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Chapter 1

The moon was full and round in the sky, a perfect circle of illumination. It called to us, rose some restlessness within us. Sap rising is what they called it in trees. In humans, they called it spring fever. In the Monere the children of the moon it was simply the time for Basking, a time to call down the moon's rays and bathe yourself in the renewing light. Only Queens could call it down and share it with others. That was what I happened to be, a Monere Queen, albeit not the usual kind. Not only Monere blood flowed within my veins, although that predominated, three-quarters of it. The last remaining quarter, however, was human blood. I was what they called a Mixed Blood, the first one ever to be a Queen.

So much had changed in such a short while. Not long ago, I had been alone in a sea of humans, an ER nurse on the lonely island of Manhattan, crowded with people, only not mine. Now here I was in Louisiana, ruler of this territory, ruler of these people more than four hundred Full Blood Monere constituents. Surrounded by my people. And yet still alone.

Moonlight silvered the room, large and empty. Gryphon's room, my Warrior Lord. The first man I had loved, the first lover I had lost. He was dead now, although not completely gone. He'd had enough psychic power to make the transition to demon dead. But he existed now in another realm, far from my immediate reach.

His scent still lingered along the pillow, on the clothes that hung yet in his closet. But it was faint, so faint now. Almost completely lost in the month I'd been gone when I had lost myself in my other shape, my tiger form, roaming the forest to escape my grief. Had I been purely human, I would not have smelled that last barely there musky fragrance that had been my love. It made me grateful then, in a sad way, for my far acuter Monere senses. But soon, acuter senses notwithstanding, that last whiff of him would be completely gone. He'd been beautiful, like a dark angel, a wicked cherub fallen from the sky, tumbled to earth. White, luminous skin, hair dark as midnight, eyes blue as a summer sky. Would his face soon blur in my memory's eye? Would that fade from me also with time, lost along with the hope of a living remembrance of him?

My hand spread across my stomach, my empty womb. I'd just finished my monthly flow, my red blood spilling down the toilet along with my hopes and dreams of a child from him. But it had been a faint hope, at best. The Monere are not a fertile people, and children are few and far among us.


I whirled to face the man standing in the doorway. Whereas Gryphon had been dark, this man was light, with hair as bright as sunshine, his eyes jade green instead of blue, his shoulders broader, his body more heavily muscled than Gryphon's lean, graceful physique. Whereas Gryphon had been beautiful, this man's features were too masculine, too bold for delicate beauty. He was handsome, strikingly so.

Like a Greek god of old. And he was more than just a pretty face. He was my new master of arms.


"Milady. It is almost time for Basking."

"Yes, I know. I feel the moon's call. Is it almost midnight?"

He nodded, his eyes falling to where my hand unconsciously rested low over my belly.

Face flushing, I dropped my hand away, embarrassed to be caught drifting like a ghost in my lover's empty room, mourning my empty womb.

I moved toward the door but he did not step away, allow me to pass. I stopped a mere foot away and looked askance at him. He seemed to be struggling for words. "Did you wish to say something to me, Dontaine?"

"Milady, I know you do not desire my touch, nor particularly my gift." He stopped abruptly, laughed harshly. "Speak truth... you abhor my gift." His gift was the rare ability to arrest his change halfway between man and wolf, his other shape. They called it a Half Form. I'd called it monstrous.

"Dontaine, what I said..." I spread my hands open helplessly. "It was said in the heat of emotions "

"And after my touch made you lose control," he said deliberately, like one intentionally prodding a sore spot. His power affected me oddly when he was in his Half Form. If I touched him when he was in his half-shifted shape, it called forth my own beast something that used to terrify me because my beast took me over completely then, but not any more. He'd been careful not to physically touch me since that first accidental triggering of my beast.

I reached out my hand, laid it over his forearm. To prove to both of us that, See, it won't hurt us. Only it backfired. I'd forgotten that his power, his normal power, affected me differently, too. It was like shocking little jolts of electricity danced upon my skin for a moment. Pleasurable in an odd kind of way, but with a hint of sharper, edgier pain if it continued longer. Dontaine didn't exactly flinch at the contact and the reaction, but his jaw tightened, and his face became granite hard. Gently, he stepped back, pulled away from my touch, stopping that odd dancing sensation across our skin. "I know you said that you would never sleep with me. Ever."

