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SHAYE STUDIED the other women locked inside the cell. Of course, they were the same ones who'd been locked inside the hobby room with her. They didn't seem to mind the current situation, and were, in fact, chatting amicably with each other.

How could they possibly be from the same planet as her? God, what a nightmare. Was Brenna here? Shaye really needed an ally. Someone to share her worries with, someone to keep her calm. "Brenna," she called.

The girl shouldered her way through the thick crowd. "Here."

"Thank God." Shaye pulled her into the nearest corner. "How are you? Did Shivawn punish you for trying to escape?"

"Escape," the one called Tiffany groaned. She leaned against one of the side bars. "Please tell me you two aren't going to try to escape again. At least, not right now. Don't you know you're supposed to wait until everyone is sleeping, then run? That's how all the movies do it."

"I still don't understand why you'd want to escape Valerian." The dark-haired girl who'd left Valerian's room that first night stepped toward them, unabashedly joining the conversation. "He's amazing."

Yes, he was, Shaye thought, her hands fisting at her sides as jealousy speared her.

"I still dream about him," the woman added, sighing dreamily. "Does he ever speak of me? I'm Kathleen, by the way."

Shaye's teeth gnashed together as images of Valerian and Kathleen - naked and straining - consumed her mind. This jealousy thing was new to her, and she didn't exactly know how to deal with it. "No. He hasn't mentioned you."

"Oh." Kathleen's shoulders sagged with disappointment. "Hopefully he'll tire of you soon. I really, really, really want him back."

"What makes you think he'll tire of me at all?" she snapped. She hated that she possessed that fear herself. How long would Valerian remain interested in her? How long until his eye began to rove in search of someone else? Someone sweeter and more biddable?

Kathleen shrugged. "You tried to escape him. I can't see that such behavior will appeal to him for long. I give you a week, two at most."

Shaye stepped forward, hands clenched, ready to strike. Brenna grabbed her arm, a silent command to stop. "No tools to patch Kathleen," her friend said hoarsely.

Expelling a deep breath, Shaye turned away from the bitch in question. She wanted out of this cell, away from these women. She wanted to go home, to be alone - except the thought left her with a hollow ache in her chest.

The group began chatting about the arrival of a new nymph, one more handsome than any of the others, including Valerian. Apparently this nymph liked to ask questions and could bring women to climax with only a look. After a while Shaye tuned out the prattle. Fury seethed like a ticking bomb in her blood, detonation assured.

If she stayed here, this was the life she would have. She would be trapped in a cell every time war threatened. One day, she would be forgotten by Valerian, just another of his conquests. And all the while, she would crave him because he'd awakened desires that she'd thought buried.

What would she do when he got tired of her? He'd said he wouldn't, but he could not predict the future. Another woman might one day catch his eye. He was a nymph, after all, and that was par for the course.

I can't let him dump me.

Everyone she'd ever come to love had either abandoned her or disappointed her. No one stuck around. No one wanted to work at relationships. She knew that. She also knew that if she didn't love, then she didn't hurt when everything crumbled.

Yet here she was, falling for Valerian and giving him more of herself than she'd ever given another.

Her first instincts had been right. She needed to leave him.

Determined, she faced Brenna. "This is our best chance for escape," she whispered. The ache that had sprouted in her chest just a little while ago intensified dramatically. Ignoring it, she leaned forward and curled her fingers around the bars. "Are you with me?"

Indecision played over Brenna's features. She nibbled on her bottom lip and wrung her hands together. Finally she nodded, the action hesitant.

 

The bars were thick and blue, bright, about the width of a baseball bat, and hot to the touch. Not enough to blister, but enough to burn. She rattled them, or tried to at least. They didn't move.

"Do you know how Valerian turned the bars to mist?" As she spoke, she attempted to shake them again.

Brenna shook her head.

Shaye replayed the goodbye kiss Valerian had given her through her mind. His lips had met hers and he'd backed her into the bars. Only, the bars hadn't been there. They'd - what? Disappeared? Her eyes widened. Maybe they had. Maybe an outside touch was required. Valerian hadn't pushed a button or used a key. His guard had simply touched the glowing bars and they'd vanished.

