A THOUSAND EMOTIONS SEEMED to swirl through Delilah - excitement, joy, sorrow, tenderness, passion, anger, regret, confusion, even the nervousness she'd told Layel she didn't feel. She wanted this more than she'd ever wanted anything. Would have killed for this moment with Layel, harshly and without remorse.

She was going to be with the man who'd captured her interest. Would know him as intimately as a woman could know a man, allowing him inside her body, perhaps her soul. For once she would be the prize and not the conqueror. And yet...

She wanted to cry.

He would walk away afterward without a backward glance. Once again she would be nothing more than a pleasurable encounter, easily forgotten.

She had shed tears only once in her life: the day her mother sent her away to begin training as a warrior. Her first tutor had beaten her for those tears. Since then, she had not cried. Not in pain when her body was abused beyond recognition, not in sadness when she buried several of her sisters after battle, not in shame when Vorik left her. Tears were a sign of weakness. But weakness had mattered little when Layel turned his face away to avoid her kiss. He had turned his face away exactly as her sisters turned their heads when their slaves tried to kiss them.

As if she wasn't good enough for more than a quick tumble - she'd known that.

As if she meant nothing - she'd suspected.

As if he would remain distanced from the act, while she gave everything she had to give - that, she had not expected.

The knowledge had burned hotter than dragon fire, scraped deeper than a demon's claw and slashed harsher than a vampire's teeth. He was willing to take her body, but not her mouth, even though he'd kissed her before. Why? Had the first been a mistake? No, his actions were fueled by loyalty to his mate, she suspected, and that just intensified the hurt. But she couldn't bring herself to halt what they were about to do.

Just once, she told herself. Just once, she had to know what it was like to be utterly possessed by a man. Vorik had taken her body, but he had not consumed her. She and Layel remained in the shadows, careful not to allow anyone to see them. They remained quiet, careful not to allow anyone to hear them. After an eternity, they broke through the trees and the waterfall came into view, dripping cool liquid into a decadently fragrant pool.

Her hands began to sweat, her body to tremble.

"Bathe," he said, his tone flat. "I will check the area to make sure we are truly alone." He didn't give her time to respond, just released her and strode out of sight.

"Now there's another emotion to add to the ever-growing list," she muttered. Bereavement.

With a sigh, she stripped and padded into the water. Her skin seemed to soak up every drop, drowning, muscles softening. She washed her hair with the flowers blooming at the edge and cleaned the rest of her body with the glistening white soap-sand. At least the gods weren't denying them nature's sweetness.

Scrubbed from head to toe and unsure how much time had passed, she eased up onto the bank and sat upon a smooth silver rock, knees drawn up to her chest. Where was Layel?

As if her thoughts had summoned him, he appeared beside her. She hadn't heard him, which meant he'd floated, and she hadn't smelled his scent, which meant he'd bathed with the same sand and blooms she had. He wasn't naked, though. Actually wore his pants. But they were unfastened and sat low on his lean, sinewy waist.

His hair hung in dripping chunks, white and glorious. There was a smear of blood on his lips.

"You fed." Frowning, she pushed to her feet.

"Yes." His gaze slowly raked over her, lingering on her breasts - nipples hard and straining - and between her legs.

"On who?" She meant to snap the words, but they emerged breathless. His eyes were so vibrant with arousal it was palpable. The nymph?

"No one. An animal."

Her jealousy melted away, leaving only an arousal equal to his. Her stomach fluttered, her skin heated and her limbs shook. "You could have taken mine."

"Pretty," he said, reaching out and rolling one nipple between his fingers.

 

She bit her tongue to silence a guttural moan, a plea for more. "Why not use me? For blood, I mean?"

"You've lost enough." His eyes never left her breasts; they were glazed, as if he were entranced. "I need you strong."

"Aren't you afraid I'll beat you at the next challenge?"

He chuckled, but it was a harsh sound. Strained. "If I cannot beat you fairly, I don't deserve to be here with you." The moment the last word left his mouth, he stiffened. Stepped backward.

He was going to leave her, she realized. Why, damn him? Because he didn't feel he deserved her now? Her eyes widened, her anger mutating into tenderness. Yes, that was exactly what he thought, but she would have none of it.

