POSEIDON, GOD OF THE SEA, towered inside the coral palace he'd built himself in the center of the ocean, staring into a large, mist-entrenched mirror. Beyond the mist, Paradise and its reluctant new inhabitants were visible, a feast for his gaze.

"They are confused," he said. He'd left them a short while ago, had told them not to worry - hadn't he? - yet their panic had only grown.

A murmur of "yes" arose, the timbres a mix of excitement, resolve and nonchalance.

Four other gods had journeyed through portals in Mount Olympus to join him here. Poseidon turned, studying them as intently as he'd studied the Atlanteans in the mirror. Ares, god of war, possessing a temper far worse even than Poseidon's own. Hestia, plain yet somehow seductive, whose spell-casting abilities were eclipsed only by her determination to make a name for herself by any means possible, fair or foul. Apollo, smile brighter than the sun he controlled, fiercely loyal to those he loved. And finally, Artemis, twin sister to Apollo, as wild as the flowers growing on earth - and as cold as ice.

Upon their arrival, Poseidon had been forced to drain his palace to accommodate lungs not as superior as his own. Now ocean water churned outside rather than in, lapping at the outer walls, the roof. Every few seconds, a droplet fell from the bejeweled chandelier and splashed against the ebony floor.

Hestia eyed those droplets with disdain.

If she wasn't careful, he would drown her.

For centuries, Poseidon had remained here in the water. King to his merpeople, forgotten by earthlings and utterly bored. Truly, nothing had entertained him. Not peace and prosperity. Not storms, famine and war. Then, a few months ago by the Atlantean calendar, two of his mermaids had told him of dissent in Atlantis. Atlantis, a place he'd forgotten completely over the years. A place they'd all forgotten.

A place that belonged to them.

He'd slipped inside, observed unnoticed for a bit, surprised to find the creatures thriving. Curious about their reaction to him, he'd finally announced himself. Still bored, he'd begun moving the citizens about like chess pieces, pitting the dragons against the nymphs and watching the strong, determined warriors resort to battle in their need to protect their females and homes. But in the end they hadn't killed each other as he'd anticipated. Hadn't really even argued. They'd reached a treaty, baffling him.

The unpredictability had been delightful. And just like that, all of his ennui had melted away.

Other gods, as bored with their routines as he had been, noticed the abrupt change in his mood. It wasn't as though he could hide it. The churning waters had settled into calm serenity. His four unexpected guests soon had arrived here, wanting to know the source of his joy. I should have lied. Told them anything but Atlantis.

That fateful day of their arrival was burned inside his head.

You can't just waltz inside, he'd said after his confession - and their subsequent desire to do as he'd done - wanting to keep his new favorite toy to himself.

Why not? Hestia had anchored her hands on her wonderfully flared hips. You did.

Yes, and we can't toss another surprise at them. That would be cruel.

Ares had snorted. Like you're all flowers and sunshine. We're going in, and you can't stop us.

His hands had fisted in frustration. What do you hope to gain with this visit? Just as we once forgot the Atlanteans, they have now forgotten us. You will not be worshipped in their realm, nor will you be thanked for your reappearance.

Apollo had shrugged, the dire warning of no concern to him. I want to know how my nymphs have fared without me. I should not have abandoned them as I did and wish to make amends.

His nymphs? His? They were made with equal measures of all of us, Poseidon had reminded him with irritation. But if he were honest, he would admit that some races tended to favor one god above the rest, as though a war had raged during their creation and certain characteristics had defeated all others. Besides, they have flourished despite your neglect. They are happy now and would despise any interference.

As they despised yours? Apollo splayed his arms. Doesn't matter. They fared better than most, I'm sure.

What's that supposed to mean? Artemis had asked. If a creature resembles you, it's better than all those around it?

Thus had begun a spirited hour-long debate about the strengths of each race, the weaknesses of each race and whom each race took after, finally culminating in an annoyed yet excited announcement from Ares. Enough! Arguing solves nothing. Let's put them on trial, shall we?

