TWO

SITTING ALONE AT THE SMALL TABLE IN SCOTT RYDER’S kitchen, Lily took a moment to calm her heart and get her thoughts straight. Her body and emotions were still reeling from the way he’d touched her, not to mention the nightmare she’d been living for the past week. And then there were the three years she’d spent missing him every second of every day, even when she was pretending she didn’t. She hadn’t even been able to escape him in sleep, tormented too many nights by her dreams. Dreams where she’d see his rare smiles and hear his rugged, sexy-as-hell laugh.

God, she had it so bad for this man. She always had.

He’d told her to sit down and wait while he changed, and no more than a minute passed before he was walking back into the kitchen, his running shorts replaced by a pair of jeans and a black T-shirt. The hem of the shirt hung just low enough to cover his crotch, no doubt to hide any lingering evidence of the massive erection he’d been grinding against her only minutes before. What she wouldn’t give to go back to that moment and just stay there, stuck in a replay loop that had him putting his hands and his mouth on her again. And again . . .

On the journey there, she’d repeatedly told herself—when she wasn’t reliving those horrific moments on Nancy’s boat—that she was finally over Scott Ryder. Completely. Forever. She’d tried to convince herself that she was running to him to buy as much time as she could—not because she was still the crushed-out girl who’d constantly obsessed about him, that obsession growing into heart-wrenching emotion as she’d grown older, only to be destroyed when he’d walked out of her life without so much as a See ya. But her delusions had been shattered the instant he’d touched her. No matter how badly she wanted to hate him, she . . . couldn’t. Not when there was still so much raw need for this man living inside her. It’d dug itself down into her bones, like a parasite, unwilling to let go, even after he’d taken her heart and ground it into tiny little mutilated pieces three years ago. Which left her in an even more miserable situation than she’d already been in, seeing as how he’d made it more than obvious on his doorstep that he was not happy to see her.

Whatever imagined need or desire she’d thought she’d glimpsed in his eyes all those years ago must have been nothing more than her wishful thinking.

Really? whispered a voice inside her head. And just whose mouth was that turning you inside out five minutes ago?

Huh. That was true. So then what was his freaking problem?

And what are you going to do about it?

At any other point in her life, Lily might have worried about the fact that she was carrying on a silent conversation with herself. But after the hell she’d been through, she wasn’t fazed by that soft voice. What threw her was the man standing across the kitchen from her, his powerful arms crossed over his chest as he leaned against one of the counters, a fierce scowl wedged between his dark brows.

It didn’t seem possible, but she was even more drawn to him now than she’d been when he was one of Heller’s Hellions, the nickname she’d given to her father’s deadly, highly trained black ops unit. Without any conscious decision, Lily found herself thinking back to her eighteenth birthday, when Ryder had been invited up to their house to watch a game with her dad. Before his retirement, the men in her father’s unit had lived in barracks on the grounds of their estate, which had been provided by the military in Northern Virginia. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to steal glances at the gorgeous soldier who her father had told her had a genius IQ that rivaled his combat skills, she’d grabbed a sketch pad and settled into a chair in the corner of the room. But that was as far as her plans had gotten, because it was Ryder who had spent most of the evening watching her instead of the TV. Flustered and overwhelmed with desire, she’d kept her attention focused on the blank page in her book, keenly aware of his dark eyes moving over her features, studying them individually. But why? She’d wondered if he thought she was odd, like the boys she’d gone to school with had. Or had he liked what he saw? Liked her? She’d wished she had the answer, but she’d had no basis for comparison. Not when her nearly nonexistent experience had been with bumbling adolescents, while he’d been . . . God. What he’d been was incredible. The most intensely sexual, potent male she’d ever set eyes on.

And he still was. Maybe even more so. And boy did that suck. Considering she wasn’t getting any.

Why not? If not now, when? Your time is running out.

