DELILAH SAT on the beach, the gauntlet no longer in place. A short while ago, every piece of timber had vanished like mist with the dawn. What surprised her most, however, was that she no longer blinked when strange things happened. Having been whisked from one place to another several times, having seen the gods appear and disappear in a heartbeat, she had reluctantly accepted that odd things were simply part of her life now.
Waves lapped at her feet and ankles as her mind whirled with realizations. When the losing team had disappeared, her first thought had been of Layel's welfare. Not Nola's, as it should have been.
Gods, what was wrong with her?
Perhaps the vampire's kiss had branded her, soul deep, and she was now bound to him for all of eternity. Possessed by him. A slave, his to command. Obsessed, hers to worship. She sighed.
Not even the prize her team received for winning the challenge had lessened her concern for him.
Less than an hour ago, a round, intricately framed mirror had appeared in front of her team. The god hadn't lied when he'd promised a reward. Enjoy, a voice had boomed. You have done well and made us proud. They had gazed at it simultaneously, but apparently each had seen something different: the person they missed most in Atlantis.
Delilah had seen Lily.
The delicate girl had been safely ensconced in the Amazon camp, but she had been wrapped in the queen's arms, crying. For Delilah. Both females assumed she and Nola were dead. They were in mourning, and Lily blamed herself.
Just as Delilah had reached for the mirror, determined to shake it until Kreja or Lily saw her, it had dematerialized as surely as the gauntlet had. She'd screeched and cursed to no avail. They all had. To calm herself, she'd had to close her mind and level her breathing, chanting under her breath that Lily was alive, Lily was well. Upset, but well. One less worry. And then, craving Layel's strong arms around her, Delilah had begun searching the island for him.
Every turn had led her straight back to this spot. Was Layel still alive? Had he been slain already?
Footsteps sounded behind her. She didn't turn, didn't acknowledge the intruder in any way. The heavy stride informed her it was a dragon; the scent of spice and darkness informed her it was Tagart. Maybe if she ignored him, he would go away.
He sidled right up to her. "Worried for your lover?" he asked, his words slurred.
Not her lucky night, after all. "You're drunk."
"I know. Isn't it wonderful?"
"Where did you find wine?"
"Every dragon possesses a mythical ability. Some can breathe underwater, some can travel from one location to another in the blink of an eye. Some can see anyone anywhere simply by speaking their name. Me, I can turn water to wine." Embarrassment and wisps of self-loathing drifted along the undercurrents of his voice. Why? "Where's your vampire?" he asked before Delilah could press him further. "Dead?"
Her heart lurched inside her chest, a vision of Layel lying motionless, blood pooling around him, flashing inside her mind. "Go to Hades, Tagart." She pushed to her feet, unwilling to give him any type of advantage. Even one as simple as height.
"You worry for him." A statement, not a question.
"We've already had this conversation, and I'm not having it again."
"You're right. I'm...sorry."
An apology? He must be drunk indeed to have offered one. Her eyes widened in surprise, and she studied the man responsible intently. He was as strong as Layel. He was dark, handsome, edgy. Resilient and capable. He wouldn't hesitate to destroy an enemy. And he had, she grudgingly admitted, helped her during the challenge. Why could her body not crave this man? She knew firsthand how lusty a dragon could be.
"You are courageous," he said, swaying slightly, "and unafraid. We would make a great team."
"We are on the same team."
He waved a hand through the air, swayed again. "I meant us. Together. We are the strongest of the group, the most competent."
All she could do was blink up at him. "I don't understand what you're trying to tell me."
"Silly Amazon." He chuckled, a sound of true mirth. It suited him, lighting his features and casting away the shadows that always seemed to hover around him. He reached for her shoulder, decided against touching her and dropped his arm to his side. "I will guard your back and you will guard mine. In the event that we lose a challenge, we will never vote to have the other killed."
"Vote? What are you talking about?"
"You do not know?"
"No," she said, and his expression changed to one of sympathy. "Tell me!"
She closed the distance between them, would have been nose to nose if she'd been taller. Waves washed over their feet, soon-to-disappear moonlight streamed in every direction, and the call of night-birds echoed. But nothing overshadowed the pounding of her heartbeat. "Tell me."
