TWO WEEKS PASSED. Several new challenges were forced upon them. Several more creatures were ruthlessly executed, leaving only a few members of each team. That's when the gods decided to dissolve the teams so that it was every man for himself. Unfortunately, the game itself hadn't changed. It was still life and death.
Though he had no right, Layel had kept a sharp eye on Delilah. She had survived the challenges. A simulated battle with swords and spears - to prove their skill in combat. A seemingly endless hike without food or water - to show their ability to forage for their own provisions while weakened. A quiz, taken while leaping through fiery hoops - to test their memories while under stress.
Through it all, Delilah had never looked at him, never spoken to him, never betrayed any concern for his survival. And he found that he...missed her. He wanted more of what they'd shared, hated how he'd hurt her. Again. He didn't care who or what her first lover had been, only that he himself was no longer allowed to worship that sweet body.
And he could have had it forever. She would have given him more, for as long as he'd desired. They could have been together without reservation, for now they could spend time together without having to do so in secret - not that she cared.
Never again, he reminded himself as he surveyed the pool where he'd taken Delilah. He was alone, even the animals wary of him.
At least Delilah wasn't trying to kill him. Nola, on the other hand, had attempted to slay him twice. The first time, she had almost succeeded, sinking a stick into his stomach and twisting his organs while he was distracted. By Delilah. The second, she'd gone for his neck with a dagger while he appeared to be sleeping.
That time, he'd been waiting for her and had managed to subdue her without hurting her. He didn't know why he cared, except that Delilah might have been angry if her sister were hurt.
You got what you wanted. She is no longer a part of your life. They were now the enemies they should have been in the beginning. Yet he had never been more miserable.
Layel wasn't sure how much more island life he could tolerate without snapping, flying into a rage. Something. Two nymphs and both dragons had survived, as had the Amazons. Brand had, for whatever reason, stood beside Layel each and every time they entered council and kept the others from voting for his death.
Layel was too stubborn to ask him why.
Zane was still alive, as well. He fought each challenge now with a ferocity that was astounding. Layel suspected Zane would fell even him if the gods decreed it. Once, during a race through a maze, Zane had pushed Delilah to the ground in his rush to the finish line and Layel had nearly beheaded him. What kind of king am I? What kind of friend?
What kind of mate am I?
At the word mate, it was not Susan's image that flooded his mind, but Delilah's. Blue hair, violet eyes, lush lips, tattoos. Spread, eager for him. Shock filled him. Delilah...his...forever. The past forgotten. It was almost too much to take in.
What was she doing?
He knew she was not sleeping enough. Every time he saw her, there were dark circles under her eyes. Her body was always taut, as though she were an injured predator, afraid, ready to strike. Tagart was always at her side, ever the protector, glaring at Layel in a silent warning to keep his distance.
Layel no longer knew what to do or what he wanted. He knew he hated seeing Tagart near her. Knew he should be the one guarding her. The woman had given him pleasure - peace - for the first time in hundreds of years. That meant she was his. Or would have been, if he hadn't purposely destroyed her.
Oh, gods. The look on her face as she'd backed away from him those weeks ago...the things he'd said...He was a monster. She hadn't deserved that. Had only deserved his utmost care.
You didn't save her, she'd said, devoid of emotion as she spoke of Susan, and you feel guilty. I had thought, hoped, you'd done enough penance.
Had he? It was almost too wonderful to believe.
I would have given up everything for you, she had added.
He'd nearly caved then, had nearly forgotten his vow, his past. His only love. Because, for a brief moment, he'd seen his future in Delilah's eyes and it had been a sight so beautiful it was beyond his comprehension.
Susan used to look at him like that, but back then he'd been worthy. Now, after the things he'd done, he'd known that Delilah was simply fooling herself, wanting him to be something he was not and could never be again: pure.
One day soon she would realize that and leave him. After everything he'd said, perhaps she had already realized her mistake. And it was better this way, he reminded himself for the thousandth time. He stared up at the heavens, the moon shooting golden rays in every direction. She deserved someone else, someone better. Someone who wasn't...tainted. Tagart?
Glowering, Layel anchored his weapons on a rock at his feet and ducked under the waterfall. He didn't bother to undress, just let the cool water run down his body, drenching him. Unfortunately, it didn't wash the dark thoughts from his mind. Tagart wasn't any better than Layel and if the bastard touched Delilah -
Don't think like that. Those were the thoughts of a mate. Was that so bad, though?
Layel slammed his fists into the rock stretched in front of him. They throbbed as he braced both palms flat, just above his head. As he stood there, Delilah's image filled his mind - she was never far from the surface - and overshadowed the darkness. This time, she was smiling at him, beckoning him to join her in a bath.
