“Just…I don’t know, cheer me on.” Hearing him might strengthen her. It might also distract her, but they would find out together.

“I can do that. You’re fun to watch.”

Her heart skipped a beat. “Yeah?”

“Oh, yeah.”

His voice had dropped, huskier than before, all kinds of innuendo in his tone. Her nipples tightened, and she had to jump to her feet and turn away from him to prevent him from seeing the evidence of her arousal.

He’d watched her last night, when her Harpy had simply reacted to the threat around him, determined to protect him at all costs. He’d also watched her when she… She shuddered, remembering.

Something had happened to her while she’d fought her mother’s soldiers. Something that had never happened before. She had burned. With rage, yes, but also with actual, literal flames. They had licked inside her, searing her cells, her organs, and leaving only ash. Or so she’d thought. Yet when she had stilled, she hadn’t noticed a single smear of soot on her skin.

Now suspicions danced through her mind, adding to the already turbulent waters.

Phoenix blood flowed through her veins, half of her genetic makeup. She’d met her father once, when he abducted her and Bianka, whisking them to the Land of Cinder. He—and all his kind, really—were utterly heartless, completely detached from emotion, as if any softer side was burned away in their constant fires. Not even her mother could compare, and that was saying something.

Not only were they emotionally callous, they were physically formidable, too. Poison leaked from the Phoenixes’ fangs and claws. Their wings, which looked as smooth and delicate as the clouds around her, were actually tongues of blue flame. A single brush from those flames, and an entire building could be razed.

There was a bright side, though. When a Phoenix burned something—or someone—the resulting soot was powerful enough to bring the dead back to life.

Her dad had hoped his baby girls would be more Phoenix than Harpy, but the opposite had proven true, and he’d released them. After torturing them with his poison, of course. He’d scratched their biceps, just a tiny scrape for each of them, and they’d felt as if they’d been injected with a mix of acid, broken glass and Napalm. They had writhed and screamed for days.

A true Phoenix wouldn’t have hurt like that, would have been immune to the toxin, which was why Kaia had never thought she’d develop Phoenix-like tendencies. But yesterday’s burning…could she have developed an immunity, and in turn taken on their abilities?

“Yo, Kye. We need to beat feet,” Bianka suddenly called from the other side of the door.

Kaia blinked, realized she still stood beside the bed, but now Strider towered beside her. She hadn’t heard him move, but there he was, his heat already wrapped around her, his scent strong and sweet in her nose.

He gripped her forearms, his head tilting to the side thoughtfully. “Where were you that time?”

“Nowhere,” she answered automatically. Her standard reply when someone other than her sisters asked her a question like that.

Did she lose herself in her thoughts that often? If I weren’t so entertaining, maybe I wouldn’t—

“Kaia!” Strider rolled his blues, and she noticed the pupils had gobbled up his gorgeous irises. He’d also loosened his grip, was now caressing the length of her arms with his fingertips. “We’re really going to have to work on your lying, baby doll.”

Did he…could he…desire her? “Here’s an idea. You want the truth from me, you’ll have to buy it.” With kisses. Or orgasms. Whatever. Yes, he’d already offered to buy her artifact-stealing services with sex, and yes, that had pissed her off. But he hadn’t truly wanted her then. He might want her now, and that changed everything. Not about the Paring Rod, of course, but about them.

His lips curved into a wicked smile. “Who said I wanted the truth?” He stopped the caressing only long enough to tweak her nose. “You’re cute when you lie.”

She popped her jaw. Puppies and goldfish were “cute.” I’m hot, damn it. “I lie amazingly well. Just ask everyone I know! They’ve never been able to tell.”

“Actually, I’m probably the only one who can tell you’re full of shit. I’m observant like that.”

“And humble, too. Meanwhile, you need to work on your man-sluttiness.” She rolled her shoulders, lifting her forearms and thereby his hands, causing his knuckles to brush the sides of her breasts. Dear gods, that felt good, lighting her up inside.

He flashed his teeth, as if he’d experienced a jolt of pain, and his nostrils flared with the force of his breathing. “And just how will we work on that sluttiness, hmm? In bed?”

He did, she thought, dazed. He desired her. Why else would he mention a bedding when she’d been hinting that he was too slutty? “I like the way your mind works. We should—”

“Kye?” Bianka called, cutting her off. “You in there? I know you’re in there. Come. On.”

