LAYEL DIDN'T YET HAVE his desire under control when the dragon's voice invaded his thoughts. This is a good thing. Really.

Delilah stiffened in his arms.

Delilah...her blood was the nectar of the gods, surely. One sip, and he'd been transported to the heavens. One gulp, and he'd experienced more sexual ecstasy than he'd ever experienced while pumping his cock inside of a woman. Shouldn't have tasted her. He'd expected to find her ordinary, to reduce her to a meal.

He had failed.

Now he knew the truth. Now he knew that nothing compared to her. Not a rich, aged wine, not ambrosia.

Slowly he lowered his hands to his sides and turned, surprised by just how relieved he was to see the pair of dragons. Surprised the two warriors were standing together as allies when most of the races had already divided against each other, thanks to the gods' cruel game. A moment more, and he might have done something irrevocable. As if you haven't already. Something...tender, then.

Gods, this woman challenged him. Angered him, drew him. Tormented him. Cut him up and left him bare. She'd had a lover once, had welcomed the bastard inside her sweet body, and he despised the man with his entire being. Not a good time for these thoughts.

He studied his new opponents. Seeing those golden eyes roused every spark of hatred banked inside him. Better. The emotion was a constant part of him, fused to his bones and flowing through his veins. And yet, tonight he felt no urge to attack or kill. Why?

Delilah couldn't be healing the wounds inside him, he assured himself. There was nothing to heal. Some injuries caused irreparable damage, so complete there was nothing left to sew back together. She wasn't making him forget; he could never forget. Perhaps it was that odd sense of relief that held him in place and dulled his rage. The dragons had prevented him from doing something stupid.

More, Delilah had panted earlier, and he'd been very close to giving it to her. He'd been close to giving her everything. Sex, promises...forever. Was still close. Gods, she was no longer in his arms but he could still feel the softness of her body. Worse, that sickening feeling of tenderness lingered. For her.

No one had spoken a word for several seconds - minutes? - he realized. Each of them had been standing in utter silence. Layel knew why he had done so; he'd been lost in thought. Why had they?

"So nice of you to join us," he said to break the quiet, his tone smooth.

Brand and Tagart both blinked at him, as though they couldn't believe what he'd said. They didn't relax, though, clearly still expecting him to attack. Both kept their hands poised over the wooden hilts of their daggers.

"Was he hurting you?" Brand asked Delilah. Though his words were addressed to her, his eyes, narrowed and filled with menace, never left Layel.

Layel wasn't sure what he expected the Amazon to say in response - or what he wanted her to say. Part of him wanted to hear the woman whose blood now flowed through his veins praise him. Stand with him. The two of them against the world, united, two halves of the same whole.

The other part of him yearned to hear her tell them that, yes, he had hurt her. That would be easier to deal with later, when he was alone with his shame. He might be able to convince himself that he hadn't kissed her because he craved her more than he craved vengeance, that he hadn't, for that terribly beautiful moment, treated her as lovingly as he'd once treated Susan.

If only he could convince himself of that. Because, had Susan risen from the dead and been the one to interrupt them, Layel wasn't sure he would have been able to pull away from Delilah. He would not have regretted where his arms had been. Or where his mouth had been earlier.

Right then he felt divided, like two separate beings tugged in different directions. Sadly, both entities had one thing in common: they both hated him. He decided to blame the island. Not only was it dividing brother against brother, it was now splitting him in half, confusing him, causing him to war with himself.

"I'm well," Delilah finally answered the dragon. "There's no need to fret."

You are disappointed.

"There was so much screaming..."

"I am well," she insisted, cheeks blooming with bright color.

"As am I," Layel said, though he highly doubted the dragons would care.

 

Tagart leaned one shoulder against a tree trunk, a deceptively casual pose. "We have had this conversation before, have we not?"

Without a word or a glance, Delilah stepped away from Layel and closer to the dragons. His enemies, he reminded himself. A growl rose in his throat, but he quickly cut it off. He did not want her near them, wanted only to jerk her back against him, hold her tight, protect her. This is for the best.