I flinched, hearing my words repeated back to me, verbatim. Words that had clearly been seared into his memory. And it hadn't even really been his fault. At the time, Gryphon, my lover, had been trying to throw me into Dontaine's bed so that I might acquire his rare Half Form ability. Another oddity of mine. When Monere men mated with a Queen, they usually gained some of her power, and if lucky, some of her gifts. It worked that way with me, too, but went the other way as well. I tended to gain some of the men's power and gifts, as well. I was like a sexual vampire sucking up gifts instead of blood.

"Forgive me," Dontaine said, seeing the expression on my face. "I did not wish to bring up painful memories for you, though I obviously did so in my clumsy attempt at explanation. What I am trying to say is that I come from a line that has proven fertile. Not just my sister and I. My mother Margaret had two brothers, and her father had a sibling as well. If you desire a child..." He stopped speaking and looked at me, his eyes pained by my rejection in the past, yet generous enough to offer this when he'd seen my need.

"Dontaine "

"Please, before you rebuff me yet again, let me explain that what you feel will only grow stronger with time."

My eyes widened upon hearing this. "What do you mean?"

"Your yearning for a child. It comes to all Monere women of child-bearing age. An inbred instinct, a need that will grow even stronger with each passing year."

"Oh. I'd thought it simply part of my grief for Gryphon, not an in-built species propagation thing. Though I shouldn't be so surprised by it." Lots of other in-built goodies to ensure that our people spread wide and proliferated. It had worked, up to a point.

"I can give you a child," he said.

I looked at him, this extraordinarily proud and handsome man, humbling himself to offer me this tempting gift. But I could not take it. And he saw that answer on my face even before I spoke.

"Thank you," I said, my voice soft, husky. "It is a most generous offer, but "

"But you still have another lover, Lord Amber."

"And Halcyon," I whispered.

"Ah, the Demon Prince, too." He was quiet for a moment, obviously searching his memory for when Halcyon and I could have come together. "When you helped him return to his realm," he finally said.

Actually, it had been right after we'd rescued him from Queen Louisa, the former ruler of this land. She'd been a little pissed at having to give up her territory to me. But I didn't bother to correct Dontaine's assumption. No need to get into the details of when and how it had happened. Just that it had.

"I understand, my Queen." He smiled ruefully. "You are young, the need for a child is not yet that strong, and your bed is not as empty as I thought." The light smile he'd forced upon his face dropped away. "But my offer will stand open to you..."

Indefinitely. For as long as I must wait, were the words he did not say. And that scared me. That offer, that yearning for me. I didn't want it or desire it. Too many men had been willing to wait for me first Amber, then my Demon Prince and still I did not know why. Why they desired me, a woman common in looks, less than average in build, and of mixed mongrel blood. Life was too short to have to wait for such a tenuous possibility, even among the long-lived Monere, whose lives could stretch three centuries long. But just because you could live that long, didn't mean you did. Look at Gryphon.

"Don't wait for me," I told Dontaine, looking up into that handsome patrician face. "You can have any woman you want. Go to them. Be with them instead."

His eyes lowered and he bowed and stepped back, face impassive, body held stiffly with sudden tension. As if I'd struck him a literal blow. "As my Queen commands," he said, his voice as blank as his face, both carefully wiped clean of all expression.

He turned to leave, and I had a horrible feeling that something was amiss. I almost let him leave. But my instincts were crying out that something was wrong, that his reaction was too strong just to be from my rebuff alone.

"Dontaine, wait please," I said, reluctantly prolonging the agony for both of us. "You said 'As my Queen commands.' You meant that as a formality, right?"

"I am not certain what you are asking, milady."

I struggled for the proper words. "You used that as a polite phrase, like the English would say, 'Long live the king.' Not as an actual command, right?"

"You mean," Dontaine said carefully, "that it wasn't? A command, that is?" He looked up, his green eyes lovely and unsure, an odd look to see in that usual arrogant face.

"Good God, no! Did you think it was?"