She didn’t like to think about it, but knew that damn voice was probably right. In that instant, Lily made the decision to go “balls out,” as guys said, and give his seduction her all. Hell, it’s not like she had anything to lose, except maybe her pride. But it was going to hurt just as much if she lost without even trying, so the way she saw it, she might as well give it a shot. Especially when the odds were hardly in her favor of surviving more than a few weeks, at best. Ryder was good, but she had a clear understanding of exactly how evil Radovich could be. Not to mention determined. Now that she’d finally been honest with herself about why she was there, she knew there was no way she could let Ryder get caught up in her problems. She had maybe a week, tops, before Radovich tracked her down. Which meant she’d have to be gone before then, drawing him away from this man who had claimed her damn heart without even trying.

Apparently growing impatient with their silent standoff, he gripped the edge of the counter behind him and very quietly said, “Start talking, Lily.”

Enjoying the chills his rough voice gave her, she leaned back in the chair she’d taken at the small table and held his stare. “What do you want me to say?”

“I want to know what happened on that boat.”

“I told you what happened. My father was killed, I got away, and I have no doubt that Rado is looking for me. I need your help until I can figure out what to do.”

•   •   •

SHE WANTED TO figure out what to do? Christ, her options were so limited he could count them on two fingers.

One: Kill Radovich before he killed her.

Two: Start a new life somewhere with a new identity and hope like hell the terrorist never tracked her down.

Both options had their dangers, and he wished to God there were a third, easier solution here. Wished Rado had just stayed dead, like he was meant to be, instead of coming back and wreaking hell on this woman’s life.

Now that she was sitting under the bright kitchen lights, Ryder could see the shadow of a healing bruise on her right cheek and another along the side of her jaw. It killed him inside that she’d been hurt. That some prick had hit her . . . marked her.

Was this what had been itching at his senses for the past weeks? He wasn’t a spiritual guy, but he’d spent enough time in Heller’s unit to trust his survival instincts. But this feeling in his veins had been different, sharper and more vital, and he hadn’t recognized it for what it was: A call to protect someone else, instead of his own sorry ass. If he hadn’t been so goddamn determined not to think about her, would he have been able to figure it out? He didn’t know—but it was probably going to be a question that hammered at him for the rest of his days.

He didn’t like failing people. And no matter what he did, he always ended up feeling like that around Lily. Like he was doing it all wrong. Not getting it right. Out of his element and in over his head. Which was only part of the reason he’d known he needed to walk away.

“Obviously,” she said, tucking a wayward curl behind her left ear, “we need to know what’s happened since I ran. I’ve been completely cut off, so I have no idea if Rado has gone after anyone else, or if he’s gunning straight for me. If he’s hoping to stay off the government’s radar and remain dead, then he’ll put everything he’s got into finding me. Do you stay in contact with any of your old intel sources?”

He shook his head. “Not the kind that would know anything about Rado. I left that shit behind, where it belongs.”

Something that looked too much like pain flashed in her eyes. “Including me? Am I just an unwanted piece of your forgotten past?”

His fingers tightened on the counter until he could have sworn he heard the Formica groan in protest. “You weren’t mine, Lily. Don’t make it sound like we had some understanding that I shit on. I never fucked you over.”

She didn’t say anything right away. Just stared across the small kitchen at him with those big, soul-trapping eyes. And then, very softly, she said, “But I wanted to be yours. I wanted to belong to you.” She slowly shook her head, her tone chagrined. “I hoped—” She broke off with a low, pained laugh. “God, you have no idea how badly I hoped you felt the same, but you were so good at giving nothing away. If I’d known you would touch me the way you touched me tonight, I never would have been able to keep my hands off you.”

His jaw went so rigid it felt like it could crack. “Did you ever stop to think that maybe I’m just not attracted to you?”

One of her slender eyebrows slowly arched. “I think the fact I’m holding my shirt closed because it’s missing all its buttons says differently.”

He would have argued, but it was pointless, given his actions. Score one for his dick. Now his brain had a hell of a lot of catching up to do. Desperate to retake the ground that he’d lost, he said, “What happened tonight was a product of circumstance.”

