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Authors: Alyssa Day

Atlantis rising

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Table of ContentsTitle PageCopyright PageDedicationAcknowledgementsEpigraph Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11Chapter 12Chapter 13Chapter 14Chapter 15Chapter 16Chapter 17Chapter 18Chapter 19Chapter 20Chapter 21Chapter 22Chapter 23Chapter 24Chapter 25Chapter 26Chapter 27Chapter 28Chapter 29Chapter 30Chapter 31Chapter 32Chapter 33Chapter 34Chapter 35Chapter 36Chapter 37Chapter 38Chapter 39 GLOSSARY OF TERMSPraise forATLANTIS RISING“Alyssa Day creates an amazing and astonishing world inAtlantis Rising[that] you’ll want to visit again and again.Atlantis Risingis romantic, sexy, and utterly compelling. I loved it!”—New York Timesbestselling author Christine Feehan “An amazing new world you don’t want to miss and you won’t want to leave. Alyssa Day delivers chills, thrills, and your fill of sexy Poseidon Warriors.”—USA Todaybestselling author Kerrelyn Sparks “Wow! Alyssa Day writes marvelous paranormal romance.”—USA Todaybestselling author Susan Kearney “Alyssa Day’s characters grab you and take you on a whirl-wind adventure. I haven’t been so captivated by characters or a story in a long time. Enjoy the ride!”—New York Timesbestselling author Susan Squires “There’s nothing more evocative than the world of Atlantis. Alyssa Day has penned a white-hot winner!”—Gena Showalter, author ofThe Nymph KingPraise for Alyssa Day’s previous books written as Alesia Holliday . . . “An appealing heroine with a sense of humor and a sexy hero.”—Library Journal “Characters that will win your heart!”—New York Timesbestselling author Suzanne Brockmann “Holliday does it again! The reader won’t be able to put down this . . . story filled with colorful and heartwarming characters.”—Romantic Times(41⁄2 stars) “Excellent . . . fast-paced.”—Lori Avocato, award-winning author of The Pauline Sokol Mystery series “Delightful, delicious, and just plain fun.”—Susan McBride, author of The Debutante Dropout Mystery series “Fun.”—Susan Wiggs, author ofThe Ocean Between Us “Well-written, fast-paced . . . [I] was hooked from page one.”—The Best Reviews “Simply fantastic.”—Affaire de Coeur “Charming characters come to life immediately. This is without a doubt in the top ten books of the year.”—Huntress Book ReviewsTHE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUPPublished by the Penguin GroupPenguin Group (USA) Inc.375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USAPenguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, EnglandPenguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, IndiaPenguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Mairangi Bay, Auckland 1311, New Zealand(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content. ATLANTIS RISING A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author PRINTING HISTORYBerkley Sensation mass-market edition / March 2007 Copyright © 2007 by Alesia Holliday. All rights reserved.No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form withoutpermission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation ofthe author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.eISBN : 978-0-425-21449-7 BERKLEY SENSATION®Berkley Sensation Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.BERKLEY SENSATION is a registered trademark of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.The “B” design is a trademark belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.  

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To the best editor in the world, Cindy Hwang,who lets me try new thingsand always roots for my success.Agoodeditor is worth her weight in gold—Cindy is worth her weight indiamonds. To LCDR Judd,for more reasons than I will ever have words. And to Michelle Cunnah,who saves my lifeat the eleventh houron every single book.AcknowledgmentsThanks, always, to Steve Axelrod, who makes me laugh, makes great deals for me, and says nice things when I make my once-a-book “aarghhh” phone call.To my wonderful friends Christine, Cheryl, Kathy, and Val of the Starfish Club for encouragement, and to all my incredible friends who listen, are patient, and offer wonderful advice: Lani Diane Rich, Michelle Cunnah, Barbara Ferrer, Eileen Rendahl, Whitney Gaskell, Beth Kendrick, Cindy Holby, and Marianne Mancusi. To Megan Emish, for the Warriors of Poseidon symbol. To my terrific Web people, Deb and Tara atRomanceDesigns.com, who should have been thanked earlier.To Suz Brockmann, Ed Gaffney, Eric Ruben, Virginia Kantra, and Cathy Mann, who are brilliant and generous, and to the folks at theInto the Stormweekend for sharing their enthusiasm with me and listening to the first-ever reading from this book.Jenny Crusie and the Cherries, who are funny, cranky, and amazing in exactly the right proportions.Andalways, of course, to my children, who ate a little too much pizza and watched a little too much TV during the last two weeks of this book, but never once complained. You’re thebest.Dear Reader, Thank you for coming along with me on my journey to Atlantis. Be sure to visit me atwww.alyssaday.comfor free screensavers and to sign up for my members-only mailing list! AlyssaIn this island, Atlantis, arose a great and marvelous might of Kings . . . But in later time, afterthere had been exceeding great earthquakes andfloods, there fell one day and night of destruction; and the warriors . . . were swallowed up by theearth, and in like manner did the island Atlantis sink beneath the sea and vanish away.—Plato,Timaeus, dated at approximately 600 B.C. One can hardly doubt that significant shifts of theearth’s crust have taken place repeatedly . . .—Albert Einstein, in correspondence to Charles Hapgood, May 8, 1953Capital City of Atlantis, 9600 B.C.It was the time before the Cataclysm, forced upon Atlanteans by the greed of humanity. In Poseidon’s Temple, in the soul of the seven isles of Atlantis, a group of warriors met with the sea god’s high priest. He divided them into seven groups of seven and assigned each a sacred duty and an object of power—a magic-imbued gemstone. Some were to sink to the bottom of the world, shielded from prying eyes and envious lusts by the waters that nurtured them. Others were to join the lands of humans at assigned locations—all high grounds that would protect the lineage in the event of severe flooding.All would wait. And watch. And protect.And serve as first warning on the eve of humanity’s destruction.Then, and only then, Atlantis would rise.For they were the Warriors of Poseidon, and the mark of the Trident they bore served as witness to their sacred duty to safeguard mankind.Whether they liked it or not.Chapter 1Hell is emptyAnd all the Devils are here.—William Shakespeare,The Tempest  Capital City of Atlantis, Present DayConlan waved a hand in front of the portal and briefly wondered whether its magic would even recognize a warrior who hadn’t passed through its gateway for more than seven years.Seven years, three weeks, and eleven days, to be precise.As he waited, up to his chest in the healing water, death taunted him—flickering at the edges of his vision, shimmering in the deep blue ocean currents surrounding him, pulsing in the scarlet blood that dripped steadily from his side and leg. He laughed without humor, propping himself up with a hand on his knee.“If that bitch-vamp Anubisa couldn’t break me, I’m sure as hell not giving up now,” he snarled to the empty darkness surrounding him.Iridescent aqua lights flashed as if in response to his defiance, and the portal widened for him. Two men—twowarriors—stood at guard, widened eyes and parted lips mirroring identical expressions of shock as they stared through the transparent membrane of the portal. He shouldered his way through the portal’s opening, which enlarged to fit whatever or whoever it deemed worthy of passage.“Prince Conlan! You’re alive,” one said.“Mostly,” he replied, then stepped into Atlantis. He drank in the first sight in more than seven years of his beloved homeland, lungs expanding to taste the freshness of sea-filtered air. In the middle distance, the gold-veined white marble pillars fronting Poseidon’s Temple glowed with the reflected hues of artificial sunset. Conlan’s breath caught in his throat at the sight of it.A sight he’d been sure he’d never experience again.Especially when she’d laughingly proposed taking his eyes.“A high prince with no vision. What a delicious metaphor for the loss of your philosopher-king father, young princeling. Why don’t you beg?”She’d strolled around him, flicking the silver-barb-tipped whip almost leisurely at him, as he stood, helpless, in chains made for creatures borne of deeper hells. Extending one delicate finger, she’d touched the droplets of blood that sprang up so eagerly in the wake of her whip.
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Then she’d brought her finger to her mouth, smiling.“But youwillbeg. Just like your father begged when I sliced the flesh off of your mother as she yet lived,” she’d purred, evil mixed with a hideous lust in her eyes.He’d roared his hatred and defiance for hours.Days.He’d even wept, driven to madness from the pain, on seven separate occasions.Once during each year of his imprisonment.But he’dneverbegged.“Butshewill,” he said, voice hoarse with the effort of remaining upright. “She will beg, before I’m done with her.”“Highness?” The guards rushed forward to assist him, yelling out for aid. He whipped his head up, teeth bared, growling like the animal he’d become. They both stopped, midstep. Frozen in place.Unsure how to react to royalty gone feral.Conlan staggered forward, determined to take the first steps onto his native soil without aid.“We must inform Alaric immediately,” said the older, more experienced warrior of the two.Marcus. Marius, maybe?Conlan focused, certain he must know the man.It was important that he remember things.Yes,Marcus.“You’re bleeding, Highness.”“Mostly,” he repeated, stumbling forward another step. Then the world spiraled down to black. Ven stood in the observation chamber, looking down on the hall of healing below, where Poseidon’s high priest, clearly exhausted, labored over Ven’s brother. It took one hell of a lot to drain the energy out of Alaric. He was rumored to be the most powerful high priest who had ever served the sea god.Not that warriors knew much about the difference between one priest and another. Or, usually, gave much of a shit. Except, right now, he cared about that distinction.A lot.Ven clenched the railing, fingers digging into the soft wood, as he thought about what exactly Anubisa must have done to Conlan. He knew what she’d done to Alexios. One of Conlan’s most trusted guards, the Seven, Alexios had spent two years under Anubisa’s tender ministrations. Hers and those of her evil apostates of Algolagnia, who drew their only sexual pleasure from pain and torture.Then she’d left him—naked and near death—to die. In a pile of pig shit on Crete. The vamp goddess of death was big on symbolism. Maybe something she’d inherited from her father-husband, Chaos. And that was seriously twisted right there.It had taken Alaric nearly six months to retrieve the warrior’s memories. That half year had included two cycles of purification in the Temple to cleanse his soul.Ven didn’t want to think it—fuckinghatedto think it—but sometimes he wondered if Alexios hadevercome all the way back from whatever black pit of hell she’d dragged him into.Still, Alaric had okayed him. Alexios was back as one of the Seven. It was a matter of honor that Ven trust him.The Seven served as the most trusted guard to the high prince of all Atlantis. Even when he was gone; presumed dead.They also led and coordinated the teams of warriors who patrolled the surface lands of the earth. Watching over the damn humans, who’d let themselves be herded like—what did the bloodsuckers call them? Sheep?While Ven and all of the Warriors of Poseidon had to keep to the shadows. Out of sight. Incog-fucking-nito. Defending the landwalkers from the badasses among the bloodsuckers, the furry monsters, and all the shit that went bump in the night. And, frankly, the badasses seemed to be in the majority in those particular species most of the time.And they’d done a damn fine job the past eleven thousand years, give or take. Until the day about ten years ago when the freaks that inhabited the night decided to come out of the coffin. First the vamps, then the shape-shifters. The job of Poseidon’s warriors got about fifty kajillion times harder when that happened.For whatever reason, Anubisa hadn’t bothered to let her people—her vamp society—in on the secret of Atlantis. But Ven knew that could change any minute. If anybody knew about the capriciousness of gods and goddesses, it was an Atlantean.Doomed to the bottom of the sea at Poseidon’s whim.Not that he’d ever complain about it. Outloud, at least.Still, it was tough to defend humans when the big, bad, and ugly roamed freely, and the Atlanteans had to stick to the shadows. But Ven had argued the point in the Council until his face turned blue, and then he’d finally given up. The Elders didn’t want anybody to know about Atlantis, and until Conlan ascended to the throne, nobody could go against their edict.Ven looked down at his brother again, barely registering the soothing tones of the harps and flutes being played by temple maidens in the alcoves surrounding his brother. The music was supposed to aid in healing.Ven laughed. Yeah, except Conlan hated that light, fluffy Debussy shit. When he ascended to the throne, he’d probably ask for Bruce Springsteen or U2 to play at his coronation.If.IfConlan ascended to the throne.He didn’t even want to think about what would happen if Conlan had gone bad. Because guess who was second in line? Yeah. Ven would go from being King’s Vengeance to high prince in a royal godsdamned minute, and there was no fucking way he was cut out to lead anything.He looked down at his brother again, lying so still. Conlan had grown up like royalty, honor and duty and all that happy shit ingrained in his soul. But Ven had grown up pure street fighter. There was a big, ugly part of his soul. The part that had withered and died when he’d been with his mother at the end, before she died. When she’d begged him to save himself. Keep his brother safe.He’d promised her, sobbing, as she died.Great fucking job he’d done of keeping his word.The wood snapped under his clenched fists.“Tough wood to break with your bare hands,” observed a dry voice.Ven didn’t look up at the priest, instead pulling splinters out of his torn and bleeding palms. “Yeah, they don’t make these railings like they used to,” he muttered.Alaric walked—more like glided; the man was spooky—up to stand next to him. “I can heal that if you like,” he offered, tone dispassionate.“I think you’ve done enough healing for one day, don’t you?”Alaric said nothing, merely looked down over the railing at his sleeping prince.Ven studied Alaric as the priest watched Conlan. Alaric and Conlan had grown up running around the kingdom like the hellions they were, tearing up the streets and fields with their games and pranks. Rarely reined in by their indulgent parents or a community respectful of the royal heir and his cousin.Later making their way through the taverns and the bar-maids with the same verve and boyish charm.There was nothing of boyishness about the priest now. He wore the power of his office like a shield of armor. Invisible, but unmistakable. The sharp planes of his face and the hawk-like asceticism of his nose reminded all who confronted him that here was a man of faith, stripped to muscle and bone by the demands of his service.The demands ofpower. If the faintly glowing green eyes hadn’t already warned them away, that is.High priest, dark phantom, instrument of Poseidon’s power.Scary son of a bitch.“No, there is not a helluva lot of boyish charm left in any of us, is there, Alaric?”Alaric lifted one eyebrow, but gave no other sign of surprise at the comment. “You want to know if he has been compromised,” he said, face gray and used-looking. After a dozen or so hours of healing, it was pretty impressive that he could even stand upright.“After Alexios—” Ven began, then stopped, unable to go on. If Anubisa had compromised his brother’s soul, then the royal family really was doomed. She would have made good, finally, on a five-thousand-year-old promise.Because Ven would walk into the gates of hell itself to shove his daggers up her bloodsucking ass. And he was honest enough to know he’d never come out ofthatconfrontation alive.Alaric drew a deep breath. “He is whole.”Ven’s entire body sagged in a relief so fierce his vision literally went funky; he blinked away little gray spots that floated in front of his eyes. “Thank Poseidon!”Alaric remained silent, which raised Ven’s suspicion. Just a tiny doubt. “Alaric? Is there something you’re not telling me? Is it simply coincidence that he gets back here just a few hours after Reisen blasted his way into the Temple and ripped off the Trident?”The priest clenched his jaw, but said nothing for another minute. He finally spoke. “As to Reisen, I cannot tell. He is yet impossible to scry. For Conlan—”Alaric hesitated, then seemed to reach a decision, nodding. “The prince is whole. Somehow, in spite of seven years of torture, he is whole. She was unable to compromise his mind or capture his soul to her use. But—”Ven grasped Alaric’s arm in a steel grip. “But?But what?”Alaric said nothing, merely looked down at Ven’s hand clenched around his arm. The knowledge that Alaric could incinerate Ven’s hand with a single surge of elemental power lay between them.Right at that moment, Ven didn’t give a rat’s ass.But he sighed and released Alaric’s arm. “Butwhat? He’s my brother. I have a right to know.”Nodding imperceptibly, Alaric glanced back down at Conlan’s still form. “But simply because she was unable to suborn his soul to her own use does not mean that Conlan retained full possession. No one can survive that duration of torture with his soul intact.”He looked up at Ven, gaze flat. Dead. Promising destruction. Ven saw his own need to kick some vampire ass reflected in the priest’s eyes.“Conlan has returned to us, Ven. But we may not know for a long time exactly howmuchof him returned.”Ven bared his teeth in a fierce parody of a smile. “We’ll figure it out. My brother is the strongest warrior I’ve ever known. And Anubisa is gonna find out exactly what it means that I am the King’s Vengeance.”He grasped the handles of his daggers, eyes gleaming. “I’m gonna shoot me some vengeance right up her puckered ass.”Alaric’s eyes shone for an instant with a glittering green light so bright that Ven had to squint against it. “Oh, yes. She will learn. And I will gladly assist you with that lesson.”As the two walked out of the observation chamber, Alaric looked back at the railing that Ven had crushed, then at Ven. “Poseidon has some vengeance of his own to offer.”Ven nodded, silently swearing the second formal vow of his life.If it takes my death to do it, Anubisa will be destroyed. Glory be to Poseidon.The bitch is going down. “Interesting timing.”Conlan tensed, fingers twitching to reach for the hundredth—thousandth—time for the sword that Anubisa had stolen from him. Then the familiarity of the voice penetrated the lethargy of the healing process.“Alaric,” he said, relaxing back down against the pillows.Poseidon’s high priest stared down at him, the suggestion of a smile quirking up the side of his mouth. “It’s a little tiresome to be right all of the time. Welcome back, Conlan. Long vacation?”Conlan sat up on the healers’ marble-and-gold table, stretching, staring at flesh knitted whole. Bones unbroken and reset.Scars that would never heal.The need to scorch her face clear off her body with a big fucking energy ball consumed him. Ate at his gut. He shook it off and focused on the priest again.“Right all of the time?” he repeated. “You knew I was alive?”“I knew,” Alaric confirmed, hard lines etched in his face. He folded his arms and leaned back against a white marble column.Conlan’s gaze was drawn to the veins of coppery orichalcum twining around its carved shapes. Dolphins leaping, Nereids laughing at their mermaid play. The scent of delicate green and blue lava-tulips permeated the air.The images and scents of home he’d been refused for seven damn years.He wrenched his gaze back to Alaric. “Yet you left me to rot?” Betrayal flared, warring with common sense. Alaric would have had duties to the Temple. To the people.To Atlantis.Alaric straightened and slowly unfolded his arms, his restraint only underscoring the enormous power leashed within him, his icy green eyes flashing with fury. “I searched for you. Every day for the past seven years. Even this day, before you arrived, I was preparing to join your brother, who was waiting above for yet another hopeless trip to find and rescue you from wherever they’d imprisoned you.”Conlan clenched his jaw, remembering Anubisa’s parting shot, then nodded. “She shielded us. She’s more powerful than we ever suspected, then.”Alaric’s face hardened, if planes and sculpted lines that already appeared to be cast in marble could be said to harden. “Anubisa,” he said flatly. It wasn’t a question. “It is unsurprising that the goddess of night can project the void of death to mask her . . . activities.”The wordtorturehung, twisting and pulsing, in the air between them. At least the priest had the decency not to speak it.Conlan nodded, reaching for the scar at the base of his throat before he realized what he was doing. Forcing his hand down when he did. “She kept me from water. Far away from any water, but for the barest minimum to drink to keep me alive. I had no chance to channel any power—no chance at all.”When he could bear to meet Alaric’s eyes, Conlan flinched at the depth of the sorrow and fury there.“Never once. Never the slightest resonance of your existence,” Alaric said, gripping the jade handle of his dagger. He held it out to Conlan, blade down. “If you doubt my loyalty, cousin, end my life now. I deserve it for my failure.”
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Conlan noted the reference to their family connection in the cynical corner of his mind that calculated the niceties of Atlantean politics. Alaric never spoke a single word that didn’t carry at least two meanings. Often polemic, at times pedagogical. Never purposeless.Conlan accepted the dagger and turned it over in his hands, then flipped it back to its owner. “If you failed in your appointed role,priest, Poseidon’s justice would be the one kicking your ass. You’ve no need of mine.”Alaric shook his black hair behind his shoulders, eyes narrowing at the emphasis on his title. Then he nodded once and slid the dagger into its emerald-jeweled sheath. “As you say. We face other problems,prince.You have finally returned, only hours after the vehicle of your ascension is lost.”“Tell me,” Conlan said, fury scalding the shreds of his self-control.“Reisen. He killed two of my acolytes.” Alaric spat the words out, clenching his fists. “Conlan, he took it. He took the Trident. He’s gone above. If the undead get their hands on it . . .”Alaric’s words trailed off. Both of them knew the cost of misused power. Poseidon’s former high priest lay rotting in the black abyss of the temple oubliette for overstepping his powers.Poseidon served deadly reminders to those who betrayed him.Conlan inhaled sharply, the hairs on his arms standing up in response to the nearly invisible currents of elemental energy Alaric crackled through the room. For his power to leak out like that, the priest must be damn near the edge of his self-control. Or else seven years had seen one hell of a surge in his power.Conlan didn’t know which option should concern him more.Their friendship had weathered the strain of the demands of politics and power. Conlan trusted Alaric with his life. Didn’t he?It was enough to split a man’s skull open.Clenching the sheets in his fists, he fought for composure. For some semblance of royal countenance to overlay the ragged insanity threatening to eat through his mind.Through his gut.To his soul.His heart was long since gone. Shattered at the end of a whip, while forced to hear silken words whispering of the atrocities they’d heaped upon his lady mother.Anubisa and her apostates of Algolagnia. They’d murdered his mother an inch at a time, and they’d enjoyed it. Worse, they’dgotten offon it. A deep shudder wracked through him, remembering how Anubisa had pleasured herself to orgasm in front of him while she told him stories of torturing his parents.Again and again and again.Anubisa was going to die.They wereallgoing to die.“Conlan?” Alaric’s voice almost physically wrenched him out of his memories of death and blood. Alaric. He’d saidhourslater . . .“Hours? And here I am,” Conlan said, remembering. “She let me go. She knew, Alaric. Sheknew.”His final day. His final hour.“Oh, princeling, you have brought me such pleasure,” she murmured in his ear. Then she slid down his naked body and delicately licked at the sweat, the blood, and the other, thicker fluids that pooled to drip down his thighs. “But I think you must needs return to your people. You have a delightful surprise waiting for you. And, in your current state, you’re no longer any fun.”Standing up, she’d waved one of her attendants over. “Twelve of my personal guard. Twelve, you understand? Don’t be fooled by this temporary weakness. The brat prince of Atlantis has . . . hidden strengths.” She’d run a finger down his cock, laughing as he’d tried to flinch away from her.Then she’d flicked her gaze back to her attendant. “Throw him out.”Still naked, long, curling hair matted with his blood, she’d stalked toward the doorway of the cell that had served as his prison for seven years. Then she’d stopped and looked back at him over her shoulder. “Your bloodline amuses me, princeling. Tell your brother that I come for him next.”He’d cursed, then, finding his voice again. Called her names that he hadn’t even known he knew. Until her guards came, and one of them demonstrated that he’d taken offense by way of a club to Conlan’s head.He shook off the image in his head. He was free of Anubisa’s hell.He wouldneverbe free of the memories.He might never be entirely sane again.But he was Conlan of Atlantis, and he had returned. His people wanted a king, not a broken failure of a prince.Glancing across at Alaric, he saw the concern reflected on the priest’s face. Maybe even Alaric wanted a king, too.Enough of the self-indulgence ofdreamsof vengeance—and on to thereality.“We’re not boys causing mischief at the running of the bulls festival anymore, are we?” Conlan said, a shadow of remembered freedom crossing his mind. A time before the demands of being his father’s son. Before the demands on Alaric as Poseidon’s anointed.Alaric tilted his head, expression wary, and then he slowly shook his head. “Not for many long years, Conlan.”“Too long,” Conlan replied. “Far too long.” He swung his legs off the healing table and rose to stand.“Childhood may be outgrown, but loyalty never will be. You are my prince, but—more than that—you are my friend. Never doubt it,” Alaric said.Conlan read the truth in Alaric’s eyes and felt better for it. He held out his hand and they clasped arms, an unspoken renewal of friendship that maybe both of them needed.Then he stretched, pleased to find his body in working order again. He’d need every ounce of energy. “So both my ascension and my matrimonial obligations to a long-dead virgin are delayed,” he said drily. “I find myself unable to summon much concern about the latter.”“Not dead. Merely sleeping, awaiting your need. It is your destiny,” Alaric reminded him.As if he needed reminding. As if he hadn’t had that particular duty drummed into his head for hundreds of years. Love didn’t figure into the breeding patterns of the Warriors of Poseidon; most especially not into those of royalty.He scowled at the whimsy.Love.A myth to coddle children, at best. “I’m out of here. I’m going after that bastard Reisen. I will retrieve the Trident, Priest. And justice will be meted out to the House of Mycenae.”Alaric grinned at him, giving Conlan a glimpse of the boy he’d once been. “Weleave now. Ven is preparing for the journey. So much for the welcome-home processional.”Conlan tried to return the smile, but his mouth had lost its memory of how to smile, after so many years of grimacing in agony. Years of howling out his rage and despair.Alaric raised one eyebrow, his mouth flattening into a grim line. “That’s an . . .interesting. . . expression. You’ll have to tell me one day exactly what they did to you.”“No,” Conlan answered. “I won’t.”Chapter 2Virginia Beach“Dina, think about your baby.” Riley Dawson crouched down next to the room’s single window, hands loose and open at her sides.Nonthreatening, nonthreatening, nonthreatening.Riley forced her facial muscles to relax into an expression of calm, as she watched her massively pregnant sixteen-year-old client jam the lethal end of the very large and very ugly pistol farther down the unconscious man’s throat. His skin was pasty white, but she could see his chest move in shallow breaths.He’s not dead. Let’s keep him that way, Riley.“I’m thinking about my baby, Riley. Stay out of it! No way my baby is gonna grow up with a skanky alley cat like this for a daddy.” Dina’s gaze darted around the room, skittered off Riley’s face, then back to Morris, lying still and pale on the edge of the bed.Riley could see that his chest was moving. He was still breathing, in spite of the force of the gun crashing into the back of his skull that she’d witnessed as she’d walked in the open door for her monthly visit. But she’d been in enough rooms crowded with the noises of EMT personnel and the smell of death to know that a life could end in an instant. And Dina’s hand was trembling on that gun.“Dina, listen to me. I’m sorry you found Morris with another girl. He made a terrible mistake. I’m sure he’s very sorry about it. But you have to think about your baby. She needs you, Dina. If you hurt him, you’ll go to jail, and then who will raise your baby? You know your mother can’t do it.” A cramping pain burned through Riley’s leg muscles, protesting at squatting on the floor for so long. She shifted a little, careful not to make any sudden or abrupt movements.Dina barked out a laugh that sounded rusty from disuse. “That crack ho? She ain’t no mother. She ain’t getting near my baby.”“That’s right. You know you’re the best person in the world to take care of your baby. Have you thought of a name for her yet?”Keep them talking. Distract them with more pleasant topics; ones with which they feel a personal connection.The voice of the lecturer from one of Riley’s hundreds of hours of training pounded in her head.Right. Pleasant topics, when she’s got a gun jammed down his cheating throat. And how about the fact that I’m going to pee my pants any minute? The manuals never mentioned that little fact.Dina smiled a little. “I’m going to call her Paris. Like that city in France? With the tower? It’s so beautiful. We learned about it in school. I’m gonna take her there someday. Paris Marguerite, after Grandmama.”“That’s a beautiful name, Dina. Paris Marguerite. Now please give me the gun. You don’t want Paris Marguerite to grow up without her mommy, do you?” Riley slowly straightened up off the floor, ignoring the screaming muscles in her thighs. She stretched her hand out, palm upward.“Please give me the gun. I’ll help you. We’ll figure this out together. Please give me the gun, so Paris Marguerite grows up with her mommy to take care of her.” She held her breath as Dina wavered, looking back and forth from Riley to Morris.A man’s life balanced on the wavering edge of a teenager’s indecision. Nope. That hadn’t been in the damn manual, either.Dina took a huge, shuddering breath, and her shoulders slumped a little. She yanked the gun out of Morris’s mouth and held it out toward Riley. Riley felt the breath she’d been holding for the past half hour seep out of her lungs.Thank you, thank you, thank you, I can’t—Morris’s eyes snapped open. He burst up off the bed, blood running down his face from his mouth, and slammed a fist into Dina’s jaw. “You hit me over the head, bitch? You pull a gun onme? I’ll showyouwho pulls a gun on Morris.”As Dina fell to the ground from the force of the blow, Morris aimed a kick at her belly. Riley launched herself out of the corner and toward them, screaming, “No, no! Morris, no! Don’t hurt her! Don’t hurt your baby!”The room kaleidoscoped into a fractured image of movement and cacophony of sound. Almost in slow motion, Riley saw the kick land with full force against the side of Dina’s huge belly. She heard Dina screaming, Morris screaming, someone else screaming—was thather?She jumped him, not caring that he had to outweigh her by a hundred pounds. “No, no,no. Don’t hurt her. You have to stop. Morris, you have to stop—”Morris yanked a handful of her hair viciously, snapping her head back. “Nobody tells me what to do. Especially not some worthless social worker.”He raised his fist.Move. Gotta move.She yanked her head to the left, just as his huge fist slammed into the side of her face.Just enough. Maybe. Please God, don’t let my neck be broken. Room going black. Fight, Riley. Fight to stay conscious.Fist coming again. “No, please . . .”But he ignored her, face twisted with rage beyond hearing, beyond reason. His fist exploded again, except it wasn’t his fist.It wasn’t her face.Thunder? Is it thunder? So black . . .As Riley fought the blackness, the hand in her hair loosened. Morris’s face changed in a caricature of slow motion from a grimace of violent hate to one of surprise. They both looked at the scarlet stain blossoming, blooming, spreading over his shirt. Even as Riley touched a questing finger to the dark stickiness that splattered her face, the room went black.Conlan opened the portal, focusing on the East Coast of the United States. Virginia, to be precise. Ven had been “collecting intel,” according to Alaric.Translation: beating information out of scumbags for miles in every direction. His brother always had favored the direct approach.Now Ven was calling the rest of the Seven to him to accompany Conlan to the surface. Except Conlan was in no mood to wait. Not even for his brother. Maybe especially not for his brother. If he saw even a glimmer of pity in Ven’s eyes, he’d—Well. Forget that. Focus on the portal.Seven years of disuse, and the magic was rusty. Or the portal, temperamental on a good day, was playing with him, Conlan discovered, as he stepped through into water.Lots of water.Luckily he’d instinctively heaved in a deep breath before plunging through the shimmering opening. There was another lesson learned the hard way: the portal had its own power, independent of the Atlanteans who had first harnessed it more than eleven thousand years ago.They ought to hang a “User Beware” sign on the capricious thing. He kicked off and headed for the surface, judging he was about ten meters deep from the looks of the shallow-water flora and fauna that shimmered in the diluted moonlight.But distances could be tricky in the sea.And then, there was the problem of where the hell the shore might be. He wouldn’t be the first to end up treading water in the middle of the ocean.