"Yes," he said to my shock.

"Oh," I said faintly. "Well, good thing I stopped you then. What... uh, exactly did you think I was telling you to do?"

"To go sleep with our unmarried women. Impregnate them."

Some of it was starting to make horrible sense to me. "Because you told me that you come from a fertile line."

He nodded.

"And you thought I'd use that information to increase our population." And the wealth of my territory. It wasn't just monetary income that counted as prosperity here. It was also in the number of women, usually far outnumbered by males. And in the rare female offspring, of which his line had proven capable of generating.

"You thought I was putting you out to stud," I said with shocked dismay, and had a sudden horrible thought. "Is that what your old Queen, Mona Louisa, did to you?"

"No. She wanted me for herself, even though no child came from our union." He smiled grimly. "Then it became a forked prong for her. She dared not put me out to stud then, as you called it, though it would have profited her to do so. If I proved fertile with other women, it would only prove her barrenness. But with you... you do not desire me in your bed. It would have made sense to use me elsewhere."

"Like putting out a stallion, or using a prize bull to service all the available female stock." I shook my head at the thought. "It's not as easy as that, surely. Handsome though you are, some women would have affections, desires elsewhere. Not every woman would have wanted or accepted you."

"It would not have mattered," he said simply. "If I had been ordered to service them, none of us would have had any choice in the matter."

"That's barbaric," I said, aghast.

"In the human value system you were raised up in, perhaps. But our women are brought up expecting no say in their choice of mates."

"You're kidding," I said. "Who decides then, their fathers?"

"No, our Queens. Access to a woman is usually granted as a reward to our Queen's most loyal men or for special feats of service, though some men are given bedding privileges if they come from a fertile line."

"God," I whispered. "And I thought it was just the men who had it bad here." Warriors who grew too powerful were usually killed by their Queens. "That's horrible," I said, "to have no say in whom you marry."

"I made no mention of marriage, milady. Very few are granted that privilege. Most unions decided by the Queen are temporary, lasting only several full moons. Only couples paired for breeding purposes are usually granted several seasons together to try and bear a child. Or, if one came from a proven richly fertile line, such as I, he would be designated to a group of women to lie with during that time, not just one."

I was appalled. "Is... is that what everyone is expecting me to do, to tell which men to go to which woman's bed?"


"Jesus Christ."

His eyes fixed upon me intently. "Do you not mean to follow that tradition?"

"Hell, no."

"Then what will you do?"

"Let them choose among themselves whom they would like to" I flapped my hand "sleep with, marry, whatever. As long as both parties desire it," I tacked on hastily. Best to make things crystal clear among these archaic people. "No raping allowed."

"A very liberal concept, milady," Dontaine murmured, his face and eyes inscrutable so that I did not know if he approved of the idea or not. But it didn't really matter if he did. That was what I was going to do.

"Please let everyone know this. That it is my wish for them to seek out their own lovers, spouses, their own happiness. God, I'd hate to be responsible for that."

"Freedom of choice, and happiness." He murmured it like it was something foreign to him. "A very human idea."

I gave a short laugh. "Well, no surprise there. I'm partly human." And I was clinging to my human ways quite fiercely.

"That applies to you, too," I said more quietly. "That's what I meant before. Go find a woman you like and be with her. But only if you wish to. It's the same thing I told my guards before we came here." And their surprise then should have given me a clue. I was still learning the ropes of being a Queen, of being Monere. And still finding some of those ropes hard and rough to grasp.

"As my Queen commands." He bowed and stepped back, allowing me to finally pass through the door. In the hallway, I unfurled my senses a little, and listened and heard nothing in the house, only a humming of slow heartbeats in the distance, out in the forest.

"They're all waiting for us," I said with surprise as I quickly wound my way down the spiral staircase, my long black skirt billowing up around me so that I no doubt looked like a balloon about to take off. Or a bloated black widow spider that had just sucked all the blood out of the poor male she'd mated with, I thought darkly. Black was what Queens were expected to wear, and for tonight, I humored them by wearing a long black formal gown and leaving my dark hair flowing loose down past my shoulders, though jeans, sneakers, and ponytail were more my usual style.

