Authors: Gena Showalter
But examine everything carefully, and hold fast to that which is good.
—1 THESSALONIANS 5:21
OLO WATCHED AS THE
female the captives called Vika—a young girl the owner of the circus had called “my heart”—sedated and bathed the rest of the otherworlders. She still labored over the last, the Cortaz, leaving only Solo.
Her touch was always tentative, shaky, and gentle, and he was highly curious to know if she would treat him with the same deference, considering all the threats he’d made. A curiosity he despised. He shouldn’t care one way or the other. To bathe him, she would have to tranquilize him, and the thought of dropping like a bear in the wild was utterly humiliating. Besides, if he slept through the entire episode, the sickening curiosity would never be assuaged.
And yet, he still liked the idea of having her hands on him.
. He needed to be smarter where she was concerned.
Already he’d made two grievous mistakes. The first? Attraction. Men forgot their purpose when they lusted
after a woman. The second? He’d experienced a measure of pity for her. Because, here she was, a beautiful human girl surely clothed in the skin of God’s most treasured angel, yet she had a bruise the size of a fist on her face. The size of Jecis’s fist, to be exact.
Solo had come to the conclusion that Jecis was forcing her to work for him and that, if Solo could only convince her to trust him, he could flee with her. Her—his very own female, according to X. He’d truly thought he would have a chance to convince her, too. If she were being beaten, she would crave some sort of protection.
protection, even from a monster. Protection he would have vowed to give. But when he’d offered to help her, she hadn’t bothered to reply.
After that, frustration had become a living force inside him, and out had come the death threats. Rather than cowering, as an abused female would have done, she had taunted him with her disregard.
That’s when the truth had settled deep. She was cold and cruel, without a heart, and he would have to take her down with everyone else. And he was totally okay with that, he told himself. He had always lived by three little words, the strongest words in creation:
whatever proved necessary
In fact, if ripping the door from his cage was a problem, he would remove her thumb—perhaps the only key to the locks—and he would do it with a slash of his claws or a swipe of his teeth. She would scream and she would cry, but nothing she said or did would stop him. She did not deserve Solo’s compassion and, to his mother’s shame, she would not receive it.
X had screwed up royally. Vika was to be Solo’s woman? Hardly. Either she liked to crawl into bed with Jecis Lukas or she had sprung from his loins. Either way, she deserved what she got.
So what if she had exhibited moments of kindness?
So what if her expressive face had revealed hurt, courage, and grim resolve when peering over at Solo, and all three emotions had caused his chest to ache. And okay, yes, the ache had actually sprung to life when the Bree Lian had scratched her shoulder. Solo had been forced to fight the compulsion to bust free of the cage simply to tear the otherworlder into innumerable pieces. A compulsion he’d once again battled as the Mec and the Cortaz had thrown rocks at her.
Silly of him, considering
would be harming her tonight. But he remembered all the times the kids at school had thrown rocks at him. Remembered the day his emotions had gotten the better of him, and he’d turned another kid’s face to pulp. Remembered that was the day X, who had been with him since birth only to disappear after the death of his biological parents, had returned. That was also the day Dr. E arrived. He remembered wishing he had a different life—but Vika hadn’t seemed to care.
He didn’t like that he had to wait to act, but patience was his best friend right now. He hadn’t quite recovered from the bombing, weakness still swimming through his veins, affecting his limbs. His grip wasn’t as strong as usual, and he doubted his footsteps would be steady.
“I can feel your anger, Solo,” X said, sitting down on
Solo’s shoulder, balancing his elbows on his upraised knees. “Why? The girl has done nothing wrong.”
“Nothing wrong?” Dr. E snorted, pacing. “Maybe we’re thinking of different girls, because this one tried to poison him!”
“Do not be ridiculous. She didn’t try to poison him.”
X remained silent, knowing there was no need to speak. Solo was well able to smell the essence of poison, and he had smelled nothing in the chocolate. So . . . why had she given it to him? Had she hoped to soften him or perhaps even to seduce him? Had she slept with any of the other imprisoned males, enjoying her power over them? Just the thought caused his nails to elongate and cut into his palms.
He homed in on her, watched intently, and realized she was showing the female the same detached gentleness as she had shown the males. He relaxed, his nails shrinking to their normal size. No, she hadn’t slept with any of the males.
She’d hoped to soften Solo, then. But why?
Dr. E stomped a foot and growled, “If you aren’t on Solo’s team, you’re against it. She’s against it and needs to be eliminated. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Oh, that’s all? And yet, by lying in wait to destroy another, you will merely ambush your own life.”
As Solo listened to the pair, he fought another wave of fury. Apparently he could think about harming Vika, but if anyone else so much as suggested it, he had major problems—even with a tiny male no one else could see or hear.
X said, “Look deeper than the surface, Solo, the way you’ve always wanted people to do for you. Vika is not what she seems.”
Dr. E wasn’t one to be ignored. “Wait. You’re trying to tell us that you don’t think she’s like every other female Solo has known? Please. They either bolt from him in fear, or throw him down and demand he unleash his big, bad beast. She bolted. Give her a few days, and she’ll do the other.”
Yes, she had bolted, but she had also approached him afterward and offered him a gift.
“Listen to her, whistling so loudly and off-key,” Dr. E continued, his tone dripping with disgust. “It’s obvious she enjoys her work.”
“Perhaps she needs a distraction from so horrific a task,” X replied.
Both possibilities had merit. Each time she had finished with an otherworlder, she had left a treat inside the cage. A pile of cookies for the Bree Lian, a rose for the Delensean, an extra blanket for the Morevv. A book for the Teran, and a tube of sunscreen for the Rakan. Kind gestures, sure. Something to assuage her guilt, maybe. Something to prevent the captives from rising up in revolt, definitely.