“Yeah, Bee. I’m here, but I need a minute,” she screeched. She never removed her gaze from Strider. “We’ll continue this later. Okay?” Please. She needed his touch, his intensity. His everything.

“Uh, no, we won’t.” One step, two, he backed away from her. His arms dropped to his sides, contact severed completely. “We’re gonna keep this thing platonic.”

Her eyes narrowed to tiny slits, his beautiful face the only thing in sight. “Platonic? When you’ve had your tongue down my throat?”

His eyes narrowed, too. “Fine. We’ll continue this later.”

“Really?” Happiness burst through her—followed by dread. “I’m supposed to believe you changed your mind—” she snapped her fingers “—that easily? What’s your game?”

“No game. Your argument was solid.”

Happiness was renewed, and gods, look how beautiful the sun suddenly was, so big and bright above their cloud. “Well, all right, then. Later.” She tried not to smile as she skipped to the door and greeted her sister.

STRIDER HADN’T KNOWN what to expect at the first competition and after the whole elementary school thing, he’d prepared himself for anything, everything. Or so he’d thought. Just then, he found himself drowning in shock and the ceaseless, excited buzzing of his demon. The little shit had never encountered so fervent a swell of competitive spirit and was currently bouncing around like a kid on a steady caffeine shooter diet.

Strider sat in the bleachers of a high school basketball court, about a hundred other guys surrounding him. All were strangers except for Sabin, who occupied the seat on his left, and Lysander, who occupied the seat on his right. Most were human, though some were clearly immortal. He spotted the telltale pale skin of a vampire, the dark aura of a warlock and the reptilian grace of a snake shape-shifter. Unfortunately, he didn’t see the “him” Kaia had supposedly slept with.

On the other side were the Harpies. While the men were quiet and subdued, the females were rowdy. They were jumping up and down on the steps, throwing popcorn and even cups of soda at the court. They wore tiny, tight T-shirts that ended just under the bra line—for those who were wearing bras. And shorts so short he spotted his favorite place on a woman—the sensual curve where bottom met leg—more than once. Yeah, he spied the center of paradise, too.

“The Falconways are going down!” someone called.

“You wish, Eagleshield. But then, you’ve always liked a woman on her knees.”

“Please! You couldn’t satisfy a nymph if you were cranked on Viagra.”

“Viagra only works on men, you idiot.”

“Hello, you and your clanswomen have mustaches, so why not dicks, too?”

Snickers, boos and hisses blended together.

“And I thought my Bianka was…enthusiastic,” Lysander said. “I would never have guessed she was actually considered sedate among her kind.”

Sabin snorted. “Come on. If you aren’t revved by the lesbian jokes, you’re gay.”

Lysander’s dark gaze swung to Strider. “Are you revved by this?”

Angels, man. “I’ve been on low simmer since we walked through the doors. In fact, I didn’t need the jokes to crank my chain.” What he didn’t mention: it was all because of Kaia.

His “talk” with her—one he’d tried to postpone forever, but had swiftly realized the futility of postponing as she batted gloriously long lashes at him, all kinds of desire in her eyes—would happen sooner than even she had planned.

He’d stood in front of her, breathing her in, absorbing her body heat, peering down at that pin-up face, and he’d wanted his mouth on her, all over her. One more taste. One more, and he’d force himself to return to the friend zone.

“Lysander!” an eager female voice called from across the court. “Lysander! Over here!”

Strider searched the raucous crowd for Bianka. He found her at the top of the bleachers, waving a candy bar in the air and grinning like a loon. Her silky black hair was divided into pigtails that bounced against her arms. Cute, until you noticed the smoking hot Catholic schoolgirl uniform she wore. “Cute” mutated into “heart attack waiting to happen.” A white button-up top was knotted under her breasts, a tie hanging between them. The short plaid skirt left a huge gap between her thighs and her knee-high socks.

Made him wish Kaia had opted to cheer her team to victory rather than fight. In that getup, she’d look better than a heart attack waiting to happen. She’d kill him on the spot.

No, he was glad she’d chosen to fight. He planned to use the needed separation from her to spy on the Eagleshields, maybe search their belongings. In fact, as soon as Tag began, he was out of here. And he wouldn’t feel guilty about that. Every man for himself.

What if Kaia’s hurt? By her own admission, she would be throwing down with “prison rules.”