"Careful, milady. No need for haste, we are not late." Mild humor laced Dontaine's voice. "And even if we were, the ceremony cannot start without you."

True enough, but still I. walked quickly out into the night, Dontaine beside me, a tall guarding shadow. The wind blew cool and soothing across my restless skin, and the night welcomed us with dark embrace, folding us into its silent shadows as we stepped into the forest. The swish of my sweeping hem across the plants and foliage of the forest ground were the only sounds that marked our passage. Aha, I thought dryly, another reason why they wanted their women in long skirts, so they would be easier to keep track of... or chase down. A shiver prickled my skin at the phantom image of unwilling women fleeing, being pursued by warriors awarded rights to their bodies by their Queen.

Sometimes I wondered what I was doing here among these primitive people, in this strange, feudal society. I shivered as I felt the collective power of the gathering ahead of us thrum across my skin like a heavy blanket of awareness. So many of them.

Then I stepped into the clearing and saw him. One of the reasons why I was still here. My other Warrior Lord. A man, tall and majestic like a giant oak tree, powerful in body, rugged in face, blunt of features. As beautiful to me as my Gryphon had been. His sea blue eyes met mine and all others faded away. Oh, how I had missed him. His big body, his big heart, the love and devotion he bore me glimpsed naked in his eyes. Only in those huge arms did I feel safe, loved, protected. "Amber," I whispered.

"Mona Lisa." The low rumble of his voice came to me like a dark rough caress, stirring my body, speeding my heart.

A discreet jolting electric touch on my hand, there then suddenly gone, drew me back to my surroundings and the sea of waiting faces all turned to me. Oh yeah, Basking first. I swallowed, threw Dontaine a thankful glance for his reminding touch, and made my way to where my heart wanted me to go toward Amber. He was surrounded by faces I did not know. A handful of them were young men from my Louisiana territory who had taken positions with Amber after it became clear they would not have any chance at my bed. Fresh virgin lads, too young to have acquired any threatening power, were usually favored by Queens for indulgent bed sport, picked up and tasted like new candy. She's different, was the rumor that had spread about me. She likes older men.

I smiled, thinking that the rumor was not without some merit. All my lovers had indeed been older, Halcyon more than six hundred years old. When the Queen avenue had been nixed, most of the young available men had eagerly elected to serve and train under a powerful Warrior Lord, a rare opportunity. All the previous guards in the western Missouri territory, more than twenty of them, had been slaughtered. Not by me, though I had taken a few lives. Or even by Blaec, Halcyon's father, though he had been the tool in sending them on to the final darkness. But by their Queen, who had ordered them to rush us and try to kill us, a suicide mission against the High Lord of Hell, whose very touch was death. So many wasted lives just to give Mona Louisa a chance to escape.

In the center of the clearing, to the left of Amber, were my own personal guards. Men who had sworn their service to me earlier, before this prosperous territory had even been awarded me; men who had risked their lives to protect mine. Aquila, a man not much taller than my own five foot eight, with brown waved hair. Neat and proper, with a crisp Vandyke beard, you'd never guess him to be a former outlaw rogue one of those who had kidnapped me, in fact. Tomas, with soft brown eyes, wheat-colored hair, and a voice that spoke with the honeyed flow of the deep South. Both men were older, powerful warriors, one gone rogue, the other just about to before I had saved him from that fate.

Beside them stood a woman, massive of girth and height, towering a couple of inches taller than both my guards. Rosemary, my cook, my unofficial chatelaine who ran the monstrous mansion we now lived in, Belle Vista a house that had its own name, can you imagine? She'd left her coveted position at High Court to follow me to whatever territory I might be assigned to because of her two children, Tersa and Jamie, Mixed Bloods like me. They were not here tonight. Neither was the other Mixed Blood among us, my brother, Thaddeus. And the most deadly, the most unwanted among my guards, Chami, my chameleon, my assassin, was also not present. He'd stayed behind to stand guard over Rosemary's two children and Thaddeus.

