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AFTER HE'D SATED HIMSELF on the women and listened to their tales, Poseidon had whisked himself to the nearest river, a crystal stream of tranquility. Lilies floated on the surface. He now blended himself into the water, flowing with it, absorbing its coolness.

The nymphs had indeed broken the law. He needed to punish them quickly, before others thought to do the same. And he knew just what to do...

When he reached a fork in the river, he stopped. The water itself stilled, no waves, no liquid movement. Only the silent wind above, the patter of nearby animals. Then... the bank on his left suddenly flooded with dragon warriors, their wings flapping as they landed. Still, the water did not ripple.

Poseidon watched them. A long while passed before their dragon forms faded to human. Smooth, though scarred, skin instead of scales. Silky hair. Teeth instead of fangs. No tail. Of course, they were now naked, wearing only dragon medallions and holding their swords.

They began drinking from the stream, their angry chatter echoing between the trees. His gaze found Darius. The leader of the dragons was speaking with several of his men, issuing orders, his expression fierce.

He hadn't liked abandoning the palace, Poseidon knew. His instincts had been to stay and fight the nymphs - Valerian in particular. But Darius, if he recalled correctly, was a warrior who weighed the odds, studied the situation and calculated the percentages. He'd been outnumbered severely and he hadn't wanted his men injured when a sneak attack could work in their favor, evening the odds.

He was a smart man and exactly what Poseidon needed.

Come to me, he commanded Darius, his voice carrying on the wind.

Darius paused and stiffened. His eyes searched the surrounding wooded area, glazed over the river, saw nothing and returned to his men. His shoulders remained stiff, his posture erect and his hands clenched tightly on the hilt of his sword.

Come, Poseidon said again.

Darius's attention whipped to the river for the second time. His eyes narrowed. Poseidon knew the water provided only a reflection of his god-image, a glint in the fading light. Still, Darius obeyed this time, striding to the river's edge. The men he'd been speaking with watched in confusion.

"Is something wrong?" a hulking blond giant asked.

"Rest a while, Brand," the dragon king responded without looking back. When he stood alone, he said, "You called, water god?"

The complete irreverence in his tone annoyed the god. "You know me, then."

"I know of you."

Poseidon's jaw clenched, causing a ripple in the water. "Then you know the consequences of speaking to me thus. You know the suffering I can cause."

Darius gave a clipped nod.

Not the bow of homage Poseidon preferred, but it would do. "I have learned some things since my return, Darius, things that do not please me. Because of this, I have several tasks to ask of you."

A muscle ticked beneath his eyes. "Then I am at your command, of course."

"Good. I wish you to return to the palace."

There was a pause. "That is not my plan."

"No, you wish to gather more men. That will take time, and I want my will obeyed now. This moment."

Darius stood firm. "That will place dragon lives in unnecessary danger, and I can't allow that."

 

"There will be no danger to you and yours if you sneak inside."

"I do plan to sneak inside. But there is danger if I do not have enough men to take the palace once we are within."

Poseidon grinned slowly. "Not if you are able to destroy half of the nymph and vampire forces before you even reach the palace hallways."

Darius's brows arched, and interest sparked in his blue eyes. "Tell me how that is possible."

"There is a doorway, a secret entrance below the portal."

"Where exactly?" He sounded faraway, as if he was already breaching it in his mind.

"Do not worry. I will show you once you get there. You will sneak inside and return the human women to the surface, their memories wiped clean."

"Done."

"Once they are returned, you will destroy the nymphs. They'll be weak without their women and easy for you to take. Every one of them must die for daring to enter the surface world. They are not guardians, which means they have disobeyed the law."

A muscle clenched in Darius's jaw. "Surely you do not mean all of them."

"All."

"Male and female?"

"All. You have done such deeds before. This should be no hardship for you, Guardian. If you think to refuse me, I will have your own wife sent back to the surface. You acquired her from there, did you not?"

A blaze of fury lit Darius's face, revealing the merciless killer he had once been. "I will not allow Grace to be taken. She is mine, a daughter of Atlantis now, pregnant with my child."

"Yes, I know," Poseidon said dryly. "The child is the only reason I'm allowing you to keep her. You, Guardian, should never have brought her back here in the first place."

