They’d staked her to the wall.

As relieved as he was that she lived, he wanted to die. Swords were anchored into her shoulders, pinning her to the rocky wall. Blood dripped down her naked body, covering her with crimson streaks of pain. If they had raped her…

With only the thought, Strider felt ready to open himself up to his demon completely, to let his wicked half reign, to beat every citizen in the world to pulp.

Rage later. See to her now. One stomping step, two.

Flames crackled on his shirt, burning the material, singeing his skin. He stopped and patted himself down. When that didn’t help, he ripped the fabric over his head and tossed it aside. Only then did the fire die.

“What happened—”

“Get out,” Strider growled, and Sabin shut his mouth. “Both of you. Now.” She would not want anyone to see her like this.

Silence. Reluctant footsteps. Strider studied his woman all the while. Her eyes were black, the whites completely gone, but interspersed throughout that midnight canvas were the same flames that had singed him. They crackled angrily.

“Kaia,” he said gently.

She struggled against the swords, gave another whimper.

“Be still, baby doll. Okay?” He dared another step closer. A mistake. His jeans caught fire next. Again he stopped. This time he didn’t bother patting himself down, he just cut the offending material from his body, leaving him in underwear and boots.

“Baby doll, listen to me. Okay?” he said, trying again. He dropped the blade, lest she think he meant to hurt her. “Please listen to me. I want to help you. I’m going to help you, whether you want me to or not. Please don’t kill me until I get you out of here.”

He expected Defeat to kick up a few protests about that litany of “pleases.” Maybe consider it a challenge. The demon remained silent, however. Still afraid of Kaia? Or mourning what had been done to her after the pleasure they’d experienced in her arms?

“Here I come.” Strider inhaled the thickened air…held…held…and strode forward. His skin continued to heat, but he didn’t catch fire again, and finally he reached her. Gently, so gently, he cupped her cheeks, his thumbs tracing the fine bones beneath her silken skin. He was surprised to see his own claws had emerged. The demon’s claws. Yet he didn’t cut her, was oh, so careful.

“Oh, baby,” he groaned, his chest aching. “I’m so sorry.”

Tears leaked from the corners of those midnight eyes, and he knew he was reaching the woman inside. He hadn’t protected her from this and he wasn’t sure why he wasn’t in pain as a result of his failure. Because she would heal? Please let her heal. Because someone other than Harpies had done the damage? If that was the case, who had done it? Hunters again?

Desperately he wanted to slice open his jugular and give her all the healing blood she needed. But he couldn’t. Not yet. He couldn’t risk her bones and flesh healing around the metal that caged her in place.

“I’m going to remove the swords, okay?” He couldn’t allow this to happen to her again. Ever. He couldn’t bear it. That is a challenge, he told Defeat. A challenge you will accept. She is ours to protect and if we fail her again, we will suffer, even if she will later heal. Understand?

A pause. Then, a faint, Win.

Though Strider didn’t want to release her, he did, and gripped the swords. They were hotter than the dagger he’d used to cut his pants and his already blistered hands throbbed in pain. He didn’t care. His pain mattered little. What did matter? Her pain. That small movement tormented her, he knew, because her tears fell more quickly.

Unwilling to prolong the agony, he jerked with all of his strength. For several seconds, the metal caught on bone. He had to jerk harder. She didn’t make a sound. Finally, though, she was free and sagged forward. He dropped the swords and caught her, easing her to the ground. There were also wounds on her ankles, but they weren’t bound, so he ignored them.

Again he wanted to hold her. Again he didn’t allow himself the luxury. He used his claw to slice deep into his neck, leaned down and placed the wound just above her mouth.

“Drink, baby doll. You’ll feel better, I swear. And then you’ll tell me what happened and I’ll punish everyone involved. That I swear, as well.”

At first, she gave no response. Then her tongue licked, a flick of fire, as hot as the sword hilts. He had to pant through it, but he didn’t pull away. Then her mouth latched on, branding him now and forever, and she sucked and sucked and sucked, and oh, yeah, did he like that.

“That’s the way,” he praised. “Good, good girl. Take all you need. Take everything.”

She took him at his word and drank her fill. When she finished, dizziness swam through his head, but he didn’t care. He was only glad Defeat hadn’t viewed that as a challenge, either. He straightened and peered down at her.

Her eyes were closed, her breathing harsh, shallow. Her temperature had cooled a little and her face wasn’t quite so pallid. That meant she was healing. Right?

