A flash of red in his eyes, his fingers clenching on his legs. Kaia was a damn good fighter, he reminded himself. If he trusted anyone on her team to succeed, it was her.

“Lysander!” Bianka called again. “Look up, baby. I’m over here!”

“There are too many. I can’t find—Bianka?” Lysander’s jaw dropped.

Guess he hadn’t seen her since they’d left the heavens. Then, she had worn a scarlet robe.

“Lysander, did you see this?” Bianka turned and lifted her shirt, showing him—and everyone else—the panties she wore. They were neon-green with the words Property of Lysandy scripted across the ass.

Lysander stood, as if to fly over to her, then caught himself and plopped back down. “Sweet Deity.”

“Your woman wears underwear out in public,” Sabin said. “Must be nice. How’d you manage that little miracle?”

“Only the Deity knows.”

Great. Now Strider couldn’t stop wondering about Kaia. What kind of panties did she—or did she not—wear?

The girl beside Bianka must have complained about the high-pitched tenor of her voice, because Bianka’s grin faded and she leveled the girl with a scowl. An argument ensued. Then, of course, the two leapt at each other in a tangle of flailing limbs.

“She is magnificent, isn’t she?” Lysander asked no one in particular.

“Sure,” Sabin said, distracted now. He was stroking the bullhorn at his feet. “So where are our girls?”

Our girls. Strider liked the sound of that. He shouldn’t like the sound of that. “Don’t know.”

Do you truly think Kaia can bring home the victory?

The insidious voice filled Strider’s head. Male. Familiar.

She might be killed…

Oh, hell, no. “Sabin,” he growled. This time, he didn’t have to wonder about the speaker. As the keeper of Doubt, Sabin fed off the insecurities of those around him.

“Sorry,” his leader replied.

“Get your demon under control.”

“Believe me, I’m trying. I don’t want him going after anyone on Team Kaia.”

Win. She must win.

And there was Strider’s demon, who—wait just a sec. She must win? Defeat had never cared about a victory other than Strider’s before. Why Kaia? Why now? Because her triumph was (perhaps) linked to the Paring Rod? Because the demon knew—and feared—the consequences of her failure? Because, she was…his? Their personal playground? He’d wondered before…

Can’t think like that. He wouldn’t do what needed doing.

To Defeat, he said, First, I plan to obtain the Paring Rod before the games end. Second, she’ll win. If she didn’t…he speculated about the likelihood of Defeat hurting him, even though the loss was not his own. Strider wouldn’t have protected her, as the challenge he’d already accepted demanded. So…

Likelihood high, he decided. He should have talked her out of this. Whatever happened next was his fault.

For once the prospect of the pain he might suffer held no sway. He simply didn’t like the thought of Kaia being harmed.

“Lysander!” Bianka called, once again drawing Strider’s notice. Her fight with the other Harpy had ended with the poor woman draped over the back of the bleachers, unconscious. “Did you like them or what?”

Lysander’s expression softened. “I did, my love. I liked them. I like everything you wear.”

Pathetic, Strider thought. Just because a guy was in love didn’t mean he had to pussy up.

Oh, look, there was Kaia! Strider jumped to his feet, waving at her to get her attention. He planned to tell her to be careful, but she was too focused on the happenings in front of her as she strode from the double doors leading into the gym. Her teammates flanked her sides. They wore matching uniforms of bloodred leather, the half tops crisscrossing in back to reveal their wings, the shorts fringed at the hem to allow for easier movements.

Kaia’s red curls were pulled back in a ponytail that swung left and right. No elbow or kneepads safeguarded her. Damn it, he wished she’d worn pads. If the girls fought on that planked floor, they were going to lose some skin, and he liked her skin how it was.


I know. I heard you the first time, asshole.

The Harpies in the stands noticed the incoming team and started booing. A frown pulled at Kaia’s lips, but she gave no other indication that she cared. Popcorn rained down, showering them, a few kernels even popping members of Team Kaia in the eye.

“Hey, Millicent,” Bianka screamed down at one of the popcorn launchers. “I see you’ve set aside this special time to humiliate yourself in public. Your aim sucks!”

A pretty blonde whipped around, hands fisted on her hips. “Hey, there, twin-half number one. Or is it two? I can never remember. You’re both just too insignificant. If I throw a stick, will you leave to fetch it?”

“I am not a dog, you bitch.” Bianka propped her hands on her hips. “At least, your dad doesn’t think so. This morning he told me I’m the hottest chili pepper he’s ever had. You know, as I crawled out of his bed.”