"I'm grateful you have finally decided to take an interest in your people, great god," Darius said, his tone just as dry.

"Is this sarcasm something you acquired from your bride?" Poseidon did not like it. "Watch your tongue, or I will feed it to the vampires. If I wished to amuse myself elsewhere for a little while, that was my right. Go now," he said. "Return to the palace. I will be there waiting, and I will show you the way inside."

"Before you leave," Darius said, irreverence still sparkling in his eyes, "perhaps you could gift us with clothing."

"It will be my pleasure." As a slight punishment for Darius's impertinence today, Poseidon blew his breath upon the dragon army, spraying them with a fine mist of sea and leaving them dressed in women's scarves.

Their hisses of shock rang in his ears long after he left them.

BRENNA'S HANDS TWISTED together. She stood at the edge of the dining hall, watching Shivawn, waiting for him to notice her. She'd been escorted to him after leaving the cave. He was speaking heatedly with a female Brenna hadn't seen before - a white-haired beauty who was caressing her fingertip down his chest.

Brenna watched the interaction with only the slightest hint of... jealousy? She wasn't sure. That was an emotion she hadn't felt in years. Whatever the emotion, she suspected it stemmed from not knowing what would happen to her if Shivawn found another woman. Would she be given to someone else? Joachim, perhaps?

Another question slithered through her mind. Would she be jealous if it had been Joachim talking so heatedly with another woman? She feared the answer.

Just thinking about the man made her shiver. No. No, no, no. It could be Shivawn making her shiver, she rationalized. He was safety, while Joachim was everything she feared: controlling, dominant and violent. So why did she have to desire him at all? Why could she not simply want Shivawn?

She sighed. As she'd stared into the portal today, about to return home, she'd been struck by a wonderfully frightening realization. She wanted to leave the past in the past and embrace her new future. By embracing it, she could finally know true contentment and joy. By embracing it, she could finally live.

It had been in that moment that she'd decided to sleep with Shivawn. But then Joachim's image had forced its way into her mind, and well, now she just didn't know. She was going to have a relationship: sexual, emotional, intimate. But which man would she pick? Life with Shivawn would be sweet and tender. Life with Joachim would be turbulent and exciting.

As she stood there debating with herself, Shivawn's head jerked to the side. He snarled something to the now-scowling woman, and his eyes met Brenna's. He stopped midsentence and stalked toward her. He didn't speak a word, just grabbed her hand and propelled her from the room.

Her blood heated with thoughts of being with him, of going to his room and tracing her hands all over his body, of feeling his hands on her. Her nipples even beaded... until she realized it still wasn't Shivawn's face she saw in her mind.

They weren't heading toward his room, she noticed a moment later. "Where?" she asked Shivawn. The walls surrounding his room were in a different state of repair than the ones here. These were... Realization struck her before he said a word, and her eyes widened. Joachim's room. They were going to Joachim's room. She knew because she'd curiously searched for and found it earlier. Menacing weapons had hung on the walls, a blatant reminder of why she couldn't want a man like him. Her stomach twisted with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation.

"Joachim is okay?"

"He is well."

That meant... what? They arrived at the curtain a moment later. Shivawn didn't pause, didn't announce himself, just strode past the scarf barrier. He released her hand and stalked to a side table. He kept his back to her and poured a drink for himself. He downed it.

The first thing she noticed about the room was that the weapons were gone. Not a single sword hung on the wall. Why had they been removed?

Her gaze flicked to Joachim. He sat on the bed, his legs over the side, his elbows resting on his knees. His gaze devoured her. "Brenna," he said, her name a sensual caress.

Instantly her blood heated another degree. Her nipples hardened further. Need pooled between her legs. With only a word, he brought her to readiness. They were going to make her choose, she realized. Last time she'd run from this, from her feelings. She squared her shoulders. Not this time. The other women in the palace were well satisfied. They never stopped grinning, never experienced a single fear. So badly she wanted to be one of them. She would be one of them.

No, there would be no more running. But could she risk the safety she was sure to find with Shivawn for the passion she was sure to find with Joachim? There would be no going back once she'd made her choice. They were too possessive, each too determined to be "the one."

