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"VALERIAN," SHAYE SAID, her voice shaky. As shaky as her body. "Help me."

"I will take care of this. Worry not." All at once, Valerian felt infuriated that someone would dare try to take Shaye from him, overjoyed that Shaye felt safest with him and frightened that he might actually lose her.

And to his cousin, no less.

They didn't share an easy camaraderie, for Joachim's thirst for power made him rebellious. Wild. How Valerian was going to change the soldier's mind, he didn't know.

"There are two other females in line," Valerian said. "Are you sure you would not prefer one of them?"

Joachim nodded, never once glancing toward the women in question. Determination filled his eyes. Determination... and lust. For Valerian's head? Or Shaye's body? Either way, Valerian would not give up easily.

Nor would Joachim, apparently. "I want her," the man said firmly.

Shaye's soft body pressed into the hardness of Valerian's. Her frosty scent enveloped him, fueling his own sense of determination.

"I will challenge you for her." Valerian pinned his cousin with a hard stare. "I will give you the opportunity to defeat your king." Joachim could not take the throne that way, but there was much honor in fighting the king. Even if - when! - Joachim lost, he would be lauded for participating in such a rare occurrence.

For a moment, an all-too-short flash of time, Joachim considered the offer. He even began to nod but stopped himself. He shook his head instead. "Unacceptable." Frowning, he gripped the hilt of his sword. "Last night, you had female flesh in excess, making you strong. I have been neglected for weeks. We are not on equal ground."

Valerian's jaw clenched painfully. Did his cousin hope for a night with Shaye, then a fight with the king? "You may spend the night with the three women who pleasured me. They will ensure you are strengthened. We can fight for Shaye on the morrow."

Joachim's black brows arched, and something - an unreadable emotion - brightened his blue eyes. "You said you would not claim another surface woman, yet there you stand, attempting to do just that."

"Wait." Shaye held up her hands. "Hold everything. You slept with three women at the same time, Valerian?" Had she been facing him, he felt certain she would have slapped him. "What, do you expect me to join the love train? You're disgusting! All of you are."

"Do you want them or not?" he asked Joachim, ignoring her.

Lips curling in a smile, Joachim pointed to Shaye. "I want that one. As is my right."

"She will cause you nothing but trouble." His teeth were clenched so tightly, he had trouble getting out the words.

"That's right." Shaye nodded, tufts of white hair dancing over her shoulders. "I'll stab you while you sleep. I'll cut off your balls and use them for earrings. I'll... I'll - "

Color faded from Joachim's cheeks, and he swallowed. At least her threats to Joachim were more violent, Valerian mused. She'd only wanted to cut out his eyes.

"I want her still," Joachim said, though he did not sound as confident.

His cousin would not relent. Frustrated, infuriated, Valerian gave an animalistic growl. He'd never lied to his men, never gone back on his word. His father had died when Valerian was only a boy, leaving Valerian to take over the nymph army. He'd had to prove himself worthy and capable over and over again. And he had.

"Honor them," had been his father's dying words. "Lead them. Protect them. You are ultimately responsible for their fate."

He could take Shaye, and no one could naysay him. Grumble about his lack of honor, yes, even curse him to everlasting Hades. But not naysay him.

While he had told himself he could surrender his honor to possess Shaye, he realized now that he could not. How could he expect her to fall in love - and love him she would - with a dishonorable man?

 

"I have said I would not claim the females brought here, and I will not," he said.

Shaye stiffened. She closed her hands over his arms, which were still wrapped around her, and dug her fingernails into his skin.

"I will not," he continued, switching to his native tongue so Shaye would not understand the rest of the conversation, "without reaching amicable terms. Allow me to buy her from you."

Once more, Joachim shook his head. "No."

Damn the man! "What can I do, cousin? The woman - " he stopped, pressed his lips together " - the woman is my mate."

Joachim's nostrils flared, and he bared his teeth. He took a menacing step forward. "She does not seem to think so. She has not accepted you as such."

"She is human. Their reactions must be different from ours."

