SHIVAWN AWOKE with a jolt and moaned. Gods, he ached. Was weak, drained. Too much sex play, he suspected. Had happened before, and would probably happen again.

Grinning, he cracked open his eyelids, the world around him blurry, out of focus. There was darkness with only the slightest hint of gold. A few feet away, water dripped a slow, steady rhythm. The walls closing in at his sides were...rocky, he realized, not the ivory and onyx he was now used to.

Where was he?

Not in a bed. The ground beneath him was as rocky as the walls, the air damp and musty. A cave? And why did heavy weights pull at his wrists and ankles? His grin faded, amusement replaced by anger, as he turned his head and saw the heavy chains that bound him.

Bound? He was bound?

A lovely female face flashed in his mind, teeth bared, fury in her blue eyes. He remembered. "Alyssa!" he snarled.

One of the shadows in the corner shifted. Then, suddenly, she was beside him, staring down at him. Never had she looked lovelier. Her skin was flushed a healthy pink, her cheeks filled out, her lips bloodred. She wore a black robe, and it covered every inch of skin except for her breathtaking face and delicate hands. "So. You're awake."

"Unchain me. Now!" He jerked his arms and legs, but the thick links held strong. His weakened state was no match for them.

"You had best be quiet, nymph."

"Alyssa."

She traced her fingertip over his bare chest. So. She had removed his shirt. What else had she done to him? His teeth ground together, his body unresponsive.

Most of his life, his cock had been an asset. It had reliably risen for anything female. Except her. He didn't know why. The night he'd spent with her, he'd had to think of others to stay hard.

He hadn't lied to her. He'd left her sleeping in bed, sated, while he had wallowed in dissatisfaction, frustration and confusion. He wasn't eager to repeat the experience.

What was it about her that so turned him off? Every time he looked at her, all he could see in his mind was blood. All he could hear were screams.

"Let me go and we'll pretend this never happened."

Her nails, still resting on his chest, grew to sharp little points, slicing into his skin. "Oh, no. There will be no release for you. Not yet."

"Alyssa," he gritted out again.

"I brought you here to punish you, you know. To give you what you deserve. I wanted to hurt you, destroy you, but as I watched you sleeping I realized I couldn't do it." She laughed bitterly. "What I can do, however, is pleasure you. Pleasure you so fiercely you'll never forget what happened in this cave, never forget the woman responsible. And most of all you'll wish, desperately, for more." The more she spoke, the more determination dripped from her tone.

"The nymph army will search for me. They'll find us and you'll be killed for this."

A cold smile hovered at the edges of her lush mouth. She shook her head, hair dancing. "They'll assume we disappeared like the others."

His stomach tightened with dread. She was right. "This isn't going to make me love you, Alyssa. This is going to make me hate you."

Her gaze lowered, and she traced circles around each of his nipples. "I know," she admitted softly.

"Then free me. Now."

 

"It seems I've wanted you forever," she said as if he had not spoken. "I know I've dreamed of us together, over and over again. And the one pure, perfect memory I had, you ruined."

He could not, would not soften toward his captor. When he gained his freedom, and he would, he would ensure she was unable to harm another warrior. "I told you that was not my intention, but you wanted the truth, so I gave it to you."

"I was not finished," she said, jaw firmed. "You left me and you were unsatisfied."

He could not deny it, so did not reply.

"As I said before," she rasped, long lashes rising. Her eyes glittered dangerously, filled with a determination so complete he'd never seen its equal. Stronger, even, than her tone. "You will be completely sated when I'm through with you. You'll think of me constantly, recall the bliss I gave you, and you'll want more the way I have wanted more all these years. But I will never give it to you. After this, we will be on equal ground. And I will be done with you."

Dark rage seethed through him. He was a warrior. Being captured like this - and by a woman - was humiliating. What's more, he was a nymph. He should be able to charm her into doing anything he wanted. More, he should want this, should merely consider it play.

Not desiring a woman was almost...sacrilegious. "That will be rape," he found himself saying, and could not believe the words had sprung from his mouth. No other nymph would have uttered them. Ever. They would have reveled in any pleasure this woman gave them.

A strangled cry left Alyssa, and she jerked her hand away from him.

He used the reprieve to think. Why had he stopped her? Nymphs needed sex to survive. Without it, they grew weak. Might even die. With it, though, they grew impossibly strong. He should let her ride him, restoring all of his strength, and then he should break these chains and strangle her with them.

Yes, that was a sound plan. He would grit his teeth and bear it. He only hoped he could fool her and actually respond to her touch.

