LAYEL FOUND a cave as far away from the unearthly growling as possible. Whatever creature was producing the eerie rumble, he wasn't ready to approach. Only when Delilah had been well cared for would he even think of battle.

Delilah.

His chest ached for her. He laid her down gently, peering at her beautiful, expressionless face. Hestia had taken her emotions from her, and he hated the goddess for that. Yesterday he would have hated himself, too, for allowing it to happen. But he wasn't that same man anymore. He refused to wallow in pain and pity.

Today he was a man who took action, who kept his eye on the prize and did what was necessary to win it. In this case, the prize was Delilah's heart.

"We should find and kill the beast," she said, sitting up.

He kissed her softly. Her skin was cold, and she did not respond as she once had. "I love you," he told her, words he'd never thought to utter again.

She opened her mouth - to rebuke him, he was sure, so he placed a finger over her lips. "Shh. Don't waste your strength."

She shrugged as if she didn't care one way or another, but there was something in her eyes...a spark of something hot. Was she feeling? Was it possible?

"Close your eyes and rest, sweet." He draped an arm around her, surprised when she obeyed. "You're safe."

"I am tired," she said with a sigh. Just like that, her body sagged into unconsciousness. There were no fears to keep her awake, no desire to cause her to ache. Only a void to tug her under, into nothingness, as if she had lost even her will to live. Had he imagined that spark?

Layel swallowed the hard lump in his throat and stood. Darkness was thicker than a blanket as he strode forward, pushing through the trees, not noticing as the branches slapped and cut him.

When he was far enough away that Delilah wouldn't be able to hear him if she awoke, he dropped to his knees. He jerked the shirt from his torso and tossed it aside.

Hestia, the bitch, clearly wanted Delilah to win. And though it angered Layel to agree with her, his wishes now aligned with her own. Layel had thought to win the competition himself, but now knew he couldn't do it. If Delilah won, she would keep her life and could demand as her boon the return of her emotions, her will to live. But he would die. There had to be a way to save them both.

"Hestia, goddess of hearth and home," he cried. "I come before you as your humble servant, my heart heavy and my greatest wish to beg an audience."

A minute edged by, then another. There was nothing, no pickup in the wind, no dancing of the trees, no singing of insects.

"Please," Layel gritted out. He had hated the gods all these years. After Susan died, he had begged like this, pleaded for her life, and he had been ignored. Now he had Delilah and he intended to keep her for as long as he lived. As far as he was concerned, the gods owed him one. "Show yourself!" he shouted then, respect and decorum forgotten. "You want victory? Well, you will not get it. Not without my aid. You will lose. You will - "

"I will not lose," an angry voice said from behind him.

Layel was on his feet and spinning in an instant. His heart hammered erratically when he saw that Hestia stood before him, draped in a white robe and holding a spear. The goddess glowed with the force of her power, obviously no longer content to hide behind a veil of secrecy. But though her might had never been more evident, Layel was encouraged by the fact that she had heeded his call.

"Forgive me for my outburst." He forced his head to bow. For Delilah. "I was desperate to reach you."

The goddess sighed and was suddenly right in front of him, her sandals pressed against his boots. She smelled of the sea. "What do you want from me, vampire king?" Though he never saw her move, she was behind him again when the last word was spoken.

His jaw tightened. "I ask that you return Delilah's emotions to her."

"Why would I be so foolish as to agree to that? With them as her guide, she chose you over victory. An intolerable decision."

"Yes, but without them, she chooses nothing. She is no use to you now. She doesn't want victory. She wants only to sleep."

 

His knees were suddenly kicked from behind and he found himself kneeling again. He didn't fight, didn't complain. He simply ran his tongue over his teeth, the sharpness of them slicing. A pity it was his blood rather than Hestia's, but he knew he could not hurt the goddess without severe consequences.

"Better. I like you like this, vampire. Even a king should learn to show proper respect to the gods."

I hate you. What have you ever done to earn my respect? "Would you be willing to consider a trade?"