She closed all distance between them, leaving only a whisper that was conquered every time she drew in a breath. They were body to body, skin to skin. Only his erection and thighs were covered. And that wasn't good enough. She wanted to feel them, too.

As if he couldn't tolerate brushing against her with his inhalations, he stopped breathing, becoming as still as a corpse.

"Did you come here to reject me?" she asked. "Again."

He flinched. "No."

"Do something, then. Before I change my mind and leave."

His nostrils flared. "Don't pressure me, woman."

Rising on her tiptoes, she pressed their lips together. His were soft, moist. His eyes never closed, only narrowed. He allowed the contact briefly before turning his head away.

"No kissing there," he said. "I have to keep some part of me removed from this. That is the only way I can allow it to happen."

"You've kissed me before."

"That was a mistake. A mistake I will not make again."

No hurting, she told herself. "All right. No kissing you on the mouth." She pressed her lips to his cheek next. "What about here?" Then his jaw. "And here?"

Once again he began breathing. Choppily. Harshly. Sweat broke out over his skin. "Fine. Those are fine."

The hard tips of her nipples rubbed against his chest, creating a dizzying friction. Yes, oh, yes. Lowering, she concentrated on his neck, laving her tongue over the graceful column.

He inhaled sharply as his arms banded around her waist, clutching, the nails digging into skin.

"Take off your pants," she commanded fiercely. "I want you naked."

His fingers slid to her bottom and cupped, spreading her a little to hold her up. "Do you think to be in charge?"

"Yes." She arched forward, grinding herself on the massive erection straining so proudly from the waist of those unwanted pants.

"No." His grip tightened, holding her in place, keeping her still.

"But I ache," she told him before licking one of his nipples. The hard tip abraded her tongue deliciously.

A groan of pleasure sprang from him, the sound echoing in the night. "Lay down."

"You first. I would - "

"Lay down, Delilah."

His tone was hard, uncompromising. She should have bristled. She didn't. She tingled, her knees going weak. Breathless, she obeyed. He didn't move, just stared down at her.

What did he think of her?

Did he compare her to his mate?

Former mate, her mind supplied on a jealous burst. Tonight, he belonged to Delilah, only Delilah. "Well. Do you plan to join me?"

"Spread your legs. I want to look at you, all of you."

Cradled by moonlight and moss, she slowly...slowly...moved her thighs apart. She drew up her feet, bending her knees and anchoring her weight against her elbows. She was as vulnerable as a woman could be and surprisingly thrilled to be so.

His hot gaze raked over her thoroughly and soon those crystalline irises were glowing, practically surrounding her in a cerulean halo. She could feel the heat of it invading every inch of her needy body, blanketing her.

"You're wet," he said.

The reverence in his tone stroked her as expertly as a caress, and she shivered. "Yes."

"You want me."

"Yes."

"What do you want me to do to you?" As he spoke, he gripped the waist of his pants and slid the material down...down...then stepped out of them, leaving him bare.

"I - I - " Dear gods. His raw masculinity enthralled her. He was lean, yet so muscled he could probably have crushed her with his strength. There was no hair on his body, just mile after mile of perfect skin and sinew. His cock was long and thick - mine - and his testicles were drawn up tightly, heavy and proud.

"Like what you see?" he asked huskily, almost sounding drugged.

Unable to speak past the heated breath blistering her throat, she nodded. The length of her hair tickled her now sensitized skin, her beaded nipples, and she tore her gaze from Layel to study herself. To see what he saw. A thick blue lock of hair was curled around one hard, pink tip, stroking lovingly with the breeze. Her stomach was flat, her thighs firm and tattooed, quivering.

"Look at me," he commanded.

She did. Oh, gods, she did. Need was like a storm inside her, his every command hers to fulfill. Here was everything she'd ever wanted, dreamed about, craved, offered to her on a night of moonlight and bliss, starlight and dreams.

"What do you want me to do to you, Delilah?"

Took some coaxing, but she finally found her voice. "Touch me." A broken plea.

"Where?" He fisted his cock and moved up, down, in a measured stroke.

I want to be the one to pleasure you. "Everywhere."

"You asked me before what evil things I had done, if I had killed a woman."

Her gaze snapped up, clashed with his. "That - " hardly matters now, she was unable to say.

