentleness. Despite everything and even in such a short amount of time, she was beginning to feel safe with him and had even pictured herself doing... intimate things with him. Him, she assured herself. Not Joachim.
Earlier, when she'd been locked inside that room with the other women and they'd been retelling their sensual exploits, wanton images had bombarded her. She hadn't been able to picture the man's face as he pleasured her in her mind, but she'd known it was Shivawn because she'd felt protected. He made her feel that way. Joachim... didn't. He made her feel dizzy and achy and weak, completely out of control.
At one time, she might have welcomed those things. Yeah, she'd once loved sex. She'd once loved men. But that had changed. Or so she'd thought.
It's Shivawn who turns you on. Has to be. Except, she'd been waiting for this moment all day, wanting to see Joachim again, to hear his voice and trace her hands over his body. That, she couldn't deny and it scared her. He was nothing like Shivawn. He wasn't kind, and he wasn't gentle. He was a hard, volatile warlord who wasn't afraid to use his fists. Yet even now, thinking about him made her heart race, and not just with fear.
Stupid, she told herself for the thousandth time. If she ever allowed herself to be intimate with a man again, it would be with someone like Shivawn.
Stop thinking about sex, Johnston. Get to work. Silently she cleaned and rebandaged Joachim's wounds, glad to see he was healing nicely. No sign of infection. He was still too weak to rise, but his strength would return. He would even have full use of his arms and leg, once the tissue reconnected.
Just as she was finishing up, a new man stepped inside the room. He carried a long, menacing sword; she saw it from the corner of her eye and immediately tried to jump toward Shivawn, the only safe haven available, but Joachim latched on to her hand and held tight. The action terrified her - not only because it was abrupt, but also because it fired her blood in a way it shouldn't. She cried out and was instantly released. She stumbled to her feet, away from all of the men.
"You are needed in the dining hall," the intruder said to Shivawn.
Shivawn looked at her, then Joachim, ignoring the stranger. He frowned fiercely. "Did he hurt you?" he asked her.
She rubbed her wrist and shook her head no.
"Valerian has summoned you," the stranger added impatiently.
Shivawn flicked the man an irritated glance, then stepped forward and gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze. "I hate to leave you, but I must obey the king. Will you be all right without me?"
Panic sprouted wings inside her chest. She didn't want him to go. Truly, he'd become her safety net in this unknown and wild land. But she forced herself to nod. Depending so desperately on one person was foolish.
"Would you like to go with me?" he asked.
Again, she shook her head no. She would stay. She would be brave. And she wouldn't allow Joachim to affect or scare her. Easier said than done, Johnston.
Shivawn gave Joachim a brief but dark look, gently caressed Brenna's cheek, and then strode into the hallway, following the messenger. Brenna and Joachim were alone.
You can do this. You can do this. Joachim's too weak to do anything to you. Slowly she turned toward him and eased back onto the bed. She was careful not to look into his eyes, those blue, blue eyes that seemed to cut straight to her soul. Her fingers shook as she finished wrapping the last bandage.
"I am Joachim," he said, breaking the silence.
"I know." Her voice trembled as much as her hands. "Should not have challenged king."
She imagined his nostrils flaring in fury. Still, she forged ahead. "Silly. Strength lies in compassion, not battles."
For a moment the air was so charged she thought he meant to yell at her. But he didn't. He changed the subject, admitting grudgingly, "I thought of you last night." Half pain, half accusation. "And today. I cannot seem to get you out of my mind."
Before she could stop it, her gaze jumped to his. She gasped at what she saw. Desire. White-hot desire. Her hands stilled, poised over his thigh. She had a sheet draped over his middle - to protect her modesty rather than his. The sheet was higher than it had been a moment ago.
"I see fear in your eyes," he said, still speaking low, voice heated. "But I also see interest."
She bit her lip and shook her head. She would not admit to any type of interest. That would only encourage him. But...
"Talk to me, Brenna," he said. "Tell me of yourself."
His quiet beseeching surprised her. She never would have expected it from such a power-hungry warlord. "Wh-what would. You. Like to. Know?" Her throat was constricted, making it harder for her to speak.
"Everything." Joachim tilted his head and regarded Brenna more intently. "I want to know everything about you." Already he knew her smell - violets and the sunshine he'd encountered so briefly on the surface. He knew her voice - scratchy and harsh, eliciting visions of passion and naked bodies.
Now he wanted to know her past. Her likes. Her dislikes. All the things that made her Brenna, the woman who obsessed him more with every second that passed. Strength lies in compassion, she'd said. He wanted to snort at that, but couldn't. He didn't know why.
