Last Kiss Goodnight
Author:Gena Showalter

chapter Three

Deliver me from the mire and do not let me sink.

May I be delivered from my foes and from the deep waters.

—PSALM 69:14

X AND DR. E REMAINED silent as a big human male stomped into view. The newcomer stopped in the center of the clearing, bracing meaty fists on his hips and bringing Solo’s attention to the gun sheathed there on one side and the large blade sheathed on the other.

He was armed for war.

Solo studied the rest of him. He had dark hair and sun-weathered flesh, wide shoulders and a large chest, and legs as thick as tree trunks. All of that was normal, if oversize for a human, but there was a paper-thin quality to the skin on his face, and despite his tan, Solo thought he could see his facial bones, as though looking at him through X-ray goggles. Only, the bones were bigger than they should have been, considering the shape of his face, and his teeth sharper than daggers.

“We do not fight the man,” X said soberly, “but the wickedness inside him.”

Solo had no idea what that meant, and at the moment, he didn’t care. He just wanted out of the cage.

The male surveyed the captives with smug pride, before meeting Solo’s gaze. His lips curved into the semblance of a smile, revealing teeth that didn’t match the daggers Solo had seen.

“Good, you’re awake.”

“Free me,” Solo demanded.

A booming laugh scraped against his ears. “A fighter. I’m glad.”

Another refusal. Anger returned, a flash fire in his chest.

The silhouette the man cast on the ground suddenly moved. Frowning, Solo focused in on it. There was no way such a tiny silhouette belonged to such a brute of a man. It had to be—

A female, he realized.

A young woman stepped out from behind the male, and every nerve ending in Solo’s body perked up and took notice. She was absolutely, utterly exquisite. On the small side, with long, curling blond hair and eyes that hovered somewhere between jet-black and deep, rich purple—plum eyes.

She was a fairy-tale princess come to dazzling life.

He could not force himself to look away, could only drink in every detail. A smooth forehead, delicately sloped nose, high cheekbones, and heart-shaped lips created the most luminous face, a canvas of perfection. She was rosily flushed, a flower dusted with morning dew and someone please stab him and put him out of his misery because he sounded like a deranged poet, but he couldn’t help himself. The girl was a taste of heaven, sweetness and light, and he was suddenly starved.

The only flaw to her was the fresh bruise on the right side of her jaw.

He didn’t like that she had been hurt.

As if she sensed his gaze, she glanced his way. Their eyes locked. Her mouth formed a small O. He knew what such a reaction from her meant. She considered his size monstrous, just like everyone else did. But she never severed the connection, as though disgusted or frightened and desperate to hide. She continued to stare, those plum eyes growing wide, softening.

The air between them crackled with . . . something, and every muscle in his body clenched agonizingly on bone.

“Her,” X said, sounding dazed. “She’s the one. She’s yours.”

“No way,” Dr. E replied, incensed. “Just no way. She’ll never want anything to do with him, and even if she does—which isn’t likely, if I haven’t made that clear—he’ll kill her with his gigantor hands.”

“She’s the one,” X repeated.

Yes, she’s mine, all mine, Solo thought, then shook his head. Surely that thought had not budded inside his mind. She was too little, too delicate. And yet he heard, She’s mine, a second time, a booming roar now, and he knew beyond any doubt. Yes, he had had that thought.

Jecis pivoted to say something to another captive, and Solo stretched his arm through the bar, reckless in his bid to touch the girl. Just touch her. He had to learn the texture of her skin. Would it be as soft as it appeared . . . or softer?

With a gulp, she darted behind the male named Jecis.

Finally Solo had frightened her. He bit back his bellow of frustration.

The crackle faded from the air at least, but Solo’s body failed to relax. He wanted to carry the girl away caveman-style. He wanted to bang his fists into his chest, proclaiming to every man breathing that she belonged to Solo. He wanted to throw her enemies at her feet and bask in her adoration.

He would never do any of those things, and she would never adore him.

She wasn’t the type to crave a monster in her bed. She wasn’t strong, like the fire-breathing female, or rough, with an addiction to danger. As fragile as she appeared, as timid as she acted, she would scream for help the moment he approached her.

“Told you,” Dr. E said in a singsong voice. “There was just no way.”

His angry retort received the same treatment as the bellow.

Like him, X remained silent.