Instantly he was hard. Aching.
He would have given anything - yes, anything, he realized - for the chance to pump inside that luscious body one more time. Stroke her inner walls, feel the heat of her desire. Gods, she'd been wet.
The water continued to pound at him, reminding him of all that they'd shared. His fingers were shaking as he unfastened his pants. His erection sprang out, long and hard and thick. He gripped it, nails cutting into skin.
If Delilah were here, she might have fallen to her knees. Might have taken him inside her mouth. If he'd begged. "Oh, gods," he panted. He would have begged, happily and without hesitation. Anything for her. His hand moved up and down, slow, so slow. She might have cupped his testicles and pulled. He might have gripped her blue hair, fisted it, guided her down further and further, until the tip of his shaft hit the back of her throat.
His body was on fire now, pulsing with need and coiled tight. So damned ready for her. He increased the speed of his pumps, up and down, up and down, over and over, faster and faster. His lips drew back, peeling over his teeth in a snarl. Every muscle in his body clenched...preparing...waiting...
He could almost hear Delilah pleading for his come, could almost feel her pleasure-moans as he gave it to her.
With a deafening roar, he climaxed, hot seed pouring from his cock and straight into the water. As the water continued to rain, that seed washed away as if it had never been.
An eternity passed as Layel struggled to breathe. He hadn't thought of Susan, he realized. He'd thought of Delilah. He should be ashamed, yet...he already wanted Delilah again. Only Delilah.
A hum of power suddenly filled the air.
Layel straightened. He righted his soaked clothing as his attention slowly flicked to the wooden daggers he'd placed on the rock at his feet. Stupid of him, with Nola somewhere on the island, but he hadn't wanted them to float away. He began to bend for them, projecting his senses in every direction, searching for the intruder...finding nothing out of the ordinary. That didn't mean anything, he supposed.
In a quick, fluid motion, he grabbed both weapons and whipped around, ready to launch them if necessary. But as his senses had perceived, there was no one nearby. Except...the pool below him swirled like the ocean did every time a god made an appearance. No, not now.
Layel remained still as dread speared him. Was he to be singled out? Punished? The water thickened, rose, kept swirling, churning, forming a clear dappled body. Steady, stay calm.
The body began to glow with multihued colors: pinks, blues, yellows, greens. Those colors soon began to glitter like nighttime stars and then, in a burst that nearly blinded him, everything died away, leaving only -
Layel gasped. Fell to his knees as if struck in the head. Surely not. No. No! Couldn't be. But he found himself reaching out, arm shaking, mouth dry, heart stuttering to a halt.
Susan stared over at him.
Logically, he knew it wasn't her, couldn't possibly be her, was only one of the gods playing some cruel trick, but he was struck speechless with his first glimpse of her in two hundred years. She was as beautiful as he remembered. Shoulder-length brown hair, soft and wisping. Eyes the same rich, vibrant color as dewy moss. Skin a lovely cream.
Her lips curled into a small smile.
"Oh, gods," he gasped out brokenly. That smile...he'd never thought to see it again, had held it inside his chest, his only warmth some nights.
She looked away from him, her body turning gracefully, her long white robe dancing at her ankles. She laughed up at...someone? something?...her graceful hand covering her mouth. Layel had prayed for this so often, would have given his soul for it. Now, here she was.
Susan turned back to him, then, eyes alight with amusement. She motioned him over with a crook of her finger, and he was on his feet before he realized what he'd done. Was stepping toward her, desperate to wrap his arms around her. Desperate to gaze into those adored violet eyes as he held her close.
Layel stopped abruptly. Susan's eyes were green. Delilah's were violet. Delilah. Water lapped at his feet, cold reality in contrast to the beloved vision.
Susan motioned him over again, the action a little forced.
Why are you still standing here? Why aren't you moving toward her?
"Do you hate me?" he asked her. He'd wanted to ask her so many times. "Do you blame me for what happened?" He didn't expect her to answer, but the words tumbled from him anyway.
Frowning now, she dropped her arm to her side.
"I hate myself. I blame myself."
Her head tilted to the side, as if she understood what he was saying but still didn't know how to reply.
"You died, our unborn child died, and I was left with nothing but memories and pain. If I had been stronger...if I had protected you better..."
For the first time, she spoke. "I love you," she said in that soft voice he remembered. "I need you. Come to me."
His chest ached, hearing the sweet timbre after so long, but not for the reason he'd always assumed it would if he saw and heard Susan again. He ached because, as he continued to study his beloved, he realized the deep sense of possession he'd always felt for her was no longer there.
