“And we’ll be fighting like Gladiators. Which is what I was trying to tell you before, if only you’d paid attention. So anyway, you’re very good with your hands and our team needs you this round. You up for it? You were hit pretty badly in Alaska.”

They needed her? When they’d brought home their first victory without her? She eyed her sister critically, searching for any sign of duplicity or placation. Only innocence and assurance rested in those lovely amber eyes. Only determination hardened those red lips.

No placation, then. No recrimination over her past defeats, either. Bianka believed in her.

Could she believe in herself?

Her new ability might hurt her sisters, yes, but it would definitely aid her in a second victory. A victory Strider needed her to achieve for his very survival.

She glanced over at him. He was still in that circle with his friends, but he was facing her now. His blond hair was mussed, his cheeks flushed. They were always flushed around her, as if he were constantly aroused. She liked that.

His lashes were so long they curled upward. And wow, were they the perfect frame for those wicked blue eyes. His lips were swollen, delightfully red. They may not have had sex again, but they’d certainly kissed. A lot. At every possible opportunity she had sucked on his tongue.

No question, she was addicted to him.

Her study intensified. There were cuts on his fingers and palms, she noted. He’d borne those same injuries before, but those had healed. Hadn’t they? She frowned, hating that he was hurt again. Hating more that she didn’t know why or how. Had she inflicted the damage?

The thought caused her stomach to cramp. She just, well, she loved him so damn much. She hadn’t known for sure until she’d shouted the words, but she did. He was strength personified. He was devilish. He was fun and charming, with a smart-ass mouth she couldn’t resist. He made her laugh. He pushed her to the edge, knowing she could take it. He teased her, didn’t fear her. He knew her, understood her, was sometimes tender, sometimes harsh. He worried about her, trusted her.

He’d also married them.

The knowledge had shocked the hell out of her. Yeah, he thought that was still his little secret, but she was onto him. She wasn’t sure why he hadn’t confessed, or even why he’d done it, but she was stubborn enough to wait him out. And she was just devious enough to tease him until he came clean.

After all, she liked his methods.

She also loved the knowledge that she was as much his as he was hers. And that’s exactly how she knew he’d done it. She felt him. He was a part of her mind, in her blood, her soul, her heart, that bone-deep connection stronger than anything she’d ever experienced.

Since waking up in his arms, she’d known something was different between them and had spent many, many hours puzzling over what it could be. Little flashes of memory had come and gone—the glint of a blade, the drip of crimson, the press of Strider’s skin, the whisper of his breath. The words, “You are mine, and I am yours. We are one. From this moment, we are one.”

Oh, yes. They were wed and she’d never been happier. She owed this man so very much.

She watched as he pulled a packet of Red Hots from his back pocket and shook the contents into his mouth. He chewed, his strong jaw working. Her chest constricted at the sensuality of him.

He must have felt her gaze because he glanced over at her and winked. Again her chest constricted. She had to keep him safe. Whatever that entailed, she had to keep him safe.

She had to get that Rod.

She turned her attention back to her sister and lifted her chin. “I’ll fight,” she said.


ONCE AGAIN STRIDER SAT in the stands to watch his woman—wife!—compete. But the Roman Coliseum was a far cry from the bleachers in “Brew City,” Wisconsin. He’d been here a time or two, remembered the travertine, tufa, brick and marble, and had never thought to see such things again. Not in such pristine condition, at least. As if no time had passed, as if the ancient world had somehow blended into the present.

There were four floors. The first three boasted wide, arched entryways fit for nobility, and the fourth, the bottom, had rectangular doorways meant for the common man. Nets rose from the arena to protect the spectators.

And the arena itself, well, he remembered that, too. A wooden floor stained with the blood of thousands covered the entire area, but it was a floor that could be removed, the land then flooded with water to reenact navel battles. Oh, how the Romans had loved their games.

And how the Harpies loved their games. The combatants occupied one of the subterranean chambers, waiting to be summoned. Meanwhile, Juliette droned on and on about what was to happen. If ever there’d been a blah, blah, blah moment, this was it. He wanted to stab his own ears more now than when the twins had been singing.

“—toughest match yet,” she was saying now. “And with two competitions under our belts, this one might just identify a clear leader.”

