Her glow dimmed. “She’s an overachiever.”

“So are you.” Speaking of kids, though… “When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?” He found that he was desperate to learn about her, her past. Her hopes and dreams.

A sigh of longing. “To be honest, I wanted to be ruler of the entire world. Or the ruler’s trophy wife.”

He was the one to laugh this time.

She lifted her head long enough to glare at him. “What?”

“I like your goals, that’s all. They’re cute. Like you.”

“Cute.” She rolled her eyes. “Exactly what every girl wants to be in the eyes of the man she, you know, is riding like a carnival pony.”

Now who was the smart-ass? “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with cute. I’m cute as a button.”

Another roll of her eyes and she settled back into his side. “I’ve mentioned your humbleness before, I’m sure. It’s touching, really. So what did you want to be when you grew up?” Her fingers traced little circles over his chest.

He clasped her hand and brought those fingers to his mouth, kissing the digits before returning them to his chest. “I was never a kid, so I never thought about it.”

“Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting. So why do you have a birthmark on your ass?”

An eyebrow arched up. “Noticed that, did you?”

“I’m very observant,” she said gravely. “Had nothing to do with checking you out all the time or following you with stalkerlike focus.”

Adorable girl. “It’s not a birthmark. It’s a tattoo. Or what remains of one.” And something he never discussed, but this was Kaia. “A woman challenged me to have her name inked into my skin. I did, but I had Sabin there to tattoo over it if the stupid thing couldn’t be removed.”

“You killed the woman, of course.”

So bloodthirsty, his Kaia, but then, that was one of the things he loved about her. “I killed her dreams of happily ever after with me.”

She nodded in understanding. “Now she suffers eternally. Good job. But, man, that’s sad, about your lack of a childhood, I mean.”

His shoulders lifted in a shrug. “Not really. You can’t miss what you don’t know about.”

“Well, one day very soon, we’re going to take a bath together and I’m going to show you how to play rubber ducky.” Her hand glided down his stomach, swirled around his navel and finally cupped him.

He jolted in exquisite reflex. “I think I’ll like that game.”

“Good. And guess what else? You finally earned your nickname.”

“Oh, yeah?”

Her tongue flicked out, laving his nipple into a tight little bead. “Yeah. Bonin’ the Barbarian.”

An unexpected snort left him. “I like it. Way better than the Sexorcist.”

“Way better.”

“Well, you’ve earned a new nickname yourself, Kaia darling.” When her hand remained on his sac, he reached down and moved her fingers around his ever-hardening cock. Oh, yeah. That was the stuff.

The location change distracted her from their topic, but only for a few seconds. She tensed. Nicknames were painful for her. He got that. He also got that while she hated her title, she felt like she deserved it. But everyone made mistakes and she’d been blamed for hers long enough. For gods’ sake, she’d been a child. Strider couldn’t even imagine the trouble he would have gotten himself into if he’d grown from child to man, rather than springing to life fully formed.

Look what he’d done without a childhood. Stolen Pandora’s box. Unleashed demons upon an unsuspecting world. Given away the Cloak of Invisibility to wicked, amoral creatures.

Enough of that. He rolled on top of Kaia, pinning her with his muscled weight. Automatically her arms looped around his neck—damn, he hated that her fingers were no longer squeezing his length. Oh, well. This was for the greater good. Her legs parted to create a cradle for him.

He cupped her chin, forcing her gaze to remain on his face. “I want to talk to you about something,” he said.

In the back of his mind, Defeat ceased moaning with pleasure. Perhaps he sensed Strider’s unease and feared a fight with the Harpy.

“I know what you want to discuss.” Kaia licked her lips, and the sight of that pink tongue caused his cock to twitch. “Paris, right? Well, you have to—”

He shook his head. “We’re done with that subject. He’s wiped from your memory now.”

“For sure! But what happens when I bump into him? If I hang with you, I will. You’ll see us talking and remember that you can never forgive me for—”

Another shake of his head silenced her. “There’s nothing to forgive, baby doll. You and I weren’t dating then. We weren’t even flirting.”

Luminous eyes pierced his soul. “But…but…that’s why you resisted me. That’s why you said we couldn’t be together. Not that I think we’re together right now,” she rushed to add.

