He moved around to the other side of the bed, where Maddox held the boy. Of course, the warrior beamed with pride as he smoothed the blanket from the kid’s face. Like Ever, the baby looked months old. He had a cap of black hair and his eyes were the same shade of violet as his daddy’s and diamond-hard. Two little horns peeked from his skull, and there were patches of scales on his hands. Those scales were black and as smooth as glass.
With focused intensity, the boy studied Paris. And Paris had no doubt the kid had sized him up in a single heartbeat, learning his weaknesses, his flaws, and his bad habits, and was preparing for attack.
“What’s his name?”
“Urban,” William answered before Maddox could, and again he was all about the disgust.
Ever and Urban. Cute, in a Hollyweird sort of way. “What made you pick those particular names?”
“We didn’t,” Maddox said. “They did.”
His eyes widened. “They can speak?”
“No, but they are very good at communicating.”
And that would be…how? “So, I hear the birth was troublesome. How’d William save the day?”
Maddox stiffened, even as William shook his head and placed Ever in the bassinet beside the bed. When he straightened, William rocked his hand over his neck in a slicing motion. A kill-that-line-of-convo-now gesture.
“That goshdarn mothertrucking a-hole cut my woman up, ripped the babies out and sewed her back together.” Maddox’s nostrils flared, so heavily did he breathe. “Without anesthesia.”
William popped his jaw. “There wasn’t time. They were clawing their way out, and waiting any longer would have killed your Ashlyn for sure. And better a dagger slice, which is smooth, than the savage tearing that comes with claws. And by the way, you’re welcome. They’re all alive.”
Well, all right, then. Like a coward, Paris abandoned ship, leaving William to endure Maddox’s wrath on his own. He made his way to the gym on the bottom floor. Strider was there, as promised, running the treadmill like a man possessed. Which he was.
Blond hair was plastered to his scalp, and rivers of sweat ran down his deeply tanned skin.
The white-haired Torin was at the far side of the room, bench-pressing enough weight to have fractured the marble floor. Shock rooted him in place for a moment. Torin never approached the masses, too afraid of someone accidentally touching him.
How’d he get here, anyway? Last Paris had heard, Disease had turned down Lucien’s offer for air travel. And when the hell had Torin gotten so ripped? He usually holed up in his room, covered from neck to foot in black. Now, without a shirt, Paris saw the guy had the chiseled body of someone who could kick his ass.
Both men stopped what they were doing when they realized he’d entered. Paris whipped off his shirt, his gun holster and his blades, stored them on a bench and moved to the treadmill beside Strider.
“What’d you want to talk to me about?” He hit a few buttons, and then the thing was lifting and moving, giving him a grueling incline and a sprinting pace that felt unbelievably good. He hadn’t exercised like this in a long time.
“What’s this I hear about you having an invisible Hunter on the premises?” Strider asked, catching a towel Torin had thrown at him. He wiped his face, his gaze remaining on Paris. “The Hunter possessed by Wrath, I might add.”
Shoulda known. “She’s not a Hunter, not anymore, and she’s not up for discussion.”
“Like hell she isn’t. My woman is here.”
“Yeah, and your woman can take care of herself.”
Pride flickered in Strider’s navy eyes. “True enough. Fact remains, though, that an unseen enemy is the most dangerous. Your girl can do all kinds of damage to everyone here.”
He cranked the speed up another thousand notches, until his boots were hammering into the base and rattling the entire machine. “She’s not out to hurt us.”
“Yeah, so, I’ve got some wiring to do,” Torin said from behind them. “You boys have at each other.” Footsteps, and then it was just the two of them.
“You’re telling me the girl who drugged you, who watched your torture, is no longer a threat to you or anyone?” Strider asked skeptically. “Please.”
“We worked it out.” Sweat beaded on his skin, too, dripping, dripping. His muscles burned just right, soaking up the strain, loving it.
“In the sheets, no doubt, but all that means is that you’re thinking with something other than your brain. You gotta know that.”
Don’t challenge him, don’t challenge him, don’t you dare challenge him. You had to be careful around Strider. His demon took exception to any hint of confrontation, and then Strider had to battle it out, doing everything in his power to knock you senseless, or he’d suffer for days as punishment.
“Everyone accepted Haidee,” Paris reminded him, “and she was a Hunter.”
“Now she’s the living embodiment of Love. It’s kinda hard not to like and trust her. Your girl, we can’t see or hear her. Can’t judge her actions and her words for ourselves. Can’t see how she is with you. And do you really need another you’re thinking with your man junk speech?”
Darkness…rising… “I’m asking you to step off,” Paris said, “before things get nasty and we have to work this out the hard way.” If he had to go the challenge route to stop his friend from verbally slamming his woman, he would.
Silence. Then, a grisly, “I feel—”
“A burning sensation when you pee?” Now you’re just being mean.
“Real mature,” Strider said, but he calmed down a notch. “Me and you, we got history. More than the others know, more than the two of us ever want to acknowledge. But we both know it’s one of the reasons we went our separate ways when the two groups split for while, me with Sabin and you with Lucien.”
Heat seared Paris’s cheeks, and it had nothing to do with physical strain. “We said we’d never talk or think about it.” And he’d always kept up his end of that agreement.
“Apparently, times change. You were weak, dying. There were no humans around, and you refused to let any of us help you.”
“Shut up.” His happy day was going down the drain fast. “Just shut up.”
“So, my demon took up the challenge, and I took care of you. Now I’m asking you to take care of your friends in turn. Get rid of the girl,” Strider went on, ignoring the demand. “We lack one artifact, just one, and once we get it back we can start searching for Pandora’s box. We can finally save ourselves. Not only can she spy on us, steal from us and hurt our more vulnerable members, she could ruin our future. Just think about it. For me.”