WHEN LIGHT CROWNED the land, Layel found himself whisked to the beach as abruptly as he'd been whisked to the island. The only difference was that he didn't feel as though he was falling through a tunnel. He'd been sharpening a rock into an arrowhead in the woods one moment, and standing on sand, his hands empty, the next. Without shade, his skin heated. Not painfully, just not comfortably. At least the sun was not as bright and hot as it had been yesterday. Perhaps he would not blister. After all, the god had promised the elements would not affect the Atlanteans adversely any longer.
A quick shift of his focus revealed that all the other creatures were lined up beside him, looking about in confusion.
Unable to stop himself - would it always be so? - he searched for Delilah. At first, he did not see her. Perhaps she had been spared, returned to Atlantis.
Good, that was good. What little sleep he'd gotten, she had ruined, for she had haunted every one of his dreams. Smiling at him, beckoning him to join her in bed. Nipples pink and hard, legs spread, feminine core wet and needy. Tattoos, his for the tonguing.
In his dreams, he'd been unable to resist. He had licked her, all of her, and she'd writhed against his tongue. He'd even bitten the center of her desire - something he'd never done to Susan for fear of hurting her tender flesh - and Delilah had begged him for more.
Even now, his body reacted instantly at the thought of her, tightening, hardening. Preparing. He should have spent the night hunting dragons and slaying his foes, but he had not. He had thought: what if I destroy members of Delilah's team? That would place Delilah in danger of losing and thereby in danger of execution.
When that woman died, it would be by his hand. No one else would be allowed to harm her. He had even commanded Zane, still sulking from his encounter with Nola, to abstain from hunting and killing.
Besides, Layel had decided to let her live. For a little while longer, anyway, and even though she tormented him. Even though she threatened his resolve. He did not know why he'd decided such a thing, did not want to think about it anymore. When he did, her exquisite face flashed inside his mind, violet eyes gleaming with hurt, the frequency pushing Susan out of his mind bit by bit.
Where was she? he wondered again. His gaze continued to cut through the masses, past Zane - what kind of king am I, to concentrate on an enemy rather than a loyal follower? - past Nola and Brand. Why would she have been returned to Atlantis? Unless someone had injured her after Layel left her. Or killed her.
A red haze swam over his vision. If someone had - There. He spotted her and relaxed. Then hissed. She stood behind the dragon named Tagart, who stood on the other side of Brand.
She was so tiny, he could barely see her face through the crack of light between those huge warrior bodies. Her blue hair gleamed, and her eyes were so vibrant that as the sun hit them they seemed to cast lavender beams in every direction. Layel's jaw clenched. He didn't like seeing her so close to his greatest enemy.
As if she sensed his perusal, her eyes swung to him and their gazes locked in a heated clash. This time there was no hurt on her expression. No emotion at all, really. That disappointed him when it should have delighted him.
Better this way. Waves echoed in his ears and salt saturated the warm breeze, but Layel would have sworn he could hear the shallowness of her breathing and smell the sweetness of her rain-scent. Perhaps she was not as unaffected as she appeared.
Tagart shifted, widening the distance between himself and Brand and gifting Layel with a better view of Delilah. She still wore the small leather coverings over her breasts and the tiny leather skirt that hung to just below the curve of her bottom. Her bootlike sandals were still laced up her calves, hugging lean strength and smooth skin.
She'd clearly taken a bath, though. Dirt no longer smeared her, and the tattoos on her upper temples, arms, waist and thighs gleamed brightly. Those tattoos...more than ever, he wanted to touch them. Trace the curling designs with his tongue. Did she have any more? Designs he could not yet see? What did they mean? Why did she have them?
Stop! Do not think of her like that.
His eyes lowered. He meant to cast his attention to the sand, but instead it latched on to her breasts. Even as he watched, her nipples hardened into tight little points, as if begging for his attention. Layel was ashamed for noticing, for craving, and forced himself to look down. Little bumps broke out over the flat plane of her stomach. Her navel dipped deliciously, he noticed, another spot for his tongue to enjoy.
You love Susan. And more, you are a king, a warrior. Act like one. Every ounce of his strength was needed to finally -
"Good morning, contestants. I trust you slept well, and that you are as eager as we are for the games to begin. So, without further ado...say hello to your teammates," a god-voice suddenly pronounced. This voice was deeper than the one yesterday, harder. A different god?
In the blink of an eye, Layel was whisked to the other side of the beach, standing in a new line - though this one was only half as long - and facing yet another row of Atlanteans. His teeth gnashed together as irritation flooded him. Being moved around like a puppet grated on his every nerve.
