His aching cock never slid free of her and she hit the root of him. Her head fell to his shoulder, the length of her silky hair tickling him between their bodies. He moved one hand to her breast, the beaded pink nipple peaking from between his fingers. He moved his other hand to her wet, wet core.

“Damn you, move harder!” she commanded, her movements uncoordinated now. “Faster.”

“No. Tell me what you’ve learned first,” he demanded, keeping himself still. He didn’t brush her clit, just teased the sensitive, swollen bud with his nearness.

She growled. “That I won’t hurt you by losing control during sex. FYI, I learned that about five climaxes ago, you bastard.”

“Hadn’t realized you were such a quick study.”

“So why aren’t you moving? I will hurt you if you don’t finish this!” That growl was sharper by the second. Her claws sank into his thighs as she said, “I swear, I’ll finish myself and leave you to rot.”

A rough chuckle left him. So impatient, his woman. Thank the gods. He wouldn’t have her any other way.

“I love you,” Strider told her. Before she could reply, he angled his head and meshed their lips together, his tongue driving against and rolling with hers. He gripped her hips and forced her to ride him, burying his cock as deep as it could go with each downward thrust, impaling her, then almost leaving her with each upward glide.

When that wasn’t enough, he pressed his thumb against the sweetest little spot on earth. She was so small, so tight, he knew he was nearly too big for her. Perhaps that should have made him take care, but she was strong and she could take anything he meted out. So he meted out a lot, hitting her hard and fast. The kiss never ended, never slowed, and he loved that they tasted of each other’s passion.

One of her hands lifted, those nails next digging into his scalp. “Strider,” she gasped, pulling from his lips. “Yes. Yes.”

Such a sweet benediction. His muscles quivered with the depths of his need. His bones ached. Had to…needed…would…damn it! He’d held his release back for so long, he couldn’t quite breech the resistant wall he’d erected.

He hammered at her, hips pistoning, and when that didn’t work, he dropped to his side, the ice barely noticeable, taking her with him, moving her top leg over his and spreading her as wide as he could.

Harder…harder still…but release continued to elude him. He was becoming desperate, sweating so much the ice melted and pooled beneath him. His fingers dug into Kaia’s hip with such might he knew bruises would form by morning.

She moaned and groaned and whimpered. And when she cried, “I love you,” as she broke apart, shattering, her inner muscles clenching at him, he realized that was exactly what he’d been waiting for, what he’d needed. Her declaration.

He, too, broke, her body practically ripping the seed out of him, the hot jets shooting inside her. Bright lights winked behind his eyelids, his roar echoing through the night.

When he’d emptied himself out long moments later, he collapsed beside her. She was shaking. Not from cold, but from exertion. He was too weak to smile and bang his chest with the force of his pride. His woman—his wife—was pleased.

“Did you mean it?” he managed to ask, sleep tugging at him as surely as she had.

She didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “Yes.” Her voice was delicate, exhausted.

“About damn time.”

“Oh, just shut up and afterglow with me.”

Okay, so he wasn’t too weak to smile after all. “You gonna sleep? For real?”

“Try and stop me.” She yawned and burrowed her head into the hollow of his neck.

“You trust me to protect you?”

Several minutes dragged by in silence.


“What?” she murmured sleepily.

“Do you. Trust me. To protect you?”

“Of course,” she said. Her eyes were closed and within minutes, she was sagged against him, completely lost to the sweet kiss of slumber.

Of course, she’d said. As if she hadn’t made him sweat about the answer. He dredged up the strength to carry her back to the tent, where he held her tight, all night, swearing to the gods he would never let go.

KAIA WAS STILL REELING over Strider’s absolute possession of her body two days later when they reached her sisters. They had their heads bent over their weapons, sharpening the tips and preparing for the third competition.

She and Strider hadn’t made love again and they hadn’t discussed their feelings for each other. A courtesy on his part, she knew. She had to remain focused, her eye on the prize. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been able to kidnap and torture Juliette for information about the Paring Rod. Which, Strider had told her, was apparently all too real and not the fake they’d been hoping for.

And there was no time to do so now, either. The journey from Alaska to Rome had eaten up her chance. While Juliette was now within her reach, the game would be starting in half an hour.