"We will begin with something easy," he said. "What is your favorite color?"
She glanced at the door, as if wondering what she should do. Stay and talk, or run. "Blue," she finally replied.
If she were his woman, he would give her all the sapphires he owned. "Do you have family?" A family she missed? Wished to return to?
She shook her head. "Dead."
He should not have felt relieved, but he did. "How did they die?"
Car? He was intrigued by a "car" that could kill an entire family, but was more curious about Brenna herself. "I am sorry for your loss, little one."
Features shadowed, she waved a hand through the air. Her hand was shaking, he noticed. "Long time ago," she said in that broken voice.
He wanted to grab her up and kiss her, anything to wipe away those shadows, but he ended up fisting the sheets and keeping his hands at his sides. "Do you like this new world? Atlantis?"
Her gaze drifted away from him, onto the wall behind him. She shook her head.
"Why not?" Disappointment hummed through his blood. He'd hoped she had already come to love it as he did.
"Scary," she admitted softly. She traced a fingertip over the sheet.
"You are frightened of us?"
She gave no response. Didn't move a muscle.
"I would never hurt you, Brenna," he told her as gently as his fierce timbre would allow. "This I swear to you."
A shiver stole through her. "Might not mean to, but - "
"What are you saying to her, Joachim?" Shivawn demanded as he strode back into the room. "You have no right to use that tone with her."
Brenna jolted to her feet, looking between them with fear in her eyes.
"Watch your tone, boy," Joachim snapped. "You're scaring her."
Shivawn's features instantly softened. "I'm sorry," he told her. "I was called away to look for oranges, but I'm here now. I'm not angry, I promise you."
Brenna gazed between the two men, a little... aroused and unsure who - or what - was causing that arousal. They were trying to soothe her and it was working. It was working! She was actually standing between two men who despised each other, two men who could attack and kill at any moment, and her fear was dissipating.
How are they doing this to me? she mused, dazed.
Even more shocking, as the fear left her, something else took its place: desire. White-hot, consuming. An image of naked, straining bodies suddenly filled her mind. Once again, she couldn't see the man's face, but the image was so lifelike she even heard the pleasure-moans of the couple. Her nipples tightened; moisture pooled between her legs.
Joachim bared his teeth and hissed in a breath. In fury? "You're aroused. I can smell it on you."
Her cheeks heated to a blazing inferno.
"I can, too," Shivawn said brokenly. "Brenna... "
She heard him take a step toward her, heard the thump of his boot. Again, there was no fear inside her. What's wrong with me? What's happening to me? This wasn't like her, not at all.
Joachim eased to a sitting position, and Shivawn continued to move forward.
"You are in need of a man, Brenna," Joachim said, showing no mercy to her embarrassment. "But you are afraid of your desire, yes? You must be, to resist."
"Yes," Shivawn answered for her. "She is."
"Have you ever been with a man?" Joachim asked her.
Breathless, she nodded.
"Did you like it?" Shivawn.
Another nod. She should stop this line of questioning, but a part of her was strangely relieved to have it out in the open.
"The man who hurt you and damaged your voice," Joachim persisted. "Did he make you afraid of sex?"
She hesitated for a long while, finally opting for the truth. "Yes."
Both men growled low in their throats, as if they wanted to kill the man with their bare hands. Still, the fear did not return. "I understand now," Shivawn said. "Once a woman has been forced, she is not the same."
"Yes," Joachim said. "I, too, understand." His voice sounded far away, a little weak.
"Joachim?" she said, sudden concern for him making her forget all else.
He fell back onto the bed, and his head lolled onto the pillow, his skin draining of color.
She hurried to him. "Okay?"
"Dizzy. Weak," he admitted in an enraged snarl. "Shouldn't have sat up."
She could tell the lack of strength did more than anger him; it unnerved him. As much of a fighter as he was, he was probably used to absolute control. Hadn't he told the king, Valerian, that he respected and liked him, but he just didn't want to take orders anymore?
Finally bits of her fear returned. Control. Something she valued, as well. She couldn't relinquish hers, no matter how aroused she became. And to give herself to either of these men was to give up her precious control. How could she have forgotten that, even for a second?
Frowning, she moved toward the door.
Realizing she meant to leave, Joachim uttered an abrupt, "Stay."
There was total command in his voice. Oh, yes, he expected absolute obedience. Shaking her head, she backed up another step. Her eyes were unnaturally wide, she knew they were.
"Brenna," he said. He tried to sit up again, but he didn't have the strength this time. "I will not always be so weak." There was a warning in his tone.