Zane stood across from him. He tried to snag the soldier's attention but failed. Following the direction of the man's gaze, he realized Zane was staring at Nola, who occupied the same side of the beach as Layel. Lust glittered in the warrior's expression. Lust and confusion and perhaps a little awe.
Delilah was in Zane's line.
Dread curled Layel's stomach as suspicions danced through his mind. Surely this god was not so cruel. Surely this heavenly sovereign would not pit friend against friend, man against woman.
"Yes, you will compete against your own kind. And, yes, you will compete against the opposite sex." A laugh, booming, strong, full of mirth, though edged in steel. Did the god read minds on top of all his other powers, then? "What better way to test your cunning, determination and survival instincts?"
Just as the water had done yesterday, the sand between the two lines of creatures swirled together, faster and faster, rising...rising...until the outline of a body formed. A few wayward grains drifted into Layel's mouth, and he spit them out in disgust.
"Who among you will place your allegiance with your own kind, rather than your fellow teammates, hmm?"
Layel twisted left, right, and eyed his team. A centaur, a nymph, Brand the dragon - bile rose in his throat - a demon, Nola the Amazon - he gulped - a minotaur, a formorian and a snake-headed gorgon.
All but the nymph had one thing in common. They were eyeing him with revulsion. Why? He shrugged, unconcerned. The only thing that bothered him at the moment was the fact that Delilah was not in his group.
He would be forced to compete against her.
"Great One, I would ask a boon." Brand stepped forward, his gaze still locked on Layel.
"Ask," the being said. "Though I cannot promise you will receive it."
Brand pointed to Layel, accusation in his eyes. "This...bloodsucker meant to kill us all while we slept. I ask that he be removed from my team."
Delilah had tattled on him, then. He felt betrayed by the knowledge, which was foolish. At least the revulsion of his teammates now made sense.
"And yet he did not kill you or anyone," the god said in his defense, surprising him.
"He will continue to try if given the opportunity. I ask that he be destroyed here and now," Brand continued.
"And I decline."
"But - " Before he could speak another word, Brand dropped to his knees with a grunt, as if he could no longer endure his own weight. He moaned, grabbing his stomach and falling the rest of the way into the sand. A trickle of blood escaped his mouth.
"You had your answer, and yet you dared to persist. Let this be a lesson to all who think to question the gods' wisdom."
No one rushed to the dragon's defense, and Layel smiled slowly. A more welcome sight he had never encountered. Except for Delilah...last night...underneath you, panting...craving your mouth... With a muttered curse, he blackened his mind.
"We are giving you a few more hours. Use it to strategize with your team. Tonight," the god continued, as if Brand's interruption had not occurred, "the first competition will take place. You'll need every ounce of strength you possess to survive. Because the challenge will be difficult, the winning team will be greatly rewarded. And do not think to rebel, keeping your team from victory. The losing team shall appear before me, and, as mentioned before, the weakest contender will be executed.
"Go now. Do whatever you must to strengthen yourselves and prepare for the challenge to come. Do not disappoint me." The last seemed to bullet straight to Layel.
He opened his mouth to say something - what, he didn't know - but a second later, the sand stilled, collapsed, the being clearly gone.
Then a dark cloud assaulted Layel, a single word whispering into his ears: Gauntlet. His eyes burned, some of the granules having worked their way under his lids. He scrubbed a hand over his face. Gauntlet? Confused, he held his breath until the cloud passed. It swept over several other creatures, and they coughed. But they did not act as if they'd heard a voice.
Finally Brand ceased writhing and dragged himself to his feet with a dark scowl at Layel. Everyone else glanced around the island, as if unsure of what to do next.
"This is ridiculous."
"I'm not pairing with a demon."
"Or a vampire."
Layel blocked their chatter. Two teams. Competing against each other. Someone from the losing team would die. Tonight. Delilah? His fingers curled, nails cutting. Don't think about her. His focus settled once again on his team. How was he supposed to play nice with a dragon? A demon? He would rather die.
You just might.
He sighed. Gauntlet. Was that to be their challenge? Or was it a trick? He would soon find out, he supposed.
ZANE STALKED from the beach, through the trees and away from the harsh morning light and the creatures he despised. If he had stayed, the already-thin strand he held on his control would have snapped.
Bad things happened when he snapped.
But he could think of nothing to calm himself. The feelings the Amazon Nola wrought in him were too confusing, too similiar to what another female had once made him experience. Feelings that had changed him - and not for the better. More than that, he was hungry. Layel had ordered him not to kill last night, and he hadn't. Which meant he hadn't eaten, either.