Bianka noticed Kaia when she glanced up to find her polishing stone. “Kye!” Grinning, she jumped to her feet, her weapon clattering to the floor next to her bucket of water. She rushed over and gathered Kaia in a welcome embrace. “I almost killed Strider when he refused to let me see you, but I knew you’d disapprove if he got so much as a scratch.” A long-suffering sigh. “Thankfully, he’s been texting me daily reports, so I knew you were on the mend. But seeing you…”

Hot tears stung her eyes. “Yeah, I know. I needed to see you, too.” She knew Strider hadn’t told her sisters about the fire thing, and neither had their men, who’d witnessed the aftereffects. Not that Strider had explained things to them.

He’d left the decision up to her.

To tell, or not to tell? If she did, her sisters wouldn’t want her to fight. Like they do anyway? She ignored the harsh inner voice. Their reluctance would be wise. She may or may not be able to start another fire. If the Harpies pissed her off, yeah, she probably would. Like the Hunters, they would die. And that was fine, expected even. Using your abilities was encouraged during these kinds of competitions, every advantage exploited.

But if she lost control, would she harm her family, too?

She wished she had time to practice, to test the limits of her Phoenix side. Was strong emotion the trigger? Or would simply thinking about the flames work? Even now, the heat coiled through her veins, at the ready.

She would have liked to ask someone, but the only other Phoenix she knew was her dad and she would rather spend the rest of eternity wondering about the truth than speak to him for a single minute. His evil, his absolute lack of concern for others, for his own daughters’ well-being…she shuddered. He wasn’t exactly Father of the Year material.

That was another reason to remain out of the game. If she caught fire, or set someone else on fire, word of her new ability would spread. Daddy Dearest might come for her.

“Damn, girl. Are you feverish?” Bianka was sweating when they parted, though her twin didn’t sever all contact, keeping her arm wound around Kaia’s waist.

“Nope,” she lied. “Flushed. And I know, you don’t have to say it. Strider is a lucky man.”

“That’s the truth.”

Quashing a spark of guilt before it could form—she absolutely hated lying to her twin—Kaia glanced around the room. Taliyah nodded in acknowledgment before returning to her blade-sharpening task. Gwen blew her a loving kiss. Neeka offered her a small smile and the others waved.

“Catch me up,” she said.

Bianka pulled her forward. Kaia’s other hand was intertwined with Strider’s and stayed that way until the last possible second. As she and her twin sat on the floor of the Team Kaia tent, she saw Sabin, Lysander and Strider gather in a corner and put their heads together, chatting, their voices low.

She tried to listen, her ears twitching, but she couldn’t make out the words. She tried to read their lips, but they kept their bodies angled away from her, not allowing her a single peek.

She was very close to standing up, stomping over, gripping her man by the shoulders and shaking him. Then she would demand he tell her what was going on, what he didn’t want her to know.

You trust him. You know he would never hurt you. And that was true. She did. She trusted him with her life. Obviously. Otherwise, she never would have slept, truly slept, with him.

Gods, that had been amazing. Rousing from seductive dreams and feeling her man beside her. She’d been cocooned, had luxuriated in his strength, his thick arms banded around her. Sleep had still held him in a tight fist and his features had been relaxed, boyish.

Never in her life had she been so content.

“So…what do you think? You in?” Bianka asked, drawing her attention.

Shit. She hadn’t heard a single word her sister had said. “In what, exactly? Tell me again, because your explanation was so lame it confused me.”

Bianka knew her very well and rolled her eyes. “You are such a bad liar.”

Am I? she almost asked with a smug lift of her chin. You didn’t catch my last one. “You’re projecting. Continue.”

“I was telling you how we’re in Rome, in the Coliseum. And get this. It’s the Coliseum of old, exactly the same as it used to be—only way different.”

Kaia supposed that, when you were as pretty as Bianka, you didn’t need to be smart. “Bee, darling. You are so, so exquisite, but you are also highly deranged. Do you have any idea how contradictory that statement was?”

“What are you talking about? I make perfect sense if you don’t actually ponder anything I say. Now guess what? The Coliseum is hidden from the mortal eye. We’re hidden from the mortal eye, in a realm we didn’t need a portal to access. Here, but not here.”

“And how’d we manage that?”

“Juliette. Somehow.”

Just the name had her gritting her teeth. Juliette had set her up, had arranged for mere mortals—and Strider’s enemies—to slaughter her. Bitch needed to pay. Soon. “And?”