“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.