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VALERIAN SPENT the entire night posted at Shaye's door. She'd finally obeyed him, had at last slipped into sleep. Stubborn girl that she was, she had fought it until the end.

He was hyperaware of her every movement. Every sound she made. For hours she'd searched for a way out of the room, then she'd paced and muttered under her breath about "stupid men," "stupid emotions" and "stupid mystical cities coming to life." But her steps had eventually slowed, her curses eventually ceased. He'd heard her drift into unconsciousness with a soft sigh. A quick peek had confirmed that she did indeed sleep, sprawled on the cold, hard floor, her hair spilling around her like a snowy curtain.

He suspected she'd avoided the bed on purpose, and he was still frowning about that fact. Did she think he would not take her if she was not on a bed? Silly woman. He would take her wherever, however he could get her.

Gods, he wanted so badly to touch her.

Just one touch... Such a heady thought. Surely there was nothing wrong with placing her on the bed. He was her man, after all, and it was his duty to see to her comfort.

He shouldn't - he knew he shouldn't - but he allowed himself to enter the room. He swept aside the lace that covered the doorway. Much as he might crave sexual contact with her, he would not touch her in that way. That had been his promise to Joachim... and to Shaye. And he would keep that promise. Gods help him, he would keep it.

His steps quiet, he moved toward her. She still lay on the ground, on her back, one hand over her head, the other next to her ear. He sucked in a breath.

She looked like a winter goddess, a snow nymph, lovelier than Aphrodite herself. That pale hair ribboned around her delicate frame, the strands so silky they glistened as if they'd been sprinkled with starlight. Her eyelashes were light, only a shade darker than her hair. Her lips, those soft, lush, all-your-dreams-come-true lips were parted, begging to be kissed.

Resist, he commanded himself. Resist her allure.

Too late.

She uttered a breathy, sleep-rich sigh. His inexhaustible desire clamored to instant life, reaching for her. Frantic for her. He wanted that sigh in his ears, on his chest - lower still - her breath warm and caressing. If only she didn't appear so soft and vulnerable, so ripe for the taking...

She was to be his greatest satisfaction, his greatest pleasure.

Damn Joachim to Hades, wanting something - someone - that belonged to Valerian! As the curse echoed through his mind, he found his lips lifting in wry humor. Could he blame the man for coveting such an enchanting morsel as Shaye?

Hades, yes! he decided in the next instant. He scowled. She was meant for no man save himself, and those who thought otherwise deserved a painful death. Valerian had never wanted anything as much as he wanted Shaye, and not being able to have her immediately was... difficult. Hard - literally.

Bending down, he scooped her into his arms. She was as light as he remembered. As soft. As warm. As lovely. "I will have you yet," he told her. "Say nothing if you agree with me."

Of course she made no reply.

He was grinning, his humor restored, as he carried her to the bed. Gently he placed her on the mattress, his arms already protesting her loss. He removed her sandals and traced his finger over her coral-painted toes. As he straightened, he smoothed the hair from her face and reveled in the feel of her glorious skin. As cool as she looked, she was surprisingly, wondrously hot.

"Dream of me, moon," he whispered.

The pink tip of her tongue emerged and swept over her lips. A wave of desire swept through him as he imagined himself meeting her tongue with his own. Twining. Dueling. Tasting.

Sucking.

"I'll dream of you, I have no doubt." Lingering a moment more, he traced his fingertip over the seam of her lips. She sighed breathily again. His stomach clenched; every muscle in his body hardened.

He couldn't tear his eyes from her, but he knew he had to leave her soon, or he wouldn't be able to do so at all. The longer he stayed, the more his control would slip. Already it clung precariously to a sense of honor he wasn't sure he possessed anymore. A sense of honor he truly despised for the first time in his existence.

One look at Shaye and she was all he thought about, all he craved, wanted. Needed.

 

Leave! Now. Slowly, so slowly, he backed out of the room. His gaze remained on her heavenly form for as long as possible. When the lace finally blocked his view, his hands tightened into fists. He leaned his forehead against the cool wall.

I have to win her. I cannot let another have her.

Straightening, he paced the length of the antechamber, skirting around lounge chairs and armor. The thick soles of his boots thumped against the onyx floor. For the first time in weeks, not a single member of his army had approached him during these twilight hours. They were locked in their rooms - or in the halls beyond - floating on the clouds of ecstasy found only in a woman's sweet arms.

Even Joachim had stayed away.

