The Darkest Surrender
(The ninth book in the Lords of the Underworld series)
A novel by Gena Showalter
To Donna Glass, a real-life Bianka Skyhawk.
Your support and enthusiasm for the
Lords of the Underworld thrills me more than I can
ever say. Thank you, thank you, a thousand times thank
you! (Did I mention I’m thankful?) And from all of the
warriors currently residing in the Budapest fortress:
you’re welcome to come over anytime. Gideon adds:
And I hope like hell you don’t! Also, Lysander says
there’s a cloud with your name on it—next to his.
Fifteen hundred years ago…
A million years ago…
(Just depends on who you ask.)
FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER, the bi-century Harpy Games ended with more participants dead than alive, and every single one of the survivors knew fourteen-year-old Kaia Skyhawk was to blame.
The day began innocently enough. With the morning sun shining brightly, Kaia strolled through the overcrowded camp hand in hand with her beloved twin sister, Bianka. Tents of every size littered the area, and multiple fires crackled to ward off the early-morning chill. The scents of filched biscuits and honey coated the air, making her mouth water.
Forever cursed by the gods, Harpies could only eat what they stole or earned. If they ate anything else, they sickened horribly. So Kaia’s breakfast had been a meager affair: a stale rice cake and half a flagon of water, both of which she’d pilfered from a human’s saddle.
Maybe she’d appropriate a biscuit from a member of a rival clan, she mused, then shook her head. No, she’d just have to remain semi-hungry. Her kind didn’t live by many rules, but the ones they had, they revered. Such as: never fall asleep where humans could find you, never reveal a weakness to anyone and, most importantly, never thieve a single morsel of food from one of your own race, even if you hated her.
“Kaia?” her sister said, her tone curious.
“Am I the prettiest girl here?”
“Of course.” Kaia didn’t even have to look around to confirm that fact. Bianka was the prettiest girl in the entire world. Sometimes she forgot, though, and had to be reminded.
While Kaia had a disgusting mop of red hair and unremarkable gray-gold eyes, Bianka had luxurious black hair, shimmering amber eyes and was the image of their exalted mother, Tabitha the Vicious.
“Thank you,” Bianka said, grinning with satisfaction. “And I think you’re the strongest. By far.”
Kaia never tired of hearing her sister’s praise. The more powerful a Harpy was, the more respect she earned. From everyone. More than anything, Kaia craved respect. “Stronger, even, than…” She studied the Harpies in the area, searching for someone to compare herself to.
Those who were old enough to participate in the traditional tests of might and cunning bustled about, preparing for the one remaining event—Last Immortal Standing. Swords whistled as they were tugged from sheaths. Metal ground against stone as daggers were sharpened.
Finally, Kaia spotted a contender for her comparison. “Am I stronger, even, than her?” she asked, pointing to a brute of a woman with bulging muscles and thick crisscrossing scars adorning her arms.
The injuries that had left those scars must have been severe indeed; immortality caused their race to heal quickly and efficiently, rarely allowing any evidence of hard living to show.
“No question,” Bianka said loyally. “I bet she’d run and hide if you decided to challenge her.”
“No doubt you’re right.” Actually, who wouldn’t run from her? Kaia trained harder than anyone and had even felled her own instructor. Twice.
She didn’t want to boast, but she’d always trained harder than any other Harpy in their clan. When everyone else stopped for the day, she continued until sweat ran down her chest in rivulets, until her muscles trembled from the strain…until her bones could no longer support her weight.
One day, perhaps even one day soon, her mother would be proud of her. Why, just a few nights ago, Tabitha had slapped her on the shoulder and said her dagger throwing skills had almost improved. Almost improved. No sweeter praise had ever left Tabitha’s mouth.
“Come on,” Bianka said, tugging at her. “If we don’t hurry, we won’t have time to wash in the river, and I really want to look my best when I watch our clan destroy the competition. Again.”
Just thinking of the prizes her mother would collect caused Kaia’s small body to puff up with pride.
The Harpy Games had begun thousands of years ago as a way for clans to “discuss” their grievances without causing a war—well, without causing any more wars—as well as allowing allied clans to showcase their superiority, even against each other. Elders from each of the twenty tribes met and agreed on the competitions and awards.
This time around, each winner of the four battles earned one hundred gold pieces. The Skyhawks had already earned two hundred of those pieces. The Eagleshields had won one.
“Out of your head…that’s a good girl,” Bianka said as she quickened her steps, forcing Kaia to quicken hers in turn. “You daydream too much.”
A sigh from her sister, an admission of defeat.
Kaia grinned. The two of them drew a bit of notice from nearby Harpies, and she made sure to stroke the Skyhawk warrior medallion hanging from her neck. Her mother had gifted her with hers a few months ago, and she treasured the symbol of her strength almost as much as she treasured her twin.
Most everyone who met her gaze nodded in deference, even if she belonged to a rival clan. Those who didn’t…no Harpy would dare attack another while on neutral ground, so Kaia didn’t worry about possible conflict. Actually, she wouldn’t have worried anyway. She was as brave as she was strong.
At the very edge of camp, nestled in a grove of trees, she noticed something strange and halted. “Those men,” she said, pointing to a group of bare-chested males. Some roamed freely, a few were tied to posts and one was chained. To her knowledge, males were never allowed to enter or even watch the games. “What are they doing over there?”
Bianka stopped and followed the line of her finger. “They’re consorts. And slaves.”
“I know that. Hence the reason I asked what they’re doing over there and not who they are.”
“They’re meeting needs, silly.”
Kaia’s brow scrunched in confusion. “What kind of needs?” Their mother had always stressed the importance of taking care of yourself first, your family second and everyone else not at all.
Bianka considered her response carefully, then shrugged and said, “Doing laundry, bathing feet, fetching weapons. You know, menial things we’re too important to do.”
What she took away from that? If you owned a consort or slave, you’d never have to do laundry again. “I want one,” Kaia announced, and the tiny wings protruding from her back fluttered wildly.
Like all Harpies, she wore a half top that covered her breasts—though hers were tragically nonexistent at the moment—but remained open in back to accommodate the small arch of her wings, the source of her superior strength.
“And you know what Mother always says,” she added.
“Oh, yes. A kind word will win you a smile, but who in their right mind wants to win a smile?”
Bianka pursed her lips. “You can’t really kill a human with kindness. You have to use a sword.”
“Not that, either.”
Exasperated, her sister tossed her arms in the air. “Then what?”
“If you don’t take the treasures and the males you want, you’ll never get the treasures and the males you want.”
“Oh.” Bianka’s eyes widened as her attention returned to the men. “So which one do you want?”
Kaia tapped a fingertip against her chin as she studied the candidates. Each of the men wore a loincloth, and each hard body was streaked with dirt and sweat, but none of the men were cut or bruised as she was, indicating they’d proven themselves on the battlefield. Or at least, had tried to do so.
No, not true, she realized a second later. The one in chains was covered in battle marks, and his dark eyes were definitely defiant. He was a fighter. “Him,” she said, motioning with a tilt of her chin. “Who owns him?”
Bianka looked him over, trembled. “Juliette the Eradicator.”
Juliette Eagleshield, an ally as well as a coldhearted beauty trained by Tabitha Skyhawk herself.
Conquering a male the Eradicator had failed to tame would be… “Even better.”
“I don’t know about this, Kye. We were warned not to speak to any of the men.”
“I wasn’t warned.”
“Oh, yes, you were. I know this because you were standing right beside me when Mother delivered the warning. You must have been daydreaming again.”
She refused to be swayed from her chosen path. “New rule—if a daughter doesn’t hear a warning, she doesn’t have to heed it.”
Bianka remained unconvinced. “He reeks of danger.”
“We love danger.”
“We also love to breathe. And I think he’d rather chop us into pieces than bathe our feet. Not to mention what Juliette will do to us if we succeed in taking him.”
“Trust me. Juliette isn’t as strong as I am, or she wouldn’t have had to chain him.” Sure, Juliette was known for her willingness to slay anyone at any time, no matter their age or gender, but Kaia would soon be known as the girl who had one-upped her.
Her sister thought that rationale over for a moment, then nodded. “Very true.”
“I’ll just explain the punishment he’ll receive if he disobeys me, and I promise you, he won’t disobey me.” Simple, easy. Her mother was going to be so proud.
Tabitha wasn’t proud of many people, only those who proved to be her equal. So…in other words, she wasn’t yet proud of anyone. Maybe that was why every Harpy wanted to be her and every male wanted to win her. Her strength was unparalleled, her beauty unmatched. Her wisdom, limitless. All trembled at the mere mention of her name. (If they didn’t, they should.) All respected her. And all admired her.
One day, all will admire me.
“H-how are you going to sneak him away?” Bianka asked. “Where are you going to hide him?”
Hmm, good questions. But as she pondered the answers, indignation filled her. Why should she sneak him away? Why should she hide him? If she did, no one would know what she’d done. No one would write stories depicting her strength and daring.
More than she wanted a slave to do her bidding, she wanted those stories. Needed those stories. Because she and Bianka were twins, they were constantly teased about sharing what had been meant for one. Beauty, strength, anything, everything. As if they each had only half of what they should.
I’m enough, damn it! And I will prove it.
She would take the man here, now, in front of everyone.
Nearly bursting with urgency, Kaia turned to her sister and cupped her wind-pinkened cheeks. Worry consumed Bianka’s delicate features, but that didn’t stop Kaia from saying, “Allow no one to pass this point. I’ll only be a moment.”
“Please. For me, please.”
Unable to resist, her sister sighed. “Oh, all right.”
“Thank you!” Kaia kissed her right on the mouth then marched away before the sweet-tempered darling could change her mind. She palmed a dagger. The men pretended not to notice her as she shoved her way past them, and not a single protest was uttered. Good. Already they feared her.
When she reached the object of her young desire, she posed as she’d seen her mother pose a thousand times before. Hip cocked to the side, a fist resting on top, the blade of the dagger pointing outward.
The man sat on a stump, his elbows propped on his scabbed knees. His head was slightly bent, his inky hair falling over his forehead.
“You,” she said in the human tongue. “Look at me.”
Through the tangled locks, his dark gaze lifted and leveled on her. He was handsome, she supposed. Each of his features appeared to be chiseled from stone. He had a blade of a nose, sharpened cheekbones, thin but red lips and a stubborn chin.
Up close, she realized his chains were wrapped around his wrists and only his wrists, a metal link stretching between the two. Nothing bound him to a post. Either Juliette had no idea how to properly restrain a captive or the man was weaker than Kaia had assumed.
Disappointing, but she wouldn’t change her mind now.
“You’re mine,” she told him boldly. “Your previous mistress might try and fight me for you, but I’ll defeat her.”
“Is that so?” His voice was deep and husky, seemingly layered with thunder and lightning. She repressed a shudder. “What’s your name, little girl?”
Her teeth gritted together, her momentary apprehension forgotten. She wasn’t a little girl! “I’m called Kaia the… Strongest. Yes, yes. That’s what I’m called.” Titles were important among the Harpies, chosen by the tribe leaders, and while Kaia had yet to receive hers, she was absolutely certain her mother would approve of her choice.
“And what exactly do you plan to do with me, Kaia the Strongest?”
“I’m going to force you to meet all my needs, of course.”
He arched a brow. “Such as?”
“Doing my chores. All of my chores. And if you don’t do them, I’ll punish you. With my dagger.” She wiggled the weapon in question, the silver blade glinting lethally in the sunlight. “I’m quite cruel, you know. I’ve killed humans dead before. Really dead. So dead they even hurt afterward.”
He didn’t flinch at the weapon or at her implied threat, and she fought a wave of frustration. Then she consoled herself with the knowledge that most humans had no true concept of a Harpy’s skills. Clearly, he was one of the uninformed. Because he himself couldn’t lift a thousand-pound boulder, he probably couldn’t fathom anyone else doing so.
“When shall I begin these new duties?” he asked.
“Very well, then.” She had expected an argument, but he unfolded his big body from the stump. Gods, he was tall, forcing her to look up…up…up.
She wasn’t intimidated, though. While training, she’d fought beings a lot taller than him and won. Well, maybe they’d only been a little bit taller. Fine, they’d all been shorter. She wasn’t sure anyone was as tall as this man. No wonder Juliette had claimed him.
Kaia grinned. Her first solo raid, in broad daylight no less, and she would be leaving with a prize among prizes. She’d chosen well. Her mother would find no fault with the man, and might even want him for herself. Maybe after Kaia finished with him, she would gift him to Tabitha.
Tabitha would smile at her, thank her and tell her what a wonderful daughter she was. Finally. Kaia’s heart skipped a beat.
“Don’t just stand there.” Before the male had time to reply, she rushed behind him, wings flapping frantically, and pushed him. “Move.”
He stumbled forward, but quickly managed to catch himself. With his head held high, he marched the distance. Just before he reached the edge of the enclosure, however, he stopped abruptly.
“Move,” she repeated, giving him another push.
He remained in place, not even twisting to face her. “I can’t. This clearing has been encircled with Harpy blood, and the chains prevent me from leaving without suffering severe pain.”
Her gaze narrowed on the muscled width of his tanned back. “I’m not a fool. I won’t remove your chains.” Plus, she wanted him docile while she paraded him through camp, not vying for freedom. When Juliette discovered what she’d done, a challenge would be issued. Kaia would need her attention focused, not divided.
“Removing my chains isn’t necessary.” Not by tone or deed did he reveal a hint of his emotions. “Simply add your blood to the circle already there, then smear a drop on the chains, and you can lead me across without any problems.”
Ah, yes. She’d heard of blood-chains before. They trapped the wearer within the confines of the circle, however wide or small that circle was, and only a Harpy’s blood could negate the restriction. Any Harpy’s. “Good idea. I’m glad I thought of it.”
She surveyed the Harpy camp. No one had noticed her, but Bianka was nervously shifting from one foot to the other, looking from Kaia to the camp, the camp to Kaia, her gaze pleading.
With swift precision, Kaia used her dagger to slice her palm. The sharp sting barely registered. After adding her blood to the crimson ring on the ground, she smoothed her weeping flesh over the cool links of metal between the man’s wrists. That done, she raced behind him a second time and pushed.
He stumbled past the circle, paused to shake his head, stretch his spine, flex his shoulders. No matter how hard she pushed this time, she couldn’t budge him. Then he turned back and grinned at her. Before she could reason out what was happening, he had his hands wrapped around her neck, her feet lifted off the ground.
Her eyes widened as he choked the life out of her with a power no human should have possessed.
Despite her lack of air, fogging brain and burning throat, realization struck. He wasn’t human.
Hatred suddenly poured from him, his dark eyes swirling hypnotically. “Foolish Harpy. I might not be able to break these chains, but that circle was the only thing preventing me from rampaging through the camp. Now, all of you will die for the insult delivered to me.”
Die? Hell, no! You have a dagger. Use it! She tried to stab him. Laughing cruelly, he batted her hand away.
In the background, she heard Bianka shriek. Heard footsteps pound as her sister hurriedly closed the distance. No, she tried to shout. Stay back. Then her thoughts fragmented as the man choked harder, tighter.
A black wave swept her into a sea of nothingness.
No, not nothingness. Screams echoed…so many screams… Grunts, groans and growls. The slide of metal against flesh, the pop of breaking bones, the sickening sound of wings being ripped from their slits. The nightmarish symphony lasted hours, perhaps days, before at last quieting.
“Kaia.” Callused hands wrapped around her upper arms and shook her. “Awaken. Now.”
She knew that voice… Kaia fought her way from the sea, her eyelids fluttering open. A moment passed before her mind cleared and the darkened haze faded. Through a sliver of moonlight, she saw a blood-soaked, scowling Tabitha Skyhawk looming over her.
“Look what you’ve done, daughter.” Never had her mother’s timbre lashed so harshly—and that was saying something.
Though she wanted to refuse, she sat up, grimaced as pain lanced through her neck to attack the rest of her, and shifted her gaze, studying the camp. Bile rose. Harpies and…other things floated in rivers of scarlet. Weapons lay on the ground, useless. Strips of cloth from decimated tents had caught on tree branches and now waved in the wind, a sad parody of white flags.
“B-Bianka?” she managed to gasp, her voice raw.
“Your sister is alive. Barely.”
Kaia pushed to shaky legs and met her mother’s amber eyes. “Mother, I—”
“Silence! You were told not to enter this area, and yet you disobeyed. And then, then you tried to steal another woman’s consort without gaining my permission.”
She wanted to lie, to preserve her dream of the coming accolades. She found she could not. Not to her beloved mother. “Yes.” Tears stung her eyes, that dream quickly flaming to ash inside her. “I did.”
“Do you see the destruction behind me?”
“Yes,” she repeated softly.
Tabitha showed her no mercy. “You alone are responsible for the travesty this day.”
“I’m sorry.” Her head fell, chin resting against her sternum. “So sorry.”
“Keep your sorries. They cannot undo the anguish you have caused.”
Oh, gods. There was hatred in her mother’s voice now. True, undiluted hatred.
“You have brought shame to our clan,” Tabitha said, ripping the medallion from Kaia’s neck. “This, you do not deserve. A true warrior saves her sisters. She does not endanger them. And so by this selfish act you have earned your title. From this moment on, you will be known as Kaia the Disappointment.”
With that, Tabitha turned and walked away. Her boots splashed in the blood, the sound echoing crudely in Kaia’s ears.
She fell to her knees and sobbed like a child for the first time in her life.
“I WANT HIM.”
“Where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah. The day of the Unfortunate Incident, something you made me swear never to discuss, even upon threat of death. And I won’t discuss it now, so don’t get your panties in a twist. I just thought you were more careful with your affections nowadays.”
Kaia Skyhawk peered over at her twin—Bianka the Heavenly Hills Ho, as Kaia had recently dubbed her. A name her precious sis deserved. Girl had nailed an angel. A freaking angel. ’Course, in return Bianka had dubbed her Kaia: Bed-warmer of the Underworld for getting down and dirty with Paris, the biggest man-whore in existence.
The title didn’t sting nearly as much as her last one. Fine, her current one. Harpies had long memories, and shouts of “Look, everyone, it’s the Disappointment” still happened anytime she ran into another of her race.
Anyway. Bianka was as ravishingly gorgeous as ever, a dark fall of hair cascading down her back, her amber eyes bright. And just then she was flipping through a rack of designer dresses, a mix of determination and concern radiating from her.
“That happened, like, a million years ago,” Kaia said, “and Strider is the first man I’ve…damn it, he’s just the first man I’ve wanted, truly wanted,” she added before her sister could comment on her “boyfriends” throughout the centuries, “since. Or ever.”
“Actually, that, as you called it, happened a mere fifteen hundred years ago, but we aren’t discussing it. So what about Kane, keeper of Disaster, huh? I thought you once had a moment with him? A shock to your senses or something like that.”
“Nothing but static.”
A snort full of amusement. “Try again.”
“I don’t know. Maybe his demon sensed a kindred spirit in me and reached out, hoping to fan the flames of a romance. That doesn’t mean Kane and I are destined to be together. I’m not attracted to him.”
“Better, and okay, Kane’s out. Maybe you need to look elsewhere for a boyfriend. Like, say, the heavens. I can set you up with an angel.” Bianka held up a flowing swath of blue material with sequined flower appliqués sewn into the top and layer after layer of lacy ruffles at the bottom. “What do you think of this one?”
Ignoring the dress, Kaia pressed on. “No setups. I want Strider.”
“He’s no good for you.”
He’s perfect for me. “One, he doesn’t belong to another Harpy. Two, he isn’t psychotic. Well,” she added with a few seconds of afterthought, “he isn’t psychotic all of the time. And three, he’s…he’s my consort, I know it.” There. She’d said the words out loud to someone other than herself and the brain-damaged man in question.
Consorts, as Kaia now knew, were extremely hard to find and utterly cherished because of that. Actually, they were necessary. Harpies were volatile by nature, dangerous and, when annoyed, lethal to the entire world. Consorts calmed them. Consorts appeased them.
If only you could select your consort from a catalog and be done with it. Instead, instinct picked for you, and your body followed suit. Wouldn’t have been so bad, except each Harpy was granted one consort during her seemingly endless life. Only one. You lost him, and you suffered eternally. If you didn’t kill yourself outright.
That Kaia had once tried to steal Juliette’s, that Juliette had been without her male all this time, not knowing whether he lived or had died, hating him for what he’d done but needing him anyway, that Juliette still loathed Kaia and had promised retribution—retribution the bitch still clearly planned to achieve—shamed her. But then, what could she say to defend herself? Nothing!
She had disobeyed. She had set the man free. She had unleashed his fury upon an unsuspecting community.
Every year Kaia mailed Juliette a fruit basket with a “sorry about your consort” card, and every year the basket was returned with rotten apple cores, black banana peels and a picture of Juliette flipping her off with “Die, Whore, Die” written in blood somewhere.
Only reason Juliette hadn’t yet attacked was out of respect for Tabitha, who was still a force to be reckoned with among allies and enemies alike.
Don’t think about the past. You’ll start spiraling.
She’d think about her consort. Strider. Barbaric, slutty, idiotic Strider. He was an immortal warrior who’d long ago stolen and opened Pandora’s box to “teach those asshole gods a lesson” for daring to pick a “mere woman” to guard such a “dumb relic,” and because of his rampant senselessness, he and the friends who’d helped him—the infamous and deliciously frightening for everyone but a Harpy Lords of the Underworld—had been cursed, forever forced to carry the demons they’d set free inside themselves.
Strider, the beautiful moron, was possessed by the demon of Defeat. He couldn’t lose a single challenge without suffering debilitating pain. Of course, that made him determined to win everything, even something as silly as Rock Band. Which she refused to ever again play with him because she’d totally nailed the Fender, then the drums, then the mic and he’d spazzed out and yelled at her before passing out and twitching with pain.
Anyway, his determination made him stupid, egotistical, stupid, an all-around asshat and stupid! But there was no man more handsome, no man more fierce.
No man who wanted less to do with her.
Had she mentioned he was stupid?
“Well?” Bianka shook the dress in Kaia’s face, forcefully claiming her attention. “Opinion, please. And sometime today.”
Focus. “Don’t kill the messenger, but that thing will make you look like a cracked-out prom queen who has no plans to sleep with her boyfriend when the big dance ends—because she doesn’t have a boyfriend. She’s too weird. Sorry.”
Bianka merely shrugged, unperturbed. “Hey, cracked-out prom queens might be weird, but they’re hot.”
“If hot is a synonym for destined to die alone, you’re right. So go ahead. Buy the dress, and I’ll buy you a hundred cats to keep you company while you spend the rest of eternity trying to figure where your relationship with the angel went wrong, never really understanding that the problems started this very night.”
“Do you know anything about me? Hello, I like dogs. But fine, whatever.” Red lips pursing, her twin snapped the hanger back onto the rack and continued her search for “the perfect gown” to wear when she broke a bit of bad news to her consort, Lysander.
Poor Bianka. She hadn’t just nailed an angel, she’d bound herself to one. Forever. Lysander lived and worked in the heavens and was so boring Kaia would rather shove bamboo splints under other people’s fingernails than spend time with him. Okay, bad example. She actually enjoyed shoving bamboo splints under other people’s nails.
There was something so best-musical-ever when people screamed and begged for mercy, and she could listen to a good musical all day.
“Kaia?” Bianka said. “What the hell are you sighing about?”
“Musicals? Seriously? When I’m dying for help? Will you just listen to me for once?”
“In a minute. Geez. I really like this thought train.” Or rather, she’d liked the station stop before the musicals. A male this boring needed an equally tedious nickname…like…Pope Lysander the First. That’s right. He was an elite warrior with wings of gold and yeah, he was a demon slayer extraordinaire, and okay, that was sexy as hell, but he was also morally upstanding. Like over the edge OCD about it. Kaia shuddered with distaste. He was slowly but surely sucking the fun right out of her once delightful sister.
In fact, Lysander’s aversion to blatant shoplifting was the reason they had abandoned Budapest, returned to Alaska and broken into Anchorage’s Fifth Avenue Mall at night rather than taking what they desired in broad daylight. As usual. Too many prying eyes.
To be honest, Kaia was kind of embarrassed about the concession. She would have told her man to take his request to “please don’t steal in front of humans, it gives them ideas” and stuff it up his ass. Also, she despised the lack of thrill, needed it to soothe her darker side, but whatever. She loved her sister. More than that, she owed Bianka a debt she could never hope to repay.
They might not ever discuss the Unfortunate Incident, but Kaia had never forgotten it. (See? A Harpy with a long memory.) Every day she remembered how Bianka had writhed in a pool of her own blood, her eyes glassy with pain. How moans of anguish had parted mutilated lips.
Bianka sighed. “Okay, let’s get your problems out of the way so we can concentrate on me. Tell me why you picked Strider as your heartmate. I know you’re dying to extol his virtues.”
For a moment, Kaia could only blink at her sister, certain she’d misheard. “Are you freaking kidding me? Heartmate? Did you just say heartmate?”
Bianka snickered. “I did, and I almost gagged. Lysander’s influence, you know. Anyway, Strider’s such a tool. And a challenge.” Another snicker echoed. “Get it? A challenge…he can’t lose one…but he sure as hell acts like one.”
Kaia rolled her eyes. “I think you’ve been hanging with the angels too much. Your IQ has dropped.”
“What? That was funny.” Square-tipped nails painted bright blue drummed against the metal rack between them. “And by the way, the angels aren’t that bad.”
“Whatever you need to tell yourself, my love.”
Bianka blew her a kiss full of fang. “All’s I’m saying is that Strider’s gonna be a handful—and not the good kind. He’s—actually, wait. I recant. He’s too big to be anything but a good handful. Or more. But he’s also gonna be a bad one. Wait. That doesn’t ring true, either. How should I put this? He’s going to—”
“I get it already! He’s got a huge package, and he’s irritating as hell. What’s your point?”
“Glad you’re finally up to speed. It’s sad, really, that you need so much explanation.” The sparkle in her sister’s eyes dimmed. “Anyway, you told him how you felt about him and he rejected you. He’ll be annoyed by any further contact you initiate, and an annoyed demon-possessed warrior is a global disaster waiting to happen.”
“I know.” If she had realized his importance to her sooner, she wouldn’t have slept with his friend Paris, the keeper of Promiscuity. Otherwise known as Paris the Sexorcist, a male so sensual he could make your head spin. And if she hadn’t slept with the Sexorcist, Strider the Stupid wouldn’t have rejected her.
Or maybe he would have. Because to her consternation—yes, consternation, and not an all-consuming, organ-flaming rage—he kinda sorta desired another woman. Haidee, a pretty female who belonged to his friend, Amun, keeper of Secrets.
At least Haidee was off-limits, and Kaia didn’t have to worry about Strider getting handsie. Honor among evil demons, and all that.
But damn it, just the thought of his gaze on another woman caused Kaia’s nails to elongate and sharpen, her fangs to sprout and her blood to boil. Mine, every cell in her body cried. She would kill anyone who made a play for him, as well as anyone he made a play for; she wouldn’t be able to help herself. Her dark side would take over, driving her to protect what was hers.
“Seriously, he’s lucky to be alive, and not just because I want to chop off his man parts and feed them to zoo animals while he watches,” Bianka continued. “Any man who can’t recognize your worth deserves a good torturing.”
“I know.” Not because Kaia was anything special—though she was, kind of, maybe…damn it, she used to be—but because no one could reject a Harpy without suffering severe consequences.
Actually, most Harpies would have taken Strider despite his wishes. So maybe she was the stupid one for allowing him to push her away. She just wanted him willing. She needed him willing. To abscond with him was to defeat him, and to defeat him was to hurt him.
She couldn’t bring herself to hurt him. Even at the expense of her sanity.
“You’re too good for him, anyway,” Bianka said, loyal as always.
“I know,” she repeated once more, lying this time. She would only ever be a disgrace to her clan. He deserved better.
Her sister sighed. “But you still want him.” A statement of fact, not a question.
“So what are you going to do to win him?”
“Nothing,” she said, fighting a wave of depression. “I chased after him once.” And he’d found her lacking. “I’m not going to do it again.”
“No. A few weeks ago, I challenged him to kick more Hunter ass than me.” Hunters, the enemy out to destroy all things demon. The fanatics who loved to go after innocents who dared get in their way. The pre-dead humans who would meet the tips of her claws if they approached Strider again.
Well, if they dared approach him with a weapon in hand. She might let them crawl toward him to apologize for the trouble they’d caused throughout the centuries. Torturing the Lords—only she was allowed to do so. Blowing up buildings—yawn. Could they be any more B-movie? Sooo irritating. Decapitating the keeper of Distrust—okay, that one was a little more than irritating, considering Strider was still messed up about it and everything.
Speaking of Distrust’s murder, Haidee had helped carry it out. Yep, that Haidee. The one Strider desired.
Kaia didn’t understand it. If he could want Haidee despite her crimes, why couldn’t he want Kaia?
“I wanted to help him kill the men who were after him. I wanted him to see how capable I was,” she added. “I wanted him to admire my skill. But did he? Noooo. He was pissed. He raged about all the pain I was going to cause him. So I let him win. Freaking let him. You know I never throw a fight.” That smacked of weakness, and too many people viewed her as weak already. “And how did he thank me? By telling me to get lost.” Hu-mil-i-ating. “Now, let’s change the subject.” Before she threw a temper tantrum and razed the mall to the ground. “What look are you going for?” she asked, flipping through the racks herself.
“Slutty yet sophisticated,” her sister said, allowing the change without comment.
“Good choice.” She rubbed her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she studied the colorful array of garments. “Think dressing up will help your sitch?”
“Gods, I hope so. I plan to let Lysander rip the garment off me, make love to me in the dirtiest way possible, and then, while he’s trying to catch his breath, drop the big, bad bombshell on him and run like hell.”
Something Kaia would have loved to do with Strider—the dirty loving part, anyway—but he wouldn’t give a shit about anything she told him. As he’d already proven. “What are you going to say to Lysandy, anyway? Exactly.”
Bianka shrugged her seemingly delicate shoulders. “Exactly…I don’t know.”
“Try me. Pretend I’m your disgustingly in love angel consort, and confess.”
“Okay.” A sigh, a straightening of her spine, then lovely amber eyes were staring over at Kaia with trepidation. “All right. Here goes.” A pause. A gulp. “Darling, I, uh, have something to tell you.”
“What is it?” Kaia said in her deepest voice. She propped her elbows on the bar, the hanger hooks digging into her skin. “Tell me quickly because I need to spread my happy fairy dust and wave my magic wand when—”
“He doesn’t spread happy fairy dust! He’s a killer, damn it.” The indignation drained as quickly as it had formed. “But as for that magic wand…” Bianka shivered, smirked. “It’s really big. Probably bigger than Strider’s.”
Kaia just blinked at her, waiting.
Her sister inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly. “Fine. Continuing. Darling, for the first time in forever, my family has been invited to participate in the Harpy Games. Why for the first time in forever, you ask. Well, funny story. You see, my twin sister did the dumbest thing and—”
“I’m sure you’re exaggerating about that part,” she interjected, still using that deep voice to mimic Lysander. “Your twin is the strongest, most intelligent female I’ve ever met. Now tell me something important.”
“Anyway,” Bianka went on smoothly. “I’m not sure why we’ve been invited, but a gold embossed card demanding our attendance came via Harpy Express a few days ago. We can’t refuse without bringing intense shame to our entire clan. We would be labeled cowards, and as you know, I’m no coward. So…I’m leaving in one week, and I’ll be gone for four. Oh, and each of the four agreed upon events involves bloodshed, possible limb removal and definite torture. See ya.” She gave a pinkie wave, stilled, then waited for Kaia’s response.
Kaia nodded. “I like it. Firm, informative and unwavering. He’ll have no choice but to let you go without a fuss.”
Some of Bianka’s worry melted away. “You really think so?”
“Gods, no. I don’t, not at all. He’s gonna flip his lid. For real. You’ve met him, right? Protective to the extreme.” Lucky girl. “So what about this one?” She held up a barely there confection with thin silver chains connecting the sides.
“I think it’s great. Perfect, actually. I also think you’re a brat.”
She flashed an unrepentant grin. “You love me anyway.”
“Like you said, my IQ has dropped.” Bianka chewed on her bottom lip. “Okay, so. Here’s how I think it will go after I confess. First, he’ll try to stop me.”
“You got that right.”
“Then, when he realizes he can’t, he’ll insist on going with me.”
“Right again. Are you good with that?” Everyone would make fun of her for hitching herself to a do-gooder. Even their mother. Especially their mother. Tabitha hated angels more than most, since she’d always thought their youngest half sister’s father was an angel and had blamed the man for Gwen’s supposed weaknesses.
“Yeah.” Bianka smiled dreamily. “I’m good with that. I don’t like to be without him, and really, I will slaughter anyone who speaks ill of him, so that’ll add spice to my days.”
“Not to mention weed out the competition because I will help you with those slaughterings.” How she wished she could take Strider with her.
Actually, no, she thought next. Thank the gods he wasn’t going with her. She was reviled among the Harpy clans. She would die of mortification if he saw her own kind turn their backs on her, and she would fall into that shame spiral if he ever heard her despised nickname.
A soldier like Strider prized strength. She knew because she was a soldier like Strider.
Of course, her next thought struck hard and cut deep— Haidee was strong. The bitch. Though (mostly) human, the girl had managed to defeat death time and time again, coming back to life to fight the Lords. Until she’d fallen in love with Amun.
If I didn’t adore Amun so much, I’d send that female back to the grave—for the last damn time! No one caught Strider’s notice without suffering unbearably.
Maybe before Kaia left for the games she’d ensure the girl acquired a raging case of head lice or something. No one would be hurt, Strider would be repulsed and Kaia would feel like she’d accomplished some sort of revenge. Win-win.
“Are you listening to me or have I lost you to the thought train again?” Bianka asked, exasperated.
She pulled herself out of her head. “Yes, I’m listening. You were talking about something…of great consequence.”
“You were listening,” her sister said, hand fluttering over her heart. “Anyway, thank you for offering to help punish everyone who insults Lysander. You’re my favorite enabler in the world, Kye.”
“You, too, Bee.” Things would work out for Bianka. Lysander would support her no matter what, and the Harpies would see how intractable he could be and back down. Kaia, though… No, things would not be working out for her.
“Mother Dearest is gonna be there,” Bianka said, trying for a casualness neither of them felt for this particular topic, “and she’s gonna hate him, isn’t she?”
“For sure. But then, she has lousy taste in men. Take our father, for instance. A Phoenix shifter, aka the worst of the worst in terms of immortal races. They’re always pillaging and burning stuff to the ground. Seriously, you have to be a real nutbag to hook up with one of them. Which means, what? Mother is a real nutbag. I’d be worried if she liked Lysander.”
What would Tabitha think of Strider, though?
Bianka gave a low, warm chuckle. “You’re right. She does, and she is.”
“And you know what else? She can suck it, for all I care.” Brave words, yet, on the inside Kaia was still a little girl, desperate for her mother’s approval. “But, maybe, I don’t know, maybe she’ll finally bury the hatchet with me.” Gods, was that needy tone really hers?
Bianka leaned across the rack and patted her shoulder. “Hate to break it to you, sister mine, but the only way she’ll bury a hatchet is if she gets to bury it in your back.”
She tried not to sag with regret. “So true.” And she wouldn’t care. She wouldn’t. Really. But why, why, why did no one but her sisters consider her good enough?
One mistake, just one—when she’d been a child, no less—and her mother had written her off. One mistake, just one, and Strider wouldn’t commit to her. Wasn’t like she’d cheated on him. They’d both been single for years, and hadn’t even been on a date together. They hadn’t kissed. Hadn’t really even talked. And the night she slept with Paris? She hadn’t known she would one day want Strider sexually. Or at all.
He should have recognized her appeal from the very beginning and tried to seduce her. So, really, when you thought about it, the blame could totally be laid at his door. Or maybe at his demon’s. Defeat had yet to realize that losing her was far worse than losing a challenge. Otherwise, Strider would suffer without her.
She wanted him to suffer without her.
The demon was bonded to Strider and essential to his survival, so…maybe she could do something to win the evil fiend over. If she decided to make another play for Strider. Which she wouldn’t. As she’d told her sister, he’d lost his chance. Besides, approaching him now would make her seem desperate. Which she was.
Gods, this was depressing. And infuriating! Opposition was to be crushed, always, but how was she to fight a man she also wanted to protect?
“What are you thinking about now?” Bianka asked. “Your eyes are almost completely black, so I know your Harpy is close to taking over and—”
“Hey. Hey, you! What are you doing in here?” someone shouted.
Forcing herself to breathe deep and calm down, she threw a quick look over her shoulder. Great. Mall security had arrived. “I’m fine, swear. Meet you back at the house?” she said, tossing the chosen dress at her sister.
“Yeah,” Bianka said, catching the garment and stuffing it down her T-shirt for safekeeping. “Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
They sprinted off in different directions.
“Stop! I’ll shoot!”
Kaia’s red hair practically glowed in the dark, making her the easier target, so the guard—who didn’t shoot, the liar—chased after her as he radioed for backup. The fact that she’d flipped him off before taking that first corner had nothing to do with it.
Most of the store lights were switched off, and the rest of the mall offered very little illumination. Not that it mattered to her superior Harpy eyesight. Her gaze expertly cut through the shadows as she dodged and darted her way toward the exit. Unfortunately, the human knew the area better than she did and managed to keep up with her.
Time to kick things to the next level.
Her wings fluttered…readying…but just before she could blaze into hyperspeed, the guard did the unthinkable and tasered her. Tasered. Her. Not a liar, after all. Kaia fell to her face, oxygen instantly turning to lightning in her lungs. She was mere inches from the doorway, yet her spasming muscles prevented her from completing her escape.
She could have jerked the clamps from her back. She could have twisted, pitched one of the many daggers strapped to her and ended her pain. Ended the human. But this was her hometown, and she didn’t like to kill the locals. Or rather, she didn’t like to kill more than one a day and she’d already hit her limit.
A lie, but she’d go with it.
Plus, why kill the guard when she hadn’t truly given the chase her all, knowing deep down that he could provide what she’d secretly craved: a reason to call Strider.
After all, someone would have to bail her out of jail.
STRIDER WAITED IN THE LOBBY of the Anchorage Police Department, his friend Paris at his side. They’d already posted Kaia’s bail and were now waiting for her to be released into their custody. Come on, Red. Hurry. He was currently on the receiving end of several once-overs from the male cops—fun fact, he’d had less invasive body cavity searches—as well as a few very thorough eye-fuckings from the females. Paris was, too.
They were armed, yeah. Strider wouldn’t visit a church in heaven without a few blades stashed somewhere—especially now that he knew heaven was guarded by freaking giant-ass angels—much less stroll into a building filled to bursting with guns and humans who knew how to use them. But, so far, no one had commented. Not that they could see his arsenal, hidden beneath his jacket, T-shirt and jeans as it was.
“Why did we have to be the ones to do this, again?” Paris asked. At six-foot-eight with an all-muscle frame, the keeper of Promiscuity was, to put it mildly, a big guy. Three inches taller than Strider, the bastard, but—and that was a huge but—not nearly as powerful.
Considering how many times they’d thrown down, the comparison wasn’t merely an opinion but a solid fact.
“I owed her a favor,” he said, careful not to reveal any emotion. Like the fact that he’d rather be locked in his enemy’s dungeon, torture on the day’s menu, than here. Like the fact that he didn’t want to see Kaia again. Ever. Like the fact that he didn’t want Paris to see Kaia again. For way longer than ever. “She called it in.”
“None of your damn business.” He didn’t even like to think about it. And talk about it? Hell, no. Too embarrassing. Like being caught out in public with your pants down.
Wait. Bad example. “Pants down” was a good look for him. A really good look.
Ego check. He’d told himself he was going to stop patting himself on the back for all his wonderful qualities. After all, it wasn’t fair to the citizens of the world. They couldn’t help being inferior to him in every way.
“Well, I don’t owe her anything.” Paris flicked him a glance, ocean-blue eyes glinting. Tension radiated from him. Tragically, uh, fortunately, that didn’t affect his handsomeness. He had a head of hair most women would kill to own, a mass of differing shades of brown, from the darkest of midnight to the sweetest of honey, and a face most women would kill just to glimpse.
Kaia had probably fisted that hair. Had probably smothered that face with kisses.
Strider’s jaw clenched. “You slept with her. Do you really need a reminder of that?”
“No, no reminder. But when you think about it, that means she owes me. And now you owe me, too, summoning me the way you did, interrupting my quest to demand I help you.” Acid filled those words. Not because of Strider, but because of the “quest.”
Sienna, the woman Paris desired above all others, was trapped in the heavens, a slave to the god king. Worse still, she was now possessed by the demon of Wrath. Paris hoped to find her, save her and punish everyone who had hurt her.
Strider pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth, remaining silent. Paris had found his “one and only,” as the stupid shithead was now fond of saying—and sounding like a pussy—yet had still slept with Kaia. A man with a one and only shouldn’t screw around, in Strider’s humble opinion. Yeah, yeah. Paris couldn’t help himself. Because of his demon, he had to sleep with a different person every day or he weakened…died.
A petty part of Strider almost wished his friend had chosen the weakening path rather than touching the Harpy.
Of course, the thought caused guilt to eat at him. Kaia was not Strider’s one and only, if such a thing even existed for him. She was too competitive, too strong and too wily to cause him anything but misery. And yes, he got the irony. He was that same way with everyone. But he was attracted to her, and as possessive as he was and had always been, he didn’t like the thought of her sleeping with anyone else.
Especially since he had to be the best at everything he did. Because of his demon, he had to win, even in bed. And as Paris had more experience than anyone he knew, there was no way Strider could compete in that arena.
Maybe he could have ignored his other reasons for rejecting Kaia’s recent and numerous come-and-strip-me glances, but he couldn’t ignore that one. Not even once. Because once a man tasted the forbidden fruit, he would go back for more. He wouldn’t be able to help himself, the tether on his sanity already broken. So Strider would keep going back, and every time he touched her, tasted her, peeled her panties away with his teeth, he would later experience agony in its purest form.
Yes, Strider was damn good in the sack. Not that he was going to pat himself on the back. He didn’t do that anymore, he reminded himself. Okay, fine. He’d make an exception because of the extreme superiority of his talent. He was far better than “good.” He was flipping amazing. But he never took on a fight he wasn’t sure he could win. Nothing was worth the physical and mental torment that accompanied a loss, and Paris was probably better than “flipping amazing.”
Fine. No probably about it, if the moans Strider had heard from the many hotel rooms Paris had rented throughout the centuries could be believed.
Now, the pleasure that came with a win…sweet gods above. There was nothing like it, not even sex. Strider was addicted to the rush the same way Paris was addicted to ambrosia, the drug of choice for immortals. In fact, he’d stab a dear friend in the throat before letting him—or her—trounce him in something as minor as a spelling bee.
The best way to spell victory? K-I-L-L.
“Anyway,” Paris said, drawing him back to the present. “What did Kaia do for you that you’d willingly indenture yourself to me?”
“I already told you. It’s none of your damn business.”
“Yeah, but I figured if I kept asking, you’d cave.”
“You were wrong. News flash, I’m a little more stubborn than most. And by the way, I didn’t indenture myself to you. In exchange for your help tonight, I agreed to go to Titania with you to hunt for Sienna.” Titania. Dumbass name. But Cronus, the egomaniacal god king, had renamed Olympus to piss off the now incarcerated Greeks who had once reigned there.
Took a real set of titanium cojones to name a location after yourself. Or maybe Cronus was simply overcompenating for something.
Not that Strider and his beloved cock, which he’d modestly nicknamed Stridey-Monster, knew anything about that. They were perfect in every way.
Ego check. Damn it. How many would he need in one day?
“Dude, you totally indentured yourself. You also agreed to kidnap that shithead William and take him with us,” Paris said.
“I also agreed to kidnap that shithead William and take him with us, yes.” A fact that still pissed him off. William, a sex-addicted immortal who wanted to sleep with Kaia. Unfortunately, Willy was also the only person who could actually spot Sienna, being as how Sienna was dead and he had that whole I-see-dead-people thing going on.
Also, it helped that the guy could now flash. For whatever reason, the abilities the gods had once stripped him of were now returning.
Anyway. Something Strider and his cohorts had recently learned was that “dead” didn’t necessarily mean “gone forever.” Not for humans and certainly not for immortals. Far from it, in fact. Souls could be captured, manipulated…abused. Sienna was of the abused variety, and Paris was desperate to save her.
The besotted warrior shifted from one booted foot to the other. Behind the counter, a female groaned as if the movement was torture—for her. “You agreed to help me knowing you’d have to find Sienna, no matter how long it takes, or you’ll hurt. Bad.”
As far as Strider was concerned, the longer it took them, the better. The more distance between him and Kaia, the better. He had to prove to himself that he could walk away and forget about her.
He’d done it before. Only problem was, now he knew her better and the attraction was stronger.
“You’ve been in the heavens for weeks and made no progress,” he said. “You needed me.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t need me. Not for something as simple as this.”
Actually, he did. He needed to see Paris and Kaia together. Needed to remind himself why he couldn’t have her, why he had to stop thinking about her all the damn time. Why she was bad news. Preferably before his demon decided they had to have her—or else.
Besides, Strider had needed to escape Budapest, his home not-really-sweet home, as well as put some distance between himself, Amun and Amun’s new girlfriend, Haidee. Strider had laid his semi-best moves on her, but she’d wanted nothing to do with him. Sure, he’d also insulted her at every turn and threatened to decapitate her, but give a guy a damn break. He’d had excellent reasons.
Haidee had once been a Hunter, had killed his best friend, Baden, keeper of Distrust, and had attempted to savage his home.
Yet still he’d desired her. And now, every time he looked at her, he was reminded of his failure. His loss. The ensuing pain. But…and here was the kicker. He’d never had a problem resisting her. He’d kept his mouth, hands and favorite appendage to himself without any difficulty.
Kaia, however, wouldn’t be extended the same courtesy if they spent any alone time together. Already his mouth watered for a taste, his hands itched for a touch and his favorite appendage stood at embarrassing attention.
Oh, yes. He had to get as far, far away from the whole situation as possible.
“Stridey-Man. You here with me or what?”
He blinked into focus. Paris. Police station. Humans with guns. Winking in and out was stupid. He blamed Kaia for his lax concentration—another reason to avoid her. “I don’t want to talk about it,” was all he said.
Paris opened his mouth to respond, but closed it with a snap when they heard the welcome sound of high heels clacking down the nearest hallway. Then Kaia was rounding the corner, silky red hair hanging down her back in complete disarray, gray-gold eyes bright and wicked body swaying with a seductive beat Strider prayed only he could hear.
No. He didn’t want to hear it, so he wouldn’t pray that he alone could. But if anyone else heard it, he’d rip out their goddamn eardrums. Because Kaia was, despite everything, his friend. They’d fought enemies together, bled for each other. Hell, they’d joked and laughed together. So yeah, they were friends, and he didn’t like his friends being harassed. And that was the only reason, damn it. He’d do the same thing for Paris. Who’d better not hear that beat!
“Don’t you go getting into any more trouble, you hear,” the officer escorting her said with open affection, and Strider wanted to kill the guy for so blatantly harassing her—or speaking to her at all. “We love ya, but we don’t want to see you here again.”
Calm down. You’re not dating her, and you’re not going to date her. Or kiss her. All over. The cop’s flirting doesn’t matter.
“As if I’d let myself get caught a fourth time,” she replied with a grin that was all about the charm.
A grin that caused Strider’s chest to constrict. No one should have lips so plump and red, or teeth so straight and white. Didn’t help that she wore pink knee-high snakeskin boots, a micromini jean skirt and a white tank top that clearly showcased the white lace bra underneath.
Miracle of miracles, she was wearing a bra today.
She stopped short when she spied him, her smile fading. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected from her, but he did know that reticence wasn’t it.
Her gaze moved to Paris, and the smile returned. As did the constricting in Strider’s chest. “Hey, stranger. What are you doing here?”
“I’m not sure exactly.” Paris threw him a quick frown. “Not that I’m unhappy to see you, you understand.”
“Yeah. You, too. And thanks for the pick up. Appreciate it.”
“Anytime. Just hopefully not anytime in the near future.”
She chuckled, the sound warm and rich and its undertones so erotic that it stroked over his skin. “Can’t promise.”
Neither said anything romantic, yet both of their voices grated on him. Maybe because he’d needed them to goo-it-up with each other so that his hormones would get the “not going there” message.
He had a feeling he would have been annoyed no matter what.
Like her smile, her chuckle shut down when she switched her attention to Strider. “So,” she said. “You.” As if she’d just spotted an oozing culture of flesh-eating bacteria on the bottom of her shoe.
The unfriendliness isn’t a challenge, he informed his demon as the stupid shit perked up.
There was no reply. Truth was, Defeat was intimidated by Kaia and didn’t often wish to draw her notice.
And really, the only time Defeat deigned to speak to Strider was when his competitive spirit was engaged. “Competitive spirit” being a nice way of saying Strider’s ass had been glued to the chopping block. He much preferred the little bastard to stay at the back of his mind, a dark, silent presence easily ignored.
“I expected you to send someone, not show up yourself,” Kaia added, rocking back on her heels.
“After the message you left me?” He snorted. “Hardly.”
“Are you whining? Because I hear a whiny schoolboy tone.”
She does not amuse me. “I don’t whine.”
He’d listened to that message a thousand times and knew every word, every hitch in her breath by heart. Beep. Strider. Hey. It’s Kaia. You know, the girl who saved your life a few weeks ago? The same girl you stomped all over afterward? Well, it’s payback time. Why don’t you get your lazy ass out of bed and come bail me out of jail before I decide to break out and use your face to test the stilettos on my boots. Beep.
Animosity was good, and he seriously hoped she maintained a tight grip on it, despite the fact that he’d had to move heaven and earth to get here. Heaven—phoning Paris and convincing the warrior to drop everything up there, have Lysander bring him home, and come with Strider. Earth—phoning Lucien and convincing the warrior to drop everything and use his flashing ability to get them from Budapest to Alaska in a mere blink of time. Neither of which had been an easy task.
In fact, he would rather have had his tongue removed with a dull, rusty butter knife. Both men had asked questions. Lots and lots of questions he hadn’t wanted to answer.
And yeah, Strider now owed the keeper of Death a favor, too. They were piling up, all because of the deceptively delicate-looking, utterly curvy stunner in front of him—who clearly wanted his head on a pike.
“Would have been nice if you’d given me some direction. Torin had to search every—” Strider stopped himself before he publicly admitted that Torin, the keeper of Disease, could hack into every database known to man. A skill like that was better kept under wraps. “He just had to search for you. Cost us some time.”
“So. That’s all you have to say for your appalling behavior?” Thank gods she was doing as he’d hoped and holding tight to that animosity of hers. Yeah, thank gods. “You could have called Bianka. Word is, she’s here in Anchorage with you.” Not that she’d taken his call. “Instead, you waste my time with this shit.”
Damn it! Would it have killed her to show him a little gratitude? He could have stayed home, left her rotting. Instead, she’d metaphorically batted her lashes at him and he’d jumped like a girl with a rope. Frustrating woman.
He’d done her wrong, yes, and unlike Haidee, she hadn’t deserved it. Thought you weren’t gonna ponder that. The memories came, anyway.
A group of Hunters had been riding his tail for days, but he’d been too wrapped up in his pity party over losing Haidee to Amun to notice or care. Kaia had stepped in and saved the day, preventing a disastrous ambush. And gods almighty, she was sexy when she fought.
