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"I AM DONE WAITING, Shaye."

Shaye jumped to her feet and backed away from Valerian as if he were poison. He still sat on the pillows, watching her, a smile curling the edges of his mouth. He didn't want to talk about his first time anymore - he wanted to give her a first time. Languidly, her mind added. Deliciously. Quickly. Roughly. Softly.

Panic? Yes. Anticipation? Absolutely. The gleam in his eyes... the husky richness of his voice...

"I need to rebandage your arm. Blood is, uh, seeping from it."

"After," he said, a heady entreaty. He stood inch by agonizing inch, unfolding his big, strong body. He never removed his gaze from her. His pants were tight over his muscled legs, but even tighter over his large erection.

Her eyes widened as he stepped closer. She'd wanted him many times since meeting him. Now, faced with the inevitability of it, she was panicky. More so than usual. "Stay where you are, okay. I need time to think about this."

"Thinking about it has gotten us nowhere." Stalking forward, he waved a hand toward the wall. "You will notice that I removed all the weapons."

Her wide gaze scanned the room. Sure enough, all the blades were missing. "Valerian," she said warningly.

"You simply fear what you do not know, Shaye. I realize that now."

"Stop!" She squared her shoulders, refusing to retreat yet again.

"You are my woman, yet you issue orders and expect them to be obeyed. Perhaps I should train and treat you as a warrior, then."

She forced out a laugh, but the sound was completely devoid of humor. "I'm not your woman." Yet. "And I'm not one of your warriors. What, are you going to fight me?"

"Oh, no. I'm going to give you a command and you're going to obey. If you fail to heed the command, I will punish you."

Her nostrils flared. "Don't you dare threaten me."

"Threaten? No, I merely promise." His eyelids dipped to half-mast, giving him a slumberous, I-need-a-bed cast.

"Didn't we discuss this the very first day? I will not accept punishment, and I will not obey you."

"Yes, you will. And you will enjoy it, I assure you."

She stomped her foot because she knew, knew, she was about to lose this battle. And a part of her was glad. "If you think I'll sit quietly while you spank me or something, you're wrong."

"What a naughty little mind you have, moon. I meant only to lash you with my tongue. If you prefer I spank you, I will do so. You know how I love to please you."

Evil, evil man. She shivered. "Is that how you punish your warriors? By licking them?"

"You saw how I punish my warriors. As I refuse to hurt you, special consideration must be taken." Another step.

Her stomach twisted. She wanted to run to him, to take what he offered. True. But too much did she dread what would happen afterward. Would he dismiss her? Would he turn his attentions to another? Would she crave more of him? Fall in love, lose herself? Make a fool of herself for him? Would he ultimately hurt her, as everyone else in her life had?

"I need time, Valerian."

 

The words dripped between them along with all of her fear, all of her desires. He paused, looking tortured. Then he gave a stiff nod. He didn't want to, she saw it in his eyes, but he caved. Again. Her wish his to grant. "If time is what you desire, time you shall have." With barely a breath, he added, "I am in need of a bath. You may join me, if you wish, or watch me. The choice is yours."

"I... I choose neither." She wasn't going to bathe with him, and she wasn't going to watch him. Water droplets would trickle down his neck, perhaps catch on his nipples before falling to the ridges of muscle on his stomach. His soap-lathered hands would glide over his strength. "I want to go back to my room."

"You'll watch or you'll join. This is a give-and-take between us, Shaye. I give you time, and now you must give me something in return. Choose."

Her lashes nearly fused all the way together, leaving only a tiny line of vision. He occupied every inch of it. "What happened to giving me everything that I want?"

"You do not know what you want." He closed the rest of the gap between them, so close his chest brushed hers. Behind him, he left a trail of sand and blood. His wounds had opened. He showed not an ounce of pain, proving just how capable he truly was. A warrior, through and through.

His scent filled her nose, sexual and fierce. Heat curled from him, wrapping her in sultry coils, squeezing so tightly she had trouble dragging in her next breath. A rush of passion flooded her.

He was the kind of man women fantasized about but never actually encountered. And he continually offered himself to her, an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of erotic delights. Whatever she could consume was hers for the taking.

How tempting it was to take...

He licked his lips and leaned toward her. Her heartbeat drummed in her ears, an eternity passing between each one. Accept him or reject him, but do it now!

Gathering her strength, she jerked away from him, nearly tripping on her own feet as she scrambled backward. "No," she said. "No."

