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WHEN I GET YOU INTO BED, you will be desperate for it. Desperate for me.

To Shaye, the utter confidence in his voice was more frightening than if he'd screamed the words. As it was, a delicious heat wove through her blood. A heat that begged her to stop resisting and enjoy every stolen touch, every caress of the man's breath on her skin.

Never mind that the other women in the tent were petting the warrior as if he were an innocent house cat. Make that an innocent blow-up doll. They were begging - yes, begging - him to make love with them. Moaning, even, and groaning. Sounds of rapture continually wafted to her ears.

Give in, her body beseeched. Taste him. One taste won't hurt you.

Panicked by her weakening will, Shaye slammed her palm into her captor's nose. His head whipped backward, and blood trickled onto his lip. "Why did you do that?" he demanded after a shocked pause.

Thankfully, his hold on her had loosened. Shaye bowed her back, and he struggled to maintain his grip on her. She managed to squirm free and tumble to her feet. Get out of here! common sense shouted, drowning out her body's ever-growing wails for her to stay. She stepped forward, dragging her wild gaze in every direction, scanning for her mom. Her breath emerged in shallow, ragged pants.

She saw Preston, lying unconscious on the floor. When he'd protested the warrior's actions, one of them had hit him. She saw Conner, her mom's new husband, frantically searching the crowd. But there was no sign of her mom. Damn it! Where was she? They might have a rocky relationship, but Shaye couldn't - wouldn't - leave her behind.

Shaye stepped forward, intending to follow Conner's lead and push through the masses, but the warrior behind her seized her wrist in a viselike clamp. Her blood ran hot from the sensual touch, then cold from fear.

He'd asked her if she smelled him, and she'd said no. Well, she'd lied. She inhaled his erotic, virile fragrance every time he was near, and it fired her hormones into a frenzy. Now was no different.

"You hit me," he said. Undiluted shock layered his words, as if no one had ever dared raise a hand to him before. "Why did you do that?"

Silent, Shaye turned around and kneed him in the balls. Just lifted her leg and boom. Contact. He doubled over, a strained wheeze gasping from his throat.

"Not so hot for my body now, are you?" she mumbled, never stopping her search.

"That... hurt," he gritted out.

"Of course it did, and there's more where that came from if you grab me again."

Without another word, she darted away, still looking... looking... There! Finally. In the corner, her new stepdad had his arms wrapped around her mom, locking a struggling Tamara in place.

Shaye jumped over fallen chairs and skirted around upturned tables, slipping and sliding along a river of red punch. Someone snaked an arm around her waist and hauled her against a stone wall of a chest - and it wasn't her warrior. This man's scent was different, not quite as exotic. Even his skin felt different, not quite as hot. His arms possessed a faint dusting of dark hair.

She screamed and slammed her head backward, hitting him in the chin. Her entire body vibrated with the force of the blow. He growled something, and she didn't have to know his language to know he was cursing. His arms fell away; she whirled on him, ready to fight.

She never should have come here, never should have gotten on the plane. Nothing good ever came of her mom's weddings. Only pain and suffering, and this was the worst of all.

The he-man regarded her through wide blue eyes. "I only meant to kiss you," he said, in English this time, his voice so heavily accented she had trouble deciphering the words. When her frantic mind finally deduced his meaning, she slapped him.

"Ow!"

"No kissing." What was it with the Steroid Squad and their carnal obsessions? Let me pleasure you. You'll be desperate for me. No, no and no! Except for the leader. Or the one she assumed was the leader. Earlier, when they'd first entered the tent, he'd spoken in that strange language and all the men had rushed into action. Him, she foolishly desired.

Her eyes narrowed. His ethereal, beautiful face formed in her mind. Fuck-me eyes, fuck-me lips. I'll-fuck-you body. She bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. How did he wield such a heady, seductive power? Even now, she sizzled and ached and yearned.

An obviously gay wedding guest dressed in a pink sequined top and black velvet pants approached the warrior in front of her. Without asking permission, the man wrapped his lithe arms around the warrior's middle and kissed his sun-bronzed shoulder.

 

The warrior stiffened, and his mouth pulled into a scowl. "I told you to stop. Do. Not. Touch. Me. You are a man. Act like one!"

Shaye didn't hang around to hear the rest of the conversation. She leapt around her would-be captor, closing the rest of the distance between herself and her mom. "Come on, we have to get out of here," she said at the same time Tamara said, "If you don't let me go, Conner, I'll stab you while you're sleeping and cut out your heart!"