"You would say anything to keep her."

"In this, I do not lie. If you take her, she can never love you. She will never be able to give her heart to you. In her soul, she will always belong to me." They both knew the ways of mates and nymphs. Love was love. That Shaye was human made no difference. He had to make Joachim understand. "When you take her to your bed, it will always be my face she pictures. My body she craves. Can your pride stand such a thing?"

Dark, heavy silence greeted his pronouncement. His cousin paled, his jaw clenched.

"What did you say to him?" Shaye looked from him to Joachim, Joachim to him.

Joachim's gaze narrowed on Valerian. "I must think on what you have said. Let us both stay away from her this night and discuss her ownership in the morning."

Since he'd spoken in the surface language, Shaye understood. "Ownership?" she gasped.

Stay away from her this night? Valerian's body jerked at the horror. Since the first moment he'd seen her, he'd thought only of possessing her. Denying himself would, perhaps, be the most difficult thing he'd ever done.

"I am in... agreement." At least his cousin would not be allowed to touch her, either.

"Well, I'm not in agreement." Shaye stomped her foot, determined to be acknowledged.

He tightened his hold on her, hoping to silence her. Of course, it didn't work.

"Let me save you both a lot of trouble," she said. "I don't want either of you. Now, I'm a reasonable - "

Valerian snorted.

"Reasonable woman," she finished, glaring at him over her shoulder. "And I'm willing to forget this entire episode of The Male Whores of Atlantis if someone will. Just. Take. Me. Home."

Ignoring her, Joachim crossed his arms over his chest. "Where will she stay tonight?"

"I will place her in the chamber next to mine. We will both guard her door."

His cousin paused for a moment, running the idea through his mind. He nodded. "Very well."

Valerian dropped his arms from Shaye, instantly mourning the loss of her softness, her heat. She must have felt the same loss, whether she would admit it or not, because she laced her arms over her middle and shivered.

"Damn it." She drummed her fingers against her sides. "Will someone pay attention to me and tell me who's taking me home?"

"I am," Valerian answered before Joachim could respond. "I am taking you home."

On a startled gasp, she spun and faced him. "Really? You'll take me home? Now?"

He drank her in, struck anew by the beauty of her. How could one woman make him ache so intensely? Make him forget everyone who had come before her until only she existed?

Reaching out, he held his palm face-up. "Will you come with me willingly?"

Suspicion suddenly blanketed her features. But even that did not detract from her beauty. "You're not lying to me?"

"Never."

For a long while, she did nothing. Then, she tentatively placed her hand in his. Their fingers intertwined, a perfect fit.

He knew she'd misunderstood his intentions; this was her new home. But he said nothing. Not yet.

Joachim growled and held out his own hand to Shaye. Seconds ticked by as she stared at it. Every muscle in Valerian's body clenched. If she took Joachim's hand, she would encourage the man's attentions. She would disprove the validity of Valerian's declaration.

One heartbeat passed. Then another.

She leveled Valerian with an exasperated glance. "Well. What are you waiting for? Let's go. If we hurry, I'll be able to make my flight back to Cincinnati."

Flight? She could fly? Surely not. He pushed away his confusion and concentrated on his surprise. She'd ignored Joachim and his proffered hand as if they didn't exist. But him, she asked for aid. Inside, Valerian howled with triumph.

"Crosse," he called to one of the remaining men. "Prepare the room next to mine." Hopefully, the loyal man would know what he truly desired - the removal of all traces of the human women he'd pleasured last eve. Unfortunately, they hadn't limited themselves to the main chamber. Shaye erupted at the slightest hint of carnality, and he did not want her upset.

Crosse nodded, cast a wistful glance at the two remaining women and rushed to obey.

Joachim, who hadn't moved, at last dropped his arm to his side. "Best you be cautious, woman, and treat me with care." His voice was low, gritty. "I might change my mind and choose to take you now."

"At odds already." Valerian tsked under his tongue, though he really wanted to attack.

