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SHAYE LOUNGED AT THE EDGE of the bathing pool. Warm, steaming water lapped at her sensitized skin. The scent of orchids filled the room, sweetly perfuming the air with a sultry ambiance. She inhaled deeply. Her body was sore, but her spirit was invigorated.

Valerian sat behind her, massaging her shoulders. His magical fingers worked her muscles expertly. He knew exactly where to rub, knew the precise amount of pressure to apply for optimum enjoyment. Her head lolled back, resting on his shoulder. Steam coated their skin and his exhalations chilled the sheen of liquid.

"Thank you for gifting me with your virginity," he said.

"My pleasure." Really. She'd never enjoyed herself more. Never thought losing all control, all sense of her cool facade could be so blissful.

In the pleasure-filled hours they'd just spent together, she'd realized a few things. She'd given Valerian more than her body; she'd given him pieces of herself, just as she'd feared. She hadn't meant to, had tried to guard against it, yet had been helpless to do otherwise. But it was going to be okay.

He was a nymph, and nymphs liked sex (and lots of it), but she would be the one he came to. She was going to trust him. Not love him, she assured herself, still refusing to experience the emotion. But trust.

It would be hard, she didn't doubt that, but to keep him in her life she was willing to try.

"Your wounds healed," she said without turning to face him. She'd noticed when they adjourned to this bath.

"Yes."

"I'm glad."

"Me, too."

"Now you have the strength to tell me the secret spot on a woman's body," she said. "The place that brings maximum pleasure."

"Mmm, well. I will tell you for a kiss." He nuzzled the side of her cheek.

Ah, she loved his bargaining. "I'll kiss you if you tell me what I want to know," she said throatily, grinding against the erection pressed against her lower back.

He hissed in a breath. "I love when you move like that. Keep doing it and I will tell you all my deep, dark secrets."

Up, down she moved.

His hands tightened on her waist. "Close your eyes," he commanded softly.

They'd made love only an hour ago, but it felt like an eternity. She needed him inside her again. Addicting... that's what he was.

"Shaye." He tsked. "Close. Your. Eyes."

Her eyelids fluttered shut. Darkness blanketed her mind. His hands glided over her shoulders, caressed her neck, then dipped to her breasts, kneading.

"Picture what I'm doing to you."

"I thought - "

"Do it."

 

Picture it, he'd said, so she did. In her mind, she could see the thickness of his hands covering the pale mounds of her breasts. Her nipples, pink and pearled, peaked through the crevices of his fingers. Pleasure spiraled through her, hot and needy. Seemingly unquenchable.

Unbidden, her legs spread, silently begging for his attentions. A single touch, a pinch, something. Anything. She ached, oh, she ached.

One of Valerian's hands glided down her stomach. She felt it, yes, just the way she'd wanted it, but more than that she saw it in her mind. Another picture of them. Valerian behind her, this time with his hand between her legs, parting her wet folds. But he didn't touch her where she needed him most. Not yet. He stayed poised, inches above her entrance.

"What do you see?" His voice was strained, as if it required all of his strength to remain still.

"You. Me."

"Do you see me licking you here or sliding my fingers into you?"

"F-fingers," she managed.

"Are they moving slowly, savoring or pounding in and out?"

As he spoke, she again pictured it. Again saw it, unable to stop the flood of images. Yet he didn't do it, didn't do what she needed. Her hips moved forward, seeking. Back, seeking. Forward, back. Writhing and arching. "Touch me, Valerian. Please."

"Tell me. What do you see? Slow or fast?"

"Fast. Hard." Water sloshed over the pool's rim. "So hard."

He pinched her nipple, and a lance of desire hit directly between her legs. She cried out at the amazing torment of it.

"Shaye. Moon. Your mind shows you the things your body needs before you actually know you need them."

No more talking, she wanted to shout. Make love to me. "I don't understand."

"The most erotic place on a woman's body is her mind. By giving her the right images, a man can increase her pleasure a hundred times." He bit her ear. "Lean forward for me, moon."

She did, and even that served as a stimulant. The water caressed her clitoris, making her shiver.

"Hold on to the ledge," Valerian beseeched.

