Strider struck while he still could. “Well, I really am honored to be with Kaia, and if you try another stunt like you did at the first game, siccing everyone on her at the same time, I will take it as a personal challenge. In your research, did you discover what happens to those who challenge me?”

More black, the whites of her eyes nearly completely gone. Until Lazarus reached over and patted her hand. That was it. A single pat. The black gradually receded and her nails retracted.

Strider had watched Sabin calm Gwen multiple times, but for the first time he was floored by the power a consort truly had over his Harpy. Floored by how much a Harpy needed that consort.

But Lazarus was clearly a slave, here by force. So why had he calmed the very woman who had enslaved him? Shouldn’t he revel in her upset? And furthermore, how had Juliette captured him? Not once, but twice? The man had once cut his way through a Harpy village and come out the winner. Hell, he was the son of Typhon and a Gorgon, which meant he had powers beyond imagining.

Had he allowed her to capture him? That seemed like the only explanation that made sense. But why would he have done such a thing?

So many questions and none of them could be answered. Strider made a mental note to call Torin and ask the keeper of Disease to work some computer magic, see what he could dig up. Beyond a doubt, something was going on here.

“You can’t do anything to me, warrior.” In control of herself once more, Juliette smiled that smug smile. “Not without casting blame on Kaia. Everyone will see her as the weak loser she really is.” A dramatic pause before she continued in a singsong voice, “Again.”

Exactly what Kaia had once told him. He had believed her, but had discarded the importance of her feelings in light of his own goals. He still did—life and death trumped bruised emotions every time. But now, he was pissed.

Win, Defeat said on a low snarl.

Strider knew what his demon wanted. My pleasure. Before the games ended, Strider was going to “do anything” to Juliette, without having blame cast on Kaia. Challenge issued, challenge accepted.

That was the very reason he’d needed to stay away from the woman, but he wasn’t sorry he’d approached. He was glad. The bitch would pay for everything she’d said today, as well as everything she’d done in the past.

“We’ll see,” he said with a grin of his own. His list of accepted challenges was adding up. Protecting Kaia from other Harpies—a challenge he’d nearly lost, would have lost, if she hadn’t recovered from her injuries. Because she had, because of his blood, he was still in the running. Acquiring the Paring Rod—a work in progress. And now this, destroying Juliette.

“Yes, we will see,” Juliette replied. “Oh, and warrior. You should know something. If the Rod is stolen from me, or if I’m injured before the games end, Kaia will be killed. My clan is very eager to act.”

Trying to tie his hands, and damn, she was doing a good job. How could he keep Kaia safe from an entire Harpy army? A cold sweat broke out over his skin at the thought.

The singing stopped, at last.

Absolute silence suddenly reigned, as if everyone was too afraid to even breathe for fear the noise would jump-start another tune. But, no. Footsteps echoed, and then Kaia was tugging a chair to the table.

“Strider,” she said tightly.

“Baby doll,” he replied, hoping his fear was masked.

“Thank the gods,” Juliette said, amusement never wavering. “Your singing was terrible. My eardrums needed a break.”

Strider cupped Kaia’s nape and massaged. Steady. “I thought she sounded lovely.”

Kaia’s chin lifted. “Thank you.”

“Seriously, baby doll. I could listen to you for hours more.” But please don’t make me.

Defeat might have whimpered.

“That’s because you’re a man of good taste.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek.

The imprint her mouth left behind burned deliciously and he barely restrained the urge to reach up and stroke the mark. When she began to pull away, he tightened his grip on her and held her in place. He liked having her nearby. Especially now, with Juliette’s threat ringing in his already suffering ears.

Kaia watched him for a moment, confusion curtaining her delicate features. Then she schooled her expression to reveal only bored expectancy and turned back to her nemeses. He was happy to note Juliette had watched the tender exchange, fury building in her lavender eyes.

“I second the motion. Listening to that was pure pleasure,” Lazarus said, speaking up for only the second time. Before, his voice had been deep, almost unremarkable. Now it was hypnotic. Sexual. “Kaia the…Strongest, isn’t it?”

Strider gripped the hilt of the dagger sheathed at his side. Bye-bye, minute dulling. Hello, renewed, even more powerful hate. Talk to her like that again. I dare you.

Juliette laughed. “Is that what she called herself? The Strongest?”