"Why don't both of you go to hell and save me the trouble of sending you there?" Shaye said, radiating absolute innocence. Total sweetness. "Now, be a good boy and take me home like you promised, Valerian."

He glimpsed Joachim's astonished gaze and fought a grin. That sharp tongue of Shaye's just might save them. He turned back to the others. "Terran, Aeson, you may choose between the final two." As they cheered, he faced Shaye and said, "This way." He led her into the hallway.

A few of the warriors, he noticed, had not made it to their rooms. Some were in the process of making love to their new women right there in the hall, while others had simply pushed their lovers against the wall and were feasting between their legs. Moans, purrs and groans of delight echoed.

"My God," Shaye gasped out.

Such a sight was common in a nymph household, but he did not mention that to Shaye.

With her close on his heels, and Joachim close on hers, he ushered her past the kitchens, past the training arena, past the warriors' barracks - where more moans and purrs abounded.

"Do they ever stop?" Shaye muttered darkly.

Shock and - was that desire? - laced her voice. Yes, he realized. Yes, it was. The shock amused him. The desire excited him on a primal level. If she were his, he would have vanquished the first and leisurely explored the second right then and there. Soon, he swore. Soon.

His chambers were situated in a hall away from the rest of the palace. Each room was spacious, with a large bathing pool, an immense bed and a panoramic wall of windows that offered a breathtaking view of the Outer City below.

"Thank you for agreeing to take me back," Shaye said. "I know you don't want to, and I'm grateful."

He'd never heard such a gentle, tender tone from her. She even wore an expression of genuine gratitude, the sweetness of it softening her features and gifting her with bright radiance. He could not allow her to wallow in false assumptions any longer. "I'm not taking you back to your world, moon. I'm taking you to your home. Your new home."

She hissed in a stream of air; her nails dug into his flesh. "You knew what I thought, you misleading bastard."

"Does she always speak this way?" Joachim asked, voicing his first doubt.

"Always," Valerian and Shaye snapped in unison.

"I'm not staying in your room," she growled to Valerian. "I told you that already."

He had to drag her (gently, of course) the rest of the way. Joachim watched the interaction with an unreadable expression. Finally they reached the outskirts of Valerian's rooms.

Crosse exited the main doorway, swishing the wispy material that hung there. His features were flushed with pleasure; his eyes were closed in surrender as he blindly felt his way out.

Having caught his scent, the three naked human women chased after him and trapped him in a circle. Instantly their hands were all over him, touching and caressing his back as they moaned in eagerness. In impatience.

Seeing them, a plan sprouted thick roots inside Valerian's mind - and it irritated him that he was reduced to planning and scheming to have a woman who should, by all rights, be panting for him. He was a king. A leader. His word was law. "Take whichever woman you desire, Crosse, and go to bed."

The warrior's eyelids popped open in surprise. "My king," he said. One of the women cupped his testicles, and he moaned. "May I have all three?"

Valerian rolled his eyes. "No. Two are needed... elsewhere."

Shaye's mouth flailed open and closed, each time emitting a strangling sound. "You're treating those women like objects, and what do you mean elsewhere?" She pointed a finger at Crosse, but her gaze remained on Valerian. "What if the woman he picks doesn't want to leave with him? What then?"

"You have doubt of their willingness?" Valerian motioned to the writhing foursome with a tilt of his chin. "They are eating him alive even now."

Her eyes narrowed on them, and she humphed. "Well, you still sound like a pimp," she muttered. Then, louder, "Stand up for yourselves, girls. Tell these men you won't take part in their debauchery."

In lieu of a response, all three ran their tongues over Crosse's bare chest and back. The man whimpered in unadulterated bliss. Shaye pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head.

"Take your woman, Crosse, and go."

"Thank you, my king." Crosse grabbed the brunette, who was even then trying to slip her hand into his pants, and raced away with her. Her giggles echoed behind her.

The other two groaned at the loss of their lover... until they spied Valerian. They clapped and laughed in renewed delight. He backed away. He even thrust Shaye in front of him as a shield.

