LAYEL DIDN'T KNOW what to do.
He had Delilah in his arms. Hungry sharks and bloodthirsty mermen swam around them and a volatile Tagart flew above them, spraying streams of white-hot fire. Every single one of them wanted Layel. Unfortunately the Amazon was caught in the crossfire.
Several times he'd dared break the surface of the water - only to be met with more of those molten beams. Now, he and Delilah were underwater again, spears jabbing at them, teeth snapping at them. She had slipped in and out of consciousness and had yet to awaken from the last time. Was she all right? He didn't know. What he did know was that she needed air. Soon.
He kicked a merman in the face and fought his way to the surface, maintaining a strong pinch on Delilah's nose to prevent her from breathing in the salty liquid. As his head broke the surface, he released her face, sucking in air and praying she was doing the same. If not, he'd give her every molecule in his lungs once they went under again.
Another river of fire. A quick dodge, barely avoiding contact. Through it all, Layel knew where to lay the blame for this travesty. Delilah was weak because of him. Him. She was a woman who prided herself on her skills and resilience, yet his actions had reduced her to a helpless damsel.
He could have transported himself to the beach, but he wouldn't have been able to take Delilah. He, too, was weak. Without him, she would sink, be eaten, stabbed, burned. She would die, like Susan.
Susan. Once more he heard his mate screaming inside his head, dragons abusing her, using her in the most terrible way. Part of him wanted to crumble under those screams, to finally give in. But just as before, thoughts of Delilah muted them to quiet whimpers, keeping him focused, able to fend off his opponents.
Delilah. What should he do? How could he save her? A few days ago, he truly might have left her here and saved himself, thinking to Hades with everyone else. After all, he was a killer, not a savior.
Today, that moment, for whatever reason, he didn't want to whisk himself away. Didn't want to put his life above another's. Delilah's life was more valuable than his own.
Another blaze of fire launched at him, but this time he was too slow and it slammed into his shoulder, sizzling the skin and half of his hair. Plumes of black smoke wafted around him. For once, his mind was not on retaliation. He didn't care that Tagart was breathing the same air he was, didn't care that Tagart was alive. Delilah was still all that mattered to him.
Was she breathing? Not a single sound emerged from her. She was so still, so lifeless. Damn this! She couldn't take much more.
Something sharp cut into his leg. A shark. He kicked with his other leg, knocking the creature away and diving under just as another blaze of fire rained. Eyes open in the murky liquid, he saw a smiling merman grab Delilah's waist, trying to pull her away from him. Enraged, Layel wound his legs around her. Crimson liquid swirled out of him and around them.
The merman stopped grinning and jerked. "Mine!"
Layel managed to latch on to the fish-man's hair and tug him forward, body gliding smoothly through the water. Never breaking momentum, Layel chomped down on his neck. The merman flailed, his tail hitting Delilah.
Finally, her eyelids popped open.
Immediately she began flailing for freedom, panic blanketing her expression. If he lost his grip, Delilah would swim unknowingly into the fire above. Though he had a hard time holding her and fighting his opponent at the same time, he managed it, too desperate to do otherwise.
The merman thrashed so fiercely, a small whirlpool formed below their feet. Only when the creature went limp did Layel release him, watching as he floated down...down...
Another shark darted past.
Layel's arm snaked around Delilah's chest, cupped her breast and jolted her into the hard line of his body. She stilled on contact. Softened as though she recognized him. As the shark turned, darted past again, mouth opening, teeth gleaming, she punched it in the nose. That quickly, it swam away.
And then Delilah was gone, and Layel was grasping only water. Wild, he scanned the murky liquid.... A shark hit him from behind and he spun. Another merman sprang forward, tackling Layel and flipping him over.
Where in Hades was Delilah? How had she disappeared like that? Only the gods could - the gods, he realized. Elimination. He roared through the water, dread coursing through him. Dread and panic, followed by shock at the knowledge that he cared. But he did. He cared and he couldn't deny it. Didn't want to deny it just then.
Delilah could be voted off. Killed. Her teammates didn't like her association with him, after all. Layel didn't waste any more time in the sea. He pictured the crackling bonfire in his mind, the moonlight, the rocks and the moss. A moment later, he was there, the ocean a distant memory.
