Haidee appeared too shocked to react, much less defend herself. Which wasn’t like her. No one had self-protective instincts like Haidee. Either she was slipping or being without Hate had slowed her down.

“You do not touch him. You do not speak to him. Ever!” Kaia snarled in a voice layered with another being’s screams, her own fury, and plumes of darkness.

“Damn it, Kaia.” Strider smacked her ass. She didn’t notice. She tried to twist around and accidentally kneed him in the stomach. Hard. Air gushed from his mouth, and he hunched over, almost losing her. He readjusted his grip, one hand on the back of her legs, the other on the small of her back. And damn, she was hot! Literally. Heat seeped from her, burning him.


And, there was his demon, making another appearance. Freaking great. At least the bastard wasn’t quite sure how to proceed with the Harpy. I’ve got her, don’t I? What more do you want?

“Kaia,” Strider said. “If you don’t settle down, you’re going to hurt me.”

To his surprise, that worked, penetrating the fog of her fury. In a blink, she settled, remaining draped over him, her palms pressed into his back, her heated breaths wafting over his shirt and slithering past the material, caressing him with molten deliciousness.

Hello again, Stridey-Monster. Thank gods the fall of her legs hid the evidence of his arousal.

Won. Defeat sighed with pleasure and that pleasure shot through him, increasing his enjoyment. An enjoyment far stronger than anything he’d experienced with Haidee.

There were several humans in the bar, watching them. He smiled sheepishly. “Women.”

They nodded in understanding.

A frowning Amun rushed to Haidee’s side. Haidee said, “It’s nothing, baby. I swear.” Still, he cupped her cheeks and the frown became a scowl. A scowl he leveled at Strider.

As the keeper of Secrets, Amun could read the thoughts of everyone around him. So Strider opened up his mind and allowed his friend inside. Don’t even think about getting back at her. This could have been a lot worse and you know it. Kaia merely scratched her up, nothing more.

You protect what’s yours and I protect what’s mine, Amun signed angrily.

Kaia. His. He didn’t want to analyze the thrill of delight that joined the pleasure. And he didn’t need to. She was his. Just for a little while—another reminder.

Haidee wrapped her fingers around her man’s forearm, leaving a smear of blood on his mocha-colored skin. “It’s fine. I’m fine.”

Kaia traced something on Strider’s back, distracting him. A heart, he thought, wanting to smile.

Amun’s hands began another furious bout of signing directed at him. You think this is funny?

“Yeah. I do. If you’ll excuse us, we have a little business to attend to.” Strider carted Kaia to the dance floor.

Sabin had yet to arrive, which meant there was no reason to resist. With a shrug of his shoulders, he bounced Kaia up and slid her forward. Her body pressed against his as it descended. Only, instead of placing her feet on the wooden slats, she wrapped her legs around his waist and held on tight, fitting her core against his erection.

He bit off a groan. At least her temperature had cooled, so he didn’t have to worry about his cock catching on fire. He peered deeply into her eyes and the world around him faded. There was only Kaia, desire and a need to soothe the temper he had unintentionally roused in her.

He anchored his hands on the back of her thighs to keep her from falling and to prevent his friends from seeing anything they shouldn’t. Anything of his. Her ass was definitely his.

“Let me go,” she said, though her tone lacked any kind of admonishment. He didn’t point out that she had a tighter hold on him than he had on her. “I’m going to kill that bitch.”

“No, baby doll, you won’t.”

“Yes, I will.” But the black faded from her eyes, leaving the decadent silver-gold he so loved.

Whoa, whoa there. Loved? Hell, no. He liked the color, that was all. “Where’s Miss Agreeable? The girl I chauffeured over here.” That small taste of Miss Agreeable should have been a slice of heaven, too, since that’s what he’d always claimed to want from her. Surprisingly, he realized he preferred her this way. On edge and wild.

Maybe because his blood roared at the alluring prospect of taming her.

Another flicker of black. “Miss Agreeable is dead. You killed her when you flirted with another woman.”

“If you haven’t heard, dead doesn’t have to mean gone forever,” he teased. “Maybe she can rise from the grave.”

A gasp left her. “I knew you’d like me that way.” She pounded a fist into his shoulder. “I knew it!”

He laughed, unable to trap his amusement inside.

Frowning sulkily, she stilled and glared at him. “What’s so funny?”