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The portal’s idea of a practical joke. If portals had emotion, this one was packing a vindictive sense of humor.As he broke the surface and sucked in a lungful of air, an almost-tangible force smashed into him. Agony sliced through his head, then shut off as if by a switch. A bitter taste seared his mouth; a sourness like lemon soaked in brine.Another wave of pain crashed through him, knocking him off balance. He nearly sank below the waves again, barely noticing the sands of the shores nearby.He shook his head from side to side, trying to escape the fire inside of his head. He barked out a laugh. He’d had a lot of practice with pain, just lately.Think, damn you.Crazed thoughts swirled in his bruised brain.If an Atlantean prince’s head cracks wide open in the ocean, does it make a sound?He almost laughed again, but snorted water up his nose instead. Choking and coughing, he finally forced his limbs to cooperate and headed for the shore, eventually realizing he could touch bottom and walk.His training kicked in, keeping him upright and coherent.Analyze. Reason. Use logic.A third wave of pain seared through him, driving him to his knees, face caught under the breaking waves. He fought his way back to standing, plunged forward toward the shore.Vamp mind powers? Doesn’t feel like it. They could trap your mind, but not project pain like this. Could it be Reisen? Did the Trident give him some kind of mental power we don’t know about?His boots hit dry sand, and he collapsed, stumbling onto his knees. He sent a mind call out to Ven.Needed help.But it wasn’t Ven’s familiar patterns that answered his call. Instead, a tiny pinprick of awareness deep in his mind sparked, sputtered like a candle in a back draft, and then focused.An image of beauty sheared by pain. A woman with sun-colored hair.Something slammed shut in his mind, and the woman and the pain vanished. Almost as if a mental door had closed.And Conlan wasn’t the one who’d shut it.Chapter 3Riley blinked at the EMT who was peering into her eyes while his fingers measured out her pulse. She looked away from him and scanned the room, knowing she looked as bleary-eyed as she felt.He repeated his sentence, slower this time, as if she might not have understood him the first time. “You need to go to the ER and get checked out.”She started to shake her headno, but stopped as the movement shot bolts of pain through her skull. “I don’t want to go to the ER. It was just a punch.”She brushed his hand off his arm and stood up on unsteady legs, which probably proved his point, but what the hell. “I’ve had worse. I need to go for a walk. I need air.”She’d already talked to the detective in charge of what was now a murder scene. Her part of it was done. And now the room was closing in on her.It had been such a surprise to her at first, how many people show up at a murder scene. So many official types convened in a confluence of the mundane—photo taking, fingerprinting, tape measuring.The profanity of death, obscured by the details of modern police work. It seemed wrong, somehow, as it always did.She’d seen too much of it. Should have been a secretary, like her baby sister. Quinn never had to face despair. Or fists. Or blood on her clothes.It was hell on the dry-cleaning bill.The EMT stepped back and turned off the penlight he’d been shining in her eyes. “I don’t think you have a concussion, but you’re going to have a helluva shiner. You really should come and get checked out by the doc.”Riley’s belly twisted, empty and nauseous. She moved away from him, tuning him out, and scanned the room again. The cheap apartment. The chaos left in the wake of violence.The stench of death—blood and the body’s release of wastes. It had surprised her at her first death scene, that release. The final indignity. A soiled corpse left for the impersonal attentions of the morgue.Riley heard the moaning sound, low in her throat, and choked it off. She was tougher now. Hardened to it.Immune to any emotion.That’s what she told herself, at least. Until she saw the bear. Propped up in the corner of the room, next to a bassinet, a giant teddy bear wearing a pink bow grinned foolishly out at the room, unmoved by the drama that had played out before it.That damn pink bow sent her over the edge.“I have to get out of here. Please, just get out of my way. Please.” She whirled around and shoved past the EMT, careful to walk around the personnel crouched on the floor taking pictures.“Hey, Dawson. Where do you think you’re going?” The detective she’d spoken with earlier—Ramsey? Ramirez?—pulled on a fresh set of gloves, the lines in his face deepening as his gaze traveled to her face. “You look like shit. You should go with them to the ER.”Riley didn’t stop; only slowed down a little. “I’m going to be sick. I’ve got to go get cleaned up and get some rest.” She glanced back over her shoulder at him. “I’ll call you as soon as I do.”He opened his mouth, probably to protest, but she was beyond caring. What were they going to do, arrest her? They knew who she was and, if only by rep, that her word was good.He nodded, resigned. Sympathy and something she didn’t want to define warmed his expression.Pity?He should save his pity for Dina and her baby. They’d need it. She was just doing her job.This time she did laugh, even though it came out sounding . . .wrong. Yeah, doing her job. She was screwing up her job on a royal level.Another day, another dead body. That made eight murder scenes this year.He nodded. “All right. You’ve told us enough for now, anyway. Call me in the morning. You’ve got my card.”She fingered the card she’d shoved in her pocket and headed for the door. The morning. She’d call him in the morning. Now she had to get to the water. To the beach. Her sanctuary. She felt the power and peace of the ocean calling her.She needed to feel the caress of the waves, and she’d be fine. Conlan stood alone in the dark, eyes closed, senses unfurled to seek out the presence of anyone nearby.Friend or enemy.Hell, he almost preferred an enemy. He was solidly in the mood to kick somebody’s ass. He bared his teeth in what passed for a smile. Then his eyes snapped open.Because the door holding the emotion out of his mind had smashed open again. He staggered, fought to remain standing under the barrage of anguish. All he could do was try to ride it out and pray his brother or Alaric arrived soon. He closed his eyes again. Fought for focus. Turned to the portion of his training not conducted with swords and daggers.Compartmentalize. A Warrior of Poseidon cannot countenance emotion. The price of arrogance is your life, Conlan.He could almost hear Archelaus whispering in his head.Use all of your senses. Never rely on your mind, alone. To underestimate your enemy’s potential to create illusion means death.He focused, strained. Achieved detachment. His mind analyzed the problem of his own duality; emotionless calculation studied raging grief.The evidence supports no internal cause. Seek the external.So, then. It was outside of him. Somebody—or something—broadcasted grief powerfully enough to shove through his mental defenses.The enemy he’d been wishing for, maybe. It was sure as hell no friend. No Atlantean could send emotions to another. “Well, they say be careful what you wish for, right?” he muttered to himself, muscles straining with the effort of managing the flood of anguish.He spared a thought for the source. Somebody, somewhere, was suffering all nine hells’ worth of hurt. Riley trudged away from her old Honda, parked carelessly across a couple of spaces in the deserted parking lot, heading toward the beach. Not many beachgoers at this hour on a chilly October night.The smell of sea air and salt water reached her, and she took a deep breath, a tendril of calm threading its fragile way through her. Her stomach growled a reminder that it had been more than fourteen hours since she’d eaten. Almost without thinking, she reached into the pocket of her jacket for one of the protein bars she usually carried around.Regular meals were unpredictable in her line of work.She started to peel a corner of the wrapper off the bar, and it hit her: Morris would never eat anything again.The thought smashed into her, doubling her over. What was the magic number? How many times would she have to watch somebody die before she could be blasé about it?And what the hell kind of person was she that she even wanted to?Forcing herself to straighten up, she glanced at her watch, then swore under her breath. Nearly curfew. She knew all about curfew; she even had the requisite copy of the 2006 Nonhuman Species Protection Act taped up to a window of her home, as mandated by the new law. “I don’t care. I need this walk. Nobody will bust me for a few minutes past human lights out,” she muttered. The ocean meant healing. Solace. Her mind desperately needed both.Talking to myself. Now there’s a sign of imminent whacko-dom.She kicked an empty can out of her way as she finally reached the sand and shoved the unopened protein bar back in her pocket. Maybe later.The moonlight pirouetted on the surface of the waves, careless in its joy. Unaffected by human concerns. Riley glanced up, judging its phase. She hadn’t caught the lunar alert on the radio that morning.Waxing gibbous. Good. Still a couple of days before the full.They’d all gotten way better at keeping track of the moon since the shape-shifters had first announced their existence. Funny what a difference a decade made. She probably would have guessed a waxing gibbous had something to do with monkeys, before.Life had been way easier when the moon was just something cows jumped over in storybooks.Cows. Storybooks.That damned bear and its pink ribbon.Riley sank down on the sand near the water and gave in to the tears. When a fresh wave of grief flooded his mind, Conlan raised his head, scenting the air.She’s near. She? I don’t know how I know, but, yeah, it’s a she. Maybe a few miles from here?He started walking, sped up.Began to run. Flashed into molecules of pure water with the preternatural speed of his kind.Must find her.Need, inexplicable but intense. Primal determination.Must find her now. Riley heaved in a shaky breath, trying to surface from the currents of sorrow threatening to drag her under. Dina would go to jail.Please, God, watch out for Dina.Riley looked up at the impervious moon again and laughed bitterly.Although, why do I bother? It’s not like the hundreds of prayers I’ve sent up before have made a difference. The baby is the worst of it. If she even lives, she’s going to a foster home.Riley thought of a baby she’d just placed with a foster home; one of the better ones. Mrs. Graham loved all of her kids, but had a special affinity for the broken ones. The baby had peered up into Riley’s face as she’d handed his twitching, crack-addicted body over to his new caregiver. His tiny fingers had furled and unfurled like sea anemones searching for a sunlight that might never come.She rubbed her arms, shivering. Mrs. Graham was at max capacity. Riley didn’t have anybody available who was as good. Dina’s baby probably would be raised in an even worse form of the culture of violence and poverty that had shaped both Dina and Morris.If the baby even lives.Riley almost physically shoved the thought to the back of her mind. She couldn’t go there. Not now.Not when she was so close to the edge of sanity.Put it in the box, Riley. Think about it tomorrow.Even as she clenched her jaws to stop the scream clawing its way out of her throat, some weird sixth sense picked up the danger. She caught a glimpse of them out of the corner of her eye, creeping across the sand, flickering in and out of sight in the shadows cast by the clouds.Three of them. She jumped up into a crouch, ready to run, scanning the area for a way to escape.Stunned that—for the merest split second—she’d felt too hopeless to even try to save herself.Chapter 4Conlan swirled through the air faster than he’d ever moved, arrowing his focus to use the droplets of water in the sea air as a prism, until he could see the outline of her shape.Score a point for Atlantean vision.Shadows caught at the moonlight, obscuring her face. All he could see was a slender form, huddled on the beach. The impact of her grief magnified—trebled—when he saw her shoulders shudder.She was definitely the source of the emotional grenade that had smashed into his defenses. No army. No vamp mind-control conspiracy.One lone human female. And she was projectingemotion.She wasaknasha. Empath.Stunned, disbelieving, he sent a tentative mind probe to her. Her mind clamped on to his probe, the energy of her thoughts rearing up, defensive. As if she sensed danger.She thought he was a predator. He bared his teeth, nearly smiling. He’d been called worse.He tried to shut down his mental shields, but she lashed out at him. Defense turned to offense—seeking to discern what the hell he was.Get out of my mind!Defiance. Courage.Pure, heated emotion.And, buried way down deep: a tendril of fear.
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His logic tried to make sense of the impossible. Not even Atlanteans could projectemotioninto the mind probe anymore. And yetshedid. On a level so intense, so visceral, that his warrior senses nearly missed the threat to her.There were three of them. They planned to hurt her. He swore viciously under his breath in the ancient tongue.They were going to die.He moved even faster. Riley lifted her head, suddenly aware of a threat far greater than the three who stalked her. Something—someone—she almostfelthim inside of her.“Great. Either we’ve got vamps with new mind-control powers, or that damn sixth sense of mine picks now to go hay-wire,” she muttered, even as she pushed herself up off the beach and started walking.Fast.Maybe she’d been wrong. Maybe they were just three guys out for a walk on the beach.Yeah, and I’m Goldilocks.“Hold up there, babe. We want to have a little talk with you,” one of them called out in a thick voice. The others laughed, and the menace in their laughter sent a curl of fear shivering up Riley’s spine.The air around her thickened, seemed to swirl with a darker black, as if an opposing force gathered itself, threatened.But it didn’t threatenher.The dark caressed her as it passed, then built into an ominous cloud behind her. She kept walking, faster, nearly jogging now, glancing back over her shoulder. The men had stopped, openmouthed.“What the hell is that?” one of them said, rubbing his arms. His belly hung low over his belt and his greasy hair was combed over his balding scalp. An angry-looking red scar snaked up out of his collar to the side of his neck. He caught her looking at him and leered at her. “Yeah, you’re anxious to get a piece of me, aren’t you, chickie? Guess you’re not as tough as the other one.”The men put their heads down, driving their way through the shadows of the barrier, and stumbled after her.She shuddered. Started to run. The unseen threat in the air around her escalated.Nothing human could do that. It was an intangible presence—but a very tangible threat.Oh, no. Somebody please help me. It’s a damn vampire. Or a shape-shifter. I never should have broken curfew.The sand seemed to mock her, catching her ankles, making her stumble. She heard her pursuers thundering closer and closer.She shoved the panic away.Remember what you tell your clients. It’s rape—horrible, soul deadening, but you’ll be alive. It’s not murder. It’s only temporary. Nothing matters but staying alive. You can survive this.An inhumanly vicious roar sounded through her head—no, it wasn’t just in her head. Sheheardit. She lurched to a stop, glancing behind at her pursuers.The bastards behind her stopped, too. “What the hell was that, Red? You said none of those fucking werewolves hung out around here,” one of them whined.Riley shook her head, trapped. Bones turned to liquid. She forced herself to keep moving.Better to risk being lunch for an unseen vampire than victim of a gang bang. Too early for shape-shifters.“Guess rapists these days aren’t up on lunar phases,” she said, hysteria threatening to overwhelm her.The roar came again, stopping her in her tracks. Terror whipped through her. Nothing human made that sound.She was going to die.She choked on a laugh. Maybe they’d put her in a drawer at the morgue next to Morris.A voice—a silken melody of sound—rang inside of her head.The undead will never have you, littleaknasha.You are too valuable to us. We need to figure out just how you acquired this interesting talent.The velvet caress of the voice caught at her mental defenses, trying to insinuate itself into her mind.Fascinated in spite of the situation, she tried a mental push of her own.Who are you? How can you talk to me like that? No vampire or shape-shifter has that power, do they?She frantically scanned the skies, afraid of an attack from above, then looked behind her at the thugs.Great. I get trapped in some mind-control games and they catch me. Brilliant, Riley. Why not just give up and lie down now?The voice sounded in her mind again, gentleness gone, implacable ice in its place.Do not worry about those fools behind you. I’m in the mood to deliver a little death.“Death?” Even as a small, dark corner of Riley’s soul stood up and cheered at the idea, her conscience wouldn’t go for it.She’d seen enough death for one night.She’d seen enough death for onelifetime.“No. Whoever you are, no killing. Please, just help me get away,” she said out loud, realizing she was probably bargaining with a freaking bloodsucker.Stand aside. Now. They’re already dead. I don’t like vermin who prey on helpless women.His melodic tones wrapped around her senses, raising her nerve endings to heightened alert, even as she bristled at his arrogant presumption.You picked the wrong woman to order around, bud. And if youaresome kind of preternatural badass, you picked the wrong woman to try to eat, too.She whirled around in midstride, dropping into a defensive crouch, wondering how she could possibly defend herself against all four of them.One of them with enough undead strength to pick up a house.So fierce!Eatyou? I’m no vamp, fierce one. But I must admit, for some reason the idea of . . .tastingyou . . . isn’t making me all that unhappy. And I haven’t even seen your face yet. So who’s using the mind control here?His silent laughter insinuated itself into her mind, simmering with . . . sex. A wave of heat washed through her, over her, around her.“I hope you’re not waiting for an answer to that one,” she muttered, feeling her face flame and glad for the darkness. “What kind of moron feels sexy when her life is in danger? Next I’ll be putting on a slinky nightgown and going down in the basement with the serial-killing hockey players.”She backed away from all of them—mind-control boy’s likely direction and the thugs. But one woman didn’t have a chance against all four.Riley watched, fists clenched so hard her nails bit into her palms, as the drunks moved to surround her. The sour reek of their unwashed bodies tripled the nausea she was already fighting, and she gagged as her stomach tried to rebel.She’d never be able to defeat all three of them, and escape was impossible, now. Not only from them, but from the stranger whispering in her mind. But she could at least punch and kick the crap out of any body part that came in reach.They wouldn’t get her without a fight.Be still. I’ll deal with these criminals. And then,aknasha, we’ll have a little chat about how you transmit emotions through the mind probe. Don’t even think about trying to get away fromme.Riley fell back a step as the stocky, muscle-bound man in front of her reached forward as if to grab her breast. She could smell the fumes on his breath—beer and the sour tang of something stronger.“Come on, baby, give us a little kiss.” He puckered up and made a loud smooching sound, and the other thugs howled with laughter.The nausea rose again in her throat at the idea of any of them touching her. She feinted back, then swung her foot with every ounce of rage inside of her right for the bastard’s crotch.And it connected, hard.He howled, clutched at his groin, and dropped to the sand like a big, ugly rock. Riley stumbled back, and the thug behind her grabbed her shoulders, his dirty fingers digging into her skin through her light jacket. She hissed in pain, and an answering hiss of sheer male fury scorched through her brain. From behind her, someone roared his outrage to the skies.Not someone—him.The man holding her gasped and backed away from her.She whipped her head from side to side, trying to keep an eye on all three of them at once.At least the guy on the ground didn’t seem to be going anywhere. He lay there, moaning and blubbering in a funny voice. Score one for her, at least.And then she sawhim. Black shadow coalesced into a tall figure running toward her so quickly it seemed as though his feet never touched the ground.Power, raging and furious, swept over her. Her skin iced at the feel of it.She was either saved, or she was utterly doomed.Chapter 5Conlan fought to breathe, nearly blinded by the red haze of rage that seared through him, choking him, threatening to obscure his vision. A berserker rage.He welcomed it.Bring it on.Raising his arms, he channeled the water from the sea. It funneled up into the air in shards, turning to ice as it rose. He shot the ice daggers at his targets—arrows from Poseidon’s bow.The men fell back, screaming, as razor-edged death sliced into their flesh.“You don’t touch her.Ever,” he snarled, as he raised his arms in demand. Poseidon’s oceans dominated the world.Poseidon’s Warriors dominated the ocean.He was high prince and the first of the Warriors, and he would destroy them for daring to touch her.The surf boiled at the edge of the sand, crests of waves rising to impossible heights, seeming almost to seek their prey. Conlan slashed his arms down, aiming his focus. He commanded the frenzy of waves to rise, higher and higher.His fury swelled, threatening his control. The red haze spread further over his vision. To have the ability to strike back again after so many years of powerlessness . . .Anubisa’s mocking laughter sounded in his brain.He was a fucking head case.Then a touch—inside him. A touch of courage, of defiance.Light to his dark. Compassion to his mercilessness.His gaze swung to the woman crouched down in the sand, hands still up to defend herself from the bastards who’d attacked her. In the midst of it all, she’d spared the energy to respond to his madness.He would smash them for her. Drive the water to strip the flesh from their bones.Enjoy every last minute of it.“No! Whatareyou? Stop! You’ll kill us!” she screamed up at him, defiant still, in spite of the terror she projected.Beyond reason, beyond compassion, he raised his arms again, then slashed them down, commanding the wall of water to crash down on the shore. To crush the men, where they lay bleeding and groveling.He drove the wave toward the shore.Her voice, broken, tentative, sounded in his head.Stop! Please don’t kill me! My sister . . . I’m all she has. And . . . don’t kill them. Please. Enough death.Conlan marveled at her goodness, her courage.Her light.Even as she thought death was crashing toward her, she spared a thought for the garbage who’d tried to attack her.He followed her thought back along its path to her mind.I would never hurt you. Trust me.Or was he a damn fool? Maybe she was just a talented actress. Nobody that compassionate could be real.But the red haze lifted, receded. Somehow her mental touch lent him calm. A measure of peace. He was inside her mind—she was projecting emotion. There was no deceit—no evil. Nothing but compassion wrapped up in terror. Sorrow.Conlan focused his power at the water and the men in its path, speaking a single word. “Abate.”In perfect symmetry, the water pounded the shore in an exact spherical shape around the place where she stood, leaving her untouched by a single drop. He felt her shock and wonder at the spectacle and could almost taste her awe as she reached out to touch the wall of water surrounding her.She gasped—made a choked sound of laughter. Broadcasted her thoughts:All I can think of is the parting of the Red Sea, but you’re definitely not Moses.Conlan crushed the water down on the little pricks, reining it in at the last possible second. He’dmitigate.For her.They might get a little broken, but they’d live. The wall of ocean pounded them to the sand, but left them with enough oxygen in their lungs to survive it.Which didn’t make him all that happy.As the waves receded, leaving the men crying, babbling, and damn near shitting themselves, Conlan stepped forward and raised his arms again. The waves eagerly leapt to do his bidding, and the surf boiled in anticipation of another strike.He got a vicious pleasure out of watching them cower the way they’d wanted to see her cower.Yeah, I can be a bastard that way.He spoke with every ounce of rage in his body bubbling to the surface, arm muscles clenching with the strain of holding back the wall of water. “I command you to leave this place and never return. You will not attempt to harm another, or I will track you down and serve up the justice that only this woman’s compassion saved you from tonight.”He swept them with his gaze, dropped out of formal speak. “In other words, you’ll be dead sons of bitches. We on the same page?”They babbled their promises in broken voices, then ran off, stinking of fear and piss, when he gestured them away. His gaze only tracked them for a moment, then he turned, inexplicably drawn back to the woman. She had guts, or she had a death wish. Either way, she’d seen him command the ocean, and yet she was unafraid enough to stand her ground.Trained warriors had cowered in front of him with less cause.How the hell did one small human have such courage?
