“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.