BRAND PICKED UP THE Amazon, Nola, and carted her away from the beach. She was bleeding, but refused his aid because of their audience. One of the sharks had decided her leg would make a tasty snack and had chomped on her calf. Blood had swirled in the water and now dripped onto the sand.

"I have you," he assured her.

Her cheeks were a stark white, but she was shaking her head. "I can walk. I'm fine."

He tightened his grip on her. "Be still, woman."

"Put me down. I have to find Delilah."

Chaos was behind them, but Brand didn't fear for Nola's friend. Even though Tagart was responsible for the trouble and no one could cause more damage or carnage than a pissed-off dragon changeling, the other Amazon would be fine. He'd seen the way Layel looked at her, the way he'd held her earlier, an expression of both torture and pleasure on his face, the way he'd dove to save her from sharks and dragon. The vampire would ensure her safety, no question.

Brand had never liked the vampire king. From his earliest memory, they'd always been at war, striking at one another in every way possible. But Layel had walked away several times, allowing defeat. All in the name of love. Now Brand was going to walk away from Layel. In the name of love.

"The vampire will take care of her," he assured Nola.

"They are enemies."

He noticed she didn't have to guess which vampire he'd been speaking of. "As are we," he reminded her. "Your people attacked mine just before we were sent to the island. I haven't forgotten."

"Yet another reason for you to put me down." But she stopped struggling and allowed him to carry her past the line of trees, away from the other creatures lying on the beach. "Bad things happen to my enemies."

"And you do not wish anything bad to happen to me?"

"No, of course I do. I just...I - "

He laughed. "I will accept the consequences. All right?" When he felt they were well enough away from prying eyes, he finally set her down and lifted her leg to study the damage. The flesh was torn in several places, and a sharp tooth was embedded deep. "This will hurt."

"What?"

Not giving her time to tense, he pinched and pulled the sharp white tooth out of the savaged skin and muscle. "You must be in great pain." But she hadn't even gasped when he'd slid his fingers inside her wound.

"I've had worse." Absolute truth sang from her tone.

"I will not think less of you if you cry."

She snorted, as far from tears as a creature could be. "Why do men act this way when a woman is injured?"

"What way?" He had seen worse injuries, true, but this one actually made his stomach churn with sickness. Bone seemed to be glaring up at him.

"You are protective. When my sisters and I fought your army, the men pushed us away rather than slice at us."

His gaze lifted to her face, and he wanted to smile. She reminded him of the sister he'd lost long ago to humans. Confused by him, exasperated. Actually, she could have passed for his sister's twin. Same turquoise eyes, same pert nose. Same stubborn chin and sun-kissed skin.

"We do so because women are softer," he finally replied, his chest aching for what he had lost. "They need protection."

 

She gave another snort and lay back on the moss. "I have endured more pain in my life than anyone should be forced to endure in seven lifetimes. I've had to look out for myself, trust only myself. I don't need anything from you or anyone else."

"Who hurt you so terribly? I will slay him for you."

She waved a hand in dismissal. "No need. I took care of it myself."

His lips twitched. Though she was tall and leanly muscled in the way of the Amazons, she was a tiny thing compared to his massive size. Would reach no higher than his shoulders. "You think yourself hard?"

"Think? When I have killed more soldiers than I could possibly name, warriors of every race living in Atlantis?" There was no pride in her tone, only fact. Perhaps a little sadness. "How many have you killed?"

"More."

Now her lips edged into a smile.

"Are you in pain now?" he asked.

"Yes."

Still, not by word or deed did she reveal it. He thought, had their places been reversed, he might have been cursing the heavens. He couldn't help but admire her fortitude - and be dismayed by it. To shrug at this pain, she truly must have suffered over the years. "Seems you and the other, Delilah, are constantly being injured."

Nola's brow puckered. "When was she injured?"

So. Delilah hadn't told her of Layel's bite. Guarding the vampire already, was she? Interesting. Though he doubted Layel would be any more grateful for the protection than Nola had been. "I thought she was. My mistake," was all he said.

She anchored her hands behind her head and stared up at the muted sky. "Men always make mistakes."

That haughty tone would have set him on edge had anyone else used it on him, but again, she reminded him of his sister and he could only shake his head and grin. He returned his attention to her poor leg. "Does your race heal quickly?"

"None of your concern, dragon."

"I'm not going to use the information against you."

"So you say."

So distrustful, she was. "So I swear."

"Would you give your enemy knowledge about your race?"

Excellent point. "Right now, I am not your enemy. We are teammates, you and I." The bleeding hadn't stopped. The wound was so deep, it probably wouldn't. Without help. "Close your eyes."

"No."

Damned woman. He shook his head in exasperation. "Keep them open, then, but know that this is going to hurt."

"What are you - "

He sucked in a deep breath, held it a moment, then pushed the air from his mouth. Air that was now blended with orange-gold flames. Those flames licked her skin, the now sizzling flesh cauterizing over each bite mark.

Nola screamed. "Bastard! Son of a demon! Centaur's ass!"

The sound of that tortured scream echoed from the trees, filling his head, making him cringe. "Had there been another way, I would have taken it." He grabbed the shoulder-length mane of his hair and squeezed the cold water from it, dripping liquid over the blisters, calming the remaining embers. "The pain will end soon, I swear it."

She continued to curse him. He didn't look at her face, too afraid he would see tears. That, he would not have been able to tolerate. When a woman cried, he became a babbling fool, stumbling over his words, desperate to escape. And this strong woman's tears would be even more powerful than most.