A muscle ticked beneath his eyes. "Never has a word sounded more foul," he said between clenched teeth.

She raised her chin. "It's all you're going to hear from me."

"I could push you for more, Shaye. We both know I could. We both know you'd like it."

"No," she said again. This time it was a trembling, wispy entreaty.

Struggling with the force of his need, Valerian paused and studied Shaye. Damn this! He didn't want to force her to acknowledge her desires. He wanted her to accept them - and him - willingly.

When she'd told him she was virgin, he'd simply reacted. Blood and need had traveled through him at lightning speed. His cock had hardened painfully. The need to brand her as his woman had sung in his ears. He'd known, deep down, that she'd waited for him. He only wished he'd waited for her.

He felt like a virgin with her, however. Unsure, eager. Excited by the possibilities. In such a short time, she'd become everything to him.

Want me. Come to me.

She didn't. And as the minutes ticked by, her resolve to resist him seemed to intensify. Finally he said, "Yet again I find that I am unable to force you to accept what is inevitable."

"Valerian," she said in that shaky voice.

"Not another word, moon."

"It's not you, okay. Well, maybe it is. A little. I just... can't, okay. I can't let myself want you. Not yet." He looked tortured again, she thought, sad and wistful and rock hard. "I wish I could. I do. But... " Too many things stood in the way. The thought of letting someone so close to her was terrifying.

He stalked from the main room and into the bathing area without another word, leaving her alone. Alone with only her throbbing body, her treacherous thoughts.

Why had he left? He'd said he meant to make her choose.

Doesn't matter, she decided in the next instant. He isn't the man for you. He liked sex, and he liked it with multiple women. Shaye wasn't her mother and wouldn't accept the small scraps of affection some man decided to toss her way. She wouldn't fall in love, using the fickle emotion as an excuse to have the good while tolerating too much of the bad.

She liked being alone, was content that way. And her deepest feminine instincts sensed that to make love with Valerian was to fall so deeply in love with the man that she'd give up everything for him. Even herself.

The curtain blocking her view from the bathing pool continued to rustle. The sound of falling clothing echoed, then the splash of water. She gulped. Was he naked? Most likely. Steam was probably wafting around him. His skin probably glistened with moisture. He probably resembled an angel floating through the heavens.

In that instant all the reasons she'd rejected him faded from her thoughts. Desire. So much desire. She'd said she wouldn't watch him bathe, but one peek suddenly didn't seem so bad. One peek... Really, there was no harm in that.

Unbidden, she found her feet moving toward the entrance. He couldn't possibly be as exquisite as she was imagining. Could he? She quietly peeled the curtain to the side - but only a little. Valerian's naked back came into view. Muscles rippled under tawny skin as he cupped and poured water over himself.

Steam did indeed waft around him, making him appear nothing more than a dream, a fantasy, a genie visiting from a lamp, come to grant her every wish. His hair was soaked and dripping down his back. She bit her lip. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to be with him once and finally put her body out of its misery. If she guarded her heart, she could use him and be done with him. Right?

He turned to the side and clamped his hand around a sapphire glass bottle. He poured whatever was inside - more of that orchid oil? - into his other hand. Oh, to be that oil, she thought, watching, throat constricted as he rubbed the oil into his chest. The fragrance joined the steam and floated to her.

"You can still join me, you know," he said, his voice rough.

She yelped and released the curtain. It fell back into place, completely blocking him from view. Her cheeks erupted into flames.

She was saved from having to analyze her thoughts and actions when Brenna burst into the room. The girl was panting; her gaze was wild. Black curls bounced over her face. She stilled when she spotted Shaye and exhaled a huge sigh of relief.

"What's wrong?" Alarmed, Shaye rushed to her side. "Did something happen?"

Behind her, she heard the splash of water, the pound of footsteps, then Valerian was there, standing in the doorway. He was naked. Mouthwateringly naked. He didn't seem surprised to see Brenna with her, even though the girl had made no real noise. "Did something happen?" he echoed.

Shaye's mouth fell open at this first, full-frontal glance of him. He was tall and well muscled, but she'd already seen that. What she hadn't seen was his erection. Until now. It was as long and hard as she'd imagined, rising proudly from between his legs. He wasn't modest and didn't reach for any type of covering. Water droplets cascaded from his hair, down his stomach, and onto his -

Dear God.

