"LAYEL IS MISSING."

Alyssa, fierce soldier of the vampire army, stared up at the nymph king, gauging his reaction to her announcement. Valerian was the only man Layel truly trusted. The only man he counted as friend. Layel respected his warriors, of course, and he was fair and generous to his people. But he kept himself distanced, always distanced.

Still, ever since the nymph sovereign had struck an alliance with the dragons to maintain peace and possession of this palace, the friendship had been strained, and so Alyssa could not be sure of Valerian's innocence.

Had Valerian hurt Layel, the vampire king responsible for hundreds of dragon deaths, to appease his new ally?

The nymph king frowned over at her, concern lighting his brilliant blue eyes. "How long has he been gone?"

That concern appeared genuine, and Alyssa experienced a rush of relief. Layel shouldn't be made to suffer another devastating loss. He might not survive. If he even lived. "This is the second day," she said. "He disappeared amidst..." she swayed, her head suddenly swimming, her knees weaker than usual. Somehow she managed to remain on her feet.

"Woman?" Valerian inquired, concern shifting now to her.

"Forgive the disruption. I'm fine." But she wasn't. She needed blood. Blood she hadn't been able to take in months. Much longer and she would collapse, no amount of determination or fortitude able to save her. "He disappeared amidst a battle in the Forest of Dragons."

Valerian was not easily diverted. "Are you unwell? We now have a healer in residence. Brenna will - "

Do not dare glance at the man beside Valerian. Eyes ahead. "I'm fine," she repeated firmly. "We were speaking of Layel..."

His frown sharpened around the edges. He was a beautiful man, probably the most sensually lovely creature the gods had ever created. He had golden hair, a hard, muscled body and an eroticism that radiated from him no matter where he was or what he was doing.

Females young and old constantly threw themselves at him, though there was only one woman he desired. And that woman was even now sitting on his lap, frowning just as fervently as he was.

"Layel has disappeared before," Queen Shaye said, patting her mate's arm in a bid to comfort him.

Alyssa's chest ached at the sight of their obvious love for each other. She wanted that for herself. Had thought, for a single night, that she had found it. How wrong she'd been.

Once again she had to remind herself to keep her eyes focused on something other than the soldier standing beside Valerian. Shivawn.

She'd hungered for him since the first moment she had spied him and the hunger had only grown. At that first sighting, she'd craved friendship, his fierce loyalty. As she'd grown into a woman, that craving had become sexual. To her absolute devastation, he'd never wanted anything to do with her. Except once...

After ignoring her for years, he had finally allowed her to entice him to her bed. For hours, she'd feasted on his body. She'd savored every sound he uttered, every move he made and every delicious beat of his heart. It had been the most exquisite night of her entire life.

But when the loving had finished, he'd left. No tender goodbye, no farewell kiss.

No hunting her down and sweeping her back into his arms the next day. In fact, he hadn't spoken to her since, even though they had stumbled upon each other several times. With his every glance, however, he'd conveyed his message perfectly: she was a nuisance. Beneath him. Unworthy. She wanted to hate him. Instead, she remembered. She desired. Still. Perhaps forever.

Her gaze moved of its own accord, landing on him, and her heart stuttered to a halt. He was tall; his sandy hair hung in waves to his broad shoulders. He was looking past her, just over her shoulder. His expression conveyed boredom, as though he could not wait for her to leave.

When would he learn? Leaving was the one thing she could never do, not with him. Pathetic of her, yes. But cruel as he was turning out to be, she now needed him to survive. Much longer and she would truly die. He just did not know it yet.

"My mate speaks true," Valerian said, claiming Alyssa's attention once more. "Layel often steals a few days for himself."

"Yet he has never abandoned his own people without word of when he would return. He has never left without placing a second-in-command. And you know as well as I that he would never leave during a battle with dragons."

 

"You speak true, as well." Valerian's tanned skin blanched, his strong arms tightening around his mate. She was like new-fallen snow, with silver-white hair and skin so luminous it practically glowed. The only color to her belonged to her large, dark eyes. She was human, a child of the surface world, with blood that smelled pure and sweet.

Used to be, the gods had gifted the vampires with humans they didn't want tarnishing that surface world. Mmm, she remembered how delicious they'd been. No one tasted better.

Except Shivawn.

She had tasted him that night he'd allowed her to seduce him. The sensual power she had found with a single swallow, the headiness...Light-headed, she nearly lost her balance again. She had been unable to take a single drop of crimson nectar from anyone else since.

