“You’re all dead,” Vika said, emotionless. “You, me, all of them. We’re all as dead as . . . things that are dead.”
“I will protect you.” He stumbled over his own feet and barely managed to right himself. But he meant those words with every fiber of his being. He wanted her safe. Now and al— Oh, no. He wasn’t going there. He wanted her safe. For now.
He stopped, peered into her eyes, and again said, “I will protect you.” This time he added, “I vow it.”
She didn’t jolt, as any other would have, and that astonished him. Maybe it was because she couldn’t hear his voice, he reasoned. Maybe it was because he was drugged and in such a weakened condition. Whatever. Didn’t really matter, he supposed. A vow was a vow, and he’d just tied himself to her.
A sigh slipped from her and she nodded. “Okay. I’ll trust you.”
Solo walked her to the next cage, and this time she offered no resistance whatsoever.
“Hey, you. Stop,” a guard shouted in the distance, and Solo wasn’t sure if the command was issued to him or the Mec.
Either way, there was no time to liberate the others. Kitten, yes, but not the others. He would have to come back for them. He dragged Vika to the girl’s cage, and she placed her thumb against the lock’s ID without any prompting from him.
Kitten raced to his side. “Let’s do this thing.”
“Quiet,” Vika said, a desperate quality to her voice. “Please. We don’t want them to catch us.”
“You be quiet!” Kitten snarled, reaching for her. “Better yet, keep talking. I’ll silence you myself for what you allowed to happen to me.”
Solo spun Vika out of Kitten’s reach. “Don’t threaten her,” Solo told the otherworlder. He wasn’t sure what he’d do to her if she did it again. He only knew anger was already budding inside him—an uncontrollable anger. One that, when unleashed, would be unstoppable.
“Fine,” Kitten muttered. “But I have a problem with her, and one day I’m going to catnip the hell out of her.”
“Not without permission from me.” Permission he would never give.
Jaw clenched, he lumbered forward with the women at his sides, the rest of the otherworlders hurtling curses at him . . . curses that were fading in volume, not just because he was moving farther away but because the strength of the otherworlders’ emotions were engaging the cuffs and causing drugs to be pumped through their systems. They were dropping swiftly, as though Solo had targeted them for a job.
He quickened his step, trying to keep his own emotions under control.
He only made it a few more feet before a stocky man rounded a corner.
“Matas!” Solo heard the Targon shout. “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you so dead!”
Not just a shout, but a spew, as if the name were a terrible curse. Bars rattled. The ground shook.
Matas. Finally they met. He’d been at the whipping. Had been the one to hand the weapon to Jecis. The one to grin the widest as every blow was delivered.
But there was no time for a proper meet and greet. As Solo shifted directions, the male zeroed in on him. Black mist rose from the male’s shoulders in thick, writhing coils. Evil, Solo knew. As many criminals as he’d targeted throughout the years, he’d seen such evil before. Slightly crooked teeth flashed in a scowl as the man withdrew a gun from the waist of his pants and squeezed the trigger.
Solo twisted so that his body completely blocked the females. Fresh pain bloomed in his shoulder, and his vision instantly hazed.
Vika released a bloodcurdling scream that joined the chant of failed again, failed again, failed again suddenly echoing in his head. He collapsed, no longer able to hold himself upright, and because he still had a grip on both Vika and Kitten, the two females went down with him. He managed to tuck them both underneath him, still determined to use his body as a shield in case the male decided to open fire.
—knew nothing more, for darkness had eaten him alive.
Or as dead as things that were dead.
Catch the little foxes for us, the little foxes that are ruining the vineyards, while our vineyards are in blossom.
—SONG OF SOLOMON 2:15
MATAS HAD SHOT SOLO. Matas had really and truly shot Solo. Blood had splashed on Vika as Solo had fallen . . . had poured over her when he’d landed and tucked her underneath him. To protect her. Her. His enemy. Just as he’d promised. Kitten was struggling under his weight, trying to free herself, but he wasn’t helping her.
Was he dead?
Please don’t be dead.
Hand trembling, Vika reached up and felt for Solo’s pulse. It was thready, but there. He lived. Relief bombarded her—just as Matas yanked her out from under Solo’s massive weight.
Glaring down at her, he snapped, “Remove the bullet from the beast. We don’t want your father’s precious main attraction to die, do we?”
He kicked Solo in the side, rolling him to his decimated back and freeing Kitten.
The Teran jumped up, ready to bolt, but wily as he was, Matas managed to grab her by the waist before she’d taken more than a step.
“Let me go!” Kitten snarled.
“After I’ve had a little fun with you.”
“Careful with her,” Vika commanded, her blood flashing cold. “Please. She’s my charge, and I’m responsible for her.”
Kitten paused, gazing at Vika with wide-eyed shock.
Icy calculation from Matas, as though Vika was giving him exactly what he’d wanted. “You’ll owe me,” he said, then carted the struggling Kitten to her cage.
Vika tripped her way to the medical supplies she’d brought to tend Solo after his whipping. She returned and, though her trembling had increased substantially, managed to do as Matas had commanded.
Solo’s chest was more crimson than bronze, with a quarter-size hole just over his heart. Tears tracked down her cheeks, blurring his image. How much could one man endure in a single day before he died? she wondered as she wrapped his entire chest with a thick bandage.
“Good enough,” Matas said. Though he was strong enough to carry Solo, he opted not to, instead dragging the otherworlder to his prison and ruining what little good Vika had done to both his back and his chest.
I’m so sorry, she thought, fighting sobs. The night wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Dark eyes pinned her in place, mocking her for her sorrow. “Are you happy with yourself?”