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SHAYE'S HEART THUNDERED in her chest, pounding so hard she feared her ribs would crack; her ears rang loudly, and she covered them with her hands to block out the awful sound. She sank onto the edge of a decadent made-for-sex bed of red silk and velvet.

Not daring to breathe, she stared at the sheer, white lace in place of the door.

She remained in that exact position for over an hour, fearful - and, damn it, anticipatory - of Valerian following her inside the room. That look in his eyes when she'd left him... she'd never encountered anything quite so scorching. So blistering. If she'd reached out, the heat from his gaze would have burned her skin.

She gulped. Seeing him like that, she'd felt as if she'd traveled too close to the sun, ready to combust into flames at any moment. A part of her had wanted to combust.

On Earth, or rather the surface, she didn't have to worry about that sort of thing. Desire, thankfully, wasn't a part of her life. Her employees were female; she'd purposefully kept the office testosterone-free to avoid temptation.

"Relationships," she muttered. Ugh. It wasn't that she'd watched her mother devour men like candy or that she'd witnessed her father plow through women like a linebacker. It wasn't the stepdads who had tried to sneak into her room, forcing her to hide in shadowy corners just to get a little sleep. It wasn't even the charmingly sly men she'd dated in that brief, curious period of her life.

It was the fear that she would turn out to be just like them, a slave to her own desires. A fool for love. Accepting of whatever crap the object of her fascination dished. Shaye sighed.

Sure, she'd had more adventure in the last few hours than she'd had in her entire life. She hadn't experienced a moment of loneliness, hadn't had to pretend everything was okay. But up there, the men she pushed away stayed away. If someone asked her out and she said no, they left her alone. Most wanted nothing to do with her, to be honest, finding her too... prickly. Too cold.

Not Valerian. There was no getting rid of him, it seemed.

She rested her head against the bedpost, which was intricately carved with frolicking dragons and naked females. So far Valerian had proven himself a man of his word and had not entered. He hadn't even peeked at her through the wisp of lace. She knew he stood guard just beyond the curtain, though. She heard him shift from one foot to the other.

I have to escape before morning.

"I'm not a trophy," she muttered. "I am not a prize for Valerian and his Sex Squad to fight over."

"Yes, you are," the man of the hour said.

The sound of his husky, sexy voice gave her a jolt of pure pleasure. Made her heart skip a beat and heat coast over her skin. She jumped to her feet, gaze scanning the room for an exit. All she saw was the large tub that was filled with hot water. Tendrils of steam curled to the vaulted crystal ceiling, which showcased the now turbulent ocean above. Waves churned and swirled, leaving wisps of foam behind. No horny mermaids in sight, thank God. Multicolored gowns - togas? - hung in the closet.

The room looked as if it had been taken from the set of a movie. A period piece with a dash of modern. Glamorous, expensive, surreal. While the vanity was made of ivory, the chair in front of it was composed of diamonds, the cushion layered with vivid violet silks from the palest lilac to the darkest amethyst.

True to Valerian's word, there was no other doorway. No other - wait! Biting her lip with the force of her excitement, she raced to a lavender veil hanging over the far wall and shoved it aside.

The sight that greeted her was not what she expected, but it made her gasp all the same. Her eyes widened. "Dear God."

"Magnificent, is it not?" Valerian said through the curtain, as if he could see through her eyes. Pride dripped from his words. "We call it the Outer City."

She stood in front of a wall of windows. A lush green view greeted her. Thick, dew-kissed trees, some as bright as emeralds, others as white as snow, circled the landscape. Clear waterfalls tumbled into pristine rivers. Rainbow-colored birds soared overhead.

In the heart of it all was a crowded, pulsing-with-life city. Buildings of stone and wood created a maze of winding streets. Streaks of light emanated from the dome above, murky and dim, as twilight gave way to night. Light from a crystal instead of a sun, Shaye mused.

She would have loved to visit, to stand in the midst of such spectacular beauty and simply bask in it. "I'm as close as I'll ever get to heaven," she breathed. She stared down the cliffs, amazed by the creatures she suddenly noticed. Okay, maybe not heaven. There were bull-faced men, women with horse-bodies, lions with wings, and - "Holy shit!" She slapped a hand over her mouth, shocked by what she saw.

A deep, throaty chuckle greeted her ears. "We must work on your language, Shaye."

The sound of that chuckle washed over her erotically. The sound of her name on his lips, however, proved more stimulating. Be rude. Make him dislike you. A heartbeat of time passed, and she didn't say anything. I don't want to be rude, some part of her whined. She gnashed her teeth. Just do it! "Well... you can just blow me, Valerian."

 

"Thank you. I will."

She shook her head in frustration. The man simply couldn't take an insult the way it was intended. A horde of harpies - the very thing that had so shocked her a moment ago - took flight, their huge breasts jiggling as they ascended into the air. Long, sharp talons stretched from their hands and feet. Their faces were hideous with beak noses and evil, black eyes.

