“Instead,” she finished, “I set him free and he almost killed me. He would have killed me if not for Bianka. She pulled him off me and he turned on her. Then, of course, he turned on everyone else. More Harpies were lost that day than any other day in our history. Even during the Great Turf Wars, when we battled other species.”

Strider frowned. “If he hurt so many, why isn’t he blamed for what happened? No one looked at him with hate in their eyes. No one went for his throat.”

That was his reaction? Why hadn’t he run? “Juliette had him contained. I unleashed him. Had I stayed away, he wouldn’t have had the chance to do anything.”

“All right, then answer me this. If he’s so dangerous, why has Juliette kept him around?”

“A Harpy will forgive her consort for almost anything,” she grumbled.

A moment of silence. “What is Juliette’s consort, anyway?” he asked, opting not to comment on her “forgive almost anything” revelation. Why? She’d just given him an eternal hall pass. “Not a human, that’s for sure.”

“I don’t know what he is. I’d never encountered anyone like him, and haven’t since.”

His lips pursed. “So you didn’t sleep with him?”

“I was fourteen. What do you think?” At his blank look, she scowled. “Wait. Don’t answer that.”

“Gods, you’re huffy. I know you didn’t sleep with him. I just wanted to hear you say so.” He traced a fingertip along her jaw, gentle, so gentle. “And thank you. For the truth this time.”

Do not melt. He hadn’t exactly declared himself. “Thank you? That’s all you have to say to me?”

“Yeah. What? Did you expect a limerick?”

No. She’d expected a lecture and a goodbye. “Because of what I did, they named me Kaia the Disappointment.” There. Now he knew everything. Now he knew the person he’d put his trust and faith in—well, sort of—might not be able to deliver.

“What is it with Harpies and name-calling?” he asked, again surprising her.

Every time someone called her KtD, she died a little inside, but Strider acted as if it were no big deal. She didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. “I wouldn’t worry about us and our name-calling. We haven’t given you one yet.”

Something dangerous flickered in his eyes, there one moment, gone the next. “Like I care what you call me.” His voice was flat, emotionless, offering no hint as to what she’d seen. He was such an asshole sometimes. Well, I’ll see your “don’t care” and raise you a “what do you think about this?” “Just so you know, we call Paris the Sexorcist.”

Strider’s nostrils flared as he sucked in a sharp breath. Silence gripped them for so long, she started to feel guilty. Then he said stiffly, “You’ve earned your first payment.” He twisted the cap off the water, slid a warm hand under her neck and lifted. Her lips met the cold cascade of liquid and she forgot all about the guilt.

She gulped like crazy, and gods, each drop tasted better than the last. When she finished, Strider crunched the plastic and tossed it over his shoulder. He eased her back down and released her. She pursed her lips to stop herself from begging for more contact.

He leaned toward the nightstand and claimed a section of the hamburger he’d already cut into fours. Her stomach churned, growled.

“Guess I don’t have to ask if you’re hungry,” he remarked with a grin.

Em-barr-ass-ing, but at least he’d lost that emotionless edge and was still determined to talk with her. A miracle of miracles. She wouldn’t complain again.

“If you want this, you’ll have to tell me if you honestly think you can win the next competition. Not to mention the next and the next. Because, after this last round, I like the thought of stealing the Rod more and more.”

There was a trace of remorse in his voice, and she knew bone-deep that he meant to steal the Paring Rod no matter what she said. If he could. What she didn’t know, however, was why he cared about her opinion concerning the next of the games right now.

He must have read the question in her eyes because he said gruffly, “I don’t want you hurt like this again.”

An ache bloomed in her chest. She would answer him. Not for the hamburger, but because of his concern. “I—” Shit. Honestly? She’d thought she would be able to win round one, that knowing the other teams would come after her would give her an advantage. Yet they had converged on her and she’d been helpless.

Next time, they would make another play for her, for every member of her team. There was just no way around it. And she couldn’t whine about fairness because, had the situation been reversed, she would have done the same thing to whoever had hurt her family.

Family. The single word echoed in her mind, and she remembered Taliyah’s doubt. All her life, she’d only ever wanted to be admired. Loved. Respected. All her life, she’d only ever let everyone down. She was Kaia the Disappointment.

