And just how long do you intend to keep her?
“All I was saying,” Audra added with a tremble, “was that she might have been feeding him to anger you and invite punishment to herself, thereby delaying her wedding.”
Vika was getting married? To whom? he nearly snarled.
Jecis, who’d been watching him intently, scowled. “I finally got to you, as promised, but not for a reason I approve. You are not to lust after my daughter, slave. She is off-limits to the likes of you, and far too good. If ever again you look at her, I’ll remove your eyes. If ever again you talk to her, I’ll remove your tongue.”
Not one to cave to intimidation, Solo said, “Try it.” He would do everything in his power to ensure Jecis went down with him. “Let’s find out what happens.”
The man’s nostrils flared with shock and anger. “Perhaps I will. Perhaps I’ll even give you back to the man who sold you to me. He’s not as nice as I am.”
“Who sold me?” Gregory Star, he knew, but he wanted to hear the name from Jecis.
Grinning now, Jecis grabbed Audra by the forearm and said, “Let’s go, woman, and leave him to wonder.”
The moment they snaked the corner, X materialized on Solo’s shoulder.
“Where have you been?” Solo demanded.
“All this time?” He was steady on his feet, at least, his color high.
“You were weakened yourself, but you were trying to heal me, weren’t you?” he asked, realization dawning.
X didn’t confirm or deny.
But Solo knew that he had been doing just that. “Thank you,” he said.
A pause. A nod.
“But I’m still angry with you,” he added. “You didn’t save the girl when you had the chance.” He’d planned to yell, but could no longer bring himself to do so. “You told me you had succeeded.”
“Such little faith,” the tiny male tsked. “I did not lie. She’s alive, isn’t she?”
“She was hurt.”
“She was, yes—before you bid me to aid her. I did exactly what I told you I would do. I saved her from further harm.”
A good point, but one he didn’t want to acknowledge. He would then have to admit the fault was his own, that he’d wasted precious minutes debating what to do.
A long-suffering sigh brushed over his ear.
That was it, just a sigh, but Solo suddenly wanted to cut out his own heart and present it to the being on a platter. Oh, how he loathed X’s sighs. He could always sense the disappointment, the disapproval and the hurt, as if he were breaking a promise he’d never made. As if he were destroying something precious—something he couldn’t even see!
Maybe he was. Solo’s mother had raised him to be a better man than he was.
To Mary Elizabeth Judah, all life was precious and a gift from God to be treasured. Solo hadn’t exactly treasured X, had he? Hadn’t given back what he’d been given.
Even when Solo had been at his crankiest, Mary Elizabeth had treated him with love and kindness. She had cooked his favorite meals. She had ruffled his hair and told him how beautiful he was. She had left little notes throughout the house, positive words of encouragement. You are strong and courageous. And, You are adored. A good woman, his mother.
Maybe she had known about Solo’s profession; maybe she hadn’t. They’d never talked about it. Everything he’d done, he’d done for a good cause. He’d never asked questions, but then, he’d never wanted to know. He’d trusted Michael. He’d removed scum like Jecis Lukas from the streets.
But he’d grown colder over the years, hadn’t he? He was not the man his mother had raised.
“Thank you,” he said again, this time with more heart. “For what you did for Vika, and what you did for me.”
“You’re welcome,” X said with a happy grin.
“Ugh. Mushy stuff,” Dr. E said, never far behind. He was hunched over, as if his shoulders were too heavy to hold up. “We aren’t women. Let’s man this party up and kill something.”
Movement at his left. Solo homed in just in time to watch Vika crawl from behind one of the trailer’s huge tires. She brushed the dirt from her hands and knees as she checked the area for eavesdroppers.
“She was listening the only way she could,” X said. “Through vibrations.”
Her plum-colored gaze locked on Solo, and every muscle in his body tightened, clamping down on bone. The steady chatter of his companions faded as he drank her in. She wore a top and pants the same dark shade as the tire, and looked as though she’d stepped from Biker Chick Weekly—Role Play Edition. Her long, pale hair was sexily rumpled, her cheeks pink.
She stepped backward, away from him, finally disappearing around the corner.
He nearly shouted a denial. Calm. Steady. She would be back. He would tell her about her father’s threat and gauge her reaction. He wouldn’t ask her about the wedding. She would—
Return a few minutes later with food, causing the tension to drain from him. She had changed into white and now looked as if she’d stepped from a cloud. She’d brushed her hair, the strands glistening like molten gold. She had brushed her teeth, too. He could smell the mint of her toothpaste. She tossed a burlap sack through the bars and onto his lap, the scent of buttered toast and freshly cooked syn-sausage wafting to his nose.
She reached into a pant pocket to withdraw a rag. He waited. When she stretched out her arm to toss it through the bars, he leapt into action, scooting from the far end of the cage to the front, his own arm extending.
Contact. His fingers locked around her wrist.
She gasped. Her eyelids flipped up, and her gaze landed on him.
“Let me go,” she demanded.
When the softness of her skin delighted him? When the heat she emitted blended with his own? “Or what?”
Heart-shaped lips pursed in the most adorable pout. “Or you’ll lose your man parts.”
Something cold pressed against his thigh, and he glanced down. She had positioned a blade at the hem of his loincloth.
X clapped at her daring.
Dr. E growled.
“Nice move,” Solo said, oddly proud of her.
She sighed, a little dejected, and said, “I doubt I could actually go through with my threat. I really just carry the weapon to scare people away.”
Oh, honey. That’s not something you ever admit to your opponent.
As innocent as she appeared, though, her opponents could probably guess her lack of malicious intent.