He hadn’t seen that particular fight, but he’d seen several before it—and the one after it—and had even practiced battle-moves with her. He could very well imagine the lethal dance she’d performed that night.
Then had come the battle after, when she’d challenged him to a round of Who Can Slaughter More Hunters. He’d been royally pissed because one, she could slaughter more Hunters, no question, and two, he’d had other things to do. Like take his first vacation in centuries. Still, the challenge had been issued, his demon had accepted, and Strider’d had to drop everything or suffer a loss.
To his shock, she had let him win. Harpy that she was, she could rip through an entire army in seconds—all without breaking a sweat or a nail—but rather than render the final blows, she’d piled up her still-breathing conquests and given them to Strider. Then she’d taken off.
He hadn’t heard from her again until she’d left that message.
Yeah, he needed to apologize.
“Not to point out how lame you are or anything,” Kaia said to him, buffing her nails on her shirt, “but I once had to bail Bianka out of jail twelve times in one day. I didn’t complain a single time.”
Not amused, he reminded himself. “Have I ever told you how much I hate when people exaggerate?”
“I swear!” She stomped her foot. “I honestly didn’t complain.”
Really not amused. I won’t laugh. “Not what I was calling you on.”
“Oh, well.” The indignation drained from her. “I never exaggerate. Ever.”
His throat got tight as he swallowed back a laugh—of exasperation, not amusement, he assured himself. “You’re exaggerating now.”
“And you’re still whining, you crybaby!”
Gods, she was lovely when she was pissed. Her eyes glittered more gold than gray, as if flames danced through her irises, and her cheeks flushed the color of a rare, exotic rose. That glorious mane of red hair practically lifted from her scalp, as if she’d stuck her finger into a socket. Energy crackled around her.
“Wow,” Paris said, glancing around. “This is a lot of fun.”
“Have I ever told you how much I hate sarcasm?” Strider asked him.
Kaia drew in a measured breath, her gaze remaining on Strider. “Lookit, all your crybaby bawling aside, I’m not paying you back and I’m not showing up for my hearing.” Her chin flew into the air, all snotty attitude and refusal to forgive. “So there.”
Goodbye, non-amusement. Screw an apology. Defeat was humming now, gearing up to fight, intimidated by her or not. Strider popped his jaw but didn’t say another word. He just turned on his heel and stomped out of the building before things got ugly, forcing Paris and Kaia to follow. Together. Maybe they’d do him a solid and hold hands.
He heard them clomping behind him, chattering steadily, and jerked his sunglasses from his jacket pocket. He slid the metal frames up his nose. Despite the chill in the air, the sun was bright, glaring. Down the steps he stomped, then he stopped, whipped around.
No hand-holding, but definite we’ve-seen-each-other-naked sparks. Their heads were pressed together, their tones low, intimate. They were probably reminiscing about the thousands of orgasms they’d shared.
This was exactly what he’d wanted, needed. A reminder.
A reminder that Paris had once ripped the clothes from Kaia’s body. Had once tossed her down on his bed, watching her lush breasts jiggle as she bounced. Had grabbed her knees and pried them apart. Had stared into the hottest, wettest slice of heaven ever to grace the earth. Had bent his head, licked, tasted, feasted, hearing feminine cries of surrender and passion ringing in his ears, soft yet firm legs pressing into his back. Maybe even stilettos. And then, when the hunger had become too much for him, Paris had surged up and sunk into a core so tight, so exquisite, he would never be the same.
Kaia had wrapped herself around the warrior. Had screamed his name. Had scratched him and bitten him and begged him for more.
Paris’s face suddenly morphed into Strider’s, and it was Strider who slammed into that lithe little body, in and out, over and over again. Hard and fast as he grunted and groaned, desperate for more.
His hands curled into fists. Damn this, and damn Paris and Kaia. Because, if he were being honest, he was as furious with Paris as he was aroused by Kaia. And he was so damn aroused just then he had to fit his T-shirt over the waist of his slacks to hide the growing evidence. Paris should have resisted Kaia; he desired someone else, and Kaia deserved better than to be second place.
Why couldn’t Kaia see that?
Any moment now, Strider would stop wanting to rip them apart, stop wanting to grind Paris’s face into the concrete and afterward, suck the air right out of Kaia’s lungs. Any moment, he’d want to slap his boy on the back for a job well done and start thinking about Kaia as a pretty girl he counted as a friend but not a potential lover.
Yes. Any moment.
“GET LOST, WOULD YOU,” Kaia whispered fiercely to Paris as they descended the steps that led to her freedom…and Strider. “You’re like a bad rash that keeps coming back.”
He laughed, a booming sound that still managed to hold traces of pain.
“Seriously. This is the most attention Strider has paid me in forever, and you’re ruining everything. Beat it before I beat you.”
Paris stopped and gripped her arm, forcing her to stop, as well. Sympathy had replaced his amusement, highlighted now by the golden rays stroking him with the care and concern of a lover. Such a beautiful man. Even the elements had trouble resisting him.
“Listen up, sweetheart, because I’m about to give you a lifesaving tip. Be a good girl, and don’t poke at the bear today. He’s on edge already.”
Her eyes narrowed, dark lashes fusing together to keep Paris and only Paris in the crosshairs. “I thought you were the smart one, giving in to my wiles as easily as you did, but, hello. Sometimes the bear needs poking or he’ll never come out of hibernation.”
One corner of his mouth twitched. “Oh, yeah? Well, think about this. What’s the first thing a bear out of hibernation does?”
Duh. “He eats. And to be honest, I’m really looking forward to that.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. That can be fun.” Leaning down, mouth still twitching, Paris whispered, “But you know what else? Bears torture. Bears love to torture, Kye. They’re mean. When a human gets in a bear’s way, especially after a long sleep, the end result is never pretty. Let this one acclimate to your…what did you call your smart-ass mouth? Wiles.”
“First, I’m not exactly human,” she said, raising her chin. “And here’s a news flash for you, my little man candy. I’m stronger than you are. Stronger than he is. Stronger than all of you put together. I can handle anything he dishes out.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Strider suddenly snarled. “Enough already. We need to leave, Paris, so you can stop making out with our fugitive.”
Our, he’d said. Not your. Such sweet progress. Trying not to smile, Kaia stepped away from Paris and slowly turned to face Strider, some of her annoyance with him cooling out. Breath snagged in her throat. Paris was beautiful, yes, but Strider…Strider was magnificent.
Her first glimpse in weeks had been of him standing in the station’s lobby, stark white walls surrounding him, and her knees had almost buckled. His finger-combed pale hair had been in complete disarray, sticking out in spikes. His navy blue eyes had swept over her, lingering in all the right places, and her stomach had quivered.
Now, at this second glimpse… He was tall, towering over her even though she stood several steps up and wore high heels. He had a delicious muscle mass that couldn’t be hidden underneath the long leather jacket, tight black shirt and denim. And gods, his face. His oh-so-innocent, yet oh-so-wicked fallen angel face.
At first, she hadn’t recognized that face for the luscious contradiction it was. She had seen only the innocence, and had continued searching for someone with the qualities she’d always found most attractive: brooding, dangerous and temporary.
That’s why Paris had snagged her attention.
He mourned the loss of his human female. Brooding—check. He was an ambrosia addict who could kill without hesitation. Dangerous—check. He was a sure thing, a onetime-only event, and wouldn’t cling. Temporary—check. Afterward, though, she’d snuck out of his bed—a Harpy always left after the main event—hollow and empty.
Which was probably why she’d gone back for seconds a few weeks later. She’d wanted to feel what she’d felt while they were together. Fulfilled. Satisfied. But he’d turned her down, physically unable to give her a repeat, and pushed her out of his room. Yeah, he could have pleasured her and taken nothing for himself, but that would have been a pity-session and wasn’t something she could tolerate.
So, because she’d worn a robe and only a robe to his second seduction, she’d left in a robe and only a robe—and, distracted as she’d been, she’d smacked into Strider in the hallway.
That’s when she first saw the devil in his eyes.
In that moment, she felt as if a switch had been thrown inside her. She’d made a mistake going after Paris. The man in front of her was everything she’d ever wanted and more.
His hair had been wet and plastered to his temples, darkening the strands. He’d had a white towel wrapped around his neck and no shirt to hide a stomach that boasted rope after rope of bronze strength. She’d watched, fascinated, as little droplets of sweat had traveled his golden happy trail before disappearing into paradise. A paradise she’d wanted to visit. With her tongue.
His shorts had hung low on his waist, revealing the jagged edges of the sapphire butterfly tattoo on his right hip. The moisture in her mouth had dried. Clearly, he’d just come from a workout. A very intense workout. Breath had still sawed in and out of his lips. Lips, she had realized, that promised untold pleasure when they curled in sinful amusement.
“Nice outfit,” he’d said, navy gaze blazing a slow journey from the top of her rumpled head to the purple polish on her toenails, lingering on her pearled nipples and between her quivering thighs.
“All’s I could find,” she’d replied in an uncertain voice, thinking this might turn out to be the immortal version of a walk of shame. How can I fix this?
“Lucky robe, then. It’d look better without the belt, though.”
Okay, maybe I don’t have to fix anything. For the first time in their acquaintance, desire had layered his tone. That desire affected her far more strongly than the once-over had. “Yeah?”
“Oh, yeah. So, you looking for someone in particular?”
“That depends.” Sultry arousal sweeping through her, she stepped closer to him. “What does someone have in mind?”
Behind her, hinges squeaked as a door opened. “Kaia?” Paris suddenly said, and she turned, her stomach rolling. He tossed a pair of fluffy pink slippers at her. “You forgot these. I’d keep ’em, but they aren’t my size.”
“Oh.” They plopped to the floor right in front of her. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. Strider. Hey, man,” Paris called.
“Hey,” he replied tightly. “Interesting night?”
“None of your business.”
As Paris disappeared inside his room, Kaia wheeled back around. Now Strider’s expression was guarded, closed off.
“Interesting night?” he asked, directing the question at her this time.
She gulped. “Not really. Nothing happened. This time,” she forced herself to add. If he did anything with her tonight, and found out the truth about Paris later, he’d hate her. So, full disclosure. Except—
“See ya around, Kaia.” Strider skirted around her, wandering off rather than teasing her about what she’d done. Or asking her what had really happened. Or caring on any level.
Clearly, nothing would have come of her sudden attraction to him even if Paris hadn’t interrupted.
“—some goddamn attention to me!” Strider was snarling now. “Not that I want it, you understand. You’re pissing off my demon.”
Pissing off his demon? She wanted to seduce his demon. Right? Or had she written the two off as she’d told Bianka?
She blinked, focusing, and studied him anew. His fury had very nearly sharpened his features into deadly blades, and her knees did buckle. So damn magnificent. A savage, a brute. Paris caught her before she hit the pavement and held her up.
Oh, gods. Weakness? Here? Now? Her cheeks flamed with embarrassment.
Strider took a menacing step toward her, then froze in place. “Paris, dude, let her go,” he snarled, and Paris immediately obeyed. Navy eyes snapped to her, more animal than man. “When did you last eat, Kaia?”
Thank the gods. He thought her weakness stemmed from a lack of nourishment, not the irresistible sight of him. She shrugged, happy she remained on her feet under her own steam. “Don’t know.”
As she had chosen not to steal or earn one of the bowls of slop given to the residents of Cell Block B, and as she’d been in the slammer for two days…well, she was starved.
Fine. She could have eaten. Bianka had come to the rescue, as always, eager to bust her out and feed her. She’d shooed her sister away with a stern warning—followed by a figurative bitch slap—not to return. Otherwise, Kaia would ensure the nickname Heavenly Hills Ho spread and stuck. Forever.
“Damn it, Kaia. You’re shaky on your feet and you can’t concentrate worth a damn.” His gaze shot to Paris. “Phone Lucien for pickup. I’ll meet you in Buda. I want to feed her, and then we can—”
Paris was shaking his head. “I’ll phone Lucien for pickup, but I’m not waiting for you in Buda. When you finish your business, if that’s what the kids are calling it these days, have Lucien or Lysander bring you to the heavens. Either one will know where I am.”
Strider gave a stiff nod.
Paris ruffled the top of Kaia’s head before striding off and disappearing around a corner, leaving her alone with the warrior of her dreams. Exactly what she’d furtively hoped and prayed for as she’d shoved Bianka out of the cell and locked herself back inside.
They stared at each other for a long while, neither moving, neither speaking. Tension spreading, thickening. His warrior nature had never been more evident. He stood with his arms at his sides, his hands inches away from the now-visible butt of his guns, and his legs braced apart, ready to spring into action. Against her? Or anyone who thought to hurt her?
Finally, she could stand the silence no longer. “You’re going to the heavens?”
He nodded, his skin like polished gold in the sunlight. The vibe of animal savagery left him, and he actually relaxed. She liked this side of him, too.
“Why?” What she really wanted to ask: How long will you be gone? Are you meeting a woman? An angel? His friend Aeron had fallen in love with a goody-goody with wings. Why not Strider, too?
I’ll kill the bitch.
“Sure you want to know?” he asked. “It involves Paris and another woman. A woman he wants.”
Relief bombarded her. “Sweet! Gossip.” Grinning, she rubbed her hands together. “Give me.”
He ran his tongue over his teeth. “I never repeat gossip, Kaia.”
“Oh,” she muttered, shoulders sagging with disappointment.
“You didn’t let me finish. I never repeat gossip, so listen closely.” He was fighting a smile, and the knowledge delighted her. “The woman Paris loves…hates, whatever. He wants her, like I said, and she’s being held prisoner up there.”
Sooo. Strider was going to war to aid his bro, not to give some wide-eyed, ripe-for-the-plucking winger a booty call. Her relief tripled. “I could, I don’t know, help you help him. I have connections up there—” not necessarily a lie “—and I—”
“No!” he shouted, then more calmly stated, “No. Thank you, though. But… Do you really not care that the man you desire now desires someone else?”
“Wait. Who says I desire him?”
His expression didn’t change, but he did clear his throat. “Not that it would have mattered either way, you understand. But as I was saying, he’s already spoken to Lysander about getting a little angelic help, and gotten a no-can-do.”
“Of course Lysander won’t help him. He’d help Bianka, though, and Bianka would help me.”
Stubborn brute. He was so desperate to get rid of her, he wouldn’t even consider using her. Another rejection; how quaint.
Motions stiff, he waved her over. “Come on. Let’s take care of your hunger.”
All I want is a few nibbles of you. “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”
“I know, but I’ll stay until you’re fed. I want to make sure you aren’t arrested again.”
Her Harpy squawked inside her head, a command to prove to Strider just how capable she was, just how worthy. Are you? “Fine. Oh, and here’s a truth missile for the demon who always wants to win. I doubt you can keep up,” she taunted, more out of habit than anything.
He huffed out a breath, and she figured this was round two of pissed-off mode.
“Lead the way,” he snapped before she could apologize.
Okay, so maybe she shouldn’t have pushed so hard. My bad. “I will.” She didn’t take him hunting, though. Not yet. She took him to the cabin she and Bianka shared a good distance from civilization. Thankfully, her sister was nowhere to be found. “Feel free to look around. I need to shower and change.”
“Kaia,” he began, following her down the hall. “I’m kind of pressed for time here and because of what you said, I need to keep up with you and—”
She shut her bedroom door in his stunned face, heard him snarl low in his throat and grinned. The grin vanished as a thought occurred to her. There was plenty of stolen food in the kitchen. If he noticed, there’d be no good reason for her to take him hunting.
Have to risk it. I smell. Kaia hurried through a shower, grateful as the grime and total body makeup that had caked her washed away. She almost raced from her room after changing into a glittery pink T-shirt that read Strangers Have the Best Candy and short jean shorts, but caught a glimpse of herself in her full-length mirror. Outfit was fine, but not her hair. The red mass was sopping wet and practically glued to her head and arms, making her resemble a drowned clown.
Back to the bathroom she raced for a crucial blow-dry. She thought about applying another layer of makeup to her exposed skin, wanting Strider to want her for her, not any other reason, but discarded the idea. Let Strider see. Let Strider crave. Right now, she’d take him however she could get him. Later, they could work on their reasons why.
If she decided to give him another chance.
Finally, she raced from the bedroom. In record time, too. Just under twenty (forty) minutes.
A trail of fragrant steam followed her as she strode down the hall. No Strider in the living room, where she kept her life-size hula dancer lamp and the castle she’d built from empty beer cans. He must be looking around. She wondered what he thought of her place, her things, and tried to see the room through his eyes.
Besides the coffee table, which was carved to resemble a hunched over wooden Sumo wrestler with a sheet of glass perched on top, and the chair with arms that were actually painted to look like humans legs that stretched to the floor, the furniture was beautiful, pieces she and Bianka had stolen throughout the centuries.
History was a scent that clung to almost every polished piece. Okay, maybe not the white rug with two yellow pillows sewn at one end, so that the whole thing looked like eggs in a frying pan. Or the hamburger beanbag chair, complete with lettuce, tomato and mustard layers, but that was it.
And okay, maybe the couch and love seat had been chosen for comfort more than anything else, and were no more than a decade old. She’d crashed a frat party a few years ago and had liked the way the overstuffed cushions had conformed to her body. Plus, they were a pretty tawny color, almost the same as Bianka’s eyes, so she’d made sure to leave with them. No one had tried to stop her, either. Maybe because she’d carried each one over her head. By herself.
Colorful vases decorated the tabletops, interspersed with personalized bobblehead dolls and the occasional stuffed squirrel in a crazy outfit. Weapons and artwork hung on the walls right beside the homemade plaques congratulating her on a job well done. Her fave: the one for giving Bianka the best birthday present ever—the tongue of the man who’d called her a “mean, ugly hag.”
There were also photos of her and her family. Bianka, as well as their younger sis, Gwen, and their older half sis, Taliyah. Kaia partying hard at clubs, Bianka winning beauty pageants, Gwen trying to hide from the camera, and Taliyah standing proudly over her kills. Mercenary that she was, she had a lot of kills.
In the kitchen—Kaia skidded to a halt, her heart banging frantically against her ribs. Strider. Gorgeous, sexy Strider. He sat at the pool table she’d plucked from his fortress her very first visit there and now used in the breakfast nook. Food was scattered in every direction, from bags of chips to cheese slices to candy bars.
He wasn’t looking at her, hadn’t even glanced at her, but he had stiffened when she’d stepped inside. “I figured that, since these things were here, they were acceptable for you to eat. Which means I more than kept up with you. I outwitted and surpassed you.”
“Thanks,” she said dryly. How disappointing. The one time she wanted her man to forget he had a brain, he remembered.
She leaned against the door frame and crossed her arms over her chest. Her stomach tightened, threatening to growl, but she remained in place, waiting. Only when he’d gotten a good once-over would she move.
“In a minute. I’m enjoying the view. You should give it a try.”
He tensed. “There’s a note from your sister on the fridge. She said she’s in the heavens with Lysander, and she’ll see you in four days for the games.”
“What games? Never mind,” he rushed out before she could reply. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. What perfume are you wearing? I don’t like it.”
Asshat. “I’m not wearing any perfume.” And she knew he loved it. He had a weakness for cinnamon, something she’d noticed while stalking, uh, hanging out with him.
Within hours of learning that little tidbit, she’d stocked up on cinnamon-scented soap, shampoo and conditioner.
“Stop…enjoying the view and come eat,” he said through clenched teeth.
He’d closed the blinds over the only window and flipped on the overhead light. Natural sunlight complemented her skin the best, but— Oh, who was she kidding, acting all modest? Any light complemented her skin.
“Kaia. Come. Eat. Now.”
Gods, she adored that authoritative tone. She shouldn’t. She should hate it—barbarians weren’t supposed to be attractive to modern women—but still, she shivered. “Make me.” Please.
Finally his gaze skidded over to her. He was on his feet a second later, his chair sliding behind him. His mouth floundered open and closed, and his pupils dilated. He licked his lips. He reached out to grip the edge of the table, his nostrils flaring as he fought to breathe. “You… Your… Shit!”
Every pulse point hammering, she twirled. She knew what he saw—rainbow shards dancing hypnotically over every inch of visible flesh, the blush of health and vitality…the promise of seduction. “You like?”
As if in a trance, he moved around the table and stepped toward her. Closed the distance…stopped just before he reached her and cursed. He spun, giving her his back, and tangled a hand through his hair.
“I’ve gotta go.” His voice was hoarse, the words pushed through a river of broken glass.
What? No! “You just got here.” And he’d been so close to making a move on her. Just the thought caused her nipples to bead and moisture to pool between her legs.
“I told you, I promised Paris I’d help him. I have to help him. Yeah, that’s what I have to do.”
Would she ever overcome his determination to resist her? ’Cause yeah, she wanted him, wanted to give him another chance. And another. However many he needed to get this right. “Strider, I—”
“No. No. I told you before, I’m just getting over a bad relationship, and I never hook up with anyone who’s dated one of my friends.”
Oh, really? “That bad relationship wouldn’t happen to be with Haidee, would it? The woman who didn’t want you? The woman who, what? Is dating one of your friends.”
Silence. Such thick, awful silence.
He wasn’t going to defend himself. Wasn’t even going to try to explain his illogical choices and reasons. Well, he’d forgiven Haidee for killing Baden. Why couldn’t he forgive Kaia for sleeping with Paris?
“You’re not innocent, Strider. You’ve nailed more tail than you can count. In fact, last time I saw you, you’d just eaten peach body lotion off a stripper.” Kaia had decided then and there that peaches were the most disgusting fruit ever, and the world would be a better place without them.
She’d already written to her congressman, demanding that all orchards be burned to the ground.
“I never said I was innocent. I just said—”
“I know. You can’t date anyone your friends have dated. You’re also a liar. But maybe…I don’t know, maybe you could sleep with one of my friends and we could call it even.” Oh, gods.
First, how desperate did she sound? Unbearably! She’d known this would happen if she made another play for him. And yet, she’d done it anyway. Like Pavlov’s dogs, she drooled every time she spotted Strider, abandoning her pride for any scrap he’d toss her way.
Second, thinking of this man with someone else had her claws elongating and her Harpy screeching. Her wings flapped to the same staccato rhythm as her heart, causing her shirt to lift and fall, lift and fall.
If she wasn’t careful, her Harpy would take over, control her actions. Her vision would go black, and a need for blood would consume her. She would stalk the night, hurting anyone who got in her way.
Only Strider would be able to calm her down, but he didn’t know that. Even if he did know it, he clearly didn’t want the responsibility. He was doing everything in his power to push her away.
“I won’t be sleeping with one of your friends,” he said flatly.
The hottest threads of tension drained from her. “Good. That’s good. All of my friends are ugly hags, anyway.” They were gorgeous, every one of them, but if he’d taken her up on the offer, she would have cut them loose in a heartbeat and gotten new ones. Repulsive ones.
“Kaia. There’s nothing you can say to change my mind. I like you, I do. You’re beautiful and smart and funny as hell. You’re strong and courageous, too, but nothing’s ever going to happen between us. I’m sorry, I really am. I’m not meaning to be an asshole here, just truthful. We’re just not good for each other. Not a good match. I’m sorry,” he repeated.
They weren’t good for each other? What he really meant was she wasn’t good enough for him. After she had chased him, lost a fight to protect him, threw herself at him time and time again, she wasn’t a good match for him. And he…was…sorry…
Suddenly she wanted to claw his face. Drink his blood.
Don’t forget the upcoming games. Hurting him would hurt her, and she needed to be at her best.
She drew in a deep breath, held it, held, her lungs burning, blistering, before she slowly released every molecule, singeing her throat, her nose. She might have thought Strider deserved something, someone, better, but she deserved better than this. Right?
He finished lamely, “I hope you understand,” completely unaware of the havoc he’d created. Or maybe he just didn’t care.
He needed to learn the proper etiquette for dealing with his Harpy.
She needed to teach him.
She should close the distance between them and trace her fingertips all over him before he had time to dart away, all the while pressing her curves against him. Anything to arouse him. Anything to force him to see her as more than the beautiful, smart and funny girl who had nailed the keeper of Promiscuity. Then, as he begged for release, she should walk away.
He wouldn’t be harmed, but he would leave with a better understanding of how rotten denunciation felt.
Kaia couldn’t bring herself to take a single step, however. She might just find herself on the receiving end of rejection and failure yet again. He might push her away before she could make her move. And really, a thousand other rejections and failures awaited her in the coming weeks.
So much for giving him countless chances.
“I do understand,” she whispered. “Just…have fun on your trip, okay.” A dismissal. “I plan to have lots of fun on mine.” A lie. Although she did plan to hold her head up high and kick as much ass as she could. So much ass, in fact, that her clan would have to rethink her title.
Kaia the Disappointment no longer. Maybe she’d become Kaia the Stompalicious. Or Kaia the KillYouDeadatron.
“So…you’re going on a trip?” he asked, and he sounded relieved.
Do not react. “Yep. I sure am.”
Still he didn’t face her. “Where? When?”
Don’t you dare react. “In four days, I leave for—oops, never mind.” She moved around him and sat at the table. “You don’t want to know, remember?” Doing her best to appear nonchalant, even smug, all while the bastard ripped her heart out of her chest and danced on the pieces, she opened a bag of chips.
“You’re right. Just…be careful, and I’ll see you—just be careful, okay?”
He’d stopped himself from saying later. I’ll see you later. Because he had no plans to see her again. Ever.
“I will,” she said, as she fought tears for the second time in her life. She deserved this, she supposed. Punishment for the Unfortunate Incident, for Paris, hell, for all the rejections she had dished out over the centuries. “You, too.” Much as she currently despised him, she wanted him healthy, whole.
“I will.” He strode out of the kitchen, out of her home, out of her life, the front door banging ominously shut behind him.
THE NEXT DAY, STRIDER SPENT his morning roaming the Budapest fortress, checking on his friends. Anything to distract himself from thoughts of Kaia and how sad she’d sounded just before he’d left her. Not to mention how he’d longed to pull her into his arms, hold her, comfort her. Devour her.
Not going there.
Legion, a spoiled full-on demon minion turned spoiled human with a porn-star body turned tortured prisoner of Lucifer turned subdued, silent bed-bound damsel in distress, rolled to her side, facing away from him when he entered her bedroom.
Physically, she had healed from her hellish captivity. Mentally…she might never heal. She’d spent several weeks being passed from one demon High Lord to another, raped, beaten and gods knew what else. No one knew because she refused to talk about it.
“Hey, there, princess.” Strider eased beside her on the bed and patted her shoulder. She flinched, jerking from the touch. He sighed, removed his hand.
He didn’t like visiting her. Oh, he liked her as a person, for the most part, and ached for the trials she had endured, but he was afraid Defeat would view her emotional distance as a challenge and force him to push her for more. More she wasn’t ready to give.
She needed help, and her closest friend, Aeron, and his joy-bringing angel, Olivia, were trying, but so far Legion hadn’t responded positively to anyone. She wasn’t eating properly, and was slowly but surely wasting away. Strider knew there was a guardian angel keeping watch over her, even though he’d never gotten a peek at the guy. What he did know: the invisible bastard wasn’t doing his job.
Yeah, Legion had been a selfish pain in the ass before, but she didn’t deserve this. And actually, Strider had liked her better the other way.
“What happened to you has happened to a few of the guys here, did you know that? A few times to Kane, in fact. Since he’s possessed by Disaster, he’s like a magnet for that kind of thing. And I’m not gossiping or sharing private info. When we lived in New York, he ran a support group to help others. Maybe you should, I don’t know, talk to him or something.”
Her blond hair was tangled and matted, her skin sickly with a grayish cast. Underneath the thick white fabric of her nightgown, he could tell her shoulders were frail.
“One time Paris and I even—wait. That is gossiping. Never mind. You’ll have to ask Paris if you want to know that little tidbit.”
Silence. From her and his demon. Most definitely she presented a challenge, and yet, Defeat was letting the indifference slide.
He tucked the covers higher, just under her chin, and saw a glistening teardrop slither down her cheek.
Okay, then. “I just wanted to check on you, but I know you’re not comfortable with me so I’ll go,” he said gently. She couldn’t relax with him here, and he didn’t want to make things worse for her.
More silence. He released another sigh as he stood. “Call me if you need anything. All right? Anything at all. I’m happy to help.”
Again, no response from either Legion or his demon. He wondered what was up with his—distracted? hiding? uncaring?—companion as he strode to his next stop. Amun’s room.
Despite the fact that he and Amun—and hell, even he and Haidee—were on good enough terms, he’d avoided contact for over a week. Just seeing her caused little sparks of pain to dance through his chest. Not because he still wanted her, but because he’d lost her, could never have her, and his demon couldn’t forget what they’d endured because of her dismissal.
Haidee opened the door, and he studied her out of habit. She was average height, her pale hair streaked with pink. One of her eyebrows was pierced, and one of her arms sleeved in tattoos. Dressed in a Hello Kitty T-shirt and ripped jeans, she would be carded at any bar.
When she saw him, she frowned and moved out of the way, allowing him inside. Despite that frown, she appeared lit up from the inside out, pulse after pulse of…he grimaced. What the hell was that?
If he were fed the muzzle of a .40 and told to guess or die, Strider would have said love in its purest form seeped from her pores. Almost hurt to look at her, she was so radiant.
Shit. “Are you pregnant?”
“No.” A secret smile curved her lips. Well, well. Picking up Amun’s all-things-are-a-mystery vibe already. “What’s up?”
Strider rubbed a hand over his heart, expecting more of those flickers of pain, especially with that glow blasting at his corneas, but…nothing. Not even a skip in the organ’s beat. Okay, fine. Whatever. He could roll.
His gaze swept through the room. Haidee had taken over the decorating, so the place was no longer like vanilla ice cream—plain, unadorned and completely lacking a personality.
Haidee favored contemporary styles with a Japanese flair. He tried not to cringe. Lanternlike lights hung from the ceiling. The walls were now brown and orange, each color staggered to form a boxed pattern. Bonsai trees seemed to grow from every corner, and white shag carpets stretched under three glass nightstands. White carpet. Had she not seen the amount of dirt a warrior’s boots could track in? The comforter on the bed was white, too, with beaded orange pillows.
If she’d tried this shit in his room, they woulda had a serious beef. A man needed to feel comfortable in his surroundings or he couldn’t relax. This wasn’t comfortable.
Only once had Strider “lived” with a woman, and only because she’d challenged him to move in. I know I can make you happy if you come home to me every night. Can you make me happy, though? I guess we’ll find out.
After a few weeks of cohabitating, he’d willingly accepted defeat. He could not make her happy because he didn’t want to make her happy.
He thought back to Kaia’s house and her decorating flare. Now there was a woman who knew how to make a place comfy and fun. Seriously, she’d had a toilet painted to resemble an open mouth. I want.
Haidee cleared her throat. “Strider?”
He turned to face her. “What?” Her expression was expectant, all soft and gooey with whatever pulsed from her, and he recalled that he’d come to her, not the other way around. “Yeah, uh. Where’s Amun?”
“Cronus summoned him to the heavens.”
Another secret smile. “Don’t know yet.”
“How long’s he been gone?”
“Three hours, nine minutes and forty-eight seconds. Not that I’m watching the clock or anything. Can I help you with something?”
“Nah.” He’d just wanted to see the guy, he supposed. After everything Strider had done to him…trying to keep Amun and Haidee apart… Guilt, man, how it ate at him sometimes. “I’ll just, uh, catch him later.”
Her brow furrowed with confusion. And concern? Yeah. That was concern. “You sure?”
He shouldn’t have been surprised, but…she’d killed Baden, keeper of Distrust. She’d tried to kill Strider. And she’d had very good reason for both. Long, long ago, they’d helped slaughter her family, destroy her life. Hell, because of a demon, she’d been killed time and time again.
Each time she’d come back, she’d remembered only her hate, knew only about the deaths of those she’d once loved. Sought only vengeance. Made sense, since she’d been possessed by a piece of the demon of Hate. And maybe that was another reason Strider had wanted her. That piece of Hate had caused other people to dislike themselves and even her. Strider had gotten over that quickly, had defeated that, which was why he suspected being with her had been a bit of a rush for both him and his own demon.
That she now adored Amun, that she now supported the Lords and their cause, well, it was a miracle Strider needed to stop questioning.
“Yeah. I’m sure.” He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Never before had he initiated contact that didn’t involve knives. “See you around, Haidee.”
Her mouth fell open, and she sputtered. “Yeah. See ya,” she said weakly. He’d never been quite that nice to her, either.
He must be softening in his old age.
Next he found himself standing in the doorway of Sabin’s bedroom, eating handful after handful of Red Hots. He had a stash of his favorite candy hidden in every corner of the fortress. He watched his friend toss all kinds of shit into a suitcase. His wife, Gwen, bustled around him, making a halfhearted attempt to fold the mountain of clothes Sabin had wadded into balls, stack the weapons he had only partially sheathed and remove the bullhorn from the case for a third time.
Once, the Harpies had called her Gwendolyn the Timid. Strider didn’t know what they called her now, but the moniker certainly didn’t fit anymore. The little firecracker had come into her own and kicked even Kaia’s ass, locking her in the dungeon below to prevent her from peeling Sabin’s skin from his body and wearing it as a victory coat.
His heart skipped a stupid beat, making him feel like a schoolboy with a crush. Something he’d never been. Zeus had created him fully formed, a weapon ready to be unleashed upon anyone who threatened the former god king and those he loved. Even then, before Strider had been given his demon, he had liked to win, railroading anyone who got in his way.
What joy could be found in defeat? None.
His demon grunted in agreement.
Strider refocused on his surroundings before the little shit began pushing him around. As he continued to watch Gwen, he noted how much she resembled her older sister.
Here we go again. Gwen had a thick mass of blond hair streaked with red—the same shade of red as Kaia’s. If he were being honest, though, Kaia’s was prettier. Wavier, silkier. And while Gwen’s eyes were a startling mix of gray and gold, just like Kaia’s, Kaia’s were still lovelier. On her, the gray veered toward liquid silver and the gold, well, the gold flickered like fireflies.
What are you? A wuss? Stop weaving poetry.
Anyway. When Kaia’s Harpy took over, her eyes went completely black, death swimming in their depths. But, if he were still being honest, even that was sexy.
Gwen and Kaia shared the same button nose, the same cherub cheeks. Same stubborn chin. Yet somehow Kaia was sin incarnate and Gwen was innocence walking. Made no sense. Even still, the resemblance affected him, heating him up.
He willed his body to remain unaffected. Sabin would fuss if Strider sported a hard-on around his precious. And of course, “fuss” meant Strider would find his intestines wrapped around his neck, breathing a thing of the past.
Bring it, he thought.
Defeat chuckled, startling him.
On edge, he waited for a challenge to be issued. It never came. Sweet gods above, he’d have to be more careful. No more close calls.
What was he doing here, anyway? He should be in the heavens with Paris. He should be in Nebraska with William, torturing the family who had abused Gilly, a human they’d befriended. He should be out there killing Hunters. He should be in Rome, bargaining with the Unspoken Ones—monsters who were chained inside an ancient temple, desperate for freedom.
He’d given them one of the four godly artifacts needed to find and destroy Pandora’s box. A relic the Hunters were searching for, as well.
The Unspoken Ones had the Paring Rod and the Cloak of Invisibility, and the Lords had the Cage of Compulsion and the All-Seeing Eye. So. Lords 2. Hunters 0. Boo-yah.
Unspoken Ones weren’t interested in the actual artifacts, though. They were interested in what they could trade for the artifacts. Whoever presented them with the head of the current god king (minus his body) would earn the Paring Rod in return, leaving only the Cloak to claim. The Cloak Strider had once owned but had exchanged for Haidee.
At the time, he hadn’t minded making the exchange because he’d been pretty damn confident the Unspoken Ones would keep the thing to bargain with him later. Still was. He’d have to pay through the nose, he was sure, but that was better than allowing Haidee to escape him and reveal his secrets to her Hunter friends.
And he’d meant to go back long before now, but losing her to Amun had knocked Strider on his ass for over a week, his demon a writhing, seething cauldron of pain.
Maybe that was why he’d been unable to let go of the idea of being with Haidee, he mused now. The echoes of that pain. Maybe that was why he still resisted Kaia.
Don’t think about her anymore, you nutcase. You’ll start foaming at the mouth. He resisted her because she would ultimately trample his pride, his well-being and probably even his will to live.
Did he really need another reminder of that?
He forced his thoughts back to the artifacts. Strider had vowed to recapture the Cloak. And he would. Soon. Because whoever found Pandora’s box first would win the war, and more than he wanted Kaia, not that he was thinking about her, he wanted to win the war against the Hunters.
Talk about the ultimate victory. The pleasure he would feel…gods, he could only imagine. Better than sex, drugs or rocking hos.
Anyway. Instead of all of that, he realized he’d purposely cleared his plate this morning, visiting everyone, making amends just so he could leave and… Shit! Not good. This was not good at all.
Just so he could leave and check on Kaia. He had to make sure she was okay. Even if that meant putting his obligations on hold again.
Dude. You can’t do that. And he wouldn’t. No damn way. Now that he’d realized his intention, he could put a stop to it.
“Why the hell are you just standing there?” Sabin suddenly lashed out. “State your business and leave, Stridey-Man. You’re turning Gwen into a raving lunatic.”
“You’re turning me into a raving lunatic!” she growled, removing the bullhorn from the suitcase yet again. “We don’t need all this stuff.”
“How do you know?” Sabin demanded. He scrubbed a hand through his dark hair, the gold in his eyes lighter than usual. “You’ve never participated in the Harpy Games before. And goddamn it, you shouldn’t have to participate in them now!”
“You heard Bianka. Every single one of Tabitha Skyhawk’s daughters have been summoned. And even if we hadn’t, even if only a handful of clan members had been summoned, I would still be going. They’re my family.”
“Well, you’re now part of my family.”
“Actually, you’re part of my family, and as I’m the General, the Captain and the Commander, you go where I go. And I’m going!”
“Fuck.” Sabin plopped onto the edge of the bed and put his head between his knees.
“That bad, huh?” Strider asked, doing his best to sound casual. I’m not dying of curiosity. Really.
Kaia had tried to hide her fear yesterday, but she hadn’t quite managed it. He had mentioned her trip, and she had trembled, paled. He shouldn’t have noticed. He’d had his back to her. Except there’d been a crack in her curtains, allowing him to study her reflection in the windowpane. And oh, had he studied.
She had sparkled like a diamond, drawing his eye automatically, and he’d been so eager to touch her that his body had been on fire.
Harpy skin…there was nothing more exquisite. Nothing. Funny, though, that he’d never wanted to stroke and taste Gwen, Bianka or Taliyah the way he’d wanted to stroke and taste Kaia.
Not that he was thinking about her anymore.
Defeat uttered another of those chuckles, and Strider tensed. When the little shit made no reply, accepted no challenge, he relaxed somewhat. Damn it. What the hell was going on with his demon?
Gwen chewed on her bottom lip. “Bianka told me the games are so violent that half the participants end up dead or praying for death. And once, about fifteen hundred years ago, far more than half died. Like, nearly all of them.”
Strider straightened, his blood chilling. “What? Why?”
“She didn’t tell me more than that, so don’t look at me like you’ll cut my throat if I don’t fess up. Anyway, she wasn’t exaggerating,” Gwen continued. “Oh, wait. She did tell me a bit more. Apparently the Skyhawks haven’t been allowed to participate in centuries because of something Kaia did, not that anyone will tell me what. No one in our clan has ever spoken of it, and I was never really around other clanswomen. They’ve always shunned us. But now, suddenly, they’re welcoming us back with open arms. It’s weird, and I don’t like it, but I’m not sending my sisters into hostile territory alone.”
Strider’s mind snagged on one detail only. Kaia had caused the turmoil. What had the gorgeous troublemaker done?
“Oh, and one other thing. Bianka thinks this is a trap.” Gwen angled Sabin’s head up and sank into his lap. Automatically the warrior wrapped his arms around her, holding her tight. “She thinks the Skyhawks, Kaia especially, will be targets, everyone out for revenge.”
Kaia…a target for every Harpy with a grudge… Now his blood heated for a different reason, the need to rage an inferno inside him. “Men are allowed to go?”
“Consorts and slaves, yes, and they’re more than allowed, they’re encouraged. Blood is medicine to Harpies, and those consorts and slaves help the injured participants heal.”
“Does Kaia have a…slave?” He croaked the question. On one hand, he wanted her to have one, to be safe. On the other, he already wanted to murder the ugly prick.
Defeat snarled, no trace of amusement in the sound. Or his usual fear.
This isn’t a challenge, buddy. Or was his demon upset by the thought of someone besides Strider hurting Kaia?
In a sick, twisted way, that kind of made sense. His sense of possessiveness was highly developed, with his enemies especially, but even with friends. Kaia was a bit of both.
Thankfully, Defeat offered no reply. Strider didn’t need the added complication of fighting Kaia and/or anyone who challenged her. She wasn’t his responsibility. She wasn’t his problem.
“No,” Gwen finally said, sadness creeping into her tone. “Kaia doesn’t have a slave.”
Relief, so much relief. “We’ll find her one, then.” Fury, so much fury.
“No.” Those strawberry-blond tresses slapped her face as she shook her head. “She thinks you are her consort.”
Yeah, once upon a time Kaia had said something like that to him. He’d believed that she believed, but he’d also believed she was mistaken, that she was letting simple attraction confuse her. Not that there was anything simple about her attraction to him. She wanted the best of the best for herself, and he couldn’t blame—
Ego check. He massaged the back of his neck with his free hand. Rephrasing: she wanted someone strong, capable and handsome. Shit. Ego check, he thought again. She’d wanted someone somewhat handsome.
No. That didn’t work. When a fact was a fact, there was no getting around it. She’d wanted someone extremely handsome, and he fit the bill. But…
Paris was handsomer.
Handsomer wasn’t even a word, damn it. Was it? Yeah, it probably was, and had most likely been coined because of Paris. “So?” he said with more force than he’d intended.
“So, she won’t take anyone else,” Sabin blurted. “Harpies are territorial, possessive and stubborn as hell. Meaning, they’re just like you and can’t compromise worth shit.”
Gwen frowned. “Hey!”
“Sorry, baby, but it’s true.” Then, “Kaia will take you or no one,” he said to Strider. “That’s just the way it’s sliced.”
“Which is why…” Gwen inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly, her gaze locking on Strider with menace. “You know I love you, right?”
He gave a stiff nod. Shit, shit, shit. Him or no one. A blessing and a curse. He didn’t have time for this. He didn’t want this. He couldn’t spend any more time with her. Had already said goodbye to her.
A goodbye that had come close to rousing his demon. With every step he’d taken from Kaia’s home, Defeat had prowled through his head, wanting to act, to pin her and take her—victory would be so damn sweet—but not allowing himself to do so. Loss would be so damn painful.
Strider had never been happier that the demons of Pandora’s box were afraid of the Harpies. And with good reason. They were descendants of Lucifer, the master of all things demonic.
Plus, Defeat had seen Kaia fight. No matter what weapon she used—gun, blade, claws, fangs—she blazed through her opponents faster than the eye could track. Nice qualities in a date, sure, and definite aphrodisiacs. If your very existence didn’t depend on your victories, as his did.
Strider finished off the last of his candy, and chucked the empty box into the trash bin beside Sabin’s desk. Swish. Two points!
Defeat purred his approval, little sparks of satisfaction shooting through Strider’s veins.
“—listening to me?” Gwen asked.
“Yeah, sure,” he lied, gaze quickly finding her. She was no longer perched on Sabin’s lap. Now she stood a few inches from Strider, her legs braced apart, her hands fisted at her sides. He recognized that pose. “But, uh, give me a refresher. You were saying…”
She rolled her eyes. “I was telling you that you only have two days to take care of any pressing business you might have. Because even though I love you, I’m going to make sure you attend the games. Kaia needs you, and you will be there for her. Or else.”
His attention flicked to Sabin, all what-are-you-going-to-do-about-this. Sympathy filled every curve and hollow of the man’s face, but there was no hint of determination or ire. Okay, so. His fearless leader would be doing nothing. Perfect.
He glared at Gwen. “Don’t even think about challenging me,” he snapped. “I won’t hesitate to retaliate.” Of course, one little scratch on the girl and Sabin would attack him. He’d have to go berserker on his boss, but two victories for the price of one? Bring it.
“As if I would ever use your demon against you,” she replied, startling him. “God, I can’t believe you think so little of me.” She truly sounded offended. Just as he opened his mouth to apologize to her, she said, “I’m only planning to beat the crap out of you, tie you up and have Lucien flash you to where the first meeting is being held. Jeez! Cut me some slack.”
“Only” planning, she’d said. He pursed his lips. “You do realize that beating the crap out of me and tying me up would be, what? Using my demon against me. The loss would destroy me.”
“Oh.” Her features fell. “I hadn’t thought that far ahead.” Then she raised her chin, reminding him of Kaia all over again. “I’ll still do it, though. Just make this easier on yourself and agree to go with her. Please.”
“Begging doesn’t work on me. Neither does crying, just so you know.” Once upon a time when he’d done the dating thing, he’d learned that begging and crying were forms of feminine warfare. Women wanted something, and they did anything to get it.
Admirable, but it hadn’t taken him long to harden his heart against such wiles. Or to decide that long-term relationships simply weren’t for him. As easily as he’d learned about his partners’ ploys, they’d learned about his.
He had to win, and they always tried to use that to their advantage. How many times had he heard some variation of, “Bet you can’t spend the whole day with me and like it?” Countless.
“Well?” Gwen demanded. “Yes or no? Easy way or hard way?”
“How long?” he gritted out.
“Four weeks,” she replied, clearly hopeful.
She could have said “eternity,” so emphatic was his reaction. Four weeks. Four damn weeks with Kaia. Feeding her, protecting her, guarding her with his body if the opportunity presented itself.
His cock twitched with eagerness. This isn’t something to look forward to, you idiot. He’d guard her with his body if circumstances demanded. But even with the rephrase, this had trouble written all over it. Getting in and getting out as swiftly as possible was his M.O. now, and one that worked for him. No one had time to learn his quirks—or use them against him.
Kaia, though, she already knew, and she never hesitated to challenge him. Part of him liked the thrill of that, yeah. You couldn’t win if you never entered the game, and she was all about the game. On the flip side, you couldn’t lose, either.
“What about our war with the Hunters?” he asked Sabin. If there was anyone who liked winning as much as Strider, it was Sabin. Dude would have sold his mom on eBay just to fund a battle. If he’d had a mom, that is.
“I’ve already talked to Cronus,” Sabin replied. “Galen is currently out for the count, too injured to cause trouble, and Rhea is missing.”
Galen, the immortal warrior possessed by the demon of Hope—also, ironically, leader of the Hunters. Rhea, the biggest bitch of a god queen ever to control half the heavens. Both topped his long list of enemies.
“Missing? Still?” He’d known she had disappeared, but he’d kinda figured she’d gone into hiding, since her husband had discovered her most recent treachery against him—convincing her sister to act as his mistress and spy on him—and wanted to punish her. “Is foul play expected?” Not many beings could successfully abduct a goddess.
“Yeah, though Cronus won’t share any deets.”
Maybe because he didn’t have any. That might explain why Cronus had summoned Amun. No one was better at obtaining answers than the keeper of Secrets. “This is the perfect time to strike the Hunters, then,” he forced himself to say.
“No, actually, it’s not.” Sabin cocked a brow. “Remember that girl we saw, the one who accepted the demon of Distrust into her body?”
“No, Sab. I forgot,” he said dryly. They’d both been in the Temple of the Unspoken Ones, and watched as the beings manipulated the air to reveal what was happening an entire continent away.
Galen had somehow found the unfindable. The lost demon of Distrust, crazed and worked into a frenzy. He’d then trapped Distrust inside a room and convinced the beast to possess someone else. A female, a Hunter.
Though they’d made inquiries, they’d never learned anything more about the girl. Not her location, not her condition.
“Attitude.” Sabin tsked under his tongue. “Anyway, Cronus has decided he wants her. He’s got Amun looking into it.”
Ah. So that’s why Amun had been summoned. Rhea be damned, he supposed. But if Sabin knew this, that meant Haidee had known. Which meant she hadn’t wanted to share the information with Strider. A little punishment, he was sure, and he couldn’t blame her.
“What does the girl have to do with us kicking some Hunter ass now?” he asked.
“The Hunters will be scrambling to keep her hidden and too busy to attack us.”
“So you hope. But again, if that’s the case, there’s no better time to strike.”
“If we can find them. Without Amun, we have to rely on our lame-ass detective skills.”
Hardly. “We’ve got Ashlyn.” Maddox, the keeper of Violence, had married a woman with the ability to stand in one location and listen to all the conversations that had ever taken place there. No one could hide from her.
“Haven’t you heard? She’s currently bedbound. The twins she’s carrying had a sudden growth spurt. She’s so big, she needs help getting to the bathroom. Maddox thinks she’ll deliver soon.”
Poor bastard was probably going crazy with worry. Ashlyn was (mostly) human, and therefore as delicate and fragile as a glass vase. Nothing like Kaia, who could— Do not go there. “I don’t know about you, but I’m a damn good detective.”
Sabin shrugged. “Okay, think of it this way. I had a choice to make. Take advantage of our advantage, or take care of my wife. Guess which one I picked?”
When had Sabin become such a pussy?
“At least we don’t have to worry about our boys being hurt because we left them behind.”
As if they’d have to worry about that, anyway. The “boys” were as competent as Strider. Not to mention the fact that they were possessed by baddies like Pain, Disease and Misery. They were all but feral and had no need of babysitters, battle forthcoming or not.
“Well, I still can’t go. I have plans,” Strider said. And I can’t waver, that’s all there is to it. “I promised Paris I’d help him in the heavens.”
“Help him later,” Gwen said, butting back in to the conversation. “Kaia needs you now.”
His body reacted instantly, skin prickling with awareness— Kaia needs you—cells awakening—Kaia needs you—shaft thickening, hardening—Kaia needs you…needs you to touch her, strip her, fill her up.
“I’ll think about it,” he said raggedly, then strode into the hall and headed to his own bedroom before Gwen could threaten him a second time. Once there, he shut himself in and moved to the room’s center, gaze locked on his walls, mind buzzing.
He and Kaia had the same decorating tastes. Weapons had covered her walls the same way they covered his. He wondered if, like his, each piece in her collection belonged to the humans and immortals she had defeated over the centuries.
Kaia. Defeat. Two words that had become synonymous to him.
Harpies were all about survival of the fittest, and that he could dig. Because of Gwen, he knew that sleeping in front of humans—or anyone but their consort, for that matter—was forbidden. He knew they were not allowed to reveal a single weakness to anyone—even their consorts. And they were never, ever to steal from their sisters. If they broke any of those rules, they were punished.
Damn it, what the hell was he going to do about her? She could take care of herself against anyone except another Harpy. Plus, Kaia would need every advantage she could get. Like, first and foremost, resting. She would need to rest between games, whatever those games might be. She thought Strider was her consort, so she would only rest with him at her side.
Second, she would need someone to ensure she ate properly. Look how she’d allowed herself to waste away in jail.
Third, she would need someone to guard her back if she stole anything, and knowing her, she would steal a lot of somethings. Preferably someone who didn’t have to guard her—or his—own back, as well.
Half the participants usually died, Gwen had said. Half. Harpies showed no mercy, took no prisoners. For whatever reason, Kaia would have a bull’s-eye on her back.