"Not only did I slay Marina, I slayed the wife of a dragon," he interjected. "He was there...that night...he was there. He escaped before I could take his heart and hack it to bits. But I followed him. I watched him. He had a family. A wife, a child."

"Layel - " She made to sit up but he was suddenly on top of her, pushing her back into the moss, his knees pinning her shoulders, his cock rising just in front of her face. She yelped in surprise, but didn't protest. She simply peered up at him, silent, beckoning him to finish. For he had sounded torn, part of him thinking - hoping - she would reject him, part of him...afraid? Afraid that he would die if she did? "Tell me."

His eyes glazed with the darkness of his memories, a darkness still infused with passion. "I was infuriated. Crazed. The bastard had violated my woman, had laughed while she screamed and fought and then returned to his own woman for comfort."

Delilah bowed her wrists and caressed as much of his thighs as she could, offering her own comfort.

His fangs lengthened, sharpened.

"And?" she prompted softly.

"I snuck inside his home that night. I drank from the two of them to weaken them and then I tied them up. I meant to take her, use her, as he had done - as he - " Layel drew in a labored breath, released it. "But I couldn't. She was crying, pleading. So I killed her instead, right in front of him. I didn't give him the same courtesy, though. I dragged him back to my palace and locked him up, letting him live with the image of what he'd done, what I'd done."

As Layel had had to do, she thought, aching for him.

"But as the days continued to pass, his life...offended me. I couldn't tolerate breathing the same air as him. So I called my people forward and let them drink from him, tear him limb from limb, his screams of agony in my ears. I laughed, but his pain wasn't enough, not nearly enough."

"I'm sorry."

"I burned him until there was nothing left but bones. And then I used those bones to make my throne, and every time I sit on it - him, all of them responsible - I pray he is rotting in Hades."

When his words faded, silence enveloped them, laden with tension.

"Do you still desire me? Do you still want such evil inside of you?" Again he sounded as if he was at war with himself, wanting two different things from her. Exactly as she had felt when she'd first met him.

"You're not evil. But, yes, I do." And that was the truth. She wouldn't have thought it possible to desire him more, but she did. The fierceness of him, the darkness...they called to her, drew her. They represented the very thing she'd always craved for herself: to be loved so inexorably, no act was too vile when it came protecting her - or avenging her.

But because of that ferocity, Layel would never be an easy man. He would always be brutal, savage. He was conflicted and complex, hurt and broken, would probably never be whole. He wasn't misunderstood, and there could be no deluding herself about who and what he was. There was no denying he'd done an evil thing. Many evil things.

"Yes," she repeated, confident. "Yes. I still want you inside of me."

He jerked as if she'd punched him. Not the reaction she'd expected. "What did you say?"

"I still want to be with you. Release my arms now. Please. I need to touch you, Layel."

A play of emotions danced over his features. The same bombardment she had experienced earlier, a combination of a thousand different feelings, both wonderful and terrible. "You...want to touch me still?"

"More than anything I've ever wanted before."

As if he feared moving too quickly, he gradually moved down her body until his knees straddled her waist. Shoulders finally free, she reached up and flattened her palms on his powerful thighs.

The muscles underneath jumped.

"I love the feel of you," she whispered.

"Delilah," he said, and it was a broken cry. "I will be careful with you." It was a vow. "Tonight I will be careful. You will experience nothing but pleasure."

She studied him through the thick fan of her lashes, shadows twining around him like midnight phantoms who meant to carry him away. "I don't want you careful. I want you inside me, hard and demanding."

He leaned down, this beautiful dark warrior, and laved at her neck, his tongue a hot brand. "You are so lovely. So strong and brave."

"Again," she gasped, hips arching. "Lick again."

While he obeyed, his body covered hers, his legs between hers, his cock rubbing against her belly. She rocked into him as he palmed one of her breasts, unable to remain still. The pleasure was simply too great. "Good?"

"Yes."

"I could lick you forever. Want to lick all your tattoos." His mouth soon replaced his fingers and he sucked her nipple gently, so gently. "What do they mean?"

"Victory."

He chuckled softly, and she shuddered at the exquisite bliss the sound wrought. "Should have known," he said. "Tell me if I do something you don't like. It's been a long time for me."

Heat was building inside her, a fire her blood could not seem to put out, only seemed to incite as it rushed through her veins. The fire raged like a warrior, insistent, sure, strong. She could not fight it, didn't want to fight it. Only wanted to be consumed by the flames.

