“Are you going to throw everything I’ve ever said in my face each time we argue?”

“Absolutely.” She admitted it freely, with no hesitation.

“Okay. Just checking.” And here was a shocker. He liked that. You had to use every weapon at your disposal to win a fight, and she wielded his past stupidity like a razor. She cut him with it, at the same time teaching him how to soothe her wounds.


“You are a challenge at every turn, there’s no denying that.” She stiffened, and he hurried on. “But I’m finding that I don’t mind.”

Anger flashed, a stormy silver with no hint of gold. “You don’t mind? Well, aren’t I a lucky girl? If one of your past girlfriends ever told you that you have a way with words, she was lying.”

Kaia unhooked her ankles and dropped her legs. He didn’t release her, though. He hefted her back up, forcing her to remain in place. Flush against him, rubbing just right without stimulating too much.

“Look,” he said. “You amuse the hell out of me. You excite me. And I’m finding that what I thought I wouldn’t like about you is actually my favorite part. Besides, I know I’m no picnic in the park, either.”

She’d begun to soften. At the last little bit, she flashed her pearly whites in a grimace. “You’re just digging a deeper hole, you big moron.”

“Come on, baby doll.” He spread his fingers, covering more ground as he angled toward the greatest roller-coaster ride on earth. “I’m new at being a consort. Give me some wiggle room.”

Yeah, he knew it was funny that he was asking for emotional wiggle room when he wouldn’t let her move physically, but come on. He was a guy. This was par for the course. But then she realized what he said and froze, not even seeming to breathe.

Suddenly utter vulnerability radiated from her. “Is that an admission that you’re mine?” she asked.

Was it? “Yes,” he said as realization struck. “For the next few weeks I’ll be the best damn consort you’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. After that, I can’t promise. I’ve never done the long haul, forever thing. We’ll have to reevaluate, see how we feel.”

A thought short-circuited his brain. What if she couldn’t forgive him for stealing the Rod? What if that act proved to be more than “almost anything”? There would be no reevaluation because she wouldn’t want anything to do with him. They would be over, done.

A sense of urgency overtook him. He had to get her to agree to have him, all of him, now. That way, later, she would have a harder time shoving him out of her life.

Not that he would want to stick around. As he’d told her, he’d never done the long haul thing before. A few months, but never more than that. And yet, just then he couldn’t imagine not wanting Kaia. Just then he despised the thought of being without her. So, yeah, he had to get her to agree.

“Give me a chance,” he beseeched. “Please.”

Win? Defeat said.

Go back to your corner.

In the back of his mind, he acknowledged that the music had changed, the tempo harder, faster, but he refused to accelerate the slow grind he had going with Kaia.

Her shoulders sagged, but rather than stomp away in disappointment because he hadn’t agreed to stay forever, she flattened her hands on his chest and whispered, “That’s not good enough. I wish it were, but…”

“For now, it’s all I can offer.” He cupped her jaw, forcing her attention to remain on his face. “I do know that I hate the thought of you with anyone else. I know you’re the only woman I desire.”

She started nibbling on her bottom lip again, and he almost, almost, replaced her teeth with his own. But not yet. Not until she agreed.

“What changed your mind?” she asked. “I mean, it certainly wasn’t my mad street fighting skills since I crashed and burned at Tag.”

His stomach churned as an image of her blazed through his mind. Her body limp and covered with blood. Her face swollen, her limbs mangled. Never again, he thought darkly. He would protect her.


No trying to shove Defeat away. In that regard, yes. He would accept any challenge.

Before he could respond to Kaia’s question, she looked down and added, “I threw a fight for you once. Do you remember? That night with the Hunters? I challenged you to kill more than I did, and I totally could have won, but I gave you my targets.”

His chest constricted, a pang of some unknown emotion lancing through him. “I remember, baby doll, and I never thanked you. I’m sorry for that.”

“Well, thank-you or not, I’m not doing that again. I’m not throwing a fight for you.” So gently said.

“I’m glad.” Her sense of pride was as intense as his own. She hated losing, and while she didn’t experience physical pain when she failed, she did experience a shitload of mental anguish.

Her own people called her Kaia the Disappointment, for gods’ sake. Because of that, she always strove to prove herself worthy. He realized that now. Knew it was the reason she’d challenged him to begin with. She’d wanted to prove she was good enough for him. And the fact that she’d purposely lost demonstrated just how deeply she desired him. He realized that, too.