The look in her eyes turned laser sharp, making him flinch, as if he’d been pinned under a microscope. “So you’re saying that you were willing to fuck me when you didn’t have a clue who I was? When I was just some random stranger lurking in the shadows? But once you realized it was me, you’re now no longer interested?”

He gave a jerky nod.

“Bullshit.”

“Whatever you think, it shouldn’t have happened.”

Her chin shot up a notch, making his insides cramp. He’d seen that stubborn look on her face too many times to count when she’d been living with her father. But he’d never had it directed right at him. “I wanted it to happen a long time ago,” she said, all but laying the words down like a challenge.

His own words were raw. “It’s not happening again.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Why?”

“Because you’re practically a child,” he growled.

She looked stunned. “Excuse me?”

“I’m eight fucking years older than you are,” he muttered.

“So?”

“So . . . I’ve known you forever. Your dad was my fucking friend.”

Her brow knitted with confusion. “And that was why you always treated me as a friend, but never anything more? Because you think I’m too young for you?”

He didn’t say anything. He just stared, hard, warning her to quit with his look. But the little fool just wouldn’t shut up.

“You know, sometimes . . . sometimes I would catch what I thought was a glimpse of interest in your eyes. Something that you didn’t hide quite in time when I would turn unexpectedly and look your way.” She moved to her feet and took two steps toward him, before his wrathful expression stopped her. “Do you have any idea what those looks would do to me? How badly I wished you would just do something . . . anything? How terrified I was that I was just imagining it? Whatever you wanted from me, I would have been more than willing to give you, Scott.”

“Christ, Lily. You don’t even know me. You don’t know what I’m—”

“You’re wrong,” she whispered, cutting him off. “I know all about you.”

He gave a gritty laugh under his breath. “Right.”

She took another step toward him and lowered her lashes. “Would you like it better if you gagged me? Tied me up? Slapped some handcuffs on me? Because if that’s what it takes to get you off, then I’m willing. I trust you.”

It was the strangest sensation, the way all the blood in his body turned ice cold, while his skin burned with heat. Releasing his grip on the counter, he flexed his hands at his sides. “What the fuck did you just say?”

Her gaze flicked up to his, and caught, locked in the fury of his glare. But she didn’t back down and cower. Instead, she licked her lips and said, “I know all about your sexual . . . whatever you want to call it. I know you’re into the bondage scene. My father made sure he did his research thoroughly on every one of his men before they came to work for him, as well as while they were under his command.” There was a brief pause where she bit her lip, and then she murmured, “Your file was fairly extensive.”

He was so furious he was shaking. “You read my fucking file?”

She narrowed her eyes again. “Front to back. I memorized the damn thing.”

His lungs seized so tight he couldn’t even draw his next breath. He didn’t think it was possible, but he went even colder inside. “You know about my mother?”

Her head cocked a bit to the side, her gaze questioning. “I know she was a single mother. That she raised you without your dad. But that’s all.”

He scraped out a low curse, not looking at her. But he could feel the force of her sudden uneasiness blasting against him. “Scott,” she said hesitantly. “What’s wrong?”

What was wrong? Jesus. He choked back a humorless laugh, not trusting what it might turn into. She hadn’t been back in his life twenty minutes, and already he felt stripped down like a live wire, all his raw parts torn and exposed, getting prodded by every fucking word that came out of her mouth.

“I don’t like the look on your face,” she whispered. “You know you can talk to me, right? Is there something about your mother you don’t want me to know?”

He scrubbed his hands down his face, then dropped his arms to his sides and forced himself to look her in the eye. “We’re not talking about my mother, Lily. And before you think you can just loop back to your original topic, we’re sure as shit not talking about my sex life.”

“Why?” she pressed softly, clearly not knowing when to quit. “Does it scare you to know that I’m okay with what you like from women? Is that what bothers you about our age difference? You think I won’t understand?”

Completely ignoring her questions, he bit his words out. “Did you or did you not come to me claiming that Rado is trying to kill you?”

