Since the first title in my Atlantis series, Heart of the Dragon, was published in 2005, I've been asked how I thought to combine the lost city of Atlantis with the creatures of lore. The answer is simple: what if. What if the gods hid their greatest mistakes inside Atlantis and that's why it's buried under the sea?
That single question branched into a thousand others, each more intriguing than the last. What if a dragon shape-shifter is forced to guard the portal that leads to his home, tasked with killing anyone who enters - even the woman of his dreams (Heart of the Dragon)? What if a modern man is sent inside the forbidden city to steal its greatest treasure...who just happens to be a beautiful female he can't resist (Jewel of Atlantis)? What if the king of the nymphs can seduce everyone he encounters - except the woman he loves (The Nymph King)?
Now, in my brand-new tale of Atlantis, The Vampire's Bride, I have the chance to answer the question readers have been asking for years: what if the villain in all those earlier stories, the vampire king who has tortured and hated and warred, got a story of his own?
I hope you'll join me on these journeys through Atlantis, where the creatures of myth and legend walk, peril lurks around every corner and forbidden passions ignite.
Wishing you all the best,
To the two ladies who help and guide me every step of the way: Tracy Farrell and Margo Lipschultz. I couldn't do it without you!
LAYEL, KING OF THE VAMPIRES, hated son of Atlantis, fought so fervently against his chains that the metal cut past skin and muscle, nearly slicing into bone. He did not care, continued to struggle. What use were his hands without his beloved to caress?
Susan. Inside his mind, the name was a prayer, a scream of desolation and a wail of sorrow, all twisted into an agonizing spiral of shame. How could he have allowed this to happen?
"Release him," someone said. Layel would have looked at the speaker, but he could not pull his gaze from his woman. Or rather, what was left of her. "Let him see up close what he has wrought upon himself."
Footsteps pounded. There was a tug on one wrist, then the other, and the chains gave way.
Weak, nearly drained of blood, Layel tried to step away from the iron fence that propped him up, but his knees gave out and he collapsed. With the impact, hot breath abandoned him and reality settled deep. I'm too late. They kept me chained long enough to ensure she could not be turned. I cannot save her. He gagged. Gods, oh, gods.
Susan lay a few feet away, her once vibrant, beautiful body now stripped, violated and burned. Around him, the dragons responsible laughed, their voices floating in and out of his consciousness.
"...deserved this and more."
"...and look at him now."
"...pathetic. He never should have been crowned king."
Layel had left Susan in his palace, safe, happily drowsy and snuggled in bed, while he and a contingent of warriors doused a fire in the surrounding forest. He hadn't known the fire had been started purposely until it was too late.
Oh, gods, oh, gods, oh, gods. A choked cry escaped him, blood spraying from his mouth. What seemed an eternity ago but could only be hours, he'd returned to an ambush, Susan's screams echoing in his ears. The anguish he'd heard as she'd shouted for his aid, the pain he'd seen contorting her features as she'd pleaded with the dragons for the life of their unborn child...both would haunt him into eternity.
By the time he'd fought his way to her, she'd already gone silent, her expression frozen in misery. The silence had been ten thousand times worse than the screams and writhing physical agony.
Dead. She was dead. Layel had failed her in every possible way. And in his grief, the very dragons who killed her had managed to capture him. They'd torn him from Susan's lifeless body and chained him to the gate in front of the palace. Then, oh, gods, then they had dragged her body in front of him, taunting him with her death.
His gagging became heaving, and he emptied the contents of his stomach. A meal Susan had prepared for him, eyes glimmering with amusement. And later, for dessert, she'd flicked her lovely dark hair aside and offered her vein, knowing just where the biting would lead.
Arm shaking uncontrollably, he reached for her. The tips of his fingers brushed the hollow of her neck. No pulse. Dirt mixed with blood, caking her charred, still-hot skin in clumps. "Susan," he tried to whisper, but his voice no longer worked. His throat was raw from screaming, pleading and desperate bargaining. But nothing had helped. The dragons hadn't disappeared and Susan hadn't returned to life.