I stopped and took my place before them, Dontaine standing beside me with the rest of my guards. Ringing out behind them in a thick spreading throng was the rest of my people so many faces and names I did not know. I blocked them out for now, blocked everybody out, and lifted my face up to the night, to our light, our source of power and life the moon, full and beautiful in her round glory. It called to me, that distant planet, tugged at something within me, and I opened myself to her, loosened that something within me in welcome, in acceptance. Yes, I am your child. Bestow your blessings on me, and I will anoint the others in your stead as your vessel, Mother Moon.

A warm, thrumming power unfurled within me, was pulled from me outward, upward, like an invisible arrow reaching for the sky, reaching for the moon, and finding it. Like a soft sigh breathed down from the heavens, light began to shower down, glorious rays that illuminated the night and bathed me in its glow. Little butterflies of light darted within me, filling me anew with energy, with power. Filled me tight, so tightly within, until I overflowed and burst outward, spilling the light onto the others, spreading it to them in a glowing, flowing wave that undulated over them, then entered them, too, bowing their backs. Renewing them, filling them with life and energy and power. Sending us all aglow, incandescent creatures of the night. Children of the moon.

Basking. This was what made me Queen. This was what ran our society. A society that centered around its Queens because only they could call down the lunar rays each full moon, to renew us and to extend our lives. Without Basking, we aged as humans did. We died sooner.

The glow faded, dissipated, disappeared within us. My duty was done, and the people slowly dispersed into the night. "Don't go," I said, turning to Amber.

"No," he answered, his voice a soft, reassuring rumble in the night.

"The rest of your people?"

"Your people," he corrected me gently. "They will return back to Missouri."

"How?" I asked with a small smile. "Flying, crawling, loping?"

He returned the smile with one of his own, a slow curving of lips that stoked warmth within me. "By car. We parked in the woods by the eastern border, half a mile away."

"Stay with me tonight," I said softly.

His blue eyes deepened, darkened. "Yes." He glanced behind me to Dontaine and the rest of my men, and told them, "We'll be at the west cottage tonight. Keep everyone away."

"Yes, my lord," Dontaine replied.

I left, conscious only of the power and presence of the man at my side as he drew me deeper into the woods, darkness folding like a comforting shroud around us. The night breathed with life the rustling of leaves blown by the wind, the hooting of an owl, the chirping of crickets in song, the swoop of wings, the splash of water in the distant bayou. So alive. Every sensation so sharp, every sound so clear. It felt as if I were coming back to life, emerging from deep hibernation. A painfully long one, away from my love. More than two long weeks since he had left me, though he had done so at my bidding.

Rule for me. Be safe for me. And return to me whenever you can. And he had.

"You haven't touched me," I whispered as we walked, so close, a hairbreadth away from each other, but without that final contact.

He turned his head, looked at me then, and my breath caught. His eyes burned that rich yellow-gold, the color of his beast. What he had been named for Amber. The color of his eyes whenever he was moved with passion or power. Or both.

"If I touch you now, I will not stop." His voice was deep and dark and so rich in timbre that it vibrated the air. "And the cottage is yet a mile away."

"I don't want to wait," I said huskily, feeling my own eyes dilating, expanding, so that everything came to me even more sharply, clearer.

"You must," he said, and I blinked at the hard command, the quiet arrogance in those words. He was changing, my Amber. Becoming more confident, more... dominant.

I almost purred. "Must I?"

He slanted a look at me, eyes narrowed, a tiny smile lifting his lips. "Yes," he said deliberately, "you must."

Oooh. He wanted to play. Or rather, he wanted to dominate.

I licked my lips and his eyes followed the gesture, darkening. My clothes were suddenly too constricting, my skin too sensitive, my breasts too full, my nipples too peaked. I unzipped the dress and stepped out of it, leaving the discarded, hateful dress on the leaf-strewn ground, and kicked off my shoes. Cool air teased over my skin, wisped through the blush-colored lace of my bra, the triangle of my panties.

Now it was Amber's turn to catch his breath, to run his hot eyes over the unclothed paleness of my skin. For his nostrils to expand and inhale in the rich ready scent of my softening body. My turn to tease him by running a hand down my neck, between my breasts, and trail tantalizingly lower. "Are you sure?" I asked in a slow, languid drawl.

He growled. And I laughed.

