But they would. Solo had taught Vika, and she would teach others.
Yes. She would build cabins and create a place for women and their children to run and hide. A place of protection and safety. Perhaps her purpose would come out of her pain. The women could help her with the land and the animals and finally come to understand how valuable they really were.
Solo would definitely approve.
As the sun set on the horizon, casting a haze of purples and pinks through the sky, she carried a basket of edibles into the kitchen. The screen door squeaked as it shut behind her. She—
Saw a strange man reclining behind the table, a gun resting just in front of him. Even as relaxed as he appeared, she had no doubt he could reach the trigger in plenty of time to put a hole in her chest if she made a single move in his direction. He had the same I’m prepared to do anything glaze in his eyes that Solo had had.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” she asked with a weary sigh.
“I’ll be asking the questions, girl. Who are you, and what are you doing here?” he demanded. “And don’t you dare lie to me. I’ll know it, and I’ll get angry.”
“Sir, there’s nothing you can do to me that hasn’t already been done,” she said. More than that, the worst thing that could ever happen to her had already happened. “And to be honest, I’m too exhausted right now to care what you do.”
He frowned. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“Who are you?” she repeated.
“Someone who was invited.”
“Well, so was I. I’m Vika Lukas.” If he tried to take the farm away from her, she would fight him. With everything she had, she would fight. “And I’m here waiting for someone.”
A pause as he studied her. “My name is Michael, and I want to know where Solo Judah is.”
“Michael. You’re Solo’s boss, aren’t you?” she asked, as a little bead of excitement formed.
His eyes widened. “You’ve heard of me?”
“Yes. Solo mentioned you. Have you seen him? Heard from him?” Maybe Solo had contacted him. Maybe “home” was someplace Vika didn’t know about.
“I haven’t, no.”
Disappointment was a crushing weight on her shoulders, obliterating the excitement.
“He would never mention me to a woman,” Michael said.
“Because you forced him to kill people?”
His jaw dropped. “I never forced him.”
“Well, he’s not working for you anymore. He’s done with that way of life. He told me so, and as you know, he never breaks his word.”
Dark eyes narrowed on her. “How long since you’ve seen or heard from him?”
“Thirty-two days.” She set the basket on the table and flopped into the seat across from him, wiping sweat from her brow. “You need to eat.” His skin was pale and his cheeks hollowed out. He had scabs on his face and hands, and those scabs stretched all the way to the edges of his clothing; she would bet they even stretched underneath.
Another pause. Another frown.
“I want to know everything,” he said coldly.
She sighed. “The last time I saw him, he was . . . he was . . .” Stupid chin, wobbling. “We were at the circus. He kissed me good night, and he . . . and he . . .”
“Tell me.” A ragged command.
“Vanished,” she whispered. “But he’s not dead, I assure you.”
He demanded the details she had omitted, and she gave every single one, leaving nothing out. She told him how Solo was captured, how he was kept, what her father had done, what she had done, how they had escaped, the fight at the end, his final words to her.
Michael did not react the way she’d expected. He rubbed two fingers over his chin. “Until I see a body, I won’t believe that he’s dead.”
“That’s good, because like I said, he’s still alive,” she replied.
“And you know this how?”
“I just know.”
A small smile greeted her words. “Years ago, Solo used to say the same thing to me. He stopped.” The smile faded and he scowled, tugged at his earlobe. “Had my assistant not betrayed me, there wouldn’t have been an explosion. And had there not been an explosion, my boys would be on a case right now.” His hands curled into fists. “Did Solo mention anything about Corbin Blue or John No Name?”
“Yes. They’re his friends, and he loves them. He plans to look for them.”
“I could really use him. I’ve had men on the hunt since I woke up in the hospital, and we’ve even found a few leads but with zero success. They’re still out there somewhere. I know it. As for Solo, I had nothing on him until he invaded my home in Siberia, but I had no idea how deep my assistant’s betrayal went or if someone else was working with her and didn’t want to reply to his attempts at contact. I waited, hoping a traitor would reveal him- or herself.” He pushed to his feet, the chair skidding out behind him. “One did, and the moment I had him, I rushed to the cabin, but by the time I got there, Solo was already gone.”
And they really could have used the help. “Do you think everything happens for a reason?”
“No. Of course not. I think bad things happen, but those bad things can be worked to our good. If we’ll let them. I have a feeling you’re the good that sprang out of Solo’s situation.” He peered down at her for a long while before nodding. “That’s why I’ve decided to let you stay here.”
He sounded so sure of himself. “That’s very kind of you, but honestly? Had your decision swung in the other direction, you would have been unable to force me out. Solo taught me a few tricks.”
He gave a sharp little bark of laughter. “If there’s ever anything I can do for you, let me know.”
“All I want is for you to contact me if you hear from him.”
“I will, and I’ll expect the same from you. Here’s my number.” He tossed an identification card, an IDC, on the table, a small round device she had only to touch to activate. The patrons of the circus had used them. A screen would appear in the air just above the base, and on that screen would be his number and any other information he’d added. “See you around, Vika.”
He padded from the house, his footfalls quiet. If he had a car hidden somewhere, she hadn’t seen it. If not, he’d be doing a lot of walking. The house was miles away from any other home, and even farther away from the only grocery. Solo had a car parked in the barn, but she hadn’t found the key.