She had to get one of the guards to reach into the cell. "I've got it!" she told Brenna, then strode over to Kathleen. "You want to get rid of me, then you have to help me." She explained what she wanted the woman to do.

Kathleen's eyes narrowed. "So you plan on leaving Atlantis? Forever?"

Again Shaye's chest throbbed with prickles of pain. "Yes."

"In that case, helping you will be my pleasure." Kathleen sashayed her way to the front of the crowd. She gripped the bars, smiled sweetly, and said, "Terran, you look so handsome today. I could just eat you up."

He grinned over at her, hungry yearning in his eyes.

"You look handsome, too, Dylan," Kathleen added, playing her role perfectly. "Your muscles are so big. Can I feel them?"

Both men trudged toward her as if pulled by an invisible cord, but they didn't reach for her.

Shaye kept her attention divided between the men and the bars, ready to exit at a moment's notice.

Kathleen whispered throatily, "May I lick your neck, Dylan? Please. I have to taste you."

He didn't even think of denying her. "Of course." He gripped the bars and leaned into Kathleen's waiting lips.

In that instant, the entire cell turned to mist.

"I want to lick you, too," Shaye heard other women say.

The girls surged forward, past the mist. They were suddenly crawling all over the two guards, completely claiming their attention. Shaye easily and silently slipped out of the prison, Brenna beside her. She smiled smugly as she tiptoed from that section of the cavern.

"Women, return to the cell. Return to the cell!" Amid the guards' now-frantic pleas, she and Brenna rounded the corner. Yes! We did it! Following the curls of fog, they soon came to the portal and approached tentatively. It swirled and churned, its jellylike center beckoning. Shaye shivered from the cold - not from regret, she assured herself - and wrapped her arms around her middle.

"I can't believe how easy that was," she said. But she didn't go another step farther.

Brenna didn't respond.

She tore her attention from the portal and faced her partner in crime - who was twisting her hands, her expression tortured. "What's wrong?"

"Joachim needs me."

Ah, crap. The nymphs had brainwashed another one. She didn't need this now. If Brenna backed out... "He's healing nicely. You said so yourself."

Brenna bit her lip. Probably a nervous action, since she did it a lot. "Shivawn is sweet."

Expelling a sharp breath, Shaye pushed a hand through her hair. "You really want to stay with them?"

At first Brenna said nothing, did nothing, but then she slowly nodded. "I think I do. I thought to leave, but now... "

"What about the little love triangle that scared you so badly?"

Her cheeks colored a rosy pink. "Would rather deal than leave."

Great. Just great. "Fine. Stay." Shaye frowned and whipped to the portal. Before, she'd been afraid to enter it on her own. She'd drown, Valerian had said. The thought of entering with Brenna had given her courage. They would have fought the ocean waves together. Now that she had to enter all by herself...

She reached out, but stopped herself before actually touching it. I survived once. I'll survive again. I'm a good swimmer. I can kick my way to the surface. She nodded, drawing on her courage. Fighting her way through the ocean was better than staying here. Right? God, her chest hurt.

Slowly she reached out. Almost... there... she jerked back, stopping before contact yet again. She flicked Brenna an irritated glance. The girl was watching her attentively. "I don't know why I'm hesitating. I've wanted to leave since I got here. Valerian knows that."

Brenna nodded in understanding.

Damn it. Valerian might be injured or killed during the battle with the dragons, and she would never know it. She might never see him again. "If he gets hurt," she said, "will you patch him up?"

Brenna gave another nod.

She should have been overjoyed by that, but she wasn't. She didn't want Brenna touching him, even to doctor him. What's wrong with me? Staying here was stupid. She would have Valerian for a while, true, but he would soon pawn her off on one of his men, like he'd done with the others.

"Leaving is for the best." She squared her shoulders, lifted her chin - nervous actions she resorted to a lot, she realized. She gathered her resolve and reached out again. Her hand began to shake, and the vibration of it swept through the rest of her body. Ow, ow, ow. Her chest was throbbing so badly now, it almost doubled her over.

What if he kept you? What if he wanted you forever, like he said? She stilled. What if he loved you?

