A tide of remorse joined Vika’s anger, but she somehow managed to keep her expression blank. Can’t give a reaction. In circus terms, “taking care” of a person meant “torturing and killing.”
Poor Rainbow. He’d reviled her more than all the others, and he’d even tormented her more than any of the others combined, but she’d admired his spirit. No matter what had been done to him, his strength had never waned.
“What will be done with the other one?” she asked, and she wasn’t quite able to hide her emotions this time. There was a quiver in her voice. “The new one?”
His lips pursed with distaste, and he said, “He was shot. I think that’s penalty enough, don’t you?”
“Yes.” Thank you, thank you, thank you. “That’s kind of you. Daddy.”
A softening around his eyes. “In the morning, I’ll have Matas remove the Mec’s cage until his replacement can be found.” He placed the cigar in the ashtray, his gaze sharpening like a blade. “Now, then. Let’s talk about what happened tonight.”
Every muscle in her body tensed. He was going to ask how Solo had gotten to the Mec, and why she’d failed to scream for help, and she had no answer for him. Not one that would satisfy him.
“Do you recall what happened to you when you left the circus all those years ago?” he asked.
Another yes slipped from her.
It was a few months after her father had purchased the “perfect candidates for his zoo.” By that time, she and Mara had become friends, and she’d wanted so badly for the girl to be happy. Mara, who missed her husband desperately. Mara, whose pregnant belly had grown larger every day.
Vika had bonded with her at first sight, really, the fragile-looking female reminding her so much of herself. Mara had said that, once she was free, Vika could live with her, that her husband was a mighty warrior and that he would protect her.
Vika had freed Mara and all the others—but Mara had abandoned her, never showing up at their meeting spot. And then, Jecis had found Vika and the rest of his menagerie, all but Mara, within a week.
They were killed.
She was beaten.
But even though she’d lost her hearing that night, she’d been glad to see him. There was a dark, dangerous world out there, one she hadn’t been prepared for. One that had nearly chewed her up and spit out her bones.
She’d had no protection, no money, and no one had known her father, so no one had known to fear his wrath. She’d had to walk the streets, begging people for food and money. Men had called her terrible names and had tried to drag her into abandoned alleys. She’d had to hide in trash bins. Fear of the vast unknown had tormented her mind constantly, and, well, it had been too much to bear.
All she’d known was the life inside the circus. Back then, they’d traveled from city to city in their trailers. They’d stayed in each location for two weeks, the first few days used for setup and promotion, Audra and the other attractive females going into town to spread the word and lure the males. After that, the shows began.
Always lookouts had been stationed on the roads, and if the cops were spotted, they were stopped. If the authorities couldn’t be paid off, the performers packed up as much of the equipment as possible and blazed a trail into the next town.
Now, Jecis had another way to travel. One Vika despised. One she would never again have to endure once she left this place. And when she was settled into her new life and certain she couldn’t be found, she would even help the police hunt her father and shut the circus down once and for all.
“And do you ever want to leave the circus again?” he asked silkily.
“I don’t want to leave the circus,” she said. Again, it was the truth. She wanted to stay. For now. Once she had enough money . . . once she’d found the key to the cuffs, her answer would change.
“Do you think that ugly otherworlder you fed, the one you watched while the humans were out and about, no less, will take care of you once he’s free of his cage?”
He knew she had broken the rule a second time. She gulped.
Solo will take care of you, you know. He really will protect you.
The voice penetrated her mind, and she gasped. It was the voice from that morning. The good one. The nice one.
“What?” her father demanded.
“I . . . I . . .”
“Never mind. I asked you a question. Do you think the otherworlder will take care of you?” her father insisted.
She . . . did, she realized. He would take care of her. For a little while, at least. After all, he had used his body as a shield for hers. A man willing to do that wasn’t a man who would throw a helpless girl into a pit of alligators. But that wasn’t what Jecis wanted to hear.
“He’s a prisoner, Daddy,” she said. “He can’t take care of anyone.”
Once again, the “Daddy” worked. His expression softened, and he failed to realize she hadn’t exactly answered his question. “No one will ever love you the way I do. No one will ever take care of you the way I do. Isn’t that right?”
She gave a barely discernable nod. No, no one else would ever “love” her this way. She would make sure of it.
Pacified, he settled into a chair and picked up his cigar. “Good. Then you realize the otherworlder would just as soon murder you in cold blood as take you with him, so there’s no reason to discuss this subject further.”
Before relief had time to work through her—no more punishment for her, either!—he added, “Now, for the next order of business.”
She racked her brain, trying to figure out what he was going to rant and rave about, but only drew a blank.
“Matas,” he said.
And she groaned.
“He wants to marry you.”
She linked her fingers, hoping to stop herself from twisting and wrinkling her shirt and revealing the depths of her sudden turmoil. “That’s too bad, because I don’t want to marry him.”
“He’ll treat you well. I’ll make sure of it.”
That sounded like—no, that was approval. “You’re actually considering this?” she gasped out.
“I am. He’s given me his word that he’ll never harm you, and that he will forever remain here at the circus with you. With me.”
Dark spots winked through her vision. A lump grew in her throat, threatening to cut off her supply of air. All of her fine plans were beginning to crash and burn around her. Her father was changing the very fabric of her existence, trying to rewrite the future she had mapped out for herself.