 

What do you propose? Hestia had asked hesitantly.

Simply that we put our opinions to the ultimate test with a little wager. We'll take two of every race - unmated, of course, or there'll be an uprising - and pit the creatures against each other. If your choice wins, you can enter and leave Atlantis unfettered. However, if your choice loses, you can never set foot in the dome again.

Poseidon had tilted his head as he considered the pros and cons. If he lost, his fun ended. If he ensured his creatures won, he could have Atlantis all to himself, just as he wanted.

A sound idea, but... Apollo frowned. Why two?

One powerful warrior could be an anomaly, Ares said. Two powerful warriors will prove the race's superior strength and intelligence.

And how will we choose the competitors? Artemis had asked, arching a brow.

Just the way our friend Poseidon chose the pawns in his little game, of course. Observation. We'll watch them and decide on the strongest, the bravest, the most resilient together. Then, we'll design challenges that will test their fortitude, wits and determination.

What will happen to the creatures who fail us? Artemis asked.

I think we should dispose of the losers, Poseidon had suggested. That way they cannot sing tales of our actions to the people of Atlantis. And he, the winner, would not have to deal with the backlash. Besides, I'm sure the lot of you will be angry and looking for vengeance when your choice loses to mine. Killing the creatures who brought about your loss will surely be cathartic.

Hestia's eyes had narrowed. We'll see who wins, won't we?

Two Atlantean weeks later, and here they were.

"The vampire will win," Ares said confidently now. "He has murder in his eyes. A look I know well."

Hestia peered out at the creatures moving through the forest, creatures who couldn't see them. "The vampire king or his warrior?"

"Does it matter? We were to pick a race, not an individual."

"I was merely curious." She shook her head, dark hair tumbling down her back. "But you're right. It does not matter, for the Amazons will win, no question. They are resilient, determined, unafraid to fight for what they know they deserve. A lot like me. The young one has been betrayed by everyone she has ever loved. There's bitterness inside her. Bitterness and hate. She'll unleash a storm of fury unlike anything you have ever seen."

"Please." Apollo laughed, the carefree sound at odds with the combatant he was. "She might be a smoldering cauldron of dark emotion, but she possesses the heart of an innocent. More than that, the nymphs carry my light inside them. Why do you think all creatures, male and female, are drawn to them? Your Amazon will be no exception and will end up bowing to them."

"The nymphs are indeed seducers," Artemis said, "but their beauty cannot compete with the fair-means-or-foul mentality of the demons. They would eat their own young to win a battle."

"Well, I say the dragons will eat everyone before the first game ends," Poseidon replied. "Their strength and hunger are legendary. Even the people of earth exalt them."

Ares rubbed his hands together. He was so tall, even Poseidon had to look up to him. He had dark hair and equally dark eyes, and radiated such intense wickedness he could have passed for Hades's twin. "We've all made our choices. It's past time to begin."

Another murmur of "yes" arose, this one dripping with exhilaration.

"The other creatures," Poseidon said. "Those we did not vote for. The minotaurs, centaurs, gorgons and formorians."

"If one of the unfavored wins, the contest is - What am I saying?" Ares chuckled. "The unfavored will not win."

"Well, I am ready to see who will. There can be no interfering from this moment on," Artemis said, eyeing each god until she received a nod of agreement. "What happens will happen. Whoever wins will win, and we will accept the outcome and the consequences with graciousness befitting our stations."

"Of course." Poseidon waved his hand in the air, hoping he appeared convincing. He would ensure the dragons won by any means necessary. He had no doubt his fellow gods would come to respect his actions in time. Hadn't Artemis praised the demons for just such ruthlessness, and Hestia admired the Amazons for a similar unyielding drive?

When the dragons won, Poseidon would win, and Atlantis would once again be his and his alone.

NIGHT HAD LONG SINCE FALLEN.

The air was warm, fragrant and fraught with danger. The insects were eerily silent, not a chirp or whistle to be heard. Only the wind seemed impervious to the surrounding menace, swishing leaves and clicking branches together.