In a blink, my laziness slipped away. "Catch me if you can," I challenged. With my eyes aglow, I leaped away.

And large predator that he was, dominant male that he was becoming, he gave chase.

I made him work for it, truly fight to get what he wanted me. I ran like the hounds of hell were behind, chasing me. I ran like the wind. A blur of soundless speed that whipped the air with my passage. So fast that had a human seen us, he would not have seen anything, only sensed the stirring of movement through the rippling air currents left in our wake. And he was right behind me, as fast as I, his form bigger, stronger, even more powerful. He caught the heel of my foot, tumbled me to the ground. I rolled, went with the momentum, kicked out of his grasp, and bounded away again, my trailing laughter teasing him like a ghost.

I darted among the trees, under overhanging branches, deliberately using my greatest advantage, my smaller size, to my benefit. I glimpsed him to the left of me, running parallel, cutting his own course through the forest rather than follow my height-challenging one, and flashed him a glimpse of my white teeth before veering sharply to the right, leaping over a bushy shrub, then cutting right yet again. He put on a burst of speed and intercepted me. His large arms wrapped around me and brought me down, his big body like a safe cocoon around me as we rolled and rolled until we had safely stopped.

"I've caught you," he said in a gritty ramble, his voice rough, his yellow-gold eyes gleaming. "Now yield."

"No," I said. Grinning, I bucked him off me, leaped to my feet, and sprang away. But he was on me again, magically fast. He caught one of my wrists, mid-leap, and swung me against a thick tree trunk, my back pressing against smooth bark. He captured my other wrist, pinned them both above me. Heaving, straining with effort, I slowly pushed my hands away from the tree, lifting them away from the bark against his resistance... one inch... then two. Amber's eyes widened, expressing both our surprise. "You are getting stronger," he murmured, just before his head swooped down and he captured my lips.

I melted at the first taste of him, his dark sweet flavor like roasted chestnuts, and he pinned my arms once again above me. When he drew back, both our breaths were coming faster, mingling together in the cool air in frosty puffs. Taking advantage of my pliancy, he shifted his grip so that both my slender wrists were anchored firmly in just one broad hand. His other hand he placed like a victorious raider on my pale skin, sweeping it with low rumbling pleasure across the wings of my collarbones, up the lifted vulnerable undersides of my arm. Back down.

"Not fair," I gasped, that deliberate stroke up and then down tingling my skin. "You distracted me with that kiss."

"All's fair in love and war. Is that not one of your human sayings?" he asked, his breath puffing warmly against my ear as he hunched his big body over my smaller one, pinning my legs down with his great weight. I was surrounded by him, weakened by my desire for him, and not really wanting to escape. Captured, at his mercy. But with that brutally harsh face above me, hard with male excitement and purpose, he didn't look like he had any mercy. He looked so grim, male, implacable. Almost unrecognizable, like a stranger. And his power vibrated strongly against me with more than just his Monere self; the animal part of him thrummed so strongly there at the surface, so clearly that I could feel it, sense it. As if it was ready to burst out in a wash of fur and fluids with but the lightest touch, the slightest willing. He was clearly channeling the greater strength and hunger of his beast.

It shivered a feeling of apprehension in me. A feeling almost of fear as I looked up into that hard, hard face, with those inhuman alien eyes gleaming down with hungry harsh intent upon me.

I stilled, licked my lips, a nervous gesture this time. Swallowed. "You... uh, you're not going to eat me, are you?"

"Not yet," he growled. "My hunger for you is too great for such restraint this first time."

"Amber," I said almost desperately as his head dipped down, as I felt the brush of his lips and the alarming edge of his teeth stroke over the base of my neck where my pulse bounded suddenly like a desperate thing. As he lingered over it, fear and desire pumped my heart equally. A delicious combination, that edge of danger. But only if I knew there truly wasn't any.

"Amber," I said more sharply. He lifted his head, his nostrils flaring, his eyes dilating as he breathed in my fear-tanged arousal. "I mean as a meal. You don't see me as food, do you?"

He shook his head as if coming out of a daze. His eyes still looked cold, inhuman, but his voice, his voice was the Amber I knew and loved, warm with reassurance... and a bit of amusement. "No, love. I want to fuck you. Not eat you."