He popped his jaw - calm, stay calm - and forced his expression to soften. "I'm sorry. That was cruel of me to say." And difficult to apologize when he did not mean a word of it. "You want me, and I want you."

The woman was going to suffer for bringing him to this point.

She blinked in surprise, then suspicion. "What game do you play?"

"No game. I simply wish to bed you."

Unconvinced, she shook her head. "You suddenly want me before I have even begun? Just like that?" She snapped her fingers. "Only a moment ago it would have been rape."

"Yes. Just like that." He'd had to swallow his fury to choke out the words.

"Liar." But her hands returned to his chest, as if she wanted to believe him despite her doubts. She dipped a fingertip into his navel, leaned down and kissed him there, gaze never leaving his.

He inhaled sharply, then had to grit his teeth as he'd supposed, his father's screams suddenly exploding in his head. His ears rang, and the scent of death filled his nose. Every muscle in his body tensed. This was what happened every time Alyssa neared him. Regaining his strength was not worth this. "You...you...I can't stand the smell of you," he ground out, not knowing what else to say to make her leave. "You have to back away from me."

Alyssa uttered an embarrassed yelp and stood. "You're a cruel man," she rasped out, "yet I convinced myself otherwise, lapping up every scrap you tossed my way. Enough! No longer will I do so. You want me to bathe? I will. I want nothing to diminish your enjoyment. And you will enjoy. Not that you deserve it.

"You never noticed, but I've been unable to drink another's blood since our joining. I was literally dying for your blood, damn you, but now I've had it. Now I'm strong. And soon we will be free of each other." She stalked from the cave, leaving him alone.

His head fell against the rocks, those terrible memories fading from his mind in the wake of her heated accusations and departure. She hadn't drunk from another? She loved him that much? It was almost...humbling. But surely she had exaggerated. Surely she hadn't truly been dying because of his refusal.

Right?

He thought back to how pale she'd been lately, how sunken her cheeks and eyes had become. Now, after having his blood, she glowed. He was ashamed to admit it, but he hadn't noticed her decline.

He frowned, concern overshadowing every hint of his anger and freeing his mind from thoughts of revenge. How would he feel if she were to take her last breath? If he were never to see her again, as she'd vowed?

He'd come to expect her presence. She was Alyssa, the female who constantly sought him out, who watched him with lust in her eyes. Who did everything in her power to seduce him. The same as most females, were he honest. But she wanted more than sex. As many times as she'd invited him to bed, she'd asked for his aid in devising battle plans, beseeched him to join her for a stroll through the Outer City and sent him books she'd enjoyed so that they could one day discuss them. She wanted conversation, to know his thoughts and have him listen to hers. She wanted to know him as a man, not just a lover.

There wasn't a single spark of satisfaction at the thought of her demise, as he would have guessed. There wasn't even relief. The thought of being without her actually saddened him. Yes, saddened, he realized.

Despite what she made him feel when he looked at her, she was lovely. He even liked arguing with her. A few times, she'd even made him smile. She was smart, witty. Lusty. But somehow he'd come to equate her with the suffering of the past, and that had tainted his feelings toward her.

The first time he'd seen her, as a woman, no longer a little girl, he'd been consumed with lust for her. He'd wanted her more than he'd ever wanted another. But the moment he'd approached her, gazing into her eyes, that lust had turned to disgust, the screams of the past consuming him. That had never changed. Why had the past interfered? Did it matter? Escape should be his only concern right now.

For an eternity, he tried to fight his way free of the chains. All he did was cut his skin. What kind of warrior am I? he wondered.

Finally, she returned. Her hair was wet and she was wearing a different robe. A blue one, to match her eyes. Prettier than ever, he thought and closed his own eyes. Instant arousal, but he knew it was only a matter of time before it withered.

"I should now meet even your lofty standards," she said.

Alyssa climbed on top of him, straddling him. She flattened her palms on his chest, the heat of her core, covered though it was by her robe, pressing against his cock. Where she touched, a small blaze kindled. Odd. That had never happened before. Not with her. Why had it now?

"There is much we need to discuss," he said, mind still churning. She hadn't looked any different, and she certainly hadn't endeared herself to him. But for once, there was no flash of blood in his mind, no screams. She stroked his chest like a favored pet. There were calluses on her hands, calluses that evoked a delicious friction.

Suddenly he didn't want her to stop touching him.

"Alyssa," he began, not really knowing what to say.

"Stop talking." Her fingertips never ceased their determined movement, tracing the line of his jaw, his ears, the slope of his neck and collarbone.