Oh, she had tried. But everything tasted like rot when compared to Shivawn and she gagged. Finally, she'd stopped trying to feed. She had lost weight, strength, and now spent more time in bed than she did out of it. She was becoming desperate for another taste of Shivawn.

"I will send a troop to scour the Inner and Outer cities," Valerian said. "We will find him."

"Another vampire disappeared, as well," she said. "Zane, a warrior. He is wild, even unpredictable, but he is loyal to Layel and would not have hurt him."

Pensive, Valerian stroked his chin. "Two vampires disappeared, you said?"

"Yes."

"No others?"

She shook her head.

"Two?" he insisted.

"Yes."

"That disturbs me, for two of my nymphs are unaccounted for. Two of my elite. I had thought they stumbled upon bed partners and simply lost track of time. But..."

Two vampires, two nymphs. "What could this mean?"

"I wonder if any other creatures are missing." Valerian flicked Shivawn a glance. "Go into the cities. Learn what you can and report back to me. I want an answer by morning."

Shivawn gave a stiff nod and turned on his booted heel.

"My lord," Alyssa rushed out, stepping closer to the king's dais. Had she been any other species, his guards would have attacked her. Because she was vampire, servant of Layel, the action was tolerated. "I must insist that I accompany your soldier."

Shivawn, who had not paused during her speech, halted abruptly. He kept his back to both Valerian and Alyssa. As he stood there, the braided hair at his temples swung back and forth, beads clicking together. "And I must insist I go alone, my king."

Her eyes narrowed on him, but she didn't direct her words to him. "Your man will get nothing done if he is forced to fight off every woman he encounters. More than that, he will enrage the men of those enslaved females and they will refuse to aid him."

Shaye sighed, a sound of feminine pique. "She's right. You nymphs and your damn mojo. It ruins everything!"

Mojo?

"Everything?" Valerian asked the queen huskily, as if he knew exactly what she meant. Just then, they were clearly the only two people in the chamber, everyone else forgotten.

The human chuckled and kissed his cheek. "Well, maybe not everything."

Another ache lanced through Alyssa's chest as Valerian gazed tenderly at his mate. Oh, to be loved like that.

"Shivawn," Valerian said, "take the vampire with you."

Pivoting, radiating outrage, Shivawn scowled. "My king, I - "

"Will do it," was the firm, sharp interruption.

A moment passed. Then another. The sudden silence was thick and oppressive. Hurtful. Shivawn wanted to argue. She knew that from the clench of his jaw, the tic below his eye and the fists he tried to keep hidden at his sides.

Alyssa pulled her gaze from him. Ultimately, he would not refuse his king. But his hesitation cut her so deeply she longed to sink to her knees and sob. He would have welcomed any other woman, she was sure. Why did he hate her so? Clear your mind. Do not show him the depth of your hurt.

Limbs trembling, she studied the palace throne room. The floors were white marble veined with silver, the walls black onyx studded with jewels of every color. From sapphires to rubies, from emeralds to diamonds, they winked at her, mocking her with their beauty and purity.

Why did he hate her so? she wondered again, unable to bury the question this time.

You know the reason, you simply do not wish to acknowledge it. True. To acknowledge the truth was to lose all hope of winning the man. There is no hope. To Shivawn, she was, and would always be, tainted, for he despised both demons and vampires - and she was equal measures of each. He didn't know it, no one did, but he must sense it on some level.

The demons he blamed for killing his father many years ago. A crime she had inadvertently been involved in, though he didn't know that, either. Would never know it, if she had her way.

The vampires he despised because of their need for blood, for one had nearly killed him. That night, in bed, when she had sunk her teeth into his chest, he had almost slapped her. Had barely managed to stay his hand.

After he left, she had apologized and sent him invitations to join her again. Just as he ignored her when she was present, so had he ignored the summons. But...sometimes she could have sworn he was hidden nearby, his gaze boring into her. Wishful thinking, for she had never caught sight of him. Trained as she was, she would have found a trace. A footprint. A strand of his hair.

Even if she hadn't needed his blood, would she have been able to walk away from him? The answer to that was nothing new. No. To walk away was to lose all hope of winning him. I'm not just demon, vampire and related to the men who destroyed his father. I'm brainless, too. Yet another defect. As she'd thought before, there was no hope. Sometimes, though, she could fool herself.