"There will be scars," he told her. "I'm sorry."

"Scars are...nice," she panted, cheeks flushed. He suspected she was more embarrassed by her reaction than still drowning in pain.

Behind him, the leaves clashed. Someone approached. As he stood, a roar sliced through the air, a dark shape propelling toward him. Almost there...He tensed, ready. They collided with a grunt.

Zane chomped for his throat, but Brand swung a clawed fist, connecting with the blood-drinker's jaw and knocking him to his back. Unencumbered now, Brand sprang. A few kicks and punches the vampire was too wild and crazed to duck and he was able to pin his opponent to the ground.

He didn't like the way the man had watched Nola out there in the water. Darkly, possessively. But rather than spew fire all over the warrior, killing him - Brand would not have it said he was afraid to face the vampire during the challenges - he punched Zane in the nose.

Snap.

Blood squirted, and there was a howl of rage and pain. All too soon, the blood-drinker recovered, shoving Brand off with enough force to throw him into a tree.

"Mine," Zane snarled, hopping up and kicking him in the stomach. "You do not touch her. You do not touch me."

There was a feral, animal glaze in his eyes. Brand was on his feet a moment later, scales crawling up his arm as rage filled him. He'd always been a dragon who preferred peace to war, and just then he suspected there would never be peace on this island as long as the unpredictable vampire lived. Brand forgot his pride, forgot what the others might say if he did this deed, and spit a stream of fire.

Zane dodged quickly, only a single flame touching him, burning away his shirt. He leapt forward, makeshift wooden dagger suddenly raised. Brand spun, his tail sprouting and nailing the vampire in the face, drawing blood.

Finally fully dragon, he used his wings to soar high, higher, then he descended, nose facing the ground. Faster, faster, he plunged toward the vampire. When he opened his mouth to spew more fire, he spied Nola limping into the stream. He snapped his jaw closed and allowed himself to slam into Zane. They rolled to the ground in a tangled, violent bid for dominance.

A jagged branch suddenly sailed into Brand's shoulder, knocking him down. He hissed. Saw the same thing happen to Zane. Both men panted, looking between the lances and each other when Nola limped between them, hands on her hips. Her face was pallid, and there were dark circles under her eyes.

"Do I have your attention now?"

She was a fearsome sight. Despite her weakened condition, rage radiated from her in powerful waves. Her lips were thinned in displeasure and her hands curled into weapons.

"First, I am not yours," she said to Zane. "Second, I can defend myself," she said to Brand. "If I could not, I would not be worthy of my tribe. Were we in Atlantis, I would be punished for allowing you to tend me."

"I know your taste," Zane growled, startling Brand. "You are mine."

Must have startled Nola, too, because she paled all the more as she studied the vampire. "You do not know my taste. I have never given myself to you."

"You have dreamed of me." Zane threw the words at her as violently as if they were weapons.

She stumbled backward and shook her head. "How can you know that?"

"Because - "

"How!"

"Because they are not dreams! I came to you last night and you welcomed me with open arms."

Again, she stumbled backward, eyes wide, dazed. She glanced from Zane to Brand, Brand to Zane. "I - I - "

Brand jerked the stick from his shoulder, grimacing at the torn muscle and skin. There was a sharp burn, but it swiftly dissipated as his skin and tissue wove back together, healing.

"I would never have let you do those things..." she gasped out.

"You did." Zane stepped toward her, the stick still protruding. "Eagerly."

"Liar! I do not want you."

"You do. You did."

"No, no. It was a dream."

Brand's rage sparked to new heights. "Go to her again, and I will linger over you when I kill you," he told the vampire.

"I will kill you," she corrected, tears beading in her eyes. Gods, the sight nearly undid him. "I might have desired you in my dreams, vampire, but I don't want you now. I can't."

Zane frowned, confusion lighting his eyes. "But I don't want to die when you touch me. That makes you mine. That has to mean you are a gift for all I've endured."

"No, it doesn't." She bent down, grabbed another branch and launched it at him. "I am meant for no man."

He was too startled to move - or perhaps he chose not to move - and the limb sank into his other shoulder. He did not make a sound. Just stood there, both sticks protruding from him.

"Leave me alone," the Amazon choked out. "Both of you."

"Nola," Zane called.

She turned on her heel and limped away.

"Nola!" the warrior screamed, the sound echoing from branches, causing a flock of birds to take flight. "Don't leave me as she did. Please."

Suddenly not knowing what to do, Brand watched as the vampire crisscrossed his arms, gripped the sticks and jerked them out. Watched as the vampire stepped forward as if to follow the girl, stopped and emitted a sound unholy in its intensity and pain. Zane had truly desired the Amazon, was truly confused that she didn't want him in return.

Brand's dragon form retreated, leaving him in the guise of man. Naked, his clothes having been ripped away.

"Nola," Zane whispered now as he fell to his knees.

Brand slowly, quietly, receded into the shadows. Still, Zane's head snapped in his direction and their gazes clashed in heat. In hate.

"I won't let you hurt the girl again, Zane," Brand told him calmly. He hadn't protected his sister all those years ago. This girl, he would protect with his own life.

"I did not hurt her," Zane growled.

Brand's jaw set in a mutinous line. "The coming days should be interesting, then, wouldn't you agree?" With that, he stalked away, determined to find Nola and guard her the rest of the night.

But he knew that he and Zane would have a reckoning. Soon. Oh, yes, soon.