Shivawn didn't waste any more time. "You've kept me waiting long enough. You've kept yourself waiting long enough. End the agony and give me a chance, Brenna," he said, once again at her side. He gently gripped her shoulders and turned her to face him. "I will never allow another man to hurt you. I will take care of you, pleasure you, make you so happy you'll forget ever being sad."

She bit her lip.

He added, "The man on that bed will never be kind or gentle or any of the things I sense that you need." He turned her again, this time making her face Joachim.

Her eyes met Joachim's once more, and her stomach quivered.

"Look at him," Shivawn said. "Even now there's a wildness about him that you cannot deny. He will never be able to control his temper. He will never be able to destroy the demons that plague you."

Shivawn's words were supposed to comfort her, to assure her that choosing safety over passion was the right decision. But they didn't. Because there was no stronger warrior than Joachim. He did have a temper, and he did appear wild. Yet, if anyone could fight and destroy demons of the past, it was him. He was just so vital.

Joachim didn't utter a sound. He simply pulled four strips of cloth from underneath his pillow. He draped them over his knees.

"What are those for?" Shivawn demanded.

"Tie me to the bed, Brenna," Joachim said.

She glanced down at the material in puzzlement... and desire. "What?"

"Tie me to the bed."

Her gaze swiftly returned to Joachim's face. His expression was hard, resolved and aroused. So aroused. Heat blazed in his blue eyes, burning her inside and out. "Why? Don't understand."

"I'm not going to tell you that you'll hate yourself later if you choose Shivawn. You could probably be happy with him, and you'll always feel safe. But he can't fill the void inside you and give you the life I know you've dreamed of having. I can. All you have to do is trust that I'll never hurt you. Never. I would die first. I'll do whatever it takes to prove it."

"Joachim," Shivawn snarled.

"Tie me to the bed, and you will be in control of everything that happens," Joachim explained. A muscle ticked beneath his eye. "I'm giving you complete... power over me. You need to take back your sense of control, so I'm going to help you."

He was talking about bondage. About sex. Her wild gaze darted between the two men. "Shi - Shivawn?" What did he have to say about this?

He was the one to remain silent this time. He was stiff and radiated fury.

"I noticed how you jump every time someone comes up behind you," Joachim said, "so I'm going to show you the pleasure of having a man there. Later. This time I want to show you the pleasure of being in control."

This big, strong warrior was willing to give up control - his precious control - for her. A tremor worked through her. The revelation startled her, strengthened her. She'd wanted passion, she'd admitted that to herself already. No one could give her more passion than Joachim. She'd admitted that, too, but she'd been scared of it. Scared of him. And so she'd done her best to fall for Shivawn. She might even have convinced herself of it. For a while. Eventually, she would have realized the truth.

All along, it had been Joachim she'd desired. She simply hadn't wanted to want him. He was taking a chance on her with his willingness to be bound. She could do no less for him. I'm not going to be scared anymore.

Eyes filling with tears, she looked at Shivawn. He was so sweet, so kind and giving. But as she looked at him, she realized he was exactly what she didn't need anymore. A bodyguard. She could take care of herself now. She'd been in this palace for days and hadn't been hurt. She'd faced down the warriors and hadn't been attacked.

"You can walk away from both of us," Joachim said, his voice rough. "We won't stop you."

Run, and stay locked in her safe little world. No feeling. No pain. No pleasure. I'll never run again. "I'm so sorry, Shivawn," she said, chin trembling. "I wanted it to be you. I did. But... "

"Stop. Please. Just stop." He studied her for a long while, jaw locked tight. Then he slowly turned to Joachim. "She is yours. I relinquish all claim to her."

"Thank you," Joachim said tightly.

Shivawn flicked her one last glance, nodded, and strode from the room, leaving her alone with Joachim. Brenna gulped. Gathering her courage, she faced him.

Her man.

Fear would never rule her life again.

She'd chosen him, and she was only sorry it had taken her so long to realize the depth of this man's honor. He trusted her to chain him; she would trust him not to hurt her.

Ready to finally move on with her life, she walked forward. Her heart raced erratically, but she didn't stop until she was in front of him. Joachim stood, grasping the ties in his fists.

His gaze was hard, unrelenting. "Did your attacker use his hands or a weapon? If he used a weapon, I want you to use the same on me."

