ALYSSA HAD SPENT the night searching both the Inner and Outer cities with Shivawn, flying from one to the other - or galloping atop a centaur, in Shivawn's case. Not once had he spoken a single word to her. Not in all their hours together.

Frustration rode her hard, sinking sharp claws into every part of her body. They were now on their way back to Valerian's palace. She could see it on the horizon, a towering stone and crystal monstrosity atop a steep cliff. Shivawn was still perched on a centaur and she kept pace beside him, floating rather than walking or riding. There were three benefits to this: he was always within her view. If she walked, she would have stumbled. And no centaur would have allowed her on his back without a fierce argument she didn't have the fortitude for.

A group of minotaurs and griffins raced past them, headed into the Outer City. They were laughingly chasing a pretty white unicorn. Had Alyssa any spare time, she would have joined them and tried to capture the horned stallion. A wish would come in handy right about now.

"Your king will not be pleased," she said, to break the silence and distract herself. No, that wasn't entirely true. She craved his voice as much as she craved his touch. Surely if she spoke first, he would follow suit. "All we learned was that two creatures of nearly every race disappeared in the blink of an eye. Nothing more. Valerian will desire the reason."

Shivawn gave no reply.

Sandy braids flapped around his temples. He appeared as cold in profile as he did from the front. But he was only cold with her. In the cities, he had flirted outrageously with the women. He had been charming, full of smiles and laughter.

Only one night had he been anything other than cold with Alyssa. Only one night had he been white-hot....

She shivered, remembering.

He growled low in his throat. "Wipe those thoughts from your mind, woman. Now."

The sound of his voice startled her, much as she'd been craving it. "Wh-what thoughts?" He couldn't know she was visualizing their night together, his body slipping and sliding inside of hers...sweeping her high, so high...Oh, the pleasure...

"Sex. Bodies. Straining." Pause. "Us."

Her eyes rounded. "How did you know?" Then her cheeks colored at what she had just confirmed.

"I can smell your desire," he said with disgust.

Disgust? "That offends you?" she all but snarled.

"You are not my mate, woman. Wanting me will bring you nothing but pain."

She would be wise to listen to him. Wanting him had brought her satisfaction only once and, as he predicted, pain many times. But..."You can't know that I'm not - "

"Yes," he said firmly, "I can."

Her pride meant nothing in the face of an answer. "How can you know? Beyond any doubt?" Surely she would not have desired him this strongly if they were not meant to be together. Surely she would be able to consume someone else's blood.

"I would sense it and be...unable to take another."

Unlike her, he was strong, so of course he had had other lovers since their night together. Nymphs weakened without sex. "You've had others?" she found herself asking anyway.

A terse nod.

She wanted to vomit. She had been with no one else, had hoped he would come only to her to renew his strength. "I would have helped you."

"I did not want you."

 

Her stomach churned with more of that horrible sickness. Did she like being hurt? It would seem so, as she continued to invite him to cut down her feminine pride. "I could kill every woman you've touched. You know that, yes?"

He stiffened, every muscle in his body going taut. And though she could only see his profile, she glimpsed the hatred rippling under the surface of his cheeks. Saw the furious onyx glow in his eyes. "Spoken like a true parasite."

Parasite? That's how he viewed her? Oh, that hurt. "I'm not asking more of you than you are willing to give, Shivawn. I'm only asking for a chance to be the woman to see to your needs. Just for a little while."

Finally he faced her, twisting atop the saddle. She could not read his expression. "Do you realize how pathetic you sound?" A deadly calm laced the words.

Yes, she did. Still she pushed him, refusing to be embarrassed by her desire. "I want you in my bed. That's all. I'll do anything to get you there. Usually you'll bed anything female. Why not me?"

The cliff seemed to tilt, its incline becoming impossible for the centaur. Silent now, Shivawn dismounted and shooed him away with a polite, "Thank you. You may return to the stable on your own."

The horse-man trotted off.

Shivawn watched until the last clop of hooves could be heard. If he knew she was still beside him, he gave no hint. What thoughts tumbled through his head?

"I want you in my bed," she repeated to gain his attention.

"You had me in your bed."

Strands of her dark hair whipped in her face, she shook so badly. Motions clipped, she hooked them behind her ears. "Yes, and I want you there again."