There was an audible gasp among the crowd, and Strider could only blink. The “dad” thing was worthy of such horror?

“My father’s dead, you heartless mutt,” the one named Millicent gritted out.

“Oh,” Bianka said, her shoulder sagging. Then she brightened. “Your mom thinks I’m chili-pepper hot. She told me so this morning when I crawled out of her bed!”

The gasps turned to snickers. Millicent flew up the steps to tackle Bianka. Ding, ding. Another fight was on.

Strider found himself grinning. “Do you think she realizes what she just implied?”

“Yes,” Lysander said on a sigh.

“Fingers crossed she and the woman she’s pounding stop fighting and start kissing,” Sabin said. “That happens, and someone better cue the bow-chicka-wow-wow.”

Lysander straightened, clearly intrigued. “I see what you mean about engines being revved.”

Suddenly the Harpies who were booing erupted into deafening cheers, and Strider forgot everything else as he turned his head to find out why. His jaw clenched. Tabitha and her crew had just entered the court.

They wore half tops and fringed shorts, too, only theirs were blue. Then another team stalked in behind them, wearing purple. Another team in pink. Another team in yellow. Damn. How many teams were there? Another in green. Another in black.

His mouth dried up when he noticed that some of the women were bigger than he was. More muscled, taller, and hell, he would not have been surprised to see beans and franks. Although some of the contestants were as seemingly delicate as Kaia.

The women formed a large circle on the court, leaving the center empty. The one called Juliette, the brunette who’d run the orientation, stepped forward and held up her hands. Finally the crowd quieted.

“If you’re like me, you’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” she called, and had to stop when cheers once again rang out. Only when they faded did she add, “And so, let’s not waste a moment. First rule, you don’t talk about Tag. Second rule, you don’t talk about Tag.”

More cheers.

Grinning, Juliette said, “Just kidding. Now for the real rules. Only one member of each team is allowed in the ring at any given time. When that member wants out,” more boos rippled, faded, “all she has to do is tag one of her teammates. If she can reach one.”

Annnd…even more cheers exploded through the gym.

“If someone is too injured to continue, she must tap out for good. But think carefully before you go that route, ladies, because even if you heal, you can’t go back in.”

“I didn’t pay to see cowards,” someone shouted.

Juliette nodded her agreement. “For those of you who have never before played this type of game, you should know that the competition doesn’t end until only one team remains. Here’s a hint—fight dirty.”

“Eagleshields are gonna kick ass,” someone else called.

Juliette’s grin acquired a dark, evil edge as she focused on Kaia. “Good luck, everyone. You’re going to need it.” With that, she strode off, disappearing from view as the contestants swallowed her up.

Kaia tossed Strider a quick glance. So. She’d known where he was, had been as aware of him as he was of her. He nodded in encouragement, even as the bottom dropped out of his stomach. The females surrounding Kaia were eyeing her like she was a juicy filet and they’d just ended a week-long fast. He should be down there, shielding her, not sitting up here, doing nothing.

“Don’t worry,” Sabin said, patting him on the back. “Gwen won’t let anything happen to her.”

“I’m not worried,” he gritted out. No way would he let Sabin, Doubt himself, have more confidence in his woman’s abilities than Strider had in his. Just no way. “Kaia will protect Gwen.”

Boss man blinked at him, incredulous. “You want to argue about that? Really?”

Yes, damn it, he did.


Always. “Just shut the hell up and watch the game,” he said. “I’ll let you know before I head to the other side and start my spying.”


I WILL NOT FAIL. I WILL not fail. I will not freaking fail. The mantra blazed through Kaia’s mind as she settled into position.

Neeka was the first in the “ring” for Team Kaia. Shoulders squared, head high, the girl strode to the center of the court, alongside the first from every other team. Soon, twelve Harpies stood there, facing off, waiting for the whistle to blow. The rest of the combatants waited on the sidelines like Kaia, crouched, one hand extended.

“We’ve got this,” Gwen muttered beside her.

“I know,” she said, glad there wasn’t a tremor in her voice. Strider was up in the stands, looking edible in a T-shirt with an ironed-on tie, and ripped jeans. The only glance she’d allowed herself had been a mistake. He was a distraction she couldn’t afford, but she’d had to assure herself that he was up there, that he hadn’t abandoned her. She only prayed he witnessed her victory, not her defeat.