Valerian prayed his cousin became so enamored of his current lovers that he forgot all about Shaye. If not... well, Valerian would just have to think of something Joachim would find irresistible. Something he'd place above the importance of a bedmate. What?

Joachim was a good man (at times), a strong warrior, with a (slightly) loyal heart. What were the man's weaknesses? Women? Beyond a doubt. Women were the weakness of all nymphs. Power? Definitely. Weapons? Most surely. Joachim collected them. From every warrior he'd killed or bested, he had taken their weapons and hung them on his bedchamber wall.

Valerian's gaze strayed to his own blade, resting against an onyx chest. The Skull. Large, sharp. Lethal. One of the finest swords ever made. No, the finest ever made. Crafted by Hepaesteus, blacksmith of the gods. The weapon had slayed many of his enemies, rending them with unmendable injuries. It was the only one of its kind. Its twisted frame and elongated skull tip were envied by every soldier who spied it.

He hated to give it up, but his mate held much more importance to him. Even a mate who wanted nothing to do with him. Would Joachim accept it?

He sighed, the answer remaining a mystery. As much a mystery as how to win Shaye's well-guarded heart. Jewels? Pretty clothing? If he thought, even for a moment, that she valued those things, he would sweep her up that very second and take her into the Outer City. He would buy her everything she desired. But so far she had seemed unimpressed by his wealth, wanting only to return home.

Did she have enemies in need of slaying? If so, he would gladly lay their lifeless bodies at her feet.

He pushed a hand through his hair. Uncertainty about a female was foreign and horrible and challenging and exciting. Winning her - defeating Joachim and overcoming Shaye's own resistance - awakened his deepest warrior instincts. He'd gladly present Hades with his soul and live forever damned, just to be with Shaye.

"She will be mine," he vowed to the heavens. "She will be mine."

THREADS OF LIGHT flowed from the crystal dome above, gradually brightening the room. Different-colored shards shot in every direction, a lovely rainbow spray. Blues, pinks, purples, greens. Shaye tore her tired gaze from them and stared directly above the - she gasped. The ceiling above her was composed of glass, not crystal, and she was given a full view of her reflection.

She was splayed atop a bed of red silk sheets, her pale hair and skin a startling contrast. Her eyes were at half-mast, heavy and slumberous, with dark circles under them. One of her arms rested at her side; the other was raised and bent at her temple. Still wearing her seashell bra and grass skirt, she could have been taken straight from the pages of Beach Bunny magazine.

She looked ready and eager for a man.

Not just any man, though...

She gulped and rolled to her side. She shouldn't be on this bed, she thought, recalling how her knees had given out and she'd tumbled to the floor, too exhausted to get up.

Her gaze narrowed on the door. Had Valerian entered without her knowledge? Had he carried her here? Seen her like this? Posed her like this? That... that... Calm down. Nothing you can do about it now.

At least he hadn't woken her up and tried to seduce her. Not that she would have had the strength to send him on his way. Not last night. Not after the things he'd said to her.

She hadn't meant to fall asleep, damn it. She should have been searching for a way out, not dreaming of her sexy captor. Of his hands on her, tracing the arch and planes of her lips, holding her to his chest. Cherishing her.

"Diabolical man," she muttered. Surprisingly, she wasn't stiff or sore as she eased up. She yawned and rubbed the sleep from her eyes, then scanned the room, hoping the way out would reveal itself in the light of day. The bathing pool still steamed with hot water, like a natural spring. Cloth still draped the windows. Columns still rose to the ceiling with Roman majesty.

Except for the lace-covered doorway, no exit magically presented itself.

I have to get out of here, she thought, suddenly urgent, before he comes to get me.

He. Valerian. Unbidden, his image rose in her mind. Strong, proud. Sexual. A hedonist to the extreme, with skin that looked like dark, lickable cream, hair as radiant as spun gold, and eyes... God, his eyes. They beckoned. They teased. They promised. His turquoise irises were as mesmerizing as a turbulent ocean and just as deep. Those long, dark lashes acted as the perfect frame, the perfect contrast.

What are you doing mooning over him? Dummy! It's time to leave. Fighting a rush of desire, she lumbered to her feet - and tripped over her sandals. So. He'd taken off her shoes. She should be grateful that was all he'd removed.

Shaye used the surprisingly modern bathroom and washed her face, hoping the water would also wash away her unwanted feelings. Then she circled the room, seeing everything she'd seen the night before - a prison.

There might not be a secret exit, she thought then, but there was a way out. The front door. Was Valerian still guarding it?