He collapsed into a dripping heap, suddenly unable to support his own weight. His strength - gone. All of his limbs shook so forcefully, he wouldn't have been surprised if he caused some kind of quake.
Delilah. Had to find her. He barely managed to lift his head. His eyes roved the area. There were the rocks, the moss, the circle where the bonfire had once crackled, but there were no people. No, wait. There were people. His team. Not who he'd been looking for. They strode through the far bush, all of them frowning in confusion as they surveyed their surroundings.
"...summoned here, I think," someone said. "Why are we back at the counsel circle? We won. Our team was the last standing."
"For our prize, perhaps?" another replied. "Perhaps we are to come here after every challenge, whether we win or lose."
Damn this! Where would the gods have taken Delilah? Helplessness settled heavily on Layel's shoulders as no answer presented itself. Think, think! Off the island? Back to Atlantis? No, no. She was here, had to be.
"I bet so," the conversation continued, distracting his muddled mind.
"I can't wait!"
"Wonder who will be killed from the other team."
"Dear gods. Look!"
There were gasps, excited whoops, and then the sound of plates and bowls rattling, teeth chomping. Layel's gaze lifted. There, in place of the fire, was table after table piled high with food. Scents of sweetmeats and spice wafted to him as his teammates gorged.
Delilah. She was here, surely. Somewhere. Layel wanted to find her, see her, make sure she was all right. Make sure she was not the one chosen to die.
What he would do if she was, he didn't know. He only knew it would be his fault. Because of her...relationship with him. Relationship, yes. Not just an association, as he'd thought earlier, but a true relationship. There was no denying it. Not any longer. They searched for each other while standing among a crowd. They each wanted something from the other - blood, passion. They were intimate only with each other. They talked, they shared, they looked out for each other.
Panting, sweating, bleeding, he labored to his feet. Swayed just as Delilah had done while standing on that stump. He tripped forward and had to seize the base of a tree to hold himself upright. Breath in, breath out.
He sniffed the air, suddenly hating the smell of that food because it saturated everything, blocking Delilah's scent. No, wait! He sniffed again, catching a trace of her innate perfume - woman and strength, waterfall and sweetness - and forced his heavy legs into motion. Each step was agony.
An eternity passed, surely, as he stumbled through vines, over thick roots, across crystalline pools and around the animals that usually hid from him. Pigs, birds, some type of cat. They watched him curiously, as if realizing he was too weak to hurt them but unsure what to do about him.
Why are you doing this? Why do you care? This is wrong. He had no answers, didn't even want to think about it just then.
Finally he heard the sound of a crackling fire, could almost feel its tantalizing heat. He stopped, black spots winking in front of his eyes. Murmurings floated to him.
"...will have to choose."
"The weakest or the betrayer?"
He crouched as best he could, considering his condition, and moved forward, determined to remain unseen by the god. He might be sent elsewhere if he was spotted. When he reached the edge, a group of leaves blocked his path. He pushed them aside - quiet, steady - and then he was looking directly at Delilah.
His heart stopped beating. The world slowed, fading to her. She was as soaked as he was, what little clothing she wore plastered to her like a second skin. Her body was cut and bruised, making her look like she'd just returned from a vicious battle - and lost. But she was awake. Alive. Shivering. And the most beautiful sight he'd ever beheld. Ever. Even Susan had not compared, and he felt evil for even thinking so terrible a thought.
She'd anchored her hair on top of her head. Several stubborn strands refused to stay in place, however, and cascaded down her temples and past her shoulders. Tagart sat beside her in human form. Someone had given him a pair of pants, so his male parts were covered at least. The pants were too small, however, and hugged his thighs.
The bastard reached over and hooked one of Delilah's tendrils behind her ears, brushing her cheek with his knuckles in the process. Layel's stomach twisted and bloodlust roared through him.
Delilah angrily slapped the dragon's hand away, and that saved Tagart's life. For now. Layel relaxed slightly.
Tagart scowled and whispered to her - Layel couldn't make out the words.
"Has a decision been reached?" a disembodied voice suddenly asked. Harsh, edged with steel. "And do not think to beg for mercy as the team before you did. I have none. Not for you. You had only to stand in one location and demonstrate your endurance. Yet you failed, every one of you, allowing yourselves to be distracted, forgetting there were consequences if you lost sight of the goal. Had one of you lasted a single minute longer, you would have been the last standing. You would have won."