"More," she begged.

Still unhurried, he moved to her other breast, gave it the same hot, moist attention. Her hips writhed, riding wave after wave of sensation. Layel kissed just above her heart, as if trying to absorb the beat. One of his hands glided down her stomach, swirled around her navel, then dabbled at the small tuft of hair between her legs.

"Yes, yes. Touch there."

"Like?"

"Like. More." She clutched his back, nails scoring deep. "Will you...Can you...Please. Hurry."

Two of his fingers slid between her hot, aching lips and straight into her core. A groan of ecstasy burst from her. In and out. Another finger joined the play. She was stretched in the most delicious way.

"So very wet," he praised.

She undulated against those expert fingers, her vision going black.

"That's right. Ride them, take what you need." In and out he continued to pump.

She thought his voice sounded strained, wanted to tell him to replace his fingers with his shaft, but the words caught in her throat as wild passion slammed through her, a battering ram intent on destroying her every defense. She spasmed, jerked, arched, silently screamed.

"I want to taste your release."

He kissed a path down her body, tracing her tattoos with his tongue as he'd promised. And then he was between her legs, lapping at the wetness there. Hot, so hot. He tongued her, sinking deep, just as his fingers had, riding the waves of her orgasm and pushing her right into another one.

Her legs locked around his neck, her hands fisted in his hair. Too much...too much...but she found that she wasn't shoving him away. She was pulling him closer, seeking more of him. Needing all that he had to offer.

"Never this sweet," he said.

He was infinitely careful not to lick her with his fangs, but she thought she might have liked that. Would have liked his teeth there, so intimately taking what he needed from her.

As her tremors subsided, he kissed his way up her stomach, leaving a trail of aroused, sweet fire. I'm ready for more, she realized shockingly. Far from sated after those two climaxes, her body only seemed to be primed.

He wasn't so careful now, perhaps was close to losing control, and one of his fangs nicked her. She hissed in surprised delight.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

"Don't be. More."

He was at her neck in the next instant, not drinking but kissing, licking, tonguing, and his arousal was probing for entrance in a rough forward-backward dance.

"Tight," he gritted out.

"I can take it."

"Don't want to hurt."

"Hurts without you. Need you." To prove it, she arched up, up, drawing him deeper.

Sweat beaded on his face and dripped onto her, lava on her skin. "Almost...just...need a moment."

"Now."

"No, I - "

"Yes!"

With a roar, he slammed all the way to the hilt, as if he couldn't hold himself back a second longer. Stretched, burned. It had been a long time for her, too, and then only for that one night. Yet...Oh, gods, oh, gods. Nothing had ever felt so wondrous, so perfect. He was inside her. Layel was a part of her, touching deeply, so deeply, filling her up with all that he was.

"Sorry," he chanted. "Sorry. I'll be still. Give you time. Can't leave. Long time, sweetheart?"

Sweetheart. "Layel, kiss me. Please." She needed it, would die without it.

He nibbled on her ear, his warm breath fanning the lobe and ruffling her hair. But he denied her demand. "You feel so good. I think I could happily die here, in your arms."

She grabbed his face, palms flat on his cheeks. Their gazes met in a heated tangle. There were lines of strain around his eyes and mouth, passion blazing from his expression. Passion and pain and need, tenderness and self-loathing.

"Kiss me. On the mouth."

"No," he said, shaking his head. "Told you. Can't."

"Kiss me. Take me the rest of the way. Please. I'm giving you everything. Do the same for me. I'm not asking for something you haven't already given, mistake or not."

He shook his head again, pumped inside her once, twice, slow and measured. His lips drew tight over his teeth. "You're heaven, sweet. Feel just like heaven."

She arched back, almost lost, drowning. Her head thrashed from side to side as he continued to pump. Important. Concentrate. She pulled herself from the eroticism of the moment. There was something she wanted, something she needed. Something she - A kiss! Yes. Her eyes narrowed on him, taking in the blood dripping from his lip where he'd bitten himself. He would not hold a part of himself back. She wouldn't let him. He could hate her later, could resent her forever, but she didn't care.

She was a warrior and she would fight for all he had to give.