A crackling pause that seemed to stretch into eternity. Then, "What are you offering?"

"For the restoration of Delilah's emotions, I will promise to lose this competition. Not only that, but I will do all I can to ensure that she wins."

Another bout of silence. "A novel idea, but you cannot assure me beyond any doubt that you can acquire the victory for her. The dragon or the nymph could swoop in and stop you both. What's more, you cannot assure me that once her emotions are restored she will use them wisely to secure her own triumph. She could very well fight for you to win."

Very true. Stubborn as Delilah was, she just might try to aid him. "I'll stop her." Somehow, some way. "Upon my honor."

"You have no honor, vampire." Her head tilted to the side as she considered him. "But your proposition intrigues me nonetheless. What if I agreed to return her emotions for a single night? You would have one night to convince her of the merits of winning, no matter the cost. Even though she will lose her emotions again in the morning, the logic you plant inside her mind will still remain. And victory will once again be her concern." An excited laugh. "If I do this for you, you will not tell her about our bargain. Understand? You will tell no one."

A minute with Delilah's love was better than a lifetime without. "I would agree. To all your terms." Of course she wouldn't wish the other gods to know of her intervention. Layel stored that information, to be pondered later. "And as winner, she will still be awarded the boon. For aiding her, would I be given one, as well?"

"This is your boon. Now, have we reached an agreement? Will you help her solve our riddle?"

A single word caused Layel's mind to spin. Riddle. What kind of riddle? He racked his brain to remember what the gods had said earlier. You will find something the likes of which even the bravest of men would run from. He'd thought the answer a beast. His brow furrowed as he pondered further. If those words were indeed a riddle, could that mean there wasn't really a beast in the mountain? But he'd heard the snarling, hadn't he?

"Killing me will cause more harm than good," Layel said, forging ahead despite his confusion. "Surely you - "

"Enough," she interjected. "Answer. Now. Do we have an agreement?" Such sudden impatience. Either she'd realized she'd said more than she ought or she sensed his inner turmoil.

"I agree to everything," he said. "Return Delilah's emotions for one night. In turn I will purposely lose while doing my best to ensure that she wins by whatever means necessary." He wanted it spelled out, so there could be no question later what he had agreed to. "And I will not tell her or anyone what I've done."

Hestia was in front of him again, kneeling, placing them nose to nose. Her lips brushed his in a soft kiss that shot wave after wave of electricity through him. There was nothing sexual about it; this was just her way of proving her power, he supposed. "Then go. Your woman feels again."

Suddenly a scream echoed through the night. Delilah's scream.

Layel was on his feet in the next instant, running back to her, desperate to reach her, the goddess already forgotten. He broke through the final layer of trees. Saw her. She was curled in a ball, sobbing.

"I'm here, I'm here." He flew to her and gathered her in his arms, holding as tight as he was able without hurting her.

She didn't protest. No, she clung to him. "Oh, gods. Oh, gods. I feel...There's so many...They're so strong...Can't process all of them. What's wrong with me, Layel?"

"You've been given back what was taken from you," he said. He hadn't broken the pact, either, though he knew he skirted a dangerous edge. "In the morning - " he said, then stopped himself. As he watched, her eyes began to grow cold again, as if her emotions were once more receding. Her sobs quieted. Hestia was watching, he realized, and subtly conveying to Layel that she would reclaim Delilah's emotions if he broke his word. Layel clamped his lips together.

As quickly as it had appeared, the coldness vanished and her sobs returned.

"Shh, shh. I've got you now." He ran his hands down her spine, then up, under her half-shirt. Her skin was blazing hot. "I love you. I love you so much."

"I - I - Layel, Nola was taken and I didn't fight for her. You told me you loved me and I didn't care. Oh, gods. I should have fought. I should have told you I loved you, too, and would do anything to stay with you."

Joy burst through him, hearing that heartfelt proclamation, and he knew he'd lived these past two hundred years for this moment. This moment, and no other. Not revenge, and not to become worthy of Susan. Everything he'd done, everything he was, was for Delilah. All his torment had led him to her.