She maneuvered around Shivawn, her gaze again darting between the two men. They were so beautiful, it almost hurt to look at them. And they were offering everything she'd once wanted for herself: love, passion, companionship. That dream is dead, remember? It's safest that way.
But a wave of longing swept through her. For a moment she wished one of the men would reach for her. Touch her... kiss her... slip inside her, sinking, gliding erotically. No, not one of the men. Shivawn, she told herself. But it wasn't green eyes she suddenly glimpsed inside her mind, above her, staring down at her. The man's eyes were blue. She scrubbed a hand over her own eyes to block the image.
How could someone like Joachim arouse her like this when no man had been able to do so for many years?
"I won't hurt you," Shivawn said. He held up his hands, all innocence.
"Come to me, Brenna," Joachim intoned.
"No," she told Shivawn and Joachim grinned. "No," she told Joachim, wiping away his smugness. Better to be without both of them.
"I want to know you," Shivawn said. His voice was gentle. "I'll keep you safe. I won't let anyone else hurt you."
"Do not let your need for safety destroy your love of life. I can teach you to conquer your fear and finally live again," Joachim told her.
Shivawn faced Joachim, and the two squared off. "I can teach her to conquer her fear, too."
"Maybe. But you will never truly make her happy," Joachim snapped.
Perhaps neither of them could, and the knowledge filled her with a keen sense of disappointment. For with the return of his anger, Joachim had reminded her of exactly why she would never allow herself to be with him. If he ever directed that anger at her, he would kill her. Control, she reminded herself.
For a moment, that one precious moment when the fear had vanished, she'd thought to really live again. Now... knowing such a thing was impossible, she ran out of the room before she did something stupid. Like cry.
SHIVAWN DIDN'T FOLLOW her, but remained in the room. For a long while he and Joachim did not speak.
"I want her," Joachim admitted softly.
Shivawn's hands tightened into fists. He'd known that, but hearing the words... "I want her, too, and she is my woman. Who do you think will get her?"
"I will challenge you for her," Joachim gritted out.
"Not accepted. She looked at me with desire, and I find that I need to see that look again."
"That desire was for me, boy. Me. Anything you saw was merely a reflection of that."
Shivawn frowned. Yes, she had looked at Joachim with desire. More desire than a woman had ever projected at him, and the knowledge did not settle well. But she had wanted him, too. He would swear to that. Frustrated, he tossed his arms in the air. "So where does that leave us?"
"Give her to me."
Joachim stroked his chin with two fingers. "I will not give up. I will pursue her."
"Is that a threat?"
"Merely a warning. I want her, and I will do all that is in my power to win her."
Shivawn nearly drew his sword, his anger was so great. He felt protective of Brenna, wanted her to be happy, and couldn't stand to think of such a delicate creature with this power-hungry warrior. "If you scare her, I will kill you. Do you understand me? I will kill you."
A dark cloud descended over Joachim's face. "I would never scare her."
"Ha! You scared her with your forcefulness. That's why she ran."
"Do not try and pretend you know her reasons, and do not pretend you know what she needs. You scared her just as badly or she would have given herself to you by now."
"Perhaps she will. Tonight," Shivawn taunted.
Fury blazed in Joachim's eyes. "No. She will not give herself to you. That I know, because you will never understand her the way I do."
"You? How do you think to understand her?" Shivawn said through clenched teeth.
"That you have to ask proves my point." Joachim closed his eyes, bringing Brenna's innocent face to the forefront of his mind. Someone had hurt her during sex - someone who would feel the end of Joachim's sword one day soon. If he had to travel to the surface and hunt the bastard down, he would.
He would stake his life on the fact that Brenna had been a woman of passion and vitality once. There was a spark in her eyes she just couldn't hide. Deep inside, no matter how strong her fears, she had to crave that type of life again.
He could win her from Shivawn, he knew he could. She'd looked at him with undiluted passion, and he knew she would not be happy with anyone else. When she'd looked at Shivawn, there had been no passion. Desire, yes, but it hadn't been sexual. It had been... fearful, as a child sometimes looked to its mother. For protection.
Which meant Joachim did indeed scare her. Which also meant he could not claim her until he had conquered her fears. Forever.
And he would. Whatever was necessary.
More than he wanted his own satisfaction, he wanted hers. Strength lies in compassion. Again her words played through his mind. Compassion... something she valued.
She needed something special for her first time. Oh, he knew she wasn't virgin. She'd said as much. After her torture - for that's what it had been - she'd cut herself off from men. So her next time would be like her first time. She'd cut herself off from desires and the sweetest of intimacies. She needed an avalanche of both to push her out of that staid existence. Compassion.