He blinked, unsure of his thoughts. Surely they were wrong. Surely he still craved her as much as he always had. But...no. He didn't. His hands didn't itch to tunnel through her hair. His muscles didn't jump at the thought of her touch. His stomach didn't quiver at the thought of claiming her.
He did love her, that would never fade, but the passion, the need, were gone. Every ounce of his passion belonged to Delilah. His hope for the future - Delilah. His reason for living - Delilah.
With the shocking revelations, it was as though a weight was lifted from him, a weight that had dragged him down, kept him in the dirt, unable to rise. Not wanting to rise.
"Please, Layel." She beckoned him with a clipped, almost angry, wave of her hand. "Come to me."
Layel found himself on his knees once again, tears pouring down his cheeks. Still he knew this was only a trick, but what both saddened and thrilled him was the revelation that even if this had been the real Susan, he would not have gone to her. That would have been a betrayal to Delilah, and he just couldn't force himself to do it. He loved Delilah. Dear gods.
He had been punishing himself for two hundred years and he didn't want to do it any longer. He wanted freedom from the hate. He wanted to live. Truly live.
He wanted the Amazon. Now, always.
He still didn't deserve her. Nothing he did would make him worthy, but he wanted her. He wanted the chance to make her happy. He wanted a chance at forever with her, pampering her all the days of her life.
"Susan," he groaned. "Susan, forgive me yet again." He was finally going to let her go when he'd vowed to fight for her for eternity. "Forgive me."
DELILAH HAD WATCHED as Layel moved toward the empty pool, talking to himself, crying again. She'd been unable to budge, brought here by the gods, beings so great they'd been able to plant her feet in place and hold them there. Why had they singled her out? Hadn't she suffered enough?
"Susan. Susan, forgive me yet again. Forgive me."
There was so much pain and suffering in Layel's voice, tears burned in Delilah's eyes. She saw him, saw the sheer torture on his face. I need to comfort him - if he'll let me. But she tried to move and only managed to fall to her knees, scraping her skin.
"Why did you show me this?" she whispered brokenly. "Why?" For weeks she'd given the vampire the space he'd said he wanted. And she'd been miserable, missing him, craving him.
He had missed her, too. She knew it. He'd watched her. Every day, he had watched her, and sometimes he'd even followed her. Hope had renewed inside her, and this morning she'd decided to try yet again. She was a warrior. She shouldn't have given up so easily, anyway. Before she could find him on her own, however, she'd been whisked here.
He isn't the man for you, a quiet voice whispered. He loves another.
She stiffened. One of the gods, definitely. The voice had belonged to a female, soft and lilting, one she'd heard before a few of the challenges. "No. I don't believe that."
Even seeing him, you refuse to believe? was the confused response. Even hearing him?
Even then. She'd come to know him, his stubbornness. He was holding on to the past, not because he still desired his mate, but because he felt responsible for what had happened to her. "He needs me."
There was a crackling pause. Why do you still want him?
"I love him." And she did. He was a part of her. He was a man of devotion and passion, darkness and light. He was loyal and strong, a warrior to his core. He was the other half of her, the piece she'd always been searching for.
Your sister has failed me, time and time again. That leaves you, and I will not be kept out of Atlantis because you have fallen in love, Amazon. This time, there had been no confusion in the voice. Only anger. He is distracting you, a distraction neither of us can afford.
Be kept out of Atlantis? How could such a powerful being be kept from anything she desired? "Yes, he's distracting me from your cruel game, but I don't care. I love him, and I'm not giving him up. Just take us home. Please. We don't deserve this. Whatever's keeping you out of Atlantis, I'll help you find a way in. I swear it."
A cold laugh. You should care. I will not lose. Which means you cannot lose.
Lose? Lose what? As far as Delilah knew, only she and the other creatures were participants in the challenges, not the gods themselves. But there was no time to reason it out as she doubled over in pain. Intense heat invaded her, every muscle in her body constricting. She felt as if something were being pulled right out of her, the thing scratching at her organs, her veins. Then, suddenly, she was...free of it. Completely free.
Her emotions - gone. Her feelings for Layel - gone. She didn't love him, didn't hate him, she simply felt nothing for him. Nothing for anyone. She frowned, waiting for confusion, anger, or even relief to fill her; her obsession with him was over. Still nothing.
One day you will thank me for this, for I have just assured our victory, the goddess said.
Something's wrong with me, she thought, but she couldn't find the will to care.
Layel was still at the pool when her feet were freed, but she didn't walk to him as she'd planned. She simply turned on her heel and ambled away. She was tired. Perhaps it was time for a nap.