"The other team returned. They told us what happened, how they were forced to vote for the creature they wished off of their team." A heavy pause. "There was an execution."
Instantly panic and dread infused her blood, racing through her, cutting at her. She clutched Tagart's tattered shirt, wadding the material in her hands. "Did...Nola return?"
He nodded slowly, the grimness of their conversation clearly sobering him, and studied her features. "Do you wish to know if the vampire king returned, as well?"
She did. With everything inside of her, she did, but she was afraid of her reaction. If she learned that he was alive, would she smile? Laugh, dance? If she learned that he was indeed dead, would she cry? Sob? "I will consider your request for an alliance," she said, releasing him. She backed away slowly, desperate to be alone - and determined not to show it. "We will talk soon."
"He was not with the others when they returned," Tagart said anyway.
That means nothing, she tried to tell herself. But she didn't respond to Tagart, just kept moving backward. Away. She had to get away from him.
His jaw clenched. "If you think too long about my offer, I will withdraw it and make it to someone else."
And she would be the first one they voted for, Delilah did not doubt. Still she remained silent. Finally she passed the line of trees. Their branches slapped in front of her, blocking the dragon from view. Immediately she turned and ran, arms and legs pumping furiously. Her skin was like ice, but sweat beaded anyway, trickling down.
Of course Layel's team had voted for him. He had hurt one of their own.
Tears burned her eyes, the very tears she had so feared. You've only known him two days, and you suspected this was coming. Why are you upset? He had caused her nothing but trouble and grief. And pleasure. Oh, gods, the pleasure. She would never again experience his kiss, his touch. Would never learn his secrets, ease the pain she saw in his eyes every time she looked at him. Never shine light into the darkness of his soul.
Foolish, she thought for the thousandth time. Where had that thought come from? Shine light into his soul? Hers was as dark as his was. Or rather, had been. A whimper rose in her throat.
Distracted as she was, she did not see the figure looming in front of her. Delilah slammed into him. He was as hard as a boulder, but unprepared for her momentum. They propelled to the ground, strong arms banding around her waist. He took the brunt of the fall, his breath gusting over her face. Metallic, sweet.
She was on her feet a moment later, ready for battle. But he never attacked her. He simply stood and wiped the grass from his clothing, saying, "I would like to say that was fun, but I told you I would not lie to you."
That voice...husky, sardonic. "Layel?"
He'd been glaring, his ocean blues hidden by the frame of his lashes, but that glare melted away as he studied her expression. "Are you...crying?"
He was here; he was alive. He had not been chosen for execution. Trying not to smile now, she wiped her eyes with the back of her wrist. "No."
"Did no one tell you Nola survived?" he asked softly. For a moment, only a moment, he looked at her with something akin to tenderness.
"I was told." Her heart already drummed erratically from her sprint, but now, as she drank in the sight of him, the silly organ wanted to pound its way free. "How are you alive?"
He tsked under his tongue, somehow conveying a wealth of pain and joy with the sound. "Disappointed?"
She raised her chin, refusing to lie yet equally unwilling to admit the truth. He would reject her again, and her emotions were too strung out to deal with another.
He sighed. "I want to be alone now," he said. He turned away from her and picked up a fat stick, then continued...whatever it was that he'd been doing before she ran into him. Was he...digging a hole? He pressed the stick into the ground to gather a mound of dirt, then tossed that dirt aside.
His muscles rippled as he moved, and her mouth watered. I clutched those muscles once. I had them at my fingertips. So badly she wanted to rake her fingers through his white hair. Even flatten her palm against his chest and feel the flow of life as he drank from her. "I'm waiting for an answer to my question," she insisted. "How are you alive?"
His broad shoulders lifted in a casual shrug. "My team decided I was not the one who would cause them to lose the next contest. So..." Another shrug, but this one was stiff, self-conscious. "Now, go away," he said, jamming a long stick into the ground. Then he popped it up, tossing a mound of dirt a few feet away.
"Who was chosen?"