If he did this, if he went with her…he would have to find a way to steel himself against her appeal. Because, no matter what, he couldn’t sleep with her. Not just because of Paris, but because she would view any intimate contact as a commitment, as a Harpy/consort bond. A forever kind of bond. No way was he signing on for a lifetime sentence.
Could he resist her, though?
Better question: Could he protect her? If her enemies learned who he was, they could use his demon against her. They could challenge him to hurt her. They could challenge him to destroy her.
Win? Defeat said, raspy voice drifting through Strider’s head.
Shit. I stopped myself from going there, so you do the same. Please.
Win, the demon repeated, a demand this time. A demand that held a tinge of fear.
Too late, he thought. Defeat had gone there, and there’d be no backing off. Win, against any Harpies who try to hurt Kaia?
Yep. Against the Harpies who tried to hurt Kaia. Why? She isn’t your favorite person. Why have me protect her?
Win, win, win.
Why he’d expected an answer, he didn’t know. Unlike some of the other demons, his had a very limited vocabulary. Guaranteed, he’d gotten the short end of the stick. But…maybe Defeat recalled just how good a victory over Kaia felt, and wanted more. If she died, he couldn’t have more. Or maybe, possessive as even the demon was, Kaia was their personal battlefield, and others weren’t allowed to play there. Ever.
What he did know? He was going to the Harpy Games.
KAIA LOVED WATCHING MOVIES, but right now, she felt like she had the starring role in a horror flick called Slumber Party Massacre. Only instead of a sleeping bag and a teddy bear, she carried a hatchet—call her sentimental—and a serrated blade.
She strode with her sisters down a long, dark hallway, seemingly alone, weapons clutched in their hands, too. Weapons were also hanging from their waists and rising from their backs. If the Bad Guy truly had been watching from the shadows, waiting to strike, he probably would have seen them moving in slow motion, their hair blowing in the breeze. Also, scary music would have been playing in the background.
Too bad this wasn’t Hollywood.
Taliyah was in the middle. She was the oldest among them by far, as well as the strongest, the deadliest. Tall, slender, pale from head to toe, she looked like an elegant ice queen—and had a personality to match. Emotions were not something Taliyah allowed herself to experience. While Kaia had always striven to be like their mother, Taliyah had opted to be the opposite. Logical, level-headed, a planner.
Bianka and Kaia flanked her sides, with Gwen on Kaia’s left. At one end of the Estrogen Brigade was Sabin, at the other was Lysander. Typically at events such as these, consorts were supposed to trail a few feet behind, but these men were hardly archetypal. They were equals. Beloved. Determined to protect.
Each of the women radiated a white-hot tension that blended perfectly with Kaia’s own. All thanks to the very stupid Strider. He wasn’t going to support her. Earlier today Gwen had led her to believe…had made her think…hope…crave…oh, well. Strider hadn’t shown up, even though she and her sisters had waited outside for half an hour and were now late to the meeting.
Stupid, stupid Strider.
Doomed, doomed Kaia.
Well, she had finally written him off and admitted that she was better off without him. He was rejection, humiliation and heartbreak wrapped in a pretty package. She could find another pretty package without all the extras, thank you.
At least Bianka and Gwen would be well-guarded, and that eased her stress somewhat. But if anyone so much as threatened them because of what Kaia had once done, she would turn the Slumber Party Massacre into Blood, Bath and Beyond, a documentary by Kaia Skyhawk.
And if anyone teased Bianka about dating an angel, well, they, too, would have a starring role in that documentary. Sadly, she had a feeling there were going to be a lot of starring roles.
At first glance, Lysander looked every inch the do-gooder. His hair gleamed as if the strands were gold silk. His skin was just as pale with only the faintest hint of rose. He wore a long white robe, his golden wings tucked in, the tops arching over his shoulders. He had no visible weapons. But then, he didn’t need them. He could create a sword of fire from nothing but air. Only after a second glance would the Harpies realize he was a warrior through and through, muscled and brawny, with a ruthless determination to protect what was his.
By then, it’d be too late.
Sabin, well, everyone would know what he was the moment they spotted him: a badass lacking any type of moral compass. He had brown hair and ocher eyes, his features a study of harsh planes and sharp angles. More weapons spilled from his six-foot-seven frame than an entire human army could carry, and his every step reminded her of a dying heartbeat. Thump. Pause, pause. Thump. But, uh, what was with the bullhorn in his hand?
There’d be no teasing Gwen about him, but her little sis would probably have to beat the ladies off him. Sabin was everything Harpies admired. Wicked, ungoverned by society’s rules and way beyond dangerous.
A danger readily apparent, even though he wore a T-shirt that said I’m Not a Gynecologist, but I’ll Take a Look.
Kaia wanted to buy one of those for Strider.
Finally they reached the doors to the auditorium of the elementary school. Yes, an elementary school. In “Brew City,” Wisconsin.
Only this morning had the texts gone out, informing everyone where to go for Game Orientation, and the location had puzzled her. A million years ago, orientation had been held in a wide-open field several miles from civilization. Sure, times had changed. But an elementary school? Really?
After expressing his own puzzlement, Lucien, keeper of Death, had flashed her and Gwen, dropping them off at the school’s front doors. Lysander had flown Bianka in, and Taliyah had simply materialized from what looked to be a thick, dark mist. Girl had developed a new ability, apparently, but when questioned, had refused to give up the deets. Like what the ever-loving hell could she do? Kaia had never, in all her centuries, seen anyone step from a misty doorway of their own creation.
Wasn’t fair, either. Taliyah already had a kick-ass ability. She could shape-shift. Not that she ever used the ability. But now she could do this, too, yet Kaia couldn’t do anything cool.
Pouter! Kaia stopped when she reached the auditorium doors. They were closed, a murmur of voices drifting through the tiny crack between the metal slats. A tremor slid down her spine, vibrating into her limbs.
Taliyah stopped, too. She sheathed her weapons and placed a firm hand on Kaia’s shoulder, her crystalline gaze pointed. “You know I’m with you, no matter what. Right?”
Her heart swelled with love as she shoved the hatchet and blade into their holsters. “Yeah, I know.” Her mother might have written her off, but her sisters never had. They supported her. Through anything, everything.
“Good. Then let’s do this.”
Taliyah pushed open the double doors, the hinges squeaking in protest. Without the barrier, the murmurs became full-blown conversations. Conversations that died as all eyes swung to the newest entrants.
Kaia searched the sea of faces she hadn’t seen in centuries, but didn’t spot her mother. Or any other Skyhawk for that matter, despite the fact that there were close to a hundred females watching her through narrowed eyes. She raised her chin. Several of the ladies reached for sword or dagger hilts, but none so much as stepped toward her.
All that hate-filled attention should have intimidated her, she supposed. However, Kaia found herself delighting in it. She was strong, stronger than ever, and she would prove herself. Finally.
Finally they would know she was worthy.
Tabitha could take her “almost improved” and shove it up her—
“Well, well. Look who decided to join us, everyone. Kaia the Disappointment. And company, of course.” The familiar voice echoed from the walls. Juliette the Eradicator. “What a surprise. We thought you’d opted not to enter, which would have been a very smart move on your part. But then, you’ve only got half a brain, isn’t that right?”
Annnd here were the twins-only-got-half jokes again.
Juliette went on, “I feel obligated to warn you that you will lose, and you will not have fun when you do. Or survive. Not that I’d know anything about that. I’ve taken home the gold in the last eight games. But I guess you wouldn’t know that, seeing how you weren’t invited to them.”
Bianka growled, Taliyah tensed and Kaia gritted her teeth as she faced her nemesis.
Juliette stood in the center of the stage. Tall, toned and stunning, she had shoulder-length black hair and eyes of the purest lavender. She wore a tank top and a short skirt that revealed the tattoos inked into her legs. Ancient godly symbols that bespoke revenge. Loosely translated, each one meant “the redheaded bitch must suffer.” Nice.
“Pretty soon, you’ll have to kiss your gold goodbye,” Kaia told her. “It’s mine this time around.”
Juliette grinned slowly, smugly. “Actually, no. No, I won’t. In case you didn’t know, I won’t be participating this year. I’m running things. In other words, I’m top dog. The elders met, decided, and I am now the be-all and end-all.”
That so did not bode well for Kaia’s victory. As the woman who called the shots, Juliette would decide who broke the rules and who didn’t, and in the end, she would tabulate the final scores. No wonder Kaia had been invited to participate. Nothing was stacked in her favor.
“Well, you’re definitely a dog,” she managed to say through her apprehension. How many times over the centuries had she apologized to Juliette? Innumerable. How many fruit baskets had she sent? Hundreds. What more could she do? Nothing. And she was sick of trying when this was the result.
Rage flickered in those lavender eyes, but Juliette offered no retort. “Your men must sit with the others.” Motions jerky, she pointed to the back of the auditorium, where a large group of men perched side by side in the balcony, mere spectators.
“Actually, our men stay with us. And that is not something we will discuss.” Taliyah stalked forward, every inch the predator. “Now, you may continue with the meeting.” The command was not lost despite the polite delivery.
“I will,” Juliette huffed. “Have no worries on that front.” She launched into a speech about proper behavior before, during and after the games.
Ignoring her, Kaia “and company” followed her oldest sis. They stopped to the right of the stage, beside another clan. The Eagleshields. Juliette’s family. Her chin lifted another notch. Every member stepped back, away from her, as if she had a contagious disease they didn’t want to catch, and a blush heated her cheeks.
No, not every member widened the distance, she realized a second later. Neeka the Unwanted had stood alone on the group’s fringes and now stepped forward, closer to the Skyhawks. She was grinning.
“Taliyah.” Neeka inclined her head respectfully. She was deaf, having been stabbed in the ears during a raid. She’d been a child and hadn’t healed from her wounds, and her own mother had later tried to slay her for daring to live with such an infirmity.
The woman must have trained at the Tabitha Skyhawk school of Mothering.
The two females embraced, patting each other on the back once, twice. When they parted, Neeka looked at Kaia. Shockingly, her grin of pearly whites remained in place. She had hair on the softer side of jet and rich brown eyes. A few freckles dotted her nose, darker than her mocha skin, the only “flaws” in an otherwise too-perfect face.
“All grown up now,” Neeka said in a perfectly modulated, very soft tone.
“Yep.” She waited for the insults to start flying.
None were forthcoming. “I hope you’re as lethal as gossip claims.”
Wait. What? “Probably more so,” she said modestly. Well, modestly for her.
The grin widened. Clearly, Neeka had taught herself how to read lips. “Good. That’ll make the next few weeks bearable. So, tell me. About a year ago, someone mentioned you hung a human outside a sixty-story building. By his hair. That true?”
“Well, yeah.” And she wasn’t sorry. “Gwennie was missing, and he was the last one to see her.” She shrugged. “I wanted answers.”
“Rock on. What about—”
“Enough,” Juliette snapped. “You are wasting our time with your exaggerations when you should be listening to me.”
Exaggerations. Please. Rather than defend herself—and look as though she protested too much—Kaia repeated what had been said. Juliette was behind Neeka, so the poor girl had no idea everyone now watched them, quietly waiting for their cooperation.
The admonishment didn’t send Neeka back to her clan. She remained beside Taliyah. Odd. What was—
From the other side of the spacious room, another set of double doors opened. And then Kaia was staring across the distance—at her mother. Tabitha the Vicious. Juliette quieted as gasps of awe abounded.
A legend had just arrived.
Kaia’s stomach knotted, and she gulped. She’d known this moment would come, had thought she was prepared for it. But… Oh, gods. Her knees knocked together, and she had to press her weight into her heels to steady herself.
Damn it, her sudden case of nerves needed some outlet. Her skin prickled as though little bugs with white-hot legs were crawling all over her.
Over a year had passed since she’d last spoken to her mother, and that final conversation had not been pleasant.
I don’t know why I’ve stuck by you as long as I have, Tabitha had said. I push and I push and I push, yet you’ve done nothing to redeem yourself. You remain in Alaska, fighting with humans, stealing from humans, playing with humans.
Kaia had gaped. I didn’t realize I needed to prove myself to you. I’m your daughter. Shouldn’t you love me no matter what?
You have me confused with your sisters. And look where their indulgence has gotten you. Nowhere. The other clans, they still hate you. I have guarded you, protected you all this time, never allowing them to act against you, but that ends today. My indulgence has gotten you nowhere, as well.
Their definition of indulgence varied greatly. And, to be honest, that variation cut her so deeply she didn’t think she’d ever heal. Mother—
No. Say no more. We are done here.
Footsteps had echoed as her mother walked away. For good. There’d been no phone calls, no letters, no emails or texts. Kaia had simply ceased to exist. Juliette still hadn’t attacked her, so she had assumed her mother had continued to “protect” her despite that fact.
Maybe she’d assumed wrong.
Maybe that’s why she now found herself in this place.
And yet, even knowing Tabitha might want her hurt and broken, her gaze drank her mother in, her first glimpse in all these months, unbidden though it was, and gods, Tabitha was lovely. Though she’d lived for millennia and given birth to four (beautiful) daughters now past legal drinking age—waaaay past—she appeared to be no more than twenty-five. Beautifully tanned skin, a silky mass of black hair, amber-brown eyes, and the delicate features of a china doll.
A few times over the years, she’d dyed her hair red and Kaia had thought, hoped, that meant… But no.
“Tabitha Skyhawk,” Juliette said, her tone reverent. She inclined her head in greeting. “Welcome.”
“That’s your mother?” Sabin suddenly demanded of Gwen. “I mean, you told me she hated you and that’s why she stays away, but that woman looks like she only hates broken nails and stocking runs.”
“She’s only my mom by birth, so don’t hold it against me,” Gwen replied. “And I assure you, she’d break your face without a thought to her nails.”
Gwen had always been the sensitive one, the one in need of safeguarding. Yet she hadn’t cried the day Tabitha had called her unworthy. She had simply shrugged and moved on. Not once had she looked back.
“She can’t be all bad,” Sabin said. “Not with those legs.”
Men. “She has the heart of a child, you know. Yeah, it’s in a box beside her bed.” And guess what? It’s mine!
After the Unfortunate Incident, Kaia had dogged Tabitha for centuries, desperate, willing to do anything, battle anyone, to earn back her mother’s respect and love. She had failed, time and time again. Finally she’d realized the fruitlessness of her efforts and turned her attentions to the humans. An act that had once again earned Tabitha’s castigation.
You remain in Alaska, fighting with humans, stealing from humans, playing with humans. The words ran through Kaia’s mind a second time. Among humans, she was a prize among prizes, thought to be lovely, courageous and fun. Of course she’d played with them.
You’re over the rejection, remember? You don’t care.
Her mother entered the room the rest of the way, nine Harpies filing in behind her. When the doors shut with a soft whisk, the group stopped and surveyed the room, the occupants. All ten gazes zoomed past her without even the slightest pause, as if she were invisible.
Look at me, she thought frantically. Mother, please. For those few, pregnant seconds, she felt like a needy little girl again. Of course, those golden eyes never returned to her. Worse, they landed on Juliette and sparked with pride. Pride. Why?
Did it matter? A bitter laugh welled in Kaia’s throat. Then she noticed the matching medallions hanging from each of their necks, and the laugh escaped on a choke. Small wooden discs, intricate wings carved into the centers, the precious symbol of Skyhawk strength. Kaia had always been fine with the fact that her mother had trained Juliette, as well as other members of allied clans. But giving someone other than a Skyhawk a medal? Oh, that burned!
Another memory surfaced. Suddenly she felt the scrape of leather against her nape as her necklace was ripped from her.
“Our flight was delayed,” Tabitha explained, her hard voice echoing from the domed ceiling. “We apologize.”
Even so stiffly uttered…an apology? From Tabitha the Vicious? That was a first. Was Kaia dreaming? Had she entered some sort of parallel universe and just didn’t know it? No, she couldn’t have. If so, Tabitha would have smiled at her. She hadn’t.
So the apology had happened.
Her knees started knocking again, and there was no stopping them.
“Sorry I’m late,” a husky male voice said from behind her.
And back to the dream theory. No way Strider was here and apologizing. That would mean he was her lifeline—a line to more than just insanity. Kaia whipped around, certain there would be no change in her surroundings. To her eternal shock, her eyes supported her ears.
Strider was here in all his warrior glory.
A smile from Mother Dearest or not, she had entered a parallel universe. There could be no other explanation. Could there? “What are you doing here?” The scent of cinnamon wafted from him, and as she inhaled—panted, really—her heart skidded into an uncontrollable beat.
“Thank gods,” Sabin muttered. “Gwen almost had my balls for breakfast when she heard I’d let you leave the fortress this morning.”
Gwen blushed. “Sabin! Now isn’t the time to spill our bedroom secrets.”
Bianka chuckled behind her hand. “I don’t think that’s what he meant, Gwennie-bo-Bennie.”
As she spoke, Lysander inserted himself between her and the two demon-possessed immortals. He might have agreed to a truce with the Lords of the Underworld, but that didn’t mean he liked them. And as he’d cut off their good buddy Aeron’s head, the Lords weren’t his biggest fans, either, and he clearly didn’t want them taking out their dislike on Bianka. As if they would. Demon-possessed or not, the warriors treated the Skyhawk girls like family. Irritating cousins who’d overstayed their welcome, but family nonetheless.
Another round of gasps suddenly echoed. The men had finally been noticed, really noticed as more than blood donors and carnival ponies, and murmurs of “angel” and “lords” arose. The first was filled with amusement, as Kaia had feared, the second with jealousy.
Jealousy. For her. She tried not to puff up like a peacock.
“What are you doing here?” she repeated in a low whisper. To Strider. Who was here. Here, with her.
“Ask me tomorrow, and I might have thought up an answer,” he replied dryly.
Once again, she found her heart swelling. Not with love, not this time, but with equal measures of lust, joy and relief. He was sexier than ever in a bloodstained white T-shirt and ripped-up jeans. Dirt streaked his fallen angel face and his blond hair was plastered to his scalp and dripping with sweat.
“I would have been here sooner,” he added, “but my final perimeter check at the fortress proved fruitful.”
“Yeah. Bastards. Always trying something sneaky.”
“You killed them all?”
His blue eyes glittered, revealing hints of the victorious demon inside him. “Every last one.”
That’s my man. “Good girl.” Yes, she had just called him a girl. And he was here. He really was here. She couldn’t get over that amazing fact. Did that mean he’d realized they belonged together? Had he forgiven her for sleeping with Paris? She fought the urge to throw her arms around him, to hug him tight and never let go.
He must have read the questions and desires in her eyes because he said, “Just don’t get the wrong idea,” spoiling everything. “You needed a medicine cabinet, so here I am. As soon as the games are over, I’m gone. I don’t tell you that to be rude, but to be honest.” Gentle, so gentle. “Okay?”
“Yeah, sure. Th-thanks.” Not wanting him to witness the withering of her joy, she turned back around. I will not cry. Her mother hadn’t broken her (for the most part); he wouldn’t, either (not again).
Once more she was the center of attention, every gaze fastened on her. She raised her chin exactly as she had the first time, refusing to reveal her upset.
“So what’d I miss?” he asked.
“See the rocking brunette over there?” Sabin pointed to Tabitha. “That’s their mother.”
“That’s their mom?” Strider gasped out.
Kaia’s hands curled into fists, her sharpening nails cutting past skin. Warm—too warm—trickles of blood slid between her knuckles before dripping onto the floor. “If you aren’t careful, I’m going to…” There was no threat mean enough. “Just…don’t compliment her.”
“Don’t challenge me, Red. You won’t like the results.”
Red. From anyone else, that would have been a term of endearment. From Strider, it was a curse. “Why? You planning on spanking me?”
“I’ll leave.” The words were firmly stated.
She pressed her lips into a mutinous line. His absence was the one thing she wasn’t willing to risk. Whether she liked him or not—currently not. He might be a pain in her ass, he might be stubborn and sometimes hateful, but he was the best chance she had of winning this thing, and she knew it. With Juliette in charge, she needed someone’s head on a swivel, watching her back 25/8.
“My mom’s not my favorite person, okay?” She twisted without looking at him and whispered, “Now can you please act like you’re into me, just for a little while?”
At last Tabitha deigned to acknowledge their group. Her gaze moved over the men, and only the men, her mouth curling in distaste. All the while, she stroked the hilt of the blade hanging from her waist.
“First, I didn’t compliment her. Second, she looks like she eats other people’s hopes and dreams for breakfast, and not just because they’re tasty. That’s not attractive. Third, you look like you sprung from other people’s hopes and dreams. I couldn’t—can’t—believe you’re related.”
How…sweet. Kaia was completely blown away. Damn him! First he delivered a nasty blow, announcing he wasn’t sticking around. Then he complimented her. How was she supposed to maintain emotional distance from him when he said things like that?
“Wait. What? Who said that?” Strider growled before she could form a reply.
“You did,” she replied, “and I know what you’re going to say next. You sounded like a pansy.” She hated to snipe at him, but her sanity was at stake.
Strider snapped his teeth at her.
“Who said what, then?” she asked on a sigh.
His dark gaze roved their little group, then returned to her mother, a muscle ticking in his jaw. “Never mind. Doesn’t matter.”
O-kay. Consorts. You couldn’t live with them, but you couldn’t cut out their tongues without earning a lifetime of hateful glares, either.
“Now that everyone’s here, let’s get back to business, shall we?” Juliette said. “The games have always been an important part of our lives, allowing us to righteously punish those who have wronged us—” of course she peered at Kaia when she said that “—as well as prove how strong we’ve become to those we adore. So here’s to doing what we do best. Kicking ass!”
“If you’ll each check your messages, you’ll find the team rosters,” Juliette announced, her voice dripping with satisfaction, her attention momentarily fixed on Strider.
And that’s when Kaia realized the cold, hard truth. Rage nearly sent her flying onto that stage. Steady, calm. That’s what Juliette wants. What else she wanted? Strider. Clearly the bitch had been waiting for the day Kaia found her own consort, most likely planning to take him away the same way Kaia had once taken hers.
Fan-fucking-tastic. How had word already leaked when she and Strider weren’t officially an item? And damn it all, an uncommitted Strider would be easy prey. The rage mutated into fear, and bile rose in her throat, threatening to spill out.
Strider and Juliette…Juliette, who hadn’t slept with Paris…twined together, naked, writhing, moaning, begging… Oh, gods. Concentrate on the here and now. Everything else could be dealt with later. Maybe. If she continued down that thought path, she would attack someone—namely Juliette and Strider—or break down. Neither was an acceptable option.
Trembling, Kaia withdrew her phone from her back pocket, scrolled and quickly found a text. Only, she wasn’t listed on Team Skyhawk. Her sisters weren’t, either. “I don’t understand.”
“Mother claims she no longer has any daughters,” Taliyah said. “Which means we cannot compete as Skyhawks. I had to petition the council to start a new clan. Once that was taken care of, we were in.”
No reaction. She would give no reaction. She wasn’t dying inside. She wasn’t. “Then what’s our new team name?” The answer appeared on her screen before she could finish. Team Kaia. Her sisters, as well as Neeka and a few others, were competing on Team Kaia.
For a moment, her surroundings faded, as did her hurt, and she basked in her sisters’ unflinching support. They loved her. No matter what, they loved her. They accepted her. They thought she was good enough, just as she was. Then the world spun back into focus, and she had to blink against the burn of tears.
Damn it. How many times would she have to battle the urge to sob today?
“The first competition begins bright and early tomorrow morning,” Juliette went on. “Afterward, everyone will be notified of exactly where the next competition is taking place. As you know, we no longer host the games in one location because previous contestants rigged and sabotaged them ahead of time.” Even though Kaia hadn’t been responsible—hello, she hadn’t been invited—Juliette tossed the words at her.
Whatever. Her spine snapped straighter, as though anchored in place by steel rods.
Strider’s hand settled on her lower back, warm and steady, comforting. Sizzling. Sweet heaven, her surroundings faded once again, until only the two of them existed. She imagined his mouth replacing his hand, his tongue licking, trailing lower. A gasp escaped her.
Get yourself under control. If she got “the wrong idea” about something as innocent as a pat, he’d take off, as promised. Like she could blame him. Had the situation been reversed, she would have done the same.
Deep down, they were just alike. Warriors honed on the field of battle, sharp as a dagger, cynical, willing to do anything for their friends. And on some level, they were friends. Had been since the first. He might not want to be here, but he didn’t want her to get hurt, either. So he’d come; he would help her. But he wouldn’t let her push for more. As long as she maintained an emotional distance, he would stay. Would be her “medicine cabinet.”
As pissed off and hurting as she was, she was also grateful.
“Something else is also new this year,” Juliette continued, pulling Kaia from her thoughts. “The prize. This time around, the winners will not receive silver and gold after each competition.”
“What?” someone shouted.
“That’s why we’re here!” another growled.
Juliette held up her hands, a command for silence. A command that was instantly obeyed. “This year, we have something better.”
Amid questioning murmurs, the curtain at the side of the stage parted. And then—Kaia’s mouth dropped open. No way. No damn way. The “slave” she’d tried to acquire all those centuries ago, the one who’d wreaked such havoc on the Harpy clans, strode to Juliette’s side. He was chained at the wrists, just as before. He was more muscled now, his dark hair longer, but his features were still sharp, stubborn.
“Dear gods. Is that him?” Bianka gasped out.
“Yeah,” she managed to squeak. No one had told her that Juliette had found him. When had she found him? Where? “That’s him.”
“Him who?” Strider demanded.
At first, Kaia thought she detected a note of jealousy in his tone, and it was such a loverlike response she wanted to kiss him deep and dirty. Strip him down to nothing more than skin and a smile. She wanted to ride him hard, fast and forever. All mine. Then common sense punched her right in the jaw. He might be jealous, but not in any way that mattered. Strider had decided to help her, and his demon would allow no one to interfere. Especially not another warrior.
Part of her resented that. The other part of her really resented that. “Laying it on a little thick, aren’t you, Meds? He’s no one you need to concern yourself with.”
“Kaia,” he snapped.
“Hush it, would you?” She couldn’t tell him the truth. Still didn’t want him to know of her past foolishness, when he already thought so little of her. “You’re making me look bad in front of my team.”
“Fine. I’ll explain later,” she lied.
A tense pause. Then, “You’d better.”
Her nemesis—the man she’d searched for over the years, determined to punish for what he’d done to her sister, but had never found—now held a long, thin spear. Its thicker, oblong tips were comprised of glass, something glowing and twirling inside them.
Power, so much power, radiated from that spear.
Juliette claimed the weapon without a word of thanks. The man—his name, she had long ago learned, was Lazarus, though she and Bianka had nicknamed him The Tampon for being such a douche—spun on his booted heels. His dark gaze moved over the crowd…searching…before snagging on Kaia. He stopped, stared.
Oxygen froze in her lungs, making it impossible to breathe. No damn reaction, she thought. Not here, not now. Later, though, she would seek him out. She would hurt him as she’d always wanted.
Slowly he grinned. So handsome…so coldly evil. She hissed, her fangs popping free of her gums. You’re dead, cowboy. He belonged to Juliette, yes, and everyone clearly blamed Kaia rather than him for what he had done to their loved ones. And yeah, they blamed her with good reason. Had she done as she’d been told, he wouldn’t have had the strength to harm anyone. But he had been the one to rip through flesh, with his teeth, his claws. He had been the one to render those deathblows.
He would be the one to pay—by Kaia’s hand.
Every time she had sent a fruit basket to Juliette, she had referenced the past—but in her mind, she had offered the apology because of what she planned do in the future. She was going to kill him. No one hurt her sisters. No one.
“Forget later. Him, the fuck, who?” Strider demanded again.
Before she could think up a reply, the Tampon kicked back into gear, exited the stage, and was once again hidden behind the curtain. Smart of him. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could have refrained from flying at him.
When she went for him, it would be in private. No one there to save him.
“Later,” she repeated.
“This,” Juliette said, drawing everyone’s attention to the spear in her hands, “is very, very precious. Far more so than silver or gold.” Her lavender gaze locked on Kaia. “I’m sure you’ve sensed its power, but what you don’t know? That power can be transferred to you. You can wield it, control it. You’ll be stronger than you ever imagined. You’ll be invincible.”
If what Juliette claimed was true, why hadn’t she transferred the powers to herself? Why hadn’t she struck at Kaia already? Why was she so willing, so eager to give the thing away?
Juliette flashed an indulgent smile. “Throughout the centuries, the gods have called this mighty weapon the Paring Rod. I, however, have a better name for it. First prize.”
Both men would have leapt on the stage if Taliyah and Neeka hadn’t held them back. The action proved unnecessary, however, because the weapon disappeared in a blink, in Juliette’s hand one minute, gone the next.
“What the hell?” Kaia, Gwen and Bianka asked in unison.
Kaia peeled her sister’s hands off her man and cupped his cheeks, forcing him to focus on her. “What’s going on?”
“First prize,” Strider gritted out. “It’s the fourth artifact. The one we need to help us find and destroy Pandora’s box.”
“Which means first prize,” Sabin finished bleakly, “has the power to wipe us out. Forever.”
HOW THE HOLY HELL HAD this happened?
Strider paced the length of the dingy motel room, the ice in his veins making his movements sluggish. His boots hammered into the shaggy brown carpet, creating a well-worn path.
Kaia was perched on top of the TV, watching him, her expression concerned. Her long, smooth legs were crossed at the ankles and swinging, banging into the screen every other second. A little faster, and she would have matched the thump, thump beat of his heart.
Sabin and Gwen sat at the edge of one of the double beds, and Bianka and Lysander sat at the edge of the other. Taliyah had taken off with a pretty black girl, and neither had said a word about where they were going or how long they’d be gone.
“The Unspoken Ones claimed to have the Paring Rod,” he croaked. Someone had to get the conversation/raging argument started.
“Clearly, they lied.” Sabin propped his elbows on his knees, head falling into his upraised hands.
Yeah. Clearly. Shit. Shit, shit, shit. “This is bad. Really bad.”
He should have known, should have suspected at the very least. Instead, a few weeks ago Strider had visited their temple. He hadn’t minded giving the monstrous beings the Cloak because he’d thought they had another artifact already. Why not one more? He’d thought they would guard both relics until he could return and bargain, buying both.
He’d thought wrong.
What a cluster! If the Unspoken Ones had possessed the Rod, they wouldn’t have given it to Juliette. Not without payment, and that payment would not have come in the form of cash or jewels. They wanted only Cronus’s head.
Since the god king still lived, no exchange had been made. Which meant the Unspoken Ones were completely untrustworthy, and there was no telling what they would do with the Cloak if Strider failed to deliver that head.
Win, Defeat growled. No question, just a flat-out acceptance for the challenge presented.
There would be no squabbling on his part. Even though they now had two open objectives. The Cloak, and Kaia. I know. I will.
First, he had to steal the Paring Rod. Sabin hadn’t lied. If it ended up in the wrong hands—and by “wrong,” he meant any hands but his own—Pandora’s box could be found, and he and his friends destroyed. Their demons would be ripped from their bodies and sucked back inside.
Great in theory, but man and beast were connected in a hard-core, can’t-live-without-you kind of way. Apart, the men would instantly kick the bucket and the demons would go bat-shit crazy.
Urgency rushed through him. Strider stopped in the center of the room and faced Kaia. “We have to steal it.”
Her mouth fell open, red and lush and oh-so-tempting. “Uh, what now?”
“Forget the games and help me steal the Rod.” He gritted his teeth like a good little soldier and added, “Please.” Sometimes a guy needed a wingman, and now was one of those times. He had no idea how Harpy minds worked or where that Juliette person was likely to hide her treasure.
Kaia was his inside source. His only way in.
Her pupils dilated—with anger. Great. Exactly what he didn’t need. The little lady in a temper, unafraid to use it. Then she ran her tongue over her teeth, and a bolt of lust shot straight through him, melting the ice and leaving a smoldering inferno behind, making him long to stoke that temper higher.
At a time like this? Really?
No time is the wrong time, his libido piped up. She might attack, but at least her hands will be all over you.
He could have kicked his own horny ass.
“Not just no, but hell, no,” she said, chin lifted stubbornly.
Dread replaced his urgency. He knew that look. He’d seen it before, directed at the roomful of Harpies. Their gazes had flayed her alive, for some reason, but she hadn’t backed down.
“And you aren’t stealing it, either,” she added.
As if. “Are you trying to punish me, Red?” He’d made the fatal mistake of being honest with her, of telling her he was here to help her but not to romance her. He’d known better, too. Never show a woman your cards. “Because if that’s the case—”
“Oh, my gods. Are you that egotistical?” Those silver-gold eyes sharpened like daggers, cutting him up inside. He didn’t like her angry (for the most part), and he didn’t like her hurt. Just then, she appeared to be both. “Not every thing is about you, Strider.”
“I know that. Believe me, I ego check all the time. So tell me, what’s the problem? I seem to recall a certain redheaded Harpy once saying she’d do anything, as long as it was immoral and the price was right. So do it. Name your price, and do it.”
“There is no price,” she snapped. “Not for this.”
“Are you afraid?” A low blow, yeah, but he was desperate.
She hopped off the TV, teeth bared and sharpening into something far more dangerous than one of those daggers, black bleeding into her eyes and overshadowing all hint of color.
“You’re gonna get it now,” Bianka sang, and Lysander pressed his hand over her mouth, preventing her from saying anything else.
“Idiot,” Sabin muttered. “I’m not even gonna assist you. You deserve what’s about to happen.”
“I’m afraid of nothing.” Two voices layered Kaia’s words, and both were raspy, menacing…slashing. In and out she breathed, each inhalation labored, each exhalation ragged. “You’re very lucky my Harpy is adamantly opposed to harming you, or you’d be in pieces right now. And if you try to steal the Rod on your own, after I told you not to, I will challenge you to contests you cannot possibly hope to win. Forever.”
He wanted to shake her. Wanted to kiss her—but only to shut her the hell up, of course. Damn it, she skirted the edge of challenge even then. Defeat prowled from one side of his skull to the other, practically foaming at the mouth for a go at her. Only fear of losing kept the demon from accepting.
You’re the one who demanded we come here. You’re the one who decided to take down anyone who attacked her. Yeah, Strider had been leaning in that direction himself. Yeah, he kinda wanted to gut and decapitate her opposition before they could strike a single blow against her. However, he understood his own motives—attraction, and an overdeveloped sense of possession. Defeat’s motives? Not so much. Why are you doing this?
Win, was all the beast said. As always.
“Got it?” Kaia demanded when he offered no response.
Disappointment rocked him. She was trying to punish him, and he’d kind of expected better of her. They might snipe and snap at each other, they might be hopelessly fascinated by each other, but they were also friends. Or so he’d thought. Friends helped friends.
Case in point: he was in Wisconsin when he should have been in any of a thousand other places.
He spun around and glared at Bianka. He didn’t mind thieving on his own. Usually. However, Harpies were a different breed of animal than anyone or thing he’d dealt with before. They could move faster than the eye could track. They could rip through a man’s trachea with only their teeth. Hell, they could rip through an entire army in seconds.
There was no line they wouldn’t cross, no deed too vile. If he went for the Rod and they caught him, they would kill him. But without the Rod, he was dead, anyway. So, no contest. He was going for it.
“What about you?” he threw at Bianka.
“Tone, warrior,” Lysander said, his voice so mild Strider almost couldn’t detect the power behind it. Almost.
That’s not a challenge, he told his demon, refusing to repeat himself to Kaia’s twin. Thankfully—or not—Defeat was still too focused on Kaia, the Cloak and the Rod. If Strider failed to obtain the latter two, and soon, he would lose the battle. He would hurt. Yet he couldn’t leave Kaia without hurting, either.
Bianka shoved Lysander’s hand away from her mouth. “Sorry, big boy, but I can’t help you.”
She shrugged, all innocence. “If you want me to list reasons, I’ll list reasons. I can’t guarantee they’ll be truthful, though.”
He faced Gwen. “And you?”
“S-sorry?” she said, sounding confused. She glanced at Kaia, who shook her head. He knew because he was watching her reflection in the picture over the nightstand between the beds. “I can’t,” she finished more firmly.
Okay, something was going on here. Kaia wasn’t afraid. No matter what he’d said, he knew that. Girl was too brave for her own good. She’d stood in a roomful of Harpies, and even though they’d regarded her as if she were a slab of ribs and they were dedicated vegetarians, she’d kept her head high, daring them to try and take a bite.
The only time he’d ever seen her lose her cool, trembling with an emotion he hadn’t been able to name, was when she’d looked at her mother. Her very hot, clearly murderous mother, who might have spoken inside his head. He still wasn’t sure.
As the freakishly young-looking, dead-eyed brunette had perused his body, judging him, taking his measure, he’d heard a cold, emotionless and yet very feminine voice whisper, Kaia will die before the final game begins.
Like hell. Nothing else had been said, and no one else had heard the threat. And shit, maybe he had an overactive imagination. Either way, he didn’t care. He was here, he’d do what he’d promised, but damn it, Kaia was going to bend a little in this matter.
“Get lost,” he told the couples on the beds.
Knowing Strider as well as he did, Sabin gathered Gwen without protest and hustled her out the door. Their knowing gazes locked until the last possible moment. They’d move mountains to obtain that Rod, with or without the approval of the Skyhawks. First, though, they’d do what they could to obtain answers. Even if that meant splitting up and being without backup.
Thanks to a soft, “I’ll be fine,” from Kaia, Bianka and Lysander followed close on Sabin’s heels, shutting the door behind them with a soft click. The angel didn’t know him, or what he was capable of, but must have recognized the danger he posed.
“Why?” he demanded, swinging around.
Kaia didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “They’ll say I had no confidence in my abilities. They’ll call me a coward.”
“So?” She was willing to risk his life for her ego? “A little ridicule never killed anyone.”
She flicked the long length of that curling red hair over one shoulder, the picture of feminine pique. At least the black had faded from her eyes, a sign her Harpy was under control. “Lookit, you’re here, and much as I hate to admit this, you’ll find out anyway, so I might as well tell you.”
A heavy pause. “Go on.”
She gulped. “A long time ago, during the Harpy Games, I tried to steal…something from another…clan.”
Oh, really? “Why the hesitation?”
“Anyway,” she continued, ignoring him, her cheeks flushing prettily. “My actions resulted in a massacre. Half the Harpy population was wiped out, and I have never been forgiven.”
He knew what that meant. They had ostracized her. And if anyone understood the sting of rejection, it was Strider.
When the gods had chosen Pandora to guard dim-Ouniak, the box containing the evil spirits that managed to escape the depths of hell, he had allowed pride to rule him. How dare they pick her, a female, when he had never lost a battle? Anyone Zeus had wanted eliminated, Strider had eliminated.
He’d wanted to prove himself worthy, which was why he’d helped steal and open that box. Of course, he’d had every intention of recapturing the demons after they’d caused a little havoc. He would have been all “See what I can do? See what your precious Pandora can’t?” But the box disappeared, and the havoc had been far more than a little. He’d never encountered its like, before or since.
Not even when Defeat was first shoved into his body and the urge to hurt, maim and destroy consumed him. Yet that hadn’t been enough of a punishment for the Greeks. They’d kicked him out of the only home he’d ever known and never acknowledged him again.
So, rejection, unforgivingness, yeah, he knew them intimately. But he couldn’t let anything, even Kaia’s potential downfall, stop him from obtaining that Rod. Too much was at stake.
“If I take something else…they’ll kill me, Strider. After they ensure I feel every bit of pain they have felt.”
She believed what she said. The truth glistened in her eyes as surely as a sheen of tears. “I’ll protect you.”
“Don’t make me state the obvious about what you can and can’t do,” she said with a bitter laugh. “I could run, sure, but what kind of life is that? And what if they go after my sisters when they’re unable to find and punish me?”
Good point, and one he couldn’t—wouldn’t—shake her from. He tried another route. “No one has to know you took it. We’ll get in and get out, no problem.”
Sad, she shook her head. “Wouldn’t matter if I left evidence behind or not. If the Rod goes missing, they’ll blame me no matter what.”
“So?” he said again. He had to harden his heart.
“You know nothing about Harpy justice, Strider. There is no trial. There is no innocent until proven guilty. If I’m suspected, I will be hunted, I will be tortured and as I said, I will be killed.”
“I’ll protect you,” he repeated, and that was the truth.
She arched an auburn brow. “You’re going to make me state the obvious, but okay. You can’t.”
That isn’t a challenge. “I can.”
“You’ll protect me from an army of Harpies who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt everyone you love to get to me? An army of Harpies who would help the Hunters if it meant punishing me?”
Shit. “What do you propose I do then, huh?” He stalked to her, gripped her upper arms—she felt so fragile, so vulnerable—finally shaking her as he’d wanted to do for so long. Every movement wafted her scent to his nose, cinnamon and sugar, a feast for his senses. His mouth watered, his blood heated. “What? Tell me.”
Her heartbroken expression never wavered. “What you originally came here to do. Act as my consort. I will fight, and I will win the Rod. Honorably.”
“I thought you didn’t do honorably.”
She peered up at him through narrowing eyes, indignation at last replacing sorrow. When her lashes fused together, he was strangely glad to see the silver swirling underneath, no hint of gold. “In this and only this, I do. Too much is at stake,” she added, mirroring his thoughts. “Not just for me, but for my sisters.”
The Rod? Dude, I’m working on it. A little space would be nice.
I know, damn you! “What if I… Shit.” He released Kaia to scrub a hand down his face. As many battles as he’d fought during his long life, he could sniff out a dead end before he turned the corner and spied the brick wall. They were at an impasse, and he knew it. She wouldn’t budge—unless he changed the stakes.
“Do this for me, and I’ll sleep with you. Okay?”
For a moment, she gave no reaction. Then a squawk parted her lips and she batted him away from her. And by “batted” he meant that she used so much force, he actually spun around, unable to stop himself.
“How magnanimous of you.” An instant later, she was in front of him again. She shoved him, hard, and he stumbled backward until the backs of his knees hit the edge of the bed. “To offer up your body when you so clearly have no desire for me. To lower your standards and whore yourself. To use me, no matter how badly I’ll suffer in the end.”
Her words were like arrows, direct hits, and he cringed, but he offered no reply. Not yet. As he collapsed and bounced on the mattress, he focused on his demon. This isn’t a challenge to dominate her sexually, you get me?
Strider pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth. He thought the demon was still focused on the Rod, but he couldn’t be sure. So, when Kaia jumped on top of him, straddling his waist, he twisted, tossing her down and pinning her with his weight. And gods, that felt good. She fit him perfectly, her breasts soft against his chest, the apex of her thighs offering an exquisite cradle to the thickness of his shaft.
The scent of cinnamon continued to waft from her, enveloping him, hazing his thoughts. Heat, so much heat, pulsed from her soft, luscious skin, branding him.
Bastard. “This is life and death, Kaia.”
She was panting as she tangled her hands in his hair, nails biting into his scalp. “For me, too.”
“Would you do it for…Paris?” he asked, hating himself.
No hesitation from her, and that eased the tightness in his chest. A tightness he hadn’t even been aware of until just that moment. “Kaia.”
“I—I never said I didn’t desire you.” He wasn’t sure what he’d meant to say, he only knew that wasn’t it, that the words had slipped out without his consent. “I do. How could I not?”
She nibbled on her bottom lip. “Are you saying you agree to be my consort?”
“No.” He wouldn’t lie about that. Not to her. And not because she’d rip him to pieces when she discovered the truth. “I can’t give you forever.”
The nibbling increased in intensity, leaving a bead of blood in the center of her mouth. “Because we’re not a good match?”
Of course she would remember every insult he’d ever thrown at her. “Yes.”
“Then what can you give me?”
“Here. Now.” Something his body craved more with every second that passed.
“In exchange for my aid in the theft of the Paring Rod.” A statement, not a question.
“Yes.” Maybe even without it. So badly he wanted to arch into her, rub against her, stoke her passions until she begged him to finish her off.
She ran the pink tip of her tongue over her teeth. Teeth sharpening into a mouthful of daggers, but gods, that tongue was pretty. “You’ll have to convince me,” she said huskily, even as she drew his head down…down…until his lips hovered just above hers. “Give me a taste of what you’re offering.”
WIN, WIN, WIN.
A challenge. Intentional or not. And this time, he had no trouble interpreting what his demon expected, needed. Strider had to kiss her, and he had to convince her, or he would hurt.
He waited for fury to fill him, but as he stared down at her, breathing her in, all he wanted to do was give her that taste.
He removed her nails from his scalp and flattened her hands over her head, forcing her back to bow, her body to slide against his. Her nipples were hard, just waiting for his mouth.
“Don’t say another goddamn word,” he commanded, and then he finally, finally went in for the kill.
KAIA FELT AS IF SHE’D BEEN waiting for this moment forever. And in a way, she had. At long last, she lay in her consort’s embrace, and he was meeting her needs. Her wildest, most sensual needs. Strider’s lips pressed against hers, his tongue thrusting inside her mouth, hot, decadent, his taste filling her up, consuming her. She’d never loved cinnamon more. Sweet and tangy with just a little spice.
The weight of his muscled body pinned her to the mattress, and the weapons strapped all over him pressed into bone, probably bruising. As if she cared. What were a few bruises when one of Strider’s big hands held her head tilted to the side to deepen their connection?
What were a few bruises when her breasts rasped against his chest with her every inhalation, and her aching nipples rubbed at him, sparking the desire inside her to a hotter degree?
She spread her legs, allowing his lower half to fall more firmly against hers. His erection—so big, so long, so perfectly thick—hit her just right, and she gasped. Hotter, hotter, sooo much hotter.
“Strider,” she moaned.
Her name on his lips…heaven and hell, sweet and torturous. A siren’s song. “More.”
“How do you like it?”
“However you give it.” Her nails had already lengthened into claws, and she dug them into his back, accidentally cutting past his shirt and into skin. He groaned, and their teeth scraped together. His fingers clenched on her jaw. “Sorry,” she panted. She squeezed his hips with her knees, just in case he thought to leave her.
“Don’t be sorry,” he growled. “Just do it again.” He sucked on her bottom lip, hard, causing sizzling goose bumps to sprout from head to toe.
More erotic, freeing words had never been spoken. As a Harpy, she was stronger and more vicious than almost all other immortals. She’d always had to temper her passions and hold back. Even with Paris.
She didn’t think she’d have to hold back with Strider—and wouldn’t. Whatever she dished, he could take. Hell, he would revel in. He was too strong, too determined for anything less. And really, he might look like an angel, but he was far wickeder than any other Lord. The best kind of wicked, at that. Devilish. Gentle and easy weren’t his style.
He found humor in the strangest things. If he discovered one of his friends chained to a female’s bed (cough Lucien cough), he took pictures and emailed them to every one he knew. How cool was that?
A man like that would never ask her to stop stealing. He might even join her on her obligatory forays, keeping her dark side happy without causing too much damage. More than that, he knew triumph and loss better than any other. He would revel in her every accomplishment, good, bad or ugly. He would be the first to tell her when she’d screwed up, but he wouldn’t write her off.
Or maybe the man she pictured in her mind was pure fantasy. The one on top of her thought to barter with her, his body in exchange for her cooperation. That pissed her off royally—but not enough to stop this tasting.
He was her drug of choice, she mused, and she was already addicted to him.
“Kaia! Pay some fucking attention to what’s happening here,” he snarled.
Startled back to her senses, she blinked up at him. He was panting, sweating—perhaps more than he should—his features tight with strain. He must have been calling for her for quite a while. And damn, she’d stopped kissing him to ponder his virtues and follies, she realized. A travesty she would rectify immediately.
“I’m here.” She wrapped her legs around him and locked her ankles, arching up. More contact with his erection, more gasping from her. So delicious. So perfect. So freaking hot.
“Good girl.” His tongue found its way back inside her mouth, and they dueled, fighting for dominance.
She let him win, submitting, allowing him to take the lead, urging her toward complete satisfaction. Or maybe insanity. Her mind fogged with desire, her blood heated to blistering and her Harpy sang with approval.
This was everything she had been dreaming of, fantasizing about, craving with every fiber of her being. Her man, feasting on her, grinding against her. She would never get enough of him, would always want more. Always need more. Her nerve endings caught fire, the ever-growing blaze nearly too much, the ache between her legs fierce.
She had to lock this deal up tight. Love him within an inch of his life, bind them together, and never, never, allow him to escape her. Never allow any of the other Harpies near him. He was hers. Would always be hers.
You can’t think like that. He’s a warrior, used to control. You try to bind him, and he’ll run. This has to be a partnership, not a Harpytatorship. Yes, okay. She could do that. Work with him. Anything to keep him with her, to kiss him again, to have him, all of him. Question—could he work with her?
“Damn it, Kaia.” He removed his hand from her jaw and cupped one of her breasts, squeezing. “What the hell is going on in that head of yours?”
“You, us, together. Yes,” she moaned, pressing herself into the touch. Hot, she was so hot, and only growing hotter. “More.”
“Good, okay, yes. Harder?”
“Harder. Please.” She lifted her hips off the mattress, the springs squeaking, and moved herself against him. Steam might even have risen from her pores, surrounding them both, thickening the air. “More. All.”
“Damn, your mouth is a firestorm. Burns. And yeah, baby doll, I’ll give you—” He sucked in another breath, stiffened, cursed. Cursed so violently she was surprised her ears hadn’t started bleeding. “All right. Yes. We’ll do this. You and me. I’ll give you more, all.”
His voice was…odd, she thought distantly. No longer layered with arousal, but as stiff as his body now was, and formal. Almost robotic. Why? What had changed? She mourned the loss.
He fit their lips back together and the kiss continued. She rubbed her core up and down his length, unable to stop herself, never loosening her grip around his waist. He settled against her, his skin slick with sweat. She fell back to the bed, but all the while she fought through the now cooling lust-fog, determined to figure out what was going on with him.
His tongue moved in and out of her mouth, mimicking sex. His hand squeezed her breast every few seconds. He swirled his hips at the same time, brushing against her clitoris. It was a dance, each movement fitting the rhythm of the next. His technique was flawless. Soon he would make her come.
Technique, she thought then. Yes, that’s exactly what this was. A technique. He was hard where it counted, yes, but also where it didn’t, his muscles petrified into stone. He wasn’t moaning in surrender. How could he? Every swish of his tongue was calculated, as if he were thinking about what to do rather than allowing instinct to guide him. As if he had absolute control and wasn’t even close to losing it.
Which meant he wasn’t enjoying what he was doing. He was simply performing, driving her need higher and higher, manipulating her. Giving her what she wanted, but not taking what he needed.
He had somehow managed to detach himself.
“What do you like?” he asked. “Tell me, and I’ll do it.”
She could have been anyone, and it wouldn’t have mattered to him. And when it was over, he would have taken her, had her, but she would have been one of a thousand others, unimportant and temporary. An easy conquest. A means to an end.
No. No! She would not be Kaia the Disappointment. Not with him. She would not be content with the scraps of his affections and call it good. She would have all or nothing. Settling was for the weak.
She was not weak.
But even knowing what he was doing, even hurting as she was—again—and even as desperate as she was for release, she couldn’t bring herself to harm him physically. Not by her hand, and not by using his demon. He had to win this contest of wills without smothering her pride anymore than he already had. Somehow, someway.
She cut off a bitter laugh. Once again she would be throwing a fight. This time, however, the prize was far more important. His body…and his heart? No, not his heart. That, he would never offer. Not to her. The same determination that had sculpted him into such a fierce warrior and lover had turned him into an emotional recluse. Cooling…cooling… “Strider?”
A swipe of his tongue, a squeeze of his hand. “Tell me,” he said, ignoring her. “Your mouth, the heat is gone.”
“Don’t be. Either way, I like it. But why the change?”
