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LEAVING SHAYE ASLEEP in his bed - their bed, Valerian amended - was the hardest thing he'd ever done. Her soft, pale tresses tapered over the violet sheets, as ethereal as a dream. Her features were relaxed, the sandy length of her lashes casting shadows over her cheekbones. Her lips were plump and rosy from his kisses.

He'd already dressed, had hastily tugged on a black shirt and pants before he'd lost his resolve to leave. As leader of this palace, it was his duty to see to his guests. But more than that, he wanted to see to the palace's defenses and ensure they were well fortified, strong enough to withstand the most violent of attacks.

This peaceful reprieve the vampires had given them would not last long, he knew. Darius would be back. Valerian only hoped it would be later rather than sooner. The longer he had to solidify his bond with Shaye, the better.

He couldn't resist placing a chaste kiss on the tip of her nose - which proved to be a mistake. She muttered under her breath, an airy gurgling of unintelligible words. One of them might have been his name. He was suddenly rock hard for her, so aroused it was as if he'd never taken her. Leave. Now. Before you can't.

Forcing one foot in front of the other required all of his concentration. But he did it, his quick stride widening the distance. Now that Shaye had decided to stay, he knew she would begin to make his home her own, gifting it with little touches of her personality.

Flowers would most likely fill the rooms, and he would take great pleasure in procuring them for her. Paintings, colored stones, beaded pillows. He would take her into the city and purchase everything she wanted, everything she needed. All the things women used to make a home, well, a home. She would want for nothing, her every wish his to grant.

He was grinning as he entered the dining hall. Vampires surrounded the table. Most clutched goblets filled with some type of blood, he was sure. Several nymphs were here, though most were on duty and if not on duty, loving a woman. There were no females present.

Layel, who had claimed the head of the table, spotted him and motioned him over.

"Acting as king of the place, already?" Valerian said with a grin. He plopped onto the now-vacant spot beside his friend.

"Of course." Layel sipped at his goblet. "I don't think you've ever looked so sated, Valerian."

"Mated life agrees with me."

A curtain of sadness flittered over Layel's expression. "I remember it well, mated life."

Layel had lost his mate years ago. She'd been a human, descended from those the gods had banished from the surface and dropped into the city for punishment. A rogue group of dragons had raped and burned her. Not Darius, but a contingent of his tutor's men. It did not matter to Layel that Darius was innocent. The vampire king despised all dragons and wanted them destroyed.

Valerian recalled well the devastation Layel had endured when he'd discovered his lover's charred remains. His grief had been severe and gut-wrenching.

"The dragons have captured a group of nymph females," Valerian said, "and that is something I cannot allow."

"It would be my pleasure to retrieve them for you," the vampire king said with relish.

"No. I will not have your vampires go after them. I would like to send my own men, but if I do so, I will need to make up for the loss here."

"You wish us to remain?"

He nodded. "If you are able."

Layel didn't hesitate. "You need us, we stay. There is nothing more to discuss."

Layel had always been that way. Loyal. Giving of himself and his time. That was why Valerian valued his friendship as he did. There were not many men so willing to help a race other than their own.

Those who earned the vampire king's wrath, however, were enemies for life. Layel lived for their suffering. He never forgot a wrong.

"Thank you, my friend." Valerian clapped him on the back. "If you ever need me, I am here."

 

Layel's face was as pale as Shaye's, yet a rush of color suffused his cheeks. "You are a cherished friend, Valerian."

"As are you." He stood. "Take what animals you need. If you have need of women, which I'm sure you will, you will have to get them from the Outer City yourself, I'm afraid. They have been hiding from us."

Layel gave a booming laugh. "That means they are smart."

Valerian snorted. He didn't offer the use of the human women, and Layel didn't ask for the honor. A nymph might share his lover with other nymphs, but not with other creatures. The women would then carry that creature's scent and no male liked another creature's smell on his lover. Well, that wasn't entirely true. He could recall several of his men who became excited by that.

"We will talk again soon," he said. "I must now see to the palace."

"I know you, Valerian. You might see to the palace, but your true goal is to get back to your bed."