His blood heated with a shocking amount of desire. "You are...this is..." His frown deepened. How was she doing this? He opened his eyes to study her, heard a scream inside his head, lost his arousal and quickly closed his eyes again. Silence.

Her face, he realized. Something about it must send him back. But what?

She scooted lower on him, rubbing him once again to readiness. He hissed in a breath as she leaned down and licked him directly on his nipple. It hardened, reaching for more of the hot perfection of her mouth.

"Are you thinking of another woman?" she asked huskily.

Her sharp little teeth scraped the skin surrounding his other nipple, so the only noise that escaped him was a moan. Of pleasure.

She hadn't been this aggressive before. She had bitten him last time, yes, but it had been accidental. Even knowing it, he had nearly slapped her for it. Only his quick reflexes had stopped him.

He'd nearly been drained once, and it had been as painful, horrific and humiliating as having a limb severed. Alyssa had nearly drained him to get him here, and that hadn't been pleasant, either. So the thought of being bitten again should have disgusted him. Except...

Gods, he didn't want Alyssa to stop. He wanted some part of her inside him, taking nourishment, living because he gave her life.

What was happening to his mind, his desires?

She nibbled harder. "Are you?"

"Am I what?" He had forgotten the question, was too busy arching up to meet her mouth.

"Who are you thinking of, Shivawn? What woman's image is in your mind when I do this?" She licked her way down, not stopping until she reached his navel.

His cock reached for her, craving her mouth. Hot, tight, wet. Pumping in and out. Hard. Fierce.

"Tell me and I'll be gentle with you," she whispered before blowing a warm puff on the moisture her tongue had left behind.

"You," he replied honestly. "I see you." And he did. Her heat infused his skin, her silky hair tickled his chest, and he liked it.

Her fingers curled around his cock. Squeezed. His hips surged up, a groan splitting his lips. Where had this tigress come from? Mostly she had been still last time, as if savoring every touch, every sound. He'd thought at the time that he might have been a wee bit charmed if he hadn't been so busy wondering why his body wasn't responding as it should.

He tried to lift his arm to fist her hair, force a kiss, but the chains rattled and pulled tight. "Release me."

"Of course." She released him - just not the way he desired. His cock was suddenly free, hard and aching on his belly. Satisfied she had his attention, she continued, "You don't give the orders here."

She probably meant the words to sound harsh and commanding. She sounded breathless.

"Then touch me again. That's why I'm here, isn't it?"

Before she could reply, he cracked his eyelids open. He did not focus on her entire face, but on one feature at a time, trying to figure this out. He saw the pink tip of her tongue emerge, darting over her lush lips. The sight was amazingly erotic, and rather than losing his erection, his arousal was ratcheted another degree. Her lips weren't the problem, then. He watched her wrinkle her nose. Again, his arousal remained. He gazed into her eyes. The screams returned.

Her eyes, then. What about them transported him back to that bloody field?

She peered down at him, hair hanging over her shoulders like damp velvet. Her eyelids were at half-mast, her expression soft and luminous. Needy as he now was, the screams were a nuisance rather than a hindrance.

"Touch me," he commanded her again, but there was a plea to the words. He flattened his palms against the cool rocks beneath him.

"Not yet." She reached up and tugged at the shoulder strap of her robe. The sapphire material floated to her stomach, revealing full, proud breasts with sweet, pink nipples.

His mouth watered as though he were starving and had just been offered a banquet. "Release me." He could barely work the words past his thickening throat. "I want to touch you."

Her eyes narrowed. "You're lying again."

"Look at my body. I'm not lying. Desire beats through me."

Her gaze remained locked on his face. "I can feel it," she said, her cheeks growing bright with color.

A blush? From this fierce warrior woman? Even that fueled his desire.

"But it's there because you're thinking of another," she added. "I know you lied."

"Only you, I swear it."

"What's changed?" she demanded. She traced her fingertip over the head of his penis, which was sticking out from between her legs, and spread a sheen of moisture on his stomach.

Sweet heaven. He opened his mouth to reply - how, he didn't know - when she stopped him.

"Never mind. It doesn't matter. As I said, you will find pleasure with me this time." She scooted farther back and then - sweet gods, then - she took his cock into her mouth, sucking him all the way to the base.

Every muscle in his body went taut, his blood molten. "Alyssa," he gasped.

The sound of her name must have been startling to her, for she stopped. With her mouth a mere whisper away from his cock, she stared up at him. He saw pleasure in those lovely eyes, but only a little. There was too much hurt and determination standing in the way. The screams increased in volume in his mind, but still they didn't affect him. Just then, something else mattered more. That hurt...

