SHIVAWN WAS NEARING panic.

He had searched the Outer City, but Alyssa hadn't been there. So he had gone to the Inner City. No sign of her there, either. Next he'd traveled to the vampire stronghold, where she lived. No one had seen her. He believed them, because they'd immediately launched a search party of their own.

Shivawn knew of no other place to look.

No matter where he'd gone, he'd caught no trace of her scent - and nearly two days had passed since he'd breathed her in. Almost two days since he'd spoken to her, enjoyed her wit, tried to convince her of his love.

She was his. He needed her. Would die without her.

Already he was weak, but no other would do. Not anymore. He couldn't even consider kissing another woman. The thought was abhorrent to him. This must have been how Alyssa had felt, needing his blood and no other's. He deserved this suffering, he realized. This and a thousand times more.

Alyssa was the only female for him. The one. The forever. No longer could he get hard for anyone else. During his search, many had tried to change that and had failed. A fact he was glad for. He didn't want anyone else, didn't want his body reacting to them. That would be a betrayal to Alyssa and Alyssa was more important to him than breathing.

He just had to find her.

What if she was hurt? What if another man tried to claim her? An unholy fire sprang to life inside him. When mated, a nymph female would desire no other man, but he wasn't sure how vampires handled mating. He didn't know of a nymph who had ever taken a vampire as wife.

Where in Hades was she?

I caused this, he thought darkly. I should be gutted. He had hurt her deeply, and he planned to spend the rest of eternity making up for his behavior. If only he could find her.

There was a sudden bang. A crash. His eyelids popped open. When had he closed them? Shivawn frowned and studied his surroundings. All he could see was nymph warrior after nymph warrior. His frown deepened.

Valerian had the lead and scowled down at him, sword in hand. "Where have you been?"

Better question: where was he now?

His tired gaze moved from the warriors, up, up, to a thatched roof. The scent of hay and horse filled his nose. A rented room, he remembered. He was inside a centaur stable, on the outskirts of the city and as close to the vampire fortress as he could get without actually being inside it.

Just in case she returned. Or her brethren found her.

Damn it. Where was she?

"Shivawn?"

His attention snapped to Valerian, and he eased to a sitting position. Scrubbed the sleep from his face. "Have you seen Alyssa?" he asked without preamble.

"No. Is she missing?"

"Yes. Damn it, yes."

"Where have you been? What have you been doing? You didn't report to me as ordered, and I've been worried."

"I'll tell you." He leveled a pointed glance at the men. They didn't need to hear of his shame. "Once we are alone."

 

Valerian's jaw clenched and for several seconds he said nothing, did nothing. He loathed being thwarted. That Shivawn knew well, for the king usually killed such offenders.

"Please," Shivawn said.

Finally Valerian nodded and the army pounded from the chamber without hesitation, their boots clomping heavily. "Talk."

They were alone now, but Shivawn suddenly couldn't find the words. He dropped his head into his upraised hands and anchored his elbows on his knees. The sheet covering him slid to his waist and pooled over his flaccid cock. Would he ever be hard again? Alyssa...it twitched.

"Did you learn anything about my soldiers?" Valerian asked, trying to get them started.

"No. They have disappeared, along with two creatures from every other race. No one has seen or heard from those warriors, either. A few even disappeared in front of witnesses, there one moment, gone the next."

"So Poseidon is responsible," Valerian muttered. "Who else could conjure such mischief?"

The gods had ignored them for hundreds of years. But Poseidon, the sea god, had remembered their presence a few months ago and now evidently thought to make up for lost time, subjecting them to all manner of hardships. Bastard. "Do you think they are...dead?"

"If they are, there will be a heavenly war such as even the gods have never seen. But no, I suspect they are being used for something. The sea king's amusement, perhaps."

"Bad things happen when he is bored, I've noticed."

"Yes." Valerian closed his eyes for a moment. "I want to hate the bastard, but I cannot."

"He gave you back your woman," Shivawn said, wishing Poseidon could do the same for him.

The nymph king nodded. He sheathed his sword and strode to the room's only table, a small square wooden mass with low seats that allowed the centaurs to stretch out comfortably. Valerian sat, somehow managing to still appear regal, sprawled out as he now was.

"I will have troops patrol both cities and keep watch."

"Good."

"Now, tell me the rest." Valerian's stare became penetrating.

"The rest?"

"Why you look like - " Valerian's hand waved over him " - death."

"I found my mate," he said. Just like that, Alyssa's image formed in his mind. Silky hair tumbling, face softened in pleasure - face tight with pain - body soft, eager. Body stiff, dejected.

