“You mean you didn’t look?” she said with a pout. No wonder he’d left her so easily.

“No. I wouldn’t let myself.”


“Damn it, Kaia,” he said, ignoring her. “You can’t just go around pantiless.”

“Which is why I just pulled on a pair. Were you not watching?”

His eyes narrowed to tiny slits. “You said pants. That you were putting on a pair of pants.”

“Yeah. Underpants.”

“Just…” He popped his jaw and extended his arm in her direction, waving his fingers up and down her body. “Where are you going to hide weapons in that thing?”

“Strider, please. Give me and my girls some credit.” She spread the deep V, revealing her braless breasts, her nipples flushed and beaded. Small, thin blades were strapped to her sides, just under her armpits. “We’ve been doing this since well before puberty.”

“Sweet Jesus.” A strangled sound left him as she adjusted her dress back into place, and she fought a grin. The more he resisted her, the more he was going to find himself the recipient of these little peep shows.

“Come on,” he said, voice husky once again.

She closed the distance and twined her fingers with his, happy with the contact. “Want to make out?”

“Sweet Jesus,” he repeated. Little beads of sweat popped up on his brow. “We’ve got plans. Remember? Big plans. We have to be somewhere.”

So blood-drinking hadn’t been the only thing on his agenda. But then, sex clearly hadn’t been added. “Where’re we going?” she asked, careful to cut the disappointment from her voice.

“You’ll find out.” After a quick perimeter check, he tugged her into the cool night air. First thing she realized was that they were still in Wisconsin. She hadn’t looked and she hadn’t asked. The moon was hidden behind clouds, casting pink and violet shadows in every direction. Snow covered the ground, trees stretching up…up…

“You cold?” Strider asked.

“Nah. This is nothing.” Besides, body heat radiated from him, enveloping her. “Any hint of Harpy or Hunter activity since I woke up?” Or hell, even for the two days she’d been down.

“No. We hid you pretty well.”

Even still, she kept her guard up. They walked several blocks before he stopped in front of a pickup and released her. Only took him three minutes and eighteen seconds to break in and gun the engine. She did not mention that she could have done it in two. His demon might view that as a challenge.

She merely said, “Good job,” as he threw the truck into gear and sped down the road. “Now, tell me where we’re going because I do not like surprises. Unless they involve a man waiting naked in my bed,” she added just to taunt him.

His grip tightened on the wheel and his knuckles leached of color. “I talked to your sister. Taliyah. We’ve got two days to get you ready for the next competition.”

Wait just a sec. “You’re going to train me?” He thought she was so terrible a fighter she needed a few pointers? Well, why not? she thought with a bitter, inner laugh. She’d disappointed him with her loss, and she had no one but herself to blame. That didn’t matter. Shock and hurt blasted her like poisoned darts. This was not the kind of memory she’d hoped to hoard.

“No, of course not,” he said, and she began to relax. Then he added, “I’m not going to train you.”

She wanted to rant and rail at his lack of trust and support. She’d vowed to win the next round, hadn’t she? Yes, yes, she had. Her mind might have been hazed by pain, but she remembered that.

Kaia held her tongue, though. Victory was as important to Strider as it was to her. He wasn’t doing this to be cruel. But damn it, even knowing why he’d set this into motion, the hurt escalated inside her.

I’m good enough just the way I am. A plaintive plea in her head. “Why won’t you do the training?” she asked. Gods, was that whiny voice hers?

There was a heavy pause before he admitted, “My demon.”

What did the pause mean? He was lying? No, she thought next. He wasn’t lying. But she doubted his demon was the only reason. “And you’re afraid training with me will challenge him?”

“Yeah. It’s happened before.”

He’d once told her that everything was a challenge with her and that was one of the reasons they couldn’t be together. She’d thought he would soon come to see the merit in her challenges. After all, he experienced pleasure every time he won, and if he won multiple times a day because of her…

So far, that mind-set had only backfired on her. He hated the pain that accompanied defeat so much, he viewed every competitor as a threat. The more she pushed him, the more he pushed away from her.

That has to change. So. Okay. She would give him what he wanted, she decided. Peace. Smooth sailing. Utter tranquility. She’d be so easy to be with, he’d have more fun watching grass grow. Maybe then he’d take her to bed.