Enough of this. Besides, she didn’t know. She’d never heated up like that before. “I don’t…I don’t think you can stop.” Gods, saying the words, letting them raze her throat, left her trembling with frustration.
He froze above her, beads of sweat still dripping from him. In fact, his shirt was soaked, sticking to his chest. “What did you just say?”
“I don’t think you can stop kissing me, stop touching me.”
With more of those black curses ringing from him, he jolted away from her, off the bed and to his feet. He remained at the edge of the mattress, glaring down at her as she eased to a sitting position. She struggled to breathe, her lungs still cooling…cooling.
“Damn it, Kaia.”
She flashed her fangs at him. “That isn’t my name.”
That gave him pause. “What? Kaia? I happen to know otherwise.”
“No. Damn it, Kaia isn’t my name.”
His eyelids narrowed even as the corners of his lips twitched. “Whatever.”
That’s all he had to say to her? After everything they’d just done?
“Will you steal the Paring Rod for me or not?” he asked.
Did he feel nothing for her? No hint of true passion? She licked her lips, and she was heartened to note his gaze followed the movement. “Not. But,” she added before his demon could punish him for failing to convince her. And yes, she knew that was one of the reasons he was pushing her so hard for this. At least, she hoped. Made it easier to forgive him, to excuse him, for reducing their electrifying kiss to a bargaining chip. “We’ll compromise.”
He shook his head, once, and very stiffly. “No.”
“Yes. Compromise doesn’t cause you physical pain.”
His lashes fused together, shielding the navy of his eyes. “It doesn’t help me, either.”
She lifted her chin. “Do you want to hear my proposal or not? If not, there’s the door.”
“Gods almighty, I hate when your chin goes up.” He popped his jaw. “Fine. Talk.”
“I will fight in the games. If at any point,” she rushed to add, “I’m disqualified or I think my team cannot bring home the gold, I will risk my life and my future to steal the Rod for you.”
Silent, he crossed his arms over his chest.
She knew exactly what he was thinking. “Also, you can’t do anything to aid a disqualification. Not for me or for any member of my team.”
Oh, yes. That’s exactly what he’d been thinking. Suddenly fury sizzled and snapped off his skin like tiny flickers of lightning. His eyes lit up, twin red lasers, a skeletal mask flashing over his features. “What if, while you’re playing your games, someone else manages to steal it?”
His demon really was pulling his strings. She sympathized. She hated when her Harpy took over. “Not possible. You could call every warrior and god you know, but the lot of you still wouldn’t be able to find it, much less grab it. And no, that wasn’t a dare. Just a truth. Harpies are a suspicious and possessive race, and we take extreme measures to guard what we consider ours. Believe me, Juliette will let no one near the Rod.”
Several minutes passed before he relaxed. He couldn’t fight the Harpies on his own—not successfully—and he had to know it. “Very well. We have a deal.” She opened her mouth to respond. “But you listen to me, little girl,” he added darkly.
Little girl. Exactly what Lazarus had called her, all those centuries ago. Shadows shimmered through her line of vision, the only color a crimson bull’s-eye on Strider’s chest. Calm, steady.
Don’t interfere, she told her Harpy.
“You’ve claimed I’m your consort, and that consorts are precious. You’ve also claimed you’ll do anything to protect yours.”
She snapped her teeth at him. “I never said that.” Not out loud.
“Fine. Maybe Gwen told me. Thing is, it’s true.”
And he planned to use the knowledge against her? “Well, look at you, Mr. Smartie Pants.” She clapped her hands. “Congratulations. You know I can’t hurt you. But hey, what does that matter? I can always pay someone else to do my dirty work.”
A muscle ticked below his eye. “You’re willing to let an artifact that can kill me remain in the hands of your enemy,” he said, ignoring her threat. “That woman, Juliette, the one with the boyfriend you still haven’t told me about, isn’t going to give you the Rod. Whether you win or not, she hates you and will hardly reward you.”
Kaia fisted the comforter, nearly ripping the material. “How do you know she hates me?” He’d only caught the tail end of the meeting, and Juliette hadn’t spoken to her directly after his arrival.
“I have eyes, Kaia. Every time she looked at you, she wanted to carve your face with her dagger. What’d you do to her, anyway? And don’t tell me she just hasn’t forgiven you for what you did to the clans. Her beef with you is personal. No one else looked at you the way she did.”
Floundering, she blinked up at him. He was too observant for his own good. “What makes you think I did anything to her?”
“Come on. You must think I’m stupid, answering my question with a question and assuming I won’t notice and will let the matter drop.”
“Well, now that you mention it…”
“Funny.” He held out his hand and waved his fingers in her direction. “Come here.”
Unable to resist a chance to touch him, any chance, she reached up. The moment she met his grip, he hefted her to her feet until only a whisper separated them. He peered down at her, his body heat snaking around her and squeezing like a boa.
Tension crackled between them so hotly she imagined she could almost feel the flames. His lips were swollen, red and still wet from her kiss. His eyelids went to half-mast, as if he’d slipped into a dream and wouldn’t emerge.
If he looked this sumptuous turned on, how would he look sated?
Mind, out of gutter. This was clearly another attempt to distract her, to win her over to his side. She had to remain strong. “Well?”
“Did you make a play for her man?” he demanded. O-kay. Obviously he’d emerged from the dream.
Her cheeks flushed with color and that was all the answer he required.
He released her to scrub his hand down his face. “Damn it, Kaia.”
Without his touch, her skin cooled. She would not admit to her own stupidity, even acute stupidity committed so long ago. She would not admit she’d sought to prove herself worthy to a mother who would never love her, and that she’d failed on every level.
“I saw him, I wanted him and I took him. End of story.” The truth muddied by his own suppositions. Strider would never find his way to the surface, and that was for the best.
“And she found out?” His voice snapped like a whip.
Yep. He was lost in the mire of her omissions. “She did.” Kaia nodded, her head bobbling. “That’s exactly right.”
Her eyes widened. Why wouldn’t he let this go? “Excuse me?”
“How did she find out?”
“Oh, uh, she walked in on us,” Kaia said, gaze falling to the floor. Realizing what she’d done, she forced her attention back up. There were two things a girl needed when telling a lie. The first, confidence. You could convince anyone of anything as long as you believed it yourself. The second, details. The more details you supplied, the more credible the story. “We were in the middle of the act. Very hot and heavy. I wasn’t at all distracted with him.”
Strider was quiet for a moment. Then he said smoothly, “Is that so?”
Perhaps he wasn’t as blinded by the mud as she’d thought. What had given her away? Well, it didn’t matter, really. He could suspect the truth all he wanted, but he’d never know for sure. And hell, there might be another way to convince him of what she wanted.
She glared up at him. “Yes, that’s so. I had him flat on his back atop a pile of furs.” She pictured Strider in just such a position, and her desire reignited, adding a smoky note to her voice. “He was naked…I was naked. I straddled his waist, and gods, he was beautiful, so lost to passion. To me.”
Strider whipped around, as if he could no longer bear to face her. There. Done, she thought. He was utterly convinced of her slutty nature. Her shoulders sagged just a little. Part of her wished he would have continued resisting.
Better this way, she reminded herself. He’d already considered her promiscuous. Adding weak and dumb to the equation would have hampered her future progress with him.
Not that she’d really made any today.
SHE WAS LYING, STRIDER thought, suddenly needing every ounce of strength he possessed to stop himself from grinning. Damn if she wasn’t ten times sexier as she spun her web of deceit. Maybe because she’d almost had him. Would have had him, if she hadn’t glanced down at her feet. So telling, that glance. When Kaia believed something wholeheartedly, her confidence was like a shining star. She did nothing to signal a back down.
Defeat liked that they’d figured out her game and was shooting little sparks of pleasure through his bloodstream. A victory he hadn’t anticipated, yet one that was as delicious as ambrosia-laced wine. Almost as delicious as Kaia’s kiss.
Don’t think about that right now.
He couldn’t help himself. Hell’s fire, that kiss…the woman was passion incarnate, so sensually giving he could have gorged himself on her forever and still found himself hungry. Her tongue had thrust just right, her nails had scraped just right, and her legs had wrapped around him better than just right.
She’d just…fit him. Fit his body perfectly. Every curve, every plane, every indentation. Two puzzle pieces locking together. And they’d still had their clothes on! If he ever stripped her, he’d— No. No, no, no. He couldn’t venture down that road again. The kiss had been a mistake. A damn exquisite mistake, but one that could have done serious damage to his cause.
Already his mind was muddled by her.
And unfortunately, he couldn’t blame her skin this time. What was bared, she’d dulled with makeup, making her look like any other human. No, not true. She’d never look like a human, no matter what she did. Her features were too dazzling, too flawless.
She’d never kiss like a human, either. She was too bold, too lush, too damn eager.
Too mine, he’d thought midway through, wanting to give her “all” as she’d said. Wanting to give her everything. Only then had he realized how lost he was, simply enjoying her, not even trying to please her. Just taking, giving and taking some more. There was nothing more dangerous for him. He had to please her, more than Paris had, or he would suffer.
Reining in his own desires had been the most difficult battle of his life, but he’d done it. He’d won. And oh, Defeat had loved him for it, sparking the same sense of pleasure that raced through him now. Which had made it all the more difficult to hold back, to measure each of his caresses, every single lick.
Except one moment she’d wanted all, everything, and he’d been willing to supply it, to take her over the edge, and the next she’d wanted him to stop. He recognized a challenge when he heard one, and ‘I bet you can’t stop’ was one-hundred-percent, raise-the-red-flag challenge.
What he hadn’t known—still didn’t know—was why she’d done it.
Didn’t matter, he supposed. What was done was done, and there was no going back. He had to forget the kiss and concentrate on the journey ahead. On the games, the Rod and ultimate victory. He had to forget the color that bloomed in her cheeks, the breath that sawed in and out of her nose, the flecks of fury that had detonated in her eyes every time he’d spoken. Had to forget the fact that she was gorgeous when her emotions were roused, that she lit up like a firecracker, and he wanted so desperately to be burned.
Kaia cleared her throat. “Strider,” she began.
He held up his hand in a bid for silence. “Look, here’s how it’s gonna be. You don’t trust me, and I don’t trust you, but we are going to work together. So, you’re going to tell me about tomorrow’s battle, and then we’re going to scout the competition.”
Or rather, she would scout. He would search for the Rod. Much as he understood her plight, her pain, that understanding didn’t change the facts. No artifact, no box.
So, he would find and steal that Rod. Even at the expense of Kaia’s pride. He wouldn’t like himself afterward, he was sure, because victory required a betrayal of her trust, but nothing would sway him from this course.
“Got it?” he demanded, already fighting a wave of guilt.
A pause, heavy and unsure. Then she whispered, “Yes. All right. We’ll work together.”
“Good.” He cleared his expression and spun back around. He made sure to glare at her for good measure. “Now, start talking.”
WILLIAM THE EVER RANDY, honorary Lord of the Underworld and a man so physically perfect he’d once been voted Most Beautiful Immortal of All Time—so what that he’d been the only judge of that particular competition; he would swear on what remained of his soul that the scores hadn’t been fixed—stood in the living room of a human residence.
Strider the Reneger should be here with him. I must be rubbing off on him. Strider had promised to be here with him. Instead the lucky bastard was spending time with the very Harpy William often dreamed of seducing.
William had been with vampires, humans, witches, shape-shifters and goddesses, but he’d never been with a Harpy. He wanted to be with a Harpy. Whine, pout.
Maybe, when he finished here, he would give Strider a wee bit of competition for Kaia’s affections. The warrior liked to compete, after all, and William was such a giver, always thinking of others rather than himself.
That giving nature was the very reason he was here.
“Here” was an average home, with average rooms in serious need of a decorator. Beige furniture, beige walls and beige carpet, as if the owners were afraid of color. Oh, and had he mentioned the half-empty vodka bottles that were hidden inside vents, behind books and even in hidden cutouts in the mattresses?
This mundane, prisonlike alcoholic’s paradise was where his Little Gilly Gumdrop had grown up.
Gilly, a.k.a. Gillian Shaw. Human, brown-eyed, too sensual for her own good. At seventeen, she had known more horror and terror than most immortals experienced in an eternity. All because of the owners of this home in Nowhere, Nebraska.
William didn’t have many friends, so he took care of the ones he had. Sure, he liked the Lords of the Underworld well enough. They were fun to torture and damn entertaining to watch as they fell in love, one by one, like flies meeting the swinging net of a swatter. Case in point— Strider. Until William intervened, of course. Surely Kaia would at last succumb to his delightful wiles and forget all about the keeper of Defeat.
The entertainment alone was worth the price of his ticket into their Budapest Fortress: allowing the freaking (minor) goddess of Anarchy to hold William’s most treasured possession for ransom. He lay awake nights dreaming of ways to retrieve that possession, a book written in code that foretold how to save him from the curses the gods had heaped upon him. But he wasn’t going to think about that right now.
He was only going to think about his Gilly. He’d met her months ago, when the keeper of Pain’s woman brought her to the fortress, and he’d been instantly smitten. Not in a sexual way, she was too young for that—he would remind himself a thousand times if necessary—but in a white-knight kind of way.
She’d looked at him, and she’d seen a gorgeous immortal warrior who could give her body untold pleasure. Of course. Everyone did. She’d also seen a gorgeous immortal warrior who could slay her dragons.
He wanted to slay her dragons. He would slay her dragons.
A few times over the past several months, he’d returned to the fortress injured from battle. Gilly had taken care of him, always tender, sweet, ensuring he ate something, was tucked into bed and comfortable. She wasn’t intimidated by him. She laughed with him, joked with him, and when he pissed her off, she stayed and fought with him, rather than running away to hide from his temper.
She knew, soul deep, that he would never hurt her. Even if he didn’t always know it himself. There was a darkness inside him, a churning darkness sprung from the vilest pits of hell. A darkness he’d never loved more than he did at this moment.
Hardly anyone noticed his evil side. They saw the irreverent scamp he projected. And no, that image wasn’t a lie. William was irreverent to the bone, but there was more to him, and somehow Gilly saw that part, too.
And still she accepted him. Had never asked him to change. Had only thought to enjoy his company, to protect him. No one had ever tried to protect him before.
Now, he would protect her. Her family had hurt her in the worst possible way. Therefore, her family would die in the worst possible way. Vengeance was its own form of safeguarding, after all. Sure, time had passed and she’d had no recent contact with them. That didn’t change the fact that they’d hurt her in the most terrible way, forced her to brave the streets on her own—and that they could do it again, to someone else. He’d wanted to do this for a long time, and that hadn’t changed. In fact, the need had only grown stronger.
William walked around the room, lifting knickknacks, discarding them and smiling when they shattered on the floor. Gilly’s mother and stepfather were currently at work, and her stepbrothers no longer lived here, so he didn’t worry about noise control. When he finished that little exercise, he studied the pictures on the mantle over the fireplace.
There were none of Gilly.
Obviously they’d written her out of their lives. No afterthought, no concern for what had befallen her once she’d left.
What he did see: a thirtysomething bleached blonde with silicone-enhanced breasts and an average-looking thirtysomething male.
Stomach clenching, William thumped the man’s face. The bastard was going to pay for every illicit touch, every ounce of shame inflicted. The mother would pay for allowing it to happen. The brothers would pay for failing to save her.
Her family had given her no option but to run away at the age of fifteen. Fifteen. On her own, surviving as best she could, for over a year before Danika had found her and brought her to Budapest. But because of what had been done to her, because of what she’d had to do merely to eat, she no longer valued herself. She saw herself as used, dirty, unworthy. She’d never said as much, but he knew. When she stayed at the Lords’ fortress, she slept in the bedroom next to his, and he’d heard the way she cried out at night. He knew nightmares plagued her.
Her family would pay for every single one of those dark dreams, too.
His ears suddenly twitched, picking up the sound of the garage door sliding open. He grinned. Oh, goodie. The first contestant of Hurt, Suffer and Die was home.
When he’d first arrived, he had dropped his bag of “toys” on the floor and now bent to pick it up. Oh, yes, he’d never loved his darkness more.
This was going to be fun.
KANE, KEEPER OF THE DEMON of Disaster, strode down the long, winding corridor inside the unfamiliar heavenly palace where he now found himself. The walls were straight up weird, comprised of thousands upon thousands of threads braided and strewn together. Thick and colorful threads with animated scenes playing across them, as if the people he saw were truly living and breathing right in front of him, and he had only to reach out to touch them. It was the most awe-inspiring sight he’d ever beheld—and was that Strider and Kaia crawling along a moonlit hill, females sneaking up on them, weapons trained on their skulls?
He stopped and narrowed his gaze on them, his hands fisting. A head-exploding ache tore through his temples. Only when he peered straight ahead and forced the image of what he’d seen out of his mind did the ache lessen.
In and out he breathed. His thoughts fogged, then cleared. Then he couldn’t recall what he’d been upset about in the first place. Oh, well. In, out. In, out. Clearer and clearer. The air carried the sweet scent of ambrosia, he realized. To keep visitors pliant?
If only that kind of thing worked on him. But the goddesses who lived here could have pumped gasoline through the vents, and it wouldn’t have affected him. His demon loved all things devious, clandestine and potentially life-threatening. And maybe, just maybe, that love would prevent the bastard from cracking the floor Kane stood upon or from unraveling the ceiling above him, the need for calamity sated for just a little while.
A guy could hope, anyway.
Kane jumped back into motion. He had a purpose, didn’t he? Oh, yeah. The Moirai had summoned him. Why the hell had they summoned him?
Whatever the reason, he’d smile like a good little boy. He did not want to piss off the Moirai, and in his current what-the-fuck-is-happening state of mind, he had to be extra careful. They were neither Greek nor Titan—he didn’t know what they were—and yet, neither godly race had ever raised a hand against the three females who lived here, and they never would. Because the Moirai were the weavers of Fate. They spun and they wove, and the scenes they created happened. Always.
No one approached them without a summons. Not even Cronus, the god king. And in all of Kane’s centuries, he had never met anyone who had received one. Until today. He, Disaster, was the lucky recipient.
He’d just returned from town, having spent the entire night searching for Hunters. Finding none—Strider must have killed them all before he left, the greedy bastard—he’d fallen straight into bed, still wearing his weapons, leather and boots. Before he could switch off his lamp, a glowing string had unfurled from his ceiling, a yellowed scroll hanging from the end.
He’d read the parchment, as confused then as he was now. A cross between a wedding invitation and a prescription medicine wrapper, the thing had been written in ancient Greek.
You are cordially invited to the Temple of the Fates. Failure to appear could result in decapitation or death.
Decapitation or death? Really? Then, an instant later, his surroundings had faded and he’d been standing inside this temple, those walls of thread all around him. He’d kicked into gear, thinking any hesitation on his part would result in that decapitation. Or death.
So while he knew where he was, what he didn’t know was why. Why him? Why now?
Guess he’d find out.
The wall tapestries seemed to go on forever, but finally—unfortunately?—he reached the end of the line and entered a…weaving room? Three women, hags really, sat on wooden stoops, hunched over, long white hair frizzing over their shoulders. All three wore white robes, pristine and unwrinkled.
The one with hands spotted by age—Klotho, he knew from the legends surrounding them—spun the threads. The one with gnarled fingers, Lachesis, wove the strands together, and the one with pupil-less eyes, Atropos, snipped the ends.
Kane pressed his lips together, silent. He waited to be acknowledged, respectful of a power far greater than his own. And perhaps that’s why they had picked him, he thought then. None of the other Lords would have treated them with the deference they deserved and punishment would have had to be issued.
If they only knew the truth. He might know how to dish the respect, but really, he was the group’s biggest screwup. The one who couldn’t do anything right. The one left behind because he had a tendency to cause more harm than good. He never dropped his smile, though. Not here, and not around his friends. He didn’t want them to know the truth. He didn’t want them to know that, inside, he was just one big, steaming pile of mess.
For the most part, he operated on autopilot. When his demon became too much for him—the need to let go, the desire to obliterate, forget, pretend, filling him up—he…did things. Destroyed things.
Sabin, keeper of Doubt and the warrior Kane would have followed straight into hell, knew. But Sabin was the only one who did, and, not surprisingly, Sabin approved of his violence, even helped him channel it. Before taking off with his wife, Sabin had left him a little present. Part of him was eager to go back, to do what needed doing. The other part of him was content to remain here, waiting. He’d ignored that present to head into town, after all, thinking to resist the temptation. He’d even planned to nap upon his return. Anything to save his soul from further damage. But how much longer would he have lasted?
He stood there, waiting to be acknowledged, for an hour, perhaps two. Usually inactivity provoked his demon to act, creating some disaster or another. Maybe it was the ambrosia as he’d hoped, or maybe the demon was as afraid of the hags as everyone else in the heavens, but Disaster behaved, not even humming in the back of Kane’s mind, though that sound rarely ever faded.
“Why are you here, boy?” Klotho finally asked, her voice a cackle of smoke. She never looked up from her task.
Uh, what now? “I received your summons. My lady,” he added. Gods, he was such an ass-kisser. But a guy had to do what a guy had to do. He was wearing his cup, yeah, but that didn’t mean he should hang a sign on his nuts, requesting someone kick him there.
“Summon you? Why, that was thousands of years ago,” Lachesis replied. “I’m sure of it.”
“Sure of it,” Atropos echoed. “Yet you never came.”
“And so your summons was revoked.”
“You may leave the way you came.”
He could only gape at them. They’d summoned him thousands of years ago? Why hadn’t they decapitated him, then, for his failure to appear? “I mean no disrespect, but I only just now received your kind invitation.”
“Not our fault.”
“You probably weren’t paying attention.”
“Perhaps you’ll learn to pay attention.”
“You may leave the way you came.”
Reverence was one thing. Not having his curiosity assuaged was quite another. Besides, if they’d brought him here to impart words of wisdom that could save him and his friends, or to issue words of warning, he damn well wanted to hear those words. Therefore, he wasn’t leaving without them.
“May I purchase the information from you?” he asked.
“Who said anything about information?”
“You’re a dotty one, aren’t you?”
“You may leave the way you came.”
He flicked his tongue against one of his incisors. “If you didn’t wish to inform me of something, all those thousands of years ago—” he was careful to keep his ire out of his tone “—then why did you summon me in the first place?” The same question, asked in a roundabout way. Come on, take the bait. Tell me.
“Klotho, do you recall the last time someone tried to talk circles around us?”
“Oh, yes, Lachesis. We wove her into the never-ending.”
The never-ending what?
“Perhaps she’s learned her lesson.”
“Perhaps she hasn’t yet learned her lesson.”
“She didn’t leave the way she came.”
“Who is ‘she’?” he asked, standing his ground. A stupid move, perhaps, but he couldn’t leave the way he’d come, so what choice did he have? Flashing himself from one location to another with only a thought wasn’t an ability he possessed.
“She? She is your girl, of course,” Atropos said.
He blinked. “My girl, what?”
“The one in the never-ending.”
“No, no,” Klotho said. “She’s not his. The other one is. Or is it the other way around?”
“Mayhap they both are his,” Lachesis countered.
“She’s mine? They’re mine?” he gasped out. His what? Lovers? If so, no thanks. Been there, destroyed too many because of that. His women suffered, always. His demon made sure of it. Kane was better off alone.
“Of course she’s yours, though not the one in the never-ending. She belongs to no one. Unless she does, in fact, belong to you.”
The three cackled.
“Good one, sister mine. I’ll have to remember that for the warrior’s next summons.”
“Who does or doesn’t belong to me?” he asked, gaze darting from one hag to the other. Next summons?
“Irresponsibility, of course.”
“Irresponsibility,” he echoed. As in, the keeper of Irresponsibility? Kane knew the immortal was out there. There’d been more demons in Pandora’s box than naughty warriors, so the gods, desperate to contain the leftovers, had given them to the prisoners of Tartarus. Irresponsibility was one such leftover.
He’d even looked for…her. Shit. He’d always assumed the keeper was a man. His mistake, and one he wouldn’t make again. He and his friends wanted all demon-possessed immortals on their side. Which meant finding them before the Hunters did.
After all, Galen, keeper of Hope and the Hunters’ leader, could convince anyone of anything. And the last thing the Lords needed was for him to convince their brethren to destroy them.
“Didn’t I just say that?” one of them asked.
“You just said that.”
“You’re not too bright, are you, boy?”
“How do I get her out of the never-ending?” he asked, ignoring the question. He might not want a girlfriend, but he wanted to find this female demon-keeper. What could she do? What powers did she wield? “What is the never-ending, anyway?”
“How does he not know the answers to these questions?”
“Didn’t we tell him these answers already?”
“Perhaps our time line is off again,” Klotho said.
Again? How often did that happen? Better question—what were the consequences when it was off?
“Should we rewind?”
“Should we leap forward?”
Dear gods. Neither option seemed wise.
“Yes,” they said in unison, shaking the tapestry they were working on. A moment passed in silence, then another.
Then, “What are you doing here, boy?”
Kane found himself blinking again. Nothing had changed. Not his surroundings, not the women. Everything was the same as when he’d first entered the room, yet they’d forgotten he was here?
Had they rewound? Had they fast-forwarded? Shit. If so, what did that mean for him? “You summoned me,” he croaked out.
“Yes, yes. We summoned you.”
“Only this morn, too. Good of you to come so quickly.”
They must have rewound thousands of goddamn years. When he left this temple, would he return to ancient Greece? His stomach clenched.
“Such a worrier, you are.”
Could they read his thoughts then, as well as manipulate time? He really should have taken their advice and left the way he’d come. This was…this was as messed up as he was.
“As if we would disrupt the fabric of time for you.”
“You will return the way you came.”
Thank the gods. “You mentioned a female.”
“I didn’t mention a female. Did you mention a female?”
“Not me. I don’t mention a female to the keeper of Disaster for thousands of years.”
“Perhaps our time line is off again.”
Again, they shook the tapestry in their hands. He waited it out through several heartbeats of silence, his mouth dry, his knees knocking.
“I—I think I’ll leave the way I came,” Kane said, backing away inch by inch. He couldn’t take any more of this. They simply weren’t capable of giving him a straight answer, their minds unable to differentiate between the past and the future. “I thank you for inviting me, though, and for your hospitality. If you could just point the way out…”
Atropos, her eyes so white they resembled a blanket of snow, lifted her head from her scissors and seemed, impossibly, to be peering over at him. “Finally, you present yourself to us. After all this time, we had given up.”
He massaged the back of his neck. Did everyone who was summoned go through this? “Yes, finally.” He backed up one step, two. “I apologize for your wait and I thank you again for your time, but I really must—”
“Quiet.” Lachesis glanced up, as well, though her gnarled fingers never stilled. “We always know what happens, but never why it happens. You have made us wonder and wonder, and we would at last like an answer.”
“An answer to what?” he asked, pausing, unsure he wanted to know.
The third hag, Klotho, did not follow the others’ lead and glance at him. She simply said, “We want to know why you began the Apocalypse,” and continued spinning her threads without a care.
“LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT,” Kaia whispered fiercely. “When you said scout the competition, you actually meant scout the competition?”
Strider cast her a quick glance as they used their elbows to pull the weight of their bodies along the twig- and dirt-laden ground. The moon was high and full, but with the canopy of leaves above them, its golden light skimmed the branches, never quite reaching them. No prob, though, because he’d trained his eyes to cut through darkness and zero in on the details that mattered.
Except tonight, he was concentrating on all the details that didn’t matter.
Unimportant: Kaia looked sexier than ever. His own personal GI Jane doll—the X-rated edition. She’d painted her face black and green to better blend into the night, and wore a black bandanna over her mass of red waves. Her short shorts had Booty Camp stamped across the ass.
Strider kept envisioning the vigorous de rigueur training at such a camp. The hands-on instructing. The type of discipline dished out to the attendees who misbehaved.
Just what he needed—his dick as hard as a steel pipe and rubbing against the ground, leaving a telltale trail. That damn kiss had ruined everything. Had he kept his tongue to himself, he could have continued thinking of Kaia as a friend and only a friend. Now, he just wanted to convince her that blow jobs were a mandatory part of their arrangement.
Don’t you dare speak up, he told his demon.
Whew. “You’re damn straight I meant we’d scout them,” he finally said. A sharp stone scraped his stomach and he welcomed the sting. Helped clear his perspective. A discussion about goals—good. Fantasizing about his companion—bad. So, so wonderfully bad. “What’d you think I meant?”
“Well, duh. I thought you wanted to hobble them.”
Wait just a sec. “So it’s okay to bust your opponent’s kneecap before a competition, but it’s not okay to steal the grand prize for your…your…consort?” He almost couldn’t say the word. Doing so made their arrangement seem permanent, rather than temporary.
She stopped to gape at him. “I can’t believe you just asked that. Busted kneecaps are expected among my kind. Even encouraged.”
“I thought you’d never participated in the Harpy Games before?”
“True, but I watched my mother when she did.”
“Fine,” he grumbled. “You can do some hobbling.” Meanwhile, he’d stick to his original plan. While she decreased the number of her competitors, he would study the Harpy campsite. Layout, sentry placement, response times. “Use your hands, though, because knifing them seems a bit harsh.” Actually, he just didn’t want to accidentally track the blood inside the tents, leaving evidence of his intentions behind.
“Say no more. I came prepared for a little nonslashing action.” She slid one of her elegant hands down her…panties? She did. Sweet heaven, she did. Right in the center, where she was probably warm and wet, ready for his mouth, his cock. “I’ve got something I think you might like.”
Hell, yeah, she did. Stridey-Monster got real uncomfortable real fast, and yep, there was definite snakelike trailage behind him. Then Kaia shocked him by sliding her hand back up and holding out her palm. In the middle rested a small silver bar.
Disappointed and surprised, he frowned. “What’s that?”
“Watch.” She gripped one end and flicked her wrist. Snap. The bar grew several inches. Another flick, another few inches, until the damn thing resembled an oversize police baton. Or Stridey-Monster.
“I want one of those,” he said.
Her eyes glittered with relish. “I know, right. But hands to yourself, demon boy. This one’s mine. Now, come on.” She skidded back into motion.
“Hey. I’m your consort. What’s yours is mine, Harpy girl.” And what’dya know? Saying the title hadn’t been such a chore that time.
He crawled after her. Finally they reached the edge of the makeshift camp, as evidenced by the fire crackling in the heart of the grounds. In his early days here on earth, his hunting of Hunters had very often led him to camps just like this one. Multiple tents, boulders acting as chairs, and fowl roasting over the flames. Only, there’d always been soldiers patrolling the area.
“No one’s here,” he whispered.
“I know,” Kaia replied. She sighed, despondent.
The occupants had left in a hurry. The scuff of their boots in the dirt was evidence of that, as though they’d been moving too swiftly to pick up their feet. The fowl was burned, charring more and more with every second that passed, plumes of black smoke wafting toward the sky. There was a water bottle lying flat, liquid gushing from it.
“I heard them abandoning ship,” she added, “but I hoped there would be a few stragglers. Doesn’t anyone defend their turf anymore?”
She’d heard them? When he, a trained soldier, hadn’t heard a goddamn thing? No need for an ego check. He sucked. Don’t forget Mission One. The Rod—and not the one in your pants. “I’ll give the place an inspection. You stay here and act as lookout.”
“No way. I’ll give the place an inspection. You stay here.”
“Damn it, Kaia. You better—umph.” Something hard wrapped around his ankles and jerked, sliding him backward. He twisted midway, sitting up despite his momentum, and shoved.
There was a pained, feminine grunt as his assailant stumbled and he was released.
Win, Defeat suddenly said, speaking up for the first time since they’d left the motel.
Did. For the moment, at least. Female warriors surrounded him, glaring down at him. Each held some type of weapon, from machetes to axes to Neolithic daggers.
Well, well. Slowly he stood, palms up and out, all innocence—all lie. “Evening, ladies. Something we can do for you?”
Kaia settled into a crouch and squawked. A squawk he recognized. Her Harpy had just taken over. From the thought of him being injured? Or because another woman had put her hands on him? Either way, she was seeing the world through a haze of red and black, a need for blood thickening her tongue.
“Mine,” she said in a low, dual-layered voice. That was the only warning she gave before she attacked.
As she twirled that bat with a grace and purpose that astonished him, Defeat gave a whimper rather than another demand for victory. She moved like a dancer. A lethal, psychotic dancer who hoped to spend the rest of her life in prison. My kinda woman. Metal slammed against bone, the latter crackling. More grunts, a few groans.
And then the battle was really on.
He caught a glimpse of Kaia’s expression as she spun. Cold, merciless. Red flickers joined the black in her eyes. Like flames. True, crackling flames. He could feel their heat, causing sweat to bead over his skin. An azure glow even emanated from her skin. Not a Harpy glow, with those lovely rainbow shards trapped beneath the surface, but the hottest lick of fire.
He remembered their kiss—again—and the way she’d burned him, how hot she’d been. A living furnace. It had turned him on, made him feel on top of his game. Now he wondered…
Was she exhibiting some sort of power?
Her claws slashed and her teeth cut. Bodies moved so quickly around her, his gaze couldn’t quite track them, but every few seconds Kaia would be thrown backward, as if someone had slammed into her. A heartbeat later, that someone would howl in pain—because they’d been burned?
Win, Defeat growled, fear momentarily forgotten.
Great. Give me a minute. There were a few things he needed to figure out. Namely, how to insert himself into the fray without running into Kaia’s fists.
The answer slid into place. Strider withdrew Jose, his Sig Sauer, from the waist of his pants. He’d come prepared, too, knowing he’d have to take out anyone who got in his way. Now, he just wanted to murder anyone who tried to “hobble” Kaia. That’s what friends did for each other.
He fired a single shot into the air. Boom. Gasps, the rustle of clothing, the stomp of boots. Then, silence.
“Back the hell up,” he snarled, lowering his aim. “Now. And before you start wondering if I have the balls to splatter your brains across the trees, let me put your minds at ease. I do.”
Kaia stilled, panting and blood-splattered. The women quickly backed away from her. As fast as these winged stunners could move, they could have charged him, attempted to kill him. They didn’t. Either they realized he’d take a few of them out before they managed to reach him, as promised, or they feared his demon.
Defeat hummed his approval, tiny sparks of pleasure warming Strider’s chest. More sparks than usual, considering he hadn’t exactly won yet. Then Strider recalled the very first challenge his demon had accepted regarding Kaia and these women.
Anyone who tried to hurt her had to suffer. Nice.
“You,” he said to Kaia. “Come closer.”
She, too, obeyed. He brushed his free hand down her arm, a caress meant to calm, to comfort. But, shit! Touching her was like touching melted steel. Blisters immediately formed on the pads of his fingers. Did he care? Hardly. What was a little pain when her well-being was at stake?
Eventually the raspy fury of her breathing decreased and the black faded from her eyes, the flickering flames dying. Her skin cooled.
“First-class work out there, baby doll,” he said.
“Anytime, sugar muffin.” Though the words were raw and ragged, she spoke with only one vocal inflection. Her Harpy had been contained.
He shifted his gaze. He and Kaia were still surrounded, but now the circle had grown even wider and he could make out individual features. Harpy after Harpy scowled at him. Dread poured through him as he moved in front of Kaia. His protectiveness probably bothered her, but he wasn’t going to let her take the lead in this. These were her people, and as her sister Gwen had once proven, family had a hard time killing family.
Strider never had a hard time killing anyone. Call it a gift.
Kaia moved to his side and threw the baton at…her mother’s feet. He wanted to curse.
“Hello, Tabitha,” she said evenly.
The dark-haired beauty stepped forward, her expression blank as she pondered him rather than her daughter. “Put the gun away, demon. For all your crowing, we all know you won’t use it.”
Kaia moaned. “You shouldn’t have said that.”
Grinning pleasantly, Strider angled the line of the barrel and squeezed the trigger. Boom. A high-pitched, disbelieving scream. He’d nailed the Harpy beside her. Blood spurted from a gaping thigh wound. The now-injured female hopped up and down before her strength drained and she fell to the ground.
Win! Defeat giggled like a schoolgirl.
More sparks of pleasure erupted in his chest as he notched a brow. “You were saying?”
Tabitha peered at Kaia and cursed, then switched her attention to her trembling clanswoman and shrugged. “You merely grazed her, missing everything of importance.”
“Did I? Well, then, let me try again.” Once more he squeezed the trigger. This time, the bullet grazed Tabitha’s thigh. She wore ankle-length black pants, and the material concealed the evidence of what he’d done. Nothing could hide the coppery tang saturating the air, however.
A slight baring of her pearly whites was the only indication she gave that she’d been hit.
“Oh, damn,” he said. “Missed everything of importance again. I might have to keep practicing. Who’s next?”
Gasps of outrage abounded.
Tabitha held up her hand for silence. Even the night birds obeyed, their chirps evaporating like mist. “Of course it would be you who fell for the old campfire trick,” she said to Kaia. “I’m not surprised.”
“That makes two of us. You fell for the old your-enemy-has-fallen-for-the-old-campfire-trick trick.” She settled two fingers in her mouth and whistled, loud and high-pitched.
Suddenly leaves rattled above him. He watched, wide-eyed, as Sabin, Lysander, Taliyah, Bianka, the Harpy called Neeka and several other females he didn’t recognize revealed themselves. They were high up in the trees, arrows notched and pointed at the competition.
Defeat started humming again.
What are you so happy about? They’d been there all this time and he hadn’t known. They could have slaughtered him before he’d even realized he was under attack. And he’d thought himself so skilled, so…undefeatable. Well, there was no need for any ego checks today. He more than sucked. He blew chunks.
No reason to blame himself, though. Kaia and her Booty Camp had ruined his concentration.
“This is a first,” Tabitha gritted out. Murmurs of admiration circled her, mixed with a few snorts of disbelief and several gasps of fury. “Now I am surprised.”
“How?” His jagged tone matched her mother’s.
Kaia didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “I texted them before we left the motel.”
Good thinking, but he hadn’t known that, either, which meant he more than blew chunks. “And you couldn’t have clued me in?”
“No.” So simply stated, as if the thought had never entered her mind. “So, Mother Dearest,” she said, tuning him out. “Are you regretting your choice to cut your daughters from your team?”
“No,” Tabitha said, as flatly as Kaia had and with no hesitation.
Ouch. Kaia stiffened, but only for a moment. He didn’t dare glance over at her, didn’t dare wrap his arm around her waist and offer any more comfort. Now wasn’t the time. But later…yeah, later, despite his raging bodily needs and the danger to his self-control. Comforting her was part of his consort duties, and for the next four weeks, he was her consort. In all the ways that mattered.
Sex didn’t matter.
At least, that’s what he was going to tell himself. Over and over again, until he believed it. Or until a backlog of semen poisoned and killed him. He could plan to sneak off and indulge in a few one-night stands, he supposed, but he knew he wouldn’t. And not just because Kaia would permanently maim any females he so much as flirted with, but because, well, he didn’t want anyone else.
He’d tasted Kaia’s sweetness, had felt the wickedness of her curves pressed against him, and knew no mortal woman could compare. But he’d get over this infatuation, of that he had no doubt. Even Haidee hadn’t held his attention for long.
Haidee. Huh. He hadn’t thought about her much today, though she had consumed his brain for weeks. Classic Strider. Over the centuries, he’d been a major contender for the World’s Shortest Attention Span.
“Do you truly think you can win the games?” Tabitha asked Kaia.
“I hate to repeat myself, but yes.”
That’s my girl. Well, his girl for now.
“Juliette might have won the last eight games, but that’s because I wasn’t allowed to fight. As you know, I’ve never lost,” Tabitha said, stroking the medallion that hung from her neck.
Again, Kaia stiffened, a wave of hurt blasting from her. A wave quickly suppressed. Did the necklace hold some significance? He made a mental note to ask Gwen, as he was certain Kaia wouldn’t give him a straight answer. She never did.
“There’s a reason you’ve never lost. You’ve never fought me,” Kaia replied haughtily.
She is going to be killed.
The feminine voice stampeded through his head. Tabitha’s voice. The same voice he’d heard during orientation. Her attention hadn’t transferred to him, but he knew. “Like hell,” he muttered.
Kaia threw him a disbelieving, offended look. “It’s true.”
“I know that, baby doll. Wasn’t talking to you.”
“Oh. Well. Okay.”
Win! There was a tremor in Defeat’s tone, but still, the little bastard wasn’t going to back down. They’d decided to aid Kaia, and they would. She would not be killed.
She is going to be killed—and there is nothing you can do to help her.
“Stop it,” he commanded, gaze narrowing on the woman responsible.
Tabitha blinked innocently. “Why is your consort speaking to me without my having addressed him first?” she asked Kaia. “Have you not taught him the proper order of things?”
So the little man wasn’t supposed to speak to the women folk without an invitation? Screw that. “Just stay out of my head, Harpy, or I’ll make sure you regret it. By the way, how’s the leg?”
She hissed at him.
I know, Strider reassured the demon. I told you. I won’t let anything happen to Kaia.
Kaia blinked, too, only she appeared shocked. She didn’t question her mother, though, and he wondered if she remained quiet because she knew her mother wouldn’t answer or because questioning her mother would have revealed ignorance and ignorance would have been perceived as weakness.
Harpies, man. Life seemed to be one big chess match for them. Ridiculous, if you asked him. And yeah, he got the irony. But he had to turn everything he did into a contest of wits and might. They didn’t, nor did they suffer afterward. They just did it for funsies.
“Don’t concern yourself with my man,” Kaia finally said, her chin lifting.
My man. He kinda liked the sound of that.
His jaw clenched. This was pretend and he couldn’t let himself confuse pretend with reality.
“I’m surprised you won a fearsome Lord of the Underworld,” Tabitha said.
“I’m not,” Kaia replied with a shrug. “I’m pretty much made of awesome.”
Still not a flicker of emotion crossed Tabitha’s face. Not pride, nor disappointment. “I guess we’ll find out exactly what you’re made of tomorrow, when the games truly begin.”
PARIS, THE KEEPER OF Promiscuity—or Sex, as Paris called the demon—clutched two standard-issue daggers as he slinked through the back-alley shadows. Standard issue sucked. Sure, they sliced and diced just fine, but up here, with gods, goddesses, vampires and fallen angels, slicing and dicing wasn’t enough.
Whatever. Keep going.
Never ceased to amaze him how similar the immortal world was to the human one. In this heavenly metropolis, there were bars, shops, restaurants and hotels. Not to mention drugs and those who sold them. Whatever you wanted, you could get.
Speaking of, I’ll want some ambrosia. Soon. Already he was shaky from withdrawal.
No time to imbibe now. He couldn’t be late.
Couldn’t afford to so much as talk to anyone. One look at his face, one inhalation of his scent, and people—no matter their species or gender—threw themselves at him.
Perhaps he should have let them, he thought next. Sex derived strength from anything erotic, and Paris hadn’t yet supplied that crucial daily dose. But then, he hated sleeping with people he didn’t actually desire and tried to limit himself. And he’d get today’s influx of strength just as soon as he met with the goddess of weaponry.
The female owned crystal daggers that could morph into any type of weapon the holder desired. He could have them, she’d said, for a price. No one ever wanted money from him, so he’d agreed to give her what she did want. Him. He’d whore himself, and that was fine. Whatever. He’d done so a thousand times before and would probably have to do so a thousand more. Eventually he’d get over the guilt and humiliation.
He needed those crystal blades to rescue the female he did want. Sienna.
His Sienna. Killed because of his actions, only to be brought back in soul form. A soul he could not see or hear. Yet.
Cronus, the god king, had enslaved her and paired her with the demon of Wrath. To keep Paris away from her, Cronus had then trapped her in another realm. He would pay for that. After Paris saved her. And he would. He had a three-part plan.
1. Obtain the crystal daggers.
2. Find Arca, former messenger goddess. Rumor was, she knew where Cronus hid his greatest treasures.
3. Find Viola, minor goddess of the Afterlife. Rumor was, she could teach anyone to see the dead.
Boom, done. Simple, easy. Yeah. Right. Seduction was the only thing easy for him.
Whatever he had to do, though, he would do. For centuries, Paris had dreamed of being with a woman more than once. Because of his demon, his body failed to respond to a lover after one release. So his relationships lasted only the one night. Except with Sienna. He’d had her, and then he’d immediately gotten hard for her again. In that moment, he’d known they belonged together—despite the obstacles that stood between them.
She was a Hunter, his enemy. She had tricked him, drugged him and helped imprison him. Whatever. She’d also helped him escape, and that’s when she died. Shot down by her own people while in Paris’s arms.
He’d relived that nightmare over and over again, thinking of all the things he could have, should have, done differently. Thinking about her final words of hate, her wish that he had been the one to die. She’d blamed him for what had happened, and rightly so.
Yet still her soul had come back for him. Had escaped its heavenly prison and found him. For help? Revenge? He didn’t know and didn’t care. All he knew was that Cronus had carted her away before he’d gotten a chance to speak with her. She had to be terrified, confused and desperate.
He could soothe her. He just had to find her.
Want, his demon said, drawing him out of his mind.
Dread flooded him. That command could mean only one thing.
Paris focused, and sure enough at the end of the alley loomed a trio of ugly bruisers. Fallen angels, he would guess, who, for whatever reason, had given over to their dark sides. They couldn’t be gods, even minor ones, because no power pulsed from them.
He had only to pass them and turn right, and he’d reach the goddess’s street.
When they spotted him, they grinned greedily.
I want, his demon said.
You’ll get yours soon enough.
Ignoring him, Sex blasted his special fragrance from Paris’s pores. Soon the scent of chocolate and expensive champagne thickened the air. From experience, he knew that every time the men breathed in, desire would flood them. Desire for Paris and Paris alone, even if they didn’t swing that way.
Damn you! he growled.
His dread intensified as their grins faded and they began licking their lips.
“You want by, you’ll get on your knees.”
“We each get a turn.”
“And I’ll be first,” the biggest one said.
Paris slowed, but didn’t stop and didn’t change direction. Fallen angels were, in essence, little more than human. He could plow through them, no problem.
Hurt…kill… A soft whisper, a dark urge, one that had filled his mind more and more lately. Not from his demon, but from deep inside him. He wasn’t sure why it happened, or what had caused it, but every time, he’d given in. Now would be no different. He would reach the goddess, and these men weren’t going to deter him. He would plow through them, true, but he’d make it hurt—would kill—when he did.
In unison, the trio said, “Knees. Now.”
“Actually,” Paris replied. “The only thing going down will be you.”
He tossed both of his daggers in quick succession. The tip of one sank deep into the jugular of the guy on the right. The tip of the other embedded in a wall of golden brick, missing its mark.
Sex whimpered, racing to hide in a far corner of his mind. His demon was a lover, not a fighter.
The two remaining men watched, wide-eyed, as their friend collapsed, twitching as death approached.
Hurt…kill… Having run even as he’d thrown, Paris barreled into them, his arms spread, knocking both of them to the ground. They pulled themselves out of their sexual stupors and rolled him to his back, their fists hammering at him.
Vessels burst in one of his eyes, limiting his line of sight. His nose popped out of place. His jaw separated. The pain intensified with every blow, but still he fought. And fought dirty, going for groins, throats and kidneys.
The dark compulsions rose…rose…consumed. With a roar, he brought his legs up and kicked. Both men flew backward. He leapt at the one closest to him, pinning the guy’s shoulders to the concrete with his knees. One punch, two, three. Blood splattered.
He hit and hit and hit, until the guy’s head lolled to the side, his swollen eyes open but glazed. Only then did he realize the other guy had jumped on his back and had been punching him in the head that entire time.
Paris reached back, gripped a fistful of shirt and jerked. Guy soared over his shoulders and landed on top of his buddy, losing his breath. As Paris grabbed for the blade in his ankle holster, his opponent gathered his wits and swung a meaty fist, knocking him into the wall. Temple against brick, and brick won. Dazed, the blade was batted out of his hand.
A booted foot slammed into his trachea, pushing him to his back and holding him down.
The pressure increased as the guy unsheathed a dagger of his own, bent down and stabbed Paris in the stomach. An agonizing lance of pain. A searing hiss of air through his teeth.
“That should keep you docile.” Looming over him, panting raggedly, scowling, the guy unzipped his pants.
“Not a smart move,” Paris managed to croak out. Though instinct demanded he wrap his fingers around the guy’s ankle and shove, he inched his hand behind him, toward the hilt of his remaining blade. “You want to keep that thing, don’t you?”
“Shut your mouth. Had you played nice, I would have let you go after I finished with you. Now…”
Finally the boot lifted from Paris’s neck, then the guy was crouched between his legs, working at his zipper. Distracted. Good. Using the last of his strength, Paris swung his arm up. Another dagger found solace in a jugular.
Blood gurgled from the guy’s mouth, shock and pain glazing his eyes. Paris ripped the blade free, but that wouldn’t save him. Crimson continued to flow, and he slumped over, on top of Paris, motionless…dead.
Weak but determined, Paris pushed the weight away and lumbered to shaky legs. He gave himself a once-over. His clothes were ripped, stained and soaked in blood, his skin abraded, bruised and sliced. The goddess might turn him away the moment she saw him.
Probably not a bad idea. She expected pleasure, and right now he was too pathetic to see to hers. On the flip side, he needed sex to heal. But if he used her to heal, taking his own pleasure while unable to see to hers, he wouldn’t be able to sleep with her a second time in exchange for the crystal daggers.
Okay. Change of plans. Next female he spotted, he’d seduce, unleashing his demon, nothing held back. The thought sickened him, but whatever. Then he’d head to the goddess’s palace. He’d be late, but he could charm her out of any pique that tardiness might cause. Another sickening thought.
Get over yourself. He’d chosen to travel this path. He would live with the emotional fallout.
Resolute, Paris stumbled out of the alley.
SIENNA BLACKSTONE HUDDLED in the corner, enveloped by tormenting shadows. Her wings—those ever-growing black wings, courtesy of the demon now inside her—pulled at tendons and bone she hadn’t known she had, shooting aches all through her body.
Cronus had brought her here—wherever “here” was. A dilapidated castle guarded by gargoyles that came to life. Those gargoyles could see and hear her—unlike Paris, the warrior she’d hoped to find—and they ensured she remained exactly where she was. And when she actually fought her way through their fangs, horns, claws and tails, some kind of clear shield prevented her from stepping into the outside world.
At first, she’d been terrified. Someone should have told her death would be a thousand times more horrifying than life. Over the ensuing weeks, she’d had to learn to adapt to all these supernatural creatures. Though she’d known demons existed and had once hated them, everything else was new to her. And now all she wanted was to get out of here so she could reach one of those demons. Hold him. Help him. But…
She could leave only when she vowed to obey Cronus in all things. A condition she didn’t understand.
Why did he so desperately want her obedience? Her aid? What did he expect her to do for him? He’d never said. But in his desperate bid for control of her, he’d even taken her to spy on her former colleagues. Hunters. God, the things they’d done…
She was disgusted, and she was angry. She’d once hurt an innocent man—for them. She had struck when Paris was at his weakest—for them. She would have helped them kill the warrior if he hadn’t escaped with her. She had blamed him for her death, thinking he’d used her body as a shield. She had hated him for that. Now, she only hated herself.
No, that wasn’t true. She hated the Hunters and everything they represented.
Before she died—again—she was taking them down. Actually, she would help Paris take them down. Somehow, some way, she would leave this castle. She would find him once more. She would tell him everything she knew about his enemy. Every secret hideout, every battle plan, every strategy she’d ever heard whispered about. And if he still couldn’t see or hear her, she would tell someone who could, like his dark-haired friend. And then…then she was gifting Paris’s other friend, Aeron, with Wrath.
Doing so would finally end her. Forever.