Once he was healed... there would be no stopping him.
"I will have her, Shivawn," he said. "It's me she will always crave in her bed."
A muscle ticked in Shivawn's jaw. "You're wrong. She wants safety. To her, I am safety. Not you. And I'll prove it."
POSEIDON HUMMED with the intensity of his relish. Waves whirled and crashed against him, their cerulean beauty lethal to mere mortals. He tasted salt in his mouth, smelled it in his nose, its familiarity increasing his enjoyment.
No Atlantean was permitted to enter the surface. Well, that was not entirely true. A Guardian of the portal was allowed to enter to protect the secrets of the underground city. But none of the nymphs were guardians - and they had entered anyway, it seemed. It was now Poseidon's greatest joy to punish them.
"So. You're telling me that you saw the nymphs steal human women from the surface and bring them into Atlantis?" he asked, his voice booming across the ocean floor. Sand jumped, floating high in the water; pink and white coral vibrated. Colorful fish darted in every direction, desperate to escape his vicinity.
The two mermaids before him bowed their heads. Both possessed hair as inky black as the night, and those tresses blended together, floating around their delicate shoulders.
"Yes," Denae said.
"Yes," Marie agreed.
"Through the portal?" he insisted. He slammed the end of his trident into the marble base he stood upon, cracking it from one end to the other. This was the most excitement he'd experienced in ages.
"Yes," both women said again, in unison.
"Very good." Poseidon's lips lifted slowly as he stepped from the dais, his white robe dancing around his ankles. From where he stood, he could see the huge crystal dome encompassing the cursed city. It radiated golden rays, sparkling like a mound of glitter. He whisked himself to it, far away one moment, in front of it the next. He needed no portal or doorway to let him inside a world he himself had helped create. He simply walked through the crystal as if it were not there.
He didn't yet want the citizens to know of his arrival, so he kept himself hidden in a cloak of invisibility. He breathed deeply of the pure, salty air. Closed his eyes, enjoyed. Yes, he had turned his back on this land and its people for far too long. A mistake.
Hundreds of years had passed since he'd last entered, and all seemed quite tranquil. Minotaur children played in mud puddles, centaurs frolicked through thick, dewy grass. Vampires, dragons, griffins, cyclops, gorgons, harpies - they were all present.
These monstrosities were the gods' first attempt at creating Man. But they had grown more powerful than intended. A few of the gods had panicked and had cursed them to live under the sea. To Poseidon, they'd been abominations, ugly, but not a threat. Perhaps Poseidon and his immortal brothers and sisters should have destroyed the lot of them a millennium ago, but they'd thought to use the creatures for... what? Sex? Some of the women of Atlantis were pretty. Why had he not known that? For warring? The warriors were strong.
He couldn't recall the right answer, though, and didn't really care anymore.
How to punish the nymphs, how to punish the nymphs... Waving his trident, he whisked himself to the palace where Valerian, King of the Nymphs, now resided, maintaining invisibility. Within seconds he found himself in a room occupied by three very human women. They were discussing the various positions in which they'd been taken, the various positions in which they wanted to be taken, and how sad they were that Valerian now had a mate and paid them no attention.
Slowly Poseidon allowed his form to appear, though he took the appearance of a nymph warrior. Dark-haired, vivid blue eyes. Muscled. Tanned. When the women spotted him, they smiled, jumped to their feet and rushed to him.
"Did you come to make love to us?"
"You are the most beautiful man I've ever seen! More beautiful than Valerian, even."
"Silence," he said, the sound booming. Now was not the time for pleasure. Later, though... "Sit down." He motioned to the mound of pillows behind them.
They sat without question, without comment, eyeing him as if he were a delicious platter of chocolate. He settled beside them and allowed them to drape themselves over his legs, stroking him like a prized pet. Hmm, nice. Very nice.
Nymphs needed sex to survive. That was probably why they'd stolen the women. Still, their reasons didn't matter. The law had been created, the law must be obeyed. For Atlanteans to enter the surface world was to destroy it, or so prophecy claimed.
"First you will tell me exactly how you came to be here," he said. He would hear the damning truth firsthand. "Then you will tell me all you know about the nymphs."
One of the women kissed his thigh. Another kissed his shoulder. He closed his eyes, a blissful moan slipping from him. Answers, smanswers.
He cleared his throat. "You may tell me later," he said, and began to kiss them back. Already his venture into Atlantis was doing more for his boredom than a thousand tropical storms.