Softly he brushed her trembling lips with his own. "There's nothing we can do for your sister now. Once we leave the island - " no matter what the goddess said, Layel would not allow himself to be killed " - we will retrieve her."

"But you - you - "

"I love you, warrior woman. I love you. I am only sorry it took me so long to realize it. I am sorry for hurting you, sweet. So sorry."

He pressed their lips together and thrust his tongue deep into her mouth, feeding her a kiss that scorched even him to the bone.

"What of your mate?"

"You are my mate now. But if you wish to know of Susan, I will tell you anything, everything." He drew in a breath, slowly released it. "You know the gods used to exile unfavored humans to Atlantis, hoping we would annihilate them. Well, some of them survived and Susan was their descendant. As she grew they kept her hidden very well. But vampires sense human blood as no other can. We're drawn to it. The taste, the sweetness. Though nothing compares to yours," he hastened to assure her.

She snuggled against him, listening intently, urging him on.

"My men and I sniffed her out," he said, pleased to discover that talking about the past was no longer like ripping open a wound. "I meant to keep her chained in my room, mine to drink from anytime I desired. Remember, those were much different, much harsher times. Anyway, I grew to love her smile, her gentle nature. She...softened me. After she finished scolding me for trying to hold her captive, that is. We had two wondrous years together before she conceived. The baby was due just after the dragons came, killing both Susan and my unborn daughter."

"You knew the child was a girl?"

He nodded. "We were going to name her Bianca."

"I'm so sorry, Layel. Truly, I am. I ache for you, and would return all that you've lost if I could."

Oh, no. There would be none of that. "As I told you, it is you I desire, Delilah. No one else. Not even Susan. Now, tell me of your dragon," he said, before she could protest his words.

"Vorik?"

Vorik. He played the name through his mind before nodding. "I know of him. Strong, fierce. A charmer, or so I heard."

"Oh, yes. A first-rate charmer. But then, I was ripe for the plucking. I'd always longed for the kind of I'll-die-for-you love all other creatures but Amazons embrace. When he expressed desire for me, I thought I could make him love me that way. But I was wrong. He left without saying goodbye the moment the mating was over."

"Shall I kill him for you?"

"No," she said with a chuckle. "I punished him already. A few weeks later, my army marched through dragon land in one of our bids to prove how strong we are, and I ensured all the females in his village knew of his...shortcomings."

Layel barked out a laugh. "That's my Amazon."

Her smile was warm, lighting him up inside. That smile quickly faded, however. "I'm glad that we're both able to talk about the past like this. Do you think...What if - would you like another child, Layel?"

He cupped her cheek, his eyes suddenly burning with tears, a hard lump in his throat. "With you, I would like as many as we can make."

"Me, as well." She turned in his arms, placing her lips just above his. "I want you, Layel, I want you so badly. Now, forever."

They were words he had never thought to hear again. His joy intensified, blending with his arousal. "We don't have a lot of time, sweet. There's much to do. And we can't risk Broderick or Tagart beating us to the monster." Whatever the monster was - beast, a riddle to be figured out or something else entirely.

"It's dark. They won't risk fighting the unknown in the dark. And I need you. Please. Don't make me beg. Don't make me - "

He tried to be gentle as he swooped down and claimed her lips, he really did, but his need was too fiery. He'd nearly lost her, would probably lose her again when her emotions drifted away with the daylight.

As he tongued her, he ripped the leather top from her and tossed it aside. Her tiny skirt was given the same treatment, leaving her bare. His gaze cut through the dark and drank in the tattoos he so adored. I've licked them. Will again.

"Layel!"

He snapped out of the momentary lust-daze and attacked her breasts, flicking his tongue over the hardened pink berries he found there. Her hips writhed; she moaned.

"I'm burning up for you," she gasped out.

"You and no other."

"You and no other," she agreed. "I love you."

"Oh, gods, Delilah." So beautiful, those words. They would define the rest of his life, for they changed him, turned him from beast to man.

