Authors: Gena Showalter
One Day mewled, peeked out, and tried to nudge her hand.
“Go, baby. Go.”
Another nudge from him.
“Go on, now. Jecis wants to hurt you, but I will not let him.”
One Day lumbered to the ground, but rather than sprinting to freedom, he rubbed against her leg, causing
her to stumble forward and drop the keys a second time. He wanted to be brushed, she knew. He loved when she cleaned and groomed him, his purrs of approval so rich and deep they always settled over her like warm honey.
Tears burned the backs of her eyes, clouding her vision. “You will run now. Please.”
How many times had she promised her precious lion freedom?
One day we will escape together. One day I will grow tall and you will grow strong, and we will protect each other. Yes, one day.
She’d said the words so many times they’d finally become a name.
He deserved a chance to run and play and do whatever else he desired.
“Vika!” Her father’s voice boomed closer . . . so close his booted footsteps echoed in the background.
She shoved One Day toward the line of trees in the distance. She wouldn’t be able to save the others, she realized with a flood of sorrow, but she could save her precious lion. She had to save him. “I said go!”
He resisted, again rubbing at her leg.
A shocked gasp sounded a few feet away. “You did it,” her father said. “You actually did it. You betrayed me. Me! After everything I’ve done for you.”
He had arrived.
Her heart thundered in her chest as her gaze found him in the darkness. He was tall, with wide shoulders and a barrel chest. Not necessarily bad things—until a temper as hot as the inner core of the earth got the better of him. Fear she’d managed to ignore
now consumed her. Suddenly her feet felt as heavy as thousand-pound boulders, and she couldn’t force herself to move.
She rarely disobeyed this man. His punishments were too severe. “I . . . I . . .”
Jecis stomped to her, grabbed her arms in a painful vise grip, and shook her. “I buy you the best clothes, the best food, and gift you with the greatest treasures, and yet you dare defy me?”
One Day roared with long-suppressed rage, and slowly stalked around them. But he didn’t attack. He couldn’t. Jecis used Vika as a shield, always ensuring she blocked the way. The rest of the animals banged against the bars of their cages.
“Atsiprašau,” Vika managed to choke out.
Jecis glared down at her through eyes the color of violetiniai, the same as hers. She only prayed her own were not laced with such cold, hard cruelty. “I have told you only to speak English. Or do you speak the mother tongue hoping someone will realize you are foreign and try to take you away from me?”
“I—I am sorry,” she translated with a tremor.
“Not yet, but you will be.” He released her—only to backhand her.
She tumbled to the ground. Blood filled her mouth, a copper tang coating her tongue, and pain exploded through her head.
One Day jumped toward her father, but, sick as the lion was, he was sluggish, and Jecis easily dodged the creature, grabbing Vika and jerking her upright.
The lion crouched, ready to initiate another attack, clearly desperate to rip his enemy in half.
“I love you more than life itself, Vika, but that love will not save you from my wrath.”
When has it ever?
she wanted to scream. Wisely, she remained quiet.
Another roar tore through the air.
“You think to threaten me, eh, lion? To hurt me?” Jecis withdrew a gun from the waist of his pants and stretched out his arm. “The man who paid for your care, all these many years?”
“No!” Vika shrieked, trying to tug that arm down but making no progress. “Please, no. Do not do this. Please,” she repeated, nearing hysteria.
“Before, I would have been merciful, would have done this without causing any pain. Now . . .”
One Day couldn’t contain his aggression any longer and leapt. Jecis squeezed the trigger.
Despite the sudden ringing in Vika’s ears and the bright white stars winking through her vision, she heard One Day’s agonized mewl and watched as he collapsed on the ground. Big dark eyes, now filled with anguish and regret, found her. His body twitched, and he yelped with agony.
A cry of denial burst from her.
“I will deal with you in a moment,” her father snapped, shoving her away now that the threat was gone. “First . . .”
She scrambled to One Day to stroke his trembling body.
Oh, my darling. Oh, no.
Her shock and horror ate up her strength as she looked up and watched Jecis turn, aim.
One after another, her beautiful animals were gunned down, their cries ending abruptly. Her chin quivered, finally dislodging the tears welled in her eyes. Droplets spilled onto her cheeks, raining down, burning and stinging the cut her father’s ring had left behind.
She wanted to look away from her friends. She couldn’t bear to witness their suffering, but she refused to allow herself the luxury of retreating mentally. These precious beings had lived terrible lives here at the circus, and she could not let them die alone.
When the last of them stilled and quieted, only One Day hanging on—
oh, One Day, I’m so sorry
—her father yanked her to her feet and slapped the gun in her hand.
“One bullet left,” he said, grabbing her wrist to ensure she never pointed the weapon at him. “You will finish him.”
Bile burned a path up her throat. “No. Please, no.”
“Do it,” Jecis growled, getting in her face, putting them nose to nose. “Do it, or things will be much worse for you.”
“I—I don’t care. I won’t. I can’t.”
His eyes narrowed. “Do it, or I’ll skin him while he’s still alive.” Spittle rained upon her face.
Your lion is in pain. This is for the best.
Was that true,
she wondered, or was she simply trying to comfort herself? Either way . . .
Shaking, she stretched out her arm, the gun heavy in her palm. Though Jecis still held her, he offered no support.
Crimson leaked from One Day’s mouth.
Her finger wound around the trigger, and her vision hazed.
Her beloved released a long breath, as if he knew what she planned. As if he waited for the inevitable end.
“I’m so sorry,” she croaked. “Forgive me.”
The lion stilled and quieted like all the others. Sobs racked her body, and her arm fell to her side.
