LAYEL NEVER REACHED the waterfall that night.

Along the way, he had encountered Jada, the female nymph and Broderick's sister, and she had been determined to have him "for strength" because she "trusted him, friend to her king."

Over the years, many females had offered themselves to him. Unattainable as he was, he'd been labeled a challenge, a prize. He had denied them all, yet some had still claimed to have lain with him. In their anger over his rejection, the stories had not been kind.

Here, now, there were two beautiful females vying for him. One, a temptation. One, an annoyance, though Jada's beauty outshone even Delilah's. Or would have, to some. To him, Jada's hair was too fair, her sapphire eyes lacking any hint of purple. She was tall and slim with curves that should have been impossible, her nipples permanently hard.

Yet all he'd been able to think about when she pressed herself against him was the lean firmness of Delilah's body and how perfect it was to his palms. How he loved the way her nipples hardened right before his eyes.

He'd pushed Jada away, but in her ardor she'd taken the gesture as approval and had quickly stripped. He'd been unmoved. As unmoved as he'd been for the past two hundred years, which made Delilah's ability to tantalize him all the more undeniable. Thank the gods he had not gone to the waterfall, after all, but had hunted animals to distract himself.

Had he found her, he would have drunk from her. How close he'd come to talking himself into it.

And now, after an uneventful day by himself - without a run-in with his team, the other team or even the power-loving gods who had, for whatever reason, not forced a challenge on them today - Layel found himself stalking to the waterfall, unable to turn away this time. What was Delilah doing? Was she all right? Night had fallen again. He should have seen her, heard her.

To his consternation, she was not there. Even her sweet scent was curiously absent. There should have been a hint of it, at least a lingering imprint of her essence. Instead, it was as if she had not once neared the area. That didn't seem to matter to his body. Hard and aching, that's what he was, because she'd offered herself to him here in this location.

Thoughts of her played through his mind. Thoughts of her naked, writhing. His.

In his mind, every move she made was a sensual dance for him. Every sound that escaped her moist, ripe lips was a benediction to him. Every beat of her heart was a mating call.

The images were wrong, so wrong, but his mouth watered and his teeth sharpened. What would it take to purge her from his mind? Besides killing her, which he'd already admitted he could not do, there was only one thing left to try....

He would have to drink from her. No more resisting.

He'd told her that he never would. Yet the idea had been planted, had grown and intensified. Now, he realized he must.

He was a bastard for even considering it; he was lacking in honor and integrity. Truly, he was a monster. She wanted everything from him, but he only meant to take. He was going to fill his veins with her life's nectar, was going to reduce her to a meal. Finally he would know the taste of her and then he could forget her. His fantasies had built her up, but reality would tear them down. There was no possible way she could taste as wonderful as he imagined. No one could.

Sex would not enter into the arrangement. This time, when he placed his lips on her body, he would control himself. There was no better time to drink from her. Hunger did not ride him; weakness had not claimed him. He had gorged on the dragon yesterday and didn't need the blood.

Where was she? If she'd bathed in the waterfall or lounged on the moss-covered rocks, she'd left no trail. Layel walked through the forest, muted beams of twilight, hazy purples and pinks, illuminating his path. The lush emerald trees were different from those in Atlantis, yet somehow familiar to him after only two days. More moss covered the ground, soft against his feet.

Were he home, he would be training with his army and thinking of ways to thwart and slaughter the dragons. He would be torturing the fire-breathers locked in his dungeon, their screams his only real sense of peace.

Evil, he'd often been called. He did not deny it. Couldn't deny it. His heart was decayed. Rotted. His soul was black. No longer was he a man Susan would have loved. At the moment of her death, he had become everything his beloved mate had despised.

Yet there was no going back. No reverting to the man he'd once been. Not for him. Hate pulsed in his veins, thicker than blood. Revenge was the only thing he allowed in his mind.

Until Delilah.

Always his thoughts returned to her. Gods, how she haunted him. He should be searching for Zane, who had not yet shown up to report on his team. He should be planning his next move against Brand and Tagart. Instead, here he was, wishing for a taste of Delilah.

What was it about her that constantly drew him? While she possessed a breathtaking beauty, a sharp wit and an undeniable hum of energy, she would never hesitate to betray a lover to protect her sisters. That much was obvious every time she looked at Nola - a woman he wasn't even sure Delilah liked - with determined loyalty. There was no warm affection in her voice when she spoke to the girl, no softening of her expression. Yet she clearly felt responsible for her.

 

A flicker of jealousy sprang inside his chest, and he blinked in surprise. Jealousy? Over what? Delilah's loyalty to her tribe? Surely not, but he didn't want to consider the other option: that Delilah placed the welfare of another above him.

