“No worries. I’ve got this.” Leila evaded Cronus’s next kick. She went low, spun, and came up swinging the daggers. Yes! The blades slashed the Titan’s throat. Blood poured as he stumbled back and gasped for breath he couldn’t catch.

Galen grinned. Payback hurt.

When she dropped a second time, she swiped out her leg, knocking the king’s feet together. Too weak to right himself, he toppled. Impact jarred the male. Merciless, Leila straightened and executed another kick, then another, until he lost his grip on both swords. Only then did she jump atop him.

Once again, he backhanded her, splitting her lip before she could deliver the final blow. A woman on a mission, she worked to maintain her perch, then leaned down…and bit into his already savaged neck, her teeth tearing out part of his trachea.

Galen knew the power of that bite, and the accompanying venom, and rejoiced. Soon, Cronus wouldn’t have the strength to rise, much less strike her again.

White foam collected at the corners of his mouth, his motions slowed. Leila pressed her booted feet into his thighs and her knees into his shoulders, lifted her arms, and struck. Her daggers hacked at his neck.

That’s my woman.

Tendons, muscles, even his spine was severed. Even when Cronus stilled, she continued. Blood spurted in every direction, soon coating her arms, dripping from her fingertips. Jab, jab, jab. Finally, the head detached from the body. An injury no immortal could recover from.

The blood-drenched daggers dropped from her trembling hand. Galen wanted to pound his chest with pride. Around him, Gwen, Sabin, and Aeron plowed through the soldiers with lethal precision, thinning the herd. Bodies and parts piled up around them.

Fox worried Galen. She was making her way toward the Sent Ones, attacking anyone who got in her way, even her allies. Every few steps, she paused to shake her head, clearly at odds with the demon of Distrust.

Two guards came at Galen from behind, their pounding footsteps heralding their approach. He flared his wings and spun, the metal hooks slashing their throats.

“No, Fox!” Sabin shouted. “Don’t do it!”

Galen spun again, preparing to rush over. Except she needed no protection. The Sent Ones needed protection from her. Lost in a haze of bloodlust, she sliced and diced each and every warrior, and they couldn’t fight back; they remained unmoving.

Before Sabin tackled her, all ten warriors had been slain.

A vile curse erupted from Galen. What she’d just done…

Soon, other Sent Ones would sense the deaths and come for her. And because she was demon-possessed, the demon assassins had an added excuse to execute her.

A worry for another day.

He scanned the temple. Only one soldier remained standing. Gwen used the man’s thigh as a step-stool, threw her free leg around his shoulders and used the momentum to pull herself into a sitting position. Balanced atop him, she placed her hands on different sides of his jaw and yanked, snapping his neck. He collapsed and she landed on her feet, walking away without a hitch in her step.

“Enough!” Leila tangled her fingers in Cronus’s hair and straightened, dangling the head at her side. Panting, triumphant, she held up the second head, calling, “This is what happens to you when you mess with me and mine. Understand?”

“That’s an awesome speech and all,” Gwen said, “but, uh, the soldiers are dead now, so your audience is nonexistent. Sorry not sorry!”

Galen sheathed his weapons and stalked to Leila. She dropped the head and stalked to him. Then they were running, crashing together midway. He twirled her around, and she laughed, delighting him. Such a musical sound. Magical, too.

“You did it,” he praised. “You did it well.”

“I did, didn’t I?”

“I love my present, sugar. Severed heads are so the new black.”

She chuckled, and it only delighted him more.

“I’m never letting you go, Leila,” he told her. “I love you. I love you so much.”

Hope brightened her features, and it had nothing to do with the demon. “You do? I mean, I knew you did, but it’s nice to hear.”

“I do.” He gave her words similar to the ones she’d given him. “Before you, I had no life. Now, you are my life.”

“I love you, too. So much.” She squeezed him tight. “I want to be with you, nothing held back. I want to be your partner in every way, shape, and form. And I want you and Aeron to be best friends forever. And I want you and Gwen to get along. You love her. Tell her! And I want Fox to admit that I’m perfect for you, and I also want her to call me Stepmother from now on.”

A laugh escaped him, only to fade. He’d failed Gwen every day of her life, and today he’d failed Fox, allowing her to provoke the Sent Ones to war.

“For you, sugar? Anything.” He set Leila on her feet and faced the others, who’d gathered around.

He’d tried to talk to Gwen a few times, yes, but he could have done more. Should have done more. In the end, he’d probably only hurt her worse, letting her think she meant little to him. After all, the harder you fought for something, the more you proved its worth to you.

He knew why. He’d feared rejection. But rejection was a dagger through the heart while regret was a dagger through the soul. No more regret. No more taking the coward’s road. What you wanted, you fought for. No excuses. If you were knocked down, you got back up. Look at Leila. She’d risen from the ashes of her past, stronger and tougher than ever, an unbeatable force of feminine fury.

“Gwen,” he began, keeping his arm around his woman.

“Fine! You talked me into it,” Gwen told him grudgingly. “I’ll give you a chance.”

So easily? “I…thank you.” It was then, in that moment, that he realized a startling truth. Part of the Harpy had wanted a relationship with him, too. When he’d needed her most, she hadn’t hesitated to aid him. “I won’t let you down.”