"Oh good." The tension left my body, leaving an almost painful, sagging relief in its wake.

His body shook. His breath hitched against my skin as he bent his head once more to my neck. "Amber." Alarm kicked in once more. Had I hurt his feelings?

His head remained lowered.

"Amber, you're not... crying, are you?"

"No," he choked, his breath huffing against me.

"Look at me."

He did. Mirth danced in his eyes, not tears.

"Beast," I said succinctly.

"Don't worry," he choked out, "not too much of one."

His body shook with the laughter he was trying to suppress. "Don't be mad, my love." But his words were ruined by the shaking merriment of his heaving body, and he suddenly lost the battle. A shout of laughter burst out. Then another, and another, until he was fairly howling with it, shaking against me not with lust but with hilarity.

Oh, the bastard! He was laughing at me!

My eyes narrowed in a look that would have alarmed him had he seen it. But he was too busy snorting away like a pig to see it.

Without a whiff of compunction, I brought my knee up, taking advantage of his inattention. Only his quick reflexes saved him. He twisted to the side and my knee struck his muscled thigh instead of his groin. But his grip on my wrists loosened with the maneuver and my hands were suddenly free.

"You can take your twisted humor and sleep with that," I snarled, shoving him off me with enough force to tumble him backward onto the ground, and took off.

The laughter stopped abruptly as he came after me, a dark and silent force. I ran this time with determination, with angry cunning. But still he caught me again, his hands catching my wrist. I turned, slashed at him, my nails leaving bloody red furrows down his forearm, and with a twist, was free once more. I ran south toward the house, toward Belle Vista and the rest of my men.

"No," Amber said harshly behind me as he realized my intent. "You are mine tonight."

"In your dreams," I muttered, darting left then right, evading his sudden snatch for me. I put on a burst of speed, but he was even faster.

He tackled me from behind, still gentle in bringing me down, but more determined. I cursed, twisted, and writhed, but in the blink of an eye he had me pinned against a tree again. This time, though, he lifted me so that my feet no longer touched the ground. Standing his full height, he leaned into me, my lower legs immobilized against the trunk by his.

His breath came faster from his effort, and humor was wiped clean from his face, I saw with some satisfaction. Harsh determination replaced it.

"Yield to me," he demanded.

"Not if your life depended on it," I snarled and tried to bite him. He levered his upper torso away from me, an odd smile on his lips.

"But it does," he said, his rough deep voice gentling. "My life does depend upon it. Upon you."

I shut my eyes but could not shut out his words, the caress of his voice. Anger still stirred within me but with less steam, cooled by his tender words.

"I live for you. I dream of you. I count the days until I can return to you. Do not deny me now, my lady, my Queen, my love. Mona Lisa." He breathed my name like a benediction, a vow. "Be mine again," he whispered, and the last of my anger melted away with his humble plea.

I looked into his bold, craggy face. So harsh, so dear. And suddenly realized I did not want to see this big man humbled, begging, as his former Queen had made him do. She had made him grovel in the dirt.

"Yield yourself to me, please," he whispered against my lips.

I smiled, and that smile drew him back a little, wary. "Make me," I said, my eyes gleaming challenge at him.

The white of his teeth flashed like pearls shining in darkness. He grinned like a pirate. "It shall be my pleasure to."

With a quick maneuver, he shifted both my wrists until they were held secure in just one powerful broad hand of his. An almost gentle tug and my bra snapped apart. A big calloused hand smoothed down low over my belly, then moved down even lower. His eyes had swirled back to blue, as tumultuous as the deep dark sea, and no less dangerous. Perhaps more so in its potent allure. Come into my depths, they beckoned, and how I yearned to do just that. Those sea blue eyes darkened as rough fingers whispered over delicate lace, the last barrier that covered me, as they passed over my sultry waiting heat. With a sharp rending tear that stopped my breath and wet me even more with its controlled violence, the lace covered me no longer. That marauding hand paused briefly in its gentle pillage, savoring me, cupping me tightly, then moving on down to my thighs, drawn tightly together.