Angling forward a few more inches, she curled her hands on the ledge. Her breasts and hips were out of the water now and Valerian was granted a full view of her from behind.

A long while passed in silence. She stayed where she was, anticipating the first touch. Wet hair tumbled down her back and shoulders. Some of the ends treaded the water's surface. When would he touch her? She needed him to touch her. "Valerian?"

"You are magnificent," he said, his voice heavy with awe. He traced the tattoo on her lower back.

A shiver danced through her.

"I like this," he said. "A skull with a pretty bow on top. It is a mark that says you are both warrior and woman." His lips brushed the tattoo; the hot wetness of his tongue traced it. He kissed his way up her spine and grazed the back of her neck, smoothing her hair aside to get to her.

"The first time I saw you," she said, "I thought you were a god, rising from the sea."

"And I thought you were the thing I needed most in my life."

His words acted with the heady intoxication of a caress. She licked her lips, then bit into them to tamp down a loud, long scream of pleasure when his cock pressed into her opening.

"So tight," he praised.

"More."

He gave her an inch. "Is that all you want?"

"More."

Another inch. Not enough. "And now?"

"More, more, more."

He pounded all the way in. She gasped. He groaned. But he didn't move, just left them both at the edge. "Do you know the most erotic place on a man's body, moon?"

By this point, she was incapable of speech. She needed him too fiercely. The ache was all consuming. Burning. Yes, she burned fiery hot. Pulses of electricity sparked along her veins, demanding completion.

"His heart," Valerian finally said. "His heart."

His heart... She climaxed, throbbing, throbbing. Screaming, sobbing. The force of it raked her, vibrated and hummed. Valerian slid out and pounded forward. Over and over, driving hard and deep.

"Shaye," he roared, shuddering into her a final time. "Love. You." His hands dug into her hips. Gripping. Bruising deliciously. "Love you," he said again.

"I'M BEING RUDE to my guests," Valerian said a long while later. He lay on the bed, and he held Shaye in his arms. He was loath to let her go. They were both naked, and he was tempted to remain that way for all of eternity.

He loved the way Shaye's curves fit against him. Like the last piece of a puzzle, perfectly matched.

She yawned. "What guests?" she asked, her breath fanning his chest.

"Vampires. They helped us with the dragons and bought us a bit of a reprieve."

"I should run screaming from this room, but I'm too tired to be scared of vampires. Even vampires that are in the same house as me." She chuckled. "Do you mind that you're ignoring them?" Her fingertip slid along the ridges of his stomach.

"It is my greatest pleasure to ignore them," he said roughly, aroused by her touch and her words. She was adapting to life here. Maybe even coming to love it as he craved.

Her finger looped through his nipple ring, and she chuckled again.

He liked the sound of that laughter and realized he'd never really heard her amusement before. "How old are you?" he asked, wanting to know everything about her.

"Twenty-five. How old are you?"

"A lot older," he said dryly. "Hundreds of years older."

Her mouth fell open. "No way."

"It's true."

"So you're going to, what? Live forever? Never age?"

"I age, just slower than humans."

Her entire body tensed. "What you're telling me is that if I stay here, I'll grow old while you continue to look like that?"

"You are in Atlantis now, love. Your aging process will slow, as well."

"Oh." Little by little, she relaxed. "That's okay, then."

"Do you miss your surface life as you did before?" he found himself asking.

An intense stillness came over her. "That's a hard question to answer."

"Yes or no is all that is required." He didn't want her to miss her old life. He wanted her happy, completely, with him. If she did miss it... What would he do? His two greatest desires would be at war with one another - the desire to keep her with him and the desire to see to her happiness. Always. No matter the cost to himself.

A sigh slipped from her. "I'm not sure if I miss it or not. I mean, I'm not close to my family. I never have been, really, but closure would have been nice."

"Why exactly were you not close with them?" He could not imagine such a thing with his brother if Verryn had lived.

"They wanted me to be something I wasn't," she said.

"What?"

"Sweet."

He snorted. "You are sweet. You like to pretend otherwise, but you are most definitely the sweetest morsel I have ever sampled."

Shaye bit him on the shoulder and licked away the sting. This man saw into her soul; he saw the woman she'd always secretly wanted to be. Something her own mother hadn't been able to do.

