- The Darkest Surrender
Strider straightened with a snarl, his gaze scanning, his mind buzzing. Destroy the crowd, return his mouth to Kaia’s. As he realized every single person in the bar was watching them, the heat inside him cooled. Some were watching with grins, some with exasperation, some—namely the humans—with lust.
The heat returned, but for an entirely different reason. Fury, so much fury, overshadowed his own lust. He didn’t like anyone seeing Kaia like this, lost and needy, eager for him. He couldn’t allow it. Wouldn’t allow it.
He grabbed her arm and jerked her to her feet, smoothing her dress for her. His motions were stiff, jerky. How could he have forgotten their audience, even for a second? Someone could have attacked him. Defeated him. How could he have forgotten what would happen to him if he failed to be Kaia’s best? Her best kiss. Her best lay. He’d be ruined, too weak to be effective and no use to her during the coming confrontations.
Although…he wasn’t on his knees, overcome by pain, so he’d clearly been her best kiss. Again. The knowledge puffed his chest with pride. Of course he’d been the best, and—ego check.
He had better things to do than praise his own magnificence. Like let the guys train her for the next battle the way they’d promised to do, and then haul her back to the motel.
Won, won, won, Defeat said on a sigh, more of that pleasure consuming him.
I never doubted it. He scowled at his friends. “Enough playing around,” he snapped, then returned his attention to Kaia. “Get the boys and go out back. Do what I brought you here to do.”
Thick red lashes lifted, a curtain rising over a screen of surprise. “You’re not coming with me?”
“No.” He gave her a little push. “Now go.”
TO STRIDER’S CONSTERNATION, they never made it outside.
As his friends downed their drinks in a hurry—no drop left behind and all that—the front doors swung open and a black-haired beauty strutted into the bar. Lavender eyes searched the bar…and landed on Kaia. Red lips curled into a satisfied grin.
Strider stiffened. Shit. Wasn’t that just his luck. Sabin’s mission was now superfluous, which meant there’d be no hunting, no stealing tonight. The Eagleshields had landed.
Kaia cursed under her breath. “Just my luck. Juliette the Nag You Until You Kill Yourself Eradicator is here.”
The woman’s consort wasn’t far behind. Strider hadn’t seen him at Tag, had just assumed the guy was off somewhere guarding the Paring Rod, and now he experienced a beat of surprise as the bastard stepped into the bar, expression smug and superior, as if he owned all he surveyed. There was no sign of the artifact. What did he have? Multiple, heavily armed Harpies flanking him. His guards?
During orientation, the hulking giant had sported chains. Now Strider noticed that he sported tattoos. Links had been etched into the flesh around his neck and wrists. Most likely, if he removed his boots, Strider would see ink around his ankles, too.
The tattoos looked red, swollen and fresh, and Strider would have bet his left nut they’d been added only this morning.
Why keep so dangerous a guy around, huh? Kaia had said Harpies could forgive their consorts for almost anything, but come on. The man had murdered other Harpies. Surely that was worse than, say, stealing a priceless artifact from an enemy.
Within seconds, Strider’s friends had lined up beside him, forming a wall of menace. They had no idea what was going on—except, maybe, for Amun—but they knew him well. Knew when he was gearing up to fight. Hell, they knew an enemy when they spotted one.
No combative words had yet been spoken, but even Defeat had sensed the threat. Consider it done. With pleasure.
The man—or whatever he was—caught sight of Kaia. Obsidian eyes swirled hypnotically. He was bare-chested, and his pectorals jumped. Because he was imagining Kaia’s hands on him? Strider tensed. Mine. And I don’t share. Ever.
“Let’s kidnap Juliette’s followers and threaten to release them if she doesn’t do what we want,” Kaia whispered to him.
“Wait. What? Threaten to release them?”
“They’re so horrible, getting them back would be the punishment.”
He fought a grin.
“Now, let’s zip this convo up and let momma work.” She cleared her throat, straightened her shoulders. “Well, well,” Kaia said, casual yet loud enough to be heard by one and all this time. “Is it my birthday already?”
“No,” Juliette said. “It’s mine.”
Speaking of, “When is your birthday?” Strider asked Kaia. His friends would assume he wanted to know now of all times simply to irritate the newcomers, to show them just how little they mattered. And that was partly true. But Strider found he really, really wanted to know anyway. For himself.
Wide silver-gold eyes swung to him. “You don’t know?”