Her heart fluttered at the thought. I don't believe in love, she reminded herself. Love was for people like her parents who needed an excuse to do foolish, selfish things. Love had no place in her life. Love sucked. Love...

Would be so nice if it came from Valerian.

Shaye raised her hands and dropped her head into her waiting palms. "I'm not ready to leave him," she admitted brokenly.

Brenna patted her shoulder.

She rubbed a hand over her eyes and pushed out a frustrated breath. "You heard Kathleen. I'm just his flavor of the week. I'm so stupid for staying."

"Afraid?"

Of losing him? "Yes."

"Time to conquer your fears. Time for me to do the same."

"Yes." But she comforted herself with the thought that she didn't have to stay here forever. She could allow herself a few more days with Valerian. She could get to know him a little better, perhaps finish what they'd started in his room. If he treated her badly, well, she now knew how to find the portal.

From prisoner to willing guest, she mused. She snorted in disgust and turned away from the fog-laden portal. All of a sudden the ache in her chest died.

"I don't want to go back to the cell," she said. "Do you?"

"No."

"We can't go into the palace, though." Valerian had asked her to stay down here, so stay down here she would. She didn't want to distract him, placing him in unnecessary danger. Nor did she want to accidentally place herself in enemy hands, thereby giving them the advantage.

But the desire to help him, even to protect him, was strong. Ignoring it was damn near impossible.

Sighing, she led Brenna through the cave and into the cavern next to the cell. "We can stay here." The guards wouldn't hear them because the drip drip of water was too loud, and they couldn't leave the women to come look for them - if they even noticed she and Brenna were gone. Wouldn't Valerian get a nice surprise when he came to get her and she wasn't in the cell? Thwarting him, however slightly, brought a smile to her lips.

If he survived.

She lost her grin.

As time ticked by with agonizing slowness, she studied the cave walls to distract herself. She traced her fingers over the images there. "Pretty, aren't they?" Something caught her eye and she studied it more closely. When she realized the images told a story, she motioned her friend over. "Brenna, come look at this."

The first picture showed a group of... gods? They were sitting high above an empty world, looking down upon it. The second picture showed a world filled with terrible monsters forming from a sprinkling of blood and a mixture of the four elements. In the third, the creatures were being thrown into a hidden prison. She saw a portal - the portal. Two of them, actually.

The pictures went on to show the creatures adapting to their new land. Yet the very next image showed an army stomping through one of the portals and slaying everything in its path.

Humans? They carried swords and guns, an odd combination of past and present. Perhaps two different armies had marched through the land. Several of the monstrous races rose up in retaliation and destroyed the enemy army.

"Scary," Brenna said.

"Yes." What a violent place Atlantis was. Did she really want to stay, even for a little while? Valerian's face swam into her mind, reminding her exactly how he'd looked poised over her, about to enter her. His hair had fallen in disarray over his strong shoulders. His eyes had gleamed with desire.

Yes, she thought, she wanted to stay. Despite the violence, despite the circumstances, she wanted to stay with Valerian.

For a little while, she reminded herself. Only for a little while. Besides, she kind of liked the Outer City.

The corner of her eye snagged on a particular grouping of rocks on the far wall. "What's that?" she asked, pointing.

Brenna's brow crinkled, and she moved forward.

Shaye kept pace beside her. The closer they came to it, the chillier the air became. A tremor racked her spine. Once they reached it, she realized it was an opening, a doorway. She looked to Brenna. "Should we?"

"Not sure."

Heart racing, Shaye stepped forward and found herself standing on the precipice of another prison. She heard the shuffle of feet and her ears perked. Who did Valerian have inside?

The first day she'd entered this cave, she recalled how he'd discussed "prisoners" with one of his men. Curiosity propelled her farther, and she slowly inched around the corner. Her eyes widened. Several hulking warriors paced inside a cell. They didn't look like nymphs, for they lacked that air of raw sexuality. These warriors were dark and strong, obviously young, and all had golden, glowing eyes.

One of them spotted her, and she jerked backward with a gasp.

"You," the man said. "Let us out of here. Please."

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