“We’re together,” he growled, and his hard tone left no room for doubt. Just try and leave. See what happens.

Her mouth fell open, revealing those lovely white teeth, minus the fangs. “We are?”

“We are.”

“All the way?”

“All the way. I’m your consort and you’re my woman. Just mine. Do I need to wear a ring or something? Do you?” He recalled the medallions her mother and a few other Harpies had been wearing. Recalled, too, that he’d wanted to talk to her about them. “Or maybe a medallion?”

“No,” she croaked. “No rings, no medallions. Those are for warriors and mine was taken from me after…you know.”

No wonder she’d been so upset at the sight of Juliette wearing one. Well, Kaia would get her own and hers would be the best. Like her consort. Ego check. “So we’re officially going steady?”

Disappointment clouded her delicate features and damn if tears didn’t pool in her eyes. “Yes. Until the end of the games, I know.”

Whether his admission would distract her or not, he had to tell her. He couldn’t let her wallow like this. “After the games, too. And if anyone needs forgiveness, it’s me, for pushing you away as long and as harshly as I did.” As he spoke, those eyes got bigger and bigger, wetter and wetter. “I’m sorry for that, I am.” He traced her mouth with his thumb. “Believe me, I will regret that forever. Because…damn it, Kaia, I love you.”

Defeat seemed to freeze inside his head, not daring to move as he listened to the conversation. If Kaia didn’t say those words back, the demon would…what?

Don’t care. “You don’t have to say anything,” Strider went on. I’ll win her heart. And he wanted to do it without the demon’s influence. Otherwise, Kaia would never believe the feelings were his own and not born from his need for victory. “In fact, I don’t want you to say anything right now. We’ll huddle up about this after the games.”

She blinked, but gave no other indication that she’d heard what he’d said. “Huddle up? As if we’re playing a few rounds of football?”

See? She would never let him get away with anything. “You’re allowed to show a little joy about what I said, you know,” he grumbled.

Her lips pursed before quickly smoothing, as if she didn’t want to reveal a single hint of what she felt. “I can’t.”

“You can’t?”

Defeat growled, liking her response even less than Strider did.

Finally emotion peeked through Kaia’s expressionless mask and he saw a mix of fear and hope. “I love you, too, I think. I mean, I’ve never let myself consider feeling something deeper then lust, but I’ve never burned for anyone the way I burn for you. But what if I fail you? I won’t deserve you and I’ll have to let you go. You’ll want me to let you go. What if—”

He kissed her, long and hard, filling her mouth with his tongue and his taste, and demanding a response. She gave it to him, gripping his head and stealing his breath. Hearing the words I love you, even with her uncertainty accompanying them…damn. He was more revved now then he’d been seconds before getting inside her.

She. Loved. Him. No question. She might not have worked it out in her mind yet, but she loved him and the knowledge slayed him. Slayed. Him. He hadn’t realized how much he’d longed for her love until that moment.

He was king of the freaking world, man.

Defeat got his moan on.

Strider forced himself to end the kiss and rolled to his side. Kaia tried to crawl up his body, tried to finish what they’d started, but a tight grip on her waist locked her at his side. Sex, yeah, they’d go again, but apparently they had to get a few things straight first.

“You are not Kaia the Disappointment. Do you hear me? That’s what I was trying to tell you earlier. You are Kaia the Mighty. How many Harpies out there do you think could have brought down the most badass Lord of the Underworld? The same Lord who also happens to be the strongest, sexiest and smartest. And by the way, in case there’s any doubt, I’m describing me.”

“I know.” Tears leaked from her eyes and onto his chest, so hot they left little welts on his skin. “Only me?”

“That’s right. Only you. Now, challenge me to stay with you.”

She arched like a bow against him, taut fury making her stiff. “No!”


“No. I won’t do it. I don’t care what you say. You have to stay of your own free will. Not because you don’t want to be struck with that god-awful pain from your demon.”

He didn’t want her afraid he’d leave her at any moment, though. “Do it and I’ll give you another orgasm.”

Slowly she relaxed. “Well…”

Her cell phone beeped, startling them both. Then his cell phone beeped. One they could have ignored. But both? Something had happened. They jolted up in unison.