At first, she didn't answer, didn't let the memory intrude on this precious time. "Only hands," she managed on a trembling breath.

He nodded and gave her the bonds. Slowly, very slowly, Joachim unfastened his pants and pushed them from his hips. They pooled on the floor and she was given a glimpse of large, aroused male.

"Come here," he commanded, lying on the bed. "Tie me."

Her hands were shaky as she tied his wrists to the posts, then his ankles. Then she stood at the side of the bed, staring down at him. Such magnificence, hers to control.

Joachim didn't utter a word, but he watched her intently. Her knees almost buckled because she knew what he expected, what he wanted. It was her turn to strip. After the attack, she'd stopped working out and had tried to make herself as unattractive as possible. Would Joachim find her body undesirable?

She reached up with shaky fingers and undid her robe's shoulder ties, revealing her breasts. She continued to watch Joachim, gauging his reaction. There was no disappointment in his eyes. Only desire. She lost a little of her uncertainty. Delicious bumps broke out over her skin as his gaze skimmed over her, his nostrils flaring with arousal.

"You are beautiful, Brenna."

When her robe was completely loosed, it fell from her body and joined Joachim's pants on the floor. Finally she was naked, like him. Her cheeks heated as Joachim's eyes raked over her again. At one time, the thought of joining a man on a bed would have paralyzed her. This time, her hormones were too busy rejoicing.

"Close your eyes," he said.

She didn't think to argue.

"Imagine me behind you. Imagine my hands caressing your shoulders and cupping your breasts. Imagine me rolling your nipples between my fingers."

Yes. Yes! She saw it in her mind, just like before, only this time the image was clearer. Her head would fall back onto his shoulder, her hair tickling them both. His fingers would touch every inch of her.

Imagining was almost as good as the real thing. Almost. But thinking about it did make her unbearably wet.

"I want to lick you," Joachim said.

"Yes," she said breathlessly.

She climbed onto the bed without hesitation. Soon she straddled Joachim, her knees at his waist, his erection between her legs, touching her intimately but not entering her. She moaned at the utter decadence.

"Lean forward," Joachim urged roughly.

He might be tied, but he was still a warrior. For the first time, a small kernel of fear sprouted. You're safe. You're protected. She crawled up him until her breasts were poised over his waiting mouth. Her black curls fell around them like a curtain as he eagerly sucked on her, dissolving her fear, filling her with pleasure. Contact with his hot, hot mouth was like nothing she'd ever experienced. His mouth possessed volts of electricity, and those volts lanced inside her body.

She groaned, the sound broken and rough.

While Joachim sucked her, she continued to imagine. Had his hands been free, he would have traced them over her back, over the ridges of her spine. Over the curve of her bottom. Yes, yes! She saw it happening, somehow felt it. Everywhere his phantom hands touched, his mouth followed, his phantom tongue laving her skin. She couldn't help herself. She writhed against Joachim's penis without actual penetration. She was so wet, she slid up and down with ease.

"You taste like heaven," Joachim said.

In her mind, Joachim's hands circled her and urged her to straighten, then his fingers were sinking past her pubic hair and into her moist, hot center. She gave another groan of absolute pleasure.

Why had she tied him? she mused.

He sucked her nipple with delicious force.

"Yes," she gasped out, unable to say anything else. "Yes."

Her head again fell back.

"Do you want me to lick between your legs?"

"Yes." She didn't try to deny it or play coy. She wanted Joachim's mouth there. She wanted it fiercely. Would have killed for it.

"Come here," Joachim said. Sweat beaded over his skin. His jaw was tense.

She moved forward until she was poised over Joachim's body, the apex of her thighs mere inches from his face.

"Lower," he commanded, a rough snarl.

"Joachim," she said, sinking into him and in the next instant he was loving her with his face. His tongue, his lips, his teeth. He used them all. She screamed at the intense sensation, the heady pleasure. Her hips writhed back and forth.

"Come, Brenna. Come for me," Joachim said, and she obeyed. Her pleasure exploded. Erupted. Her entire body shook and trembled with her climax, propelling her to the gates of paradise. Joachim drank her up until she thought she could take no more.

"Take me," he said. "Put me inside you."