That wouldn’t make up for the wrongs she’d done, she doubted anything could, but it was a start.
You just have to find a way out…?.
A sigh left her. She wasn’t chained, and she knew Cronus kept other prisoners here. They screamed and ranted and raved constantly. Unlike her, they didn’t have the run of the entire castle. They were limited to the bedrooms on an upper floor. The few times Sienna convinced herself to drag her winged self up the stairs, the demon inside her had gone insane, flashing all kinds of hateful images through her head. Images of blood, torture and death.
The people upstairs…they were warriors, demon-possessed like her. She didn’t hate them, didn’t want to hurt them. She wanted to help them—but her demon wanted to punish them. Always punish.
You can’t help them down here.
I can’t hurt them, either.
Arguing with herself. She laughed. She’d always forced herself to be demure, even somber. She’d always quashed any hint of temper and sarcasm. The fear of injuring somebody’s feelings, the shame of disappointing her loved ones had been too much. After her younger sister’s abduction, she’d had to be a rock. Causing more emotional turmoil would have destroyed her.
Well, no longer. She was strong. She was capable. She was needed.
She could overcome her demon and aid the beings upstairs. She could.
THE NEXT MORNING DAWNED bright and early. Too bright, too early. Kaia had stayed awake all night, her mind too active to snooze. So when she spotted the big orange glow of the sun, she glared and flipped it the bird.
“Go away, you bastard!”
Strider lounged on “their” bed, watching her with an amused glint in his eyes. He’d slept, sprawled out over every inch of the mattress. She’d paced.
“Who’re you talking to?” he asked in a sleep-rumbling voice.
A sleep-rumbling voice that turned her on. Damn him, everything about him turned her on. Be proactive. Nip this in the bud. “Maybe I was talking to you,” she snapped, stomping to the bed, grabbing a pillow and beating his chest with it.
He didn’t bother raising his arms to protect himself. “Has anyone ever told you what a bundle of joy you are in the morning?”
Bang. “No.” Bang.
“Will you just sit down for a sec?” He ripped the pillow out of her hands and tossed it to the floor. “Geez. I need— I mean, you need a breather from all your worries.”
“I don’t have any worries,” she said, plopping beside him. Lysander had taken them all up to the heavens and given them each a room in his cloud, where no other Harpy could reach them. She and Strider had shared, and no one, not even Lysander, could breech its perimeter unless they both gave permission.
Never had she encountered such a kick-ass security system. Even better, misty walls of baby-blue acted as TV screens, revealing anything she requested to see. Her mother? Done. Juliette? Gag.
The absolute best? Kaia had only to say, “I want a dagger,” and one would magically appear in her palm.
No wonder Bianka had decided to shack up with a goody-goody. And really, Bianka would just have to take one for the team and do a little more of that shacking to convince Lysander to buy Kaia one of these. You know, so they could spend quality sis-time together. They were twins, after all, and Bianka needed her.
“You started stressing the moment you got that text,” Strider said. “Five minutes after we got here!”
That text. Ugh. Her stomach cramped as worry flooded her. Not that she’d admit it. The first Harpy Game, Tag, would begin in two hours.
Team captains were too valuable to lose so early in the games and never competed in the first event. Instead, the four strongest, most violent members were chosen, and the captain merely prayed they survived.
But though she was captain, Kaia had to compete.
Last night, thanks to the cloud walls, she’d kept watch on her motel room. One after the other, Harpies from every other team had snuck inside, hoping to brutalize her. As if she would stay in a room she’d rented under her own name. Please. But that’s how stupid they thought she was. Worse, they would continue to come after her unless they were taught to fear her.
That, she had learned from her mother.
And so today she would teach them to fear her.
The other three going in? Taliyah, Neeka—who Kaia had never seen fight, but Taliyah had recommended her, and Kaia trusted her older sis—and Gwen. Bianka was still pouting, but bottom line, Bianka was too damn sweet.
Once, she’d BBQed another Harpy who’d trashed her appearance. Cool, right? Well, as the girl screamed and writhed, a guilty Bianka had raced off to fetch a glass of water for her. Who did that? Marshmallows, that’s who.
“If you won’t sit still, at least tell Papa Stridey what’s bothering you.”
There was that rumbling voice again, caressing her, seeping past her skin to fuse with her cells, becoming a part of her. It was clear the bud remained un-nipped. “I’m thinking that only prison rules are going to apply.”
A laugh burst from him. “What does that mean? That you shouldn’t drop the soap? What, does round one involve multiple showerheads?”
“Would you be serious?”
He snorted. “You telling someone to be serious. Weird. But…” He sat up, his features lighting with interest. The sheet fell to his waist, revealing row after row of muscled strength. “Tell me round one involves multiple showerheads.”
Her lips twitched, even as her mouth watered for a taste of him. “No, you pervert. No showerheads. I have to kill the biggest and the baddest my first day on the inside. That way, all the others will leave me alone.”
“Smart. How can I help?”
“By sitting in the stands and looking pretty.”
“A given. But what can I do to help you win? That’s why I’m here, right?”
As if she’d forget. He wasn’t here because he loved her, needed her, wanted to make something work between them. He was here to help her win that damn Paring Rod.
He didn’t know about the Rod when he arrived. He likes you. You know that. Yeah, he liked her. Just not enough. She sighed.
“Just…I don’t know, cheer me on.” Hearing him might strengthen her. It might also distract her, but they would find out together.
“I can do that. You’re fun to watch.”
Her heart skipped a beat. “Yeah?”
His voice had dropped, huskier than before, all kinds of innuendo in his tone. Her nipples tightened, and she had to jump to her feet and turn away from him to prevent him from seeing the evidence of her arousal.
He’d watched her last night, when her Harpy had simply reacted to the threat around him, determined to protect him at all costs. He’d also watched her when she… She shuddered, remembering.
Something had happened to her while she’d fought her mother’s soldiers. Something that had never happened before. She had burned. With rage, yes, but also with actual, literal flames. They had licked inside her, searing her cells, her organs, and leaving only ash. Or so she’d thought. Yet when she had stilled, she hadn’t noticed a single smear of soot on her skin.
Now suspicions danced through her mind, adding to the already turbulent waters.
Phoenix blood flowed through her veins, half of her genetic makeup. She’d met her father once, when he abducted her and Bianka, whisking them to the Land of Cinder. He—and all his kind, really—were utterly heartless, completely detached from emotion, as if any softer side was burned away in their constant fires. Not even her mother could compare, and that was saying something.
Not only were they emotionally callous, they were physically formidable, too. Poison leaked from the Phoenixes’ fangs and claws. Their wings, which looked as smooth and delicate as the clouds around her, were actually tongues of blue flame. A single brush from those flames, and an entire building could be razed.
There was a bright side, though. When a Phoenix burned something—or someone—the resulting soot was powerful enough to bring the dead back to life.
Her dad had hoped his baby girls would be more Phoenix than Harpy, but the opposite had proven true, and he’d released them. After torturing them with his poison, of course. He’d scratched their biceps, just a tiny scrape for each of them, and they’d felt as if they’d been injected with a mix of acid, broken glass and Napalm. They had writhed and screamed for days.
A true Phoenix wouldn’t have hurt like that, would have been immune to the toxin, which was why Kaia had never thought she’d develop Phoenix-like tendencies. But yesterday’s burning…could she have developed an immunity, and in turn taken on their abilities?
“Yo, Kye. We need to beat feet,” Bianka suddenly called from the other side of the door.
Kaia blinked, realized she still stood beside the bed, but now Strider towered beside her. She hadn’t heard him move, but there he was, his heat already wrapped around her, his scent strong and sweet in her nose.
He gripped her forearms, his head tilting to the side thoughtfully. “Where were you that time?”
“Nowhere,” she answered automatically. Her standard reply when someone other than her sisters asked her a question like that.
Did she lose herself in her thoughts that often? If I weren’t so entertaining, maybe I wouldn’t—
“Kaia!” Strider rolled his blues, and she noticed the pupils had gobbled up his gorgeous irises. He’d also loosened his grip, was now caressing the length of her arms with his fingertips. “We’re really going to have to work on your lying, baby doll.”
Did he…could he…desire her? “Here’s an idea. You want the truth from me, you’ll have to buy it.” With kisses. Or orgasms. Whatever. Yes, he’d already offered to buy her artifact-stealing services with sex, and yes, that had pissed her off. But he hadn’t truly wanted her then. He might want her now, and that changed everything. Not about the Paring Rod, of course, but about them.
His lips curved into a wicked smile. “Who said I wanted the truth?” He stopped the caressing only long enough to tweak her nose. “You’re cute when you lie.”
She popped her jaw. Puppies and goldfish were “cute.” I’m hot, damn it. “I lie amazingly well. Just ask everyone I know! They’ve never been able to tell.”
“Actually, I’m probably the only one who can tell you’re full of shit. I’m observant like that.”
“And humble, too. Meanwhile, you need to work on your man-sluttiness.” She rolled her shoulders, lifting her forearms and thereby his hands, causing his knuckles to brush the sides of her breasts. Dear gods, that felt good, lighting her up inside.
He flashed his teeth, as if he’d experienced a jolt of pain, and his nostrils flared with the force of his breathing. “And just how will we work on that sluttiness, hmm? In bed?”
He did, she thought, dazed. He desired her. Why else would he mention a bedding when she’d been hinting that he was too slutty? “I like the way your mind works. We should—”
“Kye?” Bianka called, cutting her off. “You in there? I know you’re in there. Come. On.”
“Yeah, Bee. I’m here, but I need a minute,” she screeched. She never removed her gaze from Strider. “We’ll continue this later. Okay?” Please. She needed his touch, his intensity. His everything.
“Uh, no, we won’t.” One step, two, he backed away from her. His arms dropped to his sides, contact severed completely. “We’re gonna keep this thing platonic.”
Her eyes narrowed to tiny slits, his beautiful face the only thing in sight. “Platonic? When you’ve had your tongue down my throat?”
His eyes narrowed, too. “Fine. We’ll continue this later.”
“Really?” Happiness burst through her—followed by dread. “I’m supposed to believe you changed your mind—” she snapped her fingers “—that easily? What’s your game?”
“No game. Your argument was solid.”
Happiness was renewed, and gods, look how beautiful the sun suddenly was, so big and bright above their cloud. “Well, all right, then. Later.” She tried not to smile as she skipped to the door and greeted her sister.
STRIDER HADN’T KNOWN what to expect at the first competition and after the whole elementary school thing, he’d prepared himself for anything, everything. Or so he’d thought. Just then, he found himself drowning in shock and the ceaseless, excited buzzing of his demon. The little shit had never encountered so fervent a swell of competitive spirit and was currently bouncing around like a kid on a steady caffeine shooter diet.
Strider sat in the bleachers of a high school basketball court, about a hundred other guys surrounding him. All were strangers except for Sabin, who occupied the seat on his left, and Lysander, who occupied the seat on his right. Most were human, though some were clearly immortal. He spotted the telltale pale skin of a vampire, the dark aura of a warlock and the reptilian grace of a snake shape-shifter. Unfortunately, he didn’t see the “him” Kaia had supposedly slept with.
On the other side were the Harpies. While the men were quiet and subdued, the females were rowdy. They were jumping up and down on the steps, throwing popcorn and even cups of soda at the court. They wore tiny, tight T-shirts that ended just under the bra line—for those who were wearing bras. And shorts so short he spotted his favorite place on a woman—the sensual curve where bottom met leg—more than once. Yeah, he spied the center of paradise, too.
“The Falconways are going down!” someone called.
“You wish, Eagleshield. But then, you’ve always liked a woman on her knees.”
“Please! You couldn’t satisfy a nymph if you were cranked on Viagra.”
“Viagra only works on men, you idiot.”
“Hello, you and your clanswomen have mustaches, so why not dicks, too?”
Snickers, boos and hisses blended together.
“And I thought my Bianka was…enthusiastic,” Lysander said. “I would never have guessed she was actually considered sedate among her kind.”
Sabin snorted. “Come on. If you aren’t revved by the lesbian jokes, you’re gay.”
Lysander’s dark gaze swung to Strider. “Are you revved by this?”
Angels, man. “I’ve been on low simmer since we walked through the doors. In fact, I didn’t need the jokes to crank my chain.” What he didn’t mention: it was all because of Kaia.
His “talk” with her—one he’d tried to postpone forever, but had swiftly realized the futility of postponing as she batted gloriously long lashes at him, all kinds of desire in her eyes—would happen sooner than even she had planned.
He’d stood in front of her, breathing her in, absorbing her body heat, peering down at that pin-up face, and he’d wanted his mouth on her, all over her. One more taste. One more, and he’d force himself to return to the friend zone.
“Lysander!” an eager female voice called from across the court. “Lysander! Over here!”
Strider searched the raucous crowd for Bianka. He found her at the top of the bleachers, waving a candy bar in the air and grinning like a loon. Her silky black hair was divided into pigtails that bounced against her arms. Cute, until you noticed the smoking hot Catholic schoolgirl uniform she wore. “Cute” mutated into “heart attack waiting to happen.” A white button-up top was knotted under her breasts, a tie hanging between them. The short plaid skirt left a huge gap between her thighs and her knee-high socks.
Made him wish Kaia had opted to cheer her team to victory rather than fight. In that getup, she’d look better than a heart attack waiting to happen. She’d kill him on the spot.
No, he was glad she’d chosen to fight. He planned to use the needed separation from her to spy on the Eagleshields, maybe search their belongings. In fact, as soon as Tag began, he was out of here. And he wouldn’t feel guilty about that. Every man for himself.
What if Kaia’s hurt? By her own admission, she would be throwing down with “prison rules.”
A flash of red in his eyes, his fingers clenching on his legs. Kaia was a damn good fighter, he reminded himself. If he trusted anyone on her team to succeed, it was her.
“Lysander!” Bianka called again. “Look up, baby. I’m over here!”
“There are too many. I can’t find—Bianka?” Lysander’s jaw dropped.
Guess he hadn’t seen her since they’d left the heavens. Then, she had worn a scarlet robe.
“Lysander, did you see this?” Bianka turned and lifted her shirt, showing him—and everyone else—the panties she wore. They were neon-green with the words Property of Lysandy scripted across the ass.
Lysander stood, as if to fly over to her, then caught himself and plopped back down. “Sweet Deity.”
“Your woman wears underwear out in public,” Sabin said. “Must be nice. How’d you manage that little miracle?”
“Only the Deity knows.”
Great. Now Strider couldn’t stop wondering about Kaia. What kind of panties did she—or did she not—wear?
The girl beside Bianka must have complained about the high-pitched tenor of her voice, because Bianka’s grin faded and she leveled the girl with a scowl. An argument ensued. Then, of course, the two leapt at each other in a tangle of flailing limbs.
“She is magnificent, isn’t she?” Lysander asked no one in particular.
“Sure,” Sabin said, distracted now. He was stroking the bullhorn at his feet. “So where are our girls?”
Our girls. Strider liked the sound of that. He shouldn’t like the sound of that. “Don’t know.”
Do you truly think Kaia can bring home the victory?
The insidious voice filled Strider’s head. Male. Familiar.
She might be killed…
Oh, hell, no. “Sabin,” he growled. This time, he didn’t have to wonder about the speaker. As the keeper of Doubt, Sabin fed off the insecurities of those around him.
“Sorry,” his leader replied.
“Get your demon under control.”
“Believe me, I’m trying. I don’t want him going after anyone on Team Kaia.”
Win. She must win.
And there was Strider’s demon, who—wait just a sec. She must win? Defeat had never cared about a victory other than Strider’s before. Why Kaia? Why now? Because her triumph was (perhaps) linked to the Paring Rod? Because the demon knew—and feared—the consequences of her failure? Because, she was…his? Their personal playground? He’d wondered before…
Can’t think like that. He wouldn’t do what needed doing.
To Defeat, he said, First, I plan to obtain the Paring Rod before the games end. Second, she’ll win. If she didn’t…he speculated about the likelihood of Defeat hurting him, even though the loss was not his own. Strider wouldn’t have protected her, as the challenge he’d already accepted demanded. So…
Likelihood high, he decided. He should have talked her out of this. Whatever happened next was his fault.
For once the prospect of the pain he might suffer held no sway. He simply didn’t like the thought of Kaia being harmed.
“Lysander!” Bianka called, once again drawing Strider’s notice. Her fight with the other Harpy had ended with the poor woman draped over the back of the bleachers, unconscious. “Did you like them or what?”
Lysander’s expression softened. “I did, my love. I liked them. I like everything you wear.”
Pathetic, Strider thought. Just because a guy was in love didn’t mean he had to pussy up.
Oh, look, there was Kaia! Strider jumped to his feet, waving at her to get her attention. He planned to tell her to be careful, but she was too focused on the happenings in front of her as she strode from the double doors leading into the gym. Her teammates flanked her sides. They wore matching uniforms of bloodred leather, the half tops crisscrossing in back to reveal their wings, the shorts fringed at the hem to allow for easier movements.
Kaia’s red curls were pulled back in a ponytail that swung left and right. No elbow or kneepads safeguarded her. Damn it, he wished she’d worn pads. If the girls fought on that planked floor, they were going to lose some skin, and he liked her skin how it was.
I know. I heard you the first time, asshole.
The Harpies in the stands noticed the incoming team and started booing. A frown pulled at Kaia’s lips, but she gave no other indication that she cared. Popcorn rained down, showering them, a few kernels even popping members of Team Kaia in the eye.
“Hey, Millicent,” Bianka screamed down at one of the popcorn launchers. “I see you’ve set aside this special time to humiliate yourself in public. Your aim sucks!”
A pretty blonde whipped around, hands fisted on her hips. “Hey, there, twin-half number one. Or is it two? I can never remember. You’re both just too insignificant. If I throw a stick, will you leave to fetch it?”
“I am not a dog, you bitch.” Bianka propped her hands on her hips. “At least, your dad doesn’t think so. This morning he told me I’m the hottest chili pepper he’s ever had. You know, as I crawled out of his bed.”
There was an audible gasp among the crowd, and Strider could only blink. The “dad” thing was worthy of such horror?
“My father’s dead, you heartless mutt,” the one named Millicent gritted out.
“Oh,” Bianka said, her shoulder sagging. Then she brightened. “Your mom thinks I’m chili-pepper hot. She told me so this morning when I crawled out of her bed!”
The gasps turned to snickers. Millicent flew up the steps to tackle Bianka. Ding, ding. Another fight was on.
Strider found himself grinning. “Do you think she realizes what she just implied?”
“Yes,” Lysander said on a sigh.
“Fingers crossed she and the woman she’s pounding stop fighting and start kissing,” Sabin said. “That happens, and someone better cue the bow-chicka-wow-wow.”
Lysander straightened, clearly intrigued. “I see what you mean about engines being revved.”
Suddenly the Harpies who were booing erupted into deafening cheers, and Strider forgot everything else as he turned his head to find out why. His jaw clenched. Tabitha and her crew had just entered the court.
They wore half tops and fringed shorts, too, only theirs were blue. Then another team stalked in behind them, wearing purple. Another team in pink. Another team in yellow. Damn. How many teams were there? Another in green. Another in black.
His mouth dried up when he noticed that some of the women were bigger than he was. More muscled, taller, and hell, he would not have been surprised to see beans and franks. Although some of the contestants were as seemingly delicate as Kaia.
The women formed a large circle on the court, leaving the center empty. The one called Juliette, the brunette who’d run the orientation, stepped forward and held up her hands. Finally the crowd quieted.
“If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” she called, and had to stop when cheers once again rang out. Only when they faded did she add, “And so, let’s not waste a moment. First rule, you don’t talk about Tag. Second rule, you don’t talk about Tag.”
Grinning, Juliette said, “Just kidding. Now for the real rules. Only one member of each team is allowed in the ring at any given time. When that member wants out,” more boos rippled, faded, “all she has to do is tag one of her teammates. If she can reach one.”
Annnd…even more cheers exploded through the gym.
“If someone is too injured to continue, she must tap out for good. But think carefully before you go that route, ladies, because even if you heal, you can’t go back in.”
“I didn’t pay to see cowards,” someone shouted.
Juliette nodded her agreement. “For those of you who have never before played this type of game, you should know that the competition doesn’t end until only one team remains. Here’s a hint—fight dirty.”
“Eagleshields are gonna kick ass,” someone else called.
Juliette’s grin acquired a dark, evil edge as she focused on Kaia. “Good luck, everyone. You’re going to need it.” With that, she strode off, disappearing from view as the contestants swallowed her up.
Kaia tossed Strider a quick glance. So. She’d known where he was, had been as aware of him as he was of her. He nodded in encouragement, even as the bottom dropped out of his stomach. The females surrounding Kaia were eyeing her like she was a juicy filet and they’d just ended a week-long fast. He should be down there, shielding her, not sitting up here, doing nothing.
“Don’t worry,” Sabin said, patting him on the back. “Gwen won’t let anything happen to her.”
“I’m not worried,” he gritted out. No way would he let Sabin, Doubt himself, have more confidence in his woman’s abilities than Strider had in his. Just no way. “Kaia will protect Gwen.”
Boss man blinked at him, incredulous. “You want to argue about that? Really?”
Yes, damn it, he did.
Always. “Just shut the hell up and watch the game,” he said. “I’ll let you know before I head to the other side and start my spying.”
I WILL NOT FAIL. I WILL not fail. I will not freaking fail. The mantra blazed through Kaia’s mind as she settled into position.
Neeka was the first in the “ring” for Team Kaia. Shoulders squared, head high, the girl strode to the center of the court, alongside the first from every other team. Soon, twelve Harpies stood there, facing off, waiting for the whistle to blow. The rest of the combatants waited on the sidelines like Kaia, crouched, one hand extended.
“We’ve got this,” Gwen muttered beside her.
“I know,” she said, glad there wasn’t a tremor in her voice. Strider was up in the stands, looking edible in a T-shirt with an ironed-on tie, and ripped jeans. The only glance she’d allowed herself had been a mistake. He was a distraction she couldn’t afford, but she’d had to assure herself that he was up there, that he hadn’t abandoned her. She only prayed he witnessed her victory, not her defeat.
I will not fail. Too much was at stake. Her reputation. Strider’s respect. Hell, his life.
Not that he’d agreed to her terms. He’d never flat-out said he’d wait for her to win the Rod and keep his thieving hands to himself. She’d realized that only an hour ago as she’d prepared for Tag. She’d needed a distraction from her the-world-is-at-stake panic and had replayed her every conversation with Strider.
Was he planning to search for the Rod during the game? Most likely. She wondered if he didn’t trust her to bring home the gold, or if he was simply too impatient to wait.
Don’t think about that now. Concentrate.
I will not fail.
“Wait till you see Neeka fight,” Taliyah said, almost…grinning? Surely not. Taliyah never grinned. Or scowled. Or yelled.
“If she’s so good, why’d her clan let her go?” Kaia asked.
“’Cause she’s deaf and they’re idiots. Plus, she was voted Most Likely to Go Off the Deep End and Kill Everyone Around Her.”
And she was now on Kaia’s side? “Sweet!”
The shrill screech of the whistle sounded, echoing from the walls and blasting Kaia’s ears.
Immediately the girls in the center of the court leapt into action. Kaia stiffened, watching. They attacked each other, claws and fangs bared, and within seconds bodies were slamming into the wall of waiting onlookers. Blood sprayed, warm and rich. Her Harpy caught the coppery odor of it and squawked for a taste.
Calm, she would remain calm. The only people she could harm were the ones in the ring. Hurting anyone outside it would result in a disqualification. If her Harpy took over, she would hurt everyone.
Each team could be disqualified from one event, and one event only, and still qualify for the grand prize. If that happened, though, you had to hope and pray you had a good showing at the other three events, earning at least third place each time, or you wouldn’t stand a chance.
An unholy shriek drew her attention, and she found herself concentrating on Neeka. The sweet-looking beauty…dear gods. Neeka jumped up and hovered over the battling girls Matrix-style, slow motion, arms outstretched, knees drawn up, gaze quickly roving, taking stock, before picking her prey and dropping in a blink. She landed atop a wide set of shoulders, her hands wrapping around the attached head and twisting. Bone snapped, and the poor girl collapsed.
Ouch! Neck injuries were the worst.
Neeka grinned in satisfaction—just as a muscle-stacked brunette slammed into her, knocking her down. Neeka’s head cracked on the floor, blood quickly pooling around her. She was dazed, unable to rise, and her opponent used her unstable condition to her advantage, punching and punching and punching, fists raining like poisoned hail.
Shit. If Neeka were knocked unconscious, no one from Team Kaia would be able to enter the ring anytime soon. Or at all. They had to be tagged in.
Several others noticed that Neeka was down and swarmed her helpless, prone body, pummeling her senseless.
“Come on, Neeka!” Bianka shouted from the stands. Kaia would have recognized her twin’s beloved voice anywhere, amid any kind of noise. She only prayed Neeka could somehow discern the praise since she couldn’t hear it. “Show ’em your titanium balls!”
“Kill her!” someone else shouted. “And hack off those balls of hers!”
“How about I kill you instead, hater?” Bianka snapped back. Then there was the stomp of feet, a pained hmph.
Kaia didn’t switch her attention, though she knew her twin had just attacked whoever had spoken.
Somehow, Neeka collected her wits. Bodies flew in every direction as she once again Matrixed over the combatants. This time she didn’t attack, but dove for Gwen, slapping their palms together.
Gwen darted into the ring, and Kaia breathed a sigh of relief. “Good job,” she said. She would’ve patted Neeka on the back, but feared knocking the poor, shaking thing to her knees.
“They punched out a tooth!” Neeka slurred past cut, swollen lips.
“You’ll have a chance at revenge,” Taliyah assured her.
What Juliette hadn’t explained to the crowd was that every team member had to enter the fray at least three times. If someone failed to do so because they were, say, dead, that team was considered out, disqualified. And to be declared the winner, every member of your team had to be conscious by the final round.
Apparently, this particular game had been played at the last three bi-century competitions. Rumor was, Tag could churn on for days, but even then, there were no breaks allowed. Not to drink or heal or use the bathroom.
Rumor also was, the winner was sometimes declared simply by waiting to see who woke up first.
As the fight continued, other team members tagged in and out. Like the first group had done to Neeka, the new ones swarmed Gwen en masse. She was fast, though, dodging with the speed of a bullet.
“You can do it, baby!” Sabin’s proud voice boomed through the gym, louder than everyone else.
Bullhorn, Kaia thought.
The member of Team Skyhawk managed to grab Gwen’s arm as she passed, swinging her in the opposite direction. Gwen used the action to her advantage, knocking down several of her opponents bowling-ball style. Practically vibrating with the need to retaliate, the fallen jumped up and turned on her. When they realized who they had in their sights, they dove on her. For a moment, all Kaia could see was her sister’s flailing legs.
Sparks of rage heated Kaia. And guess who played dirty, leaping in there and going for Gwen’s wings? That same member of Team Skyhawk. Worse, the bitch was laughing. The sparks grew…spread…
“Get off her!” Sabin shouted now. “Or I swear to the gods—there you go, baby! Yeah! That’s the way.”
Gwen roared with pain and rage as she kicked a few of the girls off her.
“That just happened,” Sabin blasted arrogantly.
Of course, the girls came back for more.
Kaia had never felt so helpless.
Another roar, and then Gwen was clawing her way out. Tension had whitened her face, making the blood splattered there stark and obscene in comparison. She managed to fight her way to the sidelines and tag Taliyah, who sprang in with a vengeance.
First person she attacked was her mother’s soldier, tossing the girl to the ground and grinding her face into the wooden planks.
“You okay?” Kaia asked Gwen.
“They…broke my…wing,” her sister panted.
Oh, shit. Kaia’s hopes plummeted, her body cooling down. A Harpy’s wings were the source of her strength. When those wings were disabled, she weakened unbearably. Gwen would have to go back in and fight at least two more times, but how effective would she be when she would hit and move as feebly as a human?
Before the question formed completely, Kaia had begun to strategize. They were warriors; they could deal. Gwen would go in a second time toward the end of the match, remaining in the ring for only a few seconds, and then tag out. Then, when every other team had been disabled, Gwen could go in for her third and final time. Boom, done. Easy.
Kaia blinked in astonishment. Okay, that hadn’t been her inner voice, but a man’s. Familiar, and yet…not. Only one person—or creature?—craved victory as much as she did. Automatically, she looked up. Strider was no longer situated between the pale-faced Sabin and the stoic Lysander. He wasn’t in the stands at all.
Red flickered in her line of vision as she returned her attention to the battle. The wolves had descended on Taliyah in unison, pinning her in as they punched and kicked her to the ground. Only, they couldn’t hold her down. She was there, the center of their fury one moment, but gone the next, a cloud of black smoke in her place.
Confused, the combatants looked around. Another cloud of smoke appeared behind them, and Taliyah stepped from its center. She twisted, giving herself an unstoppable momentum, and lashed out. Heads banged together, and bodies fell.
When those who were standing realized what was happening, they once again descended on the tall, slender Taliyah. And once again, Kaia’s older sister disappeared in a cloud of smoke, reappearing elsewhere.
The same scene repeated itself over and over again. Taliyah was merciless, slashing and biting before dancing away. But the Harpies she felled soon made their way to their feet and tagged in another team member.
Like Kaia, the ones on the sidelines had been watching her, and they’d learned to anticipate her moves, to watch for the smoke. So the next time Taliyah appeared, they were waiting for her. A fist immediately met her jaw, propelling her backward. No one approached her, because they knew. And yep, when she righted herself, she disappeared as expected. Another fist met her jaw when she reappeared, once again sending her flying.
She shook her head, probably seeing stars. They didn’t jump her this time, either. They simply waited.
Taliyah’s ice-blue gaze sought Kaia.
My turn, she thought, eagerly holding out her hand. Come on.
Taliyah raced forward, enduring pummeling fists and jackhammering boots to reach—Neeka.
For a moment, Kaia stood frozen with shock. Then reality slammed into her like a strong right hook, and she snarled with affront. “What the hell, Tal!”
“Better this way,” was all her panting sister said.
What, her sis doubted her skills? Oh, that cut. “You know I have to go in three times.”
“Yeah, but it’ll be better if you go in at the end.”
When everyone was bruised and battered and at their weakest. Oh, that cut deeper. “Gwen’s wings are damaged. She needs to go in at the end, not me.”
“She will. She’ll just go in before you.”
This time, she wasn’t cut. She was destroyed. Her family loved her, yes, but like her mother—like Strider—they had no faith in her. “You’re not the leader of this team. You gave that right to me.”
“Do you see what they’re doing to us, baby sister? Warring teams are working together to destroy us. But you, you they’re going to try and massacre.”
“I know.” She raised her chin. “I’m prepared.”
There was that deep, raspy voice again. Not Strider, not his demon as she’d hoped. How could it be, when the warrior was nowhere to be seen? But…who did that leave?
Taliyah sighed. “All right. Fine. You want in next, you’ll go in next. But the loss will be on your shoulders.”
The loss. As if defeat was a given.
Tears burned Kaia’s eyes as she concentrated on the fight. The swelling in Neeka’s face had gone down, so her vision was no longer obscured. Still, every single one of her opponents knew she was deaf and opted to use the infirmity against her. They called out instructions to each other, outlining a demolition she couldn’t hear—or defend herself against.
“You take the left and I’ll take the right.”
“I’ve got middle.”
“I’ve got rear.”
Neeka lifted herself into the air.
“Grab her ankle!”
The girl in the middle did as commanded, swinging Neeka around and tossing her away from her teammates, ensuring there would be no tagging out. Breath gushed from her parted, bleeding lips when she landed. Someone was there, waiting, and kicked her in the stomach. She curled into a ball, trying to suck in a breath.
The red dotting Kaia’s gaze darkened to black. To her knowledge, opposing teams had never worked together before. That they were, that Kaia’s demise was the goal that united them…that they still hated her so much…she felt scraped raw inside.
She’d been a kid when she’d inadvertently destroyed their families, for gods’ sake.
Well, she wasn’t a kid anymore, and it was past time these women learned she wouldn’t lie down and take their shit. As her determination increased, the black dots wove together, nearly obscuring her vision completely, leaving only the haze of body heat.
Calm down before you forget where you are and what you can and cannot do.
Inhale deeply…exhale sharply… That didn’t help. Kaia pictured Strider, his fall of blond hair, those navy blue eyes, that wicked smile. Finally the black faded, and her sight returned to normal. She watched as Neeka battled her way from the midst of the violence and scrambled toward Taliyah.
As promised, her sister kept her hands at her sides. Kaia reached out and gently tapped Neeka’s obviously broken fingers. The girl collapsed on the sidelines as Kaia stepped into the ring. As one, everyone stilled and glared over at her. They were bleeding, sweating, panting. And clearly, they’d been waiting for her.
“My sister died because of you.”
“I lost a daughter.”
“We never sought revenge against you out of respect for your mother, but she has at last disavowed you.”
No reaction. The burn started up in her chest again, but she willed it away. Locked it up tight. No going Harpy. Or whatever else. “Good. Now let’s see what I can do to each of you.”
“I have a feeling I’ll be disappointed in your skill.”
They chuckled, and her cheeks flushed. And then, as one, they turned and tagged in a new team member. She recognized the woman on her mother’s team. Had once trained with her.
Like Kaia, these women had yet to fight. They were at full strength and utterly determined to use it. Against her face, no doubt.
You’re strong. You can take them.
Yes. She would.
That was her last thought before her opponents descended. Kaia ducked and spun, going low and slashing. Someone managed to nail her in the temple with a hard rasp of knuckles, but that didn’t stop her claws from slicing into several Achilles tendons. Grunts of pain sounded, and then the crash of knees hitting wood.
“That’s the way!” Strider shouted.
He was here. He was still here. Dizzy pleasure rushed through her, but she didn’t have time to stop and focus. The Harpies again rushed her. This time, she allowed them to surround her, arching her spine as they punched, swinging her elbows forward and backward, kicking, every motion fluidly blending into the next.
“Pluck out their eyes!” Bianka screamed.
The dance never slowed, even though she did not remain unscathed. She was punched—everywhere. She was kicked—everywhere. Soon her muscles were knotted and bruised, her limbs shaking. Strider was up there, watching, and the knowledge kept her strong. A few times, the burn tried to work free of its cage, but she maintained a sturdy enough grip to keep it hidden.
With an elbow to the trachea, she finally took out one of her opponents for good. That left ten more to go. Then another one went down as Kaia took a page from Neeka’s book and broke a neck.
This enraged the nine remaining, and they attacked with greater fervor.
Kaia darted out of the center of the horde, intending to run and gain enough momentum to leap and kick someone’s teeth into her brain. But she was grabbed her by the hair and jerked backward. She crashed into a hard wall before multiple fists battered at her.
“Come on!” Strider roared. “You’re better than this. Fight!”
“Eat their tongues for dinner!” Bianka shouted.
Though she fought with all of her might, they managed to pin her with embarrassing ease, holding her arms and legs to the floor. Those who didn’t have a grip on her rose above her and rained down their damage. She felt bones breaking, organs rupturing.
They laughed. Then, thankfully, she couldn’t see their smug expressions, the world around her fading to black. And not the good kind of black that might have saved her. Before her Harpy could come out of the shadows swinging, before the burn could spring from the cage, she was flipped over, her wings receiving equal punishment.
So much pain…agony…loss…failure…
“Damn it, Kaia!” Strider.
“No! Noooo!” Bianka.
“Snap out of it.” Taliyah.
“Just move, Kye. Just get to me.” Gwen.
A warm flood in her throat, spilling out her mouth. Maybe blood filled her ears, as well, because the noise level dulled…dulled…until there was only silence. Then a fist hammered into her temple, again and again, and she was no longer aware of the silence.
Only oblivion, such sweet oblivion.
STRIDER WAS READY TO COMMIT cold-blooded murder. He’d start with Sabin and Lysander, who tried to force him to remain in his seat. They might not realize it, but their actions challenged his demon and Strider face-planted them both. They released him, but rather than bolt for the basketball court, he stayed put. Barely.
He’d tried to leave once before this, determined to reach the Eagleshields on the other side. Then Kaia had been tagged into the ring. He’d found himself racing back to his seat.
If he allowed himself to act, he would slaughter his way through those women. Game over. No first prize awarded—and if he failed to find the Paring Rod himself, he would need Kaia to win. Also, Kaia would be humiliated by his interference. But just then, he didn’t really give a flying fuck about first prize or humiliation.
Was Kaia okay?
She’d gone limp, and an eternity seemed to pass as she was beaten. And beaten some more. Thankfully, the Harpies soon lost interest in her unconscious form and turned on each other. When Strider saw her, he nearly leapt from his seat again. Blood covered every inch of her face. Her clothes were ripped, and just as bloody. Her hands were swollen, her chest motionless.
Sabin straightened and dusted the dirty popcorn from his shoulders. “She’ll be okay,” he said. “Look at Bianka over there. She’s pissed, not frightened.”
Funny that the keeper of Doubt was trying to reassure him, but Strider obeyed. He looked. Bianka paced the top of the bleachers, and everyone around her had long since moved out of her way. She stomped so hard the wood was probably cracked underneath her.
He scrubbed a hand—a trembling hand!—down his face, his attention returning to Kaia, where it remained for yet another eternity. She needed to drink from him. He wanted her to drink from him. She just had to move, just had to finish this.
Come on, baby doll. You can do it.
Her team could still pull through and win. And even if they didn’t… No. He wouldn’t let himself contemplate that. What mattered, surprisingly, was Kaia. She’d been doing so well, fighting with a skill that had aroused him. Yeah. He’d watched her while sporting a hard-on. Then they’d gang-banged her.
What the hell had she done to warrant such hatred?
Next time they were alone, she would tell him. No more lies, either. No matter how sexy she was while she spun them.
Finally, movement. She twitched. Every muscle in his body tensed. No one noticed her as she blinked open her eyes. He knew the exact moment clarity struck her because her teeth flashed in a crimson snarl. But broken as she currently was, there was nothing she could do to hurt those who had hurt her. So she did the next best thing. She crawled to Taliyah.
“Come on, baby doll,” he muttered, his thoughts forming into words and grinding past the knot in his throat. “You can do it.”
Win. Defeat had been shouting for victory long before Kaia entered the match.
Yeah, she will. Gods, he’d never been prouder of another living being. Not even his friends, who had fought Hunters at his side, watching his back. Because when they’d gone down, they’d been out for the count. Not Kaia, though. She continued on.
Kaia’s hand inched up, her face contorting in a grimace. Someone screamed and scrambled toward her, intent on stopping her from tagging out, but at last her hand connected with her sister’s and the pale-haired Harpy jumped in with a fury.
Seconds later, screeches of pain erupted, a symphony of abuse. Bodies flew—and didn’t get up. Until a panting, blood-splattered Taliyah was the only one standing in the ring. She tagged in Gwen, who simply hobbled around kicking everyone who was down. Gwen tagged in Neeka, who did the same. Neeka retagged Gwen, who entered for a third time.
When Gwen finished, she tagged in Kaia, who managed to crawl a few more inches and kick one of the fallen in the stomach. The action, though, must have aggravated some of her more serious internal injuries because she lost consciousness for a bit.
“Come on, Kaia!” Strider shouted.
“You can do it,” Sabin screeched through that bullhorn, and damn if Strider didn’t wish he had one of his own.
The other Harpies began to rouse. The one Kaia had kicked came to with a jolt, jarring Kaia awake in the process.
“Damn it, Kaia! You’re the best. Show them!” Strider wanted to vomit as she was once again attacked. Somehow, someway, she finally managed to crawl her way to Taliyah and tag her in.
He thought they’d do it. Thought they’d win. But in the end, when Kaia went in a third time, she was pinned and beaten so badly she passed out for good, knocking her team out of the competition. Even worse, it was Team Skyhawk that claimed first and Team Eagleshield that claimed second.
SOMETHING WARM SLID DOWN Kaia’s throat. So delicious, she thought, swallowing weakly. More, she needed more, but she didn’t have the strength to swallow a second time. Until that warmth hit her stomach. It quickly moved through the rest of her, chasing away the cold heaviness of her limbs, energizing her.
She pried her eyelids apart. Strider loomed over her, she saw, his wrist poised over her mouth. Blood dripped onto her now closed lips and slid down her cheeks. He reached down with his free hand, about to force her mouth to part. When he realized she had awoken, he froze.
Her lips parted of their own volition, another mouthful of warmth sliding into her stomach and filling her up.
“That’s it,” he said, pressing his wrist into the opening she provided. “That’s a good girl.”
Her fangs extended, and she bit. She sucked and sucked and sucked, drinking in the healing powers of his blood. He tasted like rich, aged wine sprinkled with dark chocolate and honey. No one had ever tasted this good.
As she savored, she studied him. He sat beside her, his hip touching hers. Lines of tension branched from his eyes and mouth, and his skin was pallid. Unsure how much blood he could afford to lose, she forced herself to stop drinking from him.
He arched a brow. “That enough?”
No, but it would have to be. She nodded. The action heralded a wave of dizziness, and she grimaced. In and out she breathed, slow, measured. Finally, her mind calmed, leaving her alone with her thoughts.
She recalled entering the ring, kicking ass—and then getting her ass kicked. After that…damn, damn, damn. She was lying in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room. That meant…damn, damn, damn.
“Where are my sisters?” Wow. Speaking hurt. Someone must have punched the hell out of her trachea.
“Bianka went back to the heavens with Lysander because I was about to permanently hinder her ability to breathe. She hovers. And Gwen is somewhere with Sabin, drinking his blood, I’m sure, and healing.” Strider’s voice was cold, distant. “Taliyah and the others, I don’t know.”
“But all my girls were alive after the competition?”
“Yeah. All of them.”
“And they weren’t on the verge of dying?”
Relief speared her. All right. Okay. They were alive, healing. She could deal with anything else. Maybe. “Who—who won?”
He ran his tongue over his teeth. “Your mother. You guys didn’t place.”
Because of me, she thought, her chest hollowing out. Because she’d passed out, which was almost as bad as a disqualification.
Her eyes burned, so she closed them. Damn it. She needed a moment alone, needed time to compose herself. Or sob. Strider had just seen her at her worst. She couldn’t break down now and further blacken his opinion of her.
More than that, she had to look hideous. In fact, she needed to cover every mirror in the vicinity with a mourning shroud before she saw herself and considered committing suicide. “Be a good consort and go fetch me a bottle of water so I can steal it from you. I’m thirsty.”
“Drink your tears, crybaby.”
Her eyelids popped open and she gaped at him. The urge to cry vanished completely. “How can you treat me like this! Where’s your compassion? I’m obviously dying.”
“Please. You’ve got a few paltry wounds.”
Paltry? Paltry! She glanced down at herself. Her clothes had been cut away, leaving her bare. Only she still looked dressed. Her skin was slashed and tattered in places, with black and blue bruises branching in every direction. “These are the worst wounds you’ve ever seen, you bastard, and you know it.”
His lips quirked at the corners. “Nah. I once had a paper cut between my index finger and thumb. You don’t know the meaning of pain until you’ve experienced something like that.”
He. Was. Amused. “You are five seconds away from a dagger through the heart.” Huffing and puffing, she pulled the covers up to her chin. Every movement caused a ripple of agony. Worth it, though. Being naked in front of Strider—no problem. Being naked and injured? Hell, no!
“Watch your tone, okay? My demon is acting up.” Even as he spoke, he gently tucked the soft material around her.
Some of her anger drained. “What do you mean, acting up?”
“He’s eager for a fight.”
“Why?” She knew she shouldn’t say anything else, knew Strider would be pissed, wouldn’t understand, but it was for his own good. “I doubt you can tell me in a way I’ll understand.”
The long length of his lashes fused together, anger suddenly pulsing from him. “He was cheering for you. He watched you lose. That upset him. He didn’t hurt me, but now he needs to win something. Got it?”
“Yes.” His demon had cheered for her? Really? Was that the voice she’d heard, as she’d first suspected? “Thank you.”
“This is not something to smile about.”
She was smiling? Oh, yeah. She was. She smoothed her features. “Fine. I’ll behave. Now, don’t you feel better?”
A moment passed before the tension she’d sensed in him drained. He’d won. A little skirmish, yes, but he’d still won, granting his demon some sort of victory and hopefully calming him.
“You did that on purpose,” he said, thoughtful.
“So. You’re sweet.” Tenderly he swept the hair from her brow. “We’re going to talk. If you’re feeling up to it,” he added.
His body heat cocooned her more surely than the blanket. “Why wouldn’t I feel up to it? Paltry wounds, remember?” As her dry tone echoed, she began to understand something else about Strider. He’d shown her no sympathy earlier because he’d realized how close she teetered to the edge of a breakdown. Any softness would have sent her over, and she would have collapsed.
She would have resented him for that collapse, would have worried about the consequences. Now, she didn’t have to. She could simply enjoy him.
“Are you okay?” he asked softly. “Be honest.”
“Do you need anything else?”
“A naked rubdown.”
His pupils expanded, gobbling up his irises. “Besides that.”
“Besides this, besides that,” she mocked, forcing herself to glare at him. “Lookit, I can tell you’re sincerely slightly concerned about my physical well-being, but if you don’t get me some water like I already told you I needed, I will personally—”
“Clearly, you’re feeling up to a talk.” His lips twitched into a full-fledged smile this time.
There. Much better. He hadn’t wanted her to collapse, and she hadn’t wanted him to torture himself about her condition.
“Therefore…” He held up a glistening bottle and waved it in her face. A few droplets of condensation splashed onto her chest, and she gasped. “I can admit that I’ve got what you want, and exploit you.”
The sudden dryness of her mouth made her gums ache. She’d been lying before, about being thirsty, but now, seeing that bottle, she wanted. Had to have. Would die if she didn’t. “Give me.”
“Uh-uh-uh. You want this,” he said in a singsong voice, “you’ll have to earn it. So I’ll be asking you some questions, and you’ll be giving me the answers. And, just so you know, I also have a hamburger and a chocolate shake to pay you with.”
She licked her lips, hating him and loving him at the same time. This was exactly why she never spilled Harpy secrets. They could be used against her. But because of Gwen, Strider knew Kaia truly had to earn her food. If he asked a question, and she accepted payment for her answer, she couldn’t lie to him. Otherwise, she would sicken, just as she would if she ate something she’d prepared for herself.
Once again he waved the water bottle. “Deal?”
“Deal,” she gritted out, no longer having to fake the resurgence of anger. He would want to know about the next competition. She knew it. She—
“Tell me why the Harpies hate you so much.”
Was wrong. She sagged against the mattress and peered up at the ceiling. Water damage had darkened several panels. They were in another cheap motel, then. Were probably still in Wisconsin.
“I’m waiting, baby doll.”
“The answer’s not important.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.”
She sighed. “The man…Juliette’s man. The one you saw the day of orientation. When I was fourteen, I wanted him to be my slave, to do my laundry, that kind of thing, so I tried to steal him and prove my worth. My strength.” As she spoke, she began to tremble. If she told him the rest, the truth, he would leave her. Just like most of her clan had left her.
How could he not? He’d just watched her lose. To hear that she’d always been a failure, that she would probably never be more…
Did she really want the bottle of water that much?
“And?” he insisted.
Better to lose him now, she rationalized. He was only staying for the Rod, anyway, and if he left, she wouldn’t have to worry about the next competition. About losing in front of him again.
“Instead,” she finished, “I set him free and he almost killed me. He would have killed me if not for Bianka. She pulled him off me and he turned on her. Then, of course, he turned on everyone else. More Harpies were lost that day than any other day in our history. Even during the Great Turf Wars, when we battled other species.”
Strider frowned. “If he hurt so many, why isn’t he blamed for what happened? No one looked at him with hate in their eyes. No one went for his throat.”
That was his reaction? Why hadn’t he run? “Juliette had him contained. I unleashed him. Had I stayed away, he wouldn’t have had the chance to do anything.”
“All right, then answer me this. If he’s so dangerous, why has Juliette kept him around?”
“A Harpy will forgive her consort for almost anything,” she grumbled.
A moment of silence. “What is Juliette’s consort, anyway?” he asked, opting not to comment on her “forgive almost anything” revelation. Why? She’d just given him an eternal hall pass. “Not a human, that’s for sure.”
“I don’t know what he is. I’d never encountered anyone like him, and haven’t since.”
His lips pursed. “So you didn’t sleep with him?”
“I was fourteen. What do you think?” At his blank look, she scowled. “Wait. Don’t answer that.”
“Gods, you’re huffy. I know you didn’t sleep with him. I just wanted to hear you say so.” He traced a fingertip along her jaw, gentle, so gentle. “And thank you. For the truth this time.”
Do not melt. He hadn’t exactly declared himself. “Thank you? That’s all you have to say to me?”
“Yeah. What? Did you expect a limerick?”
No. She’d expected a lecture and a goodbye. “Because of what I did, they named me Kaia the Disappointment.” There. Now he knew everything. Now he knew the person he’d put his trust and faith in—well, sort of—might not be able to deliver.
“What is it with Harpies and name-calling?” he asked, again surprising her.
Every time someone called her KtD, she died a little inside, but Strider acted as if it were no big deal. She didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. “I wouldn’t worry about us and our name-calling. We haven’t given you one yet.”
Something dangerous flickered in his eyes, there one moment, gone the next. “Like I care what you call me.” His voice was flat, emotionless, offering no hint as to what she’d seen. He was such an asshole sometimes. Well, I’ll see your “don’t care” and raise you a “what do you think about this?” “Just so you know, we call Paris the Sexorcist.”
Strider’s nostrils flared as he sucked in a sharp breath. Silence gripped them for so long, she started to feel guilty. Then he said stiffly, “You’ve earned your first payment.” He twisted the cap off the water, slid a warm hand under her neck and lifted. Her lips met the cold cascade of liquid and she forgot all about the guilt.
She gulped like crazy, and gods, each drop tasted better than the last. When she finished, Strider crunched the plastic and tossed it over his shoulder. He eased her back down and released her. She pursed her lips to stop herself from begging for more contact.
He leaned toward the nightstand and claimed a section of the hamburger he’d already cut into fours. Her stomach churned, growled.
“Guess I don’t have to ask if you’re hungry,” he remarked with a grin.
Em-barr-ass-ing, but at least he’d lost that emotionless edge and was still determined to talk with her. A miracle of miracles. She wouldn’t complain again.
“If you want this, you’ll have to tell me if you honestly think you can win the next competition. Not to mention the next and the next. Because, after this last round, I like the thought of stealing the Rod more and more.”
There was a trace of remorse in his voice, and she knew bone-deep that he meant to steal the Paring Rod no matter what she said. If he could. What she didn’t know, however, was why he cared about her opinion concerning the next of the games right now.
He must have read the question in her eyes because he said gruffly, “I don’t want you hurt like this again.”
An ache bloomed in her chest. She would answer him. Not for the hamburger, but because of his concern. “I—” Shit. Honestly? She’d thought she would be able to win round one, that knowing the other teams would come after her would give her an advantage. Yet they had converged on her and she’d been helpless.
Next time, they would make another play for her, for every member of her team. There was just no way around it. And she couldn’t whine about fairness because, had the situation been reversed, she would have done the same thing to whoever had hurt her family.
Family. The single word echoed in her mind, and she remembered Taliyah’s doubt. All her life, she’d only ever wanted to be admired. Loved. Respected. All her life, she’d only ever let everyone down. She was Kaia the Disappointment.
“I’m sorry I lost,” she whispered.
His expression gentled, and his fingers found their way back to her brow, caressing. “You didn’t let me down. No one could have pulled a victory out of their hat with that kind of opposition.”