We know. The teams would fight each other, all at once, with any weapon of their choosing. But they were only allowed one weapon each. They could, however, pick up discarded weapons as the fight progressed.

There would be ten combatants from each team. That was fine, whatever, except Kaia only had seven in her corner—counting herself. Which meant they all had to go in. If they wanted to go in. Big surprise, each of them had wanted, even though they were already at a disadvantage.

Around him, females were cheering. “Hit ’em hard, break their backs, that’s the way to show ’em what they lack!”

Kaia had nearly died mere days ago and though he’d kept her fed and medicated, she wasn’t yet at top strength. But he’d known better than to ask her to bow out. Her pride was important to her, and what was important to her was now important to him.

Even if that meant losing the Paring Rod.

He could always steal it from whoever won it.


Yeah, yeah. Defeat was on edge. Kaia was a part of them now. She was theirs, and Strider assumed her victory was as important to the demon as his own. He didn’t know if he would experience gut-wrenching pain if she lost. He hadn’t last time, despite the challenge he’d accepted to protect her from other Harpies—and he figured that was because there was a fine line between protecting and punishing to a demon and he could still do the punishing—but then, they hadn’t been married last time. He prayed he did not learn differently today. Actually, he knew he wouldn’t. She wouldn’t lose. Despite her continued weakness, despite the fact that every single member of every single team was going to turn on her first, she had this one in the bag.

Not five minutes ago, he’d held her in his arms, hugging her tight before she abandoned him here.

“Any tips for winning?” she’d asked.

“Yeah. Do what you gotta do to survive.”

“That’s it? Wow. You suck at pep talks.”

He’d gripped her shoulders and peered down at her. “All right, how about this? You’re so emotionally invested in this, you let those emotions color your every move. Normally I’d say that’s dumb, but I like my balls where they are. That’s why I’ll just tell you that you can’t turn your feelings off, but you can use them.”

“How?” she’d gritted out.

“Well, part of you loves the women you’re up against, no matter how badly they’ve treated you, and you can’t deny it.”

She didn’t try.

He continued, “You have to remember that, despite the love you feel, they’ll turn on you in an instant.”


“Also, you’re easily distracted and—”

“There’s more?”

“Listen. While you’re down there, don’t think about me. Don’t think about what I’m doing or whether I’m okay.”

She snapped her teeth at him. “You’ll be looking for the Paring Rod. How can I not—”

“Don’t think about what I’m doing. Okay? That includes right now, this moment.”

A stiff nod.

“Also, if you don’t defeat them, Kaia, I’m going to kill them far more cruelly than you would have. Defeat issued a challenge to protect you from other Harpies before I came here, but this one is all me.”

Her jaw dropped.

“There. Now you’re properly motivated to do what needs doing. So go kick some ass.”

Beside him, Sabin and Lysander shifted restlessly, bringing him back to the present. Zacharel hadn’t yet made an appearance.

“I hate this Gladiator shit,” Sabin muttered.

“Yes, well, where do you think the Romans learned this kind of behavior?” the angel asked.

Sabin sputtered for a minute. “You’re trying to tell me Harpies are responsible for this? That the Romans learned from them?”

“I must try only if you’re lacking intelligence.”

Sabin opened his mouth to snap a reply, but a trumpet blew, signaling the start of the third game, and the crowd quieted. A second later, several of the iron doors groaned and creaked as they were raised. The combatants spilled out, sprinting into the arena.

Strider straightened, focused. Several more iron doors opened. Lions, tigers and bears—oh, my—joined the race. All were agitated, their mouths foaming.

He searched…searched…there. A glimpse of that bright red hair, bound tight in a ponytail. Kaia wore scarlet, like the rest of her team. Unlike the others, she did not clutch a weapon. He frowned.

The women at last reached the middle of the grounds, and without pause, the match began in a tangle of teeth, claws and metal. Grunts and shrieks instantly abounded. Blood sprayed.

Damn it, Kaia, he cursed as realization set in. She was going to use her fire—her new, as yet untested fire—and she hadn’t wanted anyone to accuse her of using two weapons.

If she burned a fellow Harpy to death, she would hate herself afterward. Or worse, if she couldn’t summon the fire, they would kill her and he would hate them, punish them, destroy them as promised. For him, though, for the Rod, she’d decided to risk it. Damn her!