“It’s not a claim. It’s the truth.”

“Then maybe you should stop playing games you can’t finish and tell me what the fuck happened.”

He could tell from the look in her eyes that his attitude was getting to her. “I’ve already told you what happened.”

He slowly shook his head. “Not how you got away.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Nothing. Not really. Except that it was driving him out of his damn mind, wondering what those bastards had done to her.

Her lashes lowered, concealing something in her eyes that she didn’t want him to see. “I got away, Scott. That’s all that matters.”

Fuck it. He’d let her keep her silence. For the moment. “I’ll protect you,” he muttered, crossing his arms back over his chest, “but I won’t take any of your shit, Lily. You’ll have to follow my orders. Do you think you can do that?”

Her little chin went up again. “Why do you think I can’t?”

He gave a sarcastic snort. “I remember what you were like. Always defying every order you were given.”

A low, tight laugh slipped from her lips. “That was a long time ago. I didn’t like being treated like one of my dad’s soldiers and I acted out. It doesn’t mean I have a death wish.”

“You could have fooled me.” She might have been innocent when it came to sex back then, but she’d had more than enough backbone to defy her father in every other aspect of her life. “You were reckless as hell.”

Her head tilted a bit to the side again. “What are you talking about?”

“That skydiving instructor you let take you up had shit for brains.”

For a few seconds, she just stared at him in confusion. Then realization slowly dawned, her expression caught somewhere between fascination and shock. “Ohmygod. That was you? You’re the one who scared him off ever taking me up for another jump?”

He jerked his shoulder in a stiff roll. “All I did was talk to him.”

“And make him nearly piss his pants! He thought you were going to kill him.”

Choking back a satisfied laugh, he said, “That’s a little dramatic. I just told him I would kick his ass if he ever came within twenty miles of you again.”

She placed her fingers over her lips, still looking dazed. “He apparently thought that meant the same thing when coming from you.”

“Yeah, well, you know me better than that.”

“I thought I did. But then I also thought you weren’t coward enough to sneak off in the dead of night without a word.”

Jesus, she just wouldn’t let up. “Don’t start, Lily. Leave the past in the past, where it belongs.”

“So because I liked to skydive when I was younger, you think I’m . . . what? Reckless? Stupid?”

“It wasn’t just the skydiving. It was the rock-climbing, the whitewater kayaking, the fucking bungee jumping from bridges only an idiot would have jumped off of. You treated every school break like a chance to finally find a way to kill yourself!”

Color burned beneath her pale skin. “So I liked to push my limits. What’s the big deal? At least I wasn’t doing it with drugs and sex.”

A muscle started to pulse at the side of his jaw. “You were headed there.”

“That’s a lie and you know it,” she snapped. “But it’s good to know that you were worried enough to stick around and make sure I was okay.”

“Topic, Lily. For once let’s try to stay on fucking topic.”

She was breathing too hard to say anything for a moment, those green eyes flashing with anger. “Fine. Is there anyone local who can help us if we need it? Or are we on our own?”

Pushing his hands in his pockets, he said, “There’s Ben. But I don’t know if that would be a good idea.”

“Who’s Ben?”

“My boss.”

She studied his expression, no doubt seeing more than he wanted her to. But she simply said, “Dad told me you were working down here as a deputy. So Ben’s the sheriff?”

“Yeah.”

“You trust him?”

“I trust him,” he replied, then immediately frowned. “But it’s going to be complicated, seeing as how he’s . . .”

“He’s what?”

“In love.” He winced, feeling like a damn idiot. “He just got married and all that shit.”

“Oh.” She shook her head. “Um, I’m failing to see the point. Why does his being in love and married make this complicated?”

Taking a hand from his pocket, he shoved it back through his shaggy hair and grimaced. “Because the guy’s walking around with fucking stars in his eyes 24/7 these days. He’s going to take one look at you and start playing matchmaker.” Ben never had before, but something in Ryder’s gut told him this time it would be different. There was too much crackling tension in the air between him and Lily. The kind anyone could pick up on and mistake for something sexual.