She finished with the Cortaz and locked up. Gaze downcast, she approached Solo’s cage, stopped, raised her foot as if she meant to take another step, placed it back on the ground. A second later, she shook her head and closed the rest of the distance with strong, determined strides.
“Don’t do it,” he said.
Her arm trembled as she leapt up to press the button to sedate him.
He was bigger than the others and didn’t expect to drop as quickly as they had—but he did. Between one heartbeat and the next, his arms and legs felt as heavy as boulders. His knees gave out, and his face hit the cage floor with a thud.
• • •
The high-pitched squeak of the cage door nearly sent Vika running. Somehow, she found the strength to climb inside the small enclosure. The newcomer’s chest was rising and falling steadily with his breaths, but his limbs were utterly still.
Okay, then. She left him to gather her cleaning supplies, her attention snagged on the special sandalwood oil she’d brought. Always she carried it here, but never had she actually used it. Now . . . she thought it would blend nicely with the otherworlder’s natural peat smoke scent, and she couldn’t help herself. She added the liquid to the spray bottle and reentered the cage.
I can do this. Really.
She started at his feet, shocked by how adorable his toes were. Never before had she seen toenails that resembled the purest of diamonds, sparkling in the light—and if she didn’t hide them, she would never again see them. Jecis would remove them.
Nibbling on her bottom lip, she left the cage only long enough to gather a handful of dirt and a little cup of water. She created a thick, dark paste and smeared
it over each of his nails, hiding their beauty. When the mixture dried, she was happy to note it remained intact, none of it flaking away.
Back to work.
She toiled her way to his knees, spraying the enzyme wash and wiping with the rag, spraying and wiping, shocked all over again by the lack of hair on his legs. That shouldn’t have caused her heart to pick up speed, but it did. It was just . . . he was put together so well, all muscle and sinew.
She’d bathed other males, of course she had, but there was something spectacular about this one. Something spectacular even despite the multiple patches of soot, each one hiding a wound of some sort. Bruises and scabs she was very carful not to injure further. Poor thing. What had been done to him?
Her cheeks heated the moment she reached his thighs, and she decided
to clean under the loincloth. She was curious, she wouldn’t lie about that, but even the thought of looking at that part of him, even to do her job, was wrong. So she moved her attention to his very muscular, utterly drool-worthy stomach, and sweet mercy, he had to be smuggling iron bars under his skin—iron bars that were twitching, she noticed with a frown, as though they were coming to life. She—
Watched as a bruise on his ribs faded, there one moment, gone the next, and the twitching mystery was momentarily set aside. How could an injury vanish that quickly? She traced the rag over the area, but the skin remained bronzed, healthy.
Amazing. Her gaze swept over him, and she realized
several other bruises had faded, too. He was healing right before her eyes. What a wonderful, miraculous gift—one she would have paid a fortune to have.
Vika cleaned his arms and hands and then his chest, and the twitching increased. An allergic reaction to the drugs, perhaps? Concerned, she flattened her hand over his heart. The beat was strong, if fast. No, no allergic reaction. Had to be a characteristic of his race, then.
As she leaned over him to scrub his neck, her chest brushed against his and she lost her breath.
She straightened with a jolt, thoughts tumbling through her mind.
You should have seen him before the circus got hold of him,
her mother had once said about her father.
He used to take my breath away.
The loss of breath was a sign of attraction. One Vika had never experienced before. Why here? Why now? Why this male . . . who was as soft as velvet yet as hard as rock, and as warm as a winter blanket.
Well, that answered that, she supposed.
Her attention slid to his face. His surprisingly lovely face. Long, thick lashes cast shadows over cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass. He had a proud nose she wanted to touch . . . shouldn’t touch . . . couldn’t help but touch. Her fingers tingled.
His lips were surely a work of art. They were lush and the same color as the roses her mother used to pick every morning and keep in their trailer. A tradition Vika had missed every day since her passing.
What would it be like to belong to a man like this
one? Did he protect the things he loved, or did he hurt them? What was he like in his other life, the one before enslavement?
Her fingers migrated to his lips. Lips as soft as they appeared. No, softer. Like little pillows.
For the first time in her life, she wondered what it would be like to kiss a man.
You can find out. . . .
The question sprang from a hidden place inside her, drifted through her mind, the most insidious of temptations. What would a single kiss hurt? He would never know, and she would never again have to wonder what it would be like.
A quick look around proved that all of the otherworlders were sleeping and none of the performers or workers were hanging around. There would never be a more perfect time.
Inch by inch, she leaned down. Finally, she was there, hovering just over his mouth.
You shouldn’t do this.
A moment of reasoning, springing from a place she knew very well. Self-preservation.
One she ignored.
She pressed her lips against his.
He offered no reaction, yet still the sweetness of the act astonished her. An intoxicating blend of emotions racing through her, she lifted her head, looked around. They were still alone. His eyes were still closed, his breathing still even. Again she lowered her mouth. This time, she applied more pressure, and oh, she liked
this feeling so much better. He was there, she could feel him, and could savor the intensified scent of him.
I wonder if he tastes as wonderful as he smells.
Another irresistible temptation. Her tongue swept out of its own accord and traced the center of his mouth. At the moment of contact, a moan escaped her. He tasted even better, and that should have been impossible, but here, now,
No wonder people enjoyed doing this. There was a communion of bodies, a complete loss of worry. The world and its troubles simply ceased to matter.
More, she thought, and her belly quivered.
Yes. More. She sucked his lower lip between her teeth, careful, so careful not to hurt him. Another moan slipped from her—just as his eyelids flipped open and his gaze locked on her.