What would it take to charm her? “Let’s backtrack just a bit. Hunters decided to take me out, your husband among them, and you thought you’d try to save little ole me, even though you don’t yet have your medical degree and even though saving me might piss off your man? I’m touched, truly.”

She fiddled with something plastic in her pocket. “They brought you here, asked me to help.”

“And even though you want your man out of their ranks, you decided to aid them yourself.” He edged toward her, so minutely she wouldn’t realize he was close enough to reach through the bars until it was too late.

“I decided to aid you.”

Another inch. “But you’re not working for them.”


“Shall I tell you all my secrets, then?” Another inch.

Her eyes narrowed, obscuring her pretty irises. “Keep your secrets. I’m not interested.” She withdrew a sucker from her pocket, the wrapper gone, and stuffed the thing in her mouth.

Well, he was definitely interested in hers. “If you don’t work for Hunters, who do you work for? How did you know how to save me? And why don’t you set me free now? As you can see, I’m not a danger to anyone.”

Out popped the candy. “First, I’m currently unemployed. And as for my saving know-how, trial and error. Some races can regenerate limbs, some can’t. Some have wings, most don’t. Some respond to human medicine positively, some negatively. As for the Hunters and your release, I’m sad to say they get you back the moment I decide you’re well enough.”

Yet another inch. Almost there… “But you still claim not to work for them.”

She shrugged. “My husband made the agreement with them. He decides.”

“And you won’t defy him? Or change his mind?” he asked, using his huskiest tone.

“No.” Softly spoken, yet firm, unbending. “I can’t. I wish, but I can’t.”

Finally William reached her. He grinned. “Too bad.” His arm shot through the bars, his fingers wrapping around her fragile neck.


THE NEXT MORNING, STRIDER’S ears were bleeding and his mind was echoing the lyrics from Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P.” Didn’t help that Kaia and Bianka were still singing. Badly. So damn badly. Not that he’d ever admit that last part aloud. Kaia looked so happy squawking her heart out and he didn’t want to taint an activity that gave her enjoyment. But seriously. He was willing to bet a cat being skinned had better pitch. And yeah, he’d put good money on that bet, not to mention his body and his demon.

Once the girls had started, they hadn’t stopped. Tragically, though hours had passed, neither of them had developed laryngitis.

Besides the humans, who had all taken off at closing, the lucky bastards, no one had dared leave the bar. Not the Lords, the Skyhawks, the angels, nor the Eagleshields.

To the Harpies, this was another type of contest, plain and simple. Who could outlast the other? For once, Strider was willing to lose. He would have left, writhed in (grateful) pain for a few days, but damn it all to hell, he had to protect his little Harpy.

A few times, one of the Eagleshields attempted to head up onstage, take over and put everyone out of their misery. Strider jumped up, ready for action, but Lysander and Zacharel, who still couldn’t be seen by anyone but Strider and Sabin, immediately formed an impenetrable wall of muscle no one was able to pass.

And the Harpies had tried, hitting, kicking and clawing, until finally giving up in frustration. Of course, Kaia and Bianka were blamed, and he’d heard murmurs of wonderment. What type of strange powers did the twins wield?

Good. Let them wonder.

Knowing the angels had Kaia’s back allowed Strider to switch his focus to Juliette and her boy toy Lazarus, who kept their focus centered on Kaia. He didn’t like that. Didn’t like that at all. And he wasn’t going to stand for it.

Just behave, he told Defeat, and we’ll be fine. I’ll handle this.

Despite the noise that had left the demon whimpering and begging for a one-way ticket back to hell, Pandora’s box, anything to escape, Defeat snorted.

So. No cooperation today. That wasn’t gonna stop him, however.

Before he could talk himself into waiting, planning, Strider closed the distance and kicked a chair over to Juliette’s table, the back slats pressing into its surface edge. He eased down backward and propped his elbows on the tabletop.

Immediately he felt the tension in the room escalate, thicken, and he didn’t need to look to know Amun and Sabin had just taken up posts behind him. They had his back, always.

Juliette finally deigned to study him, her soft lavender eyes sweeping over his face and body unhurriedly, languidly, lingering in places they shouldn’t. “Wish and I shall receive. I wanted you to approach me, and so you did. But I must admit, I expected you to do it sooner.”