Comforting, but deep down she knew he would have found a way. He always did.
“You worried me, though,” he added, the gruffness returning. “I won’t lie about that.”
Spoken like a true consort, and longing filled her. She wanted that, wanted him. Now, always. So. For him, she would find a way. “Yes,” she finally answered. “I can win the next competition.”
Cold, hard, merciless. That’s how she would have to be. And she would. She would prove her worth, as she’d always wanted to do. No one would stop her.
The assassin-like thoughts were ruined when she yawned.
Strider fed her the hamburger, then asked her inane, easily answered questions so that she could have the shake as payment. When she finished, he said, “Rest now. I’ve got big plans for you later.”
Her gaze snapped to the apex of his thighs, to the semi-erection he currently sported.
A laugh boomed from him. “Dirty-minded Harpy.”
“You said big. I just assumed…” Hoped…
“Sleep,” he ordered, grinning.
“Well, was that what you meant or not?” Her eyelids fluttered closed, but she was grinning, too.
“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”
THERE WAS A SLIGHT CHANCE William had kinda sorta perhaps gone slightly a wee bit too far. He would, of course, be the first to admit he might have made the tiniest of mistakes. Mistake or not—mostly not—he couldn’t be held responsible, he thought as he kicked his way through what was left of Gilly’s parents.
Bottom line: they’d asked for it. Literally asked for it. While he’d “worked,” jamming out to “Scotty Doesn’t Know” by Lustra, one of his favorite songs because he felt like the lyrics epitomized his life, he’d given his targets adrenaline injections, preventing them from passing out. Of course, he’d also torqued their veins, preventing them from bleeding out.
Fainting and blood loss ruined a good torturing every damn time.
Toward the end, when they’d realized there was no hope for survival, the begging had commenced. Only after they’d confessed to their sins, infuriating him beyond all reason as he learned that the abuse he’d imagined had not come close to the full truth, that Gilly had endured far worse, had he ended them. He almost wished he hadn’t. Would have been nice to stretch out the session for a few more days. Oh, well.
Now he had some cleaning up to do.
William turned a full circle, surveying the carnage and trying to decide where to begin. Maybe he should just walk away. There was just too much to do. Then he recalled the way humans liked to freak out, how news stations liked to blast “psychopath on the loose” stories, and figured word would reach Gilly. Not that he wanted to keep her in the dark about what had happened. He’d tell her. One day. In the far future. When she was older. Like…fifty, maybe.
After everything these people—no, these monsters—had done to her, she wouldn’t be upset. How could she be? They’d damaged her in the worst of ways when she’d been too young and weak to protect herself. He’d simply returned the favor.
His stomach churned as a thought occurred to him. Maybe she would have liked to kill them herself. To deliver her own vengeance, find closure, that sort of thing. Or, what if he had this all wrong and she had wanted them left alone? Humans were so particular about lines you could and couldn’t cross, and gods forbid if you dared leap over one. You were forever labeled wicked and fiendish.
Like William’s long-ago good buddy Vlad the Impaler. Talk about getting a bad rap. Behead a few thousand of your enemies, spear their bodies on pikes and display them for the world to see and boom, you were “evil.” It was ridiculous!
To humans, torture and death weren’t simply a part of the circle of life. The torturing was frowned upon, considered inhumane, and the death of a family member was a reason to mourn. They didn’t understand the soul carried on in some capacity or another, that might equaled right, and weakness invited the wrath of your rivals.
“What in all hell did you do?” a male voice suddenly gasped out from behind him.
William spun—and found himself facing a very pale Kane. “What are you doing here? In fact, how’d you get here?”
Kane’s hazel eyes never strayed from the wreckage. “I asked the Fates to send me to you,” he said distractedly. “How many people did you take out in here? A hundred?”
“What were you doing with the Fates? No one gets to see them. And why the hell seek me?”
“They summoned me, and we’ll get to that.” He pointed to something on the floor. “What is that?”
William didn’t bother to look. “Does it matter? Grab a trash bag and start chucking.” Why had the Fates summoned Kane? The second the question formed, William dismissed it. He didn’t really care. “We’ve got a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it.”
Recruiting the keeper of Disaster wouldn’t have been his first choice—they’d never really hung out. And besides, Kane attracted the kind of trouble he’d do best to avoid, for a while at least—but William wasn’t going to complain.
“Who are—were—these people?”
“Names are so last season, don’t you think? All you need to know is that they offended me.”
“Offended you,” Kane echoed, still unmoving.
Kane met his stare. “Their names wouldn’t happen to be Gilly’s Parents, would they? Because, the way I hear it, you were jonesing for a piece of them. Several pieces, it seems.” There was no condemnation in his tone, only acceptance.
The lack of condemnation didn’t matter. Never confirm nor deny something you’ve done, but always threaten those who question you. That had always been William’s motto. “You tell anyone about this and I’ll personally ensure your pancreas receives the same treatment.”
Kane didn’t piss his pants in fear. Just blinked over at him.
“Why were you with the Fates, anyway?” He still didn’t care, but he would have discussed something as boring as the weather if it meant changing the subject.
Kane shook his head, those brown, black and gold locks swaying against his cheeks. Without a word, he stomped off to the kitchen. He returned a short while later, two Hefty bags in hand. He gave one to William.
Quiet, they worked side by side for half an hour.
Kane ruined it with a sigh. “So you asked about the Fates.”
“I also asked why you came to see me in particular. I’ve already lost interest.”
“Well, find it again. You’ll want to hear this, since it will affect you and all.”
Smart move, offering a tidbit of information to entice him. William often used the same tactic. “Spill already.”
“They told me…they told me—” Kane released one end of his bag and scrubbed his weary face. “They told me I’d start the Apocalypse.”
A nasty little word, Apocalypse. William paused. “They what now?”
“You heard me.” His hand fell to the collar of his shirt and he jerked at the material. “I’m not gonna repeat myself.”
“You’re Disaster, so it makes sense, but there’s no way you could—” Every muscle in William’s body suddenly stiffened as a thought occurred to him. “Oh, hell, no. You will not sleep with her, do you hear me?”
Confusion furrowed Kane’s brow. “Sleep with who?”
He didn’t need this. “Why did you have the hags send you here, to me?” Each word was more clipped than the last.
“Because I hear you’re tight with Lucifer or something. That you created the Four Horsemen. And since those horsemen play a huge role in the end of the world, I just assumed—what? Why do you look like you’re about to vomit?”
This was bad. Bad, bad, bad. If the Fates had told Kane he’d start the Apocalypse, then he’d start the Apocalypse. But the fact that Kane had then thought to visit William…that meant the Apocalypse might start sooner than anyone realized. “I am not tight with Lucifer. Would a homie have torn my arm from its socket when I paid a visit to his little underground spa? Huh, huh? No!”
“No, but a brother might. Sibling rivalry, and all that.”
“He’s not my brother!” The lie slipped out easily, automatically, just as it had slipped out for most of his existence. But this was a Lord of the Underworld. Like he had room to judge. “Fine. He’s my brother.” And oh, did the admission grate. Sibling rivalry did not begin to explain the hatred between them. “What of it?”
Okay, wait a sec. He’d just realized something. The Harpies were descendants of Lucifer. Lucifer was his brother. Therefore William’s little crush on Kaia was—
Fucking gross! The words blasted through him, and he shuddered. Kaia was just going to have to live without the bliss of this touch.
Damn it! His brother ruined all his fun.
An overhead lightbulb shorted out, golden sparks spraying around Kane. He paid them no heed. “Nothing. I’m just curious. Are the horsemen good or bad? On our side or someone else’s?”
“Don’t know.” Except that he did.
“Fine. Let’s try this another way. You mentioned something about a woman…about me sleeping with her…”
No reaction. “So?”
“So who am I not supposed to sleep with, oh, Prince of Darkness?”
Yep. Sooner than anyone realized. “The only female horseman,” he grumbled, something constricting in his chest. “Or horsewoman. Whatever. They don’t really concern themselves with gender down there.”
“Okay, I’m confused.”
William stalked to the one clean recliner in the room and plopped down. How much of a pussy would he be if he put his head between his legs? Then again, he’d be an even bigger pussy if he hyperventilated. “Here it is, flat out. Lucifer and I have different mothers, but we share the same father. Hades.”
“Wait. I thought Hades and Lucifer were brothers.”
“So do a lot of people, because the pair of them are so fond of spreading the rumor. But here’s another big surprise—they’re both liars. Anyway, you want to hear the rest or should I let you finish telling me everything you don’t know?”
Kane’s eyes narrowed to slits but he waved a hand through the air.
“I didn’t like living down there.” Understatement. It had been hell. Ha. William had just made a funny. “I found a way to purge some of the darkness from inside me, and thus the Four Horsemen were created.”
“How do I not know this? My demon lived down there, too.”
“Hello, Disaster existed on Lucifer’s side. We had a little trouble sharing and had to divide the space into different realms. Luci took the fire and the demons, blah, blah, blah and I took purgatory and the souls. Although, his minions would sneak in and steal from me, but I’ve forgiven him for that.” Forgiveness in the form of a curse, he thought with a grin. One Luci would never be able to break.
“What does this have to do with me?” Kane asked.
“I’m getting to that.” What to tell, what to tell. Hades had chosen to shack up on Lucifer’s side. Apparently he viewed William as an embarrassment who lacked a truly “evil” soul.
First, rubbish. No one was more evil than William. Look at what he’d done to these humans. And he wasn’t sorry! Second, there was nothing wrong with wanting to break from family tradition and be your own person.
You’re digressing. When the Greeks had taken over the heavens, they’d imprisoned the Titans, and Hades, who had helped Zeus claim the throne, was deemed uncontrollable and imprisoned, too. William had used the heavenly distraction to his advantage and finally made his escape.
Not wanting to war for the underworld throne, wanting it all for himself, Lucifer had helped him.
William had spent many glorious centuries after that screwing anything that moved. Even Hera, Zeus’s beloved queen. Of course, Zeus ultimately caught him with his pants down, and before he could jump out a heavenly window, William had found himself cursed and locked in yet another prison.
Now he was free, and he could flash to and from different locations once again. Life was sweet!
He blinked. “What?”
“You were about to tell me how this has anything to do with me.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“Damn it, tell me why you think I’m going to sleep with one of your freaking offspring,” Kane demanded with a shudder. “’Cause that’s just gross. I’m already vomiting in my mouth.”
He rested his elbows on his knees and glared. Deep breath in. “For you to start the Apocalypse, you’d have to help free a horseman. And the only reason I can think of for you to help set one of those bastards free is because you’d fallen in love. You’re not into men, so that leaves my girl. And the only reason you’d fall in love with her was because you’d slept with her.” Deep breath out.
Kane snorted. “What, her girl parts are laced with crack?”
“Basically, yes,” he said, deadpan.
At last Kane lost his air of disbelief. “Forewarned is forearmed. I won’t visit hell. So, problem solved.”
“I like where your head’s at, even if it’s in Stupid World.”
“Listen. The Fates are not kind. They didn’t drop you here out of the goodness of their hearts. They don’t have hearts. They saw you begin the Apocalypse, and so they started arranging the dominos in a line. You will now face temptation on every corner and somehow, someway, they will get you into hell.”
Before Kane could form a reply, something busted through the window, shattering the glass, rolling between them. They looked at it, then at each other. A grenade.
“Oh, shit,” William said, jumping to his feet.
“Fire in the hole,” Kane shouted, reaching for him.
They were too late. Boom!
Fire licked over him—and about a thousand shards of wood and rock—as intense air pressure sent him flying. Up, up he flew. Down, down he fell. When he landed, he landed on his head, cracking his skull. Kane smashed on top of him, crushing him. The warrior didn’t get back up.
Damned Disaster. William knew exactly where to lay the blame for this.
“You…okay…man?” He managed to work the question out of his raw throat.
Something hard slammed into his temple, and darkness swallowed him in one tasty bite. He knew nothing more.
WILLIAM…FLOATED. A second after the thought formed, something cold and hard pressed against his razored back. Wheels began squeaking, little bumps up and down shooting fire through him, and he realized he’d been laid flat on a gurney, someone carting him away. Do not groan. Do not cringe.
“This one looks dead,” a masculine voice said. It was unfamiliar. Fiftyish. With the raspy quality of a smoker.
“No, sir. Not yet.” Another male, this one young, probably early twenties. “But if you think he’s bad, you should see the other one. The demon.”
“Now that just won’t do. I need them both alive.”
“Do not question me, son. Do whatever it takes, but keep both these creatures alive.”
A pause, an audible gulp. “This one isn’t a demon, though. We should—”
“I don’t care what the hell he is. He was with the other one inside that bloodbath. He deserves what he gets.”
No pause this time. “Yes, sir. I agree, sir.”
The gurney hit another bump, a bigger bump, knocking William’s head a second time. Just as before, there was no stopping the darkness.
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
The slow, rhythmic beep blended with the sound of rushing footsteps and frantic breaths. William blinked open his eyes, and gods, that hurt. It was like he had splinters under his lids and each of those sharp little pieces of wood had scraped at his corneas. When he was finally able to focus, he frowned.
A thick layer of film coated the room and everyone in it. People were rushing all around him, but he couldn’t make out their features.
“We’re losing him!” someone—a female—shouted.
“I know! I’m doing my best, but that may not be good enough.”
They were talking about Kane. About losing… William tried to raise his arms. He would help save the warrior. Only his wrists were bound to his bed, and he didn’t have the strength to break free.
What the hell?
“Doctor, this one’s waking up.”
“Damn it, I’m not ready to deal with him. Give him another ten cc’s. He’ll keep until I get this one out of the danger zone.”
Something sharp jabbed at his shoulder, and his mind suddenly spun out of control.
“—ALL RIGHT, BIG BOY?”
William fought his way out of the darkness and immediately regretted it. The pain! He ached all over. His skin felt charred, his bones as smooth as pudding and just as soft.
“That’s the way. Just a little more.”
His lashes parted. For a moment, the world spun. But soon, everything righted itself and he found his gaze settling on a pretty female. Fatigue had drawn her delicate features taut. She wore a white lab coat and had a stethoscope anchored around the back of her neck. Her blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and a pair of wire rims sat on her nose.
“You’re probably wondering who I am and why you’re here.”
That would be a big, fat affirmative, though he could guess the answer. The Hunters had made their next move. He remembered hearing the hate in the voices of “sir” and company when they’d discussed the demons.
William’s gaze moved to his bound wrists, his bound ankles. They hadn’t trusted sturdy rope, but had used thick, heavy chains. Next he took stock of his injuries, and he realized only a miracle was keeping him in one piece. He felt like a box full of tattered Christmas ribbons, his flesh so ripped he could see the equally ripped muscle underneath.
“Well?” the woman prompted.
“Don’t care.” He had to unlock his jaw to speak, causing his temples to throb. “The man…” No other words would form, his throat simply too raw.
“He’s alive,” she answered, knowing what he desired.
Thank gods. Relief speared him. He could deal with anything else she said.
“I didn’t want to be the one to tell you this, but you have a right to know. Your friend…he’s currently being transported to the deepest pits of hell.”
KAIA HAD KNOWN STRIDER possessed a brutal streak, and she’d thought she liked that about him. Now, she was pretty sure that streak was going to get him killed. Because she was freaking going to murder him! Painfully. After she drank him dry, that is.
His “big plans” for her? More blood-drinking. Or so she assumed. An entire day had passed since she’d woken from her nap, but that was all he’d let her do.
Of course, she had to ensure he regretted his choice. Had to show him the consequences of teasing her into thinking they’d kiss and touch and, well, make sweet, dirty love until their hearts exploded from the strain.
She didn’t need more blood. Earlier her bones had snapped back into place and her cuts had woven back together. She was completely healed, utterly capable of a little ravishing, but every hour on the hour he would cut his wrist and hold the wound over her mouth. Even now, she was suckling, swallowing a delicious mouthful of his rich, warm blood now spiced with the sweetness of cinnamon.
The warmth spread, as it had every time he’d fed her like this, tickling her nerve endings, reminding her of what they weren’t doing.
“Just a little more,” he said, his voice all kinds of husky. His forearm flexed beneath her grip.
Her eyes closed as she savored his decadent flavor, her murderous thoughts fading. Would she ever get enough of him? No, never, she decided a second later. He’d well and truly addicted her. Not just to his kisses, as she’d already realized, and not just to his blood, but to his presence. His wicked smile, his warped sense of humor.
What would she do if he left her after the games as planned?
Normally she would tell herself she’d find a way to keep him. She would pat herself on the back for her strength and cunning, and bask in the knowledge that she could do anything she wished. Having just survived the ass-beating of a lifetime, she wasn’t quite so optimistic. Besides, what hope she did have had to be directed at the coming games.
So, by gods, she would hoard a thousand different memories of Strider. Just in case. They’d keep her company during the long, cold winters alone, and sleep beside her during hot, sultry summer nights. No matter where he was or who he was with, she would never be without him.
In order to make those memories, she first had to seduce him. Soon. Forget revenge. Even now her body hummed for him, desperate for deeper contact. If only he would let her drink from his jugular…
She’d asked, repeatedly, and he’d said no, repeatedly. Did he not trust her? Or did he not trust himself? She imagined urging him to the mattress and splaying herself on top of him. Her breasts would mesh into his chest and her core would settle over his straining erection. And yes, he would have an erection. She would make sure of it.
She would rub herself against him as she drank from him. He would moan, his hands settling on her ass to move her faster, harder against him. Soon that wouldn’t be enough, for either of them, and he would rip at her clothes. She would rip at his. They would be naked and—
Before she could swallow another mouthful of his blood, he jerked away, removing her fangs from his vein and severing all contact. “Enough,” he said, panting. “You’re medicated properly now.”
She’d been writhing on the bed, she realized, panting herself. Had been angling toward him, her legs parting, her core desperate for him. Gods, she was already wet, aching.
He stood, walked away. He stopped and turned. Then he faced her, propping himself against the TV stand. She sat up, trembling and hot, enjoying her first full view of him since she’d exited the bathroom a few minutes ago, having showered and changed into the fresh clothes Bianka had brought her. At that time, he’d already positioned himself at the edge of the mattress and had merely motioned her over.
She’d thought…hoped…but no. She’d reached him and rather than throw her down and conquer Kaialand, he’d tossed her down and fed her again.
As she studied him, she lost her breath. His pale hair shagged around his fallen angel face. His lips were red, as if he’d chewed them. A lot. He wore a black T-shirt that read I Heart William.
“William gave it to me,” he said with a shrug, noticing where her gaze had lingered.
Just hearing William’s name made her snicker inside. The dark-haired charmer had a crush on her, and she couldn’t wait until he realized why she’d always turned him down. She’d probably laugh so hard she’d pee herself!
Anyway, she didn’t care about Strider’s T-shirt, but about the pecs underneath it. They were hard and well-defined, his nipples slightly puckered—definitely lickable. At the shirt’s hem, she could see the bulge of his weapons, tucked into dark denim. That denim also covered the bulge of something else she’d really like to see, but whatever.
With only the slightest twinge in her side, she pushed to her feet. “I need you to be brutally honest right now,” she said.
Wariness cloaked his features. “Okay.”
“How pretty do I look?”
His gaze dropped, following the line of her body. She wore a red lace halter dress that veed in the middle, all the way to her navel. The hem stopped just below the curve of her ass.
Strider’s pupils did that expanding thing, almost always a prelude to touching. “You need to put on a pair of pants.” His voice was a croak. And he did not move toward her.
This was one of those times when “almost” sucked the big one. “Duh. As if I’d go out like this. I’ve got a pair…right…” She looked around. “There.” She stalked to the nightstand and lifted the “pants” in question. A scrap of red lace spandex that wouldn’t fall below her dress.
With a quick step, step, tug, she shimmied into the material and once again faced off with her consort.
His mouth hung open. “We were just sitting on the bed, together, and you were just drinking from me, your mouth on my skin, and you didn’t have any panties on?”
“You mean you didn’t look?” she said with a pout. No wonder he’d left her so easily.
“No. I wouldn’t let myself.”
“Damn it, Kaia,” he said, ignoring her. “You can’t just go around pantiless.”
“Which is why I just pulled on a pair. Were you not watching?”
His eyes narrowed to tiny slits. “You said pants. That you were putting on a pair of pants.”
“Just…” He popped his jaw and extended his arm in her direction, waving his fingers up and down her body. “Where are you going to hide weapons in that thing?”
“Strider, please. Give me and my girls some credit.” She spread the deep V, revealing her braless breasts, her nipples flushed and beaded. Small, thin blades were strapped to her sides, just under her armpits. “We’ve been doing this since well before puberty.”
“Sweet Jesus.” A strangled sound left him as she adjusted her dress back into place, and she fought a grin. The more he resisted her, the more he was going to find himself the recipient of these little peep shows.
“Come on,” he said, voice husky once again.
She closed the distance and twined her fingers with his, happy with the contact. “Want to make out?”
“Sweet Jesus,” he repeated. Little beads of sweat popped up on his brow. “We’ve got plans. Remember? Big plans. We have to be somewhere.”
So blood-drinking hadn’t been the only thing on his agenda. But then, sex clearly hadn’t been added. “Where’re we going?” she asked, careful to cut the disappointment from her voice.
“You’ll find out.” After a quick perimeter check, he tugged her into the cool night air. First thing she realized was that they were still in Wisconsin. She hadn’t looked and she hadn’t asked. The moon was hidden behind clouds, casting pink and violet shadows in every direction. Snow covered the ground, trees stretching up…up…
“You cold?” Strider asked.
“Nah. This is nothing.” Besides, body heat radiated from him, enveloping her. “Any hint of Harpy or Hunter activity since I woke up?” Or hell, even for the two days she’d been down.
“No. We hid you pretty well.”
Even still, she kept her guard up. They walked several blocks before he stopped in front of a pickup and released her. Only took him three minutes and eighteen seconds to break in and gun the engine. She did not mention that she could have done it in two. His demon might view that as a challenge.
She merely said, “Good job,” as he threw the truck into gear and sped down the road. “Now, tell me where we’re going because I do not like surprises. Unless they involve a man waiting naked in my bed,” she added just to taunt him.
His grip tightened on the wheel and his knuckles leached of color. “I talked to your sister. Taliyah. We’ve got two days to get you ready for the next competition.”
Wait just a sec. “You’re going to train me?” He thought she was so terrible a fighter she needed a few pointers? Well, why not? she thought with a bitter, inner laugh. She’d disappointed him with her loss, and she had no one but herself to blame. That didn’t matter. Shock and hurt blasted her like poisoned darts. This was not the kind of memory she’d hoped to hoard.
“No, of course not,” he said, and she began to relax. Then he added, “I’m not going to train you.”
She wanted to rant and rail at his lack of trust and support. She’d vowed to win the next round, hadn’t she? Yes, yes, she had. Her mind might have been hazed by pain, but she remembered that.
Kaia held her tongue, though. Victory was as important to Strider as it was to her. He wasn’t doing this to be cruel. But damn it, even knowing why he’d set this into motion, the hurt escalated inside her.
I’m good enough just the way I am. A plaintive plea in her head. “Why won’t you do the training?” she asked. Gods, was that whiny voice hers?
There was a heavy pause before he admitted, “My demon.”
What did the pause mean? He was lying? No, she thought next. He wasn’t lying. But she doubted his demon was the only reason. “And you’re afraid training with me will challenge him?”
“Yeah. It’s happened before.”
He’d once told her that everything was a challenge with her and that was one of the reasons they couldn’t be together. She’d thought he would soon come to see the merit in her challenges. After all, he experienced pleasure every time he won, and if he won multiple times a day because of her…
So far, that mind-set had only backfired on her. He hated the pain that accompanied defeat so much, he viewed every competitor as a threat. The more she pushed him, the more he pushed away from her.
That has to change. So. Okay. She would give him what he wanted, she decided. Peace. Smooth sailing. Utter tranquility. She’d be so easy to be with, he’d have more fun watching grass grow. Maybe then he’d take her to bed.
Why couldn’t he like her for the girl she was, though?
Why couldn’t anyone?
“Fine,” she said on a sigh, hating herself for throwing a pity party. He was with her. He hadn’t taken off. Hadn’t searched for the Rod while she was too weak to stop him. “That’s fine. I’ll train with whoever you want.”
The truck wound down the city streets, lights flashing over the windshield every few seconds. Kaia propped her booted feet on the dash and leaned as far back as her seat would allow. Her dress hiked up her thighs, revealing the edge of her panties.
He kept his gaze on the road. “I didn’t expect you to agree with my plan.”
Did he sound…disappointed? Nah. Just wishful thinking on her part. “I aim to please.”
“I—” He smashed his lips in a mulish line, shook his head. She didn’t press for more—as her new plan for peace dictated—and he didn’t offer it. Several minutes ticked by in utter silence. Then, “Why don’t I have a nickname?”
That clearly wasn’t what he’d wanted to discuss, but she could roll. Smooth sailing, she reminded herself. “Well, you haven’t earned one.”
“So what do I have to do to earn one?”
“Don’t know. Everyone’s different. It’s a we-know-it-when-we-see-it kind of thing.”
Another bout of silence ensued, this one so tense and heavy she couldn’t have hacked through it with a sword and chain saw. She had no idea what was swirling through his head.
“I thought you didn’t care what we called you,” she said, just to shatter the tension.
“I don’t,” he gritted out. “I was just curious.”
“Again with the agreeable attitude. Are you more injured than I realized?”
She busied herself with plucking at her dress, trying not to let the comment get to her. “I’m not always a pain in the ass, you know.”
“Stop messing with your clothes,” he growled.
She froze, not even daring to breathe. He’d still not glanced her way, yet he’d known what she was doing? He was that aware of her?
“Okay. Consider it done.” Smooth sailing was already paying off. Fighting a grin, she settled deeper into the seat and dropped her feet onto the floorboard.
About an hour from civilization, they pulled off the highway and into the parking lot of a dilapidated shack sporting a blinking neon sign that read Crazy Abel’s. There were a handful of other cars there and two big burly guys stumbling from the front door.
“A bar?” she asked, trying not to pout. “A human bar?”
“You get to play before you pay.”
Really? Forget pouting. Excitement poured through her. “You should have told me. I would have worn my slutty outfit.”
His narrowed gaze swept over her, lingering on her cleavage. He parked—nearly sideswiping another car—and she jumped out, halfway to the entrance before he’d even opened his door. She passed the still stumbling humans, grimacing at the smell of cheap beer and cigarettes. They whistled at her and changed directions to follow her.
“How much?” one asked.
Oh, no, he didn’t. She spun around, hands on her hips, teeth bared in a scowl. “What did you say?”
“We’ll pay the price, whatever it is, we swear,” the other said. “After.” Both snickered, then the first patted the second on the back in a job well done, as if he’d just negotiated the deal of a lifetime.
Before she could reply, Strider stalked over and punched them both in the back of the head. At the same time. They propelled forward, but he caught them by the hair before they could hit the ground, used his knees to slam into the back of theirs, and forced them both to kneel before her.
“Apologize,” he commanded, and there was so much darkness in his voice she could almost smell the fire and brimstone. “Now.”
Kaia’s heart fluttered. The men obeyed, babbling and crying. Strider lifted one and tossed him. The human went soaring and crashed into a car, the alarm suddenly screeching. The second man joined him a moment later.
“Thanks,” she said, fighting the urge to melt into a shivery puddle at his feet. “My pleasure.”
They entered the bar side by side.
THE WOMAN WAS GOING TO SLAY him with that killer body of hers. Delicious curves were wrapped in a swath of material that might not pass for a bathing suit in some countries. Her skin was luminous, but lacking its multihued shimmer. She must have covered herself with total-body makeup. Not that he’d complain.
Anything that would stop other men from desiring her had his stamp of approval.
Who was he kidding? Men not desire her? That was never going to happen. No matter what she did to her skin, no matter what she wore, men would always desire her. The knowledge pissed him off—and filled him with pride.
She considered Strider her consort. No one else.
Resisting her was becoming harder. And harder. Literally.
“Hey, who is—Anya? Gideon? Amun? And, like, a thousand others.” Kaia had to shout to be heard over the blaring music. She peered up at him with wide silver-gold eyes, soft with an emotion he couldn’t name. “How did you get all of them here?”
A man could lose himself in those fathomless depths. “I asked and Lucien flashed.” More like he’d demanded and Lucien had dragged his feet. But who cared about details? “They’re only here for the night, though.”
“Sweet! One night, I can love them. Two, and I always want to kill them.”
“Just don’t mention,” he lowered his voice, “first prize. Okay?” They’d be all over his case about it. What he’d done with the Cloak of Invisibility would be thrown in his face. His motives would be questioned. His smarts. They’d want to stay, want to search for the Paring Rod, steal it.
He and Sabin had already chatted. The others needed to guard the two artifacts they already had. They needed to protect the fortress in Buda. They needed to remain vigilant against Hunter attacks. If, however, the two of them failed to steal the Rod on their own before the final Harpy game kicked off, they would call for reinforcements.
Tonight, while Kaia was distracted with her training, they were going to hunt down the Eagleshields. In fact, that’s what Sabin was doing right now. Peering down from the heavens, finding the seemingly unfindable. Boss man should be here any minute to drag him away.
“I won’t mention anything about anything, I swear. And thank you!” A huge grin split Kaia’s red-painted lips and she clapped. Then she jumped up and planted a scorching kiss on his cheek before dashing away. Her mouth burned his flesh, perhaps imprinting his every cell.
The past few days, all he’d been able to do was think about her. She’d been so pale, so still, so weak, and he’d been so desperate to help her, yet unable to do more than feed her his blood…and crave. Oh, had he craved. Still craved.
Something he’d realized, though, was that sleeping with her had to wait until after the games. Right now, he had to remain strong. He couldn’t risk being laid flat by losing a challenge. Any challenge. Even one in the bedroom.
Once her well-being no longer depended on him, nothing would keep him out of those microscopic pants. He had to have her. Had to taste her, hear her cry his name. Hell, he planned to gorge himself on the woman, no matter the consequences. And not just once, as he’d thought to limit himself before, but over and over again.
He watched as she threw herself into Amun’s arms. The warrior looked tired, and there were bruises under his eyes, but he appeared genuinely happy to see Kaia as he spun her around. Gideon, the punked-out keeper of Lies, grabbed her up and hugged her tight. She threw back her head and laughed before messing up his blue hair and tugging at his eyebrow ring. How carefree she was, how uninhibited.
How mine, he thought darkly, then forced himself to add, for now, at least.
Inside his head, Defeat perked up.
Oh, no, you don’t. You just stay silent, you little prick. You weren’t invited to this party.
A growl rang in his ears, and he recognized the sound as the war cry it was.
You want to win the Paring Rod, right? Or would you rather return to Pandora’s box and rot? Because if I fail, Kaia’s our only hope. And if she fails, we’ll lose the artifact. If we lose the artifact, the Hunters could use it to get their hands on the box, suck you back inside. Eternally trapping you.
Yeah. He’d thought so. There was nothing Defeat despised more than his memories of the box, the darkness and isolation. What he didn’t mention was that if he managed to steal the Rod, Kaia would hate his damn guts. She’d forgive him, though, as Juliette had forgiven her man for his dark deeds. Right?
“Kye,” he heard Gideon say. “I wouldn’t like you to meet my hideous husband, Scar.” He motioned to the black-haired stunner by his side with a wave of his hand. Since Gideon couldn’t speak a word of truth without experiencing debilitating pain, he’d lied. About everything.
“Actually, the name’s Scarlet,” his wife replied. She was the keeper of Nightmares and when she killed a man in his dreams, he died for real. She was tall, slender and mean as hell. “And in case you’re wondering, I don’t have a penis.”
Why couldn’t I have gotten that demon? Nightmares? Talk about cool.
You’re a pain in the ass and you know it.
“I’m Kaia. Or Damn it, Kaia, as Strider likes to call me.”
“I do not,” Strider growled. He called her baby doll. And she was. Now where the hell was Sabin? He needed out of here el pronto.
Kaia ignored him. “Weren’t you, like, locked in the Lords’ dungeon not that long ago?” she asked Scarlet. “Too dangerous to roam free, untrustworthy, violent in the extreme, blah, blah, blah.”
“Yeah. Thankfully, that’s what whips this one into a frenzy,” Scarlet said, motioning to Gideon with a tilt of her stubborn chin.
Gideon wiggled his dark eyebrows, and Kaia chuckled, warm and husky and…hell. Strider felt his body responding. So not a good time to sport wood.
Kaia was in good hands, he thought, especially since Gideon’s were brand-new. Bastard had gotten his old ones cut off by Hunters and had been forced to regrow a pair. At the time, Strider had flipped out about the pain his friend had been forced to endure. Now, he got a good laugh out of it. Anyway, he didn’t have to worry about Kaia—or lust after her, which he would continue to do if he stayed here and watched her—so he made his way to the bar, only then noticing the blonde with pink streaks in her hair and tattoos sleeving her arm. Haidee. Shit. Having her and Kaia in the same room probably wasn’t a good idea.
She turned, two beers in her hands, and when she spotted him, she nodded in acknowledgment. Still she glowed—and not from pregnancy as he’d first assumed. No way she’d drink a beer if she were. Quite simply, she glowed with love, his second assumption.
Once again, there was no pang in his chest when he looked at her and he’d never been happier about that.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said, then told the bartender to bring him a beer.
Hurt flashed in her eyes, quickly masked.
“I wasn’t trying to be mean,” he admitted. “Just trying to protect you.”
Smiling sweetly, she shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. Amun just returned from the heavens and there was no way I was going to be parted from him today. Especially when I might be parted from him tomorrow.”
How forlorn she sounded. “Why tomorrow?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she grumbled, losing the smile.
He lifted his hand to pat her on the back, to offer comfort. Before contact, he dropped his arm to his side. Even such a token gesture from him might make her uncomfortable, and besides, he realized he shouldn’t be offering.
With their violent, turbulent history, any such offering might tick Amun off. And rightly so. Strider could imagine his own reaction if, say, one of his friends had a past with Kaia—cough Paris cough—and the bastard put his hands on her. Hello, rage.
In that moment, he realized he had never truly desired Haidee as a forever after. Desired her, yes, but he’d never felt so strongly about her, or anyone really, that he couldn’t pick up and walk away. Without regret. Without remorse. Well, Kaia was a maddening, life-and-death exception. For the time being. He needed her. He wanted her, and when the time was right, he would have her. End of story.
That thought alone consumed him with lust, abolishing every other emotion inside him.
Not now, damn it. I have to let her relax and train with the boys. “By the way,” he said to Haidee in an attempt to distract himself. “I know you know why Amun was summoned by Cronus the other day.”
“Yeah. So?” Her dejection eased, her features lighting with amusement. “I’m no longer possessed by the demon of Hate, but I still like to torment you every now and then. Besides, I knew one of your buddies would step in and share the details.”
Great. Contrary female. Now Strider had to win a battle of wills with her. But he supposed he understood why his demon leapt at this chance for victory, small though it would (hopefully) be. Accommodating as Kaia had been during the drive here, the bastard needed to feed.
“What’d he learn? And yes, we are having a prolonged conversation whether you want to or not. I’ll follow you around like a puppy on a leash all damn night, if that’s what it takes.” If that threat didn’t scare her into answering, he didn’t know what would.
“Nothing.” She sighed. “Amun couldn’t find her—the girl now possessed by the demon of Distrust. Cronus wants him to return to the heavens tomorrow and try again. Now you have both answers. Happy?”
“A little.” He’d won and tiny sparks of pleasure filled his chest. “Tell him—” Strider’s eyes widened as a thought struck him. “Have him call me when Cronus is done with him and he’s rested up a bit.” Amun was too tired for him to burden tonight. But if anyone could find Juliette’s hiding place for the Paring Rod, it was him. Damn, but Strider should have thought of that before. “I need a favor.”
Haidee gulped back her beer. “You and everyone else in the world.”
“Damn, girl. Learn to share.”
She rolled her eyes. “That’s hilarious, coming from you.”
“No, it’s ironic. Learn the difference. But, honestly? I’m a lost cause, too set in my ways. You, however, have a fighting chance.”
She laughed and said something in reply, but a piercing shriek in the background drowned out her words. Oh, shit. Strider’s eardrums knew that shriek intimately.
He wheeled around—just as a red blur flew past him, aiming for Haidee.
WIND RUFFLED STRIDER’S HAIR as he reached out and grabbed Kaia by the waist. He was fast, but not fast enough, and by the time he had the woman anchored over his shoulder fireman-style, both of Haidee’s cheeks were claw-slashed and bleeding.
Haidee appeared too shocked to react, much less defend herself. Which wasn’t like her. No one had self-protective instincts like Haidee. Either she was slipping or being without Hate had slowed her down.
“You do not touch him. You do not speak to him. Ever!” Kaia snarled in a voice layered with another being’s screams, her own fury, and plumes of darkness.
“Damn it, Kaia.” Strider smacked her ass. She didn’t notice. She tried to twist around and accidentally kneed him in the stomach. Hard. Air gushed from his mouth, and he hunched over, almost losing her. He readjusted his grip, one hand on the back of her legs, the other on the small of her back. And damn, she was hot! Literally. Heat seeped from her, burning him.
And, there was his demon, making another appearance. Freaking great. At least the bastard wasn’t quite sure how to proceed with the Harpy. I’ve got her, don’t I? What more do you want?
“Kaia,” Strider said. “If you don’t settle down, you’re going to hurt me.”
To his surprise, that worked, penetrating the fog of her fury. In a blink, she settled, remaining draped over him, her palms pressed into his back, her heated breaths wafting over his shirt and slithering past the material, caressing him with molten deliciousness.
Hello again, Stridey-Monster. Thank gods the fall of her legs hid the evidence of his arousal.
Won. Defeat sighed with pleasure and that pleasure shot through him, increasing his enjoyment. An enjoyment far stronger than anything he’d experienced with Haidee.
There were several humans in the bar, watching them. He smiled sheepishly. “Women.”
They nodded in understanding.
A frowning Amun rushed to Haidee’s side. Haidee said, “It’s nothing, baby. I swear.” Still, he cupped her cheeks and the frown became a scowl. A scowl he leveled at Strider.
As the keeper of Secrets, Amun could read the thoughts of everyone around him. So Strider opened up his mind and allowed his friend inside. Don’t even think about getting back at her. This could have been a lot worse and you know it. Kaia merely scratched her up, nothing more.
You protect what’s yours and I protect what’s mine, Amun signed angrily.
Kaia. His. He didn’t want to analyze the thrill of delight that joined the pleasure. And he didn’t need to. She was his. Just for a little while—another reminder.
Haidee wrapped her fingers around her man’s forearm, leaving a smear of blood on his mocha-colored skin. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”
Kaia traced something on Strider’s back, distracting him. A heart, he thought, wanting to smile.
Amun’s hands began another furious bout of signing directed at him. You think this is funny?
“Yeah. I do. If you’ll excuse us, we have a little business to attend to.” Strider carted Kaia to the dance floor.
Sabin had yet to arrive, which meant there was no reason to resist. With a shrug of his shoulders, he bounced Kaia up and slid her forward. Her body pressed against his as it descended. Only, instead of placing her feet on the wooden slats, she wrapped her legs around his waist and held on tight, fitting her core against his erection.
He bit off a groan. At least her temperature had cooled, so he didn’t have to worry about his cock catching on fire. He peered deeply into her eyes and the world around him faded. There was only Kaia, desire and a need to soothe the temper he had unintentionally roused in her.
He anchored his hands on the back of her thighs to keep her from falling and to prevent his friends from seeing anything they shouldn’t. Anything of his. Her ass was definitely his.
“Let me go,” she said, though her tone lacked any kind of admonishment. He didn’t point out that she had a tighter hold on him than he had on her. “I’m going to kill that bitch.”
“No, baby doll, you won’t.”
“Yes, I will.” But the black faded from her eyes, leaving the decadent silver-gold he so loved.
Whoa, whoa there. Loved? Hell, no. He liked the color, that was all. “Where’s Miss Agreeable? The girl I chauffeured over here.” That small taste of Miss Agreeable should have been a slice of heaven, too, since that’s what he’d always claimed to want from her. Surprisingly, he realized he preferred her this way. On edge and wild.
Maybe because his blood roared at the alluring prospect of taming her.
Another flicker of black. “Miss Agreeable is dead. You killed her when you flirted with another woman.”
“If you haven’t heard, dead doesn’t have to mean gone forever,” he teased. “Maybe she can rise from the grave.”
A gasp left her. “I knew you’d like me that way.” She pounded a fist into his shoulder. “I knew it!”
He laughed, unable to trap his amusement inside.
Frowning sulkily, she stilled and glared at him. “What’s so funny?”
“You.” Just then she was illogical and adorable, and jealous as hell. Of Haidee, and even of herself. “I just want to eat you up.”
Her mouth fell open, pearly whites bared in what could only be a mix of shock and hope. “What?”
Now that he had her attention… He moved his hands just under her thighs, lifting and balancing her on the tip of his straining erection. “You want to tell me what just happened? With Haidee?”
Expression closing off, she stared just over his shoulder. And yet, she nibbled on her bottom lip as he arched his hips forward, rubbing against her. “No. I don’t.”
“Do it anyway.”
He rubbed again. She nibbled harder. Too much, he thought. Too much for this crowded room. He held her steady.
“Tell me,” he said.
There was a pause. Then a pouty, “You like her more than you like me.”
She’d faced a clan of vengeful Harpies without a single complaint, but the thought of him with someone else was more than she could tolerate. That stroked his ego, yeah, but he didn’t like that he’d hurt her. “No, baby doll, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. You told me so.”
“Then I was delusional. And really, really dumb. I’m very sorry for that.” The truth, all of it. He’d only thought he’d wanted Haidee in a romantic sense, had gotten snagged by the challenge of winning the heart of an enemy.
After he’d won her, he would have walked away from her without any regrets. Easy. Kaia, though, he’d treated abominably—maybe because he’d sensed, deep down, that he would not be able to walk away from her so easily.
“I like you. A lot.”
Her chin lifted, that too-delightful stubborn streak kicking in. “But I slept with Paris and you can never forget that.”
He had pushed that fact in her face over and over again, hadn’t he? Stupid of him. While the knowledge had bothered him before—because yeah, he’d been a little jealous and hurt himself since she’d picked Paris first—it seemed insignificant right now.
How many women had Strider been with over the years? How many after Kaia had declared herself to him? Any one of those women could have been a friend of hers.
“News flash,” he said, hoping to soothe the hurt he’d caused, “half the people in this room have slept with Paris.”
Hope bloomed, the gold consuming her eyes, overshadowing even the silver, only to swiftly wither and die. “You’ll never be able to get over it. Not really. Not with me.”
Okay, a little damage control was in order. “Allow me to iron this out completely. Am I jealous? Yes. Are you going to do it again? Hell, no. Not if you like him breathing. Am I worried about our first time because of him? Yes. What if I’m not as good? But do I cast stones about what happened? No. You’re talking to a borderline man-whore, Kaia. Like I really have room to judge.”
“You’re jealous?” The lustrous gleam of her skin suddenly peeked past her makeup as her body temperature rose.
His heart galloped into an unsteady rhythm and his mouth watered. A taste, soon, very soon. He had to have one. “Yes. And here’s another news flash.” His words were slightly slurred, as if he were drunk on desire. “I’m possessive. That’s not going to change.”
“I don’t want that to change. I like that about you.”
“Good.” The few times he’d tried the relationship thing, that possessiveness of his had gotten old, fast.
“And I—” She frowned, the gleam dimming just as her hope had. “You’re just saying all of this because you expect me to win the Paring Rod for you.”
Wrong as she was, he deserved the doubt, he really did. Plus, he couldn’t stop a wave of guilt from sweeping through him. No matter what he next said, no matter whether she believed him now, she would think he’d lied when he actually did steal that damn Rod.
Worry later. “Does the Rod have sexy red hair and a body that wraps around me just right?”
Her sexy lips puckered. “No.”
So kissable… “Then I’m pretty sure I like you for being you. I mean, what’s not to like?”
“True,” she said, but she didn’t relax against him. “I am pretty awesome.”
“Better than pretty.”
“I know. And no one can ever convince me otherwise. No matter how hard he tries.” A direct hit, reminding him of all the times he’d pricked at her pride to save himself from craving her.
Not that it had ever worked.
Defeat perked up and Strider gave him a mental shove into a darkened corner. He didn’t want the demon’s interference right now. This was between him and Kaia.
“I’m sorry I ever said otherwise,” he added sincerely. “Clearly I was suffering from some kind of brain injury.”
“I suspected.” Her expression softened, but still she didn’t cave. “So what do you like about me besides my amazing hair and body? Because last time we talked about this, you said I was too much trouble. You said I challenged you at every turn and you didn’t want the hassle of dealing with me.”
“Are you going to throw everything I’ve ever said in my face each time we argue?”
“Absolutely.” She admitted it freely, with no hesitation.
“Okay. Just checking.” And here was a shocker. He liked that. You had to use every weapon at your disposal to win a fight, and she wielded his past stupidity like a razor. She cut him with it, at the same time teaching him how to soothe her wounds.
“You are a challenge at every turn, there’s no denying that.” She stiffened, and he hurried on. “But I’m finding that I don’t mind.”
Anger flashed, a stormy silver with no hint of gold. “You don’t mind? Well, aren’t I a lucky girl? If one of your past girlfriends ever told you that you have a way with words, she was lying.”
Kaia unhooked her ankles and dropped her legs. He didn’t release her, though. He hefted her back up, forcing her to remain in place. Flush against him, rubbing just right without stimulating too much.
“Look,” he said. “You amuse the hell out of me. You excite me. And I’m finding that what I thought I wouldn’t like about you is actually my favorite part. Besides, I know I’m no picnic in the park, either.”
She’d begun to soften. At the last little bit, she flashed her pearly whites in a grimace. “You’re just digging a deeper hole, you big moron.”
“Come on, baby doll.” He spread his fingers, covering more ground as he angled toward the greatest roller-coaster ride on earth. “I’m new at being a consort. Give me some wiggle room.”
Yeah, he knew it was funny that he was asking for emotional wiggle room when he wouldn’t let her move physically, but come on. He was a guy. This was par for the course. But then she realized what he said and froze, not even seeming to breathe.
Suddenly utter vulnerability radiated from her. “Is that an admission that you’re mine?” she asked.
Was it? “Yes,” he said as realization struck. “For the next few weeks I’ll be the best damn consort you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. After that, I can’t promise. I’ve never done the long haul, forever thing. We’ll have to reevaluate, see how we feel.”
A thought short-circuited his brain. What if she couldn’t forgive him for stealing the Rod? What if that act proved to be more than “almost anything”? There would be no reevaluation because she wouldn’t want anything to do with him. They would be over, done.
A sense of urgency overtook him. He had to get her to agree to have him, all of him, now. That way, later, she would have a harder time shoving him out of her life.
Not that he would want to stick around. As he’d told her, he’d never done the long haul thing before. A few months, but never more than that. And yet, just then he couldn’t imagine not wanting Kaia. Just then he despised the thought of being without her. So, yeah, he had to get her to agree.
“Give me a chance,” he beseeched. “Please.”
Win? Defeat said.
Go back to your corner.
In the back of his mind, he acknowledged that the music had changed, the tempo harder, faster, but he refused to accelerate the slow grind he had going with Kaia.
Her shoulders sagged, but rather than stomp away in disappointment because he hadn’t agreed to stay forever, she flattened her hands on his chest and whispered, “That’s not good enough. I wish it were, but…”
“For now, it’s all I can offer.” He cupped her jaw, forcing her attention to remain on his face. “I do know that I hate the thought of you with anyone else. I know you’re the only woman I desire.”
She started nibbling on her bottom lip again, and he almost, almost, replaced her teeth with his own. But not yet. Not until she agreed.
“What changed your mind?” she asked. “I mean, it certainly wasn’t my mad street fighting skills since I crashed and burned at Tag.”
His stomach churned as an image of her blazed through his mind. Her body limp and covered with blood. Her face swollen, her limbs mangled. Never again, he thought darkly. He would protect her.
No trying to shove Defeat away. In that regard, yes. He would accept any challenge.
Before he could respond to Kaia’s question, she looked down and added, “I threw a fight for you once. Do you remember? That night with the Hunters? I challenged you to kill more than I did, and I totally could have won, but I gave you my targets.”
His chest constricted, a pang of some unknown emotion lancing through him. “I remember, baby doll, and I never thanked you. I’m sorry for that.”
“Well, thank-you or not, I’m not doing that again. I’m not throwing a fight for you.” So gently said.
“I’m glad.” Her sense of pride was as intense as his own. She hated losing, and while she didn’t experience physical pain when she failed, she did experience a shitload of mental anguish.
Her own people called her Kaia the Disappointment, for gods’ sake. Because of that, she always strove to prove herself worthy. He realized that now. Knew it was the reason she’d challenged him to begin with. She’d wanted to prove she was good enough for him. And the fact that she’d purposely lost demonstrated just how deeply she desired him. He realized that, too.
As if she had anything to prove.
Still. How had he repaid her? He’d dumped on her, time and time again. Shame exploded through him, a bomb he’d built all by himself. Well, no more dumping. As long as they were together, he would treat her with the care and concern she deserved.
“You’re glad?” She blinked at him, her warm, sweet breath trekking over his neck. His pulse leapt up to meet every exhalation. “But if I beat you at anything, you’ll hurt.”
“So you’ll kiss me and make me better. Right?”
Her nails dug past his shirt and into skin. “I—I—don’t know what to say.”
“Say you won’t purposely challenge me to something I can’t hope to win.”
A moment passed in silence as she considered his words. “I’ll try not to, but I can’t promise. Sometimes you bring out the worst in me.”
Ha! He brought out the best in her. No ego check necessary. The truth was the truth, no matter how you sliced it. “Either way, we’ll work it out.”
“Yes, we’ll work—” Slowly her eyes narrowed, her nails sinking deeper into his flesh. “Well, well. Finally I meet Mr. Agreeable. Are you buttering me up like a breakfast muffin just so I won’t hurt Haidee?”
So suspicious, but that was the nature of the beast. They were very similar in that respect. “You can hurt her if you still want to hurt her, but then Amun will be pissed and he’ll attack me. I’ll have to hurt him.”
“Fine,” she said on a sigh. “I like Amun, so I won’t hurt Haidee.”
“Thank you,” he said through gritted teeth. She liked Amun?
She retracted one set of claws and flicked her hair over one shoulder. “So what do you like about me? You never said. Feel free to get wildly descriptive and maybe throw in some poetry. Or one of those limericks you mentioned.”
Gonna make him work for it, huh? Even though she’d already decided to give him what he wanted. All the privileges of a consort, the uncertain future be damned. Oh, she hadn’t said so yet, but then, she didn’t have to. He knew. She was here, in his arms, demanding he romance her.
Typical Kaia. Never a dull moment, but a ton of fun. More than that, she had very nearly mastered the art of pleasing Defeat, offering little challenges here and there to feed him. Challenges Strider could win, no problem.
See? She’d done it again; she’d challenged him at something easy. But would he take this victory home with poetry? Gods, no. “Well, let’s see,” he began huskily. “I like your smart mouth. I like your pouty mouth. I like your potty mouth. I like your whiny mouth. I like your shrieking mouth. I like—”
“My mouth,” she said dryly, rolling her eyes. Eyes bright with arousal. She wiggled against his shaft, rubbing him perfectly, just the way he liked. “Tell me why.”
