ONE

For Will . . .

DRIPPING WITH SWEAT AS HE TOOK A LATE NIGHT RUN ON THE moonlit beach, Scott Ryder had a strange feeling burning through his veins, twisting its way into his bones. One that didn’t have anything to do with his grueling pace or the miles of sand he’d already covered.

The feeling had been building inside him for weeks now, making him restless, leaving him in a generally shitty mood. He’d tried to shake it, but he couldn’t. Damn thing just kept growing, pissing him off even more. People were starting to go out of their way to avoid him at the station, which was just as well, seeing as how he hadn’t been in the mood for conversation. But tonight he’d been forced to attend the retirement party for one of the other deputies in the sheriff’s department, and his nerves were still scraped raw. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Dwight Jones. Dwight was an all right guy who was looking forward to spending his days either out on the golf course or on his new fishing boat and he wished him luck. But Ryder’s boss, Ben Hudson, had been at the party with his new wife, and for some unknown reason the sight of them had set his teeth on edge.

He didn’t want the sheriff’s wife for himself. Reese was more than easy on the eyes and had a killer smile, but Ben had staked his claim the moment she hit town at the beginning of the summer, so she and Ryder were friends and nothing more. But the way Ben kept looking at her during the party, as if marriage made him the luckiest bastard in the world, had made Ryder want to put his fucking fist through a wall.

He knew damn well that his reaction didn’t make any sense. Christ, he wanted Ben and Reese to be happy. After everything they’d been through, they deserved it. He just couldn’t stomach being near all that cozy, romantic bliss. Not when this itch in his veins wouldn’t let off, his instincts constantly twitching, as if he were missing something important and needed to open his damn eyes so he could figure out what it was. He’d had the same kind of feeling before, when he’d worked black ops, and it’d saved his ass too many times to count. But he’d left that life behind. He no longer had to live in constant survival mode. There was no danger here. No one gunning for his life or the people he cared about. Which meant he needed to calm the hell down and learn to relax.

Heading into the last half mile of his run, Ryder repeated a familiar phrase in his mind. His personal mantra now that he’d settled down in the cozy little town of Moss Beach.

Nothing to run from . . .

Nothing to run to . . .

There was a peace and perfection in those simple words. They meant freedom. A new beginning. A new life.

Unfortunately, they were nothing but lies. Because while he might not have anything to run to, he was sure as hell still running from something. He might have decided to stay put in this scenic little beach town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t fighting an internal battle every damn day of his life. He’d physically stopped, but his mind was still running at top speed, doing everything it could to forget about—

Shit. Don’t even go there, he muttered to himself. And that thought was swiftly followed by a guttural Christ, I need a drink.

He spent a lot of time these days telling himself what he needed to fix his head. A drink, a woman, or women when he couldn’t be bothered to choose which one he wanted to take home for the night. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to develop a reputation in town as the lawman who could screw his way through hoards of party girls without ever losing his breath. At the age of thirty-three, it wasn’t a distinction to be proud of. It just meant that while all the other guys were getting on with their lives, he was still acting like an idiot who thought with his prick. Or one who would only touch a woman if she let him tie her—No, damn it. He wasn’t going there tonight either. In his current mood, those thoughts wouldn’t lead him to any place good.

Hitting the five-mile marker, Ryder finally slowed to a walk and pulled off his damp T-shirt, using it to wipe the sweat from his face. He headed across the sand toward the beachfront duplex he rented from an elderly couple who had retired there after living in New York for the past forty years. The house was designed with an entrance to each half at the sides of the duplex, bougainvillea-covered trellises creating two pathways that sheltered the entrances from the street, with matching archways in the back that you could walk through if coming up from the beach. The profusion of flowers was a little fanciful for Ryder’s taste, but his sister had gushed about them when she came for a visit last month, claiming the trellises gave the house “Southern charm.”