Zane only drank from creatures he killed. That way, expressions of fear and pleas for mercy would not haunt him. And yet, those living creatures had begun to look tasty.
Also, taking a living being meant enduring hands and gazes on his body. He shuddered.
Last night he'd meant to feast on the Amazon, for she smelled sweeter than anyone he'd ever encountered. Even Cassandra, the woman he'd bargained away years of his life to save - the woman who'd then wanted nothing to do with him. In fact, he'd decided to destroy Nola even before the demons.
But she had bested him.
He'd gone in for that first slash of her throat, but she had anticipated his move and had struck first. Only, she hadn't hurt him. She had trussed him up like an animal. To do so, she had touched him. She had looked at him. And he had not wanted to run, hide, even die as he usually did when touched and gazed upon.
Actually, he'd wanted her to do both again.
What strange power did these Amazons wield? The blue-haired one had Layel tied in knots. Zane had never seen the king so confused. Soft, even. Layel lived and breathed death. Revenge. Two goals Zane admired. Yet neither of them had been able to hurt those women. Worse, both men now seemed to crave them.
Zane had avoided females since his release from the demon palace. Sex was not something he needed to survive, wasn't even something he wanted anymore, therefore he did not indulge. Ever. Even a hasty coupling gave a female power over a man.
No one would consume his thoughts; no one would dictate his body's feelings. Too many times over the years he'd had to...Bile rose in his throat. He swallowed it and scrubbed the memory from his mind.
But he knew it would come back. It always did.
Layel probably thought he'd been stolen, locked away and forced. Layel was wrong. Zane had gone to the demons of his own volition. Every disgusting thing the demon queen had done to him, he had allowed. Begged for, even. He'd been cursed with a beauty most demons found irresistible, and the queen had craved him even though his heart belonged to another. A slave. Stay with me until I tire of you, the queen had said, and then I will free you both. But she hadn't, and Cassandra, a siren enslaved by the demons, had begun to look at him with hate.
Demon whore, he heard in his mind even now. Demon whore, demon whore.
Scowling, he flattened his hands over his ears. The taunts did not die. Only seemed to increase in volume. A roar ripped from him, and he slammed his fist into the nearest tree trunk. Bark cut past skin. Blood oozed down his arm. The vile things he had done...all for nothing.
"Are you hurt? Oh, I hope it's terribly painful!"
The feminine voice, soft and lilting, somehow managed to overshadow the din in his head. He whipped around and there, in front of him, was his tormentor, worse than any demon he had faced. Nola. She was so lovely, he lost his breath. She was tall, but not bulky. Lean, but strong. And yet, she appeared delicate, as if she would break in half with a good squeeze. Angelic, as if she had no other thoughts beside pleasure.
He knew those angel-looks were deceptive.
While he was not repulsed by her touch or her regard - why, why? - he found that he did not like her. She behaved like a demon, demanding, happily taking from others without giving anything in return. Taking his concentration, his self-protective instincts.
"Following me was foolish." If only he had his knives. He could have thrown them, embedded each in her chest. But when the god had popped Zane onto the beach, the sticks he'd painstakingly sharpened had no longer been strapped to his body. And that made no sense. They'd been told to make whatever weapons they wished, yet still they weren't allowed to use them.
"We both know you cannot hurt me." Nola lifted her chin, her features smug. No, her features attempted a smugness she could not quite pull off. Too much vulnerability in her eyes, he noticed for the first time. Too much heartache. "You're not smart or fast enough."
Insults no longer affected him. Too many had been hurled at him over the years. Besides, while she sneered them at him, they lacked any kind of heat. "Last night, you surprised me. You will not have that advantage again." Of its own accord, his gaze lowered to her neck, where her pulse drummed wildly.
She flicked her dark hair over one shoulder, baring even more skin. Her hand was shaking. "Hungry, vampire?"
There was challenge - want? - in her tone, as if he could look but would never be allowed to taste. His eyes narrowed, the dare pricking at him sharply. "The thought of having your blood in my mouth sickens me."
He could not slay her; she was on Layel's team and Zane would never purposely hurt the man who had killed the demon queen, freeing Cassandra. And if he could not slay Nola, she would be able to touch him. What if last night had been an aberration? What if she touched him and he wanted to die, as he did with everyone else? Or worse - what if he wanted more from her?
"Sickens you, huh?" Unlike him, she could not overlook an insult. Fury and hurt flashed momentarily in those vivid emerald orbs, quickly replaced by determination. "I could make you beg for it. Many men have. Or I could make you a slave, just as Delilah will do to your king."