"Very well," Shivawn finally said, his tone stiff. He strode from the room without another word.

Frustrated with him, Alyssa turned to the formation of vampire warriors behind her, lined against the walls. "Half of you will join Valerian's army in search of our king. The other half will return to the palace. I will report our findings in the morning."

Used to taking orders from her when Layel was gone, they nodded and filed from the chamber. Fighting another wave of dizziness, Alyssa followed Shivawn.

DARKNESS WOULD SOON FALL AGAIN, and when it did, the first challenge would begin.

Though he'd constructed weapons yesterday, Layel had spent several hours gathering the perfect limbs for a bow and arrows. The god had finally given permission to use them and wouldn't be taking them away. Again. Already he'd spent several more hours sharpening and honing. His hands were now raw, and his nails, which had healed soon after his encounter with the air shield, were once again coated with dried blood. He was weak from the loss of it and needed to replenish.

But he didn't. He hadn't.

In his foolish, hated desire for Delilah, he had abandoned his only purpose: death to all dragons. Nothing more, nothing less. The woman had occupied too many of his thoughts, tortured him with her femininity, riddled him with concern for her well-being, and nearly felled him with jealousy. Jealousy.

He would allow it no more.

She mattered not to him. Susan mattered. Always, only Susan.

I will prove it. Right now he hovered in a tree, concealed by branches and thick green foliage, looking down at Delilah's team. His bow was cocked, his arrow ready to sail into the heart of the beast.

"...work together," Tagart was saying. "That's the only way to win."

They were gathered in a circle, a fire blazing, some kind of fish anchored over the pit, roasting and filling the air with a sweet aroma. All of the creatures were listening intently, rapt gazes locked on Tagart. Except for Zane, who sat behind them, sharpening a branch with his claws just as Layel had done.

Delilah had her back to Layel, hair streaming wildly, like ribbons his fingers itched to caress. If she stood, Layel would kill her rather than the dragon. He told himself he didn't care. That he'd spared her one too many times already. Did he listen to himself, though?

"How can you know we'll have the chance to work together," Delilah asked, "rather than be called one by one to represent the group? The god didn't specify."

Her voice shivered through him, an embrace, a temptation. His fingers squeezed the bow tightly. Relax, damn you. The wood will snap with any more pressure. Gradually his fingers loosened their grip. He still had a clear shot of Tagart, could lose it at any moment. Do it! Hurt him.

"I don't know. Not for sure," Tagart said. "But we have to be ready for anything. If we aren't..."

"One of us will die," Delilah finished for the dragon, her voice now harsh.

The warrior nodded grimly.

You are facing a dragon. You have never hesitated before. Why now? Layel's hands remained steady despite his internal war, yet still he didn't release the blasted arrow. He ground his teeth together, ashamed and disgusted. He had come here with a purpose. To turn away from that again was disgraceful.

"But if we win, our brethren on the losing team could die," Delilah added miserably.

"You heard what the god said. They are testing us. Our mettle, our determination. We have to decide - who is more important? Them? Or us?"

Every muscle in Layel's body stiffened at that. Them or us? echoed in his head. Them or us? If he killed Tagart, would he ultimately condemn Zane? A warrior he had sworn to protect? Never mind Delilah. Do not think of her, do not dare think of her.

Whatever Layel did, someone was going to die tonight.

Zane...Tagart...Delilah...He wanted the latter two gone, but he would not be able to live with himself if he unintentionally harmed the first. But if his team lost, he would most likely be eliminated. After the way they'd looked at him this morning, knowing he had considered slaying them all...

Perhaps being the first to go was for the best. Perhaps then, he could finally join Susan.

No, he nearly roared. No, no. Not yet. More than he wanted to slay the dragons on this island, he wanted to slay the dragon king. Darius. Just the name caused him to growl. Darius should have stopped his warriors from hurting Susan, should have had better control of them.

Just as I was supposed to have control over my men. He brushed the thought aside. His crime had not destroyed Susan.

Once, about six months ago, Layel had nearly succeeded in killing the dragon sovereign. But then he had seen Darius with a human lover and had remembered Susan and his only days of happiness. In a moment of weakness, Layel had walked away.

Now Darius's woman was pregnant. Another dragon would be born. It was unacceptable. His fault.

I vowed never to walk away from a kill again, he reminded himself, eyes once more narrowing on his target.

Layel wanted so badly to join Susan. All you need do is obliterate the entire fire-breathing race. One at a time... His finger twitched, stilled. His teeth gnashed together.