"There was no need to travel to the beach, Valerian," she said, trying again. "Your perfect mate was right here in your own city all along."

"Only you would do, love."

Her stomach tightened at his words. Forcing her attention away from the fantastical metropolis, she studied the windows. They were made of the same crystal as the dome, only smoother, with no cracks, no seams. Translation: no way to open. She stomped her foot. So what that she couldn't have scaled the walls outside. So what that she was high up, and falling to her death would be the most likely outcome. A girl needed options.

"Perhaps you should use this time to come to terms with your fate instead of finding a way to escape," Valerian suggested from his post.

"Perhaps you should shut up."

Another husky chuckle rumbled from him, and she scowled at the dark, drugging sensuality of it. It was more potent this time. Beguiling. Quietly beseeching her to join him in his merriment.

"Why do you find my insults so humorous?" Most people ran as fast as they could to get away from her.

"You do not really mean what you say," he explained patiently. "I suspect you want just the opposite, in fact."

A tremble moved through her. Shock - yes. More than ever before. Awe - certainly. No one, not even her family, had ever suspected the truth. She did not enjoy hurting people; she simply wasn't brave enough to risk making a friend. How did he know? She cleared her throat, striving for a hard tone. "You don't know me well enough to judge what I mean and what I don't."

"But I would like to."

As he spoke, his face swam before her mind. Perfect masculinity, rugged and untamed. If she dared touch him, his hair would be silky soft, and the gold strands would tickle her palms. She knew it.

"Will you let me know you, Shaye?" he asked quietly.

She could make out the shadowed outline of his body, just beyond the doorway. She watched his strong fingers trace the lace separating them. Was he imagining the cloth was her body? Imagining those fingertips circling her nipples, trekking down her stomach, past her panties and - A shiver racked her, and she frowned.

This type of reaction was unacceptable.

"No," she said. "There will be no getting to know each other." Already she wanted him. What would happen if she actually learned what made him tick?

She valued her independence, her solitariness, and being with a nymph would strip those things away layer by precious layer. So many times now, she'd seen women become mindless around them, forgetting everything except sex. Shaye refused to allow the same fate to befall her.

"I need something from you, little Shaye, and I am willing to deal with you. Bargain," Valerian said, interrupting her thoughts. "Negotiate."

Her eyes narrowed on his large silhouette. "For what, exactly?"

"I will be silent for the rest of the night if you agree to give me your affections."

She snorted. "You're not getting my affection."

"Compliments, then. Will you give me compliments?"

"No. Absolutely not."

He sighed with regret. "Won't you give me something?"

"I'm giving you grief, aren't I?"

He paused, chuckled. "So you are."

Stop talking to him and find a way out of here, her mind shouted. Steps clipped, she approached the far, jewel-encrusted wall. In the hall and dining area, the walls had been bare, as if someone had stolen the gems. Here, wealth abounded. Maybe... She brightened. Maybe one of the jewels was actually a latch that would open a door into some sort of corridor.

"I wish to become your slave, Shaye. I wish to cater to your every desire, to see to your every pleasure." Valerian's voice was smooth, mesmerizing. "Do you not desire such things from me?"

She struggled to harden herself against him, to retain the wall of ice around her emotions. If she ever decided to - God forbid - enter into a relationship, it would not be with a nymph (aka male whore). No matter how irresistible. Shaye knew herself well enough to know she despised sharing. She'd shared her parents with their ever-changing lovers. She'd shared her childhood with sometimes cruel, rarely caring stepsisters and brothers, with loneliness and disappointment.

If ever she gave herself to someone, it would be to a man who wanted her and only her. A man who would give up his life to make her happy. She, in turn, would do the same.

Was she asking and offering too much? Absolutely. But it was what she wanted, and she wouldn't settle for less - even though she knew it was an impossible dream. Perhaps that was why she wanted it in the first place. If she couldn't have it, she didn't have to worry about heartbreak.

Valerian talked a good talk, and God knows he could probably walk a delectable, mind-shattering walk all over her body, but he'd do the same for any and every woman who caught his fancy. He wanted "now" from her, a momentary dalliance, no ties afterward.

No, thank you.

She could have had that on the surface.

Silently she worked the room for two hours, feeling every ounce of wall and floor she could reach. To her vast disappointment, frustration and fury, she found no hidden latch. She was stuck here. If she were home, she would be peacefully tucked in bed right now. Alone. And lonely, her mind piped up.

"Shut up, you stupid brain," she muttered. Lonely was good. Besides, she had a fulfilling life. She would have woken up in the morning, had coffee with her assistant and discussed the day's events. She would have presented a new card idea, probably something along the lines of Congratulations on your new promotion. Before you go, would you mind taking the knife out of my back? You'll probably need it again. Her assistant would have laughed, the rest of the staff would have laughed, and she would have felt like a smart, appreciated person. Not like a confused, horny teenager.