"I love being ignored." Without pausing in his digging, he said, "The formorian who - " He pressed his lips together. Dirt soared over his shoulder as he heaved the stick upward.
"Who you helped into the water," she finished for him.
He gave a clipped nod.
To prevent herself from closing all hint of distance between them and burrowing her head in the hollow of his neck, she shifted and leaned her uninjured shoulder against the nearest tree. "You and Brand seem to hate each other. I'm surprised he didn't vote for you, no matter that the formorian was weak."
Layel laughed darkly. "Oh, he voted for me. Several members did. One more vote, and I would have been the one who lost his head."
Just how close had she come to losing him? "The gods actually decapitated him?"
Some part of her had thought, perhaps hoped, they would change their minds. "Why did you do it?" she asked after a tension-filled pause.
"Do what?" he asked, but she knew he only pretended ignorance.
"Hurt your own team member."
"Perhaps it amused me to hear him scream. Perhaps I live for the deaths I cause, as rumors in Atlantis claim." Another mound of dirt flew over his shoulder.
This one was launched toward her. She hopped out of the way, barely escaping an earth-shower. He'd purposely aimed at her, the bastard. "That was childish," she said, crossing her arms over her middle.
"You remind me of Lily right now."
"My sister by race, the future queen of the Amazons and the girl the dragons were carting in that cell." Only yesterday, she realized, though it felt as if an eternity had already passed. "When Lily doesn't get her way, she throws a tantrum."
"I'm not throwing a tantrum."
"No, you're throwing dirt. Is that any better?"
A rumbling noise escaped him, and she wasn't sure if he expressed amusement or irritation. He paused in his digging, though, keeping his back to her. "Go away, Delilah." He sounded weary.
Would she ever get used to the tremors of delight that shook her every time he said her name? "No. What are you doing here, anyway?"
"None of your concern. Go."
"Again, no." She'd almost lost him tonight. Part of her didn't want to be separated from him ever again. How had he engaged her emotions so strongly and so quickly? "I'm not sure if you treat me this way because you genuinely dislike me or because you're afraid of me."
"Wonder no more. I dislike you." Motions clipped, he slammed the stick back into the ground, and then another mound of dirt was sailing toward her.
This time, she remained in place. The grains pummeled her calves and ankles, and she grit her teeth. "If you dislike me so much, why did you thrust your tongue into my mouth and your fingers into my - "
"Enough!" The stick snapped in half. Tossing the half he still held, he whirled, facing her. "I could tell you that I don't have to like you to bed you. Is that what you need to hear? Would you leave if I said it?"
"Would you mean it?" she asked in a broken voice she scarcely recognized as her own.
Silent, he swiped up another stick and began shoveling again. Wood and mud collided again and again, widening the hole clearly no longer his concern. Fury poured from him, making his motions frenzied.
The intense surge of hurt she'd experienced - don't have to like you to bed you - gradually drained. He couldn't say he meant it because he didn't feel that way. Not wanting to push him into lying, however, she let the subject drop. For now. For whatever reason, he wasn't ready to show her a softer side of himself. "Tell me what you're doing."
He stilled, panting, sweating. "Delilah."
"This isn't doing either one of us any good." He straightened, his profile to her. The elegant curve of his nose cast a shadow over his cheek. Seemed odd that such a ruthless man would possess such pretty features. Not that she was complaining.
"You would rather kiss than talk?" she asked, hopeful.
The tip of his tongue emerged, trailing over his bottom lip. Remembering the taste of her? Then he scrubbed a dirty hand down his face. Streaks of black remained behind. "I'm burying the body."
Body? As lost as she'd been with the thought of their kiss, a moment passed before she recalled the formorian's death. She stared into the crowd of trees, searching. Sure enough, she found the corpse several feet away and frowned. Now why would the man who supposedly hated everyone around him concern himself with the burial of a stranger?
Guilt? A hidden sense of honor?
What a contradiction Layel was.
With a sigh, she gathered a stick and began digging alongside him, heedless of her injured shoulder. He didn't rebuke her, and they managed to work in silence. What seemed a lifetime later, the hole was big enough for a body. Somberly she helped the vampire place the formorian inside.