The little man had never before picked out a female for Solo, had even complained every day Solo had spent with his only long-term girlfriend, Abigail. The fact that X had chosen a girl who most likely belonged to the slab of beef about to announce he was the owner of the circus—and there was no doubt in Solo’s mind the human was the owner—was almost too much to take in.

Jecis was moving his mouth, obviously speaking to Solo. As entranced as Solo had been by the girl, he’d lost focus. “—accept this welcome to Cirque de Monstres. As I said, and as I’m sure you have already heard, I am Jecis Lukas, owner, operator . . . your new master. Might equals right, and considering our different positions, I’ve proven mine. If you do what I say, when I say, you will have an easy life ahead of you. If you don’t . . .”

Cirque de Monstres. French for “Circus of Fiends,” yet Jecis certainly wasn’t French. Solo had traveled the world many times over; names, languages, and dialects were a specialty of his. The name Jecis Lukas was Lithuanian, as was his very slight accent.

Solo hadn’t heard of this particular circus, run by this particular male, but he had heard of similar traveling performing groups. They were illegally operated, with unsafe rides, unfair games, prizes that were nothing more than stolen goods, tents where drugs and women were sold, and unparalleled violence waiting in every corner.

Jecis continued his speech, saying, “You do not speak to, spit on, or harm anyone who approaches you. You just sit in your new home and look pretty.” He snickered at his own joke. “You might have trouble with that last one, giant, but that’s part of your appeal. Never forget that you are my pet. My animal. And if you behave, you are rewarded. If not, you are punished.”

One word echoed in Solo’s mind: animal.

He considered the cages more intently. There were letters scripted atop each one, though someone had tried to scrape those letters off. He read Lion. Tiger. Ape. And on and on the titles went. Bear. Alligator.

Forget anger. Rage shimmered just below the surface of his skin. The trapped otherworlders were to be the animals. They were to be viewed by circus attendees, studied and degraded. They were to be . . . petted? Fed? Ridden?

He would die before he allowed a human to pet him. He would die before he allowed a human to feed him by hand. He would burn the entire world to the ground before he allowed a human to saddle him up and ride.

“I told you,” X said. “Fear not. A man will eat the fruit of his own way.”

“If that’s true, our boy should have a panic attack,” Dr. E replied with a smirk. “He hasn’t exactly planted the best of trees, now has he?”

X ignored him, saying, “Jecis will destroy himself. And you, Solo, you will find a way out.”

“Doubtful.” Dr. E checked his cuticles. “Sure, you’ve broken out of a prison before, S, my man, but the first time was a training exercise and the second was with help. Now, you’re alone. These people have weapons, and they won’t be afraid to use them. You’re unarmed.”

“You will succeed—and you will aid all the others.”

“You will fail—and you will heap more suffering on everyone’s head. Just behave and wait for rescue, and you’ll be better off.”

Jecis said something else, drowning out his companions, but Solo didn’t hear him either. For the first time since waking up, he studied his own body. Like the other males, he was dressed only in a loincloth. His chest, arms, and legs were cut and scabbed, with black-and-blue bruises branching off in every direction. He was a mess.

His skin was redder than it had been five minutes ago, the first sign of his still-growing rage. He twisted his arms to look at his tattoos. His mother’s name was etched into his right forearm, and his father’s name etched into his left. There was an irritated gouge bisecting the M and the first A of MARY ELIZABETH, but JACOB was untouched.

His entire cage shook, and his gaze snapped up. A scowling Jecis stood right in front of him.

“You listen when I speak, giant. Tomorrow the circus opens, and I expect you to be on your best behavior.” His voice boomed through the daylight, the skull beneath his skin seeming to move without the prompting of his body, coming forward, closer to Solo. “I mean that.”

Evil left a cloying film in the air.

I’ll be long gone, he told himself. “And if I’m bad?”

Behind the human, men lumbered into the clearing and placed buckets of—he sniffed—enzyme soap on the ground. The buckets were followed by piles of rags, and bottles of—another sniff—perfume.

“If one customer complains, just one . . .” A dramatic pause as Jecis lifted his arms and rubbed his fists together, “I’ll put a bullet in your brain, no questions asked.”

When Solo gave no reaction to the threat—been there, done that—Jecis punched the bars of the cage, the film thickening. “If you doubt me, just ask your fellow animals. Many of their friends already have died by my hand.”