He pushed out a breath as he turned to her. His face was chiseled perfection, not a single flaw. "You are forcing me to say something you will not like hearing."

Again she felt sick, but she could not stop herself. She had to know, beyond any doubt, what was keeping him from her. "What? Say it."

"Are you sure you wish to know?"

Her blood chilled, ice crystallizing in her muscles and bones. "Yes. Tell me." Desperation dripped from each word. She hated herself for it, but it was too strong to hide.

"Bedding you was not...good for me. I did not even come."

"But...but..." Oh, gods. His proclamation echoed in her ears. Bedding you was not good for me. "You're lying. You have to be."

"No."

Her mouth floundered open and closed. The truth of his claim was there, in his hardened expression. She'd never experienced pleasure as she had with Shivawn and he had felt nothing? She'd known her bite had bothered him, but she hadn't realized his unhappiness had lingered all through the night.

Mortification consumed her, chomping her pride into little pieces before spitting out the bones.

"I'm sorry. I didn't want to tell you, but..."

Still reeling, she resumed her journey up the cliff, now desperate to escape him. To hide. How could she have been so wrong? She'd had a few other lovers over the years, yet none of them had complained. None had left unsatisfied.

That you know of.

For a moment she felt as if spiders were crawling over her skin, and she scratched at her arms. For so long she had dreamed of winning this man's heart. Her every action had been an attempt to impress or charm him.

She was not a warrior, not at heart, but she had trained as one, knowing Layel would not allow her to accompany him to the nymph stronghold otherwise. She had fought, she had killed. For Shivawn. Blood coated her hands. Always. Nothing cleaned them. For Shivawn.

She had risen through the ranks of the vampire army by any and every means necessary.

For Shivawn.

Yet he had never wanted her, not even the time he'd given himself to her. A nymph - a creature renowned for being more sensual than selective - found her so unappealing, he had left her bed still hard and aching. Had probably bedded another woman immediately afterward to relieve the ache.

"Alyssa," he said softly, and she heard him as clearly as if he were shouting. Damn it, she hadn't put much distance between them.

Her feet almost hit the ground, even her ability to float trying to abandon her. Keep moving. Don't slow. "Did you come to me only because Joachim's human refused you? Did you not desire me for me, even a little?" Alyssa had caught him leaving Joachim's room one evening, the one evening they'd spent together, and he had reeked of human.

His eyes had been dark, haunted, and she'd later learned that Shivawn's human slave had chosen the other nymph warrior as her mate, leaving Shivawn without a woman. And because nymphs needed sex to survive there had been no better time for Alyssa's seduction of him. She had thought, Finally. He will have me. He will desire me as I desire him.

But I could not bring him to orgasm. Oh, gods, oh, gods. "Did you?"

"Yes, I used you. And, no, I did not want you."

"Did you - " gods, why are you doing this to yourself? " - did you think of her when you were inside me?"

There was a painful, tension-filled pause. "Does it matter?"

Oh, gods. That was answer enough, yet she still had to hear him say it. Maybe then her love for him would die. Maybe then her obsession would wane. "It matters. Tell me. Say it."

He uttered another sigh. "Then, yes. I did. But even then..."

Even then he could not come. Curse him! And curse herself!

Her nails elongated as she curled her fingers into fists, cutting past skin, drawing her own blood. She was panting, she realized. "You should not have used me while thinking of another."

"No, and for that I'm sorry."

She laughed bitterly, felt his eyes boring into her back. "I must be like all the other women in your life, throwing myself at you, willing to accept any scrap of affection you toss my way. Not that you ever tossed me a moment to cherish. A moment to sigh over in the dark of night, to dream of for years to come and to giggle over with friends." If she'd had any friends.

"You could not help yourself. The allure of the nymph is impossible to ignore."

But no other nymph had made her crave things she could never have. "Do you laugh about us when you are alone?" she asked, striving for an unconcerned tone. Inside, she still seethed. What right did Shivawn have to hurt her like this? To use her and humiliate her? To treat her as beneath him? None. An idea took root in her mind and refused to leave. No, I cannot do it.

But he deserves it.

"Laugh? At who?" He quickened his step until he was beside her, obviously no longer content to lag behind.