"How can your family not see how sweet you are? More shame, them."

She raised her head, cupping his cheeks with her palms. "Thank you for that."

Valerian's chest tightened. This woman possessed his heart, of that he had no doubt. Now he wanted hers. "Have you been able to make your anti-cards here?"

"Yes."

"If you were to make one for me, what would it say?"

"Well... let's see." She rested her head on his shoulder. A minute ticked by, then another. "Are you sure you want to know?"

"Yes."

"If I were going to make and send you a card, it would say... " She paused, frowned. "It would say, I'm trusting you not to break my heart. If it gets even a scratch, I'll break your face."

His lips twitched. "Break my face?"

"You heard me."

Break his face if he broke her heart... Her heart. Valerian stilled, the significance of what she'd said finally registering. Even his blood ceased flowing. Breath froze in his lungs. A wave of dizziness hit him as emotion after emotion crashed through him. "You are trusting me with your heart?" He was almost afraid to ask, afraid he'd misunderstood.

He, a warrior who had laughed at danger his entire life, was afraid this tiny, pale woman would not want him.

"Kind of," she said. "I'm not saying I love you or anything like that." A layer of panic coated her words. "But I'm going to trust you not to be with anyone else while you're with me. That means no other women."

"Moon, I desire no other save you."

"Now you don't. But what about later, when the novelty of me wears off?"

As she spoke, he heard her vulnerability. He rolled her to her back and stared down at her. "You are my mate. I have told you that, but I do not think you understand what that means. None arouse me anymore but you. None tempt me. None appeal to me. Only you. When a nymph takes a mate, that is the way of it. Now and always."

Her gaze softened, and he knew she wanted to believe him. "Yeah, well," she said, "we'll see what happens in the coming days."

"So you want to stay with me?"

Radiating vulnerability, she whispered, "Yes."

Joy burst through him, full but not complete. Not yet. "You want to stay with me but you do not love me?"

"Right. Love is complicated and messy."

"I love the way your nipples are pushing into my chest. That is not complicated."

Her lips pursed. "That's not what I meant, and you know it. Loving someone gives them permission to do bad things to you because they know you'll forgive them."

"What kind of bad things have been done to you by those you loved?" The question emerged quietly, lethally. He would slay anyone, man or woman, who dared hurt this woman.

"I've been abandoned, rejected, dismissed and forgotten," she said, and he tensed. "Plus, I saw the way you pushed aside the women who came before me."

"I did not expect you, moon. You were a surprise. I cannot undo what I have done in the past. But you have my vow of honor that I will never tire of you. In time, you will realize this for yourself." He paused, intent. "I know you said you would stay, but I'd like your vow. Promise me you will give me time to prove myself and my intentions toward you."

Her eyes searched his face, probing. Whatever she saw in his expression must have comforted her because she gave him a slow smile and nodded. "You have my vow."

He breathed a sigh of relief and renewed joy. Leaning down, he brushed his lips over hers. His hands searched for and found her own, and he intertwined their fingers before anchoring them above her head. This lifted her chest and meshed her breasts deeper into him. She licked her lips as her eyelids lowered.

"While you have seen only the bad side of love, I have seen the best. My mother and father were mated and completely devoted to each other."

"Where are they, your parents?"

"They died many years ago. My father died in battle and my mother's sadness took her not long after."

My God, Shaye thought. To be so devoted to someone you actually died without them. Simply lost the will to live. It was something out of a movie, yet a part of her she didn't want to acknowledge understood such devotion. She was frightened, and yet for the first time, utterly excited by the prospect.

"I'm sorry you lost them," she said softly.

"Uh-oh. You are showing your sweet side again."

She grinned. "How dare you say such a thing. I'm a hard-core bitch."

"And you hate the things I do to you."

"Hate them," she agreed with a laugh.

His breath tunneled into her ear, followed by his tongue. Her hands tangled in his hair as she trembled.

"Just like you hate me," he breathed.

She couldn't give him the words he wanted so she gave him these instead. "Yes," she whispered. "I hate you so very much."

"Good. Because I'm going to hate you until you can't imagine life without me."

Too late, her mind whispered as he slid into her.

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