Delilah's every self-protective instinct remained on high alert. No telling where the other creatures were. She'd spied a few here and there as she'd gathered stones and sticks. And then they had disappeared, hiding amongst the shadows. She could have hunted them down, could have challenged them to prove her strength, as was the way of the Amazons, but she hadn't.

The god's warning refused to leave her mind. What if she killed one of her own team members? To begin at a disadvantage would be the epitome of foolish. And she'd been foolish a little too often lately.

She and Nola had opted to sleep in the trees, making them harder to find, harder to reach. Right now she was strewn atop a thick branch, legs swinging over the side, handmade spear clutched tightly in her palms. Wooden daggers were strapped to her legs, waist and back. Thankfully, she'd been trained in the art of weaponry, learning how to create the deadliest of tools out of anything and everything she could find in the forest.

Sharp bark dug into her ribs, helping keep her awake, alert. What were the other creatures doing just then?

What was Layel doing?

Layel...beautiful Layel. She'd hardly interacted with him, yet their brief exchanges had been enough to utterly, foolishly fascinate her. There, an admission. He was like no one she had ever encountered. Constantly she found herself wondering what his body looked like underneath his clothes, what his face would look like lost in passion, what he would feel like, pumping and sliding inside of her.

He despises you. He's best forgotten.

Forget that his skin was pale and as smooth as silk? Forget that his eyes were blue like sapphires and fringed by black lashes that were a striking contrast to his snow-white hair? Forget that he was tall with wide shoulders and radiated a dark sensuality women probably salivated over? Impossible.

What kind of females did he enjoy? What type of females had he allowed into his bed? In all the stories she'd heard of him, not a word had been uttered about his preferred bed partners. That didn't mean he'd remained alone all these years.

Sparks of something sinister flickered in her chest. Jealousy, perhaps. She wanted to deny the emotion, but couldn't. Mine, she thought. He might want nothing more to do with her, but no way in Hades would he be allowed to have another woman. Not while they inhabited this island.

What's come over you? Men were no longer something she treasured, dreaming of love and laughter in the darkest of nights. To her, they were merely something for her sisters to use twice a year, something to destroy if ever they threatened her loved ones. Since her mating had ended so disastrously, she had not thought to ever again find herself possessive of a male.

How many times had she watched her sisters fight over a particular slave, as if he were a pretty trinket they meant to wear? He's mine, they would shout, commandments conveniently forgotten. It's my bed he will warm this night. A clash of daggers always followed, as well as cut and bleeding warrioresses. How many times had she watched those "prized" men leave when the loving was over? Without a backward glance at the females they were leaving behind? Not that her sisters had cared. But she had watched and wondered. How could they not want more from each other?

After Vorik, Delilah had thought herself immune to men, her secret longings buried. Until now. She'd straddled the vampire's shoulders and he'd looked between her legs with undiluted heat. The thought of giving herself to him had not been abhorrent. She'd wanted to command his hands on her, his mouth, something, anything. She'd wanted him to command her.

A shiver followed the thought, drowning her in another wave of that deep and inexorable desire. What would it be like to be bedded by him? Would he be gentle, taking her slowly? Or would his passion be as ferocious as his wild blue eyes promised? Perhaps even a little wicked?

"You're aroused, Amazon. Why?"

Layel's voice was so close, so husky, like a whispered entreaty, she wasn't sure if she imagined it. She stiffened, fingers tight on the spear as she searched the darkness for him. Only treetops and night birds came into focus. Not even where thin slivers from the golden ball high above seeped through the canopy of leaves did she make out the form of a man. Slowly she relaxed.

Why am I aroused? Because of you, she wished she could tell this fantasy.

"Well?" Chilled breath caressed her ear.

She gasped. Too real, too real, too real...

Before she had time to react, however, a hard hand settled over her mouth while another shoved her to her back. A heavy, muscled weight slammed into her body. She lost her breath, barely managing to remain on the branch.