Brenna's mouth had fallen open, too, and Shaye had to tamp the urge to cover the girl's eyes. "We're fine." Shaye gave a jerky point. "Go back to your bath, Valerian. Please! For God's sake, we're just going to have a little girl talk."

With a nod, he stalked off. Damn the man, he looked as good from behind as he did from the front.

Only when the drape blocked him was Shaye able to breathe again.

"Big," Brenna said in that broken voice of hers, her eyes still wide.

Mine, Shaye almost snapped. She frowned. She had no right to him. She'd just turned him down. Again. Concentrate. "Did someone hurt you, Brenna? Or threaten you?"

Brenna shook her head. "Problem."

"What kind? With whom?"

"Joachim."

Her frown deepened. "Is he hurt?"

"No."

"Did he hurt you?"

"No."

O-kay. Shaye clasped her friend's hand - was Brenna her friend? she wondered. She'd never really had one before. Assistants, yes. Employees, yes. But had she ever really spent quality personal time with someone else? Well, whatever Brenna was, Shaye led her to the couch. "What's wrong?" she asked again, settling into the cushions.

"Shivawn," Brenna said.

Her brows furrowed together. "Is he hurt?"

"No."

"Did he hurt you?"

"No."

Had she ever had a more confusing conversation? Shaye pushed out a frustrated exhalation. They were getting nowhere this way. "You have to help me understand what's going on."

A rosy blush stained Brenna's cheeks. She bit her bottom lip. "Want. Them."

"You... want them?" Shaye blinked. "As in, sexually?"

The girl's blush intensified, and she looked away. "Maybe. But... think I really want one when I should want the other. Scared. Confused."

"That would scare me, too." She could barely handle her desire for Valerian. She didn't know what she'd do if she should want to be with one of his warriors, instead. "It's that whole duty versus desire thing, huh? Like we see in the movies?"

Brenna gripped her hands, perhaps willing her to understand. "Kind of. Maybe. I don't know!"

"I wish I had an answer for you, and if we were on the surface, I might. But these men, these... nymphs. They cast a spell over everything female and screw with our common sense." Shaye's bitterness seeped through her tone. "I don't like it."

"You once mentioned escape." Brenna mimed the last so Valerian wouldn't hear.

Shaye's body went still; even her heartbeat stopped for several seconds. Escape. What she'd wanted from the beginning. What she wasn't sure she wanted right now, but knew was for the best. You have a home. A job. Employees who count on your revenue.

"I haven't found a way out," she admitted softly. Not that she'd looked all that hard. "But there is one sure way. Do you remember the portal?"

Brenna nodded.

"Valerian said I couldn't survive it alone. Together, you and I can swim to the surface. We just have to find it."

They stood in unison and glanced to the bathing curtain. "There's no better time than now," Shaye said, speaking past the sudden lump in her throat. She wished she had time to tell Valerian goodbye, wished she could kiss him once more. "Are you ready?"

Again Brenna nodded.

As if he'd heard their entire conversation, Valerian called, "Shaye!"

Her eyes widened, and Brenna gasped. If she didn't leave now, she would lose this opportunity. "Come on." They sprinted past the front door and into the hallway.

"Shaye!" A command now. Water splashed.

She plowed into a couple writhing on the floor and tumbled face-first. Frantic, Brenna helped her up. The couple yelped, but didn't stop their naked dance. Shaye's lungs nearly burst from strain as she dared a backward glance. A naked Valerian was closing in on her. How could she want to run to him?

"Move!" she panted. "Faster. Do you know the way?" All she remembered was that the closer they came to the portal, the barer the walls would become. Fewer jewels. Fewer sconces.

"Yes."

They encountered a fork, and Brenna swerved right. Shaye followed. God, she hoped this was the right direction. If Valerian caught her... The walls looked the same to her. Doorways branched in every direction. They raced past other women, other warriors. The men regarded them with curiosity, but didn't try to stop them.

Then, suddenly, steal clamps anchored onto her waist and she was thrown into the air. Her arms flailed. She screamed. Brenna ground to a halt and whipped around just as Shaye's legs kicked out, reaching for a solid foundation. As she fell, she screamed again.

Strong arms caught her, wrapping around her and locking her in place. She was panting and didn't allow herself to meet Valerian's angry gaze. Or look down at his wet, aroused body.

"When a warrior runs from his commander," he said ominously, "he is punished. Are you ready for your punishment, Shaye?"

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