"Ah, that explains it," Valerian said with a chuckle. "You had me worried for naught. The right woman always makes her man suffer, Shivawn. Shaye did the same to me when we first met, as you probably recall. Took me a while, but I finally realized working so hard to attain my prize was a very good thing. Never will I forget how blessed I am to have found and won her. Never will I take her for granted."

If only Shivawn could be assured of a similar outcome for Alyssa and himself. "You worked for Shaye, yes, but she always wanted you. My woman despises me." And gods, she had every right to do so. He had pushed her away time and time again. Year after year. He had hurt her, insulted her, smashed her pride, her femininity. Her heart.

That precious, beautiful heart. A heart he was supposed to protect.

"Talk to her," Valerian advised. "Apologize. Women like that."

"I tried. She ran." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "What am I going to do? I have prayed for a mate forever, it seems. I would watch my friends fall and wish it were me. But I never sensed her, and finally I gave up, only to learn she had been in front of me all along. Now Alyssa has - "

"Alyssa the vampire?" Everyone knew of Shivawn's dislike of the species.

He gave a stiff nod.

"I should have guessed, as...fierce as you were with her." Valerian tsked in sympathy. "She is a warrior, not easily conquered."

"No. She isn't a warrior. She doesn't want to be. Perhaps never wanted to be." But for him, she had fought. Oh, yes, he owed her more than he could ever repay. Forever wouldn't be long enough to pamper her.

Valerian didn't look as if he believed the claim. "Still, she has known battle. If you desire her as you say - "

"I do." With everything inside him. He wanted her more than he'd ever wanted another.

"Then you must now fight for her, with her. It will probably be the bloodiest battle of your life."

But the reward would make any injuries worth it. "I will do whatever's necessary. I just have to find her." She was hiding from him, he knew that. Might assume he meant to search for her just to kill her. Punish her at the very least.

He'd vowed to do so, after all.

Had any man ever been so foolish? She could chain him, hold him prisoner. If he was with her, he wouldn't care about anything else.

"Does she have family?" Valerian asked.

His brows furrowed as he pondered that. Did she? She never spoke of them if she did. "I do not think so."

Valerian was frowning, scrubbing his jaw with two fingers. "Brothers," he said, then nodded. "She had brothers."

Shivawn hated that he had not known that. He wanted to learn everything there was to know about her. Then one of Valerian's words got caught in his thoughts. "Had? They died?"

"I believe Layel mentioned they were unruly, cruel. They must have been, for they were killed, their heads removed, their bodies nailed to trees." He nodded as if the vampire king's words were echoing in his mind. "From what I gathered, they were demons, though Alyssa had no idea Layel knew that about her, and their queen never found their murderer."

Everything inside of Shivawn went still, his blood chilling to ice. Not because he hated what Alyssa was - he could not hate any part of her - but because of what he'd just realized he might have taken from her. If she truly was half-demon, and if her brothers had been killed in that manner...that meant...Shivawn thought he might vomit.

Once, long ago, he had decapitated three demon warriors and nailed them to trees. "How many were there?" he croaked out. "Brothers, I mean."

"I do not recall their exact number. Two. Perhaps three. Evidently their horns had been cut off, along with their heads."

The ice burst into millions of tiny slivers, cutting his every organ, felling him. Three. There'd been three. "I killed them," he managed to work past the hard knot in his throat. "I did it. Took their heads. Removed their horns. Strung them up."

Valerian straightened. "They were the ones..."

"Yes." He felt like such a fool. That was why Alyssa had always reminded him of that horrid night. Those demon eyes had stared up at him as his sword struck, in reality, in his nightmares - eyes just like hers. Only, hers were kind and loving. Maybe he'd smelled her demon blood, as well. Maybe she had been there, and he'd subconsciously sensed it.

Of course she'd been there, he thought, though she wouldn't have participated. She'd probably been hiding and scared. He had caught her watching him soon after, ducking whenever he glanced her way.

He had wronged her far more than he'd supposed. He had despised all demons for what had happened to his father, yet Alyssa had had every reason to despise him. That she didn't was a miracle. That she had looked at him with tenderness and desire in her lovely eyes was even more so.

Until two days ago, when he'd ruined everything.

"What are you going to do?"

Shivawn thought he knew where she was now. The one place he'd never thought to go again. The one place he'd vowed never to go again. The site of his father's death.

"I'm going to get my woman," he said determinedly. Whether she wanted him or not.

THE GLOWING ORANGE-YELLOW BALL of fire rose in the sky, higher and higher, burning Zane's skin but not truly harming him, as the gods had promised. He wished it would. He welcomed every sting.

Nola had rejected him.

She didn't want him, didn't crave his touch as he craved hers. That was not supposed to have happened. She'd been wild in his arms; she'd even cried his name. He'd been so sure of his reception, once he declared himself. The gods owed him. He hadn't expected her to run from him, hate him, as Cassandra had.