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A fierce curiosity burned through him. He wanted, no,needed, to see her face, which was shadowed by her hair and hidden in the darkness. His fury was disproportionate—it didn’t make sense. The thugs were buffoons, easily enough cowed.But for some reason, he’d wanted to slice the flesh off their bodies.Maybe being tortured for so long would turn anybody into a sick, twisted bastard. Even the so-called next ruler of Atlantis.A little logic might help. Use some of that much-vaunted Atlantean warrior training.Yeah, logic. Logic dictated that he study his own reactions.Logic counseled prudence.She started to edge away from him.Fucklogic.He tried on a royal command for size.Come closer to me, woman. I have a need to see the face of one who bids me not to harm those who threaten her. Are you compassionate or merely a fool?She tossed her head, long and tousled hair flying through the air, and something low in his body tightened. She ignored his mental query and his command and stood her ground. “Who are you, and how are you in my mind? You can quit with the ordering me around thing, too, buster. I know self-defense. I would have been fine.”Her voice. It was lyrical, sensuous, music lilting into his ears and resonating through his body. Playing him like delicate fingers on the strings of a harp. His body tightened, straining.Her body quivered with indignation, yet the emotion she still broadcast confessed the truth. She knew they would have put a big, bad hurt on her.Theemotion. Somehow, he kept losing track of the unexpected, unprecedented, unbe-fucking-lievable fact that she was broadcastingemotion. Sheknewshe would have been seriously harmed if he hadn’t been there—he actuallyfeltthe knowledge and, with it, her residual fear and sorrow.She sighed, and her body slumped. “I’m . . . sorry. I should be thanking you. Whoever—orwhatever—you are, you saved me from those men. Thank you.”Then she raised her head and peered at him. “You’re not going to drink my blood or rip my arms off, now, are you? Because my day has really sucked, and I’m so not up for that,” she said, suspicion ringing in her tone.He blinked, bewildered by her apparent inability to carry on a logical conversation. He figured he’d try using simple sentences and speaking out loud. Maybe terror turned human women into babbling idiots.Slowly, carefully choosing his words, he tried to explain. “I am not the undead, nor a shifter of shape to animal form. I am . . . other. You are entirely safe with me,aknasha.”She planted her hands on her hips and stared at him. “You keep calling me that. What does it mean? What does ‘other’ mean? And why do you talk like you walked out of an old-time fairy-tale book?”As he considered how to answer her, the bank of clouds overhead finally passed beyond the edge of the moon. The shimmer of moonlight on her features plowed a wave of sensation right through his gut. Nobody could be that beautiful.He almost laughed.She’dbeen talking about fairy tales, and she looked like she’d stepped out of the pages of one. Her face shone with the perfection of a Nereid. The silvery light barely illuminated the red-gold waves that must burn like fire in the sunshine. Her eyes . . .Not possible. No human has eyes like that.“They’re cerulean,” he said aloud, unthinking. “Your eyes.”Cerulean. The color of the royal house of Atlantis.Hiscolor.“They—my mother had eyes this shade of deep blue,” she whispered, one hand reaching up to touch her face.Conlan caught his breath, feeling her pain. Something about her mother—“She’s gone,” he murmured. Somehow he knew it. Felt it. He couldn’t understand the pull—as if the magnetic draw of the moon to the tides had infused him. He wanted to touch her.Heneededto touch her.Almost without thought, he reached out to her face with his fingertips. She trembled, but didn’t move away, so he dared to caress the curve of her silken cheek with trembling fingers. Longing. Desire surging out of nowhere.Healthy, clean desire. He hadn’t felt desire in more than a century. Certainly not for the past seven years.Nothing pure. Nothing not twisted.Damaged goods.He yanked his hand away from her. “Aknashameans ‘empath, ’ ” he said roughly. “You’re an empath. The first in maybe ten thousand years.” Riley stared up at the man who had saved her from assault and, probably, rape. Maybe worse. If her mind had conjured up her most erotic fantasy to save her from a grim reality in which she reallywasbeing attacked, it had done a bang-up job. The man was some kind of superhero come to life.If they made superheroes who looked like very dangerous Hollywood movie stars, that is. He stood a good eight inches taller than her five foot ten, and his body was a nymphomaniac’s wet dream. Heavily muscled shoulders and arms, a broad chest that tapered down to a lean waist. God, his thighs had to be the size of her waist. The man was a mountain of muscle, improbably wearing a black silk shirt that tucked into elegant black pants.She jerked her gaze up from going any further south and stared fixedly at his chest, her cheeks flaming to know that he’d caught her ogling him.Although, really, the man must get ogled wherever he goes, so it’s not like he isn’t used to it.His silky black hair brushed his shoulders in shining waves, framing a face that defied description.Beautiful. For the first time in her life, she used the adjective to describe a man.He raised her chin with one finger, and she looked up at him again. He was smiling, amusement lighting up his dark eyes, almost as if he’d heard what she . . .“Oh, God,” she muttered. “Empath means you can read my mind?” She stared up past the silky hair, past the perfectly sculpted mouth, and past the cheekbones that seemed carved of granite. Finally, her gaze fixed on the icy black eyes that burned over her. Strange that ice could be so hot, she thought absently, trapped almost mindlessly in his gaze.“You did hear me, didn’t you?” she asked, embarrassment nearly an afterthought.He touched her cheek with fingers so gentle she nearly shuddered from the sensation, and he spoke inside her mind with a voice that should be outlawed.I can hear your thoughts, but I can also somehow feel your emotions. It’s impossible, but it’s true.Whiskey wrapped in velvet. His low, purely masculine voice carried a smooth, husky tone that curled around her nerve endings until her skin tightened with desire. Desire that caressed every erogenous zone she’d never even known she had.Desire that he wouldtouchher. Desire that he would keep talking to her on the mental path that no other person had ever shared with her.Desire.His voice echoed in her mind, rough. Strained.I hear you, and maybe you should think other thoughts. Because something about you is burning me up inside, and I don’t know if I’m up to the challenge of controlling it.She sensed his puzzlement, almost as if he were seeking the answer to an unanswerable problem. He stepped closer to her and wrapped one hand gently around the nape of her neck.I need to touch you. I don’t want to frighten you, but please let me touch you. Just my forehead to yours.His eyes held a stark plea.Please.Trembling, sure she was out of her mind to agree to it, she nodded. She couldn’t help herself. Something inside of her wouldn’t let her run away. Maybe insanity, or maybe just the adrenaline high from surviving two near-death experiences in a single evening.But every protective instinct that had served her well in her job—that should have been shoutingcaution, caution, back away from the superhunk—was screamingyes, yes, yes, touch me, touch me.Riley snapped out of her mental ramble, realizing that the hottest man she’d ever seen was bending toward her. Slowly, ever so slowly, he lowered his face toward hers, as if to kiss her.Oh, if he’d only kiss her.A mere breath away from her, he smiled a slow smile of sheer male satisfaction. It made him look even more the predator he clearly was.I’m down with that,aknasha.But first, I want to feel the touch of your mind.With that, he lowered his forehead to hers.For the second time that night, Riley’s world exploded.Her body stiffened, and she jerked backward so hard she’d have fallen if he hadn’t captured her with strong hands on her arms. He. Him.Conlan. His name was Conlan and he was . . . some sort of leader. Thoughts and impressions leapt from his mind to her own, drowning her in sensations and colors. His . . . thoughts? . . . aura? . . .soul? . . . a vivid blue-green, like a pool of the clearest water or the depths of the sea. But blackness—a boiling blackness swirled in the middle of it.Torture. Pain. A name—a face—dark beauty ruined by evil and madness.Anubisa?She twisted in his arms, trying to escape from the intensity of his mind’s capture of hers, but he held her with arms like steel bands.Just as the pain branded in his memories held her in its thrall.Torture, pain, burning—slicing, shredding, searing agony . . . How could he have borne so much pain for so long?She gasped, trying to breathe, trying for distance. No longer trying to pull away, but seeking to understand.How? How was he inside of her mind? She felt him—she knew him—sheunderstoodhim on some fundamental level. She could read his fierce determination to discover her, to explore her, to . . .haveher? The intensity of his mind scan changed, with all the subtlety of the tidal wave he’d called earlier, into an outpouring of sexual longing.A violent hunger, tinged with his shock at his reaction to her. She yanked her head away from his in a desperate attempt to protect herself and thought, for an instant, that she saw blue-green fire raging in the depths of his black pupils.She shook her head to clear it, and spoke out loud to try to dampen the hunger rising between them. “Conlan. Your name is Conlan, right? I don’t know how I know that, but . . . mine is Riley.”Then, in spite of her fear, she laughed a little. “Wow. Talk about a ‘me, Tarzan, you, Jane’ moment.”Then the memories banished the smile from her face. “How could you bear it? So much pain for so long . . .”She shook her head, aching for him. Aching for this man she didn’t even know. “It would have driven me insane.”He finally spoke, voice flat. “Don’t jump to any conclusions. I never claimed to be sane.”Chapter 6Conlan threw his head back, gulping in a lungful of air, the ugly reality of his memories stark in the silence between them. She had more courage than he’d even guessed, this small human. With his mind thrust into hers, he’d touched the fundamental core of her—their thoughts nearly melded. The purity of her soul shocked him; his cynicism was centuries old.One touch and he knew her, somehow.Intellectually.Emotionally.“Again. I need to touch you again,” he said roughly, pulling her closer. “Please.”He gazed down at her, willing her not to deny him. She stared back at him, fear subsiding into acceptance, and then she nodded and closed her eyes, lifting her forehead to his.But he didn’t want a mere innocent touch this time. He needed just a taste of her. Just a small taste. He knew he was lying to himself about thesmallpart even as he thought it.He didn’t care.He swept down to capture her lips with his own. At the first touch of his mouth, her eyes snapped open, and she gasped just enough for his tongue to sweep inside of her mouth and complete his possession. The taste of her sent all sane thoughts out of his head. He felt the energy bursting from him, seeking the elements.He didn’t even try to stop it. The sea boiled up over the edge of the sand and underneath them, and the wind whipped itself into a frenzy around them.Cyclone force.Her body trembled and she arched into him, the softness of her curves enticing, but it was the touch of her mind that drove him toward madness. His body hardened beyond any need he’d ever known, aggressive, dominating, until his clothing was surely going to burst from the pressure.He drove his tongue in and out of her mouth, thrusting and retreating in a cadence older than time. Wanting to climb inside of the warmth of her mouth and the haven of her body all at once.Sanity tried to rise in his mind and push past his fierce need.Riley. Her name is Riley. She’s human.This is wrong.She touched his face.Sanity never had a fucking chance.Even as he pulled her against the hardness of his body, Riley knew she must be dreaming. Nothing,nothing, had ever felt like this. Power surged through her, heat melding her to him.She wanted to climb on him, climb inside of him, feel his body rubbing against her, pounding inside of her. The intensity of it shocked her even as she moaned formore, more, more, all reason lost in the tempest of wanting.Needing.She clutched at his rock-hard biceps, trying to hold herself upright. Maybe trying to pull him closer. She mindlessly moved her hands, put them on his chest, down to his hard, flat, stomach, up to his neck. Drove her fingers into his hair. Closer, closer. She heard a moaning sound, and it was her,her. She was whimpering. If his tongue hadn’t been in her mouth, she’d be begging him to pull her even closer.
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She stopped breathing, focused on his emotions, pulled the colors of them inside her. The blues and greens and the sparkling crystalline passion swirling around, and she was lost in it, lost in him.Lost.The idea of losing herself snapped her to a brief rationality. She fought to push back from him, reaching for sanity, battling with ravenous desire.Sanity surrendered.She made a tiny moaning sound inside of his mouth, and Conlan was lost, too, wanting, craving, needing.Onlyher. Onlyher. Now.He tried to concentrate on her thoughts to keep from tearing at her clothes like an animal. He sent his mind inside of hers—inside of her soul—and was captivated by her innate goodness, selflessness, and light.The epiphany of her purity slammed into him with a force beyond reason. He was paralyzed.He wasdestroyed.She wantedhim, too.Consumed by the twin revelations of her spirit and desire, flaming heat flashed to volcanic intensity inside of him. The passion and elemental energy in the air snapped and crackled around their bodies, incinerating him from the inside out.His body went up in flames, and he wantedmore.His need turned voracious. Just one touch. A single taste.A taste that went on forever.His hands caressed her spine, pulled her hips closer to his heat—his need. His mind and body screamed for this one moment when passion, not obligation or duty, was allowed to rule his actions.Her scent, the silk of her hair, the warmth of her skin next to the sea-spray chill of his own all combined to blast duty out of his mind.He wanted, no,neededto carry her down to the sand and take her body, over and over, pounding into her warmth with the relentless fury of the surf. His heightened senses scented her desire, rising to match his own, even as she clutched at his shoulders. His hands shaped her curves, touched her softness, molded her body to his own so tightly that she must surrender to his claim.Something primitive—feral—raised its head inside of him and demanded that he do just that.Stake his claim.Leave his mark on her.Hismark. The flames. Suddenly, he realized the mark of Poseidon on his chest was burning into his flesh almost as it had the day he’d sworn his oath. A reminder? He tried to think, to study the sensation, but his body was drowning in raw need.Lost in the miracle of her mind and her body, he kissed her, claiming her with his mouth. His hands tightened on her until she cried out a little. The tiny whimper wrenched him out of his mindlessness and he stilled, sanity trying to resurface.She pulled her head back, eyes dazed and lips swollen. “You’re hurting me,” she whispered.He released her instantly, hands trembling, cursing himself for having caused her pain. “I’m sorry—damnit. I’m—there is no excuse.”He bowed his head, breathing hard. Self-loathing iced over any remnants of passion. He bowed deeply and then raised his gaze to hers. “Please accept my apologies. I have never—no. I’m as much of a brutish asshole as the scum that just ran away from here.”She smiled a little, the edge of fear receding from her eyes but still present in her mind. She was trembling. Maybe as much from fear as passion, now.He waslowerthan scum.She tried to speak, breath coming rapidly and clearly trying for calm. “I don’t . . . I can’t . . . you can’t . . .”She heaved in a deep breath and backed away from him. “What the hellwasthat? I don’t do things like that. I mean, I just did, so you must think—but I don’t. Oh, stop babbling, Riley.”She gave him another shaky smile, still breathing hard. “Since you probably saved my life and all, you’re forgiven for, well, practically assaulting me right here on the beach. Not that I wasn’t cooperative, or whatever. But I have to leave.” Riley backed carefully away from him, seeming not to realize that he lingered in her mind.Honesty.Even embarrassed by what she thought of as her own wanton behavior, she was honest enough to admit to him that she’d felt the same raging desire. His respect for her bravery increased, even as he had to fight his body’s demands that he sweep her back to his palace and hold her captive for a year.Or two.Preferably naked at all times.Conlan felt the fierce smile spread across his face. She was courageous, and beautiful beyond belief, and she wasaknasha.It was hisdutyto study her. To spend a great deal of time with her.To rationalize the hell out of the fact that I want to get her naked and underneath me. In my bed. Here on the sand. Anywhere. Just soon.Now.He sucked in a deep breath, fighting for control. The Trident. He had to find the Trident. He’d tuck her safely away in Atlantis in the meantime.He thought of the warriors standing guard, training—hell, just the thought of other males walking around anywherenearRiley—and his breathing tightened in his chest.Okay, so she could stay in the temple.With the priests. Thecelibatepriests.Awayfrom Alaric, oath of celibacy or no.Riley took another step back, and he still could sense her confusion. She doubted her sanity. Exhaustion was overwhelming her. The night’s events had battered her—he’dbattered her.He couldn’t regret touching her. Kissing her. But he regretted pushing her already stretched resources even further. An alien sense of tenderness washed through him. He wanted to protect her.Even from himself.He smiled down at her, but it wasn’t enough to reassure her. Riley nearly stumbled in her haste to get away from him. “I have to go home. It’s late. The curfew and all. I have to—good-bye.”As he moved to follow her, he sensed that Ven and the Seven had finally broken through the waves, and that Alaric was close behind. He knew that he could track her from a distance. He’d scanned the area to confirm that the attackers were long gone.But it took everything in him to stand still and let her go.Just long enough for her to reach her home. She’d want to pack some of her things.He didn’t know how long he’d keep her in Atlantis.Something deep inside him protested at ever letting her go.Not for long, this time at least. I’ll be at her side in less than an hour. The rest—the rest I’ll have to figure out later.He refused to think of his duty. Of his intended queen he’d never met.As he watched her run from him, his mind supplied her name, almost caressing the syllables. He whispered it aloud. “Riley.”When his body hardened even further at the mere sound of her name, a stark truth slammed into him. She was no mere empath.She washis.Conlan shook his head. Stupid. Futile. His duty was clear. Noble lineage. Destined royal breeding program.His lip curled.Royal stud farm.His gaze went back to Riley, spotlighted on the edge of the beach where she’d turned to stare back at him. Tentatively, her mind reached out to his.Good-bye, Conlan. Thank you.You’re welcome, Riley.But there’s no way that it’s good-bye.As she disappeared into the night, he raised his arms and hurled a wave of fierce joy into the sea, and a family of passing dolphins threw themselves into the air in celebration—an arabesque of shared delight. The air resonated with the vibrations of Poseidon’s power.Then, without warning, weakness and dizziness crashed through him. Conlan stumbled backward and then fell to the sand.And fear for Riley shot through him.He shook his head back and forth, trying to clear it. He hated the idea, but he had to do it.He had to call for aid.Ven! I need . . . I need your help.Chapter 7Some hundreds of miles away, the Lord High Vampire Barrabas raised his head, scenting the air. Something—what? Just for an instant, he’d felt a disturbance in the elements beyond anything . . .“But, Senator Barnes, as leader of the Primus, you must—” the human said, cringing.Barrabas hissed at him, hating the false name.Barnes. A pathetic excuse for a name.He knew, however, the ill-advised nature of claiming his legacy. Many still remembered his history-cursed name, and the events that Pontius Pilate had set in motion that day.Soon. Soon he would come into his own, and then the name of Barrabas would be hated and feared with such magnitude as to make what went before seem as nothing to these sheep.The sheep in front of him prostrated himself right there on the concrete floor of the Primus’s central underground chamber.“As leader of the Primus, Imustdo whatever Iwantto do,” he sneered. “The other two houses of Congress will do exactly what I tell them, won’t they?”The human groveled and crawled backward out of the room, probably considering himself lucky, given what he’d witnessed.The vampire’s gaze flicked to the congressman from Iowa and the senator from Michigan who had been causing such problems. They dangled, feet off the floor, arms threaded through the shackles bolted into the wall.The females of his blood pride flitted around them, slicing delicately into the skin of the chained men and sucking at the blood running down their naked forms. The Iowan still moaned, though the other had long since gone silent.Barrabas considered and discarded conclusions regarding the relative strength of their party affiliations based upon their stamina, and then he flung himself into his thronelike chair. Eyes narrowing, he focused on the disturbance he’d felt in the elements.“What could have such power?” he muttered, fingers drumming on the arm of the chair.The door to the chamber slammed open and his second, Drakos, soared into the room. “Did you feel it, Barrabas?”Barrabas nodded, a nearly imperceptible movement of his head. “I felt it. What was it?”Drakos floated down to the ground, silvery hair settling around his shoulders. Barrabas was not unaware of more than a few of his women sneaking avid gazes at his general.Something will have to be done about Drakos. He grows nearly powerful enough to challenge me. Perhaps it is time for a new second.But aloud he only replied to the spoken question. “Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Send out the vanguard. We cannot afford to be distracted now.”“Anubisa?”Barely, just barely, Barrabas contained the shudder. “She has been . . .unavailableas of late. Not that she ever tells us anything of what she knows.”“Still, if we defy her—” Drakos clenched his jaw.“Enough,” Barrabas roared. “Do as I say.”“As you command, so it will be done,” Drakos responded, averting his gaze and bowing low. “I will lead them.”“No. I need you here,” Barrabas said. “Send another. Send Terminus.”Drakos raised one eyebrow, but otherwise his face was entirely unreadable. Unsurprising for a more than nine-hundred-year-old vampire, but inconvenient nonetheless.Barrabas stood up in a movement of pure blurred speed that might have terrified the chained Iowan, if one of the women hadn’t just sliced through his jugular.“Good politicians are so hard to find these days,” Barrabas observed. “They all lack a certain endurance.”Stepping around the spray of blood and inhaling the thick, coppery smell with pleasure, Barrabas waved a hand to his general. “I have a more important task for you, my second. I need another telepath. I was, perhaps, oversolicitous in my affections with my last one.”He thought back to the lump of inanimate flesh he’d left on the floor of his bedchamber, with more than a little regret.Drakos spoke emotionlessly. “Telepaths are few and far between, my lord, and growing ever more difficult to locate. I had hoped this one would—”Barrabas cut him off. “You question me, Drakos?”Though hehadbeen unusually hard on telepaths this past year. His lusts for blood and flesh were rising, not abating, as he grew older and stronger, and something about hearing his victim’s tormented thoughts through the telepathic link was unbearably succulent.If only empaths still existed. To actuallyfeelthe sheep’s pain as he inflicted it . . . he shuddered in simple ecstasy at the thought.No other had survived as long as he—there was none Barrabas could ask to learn if he would face even more ravenous hungers as more time passed. Perhaps he was destined to become more of an animal than the shape-shifters he planned to destroy.Shaking off his black thoughts, he led Drakos out of the chamber, glancing back at his women, who were frantically lapping at the congressional fountain of blood. “And get my secretary. I have a new proposal to make in regard to that last bill that got filibustered. I think the rest of the Congress may find it more . . . palatable . . . now.”He stopped at the door and jerked his head toward the remains of his most determined opponents on the Hill. “Then get someone to take out the trash.”Chapter 8Conlan inhaled a deep breath, sure that Riley’s scent lingered in the air surrounding him. He could taste her in his mouth—her warmth and sweetness. Still feel the imprint of her silken skin on his hands, on his hardened and aching body. He could still sense the emotions she was broadcasting so loudly.Everything in him demanded that he go after her. Need bordering on obsession swamped him, but centuries of training rose to override his instincts. He must face and analyze the threat. He’d never experienced anything like that wave of weakness. It had passed in minutes, but who knew if it could come back?