In seconds, Layel had her stretched out, her legs restrained. Her eyes widened as her spear was torn from her grip and thrown to the ground. A mocking thump echoed in her ears. She balled her hand and moved to strike him, but he released her mouth to check the action. Next he caged her arms between their bodies.

"You will not hurt me," he said.

"And yet you feel free to hurt me. Besides, I'll do anything I want."

"Try."

One word, but it was so smug she longed to slap him. Sadly, below the urge for violence was also the need to kiss him. She didn't panic. Yet. Nola was nearby. Probably sneaking up on Layel...now. But no. A moment ticked by, then another.

Nola never arrived.

Delilah's heart began to drum erratically in her chest, a dazzling realization settling deep inside her. Her blood rushed through her veins with dizzying speed, and need quivered in her belly. Here was her secret fantasy, in the flesh. Hers for the taking. Part of it, anyway. There'd be no happily-ever-after with this man, but there could be pleasure, a moment of giving and sharing and taking between a man and a woman.

You're an Amazon. Act like one. Forcing herself into action, she raised her head and sank her teeth into his neck until she tasted the metallic tang of blood. He hissed in her ear, the sound a mix of pleasure and pain. You're biting him to escape, yes? So why are you writhing?

Mmm, so good...her tongue flicked against his racing pulse.

His hands now free, he fisted her hair and jerked her away. He was panting, anger and arousal bright in his eyes. "Think yourself a vampire, do you? Or are you half vampire? I know your kind consorts with all creatures and you could have been fathered by any of the many races."

She opened her mouth to respond but he shook his head, stopping her. "Scream and you'll regret it."

"As if I would scream," she muttered, offended that he thought so little of her abilities. You did allow him to sneak up on you.

Oh, shut up.

He blinked in surprise, as if he'd expected her to scream despite his threat.

Her irritation intensified, and she glared at him. "How did you get up here? Did you hurt my sister?"

"She was gone when I reached you. I did not touch her."

Where had Nola gone, then? "I suppose I will allow you to live. For now. But very soon I'm going to grow tired of letting you overpower me."

He snorted.

"I mean it. Be thankful I haven't already killed you."

"Do not fool yourself, Amazon. You would be dead right now had I not stayed my hand."

There was fury in his voice and hate in his expression. Stayed his hand? So he had come here to kill her? Bastard! Except, despite everything he had said, despite the genuine loathing directed at her, his legs were between hers and she could feel the length of his shaft hardening, growing, filling.

Just like that, her blood sizzled another degree. Blistered her veins. How did he do that to her? I am callous, and I care for no one but my sisters. If they were in Atlantis, she might agree to take him as her slave. If only for the two months males were allowed inside the Amazon camp. But here on this island with a competition in the works, they might very well be enemies.

A tremor slid down her spine.

"Afraid, Delilah?" he asked silkily, then muttered a curse she barely processed.

Then she realized why. Finally, he'd said her name. She wanted to grin. Spoken from those bloodstained lips...a hot ache bloomed between her legs, moisture pooling there. Earlier today, he hadn't wanted to say her name, but she'd needed to hear it and had tried to force his hand. Still he'd resisted. And every time he'd called her "Amazon," disgust had been evident in his voice. That alone should have caused her to lump him in the same forgettable group as every other man she'd ever encountered. But even then, underneath the disgust, there'd been a hint of husky satisfaction, as if he were already inside her, and she had only craved more of him.

"Of what?" The words emerged breathless. She wanted to point out what he'd done, what he'd said, but was afraid he would never do so again if she did.

"Dying. Pain."

"No," she answered honestly. Dying didn't scare her. Pain didn't scare her. But her reaction to this man petrified her. He made her feel vulnerable, as if she couldn't rely on herself. As if she needed him to survive. He'd already overtaken her thoughts.

"You should be very afraid," he said.