"Before you ask another question," she continued flatly, "know that I do not have to explain myself to either of you."

"Don't you?" Tagart asked softly, fiercely.

Layel looked between them, from one to the other. Delilah's cheeks again heated, this time with what looked to be guilt. Guilt? He knew she had formed a partnership with the dragon, but he had not thought emotion existed between the pair. Were they...Could they be...He didn't want to consider it, but couldn't keep the question from drifting through his mind: what if they worked together to destroy him?

"Walk me back to camp," Delilah told the dragons.

Layel's hands curled into fists as the woman damned herself further. Why ask them for an escort? Why not Layel? Because she does care for Tagart, his mind answered, and wants him safe.

She doesn't matter. She's nothing to you. Her blood and her taste and her strength and her sweetness and her soft, warm body, soft, warm moans meant nothing.

His gaze bored into her back. Her spine was elegantly ridged, her thighs strong - tiny droplets of blood caked the inside - and her feet submerged in the water, the very place he'd laid her down. The place she'd writhed and groaned and fisted his hair.

Her white-hot passion had not been faked. Whether she cared for Tagart or not, she had desired Layel. Perhaps she, too, felt as if she were two people.

She wavered suddenly and had to brace her legs apart to maintain her balance. "Come, dragons. Let us return to camp. I'm hungry." She sounded frightened, impatient.

Layel frowned. Where was the confident woman who had begged him for more? Weakened, because of you. He realized suddenly that of all the things he hated most about this experience, the worst was that he had taken too much of her blood and reduced her to this. He was no better than Zane, whom he'd just lectured on this very subject. The Delilah he knew would have stomped away from them all, unconcerned about who followed and who didn't.

You know her so well, do you?

His frown pulled tight into a scowl.

"Well?" she snapped to the dragons. Again, she wavered.

Layel barely stopped himself from reaching for her.

Tagart bristled at her tone. Brand looked as if he was fighting a grin.

"If you want to keep your internal organs, I would suggest you take her to camp," Layel said. You trust the dragons to keep her safe? In her condition, she wouldn't be able to defend herself.

Ask her to stay.

No. No! Who are you? What kind of man have you become? Susan's mate would not act this way. He would protect above all else; he would place a female's safety over his own needs.

Brand's gaze snapped to him, his earlier amusement gone. "I doubt you care about my organs, vampire."

"You're angering the Amazon, which puts you at risk. And if she cuts them out of you, what will I have to eat later, hmm?"

Fury blazed just behind that golden gaze, but it was not Brand who stepped forward, challenging him. It was Tagart, one dagger raised. Delilah whipped out her arm and curled her fingers around his wrist, stopping him.

"No," she said. A single word, but effective.

The man's attention shot to her, as did Layel's. His teeth ground together at the sight of them touching. Better this way. So much better, he told himself again. How many times would he be forced to think it? His teeth were so sharp they cut his gums. His own blood mixed with Delilah's, trickled onto his tongue and down his throat, fiery hot.

Tagart's arm lowered. His gaze did not leave Delilah as he said, "We won't stand for your threats, Layel."

"As I am a king, you should only address me as Your Highness," he said. "What will you do if I refuse to stop, hmm?"

"Sure you want to know, Layel?" was the reply.

"Come!" Delilah shouted, her voice trembling. "This has grown tiresome."

You can't protect the dragon from me, he thought, red shuttering over his vision.

Tagart slammed his dagger into the sheath at his side. "We never killed you, vampire, because our king ordered us to leave you alone."

"Tagart," Brand growled, a warning.

A warning that was ignored.

"You hunted us, and we let you because of our king's desire for peace. He knew what had been done to you and your mate, and he regretted it, hoped to make amends. Well, I don't, and the dragon king isn't here. We are. And if there's one positive thing to come of this wretched game, it's going to be your demise. I was stopped last time. I won't be again."

At the word mate, Layel's rage intensified to an uncontrollable degree. He launched forward, intending to knock the dark dragon on his ass and slice through his neck with a single cut of his teeth.

Expecting him, the dragon opened his arms and grinned.