That didn't sit well with him. He wanted her wild. Out of control. Not so that he could regain his strength and escape, he realized, but because...with his private admission that he liked having her in his life, that he liked her, with the flashes of blood and screams overshadowed, he was beginning to sense something else...something shocking. Wondrous. Unbelievable.

Something that swept through him, infusing his cells, his organs, imprinting her essence inside him.

He closed his eyes and pictured Twila, a female nymph he liked to bed. His penis withered as it used to do with Alyssa. He pictured Helen, a siren he had spent a month pleasuring. Nothing, not even a twitch. He pictured Brenna, the human he'd wanted above all others. Again, he remained flaccid.

"Shivawn?" Alyssa asked hesitantly.

Just like that, he was hard as a rock, her voice the fuel needed to spark his desire.

Dear gods. She was his mate, his one and only. No other would do. She was it for him. She was a part of his life, always had been. He could no longer deny it - why had he ever? - for all he could suddenly think about was her pleasure. Her protection. Her smile, her laughter, her body. Him, inside of her. Her, and no other. All these years, and he'd allowed painful memories, memories that had nothing to do with her, to cloud his judgment. All these years, he'd pushed her away, treated her horribly, hurt her deeply.

She was a vampire. That no longer mattered.

She would have to bite him to live. He was glad.

She had stolen him. Merely loveplay.

My mate, he thought, shocked to his very core. How he'd mixed his past with her, he didn't know, but he would act the fool no longer. Besides, now wasn't the time to figure it out. He'd ponder it later. Much, much later. "Alyssa," he said.

Something in his tone caused tears to spring to her eyes. He knew women well enough to know they were not tears of happiness. What had brought them on? "Unchain me, love. Please." His tone was gentle. He had to caress her face. Perhaps lick those tears away. Hold her. Apologize for all he'd done to her.

She wiped the moisture away with the back of her wrist and shook her head. Her chin trembled, her gaze lowering once again to his cock. "No."

"Strip for me, then." There would be time later to convince her of his new feelings. Right now, anything he said would most likely be dismissed as a lie he told to ensure his escape. "Let me taste you while you taste me."

Again, she shook her head. But there was intrigue and passion blended in her eyes now. She nibbled on her lower lip, something he suddenly wanted to do. "Last time, I found fulfillment and you didn't," she said. "This time, you will find it and I will not. Equal ground, Shivawn, remember?"

"Alyssa." Oh, yes. He had hurt her, and he hated himself for it. "No!"

"Keep me chained, then. But at least allow me to kiss you. Somewhere. You may choose where. Your mouth...your breasts...between your legs...I will not find pleasure unless you allow me to do so."

Her pupils dilated, delighting him. "You don't really want to pleasure me," she said, even more hurt drifting from the undertone.

"You and no other," he assured her. He could not explain this change in him, even to himself. All he knew was that he was changed. Later, he told himself again. He would reason it out later, when their mutual passion was sated. "If you want me to beg, I will beg."

She looked away from him, as if his gaze was too much to endure. "All I have ever wanted was you. Everything I did, I did for you. Learning to fight, so that I could be close to you and so you would know I could take care of myself."

"That, you will stop doing immediately."

One of her delicate brows arched. "Trying to please you?"

"Fighting." He wanted her safe. In his bed. Away from the war-torn life she lived. He liked the thought of protecting her.

She traced his navel with her tongue. A tear ran down her cheek and splashed onto his pelvic bone, glistening. The sight nearly undid him. "Alyssa..."

"I should not have placed you above my own needs and desires. Silly of me."

"You are not silly. But your happiness is more important than mine," he said. "Always. Soon, I will prove it."

Another tear.

"What else have you done for me?" he asked gently.

Her fangs elongated with an angry hiss. "Will that stroke your male pride, hearing what poor little Alyssa, hopelessly in love with you, did to make you notice her?"

"No. In the telling, I will begin to understand what I must now do for you in return and how I might make up for my negligence. Equal ground, as you said."

Shock flashed over her expression. Her mouth fell open, but she quickly closed it with a snap. Eyes gleaming fury, she snarled, "You want to know? Fine. You refused me time and time again. After a while, I lost hope. I took another lover. And another. And another. Can you make that up to me? Return me to my untouched state?"

Oh, now that he did not like hearing. He did not like the thought of this lovely woman in the arms of any man save himself. "No," he admitted softly. "All I can do is try and make you forget. Brand you with my touch, for though I did not have the privilege of being your first, I promise I will be your last."