“You.” Just then she was illogical and adorable, and jealous as hell. Of Haidee, and even of herself. “I just want to eat you up.”

Her mouth fell open, pearly whites bared in what could only be a mix of shock and hope. “What?”

Now that he had her attention… He moved his hands just under her thighs, lifting and balancing her on the tip of his straining erection. “You want to tell me what just happened? With Haidee?”

Expression closing off, she stared just over his shoulder. And yet, she nibbled on her bottom lip as he arched his hips forward, rubbing against her. “No. I don’t.”

“Do it anyway.”

He rubbed again. She nibbled harder. Too much, he thought. Too much for this crowded room. He held her steady.

“Tell me,” he said.

There was a pause. Then a pouty, “You like her more than you like me.”

She’d faced a clan of vengeful Harpies without a single complaint, but the thought of him with someone else was more than she could tolerate. That stroked his ego, yeah, but he didn’t like that he’d hurt her. “No, baby doll, I don’t.”

“Yes, you do. You told me so.”

“Then I was delusional. And really, really dumb. I’m very sorry for that.” The truth, all of it. He’d only thought he’d wanted Haidee in a romantic sense, had gotten snagged by the challenge of winning the heart of an enemy.

After he’d won her, he would have walked away from her without any regrets. Easy. Kaia, though, he’d treated abominably—maybe because he’d sensed, deep down, that he would not be able to walk away from her so easily.

“I like you. A lot.”

Her chin lifted, that too-delightful stubborn streak kicking in. “But I slept with Paris and you can never forget that.”

He had pushed that fact in her face over and over again, hadn’t he? Stupid of him. While the knowledge had bothered him before—because yeah, he’d been a little jealous and hurt himself since she’d picked Paris first—it seemed insignificant right now.

How many women had Strider been with over the years? How many after Kaia had declared herself to him? Any one of those women could have been a friend of hers.

“News flash,” he said, hoping to soothe the hurt he’d caused, “half the people in this room have slept with Paris.”

Hope bloomed, the gold consuming her eyes, overshadowing even the silver, only to swiftly wither and die. “You’ll never be able to get over it. Not really. Not with me.”

Okay, a little damage control was in order. “Allow me to iron this out completely. Am I jealous? Yes. Are you going to do it again? Hell, no. Not if you like him breathing. Am I worried about our first time because of him? Yes. What if I’m not as good? But do I cast stones about what happened? No. You’re talking to a borderline man-whore, Kaia. Like I really have room to judge.”

“You’re jealous?” The lustrous gleam of her skin suddenly peeked past her makeup as her body temperature rose.

His heart galloped into an unsteady rhythm and his mouth watered. A taste, soon, very soon. He had to have one. “Yes. And here’s another news flash.” His words were slightly slurred, as if he were drunk on desire. “I’m possessive. That’s not going to change.”

“I don’t want that to change. I like that about you.”

“Good.” The few times he’d tried the relationship thing, that possessiveness of his had gotten old, fast.

“And I—” She frowned, the gleam dimming just as her hope had. “You’re just saying all of this because you expect me to win the Paring Rod for you.”

Wrong as she was, he deserved the doubt, he really did. Plus, he couldn’t stop a wave of guilt from sweeping through him. No matter what he next said, no matter whether she believed him now, she would think he’d lied when he actually did steal that damn Rod.

Worry later. “Does the Rod have sexy red hair and a body that wraps around me just right?”

Her sexy lips puckered. “No.”

So kissable… “Then I’m pretty sure I like you for being you. I mean, what’s not to like?”

“True,” she said, but she didn’t relax against him. “I am pretty awesome.”

“Better than pretty.”

“I know. And no one can ever convince me otherwise. No matter how hard he tries.” A direct hit, reminding him of all the times he’d pricked at her pride to save himself from craving her.

Not that it had ever worked.

Defeat perked up and Strider gave him a mental shove into a darkened corner. He didn’t want the demon’s interference right now. This was between him and Kaia.

“I’m sorry I ever said otherwise,” he added sincerely. “Clearly I was suffering from some kind of brain injury.”

“I suspected.” Her expression softened, but still she didn’t cave. “So what do you like about me besides my amazing hair and body? Because last time we talked about this, you said I was too much trouble. You said I challenged you at every turn and you didn’t want the hassle of dealing with me.”