Strider was quiet for a moment. Then he said smoothly, “Is that so?”

Perhaps he wasn’t as blinded by the mud as she’d thought. What had given her away? Well, it didn’t matter, really. He could suspect the truth all he wanted, but he’d never know for sure. And hell, there might be another way to convince him of what she wanted.

She glared up at him. “Yes, that’s so. I had him flat on his back atop a pile of furs.” She pictured Strider in just such a position, and her desire reignited, adding a smoky note to her voice. “He was naked…I was naked. I straddled his waist, and gods, he was beautiful, so lost to passion. To me.”

Strider whipped around, as if he could no longer bear to face her. There. Done, she thought. He was utterly convinced of her slutty nature. Her shoulders sagged just a little. Part of her wished he would have continued resisting.

Better this way, she reminded herself. He’d already considered her promiscuous. Adding weak and dumb to the equation would have hampered her future progress with him.

Not that she’d really made any today.

SHE WAS LYING, STRIDER thought, suddenly needing every ounce of strength he possessed to stop himself from grinning. Damn if she wasn’t ten times sexier as she spun her web of deceit. Maybe because she’d almost had him. Would have had him, if she hadn’t glanced down at her feet. So telling, that glance. When Kaia believed something wholeheartedly, her confidence was like a shining star. She did nothing to signal a back down.

Defeat liked that they’d figured out her game and was shooting little sparks of pleasure through his bloodstream. A victory he hadn’t anticipated, yet one that was as delicious as ambrosia-laced wine. Almost as delicious as Kaia’s kiss.

Don’t think about that right now.

He couldn’t help himself. Hell’s fire, that kiss…the woman was passion incarnate, so sensually giving he could have gorged himself on her forever and still found himself hungry. Her tongue had thrust just right, her nails had scraped just right, and her legs had wrapped around him better than just right.

She’d just…fit him. Fit his body perfectly. Every curve, every plane, every indentation. Two puzzle pieces locking together. And they’d still had their clothes on! If he ever stripped her, he’d— No. No, no, no. He couldn’t venture down that road again. The kiss had been a mistake. A damn exquisite mistake, but one that could have done serious damage to his cause.

Already his mind was muddled by her.

And unfortunately, he couldn’t blame her skin this time. What was bared, she’d dulled with makeup, making her look like any other human. No, not true. She’d never look like a human, no matter what she did. Her features were too dazzling, too flawless.

She’d never kiss like a human, either. She was too bold, too lush, too damn eager.

Too mine, he’d thought midway through, wanting to give her “all” as she’d said. Wanting to give her everything. Only then had he realized how lost he was, simply enjoying her, not even trying to please her. Just taking, giving and taking some more. There was nothing more dangerous for him. He had to please her, more than Paris had, or he would suffer.

Reining in his own desires had been the most difficult battle of his life, but he’d done it. He’d won. And oh, Defeat had loved him for it, sparking the same sense of pleasure that raced through him now. Which had made it all the more difficult to hold back, to measure each of his caresses, every single lick.

Except one moment she’d wanted all, everything, and he’d been willing to supply it, to take her over the edge, and the next she’d wanted him to stop. He recognized a challenge when he heard one, and ‘I bet you can’t stop’ was one-hundred-percent, raise-the-red-flag challenge.

What he hadn’t known—still didn’t know—was why she’d done it.

Didn’t matter, he supposed. What was done was done, and there was no going back. He had to forget the kiss and concentrate on the journey ahead. On the games, the Rod and ultimate victory. He had to forget the color that bloomed in her cheeks, the breath that sawed in and out of her nose, the flecks of fury that had detonated in her eyes every time he’d spoken. Had to forget the fact that she was gorgeous when her emotions were roused, that she lit up like a firecracker, and he wanted so desperately to be burned.

Kaia cleared her throat. “Strider,” she began.

He held up his hand in a bid for silence. “Look, here’s how it’s gonna be. You don’t trust me, and I don’t trust you, but we are going to work together. So, you’re going to tell me about tomorrow’s battle, and then we’re going to scout the competition.”

Or rather, she would scout. He would search for the Rod. Much as he understood her plight, her pain, that understanding didn’t change the facts. No artifact, no box.

So, he would find and steal that Rod. Even at the expense of Kaia’s pride. He wouldn’t like himself afterward, he was sure, because victory required a betrayal of her trust, but nothing would sway him from this course.