Everyone sitting around the fire stiffened. The flames stroked upward as though stoked, mingling together, swirling, almost raging, then forming into the body of an amazingly tall, thick-chested man.
"May we have more time at least before we cast our votes?" Delilah asked through her chattering teeth.
"No," was the firm reply. "You did not earn it."
"Then I guess we are ready." She closed her eyes, opened them, and determination fell over her features. Layel longed to wrap his arms around her, hold her close, fill her with his warmth. Keep her safe. "My vote is for the demon. He was the first to fall."
"I second the motion," Tagart said, shooting Delilah a pointed look.
The demon in question hissed at them. "I vote for Delilah," he said, his horns sharp and glistening with poison. "I had planned to choose the vampire, but you just changed my mind."
Layel's hands tightened into fists. He'd promised the demons to Zane, but he might take this one for himself. Or perhaps not. Zane's turn had come and the fierce vampire gleefully said, "My vote is for the demon."
"I vote for the Amazon," the centaur who'd shouted for quiet in the water said.
"That is three votes for the demon and two votes for the Amazon," the god said dramatically, as if everyone present had forgotten how to count. "A close race, indeed. Formorian, who does your vote belong to?"
The one-armed, one-legged creature scanned his teammates. His small, gossamer wings fluttered erratically as his mind swirled with what to do. The demon or the Amazon. Layel returned his attention to Delilah. She was stiff, unemotional. Waiting and expectant. She thought she would die.
The desire to hold her intensified as his gaze shifted to the dragon who had tried to kill him only a short while ago. The warrior was currently staring at the formorian with murder in his golden eyes, a silent command to vote as Tagart thought he should. Or die painfully. Ironic, Layel reflected, that he would feel grateful to a dragon.
The formorian gulped audibly, ruddy skin paling. "The demon. I vote for the demon."
And just like that, the others voted for the demon, too.
"No, please no," the demon was saying, shaking his head with violence. "Don't do this. I'm strong. I will take us to victory."
"Enough. The verdict has been rendered." The silver sword Layel now saw in his nightmares appeared in the center of the fire. Round and round the weapon spun, lethal, macabre.
With a shove, the demon was on his feet, backing away, gasping out, "No, don't do this. Please, don't do this." He stumbled over a thick root and fell.
Before Layel could blink, the sword descended.
There was a sickening whoosh, followed by a thud. A roll. A feminine scream echoed through the trees, powerful, ear piercing. Godly? The sound blended with Zane's laughter.
Then absolute silence enveloped the bonfire, even the flames quiet. Layel was glad for the death, would have rendered it himself if possible, and so he didn't flinch at the violence.
Delilah didn't flinch, either, though there was sadness in her eyes.
Layel had done so much to cause her pain, and even this could be laid at his door, yet she deserved only happiness. I almost lost her.
He was going to have her, Layel decided. Just once. He would know her taste, her scent and her body. He would keep his emotions separate from the act, of course. He wouldn't tarnish Susan's memory by doing otherwise. But he had to have Delilah, every inch, every breathless moan.
So far nothing else had pushed the Amazon from his mind. And he was tired of trying. There was no telling how much time they had left on the island - or alive, for that matter. In two hundred years, he'd known nothing but hate, pain and sorrow. He'd never minded that - had welcomed it, even - because he didn't deserve better. Still he did not deserve better, but he could no longer welcome the suffering. He ached.
Susan had loved him, for their too-brief time together. She would not have wanted this horrible life he'd built for himself. Had she known he was hurting, she would have smiled, traced her fingers through his hair and told him to be happy, to enjoy.
Were the situation reversed, Delilah would have threatened to attack anyone he encouraged, he thought with a half smile. The smile grew as he imagined her in his bed, spread and wet and eager.
One night together. That would have to be enough.
How long will you destroy anything and everything close to you because Susan cannot be here? His smile gradually faded. Forever, he knew. He wouldn't allow himself a happily-ever-after. One night, yes. But no more. Susan hadn't died happily, so neither would he live as such. No matter that she would have wanted him to. She would be avenged.
But for today, this one time, he would forget everything but Delilah. And passion. Oh, yes. Passion. He would be a man worthy of love and tenderness. He would be Delilah's man, giving her everything she craved, and perhaps more. If she would have him still...