She stared up at him. His eyes were narrowed yet aglow with inner fire, drawing her in, mesmerizing her. Do not let him best you. Again. "My patience grows thin. Why are you here?"

"I thought I made that clear. I came to kill you."

He spoke so matter-of-factly, she was surprised by the statement. She should have fought him at that point. Damned should. She should have bucked him off, at the least. Dove for the ground or demanded...an apology? Reparation?

Instead, she remained still. Hating herself. But gods, she enjoyed having him on top of her. "So why didn't you?" Not that she thought he would have succeeded, even if he'd tried. Some part of her had to have known he was nearby. Some part of her had to have known he would not hurt her, and that's why she'd permitted him to get so close.

"You wield some kind of magic power over me, and I want to know what it is," he growled. That growl...it rolled along her spine, white lightning in a summer storm.

"Magic? Power?" she asked, wishing she sounded indignant rather than intrigued. "Me?"

"Do not pretend ignorance." He grabbed her shoulders, squeezing, shaking. "Tell me what you've done to me, curse you! I demand an answer."

"And I demand you take your hands off me before you lose them." The warning escaped automatically, but her mind screamed a denial: Don't let go. Hold me. Want me the way I want you.

"I will hurt you if I must, Delilah."

Once again, her name on those sensual lips was wholly erotic, somehow a curse, as well as a caress. Again she shivered. Her nipples pearled, reaching for him, abrading the leather top she wore. "Do it, then. Hurt me." She tilted her chin, knowing she was the picture of stubbornness.

What would he do, this warrior who had managed to sneak up on her? How would he react to her challenge?

His nostrils flared. The light in his eyes grew in intensity, casting an azure shadow over his wickedly eerie face. He stared at her mouth. For a moment, she thought he meant to kiss her. A bruising, punishing kiss. Please... But a minute ticked by, and he did nothing but glare.

Tired of waiting, she yanked one of her hands free, reached up and sifted strands of his hair through her fingers. "Soft," she whispered.

"Let go."

"No."

"Let go!"

"Make me."

With another growl, he snapped away from her hold. Away from her, severing any hint of connection. He perched at the end of the branch, his gaze tracing her tattoos with...longing?

No, he wasn't perched, she realized. He hovered, floating in place. When he realized he was perusing the war designs her commander had gifted her with each time she had proved invaluable in battle, his focus rose to her face, hatred once again gleaming in his eyes, a piercing red lance aimed directly at her.

Strange that it seemed to cut all the way to her soul.

"Do not touch me again."

"Then do not lie on top of me." Slowly she sat up, her gaze never leaving him. "Next time, I might not be so gentle with you."

"Next time, you'll be dead before you realize I'm nearby."

She tsked under her tongue, though his words struck deep. "I'm prepared now. You won't get this close again."

"We shall see."

Gods, his arrogance aroused her. Nothing he said was an idle boast. Anything he claimed he could do, well, she knew he possessed the power to do it. She admired that about him. Unfortunately, he admired nothing about her.

What about her upset him so? From the stories she'd heard, he treated only the dragons and their allies with anger. To everyone else, he was polite if distant. No, not true, she thought, playing some of those stories through her head. He loved the nymph king, Valerian, as a brother and had fought beside him on many occasions.

If she gave herself to Layel - don't think like that, dangerous, you can't, it'd be the same as before - would his face soften? Would he look at her with admiration? Mirth?

"Why do you hate me?" she asked him curiously.

His head tilted to the side as he studied her. "Why do you care?"

Argh. "Why don't you fly away and leave me alone?"

"Why don't you run from me?"

"Why haven't you kissed me?" The last escaped un-bidden, but once said, she did not want to take the words back.

His fangs elongated as he glared at her, vibrant eyes following her tongue as she ran it over her lips, then dipping to her neck.

"Thinking about biting me?" she taunted, unsure why she did so. She had been bitten by a vampire before, a rogue who'd been starving and had ambushed her while she'd been training a group of younger Amazons, and it had not been pleasant. But the thought of Layel's teeth inside her vein...She shivered at the deliciousness.