“No. I’ll show you why.” He moved one of his hands to her nape and urged her the rest of the way forward. Their lips met, opened, and their tongues thrust together. She tasted like mint and cherry, and he decided that was his new favorite flavor.
Her fingers tangled in his hair, her claws digging into his scalp. Desire pumped through his veins, pure, undiluted, blinding him to everything else. To the people around them, the circumstances, the consequences. He held fire in his arms and he desperately wanted to be burned.
And he wanted to burn her. Burn his essence into every part of her, reshaping her into his woman. Everyone who looked at her, neared her, would know who she belonged to.
Mine, she’s mine. Damn, she excited him. Their tongues dueled, even that a battle. Such a delicious battle. He dominated, claiming her mouth as his territory. He felt her nipples harden against his chest and wanted to tweak them. Wanted his fingers between her legs, deep inside her, thrusting over and over again.
“Strider,” she rasped.
Won, Defeat said on a sigh, shooting more of that pleasure through him and driving his need even higher.
Strider walked her forward, every jarring step rubbing her more firmly against him. When he reached the nearest table, he leaned down, swiped his arm across the beer bottles littering the surface and distantly heard them shatter on the floor. He pressed Kaia against the wood.
He wanted to do things to her. Bad things. No, good things, he told himself. He had to do good things to her. Had to be her best. But maybe he’d push her for a few of those bad things, make her take everything he had to give, make her beg, need him, crave him like a drug.
“Woohoo! Yeah, baby, yeah!” Anya, the minor goddess of Anarchy, called, her voice dragging him kicking and screaming from the fog of desire. “Rip his clothes off, Kaia. Show us what he’s got!”
Strider straightened with a snarl, his gaze scanning, his mind buzzing. Destroy the crowd, return his mouth to Kaia’s. As he realized every single person in the bar was watching them, the heat inside him cooled. Some were watching with grins, some with exasperation, some—namely the humans—with lust.
The heat returned, but for an entirely different reason. Fury, so much fury, overshadowed his own lust. He didn’t like anyone seeing Kaia like this, lost and needy, eager for him. He couldn’t allow it. Wouldn’t allow it.
He grabbed her arm and jerked her to her feet, smoothing her dress for her. His motions were stiff, jerky. How could he have forgotten their audience, even for a second? Someone could have attacked him. Defeated him. How could he have forgotten what would happen to him if he failed to be Kaia’s best? Her best kiss. Her best lay. He’d be ruined, too weak to be effective and no use to her during the coming confrontations.
Although…he wasn’t on his knees, overcome by pain, so he’d clearly been her best kiss. Again. The knowledge puffed his chest with pride. Of course he’d been the best, and—ego check.
He had better things to do than praise his own magnificence. Like let the guys train her for the next battle the way they’d promised to do, and then haul her back to the motel.
Won, won, won, Defeat said on a sigh, more of that pleasure consuming him.
I never doubted it. He scowled at his friends. “Enough playing around,” he snapped, then returned his attention to Kaia. “Get the boys and go out back. Do what I brought you here to do.”
Thick red lashes lifted, a curtain rising over a screen of surprise. “You’re not coming with me?”
“No.” He gave her a little push. “Now go.”
TO STRIDER’S CONSTERNATION, they never made it outside.
As his friends downed their drinks in a hurry—no drop left behind and all that—the front doors swung open and a black-haired beauty strutted into the bar. Lavender eyes searched the bar…and landed on Kaia. Red lips curled into a satisfied grin.
Strider stiffened. Shit. Wasn’t that just his luck. Sabin’s mission was now superfluous, which meant there’d be no hunting, no stealing tonight. The Eagleshields had landed.
Kaia cursed under her breath. “Just my luck. Juliette the Nag You Until You Kill Yourself Eradicator is here.”
The woman’s consort wasn’t far behind. Strider hadn’t seen him at Tag, had just assumed the guy was off somewhere guarding the Paring Rod, and now he experienced a beat of surprise as the bastard stepped into the bar, expression smug and superior, as if he owned all he surveyed. There was no sign of the artifact. What did he have? Multiple, heavily armed Harpies flanking him. His guards?
During orientation, the hulking giant had sported chains. Now Strider noticed that he sported tattoos. Links had been etched into the flesh around his neck and wrists. Most likely, if he removed his boots, Strider would see ink around his ankles, too.
The tattoos looked red, swollen and fresh, and Strider would have bet his left nut they’d been added only this morning.
Why keep so dangerous a guy around, huh? Kaia had said Harpies could forgive their consorts for almost anything, but come on. The man had murdered other Harpies. Surely that was worse than, say, stealing a priceless artifact from an enemy.
Within seconds, Strider’s friends had lined up beside him, forming a wall of menace. They had no idea what was going on—except, maybe, for Amun—but they knew him well. Knew when he was gearing up to fight. Hell, they knew an enemy when they spotted one.
No combative words had yet been spoken, but even Defeat had sensed the threat. Consider it done. With pleasure.
The man—or whatever he was—caught sight of Kaia. Obsidian eyes swirled hypnotically. He was bare-chested, and his pectorals jumped. Because he was imagining Kaia’s hands on him? Strider tensed. Mine. And I don’t share. Ever.
“Let’s kidnap Juliette’s followers and threaten to release them if she doesn’t do what we want,” Kaia whispered to him.
“Wait. What? Threaten to release them?”
“They’re so horrible, getting them back would be the punishment.”
He fought a grin.
“Now, let’s zip this convo up and let momma work.” She cleared her throat, straightened her shoulders. “Well, well,” Kaia said, casual yet loud enough to be heard by one and all this time. “Is it my birthday already?”
“No,” Juliette said. “It’s mine.”
Speaking of, “When is your birthday?” Strider asked Kaia. His friends would assume he wanted to know now of all times simply to irritate the newcomers, to show them just how little they mattered. And that was partly true. But Strider found he really, really wanted to know anyway. For himself.
Wide silver-gold eyes swung to him. “You don’t know?”
Pouting, she twirled a strand of her hair. “How can you not know?”
“Do you know mine?” he asked.
“Of course I do. It’s the day you met me.”
As good a day as any. “No, it’s not, because that was a trick question, baby doll. I don’t actually have a birthday. I was created fully formed, not born.” True story.
“You can be such a moron.” She threw up her arms, exasperated. “Don’t argue with me about this kind of thing. I’ll always be right. Seriously. You were dead until you met me and we both know it. Which means I brought you to life. So, happy belated birthday.”
Amun laughed, which was a shock. The serious warrior never laughed. Anya nodded as if she’d never heard a more solid argument and Gideon snickered behind his hand. Scarlet slapped him in the back of the head.
“You’re right,” Strider said, wanting to laugh himself. “So when’s yours?”
“Shut up,” Juliette suddenly snarled. “I thought we were going to trade insults.”
He turned back to her, as if surprised to find she was still there. Fury colored her cheeks a bright pink and even thinned her lips. Excellent. Emotion would make her stupid. The consort, though, looked amused. And impressed, even a little wistful.
Make a play for Kaia, dude. I dare you, Strider projected at him.
As if sensing the new hazard, the man moved his gaze to Strider. For several seconds, they simply glared at each other. There was no way in hell Strider would look away first and the guy must have sensed that, because after flashing his teeth in a show of aggression, he returned his attention to Kaia—and licked his lips.
Oh, you will pay for that. Why Defeat didn’t pipe in with a “Win,” Strider didn’t know. Like that would stop him from doing a wee bit of bitch-slapping, though.
“So how’d you find her?” Strider demanded with more force than he’d intended.
“Please. As if tracking you was hard,” Juliette replied, deigning only to speak to Kaia.
Finally, Defeat perked up.
Not a challenge, you bastard. And where were you when I wanted you?
No response. Of course.
Kaia grinned slowly. “As if I didn’t know you were following me. As if I didn’t leave bread crumbs for you to find. And look who ate those crumbs like a mouse and landed herself in a nice little cheese trap.”
Score. Juliette shifted uncomfortably from one booted foot to another. Her gaze panned the demon-possessed warriors in front of her and she paled.
Defeat chuckled, surprising Strider further. The demon had had a similar reaction during the games, when Kaia had been kicking major ass. At the time, Strider had been positive he’d misheard. That the noise of the crowd had somehow invaded his head. Now…
What did it mean?
Ponder it later. His demon’s amusement wasn’t going to slice through his jugular. If he wasn’t careful, Juliette might. He had to stay focused.
“So, would you like to tell us why you were tracking me before or after we clean the floor with your faces?” Kaia asked casually. “And by clean, I mean coat with your blood.”
“While you decide,” Strider added, “maybe I should introduce you to Kaia’s friends. The guy holding the ax is Gideon. He’s possessed by the demon of Lies. The girl next to him, the one tossing and catching the daggers, is Scarlet. She’s possessed by the demon of Nightmares. The rocking blonde is the goddess of Anarchy.” No reason to mention the “minor” thing. Didn’t sound as impressive.
Anya gave a pinkie wave. “Hey, ya’ll. Welcome to the party. A few facts about me before you’re too dead to ask. I like long walks on the beach, snuggling with my man and murdering people who offend me.” Offered in the sweetest voice, the threat was all kinds of frightening.
Strider opened his mouth to continue, but Juliette snapped, “I don’t care about any of you. We didn’t come here to fight. No reason to. That’s what the games are for.”
Oh, really? He would have placed good money on the opposite being true—and he would have won, no question.
“You sure?” Kaia asked. “I don’t mind making an exception and pretending this is an event. I’ll even let you take the first swing without retaliating. Although I can’t promise my demon-possessed friends here will behave.”
Mutely, Juliette pivoted on a booted heel and stalked to the bar. Her consort and clan followed her.
Won, Defeat said on a happy sigh.
Strider mentally high-fived him, delighting as yet another bout of pleasure spun through him. Only problem was, Kaia couldn’t start training now. She couldn’t leave, either. Leaving would smack of cowardice. So they were stuck, their marathon makeout session on hold, as well.
“Kaia!” a female voice shouted excitedly. Once again the front door swung open. This time, Bianka raced inside, dark hair flying behind her and slapping Lysander in the face as he followed. Another warrior angel strode in behind him. This one had dark hair, piercing green eyes and features so emotionless they resembled a deep, dark void.
Zacharel. Strider had met the winged warrior weeks ago, when the being was sent to the fortress to prevent Amun from leaving. He’d had a hard time facing the guy, his body reacting every time they’d neared each other.
Strider had never swung that way, but he couldn’t be blamed. There was no being more physically perfect than Zacharel. Well, except for Kaia. This time, however, the reaction was muted. Maybe because, as strongly as he reacted to Kaia, nothing else could compare.
Sabin and Gwen strutted in next, moving to flank the angels. Even though Strider hadn’t texted his leader to tell him the Eagleshields were here, the warrior didn’t look surprised to see them. He must have watched them from the heavens, then, as planned.
Any luck finding the Rod?
“Bianka,” Kaia said with a laugh as she launched herself to meet her sister in the middle of the room. The twins hugged and danced as if they hadn’t seen each other in years.
“I would have been here sooner but Lysander held me prisoner in our cloud,” Bianka said with a grin. “He wouldn’t relent until Sabin gave the okay. Which I still don’t understand and will continue to punish him for until he spills. Secrets or guts, I don’t care which.”
That would explain the black eye the warrior currently possessed, Strider thought with a grin of his own.
“You’re so lucky,” Kaia said. “You can harm your consort.”
“I know. And feel free to harm him yourself. Although, maybe don’t hurt him too badly. There’s all kinds of trouble in the heavens nowadays, something about losing a piece of love, whatever that means, and my pookybear is stressed.”
That was the last thing Strider understood as the sisters began talking over each other.
“—because you look amazing and—”
“—wouldn’t believe the balls on—”
“—next time I want video feed of—”
“—cut just right, flesh makes the cutest purse—”
“—she doing here?”
In unison, they faced the bar, leveling Juliette with glares of abject disgust. Juliette pretended not to notice. Not her consort, though. He smiled at the twins as if they were the Christmas present he’d always wanted.
Strider would have volleyed himself like an H-bomb if a hard hand hadn’t settled on his shoulder. “I wouldn’t,” Lysander said.
“You wouldn’t. I would.” His gaze remained locked on the male he desperately wanted to slay.
An equally hard hand settled on his other shoulder. “Perhaps you should rethink your strategy,” Zacharel said in his cold, toneless voice.
Yeah, well, perhaps the humans disagreed with Strider’s “physically perfect” description, because they still loitered inside the bar, paying the angels no heed. And hell, they had wings and wore girly robes. Two other reasons to stare right there.
“They cannot see Lysander or me,” Zacharel explained. “You were correct. If they could, they would stare.”
Strider’s jaw clenched. “Stay out of my head.”
“Stop projecting your thoughts.”
He didn’t mind when Amun read him, but Zacharel? An angel? Freaking irritating. “The consort. What is he?”
Lysander didn’t ask for clarification. “His name is Lazarus, and he is the only son of Typhon.”
Oh, shit. He’d been right—guy was far from human. Strider wanted to shake his head, to deny, to do anything but accept. But when an angel spoke, there was no doubting him. Ever. Truth layered every nuance of Lysander’s voice and every cell in Strider’s body believed what he’d just been told.
As an elite guard to Zeus, Strider had fought many monsters. None had ever compared to Typhon. Bastard was a giant with the head of a dragon and the body of a snake. His wings spanned the entire length of a football field and a never-ending abyss had waited in his eyes.
Typhon had challenged Zeus, and he would have won, had been winning, until Strider and friends arrived on the scene, causing the giant to flee. You’re welcome, he thought dryly, recalling how Zeus had blamed them for distracting him, claiming he would have pulled through without them. Strider hadn’t heard a shred of gossip about Typhon since, and now he had to wonder what had happened to the guy.
“Who’s his mother?” Strider asked.
“I do not know her name, only that she is a Gorgon.”
“This just gets better by the second,” he muttered dryly. Gorgons could turn a man to stone with only a glance. They had snakes on their heads rather than hair—snakes that poisoned their victims when they bit. Medusa was the most famous of them, and so legendary even humans told tales of her evil prowess.
Mortals. So gullible. If they only knew Medusa was the cream of the crop and a real sweetheart compared to others of her race.
“Clearly, he wants a piece of Kaia.”
“Who doesn’t?” Zacharel asked, deadpan. As always. “She is a beautiful woman and I have seen how happy a Harpy can make an angel.”
Strider had his nose pressed into the angel’s a second later, breath sawing in and out. “You better stay away from her.”
“I will,” the angel said easily. “Stay away from her, that is.”
Strider blinked, confused, and backed a step away. “But you just—”
“I just agreed with you. Yes. Every unmated man in this building wants a piece of her.”
He was back in the guy’s face a second later. “And you?” Damn it. He had to get himself under control. He’d vowed not to let himself be challenged majorly for the next few weeks, yet he kept reacting to everyone who so much as glanced in Kaia’s direction.
“I was merely ensuring you desire her, rather than…someone else.”
Someone, like an angel. Once again, he stepped backward. Faster this time, his cheeks heating with mortification. So. The bastard had picked up on the earlier fascination.
“You look all innocent and shit, but you’re really a devil in disguise, aren’t you?”
Zacharel merely shrugged, his expression unchanging.
Yeah. We won that round. The angel hadn’t made a play for Kaia, and that was all that mattered.
Defeat might have agreed, but there were no accompanying sparks of pleasure. Nor were there spurts of pain.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” he grumbled.
“Bianka competes in the next game. Lysander wishes me to—”
“Lysander can speak for himself,” the warrior interjected. “I wished for a supporting arm to either hold me back or help me, should I be inclined to punish Bianka’s opponents.”
Aw. True love. How sickening.
Both Lysander and Zacharel could create swords of fire from nothing but air. A few Harpy heads would probably roll by the time the second game ended if any harm came to Kaia’s twin.
“You do know you’ll embarrass Bianka if you—”
“Who are you talking to, Strider?” Though Haidee had closed most of the distance between them, she asked the question from behind her beer bottle, not daring to glance in his direction. He knew she didn’t fear Kaia, though she should, but merely thought to prevent another attack while the enemy was nearby.
And damn it. The angels had warned him. No one else could see them. Well, Sabin and Gwen could, he was sure, since they were smothering their laughter behind beers of their own.
“No one,” he muttered. No one important. He refocused on Kaia and Bianka, the Twin Troublemakers.
“—no better time,” Bianka was saying.
“Then let’s do it,” Kaia responded with an evil grin. “Juliette will never know what hit her.”
Shit. Do what? With those two, “it” always involved bloodshed, grand theft auto or a five-alarm blaze. Or, on special days, a combination of all three. He watched, dread coursing through him, ready to pounce at a moment’s notice, as the girls moved forward.
Then the worst of his fears were confirmed when they climbed onto the dais.
PARIS PRESSED INTO A SHADOWED corner of the heavenly harem. Mindless chatter and the sound of playful splashing coasted on the over-warm air. The scent of jasmine oil and sandalwood drifted to his nose and he tried not to inhale. Ambrosia layered both, a waft of coconut that lured and seduced, and he couldn’t yet afford to get high. No matter how much his body shook, desperate for a fix.
After his back-alley brawl, he’d taken the first female he’d stumbled upon. Sex had ensured her willingness, despite Paris’s ragged appearance, and he’d healed quickly afterward.
Unfortunately, the vital encounter had made him an hour late to his meeting with Mina, the goddess of weaponry, and he’d had to pay extra for the crystal blades.
She liked her pleasure with a bit of bite, and he’d had to do things to her that might haunt him for years. But he had the daggers now and had crossed item one off his To Do list.
He rubbed the hilts as he scanned his surroundings, hating the cobalt wisps of fabric that fell from the ceiling and draped the entire enclosure. Hating the beaded lounge pillows, the naked, glistening bodies strolling this way and that.
Time to cross off item number two. Arca, the messenger goddess. Surely she would know where Sienna was being held, as one of his many partners had led him to believe. Pillow talk—his best friend, and everyone else’s worst enemy.
If she wasn’t here, he had no idea where to go next. Or who to do.
Don’t think like that. No one here had sensed him. Yet. That would change all too soon. Sex craved today’s dose. Already the scents of chocolate and champagne drifted from him. Soon mortals and immortals alike, all brought here to service Cronus, would find themselves consumed by hunger.
The god king had given up keeping a single mistress. Now he was keeping thirty…three. Yes, thirty-three, Paris counted. The twenty-seven others standing around the pool ledge were bodyguards, not sexual conquests.
Paris doubted Cronus had slept with everyone here, or that the bastard even planned to nail them all in the future. But Cronus would do anything to piss off Rhea, his traitor of a wife, and nothing hurt a woman’s pride quite like infidelity. A fact Paris knew very well.
He’d never been faithful. Could never be faithful. No matter how much he wanted to be. No matter how much his many conquests screamed and ranted at him, desperate for something he couldn’t give them. Something…more. His lovers were his demon’s food, that was all. He couldn’t let them be anything else. And really, he didn’t want them to be anything else.
He just wanted Sienna.
If he could find her, if he could touch her, if she no longer despised him—which didn’t seem likely, especially after the things, people, he’d done up here—would she give herself to him?
So many ifs.
He’d been up here off and on ever since her disappearance, and he’d kept his ear to the ground—aka he’d screwed the information out of anyone close to Cronus. See? Unfaithful. He was here for one woman, but had slept with another. And another. And another.
Buck up. Otherwise, he’d start wanting that ambrosia.
Hell, maybe he should just give in.
Or maybe he should leave. Cronus was going to pop a vessel when he discovered Paris’s whereabouts. Would definitely punish him. Because…to hide his activities, Paris had to wear a necklace—a manlace, as Torin called it—the god king had given him. A manlace he was only supposed to wear to hide himself from Rhea. Using it to conceal himself from Cronus as well was a small crime, sure, but couple that with Paris’s intentions…
You’re close. Closer than you’ve ever been. No matter what happened, he wouldn’t give up. So, no ambrosia and no leaving.
“I’m so hot,” one woman said. She lay on a velvet recliner, naked and glistening, arching her back as she traced her fingertips between her large, tawny-tipped breasts. “So needy.”
“Me, too,” another said. She licked her lips as she searched for a partner.
Oh, yes. They had sensed Paris at last.
His friends were used to him, used to his scent and the need it caused, and were mostly immune. Plus, he’d over-indulged Sex, so the demon had rarely acted out like this. Paris wasn’t yet used to it.
“I’ve never been this aroused,” another female said.
Then, it was on. Moans of pleasure resounded as an orgy broke out. Multiple writhing bodies, hands stroking, legs spreading. The sight failed to arouse even the barest flicker of need. Been there, gotten tired of that.
They were distracted, at least. He studied them, searching for the telltale “long, braided white hair” he’d been told Arca possessed. Another tidbit he’d learned: she was responsible for the children’s story about Rapunzel. Once, when she’d delivered a godly message to a human king, he’d become captivated by her beauty and thought to keep her. And he had very nearly succeeded. Not just because he’d used black magic, but because his timing had been impeccable. The Greeks had gained control of the heavens, locking the Titans away. Arca had been forgotten.
Paris didn’t know if the rest of the story held true. If she had been rescued by a mortal prince. If the mortal had been killed in front of her when the Greeks at last remembered her and dragged her up to the heavens, locking her in another, stronger prison. And he wouldn’t let himself care.
What he did know? Arca had been grabbed right off a golden street and tossed here. Paris could work that to his advantage. She had to despise the king, had to crave revenge.
Also, she wasn’t in this section of the palace. Please be in another.
He slinked along the wall. He could have stripped and presented himself as a slave, or a new addition to the harem, but he refused to relinquish his new weapons. No doubt he’d need them.
He reached a corner, paused, listened, looked. Heard no footsteps. Saw no shadows moving along the marble floor. He inched forward, leaving the bathing area completely. Curtained doorway after curtained doorway greeted him, and he gnashed his teeth. If he had to screw someone just to find out which room belonged to Arca—
A slave strode from the room at the far end of the hallway, a silver tray balanced in his hands. He spotted Paris, but didn’t issue an alarm. No, his tanned, naked body reacted instantly, his belly quivering. He set the tray on the floor and practically skipped over, as if in a trance.
He probably was. Paris hadn’t fed his demon for twenty-three hours. He wouldn’t start weakening for another hour, yet Sex’s pheromones—or whatever it was the bastard released from Paris’s pores—would continue to strengthen until they’d come inside someone.
A few times, Paris had let himself become so weak he couldn’t move. Yet those pheromones had drifted from him, so damn potent that humans had fallen on him, unable to help themselves, lost to lust. A few times, before Paris had reached the point of total weakness, he had lost control of himself and fallen on humans.
The slave reached him. “Who are you, beautiful?” Callused, overworked hands whisked along his chest, caressing.
Maybe he wasn’t as close to finding Sienna as he’d thought. First time he’d neared her, his demon had begun repelling others. This slave was far from repelled. But he wouldn’t change course, Paris thought. He couldn’t. If not here, he had no idea where to go.
“Do you know where Arca is?” he asked, ignoring the question asked of him.
A pink tongue emerged, tracing over already moistened lips. “Yes.”
Relief flooded him. “Tell me. Please,” he added as an afterthought.
Those questing hands slid lower…lower still… “For you, anything.”
He waited, forcing himself to remain still. When no other response was forthcoming, he said, “Tell me.”
“Yes, yes, of course, but first I must…have to…please…” Every word caused the slave’s voice to dip lower, huskier, absolute yearning in the undertones.
Lost, Paris thought. The slave was already lost to his body’s needs. Paris would get no answers until that need was assuaged. He leaned against the wall and stared up at the domed ceiling.
“Drop to your knees,” he commanded, pulling Sienna’s delicate face, dark hair and adorably freckled skin to the forefront of his mind.
WILLIAM PACED THE CONFINES of his prison cell. After the blonde bitch had dropped her bombshell about Kane, he had erupted, shouting and fighting for freedom. She’d soon realized there would be no calming him down and had had his gurney wheeled here.
About an hour ago, he’d regained enough of his strength to break out of the metal restraints. Not so with the cage. Four walls, all bars, and he couldn’t bend or manipulate a single one.
The prison had been built for immortals.
He had to get out of here. Had to get to Kane. Had to stop the warrior from reaching hell. The horsemen. The danger…
“So. You’ve calmed down.”
The blonde. Fury rising inside him, William turned on his heel, following the sound of her voice. And there she was. Ponytail, wire rims, delicate features, lab coat.
“Are you ready to chat now?” she asked.
Don’t erupt again. Much as he currently wanted to rip her throat out, he needed her.
He was at a disadvantage, though. Patches of his skin were still charred, his pants—the only article of clothing currently remaining on his body—were bloodstained and ripped, and his hair was sticking out in spikes.
He was still a babe, though. Surely.
He pasted a seductive smile on his face. “Absolutely I’m ready. What’s your name, darling?”
She arched a brow two shades darker than her hair. “I thought you didn’t care about my name.”
Great. She was one of those. Stubborn and determined not to let a man soften her. Otherwise she would have melted already. And yes, he usually worked that quickly. “That was the pain talking, I promise.”
“Okay. I’ll pretend that I believe you. My name is Skye.”
“I’ll call you Dr. Love Button.”
“And I’ll have you castrated.” There was no heat in her tone.
“Kinky. So you work for Galen, do you?” Gods, William hated the bastard. Not for the sake of the Lords, though that didn’t help the keeper of Hope’s cause, but because William simply couldn’t stand people who were deceitful about their evil. Reminded him too much of his brother. And they didn’t get more deceitful than Galen, who masqueraded as an angel so he could manipulate a bunch of feeble-minded humans into doing his dark bidding.
Skye, if that was her real name, laughed. “Kinda sorta, though mostly no.”
Of all the nonanswers she could have given, that topped the list. “Mind explaining that a little better, pet?”
“Not really, but I’ll give it a shot.” She shook her head and stuffed her hands into the pockets of her lab coat. “I’m not a Hunter. Or a doctor, for that matter. I never finished med school.”
“Then why did you bomb me, nearly kill me, help heal me and what? Lock me away as if you despise me. Oh, yeah. And I can’t forget that you also carted my demon-possessed friend into hell.” Something humans wouldn’t have known how to do—or how to navigate through if by some miracle they did manage to reach it. Which meant a god—or a goddess—had to be involved. And the only divine pain in the ass currently helping mortals was Rhea, the heavenly queen. “Also, how do you know about Galen and Hunters if you’re not part of their brainwashed masses?”
A rosy flush colored her cheeks. “First, I didn’t bomb you. Hunters did, yes. And, okay, so my husband is a Hunter, and that’s why I’m so knowledgeable, but I’m working with him on that, trying to get him out. As for the other, I only locked you away because you were a danger to yourself and everyone around you.”
He placed a hand over his heart, as if she’d mortally wounded him. “As if I’d ever hurt you.”
What would it take to charm her? “Let’s backtrack just a bit. Hunters decided to take me out, your husband among them, and you thought you’d try to save little ole me, even though you don’t yet have your medical degree and even though saving me might piss off your man? I’m touched, truly.”
She fiddled with something plastic in her pocket. “They brought you here, asked me to help.”
“And even though you want your man out of their ranks, you decided to aid them yourself.” He edged toward her, so minutely she wouldn’t realize he was close enough to reach through the bars until it was too late.
“I decided to aid you.”
Another inch. “But you’re not working for them.”
“Shall I tell you all my secrets, then?” Another inch.
Her eyes narrowed, obscuring her pretty irises. “Keep your secrets. I’m not interested.” She withdrew a sucker from her pocket, the wrapper gone, and stuffed the thing in her mouth.
Well, he was definitely interested in hers. “If you don’t work for Hunters, who do you work for? How did you know how to save me? And why don’t you set me free now? As you can see, I’m not a danger to anyone.”
Out popped the candy. “First, I’m currently unemployed. And as for my saving know-how, trial and error. Some races can regenerate limbs, some can’t. Some have wings, most don’t. Some respond to human medicine positively, some negatively. As for the Hunters and your release, I’m sad to say they get you back the moment I decide you’re well enough.”
Yet another inch. Almost there… “But you still claim not to work for them.”
She shrugged. “My husband made the agreement with them. He decides.”
“And you won’t defy him? Or change his mind?” he asked, using his huskiest tone.
“No.” Softly spoken, yet firm, unbending. “I can’t. I wish, but I can’t.”
Finally William reached her. He grinned. “Too bad.” His arm shot through the bars, his fingers wrapping around her fragile neck.
THE NEXT MORNING, STRIDER’S ears were bleeding and his mind was echoing the lyrics from Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” Didn’t help that Kaia and Bianka were still singing. Badly. So damn badly. Not that he’d ever admit that last part aloud. Kaia looked so happy squawking her heart out and he didn’t want to taint an activity that gave her enjoyment. But seriously. He was willing to bet a cat being skinned had better pitch. And yeah, he’d put good money on that bet, not to mention his body and his demon.
Once the girls had started, they hadn’t stopped. Tragically, though hours had passed, neither of them had developed laryngitis.
Besides the humans, who had all taken off at closing, the lucky bastards, no one had dared leave the bar. Not the Lords, the Skyhawks, the angels, nor the Eagleshields.
To the Harpies, this was another type of contest, plain and simple. Who could outlast the other? For once, Strider was willing to lose. He would have left, writhed in (grateful) pain for a few days, but damn it all to hell, he had to protect his little Harpy.
A few times, one of the Eagleshields attempted to head up onstage, take over and put everyone out of their misery. Strider jumped up, ready for action, but Lysander and Zacharel, who still couldn’t be seen by anyone but Strider and Sabin, immediately formed an impenetrable wall of muscle no one was able to pass.
And the Harpies had tried, hitting, kicking and clawing, until finally giving up in frustration. Of course, Kaia and Bianka were blamed, and he’d heard murmurs of wonderment. What type of strange powers did the twins wield?
Good. Let them wonder.
Knowing the angels had Kaia’s back allowed Strider to switch his focus to Juliette and her boy toy Lazarus, who kept their focus centered on Kaia. He didn’t like that. Didn’t like that at all. And he wasn’t going to stand for it.
Just behave, he told Defeat, and we’ll be fine. I’ll handle this.
Despite the noise that had left the demon whimpering and begging for a one-way ticket back to hell, Pandora’s box, anything to escape, Defeat snorted.
So. No cooperation today. That wasn’t gonna stop him, however.
Before he could talk himself into waiting, planning, Strider closed the distance and kicked a chair over to Juliette’s table, the back slats pressing into its surface edge. He eased down backward and propped his elbows on the tabletop.
Immediately he felt the tension in the room escalate, thicken, and he didn’t need to look to know Amun and Sabin had just taken up posts behind him. They had his back, always.
Juliette finally deigned to study him, her soft lavender eyes sweeping over his face and body unhurriedly, languidly, lingering in places they shouldn’t. “Wish and I shall receive. I wanted you to approach me, and so you did. But I must admit, I expected you to do it sooner.”
If she’d truly wanted his attention, by fair means or foul, she would have tried harder to get it. She wouldn’t have waited for him to make a move. Well, if she’d had a pair of balls, she would have. Kaia went after what she wanted, no hesitation. And that, he decided, was exactly how a woman should be. Determined, eager. Sexy.
This one craved revenge, though, her every move designed to help her achieve it. So his approach meant something, he just didn’t know what.
“Why?” he asked, genuinely curious.
She was momentarily taken aback, as if she’d expected him to wax poetic about her beauty, beg for lenience for Kaia, or even grab her up and screw her brainless right here on the table.
“I have something you crave, do I not?”
“The Paring Rod. Yes,” she added at his start of surprise. “I know all about you Lords and your quest for Pandora’s box. I know you need four artifacts to find it, and the Rod is one. Why else do you think I offered it?”
Rather than answer, he asked a question of his own. “How’d you get it?”
A smile bloomed, smug and patronizing. “I never share my secrets.”
Oh, really. He glanced back at Amun. The big, dark warrior was frowning, his features tense. When he caught Strider’s gaze, he gave an abrupt shake of his head. Huh. Could he not read her mind?
That was rare.
For that matter, why hadn’t Sabin used Doubt against her? Or had he tried and, like Amun, failed?
Strider returned his attention to Juliette, keeping Lazarus in his peripheral vision. The fucker hadn’t spared Strider a glance, was still watching Kaia. “Well, to backtrack a bit, the winner will have something I want,” he lied. He would get his hands on the artifact before that final game. He wouldn’t allow himself to believe otherwise.
“Same thing,” she said with a shrug. “Because, either way, Kaia will win nothing.”
Gideon had recently told Strider that it was possible for the demons to escape their bodies and enter others—not permanently and not for long, but just long enough to destroy the person’s mind. Strider would love for Defeat to ravage Juliette, to convince her of her weakness, that she could never hope to win anything.
They’d have to try it. Later. Always later. He dared not risk messing with the unknown now.
“When Kaia loses,” Juliette went on, “I’ll expect you to come to me. And maybe, after you beg, I’ll allow you to please me. And maybe, after you please me, if you can, I’ll let you use my Rod.”
Use my Rod. “That’s what he said,” Strider snickered.
She blinked at him. “That’s what who said?” When he offered no response, she demanded, “What did he say?”
Kaia would have understood the joke. Probably Kaia would have pretended a beer bottle was the Rod and jacked it off while laughing. Gods, he dug her sense of humor.
“Well?” Juliette prompted.
“Nothing,” he said on a sigh. One thing he knew. No matter what happened, he would beg this female for nothing. Were he to seduce her, even to distract her, Kaia would be hurt. Feel rejected all over again. Which was exactly what this vengeful female desired, and that was not a game he would play.
“Well, I don’t care who he is or what he said.” She tossed her hair over one shoulder. “I’m far more beautiful than that redheaded harlot and you will beg for me.”
Anger? No, that was too mild a word for the emotion suddenly sizzling inside his chest. Even Defeat snarled. “Actually, you’re not. There’s no one more beautiful than Kaia. And by the way, she’s not a harlot. She’s mine. And no, I won’t be begging you for anything but your departure.”
Her nostrils flared at the insult. “Is that so? Well, let me ask you a question, Strider, keeper of the demon of Defeat. You are one of the fabled Lords of the Underworld and I have researched you meticulously. You prize victory above all things. So why would you of all warriors choose to be the consort of Kaia the Disappointment?”
That. Was. It. His wee Harpy was getting a new name, pronto. “Kaia is many things to me, but a disappointment isn’t one of them. But riddle me this.” You coldhearted bitch. “Did your consort choose to be with you?” He motioned to the tattooed chains with a tilt of his chin. “’Cause I’m betting he’d shave your head from your neck without a second’s hesitation.”
At last Lazarus attended to those at his table. “You are correct,” he said, and a minute amount of Strider’s hate dulled. Minute being the key word. Strider would still, gladly, shove a dagger through the guy’s heart.
“You just shut your mouth,” Juliette snapped at her consort.
Though glaring, his expression one of molten rage, Lazarus obeyed.
Juliette’s narrowed eyes remained on Strider. “He’s honored to be with me, I tell you.”
Really? “Defensive much?”
Already sharp nails lengthened into claws and black bled into her eyes. Oh, goody. Her Harpy was about to come out and play.
Strider struck while he still could. “Well, I really am honored to be with Kaia, and if you try another stunt like you did at the first game, siccing everyone on her at the same time, I will take it as a personal challenge. In your research, did you discover what happens to those who challenge me?”
More black, the whites of her eyes nearly completely gone. Until Lazarus reached over and patted her hand. That was it. A single pat. The black gradually receded and her nails retracted.
Strider had watched Sabin calm Gwen multiple times, but for the first time he was floored by the power a consort truly had over his Harpy. Floored by how much a Harpy needed that consort.
But Lazarus was clearly a slave, here by force. So why had he calmed the very woman who had enslaved him? Shouldn’t he revel in her upset? And furthermore, how had Juliette captured him? Not once, but twice? The man had once cut his way through a Harpy village and come out the winner. Hell, he was the son of Typhon and a Gorgon, which meant he had powers beyond imagining.
Had he allowed her to capture him? That seemed like the only explanation that made sense. But why would he have done such a thing?
So many questions and none of them could be answered. Strider made a mental note to call Torin and ask the keeper of Disease to work some computer magic, see what he could dig up. Beyond a doubt, something was going on here.
“You can’t do anything to me, warrior.” In control of herself once more, Juliette smiled that smug smile. “Not without casting blame on Kaia. Everyone will see her as the weak loser she really is.” A dramatic pause before she continued in a singsong voice, “Again.”
Exactly what Kaia had once told him. He had believed her, but had discarded the importance of her feelings in light of his own goals. He still did—life and death trumped bruised emotions every time. But now, he was pissed.
Win, Defeat said on a low snarl.
Strider knew what his demon wanted. My pleasure. Before the games ended, Strider was going to “do anything” to Juliette, without having blame cast on Kaia. Challenge issued, challenge accepted.
That was the very reason he’d needed to stay away from the woman, but he wasn’t sorry he’d approached. He was glad. The bitch would pay for everything she’d said today, as well as everything she’d done in the past.
“We’ll see,” he said with a grin of his own. His list of accepted challenges was adding up. Protecting Kaia from other Harpies—a challenge he’d nearly lost, would have lost, if she hadn’t recovered from her injuries. Because she had, because of his blood, he was still in the running. Acquiring the Paring Rod—a work in progress. And now this, destroying Juliette.
“Yes, we will see,” Juliette replied. “Oh, and warrior. You should know something. If the Rod is stolen from me, or if I’m injured before the games end, Kaia will be killed. My clan is very eager to act.”
Trying to tie his hands, and damn, she was doing a good job. How could he keep Kaia safe from an entire Harpy army? A cold sweat broke out over his skin at the thought.
The singing stopped, at last.
Absolute silence suddenly reigned, as if everyone was too afraid to even breathe for fear the noise would jump-start another tune. But, no. Footsteps echoed, and then Kaia was tugging a chair to the table.
“Strider,” she said tightly.
“Baby doll,” he replied, hoping his fear was masked.
“Thank the gods,” Juliette said, amusement never wavering. “Your singing was terrible. My eardrums needed a break.”
Strider cupped Kaia’s nape and massaged. Steady. “I thought she sounded lovely.”
Kaia’s chin lifted. “Thank you.”
“Seriously, baby doll. I could listen to you for hours more.” But please don’t make me.
Defeat might have whimpered.
“That’s because you’re a man of good taste.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek.
The imprint her mouth left behind burned deliciously and he barely restrained the urge to reach up and stroke the mark. When she began to pull away, he tightened his grip on her and held her in place. He liked having her nearby. Especially now, with Juliette’s threat ringing in his already suffering ears.
Kaia watched him for a moment, confusion curtaining her delicate features. Then she schooled her expression to reveal only bored expectancy and turned back to her nemeses. He was happy to note Juliette had watched the tender exchange, fury building in her lavender eyes.
“I second the motion. Listening to that was pure pleasure,” Lazarus said, speaking up for only the second time. Before, his voice had been deep, almost unremarkable. Now it was hypnotic. Sexual. “Kaia the…Strongest, isn’t it?”
Strider gripped the hilt of the dagger sheathed at his side. Bye-bye, minute dulling. Hello, renewed, even more powerful hate. Talk to her like that again. I dare you.
Juliette laughed. “Is that what she called herself? The Strongest?”
Twin spots of pink painted Kaia’s cheeks. “And you’re Lazarus the Tampon, aren’t you?” Juliette sputtered.
Lazarus merely blinked. “I had heard that is how you and your sisters speak of me, and for so very long I have wanted to ask why you refer to me as a woman’s hygiene product. Because I made you bleed?”
Now Kaia was the one to sputter. “Just…you…learn to take an insult the right way, damn it!”
He inclined his head in agreement. “I will endeavor to please you, of course.”
Strider and Juliette experienced the same reaction to the bastard’s words. Irritation. As evidenced by the fact that they both jumped to their feet. Her chair skidded out behind her. His remained between his legs. Amun and Sabin drew closer to him. Kaia—still perched in her chair—shoved them backward, clearly intent on being Strider’s shield. And sword.
Lazarus rose, too. “So. This is go time, as the humans say?” No concern had entered his tone.
“This—” Juliette began harshly.
“I’ve been meaning to chat with you about something important, Julie,” Kaia said, cutting her off.
“Juliette.” Lavender eyes darkened to a deep violet. “My name is Juliette the Eradicator. You will address me with the proper respect.”
“Whatever. It’s a shame you can’t fight in the games. One would almost think you accepted the leadership position because you feared competing.”
A gasp of outrage. Black bleeding in that gaze, removing any hint of color. “I accepted the leadership position so that I could finally—”
“No,” Lazarus said with so much force the bar’s walls actually shook. “Enough.”
Finally. A glimpse of his power. And oh, yes. Something was definitely up there.
Juliette paled, cleared her throat. “What I meant to say was that something can be arranged. You want to fight me, we’ll fight. But really, even if you don’t want to, you’ll end up doing so. You challenged me all those years ago, but I was never allowed to respond.”
“Because you were too chicken?”
“First,” the bitch growled, “we had to recover from the damage you caused.”
“Me? What about him?” She jerked her thumb at Lazarus.
“You know the answer to that. He acted only because of your actions. Now zip your mouth and listen. Second, we had to replenish our numbers, so killing another Harpy outside the games was forbidden. Third, your mother would have declared war against my people.” Fury faded, replaced by more of that smug superiority. “But none of those things stand in our way anymore.”
Kaia flinched at the reminder of her mother’s denunciation.
Juliette pulled a necklace from her shirt and fingering the wooden medallion hanging on the chain. “Pretty, isn’t it?”
There was no hiding the trembling of Kaia’s chin as she eyed the medallion. “I’ve seen better.”
That’s my girl. Clearly, seeing the necklace hurt her and Juliette knew why. Now he wanted to know why. Still, that was his baby doll. Always had to have the last word, no matter what. He couldn’t fault her for that, was actually proud of her. Aroused by her.
He’d always thought this aspect of her personality was dangerous to him, and it was—but damn, when she turned it on other people, he wanted to pound on his chest like a Neanderthal. Maybe carry her back to his cave and have his wicked way with her.
Maybe? Ha! He wanted to dominate this female no one else could control. The female who scratched everyone else, but treated him to the tenderest of caresses.
Before Juliette could work up a stinging response, every Harpy in the building, even Kaia, stopped what she was doing and frowned.
“What?” Strider asked, concerned.
No answer was forthcoming. In unison, the females withdrew their cell phones. Kaia read the backlit screen and stiffened.
“The next location has been revealed,” she said, her tone devoid of emotion. “We have twenty-four hours to get there.”
Juliette chuckled. Though she was leader, she’d checked her phone, too. Shouldn’t she already know where they were headed? “Poor Kaia has a very tough decision to make, doesn’t she?” she murmured, and then called, “Let’s move out, team.”
At long last, the Eagleshields and their consorts, Lazarus included, stomped out of the bar. Juliette lingered in the doorway, smiling over at Kaia. “Too bad you won’t be able to hide behind your men this time, huh?” With that, she slipped into the sunlight.
“What’s going on?” Strider demanded, forcing her to face him. Why did Juliette seem to think he couldn’t go?
“We have to leave,” she whispered, agonized.
We. Good. “I’ll get my things.”
“No.” She shook her head, hair gliding over her shoulders, his hands, her gaze never quite meeting his. “We. Meaning me and my sisters. Juliette was right. You and your friends can’t come.”
Like hell. “Why? Where are you—we—going?”
A sigh shuddered from her. “The Odynia. Better known as Hera’s Garden of Goodbyes, since she used the place to get rid of her opposition without ever having to raise a hand against them. Of course, Rhea’s in charge of it now, so I guess she’ll be our hostess there.”
Rhea, the Titan god queen and true leader of the Hunters. Far more dangerous, far more powerful, than Galen could ever hope to be. If Strider attended this portion of the games he’d most likely walk right into a trap. If he stayed behind, Kaia could be hurt, and he’d be unable to reach her and help her heal.
No way in hell, he thought.
THE STUPID MAN WOULDN’T stop following her!
Getting away from Strider had been easy. Letting his demon “win” hadn’t. After dropping the Rhea bombshell, Kaia had requested a private moment to talk with him. And by talk, she’d let him assume she meant to kiss him senseless.
They’d stepped outside the bar, the cool air wrapping around her and freezing her already chilled blood. Then, before Strider could utter a word, she’d planted a swift kiss on his gorgeous lips—unfortunately not leaving him senseless—and challenged him to stay put for one hour. Oh, and he had to keep Sabin and Lysander by his side.
The savage fury he had radiated as she collected Bianka and Gwen and walked away…the way he’d tackled Sabin and Lysander when the two tried to follow…the feral way he’d fought them…
She would never forget. She’d almost turned around a thousand times, wanting so badly to beg his forgiveness and plead with him to join her. She’d used his demon against him, something she’d never wanted to do. And to do so after they’d kissed so spectacularly, when they’d finally turned onto the right road, headed in the right direction, gods. Only thoughts of Rhea and the goddess’s vicious nature stopped her. Kaia couldn’t keep her mind on the prize and protect Strider at the same time. Hunters could be lying in wait at the Odynia even then, ready to take his head.
At all costs, she had to protect Strider. She needed him more than she needed air to breathe. And he’d been softening toward her. Wanting more from her. He’d kissed her in full view of everyone. Kissed her down and dirty, like they were about to make love. Like he couldn’t get enough of her. Like she was a drug he’d been denied for too long. Then he’d called her baby doll and petted her like a treasured companion.
She had ruined everything by challenging him rather than talking to him, and the knowledge made her stomach cramp. But there’d been no time to explain or convince him of the merits of her plan. Team Kaia only had twenty-four hours—nineteen now—to reach Rhea’s garden in the heavens, but to do so, they had to first reach the portal the god queen had opened.
With Taliyah and Neeka scouting ahead, Kaia and the rest of her ladies made their way to the wintry wonder-land of Alaska. Alaska, the homeland of the Skyhawks, and the location of the makeshift portal—a location chosen in honor of the first contest winner.
Their destination? A forgotten stretch of land between two specific mountains. They left no footprints, disguised their scents and stayed completely out of sight. Just in case another team thought to hamper their progress.
However, nothing hampered the determined men on their trail.
“We’re going to have to hobble them,” Gwen said, mist forming in front of her face. She hopped from the top of one ice-covered tree to another, strawberry-blond locks blowing behind her.
A suggestion from Gwennie, the nice one. “No,” Kaia said, jumping to a new tree herself, her wings fluttering beneath her white faux fur coat. That would cause Strider to lose and she couldn’t bear the thought of him being laid low, writhing in pain for days, and weakened as a result. It would make him an easy target for Juliette. “The portal will close at 8:01 tomorrow morning. We’ll dive through just before it closes, and then they won’t be able to follow us.”
“That’s risky,” Bianka said from directly behind her. The limb swayed under their combined weight. Slight though it still was. “We might be too late to enter ourselves and we can’t afford to be disqualified from a competition. If we are, we’ll be out for good with no hope of winning third place, much less first prize.”
Damn it. Consorts were supposed to make life easier, not more complicated. Kaia paused, scrubbed a hand down her chilled face, suddenly so weary she just wanted to collapse. She hadn’t slept in days, not really. First she’d been too busy healing, and then she’d been too busy worrying about possible sneak attacks. “Can you think of any other way to pull this off without hurting our men?”
There was a whistle of air, unnatural, causing her ears to twitch. It was a sound Kaia recognized very well, and dread washed through her.
They were about to be ambushed.
“Duck!” she shouted, tugging Bianka down with her. The branch shook, but just over their heads, an arrow embedded in the trunk. The scent of avocado and salt hit her nose and she cringed.
“I broke a goddamn nail!” Gwen shouted, more pissed than Kaia had heard her since her bridezilla days.
Kaia sniffed the air, discovered remnants of sweat and fear. Harpies had not loosed that arrow; humans had. Though she would bet big money Harpies had paid the humans to do so. How else would they have known to use arrowheads carved from the pit of an avocado and dipped in salt rather than bullets? How would they have known that combined, the substances weakened a Harpy’s heart for weeks, no matter where she was hit?
Or, if not hired by Harpies, they’d been hired by Rhea herself, since Kaia and company were friends of the Lords. As one of the humans drew the string on his bow taut, Kaia caught sight of the figure eight tattooed on the inside of his wrist. The symbol of Infinity. The symbol of the Hunters.
With Strider, Sabin and Lysander nearby… Damn it. She didn’t want Strider anywhere near these sick bastards. And maybe that’s why the Hunters had been sent. Either to take out the boys, or to take out the girls dating them.
Not that they’d succeed.
“They were lying in wait, and you know how I hate when people lie in wait,” Bianka growled, dropping her bag of clothes and supplies. There was a puff as the heavy nylon landed in the snow. “Gotta do a little punishing.”
“Yeah.” In quick succession, six more arrows slammed into her tree, each closer than the last. She withdrew two daggers, found her targets, tossed one, then the other. There was a grunt, a scream. “Save me one, will you?” she asked, dropping her bag beside her twin’s.
“Hell, no. It’s your turn to save one for me.”
“Do it anyway and I’ll stop calling you the Heavenly Hills Ho.” Kaia blew her a kiss before dropping…falling…landing in a crouch with only the slightest jarring. Little snowflakes floated around her as she swiftly scanned her surroundings. She counted fifty-three Hunters, most still on the ground, bows cocked and ready.
“You fight dirty, Kye,” Bianka called from just behind her. “But you’ve got yourself a deal.”
She chuckled, happy she wouldn’t have to control herself. More arrows peppered the trees, still far too close for comfort. Her Harpy squawked for release. Kaia didn’t even try to hold the little sweetie back. Her sisters knew what to do, knew how to stay out of harm’s way. Instantly her vision tunneled to black, little dots of red becoming her focus. Body heat.
Her mouth watered for a taste of blood.
These men would hurt Strider if given a chance, and so these men would die. Painfully. She grinned as she unfolded herself, climbing to her feet.
“There, she’s there!” someone shouted.
“I see her!”
A second later, arrows soared toward her. She watched them—six of them, moving so slowly. One by one, she caught them, looked them over and threw them down. They weren’t very fun toys.
“Well, did you see that? Impossible!”
Kaia leapt into action. One blink, and she was in the midst of the humans. She danced through them, claws slashing, fangs ripping. The sweet taste of blood slid down her throat. Soon, screams of pain and pleas for mercy echoed all around her.
Mercy? What was mercy? She knew not the word. The only word she knew was more. She needed more. More screams, more blood. She slashed with more fervor, bit with more enthusiasm. La la la, this was so much fun. Oh, look. She knew other words. So much fun. Bones made the most delightful sound when they broke. And when skin ripped, the most magnificent lullaby was created. Scream, scream, plea. Scream, scream, plea. La la la.
All too soon, the bodies stopped rising. The screams and pleas died. There were no more bones to break, no more skin to tear. No more lullabies. Kaia stilled, frowned. But…but…she wanted more. Why couldn’t she have more?
In, out she breathed—and caught the scent of cinnamon. Cinnamon equaled Strider.
Her sexy, irreverent consort who called her baby doll.
The Harpy squawked and, sated, calmed by Strider, retreated to the back of her mind.
Kaia blinked into focus. She was panting, she realized, sweat coating her skin. No, not sweat. Blood. Blood and…other things.
“Nice to have you back, sister dear,” Bianka said, slapping her on the shoulder in a job well done. “As promised, I pulled one aside and saved him for you.”
Kaia turned, saw the crimson snow, the motionless bodies—or rather, what was left of them. Humans had a saying. Mess with the bull and get the horns. Well, Harpies had a saying, too. Mess with a Harpy and die.
