“Come on, Kaia!” Strider shouted.

“You can do it,” Sabin screeched through that bullhorn, and damn if Strider didn’t wish he had one of his own.

The other Harpies began to rouse. The one Kaia had kicked came to with a jolt, jarring Kaia awake in the process.

“Damn it, Kaia! You’re the best. Show them!” Strider wanted to vomit as she was once again attacked. Somehow, someway, she finally managed to crawl her way to Taliyah and tag her in.

He thought they’d do it. Thought they’d win. But in the end, when Kaia went in a third time, she was pinned and beaten so badly she passed out for good, knocking her team out of the competition. Even worse, it was Team Skyhawk that claimed first and Team Eagleshield that claimed second.

SOMETHING WARM SLID DOWN Kaia’s throat. So delicious, she thought, swallowing weakly. More, she needed more, but she didn’t have the strength to swallow a second time. Until that warmth hit her stomach. It quickly moved through the rest of her, chasing away the cold heaviness of her limbs, energizing her.

She pried her eyelids apart. Strider loomed over her, she saw, his wrist poised over her mouth. Blood dripped onto her now closed lips and slid down her cheeks. He reached down with his free hand, about to force her mouth to part. When he realized she had awoken, he froze.

Her lips parted of their own volition, another mouthful of warmth sliding into her stomach and filling her up.

“That’s it,” he said, pressing his wrist into the opening she provided. “That’s a good girl.”

Her fangs extended, and she bit. She sucked and sucked and sucked, drinking in the healing powers of his blood. He tasted like rich, aged wine sprinkled with dark chocolate and honey. No one had ever tasted this good.

As she savored, she studied him. He sat beside her, his hip touching hers. Lines of tension branched from his eyes and mouth, and his skin was pallid. Unsure how much blood he could afford to lose, she forced herself to stop drinking from him.

He arched a brow. “That enough?”

No, but it would have to be. She nodded. The action heralded a wave of dizziness, and she grimaced. In and out she breathed, slow, measured. Finally, her mind calmed, leaving her alone with her thoughts.

She recalled entering the ring, kicking ass—and then getting her ass kicked. After that…damn, damn, damn. She was lying in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room. That meant…damn, damn, damn.

“Where are my sisters?” Wow. Speaking hurt. Someone must have punched the hell out of her trachea.

“Bianka went back to the heavens with Lysander because I was about to permanently hinder her ability to breathe. She hovers. And Gwen is somewhere with Sabin, drinking his blood, I’m sure, and healing.” Strider’s voice was cold, distant. “Taliyah and the others, I don’t know.”

“But all my girls were alive after the competition?”

“Yeah. All of them.”

“And they weren’t on the verge of dying?”


Relief speared her. All right. Okay. They were alive, healing. She could deal with anything else. Maybe. “Who—who won?”

He ran his tongue over his teeth. “Your mother. You guys didn’t place.”

Because of me, she thought, her chest hollowing out. Because she’d passed out, which was almost as bad as a disqualification.

Her eyes burned, so she closed them. Damn it. She needed a moment alone, needed time to compose herself. Or sob. Strider had just seen her at her worst. She couldn’t break down now and further blacken his opinion of her.

More than that, she had to look hideous. In fact, she needed to cover every mirror in the vicinity with a mourning shroud before she saw herself and considered committing suicide. “Be a good consort and go fetch me a bottle of water so I can steal it from you. I’m thirsty.”

“Drink your tears, crybaby.”

Her eyelids popped open and she gaped at him. The urge to cry vanished completely. “How can you treat me like this! Where’s your compassion? I’m obviously dying.”

“Please. You’ve got a few paltry wounds.”

Paltry? Paltry! She glanced down at herself. Her clothes had been cut away, leaving her bare. Only she still looked dressed. Her skin was slashed and tattered in places, with black and blue bruises branching in every direction. “These are the worst wounds you’ve ever seen, you bastard, and you know it.”

His lips quirked at the corners. “Nah. I once had a paper cut between my index finger and thumb. You don’t know the meaning of pain until you’ve experienced something like that.”

He. Was. Amused. “You are five seconds away from a dagger through the heart.” Huffing and puffing, she pulled the covers up to her chin. Every movement caused a ripple of agony. Worth it, though. Being naked in front of Strider—no problem. Being naked and injured? Hell, no!

