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.

Apparently so.

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.”