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Also, what the hells had caused it? Was it from sharing her emotions?By Poseidon’s balls, it was like nothing he’d ever heard about in all of the histories of his people. Nothing he’d ever been warned against.He needed to identify the cause of the weakness, so that he could prevent it. Defeat it. As Alaric loved to proclaim,knowledge is power.He reached out for his brother on their shared mind path.Ven?The voice came immediately in his head, ringing with fury and—better hidden but still evident—concern.Nearly there, my brother.The duty ingrained in him after so many years battled to regain control of his mind. His duty was to recover the Trident. Finally ascend to the throne that he’d avoided thinking about for the past two centuries. Lead his people.A future king didn’t abandon his duty to follow a woman.He laughed, humorless.Yeah, duty. Because just what Atlantis needs sitting on the throne after my father’s half millennium of perfect rule is a fucked-up head case who couldn’t even escape from a vamp.His jaw tightened, and he paced circles in the sand. Not that Riley—or any woman—deserved to be burdened with him, either.His thoughts flashed to Anubisa. What if pain had ruined him? What if sex for him would now always be tainted, twisted?Wrong?What did he have to offer any woman? He must be rational.Right. Except rationality was fucking impossible. His body tightened further, painfully, just at the thought of Riley’s hair slipping through his hands like the finest Atlantean silk. She hadn’t feltwrong. Nothing about her, about them together, had felt anything but right.Tooright. How could it be so right to hold a woman he’d just met?Ahuman?Closing his eyes, Conlan breathed slowly in through his nose and called on the discipline of his training to dampen his raging need. He was high prince, and he knew his duty.Yeah, well,screwduty. Ven has five minutes, and then I’m going after her. I’m going to make sure she’s safe before I go recover the Trident.A swirling fountain of water shot up into the air, carrying Alaric to the sand. Dramatic as always.The priest’s midnight-black hair swirled around his shoulders, reminding Conlan of the stories told about him. Alaric as the dark guardian of Poseidon’s rages. The people invoked the high priest’s name to terrify children into minding their parents.Conlan scowled, for the first time wondering how Alaric felt about being made into the stuff of nightmares. The glimmer of sympathy vanished, though, when the priest started laughing.“My patience is damn near at an end, so laugh at your own risk,” he snarled, feeling like a fool, trying for dignity when he’d recently been sprawled in the dirt.Knowing that Alaric knew it.Alaric grinned at him. “You don’t appreciate my fun, Conlan? I spend so little time on land, I deserve to enjoy it, don’t I?” He strode forward and held out a hand. Wearing form-fitting black pants and a black silk shirt nearly identical to Conlan’s own, Alaric could have been his twin.Hiseviltwin.Still, Conlan didn’t have time for childish sulking. He grasped the outstretched hand, knowing Alaric would read him more easily through touch.Needing to know what had happened to him, even as he resented the intrusion into his head.“A fountain of water? Your childish games bring unwanted attention to us, priest. Be advised that I prefer it that you stop,” he growled, resorting to formal speak.Alaric grinned again, clearly unrepentant, and released his hand. “Uh-oh. You’re calling mepriest, instead of Alaric. That must mean you’re trying on your kingly ways, old friend.”Then the grin faded, and the illusion of amiability vanished with it. A dark and lethal predator remained, ice-green eyes glowing with power. “Beadvisedthat I do what I wish. Poseidon’s high priest answers to none but the sea god himself.”Before Conlan could frame a retort, he felt, rather than heard, his brother shoot up through the water, barely breaking the surface. He turned to watch Ven stride through the sand, the coppery blades of his orichalcum daggers unsheathed and held at the ready.Ven held the title of King’s Vengeance by heredity and by battle right. No warrior was more skilled. Nobody could kick vamp or shape-shifter ass better. Which was a handy trait in the man whose sworn duty it was to protect his brother the high prince.Except for those times when Conlan sped off for the surface without waiting for either his brother or his elite guard.As he’d never done before. Something to prove, much?Conlan dismissed the idea of arguing with Alaric and turned to his brother. Ven was going to be pissed.He had arightto be.Ven stormed up the beach toward him. “What in the name of the nine hells were you thinking? Are you out of your damn mind? We’re facing a threat that we don’t even understand, and you picknowto go all Rambo?”Conlan strained to keep the snarl out of his own voice, and almost succeeded.Almost.“Do you offer battle challenge, my brother?” He got right up in Ven’s face, in spite of the fact that his baby brother had a couple of inches and maybe fifty pounds on him.Ven bared his teeth. “Look, you idiot—”Conlan very deliberately swept one arm out, a ball of turquoise and silver light flashing in his upturned palm. Then he swept his gaze over Ven and the rest of the Seven and drew what shred of dignity he still possessed around him. “I think you overstep the role of King’s Vengeance, my brother. I answer to no one.”Even as the words left his mouth, he realized their similarity to those Alaric had just uttered.Evidently, so did Alaric, whose eyes gleamed with amusement. But at leasthehad the sense to keep his mouth shut.Not so with Ven. He gaped, staring at the ball of pure energy crackling in Conlan’s hand. “Overstep? I oversteptherole? Iamthe King’s Vengeance, you overgrown excuse for a pigheaded princeling.”Conlan glared at his brother, the two of them toe to toe, Ven giving as good as he got. Then the sound of applause broke through his focus. He jerked his head around to sear Alaric with a glare. The priest continued to clap his hands together.“Lovely. Very impressive,” the priest drawled. “We have Reisen on the loose with the Trident and some unknown threat who has drained our prince’s power, and yet we have time to play ‘whose dick is bigger?’ between the Brothers Grimace.”Conlan opened his mouth, then closed it again, anger draining away. He waved his fingers and the energy ball vanished, then he stepped back from his brother.“You suck at respect for royalty, don’t you?” he said to Alaric. “But, as much as I hate it, you’re right.”Conlan glanced at his guard, all clad like his brother in the black leather pants and long coats Ven had demanded they wear on any trips to the surface. Ven figured badass biker dude was as good a cover as any for men who towered over most human males.Conlan’s warriors—Poseidon’sWarriors—stood at battle alert, hands fisted on blade handles, all constantly scanning their surroundings for imminent threat to their liege.And here he stood wasting their time with a pissing contest.Ven shoved a hand through his hair. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. Anyway, what happened? We all felt the disturbance in the elements when you were attacked. What kind of creature could have done that? Was it a vamp?”“No—”Ven continued, talking right over him. “And why in the nine hells did you face it without us? Whyleavewithout us?”Conlan glanced at his men, his brothers in arms, before responding. Denal wore an expression of keen reproach, but immediately schooled his expression to implacability when he realized Conlan was watching him.Ven followed Conlan’s gaze through the line. His warriors. Sworn to the service of Poseidon and to the throne, they faced lives of grim purpose. They fought any who threatened humankind. Many died. Those who lived got patched up and returned to fight again.And their reward? Bound into loveless marriages with females they were ordered to wed. As he himself would do in two weeks’ time.Conlan measured the tenor of his men, realizing anew how lucky he was. There was nobody he’d rather have at his back.Alexios, fierce, scarred face grim.Brennan, emotionless but for the whitened knuckles on his blades.Justice, blue-tinged hair in a braid to his waist, the handle of his sword rising from its sheath behind one shoulder. The member of his Seven who Conlan understood least—trusted least. But a warrior to be reckoned with, by anyone’s measure.Bastien, towering over the others. Nearly seven feet of pure muscle and honed battle instincts.Christophe, skin glimmering faintly with the residue of barely controlled power.Finally back to Denal, the youngest of the Seven and newest to the role. He’d still been training at the academy when Conlan had . . . gone away.Before Conlan could speak, Ven’s voice rang out again. “Are you going to clue me in on what you were thinking? Were you even thinking at all? These men are sworn to protect you, even to die for you. But you have to go play action hero?” Ven snorted, disgust written all over his face. “’Cause that worked out so well for you the last time, right?”Somebody gasped. Conlan inclined his head, acknowledging the solid body blow. If he’d waited for sufficient warriors when he’d chased Anubisa back into her lair, maybe he’d . . .No. Hindsight was for losers.He fought for calm in his voice. “Still don’t hesitate to fight dirty, do you, brother?”Ven shook his head, brows drawn together. Disgust plain on his face. “A good ruler allows his subjects to do their jobs, Conlan. Maybe it’s about time you learned that.”Conlan whipped around to face his brother, fists clenching. Then he took a deep breath and considered. “Maybe you’re right.”He heard another gasp from behind him. Even before his capture, they’d never heard much in the way of backing down from their prince.Maybe it was time. Reason should temper rage. Maybe the philosopher had to rise to stand hand in hand with the warrior.Conlan nodded at his brother. “You’re pissing me off, but you make a lot of sense.”Ven blinked, apparently speechless. Conlan kept talking whilethathappy state continued. “But I’d consider it a personal favor if you’d forgive and forget, and we could get on with finding the Trident.”Ven blinked again, then swept a brief bow, a grin quirking up the edges of his lips. “Consider it done, Your Highness.”“Call me ‘Your Highness’ again, and Iwillkick your ass,”Conlan said, a rueful grin spreading over his face, then fading. “I should have waited, I admit it. But that’s not all I need to admit. We’ve got to talk. Consider it a matter of the utmost urgency.”Ven raised a single eyebrow. His body, if possible, stiffened into an even more heightened state of wariness, as he whipped his head from side to side, scanning the beach and darkness beyond. “What is it? Reisen? Did you encounter any of the vamps or were-folk? Give me something tofight, damnit.”Alaric glided noiselessly across the sand, coming closer, reminding Conlan of a shark preparing to strike.“What was the threat?” Alaric demanded. “Did you encounter some new form of magic that can control even the elements?”Conlan shook his head, weighing his words. “I’m almost certainly going to regret telling you this. But you have a right to know. Especially when it concerns a potential weakness.”Except now he was talking about a personal weakness. A weakness in the heir to the throne. Atlantean political strategy would demand he keep silent.Atlantean battle strategy would demand that he reveal all.He measured Ven and Alaric with his gaze. Ven was family, and Alaric had been Conlan’s friend since childhood. Conlan had never concealed any truth from either of them. Yet, as he gazed into the fierce green glow of power shining in the priest’s eyes, Conlan came to an unpleasant realization:he wasn’t entirely sure Alaric could say the same.Conlan called his guard to approach, then spoke clearly and in the formal tones of his office. Never mind that formality felt false after so many years.Hell, maybe if hesoundedlike a king, he’d feel like one. “My haste in departing was unseemly and wrong in this matter. My brother reminds me that a good king allows his warriors to do what they have trained to do.”He measured the face of each warrior in turn, and then continued, voice somber. “However, be advised of this. I will be king, and I am even now high prince. I will act as I consider warranted at all times.”He paused, flashed a grin at Ven. “Just try to keep up, little brother.”Humor fading from his face, Conlan lifted his head and scented the wind for any change in the elements, scanning for any of the living or undead nearby. Then he sent out a mental casting to touch Riley again, gritting his teeth at the realization that even their brief separation was making him tense.Edgy.Damnit. Who was she? More,whatwas she?She didn’t even realize that he’d stayed in her mind, unnoticed, as she’d driven the short distance to her small home. He’d broken the connection during the discussion with his warriors and Alaric.He sent out a gentle touch.I’m here, Riley. Are you safe?
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He sensed her startled gasp and could almost see her. Her touch returned to him, her emotions fluttering like tiny sea anemones in his mind.Conlan? You can still talk to me? But I’m almost ten miles from the beach and—somehow I know you’re still there.I can feel you,aknasha. I’m going to protect you, too. You have great value to . . . my people.She sent a slight hint of amusement—that, and an overwhelming sense of her exhaustion.That is a very pretty thought, but I’m not very valuable to anyone. I just need to take a bubble bath and go to sleep now. Good-bye.With that, the feel of mental doors crashing down snapped off his connection to her. He flinched back from the sensation, mouth dry, fighting to keep his body from hardening anew at the idea of her naked body glistening in a tub of scented bubbles.He clenched his eyes shut and groaned.Ven’s eyes narrowed. “What is it? The threat?”Conlan’s eyes snapped open, and he saw Ven and the rest of the Seven crouch into battle readiness, blades at the ready. Alaric threw his arms into the air as if to command power, the ocean waves instantly responding with a crashing symphony of percussion against the shore.Conlan held up one hand. “No, it’s okay. There is no threat.”He grinned. “Or, to be more accurate, the threat is going to take a bubble bath.”Chapter 9“What is it, Lord Reisen?”Reisen sliced his hand through the air, commanding his warrior to desist. Stop making noise while Reisen opened his mind and senses to any disturbance in the elements.For a minute, he’d almost thought—But, no. Conlan was long dead. The royal house in chaos. Nobody willing to step up and admit that Anubisa had murdered the heir to the Seven Isles.Until now.Reisen glanced down at the long shape wrapped in scarlet velvet on the table. The Trident. He almost couldn’t believe that he’d actually taken it. That it now lay on a table in one of his safe houses, right under the noses of the sleeping landwalkers in the buildings around him.Snatched out from under Alaric’s nose.The thought of that last gave him a great deal of satisfaction. Arrogant prick. Their final confrontation, nine days ago, flashed into his mind.“You know he’s not coming back, Alaric,” Reisen said, pacing the marble floor of the priest’s private receiving chamber. “It’s been seven years. Even if he does come back, he won’t be Conlan.”He stopped, fixing the priest with his gaze. “He’ll be—wrong.”Alaric folded his arms across his chest, looking more like a street thug than Poseidon’s chosen, until you saw the power burning in his eyes. “Conlan is stronger than any of the rest of you. Stronger than any warrior in Atlantean history. Poseidon has given me no indication that he is dead. Or changed.”Alaric’s eyes narrowed. “Do you tell me that you doubt the sea god?”Reisen smacked his fist into his palm. “I have never blasphemed, and I’m not starting now, so don’t go there, priest. I merely wonder if you’re really hearing what Poseidon is telling you. Or are you just channeling your own hopes for your boyhood friend?”“Never dare to challenge me, Reisen. The house of Mycenae will regret it.” Alaric didn’t raise his voice, but the walls of the temple shuddered.Reisen never blinked. “Perhaps it is you who will regret this day, Alaric.”Then he strode from the temple, never looking back.Already formulating his plan. Reisen reached out to touch the folds of velvet covering the Trident. He’d been more than half prepared to be killed for the sacrilege of touching it. Poseidon’s Trident. The vehicle of ascension for Atlantean kings for millennia.Yet, when he’d grasped it that day in the temple, it had remained quiescent. Inanimate. Merely a pretty artifact, melded gold, silver, and orichalcum shaped in the same design he wore branded into his chest.But with seven open spaces that showed where its seven jewels had nestled before the Cataclysm.Before they were scattered to the surface lands for protection and safekeeping.“My lord—” the warrior began again. Pulled from his musings, Reisen glanced at him. Micah, first of his Seven.“We need to move on. They will surely be after us soon,” Micah said, hands fisted on the handles of his daggers.Brother warriors of Poseidon. Further bonded by the enormity of the act they committed now.“Is it justice, Micah?” Reisen wondered aloud. “Is it justice that we do for our homeland? Or is it treason, as Alaric will surely name it?”Micah’s eyes shone with the fervor of their cause. “It is justice to seek the jewels that have been lost. To restore Atlantis to its former glory, my lord. After more than eleven thousand years, it is surely time.”Reisen nodded slowly. “Yes, it is time. We were tasked to serve as first warning on the eve of humanity’s destruction,” he said, quoting the ancient words.“The brazenness of the denizens of the night is surely more than a first warning,” Micah growled.A smile fleetingly crossed Reisen’s face. Thedenizens of the night.The archaic language reminded him that Micah hadn’t spent much time out of Atlantis. And yet, it was chillingly accurate.“To Atlantis, then, Micah,” he said, holding his own dagger high in the air. “To restoring the glory and supremacy of Atlantis.”The rest of his warriors, who’d entered the room as he and Micah spoke, raised their daggers above their heads in unison.“To Atlantis!” they shouted in unison. “To Mycenae!”Reisen smiled. Yes, to Atlantis and Mycenae. And to his own ascension to the throne of a newly restored Atlantis.“To Mycenae,” he roared.Then he glanced yet again at the bundle on the table, struck by a glimpse of motion and flickering light.“I must have imagined it,” he muttered, words drowned out by his warriors’ thundering shouts.Because, just for a split second, the velvet had seemed to glow.“Are you out of your royal mind?” Taking a break from pacing and swearing viciously in ancient Atlantean, Latin, and a little-used dialect once heard near Constantinople, Ven stopped in front of his brother, hands fisted on his hips.Conlan sighed, not knowing whether to award his brother battle medals for creativity, or order Justice to arrest the King’s Vengeance for treason.I could flip a coin . . .Conlan stepped in close to Ven, invading the nine hells out of what Ven liked to call his personal space. “I did not ask for your judgment upon my actions. I merely described a possible threat to our warriors. If more humans have the capacity to incapacitate us with emotional telepathy—”He didn’t mention that he’d left out a hell of a lot in the telling. There was no threat to Atlantean security regarding his fierce attraction to her.Admit it, attraction is a tame word. Try overwhelming, ball-breaking lust.He blew out a breath. Even princes were allowed some privacy, right?Ven shook his head in disgust, then resumed pacing and cursing. Conlan tuned him out after he heard something about “spawn of a dung beetle” in early Portugese and turned to Alaric, who had remained uncharacteristically silent during Conlan’s explanation of the evening’s events.Alaric speaking was dangerous enough.Alaric silent was deadly.The priest stared at him, unblinking, seeming almost inhuman in his stillness. If ever a man had seemed unsuited to the priesthood, Conlan would have named Alaric. Matching Conlan in height, Alaric’s heavily muscled form suited the lethal menace in his eyes.No schoolboy would ever seek him out to tell tales of childish mischief in the confessional, for certain. And yet it was rumored that more than one woman, seduced by Alaric’s dark beauty, had harbored hopes of convincing the dark priest to . . .bend. . . his vow of celibacy.Conlan nearly laughed at the thought. It was well known that Poseidon would strip the powers from a priest who breached his celibacy vow. Power was Alaric’s only mistress; no female could come between him and his quest for ever more of it.As if reading his prince’s mind, Alaric bared his teeth in a cold pretense of a smile. “I agree with Conlan.”“Look, I—what?” The agreement threw him off.“You heard me,” Alaric returned, face expressionless. “You want to follow this human to her home to ensure her safety. You demand we transport her to Atlantis as your . . .guest.I agree with you.”Ven exploded. “Great. Now I have two of you out of your freaking minds. I’d have expected better of you, Temple Rat.”Alaric’s gaze shifted smoothly to Ven, and something whispering of deadly danger shimmered in his eyes. “I am high priest to the sea god now, Lord Vengeance. It is time we put away childish . . . endearments.”Conlan shifted to stand between the two men. The last thing he needed was his two most trusted advisors bashing each other’s brains out. “Calm down, Ven. You’ve gotta be a role model for my warriors, right?”Ven snorted. “Iama role model in all things that matter. But standing emotionless and icy in the face of seriously deep trouble is not my style. I’m more a ‘take names and kick ass’ kind of guy.”He paused for a moment, slamming his daggers back in their sheaths. “And agreeing that we take a human to Atlantis? Especiallynow, when the Trident is in the hands of the enemy? I repeat, you’re both out of yourfuckingminds.”Shaking his head, Ven nonetheless stepped back and away, sweeping an arm out as if to urge Alaric to continue.Alaric shrugged. “Knowledge is power. The human has powers that are unknown to us. If she truly can convey emotion over the mind path, then she must be studied and analyzed for the source of that ability.”Ven started to interrupt, but Alaric held up a hand. “Not to mention the potential enormity of a weapon with the power to bring a warrior of such strength and mental shielding as Conlan to his knees,” he said, his tone clinically dispassionate.Conlan made a growling sound low in his throat, surprising himself and, from the looks of it, everyone around him. “You would dissect Riley in a laboratory, if you believed that was the only way to understand her gifts, wouldn’t you?”Alaric raised one eyebrow. “Riley?You know her name?”Fury rising, Conlan clenched his fists until his knuckles turned white, fighting to regain enough composure to speak. “You. Will. Not. Touch. Her,” he gritted out.Alaric immediately held his hands out, palms facing down, as if to show that he intended no harm. He lapsed back into formal speak, perhaps realizing the threat from Conlan. “I sense a disturbance in the elements surrounding us, and yet you showed no outward sign until now. As I am unlike your human, and cannot sense emotions, you must explain your reaction to my words.”Conlan forced his hands to unclench and took cleansing breaths. “I don’t even know if Icanexplain. Or, if I could, that I would want to.”He shook his head, trying to clear it. His mind involuntarily reached out to touch Riley’s restlessly sleeping consciousness. That simple touch calmed him a little.Just enough to piss him off. What thehellwas going on?“I need time to understand it, myself,” he admitted.Ven broke in. “Alaric, surely you must see that our most important job is to retrieve the Trident, not play babysitter to some human female. I like humans myself, Conlan, and have enjoyed many a happy hour with them.”Conlan’s brother flashed a wolfish grin. “Hell, sometimes with two of ’em at a time. I’ve even defended thousands of them from the vamps and the damn shape-shifters over the centuries. But you don’t see me going around staking out their houses.”Someone barked out a laugh. Conlan’s gaze whipped down the line of his warriors. Bastien. Of course. He was too damn big to be afraid of anything. Even the wrath of two Atlantean princes.Damn. He had to admire the sheer balls of the man.Conlan turned back to Ven, nodded. “You’re right. But this one is different. She may have the ability to be used as a weapon against me—againstanyof us—and how can that be good?”The part of his brain where duty gave way to need shouted out at him.And Iwanther. Iwillhave her.Duty be damned.“Agreed,” Alaric replied, startling Conlan. But of course Alaric was responding to his words, not his thoughts.Or so Conlan hoped. If the priest had mastered thought-mining, the politics of Atlantis were headed for a big pile of reeking whale shit.Alaric’s gaze never flickered. “She could distract us at a critical point and cost us the object of our quest. We contain the female, and then we retrieve the Trident. It is the wisest course of action, as you say, Conlan. It is also true that I need time and a quiet place in which to scry for its location.”Ven grumbled a little then rolled his eyes. “Well, when you put it that way . . . Let’s do this thing.”He jerked his head toward the left, and Bastien, Denal, and the rest ranged themselves around Conlan, Alaric, and Ven. Black coats billowing out behind them, nine of the deadliest predators ever to travel the earth and its oceans shimmered into watery mist and headed for a tiny house holding a sleeping human female.And once I see her again, I’ll realize that this insane attraction was a momentary thing. We’ll secure her for later study, and then we’ll retrieve the Trident.Nothing has changed.
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Except Conlan’s years of training in self-awareness mocked him.Fool. Everything has changed.She changed it.But even with his discipline, his training, and his dagger-sharp logic all brought to bear on the issue, he didn’t know whichshehe meant.Chapter 10Riley looked at the clock again, for the third time in an hour. She’d slept for what? Maybe twenty minutes? After leaving two practically incoherent voice mail messages on Quinn’s cell phone, that is.She rolled over and sat up. Not really surprising that she wasn’t sailing through fluffy dreamland, considering. Her thoughts flashed to Dina and the baby, then to Morris. She shuddered as the delayed reaction finally hit her.“That could have been me. He was trying to killme,” she whispered, then clasped her arms around her knees and rocked back and forth. A shudder worked its way down her body till she sat trembling, tears sliding down her cheeks.“And he wasn’t the only one. Those men tonight—ifhehadn’t been there . . .”Conlan.Just thinking his name conjured his face in her mind. Elegant, aristocratic cheekbones. A strong jaw. Lips that must have been sculpted by the most artistic of angels.A frisson of heat curled through her abdomen.That kiss. That was . . . something.Oh, get over yourself, Riley.Angels, sheesh. It’s not like you haven’t seen beautiful men before.“Nobody like him,” she whispered to the darkness of her bedroom. “Never any like him. Never anybody who could step inside my mind.”Except Quinn. She and her sister had always been able to share an almost telepathic form of communication. They’d never thought much of it; everybody knew about twin speak. Ten months apart was close enough to be almost twins.But never with anybody else. Never a stranger. Never an incredibly gorgeous man who had saved her life—or at the very least, saved her from a hideous assault.Conlan.Then a voice, gentle but insistent, inside of her mind.Yes, I am here.Then came his concern, sharp and ferocious.Do you need me? Are you in danger?She held a hand up, almost as if she could touch the colorful emotions swirling inside of her. Notheremotions.His.“Since it’s a dream, I may as well answer you. Because this has to be a dream, doesn’t it? Just a little PTSD to round off my day.” Riley scrubbed tears off her face.Yeah. That had to be it. None of it had really happened. Nobody could cause the ocean to act like that. Not even vamps.What is PTSD? And why are you lying to yourself? You know I’m real,aknasha.You hear me in your mind. You feel my emotions, although I have no idea how that is even possible.Riley laughed. She couldn’t help it. His voice was like cool ocean waves caressing her nerve endings and soothing jagged edges.And spiking her calm to excitement in ten seconds flat.How was that even possible?“Okay, Mr. Figment of My Imagination. What the hell. I’ll go with it. PTSD means post-traumatic stress disorder. Which is what I’ve got going on after Morris nearly shot me to death.”She laughed again. “One hell of a case, from the looks of it. I mean, no pink elephants for me. I have to conjure up a drop-dead gorgeous man who can share his thoughts and emotions with me.”She stood up and headed for the bathroom. “I’ve gotta have some drugs somewhere. Maybe just a small Valium?”Then the fire again, as his emotions darkened.Someone shot at you?Low, dangerous. A different kind of shiver caressed her at the stark male command in his voice.Not that she was the type to go all tingly over some hunky alpha male. “I’m fine. He’s dead, so get over your ‘I’m the law’ thing.”But his voice came again, freezing her in her tracks, something smug and purely masculine in the words.You think I’m gorgeous, hmm?Riley rolled her eyes. Evidently, even in Hallucination Land men had enormous egos. She wondered idly what else about him was enormous, then caught herself when her face got hot.Don’t go there, Riley.Perhaps Iamsimply a figment of your imagination,he said, shades of reasonableness and amusement tinging his words in her mind.Perhaps you should not look out your window.“What?” She ran to the window and yanked her blinds up, staring wildly down at her tiny garden. Four, no five, men stood below, standing in a loose ring around Conlan. She noticed that they were all the size of Conlan, and all dressed in black, before she wrenched her attention to the figure standing alone in the midst of them.Looking up at her.“Oh, holy crap, it’s you,” she whispered, placing her palms on the window, trapped in his gaze.Yes, it is definitely me. If I’m only a figment of your imagination, can the figment say that I’d really appreciate it if you’d . . . rethink . . . your clothing before you show up in front of my men?His voice in her mind took on a husky tone.Not that I don’t appreciate your choice of nightwear.Glancing down at herself, Riley’s cheeks burned. She wore only an old and worn green tank top—that had Smart Girls Rock traced on it in faded gold thread—over a pair of lacy underwear.A rather teensy pair of underwear.Face flaming, she backed away from the window, uncertain of whether to be afraid, embarrassed, or excited that he was real.Real and standing outside of her house.She settled on a combination of all three, her breathing suddenly shallow and fast. But she’d seeninsidehis heart, his memories, even his soul, somehow, and there had been honor and integrity—no hint of serial-killer tendencies.Well, if she wasn’t going with Option A: Figment of Her Imagination. Damn, this was confusing.Either way, she had some questions for him. She was a social worker, for Pete’s sake. She put herself in danger as a matter of course. And she’d been inside this man’s mind. She knew he had no intention to hurt her. She wasn’t surehowshe knew, but she knew.As she dragged on a pair of jeans, she laughed without much humor. “Danger is my middle name.”The voice sounded in her mind, amused again. Glad she could provide so much entertainment for him.She could literallyfeelhis laughter curling inside her as he spoke. Or sent her thought waves. Or whatever.Really? I would have guessed Trouble.She grinned before she realized she was doing it. Her first smile in a long time. “You’d better be prepared for trouble, Conlan, if you can’t give me a good explanation for what you’re doing in my front yard.”The smile faded from her face. Great, there was an Option C. He was some kind of freakish stalker. Like she hadn’t had enough to deal with, for one night.For onelifetime.But she wasn’t a coward. Or stupid, either. Riley yanked a sweatshirt over her head then grabbed a phone, the better to dial a quick 911 with. Then she ran down the stairs and peered through the peephole. Yes, he was still there. Conlan and some men who were clearly also from the Land of Hunks.Taking a deep breath, she pulled open her front door. And that’s when all hell broke loose.Vampires. It was raining materializing vampires.She’d seen them before, sure, everybody had. Not just on CNN either. She’d seen them up close and personal, prowling the alleys and the backways of the city. Looking for victims who were all too willing, dangling the elusive promise of immortality, luring the young, the weak, the hopeless.But she’d never seen a full two dozen of them, swooping down from the air, arrowing in on the tiny patch of lawn in front of her house.The same lawn where Conlan stood with his men.She snapped out of her shock; shouted a warning. “Watch out, Conlan! Vampires!”But he and his men were already looking up, unsheathing daggers of some sort. The blades flashed like copper fused with diamonds, beautiful and deadly.Sort of like the man himself.Riley, get back!Conlan thundered in her mind.Close that damn door and hide.But she stood there, frozen, the phone forgotten in her hand. The silence was surreal—battle scenes in the movies were always full of clashing armor and shouting.The battle scene before her was all the more terrifying because of the near cessation of sound.The largest of the vamps landed in front of Conlan, sword drawn. Conlan crossed his daggers to block the blow, then sliced down viciously, striking the vamp’s left arm. With an upswing, he drove his dagger into the attacker’s heart, and the vamp slumped to the ground.More men came running from around the corner of her house. They were dressed in black leather and long coats, like some terrifying biker gang. One of them, hair in a long, blue braid to his waist, broke the silence. He roared—a name, a challenge—something that sounded like“Poseidon!”then flew into the air in a wild leap, a sword and dagger held up and out in front of him. He landed on top of a vamp who’d tried, but failed, to twist out of the way.Blue-hair thrust both his weapons into the vampire’s neck, twisted his clearly powerful arms, still yelling fiercely, and then yanked the blades back out.Riley stood, unblinking, hand-to-hand combat and sword-play crashing through the night around her.Focused only on the vampire’s head.The head that fell off his body and rolled to a stop a few feet away, right next to her dormant azalea bushes.She clutched at the door frame with one hand, slowly shaking her head back and forth, swirling fog threatening to obscure her line of sight . . .Well,thatdidn’t happen, did it? Because nobody decapitates vampires on my lawn, right? Can’t be good for the grass. Or the azaleas.She recognized the symptoms, objectively. She was going into shock. Numbness, graying vision, a spreading cold—Then she looked up and met Conlan’s gaze. He’d felt her terror. It must have distracted him, because she could tell he didn’t notice the vampire who leapt at him from behind, aiming his sword at his back.Her numbness shattered.“Nooo!” she screamed, hurling herself off the porch and toward the two of them. Unthinking. Urgency driving her. She had to help him. Had to protect him.Must protect him.“Leave him alone!” she shouted. She jumped on the vampire’s back, reaching around his neck to grab at his throat. Throttle him.But it was too late. The vampire hissed at her as he pulled his sword back, dripping with Conlan’s blood.“You leave him alonenow!” she repeated, mindless with rage. Her self-defense classes kicked in, fingers reaching, digging, in a barely remembered tactic.Go for the eyes, Riley. No matter how big they are, you can always go for the eyes.She dug her fingers in, gagging against the feel as her nails dug into squishiness. The vampire screamed with agony and twisted, heaving her arms away from him.Smashing her to the ground.He turned, clawing at his streaming eyes, and Riley tried to crawl backward to escape. Then the vamp roared out his anguish again, spittle flying from his cracked and twisted fangs, and focused on Conlan, lying so still next to her. The vampire reared back one booted foot, clearly planning to kick Conlan in the head.Riley sucked in a torrent of air and screamed with everything she had in her. She launched herself in front of the vampire to somehow block his foot from crushing Conlan’s skull.And a hailstorm of coppery blades sliced through the air above her to land in the vampire’s chest and throat. His foot wavered, and he staggered.An arc of blue fire—or electrical current—orsomethingnot human, no,neverhuman, not even vampires had blue fire-balls, what thehell?—shot from the hands of one of Conlan’s men and incinerated the vampire’s head.Incinerated.Demolished.As Riley collapsed back onto Conlan’s still form, she started to laugh.Then she couldn’t stop.She laughed and laughed, not registering when the laughter turned to sobs, finally looking up and seeing the ring of men looking down at her, blades drawn. Her head throbbed, ached, seemed as if it would split open from the reverberations of . . .what, exactly?The one standing a little apart from the others tilted his head and pinned her with his icy green gaze. He was beautiful, like the rest of them, and yet his eyes were flat. Dead. In her job, she’d seen hardened recidivist criminals with more emotion in their eyes than his had.“Conlan is not seriously harmed. The blade was coated in poison—the dose would have been fatal to a human,” he stated, imperiously looking down his nose at her. “It will be little trouble to clear it from his blood.”She hiccupped a little, caught her breath, and then glared her defiance up at him. “You look like a serial killer, buddy. But whoever you are, unless you reallycanhelp Conlan, you’ll have to come through me to get to him.”A collective gasp went up from the others, all six, no, allsevenof them—she’d almost missed the one lying on the ground, blood dripping from his head as he raised it to look at her.“She seeks to protect him where we have failed,” he gritted out, wiping blood out of his eyes with one hand. “And we, sworn to his service.”