“Watch your tone, okay? My demon is acting up.” Even as he spoke, he gently tucked the soft material around her.

Some of her anger drained. “What do you mean, acting up?”

“He’s eager for a fight.”

“Why?” She knew she shouldn’t say anything else, knew Strider would be pissed, wouldn’t understand, but it was for his own good. “I doubt you can tell me in a way I’ll understand.”

The long length of his lashes fused together, anger suddenly pulsing from him. “He was cheering for you. He watched you lose. That upset him. He didn’t hurt me, but now he needs to win something. Got it?”

“Yes.” His demon had cheered for her? Really? Was that the voice she’d heard, as she’d first suspected? “Thank you.”

“This is not something to smile about.”

She was smiling? Oh, yeah. She was. She smoothed her features. “Fine. I’ll behave. Now, don’t you feel better?”

A moment passed before the tension she’d sensed in him drained. He’d won. A little skirmish, yes, but he’d still won, granting his demon some sort of victory and hopefully calming him.

“You did that on purpose,” he said, thoughtful.


“So. You’re sweet.” Tenderly he swept the hair from her brow. “We’re going to talk. If you’re feeling up to it,” he added.

His body heat cocooned her more surely than the blanket. “Why wouldn’t I feel up to it? Paltry wounds, remember?” As her dry tone echoed, she began to understand something else about Strider. He’d shown her no sympathy earlier because he’d realized how close she teetered to the edge of a breakdown. Any softness would have sent her over, and she would have collapsed.

She would have resented him for that collapse, would have worried about the consequences. Now, she didn’t have to. She could simply enjoy him.

“Are you okay?” he asked softly. “Be honest.”

“I’m fine.”

“Do you need anything else?”

“A naked rubdown.”

His pupils expanded, gobbling up his irises. “Besides that.”

“Besides this, besides that,” she mocked, forcing herself to glare at him. “Lookit, I can tell you’re sincerely slightly concerned about my physical well-being, but if you don’t get me some water like I already told you I needed, I will personally—”

“Clearly, you’re feeling up to a talk.” His lips twitched into a full-fledged smile this time.

There. Much better. He hadn’t wanted her to collapse, and she hadn’t wanted him to torture himself about her condition.

“Therefore…” He held up a glistening bottle and waved it in her face. A few droplets of condensation splashed onto her chest, and she gasped. “I can admit that I’ve got what you want, and exploit you.”

The sudden dryness of her mouth made her gums ache. She’d been lying before, about being thirsty, but now, seeing that bottle, she wanted. Had to have. Would die if she didn’t. “Give me.”

“Uh-uh-uh. You want this,” he said in a singsong voice, “you’ll have to earn it. So I’ll be asking you some questions, and you’ll be giving me the answers. And, just so you know, I also have a hamburger and a chocolate shake to pay you with.”

She licked her lips, hating him and loving him at the same time. This was exactly why she never spilled Harpy secrets. They could be used against her. But because of Gwen, Strider knew Kaia truly had to earn her food. If he asked a question, and she accepted payment for her answer, she couldn’t lie to him. Otherwise, she would sicken, just as she would if she ate something she’d prepared for herself.

Once again he waved the water bottle. “Deal?”

“Deal,” she gritted out, no longer having to fake the resurgence of anger. He would want to know about the next competition. She knew it. She—

“Tell me why the Harpies hate you so much.”

Was wrong. She sagged against the mattress and peered up at the ceiling. Water damage had darkened several panels. They were in another cheap motel, then. Were probably still in Wisconsin.

“I’m waiting, baby doll.”

“The answer’s not important.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

She sighed. “The man…Juliette’s man. The one you saw the day of orientation. When I was fourteen, I wanted him to be my slave, to do my laundry, that kind of thing, so I tried to steal him and prove my worth. My strength.” As she spoke, she began to tremble. If she told him the rest, the truth, he would leave her. Just like most of her clan had left her.

How could he not? He’d just watched her lose. To hear that she’d always been a failure, that she would probably never be more…

Did she really want the bottle of water that much?

“And?” he insisted.

Better to lose him now, she rationalized. He was only staying for the Rod, anyway, and if he left, she wouldn’t have to worry about the next competition. About losing in front of him again.