"I am mated," he told them. Mated nymphs did not usually draw females with the same potency and fever as unmated ones. These women might want him still, but they would never again want him beyond reason. Beyond all sense of self.

Perhaps humans did not know that was the way of things, for they sauntered toward him, undeterred.

"Back off, ladies," Shaye suddenly barked. They obeyed instantly, their features crumbling in a pout.

Valerian blinked in surprise. Had that been jealousy in Shaye's tone? Possessiveness? Dare he hope? "Joachim is in need of a lover," he said, pointing.

Their gazes slid to the warrior in question - whose eyes were widening in suspicion. And anticipation. Both women grinned slowly and sashayed to him without question.

"You are so big," the blonde cooed.

"And strong," added the redhead.

Joachim backed away, determined to resist. "I have made a choice?" he said, but the words were a question rather than a statement. "The... the pale one is to be my next bed partner, and I must guard her door this night. For that reason, you... can... not... touch... me. Touch me." The last was an unrestrained moan of helpless capitulation.

They'd reached him, and their hands were already on him, stroking. Their warm breath was probably bathing his skin; their eager scent likely filling his nose. Valerian almost grinned. Perhaps I have already lost my honor, he thought, even as he said, "Shaye will not mind if you do not stand guard at her door this night. A man has needs, and she knows that."

"Needs," the lost-in-a-passion-haze warrior repeated, dazed.

"I want your naked skin sliding against mine," the blonde said, breathless.

"I want you, hot in my mouth."

Joachim audibly swallowed. "Valerian," he began.

"Go. I will see you in the morning."

"The pale one - "

"Will remain untouched." Tonight. "I have given you my word."

"I trust you." Joachim strode away then, a sexually charged woman on each arm. Valerian doubted they would make it to a room. Most likely, Joachim was already naked and inside one, pinning her against the wall -

A woman's ecstatic cry of pleasure rang out.

Valerian finally allowed his grin to peek through. Joachim was occupied, and he had Shaye alone. But he couldn't taste her or caress her body, he reminded himself. He'd given his word, after all, and his cousin trusted him. He lost his smile.

"Unbelievable," Shaye muttered.

He gripped her shoulders and twisted her around, letting her see his frown. "Just what do you find so unbelievable?"

"The amount of communal sex to be had, of course. Haven't you people heard of diseases?"

She looked so lovely standing there in her pique. So surreal, like the moonbeam he called her. Lust coiled strong fingers through his blood. He'd touched the softness of her skin today, but had yet to taste her. He'd held her, but had yet to make love to her.

The sounds of loving echoed from every corridor of the palace, audible even in this remote hideaway. Shaye's cheeks pinkened. How he would have loved to taste that color in her cheeks, to see if it was as pure as it appeared. His cock hardened painfully.

Now that they were alone, his body wanted only to learn hers. To strip her. To sink into her. To pound, hard and fast, a never-ending rhythm. She looked at him, as if she herself had just realized they were finally alone, and her nostrils flared. In desire?

He had to have her, honor be damned. Had to - He fisted his hands at his sides to keep himself from reaching out.

"Shaye, listen to me very closely." The words were nothing more than a growl of barely restrained need. "I want you, but I cannot have you. If you do not go inside that room right now, I'm going to forget that I'm not supposed to have you. I'm going to take you. I'll rip away your clothes and taste every inch of you."

As he spoke, she inched away from him. Her eyes widened, impossibly round, velvet-brown with sparks of, dare he say, need?

"The cloth behind you covers the only doorway. If you cross it, even once, I will view it as an invitation to take what I so desperately crave."

The total conviction in his voice must have frightened her. Pallid, she spun around and sprinted into the room, pale hair drifting behind her like a cluster of falling stars.

For a long while, the cloth hanging in the doorway rippled, daring him to enter. Finally it stilled, and Valerian covered his face with a shaky hand. Having a mate was going to be hell on his body, it seemed, for he foresaw a long, painful night ahead.

With no real end in sight.

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