Made no sense, that line of thought. He didn't truly know her, certainly didn't like her and wouldn't even contemplate a future with her. You're confused, his mind explained. That's all. Your life has been disrupted. When things return to normal, so will your emotions.

Where was she?

He sniffed the air. The sweet scent of her, so at odds with her warrior personality, suddenly seemed to infuse every crevice of the surrounding area, yet he caught no glimpse of her. Still his cock swelled once again, the hunger he'd denied only moments ago suddenly upon him. His mouth watered. Blood...

She was near.

A tender side of him he'd thought as dead as his heart broke through mire and debris, shocking him. You cannot do this to her. She will feel betrayed. She will hurt.

His teeth gnashed together so sharply his gums were sliced. What was better? Delilah's betrayal or Susan's?

The answer was obvious. Or should have been. Delilah must be purged from his mind. Soon, very soon, she would be. For he would not stop hunting until he found her. The gods could summon them for another challenge at any time. The losing team would then be called before the fire, and Layel would be forced to wait. If he lived through another counsel.

"Eat this," he suddenly heard Delilah say. "You're pale."

Every cell in his body heated, sparking into small infernos. There was a muttered reply from a female. Most likely the other Amazon, Nola. Layel floated above the ground with only a thought, nearing the door of leaves arching in front of him.

Remaining in the shadows, he peeked through. And there she was, crouched beside Nola. His azure-haired, violet-eyed tormentor. The two teams were together, sitting around a fire, some kind of animal roasting in the center.

Tension swirled between winners and losers.

The teams might be together, but they were in no way unified. Glares abounded. Zane sat off to the side, sharpening a stick. Every few seconds, his narrowed gaze flicked to Delilah and Nola. His skin was flushed, his motions a dance of power, yet he pulsed with anger.

He would have to wait, it seemed. Layel broke through the trees with only the slightest rustle and approached the other vampire. As king, it was his responsibility to ensure no animosity grew between them. When he sat, Zane gave no indication he noticed Layel's presence.

Everyone else, however, did.

Conversations tapered to quiet. There was even an angered hiss from Brand. Layel ignored him, knowing it would rouse Brand's beast. Trying not to grin with the thought, his gaze shifted to the Amazons. Nola stared down at her food, flicking it with her fingers every few seconds but never actually eating. Delilah tipped back a coconut half, draining the milk inside.

Her eyes remained on Layel, ensnaring him, holding him captive. He could not have looked away had a blade been pressed to his throat. Her gaze was guarded, no hint of her emotions present. Why? What did she hide?

He bared his fangs at her and licked them.

Finally. Emotion. A flash of desire before she gulped and looked away. Only then, free of her powerful hold, did he realize something hard and tight had taken residence in his chest. Slowly it loosened, however, allowing him to breathe. His cock did not settle but continued to throb.

"All is well?" he asked Zane, noticing the bloodstained lips his friend still possessed. Blood always strengthened a vampire no matter its source, but blood overflowing with wine or medicines could cause a spike in aggression, anger and violence. Could that be the cause of Zane's current dark mood? Had he taken blood from someone inebriated?

"Yes." No pause in movement. Every time they were summoned, the god continued to remove their weapons, forcing them to make more at every opportunity. During their "off" hours, they had to be prepared for anything. "I am well."

Truth? A lie? "You do not like your new duties, then."

"I do not mind them." Flat tone, twitching muscles.

"Something is wrong with you, Zane."

"Yes."

At least he did not deny it. "Tell me."

"As king?"

"As...friend." The one friend Layel had allowed himself over the years was Valerian, and that was only because he'd known Valerian before Susan's death. They'd met in the Outer City and had become allies when they were too young to know better - the mixing of the species was most often frowned upon. They'd played together, discovered a passion for females together, and they'd fought together, guarding each other's backs.

After Susan, well, the nymph king had taken him in and cared for him until the emotional anguish gave way to a thirst for revenge.

Perhaps Zane needed someone to care for him. His time with the demons had probably razored his soul to tatters.

"Sure you want to know?" Zane inquired.

Layel nodded.

"Before, when you asked me whose blood I had taken..." Zane's fingers tightened over the rock and sparks erupted at the tip of the stick.

His stomach twisted into a knot. Do not say Delilah. If her name left the vampire's lips, Layel wasn't sure how he would react. Someone would die, he suspected. "You refused to tell me."

"I took from a woman."

No.

"From an Amazon."

No!

"From Nola."

First there was anger that Zane had strung him along, most likely out of shame. Then relief. It nearly felled him, and he realized he'd been reaching for the dagger he'd sharpened only a few hours ago. Thank the gods. His hands fell into his lap. "She allowed this?"

"She did, though I doubt she remembers." Yes, that was shame dripping from the words.

He blinked in surprise. "Why would she not remember?"