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Another one of them who looked an awful lot like Conlan nodded his head, face grim, then barked out a laugh. “She sure pegged you, Temple Rat.”Laughing Guy dropped to a crouch on one knee before her, smile fading to somberness, and bowed his head. “Your courage is unknown to us in humans, lady. You offered yourself to protect my brother. But you must let our healer help him.”She clutched at her head, trying to keep it from cracking open, shocked into silence as she recognized the source of the driving pain. It washim. The one kneeling in front of her.No, not exactly. She looked at them all, wonder drowning out fear. It wasallof them. Their emotions. Their rage and pain.Riley reached out one hand to the huge man who claimed to be Conlan’s brother, gently touched his arm, and then flinched back. “Pain,” she whispered. “Fear for your brother. Fury and vengeance . . . who isTerminus? . . .”As the man’s eyes widened, mirroring her own shock, she scanned the rest of the group. Colors, too many colors, pain, the percussion, the drums of their fury pounding in her brain.Pounding in her heart.Pounding in hersoul.Too much. Too much.Toomuchtoomuchtoomuch—She smiled her best, most professional “Hello, I’m your new social worker” smile and primly clasped her hands together. “I’ve had enough now, thank you,” she whispered.Then she closed her eyes and, for the second time that night—the second time in herentire life—she slipped into unconsciousness.But she heard him—Conlan’s brother—as she fell down the dark well of silence into the black. She heard the shock in his voice.“She read me, Alaric. My emotions. And she may have been thought-mining me. She was reading usall.” Barrabas lifted his head, hissing. Drakos raised his gaze from the maps on the table of Barrabas’s private chamber. “My lord? What is it?”“It’s Terminus,” Barrabas snarled, smashing the lamp off the table and to the floor. “He is dead.”“But—”“Permanentlydead. His connection to me snapped. I felt his violence and rage, as a master vampire will feel all of his bloodline.” It was an unsubtle reminder. Drakos was not of Barrabas’s bloodline, and so Barrabas always faced a twinge of doubt about him.“Something—something new, Drakos. We’re facing something new, and whatever it is—whoever it is—has the power to manipulate the elements.”Drakos turned his head to regard the steel vault door built into the wall. “Is it Anubisa? Are you still convinced that she seeks a return to Ragnarok?”“The Doom of the Gods. Maybe. She is daughter-wife to Chaos. What else would she seek? She feeds not on blood, but on terror and despair.”As I would if only I could, and more and more as the years pass.Drakos interrupted his master’s thoughts. “Is it time to consult the scrolls?”Staring at his most brilliant general, Barrabas pondered for a moment.Is he loyal? Can I trust him? Or, does it matter? If he helps me discover the answers I need, he can meet with an accident easily enough.Barrabas crossed to the vault. “I think, perhaps, that it is.”Chapter 11Conlan’s nerve endings burned, pain searing through his body. He came awake with a roar, clutching the throat of the figure in front of him. “Death to the apostates of Algolagnia!”And looked into Alaric’s pitying eyes.He released his viselike grip on the priest’s throat, looking away. Pity was the one thing he’d never stand for—not now, not ever.He needed—heneeded—“Riley?” he asked, voice hoarse. The healing process always burned the body, left the throat sore as if parched. Glancing down at his torn and bloodied shirt and the smooth, unbroken skin where he’d last seen a sword point piercing through, he knew he’d required a little help from Alaric.Another debt to pay.Alaric exchanged a glance with Ven, who stood on Conlan’s other side, then looked back at Conlan. “She is unharmed,” he said.Conlan dragged himself up to sit on the edge of the bed, scanning the familiar room that he recognized as part of one of Ven’s safe houses. It hadn’t changed much in the years since he’d last seen it. Same utilitarian furniture. Same movie posters on the walls.A couple of predators snarled down at him from theKomodo vs. Cobrafilm poster opposite the bed. Conlan looked from the giant beasts to his advisors and nearly laughed. He’d give even odds if the K or the C came up against his brother or Alaric.On second thought, the reptiles wouldn’t stand a chance.“Yeah, she’s all rightphysically,” Ven added cryptically.Conlan stood, swung around to face his brother. “What do you mean, ‘yeah, physically’? Is she hurt? Did one of the vamp bastards get to her with some kind of mind trick?”He was breathing hard with the effort of remaining upright, but damned if he wanted them to know. It was bad enough that Alaric got a free pass to his mind with every healing.Ven shook his head. “No, in spite of the part where she threw her body in front of a vamp’s foot to protect your thick skull. Or—hey,thisis good—the part where she jumped on the back of the bloodsucker who skewered you.”Conlan’s blood rushed out of his face, and the weakness in his knees doubled. “She put herself in danger for me? Where is she? I must see her now. I’ve got to—”Alaric smoothly interrupted. “Perhaps you might say a word to young Denal, who believes, in spite of being outnumbered three to one—”“Yeah, and in spite of hishead wound,” Ven interjected.“That he has failed his prince,” Alaric continued, his eyes snapping green fire at Conlan. “Perhaps you might consider the well-being of your men above that of ahuman.”Conlan clenched his fists, a berserker rage spiking inside him. He forced it down. “Perhaps,” he mocked, “perhapsyou might tell me where they all are, so I can go see for myself.”Ven motioned with his hand toward the doorway of the room, and Conlan headed toward it, first stumbling, then gaining strength as he walked. When he reached the doorway, he paused and looked around at Alaric. Remembering his duty, no matter how much the words stuck in his throat. “My thanks for the healing. And maybe, instead of berating me, you can figure out why my mind is full of nothing but thishuman femaleI just met.”Ven laughed. “Hell, Conlan, I can tell you that. She’s freaking hot—”Conlan whirled around, his hand rising without his volition to grasp the front of Ven’s shirt. “You’d better stop right there, brother,” he snarled. “Compare her to your whores at your own peril.”Ven whistled, clearly unimpressed, then peeled Conlan’s fingers off his shirt. “At my own peril, huh? If she’s got you using formal speak onme, big brother, I guess she really is special.”“Special, definitely. I’d say dangerous, as well,” Alaric said quietly.Conlan ignored him and headed out the door, finally clearing the fuzz out of his brain long enough to remember that he could reach out to Riley’s mind. But when he tried, he got nothing.Which didn’t help with his peace of mind, by a long shot.Ven led him down a short hallway to one of the house’s several bedrooms and pushed open the door. Conlan could see a form huddled under the quilt, unmoving.Fear pierced him. He clutched Ven’s arm in a steel grip, as much to keep from running to her as for support. “You told me she was unharmed.”“Relax. She just seemed to shut down, mentally. Processing overload or something. And no wonder, after what she did.” Ven sketched in the details of the battle, including Riley’s part in it.Conlan stood there and listened to how a fragile human had put her life on the line for him, and pain stabbed into his chest. Right in the vicinity of the heart he thought he’d lost.When Ven got to the moment when Riley had stood up to Alaric, Conlan’s eyes gleamed. “That must have put a sword-fish up his ass. A ‘mere human’ standing up to Poseidon’s high priest? Damn, but she’s brave.”Then he shuddered, self-loathing crashing through him. “Of course, I should have been protecting her. And the rest of you, too.”Ven put a hand on his shoulder. “Relax, bro. We had no way of knowing the vamps were sheathing their blades in poison these days. That sword wound wouldn’t have even slowed you down without it.”Dragging his gaze away from Riley, Conlan looked at his brother. “And the rest of the Seven? Is anybody hurt?”“Come on, I’ll show you while Riley sleeps for a while. Mostly nicks and bruises, nothing they wouldn’t get in a good game ofTlachtli,” he said.Conlan almost laughed. Trust Ven to compare a deadly battle to the ancient Atlantean game of court ball. Well, the Aztecs had sacrificed the losers whenthey’dplayed it, right?They headed back down the hallway toward the room Ven had turned into a games and TV room. “Denal got bashed pretty hard in the head. Luckily, his skull is damn near as thick as yours. Plus, he’s got a big-ass case of ‘I failed my liege lord’ going on. You may want to say something.”Conlan clenched his jaw. “I’m a big boy. I don’t care about me. But you—all of you—need to protect Riley for me.”Ven’s mouth dropped open, then he snapped it shut. “So. I’m gonna wanna know how this chick brought you to this state in—what?—a fewhours?”Conlan blew out a breath as they rounded the corner. “Yeah. I’d like to know that, too.”The six warriors lounging in the room came to various forms of attention when Conlan and Ven walked in. Justice, his ever-present sword sheathed on his back, leaned against the far wall against theGodzillamovie poster. He paused from studying the view outside the room’s single window, flicked a mocking two-fingered salute Conlan’s way, then turned to look outside again.Bastien and Christophe were doing battle on the air hockey table in the corner. Bastien’s huge hand swallowed the mallet he used to strike the puck. They looked up at him, but didn’t stop knocking the yellow disc back and forth across the table.Brennan muted the sound on the television, then slowly rose from the couch to stand. He gazed at Conlan, dispassionate as ever. Poseidon had cursed Brennan for a minor transgression involving a Roman senator’s daughter by removing his emotions.Except maybe having no emotions wasn’t a curse, but a blessing.Conlan wasn’t entirely sure. Especially with his mind continually trying to reach out to Riley, who still lay unresponsive.Alexios ducked his head, a new habit. Then he defiantly raised it and shook his hair away from his face. The terrible scarring caught the glow of the lamps; the light shadowing twisted ridges and valleys of flesh.Conlan remembered how Alexios, with his dark blue eyes and long mane of brown and gold hair, had always been forced to fight off the women. His eyes returned to the scarred left side of the warrior’s face. Would a woman be repelled by it or drawn to the pain haunting his eyes?It wasn’t a question Conlan would have thought to ask. Not before—not now—but for the awareness of Riley sheltered in his mind.Conlan met Alexios’s gaze. “Never be ashamed of scars you earned defending me from Anubisa and her plague of vampire guards, my brother.”Alexios made a sound, nearly a growl, low in his throat. “Scars earnedfailingto defend you, you mean, my lord. As we failed to protect you again, tonight.”A small sound, abruptly cut off, swung Conlan’s attention around to the far corner of the large room, where he saw Denal half sitting, half reclining against the back of another couch.“Denal, are you healed?” Conlan asked, striding over to talk to the youngest of his guard.Denal grimaced. “I am healed. Tired, but healed. Except for my heart, my prince. My heart is desolate for having failed you.”Placing his hand over his heart, Denal looked up at Conlan. “Please take my life now.”Conlan blinked. “Dowhat?”Ven snorted, standing just to the right and behind Conlan. “He’s read too many old scrolls. Plus, this is his first trip topside.”Ven dropped into an easy crouch beside the younger man. “Dude, you’ve got to haul your vocab into the twenty-first century.”“Dude,”the warrior bit off. “However you phrase it, the truth remains the same. I was nearest to Conlan when that vampire attacked him. I should have taken the blade.”Conlan reached out to lay his hand gently on Denal’s head for an instant. “However, from Ven’s account, you were battling three vampires on your own, including another one who’d tried to gut me, right? And you took an axe to the side of your head?”Denal dropped his eyes, but nodded. “It was only the flat end of the axe, my lord.”Bastien interrupted, his low voice a rumble. “Yeah, at least it was hishead. Nothing important in there to damage. We’re golden.”Conlan felt the laughter rising in him at Bastien’s familiar teasing, but knew Denal was far too earnest to understand that his prince wasn’t laughing at him. He bit back his humor and turned a serious face to his youngest warrior. “Thank Poseidon that it was the flat end of the axe, or your head would be split in two. And enough with the ‘my lord’ and ‘my prince’ stuff. Call me Conlan.”He turned in time to see Justice snort and roll his eyes. “Do you have something to say to me, Justice?”The warrior pushed himself away from the wall, uncoiling like a leopard preparing to strike. Strange that he’d always reminded Conlan of a jungle animal. Even with the blue hair.
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“Conlan,prince, whatever we call you, the fact remains—you still haven’t told us what happened to you. What Anubisadidto you.”Justice flicked his gaze down and then back up Conlan’s body, his expression only the slightest fraction away from being a grave insult. “We don’t know that you haven’t been . . . compromised. Do we?”As one, Ven and Christophe headed for Justice. “I’m going to kick your ass for that, blue boy,” Ven snarled.Christophe said nothing, just raised a hand, scowling. A shimmering ball of energy coalesced in his palm.Conlan held up a hand to stop the confrontation. “Enough!” he commanded. “Leave him alone. He has a point.”Alaric’s voice sounded from the doorway. “Hewouldhave a point, if I hadn’t been the one who healed you. Both now and before.”Stalking into the room, Alaric came to a halt in the middle. “Do any of you doubt Poseidon’s powers?”Not even Justice dared blasphemy. As one, seven heads shook from side to side.No doubt here.Alaric smiled that terrifying smile of his—the one that kept even the greediest Atlantean lord kicking in his full tithe to Poseidon’s Temple. “As you should not. The healing process is not simply physical. I see inside of the true intentions and darkest memories of the one being healed.”His gaze shot to Conlan. “Our prince is not corrupted, though any of the rest of you would have been. He is stronger than evenheknows.”Conlan broke his gaze away. The idea of Alaric sharing his memories of torture and fire wasn’t exactly comforting.“Damaged goods.”“Warped beyond redemption.”Anubisa was the queen of lies, and yet maybe there was the edge of truth in what she’d told him so many times.Alaric continued. “Left to Anubisa’s delicate touch, most of you would have broken. Conlan came back to us whole. Stronger than he was before. Do not question his rule in front of me again, Lord Justice.”Justice bowed his head. Either he agreed, or he was biding his time for challenge.Conlan decided to worry about the latter at another time.Alaric almost casually waved one hand, and the energy ball still glowing in Christophe’s hand winked out. The warrior snatched his hand to his mouth, hissing.“Don’t play with power in front of me,little boy,” Alaric said to him. “You refused the strictures of the Temple.”Christophe, a good two centuries past being a boy, little or otherwise, stepped toward Alaric. Defiance outlined every inch of the tightened cords of muscle in his neck and throat.“Poseidon’s power isn’t limited to those of you who let the Temple cut your balls off, priest. The power of calling water and the other elements is free to those of us who dare.”Alaric’s eyes gleamed so brightly it was as if a piercing green searchlight flashed over Christophe’s face. “I don’t think you want to have a discussion aboutballswith one who faced the Rite of Oblivion and lived. There are no eunuchs in my temple,little boy.”Christophe didn’t back down. “Yeah, well, the rite of acceptance as a Warrior of Poseidon is no solstice picnic. Perhaps you ought to rememberthat, old man.”Conlan stepped between the two of them, even though Christophe had shown enough sense to step the hell back. “That’s enough. We need to focus on the Trident, as you keep reminding me, Alaric. Not settle old scores—or start new ones—right here in front of the hockey table.”He turned to Christophe. “And notallelements, Christophe. You know that fire is forbidden to the Warriors of Poseidon—to all Atlanteans.”Bastien slammed the air hockey puck into its goal with a flourish. “Yeah, nobody would be stupid enough to play with fire, my pr—er,Conlan. We’re golden. Why don’t you and Alaric get some rest so we can get an early start in the morning? We have some Mycenaean ass to kick.”Alaric nodded. “I admit to needing rest after performing two healings. That poison took more than a little effort to disperse.”Conlan noticed for the first time that Alaric’s face was almost gray and cursed under his breath. A ruler should be aware of the health and needs of all of his subjects. Even those who were strongest.Yeah, well, I suck at being a ruler. No argument there.“Rest,” he ordered. “I’ll be in with Riley. Ven, set up shifts to watch. You can—”Ven rolled his eyes. “I know what to do, Conlan. This isn’t my first day on the job.”Conlan inclined his head, returning to formal speak to underscore his demand. “I cede the task to the King’s Vengeance. All of you—remember your early training and shield your emotions.”There was no other way to say it but baldly. “Riley isaknasha.”He heard the indrawn breaths, saw Alaric’s eyes narrow, and waited.Brennan spoke for the first time since Conlan had walked into the room. “That would explain her reaction after the battle. If she needs guarding, perhaps I would be the appropriate choice, since I have no emotions with which to overwhelm her senses,” he said in his quiet voice. “It would make my curse bear some merit, for once.”Conlan narrowed his eyes, searching the warrior’s face for signs of bitterness, but there was only the patient calm with which Brennan always faced the world. A curl of anger stirred in his gut at the idea of Brennan—ofanymale—spending time with Riley.All righty, then. I need to get a fucking grip.“Thanks, Brennan. We will discuss our plans in the morning, but I appreciate your offer,” he said, inclining his head toward his emotionless warrior.Then he turned toward Ven. “I need some rest, to complete the healing. Give me until dawn, unless there’s some new crisis.”With a last narrow-eyed glance at Justice, Conlan left the room. Heading for Riley, who was sending out flutters of awakening consciousness.As he walked down the hallway, he heard Bastien. “Ven, what’s the deal with this Riley? An emotional empath after so many thousands of years? What the hell is going on?”Conlan shook his head, pulled by an almost magnetic compulsion toward her room.I wish I knew.Chapter 12Alaric waited until he heard Conlan’s footsteps reach Riley’s room, then turned to face the Seven. “We need to discuss this human—this potentialaknasha—and what we shall do about her.”Ven leaned back against a well-stocked bookcase. “You planning to hold this discussion behind my brother’s back?”His voice was calm. The look in his eyes was not. “Skirting perilously close to treason, my man.”“He may not be receptive to reason right now,” Alaric returned. “He’s not exactly acting rationally about her. Did any of you notice that he never questioned the presence of those vampires?”Justice turned from the window to cast a sardonic look at Alaric. “Yet, somehow, whenImentioned that he might not be rational, you jumped down my throat.”Alaric shook his head once, dismissive. “This is not a question of whether or not Anubisa compromised him. I told you that she had not, and I stand by my pronouncement. However, his actions in regard to this human female are not entirely logical.”Alexios made a noise in his throat, just short of a growl. “You, of all people, would deny him a distraction from his nightmares? From the torment that no doubt haunts him, day and night?”Alaric wondered whether Alexios was talking about Conlan’s torment or his own. Wondered if Alexios knew, himself.Then dismissed the question as irrelevant.“I would deny him nothing, especially not the vehicle of his ascension. However, every hour that Reisen holds the Trident, Conlan is one hour closer to losing the throne of Atlantis.”Slamming his game piece down on the table, Bastien clenched his hands into fists, enormous arm muscles bunching. “I will reach down into Reisen’s throat and rip his kidneys out. I will slice his balls off and use them for earrings. I will personally turn every warrior in the House of Mycenae into a eunuch.”Ven pulled one of his daggers out of its sheath and examined the blade. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll have a little help with that, my friend. And, speaking of vamps, what the hellwasthat about? We’ve encountered enough of them on our patrols, but we try never to leave witnesses. Why are we suddenly getting attacked by a group of bloodsuckers?”He stopped, the blood draining out of his face, the lines bracketing his mouth whitening. “Anubisa. She’s finally broken the curse that kept her from telling the vamps about us, hasn’t she?”Ven slammed his dagger back into its sheath. “We’re fucking doomed.”Brennan, unruffled as ever, stood utterly still. “But were the vampires after us, or is the female the target? That was Terminus leading the pack. He is one of Barrabas’s most trusted generals. What use would Barrabas have for Riley? Does he recognize her empathic powers?”He put his hands together in front of him, steepling his fingers. “We have hunted Barrabas for more than two thousand years, with no success, and the humans elect him to their government. SenatorBarnes.You must admit, the irony is delicious.”Justice smashed his fist into the back of the couch. “You’ve got a fucked-up sense ofdelicious, warrior. All that means to me is that he’s more visible these days. The better for me to find him, catch him, and cut his ugly head from his ugly damned body.”Brennan moved his head a fraction of an inch and pinned Alaric with his gaze, ignoring Justice entirely. “Further, the question remains, Alaric. Do you yet lack the energy to scry for the Trident?”Closing his eyes, Alaric sent his senses reaching out into the night. But the energy required to remove the poison from Conlan’s bloodstream had drained his resources. He felt nothing—not even the slightest resonance from the Trident.And the loss of it was like a gaping wound in his soul.My duty. Mine as high priest to safeguard the sea god’s Trident.My failure.He opened his eyes, feeling the weight of everyone’s gaze upon him. “I must rest. I can feel nothing of the Trident’s power. Reisen and his warriors are certainly shielding themselves from me, but I should be able to sense the location of the Trident when I have recovered from the healing.”Further considering, Alaric finally shook his head. “I have no idea what to think about this attack. But know this: if Reisen has somehow allied himself with the undead, Poseidon’s vengeance will be vicious beyond the meaning of the word.”From the couch, where he huddled on one side, Denal laughed bitterly, then pounded his fist against his leg. “Vamps, Reisen. A human who shows more courage than I. I’m utterly useless. First, I failed to protect my prince, and then I allow our priest to waste his energy healing my worthless head.”Justice leaned forward and smacked Denal in the side of his now-healed head. “Yeah. Good job on your first mission, Junior.”Denal leapt off the couch at Justice, but Alaric had endured enough of them both. Almost negligently, he waved one hand, causing Denal to hang mid-leap, frozen in the air.Justice whistled, but stepped back from Denal. “Nice trick, man. Can you teach me how to do that?”Alaric’s view of the room shimmered to emerald green, and he knew the limits of his self-control had finally been breached.Brennan stepped forward. “The sea god’s power is shining fiercely from your eyes in warning, high priest. Perhaps I may intervene and escort you to your rest?”Christophe grinned. “Yeah, catch a chill wave, dude. Don’t go all ‘power of the gods’ on us.”Brennan’s lack of any emotion, combined with Christophe’s irreverence, returned a measure of calm to Alaric. The green glow receded from his vision. He stared at each of the Warriors in turn, and each bowed to him.All but Ven, who simply quirked a smile. “Yeah, yeah, you’re the big bad—you’re the dark bogeyman. But we still haven’t figured out what we’re going to do about this female. Plus, Barrabas is going to get his panties in a serious twist once he finds out we sliced and diced his general.”Alaric released Denal, who thumped to the floor.“We’ll take the female to Atlantis, to the Temple. We will study her and find out if she truly isaknasha. Moreover, we will research the ancient scrolls for talk of the soul-meld,” Alaric replied, suddenly touched by the icy fingers of fear.“The what?” Bastien asked, brows drawing together.Alaric studied them, weighing how much to disclose. If Conlan had found soul-melding—last written of more than ten thousand years ago—with ahuman, Atlantean tradition would be rocked to its very foundation.Everything would change.Everything.He fought off the premonition, squared his shoulders. “It is nothing to worry about at this juncture. As to the vamps, we will continue to defeat them, as we have done for millennia.”He paused, then slowly nodded his head. “And the female? If she poses any threat to Conlan, we will kill her.” Riley woke from an uneasy sleep in which harsh-faced men with glowing eyes tried to murder her. She twisted to look at her alarm clock to see how long she’d managed to restthistime. Except her alarm clock wasn’t on her nightstand.Come to think of it,thatwasn’t her nightstand.She jerked up, suddenly entirely awake, and wrestled with the quilt that pinned her to the bed.Not her quilt. Not her bed.Where the hell am I?When the door started to open, she let out a little cry and rolled off the bed, quilt and all, immediately raising her head to stare across the bed at the intruder.