If she’d truly wanted his attention, by fair means or foul, she would have tried harder to get it. She wouldn’t have waited for him to make a move. Well, if she’d had a pair of balls, she would have. Kaia went after what she wanted, no hesitation. And that, he decided, was exactly how a woman should be. Determined, eager. Sexy.

This one craved revenge, though, her every move designed to help her achieve it. So his approach meant something, he just didn’t know what.

“Why?” he asked, genuinely curious.

She was momentarily taken aback, as if she’d expected him to wax poetic about her beauty, beg for lenience for Kaia, or even grab her up and screw her brainless right here on the table.

“I have something you crave, do I not?”


“The Paring Rod. Yes,” she added at his start of surprise. “I know all about you Lords and your quest for Pandora’s box. I know you need four artifacts to find it, and the Rod is one. Why else do you think I offered it?”

Rather than answer, he asked a question of his own. “How’d you get it?”

A smile bloomed, smug and patronizing. “I never share my secrets.”

Oh, really. He glanced back at Amun. The big, dark warrior was frowning, his features tense. When he caught Strider’s gaze, he gave an abrupt shake of his head. Huh. Could he not read her mind?

That was rare.

For that matter, why hadn’t Sabin used Doubt against her? Or had he tried and, like Amun, failed?

Strider returned his attention to Juliette, keeping Lazarus in his peripheral vision. The fucker hadn’t spared Strider a glance, was still watching Kaia. “Well, to backtrack a bit, the winner will have something I want,” he lied. He would get his hands on the artifact before that final game. He wouldn’t allow himself to believe otherwise.

“Same thing,” she said with a shrug. “Because, either way, Kaia will win nothing.”

Defeat growled.

Good boy.

Gideon had recently told Strider that it was possible for the demons to escape their bodies and enter others—not permanently and not for long, but just long enough to destroy the person’s mind. Strider would love for Defeat to ravage Juliette, to convince her of her weakness, that she could never hope to win anything.

They’d have to try it. Later. Always later. He dared not risk messing with the unknown now.

“When Kaia loses,” Juliette went on, “I’ll expect you to come to me. And maybe, after you beg, I’ll allow you to please me. And maybe, after you please me, if you can, I’ll let you use my Rod.”

Use my Rod. “That’s what he said,” Strider snickered.

She blinked at him. “That’s what who said?” When he offered no response, she demanded, “What did he say?”

Kaia would have understood the joke. Probably Kaia would have pretended a beer bottle was the Rod and jacked it off while laughing. Gods, he dug her sense of humor.

“Well?” Juliette prompted.

“Nothing,” he said on a sigh. One thing he knew. No matter what happened, he would beg this female for nothing. Were he to seduce her, even to distract her, Kaia would be hurt. Feel rejected all over again. Which was exactly what this vengeful female desired, and that was not a game he would play.

“Well, I don’t care who he is or what he said.” She tossed her hair over one shoulder. “I’m far more beautiful than that redheaded harlot and you will beg for me.”

Anger? No, that was too mild a word for the emotion suddenly sizzling inside his chest. Even Defeat snarled. “Actually, you’re not. There’s no one more beautiful than Kaia. And by the way, she’s not a harlot. She’s mine. And no, I won’t be begging you for anything but your departure.”

Her nostrils flared at the insult. “Is that so? Well, let me ask you a question, Strider, keeper of the demon of Defeat. You are one of the fabled Lords of the Underworld and I have researched you meticulously. You prize victory above all things. So why would you of all warriors choose to be the consort of Kaia the Disappointment?”

That. Was. It. His wee Harpy was getting a new name, pronto. “Kaia is many things to me, but a disappointment isn’t one of them. But riddle me this.” You coldhearted bitch. “Did your consort choose to be with you?” He motioned to the tattooed chains with a tilt of his chin. “’Cause I’m betting he’d shave your head from your neck without a second’s hesitation.”

At last Lazarus attended to those at his table. “You are correct,” he said, and a minute amount of Strider’s hate dulled. Minute being the key word. Strider would still, gladly, shove a dagger through the guy’s heart.

“You just shut your mouth,” Juliette snapped at her consort.

Though glaring, his expression one of molten rage, Lazarus obeyed.

Juliette’s narrowed eyes remained on Strider. “He’s honored to be with me, I tell you.”

Really? “Defensive much?”

Already sharp nails lengthened into claws and black bled into her eyes. Oh, goody. Her Harpy was about to come out and play.