Lines of strain bracketed the groom's too-thin lips. Concern and fear gleamed in his eyes. "What should I do?" he asked, looking to Shaye.

Urgency pounded through her. "Just throw her over your shoulder fireman-style and get the hell out of here. Before it's too late."

"It is too late," she heard behind her.

The familiar, husky voice made her shiver. Made her muscles clench, ready for sublime satisfaction. She melted. No, she stiffened. One of the leader's hands slid around her bare stomach, tanned and hard against her pale softness. Goose bumps broke over her skin. His other hand glided down her shoulder, along her collarbone and anchored on her seashell-covered breast. Both arms tugged her gently backward and locked her against him, muscled chest to welcoming back. That delicious scent of virility and dark, moonlit nights wafted to her.

She should protest. At the very least scold him for such daring. The words refused to leave her mouth, however, and she counted her blessings that she didn't lean her head against his shoulder.

"No more fighting." His warm breath kissed the hollow of her ear, shooting dangerous sparks across her nerve endings. "My nose still hurts," he added sulkily, "as does my co - manhood. Perhaps the first thing I need to teach you is how to properly treat the aforementioned manhood."

Oh, God. Sinking... sinking... deeper under his spell. If it hadn't been for the shell barrier of her bra, his fingers would have surrounded her nipple, probably pinched and rolled it. Her knees almost crumbled. Ohmygod, ohmygod, oh... my... exquisite. Absolutely exquisite. The long, hard length of his erection pressed into the crevice of her lower back, and he rubbed it against her.

Her eyes drifted closed in surrender, a strange weakness invading her limbs. She'd always thought herself immune to lust. On all the dates she'd been on, no one had ever affected her like this. Not even the ones that ended in a kiss. Those seemed paltry now, utterly unexciting.

Men annoyed her, she reminded herself, and this one annoyed her more than any other. Keep thinking it and maybe you'll believe it.

To her horror - cough, total enjoyment, cough - he brought his other hand into play, cupping her other breast. "Paradise," he whispered. "Are you sure you do not smell me?"

Why did he want her to smell him so badly? "I'm sure."

Pause. Then, "Imagine when I have you naked, how intense the sensations will be."

Yes, he annoyed her. And she wanted to be annoyed for the rest of her life. "Please," she managed to gasp out. Sadly, she didn't know exactly what she was begging for. Freedom? Or more of him?

"Please what?" Showing her no mercy, he purred the words straight into her ear. His soft lips brushed the outer edge; his tongue darted inside, only to quickly retreat and leave her shaking for more. "Please take you to my home? Please give you untold pleasure? Say the words, and I will do it."

Oh, God.

Around her, excited twitters and breathy moans of passion reigned as other couples stole a moment to embrace. No matter that no one paid her the slightest bit of attention. These people could see her, could see where her captor had his hands positioned.

If she didn't stop him soon, he would slide his fingers past her skirt and into the very heat of her. She knew it, felt it in the taut strain of his hold. "Please. Let us go. Just leave us alone."

"I'm afraid that's the one thing I cannot do for you." He squeezed her breasts. "I need to be inside you too badly."

She gulped. Don't think about his words, don't think about his words. "I'll give you nothing but trouble. I'm mean and cranky, and most people can't stand to be around me."

"Soon I'll have you so well sated all you'll be able to do is smile."

"Sate me," her mom said, finally ripping free of Conner's clasp. She curled herself around the warrior's ankles, kissing his feet. "Sate me, I beg you."

"Get up," Shaye demanded. Seeing her newly married mother humble herself snapped her out of the sensual spell. "Run. Escape!"

He ignored Tamara, saying, "What's your name, swee - love?" The question emerged as calmly as if it were an everyday occurrence to have someone slobbering all over his boots.

"I'm Tamara," her mom answered before Shaye could speak, "but you can call me anything you want."

Sighing, he bent down, lifted Tamara up with one hand, and thrust her at Conner. His hold on Shaye never loosened. "What is your name?" he repeated, having to speak over Tamara's sudden sobs.

Mutinous, Shaye pressed her lips in a thin line and forced herself to ignore the heady, seductive fire tingling through her. What could she do to force her mother to listen? To rip the foolish woman out of her enchantment?