Every time she opened her mouth, he liked her less and less. How could he desire her, then? Even for a moment? "You are my enemy, now more than before. I am slave to no one." Would never be a slave again, willing or not. "The only thing I want from you is your absence. And believe me, as badly as I crave it, I am still unwilling to beg."
A tremor rocked her lithe body. "Oh? And you think your teammates will offer their blood to you?"
"Most likely." Not that he would sample a single drop. "They'll wish to keep me strong. They will not want a weak member dragging them down."
She raised her chin. "They know you considered killing them. I made sure of it."
"Yes, but you are now their enemy. They will no longer care what you say." He did not know if he spoke true. He only knew he wanted to wipe that haughty look off her too lovely face.
She ran the tip of her tongue over her teeth, and his cock jumped at the sight of all that pink and wet. He scowled in surprise. True desire? Again? That had not happened in years, yet now it had happened twice in two days.
Why did he want her? Her of all people? A cocky, irritating demon in an angel's skin?
"I'm going to feed," he said fiercely, quietly. "And then I am going to do everything in my power to make sure you lose tonight. Then, I will pray that you are the first to be executed."
She stepped toward him, hands fisted. "You are a bastard. No better than my mother. No better than my father, my brothers, men my mother abandoned her sisters to be with, men who helped her destroy me." Hate churned beneath the surface of her skin. Hate and fury. "Guess what I did to them?"
"Killed them?" Zane forced himself to remain in place, even though everything inside him screamed to back away before she could reach him. Not because he feared what she might do, but because he feared his reaction to her. She had suffered? Perhaps as he had?
"After I played with them a bit," she said silkily, "they begged for death. Still I waited days before I gave it to them." She stopped, turned away, but didn't move off. "Oh, and one more thing. If my team loses tonight, it might very well be your king who is killed. In fact, I'll make sure of it. Think about that."
DELILAH REMAINED on the beach, even though everyone else had left. Including Nola, her sister by race - and her new enemy?
She bit the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. All her life, her only goal had been to protect her sisters. Those she loved, those she didn't. Now she was to fight against one.
What was she to do about him? She'd wondered all through the night, yet she still didn't have an answer. They were enemies now, more so than before. At least, they were supposed to be.
Last night he had said cruel things to her. At first, she'd been hurt and had by turns wanted to beat him senseless and cry in his arms like a weakling. But then she'd remembered something. In battle, anything goes. She knew that better than most, and last night they had been locked in a battle of fierce desire. Words meant nothing. Actions, everything.
He wanted her. Proof: just a little while ago he had peered at her with naked longing in his eyes. But while he did want her, he clearly did not want to want her. Proof: he always walked away.
Part of Delilah was ready to fight him until he changed his mind. Until he admitted that he craved her kiss as much as she craved his. And yet, the other part of Delilah insisted she do nothing, forcing him to fight for her and treat her as the prize she'd always wanted to be. She was confused by the conflicting nature of her desires. Fight for him - make him fight for her. Dominate him - be dominated by him.
She knew she would not do the first, even though she'd allowed herself moments of weakness and had almost given in to the thought of pleasure. To give herself to another man, she had to know she was the most important thing in his life. He had to want her more than anything. He had to need her.
Would Layel ever need anyone?
Someone approached her, and she stiffened. She heard the swish of sand against boot, the faint rasp of even breathing. Not Layel, for this man radiated heat and smelled like sex.
"Nymph." She pushed to her feet and turned to him, hands curled into fists. Just in case.
"Amazon." He was at her side a moment later. He faced the water, careful not to focus his decadent gaze on her, and locked his hands behind his back. "We are teammates, you and I," he said.
He was tall, forcing her to look up...and up...and up. He had pale hair and bright blue eyes. His body was stacked with muscle upon muscle, visible even through his clothing. Normally, she remained as far away from the nymphs as possible. After all, they were capable of enslaving a woman with only a glance.
Yet she felt no passion-flare for him. No compulsion to strip for him, kiss him, touch him. His eyes were not a clear enough blue. His hair wasn't white, completely devoid of color. His skin wasn't white-velvet and slightly chilled to the touch. His features were not haunted.
"Yes," she finally said. "We are."
"For us to win, I need to remain strong."
"Yes." Where was he going with this?
At last he faced her, his lips curling into a tender smile. "I am glad we understand one another." The words were casual, the tone joyful. "Do you prefer clothing on or off?"
She shook her head, positive she had misheard. "What?"
"Clothes on or off?" He fisted the hem of his shirt, ready to lift at a moment's notice.