Wondering if he’d finally be able to chill enough tonight that he could sleep, Ryder had nearly reached his front door when he sensed a slight movement to his left, in the shadows of the trellis, and he reacted before he’d even given conscious thought to the possible threat. That’s what over a decade of black ops training could do to you, and despite being out of the game for a few years now, his reflexes were as lightning quick as ever. Dropping his shirt, he reached into the shadows, snagged a feminine arm, and yanked the woman into the moonlight, the shrill scream on her lips quickly shifting to an outraged snarl as she brought her other arm around to strike him across the face. He quickly blocked the move, catching her wrist and pinning both arms behind her back, while she flailed in his hold, kicking at his shins with her sandal-covered feet.

“Who are you?” he growled, quickly assessing that she wasn’t a physical threat. Her hair covered her face as she struggled to free herself from his embrace. But despite her efforts, there wasn’t a chance in hell she could break free. He knew how to counteract every one of her defensive moves, which only infuriated her more.

Narrowing his eyes, Ryder carried out a quick visual check on the female. She had her head down so he still couldn’t see her face—but what he could see of her made his mouth go dry. Waves of silky strawberry blond hair. Her miniskirt and short-sleeved, button-down shirt revealed creamy skin and a body that was slight but deliciously feminine. So familiar it was almost too good to be true. She had the right shade of hair. The right frame. The right shape. The right fucking everything, ripped right out of his goddamn memory to torment him.

He could hear a roaring in his ears, drowning out the rational voice in the back of his mind shouting for him to move away from her. Instead, he continued acting purely on instinct. On the raw, powerful lust that ripped up through his insides the instant he realized he had someone who reminded him of her in his arms. The very woman he never allowed himself to think about, let alone fantasize. But this was like a gift from fate. The bastard had never been kind to him in the past, but at the moment Ryder just didn’t give a damn. The only thing he had to worry about was convincing the little hellcat that there was something a hell of a lot better they could be doing together than fighting.

His breathing got deeper, nostrils flaring as he pulled in her light, purely feminine scent, the autumn night warm enough that the air was still sultry and damp from an earlier rainstorm. His body had already reacted to the feel of her wriggling against him, a serrated groan on his lips when her belly brushed against his erection, making her gasp. She went instantly still, but not with fear. It was more like . . . surprise, and he knew the exact instant her anger flared into lust—and he was done for. In that moment he couldn’t have walked away from her if his goddamn life depended on it.

For all Ryder knew, the woman was a thief who’d been getting ready to clear his house out, but he didn’t care. She smelled like Lily, had that same gorgeous hair and sexy figure, and he was too fucking starved to resist. One second they were standing on the walkway in front of his door, and in the next he had her plastered against it, wishing like hell that he’d replaced the blown bulb in the outside light so that he could get a better look at what he was tasting. His mouth had instantly settled against the base of her pale, slim throat, his tongue fluttering against her hammering pulse as he grabbed the front of her short-sleeved top and ripped. By the time Ryder could hear the shirt’s buttons pinging against the ground, he already had his mouth buried between her beautiful breasts. Any concerns he might have had that she wasn’t on exactly the same page as him were shattered by the low moan she gave when he ripped the silky cups of her bra down and curled his long fingers around the firm, delicate mounds, covering one of the hardened tips with his mouth. She cried out as he suckled her, her short nails digging into the bunched muscles in his shoulders, and it was like losing himself in a fever dream, her wild response to his aggression only adding fuel to the fire.

The nipple in Ryder’s mouth was tight and sweet, the intoxicating taste of the woman’s skin cranking his lust up to a primitive level. That irritating voice was still shouting in the back of his mind, warning him to snap back to reality and think about what he was doing—but he was too far gone, and she was too damn hot and willing. Her hands were already fisted in his hair, holding him to her as he switched to the other breast, her thigh riding his hip as she arched against him, as if she was as desperate for this as he was. And he was beyond desperate, his dick so hard he could have hammered through the fucking door with it. And the longer he touched her, the harder he got. Not that she was complaining. The woman was grinding herself against the front of his running shorts, riding the hard ridge of his cock, the husky sounds spilling from her lips the sexiest damn thing he’d ever heard.

He didn’t have a condom on him, which meant he couldn’t fuck her until he got her inside. He might be aching for it, but he wasn’t stupid. He’d always been religious about suiting up with latex and had never screwed without it. But this hot little stranger made him damn tempted.