She pushed the snow-white branch of a ghost tree from her path, taking a small bit of satisfaction when it slapped Shivawn in the cheek and he grunted. "At the women," she said. "At your females. At those of us who throw ourselves at you."

"I hope I am not so callous as that. I would die without those females. I need them as much as they want me."

Clearly, she wasn't part of the "they." Bastard. No one else will give him what he deserves. Not the gods, not his king, not my king. I must do it. "I wonder why I ever desired you." And why, despite everything, she still did.

"I have wondered that myself," he replied darkly.

"You are strong," she offered, not wanting to admit the real reason.

"So are others."

"You are handsome."

"Others are more so."

True, and yet...no one else had eyes like his. Most likely some shared the color, but not the pain banked there, the hint of, well, a man possessed by ghosts and dark passion.

Once, many years ago, she had glimpsed the beast inside him.

He didn't know it, hadn't seen her, but she had been mesmerized by him.

His father...She gulped, had sworn never to think of that terrible time again, lest it grow wings and fly from her memories, reminding him. But the dark images flooded her, images of that fateful day marking the beginning of her obsession, and she couldn't stop them.

Even though Alyssa was of mixed blood, both a vampire and a demon, she never allowed herself to think or act like a demon. Too many races despised them. As she appeared every inch the vampire, the deception wasn't difficult.

But that day - that week, actually - she'd snuck her way inside the demon camp, curious about the father she had never known, about his people. For days she'd watched them, beginning to despise them herself. They killed for fun, delighted by their victims' screams. They did more than drink blood; they ate flesh.

One day, several demon warriors - her brothers - ambushed Shivawn's father, an innocent, during peace talks. For sport, they had tortured the man in the most horrendous ways, and young Alyssa had stayed hidden in the shadows, cowering, too afraid to try and make them stop.

Shivawn had seen his father's limp body nailed to a tree and attacked. A battle had been waged and he had ultimately triumphed, slaughtering the demons responsible. His love for his father had shown in every slash of his blade, in every roar of fury and helplessness that had left his mouth. That was what she'd wanted with her own father: loyalty, love. She hadn't gotten either, but by then, she hadn't wanted either. Not from him. Perhaps that was why her hopes and dreams had shifted so easily to Shivawn.

Afterward, with the demon pieces nailed to trees as his father had been, he had dropped to his knees and sobbed. He had gathered his father tenderly, reverently and begged the gods to awaken him.

Alyssa had ached for him, even as fantasies had begun spinning in her mind. Fantasies of Shivawn being her brother, standing beside her if anyone ever learned the secret shame of her dual heritage.

As the years had passed and she'd grown into a woman, her fantasies of hearth and home had taken a more sensual slant. No longer had she wanted him as her brother. She had wanted him as her lover. No one else would do, though she'd given several a chance. They hadn't compared to her dreams of Shivawn, not in any way.

Determined to experience the bliss of Shivawn's touch, she had journeyed to the nymph camp and sought him out. He'd taken one look at her and vomited.

She hadn't known why, still didn't, but she hadn't given up. Should have. Should have given up. Look where she'd ended up. Broken, raw. Physically doomed.

"I've seen the way the vampire soldiers watch you," he said now, slicing his way into her dark thoughts. "Choose one of them for your mate."

While she loathed the thought of him with another woman, he could not wait for her to have another man? Give him what he deserves...

I am not like my demon sire. I am not vindictive and corrupt.

Nor are you a martyr. He will hurt others this way until he is stopped.

Yes, he would. "They do not appeal to me," she finally replied, not yet ready to act.

"I am nothing special."

"Perhaps I like the way you kill." She had seen him in battle, had even fought next to him.

His lips twitched, as if for once he was amused by her. "You try and act like a warrior, vampire, but I have seen you hesitate before delivering the death-blow. You might fight, but you do not like it."

He was the first to notice her secret revulsion during battle - a revulsion that stemmed, no doubt, from her desire to set herself apart from the demonlike acts of war - and she blinked in shock. Fought against a softening in her chest. "You know nothing about me, nymph." She uttered the last with as much disgust as she could muster. "You avoid me at every turn."

"True, but I know women."

Oh, that burned. Wiped away any hint of softening. She was one of a thousand others to him. Give him what he deserves!