“Good girl.” Jecis claimed the gun and stuffed it back in his pants. He rolled up his shirtsleeves, cracked his knuckles. “Now, my heart, it’s your turn. Clearly, you have not learned the proper respect for me. But you will, I promise you, and we’ll never again have a problem like this.”
The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.
—SONG OF SOLOMON 1:1
SIX YEARS LATER
ICHAEL BLACK LEANED BACK
in his chair, his hands forming a steeple over his mouth. He studied the three agents he’d recruited for Operation Dumpster Dive. Each was an otherworlder who had been raised here on earth. Each had lost his biological family soon after birth, and because of Michael, each had been quickly adopted by a human family under the condition Michael have complete access any time he so desired.
He’d begun their training at the age of five, though he’d only taught them little things at first. Target practice had eventually morphed into hunting living, breathing game. Camping had morphed into surviving a week in the jungle, alone, without any kind of weapon. Creating strategies for winning video games had developed into creating strategies to save one another from whatever disastrous situation Michael had staged.
Now the boys were adults, the best of the best—and about to face the biggest threat of their careers.
“Are we just gonna sit here in silence?” said John No Last Name. He’d refused to accept the surname of his adoptive parents, and by the time Michael had realized why and gotten him out, the boy had wanted nothing to do with the Black name either.
“Obviously not,” Michael replied easily. “We’re talking now, aren’t we?”
John gave him the finger. He was a Rakan and from his curling locks to his glittering skin, he looked as though he’d been chiseled from a brick of solid gold. Michael was pretty sure there was no man more beautiful.
Corbin Blue snickered, and John gave him the finger too.
Blue was an Arcadian, a race known for its people’s pale skin, white hair, and lavender eyes, and he was one of the fiercest warriors Michael had ever encountered, over six and a half feet tall, with the muscle mass of an artificially engineered specimen on a steady diet of steroids and growth hormone.
Of the three males, Blue was the only one who kept a public persona. He played professional football as a cover to get into the right parties, attended by the right people, where alcohol flowed and secrets spilled. Well, that, and because he enjoyed knocking other men around for money.
Beside him sat Solomon Judah. Michael wasn’t sure of the male’s origins. All he knew was that he’d never encountered anyone like him, and everyone who met him feared him. Including Michael! Solo either burned hot or iced cold, and there was nothing in between.
Solo kept to himself, only emerging from his “hick, backwater bat cave,” as Blue called it, for a mission. But then, Solo had to be solitary. He was taller than both Corbin and John, monstrously so, with an even bigger muscle mass, but while the others were fantasies of urban beauty, Solo was a nightmare of hellish ugliness.
And okay, yeah, that was way harsh. He only resembled a creature from the underworld when his temper overtook him. Right now, he was actually what Michael’s female assistant referred to as barbarian chic. And she always used a hushed, deferential tone.
Solo had unevenly chopped black hair, thanks to his affinity for cutting the strands with his own blade, and deeply bronzed skin. His eyes were blue and heavily lashed, his nose strong and aristocratic, with a slight bump in the center from one too many breaks.
Whenever he experienced a surge of anger, Solo’s skin would darken to a frightening shade of crimson—the last color his enemies saw before dying horribly. His teeth would elongate into something far worse than fangs. His cheekbones would double in size and his ears would grow and develop sharp points at the end. Metallic claws would sprout from his nails.
By the time the last of the physical changes occurred, no one would be able to calm him. He would rage until becoming too weakened to move, everything in his path already totally and completely obliterated.
That hadn’t always been the case. Once, his adoptive parents had had great success in the soothe-the-savage-beast arena. In fact, the pair had taken countless years off Michael’s life, terrifying him as they’d approached
the crazed boy, not to try and subdue him but to wrap their arms around him and hug him close. And Solo had let them!
When Mary Elizabeth and Jacob died, Solo had been inconsolable—and once again unstoppable.
He must have felt Michael’s gaze, because he looked up and locked on him. They shared a silent moment of communication.
How are you doing, son?
If you don’t get started, I’ll rip out your heart and have it for breakfast.
That was just a guess on Michael’s part, of course, but he was suddenly certain Solo iced cold today.
“I received a great piece of intel,” Michael said, getting down to business. He sat upright and pressed a few buttons on his computer.
“Uh, I hate to break it to you, boss, but that’s not exactly a news flash,” Blue replied. “The only time you call us together is when you’ve received intel. Get to the real stuff, will you?”
“Why do you care whether or not he delays?” John said. “It’s the off-season for you, so you’ve got nowhere else to be.”
“Speak for yourself.” Blue hitched his thumb in the Rakan’s direction, all
Can you believe this guy?
“I have a wedding to pretend to help plan.”
Unvarnished truth, right there. And Michael was still shocked about the impending nuptials. He kept track of his boys, and knew Blue hadn’t known the girl long. A few weeks, nothing more. But that wasn’t the shocking part. After a failed relationship a few years
ago, Blue had become a serial one-hit batter. Yet now he expected a lifetime of wedded bliss? Please. And the girl? Blue’s philandering was well known. Did she truly believe she would be the one to change him?
Well, she wouldn’t. The fiancée had no idea Blue worked in the shadows of the government as a hired killer, and she never would. Eventually, she would realize he was lying to her about his whereabouts, and she would demand answers he couldn’t give. She would assume he was having an affair—and he might be doing that, too—and leave him.
Michael had seen it happen to his operatives time and time again, but they kept trying, hoping to build ties with someone, anyone, and create an illusion of normalcy. When would they learn? When your life was a big fat lie, happily-ever-after was impossible. And yes, Michael knew that firsthand.