An ashy breeze blustered past him, shaking the leaves. If you do this, Delilah will view you as a coward. Unworthy, dishonorable. Good. He was. His fingers tightened...tightened. The bow's string pulled taut. Almost ready...soon. He wanted Delilah to think poorly of him. No, he corrected, he needed her to think poorly of him. Another finger twitch. Tagart shifted, Layel's bow moving with him, maintaining the perfect shot. Straight through the man's blackened heart, slicing it in two as he'd done to countless others.

"There's something I must do. I'll return shortly," Delilah said, rising swiftly to her feet and blocking Tagart.

Layel froze. Move, woman! He'd finally convinced himself to act.

She remained in place. She was not as tall as the dragon, so Layel's arrow would nail her right between the eyes. Sweat beaded his skin. He could try and release the arrow into Tagart's face, catching an eye perhaps, missing the Amazon, but that wouldn't necessarily kill or even slow the bastard.

"We aren't done here," Tagart snapped at Delilah. "There's still much to discuss."

She flipped her hair over her shoulder and laughed. "Try and stop me and see what happens. Besides, you owe me a thank-you for this."

"A thank-you? What for? What are you going to do? Make a bed and seduce me?"

There was a shocked pause. "Something is seriously wrong with the men around here," she muttered.

The warrior's lips formed a thin line. Obviously he wanted to press her, but for whatever reason decided to quiet his objections. "Fine. Go. But don't cry for our forgiveness if you're the reason our team fails."

"You expect failure, then?"

He sputtered. "No."

The group's centaur rose on all fours and approached her. Ever the mediator, the horse-man said, "Tagart makes a fine point. Now is not the time - "

"Perhaps I wasn't clear," Delilah interrupted. "I'm not staying here. I'm heading into the forest to think, alone. Don't you dare follow me." Quick as a snap, she palmed one of her wooden daggers and twirled it in her hand. Gave it a toss, caught it. "Understand?"

No one said another word.

Waning sunlight caressing her, Delilah stalked away from them. Her hips swayed, a mating dance Layel was not the only male to notice. All of her teammates watched her, lust blooming in their expressions. Layel battled a fierce urge to fly from the tree and slash each of their throats as she headed into the woods. Finally, she disappeared from view and he relaxed.

Now. Act now. There was no better time. Nothing else mattered. Revenge would be Susan's, rest would be his. Focus, focus. Damn him, the centaur blocked every killing shot, unintentionally protecting Tagart. Well, then, he'd just take out the centaur, too, he decided.

"I can't believe you," an angry female voice whispered fiercely.

Awareness slithered over his skin with all the finesse of a gorgon's reptilian hair. Hard, biting and undeniable. His shaft swelled, the hated traitor. But he couldn't deny that a part of him had expected her, had...hoped. Damned female.

Slowly he lowered the bow and arrow and floated from the tree, landing in front of Delilah. Her raindrop scent immediately invaded his nose, heady, erotic. Her lavender eyes flashed as if a lightning storm brewed inside of them.

"How did you know I was here?"

She arched a dark brow, and he could tell that his question offended her. As if he should expect better of her. Perhaps he should. "I smelled you."

He traced his tongue over the tip of one fang, simply flicking it back and forth. She was that aware of him? As aware of him as he was of her? With the questions, there was an intensification of the ever-present arousal that plagued him every time she approached.

Hunger. Only hunger, he assured himself. Of their own accord, his eyes sought her neck. Once more, her pulse was hammering. Wild. Once more, his mouth watered.

She tilted her chin to the side as she studied him, her anger seeming to drain away. "You're paler than usual. Why?"

"Return to your new friends," he snapped, as waspish as Tagart had been. He didn't want her noticing things about him. Especially little details, the kinds of things a lover noticed. He didn't want her concerned for him on any level.

Her other brow joined the first in a stubborn race to her azure hairline. "I like where I am. You can walk away from me."

He didn't. His feet were rooted in place. This woman...drew him, held him, for reasons that had nothing to do with his thirst for blood.

There. He had admitted it without issuing an excuse. He still hated the knowledge with everything inside him, still planned to resist, but he could not deny her effect on him any longer. He wanted to be near her.

Why her, after so many years?

Why now?

"If you need blood," she said, choosing to overlook his lack of response to her demand, "take mine."

A more tempting offer had never been made. "Why would you offer such a thing?"

