She paused, tensed. Then she grumbled, “Fine. I admit it. I wanted to be with you.”

Harpies were notorious liars, as she’d admitted, but in this instance, he suspected she was final y tel ing the truth. Not because he was hot and most females wanted him. Wel , yeah, he was hot and most females wanted him. But there had to be another reason.

“Why?” he insisted. “And don’t give me that shit about being bored, because I also want to know why you tracked my Hunters.”

“Your Hunters?” She snorted, every inch the warrior. “When you weren’t tracking them yourself?”

“Kaia. Please.”

She sighed again, the second caress of her breath making his muscles go rigid. “Lookit. You don’t know this, but I was in the clouds with Bianka when you brought that female Hunter to the fortress.

You…desired her and hated yourself for it.”

He stiffened. If there was one topic guaranteed to blacken his mood, it was Haidee. “How do you know that?”

“Duh. While I’m in the clouds, I can watch anyone I want.”

And she’d wanted to watch him? “Why me?” he demanded again.

Another pause, this one brittle with increased tension. “I…

like you,” she eventual y admitted.

The words had him stiffening al over again. There was so much longing in her tone, he wanted to cover his ears. “As a friend, right?” He did not need a Harpy crushing on him.

Especial y now. Harpies were more determined, more stubborn than a pack of rabid pit bul s.

“No,” she said, tracing something on the space between them. “Not as a friend.”

Defeat’s attention switched from the coming battle to the Harpy. Winning her heart would be—

No. His hands curled into fists. No. He didn’t want to win her heart. Her body, yes. His cock was fil ing, hardening, suddenly desperate to feel the slick glide of her inner wal s.

He shook his head when he realized the direction of his thoughts. He didn’t want to win her body, either.

Gentle, he had to be gentle with her. If he hurt her feelings with a rejection, she would hurt his face with her claws. The situation was as simple as that. “Kaia. You slept with Paris.

One of my best friends.”

“I made a mistake,” she said hoarsely. “Haven’t you ever made a mistake? I mean, you stil smel like the stripper you banged. The one wearing the peach-scented body oil.”

He understood her hatred for peaches now. She’d been—

was—jealous. That did not please him. “Okay, so, yeah. I’ve clearly made mistakes, and I don’t blame you for yours. But I’m not going to sleep with you.” Defeat might have whimpered. You’re afraid of her, remember? “Some of the guys can share. I can’t.”

“I—I wouldn’t be with anyone else while we were together,”

she whispered, and his chest ached.

If he didn’t know better, he would think she was…vulnerable right now. But he did know better.

Harpies were as hard as steel. Nothing intimidated them, nothing softened them.

They wanted something badly enough, they took it, and that was that. She probably just saw him as a chal enge, something to tame. Gods knew enough women had tried and failed over the centuries. Gods also knew he understood the al ure of a chal enge.

“That doesn’t matter,” he said, stil using that gentle tone. “It doesn’t change the past.”

“You wanted to share with Amun,” she replied, trembling now. “You wanted his woman. Would have taken her if she’d wanted you in return.”

“But I didn’t, and I won’t. Why do you think I left the fortress?”

“Wel ,” she huffed, “just so you know, I didn’t ask you to nail me. I just wanted to go on a date with you, maybe get to know you better.”

So she could hop into bed with Paris, no preliminaries, but Strider needed to wine and dine her first?

And don’t you dare take this as a chal enge, he snapped at his demon. The beast had gone quiet, ceasing that annoying humming, waiting for Strider to reply to her, waiting for Kaia’s next response.

“Let’s backtrack a little,” he said. Maybe, if he prodded her enough, her desire for him would fade.

“You saw that I wanted the Hunter.”



“And I realized I didn’t like it.”

Again, he doubted she lied. “So you tracked the other Hunters because…”

“I didn’t want you distracted by them.”


“I wanted you focused on me.”

He was not pleased by that, either. When are you going to stop lying to yourself? “On dating you, not sleeping with you.”


“Even though I wanted someone else?”

“Yes,” she snarled.

Time to go in for the kil . “I’l be honest with you, Kaia.

Ultimately, I need a woman who won’t chal enge me.” Which wil bore the hel out of you, common sense piped up.