Limbs weak, she straddled Joachim's waist without hesitation. She rose up, placed Joachim's shaft at her entrance and sank down on him, taking him all the way to the hilt. He was big, and it had been so long. He stretched her, but it was a wonderful stretch. Made her feel alive.

Joachim roared.

She panted his name over and over again. "Joachim." She couldn't say it enough. It was in her head, branded on every cell in her body. "Joachim."

She was safe. She was sated - and would soon find release again. Her nerve endings were already sparking with renewed life.

She anchored her hands on Joachim's chest. Their faces were inches apart, his breath a part of her and her breath a part of him.

"Kiss me," he said.

Her mouth meshed against Joachim's. She gasped in pleasure and he swallowed the sound. Hard, hot, gentle, fast, slow, his tongue sparred with hers as she rode him. It was sheer bliss. Total ravishment.

The kiss became savage, and in turn, the loving became savage. Her teeth banged his; her body slammed up and down. She purred, she groaned, she gasped some more.

"That's it," Joachim praised. "Take it all."

"Yes."

"No more fear." Joachim.

"No more," she panted.

"Come for me, sweet." Joachim nipped her collarbone. He strained against his bonds. "Show me how much you like having me inside you."

There was no holding back at that point, no prolonging the pleasure. She erupted for the second time. The orgasm was so intense a black web clouded her vision. She was dying slowly, quickly, unable to breathe, yet so alive she could have stayed exactly where she was forever. "Joachim," she screamed, and for once she didn't care how broken her voice sounded.

"Brenna." Joachim roared loud and long and reared up, sinking deep, deeper than she'd ever thought possible.

She collapsed onto his chest. "Thank you," she panted. "Thank you."

"Untie me," he ordered harshly.

She didn't think to deny him. Blindly she reached up and removed the bonds. His arms instantly wrapped around her, pulling her close and holding her tightly. Cherishing her.

"No more fear," he said again.

"No more," she agreed. She would have agreed with anything he said just then. Marry him - yes. Be his slave - of course. His heat surrounded her, enveloped her, beckoned her.

"Mine," he said.

"Yours," she breathed. "Joachim's." Her eyes closed, her lids growing heavier and heavier with every second that passed. Sleep summoned, a peaceful sleep she'd needed for so long but had been too afraid to take. "Don't let me go."

"Never."

Oblivion claimed her then. She was smiling.

SHIVAWN STOOD IN THE hallway for a long while. He wished Brenna had chosen him, but it had been Joachim her eyes had heated for. Joachim she'd probably wanted all along. He was angry, so very angry. She was beautiful, she was passionate, she was kind. But she wasn't his. He knew that now. No matter how much pleasure Shivawn could have given her, no matter how safe he could have made her feel, she would always have wanted Joachim.

The two were mates, that much was clear now.

And so he ended up alone.

Perhaps one day he would find a woman who loved him like that. Who wanted him above all others.

He blinked when he realized Alyssa had stepped into the hall and now stood a few feet away from him. He scowled at her.

She frowned at him. "You smell like a human," she said flatly. "Have you been with one? Is she your mate?"

"What business is it of yours?" He leapt into a quick stride.

She followed suit, keeping pace beside him. "Is she?"

"No," he snapped.

"I told you I would see to your needs," she snapped back. "You should have come to me."

"And I told you no." Alyssa was beautiful, and Shivawn even felt himself stir for a taste of her, but he would not touch her. He didn't have Valerian's love for the vampires.

Vampires survived on blood and sometimes took more than they should. He'd made the mistake of bedding a vampire only once and had almost died for it. Never again, he'd vowed. Alyssa knew that, but she always sought him out when she came to visit.

"Goodbye, Alyssa," he said, and strode away from her.

She wasn't content to remain behind this time. She rushed after him, even jumped in front of him. Her eyes glowed. "I've always known I would have you one day, Shivawn, and I've decided today is that day."

Her lips slammed into his, her tongue forcing its way into his mouth. The taste of her filled him. Not a taste of blood and death, but of woman. Shivawn found himself responding. He was disgusted with himself but maybe, just maybe, she could help him forget his loneliness.

"One night," he growled. "That's all I'll give you."

Triumph blazed in her eyes, and her red, red lips curled in a sensual smile. "That's all I'm asking for."

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