She shrugged, probably trying to appear casual, unaffected. Yet vulnerability darkened her violet irises to a deep purple-black.

"Why?"

Lush red lips pressed together in a mutinous line.

He gulped. So lush, so red, they were ripe for the plucking. "My answer is no, no matter the reason." But the need to drink from her and only her was strong, nearly uncontrollable.

Eyes slitted, she stepped toward him. "You came to kill me, and I offered my blood. I will not tolerate hatred from you now."

An excellent point. "I was not aiming for you," he admitted.

"Liar."

"Always you question the truthfulness of my claim when I'm not lying." He could not have silenced the admission for any price.

Surprise descended over her expression, coloring her cheeks a vibrant pink. "Who then?"

"Doesn't matter. I didn't do it." His self-disgust threatened to choke the life out of him.

Understanding dawned. Exactly what did she think she understood? "You should not even be here," she said. "Spying for your team is cowardly."

"Please. You only wish you were on the other side of the island, listening to my team strategize. Besides, I don't need to spy to defeat you. I've pinned you beneath me, remember?" The moment the words escaped him, the memory of when she'd pinned him flashed in his mind. Her legs straddling him, her core so close he had only to lift his head to taste her.

She clearly remembered, too.

Her pupils dilated and that rosy color spread from her cheeks, slowly overtaking her from jaw to collarbone. As she closed more of the distance between them, she dabbed at her lips with the tip of her tongue.

"Stop," he commanded, even as he inched toward her, as well. That tongue...

A moan escaped her, a whimper. "I can't."

What are you doing? Acting like the coward she had called him, he ceased moving toward his downfall and actually backpedaled - until he hit the tree.

Still Delilah advanced. "One of us could be the person to die tonight," she said huskily.

"We will not be chosen," he forced himself to say, even though he had thought the same only moments ago.

"You can't know that for sure." At last she reached him, was merely a whisper away. Her body heat radiated around him, into him, beckoning him all the closer. He'd always preferred the cold - or thought he had. This heat enthralled him, wrapping him in the inexorable threads of desire only she seemed capable of weaving.

Tiny as she was, the top of her head only hit his chin. Surprisingly her blue hair floated up with the breeze, sticking to his shirt and skin as if some part of her had to be in contact with him. He gulped, mouth going dry, blood roaring at a frantic speed.

Before he could stop them, his hands were on her waist, holding her captive. His nails were so sharp they had to be cutting into her skin, but she gave no protest. No, she leaned closer, until the hard tips of her nipples abraded his shirt. Until her legs fit between his, cradling his erection.

He couldn't think, didn't want to think.

"I know we are both strong and determined and we will not allow it to happen," he said, trying - so good, so damned good - to think of anything except possessing her. Taking her. Hearing her cries of pleasure in his ears. Had he been talking about dying, or making love to her? He couldn't say for sure.

"I wanted you," she admitted. Her eyelids dipped to half-mast. "Before. In Atlantis. I told myself I couldn't allow it. I told myself it would be wrong. I told myself I needed to stay away from you. But right now, I can think of only one thing I will regret if I'm killed."

Push her away! "And what is that?" The words were broken, hoarse.

"Not knowing your kiss." She didn't ask his permission, didn't even give him a chance to respond. She merely rose on her tiptoes and meshed their lips together, her tongue thrusting inside his mouth.

He moaned, the sound more animal than human. The heat...the taste...the desperation...They filled him, consumed him, slayed him. Yes, something inside him died. Or broke. Whatever it was, sensation pounded through the numbness he'd forced upon his body with the ferocity of a winter storm, covering everything in its path, spreading...spreading so quickly there was no controlling it. He was not sure he wanted to control it.

Growling, keeping Delilah locked in his arms, he charged forward. Years of denied instinct surged to the surface, demanding he seize control. Too long. He'd been without a woman too long. Hadn't wanted one in two hundred years, and now all of his latent desires were suddenly revealing themselves, desperate, greedy.

When Delilah's back slammed into one of the trees, she gasped. His body trapped her and his tongue plundered deeper, taking everything and demanding more. She cupped his jaw, not to stop him but to hold him and angle him for even deeper contact. Her grip was so fierce she would have snapped the bones of a lesser man. He liked it. Liked that she was as lost to the passion as he was.

"More," she demanded.

"Ask," he said, because it went against the very nature of what she was. She might refuse, might deny him, and the madness might finally end. Perhaps she would even flounce away and he could regain his senses.