“I’m sorry I lost,” she whispered.

His expression gentled, and his fingers found their way back to her brow, caressing. “You didn’t let me down. No one could have pulled a victory out of their hat with that kind of opposition.”

Comforting, but deep down she knew he would have found a way. He always did.

“You worried me, though,” he added, the gruffness returning. “I won’t lie about that.”

Spoken like a true consort, and longing filled her. She wanted that, wanted him. Now, always. So. For him, she would find a way. “Yes,” she finally answered. “I can win the next competition.”

Cold, hard, merciless. That’s how she would have to be. And she would. She would prove her worth, as she’d always wanted to do. No one would stop her.

The assassin-like thoughts were ruined when she yawned.

Strider fed her the hamburger, then asked her inane, easily answered questions so that she could have the shake as payment. When she finished, he said, “Rest now. I’ve got big plans for you later.”

Her gaze snapped to the apex of his thighs, to the semi-erection he currently sported.

A laugh boomed from him. “Dirty-minded Harpy.”

“You said big. I just assumed…” Hoped…

“Sleep,” he ordered, grinning.

“Well, was that what you meant or not?” Her eyelids fluttered closed, but she was grinning, too.

“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”


THERE WAS A SLIGHT CHANCE William had kinda sorta perhaps gone slightly a wee bit too far. He would, of course, be the first to admit he might have made the tiniest of mistakes. Mistake or not—mostly not—he couldn’t be held responsible, he thought as he kicked his way through what was left of Gilly’s parents.

Bottom line: they’d asked for it. Literally asked for it. While he’d “worked,” jamming out to “Scotty Doesn’t Know” by Lustra, one of his favorite songs because he felt like the lyrics epitomized his life, he’d given his targets adrenaline injections, preventing them from passing out. Of course, he’d also torqued their veins, preventing them from bleeding out.

Fainting and blood loss ruined a good torturing every damn time.

Toward the end, when they’d realized there was no hope for survival, the begging had commenced. Only after they’d confessed to their sins, infuriating him beyond all reason as he learned that the abuse he’d imagined had not come close to the full truth, that Gilly had endured far worse, had he ended them. He almost wished he hadn’t. Would have been nice to stretch out the session for a few more days. Oh, well.

Now he had some cleaning up to do.

William turned a full circle, surveying the carnage and trying to decide where to begin. Maybe he should just walk away. There was just too much to do. Then he recalled the way humans liked to freak out, how news stations liked to blast “psychopath on the loose” stories, and figured word would reach Gilly. Not that he wanted to keep her in the dark about what had happened. He’d tell her. One day. In the far future. When she was older. Like…fifty, maybe.

After everything these people—no, these monsters—had done to her, she wouldn’t be upset. How could she be? They’d damaged her in the worst of ways when she’d been too young and weak to protect herself. He’d simply returned the favor.

His stomach churned as a thought occurred to him. Maybe she would have liked to kill them herself. To deliver her own vengeance, find closure, that sort of thing. Or, what if he had this all wrong and she had wanted them left alone? Humans were so particular about lines you could and couldn’t cross, and gods forbid if you dared leap over one. You were forever labeled wicked and fiendish.

Like William’s long-ago good buddy Vlad the Impaler. Talk about getting a bad rap. Behead a few thousand of your enemies, spear their bodies on pikes and display them for the world to see and boom, you were “evil.” It was ridiculous!

To humans, torture and death weren’t simply a part of the circle of life. The torturing was frowned upon, considered inhumane, and the death of a family member was a reason to mourn. They didn’t understand the soul carried on in some capacity or another, that might equaled right, and weakness invited the wrath of your rivals.

“What in all hell did you do?” a male voice suddenly gasped out from behind him.

William spun—and found himself facing a very pale Kane. “What are you doing here? In fact, how’d you get here?”

Kane’s hazel eyes never strayed from the wreckage. “I asked the Fates to send me to you,” he said distractedly. “How many people did you take out in here? A hundred?”

“What were you doing with the Fates? No one gets to see them. And why the hell seek me?”

“They summoned me, and we’ll get to that.” He pointed to something on the floor. “What is that?”