"Go to sleep, moon," Valerian said, cutting into her thoughts. "I sense you're upset. Since I cannot comfort you as I would like... "

"Well, you're responsible for it." She tangled a hand through her hair, nearly ripping out the strands. "Please, Valerian. Take me back to the beach."

A pause. Heavy. Thick. "What is so important there that you must return to it?"

"My home." Paid in full. "My job." Her only real source of accomplishment.

"What was your job?"

He'd used past tense. She made sure to use present. "I make anti-greeting cards," she said proudly.

"Tell me of these anti-cards," he beseeched.

It was a subject she embraced. "There are many companies that produce sappy I love you, I miss you type salutations. Not mine. They say just the opposite."

"I am not surprised," he said, chuckling. "Can you not make such cards here?"

She could, but she didn't want to, so she ignored his question. God, how was she going to get out of here?

"I notice you do not mention friends and family," he said a short while later.

Knowing exactly where this conversation was headed, she should have stopped it then. Should have told him to get lost and leave her alone. But for some reason, she didn't. Couldn't. "That's right," she found herself saying.

"Why?"

She leaned her forehead against the cool wall and squeezed her eyes closed. Lie. Make him feel guilty. "I don't have many friends," she admitted instead, the truth a tangible entity that refused to be denied, "and I don't get along with my family."

"Why?" he repeated.

Why, indeed. "You might have noticed I don't have the sweetest of personalities."

He barked a quick laugh. "Yes, perhaps I did notice."

"That tends to drive people away." The way she intended. Her hands slid up the glittering stone and anchored beside her head. Telling him about her life was dangerous, giving him ammunition against her, but she couldn't seem to end it. He called to something deep inside her. Something... primitive.

"You have not driven me away," he said quietly.

"No, I haven't." She sighed. Why hadn't she? Why hadn't he run from her? Run as fast as his feet could carry him?

"What is so important about your home and job that you cannot stay here with me? I can be your family. I can be your friend. You can sell the cards to me."

"I worked hard for my home. It's mine. I worked hard to make my job a success. I have nothing here."

"But you could." He was still speaking in that soft, tender voice. Let me give you everything, his words implied.

A hot ache squeezed at her chest. She needed to fortify herself against this man, she reminded herself. "Why are you doing this to me? You could have any of the other women. They would eagerly come to you and do anything you asked of them."

"They are not you."

A simple sentence, yes, but it rocked her to the core. Scowling, she straightened. "What's so special about me, hmm? I defy you to name one thing."

For a long while he didn't reply, and that both elated and defeated her. Stupid, she chastised herself, to crave praise from him. The goal was to convince him he didn't want her. Right? "Well?"

Still nothing. Not a single remark or declaration.

"I didn't think so," she finally muttered. She turned her back to the door and stomped toward the bed, battling despair. She needed to think, to consider all her options. Chatting it up with her abductor wasted valuable time.

She'd stay awake all night if she had to, but she wasn't giving up. She would find a way home. She wouldn't sleep, even though she needed the rest. In slumber, she would become even more vulnerable to Valerian. He would be able to sneak into the room and do whatever he wanted to her - and she would have no idea.

But deep down, she knew that was a lie. A defense against him. When that man pleasured a woman, the woman would know it. Even in sleep, she would know. Her body would sing and weep with pleasure.

The man was a menace.

A menace who couldn't name one thing about her that he liked. Bastard.

"Don't come inside this room," she barked. "Do you hear me? And don't speak to me again. I need silence."

"Shaye."

His guttural growling of her name froze her in place. He'd sounded like he was in pain, like he was about to fall down a long, dark, never-ending pit. "What?" She hoped for a waspish tone, but the question emerged as nothing more than a wisp of air. Was he hurt?

"You are the woman of my heart. The one I have been awaiting the whole of my life, though I didn't know it until I spied you. There isn't one thing that makes you special to me, but all things. Now sleep. Tomorrow promises to be a day ripe with unpleasantness."

Just like that, her knees buckled. She would have fallen flat on her face if she hadn't grabbed the edge of the bed and held herself upright. Dear God. Those words. No one - not her mother, not her father, not brother or sisters or an endless string of nannies - had ever spoken to her like that. Made her feel so important, so necessary.

She barely knew Valerian. In their short time together, she'd railed at him, desired him, cursed him and hit him. Now, with a few words, he made her long to throw herself at him. To destroy every wall she'd ever built, melt every piece of ice she'd ever surrounded herself with, and just throw herself at him.

"Dear God," she whispered, horrified. Everything she'd ever secretly dreamed of hearing had just come from Valerian's lips. How was she going to resist him now?

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