"Open to me," he murmured, rubbing that calloused palm between my legs as if he could open them with the light stroking tease of his hand. Almost. Tempting. But not enough.

"Like I said..." My eyes grew sultry, the lids heavy like my waiting pulsing body. "Make me." And with a smile, I clenched my thighs even tighter together, capturing his hand between them in a firm squeeze.

His breath caught, his hand stilled. Then moved again. Less teasing, less tentative, more bold and commanding. A more purposeful search and find now, coming to rest just above my knees. His eyes holding mine, he slid his fingers in the tight barrier I had created and wrapped them around my right knee. With calm deliberation, he began to pry my legs apart. He growled, a warning rumble as I resisted him. I made him work for it. Made him earn it, sweat for it, only yielding that which he could take by brute overpowering force. When he had opened my legs enough, his knees slid between them, forcing them even farther apart, and he rested his weight full upon me. His thickness was wedged right against me, long, tight, and hard in the opening he had fought for. Almost home. Only problem, his pants were still on.

"You forgot to undress yourself," I said, my lips curving up in laughing feline delight as I saw the realization of his dilemma reach his rueful eyes.

"Will you make me work for it all over again if I step back and undress?" he asked.

I smirked. "You betcha."

He smiled in return, then moved so fast that I did not see it. Just heard the ripping tear as his lower body left me for one brief splinter of time. And then he surged back, and up, and into my body with one forceful plunge, pushing a startled cry from my throat as my inner muscles convulsed around his thick invading length.

He stilled, halfway in me, his great body shuddering. "Am I hurting you?"

"No," I gasped. "Oh, God." I wriggled, strained against him, but my hands were captured, held firmly by him, my body forced open by his, pinned by his body in the most primitive and effective way of all.

He filled my soft emptiness with his hard fullness. Crammingly so. He was a big man, everywhere. And his sudden invasion stretched me almost unbearably, caught me between the prongs of acute pain and acute pleasure, blurring the line between them.

"I am hurting you," he muttered and started to pull back, out of me.

I whimpered, cried out, "No!" and wrapped my legs around him, holding him to me.

"Are you sure?" he asked me fiercely, his cheekbones slashed red, his face as rock hard as how he felt within me.


His eyes narrowed, his nostrils flared. "All right. Then take me. Take all of me." His free hand anchoring my hip, he heaved himself into me, pushing in his long thick length until he was buried in me so deep I thought he'd come out the other side.

I opened my mouth to scream. With pain, with pleasure. I wasn't exactly sure which. And he covered my mouth with his own. Swallowed my cry. Pushed his thick tongue into my mouth so that I was filled with him there too, held suspended by him, chained by his hands, his male hardness buried deep in my soft feminine sheath.

He took me as I had asked him to, challenged him to.

He pulled back out of me both my inner sheath and my oral sheath then pushed with slow, insistent deliberation back within me, stretching me, filling me abundantly simultaneously above and below. I mewed, sucked on his tongue, and echoed the action by tightening around him below, within.

His stomach muscles ridged so hard they felt like stone slabs against me, and he made a desperate sound against my lips as he ground himself even deeper inside me. Pulled out. Then another slow, deliberate, stretching push back into my tightness that had us both groaning, trembling. With the third stroke, it was as if the magical threshold of my body had suddenly been reached. It finally eased its almost unbearable tightness, loosened, became more receptive. And like a leash suddenly let go, Amber began a fast, almost furious rhythm, pistoning, pouring himself into me, his tongue stabbing me above as he stabbed me, pounded me, below. And I welcomed him, clung to him, wrapped my tongue and lips and body around him, and asked him for more with arcing body, sucking cheeks, hungry cries. As hungry to hold him, absorb him, become one with him, as he was to pour himself into me.

Our passion, our pleasure, lowered the barriers of our flesh. Called forth the lunar lightness that dwelt within us, so that our glow illuminated our skin and filled the night with building incandescence, growing brighter and brighter as I wound tighter and tighter. Until I finally crested and burst. And it was like the world trembled with my release. His climax followed a heartbeat after mine. Light streamed from us in almost bursting luminosity. Then faded gently away until darkness once more cloaked the night.

Conclusion | On The Prowl | Chapter 2