- The Darkest Surrender
“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.”