Twin spots of pink painted Kaia’s cheeks. “And you’re Lazarus the Tampon, aren’t you?” Juliette sputtered.

Lazarus merely blinked. “I had heard that is how you and your sisters speak of me, and for so very long I have wanted to ask why you refer to me as a woman’s hygiene product. Because I made you bleed?”

Now Kaia was the one to sputter. “Just…you…learn to take an insult the right way, damn it!”

He inclined his head in agreement. “I will endeavor to please you, of course.”

Strider and Juliette experienced the same reaction to the bastard’s words. Irritation. As evidenced by the fact that they both jumped to their feet. Her chair skidded out behind her. His remained between his legs. Amun and Sabin drew closer to him. Kaia—still perched in her chair—shoved them backward, clearly intent on being Strider’s shield. And sword.

Lazarus rose, too. “So. This is go time, as the humans say?” No concern had entered his tone.

“This—” Juliette began harshly.

“I’ve been meaning to chat with you about something important, Julie,” Kaia said, cutting her off.

“Juliette.” Lavender eyes darkened to a deep violet. “My name is Juliette the Eradicator. You will address me with the proper respect.”

“Whatever. It’s a shame you can’t fight in the games. One would almost think you accepted the leadership position because you feared competing.”

A gasp of outrage. Black bleeding in that gaze, removing any hint of color. “I accepted the leadership position so that I could finally—”

“No,” Lazarus said with so much force the bar’s walls actually shook. “Enough.”

Finally. A glimpse of his power. And oh, yes. Something was definitely up there.

Juliette paled, cleared her throat. “What I meant to say was that something can be arranged. You want to fight me, we’ll fight. But really, even if you don’t want to, you’ll end up doing so. You challenged me all those years ago, but I was never allowed to respond.”

“Because you were too chicken?”

“First,” the bitch growled, “we had to recover from the damage you caused.”

“Me? What about him?” She jerked her thumb at Lazarus.

“You know the answer to that. He acted only because of your actions. Now zip your mouth and listen. Second, we had to replenish our numbers, so killing another Harpy outside the games was forbidden. Third, your mother would have declared war against my people.” Fury faded, replaced by more of that smug superiority. “But none of those things stand in our way anymore.”

Kaia flinched at the reminder of her mother’s denunciation.

Juliette pulled a necklace from her shirt and fingering the wooden medallion hanging on the chain. “Pretty, isn’t it?”

There was no hiding the trembling of Kaia’s chin as she eyed the medallion. “I’ve seen better.”

That’s my girl. Clearly, seeing the necklace hurt her and Juliette knew why. Now he wanted to know why. Still, that was his baby doll. Always had to have the last word, no matter what. He couldn’t fault her for that, was actually proud of her. Aroused by her.

He’d always thought this aspect of her personality was dangerous to him, and it was—but damn, when she turned it on other people, he wanted to pound on his chest like a Neanderthal. Maybe carry her back to his cave and have his wicked way with her.

Maybe? Ha! He wanted to dominate this female no one else could control. The female who scratched everyone else, but treated him to the tenderest of caresses.

Before Juliette could work up a stinging response, every Harpy in the building, even Kaia, stopped what she was doing and frowned.

“What?” Strider asked, concerned.

No answer was forthcoming. In unison, the females withdrew their cell phones. Kaia read the backlit screen and stiffened.

“The next location has been revealed,” she said, her tone devoid of emotion. “We have twenty-four hours to get there.”

Juliette chuckled. Though she was leader, she’d checked her phone, too. Shouldn’t she already know where they were headed? “Poor Kaia has a very tough decision to make, doesn’t she?” she murmured, and then called, “Let’s move out, team.”

At long last, the Eagleshields and their consorts, Lazarus included, stomped out of the bar. Juliette lingered in the doorway, smiling over at Kaia. “Too bad you won’t be able to hide behind your men this time, huh?” With that, she slipped into the sunlight.

“What’s going on?” Strider demanded, forcing her to face him. Why did Juliette seem to think he couldn’t go?

“We have to leave,” she whispered, agonized.

We. Good. “I’ll get my things.”

“No.” She shook her head, hair gliding over her shoulders, his hands, her gaze never quite meeting his. “We. Meaning me and my sisters. Juliette was right. You and your friends can’t come.”

Like hell. “Why? Where are you—we—going?”