But Layel didn't slam into him. He slammed into Delilah, who'd thrown herself in his path. They hit the ground, battering against rocks as they rolled. The fullness of her breasts pressed into his chest, her riotous heartbeat a mirror of his own. Her hair tangled around his face, a cerulean shield.

His teeth were in her neck before he realized what had happened, his mind not yet accepting he'd missed his target. Her sweet, sweet blood filled his mouth once more. But he wasn't gentle this time, wasn't caring. She cried out in pain and fear, knocking sense back into him. He gave a startled gasp and jerked away.

Warm, delicious blood trickled down his chin. He stared down at her, the woman he had just savagely attacked. She lay under him, eyes closed, breath sawing in and out. Not in pleasure, but in pain. Red coated her skin, bathing her. Her eyelids cracked open, her eyes dry, not filled with tears. Not filled with hate, either. Just blind panic that her life might now be over.

And for what? Trying to save an undeserving dragon?

"Why did you do that?" he snarled, rage draining from him and leaving only guilt. Remorse. More of the hatred - for himself. "Why?"

She didn't answer. Probably couldn't. Her eyelids slowly closed again.

Brand gripped Layel's shoulders just as he was leaning down to scoop her up - gently, gently - and he was thrown backward, jostling her. Layel hissed at him. The two dragon warriors hovered over her. Brand caring for her - that should be me! - and Tagart glaring at him, daring him to approach.

"...going to be all right," Brand was saying. "I've got you."

"No. I've got her." Layel sprang forward, grabbing her as gently as possible and flying into the air. The warriors could have morphed into their dragon forms and followed him, but they didn't. Why, he didn't know or care.

In his arms, Delilah was limp.

I did this. Me.

Unlike him, she wouldn't heal quickly. Or would she? He didn't know much about the Amazons. Please let her heal quickly. But with all the blood he'd taken from her earlier - and now...

"You will live, Delilah, if only to punish me for this."

When he saw a moss-covered bank by another stream, he floated to the ground and slowly laid her down. He ripped the shirt from his chest and wrapped it around her neck to stanch the flow of blood. Careful, so careful.

Her eyelids fluttered open again, brushing away the shadows her lashes had cast.

He almost didn't have the courage to look at her. But he did, forced himself, and his chest lurched. She was so pale, paler than Nola had been.

"You are going to drink my blood," he told her. Not a question. A command. He hadn't shared his blood in two hundred years, but he didn't hesitate to do so now.

She opened her mouth to respond, but only a pained gasp emerged. Using one of his nails, he sliced into his wrist and held it over her mouth. She turned her head away and pressed her lips together.

With his free hand, he grasped her chin and turned her. Two of his fingers anchored on her jaw and pried her mouth open. Blood dripped past her teeth, but she didn't work her throat.

"Drink."

She glared up at him. The thought of ingesting another's blood had to be abhorrent to her. Pagan and disgusting. Only vampires were forced to do so to survive; demons did it just because they liked the taste. Most everyone else despised the act.

"You don't have to worry about becoming a vampire. It only happens to humans." So far, to the best of his knowledge, that is. Saving Delilah was worth the risk, however. "Now, if I must, I will work your throat for you. Drink!"

She swallowed.

"Why did you take his place?" he asked to distract her from what she was doing. Perhaps he craved the answer, as well, but he would never admit it aloud. "Why did you save him?" Only one answer made any sense, and he liked it less now than he had earlier. A mere alliance would not have prompted a woman to willingly take a death-blow meant for another. She would do it for a lover, however...

He'd suspected. Now all he could do was imagine Delilah in Tagart's arms, naked, writhing, gasping the bastard's name as he pumped into her. The way Layel wanted to pump into her.

Susan -

No, do not think of her. Not now. Later, he could regret. Later, he could scream and rail and curse. He could hate himself all the more. Later.

Again, Delilah tried to turn her head away. He tightened his grip on her jaw. "You will drink until your color returns."

Her violet eyes flashed with ire.