"I went to her while she was sleeping."

"And she did not awaken?"

"No."

"How?" he insisted. The Amazons were highly trained; they would awaken the moment a man settled atop them. That he knew firsthand. And even if Nola had somehow failed to do so, she would have noticed puncture wounds afterward.

"I invaded her mind." The shame morphed into self-loathing.

Layel scrubbed a hand over his face. Some vampires were gifted with the ability to insert thoughts and images into another's mind. Most were not. Layel could not, though he'd always wished otherwise. How much fun would it have been to convince one dragon warrior to slay another?

"I filled her mind with dreams of making love to me, and when she opened her arms and spread her legs, I took what I needed."

"And how did you hide the marks from her? From others?" The moment he spoke, Layel realized what the answer had to be. With as little clothing as the Amazons wore, there was only one hiding place.

Zane glared at him for a moment. "If you were not my king and my friend, you know I would kill you right now, yes?"

"Yes."

"Still you wish me to say it?"

Another, "Yes." Without hesitation. Making him say it might prevent him from doing it again, the shame voiced, never to be forgotten.

"I bit between her legs."

Though he'd known what Zane would say, the words still managed to shock him. Once again, I have lost control of my men. Under Layel's rule, the vampires lived by a code. They could drink from dragon warriors anytime they wished, but never - never! - were they to take from another race without permission.

Some creatures enjoyed being bitten, but some refused to even consider it, mistakenly afraid of being turned into blood-drinkers themselves. Over the years, Layel had learned only humans could be turned. Most died, however, which was why he'd never attempted to turn Susan.

Suddenly a flood of his mate's screams bombarded Layel's mind, loud enough to crack glass if they'd been audible, and sharp enough to slice his soul. They were always close to the surface, but he usually could keep them at bay. Shut up, shut up, shut up!

It was only when his gaze locked with Delilah's that he was able to beat them into submission. How? Why? He was sweating. Panting. Frowning, Delilah turned to her sister. To escape her hold, he did the same. Thankfully, the screams did not return.

Earlier, Delilah had called Nola pale, but the woman was pallid, the blue lines of her veins evident. Dark circles formed half-moons under her eyes.

"You took too much," he told Zane.

"I know," was the gritted response.

"You will not touch her again. Do you understand?"

"She is your teammate. Of course you want her strong. What next? Will you demand I lose for you?"

Fire burned beneath his skin. "You had best watch your tongue before you lose it. She deserved a choice, Zane, a real choice, and you did not give her one." Hypocrite, he thought, for wasn't he planning to take the choice from Delilah?

"I know!"

"Trouble among the bloodsuckers?" Brand laughed, drawing Layel's attention and rage. "How sad."

Several creatures chuckled.

"Save it for the next challenge," Delilah said. At least she sounded angry rather than amused.

Tagart arched a brow, his golden eyes glaring. "An Amazon with a soft heart. Who knew?"

"A dragon with a bleak-looking future," she shot back. "I suspected."

His eyelids slitted. "Is that a threat?"

She pushed to her feet and squared her shoulders. "No. A promise. I will not tolerate insults. Especially from my supposed ally."

Layel was standing a heartbeat later, at her side before he even realized he'd moved. "Challenging a girl, fire-bastard? Perhaps you finally realized the big boys were too much for you."

Tagart's attention settled on him, pure menace. "I haven't forgotten the way you bit me."

"And I haven't gotten your foul taste out of my mouth."

A look of utter rage passed over the dragon's face and for a split second, his bones elongated, revealing a glimpse of snout, razor teeth and green scales. The beast was never far from the surface, apparently.

"I'm not going to wait for your team to vote you off, vampire. Nor will I allow the gods the pleasure of killing you. I'll take care of you here and now."

Layel's blood boiled, turning his veins to ash. "Come and get me." Please.

"Enough," Delilah said, stepping between them.

Layel's gaze snapped to her. The length of her hair whipped around her on a sudden burst of wind. Wind - he suspected each breeze brought the gods closer to them, watching, always watching. She was tense, fingers arched into claws.

That she kept her back to Layel was telling, though he wasn't sure Tagart understood. The dragon was smirking now, as if the Amazon thought to protect him. Stupid. Delilah trusted Layel not to attack her while vulnerable.

Stupid, he thought again, this time directed at Delilah. She should not trust him like that. She should run from him. Fast and forever.

I would probably chase her.

Stupid! That curse had been for himself. She was not his, could never be his.

For that, more than anything, he suddenly wanted to launch himself at Tagart and eat him, organ by organ. The bastard's eyes would be the last to go, so he could see every terrible thing Layel did to him.

He fingered the hilt of his blade. "I'm waiting."

Delilah reached back and ran her palm over his stomach. He barely held in a shocked, aroused gasp.