Tagart stood, drawing his attention. "Let us return to the beach," he told his team. "We must do whatever it takes to win the next challenge, even if that means training the entire night. We cannot afford another round of...this. Understand?" His voice was hoarse, laden with undercurrents of shock.
Had they not expected the god to kill? Had they expected him to laugh and send them on their way?
There was more murmuring as the creatures lumbered to shaky legs, looking anywhere but at the still-bleeding, twitching body. Only Delilah remained seated.
"Come," Tagart commanded her, motioning her to him with a jerk of his fingers.
Appearing dazed, numb, she shook her head. "I need...a moment alone."
She had hesitated. What had she really wanted to say? Layel wondered.
Tagart's jaw clenched. "You shouldn't stay here. The god could return. He could - "
"Hurt me no matter where I am on the island," she interjected. "I need a moment, Tagart. Please. I won't be long."
The please softened the harsh contours of his expression, yet he remained in place. "Remember what I told you, Delilah?"
She gave him another of those absent nods, but there was a sudden blaze in her eyes. "I won't forget, I assure you."
Curiosity rose inside Layel. What had the dragon told her?
"Good. See that you don't." He looked pointedly at the lifeless demon body and stalked away.
The others followed quickly, obviously not wanting to be parted from the man they now saw as their leader. Layel was content to wait, doing nothing, saying nothing, simply staring at the woman who had fascinated him so deeply these past few days.
"I didn't expect it to be like this," Delilah said, gaze lifting. She found him, even hidden in the darkness as he was, and he blinked in surprise. "I've killed, seen others kill, but this just seems...cold."
"All I could think was that it could have been me. Probably should have been me."
A denial instantly roared through his mind - not you, never you - but he tamped it down. "It wasn't." He straightened, dislodging the leaves that covered him. Tried to glide forward, but he did not have the strength to float. He stumbled to her and thudded onto the log beside her. Their shoulders brushed, and there was a zap of something hot between them.
She gulped, said brokenly, "I didn't thank you. For - "
"You owe me no thanks."
"Yes, I do."
"No, you do not."
"I fell from that log like a damned untrained man."
His lips curled at the disgust in her voice. "Actually, you jumped. Do you not remember? And anyway, you wouldn't have done so if not for me. I weakened you, mind and body."
"I have been weaker, yet I've never reacted that way before." Now she was speaking as if to reassure him of her strength.
"I don't think poorly of you, Delilah. I..." Don't tell her, don't say it aloud, that will make it real. But he couldn't help himself. "I liked taking care of you."
For a long while, she remained silent, the crackling fire and song of the surrounding insects the only sounds. Then she sighed. "I liked hearing you say that, even though I shouldn't. An Amazon's only purpose is the protection of her sisters, and she cannot protect them if she is weak or if a man is stronger than she is. But..."
"But?" He wanted to hear the rest. A part of him needed to hear it. He was just a man tonight, and she was just a woman. This was allowed.
When she gave no response, Layel stood to mask his disappointment. "Wait here. I will bury the body."
"I will help."
"You're still weak."
"We do this together, Layel. Remember?"
He nodded, foolishly happy with her insistence.
The task lasted an hour and they were exhausted by the time they settled back in front of the fire, sweaty, dirty and struggling to calm their breathing.
"Your strength pleases me," she finally blurted. "That is what I was going to say before."
Hearing it was as wonderful as he'd imagined. And yet..."I am not strong," he found himself saying bitterly.
She tossed a stick into the flames, watching as it burned to ash. "How so?"
He was here when he should have been anywhere else. He hadn't saved Susan, and he wouldn't have been able to save Delilah had she been chosen tonight. "Too many reasons to name."
Delilah looked over at him, studying him in the firelight. Whatever she saw amid that flickering gold she must have liked, for she reached out and traced a fingertip along the curve of his jaw, over his lips. Gentle, so gentle. "You're pale," she said.
"I'm always pale."
"More so than usual. Are you injured? More than I can see, that is?"
"I'm fine." His strength pleased her. No way in all of Hades he would admit to weakness now.
"Do you need more of my blood?"
