She got it. They placed the new buckets where she wanted and picked up the old ones. She busied herself with what was inside, but the pair remained where they were for several long moments, watching her, leering all over again now that her back was to them, elbowing each other with masculine intent.
“I think I’ll sneak into her trailer tonight and have me some fun with her.”
“You do, and you won’t have to worry about Matas’s magic act. He’ll straight-up murder you.”
A shrug. “Might be worth it.”
“ ’Course, he’ll only murder you if Jecis don’t get to you first.”
“I could take ’em both at the same time,” the guy grumbled under his breath.
“Fine. Go ahead, and do it. Shank the meanest thugs ever to walk the face of the earth, and I’ll sneak into her trailer while all three of you are too dead to stop me.”
Matas had been mentioned on several occasions. Who was he? And why was Vika showing no reaction to the conversation? A conversation about her possible rape? Instead, she concentrated on her task, lifting bowls from one bucket and filling them with bread and grain from the other. Only when one of the men did what Solo had wanted to do the first time he’d seen her and reached out to pinch a lock of her hair did she give a reaction. Her spine went rigid as she whipped around to face the culprit.
Solo gripped the cage bars.
“Touch me again,” she said, “and I’ll be wearing your body parts as jewelry within the hour. Got it?”
One man’s lip curled in fear. He nodded and strode away as fast as his feet would carry him. The other, the bigger one, kept his attention on her for longer than was decent, his gaze roving over her, lingering where it shouldn’t.
“You really think you’re strong enough to take me, Miz Vika?” he asked silkily.
She grinned with relish. “Let’s ask Jecis what he thinks about that, shall we?”
Before the man could respond, Solo jerked at the bars, the entire enclosure shaking and rattling, creating a ruckus. The man yanked his attention Solo’s way, and their gazes locked. His was brown. Solo’s was bloodred—and growing brighter by the second.
Paling, the man at last backed away. He crashed into one of the cages, turned, and darted from the clearing.
Vika’s shoulders sagged with relief.
Without the guards to dissuade them, the Mec and the Cortaz erupted into cruel taunts. Although Vika’s motions were stiff, she gave no other indication that she noticed as she leapt back into work.
Solo had never encountered anyone capable of tuning out the rest of the world with such success.
He watched as she slid a bowl of food into each of the cages, never getting close enough for anyone to grab, instead balancing the bowls on the end of a shovel and forcing the captives to accept from a distance.
“I want to talk to you,” he said when she reached him.
She ignored him, even refused to look up.
Most of the otherworlders thanked her, but the Mec threw his bowl at her, the grain flying free and slapping at her. Solo expected her to shout, to threaten, but she simply bent down, picked everything up, and gave the whole thing back to him with a muttered, “I’ll pretend that was an accident. This time.”
That . . . made no sense.
Why so generous? Why so kind? Why not let the offender starve? That’s what a cold, calculating witch lurking underneath an angel’s skin would have done. That’s what Solo would have done.
“I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is simple,” X said. “She sympathizes with those under her care.”
“Wrong! No one’s that good. She’s just plain pathetic,” Dr. E said, “hoping the creatures will behave if she’s nice.”
Solo didn’t know what to believe anymore.
“Stupid little cow,” the Cortaz shouted. “I want you dead!”
The otherworlder threw a handful of her own grain at Vika and several pieces stuck in her hair. Every muscle in Solo’s body tensed. Vika faced the culprit, and the Cortaz threw another handful, the grains slapping at her face this time.
Dr. E laughed. “I love watching people get what they deserve.”
X moaned, as though in pain.
Solo held his silence, though his jaw was clenched so painfully he could hardly stand it. He wasn’t sure Vika actually deserved what was happening, but he wasn’t going to get involved. He wasn’t going to be her protector or her defender; it wasn’t like she needed one, anyway. She was a freewoman. He wasn’t going to care what happened to her.
Yes, she had been gentle with the captives. But she’d still done her father’s bidding. She could have freed everyone and run away, but she hadn’t.
“Fine,” Vika said with a twinge of sadness. “Your loss. You’ll starve, and make it easier for Jecis to overpower you.”
They were basically the same words she’d given him over the chocolate. For some reason, that caused an ache in his chest. But judging from the Cortaz’s dark expression, starving was exactly what she wanted. Huh. She must have lied about the brothers. A woman with hope wouldn’t act that way.
Although Solo could understand wanting to die rather than remaining a slave.
“Help her,” X said.
Which “her?” “No,” he whispered, because the answer was the same either way. The Cortaz had hurt Vika, and even though Solo had decided not to protect or defend the girl, he wasn’t going to aid those who harmed her. Just the thought of doing so caused his anger to return.
Maybe . . . maybe he wouldn’t kill Vika when he escaped. He would burn the entire circus to the ground, spring Kitten, lock up Vika at his farm, and go to Michael. Together, they would gather an army, come back here and make Dr. E laugh.
What he would do with Vika after that, Solo wasn’t sure.
Wisdom will save you from the ways of wicked men.
THE MORNING SUN CRESTED in the sky, flames of gold, orange, pink, and purple streaking in every direction. Fluffy white clouds dotted the never-ending expanse, and a single black bird flew past them while crying a song of loneliness and despair.
He was still trapped inside his cage.
He, an expert lock picker, a man stronger than ten extraordinary humans combined, who had once sprung John No Name from a prison in Shanghai with only a toothpick and a stick of chewing gum, and, okay, Blue at his side, had failed to free himself from an old rusty pen for animals.