Pouting, she twirled a strand of her hair. “How can you not know?”
“Do you know mine?” he asked.
“Of course I do. It’s the day you met me.”
As good a day as any. “No, it’s not, because that was a trick question, baby doll. I don’t actually have a birthday. I was created fully formed, not born.” True story.
“You can be such a moron.” She threw up her arms, exasperated. “Don’t argue with me about this kind of thing. I’ll always be right. Seriously. You were dead until you met me and we both know it. Which means I brought you to life. So, happy belated birthday.”
Amun laughed, which was a shock. The serious warrior never laughed. Anya nodded as if she’d never heard a more solid argument and Gideon snickered behind his hand. Scarlet slapped him in the back of the head.
“You’re right,” Strider said, wanting to laugh himself. “So when’s yours?”
“Shut up,” Juliette suddenly snarled. “I thought we were going to trade insults.”
He turned back to her, as if surprised to find she was still there. Fury colored her cheeks a bright pink and even thinned her lips. Excellent. Emotion would make her stupid. The consort, though, looked amused. And impressed, even a little wistful.
Make a play for Kaia, dude. I dare you, Strider projected at him.
As if sensing the new hazard, the man moved his gaze to Strider. For several seconds, they simply glared at each other. There was no way in hell Strider would look away first and the guy must have sensed that, because after flashing his teeth in a show of aggression, he returned his attention to Kaia—and licked his lips.
Oh, you will pay for that. Why Defeat didn’t pipe in with a “Win,” Strider didn’t know. Like that would stop him from doing a wee bit of bitch-slapping, though.
“So how’d you find her?” Strider demanded with more force than he’d intended.
“Please. As if tracking you was hard,” Juliette replied, deigning only to speak to Kaia.
Finally, Defeat perked up.
Not a challenge, you bastard. And where were you when I wanted you?
No response. Of course.
Kaia grinned slowly. “As if I didn’t know you were following me. As if I didn’t leave bread crumbs for you to find. And look who ate those crumbs like a mouse and landed herself in a nice little cheese trap.”
Score. Juliette shifted uncomfortably from one booted foot to another. Her gaze panned the demon-possessed warriors in front of her and she paled.
Defeat chuckled, surprising Strider further. The demon had had a similar reaction during the games, when Kaia had been kicking major ass. At the time, Strider had been positive he’d misheard. That the noise of the crowd had somehow invaded his head. Now…
What did it mean?
Ponder it later. His demon’s amusement wasn’t going to slice through his jugular. If he wasn’t careful, Juliette might. He had to stay focused.
“So, would you like to tell us why you were tracking me before or after we clean the floor with your faces?” Kaia asked casually. “And by clean, I mean coat with your blood.”
“While you decide,” Strider added, “maybe I should introduce you to Kaia’s friends. The guy holding the ax is Gideon. He’s possessed by the demon of Lies. The girl next to him, the one tossing and catching the daggers, is Scarlet. She’s possessed by the demon of Nightmares. The rocking blonde is the goddess of Anarchy.” No reason to mention the “minor” thing. Didn’t sound as impressive.
Anya gave a pinkie wave. “Hey, ya’ll. Welcome to the party. A few facts about me before you’re too dead to ask. I like long walks on the beach, snuggling with my man and murdering people who offend me.” Offered in the sweetest voice, the threat was all kinds of frightening.
Strider opened his mouth to continue, but Juliette snapped, “I don’t care about any of you. We didn’t come here to fight. No reason to. That’s what the games are for.”
Oh, really? He would have placed good money on the opposite being true—and he would have won, no question.
“You sure?” Kaia asked. “I don’t mind making an exception and pretending this is an event. I’ll even let you take the first swing without retaliating. Although I can’t promise my demon-possessed friends here will behave.”
Mutely, Juliette pivoted on a booted heel and stalked to the bar. Her consort and clan followed her.
Won, Defeat said on a happy sigh.
Strider mentally high-fived him, delighting as yet another bout of pleasure spun through him. Only problem was, Kaia couldn’t start training now. She couldn’t leave, either. Leaving would smack of cowardice. So they were stuck, their marathon makeout session on hold, as well.
“Kaia!” a female voice shouted excitedly. Once again the front door swung open. This time, Bianka raced inside, dark hair flying behind her and slapping Lysander in the face as he followed. Another warrior angel strode in behind him. This one had dark hair, piercing green eyes and features so emotionless they resembled a deep, dark void.