As quietly as possible, she tiptoed toward the lace. The closer she came, the stronger Valerian's masculine scent became, a heady mixture of aroused man and determined warrior. Her skin prickled with delight. She tried to hold her nose, to fight the scent's allure and the weakening effect it had on her.

Once at the doorway, she clasped the material and inched it to the side. All the while, her heart drummed a staccato rhythm. Da-dum da-dum da-dum. Would he be there, awake and waiting? Or had he thankfully, blessedly, fallen asleep?

"Good morning, Shaye."

She gasped. Valerian stood just in front of her, arms crossed over his massive chest, legs braced apart. Their gazes linked, clashed. Her treacherous heart lost its rhythm and skipped a beat. He looked as unbelievably mouthwatering as before. Shirtless. His body roped with the tightest abs she'd ever seen. Golden hair tumbled onto his forehead and shoulders.

She licked her lips. "What are you doing here?"

His blue gaze raked over her, peeling away the shells, parting the grass. "Waiting for you, of course."

A shiver tripped along her spine. Oh, his voice. How could she have forgotten that take-no-prisoners voice? Pure temptation. Utter decadence. She mentally reinforced the icy walls around her. He's a lecherous abductor. Dangerous in every way.

Yes, she'd wanted to throw herself at him last night. Now, in the light of day, she told herself that had been a moment of impaired judgment. A moment of exhaustion and insanity.

"Did you dream of me?" he asked.

"Yes," she admitted grudgingly. She had. She'd dreamed of his hands caressing her, of his mouth devouring her.

His lush lips inched into a surprised but pleased smile.

"You were naked," she told him.

His grin spread; his eyes gleamed with satisfaction.

"And tied up... "

He arched his eyebrows in smug expectation. "I did not know the idea of bondage would please you."

"Oh, I love the idea of tying you up." She paused dramatically. "Just like in my dream, you'll be secured to an anthill and the little things will eat you alive."

His grin faded completely, but the twinkle in his eyes did not diminish. "Cruel woman." He propped his shoulder on the side wall, a pose of carnal relaxation. Sink into my arms, his posture proclaimed. I'll catch you. "I dreamed of you, too. Naked."

Suddenly light-headed, she backed up a step.

He showed no mercy, and stepped toward her. "You were splayed for my enjoyment." His eyes were heavy-lidded now, wicked. Intent. "And enjoy you I did. Twice."

She dropped the curtain in place, cutting the sexy man from her view. Breathe, she had to breathe. The oxygen she did manage to draw in burned her throat, singed her lungs. He had only to speak, and his words began to paint a picture in her mind. A terribly beautiful picture.

His rich chuckle floated across the small distance, wrapping her in a decadent shiver. "There are robes in the closet if you wish to change," he said. "The shells look... uncomfortable."

That hadn't been the word he'd wanted to say, she knew. There had been a wicked inflection in his voice, as if he'd meant to say "easily removable" or "exquisite." So, change? Hell, yes. "Will you take me home today?" Her voice trembled.

"You are home."

She flipped him off, taking a small amount of satisfaction from the action, even though he couldn't see it. Then, with nothing else to do, she trudged to the closet. She'd given the gowns inside only a cursory inspection last night. Changing clothes would be nice.

Feminine dresses abounded, a sea of colors and silks. They were long and flowing, barely there scarves held together by sheer luck. One in particular drew and held her attention. It was a drapery of ivory, threaded with gold. Both the hem and leg slit were twined with amber leaves and emerald flowers. Jewels sparkled from the deep vee in the bodice.

"Once you have bathed and dressed, Shaye, we will have breakfast."

She snorted. "I'm not bathing until there's a lock on the door."

"A lock would not keep me out if I wanted in."

He was right, she realized with frustration.

"You will feel better after a bath."

"I'll feel better once I'm home," she told him darkly.

"Must I state the obvious?" He sighed. "Again?"

Her teeth ground together, causing her jaw to ache. "What about that warrior? Joachim?"

"We will deal with him when he awakens." The words growled from low in Valerian's chest.

Her fingers tightened over the ivory fabric; it was cool and soft against her fingertips. Do not think about Joachim. You'll only drive yourself to panic. The dresses, she'd think about the dresses. Once more, her gaze slid over the one she held. She had never worn anything so feminine. Never owned anything so feminine, for that matter. This was something an ancient Greek or Roman queen would have worn. Luscious and exquisite. Not a stitch out of place or a flaw to be seen.

"Whose room is this?" she asked. Valerian had said it was his - hadn't he? - but surely he would not own this many gowns.

"The room is mine," was his answer.