His pupils dilated, his gaze dropping again and remaining on her chest. "Your nipples are hard."

Were they still? She didn't want to look away from him and was afraid to touch them. They tingled, they ached. For him, only him. "Thank you for noticing."

A muscle in his jaw twitched. "Incorrigible wench." He sighed. "A friend of mine taught me the power of bargaining," he said, "and now I will bargain with you. While we are here, I will stay away from you and, in turn, you will stay away from me. Agreed?"

She tamped down a wave of disappointment. "Decided not to try and kill me after all, then?"

"For now."

"Can't stand the thought of being without me?"

"Do you agree?" he insisted, ignoring her question.

"No." She didn't hesitate with her answer. "I never bargain."

One of his brows arched. "Never?"

"Never. Not for anything." Bargaining meant that she wasn't strong enough to take what she really wanted, and Delilah refused to show weakness. Well, she refused to show any more. "Now, I'm done playing. Leave, and I won't hurt you."

He was in her face in the next instant. "That sounds like a bargain to me."

His breath was warm, sweetly scented. His parted lips were close to hers...so wonderfully close. His pale skin glowed, nearly translucent in the light of those electric blues.

All of her body tingled, just like her nipples. Her stomach fluttered with a drugging, almost agonizing heat. She hadn't ever felt like this, not even with Vorik. She ran her tongue along the seam of her mouth again, this time imagining Layel's tongue in its place. Gods, she craved a taste of him. Just a small taste. Perhaps then her obsession would end. Curiosity only kept him centered in her mind.

Slowly, she leaned toward him. He didn't meet her halfway, but he didn't pull away, either. Anticipation swirled through her. Would he allow the touch? "Your lips," she said.

"What about them?"

"I want them."

His shoulders straightened with a jolt. "No?" He'd probably meant the denial as a statement, but it emerged as a question.

Closer...a little closer...Still he remained in place. His breath hitched in his throat; she caught the slight sound and reveled in it. Closer...Just before their lips met, however, a harsh male curse echoed through the night - and it wasn't Layel's.

Whoever had shouted snapped him from her...spell, he would probably have said. Magic, indeed. How she wished she were capable of wielding enchantments. She would bind this man to the tree, keeping him in place until she at last knew the taste of him.

Layel straightened, fury once again falling over his mesmerizing features, overshadowing any hint of heat. "I let you distract me from my purpose this time. It will not happen again." And then he was in the air, flying away from her as hastily as if she were a gorgon, able to turn him to stone with a glance.

Delilah sat there a moment, shaken to the core. She would have believed she'd dreamed the entire encounter if not for the fire raging in her blood, infusing all her limbs.

What was she going to do about that man?

LAYEL SOARED through the trees, dewy branches slapping him in the face. He was glad for the sharp sting, for it helped calm his riotous, traitorous body. He was a bastard. Wicked, evil, wanting someone he should not.

Gods, that female...

She was a menace. Yes, a menace. Damn her! Why did she have to smell like rainflowers and look like a goddess? Why did her skin have to appear as smooth as golden velvet? Why did her eyes have to glow so vibrant a violet? She was violent, harsh, as bloodthirsty as any vampire. Unworthy, his mind shouted.

Yet he could not stop thinking of her. Could not stop picturing her, naked and straining against him. Wet, hot, tight. Eager. For him. For his possession.

He should have killed her.

But once again he hadn't been able to do that. Only the sound of Zane's curse had stopped him from kissing her, which would have been certain ruination. I am sorry, Susan. So sorry. Not only did I fail you once, I seem to be failing you yet again.

" - only because the gods might place us on the same team," a woman was snapping. "Otherwise I would slit your throat here and now."

"Try it and see what happens." There was fury in Zane's voice. But also...No, surely not. Surely not confusion. Zane usually revealed only two emotions: desire to kill and desire to maim. There was no uncertainty in his black-and-white world.

"As if you could hurt me," the female said. "You have only to look at your cage to see what happens when you attempt something so foolish."