"You courted thousands of women," she said bitterly, "enjoying yourself, laughing. I cried every time I saw you with another, every time I gave myself to a man. Can you make that up to me?"

His stomach twisted so painfully he would have sworn knives were slashed through every knot. "I am sorry, so very sorry. I wish I could go back." She would never have reason to cry again. Whatever he had to do, this woman would know only joy and laughter from this moment on.

What if, tomorrow, the blood and screams are no longer dulled?

That no longer mattered. They could storm through him, lightning and thunder, but he would not leave her. She was too important to him. He would endure anything for her. Hadn't she endured all but death for him? "Somehow, some way, I will make you forget those experiences. I swear it."

"The lovers I took," she continued as if he hadn't spoken, "I had hoped they could teach me how best to please a man. I thought if I only knew how to pleasure you, you would want me." She laughed bitterly again, a tear-filled choking. "But that didn't work, did it? You finally took me to bed and you hated every moment of it."

"Alyssa," he began, then stopped himself. How could he explain that she had always reminded him of the worst day of his life without hurting her further? "That night I spent with you...I was in a dark and dangerous mood. No one would have been able to please me."

"Your mate would have."

An hour ago, he would have agreed. "I followed you for days afterward," he admitted.

Eyes widening, she shook her head. "No, you didn't."

He nodded. "I did. I couldn't understand why I had been unable to respond to so beautiful a woman. So I watched you, more intently than ever, trying to reason it out."

Again, she shook her head in denial, though there was a gleam of hope in her eyes.

That hope spurred him on. "I'm responding to you now," he reminded her. "I want you, Alyssa. Let me have you. Please. Your pleasure will be my own."

Her features hardened as though she'd stared at a gorgon a little too long and had been turned to stone. "Oh, you'll have pleasure."

"That's not enough. I want you to have pleasure, as well."

"Like I said, I already had my turn, didn't I?"

He never should have told her the truth. "I promise you I will find greater pleasure if I know you are enjoying this, too."

"The same was true of me. Once." She didn't give him a chance to say anything else. Her mouth once again lowered to his cock, taking him all the way inside, sucking...sucking...Her tongue swirled around the swollen head with an ever-upward glide. He tried to resist the headiness, wanting to see to her climax before he took his own.

"Let me lick. Between your legs," he worked past his constricting throat. "Need to taste you."

Up and down she sucked him, her teeth scraping, ignoring his plea. Her fingers bit into his hips, released him, then wrapped around his testicles. His body was tensing, readying. Power was surging through his bloodstream, un-stoppable and inexorable. He'd never wanted anything as much as he wanted her. Couldn't stand the thought of leaving her unsatisfied.

"Alyssa. Please."

She increased her speed, and his passion spiked. Consumed him. He roared loud and long, his hips pumping his cock down her throat. He couldn't stop the motions, couldn't stop the momentum of his release.

"Drink from me," he commanded. "Take my blood."

"Already did."

"Do it again. Let me feed you."

"No!"

The hot spike of her tongue swirled over the head of his shaft, and he lost control completely. His muscles clamped down on his bones, endlessly spasming.

The pleasure...Oh, gods, the pleasure. More intense than anything he'd ever experienced. He couldn't speak, could only gasp, groan and pant like an animal.

When he got inside this woman again, he might not survive. The thought almost made him smile. But as he shuddered and calmed - would his erratic heartbeat ever slow? - Alyssa straightened, pulling away from him. She refastened her robe, shielding her nipples from his view. Her color was high; she, too, was panting.

"Now you have found release with me. You can't deny it this time."

"Alyssa."

She moved swiftly to his wrists, gave a tug, and the chains fell away. She followed suit with his ankles.

Free, he sat up, already reaching for her, needing her in his arms. He could smell her sweet desire, had to sate her, had to...now. Forever. But she backed away from him, shaking her head.

"Come here, Alyssa." He gave a gentle swipe of his fingers. "Please."

"Return home. Tell your king what I did. Send the entire nymph army to kill me. I don't care."

"This is between us. No one else. I will go nowhere without you." He pushed to shaky legs. Gods, where was his strength? He should be completely energized now. All he wanted to do, however, was lie down with his woman.

"Very well," she said, and stopped, studying him bleakly. The jagged walls of the cave were at her back, a harsh frame for her fragile beauty. "It is I who will go. This is goodbye, then."

He frowned. "No. Never goodbye. Come - "

She disappeared.

A roar rushed past his throat and he stumbled from the cave, searching for her. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he found himself in the Forest of Dragons, fat trees towering all around him. What he didn't find was Alyssa.

She was gone as if she'd never been.