Dear gods. He expected to bed her. "I don't even know your name and you expect me to welcome you into my body?"
"I am Broderick. And, yes."
Let's see. How could she respond without insulting a teammate she might need aid from tonight? "Gods, no."
"No?" His brow puckered for a moment before smoothing out. "Oh, you mean, no clothing." Whoosh. His shirt pooled at their feet. He was grinning now.
"No bedding." Why could she not desire him, though? Why did he fail to thrill her? He was handsome, as powerful as Vorik the dragon had been, might be able to talk her sisters into anything without having to fight them for her, hurting them. With a nymph, you will never be number one. You will be exactly what you have never wanted: a convenience.
Broderick lost his grin and blinked in surprise. "But to maintain my strength, I need sex."
"So go have sex." She braced her hands on her hips.
He breathed a sigh of relief and nodded in satisfaction. "Where would you like me to take you? Here?"
Were all nymphs so dense? "I don't think you understand what I'm saying, so I'm going to explain it a little better." In the span of a single heartbeat, she grabbed hold of his wrist, spun behind him and twisted, flipping him onto his stomach and giving him a mouthful of sand. "I'm not bedding you anywhere, anytime."
Spitting out those white grains, he rolled over and frowned up at her. "But we are teammates. If I am weak, we could lose."
"So you've said."
"If we lose, one of us will die."
Her blood chilled, becoming streams of ice. He was right. One weak link could drag down an entire army. She had seen it happen, had fought to make it happen, actually, her sisters sometimes seducing a warrior and enticing him to betray his own kind.
Losing had never and would never sit well with her.
But sleep with this man? This nymph? Just to win? She had once let a formorian fondle her while her sisters sneaked inside his home and searched for the young Amazons he had stolen and locked away, hoping to train them as his personal guard. He had repulsed her, but she had allowed his ministrations with a smile. Had even patted his head as if he were a favored pet.
Once the girls had been found, Delilah had sliced his throat.
That fondling had been for a good cause. This, too, was a good cause, yet the thought of letting anyone other than Layel pleasure her was somehow...abhorrent.
Broderick stood, and he did not appear pleased. Grains of sand clung to his roped chest lovingly. Female sand? A pretty scar slashed from one of his nipples to his navel.
Women came easily, eagerly to him. That much was obvious. Delilah wondered if she was the first to ever have told him no.
"You will not find my touch distasteful, Amazon, I swear it."
"Step away from her, Broderick."
Both Delilah and the nymph pivoted to face their intruder. Layel. Her heart sped up, hammering so hard her ribs would surely crack. His voice had been devoid of emotion, as was his expression. Still, he was the most beautiful sight she'd ever beheld. Sensual, hard, determined. Mine.
Dangerous...Oh, yes, he was. In every way imaginable, maybe even some that weren't.
A needy whimper rose in her throat, and she barely managed to silence it.
"Layel," the nymph said, and there was genuine affection in his tone.
They were friends, and that friendship made her own turbulent relationship with the vampire seem so much darker.
"She is mine," Layel said firmly.
Broderick's lush lips dipped into a confused frown. "But you - "
"Mine," he insisted.
Hearing the vampire's claim was like being branded, the words fiery hot and reverberating all the way to her soul. She should have rebuffed him. Appearances had to be maintained. In front of others, especially her new teammates, she had to be cold, heartless. But she couldn't force the words out.
Mine, he'd said, mimicking her own thoughts. She wanted to smile.
The nymph sighed in disappointment, yet there was a sharp edge to the sound. "I never poach another man's property, you know that. If you change your mind..."
"I will not."
Wait. Property? Had Broderick just called her Layel's property?
Broderick shrugged and strode from the beach. His easy compliance confirmed what she had suspected. She would not have been important to the nymph. She would have been a warm body in an assuredly long line of warm bodies, forgotten when the loving was over. Not good enough for more than a few tumbles.
What would it take to be important to a man? To mean something? To mean everything?
For several seconds, neither Delilah nor Layel spoke. She didn't know what to say to him, really, too afraid to ruin this heady moment.
"Do not think I care about your welfare," he said, looking away from her and to the water.
Moment ruined. Still determined to fight her, was he? Disappointment rocked her, but she squared her shoulders and raised her chin. Words meant nothing, she reminded herself once more. Actions, everything. "Do not think I will deny myself a man if I want him."
A muscle ticked in Layel's stubborn jaw.
"So tell me. If you don't want me for yourself, why did you send the beautiful Broderick away?" she said.
Several seconds passed in agonizing slowness. "I will see you on the battlefield, Amazon," was all he finally said. And then he, too, strode away.