Whatever look she gave the dragon had his cheeks coloring. He tossed Layel a final glare before stomping toward the trees, Brand close at his heels. They probably meant to plan his murder. He hoped they did. Foiling their attempts might prove to be a nice distraction.

Multiple sets of eyes watched as Delilah turned and faced him. Those violet irises framed in black climbed the length of his body, practically stripping him bare. He found himself stepping backward, away from the strength and heat and temptation of her.

"The waterfall," she whispered. "Will you meet me?"

"Will you be there this time?" he whispered back, hating the huskiness of his voice.

She shivered, her lips falling open in surprise. "You went?"

"Last night? No," he said. Truth. But obviously she hadn't gone at all.

"And yet your tone chastised me for not going. No, don't say another word. I was detained by my sister," she explained.

He would never admit to the relief he felt that she hadn't changed her mind.

The creatures around the fire leaned toward them, shamelessly doing their best to listen to the conversation. Layel hissed at them, and they quickly looked away. Someone even began whistling.

An eternity ticked by while Delilah studied him. No, surely only a few seconds had passed. "Did you pleasure the female nymph?"

Was that jealousy in her tone? He was not delighted by that. Really. Still refusing to voice the answer she seemed to crave, he said, "Would you care if I did?"

"No. Of course not." She lowered her gaze to the ground. "But I saw you in the forest. With her. So - "

He didn't owe her an explanation. He didn't. "What is to keep you from becoming distracted by your sister again?"

As she eyed the surrounding crowd, she said softly, "I want to talk to you. About the nymph. Did you - "

Would she never allow him to change the subject? "If you truly saw us, you would know what happened."

"I didn't stay and watch until the end. I would have killed her, and then your team would have been down two members."

So even though she'd thought he was bedding another woman, she'd been unable to commit a deed that might ultimately bring about his execution. The thought warmed him. "If you go to the waterfall, I will not be in a mood to talk."

Instant arousal banked her features. "What will you be in the mood for, then?" she asked in a wine-rich tone. "The same thing you probably did with the nymph?"

"If you show up at the waterfall, Delilah, I will bite you. Do you understand? I will drink your blood."

Her breath hitched. "But you swore never to touch me like that." She didn't sound upset by the possibility that he had changed his mind. "Did you bite the ny - "

"I lied, as you are always accusing me of doing. I will bite you."

Frustration darkened her expression. "What else have you lied about? The nymph?"

If she said that word one more time, he might...laugh. "You cannot trust me. Ever. That is all you need know."

"This is how you think to lure me to the waterfall? I may be an Amazon and not all that familiar with the ways of men, but even I know to expect a few tender words in a situation like this. You'd better rethink your approach if you really want me to join you. Because I doubt that ugly little nymph will be there."

His lips twitched and he felt a tickling in his throat. "I did not ask you there. You asked me. And I will go. Part of me hopes you will stay away."

Sparks lit her eyes, a blaze of fury and that seemingly ever-present arousal. "And what does the other part of you hope? That the sex-hungry bitch will go instead?"

"That you come, that I can rid myself of the thought of you."

She softened somewhat, as did the growing ache in his chest. "And if you can't?"

"That you'll be so weak from loss of blood that you fail during the next challenge and are chosen to die." There was stark truth in his tone, though he wasn't sure he meant a word.

"Liar." She arched a brow, not giving him the reaction he'd expected. "You want me, you're just afraid to admit it. Besides, you've told me time and again never to trust you," she said with utter confidence. "But you never told me if you bedded the nymph."

Do not give her the reaction she's looking for, either. "And I won't. Now, I've delivered my warning. That's all I can do. Come to the waterfall at your own peril."

"I'm not afraid of you, Layel," she said, raising her chin.

"Foolish."

"Confident in my abilities."

"Foolish," he insisted. But he was the foolish one. The world around them had long since faded. He was aware of her and only her. Anyone could have snuck up on him, and he would not have cared.

She stepped closer to him, cutting away at his prized personal space to gaze up at him in challenge. "Tell me one thing at least."

"Let me guess. The nymph?"

Irritation curtained her features as she snapped, "Do whatever you want with her. I don't care."

When she sounded ready to slay the other female? She cared.

"What I want to know," Delilah continued, closing even more distance, "is if you would mourn for me if I did get executed."

Any closer, and he might wrap his arms around her. Might press his lips to hers, and devour her. The thought of her death...hurt him, made him want to hold on and never let go. "No," he managed to squeeze past the lump growing in his throat. "No."

Surprising him still further, she grinned slowly. "Once again I'm forced to remind you that you told me never to believe a word out of your mouth," she said. "I think you would miss me greatly." With that, she sauntered off in the direction of the waterfall.