“We need to move this indoors,” he rasped against the soft skin just under her right breast. Gripping her hips, Ryder dropped to his knees and kissed his way down her flat belly, until he’d shoved her skirt up and had his face buried against the silky front of her panties . . . then lower, between her legs. A rough, guttural sound crawled its way up from his chest as he caught the hot, mouthwatering scent of her cunt, the sexy underwear already damp with her juices. And then she had to destroy the whole goddamn thing with the soft, whispered sound of his name.

Scott.”

Ah, Christ. No one fucking called him that but her, and it hit him like a bucket of ice water in his face.

He should have listened to his gut, to that damn voice that had been shouting in the back of his mind, because this woman didn’t just resemble Lily Heller. She was Lily Heller!

No. No way. Not her. Not Lily. Couldn’t be. She was just someone who reminded him of her. Someone he could still touch and get his fill of. Someone he could—

Damn it! He tried, but he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t buy his own bullshit. The lie had been blasted into a million tiny fragments and now he was going to have to pay the fucking price for being an idiot. No doubt with his sanity.

Jerking back to his feet, Ryder gripped her shoulders as he locked his sharp gaze on her face for the first time in three years. “Son of a bitch,” he grated under his breath. Big green eyes with lashes that were long and thick stared back at him. Rosy lips parted for her panting breaths. Moonlight spilling down on those firm breasts, her pink little nipples still glistening from his mouth and tongue.

Oh, God.

He was shaking so hard she was jerking in his arms, but he couldn’t stop, unable to believe what was right in front of him. The girl he’d left his life and career for—the one who had been the object of his most dangerous obsession for far too long—was trapped between his body and his front door, blinking up at him with those big, bright eyes while she tried to catch her breath.

Lily Heller, daughter of his ex-boss and goddamn thorn in his side, in the flesh, staring back at him as if she could eat him alive, with her perfect tits out and her skirt hiked up around her waist. Jesus.

Ryder rubbed a rough hand over his mouth, wondering how he could have let things go so far. What the hell had he been thinking?

He hadn’t. Which was the problem. He’d shoved rational thought to the back of his mind and focused on what he wanted. Instant gratification would screw you over every time. Damn it, he knew that. Had an IQ that said he was way too fucking smart to make that kind of mistake—but his dick had apparently failed to get the memo. And now, thanks to this royal little screwup, he would have to go through life knowing exactly how right it felt to have her under his hands and mouth.

“Fuck!” he ground out through his clenched teeth, shoving away from her. At six-three, he towered over her, even though she wasn’t a short woman. Maybe five-six or five-seven, though she seemed more petite because of her build. She was slim, but feminine as hell, and he wanted nothing more than to take her back into his arms and—

Shit. He couldn’t do it. Because if he did, it was going to goddamn destroy him when he had to walk away. And he would walk. He didn’t have any other option. He never had where this girl was concerned. Yeah, she might be twenty-five now, but he still thought of her as the gangly, innocent teen she’d been when he first met her all those years ago.

Before he could get his mind wrapped around this new reality in which Lily Heller had suddenly popped back into his life, she shoved her skirt down, yanked the sides of her shirt closed, and glared up at him. “Do you mind telling me why you attacked me?” she snapped.

His jaw tightened. “I didn’t attack you. You’re the one who tried to hit me.”

“Only after you yanked me in front of you,” she shot back, as if he’d been the one at fault.

His voice was raw. “News flash, woman. That’s what happens when I find someone lurking in the shadows outside my front door.”

“I wasn’t lurking,” she argued, that bright gaze lowering to his bare chest and shoulders for a moment, before she finally lifted it back to his face. She drew in an unsteady breath, then blasted him with a sharp, “I was waiting for you to get home!”

Ryder made a low sound of frustration in the back of his throat, and this time her gaze drifted to the scar that ran from his temple to the middle of his right cheek. Something he didn’t quite understand moved through those green eyes, but she didn’t flinch. The last time she’d seen him the scar had been raw and fresh. It was still ugly as sin, but looked a hell of a lot better than it had then. He never even thought about it much anymore when he was with a woman, but he quickly felt himself go hot under the skin, as if he was actually embarrassed for her to see his face like this.