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“It’s you,” she gasped, as Conlan filled the doorway. Every muscled inch of him, standing there in nothing but his pants and his unbuttoned shirt. She couldn’t help it; she stared. The man was pure muscle from the vicious-looking scar at his throat, to his chest, all the way to his chiseled abdomen, and further down to his . . .She jerked her gaze back to his face, her cheeks burning, and tried for a little “I wasn’t checking you out” bravado. “This stalking thing has got to stop.”His lips quirked in a half smile, then his face arranged itself back into seriousness. “I’m here to offer my thanks, my lady.”Completely aware of how ridiculous she looked, sitting on the floor trapped in a quilt, Riley tried for dignity. “What’s with the Camelot speech? One minute you sound normal, and the next you sound like Sir Lancelot or something.”She pushed her hair back away from her face, wondering just how bad she looked. Not that this was exactly the time to go all girly, but she was feeling a little insecure in front of Adonis or whoever the hell he was.He laughed a little, and the sound of it stilled her whirling thoughts—stole inside her, wrapping itself around empty spaces.It didn’t make sense—noneof it made sense.How could someone she’d just met fit like a puzzle piece matched to her own jagged edges? She’d never believed in love at first sight, or destiny, or pretty much anything to do with romance.She saw the results of so-called love every day at her job. Saw, and tried to pick up the pieces. It was enough to send Cupid to the gin bottle.But there was something about this man . . .“You’re right,” he said, walking farther into the room, pushing the door shut behind him. “We forget, sometimes, the modern speech we’ve learned over the years. Especially in times of duress, when we revert to formality as a matter of protocol.”He bowed his head. “I offer my apologies, nonetheless. You deserve more from me than I have words to give.”She could feel a torrent of emotion from him, as if a door opened and his feelings poured through. Remorse. Sorrow.Aching, biting pain.She lifted a hand to her head, expecting the barrage of emotions from the others to thunder through her head any minute, but, thankfully, the emotions of everyone else seemed to be muted, subdued. Her mind was packed with cotton wool, shut down. In self-defense?Why couldn’t she remember what had happened? She’d seen Conlan through the window, and then . . . “Where am I? Why has my head gone all fuzzy? Why are you—oh, heck, will you turn around for just a moment?”He raised one of those elegant, dark eyebrows, then nodded once and complied.“You are in a safe place. Your head is no doubt recovering from the barrage of emotions thrust into it earlier,” Conlan answered. “I asked my warriors to shield their emotions from you. I should have realized it would be painful for you to be subjected to so many of us at once. I’m sorry for that.”She fought her way out of the quilt and stood up. “You don’t have to keep apologizing, Conlan. Just maybe tell me what the hell is going on.”Much less embarrassing to face him eye to eye, rather than looking up all six and a half feet of him.“Okay, Conlan, you can turn around now. And I’d really like some answers. First, are you—”Midsentence, the gauze over her mind lifted and her memory returned in full. The battle. The sword. Conlan falling—lying so still.Her eyes widened, and she started walking, then running, around the bed toward him. “Oh, holy crap! You—you were dead! Or almost dead! Why are you standing up? You should be in a hospital!”She reached him and grabbed the edges of his shirt, yanking them back to look for the hideous sword wound that must be . . .Had to be . . .Wasn’t there.“It’s not there,” she said slowly. “How is that possible?”Almost dazed, she placed her palm over his heart, waiting. Then she felt it. The thump of his heartbeat. The muscles of his chest tightened under her hand, and she looked up at his clenched jaw, then jerked her hand back.“You’re not a vampire, because you’ve got a heartbeat,” she said. “Are you a shape-shifter? What kind of furry are you going to get?”Backing away, she looked for windows, another door, maybe a zookeeper.Any kind of help.He laughed again. “I’m not going to turn furry, brave one. I am nothing you know.”“You can say that again,” she muttered.Suddenly, shockingly, he knelt in front of her. Even kneeling, his head came to her chest, reminding her again of his size and strength.Not exactly the kind of stranger you wanted to be alone in a room with.Except—except she’d been inside of his mind. And there was nothing but integrity in what she’d felt of his emotions. She didn’t knowhowshe knew that, but she did.He looked up at her, his black eyes intent. He was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen—more handsome than she’d ever imagined a man could be. Maybe shewasdreaming.The tiny flame of blue-green she’d thought she’d imagined before flickered in the center of his pupils. “I am sworn to be a protector of all humankind, and—but for one brief lapse of time—have fulfilled this role for centuries. Yet tonight, in one moment, you showed more courage and bravery than I have ever known.”She started to speak, but he stopped her by taking her hands in his own. “You have my gratitude, and you will be under my protection for now and until the waves no longer touch the shore.”It had the feeling of a promise—the feeling of a vow.Suddenly, Riley was having a hard time rememberinganyreason why she shouldn’t want to hear promises or vows from this man. Except . . . except . . . something he’d said—“Humankind?Well, it was pretty clear out there that you weren’t human, what with the balls of vamp-incinerating energy. So just what the hellareyou?” she said, breaking out of the trance his words had put her in and backing away.Conlan smiled and rose gracefully to his feet. “I’m not of any of the nine hells,” he said. “I am Conlan of Atlantis.”Riley burst out laughing. “Oh. Right. Of course you are. And I’m Alice of Wonderland.”She shook her head. Old Alice had it right.Curiouser and curiouser.Chapter 13Conlan put his hands behind his back, clasping them together. He couldn’t let her know the self-control it was costing him to stand in this room with her.Alone.With a giant bed taking up most of the floor. Every part of his body tensed at the thought of wrapping her back up in that quilt.Wrapping her up in his arms.What in the nine hells was wrong with him? He was worse than a randy recruit coming out of training. He’d never reacted this way to a woman.Anywoman. Especially not a human. Even one who looked flushed and sleepy and exactly as she would look in the morning after a night of pleasure in his arms.Focus.His thoughts flickered to the Atlantean maiden who had been selected for him.The woman he’d never met—who’d never met him.More archaic Atlantean politics, cold and dead.Unlike the woman who stood in front of him, warm and alive.“Hot, even,” he murmured.Riley only stopped moving away from him when she backed into the bed. His gaze was drawn down to her legs. Miles of legs. Endless legs wrapped in snug, faded denim.He wanted her legs wrapped around his waist.Breasts tempting even under that oversized shirt, generous enough that he could see them press against the fabric when she moved in certain ways. He’d felt them against his chest on the beach. Her waist curved in perfectly. Just the right size for his hands.She was lush and luscious. Not a stick figure of a woman like the type popular this decade. He could hold her under him, drive into her without the worry of breaking her, fill his hands with her—“Atlantis. Right,” she said again, jerking him out of his fantasies and maybe even stopping him from coming right there in his pants.He cursed under his breath in ancient Atlantean.“And you can stop that right now,” she continued, cheeks pink again. As pink as they’d been when she looked at his chest. The thought of it sent heat crashing back through him, and he took a step toward her.“Stop what?” He took another step.Her voice was breathless, husky. “Stop staring at my legs. Stop looking at me like I’m on the menu. Stop coming closer. Stop being so . . . so . . . so over the top.”“Over the top?” Another step.She held her hands up as if to ward him off, though he was easily another five steps away from her. “And stop repeating everything I say,” she said, stomping her foot.It made him smile. So fierce! No wonder he couldn’t shake her from his thoughts.He was in trouble.He didn’t care.“If I promise to stop repeating your words, may I take another step?” he asked, drinking in the sight of her. In the golden glow of the bedside lamps, her hair was firelight on amber. Sunshine on the golden dome of Poseidon’s Temple. Eyes as blue as the ocean surface at twilight.Damn, suddenly he was a poet. He was losing his mind.Maybe another step closer wasn’t such a good idea. He stopped walking.She shook her head, then nodded. “I don’t think—yes, no,aargh! Why is it so hard to think around you?”Conlan folded his arms over his chest, reason suddenly returning. “That’s a good question,” he said, eyes narrowing. “Why doyouhave such an effect onme? Whatareyou? How can you access the Atlantean mental paths and—more to the point—how can you feel our emotions? How can I feel yours? Are you a weapon sent to test my defenses?”“Weapon, yeah, right, you idiot. I’m not a weapon, I’m a social worker.” Stepping sideways, Riley began to edge around the bed. “And I see we’re back to the Atlantis thing. You’re from the lost continent. The figment of Plato’s imagination that supposedly disappeared more than eleven thousand years ago.ThatAtlantis?”He unfolded his arms and took another step toward her. He couldn’t help himself.He didn’twantto help himself.“Plato was disciplined for his talkativeness in theCritiasandTimaeus. The poet Solon knew no better than to share with Plato the secrets he’d gained from that Egyptian priest. But our descendants know to keep the secrets of Atlantis.”Another step. Her tantalizing scent reached him. Fresh. Slightly floral, with a touch of green. Ocean ferns, perhaps.He inhaled deeply, knowing he could find her by scent alone from that moment. Loving her scent in his nostrils.Wanting her taste in his mouth. His hands actually ached to feel her skin.She was looking at him. Oh,right. Something about continents. “Not so much alostcontinent.Wealways knew where we were,” he said. “We’ve simply developed shields to hide the Seven Isles from your technology.”He smiled. “Your invention of submarines was almost a problem for a while.”She backed clear around to the other side of the bed. “Okay, show me your gills.”Completely caught off guard, Conlan stared at her for a moment, then threw his head back and roared with laughter.Riley looked at him as if he were insane.Of course, she wasn’t that far off. He probablywasinsane.Catching his breath, he shook his head. “Thank you for that,aknasha. I needed to laugh, after the events of this evening.”His smile disappeared. “After the past seven years, in fact.”Making a decision, he backed away from her and dropped into the chair in the corner of the room. “If I sit here, far away from you, would you feel safe enough with me to listen to what I have to say?”Trembling, seemingly poised for flight, Riley stood for the space of several heartbeats looking at him. Finally, she seemed to reach a decision of her own. She nodded and sat, cross-legged, on the bed. “Yes, I’ll listen. It’s the strangest thing, but I already feel safe with you. Or maybe it’s not strange, considering what happened on the beach earlier.”Conlan wanted truth between them. “You’ve been inside my mind, Riley. Unwanted or not, you know me now on a deeper level than most people do. Maybe on a deeper level than anyone, barring our healer.”She stared at him, hesitating, then nodded.“You must realize by now that I’ve been inside your mind as well,” he said, almost afraid to admit it. “I’ve seen your goodness and your self-sacrifice. Iknowyou.”Unless her deception was hidden behind some mental trickery, his mind mocked him. Who knew what a true empath was capable of?Jumping up off the bed, Riley began to pace back and forth in front of him. “You don’t know anything,” she said bitterly. “Goodness? Yeah, right. I’m just somebody who tries to do her job the best she can. And usually fails miserably at it.”She stopped in front of him, so close he could reach out and touch her. He had to clench his hands on the arms of the chair to keep from doing so.To keep from touching her.Damn, he wanted to touch her.“Tell me,” he said, instead.“Right. You’re from mythicalAtlantis, and you want to hear about a day in the life of a social worker?”“Tell me,” he repeated, opening his mind to her so she could feel the truth of it. Feel how he wanted to know all about her.A look of wonder came over her face. “You really do want to know, don’t you?”
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“I do.”She paused for a moment, then sank down onto the carpet near him and—almost in a trance—recounted the events of her day. As she related the story of the girl with the gun, Conlan had to fight with every ounce of his self-control to keep her from seeing his rage. He wanted to kill. He wanted to rend, tear, and put his fist through the wall.He did none of those things, but sat with a mask of calm on his face, reaching desperately for his training, for his objectivity. How could he be affected so much by this woman?He looked at her, sitting on the floor in front of him, anguish on her face as she told of the children she tried so hard to rescue. Babies having babies. The hopeless struggle against poverty and a society that didn’t have time for the lost ones.As she talked, as he felt the emotions underlying her words, the question in his mind changed.How could henotbe affected so much by this woman?Her words trailed off. “So that’s when you showed up, and I guess you know the rest. Maybe now you can tell me exactly who and what you are, and why you followed me to my house.”She looked around, blinking, at the room, then scrambled to her feet, wary again. “While you’re at it, you can let me know where the hell I am.”He stood, slowly, so as not to startle her. “You humble me, Riley. I must match your honesty with my own. I am chief among the Warriors of Poseidon, sworn to safeguard humankind.”Grasping the edge of his shirt, he pulled it aside to show the mark of Poseidon he bore. High on the right side of his chest, where the sea god himself had burned the symbol of the Warriors of Poseidon into Conlan’s flesh.The circle representing all the peoples of the world, intersected by the pyramid of knowledge deeded to them by the ancients. The silhouette of Poseidon’s Trident bisecting them both.“This mark I wear offers testimony to my vow. And yet, from what I hear between the words in your retelling, this night you deserve to wear it more than do I.”She lifted her hand, almost as if to trace the symbol with her fingertips. Then she pulled her hand back and grinned. “You’re doing that formal talking thing again,” she said. “Somehow, it reminds me of my mother, yelling for me when I was in trouble.Riley Elisabeth Dawsonmeant I was in big trouble.”“Riley Elisabeth,” he repeated, savoring the sound of it. “It fits you. Strong and feminine, both.”Somehow, unknowing, he’d moved closer to her. The heat of her, the seduction in the curves of her body, in the line of her neck, drew him in. She looked up at him, flickers of alarm changing to awareness in her eyes.He could stillfeelher inside him. Her thoughts, her emotions.He wanted to feel himself insideher.Conlan lifted his hands to her arms, pulling her forward. Slowly. Gently. Giving her time to deny him.Praying she wouldn’t.He stepped forward to meet her halfway. Drinking in her scent. Wanting to bury his face in the silky hair that tumbled past her shoulders.Wanting to bury his body in her heat.By Poseidon’s balls, he needed to touch her again. Needed to kiss her again. “Riley,” he groaned. “Please.”She knew exactly what he meant. He could see it as the awareness in her eyes changed to expectation.Anticipation.She lifted her face and touched her lips gently to his. And he was lost.Lost in the sensation, in the colors sparkling in her mind—in his mind—intheirminds together. Lost in the feel of her softness pressed against his hardness. The kiss deepened.He deepened it. He swept his tongue inside of her warmth, her sweet, welcoming mouth, and his knees nearly buckled when she put her arms around his neck and pulled him even closer to her.Heat, colors, and a torrent of need. Caught in a maelstrom, a cyclone, a full-on, balls-to-the-wall ocean gale of wanting, he tightened his arms around her and lifted her until her feet were off the floor. Her breasts rubbed against his bare chest. He groaned deep in his throat, inherthroat, in the space trapped between their mouths.She lifted her legs and wrapped them around his hips, wiggling to gain purchase on his body, and the heat between her legs was suddenly right up against his cock. Impossibly, he hardened even further, sure he was going to split his pants—rip her shirt open—tear her jeans off. Find out if the colors in his head would intensify into a starburst when he drove into her.The passion swallowing his senses rocketed through him with a bang.Or no,damnit. That was the door slamming open.Conlan whirled around to face the threat, snarling, pushing Riley down and behind him as he did so.Mine. Mine to protect. Mine!Ven stood at the door, mouth hanging open for the second time that night. “Er, yeah. Well. Ah, sorry to interrupt, but Alaric figures you need your rest and you’re, well, you’re broadcasting a sex vibe that is so slamming loud you’re making every man in the house horn—ah,uncomfortable.”From behind him, Riley made a choked sound. Conlan felt the waves of embarrassment pulsing from her. He fought for rationality, sucking in a deep breath.Ven. My brother. Not a threat.“I—yeah. Rest.” He took another deep, steadying breath. Alaric. The Trident. “Has he been able to scry the location of the Trident?”Ven shook his head, amusement stamped on his face. “No, he needs to recuperate from the healing. But he used a few unflattering words to describe how you’re, ah, keeping him from his rest.”Conlan could imagine how his brother was editing Alaric’s language. If Riley were broadcasting this furnace of sexual desire to every warrior in the house—and to the priest, who’d taken a vow of celibacy—well, damn.Damn.“Point taken,” he said, still breathing hard. “Riley also needs to rest.” He waited for his brother to take the hint and leave, but Ven wasn’t much for subtlety.“Aren’t you going to introduce me, brother?” Ven stood there, no sign of movement, grinning at him like a fool.Conlan opened his mouth to smack him down, but Riley surprised him by stepping out from behind his back. “Look, Tarzan, I may be embarrassed, but it’s not like you need to protect me from your own brother, right?”She walked toward Ven, who’d snorted out a laugh at “Tarzan.” She walked to him, shoulders squared, as if trying to act nonchalant. “I’m Riley.”When she held out her hand toward his brother, Conlan took an involuntary step forward, a growl starting low in his throat, before he caught himself.He snapped his head up and stared at Ven, shocked by his own reaction. From the look on Ven’s face, Conlan had surprised his brother, too.Conlan dug his fingers into his thighs, fighting for control. What washappeningto him?Expression wary, Ven glanced away from Conlan and took Riley’s hand and gently shook it. “You can call me Ven.”Then Ven did something that surprised the hell out of Conlan. He bowed deeply, unsheathing his daggers in a flowing motion and crossing them over his chest. “My service and my honor are yours, Lady Sunlight, for your defense of my brother and prince.”Riley snapped her head around to stare at Conlan, horror in her eyes. “Prince? Did he sayprince?”Ven straightened. “Oops. I thought you told her, Conlan, since we’re taking her home to study.”The sparkle of Riley’s emotions sharpened and then snapped shut inside of Conlan’s head.She fisted her hands on her hips. “Prince?” she repeated, voice going dangerously low. “Takingwhohome to Atlantis? And studywhat, exactly?”Ven’s lips quivered, as he evidently tried to keep from laughing. Conlan grimly vowed to make him pay, in a large and serious way. The King’s Vengeance wasn’t above getting his ass kicked by his brother, even now.“Oops again,” Ven repeated. “Later, dude. I can see you two have things to talk about.”As Ven backed out of the room and closed the door behind him, Conlan sighed with real regret. “Any chance we can go back to the kissing part?” he asked, trying for his best innocent expression.She narrowed her eyes. “Start. Talking.”He sighed again. “Yeah. I didn’t think so.”Chapter 14Riley backed around the bed again, needing to put space between herself and Conlan. Or, should she say,PrinceConlan.PrinceConlan. Holy Atlantean royalty. What had she gotten herself into this time? And why did he have to smell so good? Like spices and ocean and pure, unadulterated man?Between his delicious scent, that unbelievable body, and his sensual voice, she should have known he was too good to be human. Heck, her last date had been a lawyer who had way more brains than muscles.Not that she didn’t think Conlan had brains. She’d been inside his mind and caught a glimpse of fierce intelligence. Most of what he said demonstrated logic and an analytical aptitude. But when he touched her, well, logic went right out the window. Right outbothof their windows, to stretch a metaphor clear out of shape.“After a decade of living with shape-shifters and vampires who pretty much walked right out of the myths and legends and into the streets—heck, intoCongress—the idea of Atlantis isn’t as hard to believe as it might have been,” she admitted. “Plus, there’s that nifty trick you did with the water. Makes sense that an Atlantean would have power over water, right?”He smiled that slow, dangerous smile, and she rushed on before she could get distracted. “So, do you talk to fish? And what about the gills? Got ’em? If yes, where? I mean, are you . . . um, do you have . . .normalparts?”He blinked, then started laughing again as the burn climbed up her chest to her face. “You never say the expected, do you?” he asked.Then he smiled and raised his hands, palms up. A glowy blue-green light emanated from both of them and sparkled up and out, around and around, spiraling in a cascade of light around the room and then through the door into the bathroom.In seconds, the leading edge of the spiral of light returned to the bedroom, but with one startling difference. The light swirled in a whirling tunnel of water. The tube of liquid—maybe three or four inches thick—curved and swooped around the room. Around her, where she stood, frozen, her mouth hanging open.Then it returned to Conlan and surrounded him, seeming to caress his body for a moment and then vanish into his skin.Except he wasn’t wet at all.She snapped her mouth shut, sure she looked like an idiot, especially when his smile turned into a laugh.Damn, but he wasseriouslyhot when he laughed. Her nerves, frayed already from the overdose of testosterone and, okay, the sheer sexual tension in the room, shredded even further.She leaned back against the wall and rubbed her arms with her hands, trying to get rid of the goose bumps. “No, I don’t usually do the expected,” she said, trying to return to the normality of their previous conversation. “You should hear the things my sister used to do to me to keep me from blurting out her secrets in front of boys. Neat trick with the water, by the way.”He eased himself back down in the chair, keeping his distance, clearly trying to put her at ease. “Thanks. I can do balloon animals, too.”“I just bet you can.”He grinned at her. “I never had a sister. It was just me and Ven. Do you have any other sisters? Or brothers?”“No, just the two of us. Mom and Dad died when we were young, and we developed an ‘us against the world’ mentality. The foster homes . . .” She bit her lip. “We learned not to love people. You love somebody and they leave.”She shook off the melancholy. It’s not like he wanted to hear this stuff. Except, he looked interested. Hefeltlike he was interested.“Quinn is—well, she’s kind of fragile. I always took care of her, even though she was a little older.” It didn’t really make sense to share her family history while backed against the wall, so she cautiously took a step forward and perched on the edge of the bed.Ready to jump away from him if he came near her.Or was that ready to jumponhim if he came near her?She ruthlessly shoved the thought out of her mind.No thinking about sex, no thinking about sex, no—“Thinking about sex,” he said.“What?” she gasped, stunned to hear him speak her thoughts. Except maybe she shouldn’t be surprised, given how they’d shared each other’s emotions. Still, she could feel her face flaming again. One of the joys of being a redhead was the tendency to blush like a house on fire. Didn’t exactly make for a poker face.He clasped his hands, resting them on his lap, then looked up to meet her gaze. “We need to talk about this. The intensity. Of the attraction between us, which is intense. It’s really . . .” He paused, cleared his throat. “Intense.”She laughed a little. “Yeah. I get that you think it’s intense. Well, it’s not like I go around jumping every hunky foreign prince who comes my way. Not that any royalty hangs around my neighborhood, but you know what I mean. Intense.”That smug, all-male smile returned to his face, which, in spite of every feminist principle she’d ever known, somehow made her want to put her mouth on him.All over him.A wave of heat washed over her, and she groaned. “Conlan, I don’tknowwhat this is about. Could it be—could it be some kind of side effect of reading your emotions? Maybe I’ll react this way to every Atlantean I meet.”He immediately tensed in his chair, leaning forward, the hands clasped in his lap going white-knuckled. “For whatever reason, Riley,” he ground out through gritted teeth, “I don’t seem to be able to handle the thought of youreactingthis way toanyother male, Atlantean or otherwise.”