She'd looked at him as if he were the very demon he'd just watched die. Demons - how they sickened him. They thrived on pain, screams, agony - the pain, screams and agony they inflicted on others. They loved to hurt their partner while fucking. And he'd endured it. Had hated himself, but he'd let the cruelest of them all do whatever she wanted to him. He wouldn't think about that. Too painful. When he'd left, Cassandra done with him, he'd thought - hoped - to never have sex again.

But Nola...the beautiful Amazon had made him want to try, to have the simple pleasure he'd enjoyed a lifetime ago. Before...just before. But no. She loathed him.

Somehow she must know, deep down, what he'd been. What he still was. He closed his eyes against a too-bright ray, the burn intensifying on his face. What had he expected? Her to fall at his feet? Beg him to pleasure her?

He had forced her to want him as surely as the demon queen had forced him to her will.

With that thought, Zane leaned over and emptied the contents of his stomach. He heaved and heaved and heaved until there was nothing left. Until he was empty. Until every ounce of his energy seeped away.

If Nola was not the female for him, why did he still want her? He had no answer. Did she desire the dragon? That, he thought he knew. Of course she did. Brand was strong, untainted, and honorable.

Zane's entire body tensed, a surge of fury giving him momentary strength. Nola had indeed seemed attracted to the dragon warrior - as she wasn't to him. Was Zane not allowed to even experience that sweet, basic attraction?

Was he to suffer forever and still another lifetime?

Probably. He wasn't worthy of anything else. He was nothing, no better than the stinking, bile-laden sand he now lay upon. After all, he'd willingly done those things with the queen for all those years. For his woman, yes. For her freedom. But he had still willingly bedded the bitch when he could have found another way to save his loved one.

But maybe, just maybe I could be worth something. If he won this ridiculous competition, became the last warrior standing, thereby proving he was stronger than all the others. Maybe...

Yes, maybe.

NOLA HAD HAD ENOUGH.

She wanted off this island of torture, away from the men. Just...away.

Had she been in Atlantis, she might have explored the flutters in her stomach that appeared every time Zane the vampire looked at her. But not here, not now.

She just wanted to go home.

She would have searched for Delilah because she needed her sister right now, but she didn't bother. Most likely Delilah was with the hated vampire king, a man who would betray her, ruin her. Men always did. So did women, for that matter. People simply couldn't be trusted. The moment you turned your back, they would hurt you. Her own mother had taken her to the Outer City and sold her to any creature who wanted an Amazon but didn't want to be enslaved in the Amazon camp. She'd fought them - at first. But they'd held her down, allowing more and more people to witness her humiliation.

Nola's teeth pulled back from her lips as she strode past a thick grouping of trees, daggers clutched in both of her hands. Vampires. How she was beginning to despise them. Zane had no business making her feel this way, confused and achy, unsure and hopeful. So many times throughout her life she'd hoped for something better, only, always, to be let down.

I should kill Zane and his king. Delilah had never acted so...soft before. Clearly all Delilah could think about lately was that bastard king. Every time Nola looked at her, she was looking at him. Why? Delilah was hard, reliable, caring to all of her sisters. Nola had always been a little jealous of her. Everyone loved the warrioress, thought she could do no wrong. She'd never known any hardships that Nola could tell.

As for Nola, she'd always existed on the outskirts, afraid to be a part of the tribe. Afraid they, too, would use and hurt her. That hadn't stopped Delilah from trying to protect her, both in battle with the dragons and on this island. Despite the distance Nola kept between herself and the world, Delilah had truly thought to help her.

For that, I owe her. And there was only one thing Nola could think to give the warrioress. Freedom. As long as the vampire king lived, Delilah would be ensnared by him, a victim who accepted everything her man did to her in the name of love. "Love," she scoffed.

"A weak and treacherous emotion," a soft voice whispered.

Nola stiffened, spun around, searching for an intruder. There wasn't one. "Who are you? Where are you? Show yourself, coward."

"Kill the vampires, my beloved," the soft yet somehow powerful voice continued. "They deserve it, as you know, and you will be handsomely rewarded. I'll even help you in your quest. Bespell you to heal as the other creatures heal, fast and without any lingering discomfort. Surely your leg is paining you even now?"

"What kind of reward?" she asked, realizing she could only be speaking to one of the gods.

"Should you succeed, I shall grant you a boon. Anything of your choosing..."

Anything? Nola licked her lips in growing excitement. More than anything, she wanted her mother brought back to life - so that she could kill the bitch again. I'll kill the vampire king for Delilah, as well as for the reward.

Zane she would simply destroy for fun.