As if she had anything to prove.

Still. How had he repaid her? He’d dumped on her, time and time again. Shame exploded through him, a bomb he’d built all by himself. Well, no more dumping. As long as they were together, he would treat her with the care and concern she deserved.

“You’re glad?” She blinked at him, her warm, sweet breath trekking over his neck. His pulse leapt up to meet every exhalation. “But if I beat you at anything, you’ll hurt.”

“So you’ll kiss me and make me better. Right?”

Her nails dug past his shirt and into skin. “I—I—don’t know what to say.”

“Say you won’t purposely challenge me to something I can’t hope to win.”

A moment passed in silence as she considered his words. “I’ll try not to, but I can’t promise. Sometimes you bring out the worst in me.”

Ha! He brought out the best in her. No ego check necessary. The truth was the truth, no matter how you sliced it. “Either way, we’ll work it out.”

“Yes, we’ll work—” Slowly her eyes narrowed, her nails sinking deeper into his flesh. “Well, well. Finally I meet Mr. Agreeable. Are you buttering me up like a breakfast muffin just so I won’t hurt Haidee?”

So suspicious, but that was the nature of the beast. They were very similar in that respect. “You can hurt her if you still want to hurt her, but then Amun will be pissed and he’ll attack me. I’ll have to hurt him.”

“Fine,” she said on a sigh. “I like Amun, so I won’t hurt Haidee.”

“Thank you,” he said through gritted teeth. She liked Amun?

She retracted one set of claws and flicked her hair over one shoulder. “So what do you like about me? You never said. Feel free to get wildly descriptive and maybe throw in some poetry. Or one of those limericks you mentioned.”

Gonna make him work for it, huh? Even though she’d already decided to give him what he wanted. All the privileges of a consort, the uncertain future be damned. Oh, she hadn’t said so yet, but then, she didn’t have to. He knew. She was here, in his arms, demanding he romance her.

Typical Kaia. Never a dull moment, but a ton of fun. More than that, she had very nearly mastered the art of pleasing Defeat, offering little challenges here and there to feed him. Challenges Strider could win, no problem.


See? She’d done it again; she’d challenged him at something easy. But would he take this victory home with poetry? Gods, no. “Well, let’s see,” he began huskily. “I like your smart mouth. I like your pouty mouth. I like your potty mouth. I like your whiny mouth. I like your shrieking mouth. I like—”

“My mouth,” she said dryly, rolling her eyes. Eyes bright with arousal. She wiggled against his shaft, rubbing him perfectly, just the way he liked. “Tell me why.”

“No. I’ll show you why.” He moved one of his hands to her nape and urged her the rest of the way forward. Their lips met, opened, and their tongues thrust together. She tasted like mint and cherry, and he decided that was his new favorite flavor.

Her fingers tangled in his hair, her claws digging into his scalp. Desire pumped through his veins, pure, undiluted, blinding him to everything else. To the people around them, the circumstances, the consequences. He held fire in his arms and he desperately wanted to be burned.

And he wanted to burn her. Burn his essence into every part of her, reshaping her into his woman. Everyone who looked at her, neared her, would know who she belonged to.

Mine, she’s mine. Damn, she excited him. Their tongues dueled, even that a battle. Such a delicious battle. He dominated, claiming her mouth as his territory. He felt her nipples harden against his chest and wanted to tweak them. Wanted his fingers between her legs, deep inside her, thrusting over and over again.

“Strider,” she rasped.

“Baby doll.”

“Don’t stop.”

Won, Defeat said on a sigh, shooting more of that pleasure through him and driving his need even higher.

Strider walked her forward, every jarring step rubbing her more firmly against him. When he reached the nearest table, he leaned down, swiped his arm across the beer bottles littering the surface and distantly heard them shatter on the floor. He pressed Kaia against the wood.

He wanted to do things to her. Bad things. No, good things, he told himself. He had to do good things to her. Had to be her best. But maybe he’d push her for a few of those bad things, make her take everything he had to give, make her beg, need him, crave him like a drug.

“Woohoo! Yeah, baby, yeah!” Anya, the minor goddess of Anarchy, called, her voice dragging him kicking and screaming from the fog of desire. “Rip his clothes off, Kaia. Show us what he’s got!”