Yes, she decided. Yes.

"I have always wondered why you fight when you so obviously hate it."

"You? Wondering about me? That's twice now you've admitted to such a thing. I'm surprised you haven't exploded."

Once again his lips twitched.

She ground to a halt. He kept moving, realized she'd stopped and turned, facing her. Looking at him, her heartbeat sped up. Are you truly going to do this?

"Nothing I've said has been meant to hurt you," he said softly. "But I had decided weeks ago to take a female as my own, even one who is not my mate, because I crave stability. That means I cannot be with you and you cannot...ask it of me again."

Any female would do but her, was what he was saying. Yes, I am going to do this. Slowly, so slowly, she closed the distance between them. "You do not want me to come around and bother her."

He gave a stiff nod.

"Then I will give you my word, Shivawn."

Slowly his features relaxed.

"I will not come around your woman."

"Thank you."

"But then, neither will you."

He frowned.

She launched herself at him with the last reservoir of strength she possessed, fangs bared.

VALERIAN CRADLED his mate in his arms, his skin sweat-slicked from the pleasure they had just shared. This woman never ceased to amaze him. She was beauty personified, softhearted, yet a tigress every time they fell into bed.

"If Shivawn doesn't return soon, I'll have to leave the palace and search for him. He is faithful, and would've sent word of a delay. If he could."

Shaye stiffened in concern. "Do you suspect foul play?"

"I'm not sure, but something isn't right."

"The vampire - "

He shook his head, certain. "Alyssa will not hurt him. She obviously loves him. Besides, nymphs and vampires are allies."

"Uh, I hate to break it to you, sugar, but a woman in love is an ally to no one but her heart."

"I know women, moon, and - "

"Stop right there. You don't know shit, big boy. Otherwise you would not be telling your wife how you learned about other women."

Softhearted? Had he seriously thought such a word in connection with his human mate? He pressed his lips together to keep from laughing. So fierce and possessive, his wife. She would slay anyone who "made a play for his bod," she had once said. And he would not have it any other way.

She placed a kiss on his chest, just above his heart, tongue flicking out and leaving a spark of fire. "Maybe I'll talk to Poseidon. He might tell us what's going on - if he's bored and looking to stir up trouble, that is."

Much to Valerian's consternation, Shaye and the fickle, annoying god had become friends. "No. Every time you speak with him, some kind of disaster happens."

"Hey, he brought us back together. Give the guy a break."

"I would like to break his - "

She slapped a hand over his mouth.

"I heard that," an irritated voice said.

Valerian reached for his sword, but it disappeared the moment his fingers curled around the hilt. Scowling, he glanced at Shaye to make sure she was covered, saw that a black silk sheet draped her from chest to ankle and relaxed. Barely.

The air crystallized in front of the bed, thickening until the body of a man appeared. Some women had said Poseidon was the most beautiful male ever to walk under the sea. Lustrous hair, blue eyes. Muscles, power. Valerian did not see the appeal, but he covered Shaye's eyes anyway.

That amused the god, and he laughed. "As if that will make a difference."

Valerian bit the inside of his cheek to keep from responding. One wrong word, and the sea god might destroy the entire city. Almost had, in fact.

Shaye shoved Valerian's fingers away. "Welcome, oh mighty god of the sea. And since you have graced us with your presence, I wonder if you would be willing to help us. We seem to be missing two of our soldiers," she said. "Well, three now. Would you know anything about that?"

"Perhaps," was the unconcerned reply. Poseidon strolled to the far wall and traced his finger over the center. Valerian's sword finally reappeared - hanging upside down with colorful ribbons falling from the tip.

Not a word.

"Will you tell us?" Shaye asked sweetly. "Please."

Valerian squeezed her side in warning.

"I'll give the women here another lesson in women's rights," she added. "That will frustrate the warriors and provide much entertainment for you."

Valerian shuddered. Last time she'd done such a thing, his warriors had gone without sex for days and had become snarling beasts, picking fights with everyone they encountered.

Poseidon shrugged and then disappeared as if he'd never been. Valerian thought that was the end of it and was grateful. He didn't like the god. But then that unearthly voice whispered across the room, startling him.

"The first two are playing a little game. The third, well, he was just eaten alive."

The god's laughter echoed long into the night.