"So you know why I was fighting the dragons yesterday - to save Lily. But what about you? Why do you hate the dragons so much?" She threw her stick to the ground and peered over at him, determined to get at least one answer this night.
For a single heartbeat, his eyes pulsed a bright, fiery red, a look of such debilitating pain falling over his face that she almost dropped to her knees. Almost begged him not to answer. No one should suffer like that. No one. As though they were dying from the inside out, slowly, inexorably, and each cell that withered, each organ that failed, poisoned another, until there was only rot and disease left. Only agony. But then his expression cleared, and he said flatly, "They took something that belonged to me. And if you dare ask what, I will kill you here and now."
The warrior in her wanted to press; the woman in her never wanted to see that pain inside him again. So she said, "Perhaps you've failed to realize that threats only encourage me," in an effort to tease him. Then she eyed him nervously. Banter with a man was not something she had experience with. Was she doing it correctly?
His lips twitched into a semblance of a smile, causing her stomach to flutter and her heart to skip a beat entirely. "I've realized." He, too, dropped his stick. He offered no words of thanks for her aid. "Your team is celebrating their victory. You should join them."
Being here with him, talking to him, seeing that smile, thrilled her more than any celebration. But she did wheel away from him. "You're right." She didn't want to leave him, and that was precisely why she must. Slowly she walked away. Prolonging the contact was only sparking a desire for more.
When she thought him dead, she had mourned. Mourned. The more time she spent with him the more she wanted him. What would happen if he was killed? What would happen if she gave herself to him and he pushed her away afterward? Next time, she might not survive.
"Amazon," he called.
Irritation flooded her. He called her "Amazon" when he wished to put distance between them. That, she knew. But still she stopped. She just didn't face him. "Yes."
"I am...sorry. About the - about earlier. About what I said."
An apology from yet another man. Something must be in the water. "I don't regret anything about what has happened or been said between us." No, that wasn't true. She regretted that their time together had to end. Tonight, most likely forever. If she could stay away from him, for that would be the true battle.
Fortifying her resolve, she started forward again.
"Amazon," he called once more.
And once more she stilled, unable to help herself. "Yes."
"Do not approach me again. Your team will not like it, and next time it will be you who is voted for."
Concern? For her? Gods, she was as helpless against it as she was to resist him. "I can take care of myself."
"I have learned that in this game the opinion of your teammates matters more than your actual performance."
"You aren't the first to tell me such a thing. Tagart asked me to ally with him."
A heavy, crackling pause, then, he asked tightly, "Did you accept?"
"You should." The last was grated, as if the words rubbed his throat raw.
Did he not like the thought of her with another man, as she'd considered before, or did he simply hate the dragons so much he loathed the idea of anyone helping them? "Have you seen the waterfall on the north side of the island?" she found herself asking. Stop, don't do this. You're leaving to escape him.
"I'll be there in an hour. Alone."
Silence. Then, "And you will remain alone. We cannot be...friends, Delilah. I'm sorry."
Another apology. Gulping, hurting again, she started forward for the third time. Part of her expected him to call her back. But he didn't. Not again. She reached the celebration a few minutes later. She was caked in dirt and sweat, but she didn't care.
Her teammates were dancing around a fire, drinking wine and laughing. All but the nymph, she realized. Broderick was gone. As was their team's other female. A gorgon. So, he'd opted to risk a stoning to spend a little time between the snake-woman's legs. Layel, she suspected, would never do such a thing.
Speaking of Layel, his team sat several feet away. Their nymph female, like Broderick, was missing, as was...Hmm, all of the men were present - and each member was glaring with jealousy at Delilah's team. Even Nola.
Delilah met the Amazon's stare. Rather than a smile or a wave, she received a short, abrupt nod and almost sighed. Dissent within the same races already. Did Nola think she had betrayed her? Convinced Layel to lose? That, she would deal with later. At the moment she needed to approach Tagart. The dragon ceased his dancing, his smile fading when he spotted her. Sweat glinted from his skin, and he exuded a masculine musk every other woman on the island probably would have enjoyed.
Delilah found that she preferred the metallic sweetness of Layel's scent.