"Kiss me," she commanded once more. She lifted her head and bit into his jaw. "Kiss me now, like you did before, with tongues rolling together, teeth scraping."

He stilled, his muscles taut. He was growling low in his throat, an animal. Needy. "I can't!"

She almost gave up, that cry was so tortured. More than that, she was desperate to have him moving again. Without the friction of his body sliding in and out of hers, she felt lost, adrift. "Kiss me. I need your tongue in my mouth, tasting. I need your flavor. I need you like I've never needed anyone else. I want you so badly, I feel like I've been waiting for you forever and will think of you, dream of you, every night for - "

Her words were cut off as his mouth smashed into hers, tongue thrusting deep. With that one touch, that one melding of their mouths, it was as if his control snapped completely. No tether, no reining him in.

He jerked from her only to slam forward, hard, rocking her and even scooting her backward, from moss to twig-laden bank. A few rocks cut into her skin, but she didn't care. This was it, the kiss she'd remember all the days of her life, more powerful than even the first. "Yes. More."

He tongued her deep, probing. Their teeth scraped together with a ferocity that surprised her. His fangs even dug into her lower lip. He sucked and he thrust and he growled, all the while hammering inside her.

This wasn't sex. This was possession. This was...magic.

Release tore into her with the same intensity as his thrusts and her inner walls clamped down on him. He roared loud and long, and she swallowed the sound. His body heaved, the force of his climax so strong he was nearly convulsing.

He gripped her tightly and she thought her bones might snap, but she didn't stop him. She held him, cradled him, cooed to him as she'd never done to another.

A few minutes passed, maybe an hour. His spasms eased and he was left shuddering...shivering...Her own limbs were weak, her body utterly sated, but still she held on to him. Every feminine instinct inside her was screaming for her to do so, to never let go.

He was hers.

Only tonight...foolish girl.

She wanted forever. Wanted more nights like this, wanted to wake in his arms and talk with him, eat with him. Every morning.

Mine, she thought.

"I'm sorry," he said brokenly. "I'm sorry."

She tangled her fingers in his silky hair. "I'm glad we did this. I loved everything that happened. I - "

"I'm sorry," he repeated as if he couldn't hear her or just wasn't listening. Perhaps he was trapped inside his head, his thoughts consuming him.

Her chest ached for him. For herself. "Layel - "

"So sorry." He wrenched from her, separating them completely. His half-hard shaft was covered with her climax and glistening in the moonlight.

She shivered from the sudden cold. "Talk to me. Tell me what's going on."

He turned from her without a word and ran. Just ran. Delilah watched, feeling more helpless than she had in the whole of her life. Even the time she had been captured by the demons after she'd been wounded in battle, she hadn't experienced this sense of despair.

What should I do?

She pushed to shaky legs, almost fell as she tried to move forward. Then something cool and wet slid from her collarbone and down, down her stomach. Confused, she wiped at it and held up her hand. Clear, glistening liquid.

Tears.

Layel's tears.

LAYEL HUDDLED against the base of a tree, raw, alone, destroyed. Hot tears streamed down his face, and he laughed bitterly. What kind of warrior was he? What kind of king? Sobbing like a godsdamn infant?

He wasn't a warrior, he decided. He was a nothing. Worse than nothing. He had betrayed Susan in every way possible now.

He'd thought to hold a part of himself from Delilah, to prove to himself, he supposed, that she was different than his beloved mate. But in the end, he had given Delilah everything. His body, his mouth, his desire, his seed, perhaps even his soul - because he wanted to give her even more.

Shame coursed through him. Shame and - no, surely not. But it was there, undeniable. Pride that he had satisfied a woman such as Delilah, that pleasure had blanketed her features, that she'd clutched him tightly, gasped his name, wanted more. That she'd given herself to him, precious gift that she was.

Never again, he vowed. He'd had his night, and that would have to be enough. Any more, and he would forget Susan altogether. And if he forgot her, he would not be a man worthy of Delilah. Delilah, who he wanted to return to, take again, hold. And love. Should have been Susan he craved.

"Susan, I'm sorry. I'll do better, I swear it." Scowling, he grabbed a jagged rock from the ground and jabbed the sharpest end into his wrist. Tissue broke apart, veins split, revealing a pool of blood.

He carved two words into his flesh, a reminder: Never again.