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She watched him as he visibly fought for control, his nostrils flaring as he breathed deeply, white lines deepening at the corners of his mouth. The thought thatshedid that to him—made him lose control, even a little—was, oddly enough, turning her on.Alot.Especially since she had the feeling he wasn’t the type to lose control all that much. She’d seen inside his mind, after all. Rigid control, duty, and honor. Not a lot of spontaneity or footloose happiness.And the pain. Oh, she’d never forget the pain.“Conlan, not that I encourage this tree swinging and chest beating, but I think—I think it’s not a problem,” she ventured. “After all, I kinda forgot that your brother was just in the room. He evenlookslike you, and he must have a lot of the same superpowered Atlantean DNA, right?”Conlan smiled a little and nodded, still clenching his hands together.“Well, there was nothing. Zip,” she said, shrugging. “I mean, he’s great-looking and all—”Conlan made that strange growling noise low in his throat again, and she held up her hands, palms out. “I meant to say that he’sokay-looking and all, but I didn’t have any urge to strip his clothes off and lick him all over or anything,” she finished, smiling.Then she realized what she’d just said, by implication.Oh, crap.Conlan hadn’t missed it, either, if the expression on his face was anything to go by. The look that said he wanted to lick her right back.Heat spiked through her center, making her actually clench her legs together against the wetness that threatened to spill out.Okay, this is bad. Thoughts of hunky prince licking anybody—er, anything—are off-limits.He shoved a hand through that delicious black hair of his and shot up out of the chair. Then he started doing a little pacing of his own. “Riley, until we understand why we’re reacting like this to each other, it’s perhaps better if we stay away from each other.”“Yeah, okay, that’s fine. In fact, why don’t you take me back to my house—or just call me a cab, a cab would be good, and I’ll get out of your hair,” she said, inexplicably hurt by his having voiced the same thing she’d been thinking only moments before.He stopped pacing and turned to stare down at her. “I’m sorry, but you’re not going anywhere.”Hurt changed in a flash to pissed off. “What do you mean? Look, buddy, you may have the right to order your Atlantean flunkies around, but I’m an American citizen. You’ve got zero rights where I’m concerned.”He strode over to the bed and sat next to her before she could move. “It’s not about rights,aknasha. It’s about your own protection. The vampires who attacked us at your house—why were they there? Were they after us? I suspect so, given the nature of the attack.”Taking her hands in his, he continued. “But now they know you live in that house. They’re going to be wondering what connection you have to us. You won’t be safe there anymore.”She looked down at their hands, wondering if he even realized that his thumb was caressing the back of her hand. Wondering how such a small gesture could make her bones turn to liquid.Suddenly afraid that he was using some sort of Atlantean version of mind control on her.She yanked her hands away from his. “So what you’re saying is that you’ve ruined my life.”“No,” he said softly. “I think what I’m saying is that you’ve complicated mine.”Scooting back from him on the bed, she tried to be rational. “All right. Let’s back up. Tell me what I need to know about Atlantis. Tell me why these vampires are after you. Tell me whataknashameans, and why you’re so freaked out that I might be one. I work better with information, so give me some already.”Conlan smiled, and some of the tension seemed to leave his shoulders. “Information is definitely something I can give you. You deserve it. First, my homeland.Atlantis. It would take years for me to tell you about Atlantis. Much of the myth, some of the legend, and even some of the fantasy is true.”“But no gills?” Riley couldn’t help but return his smile, her own a little mischievous.“Definitely no gills. We are much like you.”“So, human, then, with special powers?”He shook his head. “No, not human. A cousin to your species, certainly. Closer to humankind than to the shape-shifters. Far different from the undead. We lived in harmony with your kind for many thousands of years.”“And then you sank below the water, and now you live in a bubble, right?” Riley knew she was being flippant, but a girl had limits as to how much she could absorb in one night.That unbelievably sensuous smile quirked the edges of his lips, and he leaned back against the headboard of the bed. “No, no bubbles. No mermaids, either, before you ask. Hollywood movies aren’t really a source of historical fact, Riley, in spite of what my brother might think.”“Hey! I loved mermaids when I was a little girl. I wanted to grow up and have a dolphin for a pet and swim with my fish tail and the whole thing,” she said indignantly.He leaned forward, suddenly intent. “You were at the beach tonight, after experiencing traumatic events, instead of retreating to your home. Why was that?”Suddenly uncomfortable, Riley shifted on the bed, looking anywhere but at him. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “I’ve always been that way. I go to the ocean for solace, for solitude. For healing.”The starkness of her words hung in the silence between them for a long moment, and then he leaned back against the headboard again. “That may be important, Riley. I don’t know why, but it feels like something important. Maybe Alaric will know.”The name sounded familiar, and she squirmed a bit. “Alaric? Is he the scary one who looked at me like I was a bug stuck to the end of a pin? I kinda threatened to hurt him.”His eyes widened, and then he grinned. “Oh, I’d give half the royal treasury to have seen that.”Riley laughed, trying not to freak out about a guy who calmly said things like “half the royal treasury.” Holycrap.He raised one eyebrow, and seemed to get tense all over again. “You’re not going to tell me that you thoughthewas great-looking, too?”“He looked like a convicted felon,” she said flatly. “He made me want to call for backup. So, no worries, not even the slightest hint of an attraction there.”He leaned forward so quickly she almost didn’t see him move and lifted one of her hands to his mouth, kissed it briefly, and released it. “Thank you for that, Riley. I don’t understand why—and I have to be honest, I don’t like it one bit—but I seem to have a need to know that you’re not attracted to any of my warriors. To any other males at all.”She rolled her eyes. “Look, Conlan, I know you might think otherwise, because of the way I reacted to you, but it’s not like I’m some kind of nymphomaniac.”“And that would be bad because . . .” he drawled, the gleam coming back to his eyes, and the intriguing blue-green flame in his pupils flashing at her.“Don’t be a pervert,” she said, laughing. “Okay, and that’s another thing. Why do your eyes get that blue-green flicker in the middle of them, like right now?”He sat up fast, ramrod straight. “My eyes do what, exactly?”“Sorry, didn’t mean to upset you. It’s just that your pupils are so black, until you get that blue-green flame in them. I was a little bit curious.”Conlan shot up off the bed. When he turned around to face her, she noticed that his eyes had gone black again. When he spoke, his voice was icy. “It’s very late, Riley. I need to discuss strategy with Alaric before I rest. You should also get some rest, because we’ll undoubtedly be leaving early in the morning.”He strode toward the door, leaving her gaping in his wake. “What the hell just happened? Do you Atlanteans have split personalities or something? And why do you think I’m goinganywherewith you in the morning? You still haven’t explained anything to me,PrinceConlan, or whoever you are,” she said, temper rising.He stopped at the doorway, looked back at her. “I am Conlan, high prince of Atlantis,” he said, voice flat. “I need explain myself to no one. The Warriors of Poseidon have been the defenders of humanity for more than eleven thousand years, and I have been their leader for centuries.”He yanked the door open, took a step, then stopped. “My reaction to a human female,aknashaor no, changes nothing.”Before she could even begin to think of a response blistering enough to peel strips off his hide, he was gone, slamming the door shut behind him.“You—youjackass!” she yelled, jumping up to run for the door. But before she could reach it, she heard the unmistakable click of a lock. Momentum carried her the rest of the way and she yanked on the handle, but only confirmed what she’d known when she heard the noise.That arrogant, overbearing, dictatorial scumbag of a prince hadlocked her in the room.Oh, he was so totally going to pay.Chapter 15Conlan leaned back against the door to Riley’s room, shaken more than he wanted to admit, even to himself.His eyes got a blue-green flame in them?When he wasn’t channeling the elements—or any power at all?Oh, he was screwed.Something was seriously wrong with this scenario. Eyes didn’t display the flame of Poseidon except when the person whose skull the eyes happened to be stuck in channeled power. Called the elements.Not when sitting around chatting with a female.A human female.Unless . . . The thought that had driven ice through his veins flashed back into his head, refusing to be ignored. His mother’s bedtime stories about ancient Atlantean lords and their ladies. Stories of fierce battles and enduring love.Tales of the legendary gift of the soul-meld between an Atlantean and his mate, which branded a warrior’s heart and soul as surely as Poseidon’s mark branded his body.It was impossible. The soul-meld was a legend, a fable. A fanciful bedtime story. Nothing more. Soul-melding did not exist.Like empaths don’t exist, right?Oh,damn. He needed Alaric to figure this one out. Soon. As soon as the Trident was retrieved. After they’d figured out why the hell those vamps had attacked, and how to find the Trident in the first place.Or even what to do about Reisen.Yeah. All the subjects he’d forgotten to raise with Alaric and the Seven earlier.He wasscrewed. At dawn the next morning, Conlan woke from a fractured sleep to the smell of coffee and the sound of low, male laughter. For a minute or two, before he moved from the bed he’d fallen into, exhausted, late the night before, he lay completely still, examining what he was feeling. Actually, what hewasn’tfeeling. It was a kind of absence. Thelackof something—what?His eyes snapped open as the truth came to him. What he’d felt—what was missing—was rage.Fury.He’d needed the flames of anger to defeat helplessness. To goad him into living for the long years that he’d been Anubisa’s captive. He’d fed those flames with memories of his parents and thoughts of his brother and Atlantis when despair or pain threatened to overpower the rage.But now, in spite of the vampire threat, and even in spite of Reisen’s treason, he’d let loose of some inner core of fury that had shored up his foundation for so long. His thoughts turned inward, examining, focusing on the building blocks of his psyche.Of what Alaric had called hisuncompromised soul.It had been close.Damn, but it had been close. There had been so many times when he’d wondered why he bothered to try to stay alive. Why he kept fighting her.Why he didn’t let death take him.Conlan thought back to the concrete floors and the ten-inch-by-ten-inch metal grate in the floor.“The better for the blood to drain into,”she’d said, fangs flashing in the light of the dozens of candles that ringed the room.“It’s not like I’m going to drink it all, princeling. There will be much to tempt my blood pride down below.”Her blood pride. More like her coven of minions from hell. He’d heard them wailing and gnashing their fangs in the cavern below his cell every hour of every day.Every hour of every night.Until the day she released him.“And that’s what pisses me off the most, isn’t it?” he snarled, sitting up and swinging his feet off the bed. “That shereleasedme. That I didn’t escape on my own. In the end, I turned out to be no better than any of the rest of her pets, didn’t I?”Just like that, it was back. The empty, barren landscapes inside his soul were filled with wrath.He welcomed it. Hell, he and rage were old buddies.Conlan?A delicate touch in his mind.Are you okay?Riley.For a heartbeat, the lyricism of her voice and the sparkling blues and golds of her emotions combined to drive the flames from his mind. He closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath, sure that he could smell her clean, fresh scent. Flowers and the ocean.Surer now—definitely louder, her voice pounded through his head:Conlan! If you’re okay, get your ass over here and unlock this door, or I will pound on your head!He started laughing at the contradiction. Ah, his delicate flower. Never one to say the expected, was she?Nope. And she wasn’thisanything, either. Better for both of them if he didn’t forget it.
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Sobering, he sent his reply back to her:On my way. Try not to chew through the wall, okay?He felt a slight trace of her amusement sparkle through him in colors of warm honey and gold. Then that peculiar slamming sensation in his head, which cut off any trace of her.Oh, yeah. She was pissed. This ought to be fun.Not. Reisen looked up from his contemplation of the object in his hands, eyes still dazzled, when the thud of heavy-soled boots thundered down the hall toward him. Micah strode into the room, followed closely by several more warriors.“My lord,” Micah said, breathing harshly. “While patrolling, we discovered a nest of shape-shifters based in a tattoo parlor in Virginia Beach.”Reisen laughed. “That seems a little odd, doesn’t it? Do you think the tattoos come back after they take animal form and then return to human?”Micah folded his arms over his chest, staring at Reisen with his usual implacable expression. “My lord?”Shaking off both the whimsy and the near-trancelike state he’d gone into while staring at the hen’s-egg-sized emerald in his hands for the past hour, Reisen stood up. “And? What did you do about it?”Micah shrugged. “We returned here to tell you about it. I wasn’t sure if our quest allowed time for battling a bunch of furballs. Especially after the Council’s decree that we only destroy shape-shifters proven of wrongdoing.”Reisen carefully replaced the emerald in its silk pouch and gently tucked the pouch back inside its small wooden box. The leaders of the East Coast cell of the Platoists had been only too anxious to give him the emerald, when they’d learned the truth of their organization’s central tenet.Atlantis was real.Moreover, Reisen was an Atlantean prince. They’d treated him like a god. He hadn’t exactly hated it.He’d thought the human was going to piss in his pants. Luckily for all concerned, the man had managed to contain his excitement long enough to retrieve the emerald and gift it to Reisen.Who now had to figure out how to use it. Unfortunately, that was easier said than done. But some things were easy. “We all swore a sacred vow to protect humanity. It gains us nothing to restore Atlantis to its rightful place in the world, if that world is overrun with bloodsuckers and shape-shifters. In this, as in so much else, the Council is wrong.”Micah nodded, smiling. “I was hoping you’d say that,” he said, with his hands on the handle of his battle-axe. “All this tension has me in the mood to kick some shape-shifter ass.”The warriors ringing Micah nodded and growled their agreement. Reisen carefully packed the small wooden box and the fabric-wrapped bundle of the Trident into a leather carrying bag. One of the warriors stepped forward. “May I carry that for you, my lord?”“Thank you, but this is one burden that I’m honored to carry myself.” With that, Reisen led them to the main room of the house to do some planning. He still had more than a day before the scheduled meeting with the Platoists.Plenty of time to kick some shape-shifter ass.Chapter 16Riley was still grumbling under her breath a good ten minutes after Conlan had shown up and unlocked the door to her room. She’d read him the riot act. Just when she’d started to trust him and believe in all his crazy Atlantean royalty stuff, he’d pulled a prison warden act on her.But after he’d sketched out the bare-bones truth about the vampire threat, some crook named Reisen who’d stolen a precious artifact, and apologized five or six times, she’d calmed down.It was insane, but she knew she could trust him. Amazing how being able to feel a man’s emotions cut through the doubt. This was mainly about protectingher.She’d switched to subverbal grumbling after tasting the coffee he’d brought as a peace offering. It was hot, sweet, and delicious.Words that could also describe Conlan. She peeked up at him through her lashes. How unfair was it that the man looked even better in the morning? All that muscle hadn’t diminished one bit in the light of day. Worse, she noticed new things about him. Like the faint blue highlight to his black hair. It didn’t look like a salon job, so it must be an Atlantis thing.She tightened her hands on her coffee cup, mostly to keep from reaching out to touch his hair.It was a compulsion. A craving. It felt the way her addict clients had described the need for their drug of choice.Conlan paced back and forth in the room, mostly ignoring her. Or at least not looking at her. Considering the tension in his massive shoulders, she’d bet big money that he wasn’t unaware of her.She was clean, at least. The small bathroom attached to her room—her prison cell—was well stocked with an assortment of soaps, shampoos, and conditioners. Brand-new toothbrushes wrapped in plastic lay in rows in a drawer under the sink.The thought of it pissed her off all over again. “So, bring a lot of women here, do you?”He stopped pacing and whirled around to face her. “What? What are you talking about? I haven’t been to this house in more than a decade. It belongs to my brother.”She nodded. “It figures. Like brother, like brother, right? You’re just a couple of good old boys who kidnap women and drag them to your evil lair.”“Are you on some sort of medication? Or are all human females as completely illogical as you are?” He looked genuinely puzzled, which almost made her smile.“So you spend a lot of time protecting humanity, just not much time having conversations with it. Us. Am I getting the gist of this?” She drained her coffee cup, placed it on the small table next to the wall, and nodded at the door. “Also, are you going to let me out of here anytime soon? Not that being abducted hasn’t been great fun, but I have a date with Detective Ramirez.”She flinched at the sound of the low rumbling growl that started in his chest and worked his way up out of his throat. “You’re not going anywhere, Riley,” he said. “And if you like this Ramirez at all, you’ll forget about going on any dates with him. I seem to be somewhat unstable even hearing of the idea.”The look on his face was possessive and predatory all at once. He suddenly resembled a feral jungle animal defending its territory.Shesohadn’t had enough coffee for that. “Are you going to start peeing on the walls next, to mark your territory?” she asked, all sweetness and light. “Because we had a tomcat who did that when I was a kid.”She smiled up at him. “My dad had him neutered.”One moment, he was standing across the room from her, and the next he was right up against her body, crowding her backward until her butt hit the dresser. “I’ve already faced one female who wanted to neuter me,” he whispered in her ear. “Trust me on this. If I could surviveher, my balls are infinitely safe with you.”She bit her lip, flustered. The scent of him, oddly like sunlight on seawater, clean and bracing, filled the bare inch or two of space between them. She had the oddest urge to bury her nose in his neck and simply stand there, inhaling him.She raised her hands to his chest, instead, blocking him. “I didn’t—I mean—your balls are safe—oh, heck. All I meant was that I have to go to the police station and make a statement. Detective Ramirez is the lead on the case.”Conlan’s shoulders relaxed, and the aggression he’d been radiating went down a notch. Cautiously, Riley lifted the mental shields she’d placed around her emotions earlier. She and Quinn had practiced for hours as kids, at first building pretend brick walls and then, as they grew older and more sophisticated, pretend titanium doors in their minds.Quinn had claimed all her doors were made of kryptonite, but Riley had just laughed. “It’s not like we’re ever going to face any superheroes, Quinn,” she’d said one day when they were on opposite ends of their twelfth year.“You never know,” Quinn had replied, dark and dramatic as always.“What is kryptonite?” Conlan asked, fingers twining around a strand of her hair.“What? How did you . . . oh, right. I opened the door,” Riley said, at first startled and then resigned. “Well, since it’s already open, let’s go for broke.”With that, she lifted her hands to his face, braced herself, and for the first time in her life sent her emotions, her thoughts, and her curiosity winging inside of another person.And was nearly brought to her knees.Strength. Courage. Honor. Duty.Glimpses of the past.A man, graying, with Conlan’s eyes, stood next to a woman so beautiful that Riley gasped.Mother. Father.Shift:A boy, it had to be Ven, and another, the scary healer guy, maybe? She wasn’t sure, since the boy with the green eyes so like Alaric’s was smiling.She didn’t think the healer had ever smiled.All of them riding horses, laughing.Shift:Rows of men, all huge, muscled, gorgeous, naked to the waist, sparring with swords and daggers in some kind of arena.Shift:Fires. Knives. Teeth, no, fangs. Pain. Searing, agonizing, ripping pain. She was dying—no, he, he, it was Conlan, they were torturing him, they were killing him . . .“No!” she screamed, her hands falling away from his face as she fell backward into the strength of his arms. “No, no, no, no, no.”As he lifted her gently, held her in his arms, all she could do was sob. Conlan stared down at the woman crying in his arms and felt the walls he’d built around his heart start to crumble. He literally heard the crashing sounds of the bricks and mortar, and all he could think of was how badly he needed to get away from her.As he started to release her, she clutched at his arms and looked up at him through pain-drenched eyes. “Damnthem for what they did to you. I hope you track them down and rip their bloody guts out. I’m so sorry, Conlan. I should—I should never have intruded on your privacy.”She slowly reached up to touch the scar at his throat. “I’m so sorry,” she repeated, whispering. Then her eyes narrowed and she met his gaze again, her expression ferocious. “I hope I get a chance to run into any of the ones who hurt you. They won’t hurt anybody else, ever again.”He blinked, unable to remember when words had touched him the way hers did. She wanted toprotecthim. She wanted toavengehim.The cracking sound of those walls he’d built up inside himself turned into an avalanche.He tightened his arms around her again, burying his face in her hair. “Never apologize to me for your grace and your light,mi amara aknasha.”She pulled away a little and looked up at him through the tears running down her face. “What does that mean?”He shook his head, the lump lodged in his throat rendering him unable to form the words in English. She’dreallythink he was insane if he let her know he’d called her his beloved empath.Speaking of insane, he probably had about ten seconds before Ven came pounding on the door. He sucked in a huge breath and pressed a kiss to her forehead, then dropped his arms and stepped back. “Riley, I know this must feel like you got dropped into the middle of one of those horror movies Ven loves so much, but you have to trust me—”Riley flashed a brilliant smile at him, wiping the tears off her face. “Trust you? Are you kidding? After what I just saw, I’d trust you with my life.”Relief washed over him, loosening the clenched muscles in his neck and shoulders. “Good,” he said, trying to smile. “Because you may have to.”Chapter 17Riley followed Conlan down a long hallway lined with classic horror movie posters. She stopped, laughing, in front of the toothy tomato decorating theAttack of the Killer Tomatoesposter and then turned her gaze toThe Blob.“Steve McQueen,” she mused, tracing the edge of the frame with one finger. “Ilovedthis movie.”Conlan held his hand out to her and grinned. “You and my brother are going to get along just fine.”As they rounded the corner into some kind of large games room, she jerked to a stop at the sight of the crowd of enormous men who sat, stood, leaned, and basically filled up every ounce of space. Well, the men and the cartons, boxes, and trays of food that covered every spare inch of surface. The room looked like an invading army had stopped by for breakfast.God, they were huge. No wonder they needed to eat all that food. It probably took a zillion calories a day to feed each one of them. She closed her eyes for a moment, reaching inward to be sure her titanium-door emotional shields were firmly in place. She didn’t want a repeat of the night before.Almost to a man, they all shot up to attention and stared at her, most of them grasping the handles of the daggers they wore.Would you like some coffee with your instruments of death?She covered her mouth to try to stop it, but she had an insane urge to laugh. Stress giggles, Quinn called it. Except Quinn rarely got them.Riley always did.She tightened her hold on Conlan’s hand and lifted her chin to face them, the flash of hysteria draining away at the sight of the deadly intent on their faces.“This is Riley Elisabeth Dawson,” Conlan said. “She isaknasha, and she is welcome among us. Please accord her all courtesy.“Riley, let me introduce my warriors. These are the Seven, my most trusted comrades. You know Ven, of course,” Conlan said, gesturing to his brother.“Ah, yes, the classic movie buff,” she said, smiling. “Steve McQueenrocks.”Ven grinned at her from across the room, holding up a half-eaten bagel in salute. “You are clearly a superior judge of films, Lady Sunshine.”
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Conlan continued. “Lord Justice.”The one with the long braid of blue hair and the sword, still strapped to his back, nodded, unsmiling. She nodded in return. The man would be drop-dead gorgeous if he ever smiled. She glanced at the sword. Maybe he preferred just being drop-dead.“Bastien.”The giant leaning against the far wall, a doughnut box clutched in his huge hand, smiled at her. “My pleasure, Lady Riley. Anybody brave enough to jump on top of a bloodsucker, unarmed, to defend my prince is golden with me.”She felt her cheeks heat up again, all the way to the tips of her ears. “Just Riley, please. And thank you. It was maybe more stupid than brave, though.”Another warrior, with an easy smile and a mischievous look to him, bowed. “Christophe, my lady. And most of battle is more stupid than brave, is it not? ’Tis why men wage it, not women.”His bright blue eyes gleamed with humor. “I’d be honored to share my breakfast with you, lovely one,aknashaor no.”Conlan growled, low in his throat, but with such resonance that it reverberated through the room. “Stay away from her, Christophe. You’ll play none of your wooing games with her.”Riley rolled her eyes and yanked her hand out of his. “Wooing games? You’re talking like Lancelot again. And I never liked Lancelot. Smarmy, underhanded guy.”Ven started laughing. “Oh, that did it. You’re a Steve McQueen fan, and you just smacked high prince big britches down. My heart is yours forever.”Riley grinned, inexplicably feeling incredibly safe surrounded by a couple thousand pounds of Atlantean warriors.Conlan growled again and took her hand back. “As I wassaying, the one who thinks he’s a ladies’ man is Christophe, and this is Alexios.”A man who stood in the corner, half behind a bookcase, nodded his head to her and bowed slightly, but didn’t speak. When he lifted his head, she caught sight of ferocious scarring on his face, but he quickly ducked his head so that his amazing golden hair covered it. The morning light from the window lit up his mane of hair like a crown.She blurted out what she was thinking. “Wow. Movie stars would pay a fortune to have hair like that. You are so lucky.”Alexios lifted his head again, eyes narrowed, mouth flattened in a grimace. His scars showed up in harsh relief in the sunlight. “Lucky? Perhaps once, long ago. You’d do well to remain far from me and my version of luck.”She recognized the pain in his eyes and, almost without thinking, dropped her shields a fraction and reached out to him.Then jerked back so hard she slammed her back into the wall. “No,no, I’m . . . I’m so sorry,” she whispered.She crashed her mental shields back down. “I am sorry for your pain and your loss, Alexios,” she said, her voice gaining strength. “Please don’t give up hope, though. There is always a chance of a better tomorrow.”“Stay out of my emotions,empath,” the warrior growled. “You invade my privacy.”Conlan tried to pull away from her, body tensing, but she stopped him with pressure on his hand. She considered telling Alexios it had been accidental, discarded the idea for truth, and held her head high. “You are completely right. And I apologize for that, as well.”Alexios paused for a moment, surprise widening his eyes, and then he bowed to her. “Your apology is accepted. As Bastien stated so elegantly, your courage yesterday has purchased you much forgiveness with me.”Conlan squeezed her hand. She sensed the pride and relief he felt, wondered at the strength of the feelings.Even through her shields.Another warrior stood up from a wing chair and walked toward her, then stopped and bowed. His face was all sharp planes and hard lines, and waves of black hair swept back from all that hard masculinity to his shoulders.He had the palest green eyes she’d ever seen—a color that made her think of springtime. “I am Brennan, Lady Riley. You have my gratitude, as well, for your courage last night. I would ask a favor from you, if I may.”Conlan asked before Riley could get the words out. “What kind of favor, Brennan?”Brennan inclined his head toward Conlan, then turned back toward Riley, eyes intent, yet oddly devoid of any emotion. The guy had to be a great poker player.“Contrary to Alexios, I would ask that you scan me and let me know what you might learn of my emotions,” he asked in a perfectly flat, perfectly calm tone of voice.It sparked her curiosity. “Why would you ask that? Is this some kind of a test?”He tilted his head to one side. “Perhaps. But a test only of myself and not of you. Will you grant me this small favor?”Riley looked up at Conlan, who nodded, jaw tightening. “Only if you want to do it, Riley.”She hesitated, then nodded. Pulling her hand from Conlan’s, she held both hands out at her sides, closed her eyes, and opened her mental door. An odd buzzing assailed her senses, as if the mental currents of the Atlanteans in the room were being broadcast in stereo at her, but from a distant location.She focused on Brennan and shut out the feedback noise. As she’d done with Conlan, she sent her senses winging inside of the warrior who stood so still before her, though she flinched a little, anticipating the force of his emotions.Then gasped at what she found. Or, rather, at what shedidn’t.Her eyes snapped open in shock. “How are you doing that?How are you shielding your emotions so completely that I can’t feel the slightest glimmer of them?”The warrior looked down at her, eyes still calm. “I shield nothing. Would you try again?”She blinked, not understanding. “Would you mind if I touch you?”From beside her, Conlan made that strange growling noise again. Then he wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her tightly to him.“Honestly! I’ve had enough of this territory-marking crap from you,” she said, elbowing Conlan in the side and pulling away from him. “Get over yourself. This isinteresting.”Brennan raised one eyebrow, and somebody in the room barked out a laugh. Riley ignored them both. “May I?” she asked again.Brennan nodded once and closed his eyes. Riley took a step closer to him, close enough that she could reach his face with her hands, but not so close that Conlan would have another Tarzan moment. She lifted her hands and placed them on Brennan’s cheeks.Closing her eyes, she sent her senses probing inside of him, more forcefully than before. Searching, seeking, delving for the slightest hint of color—the tiniest trace of emotion.There was nothing. The depths and shallows of his soul were as clear as crystalline mountain water. As transparent as melted glacier ice.There was nothing. No feelings. No emotions. “It’s as if your soul has died—yourhumanityhas died—but your body doesn’t know it yet,” she whispered, regretting the words as soon as they’d slipped out.She lowered her hands, backing away from him. “Whatareyou? How can your soul be empty of all but your intellect?”Brennan smiled, but not the slightest touch of it reached his eyes. “I am cursed. I had hoped that one who isaknashawould find some trace of the emotions that I’d prayed one day to regain. But if it is not so, then you are correct. I am merely a dead man imitating the actions of the living.”The utter absence of feeling behind the words, which should have been screamed in agony and sorrow, underscored what he’d told her.Impulsively, she placed a hand on his arm. “I don’t understand much about thisaknashabusiness. But if anything about this ability I have—well, if in any way I can figure out how to use it to help you, I promise to do my best.”Behind her, Conlan inhaled sharply, and she turned to him, ready to argue. But the look in his eyes had nothing to do with possession, and everything to do with awe. “You honor us, Riley. We bring vampires to your home, abduct you in the middle of the night, and treat you like a prisoner, and yet you have the grace to offer your help to my warrior brother.”She blushed and rolled her eyes. “It’s not that big a deal. I just—”“Youjustoffered your help, again, after you may well have saved my life last night. Believe me, it is a very big deal.”Brennan bowed deeply to her. “And to me, a great honor indeed that you would offer.”Before she could think of a reply, she heard the sound of a throat clearing behind her. She turned back toward the room, and the man she’d seen lying injured on the ground the night before stood in front of her, daggers unsheathed and crossed before him.“I am Denal, Lady Riley. And your courage and selflessness shall be the source of the songs of poets for centuries to come,” he said, voice fervent.Then he dropped to one knee before her. “I hereby declare myself to be Lady Riley’s champion and defender, if she will have me.”She watched, speechless, as he held his daggers out to her, handles first, and bowed his head. She swung her head to look at Conlan, hoping for advice on how to handle the situation, but he merely lifted his shoulders briefly and said nothing.Taking a deep breath, she opened her mental shields again and fought that curious feedback buzzing, then took the measure of the man kneeling in front of her. He was the polar opposite to Brennan—Denal was all flashing emotion and eager notions of honor, duty, and chivalry.She smiled a little, wondering if she’d ever been so very young. Then the smile faded, as she realized that he might in fact be alotolder than she was.This Atlantean stuff was complicated.But he was still kneeling, still waiting. The sense of anticipation was thick in the room. As she looked around the room, she realized every one of them was waiting to see how she would handle Denal’s declaration.Taking a deep breath, she took the proffered daggers. “I, well, thank you, Denal. In dangerous times like these, I can’t think of a more valuable offer than protection. You—”She glanced around again, trying to think of the proper words. These guys seemed big on formality and ritual. Finally, she settled on simplicity. “You honor me.”Denal looked up at her, eyes shining, then rose to his feet. She handed his daggers back to him, hoping that was the right thing to do. He took them and put them back in their sheaths on the sides of his massive thighs.The other Warriors started clapping and cheering and stomping their feet. She smiled and started to say something, when an icy voice broke in from behind her. “Isn’t this touching? Perhaps next we can all have a group hug.”Chapter 18Conlan swung around to face Alaric. “I don’t appreciate your tone, priest,” he said, folding his arms over his chest.Alaric raised one eyebrow and shrugged. It wasn’t like Conlan had expected him to be intimidated, but a little respect might be nice.“You’ll get respect when you earn it,” Alaric replied, eerily imitating Conlan’s thoughts again.Conlan filed the detail for future consideration and then, before the gasp even finished leaving Riley’s lips, he slammed Alaric up against the wall. “Either you serve me, or you do not. Poseidon gave you the rank of high priest, but the role of royal adviser is mine to bestow.”He stared into the priest’s eyes. “If all this attitude is your way of saying you want out of the job, consider it done.”Releasing Alaric’s shirt, he turned to Riley. “You must be starving. Hopefully, one of these bottomless pits saved us a muffin or two.”She gaped up at him, mouth opening to speak. But he shook his head and, surprisingly, she went along with him and remained silent.As they started to walk across the room toward the low coffee table covered with food, he heard Alaric’s voice behind him. “No, I don’t wantout of the job, you idi—myprince.I’m trying todomy job, which includes reclaiming the Trident, so you can ascend to the throne.”Conlan had never heard such anguish in the priest’s voice. With a hand under her elbow, he urged Riley toward Ven. Then he turned to face Alaric. “The fault is not yours. If anything, it’s my fault because I wasn’t there to protect the Temple.”Bastien slammed his coffee mug down on a table. “The fault is mine. I had many friends among the House of Mycenae. The gods know I should have suspected their plan.”Justice laughed. “Yeah, it’s everybody’s fault. It’s nobody’s fault. Does it really fucking matter? While we sit around here eating toast and assigning blame, Reisen gets farther and farther away.”Conlan held up a hand. “Enough. Justice is right. Alaric, have you been able to scry for the Trident?”“No. I get flashes, and then it’s gone. Almost as if they’ve discovered some magic shielding for it. Or the Trident hides itself from a failed priest.”Ven spoke up, voice heavy. “Then we’re doomed. We can search the old-fashioned way, but he could be a thousand miles or more away by now, in any direction.”“He’s got a band of warriors with him,” Christophe ventured. “Unless they’ve split up. It would be tough to hide ten or more warriors traveling together.”Conlan took a deep breath, trying to remain calm. “Then we will also divide to follow them. Alaric, is there any way you can magnify the scrying?”Before Alaric could respond, Riley interrupted. “By any chance, are you talking about a bunch of guys who give off the same emotional vibe as you all do, except with a lot of ‘rah, rah, quest, quest’ crap thrown in?”Nine heads whipped around to face her. She blinked, then continued, gaze turned inward. “If yes, they can’t be more than twenty miles from here. I’ve had to work hard to shield from their emotions for the past half hour or so. I thought it was some kind of feedback loop from all of you, but I’m figuring out how to sort and separate, and they’re definitely different.”