He laved her face with nips and kisses, then licked away any sting he might have delivered. All the while his fingers explored her body until finally sinking deep into her wet core.

She cried out.

"Love you," he said, working a third finger into her.

That was all her desire needed. Her inner walls clenched around him, drawing him deeper. Moisture flooded his hand, hot, slick as he pumped, taking her higher. So high. "That's it. Give me everything."

Her hands clutched at his back, squeezed the muscles so tightly he would carry the bruises for weeks. "More," she said on a broken breath. "Do that again."

"My pleasure, though I plan to use something else on you."

He kissed her then, and her eyelids popped open. Their gazes met in a tangled web of desire. She must have seen his desperation because she pushed him to his back, worked his pants off and straddled him.

Her blue hair fell around them like a curtain as she positioned herself at the tip of his mighty erection. Shaking, he reached up and cupped her cheeks, fingers gliding easily over her sweat-soaked skin.

"You arms are cut," she said. Arousal morphed into concern, and she traced a fingertip over his brow.

"They'll heal."

She wrapped her fingers around each of his wrists and brought his arms to her mouth, one at a time, kissing his injuries. "I don't know why I'm feeling again, but I'm glad that I am."

"As am I." The gesture warmed him, body and soul. "As am I."

Her face was soft, glowing with love. She sank an inch...then another..."You really love me?"

"Gods, that feels good! More than I could even say. You are my strength. You are my joy. My peace."

She nibbled on her bottom lip. "I like the contradictions of you, you know? You are light and dark, brute warrior and gentle protector."

He squeezed her hips, grinding his erection another blissful inch.

"I was drawn to you from the first," she said, head falling back. "Have thought of nothing and no one since."

"I fought my desire for you with all my might, but in the end there was no denying it. You are the woman for me. You are my woman. Take me all the way inside, Delilah."

"Let's take each other."

"Always." He rolled her over, spread her legs as far as they would go and pounded all the way home. They cried out in unison. He fit her perfectly, sublimely, for she was the piece of him that had been missing all these many years.

"Bite me," she commanded him.

"Not yet. Need you strong." She was going to win this challenge and he was going to help her, just as he'd promised.

"Please."

"Delilah," he said, glancing at her neck. Her pulse hammered wildly, and his mouth watered.

"Layel," she moaned. "Please."

"Not yet." He would take too much. In and out he continued to pound. He hooked his elbows under her knees to spread her even wider. Her head arched back, gifting him with a better view of her neck.

Her nipples rubbed his chest, and he released one of her legs to roll a sweet berry between his fingers. "Yes!"

She was meeting his thrusts with her hips, driving him deeper. Deeper. So good. He kissed her mouth, plunging his tongue just as deep. Her inner walls squeezed him, his testicles slapped at her, and then he was coming too, pouring into her. Shuddering.

She groaned, massaging his neck, and he realized his teeth were in her, drinking the sweetness. Rather than draining her, he gulped back a mouthful and gently pulled from her. Even while enthralled, he couldn't hurt her.

When the aftereffects eased, he fell beside her. She kept her arms around him and rolled onto his chest. Both of them were panting and sweating, and never had he felt more content.

"Will you be my mate?" he asked her, his joy sobering in the face of what was to come. The return of her coldness, her lack of emotion. He needed to lay what groundwork he could to guarantee they remained together when this was over. "I vow to love you, now and forever, see to your comfort, now and forever, and protect you with my own life. Now and forever."

She raised her head, eyes sultry, and peered down at him. A slow smile lifted her lips. "Yes. Yes. All that I am, all that I have, is yours. I will love you, comfort you and protect you. Now and forever."

"Swear to me you will not forget that we are mated. That no matter what you feel inside, you will not forget this moment, this promise." He cupped her cheek and stared up into her eyes. "Don't ask me why, just swear it."

Her smile faded, but she nodded. "I swear it. I will not forget."

He squeezed her tightly. And when she rested her head in the crook of his neck, he sighed, praying the night never ended.

"I can't believe we are together at last."

He could. He only hoped it lasted.