She was still too pale, lines of tension around her mouth, bruises under her eyes. "You helped me. Now I will help you." The wound on his wrist continually tried to heal itself, and he had to cut himself three more times to keep it open. She never again attempted to turn or close her teeth.

Finally he was satisfied that she'd had enough.

Twin pink circles now dotted her cheeks, and the lines of tension had faded, the skin plumping before his eyes. His relief was too profound to dismiss. Hands trembling, he gently unwound the shirt from her neck.

The teeth marks were still there, still deep, still wrong, but they were no longer gushing. He pushed to his feet, not surprised to find that his legs were shaking, as well. He strode to the water, bent down and cut strips of cloth from his pants. He dipped them into the liquid, soaking them, before striding back to Delilah.

"I've had worse," she said, her voice husky, rough.

The fact that she could talk, astonishing. Her words, earth-shattering. He had hurt her, yet here she was, trying to comfort him. Why? "I did not mean - "

"I know."

"If you begin to feel sick," he said gruffly, "let me know. With humans, there is always a chance of vampire blood trying to consume the body like a ravaging sickness, making them weaker than ever. I have never heard of such a thing happening to a creature of Atlantis, though."

"Humans can transform into vampires?"

"Some can. Most die."

Delilah pushed out an angry sigh, her first show of negative emotion. "Still. You shouldn't have had me drink. I'm Amazon, not vampire."

"You are alive. That is all that matters."

"Yes, and when I return to Atlantis, I will be even more set apart from my sisters. They will despise me if I am forced to drink their blood to survive."

She considered herself different? Why? "Have they never taken vampire slaves? For that matter, which race was your father?"

She glanced away from him, looking anywhere but in the vicinity of his body. "No, we've never taken vampire slaves. And as for the other question, I'm not telling."

"Please."

She blinked in surprise. "I think that's the first time you've ever asked nicely for something."

"Please," he repeated. "Whichever race he is, he's the reason for your blue hair, yes?"

"No. Several Amazons have been born with unusually colored hair."

He was left clueless, then. "Delilah...tell me."

"You'll laugh."

"I won't. I swear it."

"Centaur," she said, cheeks as red as twin rubies. "And if you dare call me Horse Girl, I will slay you."

Others had called her such a name? He yearned to punish them. "You are too pretty to be called a horse girl."

The color in her cheeks deepened. "I - Thank you. He was not their king, nor was he a warrior. Just a commoner with an irresistible smile. That's all I know about him."

From her tone, he could guess that she did not like those facts. Had probably been forced to prove her strength time and time again because of her father's lack. The need to punish her sisters grew stronger. Which was silly. Time to change the subject. "Why did you do it?" He dripped water onto the injury, trying to clean it without actually touching it and hurting her further.

She didn't have to ask his meaning. "Doesn't matter." She looked away.

"It does."

"Why?"

"You saved him."

Her brow puckered. "I saved you."

"No." What did she mean by that? "You saved Tagart."

She waved a hand through the air. "What if I did? He is on my team."

"And that makes him worth more than your own life?" Layel snapped.

"A team must - "

"Work with him to destroy me if you must, but tell me this. Is he your lover?"

She studied Layel, considering, a bit hesitant. "Would that matter to you?"

Yes. "No."

"Then you wouldn't care if I allowed him to touch my breasts and lick my nipples? You wouldn't care if I guided his fingers inside me and - "

"No! Now, not another word from you." He fisted the material, wringing out the last of the moisture. Clear droplets blended with red, creating a pink river as it slid along the slope of her neck and onto the emerald moss. "If you take him to your bed," he found himself adding, unable to stop the words, "I will eat his heart in front of you."

He could have been mistaken, but he thought he saw a flash of delight in her violet eyes. "There's only one man I crave in that way," she admitted softly.

Thank the gods. You grow more dishonorable by the second.

She tried to sit up, but he gripped her shoulders and pinned her down.

"Not yet. Rest."

"Don't order me around."

"I'll order you if I please. I'm stronger than you are."

"Only when I allow you to be."

He crouched beside her and rested his hand on her stomach, needing to feel her heat, her life. Her belly quivered. "You truly think yourself stronger than me?"