"No," he lied, unwilling to risk taking more from her for any reason. He captured her hand and placed a soft kiss on her wrist, where her pulse suddenly leapt to erratic life. Blood was rushing through her veins, a sweet scent drifting from her skin.
His mouth watered.
"Wh-why did you do that?" she asked.
"Kiss my hand?"
"I wanted to." Truth. "Did you not like it?"
"I liked it, more than I should, but you've never touched me willingly before."
A crime. "I have wanted to," he admitted.
The long length of her feathered lashes lowered to half-mast, shielding her vibrant gaze. "I'm supposed to stay away from you."
Unable to stop himself, he leaned toward her. He would not kiss her lips - couldn't, wouldn't succumb to this attraction so deeply, intently - but he needed his lips on her. Somewhere. He pressed softly into the line of her jaw, her chin, inhaling her sweetness. "Why?" He knew the answer, though. Tagart. Remember what I told you, the dragon had said.
A shiver moved through her. "Why what?"
"Must you stay away from me now?" Out flicked his tongue, tracing the same path his mouth had taken. Smoothness, sweetness, heat. His cock hardened painfully.
"My team," she breathed, arms wrapping tentatively around him.
They would kill her next if she was seen with him again, he realized. "We won't let them find us, then. Not tonight." She needed him as much as he needed her. That was clear with every heated breath she took. "Tomorrow...tomorrow we can act as strangers."
Her fingers glided up his back, over the ridges of his spine, then she stopped, her nails digging into his shoulders. She arched forward, meshing her breasts against his chest. He hissed in a breath.
"You will not mind?" she asked.
Now he could not recall where the conversation had left off. "Mind what?"
"Loving tonight, being strangers tomorrow."
Her words should have delighted him. That was what he wanted, what he needed to return to his cold, isolated world. It was exactly what he'd just told her had to happen. Hearing her easy acceptance and even willingness to forget his touch, however, irritated him. Caused every possessive bone in his body to roar.
"No," he said through clenched teeth. A small protest from her would have been nice. Wouldn't it? "I will not mind."
"Unlike my sisters, I've never wanted the short-term from a man." She swung her leg around and hefted herself up so that she was straddling his waist, her hot core poised directly over his straining cock. He hated their clothing. "But I can't seem to stop. You, I will have, if only for the night. So, tell me. What do you plan to do with me?"
What had she wanted then? Forever? His chest lurched, because a tiny part of him would have loved to give it to her. "First we will bathe." He would be nothing less than perfect for her. When she thought of him in the years to come, and he hoped that she did, he wanted it to be with fondness, perhaps arousal.
She nibbled on her bottom lip. "Considering what we just endured in the water, are you sure you want to go back in?"
"Oh, yes. We'll go to our waterfall."
She offered him a half smile. "And after? What will you do to me?"
He studied her. Dirt streaked her bruised face and her partially dried hair was in tangles around her arms, curling, a bit frayed. Yet she suddenly pulsed with vitality, as if the thought of being with him gave her all the energy she needed. Her lips were soft and red, her violet eyes luminous, sensual. Erotic. The sight of her always made his chest ache. He didn't like it, but he craved that ache, grateful for the reminder that he was still alive, not dead and buried.
Rather than answer her, he asked a question of his own. "Are you nervous? Is that why you wish to know?"
"Not nervous. Curious. Excited."
"Then I will explain and hopefully increase your excitement. I will taste you here." He circled her nipple with the tip of his finger.
She gasped in ecstasy.
"And here." He inched a bit lower, staying atop the tiny leather skirt that shielded her feminine core from his gaze.
"I - Yes. That's an excellent plan." Licking her lips, she leaned toward him. Almost, almost...she would taste so good, so very good. "Tonight you will love me," she whispered.
Love her. The words trembled through him and he turned his head away before he drowned in her, sinking deeply, sinking completely, losing himself. Her kiss landed on his cheek, and then she pulled back and blinked in disappointment.
Once more, he'd hurt her.
He pushed to his feet - don't fall, don't you dare fall - and she slid down his body. Pleasure speared him, lancing him more surely than a weapon ever had. "Come," he said roughly, harshly, holding out his hand. You can walk away, he found himself projecting. You do not have to do this. "Unless you've changed your mind?" Do not change your mind. Please, do not change your mind.
Her fingers curled around his. Without a word, they walked to the waterfall.