"I will bargain with you. I will tell you my name, and then you will tell me yours." He paused. When she didn't respond, he continued, "I am Valerian, leader of the nymphs. You may call me Oh, God. That is what the other surface dwellers have preferred to call me."

Valerian. The name whispered along every corridor and hollow of her mind. He - wait. Had he said surface dwellers? "I'd prefer to call you Person Whose Ass I'm Going To Kick, and what do you mean, surface dwellers?"

A pause, thick and heavy and tense, fell over them like a curtain. Then, "You surprise me," he said, the honeyed timbre rich with confusion. "I expected my mate - "

A string of foreign words cut him off.

Stiffening, Valerian faced the speaker. Shaye did the same. The man was nearly as tall as the one holding her, but his hair was black and his eyes were green as emeralds. He, too, wore only pants and boots, his bronzed, bare chest on ample display. He said something else.

Valerian responded in the same, clipped language.

What were they saying?

When he next spoke, the dark-headed man motioned to Shaye with a tilt of his chin.

Whatever Valerian's reply, it was not nice. His tone was hard, utterly unbending. Dripping with command. The warrior paused only a moment, shrugged and strode away.

"What was that about?" Trying not to panic again, Shaye angled her head and stared up at Valerian.

That proved to be a mistake. A big, fat chocolate-covered mistake. The moment their gazes locked, a wave of sexual energy sparked between them, stronger than before, undeniable and irresistible. He ate her up with his eyes, bit by devastating bit, mentally stripping her, already riding her. Hard. Fast.

Look away. Look away, damn it! Any more of that piercing, heady gaze and she'd come. Then and there, no physical stimulation required. Need coiled between her legs, pooling hot and wet, spiraling through her stomach, her nipples.

"Oh, God," she gasped out. Look away! The intense ache was too much. "What was that conversation about?" She didn't mean to shout, but the question ripped from her as she jerked her gaze to the ground.

"I am taking you to your new home," he answered. "You will live with me and see to my every need. Will you come willingly?"

"Hell, no." Her eyes narrowed on her sandals as she fought the urge to face him again. "I'm staying here. Do you hear me? I'm staying!"

He leaned down, his mouth teasing her ear. "I'm glad you said that, for now I get to carry you." Without another word, he spun her around and hefted her onto his shoulder as if she weighed nothing more than a bag of feathers.

"Idiot! Jackass! Moron!" She fought and kicked with all her might, and her knee slammed into his stomach. "Put me down. I'll make you miserable. I'll never stop fighting you. I won't see to your needs."

"You, love, will make me a well-satisfied man," he gritted out. "That I promise you." He strode past the line of women.

Even through her struggles, Shaye held her mom's watery stare until the tent flap was swept aside and Valerian carried her into the night. At least her mom wouldn't be forced to endure... whatever these men were going to make her and the others endure.

The rest of the men fell into pace beside Valerian. The young, single women followed blithely, happily, behind them. From inside the tent, the sound of feminine sobs echoed. "Take me with you," several called. "Please. I'm begging."

Shaye stilled. She rubbed her eyes, pinched the bridge of her nose. This is not happening. Surely this big, brawny, sinfully gorgeous warrior was not carrying her over his shoulder, striding toward the ocean, determined to take her to his home. Wherever that might be. What should she do? What could she do?

Valerian hesitated for a moment, as did the others. "Beautiful," he whispered, gazing at the velvety night sky, the pinpricks of starlight. "So beautiful." He spoke in English - for her benefit? "Now that we have our women, we can enjoy the sights."

"The heavens seem to go on forever," another said, awed. He, too, spoke in her native tongue, following Valerian's lead.

"I'd dreamed of this land, but never imagined such majesty."

"Are you sure we cannot stay here, my king? We could bring the rest of the army here and - "

Valerian shook his head, and the silky tendrils of his hair brushed her bare back. She shivered. "I am sure," he said. "Layel was very clear. To remain on the surface is to die on the surface. Let us tarry no longer." He started forward, expecting everyone to follow. They did.

"For the last time, put me down!" Shaye shouted. She slapped his butt. "Now!"

He slapped her butt in return, then surprised and excited her by massaging away the sting. His hand lingered and savored the feel of her backside. If her grass skirt parted any more...

She snarled low in her throat. Angry at him, angry at herself. Remaining cool and emotionless was not an option. "This is illegal. You're going to get caught. Criminals always get caught. At your trial I'm going to request the death penalty."