“Got it?” he demanded, already fighting a wave of guilt.

A pause, heavy and unsure. Then she whispered, “Yes. All right. We’ll work together.”

“Good.” He cleared his expression and spun back around. He made sure to glare at her for good measure. “Now, start talking.”


WILLIAM THE EVER RANDY, honorary Lord of the Underworld and a man so physically perfect he’d once been voted Most Beautiful Immortal of All Time—so what that he’d been the only judge of that particular competition; he would swear on what remained of his soul that the scores hadn’t been fixed—stood in the living room of a human residence.

Strider the Reneger should be here with him. I must be rubbing off on him. Strider had promised to be here with him. Instead the lucky bastard was spending time with the very Harpy William often dreamed of seducing.

William had been with vampires, humans, witches, shape-shifters and goddesses, but he’d never been with a Harpy. He wanted to be with a Harpy. Whine, pout.

Maybe, when he finished here, he would give Strider a wee bit of competition for Kaia’s affections. The warrior liked to compete, after all, and William was such a giver, always thinking of others rather than himself.

That giving nature was the very reason he was here.

“Here” was an average home, with average rooms in serious need of a decorator. Beige furniture, beige walls and beige carpet, as if the owners were afraid of color. Oh, and had he mentioned the half-empty vodka bottles that were hidden inside vents, behind books and even in hidden cutouts in the mattresses?

This mundane, prisonlike alcoholic’s paradise was where his Little Gilly Gumdrop had grown up.

Gilly, a.k.a. Gillian Shaw. Human, brown-eyed, too sensual for her own good. At seventeen, she had known more horror and terror than most immortals experienced in an eternity. All because of the owners of this home in Nowhere, Nebraska.

William didn’t have many friends, so he took care of the ones he had. Sure, he liked the Lords of the Underworld well enough. They were fun to torture and damn entertaining to watch as they fell in love, one by one, like flies meeting the swinging net of a swatter. Case in point— Strider. Until William intervened, of course. Surely Kaia would at last succumb to his delightful wiles and forget all about the keeper of Defeat.

The entertainment alone was worth the price of his ticket into their Budapest Fortress: allowing the freaking (minor) goddess of Anarchy to hold William’s most treasured possession for ransom. He lay awake nights dreaming of ways to retrieve that possession, a book written in code that foretold how to save him from the curses the gods had heaped upon him. But he wasn’t going to think about that right now.

He was only going to think about his Gilly. He’d met her months ago, when the keeper of Pain’s woman brought her to the fortress, and he’d been instantly smitten. Not in a sexual way, she was too young for that—he would remind himself a thousand times if necessary—but in a white-knight kind of way.

She’d looked at him, and she’d seen a gorgeous immortal warrior who could give her body untold pleasure. Of course. Everyone did. She’d also seen a gorgeous immortal warrior who could slay her dragons.

He wanted to slay her dragons. He would slay her dragons.

A few times over the past several months, he’d returned to the fortress injured from battle. Gilly had taken care of him, always tender, sweet, ensuring he ate something, was tucked into bed and comfortable. She wasn’t intimidated by him. She laughed with him, joked with him, and when he pissed her off, she stayed and fought with him, rather than running away to hide from his temper.

She knew, soul deep, that he would never hurt her. Even if he didn’t always know it himself. There was a darkness inside him, a churning darkness sprung from the vilest pits of hell. A darkness he’d never loved more than he did at this moment.

Hardly anyone noticed his evil side. They saw the irreverent scamp he projected. And no, that image wasn’t a lie. William was irreverent to the bone, but there was more to him, and somehow Gilly saw that part, too.

And still she accepted him. Had never asked him to change. Had only thought to enjoy his company, to protect him. No one had ever tried to protect him before.

Now, he would protect her. Her family had hurt her in the worst possible way. Therefore, her family would die in the worst possible way. Vengeance was its own form of safeguarding, after all. Sure, time had passed and she’d had no recent contact with them. That didn’t change the fact that they’d hurt her in the most terrible way, forced her to brave the streets on her own—and that they could do it again, to someone else. He’d wanted to do this for a long time, and that hadn’t changed. In fact, the need had only grown stronger.

William walked around the room, lifting knickknacks, discarding them and smiling when they shattered on the floor. Gilly’s mother and stepfather were currently at work, and her stepbrothers no longer lived here, so he didn’t worry about noise control. When he finished that little exercise, he studied the pictures on the mantle over the fireplace.