With wide eyes, she asked, “Does he do that often? For you?”

“I’m not answering that,” he muttered, shoving his hand back in his pocket.

“Why not?”

“Because my personal life is off-limits. And it’s none of your damn business.”

Her laughter was quiet as she tightened her arms over her chest. “I’d tell you what a jerk you sound like, but I’m too tired.”

He studied her for a moment, taking in the dark circles under her eyes. Did she look a little paler than when they’d first started talking? When she yawned, he moved to her side. “Come on, you need sleep.”

“I know. Sorry,” she mumbled, turning back toward the table, where she’d left a sturdy backpack sitting in one of the chairs. She’d carried it in with her when they’d come inside, retrieving it from the shadows by the trellis.

“What’s in the bag?” he asked, telling himself he wasn’t disappointed that she’d been able to get the pack on her shoulder without losing her grip on her top, which she was still having to hold closed. But it was nothing but a big fat lie. He’d have probably given up a year of his life just for the chance to set eyes on her tits again. They might not be the biggest he’d ever seen, but they were definitely the most beautiful, not to mention the sweetest. There wasn’t even a close second.

“Just a few things,” she said, answering his question. “I left most of my stuff back at the motel I checked into this evening, before taking a taxi over here. Not that there’s much. But I didn’t want to be caught without anything if they found me.”

“You’ve got clothes with you?”

“Yeah. I’ve got a clean pair of shorts and a shirt. My toothbrush. Hairbrush. A little cash.”

He nodded, heading out of the kitchen, and she followed after him. “I’m sorry if I’ve been bitchy tonight,” she said to his back. “I haven’t slept much the past few days, and then that whole make-out session completely fried my brain. I can’t stand to be left hanging.”

Ryder flinched, hating the idea of her having sexual experience. Not that he had any claim on her. But he had no doubt that he’d go to his grave wanting to kill every bastard who was ever lucky enough to lay his hands on her.

When he started down the hallway toward the back of the house instead of the entrance, she said, “Uh, Scott? Aren’t you taking me back to my motel?”

He turned around to face her, his brows pulled together in another frown. “I thought you wanted protection.”

“I do. I guess I just thought that you’d stay with me there. At the motel.”

Shaking his head again, he said, “You’re staying here.”

“Oh. Um, okay.”

He showed her to the guest bedroom that sat across the hall from his. It had a double bed and its own bathroom, so at least he wouldn’t have to think about her getting naked and wet in his shower. Careful to keep his eyes off her as she sat on the side of the bed, he told her to get some sleep and that he’d be in to wake her up early. Then he headed for the door.

“Scott. I—”

Ryder shut the door behind him without bothering to wait for what she wanted to say. He was half-terrified she’d come after him, knowing damn well his control was too shaky to withstand the temptation if she pushed him any more tonight. His stupid dick was still rock hard, and he wanted nothing more than to bury it so deep inside her she—

Fuck! I’ve got to stop thinking about it.

Since there wasn’t a chance in hell he could sleep when he was this jacked up, he headed into his home office and sat down in front of his computer. Two hours later, he’d already hacked his way into a few government systems and had looked into everything they knew about Radovich and Lily’s father. It wasn’t much. The military was keeping Heller’s death quiet until they had an answer about what had happened to him. They hadn’t figured out yet that it was Rado—that the bastard was back from the dead—and for the moment Ryder planned to leave it that way. He didn’t like the thought of how they might try to use Lily if they learned the truth about what had happened. Not that he wasn’t thinking along the same lines, but only if he could keep her protected. The kind of brass who would kill for the chance to bag Yuri Radovich wouldn’t be so concerned about her safety. But for the moment, as far as the military knew, she’d died on that boat along with her father. Heller’s and the girlfriend’s bodies had washed up on a Bahamian beach two days ago, but Lily’s was assumed to still be lost at sea.

The government thought she was dead, but Rado knew that she was alive. Which meant one thing and one thing only.

The bastard was hunting for her.

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