He needed to get her out of this smoke-infested cave. His holey shirt rested a few inches away. He grabbed it up and wrapped what was left of the material around Kaia’s body. As tenderly as he was able, he lifted her in his arms. He wobbled on his feet, but didn’t let that deter him.

At the mouth of the cave, he called for Lysander. The angel appeared a second later, hovering just in front of him, wings gliding gracefully through the air.

“Take us to our tent,” he croaked. He couldn’t lose this woman.


“COME ON, BABY DOLL. I’ve let you sleep long enough. Now you’re just being lazy.”

Strider, Kaia thought dazedly, her entire body sparking to life. He was here, next to her. He had to be. His voice, so close, so sweet. Soft fingertips smoothed the hair from her brow. She knew that touch. Loved that touch and she leaned into it.

“Come on. That’s the way.”

His husky baritone proved to be a lifeline and she clung desperately. Inch by inch, she pulled herself from the thick, cloying darkness surrounding her. Even though every movement hurt. Strider, she had to reach Strider. That had been her last thought, she recalled. Her last thought before—

She’d heard so many screams. Of terror, of pain. Hers, so many others. The scent of melting skin had hit her nose and she’d gagged. Gagged now, remembering. Released the lifeline. Down, down she fell, back into the darkness.

“Kaia! I’m not going to tell you again. Wake the hell up. Now!”

Strider. She grabbed the lifeline once again. Again she tugged her way up…up… A bright light waited at the surface. She had only to reach out…grab it…almost there…another tug…

Her eyelids popped open as a gasp of shock and lingering outrage lodged in her throat. She was panting and sweating, muscles locked onto bone. She tried to sit up, but hard hands held her down.

“No. You’re still healing, so I don’t want you moving.”

Suddenly Strider’s beautiful face loomed over her. His deep blue eyes were glassy, feverish. Concern etched deep lines around his mouth and his normally tanned skin was nearly as colorless as his hair. No, not true. There were spots of color, but they were bright red welts and blisters.

He was naked. Seeing him, something sizzled inside her. Knowledge, power, connection. Yes, a connection more prevailing even than what she felt with Bianka. More than binding them, that connection wove them together, until she couldn’t tell who was who. They were simply one.

“Are you all right?” Gods, even speaking hurt. Her throat was raw, agonized, as if someone had scraped the insides with jagged glass and then, just for funsies, painted the bleeding flesh with acid.

“I’m fine, so don’t worry about me. Worry about you. You’ve been out for three days.”

Three days? Her eyes widened. “The third game—”

“Starts two days from now. Bianka has kept me informed.”

Thank the gods. Still. Three days. “I must look terrible,” she muttered. She would have finger-combed her hair, but decided lifting her arm would require too much effort.

“You look alive, and that’s goddamn beautiful to me.”

Darling man. Her heart skipped a beat as she soaked up his praise.

“Besides,” he said, “we’re both clean. Lysander gave me robes. Angel robes. A stack of them. Every time I put a new one on, it was like taking a bath. You, too. Everything from your hair to the bottom of your feet was—is—washed. And let me tell you, that was weird.”

Why tell her that? Unless…oh. Oh. He wanted her. Okay, she would put the effort into that. Arousal warmed her up and her nipples tightened.

Her gaze swept over her body to catalog the damage she’d have to work around.

She was naked, her shoulders discolored and scabbed. Stomach, fine. Legs, fine. Ankles, bruised. Not bad.

She was lying on a faux fur rug her twin must have delivered, inside a nearly barren white tent, the air around her heated even though the air by the flapping entrance was almost crystallized from cold.

Leaning his weight into one arm, Strider was careful not to brush the long, thick length of his erection—and oh, yes, he had one—against her. Warm heat instantly pooled between her legs. She craved his touch, his mouth. Wanted to explore this new, deeper connection thing. She licked her lips.

“You move fast,” she said with a grin.

“Damn it, Kaia. Get your mind out of the gutter and talk to me. I’ve been waiting patiently for days.”

His pet name for her brought her gaze back to his face. The concern was back full force and she recalled why she was here, in the condition she was in—and the danger she had become to this man. She didn’t have to push her sexual need aside. It vanished on its own.

“Okay. Yes. What do you want me to talk about?”

His eyes glinted down at her. “First, if you ever had any doubts that I’m your consort, you can put them to rest. You slept next to me.”