"As long as I have tasted you, I can die a happy man."

"Is that supposed to make me shut up?" She beat her fists into his back, watching sand kick at his feet. The echo of churning waves filled her ears. "Is it supposed to make me happy that you've got me trussed up like a sack of potatoes? And why the hell are you walking toward the water?"

"I told you. We are going to my home." His gait easy, he stepped over several of the scuba-clad men who were still lying motionless on the beach.

"Did you kill those men?" she demanded. "Who are they?"

"They were waiting at the portal and attacked, so I did not stop to seek an introduction. And no, we did not kill them. We simply made them sleep." Valerian entered the ocean. Cool waves lapped at his ankles... his knees... thighs. Salty droplets sprayed over her face, burning her eyes.

A gasp slipped from her lips. "Stop! Stop this instant. Put me down."

He kept moving, sinking deeper and deeper into the water.

"Idiot! What are you doing? You're going to drown me."

"I will never allow harm to befall you, little moonbeam." Still, he continued into the water. The other women followed merrily, each wearing a giddy smile. As if frolicking to their deaths was perfectly acceptable. Even fun.

Wait. No, not every woman followed happily. The one with dark curls was fighting her captor, struggling for freedom.

Shaye's heart pounded in her chest, an erratic drumbeat. A war beat. "You're going to kill us all, you overgrown G.I. Joe. You're going - umph." She swallowed a mouthful of salty water, and the next thing she knew, she was completely submerged. Her eyes burned. Her throat constricted. Hair floated around her face like strands of ivory ribbon.

The idiot man kept his strong arms locked around her, one at the bend of her knees, one at the small of her back. His palms were hot, so hot, a startling contrast against the chilly liquid. Silver-white hair continued to dance around her. Colorful fish swam past her line of vision. She wanted to scream. Oh, how she wanted to scream. But every time she opened her mouth, she swallowed more water.

Deeper, deeper he sank. She needed to breathe, damn it! Any minute her lungs were going to burst. Valerian was insane. A drowning murderer on a suicide mission.

She fought against his hold with all her strength, kicking, beating, scratching. Finally the ocean became so deep he couldn't remain upright. They tilted forward, and he began using his powerful legs to swim them even deeper. Deeper still.

I'm going to die, she realized. Truly die. Terror beat through her. Already her lungs shrieked for air. There were so many things she wanted to do, and dying wasn't one of them. She wanted to write a book, maybe a sappy romance where the heroine experienced the love Shaye had always denied herself. She wanted to get another tattoo, maybe a pretty flower this time. Her first tattoo, a skull and crossbones on her lower back, was something she'd gotten in an attempt to make her parents notice her.

Her mom had definitely noticed and still mailed her tattoo-removal coupons every few weeks. The coupons amused her, actually made her feel liked - if not loved.

Another thought tried to form, but her mind blanked, cutting it off and becoming as dark as the water. Breathe, she mentally shouted. Breathe before you pass out.

Suddenly the water cleared, so glassy she could see as perfectly as if she were on land. Even the salt dissipated, soothing her irritated eyes. Valerian tugged her forward until they were eye-to-eye. Automatically she tried to push herself away from him, but he held tight.

Maybe that was for the best. She didn't want to lose her single connection with life. And right now, Valerian was her only solid anchor - psychotic though he was.

Yes, at the moment he was both destroyer and savior.

"Breathe," she mouthed. Her body verged on spasming, on forcing her to attempt to suck in air. No matter that water still surrounded her.

"Soon," he, too, mouthed. He motioned with his head, and she squelched her panic enough to turn and look. Her eyes widened when she saw the swirling, gelatinous whirlpool looming ahead. What the hell was that thing? And why was Valerian swimming straight into it?

Had to... stop him. With a shaky arm, she reached out to block his forward momentum. Her fingertip brushed the whirlpool. Instantly the aquatic world crumbled into dark nothingness, an abyss welcoming her with open arms. A thousand screams ripped through her ears, violent, intense. Needles jabbed at her every pore, the pain nearly too much to bear.

A stream of bright light erupted and whizzed past her, then disappeared altogether. Wind gusted, spinning her round and round. Where was Valerian? He, too, had disappeared. Dizziness consumed her as she continued to twirl. Alone. Frightened. No end in sight.

Falling... falling...

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