Strider ignored his stupid common sense. “I hate what happens when I lose, and with you, everything would be a chal enge.” And exciting. And nerve-racking.

“No, I wouldn’t—”

He held up his hand for silence. “You wouldn’t be able to help yourself. Look where we are, think about what we’re doing. You chal enged me to kil more Hunters than you do, for gods’ sake.”

“That was for your own good,” she protested. “You were depressed or something and not taking care of business, which placed you in al kinds of danger. I was helping you, damn it!”

Maybe. Maybe not. “Wel , your help has ensured that I slaughter anyone who’s foolish enough to track me. Your help ruined my much-needed vacation.”


Final y he al owed himself to look at her. She was stil watching him, those beautiful gray-gold eyes wide and glassy, as if she was fighting tears. A Harpy, cry? Not bloody likely. She was just disappointed that she wasn’t getting her way, he rationalized, but that didn’t stop the ache from blooming in his chest again.

Didn’t stop a wave of guilt and remorse from winding through him. He had hurt her.

“Kaia,” he began, then paused. He didn’t know what else to say.

In the distance, a twig had snapped.

Both he and Kaia stil ed, not even daring to breathe. They waited…waited…but no other sounds were forthcoming.

Neither relaxed their guard, however. They knew.

The Hunters had final y arrived.

How many men had Haidee’s man brought with him?

Defeat started humming again, prowling through Strider’s head as he focused on the battle. Win. Win, win, win.

Strider leaned into the rifle he’d propped at his side, studying his surroundings through the night-vision scope.

Night-vision was both a blessing and a curse. Using the scope cut through the darkness, sure, but afterward, he wouldn’t be able to see shit without it, even in the light.

There. He spotted…six men inching toward the camp. A slight adjustment of his alignment, and he saw…six more men doing the same on the other side. Twelve soldiers, then. Unless there were more behind him, of course, and he would bet his ass there were.

His heartbeat quickened with a hot surge of excitement.

Much as he’d chastised Kaia, he real y did love to fight. He loved the adrenaline rush, the knowledge that he was one step closer to final y winning the war with the Hunters.

The branch he perched upon suddenly shuddered the slightest bit. His jaw clenched as the leaves rattled together, announcing his location. Kaia had just jumped down. No one seemed to notice her, or him, however.

Win, Defeat said. Win!

I know. I wil .

A shriek rent the air. A Harpy’s high-pitched shriek.

A second later, he heard a pop and a whiz. The sounds of silencers, bul ets. Next he heard a crack. The sound of a target being hit. The lawn chair shook, the dummy’s body jolting.

Strider lined a target of his own in his sights—chest, dead center—and softly squeezed the rifle’s trigger.

There was a scream, then a grunt, and his victim tumbled down, face-first in the dirt.

The rest of the Hunters rushed into the camp, a few attacking the dummy.

“It’s a fake,” someone snapped.

“Ambush?” someone else said.


“Stay on alert.”


“Spread out. Anything moves, anything at al , shoot to kil . I don’t give a flying fuck about setting some crazed demon free. I want the host dead. The keeper of Defeat deserves to die.”

“Hate that bastard,” another murmured.

There was another scream, this one shril and desperate.

Kaia must have struck—with her claws. Damn it. He couldn’t al ow her to best him.

Strider angled his gun. Fired. Hit someone else in the chest. Angled. Fired. Hit again. Over and over he repeated the process, quick, so quick, before anyone realized what he was doing or where he hid.

Bodies piled around his tree.

Final y the Hunters gained their bearings and spotted him.

They peppered his branch with round after round. Strider jumped, only one bul et grazing him as he fel .

Fire lanced through his arm, but it wasn’t enough to slow him.


As anticipated, he only had one good eye, the other shrouded with black. He could see there were quite a few Hunters left standing, and they’d already ferreted out his new locale. They converged, firing as they approached; he fired back. Before meeting them in the middle, he was struck twice, once in the shoulder and once in the stomach.

He mental y blocked the pain.


Guns were dropped and knives grabbed. This close together, bul ets were simply too risky. Strider slashed.

Someone screamed. He slashed again. Someone else screamed. A blade slicked through his wrist, but he maintained his grip and ducked, punching, tip extended.