Though he was still surrounded by the enemy, he was unable to take his eyes off his mate. He knew, soul deep, that this was the last time he would ever see her. My love. My sweet love.
Stay in bed, she had beseeched only a few hours ago. Make love to me.
I cannot, love, but I will return quickly. That, I promise you.
She'd pouted a bit, pink lips dipping prettily. I can't bear to be without you.
Nor I you. Sleep, and when I return, I'll make you forget I was ever gone. How is that?
Promise. He had kissed her softly and strolled from their chamber. Content, satisfied. Happy. Assured of a future together.
"Now you can suffer as we have suffered," one of the dragons spat, tearing him from his cherished memories.
In the background, Layel could hear demonic laughter. His gaze lifted, and he saw several red, glowing eyes peeking from nearby bushes. An audience of demons, he realized. How long had they been there, watching? Could they have helped Susan? Probably. That laughter...They'd seen - and enjoyed - everything.
"Your people drained our loved ones, blood-drinker, and so we burned yours."
Ignoring them, Layel gathered his remaining strength and crawled as close to Susan's body as he could get, leaving a trail of crimson behind him, hot tears pouring down his face. The dragons didn't try to stop him. His shaking intensified as he awkwardly gathered her in his arms. There was no smile of greeting, no whispered endearment.
Her once pretty face was swollen, bruised and smeared with soot. Her silky dark hair was gone, singed to the scalp. He had loved to wrap those strands around his palms, loved to hear her purr for his kiss.
Closing his eyes against the horror of what had been done to her, he hugged her close, so close, before gently laying her back down. He could not bear to sever all contact, however, and smoothed a fingertip over the seam of her lips. They were still hot, burning him as smoke rose from her parted teeth.
Susan. Eyes stinging, he crouched all the way down and placed his temple upon her rounded stomach. There was no movement inside of it. Not anymore. I love you. Oh, gods, I love you. I am sorry I left you. So sorry. Come back to me. Please. I am nothing without you. To the crystal dome above, he prayed, If you will not bring her back to me, let us bargain. Take me instead. Return her to life and take me. She is everything that is good. She is light. I am darkness and death.
"Enough sniveling. Now you will listen. We are going to allow you to live, king." The words were sneered by the dragon leader, a towering hulk of muscle and rage. "And with every breath you take, you will remember this day and the consequences of allowing your people free rein."
Layel barely heard him. Susan, sweet Susan. None had been as gentle, tender, loving or kind. Her greatest crime was - had been, he corrected with an inward roar - loving him.
She had been his everything. Yet his precious human had been slaughtered. For his lack of leadership, the dragon had said. She had been tortured because Layel had wanted nothing to do with the vampire throne and had refused to place restrictions upon the army under his command as his father had.
"I've awaited this moment for many months," another of the hated beasts said, spraying him with a stream of fire.
The flames settled in Layel's cheek, crackling, singeing deep. He gave no reaction, didn't even open his eyes. Truly, he felt nothing except the razor-sharp edge of his grief. If the gods would not heed his cries, he wanted to remain in this spot forever, wanted to die with his woman and child. His family.
"Look at him. Look at the mighty Layel, reduced to this."
All of the dragons laughed.
"I can see why you liked her, vampire. That tight little sheath took me all the way to the hilt."
"I liked pumping into her mouth, feeling her throat close around me."
"I think she liked what we did to her. You heard the way she whimpered..."
Finally Layel's eyelids cracked open, tendrils of hatred and rage blooming, growing, consuming him. Overshadowing his grief, becoming all that he knew. He glanced at the surrounding forest. The demons were still there, still giggling like children. Most of the nearby trees were charred, offering little refuge. Next he glanced at the expanse of dragon warriors. There were eight of them, their stances cocky, assured. Their golden eyes blazed with triumph. Except...
Whatever they saw on his face caused them to lose their smiles. A few even backed away from him.
Perhaps they had forgotten that vampires could fly. Perhaps they thought a broken, bloody man could do no damage. They were wrong.
"SUSAN!" Layel leapt up and attacked, his war cry an echo of all the pain inside him.
The agonized screams that next cut through the forest far eclipsed any that had ever come before them.