He grinned wickedly. "Yes, you do know me well."

A HARD, CALLUSED HAND slapped over Shaye's mouth. She came awake instantly, a scream lodged in her throat. It emerged as nothing more than a quiet murmur. She knew the hand did not belong to Valerian. It smelled different, not as erotic, like a storm about to fall. It did not spark awareness inside her.

Vampire, perhaps? Valerian had mentioned the vampires were inside the palace. Panicked, she swung her fist and connected with something solid. Her captor grunted.

"Do not move again, woman. We will not hurt you."

Undeterred, she thrashed and kicked.

"We will not hurt you," that deep, accented voice said. "Please, be still."

We? Her gaze darted throughout the darkness. What she wouldn't have given for a flashlight just then. Scratch that. A stun gun or a knife was what she needed. She wrapped her fingers around the man's wrist and jerked.

"If I must, I will render you unconscious and neither of us will like how I do that."

She stilled, knowing that to be unconscious was to lose this battle completely. If she could break free, she could run and scream and find Valerian.

"Good," the man - vampire? - said. "Now, I'm going to remove my hand. If you draw your lover here, we will kill him without hesitation. Understand?"

One nod in the affirmative. Inside, she screamed and screamed and screamed. No. No! Valerian was strong, but he was also flesh and blood. She didn't know how many men were inside the room. She didn't know what weapons they possessed.

She had to warn him without drawing him into an ambush. What could she do? Think, Shaye, think.

As promised, the man removed his hold on her mouth. She dragged in a shaky breath. "Who are you? What do you want?"

"We are dragons, and we are going to take you home."

Dragons. The enemy. Dear God. They will ravish you and burn you, Valerian had said. She shook her head, tendrils of hair slapping her cheeks. "I am home."

"That's what the others said, but it didn't sway us from our purpose."

"You can't take me. I won't let you." I promised Valerian I'd stay. Valerian! her mind shouted. Slowly her eyes adjusted to the dark. She counted four silhouettes, each larger than the other. Weapons of all shapes and sizes were strapped to their bodies.

"We can do whatever we want," one of the men said with amusement. "Sit up. Slowly."

She did as instructed, and the sheet tumbled to her waist. Cool air kissed her bare skin. Gasping, she jerked the sheet up. "I'm naked." She hadn't meant to blurt the words aloud, but the realization had shocked her. Stupid. Idiot! Why don't you just ask them to rape you.

"Here," another of them said. He was at her left. "Put this on."

A bundle of material was shoved over her head, surprising her. "Why are you doing this?" she demanded, quickly pulling it down. It was a robe, soft and sheer but a covering nonetheless.

"It is the will of the gods," was the calm reply. "Stand. Keep your arms to your side."

She inched from the bed as quietly as possible, hoping they wouldn't sense her exact location. The door was to the left, and she inched one step, then two. Then she broke into a full run. Strong arms anchored around her before she reached the curtain, bringing her to a dead stop.

"Damn you," she muttered, flailing. "Let me go."

"Woman, I warned you."

Knowing he meant to knock her out, Shaye increased her struggles. She slashed with her nails, tugged her captor's hair, and punched him in the stomach. "I'm going to pray your gods curse you!"

"They already have." A heavy sigh. "I'm sorry to do this, but you've given me no choice."

Someone muttered a series of unintelligible words and a wave of lethargy swept through her. Her eyelids drifted shut, so heavy she could not hold them open. Sleep called to her, as alluring as any nymph. Help, she tried to scream, knowing that to fall asleep was to be taken from Valerian. She needed more time with him.

Sleep... sleep... no. She shook her head. Scream. She opened her mouth, but no sound emerged. And still sleep called to her, beckoning. Lulling.

"She's a fighter," someone said in awe.

"I've never seen the like."

"She should have dropped by now."

"Sleep, woman. On the morrow, you will not remember any of this."

Strength abandoned her limbs, slowly, quickly. She wasn't sure. Time ceased to exist. Utter darkness crept gnarled fingers inside her mind. Fight... fight... fi...

She knew nothing else.

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