"You will pay for this, woman."

The woman in question laughed, a sound of true glee. "Poor baby. All muscle and no brain."

Layel burst through a thicket and stopped abruptly, taking in the scene. Zane was trapped inside a makeshift cage, hanging from a tree. The second Amazon woman - Nola, he recalled - balanced on a branch, facing him and grinning.

When she sensed Layel's arrival, she lost her smile and whipped to face him. Her lips parted, and her hands fisted at her sides in preparation for battle. "Come to try and kill me, too?"

Though he concentrated on the female, Layel kept Zane in his peripheral vision. The warrior's cheeks were bright red, stained with mortification. He'd been defeated by a woman. Layel would have laughed if not for the fact that Delilah had knocked him on his ass earlier.

"Well?" Nola prompted.

A moment later, Delilah appeared at Layel's side. He stiffened as her rain-kissed scent once more assailed him, as her body heat wafted to him. Could he never escape them?

This close to her again, he remembered the worst part of his encounter with her. She had desired him, had hungered for his kiss. Her nipples had begged for his touch. And he'd almost given her both. Teeth cutting into his cheeks, he stepped away from her, not even trying to hide the action. He hated that he was forced to act so cowardly, hated the weakness she caused in him. But he simply could not be near her.

She aimed a furious glare at him just as a moonbeam hit her directly, revealing dirt smudges all over her body. Sadly, they did not lessen her appeal. "So. You thought to kill me and your friend thought to kill mine," she said.

"Do not pretend surprise."

Her eyes narrowed to tiny slits, the top and bottom of her lashes fusing together. "Surprise? Ha! I'm merely thanking the gods you are both incompetent."

He had failed at so many things these last few years, her words struck all the way to the bone. He'd failed to destroy all of the dragons. He'd failed to numb himself to the pain of Susan's death. He'd failed to render the death-blow to Delilah, a woman who threatened the memory of his one and only love.

He wanted to strike at her. Hurt her. Do not approach her. She's merely baiting you. "The god told us that there will only be one survivor of this game. One. We shall see which of us is left standing."

"Do not threaten my sister," Nola shouted, stepping toward him. "I have decapitated men for less."

He did not doubt that.

Gaze never leaving him, Delilah held up a hand. The other Amazon stilled and pressed her lips together. "You have tried to prick my temper from the first," she said. "Well, now you have succeeded. Taking you down will be fun, vampire."

He studied her hauntingly lovely features. "I fear the pleasure will be all mine. But perhaps, at the end, I won't kill you," he replied. "Perhaps I'll let you live. As my dessert." The taunt was meant to infuriate her further, torment her, make her crazed - heightened emotions had ruined many a good warrior in battle - but the moment he realized what he'd said, he felt tormented. He longed to put his mouth on her, drink in the sweetness of her blood and savor every drop.

The same urge must have welled inside her, because her pupils dilated. Her mouth parted on a gasp of hunger. "I'm going to enslave you," she whispered fiercely. "You'll obey my every command, and all of Atlantis will know that Layel, king of the vampires, belongs to Delilah. You'll have me for dessert only when I permit it."

He thought, frighteningly, that she just might be able to do it. Without a word. Just a look, a breath in his direction. A touch, as when she'd held a strand of his hair between her fingers. Pathetically, he was reduced to a creature of sensation when around her. Even his scalp had become sensitized, each hair a thread of desire. For her. Never again, never again, never the hell again.

"The day I bow to you will be the day - No. Such a day will never come." There was barely a pause before he added, "Do you know why Amazons were created? Because the gods were trying to create males - and they failed."

He expected her to lash at him. She inched backward, instead, features so stricken his chest ached. "We are both mistakes," she said softly.

Cursing himself, he flew to the top of the tree that Zane hung from and slashed the rope with his claws. As the cage, suddenly free, tumbled to the ground, he hissed at Nola in warning.

Then Layel left the area and never once looked back. He had never hated himself more.