Her hands moved to his head and her nails dug into his scalp, as sharp as daggers. "Please."

He was surprised by the plea, even more surprised that he fell deeper into the passion. With a kick of her ankle, he spread her legs and meshed his erection against her, hardness to softness.

On a shuddering moan, she said, "Yes, yes. Like that. More."

"Ask." This time, it was a plea of his own. He was desperate to hear the entreaty in her voice.

"Please, please. Layel, please." With every beseeching gasp, her excitement seemed to increase.

She would let him have complete control, he realized with shock. This powerful Amazon would willingly submit herself to his demands. The knowledge burned inside him as he palmed one of her breasts. He felt the stiffness of her nipple through her clothing, but that wasn't good enough. He raked his claw over the material, ripping it in half and freeing her breasts. They were small and firm, perfectly tipped.

More...more...he needed more, felt crazy with the need. The sweet flavor of her skin was addictive, a drug. Her moans were like gateways to the heavens.

He pinched one sweet, pink nipple and rubbed his hard, aching cock between her legs. If only he could wish his clothing away. Skin to skin; he would die without it. "Hook your leg around my waist."

The moment she obeyed, she writhed and whimpered. "Layel. Oh, gods. So good."

As she tried to ride his cock through their clothing, his mind produced a single thought, everything else forgotten: penetrate her. Whatever he had to do to make it happen, he would do. He had to get inside her. Strip her. Throw her down...yes, yes. He tossed the tattered remains of her top aside and pushed her to the ground.

"You're going to take me. All of me."

"Yes."

Passion flowed through him, suddenly his only reason for living. He allowed all of his weight to settle atop her as he crawled down, inch by tantalizing inch. His tongue flicked over and laved her beaded nipple.

More...more...had never been like this. Had to have more.

"Don't stop. Never thought...so good."

"I'll stop if I decide to stop." The power was getting to him, urging him on, demanding he take more. "Understand."

"Please. More. Almost there..."

His hand delved under her tiny skirt, past the thin barrier of cloth between her legs. She was hot, wet. So wet. So tight. He experienced a surge of possessiveness as he thrust a finger deep - and she screamed, loud and long, piercing and sweet. Her inner muscles clenched around him, taking the ultimate pleasure.

More...more...yes, had to have more.

"Layel, Layel."

He surged up, teeth exposed, ready to take her blood while his cock took her body. But he had to release her to free his cock, and he couldn't force himself to release her. A moment later, the dilemma was taken from him. Strong hands settled atop his shoulders and jerked him away from Delilah.

"Bastard!" he heard.

Layel hissed in fury and launched himself at this new opponent. He needed Delilah. No one took her away from him. He was charged with so much passion - rage, dark rage, kiss, more kiss - it was like lava inside of him.

Tagart was knocked to the ground. Layel was there in the next instant, sinking his fangs into the dragon's vein. Blood filled his mouth, as hot as fire. Familiar.

More Delilah. More, his mind screamed. Kill the dragon, return to Delilah.

The warrior slammed a fist into his jaw, and he was propelled sideways. He was on his feet an instant later, warm blood dripping from his face. One step, two, he stalked, a predator locked on his prey.

Delilah stepped in front of him, panting, cheeks rosy from her climax. She didn't bother to cover her beautiful breasts as she held out her hands to ward him off. "Layel," she said, concerned. "Calm down. You have to calm down."

Not Susan, his mind suddenly shouted. She's not Susan. She had no right to be concerned for him. She had no right to kiss or touch him. He had no right to kiss and touch her in return. To drink from her, to rejoice in her pleasure.

The fire in his veins died swiftly, no longer even crackling. Leaving only ache and regret. He stilled, doing his best to catch his breath, as shame coursed through him.

Tagart stood in place, his expression gleaming with fury. "Come near her again, and I will not hesitate to kill you."

"Do not hesitate now, fire-bastard."

The dragon bent his knees to leap, but Delilah shook her head at him and he stilled.

"He wasn't hurting me," she said.

Tagart looked from Delilah to Layel, Layel to Delilah. "But you screamed."

"In pleasure," she admitted, bright stains of mortification climbing her cheeks.

Understanding lit his eyes, and Tagart scowled.

"Don't worry," Layel said, his tone colder than he had ever heard it. "I will never again approach her. She is yours." With that, he sprinted away as fast as his feet would carry him.