She faced the door. His silhouette paced back and forth, a large slash of black. A phantom. "Do you often wear women's clothing, Valerian?"

"Gods, no!"

She grinned at the affront in his voice. "Then why do you have all these robes?" The answer slammed into her, and she lost her grin. They were for his women. His too-numerous-to-count conquests.

"Shaye," he said warily.

To wear the gowns was to imply she was one of his women. "I do not belong to you, and I will not dress as if I do." She turned away from the closet, from the lovely ivory silk she wanted so badly to slip over her head. She'd suffer in her shells and grass skirt, thank you very much, rather than proclaim herself Valerian's lover. Even in so small a way.

Tiny allowances like that one could open the door to other, more severe allowances. Like giving in to his expert touch.

"We could bargain," he cajoled.

What was with the man and his bargaining? "I wear one of the gowns and you'll... what?"

"Kiss you?"

She gulped and had to blank her mind against the passionate images trying to force their way inside. "You really need to work on your bargaining skills. They suck." Had her voice shaken?

"I would like to," he muttered. "Suck you, that is."

Her cheeks fused with heat, and a tremor stole over her. "I don't want your kisses." There. Finally, at long last, she knew she sounded convincing.

"A fake protest, if I've ever heard one."

"Offer something else!" she demanded, before she pounded out of the room and slapped him.

"Such as? And do not mention taking you to the surface, for you know I will not negotiate on that point."

"I don't know why I'm even talking to you." She huffed out a hot breath. "Stubborn, that's what you are."

"Do not change if that is your desire. I am not forcing you, moon. I like seeing your skin. I see it, and I imagine myself licking it."

O-kay. So. She couldn't stay dressed in the shells and grass, after all.

Shivering, with molten lava running through her veins, she gazed around the room. Valerian's room, he'd said. She remembered seeing male clothing when she'd searched the place last night. Where... where... the vanity! She grinned as she raced to the thick, intricately carved marble beauty. The drawers slid out easily. Inside the top one lay stack upon stack of shirts. They were huge and would swim on her, but at least they would cover her (apparently lickable) skin.

With a quick glance at the doorway, she tore off the hated shells and tossed them on the floor with relief. She tugged on a shirt, and the black, buttery-soft material made her sigh in delight. The second drawer held pants, all leather, all black. The fact that they were folded so neatly struck her as... odd. Domestic.

These nymphs were anything but domesticated.

She wouldn't have doubted if the women she'd seen leaving the room last night were responsible. Caring for all of Valerian's needs, even his laundry.

A spark of jealousy burned inside of her. "No, that's not true. I am not jealous," she muttered in a futile attempt to convince herself. Motions clipped, she unwound the grass from her waist, letting it pool on the ground, then tugged on the pants. She had long legs, but even so the panels of material dwarfed her. She had to roll the hem numerous times and belt the waist with a scarf from one of the gowns in the closet. She slipped on her sandals.

There were no mirrors (unless she counted the ones above the bed), so she had to guess how she looked. Ridiculous, she was sure. Sloppy. And that, to her way of thinking, was perfect. She wanted that too-intense Joachim guy to find her completely unattractive.

Valerian, too, she reminded herself.

As she stood there, deciding what to do next, Valerian's masculine scent wafted to her, filling her nostrils. Strong, spicy. So arousing her nipples hardened, abrading the shirt she now wore. Why was she smelling him? She wasn't by the door, wasn't even close.

She twisted and turned, only then realizing the heady fragrance curled from the clothes. Her eyes widened. Wretched clothes! Wonderful clothes. Had he worn them? Had they touched his body? An ache throbbed between her legs.

She'd never been a sexual creature, and these new, continued sensations rocked her. How long could she deny them? How long could she resist? She'd wondered before, but the answer suddenly seemed imminent. She almost ripped the shirt and pants off. She did moan, the sound raw and needy.

"What are you doing in there?" Valerian asked, his voice tight, drawn.

Did he know she was aroused? He couldn't know. Please, don't let him know. "I was - I'm just hungry."

For several seconds he didn't speak. She used the time to calm herself down, to recite math equations in her mind. If he knew just how vulnerable she was to him, he'd pounce without mercy.

"Come, moon," he said evenly. "I will feed you."

She swallowed past the sudden lump in her throat. She'd eat breakfast with him because she needed out of this room and needed to keep up her strength. Then she could escape him and search the palace for a way out. A way home. She couldn't stay here. Couldn't stay with this potent man a moment longer than necessary.

"Let's get this over with," she muttered.

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