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She closed her eyes, and Conlan could feel her concentration. Then she jumped up from the couch, nearly dropping her muffin on Ven’s head. “And we need to get going. Because they’re heading out to attack some shape-shifters.Now.” Ven jerked his head toward the door, and the Warriors strode out of the room behind him, leaving Conlan and Riley arguing over somebody named Ramirez. It was almost funny, the way Conlan was suddenly worried about the feelings of a human female. If that’s what soul-melding did to a man, thank Poseidon that it had never happened to him. He liked his women brainless and forgettable, and he had the feeling Lady Sunshine was neither of those things.Not his problem. At least, not yet. If she caused a problem, well, he’d take care of it. That was his job, right?He reached the entryway closet and threw open the door. Reaching in between a few of the jackets and coats, he grasped the hanging rod with one hand, and twisted it three-quarters of the way forward, and then a half-turn back.There was a click and a whirring sound, and the rod—coats and all—retracted into the opening made by a panel that slid open on the right side of the closet. A second panel, in the back of the closet, opened noiselessly to a small room filled with a lot of shiny toys.“That’s a sweet arsenal, Ven,” said Christophe, crowding close behind him. “What have you got in there?”Ven flicked on a light switch, and spotlights shone on the contents of the room. “Let me give you a tour, my man,” he said, moving past a rack of submachine guns to lift down a shotgun exclusively designed for him.“This baby is a Franchi SPAS-12. A combat shotgun designed with loving care by the Italians, who are brilliant with cars, guns, and any kind of exquisite machinery. And it’s specially modified to hold these.”He held up a bullet-shaped glass vial, filled with a viscous liquid. “Extremely high-dose Special K. The one thing nearly guaranteed to bring down a shape-shifter.”Denal shouldered his way in, eyes wide. “Special K?”“Ketamine. Animal tranquilizer. Hold this.” Ven slapped the gun into Denal’s hands.“Guns. Poison. Explosives. We’ve got it all, ladies,” Ven said, a grim smile curling the edges of his mouth.“The power to control the elements is no longer enough for you, Vengeance?” Alaric asked.“Save the scorn for somebody who gives a shit. Not all of us have your level of access to Poseidon’s power,” Ven said.“I’ll stick with my sword,” Justice drawled. “She and I have killed more bloodsuckers and shape-shifters than all of your toys put together.”“Suit yourself. That’s more for me to play with,” Ven returned, loading up. “There’s plenty here for anybody who wants some. As they say in the movies, boys—”“Lock and load!” Christophe shouted, grinning.Ven nodded. “Lock and load.” Conlan’s fingers clenched on the steering wheel of the Mercedes as he listened to Riley’s phone calls. First she’d called into her office and asked for some time off. From what he’d gleaned of the one-sided conversation, they were more than happy to grant her the time. It sounded like she hadn’t taken much time off in the past few years.Why didn’tthatsurprise him? She had a sense of duty as ingrained as any warrior’s.“Hey, Detective Ramirez, it’s Riley Dawson,” she said into her cell phone, quite pointedly not looking in Conlan’s direction. He was amused by her defiance.Not just amused, to be honest with himself. It made him hot. Although, for some reason, all the woman had to do wasbreathe, and it made him hot.Definitely not a good sign.She was quiet for a moment, nodding at something the detective was saying on the line. Then she spoke again. “Thank God.”She glanced at Conlan. “The baby’s going to be okay.” Then she spoke into the phone again. “Yeah, I can come in and give you a statement, but pretty much what I told you last night is all I know.“Okay, then. You have my cell number. Just call me.”As she flipped her phone shut, Conlan debated and then decided against telling her that her cell phone was not going to be getting any signal when she was deep beneath the ocean.She’d figure it out. Why borrow trouble?Alaric leaned over the seat from his spot in the back, directly behind Riley. “I hate cars, Conlan. Tell me why you believed it was so important for us to use cars?Conlan flicked a glance at him. “Traveling via mist is easy enough for you and me, and even Ven, but not as easy for some of the Seven, especially over long distances. And it would definitely freak Riley out. Since she’s the only one who can sense Reisen and his men, I wanted her to feel comfortable.”Ven spoke up. “I’m good with this. My toys don’t travel well. No metal without orichalcum in it, remember? Hey, we’ve got fine engineering, a smooth ride, and an excellent sound system. I’ve got some killer CDs loaded, if you want to click on the tunes.”Conlan looked in the rearview mirror, making sure that Justice and the others were behind him in the Hummer. “Not exactly inconspicuous vehicles you picked, are they, Ven?” he said drily.Riley made a small sound in her throat, and her hands clenched around her tiny telephone. “We need to get there, fast. They’re close now. I—they must be in the park. This is the road to First Landing State Park. I’d heard that the local Shape-shifter Appreciation League had a forum there.”Ven snorted. “Great. Now the bastards have an appreciation league? When they spend most of their time finding ways to eat you people?”Riley turned her head to look at him, eyes troubled. “I don’t think that’s entirely true. Both shape-shifters and vampires have made a considerable effort to integrate peacefully into society.”It was Conlan’s turn to be disgusted. “Are you all fools? For thousands of years, both races have considered humans as sheep—their personal food supply. Suddenly, they come out into the daylight—metaphorically speaking—and the first thing they do is try to take over. How is that integrating? Peacefully or otherwise?”“I, well, I sort of agree with you.” She sighed. “I always thought it was a little freaky that only a few years after we even knew vampires existed, suddenly they’re running their own house of Congress. I mean, how did that happen without some sort of mind control?” she said.“Mind control or physical threat,” Alaric said smoothly. “It seems that many of your dissenting voices have met with untimely accidents or disappeared. Did none of you notice the pattern in that?”“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Riley said. “There hasn’t been anything about that in the news.”“You mean the shape-shifter-controlled media? I wonder howthatcould be possible,” Alaric returned, sarcasm heavy in his voice.Conlan pulled into the park’s entrance and found a spot for the car, vicious thoughts whirling around in his brain. As he slammed the car into park and shut down the ignition, he shifted in the seat and stared at Alaric. “Do you suspect that they could be teaming up? After so many centuries of blood feud, do you really believe that the shape-shifters would help the bloodsuckers?”Alaric returned his stare calmly, although Conlan noticed that the priest’s eyes had begun to glow. “You’ve been gone for most of the decade, Conlan. There does seem to be a spirit of cooperation between them that was never there before. It worries the Council a great deal.”“Hell, it worries me a great big fucking deal,” Ven snarled. “If we—Riley shrieked, in a high-pitched, shrill tone that Conlan had never heard before. She clutched her head and screamed. He pulled her into his arms, trying to comfort her. Needing to comfort her.Needing to make that inhuman sound stop. “Riley! Riley, what is it?”She abruptly stopped shrieking and stared up at him, eyes vacant and turned inward. “They’re here. They’re here and they’re killing. Murdering. Violence and death and pain . . .No!No, that’s not possible!”She started to scream so loudly Conlan thought his eardrums would rupture. He took her by the shoulders and shook her a little to try to pull her out of the hell she was clearly experiencing. “Riley! You’re safe. You’re here with us. You have to shield from those emotions,” he said roughly.She shook her head back and forth. “No, no, no, you don’t understand,” she moaned. “It’s Quinn. Somehow, they’ve got my sister. I can feel her—I can feel her, and she’sdying.”Ven and Alaric jumped out of the car and slammed their doors shut, then Ven yanked Conlan’s open. Conlan lifted Riley onto his lap and pulled her out of the car with him. He helped her to stand, arm firmly around her waist. “Tell us. Point us to where they are, Riley. You know we can help her if you do.”She looked up at him, still clutching her head, still dazed. “What? Pain, Quinn,nooooo!”Alaric’s head snapped up, and he pointed down a path. “There. I can sense the Trident now. It’s blazing with power. And—I don’t know how, but I can sense her sister, too,” he said, lips drawn back in a snarl. “I canfeelher inside my skin. Riley is correct. If we don’t get there fast, she’s going to die.”The Hummer pulled into the parking space next to them, and the warriors piled out. “Hey, cool place. So, what’s the scoop?” Christophe called, then he stopped, frozen, as he caught sight of Riley. His face hardened, and he headed toward them, followed by Bastien and the others.“We go after them now,” Conlan commanded. “Riley, you stay here out of danger, and—”“No! She’s my sister!” she snapped at him, seeming to come briefly out of her daze. “I’m coming with you.”“We don’t have time to argue about this,” Alaric said. “And we’re attracting unwelcome attention.” He nodded to a group of campers who were openly staring at the leather-clad group of warriors. Then his entire body jerked, as if he’d taken a blow.“Now. We gonow,” he ground out, green eyes glowing more brightly than Conlan had ever seen them. Walking, then running, Alaric took off down the trail into the woods.Ven looked to Conlan, who nodded. “Follow him. All of you. I’ll be right behind you.”As the warriors pounded down the trail after Alaric, he looked down at Riley, who still leaned against him. “You remain behind, where it’s safe, or I swear I’ll stay here and sit on you,” he growled.She blinked. “Yes, okay. I’m feeling very weak, suddenly. But will you bring Quinn back to me right away?”“I promise,” he said, then opened the car door and helped her back inside. She leaned back against the seat, clearly exhausted, and he felt a wave of concern for what the empathy must cost her.He bent down to her and pressed a kiss on her forehead. “I’ll bring her right back to you.”She looked up at him, eyes huge in her pale face. “Thengo. Go now.”As she closed her eyes again, he gently shut the car door, looked around to see that the tourists had moved behind their large camping vehicle, and then he shimmered into mist. He’d get there more quickly—and unseen. And may the gods forgive anyone who had dared to harm Riley’s sister.Because Conlan had no mercy in him.Chapter 19Riley waited a few seconds, then peeked under her lashes in time to catch the sight of one massive Atlantean prince dissolving into a shower of mist.“What thehell?” She blinked, then rubbed her eyes. “Great. The Atlantis version of Houdini.”But she didn’t have time to worry about him and his stupid tricks—Quinn’s pain was scorching through her. She shoved the car door open and jumped out, then took off down the path in the direction the Warriors had run just minutes before.“As if some stupid man could keep me from Quinn when she needs me. Not now, not ever.” She started to run, sending up a prayer of thanks for the old running shoes she’d thrown on the night before and still wore.Another bolt of pain from Quinn shot through her. She doubled over for a moment, then straightened and ran even faster, sending reassurance to Quinn the only way she knew how.I’m coming, Quinn. I’m coming. Don’t you dare die on me—you’re all I’ve got.Conlan had just passed Ven and the Seven running down the trail when the path widened and turned to the left. As he rounded the corner, body still in the form of translucent mist, he came upon a scene of violent death.The shock of it destroyed his concentration, and he transformed back into his body with a nauseating jolt. Roughly a dozen bodies, bloody, mutilated, and torn, littered the path. He felt the bile rising in his throat as the Warriors thundered up behind him. The peaceful, sunlit forest trees served as a mocking contrast to the grisly sight.“This is wrong,” Ven snarled from beside him. “This is way beyond wrong.”Justice shouldered his way up on Conlan’s other side, sword drawn and lips curled back from his teeth. “Do you see Reisen? Is he one of the dead?”Alexios walked past, then, and he and Conlan started to examine the fallen bodies. The others followed, daggers and guns at the ready, eyes scanning the forest constantly for a hint of returning danger.“This one is a shape-shifter,” Conlan called out, seeing the telltale eyes. A shape-shifter’s eyes reverted to animal shape and color in death. The one lying in hacked-up pieces at his feet had been some kind of wolf.Then he jerked his head up and looked around for the one who should have been there before him. “Alaric, where are you?”“I am here, and I need your assistance,” Alaric replied from behind him. Conlan swung around to see the priest, emerging from behind a fallen tree, and started toward him, then stopped, midstride.Alaric’s face was cast in harsh, feral planes, his eyes wild and fiery green. He spoke again, his voice promising brutal death to the architects of this destruction. “She is beyond my help. She will die.”
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A frantic pounding of feet interrupted whatever response Conlan might have been able to think of, and he and Alaric both turned to see Riley running full speed around the corner.She saw the scene and screeched to a halt, shaking, and began to scream. “Quinn! Where are you?”Conlan ran to her, but it was Justice who caught her as she went down. He swept her up in his arms and handed her carefully to Conlan, then made a slight bow. “Your human, my prince.”Conlan ignored the trace of mockery in the warrior and bent his head to Riley. “Shh. She’s not gone yet. You have time to say good-bye.”She gasped in heaving breaths and started screaming again, pushing and clawing at him to try to get down. “No! Not my sister. Let me down. Let me down now!”Instead, he pulled her closer, turning her face toward his chest, so she wouldn’t have to look at the carnage surrounding them. Then he strode over and around the bodies toward Alaric.When he reached the deadfall of trees, he relaxed his hold on Riley and set her gently on the ground. Alaric was kneeling in front of the body of a woman. A wound in her shoulder was pulsing blood. Conlan scented the air. The sulfur smell of gunpowder.She’d been shot.Quinn had short dark hair, instead of Riley’s gold, but her silken white skin and delicate facial features were stamped with Riley’s strength and beauty.Riley threw herself on the ground and put her arms around her sister, sobbing. For an instant—a split second that passed so quickly Conlan wasn’t sure he’d actually seen it—Alaric tensed, fingers curling into claws, as if he were going to attack Riley.Even as Conlan moved to place himself between the two, the moment faded. The green flames in Alaric’s eyes muted slightly.“Help her!” Riley lifted her sister’s head carefully onto her lap and stared at Alaric. “Help her! I know you can do it. You healed poison and sword wounds and broken heads. You can surely heal a little—oh, my God, it’s a gunshot wound. Please,please,” she begged, somehow sobbing and issuing a command all at once.Alaric shook his head back and forth, a dazed expression on his face. His eyes were wild, almost rolling around in his head. Conlan had never seen him like this.“I can’t,” he muttered brokenly. “I can’t reach her. I can only feel the pain she’s sending out. I can’t get past it.”Conlan dropped to one knee beside Riley and put his arms around her, hoping to give some comfort. She elbowed him viciously and shook him off, never for a moment looking away from Alaric. She curled her lips back from her teeth and snarled so ferociously she almost looked like a shape-shifter herself.“You can, and you will, because I willpushyou past it.” With that, she grabbed Alaric’s forearm in a viselike grip and forced his hand down to her sister’s shoulder. “I’ve seen healings on TV. Witch healings. They need to touch in order to do it. I’m guessing it’s the same with you.”As Conlan watched, somehow Riley managed to win the struggle with Alaric, combating his reluctance with sheer desperation. As the priest’s hand passed through the last inch of space separating it from Quinn’s shoulder, Conlan saw an aquamarine glow pass from Alaric’s palm into Riley’s sister.When Alaric’s fingers finally touched Quinn, her body, resting in Riley’s lap, jumped at the contact, and her feet drummed into the red-and-gold pile of fallen leaves in which they lay. Riley, still holding tightly to Alaric’s arm, closed her eyes.Alaric threw his head back, flinching, the cords in his neck standing out in stark relief as every muscle in his body seemed to tighten.Conlan lifted his hands to Riley’s shoulders, but an electric shock slammed him back away from her. For the space of several seconds, the three—Alaric, Quinn, and Riley—were frozen in a painful tableau, limned in a luminous blue-green light.Then, as one, Riley and Alaric slumped forward, gasping for breath. Conlan caught Riley before she could fall forward onto her sister, gently taking her chin in his hand and searching her face for signs that she had been harmed.Alaric caught himself, one hand on his knee, the other still in place on Quinn’s shoulder. “I do not know why you were caught up in the healing process, Riley. I have never channeled the healing powers like that before. Are you harmed?”Before Riley could respond, a quiet, slightly husky feminine voice cut across the sound of rasping breaths. “If you move that hand one inch closer to my boob, I’m going to cut it off.”Alaric took one look into Quinn’s eyes as they opened and fell back away from her. Shooting to his feet with such speed that Conlan almost wasn’t able to track him, Alaric backed away from them, shaking his head and muttering something to himself.Conlan was unable to make out the words, but he heard the cadence of ancient Atlantean and wondered at it. He stroked Riley’s hair, a brief touch more for his comfort than hers, and stood to follow Alaric.He caught the priest on the other side of the path as Alaric began to shimmer into mist. “Stop,” he commanded. “Where in the nine hells do you think you’re going? What just happened?”Alaric reverted to corporeal form and whirled around to face him. “You want to know what happened?” he asked, wild fury in his voice, desperation dark in the harsh lines of his face.“You want to know whathappened?” With two steps, he was right up in Conlan’s face.“I’ll tell you whathappened, my prince,” Alaric continued, rasping out the words. “What happened was I sent my healing energy inside Quinn. Inside thathuman.And she grabbed hold of me.”He shoved a hand through his hair and laughed a little wildly, eyes flaring green and hot.Savage.“She dug her mental claws into myballs, is what happened. I healed her, and she destroyed something in me. Shredded it.”“What—” Conlan never got the question out.“My control,” Alaric snarled. “The absolutely rock-hard control that I’ve spent centuries perfecting. Your little girl-friend’s sister reached out with her emotions, or her witchy empath nature, or what the hell ever, and all I wanted to do wasfuckher.”Conlan moved back half a step at the ferocity in the priest’s voice and dropped his hands to his dagger handles. For an instant, icy death menaced in the air between them.Alaric laughed, bitter again. “Oh, you don’t need your blades. In spite of the fact that I wanted her more than I’ve wanted anything in my life, I won’t touch her. Although, even now, my mind tortures me with images of pounding into her body, right there on the ground in the mess of her own blood, fucking andfuckingher until I drive myself into her soul.” Alaric viciously kicked at a tree and shards of bark flew into the air, then disintegrated in the green energy bolts he shot at them.This was new and dangerous territory, and Conlan attempted to proceed with caution. “Alaric, you must—”“Yes. Imust. I must never succumb to any lusts, or my power is ended. Certainly, I would be of no further use to you or to Atlantis. No use to the jealous bastard of a sea god whom I serve,” the priest said flatly, his voice suddenly devoid of the rage and passion that had infused it moments before.“Imustget away from her,” he continued. “Now. From this place. I am ruined for this day, in any event. This . . . this energy drain has voided any hope I had of re-scrying for the Trident until I recover. I will meet you back at Ven’s safe house tonight.”Conlan grasped his friend’s shoulders, shaken by the blasphemy he’d never heard from him before. “Alaric, know that your use to me and to Atlantis goes far beyond the powers you gained from Poseidon. Your wise counsel has served me well for centuries, and I will need you when I ascend to the throne.”Alaric stared over Conlan’s shoulder toward Riley and her sister. “These empaths. They signal a treacherous difference in our ways, Conlan. I can sense it. Change is coming. Peril that comes from within our very souls.”With that, he took two running steps and leapt into the air, transforming into sparkling mist that quickly vanished.Conlan watched the air into which Alaric had disappeared for a long moment, considering his parting words.But Alaric had been wrong. Change wasn’t coming.It’s already here.Chapter 20Twenty minutes later, Conlan stood with Ven, grimly contemplating the pile of bodies they and the rest of the Seven had pulled behind the deadfall of trees. Centuries of serving as a warrior had yet to inure him to the foul stink of death, and his stomach growled an urge to reject its contents. He scrubbed at his hands with leaves, then realized the futility of the effort and called water from the surrounding leaves and a tiny stream some hundred yards away to cleanse his hands.The mist became fluid in the cupped bowl of his hands and he washed the blood from hands and forearms, wondering how Reisen and his remaining warriors had escaped undetected after surviving this carnage. They must have been spattered with gore.Except, of course, when they traveled as mist. Which may have explained why Riley no longer detected them. He’d have to test his theory with her sometime. Sometime when a dozen dead men weren’t lying at his feet.Almost involuntarily, his mind reached out to hers, but she’d slammed those damned shields of hers down so tightly he wouldn’t know she was there if he hadn’t just left her. It was better that way, though. There was only so much that she could be expected to endure.Justice and Bastien were roaming through the woods on either side of them, searching for any sign of Reisen and his remaining warriors, while Christophe and the others stood guard.Emotionless Brennan stood with Riley and her sister.Riley had told him they were wasting their time. “They’re gone. Or they’ve magically learned how to mask their emotions in the past half an hour. Because I can’t feel a thing.”Conlan was unsure of how far he could rely on her ability to sense the Mycenaean warriors, given the extent of the terror she’d just experienced. But her senses, however compromised, were all he had.Alaric was gone.“We’ve got to get rid of the bodies. We can’t leave this mess for the human authorities,” Ven growled, wiping sweat off his forehead with his arm. “It’s a nightmare.”Conlan nodded. They’d tallied seven dead shape-shifters and five Atlanteans. The evidence of the battle needed to be destroyed. “We’re not exactly going to dig a big hole,” he replied. “There is one way, but it will take both of us to do it to so many.”Ven shot a look at him. “You’re not thinking—”“What else could I be thinking? We must employ the final solution.”Ven whistled. “Mortus desicana. I didn’t even know you knew how to channel that kind of power. Have you ever—”Conlan cut him off. “No. Not that I wouldn’t have tried it on Anubisa, if I’d had a fraction of a chance. But this is different. These men are already dead. The penance would not be tasked against us.”“Are you sure about that? What does the temple rat say?”Conlan hesitated, unsure of how much to divulge. Alaric would hate to be exposed in any weakness.In any event, there was no time. “He’s gone. The healing—he returned to the safe house.”“What? He went all girly after healing a simple bullet wound? I’m going to give him so much grief—”Conlan heard rustling in the trees approximately fifty yards away and concentrated. It was Justice. But the sound underscored their need for haste. “Ven. Focus. Will you help me channel themortus desicanato destroy these bodies, or do I do it myself?”“I’ll help you. Poseidon help us both if you’re wrong about the penance. Twelve bodies . . . we might not survive it.”Looking around quickly to make sure that Brennan still kept Riley away from the bloody pile of the slain, Conlan took a deep breath and held his hands up, sending his call into the wind.If she saw this, she’d think he was the same kind of monster who’d created this bloody nightmare.Beside him, Ven did the same, and they both began to chant.“Poseidon, Father of Water,“Lord of elements, avatar of justice for all Atlanteans,“Hear our plea, feel our need,“Lend us your power for themortus desicana,“Hear our plea, feel our need.”“For a moment, nothing. Despair surged through Conlan. Had Poseidon truly abandoned him as unworthy after what Anubisa had done to him?Damaged goods. Damaged goods. Damaged—Then a surge of electric power stormed into his body. From the air, from the water in the ground, from the wind itself. Up through his feet, through his skin, down into his skull from the cloudless sky. The power of the elements ripped through his flesh, screamed through nerve endings, tore at his control.He fought with it, contained it, channelled it. Not even realizing he was doing it, he roared out his dominance over the power. “I am Conlan of Atlantis, and I command you to themortus desicana!”With that, he flung the power out of his body through his hands at the pile of bodies and watched, gloated,gloriedin thepower.The roaring rush of the elements covered and surrounded the bodies of the dead, rushing into every pore in their skin, into every orifice, and did their terrifying work.Sucking,drainingevery ounce of water—every drop of fluid—out of the bodies. Sucking it out and returning the fluid to nature, from whence it came. Drying,desiccatingthe bodies of the dead.Whispering to Conlan with fury, with frenzy, with the sly Siren call of unadulterated power. Themortus desicana.
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