The only remaining—and living—human was pinned to a tree. He had an arrow protruding from each shoulder and ankle, and he quaked as Kaia neared him. Each step hurt her and she paused midway to glance down at herself. When she saw nothing out of the ordinary, save for the blood, she removed her now red coat. She had cuts on her arms, stomach and legs—and the tip of an arrowhead in her side. Shit.
“Shit,” Bianka echoed as she, too, noticed. “Let’s get that out before any more damage is done.” Her twin grabbed her bag, withdrew a pair of pliers, pushed Kaia into a sit and went to work, digging out every single shard.
The burn…Kaia wanted to yell and really wanted to bat her sister’s hands away, but she didn’t. She forced herself to concentrate on something else. Her team. She studied Gwen, who was pale but unharmed. There were two team members beside her. Juno and Tedra. One was scratched up, but the other was riddled with puncture wounds and swaying on her feet. She wouldn’t be fighting in the next competition. Damn it!
And hadn’t Kaia smelled cinnamon just a little while ago? Wasn’t that how she’d calmed? So where was Strider now?
“All done,” Bianka said, straightening. Worry layered her tone. They both knew Kaia needed Strider’s blood, or she’d be in bad shape later.
“Thank you.” Kaia stood and closed the rest of the distance between her and the Hunter. He was taller than her by at least five inches and probably outweighed her by a hundred pounds, yet the scent of fear wafted from him, acrid and potent. He’d had a front row seat to the show, after all.
“Please…don’t kill me…” he cried. “Not like that. Not like them.”
“I won’t,” she promised with a cold smile. “And in return, you’re going to do me a favor. Yes?”
“Yes.” Tears of relief tracked down his cheeks. “Please, yes.”
“Good. That’s good. Now, listen closely because I won’t repeat myself.” She unsheathed the dagger from her ankle holster and ripped a strip of furred cloth from her fallen coat.
“Wh-what are you doing? You said you weren’t going to hurt me.”
“No, I said I wasn’t going to kill you and I’m not.” Moving swiftly, she worked the crimson strip around his neck. “Are you listening? Good. Here’s what you’re going to do…”
STRIDER SCENTED THE BLOOD long before he saw the pools of it.
He’d been on Kaia’s trail for hours, his demon going crazy inside his head. Win, win, win. If he heard the word one more time, he was going to kill someone. Namely himself. Then Kaia. Seemed impossible, but he’d find a way to do it. He was that determined and she was that much to blame for this mess.
Except, as he sniffed to make sure he’d identified the notes correctly, he forgot about his irritation with Defeat, forgot about his anger with Kaia and thought only of her safety. Definitely blood.
He and Sabin shared an oh-shit glance and burst into rapid-fire movement, shoving past ice-laden branches and being slapped in the face for their efforts. Strider had his Sig in one hand and a dagger in the other, ready for anything—except to see Kaia hurt. Or worse.
Win, win, win.
Find her? Yeah, he would. Save her? Yeah, he’d do that, too. Lysander and Zacharel flew overhead and they must have scented the odor of death as well, because those long, graceful wings began flapping frantically, and they began a quick descent.
All four men hit the scene at the same time.
Bodies littered the ground. All male. Blood soaked the snow, evidence the humans had not died easily—but by the end, they had probably begged for that death.
Lysander walked the scene, sniffing, touching. “A few of the Harpies were injured.”
“Kaia?” he croaked, his heart skidding to a stop.
A terrible pause. “Yes, but she walked away. They all did.”
Thank the gods. His heart eked back into a semblance of a beat.
“These humans were tainted by the demon of Strife,” Lysander added. “Their minds were locked only on dissension.”
Rhea was possessed by the demon of Strife. And Rhea had opened her Garden of Goodbyes to all Harpies. To better destroy the women of her enemies? “Not the demon of Hope?” he asked, hopeful himself.
“No. This was Strife’s doing, no question.”
Shit. Strider’s job—protecting Kaia—was now ten thousands times more difficult. Not that he cared. He’d do what he had to do, even go up against the queen of the gods. “How can you tell?”
“Each demon emits a certain scent.” The words were said with disgust. “And the pungent stench of discord seeps from these men even still.”
“Our girls are in danger, then,” Sabin growled.
“We know.” But that was Sabin for you, Captain Jackass of the USS Obvious. Strider scrubbed a hand down his face. Now he was just being testy. Something else to blame on Kaia. Who was injured, without his blood to heal her.
“I will summon my angels to clean the mess,” Zacharel said.
His angels? “Not yet.” Amid the death, he, too, caught the hint of a scent. Kaia’s, to be exact. His sense of smell might not be as highly developed as Lysander’s, but when it came to Kaia, Strider was attuned to the littlest things.
Sniff. He followed the coppery odor and Sabin followed him. Sniff. Strider crouched and lifted a broken arrowhead. Blood coated the tip. He brought that tip to his nose and gave another sniff, this one deeper. Sure enough, Kaia’s scent was there. As Lysander had said, she’d been injured.
Having the evidence right in front of him did something to him. A red haze of fury dotted his vision. The thin shaft snapped in his hand. I need to hold her. Make sure she’s okay. And I need to hurt the one who hurt her.
“She’s fine,” Sabin said. “She walked away. The angel can’t lie.”
He heard a muffled whimper and every muscle in his body stiffened. Someone lived. He and Sabin broke apart, winding around a thick tree stump. A man—human, a Hunter, his arms pinned at his sides and turned to display his tattooed wrist—was trapped there, wearing nothing but a blood-coated bow around his neck. Furred, like Kaia’s coat.
A gift, then.
When the Hunter spotted the warriors, he began crying in earnest.
Strider stomped to him and gripped his chin, his dagger pressed against the man’s cheek. “You’re alive for a reason. What is it?” Wait. Precautions first. “If you dare try and utter a word of challenge, I’ll cut your throat before you can finish. Understand?” He wouldn’t put something like that past his Harpy. She was a wily little thing, determined to leave him behind.
Well, too bad. Rhea would strike at him the moment she spotted him, but he didn’t give a shit. He wasn’t supposed to hurt her, because hurting her would hurt Cronus—literally—and Cronus would then eat him for lunch. Neither thought bothered him. He was going to be there for Kaia. Was going to shelter her from the god queen at all costs.
For the Paring Rod, yeah. For his demon, yeah, that, too. But mostly because he was desperate to finish what they’d started inside the bar. If he didn’t get that lithe little body under him, and soon, he would implode.
What happened to waiting until after the competition?
Stupid plan’s been ditched. I want her now.
“Yo-you are the one named St-Strider?” the human asked.
He gave a stiff nod.
“I’m—I’m supposed to tell you n-not to worry. The g-girls have everything under c-control.”
Sabin moved to Strider’s side. “That’s all?”
The human flinched. “N-no. If you follow them, if they catch sight of you, they’ll let themselves be d-disqualified.”
Strider and Sabin shared another look, far past oh-shit and now entering oh-fuck territory. If anyone was willing to cut off her nose to spite her beautiful face, it was Kaia.
“Thanks for relaying the message,” he told the Hunter—just before finishing him off.
He expected the angels to admonish him, but they remained silent as the human’s head lolled forward, his worthless life now expunged.
Sometimes, Strider let his enemy walk away, hoping they’d learned a lesson about the shades of gray between good and evil. This time, no, that wouldn’t be happening. The man had attacked Kaia. His fate had been sealed already.
The victory was mild and Defeat barely reacted.
“Come on,” Strider said, cleaning his blade on his jeans and jabbing it back into its sheath. “We’re not too far behind them.”
Zacharel tilted his head to the side in thought. “You are willing to risk—”
Strider shut him up with a glare. “We’re going. We’re just gonna have to make sure we aren’t seen.”
THE PORTAL TO THE HEAVENS rested exactly where the text had promised, a shimmery pocket of air between two iced-over, moonlit mountains. Kaia’s team was crouched on a cliff high above, watching, waiting. Dreading.
Kaia lay on a slippery ledge, the cold seeping all the way to her bones. Normally, such frigid temperatures did not affect her. This time, she shivered, her teeth chattering. Her wound might be infected, her body slightly feverish, but at least there was no pain. The cold had numbed the stupid, still-gaping injury.
To heal from this kind of injury, she needed Strider’s blood.
Actually, she just needed Strider. She wasn’t sure how she’d ever gotten along without him. Naughty girl that she was, she wouldn’t get him. Not anytime soon—and maybe not even after that. Hopefully, he’d gotten the message she had left him and had charted a course to Buda. His well-being came before her understandably great need for him. But only a little!
She twisted the dial on her binoculars for a closer look at the surrounding area. White, white and more white, but so far, she’d spotted no other Harpies. No misty air to reveal the telltale sigh of heated breath. No bright colors slinking down the rocks, inching ever closer to safety. No clicks in the breeze as arrows were notched. Even still, she expected foul play. At least until they reached the bottom of the mountain. The moment her team stepped through the portal, they would be on neutral territory. No one would be able to strike at them.
The problem, however, would be reaching bottom.
“I think we’re good,” Taliyah said, confiscating the binoculars and panning the higher peaks. “And really, we can’t wait much longer. You and Tedra need to be tended, and we can’t do that here.”
Bianka confiscated the binoculars from Taliyah and peered down at the flatlands. “If Lysander were here, he could fly above and—”
“Again with this crap?” Kaia reclaimed the binoculars and tossed them over her shoulder. For the past hour, Bianka had recited all the reasons they’d be better off if the men were here. As if Kaia didn’t already know, damn it.
“Hey!” Neeka gasped. “That hurt.”
Kaia twisted, grimaced at the twinge in her side. The beautiful girl was scowling and rubbing at the lump now sprouting below her left eye. “I’d say sorry, but it was totally Bianka’s fault because she—”
“Shh!” Bianka clamped a hand over her mouth, silencing her. Her twin pointed to the shimmering portal with her free hand. “Look.”
She looked. The Falconways and the Songbirds had just crested the far hillside and were sprinting toward the portal, fast…faster…mere blurs now. No one attempted to stop them, and one by one, they whisked through that dazzling air pocket, disappearing from view.
If Hunters waited, determined to strike, they would have at least peeked from the shadows to see who approached. Right?
“Okay,” Kaia said with a nod. “We’ve got a direct shot to the portal, so here’s what we’re gonna do. Two of us are too injured to run and we’ll slow whoever tries to carry us, and I don’t want us separated, so we’re all going to slide over this ledge and ride our backpacks to the bottom. Like sleds. Then boom, we’ll be in the heavens, healthy and whole, before we know it.”
Murmurs of agreement met her words.
Within minutes, they were lined up and ready to go. Kaia had the lead. She perched on her backpack, her legs already dangling over the side of the ledge. Her heart drummed in her chest. She’d jumped from this very mountain a thousand times before, playing Who Can Break the Least Amount of Bones with Bianka. She usually won— Bianka always covered her face and let her body just kind of flop on the ice. Not that it mattered now, she thought. Concentrate. It was just, if one of her girls was hurt…
She gritted her teeth. Not gonna happen, not again.
As she exhaled, mist formed in front of her. “Here—” she scooted “—we—” she teetered… “Go!” She slid. Wind slapped at her as she descended, faster and faster, just as the other teams had done. The outside of her backpack was shredding quickly, and her coat would be next to go, then her skin. Almost there…
An arrowhead sank into her thigh muscle. Before she could react, another nailed her. She yelped in pain. Damn it! How? Where were— There. Hunters had stepped through miniature air pockets of their own, as if they’d been there, hovering between one realm and the other, watching and waiting. She wanted to fly off her pack and rip through them, one by one, but…she whizzed through the portal, and they disappeared from view.
A rush of dizziness. A wink of too-bright light. Then her backpack skidded to a stop, catching on thick ropes of tree roots. She blinked, clearing her head and reaching for the arrow still protruding from her leg. Gwen slammed into her with a breathy hmph, accidentally dislodging her hand.
Another yelp left her, another lance of pain shooting through her entire body.
“You okay?” Gwen demanded, already on her feet and dragging Kaia out of the path of the others.
“Sure, sure.” She scanned for the Falconways and the Songbirds. No sign of them, thank the gods. Well, thanks to all but Rhea, the bitch. Kaia would not be thanking her for anything, even in her own head. “You?”
“Yeah, but I think they got Bianka. I heard her shout.”
No! She would rather receive a thousand injuries than allow Bianka to receive even one. “I will murder—” The threat died in her throat. One of the tree limbs was reaching out, down, moving stealthily, purposely, the leaves—two of them, a top and a bottom—surprisingly jagged at the edges and clamping open and closed like teeth.
Alive. The trees were alive. Eyes wide, Kaia slapped at the huge, mouthy leaves and rolled out of the way. Yet another lance of pain. “Did you see that?” she panted.
The limb wrenched backward, away from them.
“Yeah, and I’m still reeling. Be careful.” Gwen spun this way and that, a dagger in each hand, watching the trees, daring them to try that move again.
Suddenly Bianka appeared, gliding to a bumpy stop. She had arrows in her shoulder, forearm and stomach. Blood soaked her already. “Shit! They got me.”
Seeing her, Kaia had to swallow a whimper.
Rhea really hadn’t wanted them to make it this far, she thought darkly. Well, Rhea would be in for a nasty surprise. “I’ll help you in a sec, sis. Just have to take care of something first.” Rage gave Kaia strength as she yanked the arrowhead out of her leg. That done, she limped to her sister and tugged her out of the line of fire—and more of those chomping tree limbs.
Gwen helped, kicking and slashing until they once again flew backward.
“Those bastards!” Bianka rasped, paling from blood loss and pain.
“We’ll have to worry about the Hunters later.” And their payback. “I think the trees are freaking vampires.” Shaking, Kaia kneeled and gently—well, as gently as she was able—removed the arrowheads from her twin.
Bianka complained the entire time, yelling at Kaia, then Taliyah, Neeka and the others when they arrived. Neeka was the only other member hurt this round and Taliyah doctored her. Not a peep did either make.
“What if the boys come through the portal, huh?” Kaia asked. “They won’t be prepared.”
“If they’re dumb enough to cross over, they deserve what they get. Now come on,” Taliyah said. “We may be on neutral ground right now, but we’ve still got an hour-long hike before we reach our destination. We can’t be late.”
Yeah, and a lot could happen in an hour. “You’re just jealous because you don’t have a white knight racing to your rescue.”
Taliyah rolled her baby-blues. “Your injuries have made you delusional. When I find my consort, I plan to stab him in the heart before he can cause me a moment’s unease.”
“I understand. Your consort can’t compare to mine, no one’s can, so you’d rather go without.”
“Mine’s better than yours,” Bianka said.
“Girls.” Taliyah clapped her hands to gain their attention. Just as she’d done when they were children, arguing over a toy. “Both of your consorts suck. Now shut up and move out.”
Bianka stuck her tongue out at Kaia. “Mine sucks less than yours,” she muttered.
“Yeah, well mine sucks better than yours.” Kaia kept her eye on the portal as they limped away, both relieved and worried when the men failed to walk through.
THREE CHEERS. NOT. EVERY team arrived on time. Of course, Team Kaia was the last to cross the battleground threshold, but whatever. They’d sustained a few bumps and bruises along the way, but there’d been no more ambushes, so Kaia wouldn’t complain (as Bianka was still doing).
The worst “bruise” belonged to her. One of the man-eating trees had taken a bite out of her, reaching her before she could frighten it away. Sharp, leafy teeth had snapped onto her wrist and sunk to the bone. As she’d yelped, the tree had seemed to, well, gag, shuddering and swaying, and then that tree had withered right before her eyes, turning black, ceasing all movement and allowing Bianka to remove the limb with a single strike of her dagger.
After that, the trees had left them alone. Maybe her fever had poisoned the one that had bitten her and the rest were sentient enough to fear the same. Yeah, she definitely had a fever and there was nothing slight about it now. Gods, no ice around here, but she was still trembling from cold.
Toughen up. This is for Strider.
The competing Harpies crowded the only clearing, with thick (non-biting?) plants surrounding them. The air was warm, the sun golden and bright, little flickers of purple, blue and pink in the undertones. There were no consorts or slaves present and Kaia wondered why these other girls had left their men behind. Certainly not for the same reasons she had.
Rhea was nowhere to be seen. Juliette, however, stood on an outstretched tree limb overlooking the masses, black hair streaming behind her in a perfect breeze neither too light nor too strong.
“Welcome, fellow Harpies,” she announced. “I’m happy to inform you that each of the competing teams has met the deadline.” Her lavender gaze leveled on Kaia. Having used a compact to check her reflection—yes, appearances counted, even out here—Kaia knew what Juliette saw. Dark half moons under her eyes, skin pallid, except for her over-bright cheeks. “Thankfully, no one was way-laid.”
Bitch knew about the Hunters. How? Only one reason made sense. Was she…could she be working with Rhea? Kaia’s stomach twisted, acid churning, frothing.
Juliette continued gleefully, “As you probably suspected, you’re here to fight,” and cheers abounded. When they faded a few moments later, she added, “The time has come for the second game, Death Drop.”
Now “oohs” and “ahhs” echoed.
Juliette held up her hands for silence. “First, a little about the game. You will choose four members to compete. Those four must fight here in the trees and in the air, all at the same time. Your only goal is to knock the opposition to the ground. Once a Harpy touches the ground, she’s out for good. And you’ll be thrilled to know that there are no rules restricting the methods that you use, so feel free to hit below the belt, as humans are fond of saying.”
Eager cackling, fists bumping together. Kaia remained in place, unmoving, heart hammering.
“The first team to lose all four members is disqualified,” Juliette said. “To bring home today’s victory, one member of your team must be the very last to hit the ground. It’s that simple and that easy.”
Yeah. Right. Nothing was simple or easy with Juliette.
A toothy, white grin flashed. “Oh, and before you ask. There’s no time limit. This contest will last as long as it needs to last. But you only have five minutes to decide who fights and who remains on the ground, waiting to administer much-needed medical aid.” She glanced at the timer hooked around her neck, right beside her Skyhawk warrior medallion. A medallion Tabitha must have given her—Kaia’s medallion—even though they were part of different clans. “Those five minutes start…now.”
Within seconds, the teams were sectioned off in huddles, feminine murmurs blending in the daylight.
“I want this,” Kaia said to kick them off. She had a lot to prove.
Bianka kissed her cheek. “I love you, Kye, you know that, and you know I think you’re Grade A at brute force and vengeance, but flying, well, after everything that was done to you last time, isn’t wise. Not to mention the fact that you’re still injured!”
“Yeah,” she replied dryly. “Thanks for not mentioning. Just for the record, Heavenly Hills, you were just shot up, too.”
“Hey! You promised never to call me by that ridiculous name again.”
“Like that’s a promise I can really keep.”
“Bee’s right,” Taliyah said, ignoring them. “Everyone’s already out for our blood. They’re going to gang up on us big-time, so we have to have our fastest players in the air.”
Kaia sputtered. “I know you’re not suggesting what I think you’re suggesting. I’m fast. Like, bullet fast.”
“Yeah, but Gwen’s faster. So am I, for that matter. So is Neeka. So is Bianka. Hell, Juno and Tedra are faster than all of us combined,” Taliyah added, motioning to their other members. “That’s why I recruited them. Plus, Juno hasn’t played yet, and Tedra’s already healed from the arrows.”
Everyone but Kaia nodded. She pressed her tongue into the roof of her mouth. This almost seemed rehearsed. What was clear, though, was that they didn’t want her fighting. Didn’t think she could help, only hinder.
Gods, the hurt she experienced…the humiliation…both nearly knocked her down. Made her want to curl into Strider’s lap and cry. His strong arms would band around her and he would coo at her, comfort her, then tell her how capable she was.
Last time they were together, he’d wanted her to train with his friends. Even he doubted her skill.
She could have fought her sisters on this. Could have pulled rank and insisted. Instead, she nodded as if she agreed with them. Just as she’d done with Strider. One, they would have argued with her and she had no solid legs to stand on. Just wound-ridden ones. Two, as they’d so rudely pointed out, she wasn’t at her best. And three, victory was priority one, not her pride.
“All right,” she said, forcing a confident tone. “Bianka, Juno and Tedra. You’re up. If you’re okay, Bee. You were shot up pretty badly.”
“I’m fine.” She offered Kaia a relieved yet sad smile. She knew the thoughts pouring through Kaia’s mind. “I was carrying a vial of Lysander’s blood with me and drained the contents on the way here.”
Smart. And hell, why hadn’t she thought to ask Strider for a vial of his blood? Not that he would have agreed to give her one. Not after everything she’d done to him. Plus, to do so, he would have to care for her. Would have to be more concerned for her health than with remaining at her side.
“You guys can decide on the fourth member,” she said, knowing they would anyway.
They accepted the decree without a token argument, surprise, surprise, and it was swiftly decided that Gwen would join the fray. Sabin’s blood had healed her after Tag and she hadn’t been hit by an arrow. Neeka’s deafness could be used against her and Taliyah wasn’t quite as equipped for airplay as the youngest Skyhawk.
A shrill whistle blasted and the groups quieted.
“Time’s up,” Juliette announced. “Take your places, everyone.”
Footsteps shuffled. While chosen team members climbed to the top of the trees, Kaia remained on the ground, watching, a painful vise-grip on her heart. A grip that tightened when she caught Juliette’s eye and the Harpy grinned with her patented smug satisfaction.
Knew you couldn’t cut it, that smile seemed to say.
Kaia tried not to flush or tear up.
“Don’t pay any attention to that hag,” Taliyah said, slapping her on the shoulder. “You’re better in every way.”
Neeka dug the hopefully unneeded medical supplies from their backpacks and joined them. None too soon, either.
Juliette raised a gun high in the air, held steady while everyone tensed, waiting, expectant, then squeezed the trigger.
High above was an explosion of movement. Leaves rustled and bodies slammed together. Grunts of might, groans of pain and screams of rage rang out, tolling bells of injury and satisfaction. Kaia tried to keep track of her sisters, but the girls were too high up, moving too quickly, disappearing behind leaves and clouds and she soon gave up. She watched the ground, waiting for bodies to fall.
Within minutes, she felt a whoosh of air, tensed when she heard a splat. Tensed even more when she spied a motionless…Songbird a few feet away. Blood pooled around the girl as one of her teammates rushed to administer aid.
Thank the gods. Kaia’s stomach unclenched, though the burn of acid didn’t recede. Would Gwen end up that way? Bianka?
Hands fisting, body trembling, she tore her gaze from the huddle of Songbirds. At the far edge of the clearing, she spotted a shake of leaves and a flash of dark hair. An innocent Harpy, just needing a moment alone? A malicious Harpy bent on attacking someone, even though they stood on neutral ground? A Hunter, who wouldn’t care about anything but destroying his target? Or maybe Rhea herself?
Hell, for all Kaia knew, that dark hair belonged to Sabin. Or even Lazarus. The way he’d watched her at the bar, the way he’d taunted her…he wasn’t done with her. That, she knew all too well.
Taking no chances, she leaned over to Taliyah and whispered, “Saw something. Gonna check it out.”
Her oldest sister didn’t switch her attention from the fight. “Be careful. Shout if you need me.”
She knew her sister well enough to know Taliyah was merely humoring her. If she’d thought there was an actual threat, Taliyah the Cold-Hearted would have insisted on coming with her. There was another stab of hurt in Kaia’s chest, but she shook it off.
She melted into the thick, green foliage. The trees and plants actually seemed to turn away from her now, as if word had spread and they were all afraid of her. Too bad the same couldn’t be said for her fellow Harpies.
Staying low, a dagger in each hand, she worked her way around the clearing. Her legs were a bit rubbery, causing her feet to drag. She was louder than she’d intended, but there was no help for it. If the intruder didn’t notice the clomp of her boots, he’d definitely hear the beat of her heart, drumming like a jackhammer set to its fastest setting and slamming against her ribs.
Finally she spotted footprints that didn’t belong to a Harpy. These were big, thick and pressed deeply enough that whoever had made them weighed at least two hundred pounds of solid muscle.
That narrowed things down a bit. She was dealing with either a Hunter, Sabin or Lazarus. Her mind buzzed, quickly eliminating suspects. If this were a Hunter, there would be other footprints. After all, Hunters were like cockroaches. Where one hid, a thousand others did, as well. If this were Sabin, she would scent Strider. The two were never far apart.
That left Lazarus the Tampon.
Well, well. Maybe they’d have their knock-down drag-out at last. And wouldn’t you know it? They’d have that knock-down drag-out while she lacked full throttle. Wasn’t that just peachy?
A hard weight crashed into her back, throwing her face-first to the ground. That same weight pressed against her so forcefully her wings were smashed into their slits, hindering their movements and decreasing her strength even more. Oxygen gushed from her suddenly dirt-coated mouth, an explosion that left her reeling.
She’d been so determined to sneak up on her prey, she’d failed to guard her back properly. She knew better! Damn it, what was wrong with her?
Here was more proof of her weakness. No wonder her sisters hadn’t wanted her in the air.
Nothing would prevent her from fighting, though. Her claws emerged, and her fangs sprouted. But just as she attempted to twist and wedge her knee between their bodies, a male voice whispered, “Don’t. I won, and that’s that.” Satisfaction and pleasure layered that familiar—beloved—voice.
Strider. Unlike Juliette’s satisfaction, his didn’t bother her. She actually reveled in it. He was here. He was with her, alive and well. He was also in danger, but at the moment she couldn’t make that matter. He was here!
“We good?” he asked in that same silky whisper. His warm breath caressed her ear and absolute relief washed through her. Until he added, “Wait, don’t answer. That bastard Lazarus is just ahead, waiting for you. He set a trap.”
When she caught her breath, she rasped out, “What kind of trap?”
“The kind with flowers, candlelight and a bejeweled goblet filled with his probably diseased blood.”
Her eyes widened. Lazarus was going to try and…seduce her? Why? “I don’t know about diseased, but that blood is probably poisoned.” Right? A trick meant to lure her into softening before the bastard went in for the kill.
“If we’re lucky, he’ll die of disappointment when you fail to show.”
“Actually, if he’s lucky.”
“Good point. Now I have to decide whether to kill him now or kill him later.”
“Option two?” she asked hopefully.
“My thinking exactly. Right now, I have something better to do.” Strider eased back a little and she finally twisted, lying on her back. His legs straddled her waist, and his navy eyes glared down at her. Dirt smudged his sun-kissed skin and his pale hair was pink with dried blood and plastered to his face. “Don’t worry, though. He’ll get his.”
“Are you hurt?” If someone had hurt him, she would unleash her Harpy. She wouldn’t be able to help herself. She would—
“I’m fine.” His expression softened, and gods, he was beautiful. “Remember the Hunters who last attacked you? Well, they suffered afterward. You’re welcome.”
Her relief intensified, mixing with a sense of pride. This was her man, her warrior. No one was stronger. No one was as vengeful or as capable. “Thank you. Now, you have to go,” she told him, giving him a little push. “Rhea could be nearby, and you are—”
“Nope.” He didn’t budge. “Sabin and the angels are looking for her. So far, they haven’t found any hint of her presence.”
“That doesn’t mean—”
“Shut it, Kaia,” he said, cutting her off a second time. “You’re in trouble and only digging the hole deeper.” He pushed to his feet only to bend down and grab her wrist, tugging her to her feet in turn, spinning them both around and leading her away from Lazarus.
Leaves and branches slapped at her, and insects buzzed, some daring to bite her.
“I can’t go too far,” she said, huffing from exertion already. Damn. Her side and leg throbbed, the wounds having opened when she fell. Now, blood trickled from each, catching in her boots.
“You’ll go as far as I tell you,” he snapped, unaware of her pain.
“Strider, listen to me. My sisters are fighting. I have to—”
“I don’t care what they’re doing. You and I are going to talk. Now keep it down while I find a place for us. If you don’t, I’ll gag you. And Kaia? I really hope I get to gag you.”
She pressed her lips together, silent as he urged her deeper and deeper into the forest.
STRIDER HAULED KAIA through thickening mist and across a rushing river. When he’d first come here, the trees had tried to eat him alive and he’d had to hack his way to safety every few minutes. Now, those same trees remained perfectly still, not a single leaf dancing in the swirling breeze. What was that about?
The question ceased to matter when he reached the cave he’d discovered while tracking Kaia. Would serve her right to be thrown inside, a boulder shoved in front of the only exit. She could spend a few years in solitary confinement, thinking about her mistakes.
He meant to yell at her, he really did—for leaving him behind, for almost walking into that bastard Lazarus’s seductive trap, which Strider would punish him for setting, by the way—but as he backed her against the crystal wall, he was given his first full-length glimpse of her since tackling her fine ass to the ground. Her gorgeous red hair was damp at the ends and dripping little water beads onto her bare stomach.
The river had washed away the makeup that always coated her skin, leaving her glimmering like a diamond in blazing sunlight. Not as brightly as before, though. And she was shivering. He frowned. Why was she shivering? It was as hot as hell in here.
That did nothing to diminish her appeal. Nothing could. Maybe because she wore a tiny half top and a pair of shorts. Both were white, now see-through, and he saw. Blushing, beaded nipples, and then, between the long, lithe length of her legs, a delicious patch of red in the center, and if he didn’t look away soon his erection would bust through the zipper on his pants.
He studied the rest of her. She was injured, he realized. The angry wounds in her side and on her thigh caused fury to well inside him, replacing the lust. No wonder her skin lacked its most brilliant sheen and her body couldn’t stop trembling.
He bit into his wrist and held the wound to her mouth. “Drink.”
Moaning in ecstasy, she obeyed. Such exquisite suction, he thought, such warmth. Her eyes closed in surrender. When he saw the torn muscle and then the flesh weaving back together, he nodded in satisfaction and removed his arm.
He was the one to groan this time. Of course, lack of injury left her beautiful skin bare and unmarred, allowing him to eat her back up with his eyes. The lust returned full force.
Gaze…up… Her lips were pouty, moist. Higher. Because, damn. He was throbbing. Her silver-gold eyes were luminous with all kinds of emotion. Upset, relief, arousal of her own, hurt. He wanted to wipe away the bad and magnify the good. And the only way to do that, he told himself, was to have her. Finally. All the way, nothing held back.
Yeah, baby. He liked the thought of that. Felt as if he were thinking clearly for the first time in his life. He needed what she offered. Wanted to stake his claim, warn every other man away.
There would be consequences, he was sure, but he couldn’t make that matter. Not here, not now. She’d left him and struck out on her own, and the separation had nearly driven him to the brink of insanity.
He pressed his body against hers and she gasped. Such a lovely sound, needy and wanton.
“Thank you,” she said, her voice low and sultry. “You have no idea how much I needed that.”
“Do you still want to gag me? Because I recommend using a racket ball and duct tape if you do.”
“No need for a gag. I can handle you.” If he couldn’t, well, there was no better way to go.
Her breath hitched. “Really?” Now her tone was verging on the edge of hope.
He nodded. “Really. So let’s figure out what I need to do to hit this one out of the park.”
“You once told me Paris had given you a bazillion orgasms. Your words, not mine. So exactly how many is a bazillion?”
Her cheeks pinkened and she was adorable, all the sexier, in her embarrassment. “I don’t know. I didn’t count. And I don’t want to talk about him.”
“Think back. Count. And you’re going to talk about him, once and only once. After this conversation you will forget him. Forever.”
“Why?” She flattened her palms on his chest. “Why make me think back, I mean, when I only want to think about you?”
“My demon. Why else?” He traced a fingertip along her jaw. “So do it. Please.”
Shocking, he thought dryly. I will. He hoped.
Understanding dawned in her expression, and with it, fear. She’d just realized Strider had to give her more orgasms than Paris had. That even sex was to be a challenge to him. Was she wondering if they’d ever have any peace? If there’d ever be a moment just for them, no games, no winner, no loser?
“You knew that’s how it would be before you accepted me as your consort,” he said stiffly. “Don’t even consider tossing me aside now. So do it. Think back and tell me.”
“I don’t want to toss you aside. I don’t want you hurt, either.” She chewed on her bottom lip, a nervous action he recognized. “He gave me f-four, I think.”
That stutter… “You think or you know?”
A pause. More chewing. “I, uh, know. Yes, I know. Four. It was four. For sure.”
Shut it. I will. He would give her (at least) five orgasms before he came. And he would blow her mind with every single one of them. But he’d have to deliver them while she was still clothed. Moment he stripped her, he would be inside her, filling her up, losing the control he needed.
“I have to say, I’m a little surprised you consider four a bazillion, but to each his own. Just prepare yourself for a quadrillion.” He reached between their bodies and un-snapped her shorts.
Her eyes widened. “We’re having sex now?”
“Yes.” Unziiip. He arched a brow. “After your assembly line of orgasms. Is that a problem?”
“No. It’s just…do you remember when I said I didn’t want you hurt? Well, I meant, I didn’t want to accidentally hurt you. So you’ll just…damn it, you’ll need a safe word.” Her chest heaved with the force of her breathing. “I’m sorry.”
Baffled, he paused. “Me? I’ll need a safe word?” And she hadn’t been afraid he’d fail, only that she’d injure him. He nearly grinned. Already this was the best sexual experience of his life.
She nodded, unsure. “Are you okay with that?”
Delectable female. His gaze lowered to the gap in her shorts. White panties. Lace. Nice. “How about a safe phrase? Mine will be ‘someone’s out there.’” He didn’t wait for her reply, but dropped to his knees.
“Oh, gods.” Her belly quivered. “Okay, yes, okay. Gods, I’m repeating myself, but that works.”
His gaze locked on the shadow of red beneath the lace and his mouth watered. He leaned in and nuzzled her with his nose, inhaling the sweet scent of female.
“Oh, gods,” she said again. “You—you’ll be the best, Strider, you don’t have to worry. Okay? I know it.”
Just then he wasn’t worried about anything; his mind was locked on her and only her. On learning her taste, hearing her beg for more, feeling her clutching at him, maybe pulling at his hair.
He forced her legs to part as far as they could with the shorts restricting her movements. Unmindful of her panties, he pressed the tip of his tongue against the heart of her, the heat. Pressed harder. Gods, he could already taste her and he’d never liked anything more.
The ache in his cock intensified, nearly unbearable. Damn. How good would it feel if he reached down, curled his fingers around his shaft, stroked up and down while burying his face between her legs?
He was reaching down before he realized he’d moved. Damn it. He gripped her thighs. He’d have to blank his mind, perform but remain distanced. Only when he’d beaten Paris could he consider his own pleasure.
Strider flicked his tongue over the tight bud of her clitoris.
“Oh, gods, yes,” she gasped out.
No need to force his mind to blank. Her pleasured cry short-circuited his thoughts. Satisfied, he wanted her satisfied. Damp, her panties were damp, but he wanted them soaking.
Next his tongue traced lazy circles around her heated center, swiped back and forth, up and down, hitting her from every possible angle. When she began arching her hips to meet him, he caressed his hands up and down her calves, her thighs, then under her shorts. Such soft, smooth skin…so damn warm.
Though he wanted to tunnel his hands up, higher, thrust his fingers inside her, he merely teased her with the possibility, his tongue never ceasing its assault, and finally, sweetly, she gripped the back of his head and held his mouth firmly against her. She was panting, sheened with perspiration.
“I need…I have to have…” She ground him where she needed him most. “Strider!” she screamed as she came.
One down, four to go.
He stood to shaky legs. Without a word, he spun her, forcing her to face the wall. His cock rubbed against her ass and he sucked in a ragged breath. His fingers glided around, sliding under her shorts, inside her panties. Contact. Skin to hot, wet female core, and oh, sweet heaven, she felt exquisite.
A groan slipped from her. Her back arched. Her arms lifted and then her nails were scraping through his hair. He rubbed her swollen little clitoris before inserting one finger deep inside her inner sheath, moving it in and out, in and out, inserting a second finger, moving them in and out, in and out, until she once again writhed against him, desperate for release.
“Strider, I need, I need…”
“I know, baby doll.” He gave her a third finger, stretching her. With his free hand, he reached up and cupped one of her breasts. A perfect handful. Her nipple was beaded, probably aching. He pinched. She gasped. The sound affected him, drove his own need higher. “How am I doing?”
“The best. No one better. Please.”
He couldn’t help himself, had to have concentrated contact. He jerked her hips backward, slamming the crease of her ass against his erection, the perfect cradle, and as she moaned, he slowed the thrust of his fingers. Within seconds, her hips began pumping harder, faster, urging him to keep the rhythm. He didn’t. He slowed a bit more.
Soon she couldn’t quite catch her breath, was panting shallowly, raggedly. Her skin heated another degree, almost burning through his clothes. It hurt, but damn, it hurt so good. Especially when her nails sank deep into his scalp, drawing blood. Then every muscle in her body clamped down, her bones vibrating. Again she screamed his name. This time, a second voice was layered over hers, raspier, almost purring, and he knew her Harpy was right there with her, enjoying.
Two down, three to go.
“Strider, let me…suck on you…you have to be…hurting.”
Damn, but he wanted to take her up on the decadent offer. He bit his tongue until he tasted blood. Yeah, he was hurting, but he’d hurt a hell of a lot more if he failed to do this right. “Not yet.”
Gods, she was going to kill him.
HE WAS GOING TO KILL HER.
Kaia’s legs were trembling, barely able to hold her up. Her blood had reached the point of boiling and she’d long since melted inside. And yet, she couldn’t get enough of Strider. He’d given her an orgasm and she’d immediately craved another. He’d given her another, and still she craved.
If she felt that way, how must he be feeling? On fire? Ready to burst? Damn it, she wanted him to enjoy their time together, not suffer through it.
Dizziness consumed her when he spun her back around. He didn’t give her a chance to speak or recover; he simply meshed their mouths together, his tongue thrusting inside the way she wanted his cock to do. When he cupped her ass and lifted her, she had to wind her legs around his waist for balance. The moment she did, he pressed, hard, and the long, thick length of his erection hit her dead center.
She moaned. He groaned.
He never stopped feeding her that kiss. It was sweet, it was torture; it was wonderfully debauched and erotic and affected her all the way to her soul, and oh, gods above she was coming, again, before she could work her hand between them and fist his erection.
“You’re beautiful when you climax,” he said fiercely, his voice strained. “Two more times, baby doll, okay?”
He didn’t understand. How could she make him understand? The number of orgasms didn’t matter. Not with him. The fact that Strider was kissing her, Strider was touching her, Strider was pleasing her, was enough. No experience would ever be better than this.
She had to make him understand.
Kaia’s legs were boneless as she forced them to the ground. He pressed her back into the crystal wall—so cold—and cupped her breasts, squeezing. Lines of tension branched from his mouth. His swollen, still moist mouth.
She wrapped her fingers around his wrists, applying so much pressure he would not be able to move without experiencing a twinge of pain. His gaze shot up, meeting hers. Those navy blues were glazed, hungry.
Now that she had his attention, she flung him to the side and danced in front of him, switching their positions. Her claws ripped at his jeans. The material was damp where she’d rubbed against him.
“What are—” The question ended on a hoarse moan when her fingers whispered along his flesh. His hot, needy flesh. “Kaia, don’t…you can’t—damn it, baby! Do it, please.”
She’d already moved to her knees. Now, she sucked him deep, all the way to the back of her throat. His fingers tangled in her hair. Maybe he’d meant to jerk her away from him, but as she lifted her head, sucking harder, laving her tongue over the thick vein riding the length of him, he merely massaged her scalp, gentle, tender, as if afraid to tug the strands. “Baby…sweetheart…please.” He was pumping his hips in tune with her mouth, in and out, in and out, still trying to be gentle and slow when his body clearly craved hard and fast.
Even though she enjoyed pleasuring him like this as much as he enjoyed being on the receiving end, his earlier doubts played through her mind, taking root inside her. What if the number of orgasms did, in fact, matter to his demon? Strider would be her best, hands down, no question, no matter what, but if the number mattered and she failed to have more than four before he had one, Strider would hurt. If he was hurt, he wouldn’t bed her again.
He’d remember the pain rather than the pleasure.
Oh…damn. Her point would have to be proven later.
She stopped abruptly and he groaned as if agonized. He probably was. Two more, she thought. She had to have two more climaxes before she could give him one. She felt selfish and greedy, but she couldn’t risk this. Along with proving her point, she would make this up to him later. Would give him so many orgasms he wouldn’t be able to walk for a week.
Trembling more intensely, she stood, tugged his hand from her hair and moved it down her shorts, between her legs, where she was hot and drenched. At the moment of contact, a moan parted her lips.
“Kaia, please—you have to…I need…” His voice was strained, his features so taut he reminded her of a rubber band, ready to snap at any second. And his eyes…his eyes glowed with a mix of blue and red, Strider and his demon vying for dominance.
“I surrender,” she whispered, arching against him, sliding those fingers deep. “I’m yours and we’ll do this your way. However you want.”
“No, I want…need…”
“I know, darling, I know, but keep touching me like this, okay? Touch me like this until I say stop. Then, you’re going to bury this beautiful cock so deep inside me…I’ll never…be the…same.” The last emerged on another moan. The pressure…building again…taking over…
“Yes,” he growled.
“Oh, yes.” She moved his thumb to her clit and pressed. A fourth orgasm shot through her quickly, causing her to tense and spasm. She rode the waves of it, not allowing his fingers to slow their ruthless, relentless friction. Her blood, boiling before, became an inferno. Steam actually seeped from her pores, creating a mist around them. She didn’t understand, knew it was weird, wrong, but wasn’t going to worry about it now. This was too important.
“Kaia…hurry…” Sweat beaded his brow, dripped from his temples. Breath rasped in and out of his nose. “I can’t hold out much longer. Dying…”
Her undulations never ceased and the pressure built once again, coiling through her. “Just a little more…” Her nipples scraped again his chest, creating more of that decadent friction. “Please, just a little more.”
“I’m going to come the moment I’m inside you.”
“Want you to.”
“Gods, Kaia. I’ve never been this ready.”
Good, that was good. As much as he needed to be her best, she wanted to be his best. To drive away thoughts of all his others. To be his one and only. Forever.
“You’re mine,” she said.
“Yours. Never should have resisted you.” Predatory growls sprang from low in his throat. His free hand slammed into the wall behind him, right beside his thigh, cracking the crystal. He hit again. Split. Again. Shatter.
All that intensity…all for her… The steam thickened around them and she found herself climbing him as if he were another mountain, hiking her legs around his waist. He shoved his fingers deep, so deep, and finally, blessedly, she shot off. A scream ripped from her, so intense she saw silver stars winking behind her eyelids.
In the next instant, she was flying backward. She hit the floor with a thwack and lost her breath. There was no time to recover. Her clothing was ripped away. Her eyelids popped open just in time to see Strider, his expression frenzied, his control gone, looming over her. He’d just removed the last of his own clothing. He spread her legs as far as they would go and thrust deep inside her, all the way.
He roared. But he didn’t come, not yet, and she cried out as she arched up to meet him. Those predatory growls of his become savage as he pumped, stretching her. He wasn’t human or immortal, she mused. He was animal and she loved it. And really, she should have been past the point of responding. Should have simply become a receptacle for his pleasure. But as he drilled into her, consuming her, she, too, became lost to sensation, an animal herself.
Then he stopped. Stopped. He stared down at her, beads of his sweat dripping onto her. “Baby doll?” he gritted, voice rough and gravelly.
“Yes, I am. Now move!”
“No. Get you…pregnant?”
“No. I’m not fertile right now.”
He was moving an instant later and she was lost again. This was her consort, her man, and they were joined. One. The knowledge was sultry, intoxicating to her. Her claws sliced at his back, flaying his flesh. Her fangs bit at his lips, tasting his blood, and then he was kissing her, too, his tongue thrusting like his cock, branding his taste inside the hollow of her mouth. This was everything she’d ever secretly wanted and she gave herself up to Strider’s possession.
Yes, possession, she realized. His demon was a part of him, but Strider was a part of her, essential to her survival.
“Strider,” she gasped. “My Strider.”
Perhaps his name on her kiss-swollen lips pushed him over the edge, because he released another roar, the crazed sound echoing off the walls. His entire body tensed over hers. Absolute pleasure consumed his face and he pumped inside her a final time, coming…coming…shooting her straight into another climax.
SHE’D BURNED HIM. LITERALLY burned him. Strider had blisters all over his body. Or at least, he’d had them. The moment he’d climaxed, jetting inside her, his demon had climaxed, as well. Kaia, a strong, capable Harpy, had surrendered to them, utterly and completely, giving them every thing, all that she was, and the unending pleasure that knowledge had wrought in him had given way to shocking strength. The blisters had begun healing mere seconds after forming.
He’d never experienced anything like it. And now he felt…invincible. Yeah, that was the word. He could do anything. Could topple an army, find Pandora’s box, whatever. His demon felt the same, was even then moaning with abandon, still lost to the sensations.
Somewhere during the time Strider had spent on his knees, feasting between Kaia’s legs, and the time she’d spent on her knees, feasting between his legs, being her best had ceased to matter. He’d wanted only to be with her. Her, Kaia. No one else.
She’d become his sickness and his cure, shooting him to heights he hadn’t known existed.
Now he rolled to his side, keeping her tucked against him. He didn’t want to let her go. Not now, not ever.
She buried her head in the hollow of his neck, her silky hair tickling his skin. They were both sweat-soaked, and her body temperature had cooled only slightly. His favorite, though: she glowed. Damn, did she glow, all the colors of the rainbow shining from her skin. She made his mouth water for another taste, when arousal should have been impossible. For a year, at least.
Her fingers traced along the edges of his azure butterfly tattoo, the ink seeming to rise up to meet her, as if craving more of that heat. A deeper burn. He’d never before allowed a female to fondle the mark. That’s where Defeat had entered his body, a constant reminder of Strider’s stupidity. Sometimes he looked at the jagged ink and felt ashamed. Just then, he liked that it was there. He liked Kaia’s attention to the details.
“You’re not…hurt, are you?” she asked in a voice full of gravel.
When he wanted to bang his chest and whoop with pride? “Opposite of hurt.”
“Really.” She asked that a lot, as if she didn’t dare believe his words. “Didn’t even need my safe phrase.”
She chuckled, but her amusement quickly washed away. She stiffened, getting serious. “So you had a good time, then?”
He flattened his chin against his sternum, looking down at her. She had her own face angled down, so he saw only that crest of red hair. “Are you serious?”
Clearly offended, she huffed out, “Would I have asked otherwise?”
“Did you not hear me roar? Twice?”
“Yes,” she admitted softly. “I did.”
“And you still want to know if I had a good time?”
“Well, you’re not in pain, as you said, so you know you were my best. But there’s no way for me to know about you unless you tell me.”
Ah. He opened his mouth to respond, but she’d only just warmed up to her subject. “And really,” she continued, “you resisted me for so long. You never wanted to be with me. You made sure I knew we were only temporary.”
Temporary. The word settled inside his head like a bomb seconds away from detonation. The thought of this woman with another man, naked like this, sated like this, sharing like this… Every cell in his body screamed in protest. Mine.
If he committed, she would expect forever.
Usually the word forever made him cringe. Just then, forever didn’t seem like enough time with her. There were too many things to talk about, to do, too many ways to have her, and still practice the old stuff.
Did that mean he…loved her?
That thought didn’t make him cringe, either. But loving her would mean putting her needs above his own, above his mission, above everything. If he did that, and then later lost her…losing her would mean losing everything. More than that, she would challenge him constantly, whether she meant to do so or not. She would demand his attention and she wouldn’t let him get away with shit.
But—and that was a BIG but—he’d thought he would hate living that way. In fact, he’d thought he needed a break from the challenge of simply being who and what he was, which was why he’d gone on that vacation with Paris and William. A vacation that hadn’t lasted long. He’d been bored out of his freaking mind within a day. Bored and more restless than ever, searching for…something.
Which might explain why he’d gone rushing to Kaia’s side the day she’d called him from jail. Which might explain his decision to act as her consort, without wanting to sign on for double occupancy. But that didn’t explain what he felt now. Possessive on a bone-deep level, protective and exhilarated.
Bottom line, he needed to be challenged to survive. Not only because the victories from those challenges fed his demon, keeping the little shit happy rather than frothing inside his mind, but also because he felt so alive. And when he was with Kaia, he wasn’t just alive, he was sizzling. Inside and out.
He recalled how desperately he’d craved her one night when he’d found her in the hallway of the fortress, dressed only in a purple robe, her hair in disarray around her shoulders, her nipples hard and peeking through the thin material, her feet bare. She’d looked well-pleasured and aroused at the same time and he’d wanted to sate that arousal in a way previous lovers had failed to do.
Thank the gods Paris had stuck his head out his bedroom door and tossed Kaia her slippers before Defeat locked on the challenge of having her. Or so Strider had thought at the time. He’d walked away from Kaia and blocked all images of her from his head. Since that moment, however, he’d been grumpy, no one able to satisfy him. Even his reluctant crush on Haidee hadn’t helped distract him from the Harpy. Now…
His satisfaction was unparalleled. So was his desire to keep this woman with him. To never again let her go. To never again walk away from her.
Yeah. He loved her.
He wasn’t shocked by the revelation. He’d probably known on some deep, primal level all along, he just hadn’t wanted to admit it. Had fought it. No more fighting.
Kaia was it for him. The one he wanted, needed, had to have. She was the beginning and the end. His. His in every way. His other half, his needed half. He’d resisted her appeal far too long, convinced himself she would be like all the others. But how could she be like all the others when she was so much more, in every possible way?
To tell her or not to tell her? Would a declaration from him distract her from the games?
“Strider?” Her tone was hesitant, as if she feared she’d scared him.
When you looked on the surface, she was cocky, confident and unmanageable. When you looked deeper, you saw how vulnerable she truly was. He hated himself for not seeing those vulnerabilities sooner. How many times and in how many ways had he hurt her over the past few weeks?
He squeezed her tight. “You know I won’t lie to you, right?”
And he’d thought her stiff before. “Right.” So much dread layered that single word, all hope disintegrated.
Even as he ached for her, he tried not to grin. “Then here it is, flat out. You were… Shit, there aren’t even words to describe how good you were. I’ve never experienced anything like it, like you, and I loved every damn moment of it.”
“Really?” she asked again.
“Oh, yeah. Really.”
“Well.” She kissed his chest, and she sounded self-assured when she added, “That’s because I’m made of awesome.”
“And dipped in awesome.”
“And sprinkled with awesome.”
“Gods, I love the taste of awesome.”
Another chuckle escaped her, warm and rich as wine. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure. And I mean that. You’re a goddess, Kaia.”
Another kiss, soft and sweet. “Nah. That’s just a rumor one of my old boyfriends started.”
A grin quirked the corners of his lips. “So.” He traced his fingertips up and down the ridges of her spine. “When will you be fertile?”
“Why? Do you want a baby?”
“Hell, no. Are you kidding? I’m scared enough about the day when Maddox and Ashlyn’s little Strider and Stridette are running around.” Although, he almost…liked the idea of a little redheaded brat wrecking havoc on the fortress, driving him insane, challenging him every minute of every day. That “like” sort of panicked him. “I asked about fertile-time because I’m trying to figure out when I need to buy stock in Trojans.”
She scraped his nipple with her teeth. “Smart-ass. Harpies are only fertile about once a year and I don’t hit that part of my cycle for another eight months. Plus, you only have, like, a one in a million chance of making an immortal with me anyway.”
“Actually, I have a one in ten chance of making a felon.”
A laugh bubbled from her, and he relished the carefree sound.
Pride filled him. I did that. “Why such low odds?” he asked, curious. If she thought him lacking in that department, well, he’d haul her ass to a specialist, do the cup thing and prove just how exceptional his little swimmers were.