“You found the scrapbook,” Leila said with a smile, resting her head on his shoulder. “Didn’t you?”

Gwen nodded, tears gathering and spilling. “It was… whatever. No big deal.”

Leila grinned, smug. “I knew you’d cave as soon as you saw those pages.”

Aeron patted Galen’s shoulder. “Good job today.”

“Yeah. You, too.” No big deal, he thought in a mimic of his daughter. Meanwhile, he reeled. Was this good fortune truly his?

A sense of contentment settled inside him, stretched, and got comfortable, moving in for good.

He held out his hand. Aeron hesitated a moment, only a moment, before accepting. They shook, and the feeling of contentment intensified.

“Fox,” Galen said next. “The Sent Ones will come for you. They’ll—”

“I know,” she croaked. At least her eyes had returned to their normal color, and the lines had faded from her skin. “Something came over me. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop myself. They—” She smashed her lips together. Tremors shook her. “The things I did...”

Leila rushed over to draw the girl into her arms. “Don’t worry. We’ll protect you. We won’t let anything bad happen to you.”

At first, Fox was stiff as a board, but it wasn’t long before she melted against the other woman. “Thank you. By the way, I’m not calling you Stepmother. But, what do you think of maybe, possibly considering thinking about calling each other…friend?”

Excitement pulsed from Leila. “Yes! Agreed. We will think about considering thinking about this.”

Galen shared a confused look with Aeron, William, and Sabin. Uh…what the what now?

“I was wrong about you,” Fox continued, wiping her tears with the back of her hand. “You aren’t a weak link.”

Wait. Hold up. Fox had told Leila she was a weak link? A growl rumbled in his chest.

Leila returned to his side and pressed a finger against his lips. “Keep your mouth zipped, lover boy. The big girls are talking.”

He playfully nipped at the finger, earning another laugh f

rom her. She’d once told him she would never be the girl she used to be, but here, now, she was that girl times twenty, and he loved her even more for it.

“Maybe you two deserve each other,” Aeron muttered.

Galen had to swallow a new laugh. Despite the hardships they had yet to face, life could not get any better than this, he decided.

* * * *

Legion cuddled against Galen’s side. They’d showered, made love, and lounged in bed until his present arrived. She’d expected his expression to shine with happiness, and it had. But the strong, tough warrior had actually teared up. He’d hugged her, and kissed her, reverent.

“I knew I loved you,” he’d said, awed, “knew I’d give my life for yours. But this joy…I’ve never known its like. Never knew it was a possibility for one such as me.”

“The same joy resides in me.”

“Nothing the demons say can ever taint this,” he’d said then. “It’s too strong.”

Now, they were back in bed, his heart beating in super-sync with hers, his warm breath fanning the top of her head, his fingers tracing the ridges of her spine. Hope for a better tomorrow glowed inside her, more powerful than ever, and she was more confident it had nothing to do with his demon. For the first time in her existence, she was truly content.

“I have a present for you,” he said.

“Me? Besides the endless orgasms?” She clapped. “Gimme!”

“In addition to all those orgasms.” He kissed her ear, then leaned over and slid a box out from under the bed.

Legion ripped the pretty pink wrapping, tore off the lid, and stared down at the biggest, most beautiful tiara she’d ever seen, with diamond roses. For a moment, her eyes misted. She had no words.

“The pins double as a weapon,” he said. “You are my queen, and you require appropriate adornments.”

“Thank you!” She anchored the piece to her crown before pushing Galen to his back and straddling his waist. “I have a sudden urge to sit upon my throne.”

Many sweaty hours later, they reclined in bed once again. Legion still wore the tiara. Living in hell, she’d been deprived of all things beautiful. Now, she had the most beautiful man, body and soul, and the most beautiful jewels. The most beautiful life.

Only one thing cast a pallor on their future.

“You were right. The Sent Ones will come for Fox,” she said, cuddling closer to her man.

“Yes. We must prepare for another war.”

Fate sure was a fickle wench, wasn’t she? For Legion, the decision to go after Cronus had cemented a better future. For Fox, the decision had altered the course of her life entirely—for the worse. “I meant what I said. I will fight by your side, and I will do everything in my power to guard our friend.” Fox was part of Legion’s family now, and family mattered.

“Thank you, sugar.”

“For you, lover boy, anything.”

“I know that, and I owe you thanks for it, too. You, my perfect mate, have given me everything I’ve ever wanted, everything I’ve ever needed, and so much more.”

“Galen,” she said. “You’re putting me up on a pedestal…and I like it. Never stop.”

He snorted. “I put you on a pedestal so I can look up your skirt.”

That’s my man. “Tell me something.” Looking at him beneath the fan of her lashes, she asked, “Was I worth the wait?”

Galen used his wings to lift their bodies and flip her over. He loomed over her, locks of pale hair tumbling over his forehead. His ocean blues glittered with euphoria. “Leila, you are worth everything.”

The corners of her mouth slowly lifted as satisfaction saturated every cell in her body. “So are you, lover boy. So are you.”

THE END

Also from 1001 Dark Nights and Gena Showalter, discover The Darkest Assassin, coming December 10, 2019.

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