"I accept your offer," she whispered up to him. She didn't trust him, but she didn't mind using him. You should, Layel had said, as though he didn't care that she would forge an alliance with his enemy.
They would soon learn the truth of that.
Layel's obvious dislike of the dragons was the only reason she had hesitated before, she realized now. Subconsciously, she'd allowed him to begin affecting her decisions. No more.
Slowly Tagart's lips curled into a satisfied smile. "I knew you'd see reason." He reached for her, meaning to pull her into his embrace for a dance.
She backed up a step, not willing to take their alliance that far. Good or bad for her, Layel was the only man she wanted touching her. "Just tell me one thing."
Tagart's golden dragon eyes glinted like polished coins. "And what is that? You wish me to tell you the other team's nymph is out there right now, searching for your vampire, determined to have him?"
What? Why, that bitch! She had no right. He's mine. No, no, she immediately chastised herself. Do not think that way. "What did your brethren take from Layel to cause a war with the vampires?" The stories she'd heard of Layel's prowess had never said.
The glint in his eyes died. "He did not tell you?"
Guilt flashed, but he said starkly, "We took...his mate."
LAYEL BATTLED with himself for the entire hour Delilah had given him. He knew what he should do, knew what was wise. He could not go to her. Absolutely not. No. But she was slowly stripping him of his sanity.
Every minute he spent with her, he desired more.
Every minute he thought of her, he desired more.
Every minute he was without her, he desired more.
She drew him. If she had looked like Susan or acted like Susan, he would have understood her strange pull on him. But she didn't, so he didn't.
"I'm glad to see you survived," Zane said from behind him.
Layel had been expecting the warrior, and was only surprised he had not arrived sooner. What had he been doing? "I have a mission for you," he said, turning.
Zane floated in front of him. Layel could smell the sweet scent of fresh blood on the soldier. Female blood. His stomach knotted, for it was widely known the vampire only took from the dying. "Who did you feed from?"
Zane blinked at the fury in his tone. "That hardly matters."
"Tell me!" Layel was in his face a moment later. There were not that many females on the island. If he had sunk those fangs into Delilah...
"You had better back away, king. I serve you because I wish to, but that can change at any moment."
He'd heard similar words a thousand times before from the warrior. "Delilah is not - "
"The one I tasted, no."
Instantly Layel relaxed. Hatred - for himself, for Delilah - sprang free, never far from the surface. Always waiting to pounce. He shouldn't have cared who Zane drank from.
Zane shook his dark head. "So that is the way of things, I see."
"You see nothing," he growled.
"I see that you have staked a claim on her. Well, guess what? She is at camp right now, joining forces with that bastard, Tagart."
So. She had allied with the dragon. When she had told him of Tagart's offer, he had wanted to scream, I will protect you. Me. Not him. But he had held his tongue, knowing that was the wisest course. If he allowed it, Delilah would be his downfall. He would long to live with her, rather than join Susan in the hereafter. Unacceptable!
He studied Zane's sated expression. A single thought filled his head, overshadowing everything else. I could have Delilah's blood in my veins right now. She would let me. I would not have to take her body, would not have to pleasure her or take pleasure for myself. He gulped against a sudden onslaught of blistering lust. Oh, the temptation..."I have a mission for you," he repeated past an aching throat. Resist.
"Let me guess. I am to protect the girl."
Yes. But..."Your arrogance displeases me."
"I am a warrior, not a bodyguard," Zane spit.
"You are whatever I tell you to be. I do not trust Tagart. If he aids her, fine. But if it appears he is going to betray her..."
A muscle ticked in Zane's jaw. "Is that all? King," he added after a tense pause.
"No. You will return to your team, and you will listen to what they plan. I will do the same. Tomorrow we will share what we have learned and decide our course of action. The gods think to divide us, but we will not allow them to succeed. Will we?"
A slight hesitation before Zane gave a stiff nod.
When the vampire stalked away, Layel glanced in the direction of the waterfall. His hour had passed. Was Delilah waiting for him? Perhaps she frolicked in the lapping water even now, naked and glistening. The stray thought arose, an image of exactly that forming, and he was halfway there before he realized what he was doing.