Fucking ironic, considering she was the reason he had the scar in the first place. Not that he’d ever tell her that. But every time Ryder looked in a mirror, he was reminded of just how dangerous his obsession with this girl could be.

“Why are you here?” he growled, his nostrils flaring with a fresh surge of fury as he stared her down. “What the hell do you want, Lily?”

She bristled with irritation. “Wow. You’re just all kinds of kindness and warmth, aren’t you? First you manhandle me, then you maul me, and now you’re being rude. Is that any way to greet an old friend?”

“Cut the crap. You were hardly manhandled or mauled, and we were never friends. Your old man made sure of that. So what the fuck are you doing here?”

She started to pale, losing that pleasure-flush that had been in her cheeks, the angry tension that had been riding her slender frame gone as quickly as it’d come. “Believe it or not,” she said quietly, licking her lips, “I’m here because I need your help.”

“Bullshit,” he snarled, fisting his hands at his sides so that he wouldn’t do something stupid. Like reach out and grab her again. “I’m the last person in the world you need to get near. Go back home to your daddy and leave me alone. Whatever problem you’ve got, he’ll take care of it.”

“I . . . can’t.”

“Why the hell not?” he exploded.

She blinked again, and this time a tear spilled from the corner of her eye. “Because he’s dead.”

Ryder shook his head, thinking he must have heard her wrong. “What are you talking about?”

She took a deep breath, then exhaled in a shuddering rush. “Heller’s dead, Scott. Rado killed him eight days ago.”

Rado? Just the sound of that terrorist bastard’s name put an icy feeling in Ryder’s gut. Of all the scumbags in the world, Yuri Radovich was the one he hated the most. But the man was supposed to be a corpse. Ryder knew, because he was the one who had killed him.

“That isn’t possible. Rado is dead, Lily.”

A wry smile twisted her lips, the raw pain in her expression making him flinch. “Yeah, that’s what my father thought. Until the monster waltzed onto our boat and slit his throat.”

“Jesus.” His head was starting to pound like a bitch. “You’re sure it was him?”

She sniffed, and jerked her chin up in response.

A fierce scowl wove its way between his brows. “Then why the hell am I only just hearing about this? Why hasn’t anyone informed the old unit?”

“Because I doubt anyone but me knows at this point, and I’ve been on the run,” she told him, her tone tight and clipped and anything but calm. “I don’t have my cell phone, but even if I did, I wouldn’t have called you because who knows if your phone calls are being tapped and traced. I’m sorry for just showing up out of the blue, but it’s not like I had any other choice. Even if I’d had a computer and could have e-mailed you, there’s a chance he could be monitoring your account. You know what he’s like—how extensive his reach is. And I didn’t have time to come up with some other brilliant way to contact you because I’ve been doing everything I could just to make it here in one piece!”

“On the run from what?” he demanded, finally noticing how tired she looked. How shattered. “What happened, Lily? Why doesn’t anyone know that Heller is dead?”

Her voice shook as she explained. “I was with my father and his girlfriend, Nancy, in the Bahamas when Rado made the hit. We were staying on Nancy’s boat, moored in some cove, when he and his men found us. He killed my dad and Nancy and had them thrown overboard.” Her voice started to crack, but she took another deep breath and went on. “He would have killed me, too. He actually took quite a lot of pleasure in explaining why I had to die and exactly how he and his men were going to do it. But I . . . I got lucky and managed to get away.”

Ryder worked his jaw, guessing there was a hell of a lot more to the story than that . . . and dreading what he knew was coming.

“Do you understand why I’m here?” she asked, stepping toward him, those incredible eyes shimmering with too many emotions for him to name. “You’re the only person I could think of who stands any kind of chance against him. The only person I trust. And I know I don’t have any right to ask—I know you don’t owe me anything—but I’m asking anyway.”

In a flat tone, he said, “You want me to protect you.”

It wasn’t a question. Ryder knew damn well that’s why she was there. He just didn’t know what he was going to do about it. The situation was complicated as hell. One of his worst goddamn nightmares come to life.

Because while Ryder might be capable of protecting Lily Heller from Radovich, he didn’t have a fucking clue how he was going to protect her from himself.

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