"Think?" she snorted. "Your ass has seen more dirt than mine these past few days."

That wrung a surprised laugh out of him. He blinked. Laughter? Now? That hadn't been part of his life in so long he'd forgotten such a thing was possible.

Delilah was staring at him as if mesmerized. "I thought your smile lovely, but...you should laugh more often. You're breathtaking."

He looked away, proving that she was indeed the stronger of the two. "This madness will have to end soon," he said on a sigh. "We will find a way to end it."

"If we don't kill each other first," she muttered.

How close had she come to death this day? Sadly, he couldn't even blame the gods. "I am...sorry."

"For what?" she asked, sounding genuinely confused.

"Is your mind addled now? Why do you think?"

"For biting me, yes, I know. But explain yourself, explain why you're sorry."

"You were hurt, Delilah."

"By my own actions, Layel, so there is no need to apologize for the bite. I deserve an apology for the other thing, however."

His name on her lips was paradise. "What other thing?"

"You stopped kissing me. You left me...needy."

Heat, so much heat. His muscles twitched in response, his cock hardening. Again. "I will not apologize for that."

She lifted a hand to her neck and traced the wound there. "I would have liked to finish," she said with a pout.

He allowed his fingers to dabble at her navel - pretty, smooth skin, lovely tattoo - his blood flowing faster and faster in his veins. Stop. Can't. He moved his fingers to her neck and flattened his palm to the back of her hand. "Your willingness to absolve me is surprising."

"Back to the bite?"

"Of course."

She sighed, loud and long. "Why surprising?"

"You don't strike me as the forgiving type."

Her wrist twisted so they were palm to palm. "What do I strike you as, then?"

He peered down at her, snared in a spell he didn't like but was helpless against. "Lovely. Strong." He grinned slowly. "Vindictive. You were ready to slaughter the dragons for taking your sister."

"That was different."

"Why?"

"My sister could've been hurt."

"You were hurt."

"I believe I mentioned that I caused it."

"Which you should not have done and will not do again. I'll have your word."

She shook her head, blue hair dancing around her. "No, you'll not get it. You can try and force me, however."

There was relish in her tone. A dare, a challenge. His eyes narrowed. If she'd been his woman, he would have - Nothing, he told himself. He would have done nothing. She would never be his. To even consider the possibility was a betrayal. "Are you not worth as much as your sisters?"

"I was born to protect them."

Hmm. Did she see herself as worthless when compared to them? As worthless as you tried to make her feel earlier? Using his free hand, he scrubbed his face wearily. "If I had hurt you purposely, would you have retaliated?"

"Yes," she answered without hesitation.

"But this time..."

"I don't know." She uttered another of those sighs. "I only know I didn't want you to fight. Not me, not the dragons."

"They would not have bested me."

"I know."

She did? And why did he find such pleasure in the knowledge? "Then why - "

"Your questions will never stop, will they?" She didn't sound upset, just resigned. "Any man who can pin me cannot be easily bested. I know that, yet the knowledge didn't stop the worry that you could have been hurt."

Him. Not Tagart. Satisfaction filled him, as potent as bloodwine. "I have lost several battles over the years," he admitted.

"Then you didn't really wish to kill your opponent," she said simply.

He blinked in surprise. He had known that, but no one else had ever suspected. He'd allowed his own people to think he'd merely been weak in those moments, rather than let them know the truth. Pride had not concerned him on those occasions.

Every battle he had lost, he'd lost because he had walked away after seeing his opponents with their mates. They'd been so deeply in love. His chest had ached, as it was doing now. He hadn't been able to deliver that final blow, separating the couples for eternity. It was either kill them both or not at all. In recent years he had erred too much on the side of not at all.

How could Delilah realize that, after knowing him for so short a time?

He opened his mouth to say something - what, he didn't know - when a trumpet reverberated in the distance. He whirled around, searching through the trees. The trumpet sounded again.

"What is it?" Delilah asked, pulling herself into a crouch.

"I think," he said, dread flowing through him, "we're being summoned for our next challenge."