Why couldn’t he like her for the girl she was, though?

Why couldn’t anyone?

“Fine,” she said on a sigh, hating herself for throwing a pity party. He was with her. He hadn’t taken off. Hadn’t searched for the Rod while she was too weak to stop him. “That’s fine. I’ll train with whoever you want.”

The truck wound down the city streets, lights flashing over the windshield every few seconds. Kaia propped her booted feet on the dash and leaned as far back as her seat would allow. Her dress hiked up her thighs, revealing the edge of her panties.

He kept his gaze on the road. “I didn’t expect you to agree with my plan.”

Did he sound…disappointed? Nah. Just wishful thinking on her part. “I aim to please.”

“I—” He smashed his lips in a mulish line, shook his head. She didn’t press for more—as her new plan for peace dictated—and he didn’t offer it. Several minutes ticked by in utter silence. Then, “Why don’t I have a nickname?”

That clearly wasn’t what he’d wanted to discuss, but she could roll. Smooth sailing, she reminded herself. “Well, you haven’t earned one.”

“So what do I have to do to earn one?”

“Don’t know. Everyone’s different. It’s a we-know-it-when-we-see-it kind of thing.”

Another bout of silence ensued, this one so tense and heavy she couldn’t have hacked through it with a sword and chain saw. She had no idea what was swirling through his head.

“I thought you didn’t care what we called you,” she said, just to shatter the tension.

“I don’t,” he gritted out. “I was just curious.”


“Again with the agreeable attitude. Are you more injured than I realized?”

She busied herself with plucking at her dress, trying not to let the comment get to her. “I’m not always a pain in the ass, you know.”

“Stop messing with your clothes,” he growled.

She froze, not even daring to breathe. He’d still not glanced her way, yet he’d known what she was doing? He was that aware of her?

“Okay. Consider it done.” Smooth sailing was already paying off. Fighting a grin, she settled deeper into the seat and dropped her feet onto the floorboard.

About an hour from civilization, they pulled off the highway and into the parking lot of a dilapidated shack sporting a blinking neon sign that read Crazy Abel’s. There were a handful of other cars there and two big burly guys stumbling from the front door.

“A bar?” she asked, trying not to pout. “A human bar?”

“You get to play before you pay.”

Really? Forget pouting. Excitement poured through her. “You should have told me. I would have worn my slutty outfit.”

His narrowed gaze swept over her, lingering on her cleavage. He parked—nearly sideswiping another car—and she jumped out, halfway to the entrance before he’d even opened his door. She passed the still stumbling humans, grimacing at the smell of cheap beer and cigarettes. They whistled at her and changed directions to follow her.

“How much?” one asked.

Oh, no, he didn’t. She spun around, hands on her hips, teeth bared in a scowl. “What did you say?”

“We’ll pay the price, whatever it is, we swear,” the other said. “After.” Both snickered, then the first patted the second on the back in a job well done, as if he’d just negotiated the deal of a lifetime.

Before she could reply, Strider stalked over and punched them both in the back of the head. At the same time. They propelled forward, but he caught them by the hair before they could hit the ground, used his knees to slam into the back of theirs, and forced them both to kneel before her.

“Apologize,” he commanded, and there was so much darkness in his voice she could almost smell the fire and brimstone. “Now.”

Kaia’s heart fluttered. The men obeyed, babbling and crying. Strider lifted one and tossed him. The human went soaring and crashed into a car, the alarm suddenly screeching. The second man joined him a moment later.

“Thanks,” she said, fighting the urge to melt into a shivery puddle at his feet. “My pleasure.”

They entered the bar side by side.

THE WOMAN WAS GOING TO SLAY him with that killer body of hers. Delicious curves were wrapped in a swath of material that might not pass for a bathing suit in some countries. Her skin was luminous, but lacking its multihued shimmer. She must have covered herself with total-body makeup. Not that he’d complain.

Anything that would stop other men from desiring her had his stamp of approval.

Who was he kidding? Men not desire her? That was never going to happen. No matter what she did to her skin, no matter what she wore, men would always desire her. The knowledge pissed him off—and filled him with pride.

She considered Strider her consort. No one else.